Thursday, 29 March 2018

Scandal (1989)

Joanne Whalley and John Hurt get unwisely wrapped up in the Profumo affair in Scandal

Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Cast: John Hurt (Stephen Ward), Joanne Whalley (Christine Keeler), Bridget Fonda (Mandy Rice-Davies), Ian McKellen (John Profumo), Leslie Phillips (Lord Astor), Britt Ekland (Mariella Novotny), Jeroen Krabbé (Eugene Ivanov), Daniel Massey (Mervyn Griffith-Jones), Roland Gift (Johnny Edgecombe), Jean Alexander (Mrs Keeler), Deborah Grant (Valerie Hobson), Alex Norton (Inspector), Ronald Fraser (Justice Marshall), Paul Brooke (Sergeant), Keith Allen (Reporter)

In 1963 the British Government was nearly destroyed by a sex scandal. John Profumo, Minister for War, was widely suspected of conducting an affair with Christine Keeler (a former show girl turned society figure) at the same time as she was sleeping with Russian naval attaché Eugene Ivanov. Profumo denied it to the House of Commons. A few weeks later he confessed he had lied and resigned from Parliament. The scandal shook the country to the core, and led to an exhausted Harold MacMillan’s resignation as PM. As the scandal span out to reveal sex parties in country homes, the country couldn’t get enough of the discovery that large numbers of the upper classes enjoyed nothing more than swinging, orgies and indiscriminate sex laced with sado-masochism. 

Scandal reconstructs the build-up to and eventual explosion of controversy around this affair, focusing on Keeler (Joanne Whalley) and Stephen Ward (John Hurt), the society osteopath and friend to the rich and famous who had worked out that if he found and coached attractive young girls, Henry Higgins-style, into engaging and fun companions, he could swiftly move up the social ladder by giving the rich and powerful people they could sleep with. When the Profumo affair blew up, it was Ward who was left holding the parcel: abandoned by his rich and powerful friends, Ward was placed on trial as a pimp, vilified in court and in the press, and eventually committed suicide the night before the court case finished (which convicted him in absentia of living off immoral earnings).

It’s this miscarriage of justice that Scandal zeroes in on – and the film does a good job of showing that Ward basically didn’t really do anything that wrong. He didn’t mistreat the girls, he thought he was helping them improve their lives and he didn’t attempt to blackmail his friends. His own sex drive seems curiously disconnected (he was clearly more of voyeur) and if anything, John Hurt (excellent as always) plays him as a slightly sad social-climber. A sort of Horace Slughorn of sex, far more excited by his bulging address book, access to the exclusive clubs of London and calling lords of the land by their matey nicknames, than by all the nooky.

Scandal however is a rather unemotional, unengaging and distant film. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in, as it too often goes for documentary checklist rather than real character engagement. On top of that, it’s often rather unclear – it’s tricky to tell the exact timelines, it’s hard to see often how some events relate to others, it’s unclear in particular how Christine Keeler’s relationship with jazz promoter and drug dealer Johnny Edgecombe led to exposure. It’s a film that’s both in love with telling the facts and so blinded by them that it doesn’t turn them into an engaging story.

But then perhaps part of this is because looking back today, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about with the Profumo affair. After generations where government ministers have been accused of everything from toe-sucking to performing a sex act on a dead pig, it’s hard not to look at the Granddaddy of all government sex scandals and not think it rather quaint. Today it would barely merit more than few news cycles: and Profumo would certainly have been back in the cabinet within two years. Even the spy angle (was Profumo leaking secrets to Keeler, who in turn leaked them to Ivanov?) was widely (and almost immediately) discredited at the time. 

Not that the seismic impact really comes across anyway in the film. This is partly because the film focuses on Ward and Keeler in particular. For the two of them, there wasn’t much at stake – until their lives were destroyed. In fact, for most of these people at the various dodgy parties – other than embarrassing tittle-tattle – there wasn’t much at stake. A film that gave more space to Profumo – and really made-clear what he was running the risk of losing here, particularly after he lied to Parliament – might have made it clearer the dangers that all involved were inadvertently running.

