Saturday, 6 March 2021

An Ideal Husband (1999)

Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Rupert Everett do the best in this Wilde mis-fire An Ideal Husband

Director: Oliver Parker
Cast: Rupert Everett (Lord Arthur Goring), Cate Blanchett (Lady Gertrude Chiltern), Minnie Driver (Miss Mabel Chiltern), Julianne Moore (Mrs Laura Cheveley), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Chiltern), John Wood (Lord Caversham), Peter Vaughan (Phipps), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Markby), Simon Russell Beale (Sir Edward), Nickolas Grace (Vicomte de Nanjac)

I have a theory that Shakespearean comedy rarely translates well to screen because what makes it work is its theatricality and how it encourages laughter by interacting directly with the audience. I think you could say the same for Oscar Wilde. Certainly, this film version of An Ideal Husband looks lovely and never misses a single Wildean bon-mot. But it’s overlong, drags rather in its final third and, above all, isn’t particularly funny.

The plot has been freshened up and adjusted in places to make for a more filmic narrative, but the principles are the same from the play. Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is a pillar of the establishment, famed for his unshakeable dedication to principle and adored by his wife Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) who sees him as a paragon. But all that could be shaken up when Mrs Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) re-enters his life, bringing with her shocking revelations that could destroy Sir Robert. So he turns to help to his best friend, the witty and debonair Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), who is himself in love with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Minnie Driver). How will events play out as they start to spiral out of control?

Oliver Parker’s film is cautious, safe and – for all that it tries to open the play out with scenes in parks and Parliament – conservative and safe. You can imagine Wilde himself would probably have wanted something a little more daring had he been involved. As it is, things that work very well on stage (the farcical elements of mistaken identity and a house with a different character hiding behind every door) don’t really work on film. These ideas are inherently theatrical and depend on the heightened unreality of theatre – in the cold hard harshness of cinema, they feel out of place.

Put frankly, the big thing the play misses is the live audience. You can imagine this cast going down an absolute storm in the West End. The lines that demand a wink to the audience, bits of business that invite laughter, just fall flat here. They are rendered lifeless by the demands of being fit into a film, or having to take place in a world that seems real, when Wilde’s plays are all about a sort of bizarre ultra-Victorian world of form covering up a suggestive naughtiness. When the characters go and watch The Importance of Being Earnest at the theatre (a sign of the film’s clumsy opening out, and its lack of wit when left to its own devices) the dialogue style that doesn’t really work in the “real world” of film suddenly feels perfectly natural when we see people speak it on stage.

Parker’s film fails to bring any particular inspiration to events. Instead it seems determined to package Wilde as a heritage product, the sort of thing you can imagine people considering a safe thing for the whole family to sit down and watch. There is no sense of cheek, sex or danger in this like you can get in Wilde. Instead it’s all about attractive actors in period-drama drawing rooms, going about their work with skill. All made to look as pretty as possible with some lovely costumes. It’s Sunday tea-time viewing.

But despite this, some of those performances are spot on. I’m not sure there is an actor alive today better suited to Wilde than Rupert Everett. His imperious drawl, his sardonic wit, his louche manner (not to mention his ability to suggest an illicit wickedness under the surface) make him absolutely perfect. Everett has shown time and again – on film and in the theatre – he has an affinity for the dryness needed for Wilde, as well as being able to communicate the intelligence without smugness. All the successful scenes of the movie revolve around him, and he invariably brings out the best from his co-stars. He’s also far-and-away the funniest thing in the film.

The rest of the cast are more mixed. Cate Blanchett is the stand-out in (sadly) the least interesting main role, the rather stuffy Lady Gertrude (you wish you’d been able to see her let rip as the more wicked Mrs Cheveley) – like Everett she “gets it”. Jeremy Northam also does excellent work in the straight-man role of Sir Robert, but his characteristic dignity and intelligence do very well in the role. Julianne Moore though seems oddly constrained by the period setting as Mrs Cheveley (strange that she did this at the same time as her superior work as a restrained Englishwoman in The End of the Affair) while Minnie Driver lacks impact as Mabel. John Wood and Peter Vaughan – two old pros from the theatre – bring much of the energy and wit in supporting roles.

An Ideal Husband is fine. But watching it you’d wonder what all the fuss about Wilde is about. And that can’t be a good thing. If Wilde wrote a review of it, it would be funnier than anything in the film.

Friday, 5 March 2021

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe struggles with reality as Math's genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (William Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles Herman), Adam Goldberg (Richard Sol), Josh Lucas (Martin Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Judd Hirsch (Professor Helinger)

There is nothing Hollywood likes more than a man overcoming adversity. Make him a troubled genius and that’s even better. Throw in a supportive wife who bends over backwards to help him and you’ve got the dream Hollywood scenario. You can bet Oscars will follow – and they certainly did for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which hoovered up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (it probably would have also nabbed Best Actor if Russell Crowe’s personal behaviour hadn’t turned him from idol to Hollywood’s most unpopular actor).

The film is a romantically repackaged biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a pioneering mathematician whose life was turned upside down by his diagnosis with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Even before then, Nash had become increasingly preoccupied by delusions and fantasies, many of them revolving around “secret government code-breaking work” for a bullying CIA Agent (Ed Harris). Slowly coming to terms with his diagnosis, with the help of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash must learn to put aside the things he knows he are not real, while trying to rebuild his life.

Ron Howard’s film is assembled with his usual assured professionalism. It is never anything less than effective, what it never quite manages to be is inspired. Perhaps because it’s a very standard Hollywood biopic. It effectively presents the life of its troubled genius as something very easily digestible, hitting all the beats of suffering, determination and eventual triumph you could expect when the film starts.

This makes for exactly the sort of middle-brow filmmaking made with absolute professionalism that, if you turn your head and squint a bit, can be made to look like Oscar-winning art. That seems incredibly harsh on the film: but there is really nothing particularly “new” about anything here: in many ways, it could have been made almost exactly the same in the 1940s (and it would probably have won an Oscar then as well).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Howard’s direction is sharp and exact, and he stages the film very well, drawing very good performances out of the cast. The film is good at immersing us in Nash’s delusions, particularly in the first hour of the film (it’s not until the hour mark that anyone overtly states there is anything wrong with Nash beyond eccentricity and social awkwardness). Howard shoots the fantasies totally straight: in fact if you had managed to avoid knowing what the film is about, you can totally imagine being tricked into thinking it’s a genuine spy thriller.

With that though, the film gives you just enough hints. Take a beat and look at Nash’s CIA actions and they don’t make much sense. A secret code that involves him tearing pages out of thousands of magazines and pinning them up around his office connected with bits of string (standard filmic language for the obsessive nutter)? The CIA injecting a number implant into his arm? A dead drop at a posh house which requires letters to be sealed with wax? The film gives us the hints that Nash is more troubled than just awkward around people, but doesn’t lay it on too thick. And at least one plot reveal that something we have seen was in fact a Nash-delusion the whole time is so skilfully presented that it surprised me (and I know surprised several other people).

The film is also strong on schizophrenia and delusion. Reworking Nash’s real-life auditory hallucinations into visual fantasies (including imagined buildings and people) works really effectively for film. It also really opens up for us the horror of how difficult living with something like this might be. How would you feel if you could never trust the world you saw around you? What if you discovered things that were central to your life turned out to be fantasies? That people you had built relationships with were not real? That’s a traumatic emotional burden, and the film is very strong at building your empathy with Nash.

