Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Go-Between (1971)

Julie Christie enlists young Dominic Guard to pass notes in classic adaptation The Go Between

Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: Julie Christie (Marian Maudsley), Alan Bates (Ted Burgess), Dominic Guard (Leo Colston), Margaret Leighton (Mrs Maudsley), Michael Redgrave (Older Leo Colston), Edward Fox (Hugh, Viscount Trimingham), Michael Gough (Mr Maudsley), Richard Gibson (Marcus Maudsley), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Charles)

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

It’s a classic line from JP Hartley’s masterpiece novel of youthful disillusionment and trauma, The Go-Between. This film version perfectly captures the novel’s wistful reflections on a past that seems bright and glowing to the young boy caught up in the centre, while carefully and subtly suggesting the darker currents and temptations that lie under the surface. 

In 1900, 12-year-old Leo Colston (Dominic Guard), a middle class boy, spends the summer at the country house of his wealthy school friend. There he finds himself increasingly drawn to the glamour and kindness of the family, who do their best to make Leo feel at home – particularly Marian (Julie Christie), the daughter of the house. Leo also befriends local farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates) and finds himself recruited to carry letters between Marian and Ted, little understanding what the messages and arrangements between the two may mean, and what it might mean for her engagement with the decent Viscount Trimingham (Edward Fox). 

The Go-Between is a perfect Chekovian tragedy, which brilliantly captures the hypocrisy and dangers of the final days of the Victorian era. Of course it bubbles down to sex – and there is tonnes of it beneath the surface in the quietly built passion between Marian and Ted. But it’s also class as well – the primary reason why Marian’s affair with Ted remains so illicit is because the farmer (as the younger family members make abundantly clear) is socially unacceptable.

Class weaves itself into every part of the film. The Maudsley family work over time to make Leo feel as comfortable as possible in the house as they are all aware of the social gap between them. The Maudsley family treat Leo as almost a sort of social obligation, quietly buying him new clothes (as he ‘must have forgotten to pack’ the correct clothing for the scorching summer heat) and making much of him at the local cricket game. But Leo can never really forget that he falls somewhere in the middle between the Maudsleys and Tony, and finds himself out of place with both. This awkwardness is perfectly captured in Dominic Guard’s bashful performance.

Class is also lies under Marian’s affair with Burgess – and she seems to know it can never last. Indeed, she has every intention it seems of marrying Trimingham. Trimingam and her father, it’s implied, are even aware of the affair and expect it to burn out. It’s Mrs Maudsley who seems most threatened by the social possibilities of the affair – while the men expect the normal order to reassert itself, Mrs Maudsley (Margaret Leighton, who brilliantly simmers at the edge of the whole film before dominating its closing scenes) seems far more aware of the dangers that love and attraction have.

But it’s a story where the real victims turn out to be those outside the family. Ted Burgess (expertly played by Alan Bates, who made a living of playing son of the soil types like this) winds up feeling like an innocent, a bashful teenager who barely seems to know where to look when Marian accompanies him on the piano while he sings at the celebration after the village cricket match (Mrs Maudsley is appalled at this point). And Ted (constantly described as a lady-killer by Maudsley and Trimingham, despite all evidence to the contrary in his manner – further signposting their awareness of the affair) constantly feels like the weaker partner in the relationship, besotted with the lady of the manor.

As that lady, Julie Christie gives an intriguing performance (even if she is slightly too old for the part). Christie’s Marian is strangely distant, despite her many acts of kindness towards Leo. To what extent is she merely using the boy, winning him over with affection to manipulate him later to deliver her messages? How much does she care for the boy? She understands her relationship with Ted can never be – and is more than prepared to marry Trimingham – but how much is that a defence mechanism against her true feelings? We get only a half suggestion, as Leo does, of how she may really feel. It’s subtly left open for most of the film. 

The film uses a neat device of intercutting moments of the story with the far older Leo (Michael Redgrave, whose voice is perfect for the moments of narration) revisiting the locations of the story again. Everything is in contrast to the bright, luxurious summer of 1900 as the older Leo heads around windswept and rainy locations. Unlike the past, the present day finds the soundtrack drained out by sound effects and ambient noise. It’s a quiet reminder of the foreboding doom that lies over the story – and the film makes good business from the suggestion of trauma that has affected Leo resulting from the events of 1900, and how it has shattered and reshaped his life.