But that would have been to dent the film’s purpose of showing Ward and Keeler as essentially innocents abroad. Joanne Whalley has a particularly difficult job as a Keeler so thoughtless, short-sighted and self-obsessed, she verges on the dim. Whalley makes her bright, engaging and fun-loving, but never with a whiff of sense. By the time Keeler is blurting out totally unconnected Profumo facts when speaking to the police about her relationship with Edgecombe, you can tell she doesn’t have a chance.

The film’s real strength though is John Hurt’s masterful performance as Stephen Ward. Hurt’s pock-marked face and ruddy complexion (going through a difficult divorce he allegedly spent most of the filming struggling with alcoholism) and slightly sweaty desperation are perfect for the role. A natural victim as an actor, he makes Ward always slightly desperate, always trying too hard, always the grammar-school boy pushing his nose up against society’s window. He’s a super creepy Henry Higgins grooming girls for a “better life” (his genuine belief!) and getting himself an entrée into posh society at the same time.  

Ward, the film argues, didn’t feel he was ever doing anything wrong – and he realises far too late that society, his posh friends and the government don’t agree. “It’ll blow over” he reassures Ivanov: totally wrong. Ward basically was a hedonist who wanted people to have a good time – and was thrilled to be invited to the party. When the shit hit the fan, he was dumped with the blame. It’s an angry note that the film – with its obsession with covering so much ground – fumbles slightly: it wants to be a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of the upper classes, but it fudges the emotional connection so much that you can’t feel it as much as you should.

Instead Scandal just sort of simmers rather than boils. It doesn’t communicate what a sea change this was in how Britain viewed its politicians and upper classes – from hereon they were always seen as men with feet of clay – and it doesn’t get the audience feeling as angry or engaged with things as you might expect. It has a lot of sex in it but (perhaps deliberately) it’s not sexy – the orgy scenes would make a great mood killer – and it seems to miss the hedonistic tone that dominated the class at the time. 

There is some decent directing – a scene of Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler preparing for a night on the town is particularly well done – and some strong acting, not least from Ian McKellen is a slimy Profumo (rumour has it a recently de-closted McKellen was keen on the role as it was the most hetrosexual role he could imagine playing!). But it never quite clicks together into something really emotionally engaging. And it isn’t quite as clear and easy to follow as you need. Structuring the story as a kind of love story between virtually the only people in the story who don’t have sex together is interesting – and Hurt and Whalley are good – but it’s just not quite a good enough film for what it wants to do.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Black Mass (2015)

Johnny Depp dives into his make-up box in this sup-par wannabe Goodfellas

Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Bulger), Rory Cochrane (Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), David Harbour (John Morris), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), Brad Carter (John McIntyre), W. Earl Brown (Johnny Martorano)

Well Goodfellas casts a long shadow doesn’t it? Certainly long enough to completely drown Black Mass which, despite some good acting and period detail, never really comes together into something compelling or engrossing or even really that interesting. But you’ve got to admire how often Scott Cooper must have watched Scorsese’s classic. Shame he didn’t bring anything new to the table.

In South Boston in the mid-1970s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) controls organised crime. With his rule under challenge from rival gangs, Bulger turns informer to the FBI – specifically agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) – offering information on his rivals in return for being allowed to take over their business. Inevitably, Bulger exploits the relationship for his own gain – with the increasingly blind-eye of Connolly who becomes more and more embroiled in the underworld. 

So there are good things in this. The period detail is pretty good. There are plenty of good gangster moments, even if they’re the reheated leftovers from everything from The Sopranos to Goodfellas. The low-level gangsters we follow have a slightly different perspective – even if most of their characters are completely interchangeable. It’s interesting that Bulger moved in such legitimate circles as the FBI and his State Senate President brother (well played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But the film never really makes this come together to mean anything. You don’t learn anything, you don’t understand anything new – it’s just a series of events.