It’s also helped by Crowe’s very effective performance in the lead. Shy, buttoned-up, physically awkward, his eyes always cast down, body slouched and voice an embarrassed mumble, Crowe brilliantly embodies a nervous outsider whose problems fitting in only magnify his growing dependence on fantasies that place him at the centre of the world. There is a touching vulnerability about Crowe here that so rarely gets seen. A big part of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Jennifer Connelly also makes a great deal of her very traditional role as the supportive wife, bringing just the right level of assurance, spark and warmth to the role. Connelly carefully shifts the character from flirtatious confidence to heartbroken but supportive wife. But she doesn’t lose track of Alicia’s own frustrations at living with a medicated, unresponsive husband – even if, of course, any regrets she may have about the way her life turned out are overcome swiftly.

Which of course is completely different from real life where, for all her support, the couple divorced. Nash also had a baby (which he didn’t acknowledge) with a nurse he had an affair with. But these are real life complexities that have no place in a crowd-pleasing biopic like this. Similarly gone are Nash’s possible flirtations with bisexuality, his experiments with drugs or his flashes of violence. Added in are an entirely invented “pen gifting” Princeton ceremony and Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he gives thanks to his loving wife (in real life no such speech happened and the couple were separated). But that’s not the story this film wants to tell, so truth can go hang.

Perhaps these, post-diagnosis, difficulties are why the final third of the story – which sees Nash casting aside the invasive treatments to overcome the power his delusions have over him through willpower alone – is the least involving part. After all, they had to drop most of the actual real-life events that happened (see above). But there simply isn’t as much drama in watching someone quietly adjust to rebuilding a career in maths as there is in seeing them struggle.

Perhaps as well, because maths is a pretty difficult to bring to the screen. The film falls back into many accepted visual tropes – you’ll see a lot of writing on windows – and explains Nash’s theory of co-operative dynamics with a bar-and-booze based conversation around pulling girls in bars. That’s about as far as engagement with maths and understanding his theories goes – but we take it as read that Nash is a genius because he acts like one, people tells he is and he writes lots of big equations on boards.

A Beautiful Mind offers few real surprises (except for one) and presents a story that Hollywood has basically been making for decades. Things from real-life that don’t fit the story have been cut out, to make this as conventional a film as possible: the troubled genius and the loving wife behind him. It’s very well played (as well as Crowe and Connelly, Paul Bettany is brilliantly charismatic as Nash’s eccentric college roommate) and directed with a professional skill. But it’s also a very safe and even conservative film that has skill but not inspiration.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Beat the Devil (1953)

Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida and Humphrey Bogart in the tongue-in-cheek Beat the Devil

Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Gwendolen Chelm), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Robert Morley (Peterson), Peter Lorre (Julius O’Hara), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Ivor Barnard (Major Jack Ross), Marco Tulli (Ravello), Bernard Lee (Inspector Jack Clayton)

Beat the Devil is a curious beast. You could argue it was ahead of its time. Huston and Bogart had started out with the intention of making a straight crime mystery, a sort of Maltese Falcon in Europe. But when they arrived on location, obviously something in the weather got to them and Truman Capote flown in to help redraft the script on a daily basis to turn it into a sort of satirical comedy. For audiences expecting a hard-boiled crime mystery, it left heads scratched and cinema seats empty. Bogart lost a packet on the film – and later claimed to hate it – and it only existed in a badly cut-about version until it was restored in 2016.

The slightly surreal plot hardly really matters. A crowd of unusual people gather in a run-down port in a small Italian town, waiting to take the ship to East Africa. Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown) are seemingly upper-class Brits (or are they?). American Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) and his European wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) might also once have been something, but they sure ain’t now. Peterson (Robert Morley) and his associates the suspiciously un-Irish Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), rat-faced bully Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard) and nervous Ravello (Marco Tulli) are almost certainly all criminals on their way to a big score in Africa. Thrown together, this unlikely grouping end-up in a heady cocktail of betrayals, schemes, affairs and lies that spools out like a demented shaggy-dog story.

Beat the Devil is really more of an experience, a series of gags and light-hearted scenes played with a grin and a wink. Nothing in it is meant to be taken seriously, and this semi-surreal group of events becomes ever more absurd as it goes on. By the time the cast are abandoning a sinking ship, trudging up a beach to be captured by Arab officials who eventually allow them to row back to port where they find their ship didn’t actually sink…you really should just decide to go with the flow.

Instead the film is about shuffling up familiar tropes from hard-boiled noir with Oscar Wildeish farce. Certainly the Chelms seem to have wandered in from something totally different (not least since Gwendolen’s name is reminiscent of Importance of Being Earnest). Harry (a superbly stiff-upper lipped Edward Underdown) is a blithely unaware would-be English gentleman, pompously aware of his social class and blithely unaware that his wife seems to immediately start an affair with Billy. Gwendolen is the exact sort of character you might expect to see in Wilde, a dreamer tipping into fantasist, who blurts out things she shouldn’t and falls instantly in love with Billy. She’s also whipper-smart – more than capable of defeating Harry at chess without looking (“usually he’s a wonderful loser” she tells Billy, by way of apology for Harry’s strop).

Billy and Gwendolen embark on an immediate affair (although of course, in deference to the Hays Code, its just kept this-side-of-implicit). Mind you the film has a zingy wife-swop feel to it, since it’s pretty clear that Maria is far more interested in the British reserve of Harry (“Emotionally I’m English” she says before eulogising tea and crumpets) than she is in the ordinary-Joe cunning of her husband (although perhaps Harry is just as oblivious to this as everything else around him).

Billy is Bogart deliberately at his most Bogart-ish, channelling every grimy-but-smart dubious-hero the star ever played. Bogart plays the entire film with a grin on his face and delights in lines like “Fat Guys my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply”. He also sparks delightfully with Jennifer Jones, who seems to having the time of her life as a character so flighty and unpredictable that even she looks like she hasn’t a clue what she is going to do (or feel) from one moment to the next.

The supporting cast of creeps and freaks Dannreuther is conspiring with to make a fortune (its something to do with land and uranium) similarly seem to have walked in from a side-ways Dashiel Hammett universe. For all their dirty deeds – and it seems Petersen had ordered a hit in the UK, although never for a minute would you believe this looking at Robert Morley’s puffed up bluster – they are a rather sweetly naïve and incompetent. Morley’s Petersen, a sort of galloping major, carries no real threat. Peter Lorre is very funny as a suspiciously German sounding Irishman (“Many Germans in Chile have come to be called O’Hara” he comments), prone to flights of verbal fancy and a chronic lack of focus. Ivor Barnard is as close as the film comes to threat as the aggressively incompetent Major Ross, a chippy bully who resents his shortness and eulogises Hitler at the drop of a hat. These heavies are each ridiculous figures.

And it makes sense, since the plot is a great inflated balloon of nonsense. There are chases, sinking ships that stay unsunk, a moment where two major characters are briefly believed dead, obsessive conversations about hot water bottles and reveals that puncture any sense of grandeur for each character. It’s the sort of aimless story you could imagine natural raconteurs like Huston and Capote finding absolutely delightful, and the whole film feels like a dramatization of a dinner-table anecdote.

Take it on those terms and its all rather good fun, even if it makes no sense. The cast look like they are having a whale of a time, and the total lack of seriousness about the whole enterprise generally makes it glide by with ease. Take a couple of drinks, sit back, don’t think about it too much and enjoy the jokes.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones excel in the thoughtful and well handled The Invisible Woman

Director: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Amanda Hale (Fanny Ternan)

In 1865 Charles Dickens was involved in a train accident. While he worked tirelessly, tending to those caught up in the accident, he was also extremely careful to hide the fact he was travelling with a young actress called Nelly Ternan. Ms Ternan was his lover, had been for several years, and the couple were returning from Paris. Dickens managed to avoid the inquest and preserve the secret of his affair. Because, while he was happy to publicly announce his separation from his wife, the idea of the public hearing that he had an affair with someone 27 years younger than him was unthinkable.