Losey’s direction is a perfect capturing of the languid heat of that 1900 summer, and he perfectly frames events and action for maximum impact. It’s a film made of small looks, quiet asides and suggestions to the audience played from the perspective of a child, where we need to interpret the things we see to get a full understanding of what’s really happening and its implications. Harold Pinter’s script is equally strong, perfectly capturing the mood and feel of Hartley’s novel.

The Go-Between is an excellent film, stuffed with good performances (in addition to those mentioned, Edward Fox and Michael Gough are both excellent), and beautifully shot and filmed. It’s an intelligent and very faithful adaptation of the book that still manages to make the book more cinematic, with the intercutting between past and present giving us a sense of Greek tragedy, and the interrelations between the characters staged with subtly and intrigue. A wonderful adaptation of a great novel.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Rain Man (1988)

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman go on a road journey of personal discovery in Rain Man

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Raymond Babbitt), Tom Cruise (Charlie Babbitt), Valeria Golino (Susanna). Jerry Molen (Dr Bruner), Ralph Seymour (Lenny), Michael D Roberts (Vern), Bonnie Hunt (Sally Dibbs)

1988 wasn’t a vintage year at the Oscars, so perhaps that explains why this functional film ended up scooping several major awards (Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay). Rain Man is by no means a bad film, just an average one that, for all its moments of subtlety and its avoidance of obvious answers, still wallows in clichés.

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a cocksure car dealer (he’s Cruise to the max) whose latest deal is spiralling down the toilet when he hears his father has died. Charlie had long since cut all links to his father, so he’s not surprised to be left only a car. But he is intrigued the money has been placed into a trust – and is shocked and furious to discover he has an autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) he never knew about. After essentially kidnapping Raymond in order to claim his share of his father’s fortune, the two end up in a cross country road trip where Charlie slowly learns more about Raymond and their shared past and begins to soften in his view of his brother.

Rain Man is basically the sort of movie where two characters go on a road trip and have a personal journey of discovery, offering the sort of twists and character developments that are only really going to be surprising to someone who has never seen a movie before. But despite that, it does do something interesting, avoiding the standard Hollywood cliché of Raymond discovering depths or learning to overcome part of his condition: he is basically the same at the end of the film as at the beginning.

Instead all the change and journey is in Charlie Babbitt. The film carefully and unobtrusively develops Charlie over the course of the film so that he evolves away from the selfish, greedy yuppie we first encounter, who seems incapable of building emotional links with the people around him. Instead, as he learns to care (in every way) for another person, he also discovers reserves of love and a yearning for connection in himself that he never knew he had before. 

This all sparks off his interaction with Raymond – and his growing acceptance of Raymond for who he actually is, rather than who he wants him to be. This happens slowly – and Charlie can intermix tenderly teaching Raymond to dance with using him to count cards in Las Vegas – but you can plainly see the difference in his character from his reactions when he says hello to his girlfriend earlier (flirtatious but distant) with how he greets her when they reunite later in the film (warm, loving and open). It’s a gradual but very natural development shift that is the real heart of the film.

This works due to a terrific performance from Tom Cruise. Cruise has possibly never been better than he is here. His role is not about glamour or flash, but about carrying the narrative and emotion of the story. Cruise is sensational, quietly carving out a gradual and intelligent character development over a period of time that avoids all the flashy tricks and obvious “emotional” moments you expect. Cruise isn’t afraid to be unlikeable either at points in the story.

That’s what the real emotional connection with the viewer is in this story, and that’s the real arc that the film captures. However it’s Dustin Hoffman who attracted the real plaudits for his performance as the autistic Raymond. Interestingly Hoffman was initially tapped for the role of Charlie, but quickly worked out Raymond was the flashier part. 

Hoffman’s performance is a masterpiece of virtuoso transformation, and his capturing of the quirks and mannerisms of an autistic man are perfectly done. He convinces utterly. But, by the nature of the character, there is no real emotional or character work here. The performance is one that is largely a collection of extremely successful mannerisms. It’s rather like watching an expert juggler successfully juggle twenty things for over two hours. Hoffman doesn’t drop a single thing, but it’s a series of actor tricks rather than a complex acting performance of emotion and character. 