That’s despite, to be fair, a very good performance by Johnny Depp. Sure the part caters to Depp’s Olivier-like love of the dressing-up box – here he sports bad teeth, a bald patch, a paunch and a pair of searing bright-blue contacts that make him look like a Muppet demon – but for all that, he is very good. His natural presence works to make Bulger a leader and he has a swaggering, dry, cruel quality to him that never makes him anything less than unsettling. He also conveys the monstrous moral blankness behind Bulger, using a fig-leaf of loyalty to cover his destruction.

It’s a shame then that he’s not really given anything to do. Too much of the part is reminiscent of other things: from Jack Nicholson in The Departed (to be fair, Bulger was the inspiration for that character), to Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you?” speech or his insanity from Casino. Montages as tired as a sleepless night run through the collection of funds and the beating of rivals. It’s just all so predictable. It’s a box ticking exercise. Yawn.

The biggest shame is that, in Connolly, the film has a far more interesting potential lead character. Imagine it repositioned to follow him instead: the semi-chancer, semi-star-struck kid swept up in the glamour of crime. So much more interesting. How far did he turn a blind eye? How far was he essentially an accomplice? Did he feel or know he was doing the wrong thing? Consider Depp’s brilliance in Donnie Brasco and then imagine what he could have made of this Faustian figure: and what an interesting film we could have had.

Instead, good as Edgerton is, the film barely scrapes the surface of his thoughts or motivations. We get beats – and his wife (excellently played by Julianne Nicholson) is clearly disgusted by his gangster friends – but it constantly falls flat as we keep pulling back to Bulger, or internal FBI arguments that tell us nothing. On top of this Bulger’s empire is ham-fistedly explained: it’s never clear what his reach is, what his main crimes are or what his aims are. We see killings but don’t often know why – and a sequence in Miami is so poorly explained I still don’t know what it was about.

The film introduces Bulger’s lieutenants – but reduces them to identikit hangers on. All the flash-back retrospective confessions (a framing device the film uses to very mixed effect) in the world can’t turn them into characters. Even Bulger’s relationship with his patrician brother gets lost in the shuffle – again a film focused on a crime lord and his State Senator brother would have been more interesting.

Black Mass is well made – but its problem is that there is on the edges a far more interesting film that never comes into focus. If they had chosen a different focus we could have had a film worth watching. Instead, like Connolly, the film is seduced away by the dark soul of Bulger. Depp is great – but the film is so in love with him and his transformation that it becomes something completely forgettable.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Juliette Binoche seeks liberty from grief in Krzysztof Kieślowski's masterpiece Three Colours: Blue

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Cast: Juliette Binoche (Julie de Courcy/Vignon), Benoît Régent (Olivier Benôit), Emmanuelle Riva (Madame Vignon), Florence Pernel (Sandrine), Guillaume de Tonquédec (Serge), Charlotte Véry (Lucille), Yann Trégouët (Antoine), Hélène Vincent (La journaliste), Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol), Julie Delpy (Dominique)

There are few foreign language films that have cemented themselves in film’s cultural history more than Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. These three inter-linked films – made with French and Polish money – looked (individually) at themes of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, while using a colour palate and design that reflected one colour of the French flag each. The first film in this interlinking trilogy is Blue, a sombre, intriguing, intimate drama that perhaps wears its intelligence a little heavily on its sleeve.

Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche) is the only survivor of a car crash that kills her husband, a famous composer, and her daughter. Lost in grief, Julie decides that she will separate herself from the world and live entirely independently. She rents out her home, distances herself from friends, takes back her maiden name and destroys what she believes to be the only copy of her husband’s final composition – a concert for the unification of Europe. But Julie finds that liberating herself from all worldly connections is not as easy as she hoped.