The affair is deduced from careful deduction and the small remaining correspondence (both parties destroyed large numbers of letters) by the biographer Claire Tomlin. Her book forms the basis of Fiennes’ thoughtful, careful and intelligent film, with the director playing Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan. The Invisible Woman is restrained and unjudgmental film-making, that largely avoids obvious moral calls and weaves a beautifully constructed tale of two people who make themselves both happy and miserable.

And that misery is partly due to the times they live in. It’s an era of Victorian morals, where all that matters is the surface appearance and any real emotions underneath can go hang. But it’s also a world where very different rules apply to men and women. Dickens can leave his wife (in a press announcement) – but of course a woman could never do the same. It’s a world of strictly defined rules, with clear roles for both genders that cannot be deviated from. And it forces Nelly Ternan to travel to Paris, because the public shame that would come with her pregnancy by Dickens would destroy her. It’s why, years after Dicken’s death, she is lying about how well she knew the man (even changing her name and age to further distance herself) so that she can conform with the expectations of being a school-master’s wife (and ensure she will not be thrown out to the streets).

The rules are so strong that both Dickens and Ternan are as much in thrall to them as anyone else. Dickens is willing to bend the rules – but only so far. He would clearly never dream of living openly with his unmarried partner and their child as his friend Wilkie Collins (a perfectly cast Tom Hollander) would do. And Nelly Ternan is as outraged at this liaison – and as desperately uncomfortable in their home – as any prim housewife would be. In fact, in many ways, Nelly is even more conservative than Dickens.

But then she has to be. After all, he would be a rogue, she would be a whore. Choices aren’t great for women – and in her chosen career of actress, Nelly is clearly far more enthusiastic than she is talented. It’s worries about the career that leads to her mother – an excellent performance of motherly love mixed with a quiet understanding of the world from Kristin Scott Thomas – all but encouraging Dickens to seduce her daughter. Because, for an independently minded woman passionate about the art, if you can’t be an actress your other option is to be a muse.

Even Dickens seems quietly ashamed at his seduction of this woman, while she half-persuades herself it isn’t happening until it is. So, what draws them together? Refreshingly this isn’t a question of an older man excited by a younger woman – or a naïve woman swept up by a powerful man. Instead, these are kindred spirits. Both of them are passionate, intelligent and questioning. They both express an emotional honesty and openness. They have shared passions for literature, theatre and stories. It’s a romance that slowly blossoms and is based on a shared feeling. It would have been easier to tell a story of seduction and abuse – but this is a more intelligent film than that. At that fatal train accident, its Dickens who yearns to stay with Nelly and its Nelly that urges him to leave to preserve his secrets.

As these two, we have two actors with beautiful chemistry. Felicity Jones is inspired as Nelly Ternan. She both idolises Dickens, but is also drawn towards him on a very human level. She is astute, but conservative and at times even remote. Her older self, over a decade later, is both prickly and defensive – and those are qualities you can trace in her younger self, and not just because of her fear of disgrace. It’s a beautifully judged performance, both older than her time and also with a vibrancy and energy that entrances.

Fiennes, a more reserved actor, seems like an odd choice for the bon vivant Dickens – but he brilliantly excels in the role, full of energy and room-filling dominance. He marvellously conveys the charm and passion of Dickens, but also his thoughtlessness. This is after all a man who drops his wife by newspaper announcement and builds a barrier between their bedrooms. Who loves Nelly, but not enough to make her anything but a secret. Who is passionate and excited about his work, but can be turn distant and cool in his personal life. It’s a fabulous performance.

And the two leads are centred in a low-key, poetic film. You get the sense that there is a danger in getting to close to genius. Dicken’s wife Catherine – a beautifully sad and lonely performance from Joanna Scanlan – even warns Nelly about it (while delivering a gift from her husband, sent to her by mistake). It’s a danger that shapes Nelly’s whole life – but also her life is enriched by having Dickens in it. It’s a film that avoids obvious moral judgments – and while there are things done which cause pain, everyone is living in an imperfect society. Fiennes direction and use of visual language is wonderful and this is an impressive film.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell as an unconventional couple in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Julie Walters (Bella Turner), Kenneth Cranham (Joe Turner), Stephen Graham (Joe Turner Jnr), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Frances Barber (Joy Hallward), Leanne Best (Eileen)

In 1981, Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is performing The Glass Menagerie in Lancaster as part of a UK tour. When she collapses backstage seriously ill, she asks her former lover, young Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), to come to her aid. Peter takes her back to his parents (Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool. The two had met a couple of years ago – Grahame the fading star, Turner the would-be actor – and age hadn’t prevented their relationship flourishing into a passionate romance. The film cuts between what pulled them apart in the past, and the present day, where Turner discovers Grahame has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has at best a few months to live.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on Turner’s book and is directed with just the right stylistic flourish by Paul McGuigan. Fundamentally a straight-forward (even rather conventional) narrative, McGuigan doesn’t crowd out the action and emotion, but skilfully intercuts past and present together (for instance, characters walk through doors in 1981 and emerge in their memories of 1979). This is pretty subtly done throughout (although the glorious, sun-kissed past and the rain drenched Liverpool present isn’t particularly subtle!) and allows the film to focus on its main strengths – the acting.

The success of the film rests on the chemistry – and skill – of the two leads who both give wonderful performances. Annette Bening excels in nearly a career-best role, as a star clinging to the remnants of her career. Outwardly displaying glamour and confidence – complete with a soft-toned movie star voice – it’s a brilliant study of inner fragility and uncertainty. She carefully reveals a Gloria Grahame who is deeply insecure and fragile.

Bening brings a lot of empathy to the role of a slightly lonely woman who has spent years avoiding questions around her own health, terrified that it could make her unemployable. It’s a fear that has a tendency to make her brittle and defensive. And of course, that’s only added to by her knowing that she is ageing in a young person’s profession. Even jokes about age expose her self-doubt and fear. (Peter drops an early clanger when she tells him after their first date she dreams of playing Juliet with the RSC: “You mean the Nurse?” he says without thinking. She throws him out.)

It’s one of the nice things about the film that the only person who really has a concern about age – or ever seems to mention it as an issue – is the older woman. Nobody else in the film questions the relationship between these two on age grounds (all the doubts raised are based on background and, above all, Grahame’s track record with marriage – four and counting). It’s purely an obsession of Grahame’s – because she doesn’t want to be reminded of her own mortality and, unconsciously, the far younger Turner is a constant reminder of this. And Grahame isn’t really that old anyway: certainly not at heart, her vibrancy being one of the first things that attracts Peter to her.

Peter’s feelings though are heart-breakingly genuine, shown in Bell’s wonderfully compassionate performance. McGuigan frequently allows long reaction shots to study the emotional impact of events on the characters, and no-one benefits from this more than Bell whose face is frequently a picture of conflicted, tortured emotion, of grief that he’s only just managing to hold in. Bell is terrific.

The film charts a romance that starts with a blissful freedom, but ends with a very true and heartfelt declaration of love. The past – saturated with cleanliness and colour as it is – is full of fun, romance and semi-surreal early encounters stuffed with expressive dancing (a great reminder that Bell can really move!) and watching Alien. The time the two spend in New York is similarly golden tinged. What draws it to a close is illness – and Grahame’s fears of how it will affect Turner as well as not wanting to live her last few months being nursed by her lover like an invalid.

It’s an involving romance and relationship piece, and it also gives time to how important families can be. Turner’s parents (lovely work from Walters and Cranham) are supportive and caring of Grahame – and his brother (edgy work from Graham) is only frustrated that they put her before their own interests. It makes quite a contrast with Grahame’s family, a mother who seems more interested in herself (Redgrave at her grand damest, showily quoting Shakespeare) and bitchy, jealous sister (a prickly Frances Barber).