Rain Man did give an insight into autism for many in the 1980s for the first time. Its influence may perhaps have been too great – it’s now become almost standard for an autistic savant in movies to be a maths genius with amazing memory – but in the film, it’s carefully structured to serve as a starting point for Charlie to begin to see Raymond as a human being rather than an object. The film itself sets out a similar stall, encouraging the viewers to see those with autism as people with their own feelings – however much they struggle to understand or express these, as Raymond does. 

What it does very well is to subtly and sensitively explore Raymond’s situation. The medical professionals in the film are never demonised (as they so easily could have been) but are as concerned about Raymond as Charlie becomes. Raymond and Charlie discover they have a closer bond that both seem barely able to express – even Raymond seems to become, at least, used to Charlie’s presence enough to let him touch him. The film shows Raymond however can only progress so far – there is no miracle cure, and no out of character outburst of empathy. 

Rain Man works best when it focuses on subtlety – and has an outstanding performance from Tom Cruise – and it has a well filmed simplicity to it. But it is a slight tale, directed with a functional professionalism by Barry Levinson that never really manages to stand out from several other movies very similar to it. It has a certain warmth and emotionality to it, but deep down it’s nothing really that special – just a more subtle version of a story we have seen several times before.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Madness of King George (1994)

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren excel in this masterful adaptation of Alan Bennett's classic play

Director: Nicholas Hytner
Cast: Nigel Hawthorne (King George III), Helen Mirren (Queen Charlotte), Ian Holm (Dr Willis), Rupert Everett (Prince of Wales) Amanda Donohoe (Lady Pembroke), Rupert Graves (Captain Greville), John Wood (Lord Chancellor Thurlow), Geoffrey Palmer (Dr Warren), Jim Carter (Charles James Fox), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Duke of York), Julian Wadham (William Pitt), Anthony Calf (Captain Fitzroy), Adrian Scarborough (Fortnum), Struan Rodger (Henry Dundas), Caroline Harker (Mrs Fitzherbert), Roger Hammond (Dr Baker), Cyril Shaps (Dr Pepys)

Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III allegedly changed its name for the film adaptation because producers worried American audiences would feel they missed the first two films in the series. It’s not actually true, but it was a lot of free publicity for Nicholas Hytner’s film debut – a marvellous, accomplished and brilliant theatrical adaptation that will always take a firm place on my list of favourite films. It’s an excitingly well-made, hilarious and heartfelt film that captures forever Nigel Hawthorne’s greatest ever performance.

In 1788 King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) is still fuming over the loss of “the colonies” (the film front and centres talk of the plucky United States, to help sell the film in the land of the free) and the behaviour of his ambitious oldest son George (Rupert Everett). Happily married to his wife Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), and the father of 15 children, George is a stickler for form and duty. So imagine the shock of his ministers when his behaviour becomes impulsive, irrational and finally obscene. With the king talking non-stop and impossible to control, the Prince of Wales schemes to become Prince Regent. Desperate, the king’s ministers call in Dr Willis (Ian Holm), a professional doctor of the mad, who claims he can (with time) cure the king. But will it be in time to prevent the regency?

Nicholas Hytner has rather charmingly claimed that he knew so little about film-making he didn’t realise the difficulty of many of the things he asked for, and if he had known he would never have asked. He gives much of the credit to the seasoned pros working on the film pulling out the stops to give him what he asked for. The end result is a brilliantly paced, lusciously filmed epic that is both a wonderfully moving personal story of a crotchety but lovable monarch and a witty look at regency politics. Several scenes are shot with an imaginative brilliance, from shots that throw themselves into the middle of scuffles at court with the unbalanced king, to sweeping landscape shots that make it look like the thing cost millions of dollars.