Blue is a heartfelt, gentle film that throbs with emotional intensity, much of it coming from Binoche’s searing performance of a woman consumed with a mixture of grief and survivor guilt, who sees complete isolation and “liberty” from all connections as the only chance for sanity. Kieślowski’s direction is masterful – patient, stable, quiet and with a brilliant eye for small details. The film is crammed with small moments that speak of peace and quiet reflection – from watching a lump of sugar being soaked in tea, to lingering studies of everything from rooms to streets. 

The opening sequences of the film convey this masterful confidence from Kieślowski. The camera is a still observer, alternating between subtle POV shots and gentle, perfectly placed observation of Julie. Every moment of the shocking discovery of Julie’s loss is wonderfully assembled – from the stumbling news from the doctor, to the crackling mini-TV on which she watches her family’s funeral being broadcast. Quietly we see Julie return to her own home – and Binoche bottles up emotion with a resolve that suggests as much her determination not to engage with the pain as it does self-control. No wonder her housekeeper bursts into tears at the fact that Julie isn’t crying.

This all ties in very interestingly with the film’s theme of liberty. Conventionally, we would have had Julie escaping from something to find her own life. Kieślowski’s film more interestingly explores the positive and negative of liberty. Julie chooses freedom from all of life’s connections – but this is shown constantly to be not only impossible, but also less than healthy. Her surface liberty is instead crushing her under the pressure of isolation.

At the same time, the film is partly about Julie learning to free herself from her survivor guilt. Cutting herself off from the world denies her a genuine emotional connection with her husband’s friend Olivier (a puppy doggish Benoît Régent). In the first months of her guilt she sleeps with Olivier, hoping it will get her a bit of peace (it doesn’t). Inevitably, as Julie finds out more about her husband’s life – and as we find out that his music output was heavily reliant on Julie’s secret collaboration – the film becomes a question of whether Julie will allow herself the liberty from her past to continue living.

Because in a way this is an anti-tragedy: it starts with a trauma and is about the survivor learning to continue her life. Kieślowski peppers the film with moments of falling, from items to bungee jumpers on the TV. Slowly, these images of falling progress to include being caught, or shots of the bungee cords snapping the person back from oblivion. It’s a neat, subtle continual reference to Julie’s unconscious search for support.

Particularly as it’s made clear that Julie’s entire personality is all about giving, about loving and supporting people. From her silent collaboration with her husband, to her patient caring for her mother suffering from increasing dementia (another perverse form of liberty), to her forming a reluctant friendship with an exotic dancer in her block of flats (who the rest of the tenants are trying to drive out), it’s clear that Julie’s attempt to distance herself is never going to truly work. A character late on even tells her that her husband had always described her as kind and forgiving – qualities Julie learns to re-embrace. 

The wider world that Julie is trying to escape is represented brilliantly throughout by the score of her husband’s (her?) music for Europe. This score – a richly exuberant piece of music by Zbigniew Priesner – constantly intrudes into the action, accompanied by moments where Kieślowski seems to suggest time has stopped as Julie becomes lost in her reflections. Kieślowski uses colour changes and slow zooms to suggest throughout these beats where Julie temporarily becomes lost in the past and memories. The continual presence of the music is perfectly done.

The one element I was less keen on was the over use of blue. From filters on the camera, to backlighting, to objects present in every frame, there is a lot of blue in this movie – every shot has something blue in it. Although this is clever, and clearly thematically intentional for the whole trilogy – I’ve got to be honest spotting this stuff probably took me out of the film at moments. I imagine on a second viewing this will be dramatically reduced – but it’s one of those curses of a trilogy of films that have been so hyped up on the arts circuit, that you are aware of some of its subtle tricks so much that they cease to be subtle.

But Three Colours: Blue is still a masterful, quiet study of grief, loss and yearning, that avoids the obvious and explores different types of liberty and freedom. Binoche is brilliant in the lead role, and Kieślowski sears the brains with images (I still wince remembering a sequence where Julie deliberately scrapes her knuckles over a wall she walks past) and his direction is impeccably sensitive and unshowy, letting the film speak for itself. I can’t wait to watch the other two films in the trilogy – and see how this might affect my views on this first one.