But it’s mainly a film about the two leads and while it doesn’t reinvent anything about biopics or romances (or tragic stories of loss), it tells its story neatly and cleanly and allows scope for the acting to do a lot of the work. Bening and Bell more than rise to the challenge.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Maximilian Schell on a misguided attempt to salvage his country's dignity in Judgment at Nuremberg

Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Judge Dan Haywood), Burt Lancaster (Dr Ernst Janning), Richard Widmark (Colonel Ted Lawson), Maximilian Schell (Hans Rolfe), Marlene Dietrich (Frau Bertholt), Montgomery Clift (Rudolph Peterson), Judy Garland (Irene Hoffmann), William Shatner (Captain Harrison Byers), Howard Caine (Hugo Wallner), Werner Klemperer (Emil Hahn), Joh Wengraf (Dr Karl Wieck), Karl Swenson (Dr Heinrich Geuter), Ben Wright (Herr Halbestadt), Virginia Christine (Mrs Halbestadt), Edward Binns (Senator Burkette)

“I was just following orders”. It’s a statement you instantly associate with people who know they are doing the wrong thing, but cling to the idea it’s not their responsibility because they’ve been told to do it. The Nuremberg trials – which started with the major surviving war criminals, but then investigated every level of German society from the army to industry to doctors to the judiciary – exploded this as an excuse. But the trials also raised wider questions, ones that Judgment at Nuremberg explores: how do you make judgments for individuals when, arguably, nearly everyone in the country holds some sort of moral responsibility? What happens when justice collides with political reality? What price is put on getting justice for the few against the need to move on?

These, among others, are fascinating questions explored in Stanley Kramer’s engrossing – if at times a little dry and on-the-nose – film. In 1948 Judge Dan Hayward (Spencer Tracy) arrives in war-torn Nuremberg to judge the trial of four senior German judges. The most prominent of the accused is internationally renowned Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Janning’s passionate advocate Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) believes the trial is about the Allies punishing the Germans and wants to show “we were not all like them”. Prosecuting laywer Colonel Ted Lawson (Richard Widmark) wants the trials to continue until all the guilty have been punished. But with Cold War tensions rising – and Berlin already under blockade by the Soviets – the politicians back home want the trials to wind down, particularly as the Germans could be key allies against the USSR. How will Hayward balance these pressures as the trial progresses?

Kramer’s film is a brilliant reconstruction of the detail of the trials. He had wanted to film the entire thing on location – but, when the trial room was unavailable, Kramer had the trial room rebuilt in exact detail in the studio (the production design is absolutely spot-on by Rudolph Sternard). The film stages all the issues of simultaneous translation, headphones and trial procedure in loving detail. His technical direction is well managed – even if the camera perhaps once too often pans around those involved in the trial while they speak. The trial drama is structured around three key witnesses (rather than documents), and brings out impressive performances from the entire cast.

Abby Mann’s screenplay wisely focuses in, not on the primary Nuremberg trials, but one of the many sub-trials. Little known, this works so well dramatically, because they both delve deeper into how every facet of German life was corrupted by Nazism – that in this case, leading judges condemned those they knew were innocent to death – and also allow an exploration around the purpose of the Nuremberg trials themselves. Were these trials crucially about justice at all costs and should continue indefinitely – as some characters clearly believe? Or were they meant as representative affairs, demonstrating the guilt of a selected few, at which point their purpose was done?

Kramer’s film is an educative piece, which explores this. Crucially several German characters are introduced, each of them unsure as to how much the national guilt should apply to them. Should Hayward’s household staff consider themselves guilty? As Hayward points out, Dachau was only about 20 miles away: not to know of its existence at all, was surely be wilful ignorance. Marlene Dietrich (excellent as an austere widow), is bitter that she has lost everything after her husband (a German general) was executed (an execution that many of the characters feel was harsh). He never liked Hitler, and he wasn’t a Nazi: how bad could he have been? He only did his duty right?  

Meanwhile, firebrand lawyer Hans Rolfe believes that he must salvage some sense of German identity from the trial: he needs to show that “we were not all like that”. And rescuing the reputation of Dr Janning as “the Good German” is crucial to that. An Oscar-winning Schell (the part is perfect for his grandiose style) superbly captures the agonised guilt that has transformed into anger in this man: the desperation to protect his country that leads him to undertake the same brutal interrogations of witnesses during the trial that his clients are accused of doing. Repeating the same actions of the past that he hates, with a misguided goal of restoring pride to his country.

And why does Dr Janning become the focus of this desire to show not everyone was bad? One of the interesting things the film raises is questions of class. Rolfe sees him as the model Good German and Hayward struggles to see why he was involved in miscarriages of justice, because he is very much “one of us”. Ramrod straight, he’s no fanatic (like one of his fellow accused), he’s a noble, world-renowned lawyer. Lancaster’s Janning, with his rigid physicality, clearly thinks himself a world above his fellow accused. He has touched pitch, but feels he’s not really been defiled at heart: that there were clear reasons why he did the things he did. He has no sympathy for the crudity of Nazism, but still feel ashamed that he allowed himself to get tied up with it. He starts the trial trying to be above the entire process, as if not engaging will somehow stop him from feeling corrupted, even while his haunted face drips with shame.

It’s a nobility that many on the US side find appealing. It appeals to the same minds that deems Richard Widmark’s combatative Colonel Lawson as not quite gentlemanly, but vindictive. Never mind that Widmark’s lawyer wants justice done, regardless of the cost. It’s the same sympathy many now feel for Dietrich’s dignified widow, who feels so classy and noble that she can’t really be implicated in any nastiness. Janning unnerves Hayward and others, because if he can fall so can they. It also makes him a perfect candidate for rehabilitation. And, with the Soviets closing in on Berlin, many among the Americans want such a fate as much as Rolfe does, so that Germany can be rebuilt as a bulwark against Communism. But are we kidding ourselves? Janning may be the face of decency, but how decent can he be when he decided justice was an optional extra in his courtroom?

The film carefully explores these questions of politics being the art of compromise: of the need perhaps to end one era in order to start another. They’re attitudes I think the film acknowledges as legitimate, but also questions: “What was the war for?” Widmark’s character asks. When you have horrors such as those in the camps – and the film plays one of the key films to powerful effect during the trial – surely politics as normal can’t be allowed to continue? (Interestingly the film allows Dietrich and Schell’s characters to both, legitimately, question the inclusion of this evidence as too emotive and not relevant to the actual crimes of the accused.) Hayward himself comes under pressure to deliver light sentences which will be better for the country. Will he do so?

How can he when the evidence of suffering is so clear to him. The two key witnesses bought into the film are a man with learning difficulties and a woman who had been accused (falsely) of being seduced by a Jewish neighbour. The roles are played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland – and a lot of the emotion of these scenes partly comes from the tortured vulnerability of these two actors. These are people whose lives have been shattered – unjustly – and have paid terrible personal prices. Yes it might be expedient for us to look past these stories, but is it right?

Yes, you can argue Judgment at Nuremberg is a little preachy, but I think there are many more interesting ideas thrown up here than Kramer (usually denounced as a simple right-and-wrong director) gets credit for. The performances are superb: Schell is of course marvellous, but Spencer Tracy perfectly channels his ability to project morality as the unsettled judge who finds his easy assumptions challenged. And the film finally boils down perhaps to the simple question of right and wrong.

Even at the end Janning, while admitting the justice of his sentence, and the wrongness of his actions, is still desperate for everyone to know he wasn’t really one of them. That he never knew it would come to those horrors. As Hayward says “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death who you knew to be innocent”. Perhaps that the message of the film: justice is complex but needs to be done – and it doesn’t matter about your motives or thoughts, only the things you do.