The other advantage of bringing in Hytner (director of the original stage production) was his brilliant understanding of Alan Bennett. Bennett’s script is superb, crammed with sensational lines and brilliant jokes that never get in the way of the humanity. Bennett is always more than radical than his cosy reputation suggests, and King George is a witty deconstruction of the purpose of the Royal family (politicians frequently comment on their pointlessness and George defines it as “smile and wave” and to act as “a model family”). It’s got a great understanding of the frustrating waiting game of long-serving heirs (being Prince of Wales “is not a position, it is a predicament”). The film even lands a cheeky gag at the end with the suggestion that the King’s condition was hereditary.

Hytner’s film uses the trappings of royalty brilliantly, contrasting them to great effect with the later degradation of the king – in an inspired moment, George’s first “enthroning” in the restraint chair Willis uses to condition him into behaving is soundtracked to Handel’s Zadok the Priest. George’s court is an uptight, staid place where people can’t relax (or even sit – George is so adamantly opposed to people sitting in his presence even a heavily pregnant woman is not exempt during an interminable bell-ringing version of Handel). George is a constrained figure – so it’s no wonder his insanity displays itself as an increasingly loose-lipped lack of inhibition.

The question of madness is richly handled. As Willis says, many of the mad consider themselves kings, so what does a king fancy himself as? And how can you tell what is normal for a king anyway? George is an eccentric from the start – and even his recovery at the end is basically eccentricity with an element of self-control rather than a full recovery. The film never shies away from making you invest in the rough treatment the king undergoes to wrestle him back to sanity. The doctors get short shrift, either incompetent or scheming (“When will you get it into your head that one can produce a copious, regular and exquisitely turned evacuation every day of the week and still be a stranger to reason” Geoffrey Palmer’s wonderfully dry Warren tells a toilet-obsessed colleague). 

The film is slightly more confused about Willis. Strongly played, with a twinkly chippiness, by Ian Holm (who is just about perfect) the film can’t quite decide if Willis is responsible for the king’s recovery or not. It’s a battle of wills, but is Willis ahead of his time or as medieval as his colleagues? Does Willis’ aggressive conditioning (punishing bad behaviour with restraints) force the king back into sanity? Or is it George’s love of his wife that provides the final push? Or is the king naturally on an upcycle where madness expresses itself in eccentricity rather than incoherence? It’s not clear (maybe this is deliberate) but Willis’ regime of punishment and reward has a slight air of quackery.

What’s pretty deliberate was Bennett and Hytner’s insistence that only Nigel Hawthorne could play the king. Thank god they did, as Hawthorne is simply brilliant. Cheated of the Oscar in 1994, Hawthorne is compelling. He also conveys the natural authority of a king, and the “grumpy old man” side of the king is mined for brilliant comic effect. But it’s also a beautifully heartfelt and hilarious performance, running the gamut from delight in obscenities to teary fury and fear at the treatment from his doctors and loss of mental control. Such a sublime performance.

And it surely inspired some top work from the brilliant cast around him, many of whom revived their roles from the stage production (chief among these Wadham’s wonderfully dry Pitt).  Helen Mirren is warm, proud and eventually desperate as Charlotte, while Rupert Everett mines the Prince of Wales for all the comic pomposity and childishness he can. Rupert Graves is excellent as a loyal equerry, while John Wood, Jim Carter and Geoffrey Palmer also excel. You’ve rarely seen such a strong cast of British stage notables, and it’s not surprising they were attracted to perform in a script that has as many good lines as this one.

It’s accomplished and luscious, is brilliantly shot and designed, and is packed full of wonderful sequences. It wears its intelligence lightly, with George as a proto-Lear struggling to hold onto his marbles. The characters even sit and read Lear at one point (“Is that wise?” questions Thurlow. “I had no idea what it was about” says the little-read Willis). George may recover his wits in time, but it’s unclear whether this makes him more or less of a human being. In many ways at the height of his insanity, he’s a warmer, friendlier person (if out of control), then he is as his buttoned-up, stickler-for-duty self. 

The Madness of King George is the sort of film all theatre adaptations wish they could be, brilliantly cast, opening out into something that not only feels compelling to watch but also brings out the great depths of the original play. What is monarchy for? How can we tell if the all-powerful are mad or not? What is sanity anyway? All this and with some superb jokes, and a story that really involves you. With Nigel Hawthorne’s simply brilliant performance at the centre, this is one for the ages.