The Little Stranger (2018)

Domhnall Gleeson doesn't believe in ghosts in The Little Stranger

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Dr Faraday), Ruth Wilson (Caroline Ayres), Will Poulter (Roderick Ayres), Liv Hill (Betty), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs Ayres), Harry Hadden-Paton (Dr David Granger), Anna Madeley (Anne Granger), Richard McCabe (Dr Seeley)

Can an adaptation of a novel work when the key to its success was the way it was told rather than the story itself? With its unreliable narrator and distinctively interior style, Sarah Waters’ book was a tough ask. But, making it even harder for the big screen, The Little Stranger is a ghost story narrated by a fervent non-believer, who witnesses none of the supernatural elements and spends his time finding detailed, logical reasons for why the people living in the haunted house are as unsettled as they are. It makes for a challenge which, for all the style Lenny Abrahamson brings, the film doesn’t quite manage to meet.

Our sceptic is Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a young village GP in the years immediately after the Second World War. Faraday grew up in the shadow of the Ayres house, a grand country seat now being lived in by the last remnants of the Ayres family who have fallen on hard times. Son Roderick (Will Poulter) has been left with debilitating injuries after his RAF service, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) seems destined to become a spinster, and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) struggles to hold together what’s left of the house’s prestige, among leaking roofs and bills that can’t be paid. Dr Faraday becomes an intimate of the household. But are the family’s problems partly linked to a malign presence in the house, perhaps the unsettled ghost of a third, long-dead Ayres sibling? Or is it all just bad luck, frozen pipes, branches on the window and creaking floorboards?

Well of course it isn’t. The film’s main problem is that it takes a book where the narrator spends the entire time stubbornly refusing to accept he is in a ghost story, and repackages it as a more conventional tale of creeps and psychological horror. While moments like this are undoubtedly unsettling, it rather flies in the face of what made the book unique in the first place.

In the book you find yourself – despite knowing deep down he’s wrong, because that’s not how stories work – thinking that maybe all this is just a series of terrible coincidences impacting a psychologically fragile family. In the film, you are never in any doubt that the ghosts are real. Not least, because we are frequently witness to supernatural events. When Charlotte Rampling’s character is terrified in the nursery by the ghost of her lost child, we share the terror with her. A truer adaptation of the book would have only shown us the aftermath – a trembling woman on the ground surrounded with broken glass – and asked us if we shared Faraday’s diagnosis of suicidal depression.

The change in perspective from the book has a particularly bad impact on the Faraday character. Faraday, deep down, is a sort of chippy Charles Ryder, as much in love with the house – and the prospect of one day owning it – as he is with the family itself. This mix of longing, envy and class jealousy bubbles under the surface of the character in the book, qualities that we have to read between the lines to detect. In the film however, these qualities are bought firmly to the surface.

This means that, for all Domhnall Gleeson has just the right rigidity and lack of imagination for the born sceptic, it means the character’s sinister possessiveness towards the Ayres house comes more to the fore. In the film it’s hard to escape the sense Faraday is as much a creep as the ghost (something the film even perhaps vaguely suggests in its open-ended conclusion). He’s cold and undeniably bitter, quietly but resentfully recording each moment where he is treated like a retainer.

The film also loses some of the context of the book as well. Part of the reason this house is falling apart is the declining wealth of the family in a world of post-war depression and higher death duties. Today the Ayres house would have been long since flogged to the National Trust. The crumbling house – compared to the grand vision in Faraday’s memories – is itself a metaphor for a particular class in Britain. However, this gets a bit lost in the film. Instead it’s easy to see the Ayres as just personally unlucky rather than symptomatic of a general collapse of the landed class.

But the film does do lots of good things. The ghost stuff is undeniably creepy – even if, as I say, it leaves the viewer in no doubt that Faraday is wrong and the Ayres are right. Will Poulter is very good in a small role as the bitter and scarred son, while Wilson captures a sense of premature middle-aged drift in Caroline, a woman unhappy in her life but unsure what she wants. Rampling is similarly very strong as a crumbling matriarch.

The film also looks lovely – perhaps too lovely, with its idealised view of a 1950s that surely was dirtier than this – and is well assembled. It just fails to bring a narrative drive to the film to replace the uncertainty and scepticism of the narrative voice that made the book so strong. There Faraday’s dismissals and self-denial about his class envy were what made the story compelling: here they are both removed – and what’s left isn’t quite interesting or unique enough to fill the gap.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Peter Finch, Murray Head and Glenda Jackson in an unconventional relationship in Sunday Bloody Sunday

Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Peter Finch (Dr Daniel Hirsh), Glenda Jackson (Alex Greville), Murray Head (Bob Elkin), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Greville), Tony Britton (George Harding), Maurice Denham (Mr Greville), Bessie Love (Answering service lady), Vivian Pickles (Alva Hodson), Frank Windsor (Bill Hodson), Thomas Baptiste (Professor Johns), Richard Pearson (Patient), Jon Finch (Scotsman)

Is anything better than nothing? Or, sometimes, is nothing better than anything? It’s a question that lies at the heart of John Schlesinger’s mature and surprisingly low-key exploration of relationships Sunday, Bloody Sunday. In the on-going puzzle of life, what on earth are the answers?

Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced woman in her mid-thirties, is in a relationship with young artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head). But the bohemian Bob is also in another relationship, with 50-year-old Dr Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). Bob moves between his two partners. Alex and Daniel, who have never met, accept they have him on a timeshare basis and work within his rules, for fear of losing him.

That’s a brief summary – but this is not a film overburdened with plot. Rather it’s a character study. Perhaps its greatest strength (and for some it’s main weakness), is the lack of melodrama or conflict in this unconventional set-up. Any expectations that this might be building towards a cathartic outburst or a traumatic event of some kind should be dispelled from the start. This is a very restrained and genuine film, deeply heartfelt, that avoids cheapness.

In fact, the film becomes a very striking study of the fear of loneliness. Both Alex and Daniel live in semi-acknowledged fear of being left alone. You can see the emotional fragility in them, when separated from Bob. Alex – who Bob has abandoned during a weekend’s baby-sitting to visit Daniel – quietly sits eating fudge and trying to read a book, while tears play in her eyes. Later Daniel will similarly resemble a little boy lost after being stood up at a restaurant. The excitement of being with Bob – for all his faults – are just as acute as the sadness when left alone in their own company.

Both Alex and Daniel are people staring down the barrel of a life of being alone. Alex is a woman stuck between two stools – too bohemian to be happy in a nine-to-five and a safe everyday relationship, too conventional to fully embrace the sort of devil-may-care casualness of Bob. She seems uncertain herself what she wants from life (the perfect relationship, or the bursts of happiness with a young lover).

Daniel, a gay Doctor in middle-class London from a traditional Jewish background, has spent a lifetime quietly carrying on and accepting companionship where he can find it. A man who has understood that a certain degree of isolation is just part and parcel of being who he is. Who balances, perhaps, the flaws in his relationship against getting only a part of what he wants as opposed to nothing.

It’s those questions the film comes back to time and time again. Alex expresses them most clearly, happy in the moments of playful joy she finds with Bob, but this only covering deep lying anxieties. Flashbacks reveal her childhood worries about traumatic events befalling her father (bought on by the killing of a friend’s dog in a road traffic accident due to the carelessness of a child she is looking after). These fears are directly linked to her tentativeness towards long-term relationships: she invests emotionally so much in those she cares for, that it’s difficult for her to find a romantic partner that is perfect enough to justify this level of commitment.

But Daniel has similar issues: his life has taught him to expect that he might always be alone. An insight into his romantic life before Bob is shown with a chance encounter with a former pick-up (played with chippy aggressiveness by Jon Finch) who forces Daniel to give him a lift and then pinches his medical bag. These sorts of risky, emotion-free entanglements are dwarfed by the tenderness and warmth Daniel gets with Bob, for all that Bob is mercurial and immature. As Daniel says at the film’s end (in a beautiful fourth-wall breaking address to the camera), Bob isn’t perfect but he’s something and that while Bob never made him completely happy, right now Daniel is happy only when he is not missing him. It’s balances like this that people make in their lives.

It may also be a fascination with youth. Both Alex and Daniel are either heading into – or deep into – middle age, and they surely wouldn’t deny there is an additional excitement from spending time with the defiantly young Bob. Bob – a rather thankless role to be honest, played with a deliberate lack of depth by Murray Head – is in some ways a cipher, a rather selfish young man who can only think about moving on to the next opportunity, not the difficulties of being fixed in one place and making the best of it. Does this young man’s attitude carry additional appeal to two people with greater ties and responsibilities? Perhaps it does.

Schlesinger’s film is well-paced, and directed with an intimacy by the director who surely built many elements of his own life into Daniel. The two leads – who share a scene only twice, at one point literally passing each other in cars like ships in the night – are both superb. Glenda Jackson is superbly able to suggest a hinterland of emotional guardedness and fragility, behind a confident exterior, that only cracks at key moments. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance of small moments.

Peter Finch is equally superb as Daniel. The film was controversial at the time for featuring the first gay kiss in British cinema (sexuality questions are refreshingly not a major part of the equation and never discussed, which makes the film ever more modern – the kiss itself is played with an unshowy naturalism). The part had been hard to cast – Ian Bannan was fired (to his later intense regret) for being visibly uncomfortable – but Finch (less worried, perhaps because his romances with everyone from Vivien Leigh to Shirley Bassey were so well known, no one watching in the cinema could imagine he was really gay) embraces the part with a beautifully sensitive empathy. It’s a wonderful moving portrait of a man who has come to terms with loneliness and accepted it. Tender and very true, it’s wonderfully heartfelt.

Both stars (along with Schlesinger and the script, credited by Penelope Gilliatt but likely the work of several hands) were nominated for Oscars (inexplicably the film itself was snubbed), and its perhaps their sensitive and tender work is behind the film’s success. Schlesinger co-ordinates all this into a unshowy but very mature intelligent analysis of relationships and the compromises that come with them. Thoughtful and questioning, it’s adult cinema.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Rebecca (2020)

Lily James and Armie Hammer do their best in an overblown Rebecca the swops Gothic chills for lovely costumes and locations 

Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Lily James (The second Mrs de Winter), Armie Hammer (Maxim de Winter), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Danvers), Keeley Hawes (Beatrice Lacy), Ann Dowd (Mrs Van Hopper), Sam Riley (Jack Favell), Tom Goodman-Hill (Frank Crawley), Mark Lewis Jones (Inspector Welch)

Hitchcock’s film version of du Maurier’s novel casts a long shadow. Few have taken up the challenge to film it since – and Ben Wheatley’s is the first film version in nearly 80 years. But you can be pretty certain that, unlike Hitchcock’s, this one probably won’t be being watched 80 years from now.

In Monte Carlo, a young woman (Lily James) meets and falls in love with rich Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower on holiday. They marry and return to his seat at Manderley. However, on arrival the second Mrs de Winter finds that she is living in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. This feeling is encouraged by the passive aggressive manipulation of Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Slowly, the second Mrs de Winter starts to worry that even her sanity starts to be slipping.

Wheatley is a director with a love of thriller and horror, and he really should be a natural fit to take on du Maurier’s gothic creepiness. But Wheatley feels almost constrained by the period title and beauty. This is a film that totally misses its gothic beats, instead settling for being a lusciously filmed costume drama. It has only a few traces of the unsettling psychology or air of ghostly possession that the story requires, and even those are chucked in haphazardly and then forgotten in order to make way for a pretty sunset or generic shot of Lily James looking sad in the rain.

The inescapable feeling on watching this is that Wheatley actually wants to turn the story into a more conventional romance. The age difference between Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter has been almost removed.  With Armie Hammer too young and Lily James too pretty, there is no ambiguity to Maxim’s feelings or motivations, nor any power imbalance to their charming, sunlit courtship, filled with carefree drives and charming beach picnics. Gone are the suspicions (for both the second Mrs de Winter and us) as to what a rich, sophisticated older man could see in a shy, unremarkable, average-looking girl who’s employed as little more than a servant.

It also removes much of the vulnerability and uncertainty Mrs de Winter should feel, by bringing her onto more equal terms with her husband. From du Maurier’s vision of an innocent woman feeling out of her depth as she’s plunged into an alien world, unable to break through the hauteur of a distant, older husband, we instead get far more of a conventional whirlwind romance that sours when the couple return home.

It’s not really the fault of the two leads, who give sterling work. Lily James has just about the right vulnerability to her, even if she’s still got a bit more spark than the quiet, demure character needs. But James has a fabulous sense determined earnestness to her, an eagerness to do the right thing and not let anyone down (her greater dignity and strength also pays off in sequences where Mrs de Winter takes on a stronger position in the marriage).

As Maxim, Armie Hammer has the right sort of authority and conveys the distance and coolness of the character, even while he is clearly too young and at times seems a bit hampered by his accent and setting. (Like some American actors, he at times struggles to fully comprehend the issues of class within the film.) Perhaps the main weakness to the casting is, by playing up his charm and romanticism, you never really think for a moment that this is a bloke who might have murdered his wife. It also makes him never feel like the sort of chap who could honestly ever have though about dispatching his new wife. It again strips out much of the darkness and dread of the original.

Needless to say, Kristin Scott Thomas has a ball as Mrs Danvers, the obsessed and bitter housekeeper, a part that hardly pushes her to her limits but which she delivers more than enough in. Wheatley pays homage to several of Hitchcock’s shooting decisions around the character, and the conveying of her menace is probably the film’s most successful beat.

However, the film fails at too many other important points. The sense of the previous Mrs de Winter haunting the home is lost completely. Too often the creepiness and psychological fear the film is aiming for gets lost, with periodic bursts of Cornish singing used too obviously to suggest unsettling menace. One very successful sequence set in a room of mirrors just serves to flag up how painfully absent the sense of threat and fear are from the rest of the film. To be honest, it’s a film that needs more darkness, more shadows. Instead everything is lit with all the prestige handsomeness of Merchant Ivory and Sunday dramas. Why did Wheatley go for this visual approach? Did he feel that it was expected from the lovely locations and luscious costumes?

And the costumes and the sets do look lovely. The shooting colours are vibrant and beautiful. It’s very grand and charming and it turns a haunting novel with dark deeds at its heart into something safe and neutered.

 The final product is what happens if a combination of styles are thrown together in a way that service not the story, but how each element of it could be best presented. When the film wants to show off the set and costumes, it’s bright and beautiful. At the few times it wants to suggest ghostly intimidation, we get some chanting and a few darkened rooms and billowing curtains. Neither plays well off the other and the film ends up feeling professionally mounted but workmanlike. It’s a shame as Wheatley could have really made something of this. But it feels like he has been forced into a prestige costume drama straightjacket.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Shanghai Express (1932)

Marlene Dietrich is on a train full of mystery and danger in Shanghai Express

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Lily/Madeline), Clive Brook (Captain Donald Harvey), Anna May Wong (Hui Fei), Warner Orland (Henry Chang), Lawrence Grant (Reverend Carmichael), Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Eric Baum), Louise Closser Hale (Mrs Haggerty), Emile Chautard (Major Leonard)

The fourth collaboration between von Sternberg and Dietrich, completed when they were in the middle of – was it an affair, an infatuation or something half-way between obsession and resentment? Who knows. Either way, Shanghai Express is one of the their finest collaborations, a triumph of von Sternberg’s mastery of style and Dietrich’s charisma and appeal, brilliantly shot with some iconic images. The biggest hit of 1932, it’s also a loopy part-thriller, part-romance but with a sort of eerie dream-like logic and that mixes peril and jaunt. It’s a fascinating picture.

Its 1931 and China is in the middle of a civil war. Boarding a train bound for – you guessed it – Shanghai, is a veritable smorgasbord of ex-pats and mysterious travellers. First among them – and reviled by all but one of the other passengers – is infamous “coaster” ‘Shanghai Lily’ (Marlene Dietrich), a woman who (as she says) needed to go through more than one man to get that nickname. The only person in first class who can stand her is Chinese “coaster” Hui Fri (Anna May Wong). The man who has the most cause to resent her though is army physician Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). The two of them were deeply in love, but misunderstandings came between them and he’s nursed a grudge ever since. The rest of the train carry their own petty prejudices – but all these are put in perspective when the train is hijacked by rebel leader General Chang (Warner Orland), who holds Donald hostage to get the release of his right-hand man from the Chinese. What will Shanghai Lili aka Madeline do to save the life of the love of her life?

Clocking in at a slim and efficient 82 minutes, Shanghai Express still manages to have a languid, patient pace to it, taking its time to establish places, relationships and stakes. Part of that also comes from the film being set in a sort of imaginarium idea of China, born entirely out of von Sternberg’s brain. With his long-standing disinterest in realism, von Sternberg’s film is a sort of fever-dream image of China. So it’s kind of fitting the film plays out like a dream, right down to its own pace. At times it rushes swiftly on, at others the stakes hardly seem to matter as the characters move freely around while in supposed captivity and barely consider their lives at risk. At the end of the film, the train arrives (despite the violence en route, the fact its late gets the most comment) and the characters simply get on with their lives.

Perhaps its all part of von Sternberg’s deconstruction of these Europeans and Yanks, whose only engagement with this foreign country is that it should be made as much like the West as possible. Most of the characters on board – with the exception of the women – are selfish, pompous, lecherous, prejudiced, greedy or some combination of all of the above. While they wear an air of respectability, it doesn’t take long to shake them from it. And their judgement of others is swift and irreversible. Even Donald, our nominal hero, fits this bill – he frequently rushes to judgement and pig-headedly sticks there, regardless of logic and experience.

In among this, it’s the women who emerge as the only characters who demonstrate pluck, loyalty, empathy and decency. Anna May Wong’s looked-down-on courtesan goes through a torrid time – demeaned on the train then assaulted by the lecherous Chang not once but twice (the second time an off-screen rape that none of the Western characters ever feel the need to comment on). Despite this, she’s one of the few who acts to defend someone other than herself, and her actions are (eventually) what brings liberation for the passengers (again not that they, or anyone else from the West, thanks her for it). It’s a neatly reserved performance from Wong (perhaps the best in the film), her eyes conveying an only thinly concealed contempt for those around her.  

The closest thing she has to a confidante is of course Shanghai Lily herself. This is the perfect role for Marlene Dietrich, a woman who is both imperious and fragile, proud but willing to debase herself to save the man she loves, cold and knowing but also strangely naïve and romantic. As with much of her best work, what she does so brilliantly here is to bring together a host of contradictions that really shouldn’t make sense (except perhaps as some sort of sexual fantasy of von Sternberg’s?) and make it the most charismatic and arresting part of the film. Dietrich is not the most accomplished of actors - but she is an accomplished presence and undeniably charismatic.

Lily proves that she may be a hard-nosed player of the game, but that she’s more than capable of loyalty and faith to those she loves. She has no hesitation when asked to put herself in the way of danger for them. It’s a shame Dietrich doesn’t have a more charismatic scene partner than the rather bland Clive Brook (who ends up looking very forced as a romantic lead – you end up wondering what on earth this woman sees in him). But Dietrich’s movie-star magnetism holds much of the plot of the film together and provides much of its emotion.

She’s also of course beautifully filmed by von Sternberg – one late shot (with lighting pointing upwards in almost a spotlight triangle, creating a truly striking and erotic image of her smoking against a train door) has rightly become iconic, but the film is packed with them. Von Sternberg, working closely with photographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning) perfectly uses light and shadow to frame Dietrich with an alluring exoticism that compels the focus.

It’s all part of the film’s beauty and the skills behind its shooting. It starts with a series of flourishing tracking shots through busy train stations (something it returns to later on). Scenes that coat the film in smoke, with just backlighting, while soldiers and passengers move in front like a lantern show are extraordinary. The images make superb use of ultra-dark blacks to introduce frequently gorgeous images. With von Sternberg’s setting that only just touches realism in the faintest way possible, it makes for a wonderfully framed exotic fever dream – just as the film itself oscillates between action and languid romance in its pacing.

Shanghai Express is almost impossible to categorise. A romance with thrills in the middle, an action film where urgency is often off the table, a mystery that travels with an almost pre-ordained certainty towards its goal, it truly has a dream-like logic. And I guess if it’s all von Sternberg’s dream, it makes sense that it’s most striking scenes see Dietrich, perfectly lit, with smoke stroking itself around her. After all her charisma is at the film’s heart.

The Dig (2020)

Ralph Fiennes plays an amateur digger who makes a huge discovery in The Dig

Director: Simon Stone
Cast: Carey Mulligan (Edith Pretty), Ralph Fiennes (Basil Brown), Lily James (Peggy Piggott), Johnny Flynn (Rory Lomax), Ben Chaplin (Stuart Piggott), Ken Stott (Charles Phillips), Archie Barnes (Robert Pretty), Monica Dolan (May Brown)

One of the greatest archaeological finds in British History, the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Sutton Hoo revealed vast treasures and cultural insights that are very rarely glimpsed. Land-owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow with a young son Robert (Archie Barnes), hires self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the curious mounds on her land. Brown discovers one of them holds the buried ship. But the dig is taken from his control by the British Museum, led by Charlie Phillips (Ken Stott): professional archaeologists who want to ensure the work is ‘done properly’. With tensions of class and profession, everyone must race against time to complete as much of the work as possible before the outbreak of the Second World War.

On the surface, The Dig is a charming, heart-felt reconstruction of a fascinating moment of archaeological history, mixed with engaging (but familiar) stories of a working-class amateurs being patronised by upper-class professionals. However, Stone’s film manages to have a richer second layer. With war approaching, and mortality constantly on the mind of most of the characters, it’s also a subtle investigation of legacy, the past and death itself.

Stone’s film develops this with its rich, poetic filming style. Beautifully shot in a series of gorgeous hazy hues, with dynamic use of low-angles and wide-angle lenses, Sutton Hoo is given an almost mystical beauty. Stone also makes extensive use of playing dialogue over images not of the conversation, but smaller moments in character’s lives, from casual meetings to cleaning shoes, that as such take on a profounder meaning. It’s a visual representation of how our legacy is often a snapshot of images and relics, moments that stay in the memory even when events (or conversation in this case) has moved on. It’s subtly done, but carries a beautiful impact.

Then of course, it’s not surprising legacy in on the mind. Each of the characters is at a tipping point in their own lives. Edith Pretty – so consumed with quiet grief over the loss of her husband that she is desperate for there to be something on the other side – is struggling with her own health, aware she will shortly leave her son an orphan. Her cousin Rory prepares for service in the RAF – service she fears will shortly leave him dead (the dangers of the airforce are clearly shown when a trainee pilot crashes and drowns near to the dig).

This connection to the briefness and intangibility of life pushes people to address their own choices. After all they are all standing in the grave of a man considered so important at that the time, a ship was dragged several miles to honour him – and today we have no idea who he was. Married archaeologist couple Stuart and Peggy Piggott confront an amiable loveless marriage (he’s gay, she’s falling in love with Rory) that shouldn’t define their lives. Basil has dealt with quiet grief at a childless marriage, and sees his work in astronomy and archaeology as his legacy.

These ideas are gently, but expertly, threaded together with a reconstruction of the key issues around the dig. Needless to say, the academics – led by Ken Stott at his most pompous – have no time for Basil’s home-spun methods. Basil’s predictions of the Anglo-Saxon tomb are constantly dismissed until he literally digs the ship up. Immediately he is benched to clearing soil (and only on Edith’s insistence is he allowed to remain at all) and later his name will be scrubbed out of the official record. It’s always the way with Britain – and a sign of how tenuous our legacies can be.

The personal stories are not always as well explored. The film has its flaws, not least the sad miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Edith. In reality, Edith was in her mid-50s when the ship was discovered. The film was developed for Nicole Kidman, but with her withdrawal Mulligan (twenty years too young) was drafted in. Sadly, nothing was changed to reflect this: meaning the characters years of spinsterhood before marriage lose impact (seriously how old can she have been when she married? She’s got a 12 year old son!). A softly underplayed romantic interest between Edith and Basil is also rather unsettling considering the vast age difference between them. (It’s better to imagine it as a platonic bond).

It’s still more engaging than the rather awkward love triangle the film introduces late on between the married Piggotts and Edith’s (fictional) cousin Rory. It’s fairly familiar stuff – the closeted gay Piggott, the growing realisation of this by Peggy and the obvious charm and gentle interest of Rory – and more or less pans out as you might expect, although at least with a dollop of human kindness.

The film’s other delight is the acting. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the taciturn Basil, a dedicated self-taught man who knows what he is worth, but struggles to gain that recognition. Fiennes not only has excellent chemistry with Mulligan and Barnes, he also suggests a quiet regret in Basil as well as a fundamental decency tinged with pride. For all that she is miscast, Mulligan does very good work as Edith while Chaplin, James and Flynn make a lot of some slightly uninspired material.

The Dig is at its best when asking quiet and gentle questions about life and when it focuses on the platonic romance between Basil and Edith. Directed with a poetic assurance by Simon Stone, it doesn’t push its points too far and gets a good balance between fascinating historic reconstruction and more profound questions of mortality.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Joan of Arc (1948)

Ingrid Bergman shows France the way in po-faced epic Joan of Arc

Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), José Ferrer (Dauphin Charles), Francis L Sullivan (Bishop Cauchon), Roman Bohnen (Durand Laxart), Geoge Coulouris (Sir Robert de Baudricourt), George Zucco (Constable of Clervaux), Gene Lockhart (Georges de la Trémoille), John Emery (Duke d’Alençon), Richard Ney (Charles de Bourbon), Lief Erickson (Dunois of Orleans), John Ireland (Jan de la Boussac), Hurd Hatfield (Father Pasquerel), Ward Bond (La Hire), J. Carrol Naish (Count of Luxembourg), Frederick Worlock (Duke of Bedford), Shepperd Strudwick (Father Jean Massieu), Alan Napier (Earl of Warwick), Cecil Kellaway (Jean Le Maistre)

A light descends from heaven, and a young girl is seized with a sense of purpose. Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman) believes – as do her countrymen – that she received a message from heaven to help deliver fifteenth-century France back to the French, and out from under English occupation. For three years, this young woman strikes fear into the hearts of the English, inspiring the French into a series of victories (most of all at Orleans) and improving the French position such that the ambitious Dauphin (José Ferrer) is crowned Charles VII. But Joan is a target for the English, and she’s eventually  captured and burned for heresy after a trial notably free of justice at Rouen.

A huge investment at the time, with its colossal cast and loving recreation of medieval France, Joan of Arc is historically a luckless film. Despite its box-office winnings, it failed to cover its immense cost. It gained seven Oscar nominations (and four wins!) with no nomination for Best Picture. Its director, its cinematographer and actor Roman Bohnen (playing Joan’s uncle) all died prematurely after its release. Ingrid Bergman was caught up in scandal – and effectively exiled from Hollywood – shortly after when her affair with director Roberto Rossellini became public knowledge. Producer Walter Wagner was imprisoned three years later for shooting his wife’s lover. The film itself had 20 minutes sliced from it and, for decades, was only available in its truncated version.

Aside from these historic curiosities, Joan of Arc is a well-made, handsomely mounted but fundamentally rather dry and at points rather dull historical drama, mixed with more than enough touches of Biblical worthiness. Victor Fleming himself felt the film was a disappointment, that a trick had been missed – perhaps  aware that his own old-fashioned, rather flat direction fails to bring any inspiration out of the drama.

If drama is quite the right word for what, all too often, are too many scenes made up almost solely of a group of men sitting around a table in medieval garb talking at length of current affairs. Too many of these scenes lack in pace or urgency and many end up feeling forced, with too much of the dialogue reduced to recounting events rather than driving the story.

The structure of the story feels off as well: it can be split into three rough acts: Joan’s search for her purpose, Joan’s time as the inspiration of the French, and Joan’s imprisonment and trial. The trial, in particular, takes up almost the final 45 minutes of the film. The play the film is based on used a troupe of actors performing the life of Joan as a framing device for further insight into the life and impact of the saint. Without this framing device, the actual film becomes a rather dry history lesson.

It’s not helped by Bergman’s performance, which serves to capture in capsule the film’s po-faced piousness. It was a dream of Bergman’s to bring her Broadway performance of Joan to film. Sadly, the script’s lack of wit (or insight into the personality of Joan), means the majority of her scenes fall into a stock pattern: her lines are delivered with a breathless intensity with her hands are clasped across her chest. Aside from a few brief scenes where Joan questions why her voices have fallen silent, there are very few moments where either Bergman or the film seek to delve down into the motivations and inspirations of Joan. Like the film, her performance is bereft of any wit or warmth – instead it is almost devotional in its careful respect.

It’s part of the film’s seriousness. It makes some excellent points on the lasting impact of Joan, the horrific unfairness of her trial and the fact that, by burning her, the English merely cemented her hold on the French people rather than ending it. But too many other issues are pushed to the wayside, along with Joan’s character and motivations. No questions are raised around Joan’s interpretation of her visions. The conflict between faith and war is unexplored. The film sets its store out clearly: this is a devotional work and we should take it as that, and any questions around faith, legitimacy or what drove a fanatical teenager to embrace a life of military campaigning goes unexplored. In truth, we know as little about Joan at the end as we did at the beginning.

Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its plusses. As a piece of devotional film-making, it has a lovely score from Hugo Friedhofer, with just the right uses of heavenly choirs singing through the most devout sections. The design of the film is beautifully done, heavily inspired by medieval manuscripts, with the same striking primary colours and framing. It has in fact a beautifully old-fashioned look to it, a wonderfully designed artificiality. The siege of Orleans is a dramatically staged sequence, with a particularly striking orange-drenched sky. Visually you can imagine this as an incredibly stuffed-shirt Adventures of Robin Hood, but still glorious to look at.

Bergman is also wisely surrounded by a strong cast of character actors, all providing the sort of colour and corruption that Bergman’s stiffly written Joan can’t provide. José Ferrer landed an Oscar nomination for his film debut as the ambitious, weak-willed and envious Dauphin, more interested in realpolitik than doing the right thing. Francis L Sullivan connives and blusters wonderfully as corrupt Bishop Cauchon, fixing the trial. George Coulouris gives his usual hurried authority to de Baudricourt, while Cecil Kellaway inverts his Irish kindness as Joan’s Inquisitor. Off-the-wall casting choices like Ward Bond as a French captain surprisingly tend to pay-off. Shepperd Strudwick makes the biggest impression though as Joan’s sympathetic bailiff (he also speaks the prologue).

The overall film though is one more for history buffs than for movie goers. With its seriousness, odd pace (some events take forever, while others – such as Joan’s capture – either rush past in seconds of happen off-screen) and general lack of any humour or warmth, it’s not always an engrossing watch. Well-made as it is, it’s also directed with a certain flat professionalism rather than inspiration and Bergman seems constricted by the script and the part. A curiosity, but not a complete success.