Sunday, 29 December 2019

The King (2019)

Timothée Chalamet is the war like Henry V in the confused The King

Director: David Michôd
Cast: Timothée Chalamet (King Henry V), Joel Edgerton (Sir John Falstaff), Robert Pattinson (The Dauphin), Sean Harris (William Gascoigne), Thomasin McKenzie (Queen Phillippa), Ben Mendelsohn (Henry IV), Tom Glynn-Carney (Henry “Hotspur” Percy), Lily-Rose Depp (Princess Catherine), Dean-Charles Chapman (Thomas, Duke of Clarence), Thibault de Montalembert (King Charles VI), Tara Fitzgerald (Hooper), Andrew Havill (Archbishop of Canterbury)

This is a story that is pretty familiar to most people now – after all, Shakespeare’s play has probably been being played somewhere in the world for most of the last 500 years. Edgerton and Michôd collaborated on the story and script of this restaging, or reimagining, of Shakespeare’s epic of the wayward fun-loving prince turned hardened warrior king. Despite being handsomely filmed, and impressively shot, this makes for an odd and unusual film which falls between the two stools, as it is faithful to neither history nor the Shakespeare original.

The rough concept remains the same. Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is not just a young man who has fun in the taverns of London, he’s also quite forward looking in his attitudes, and just can’t understand why he should be made to carry on the rivalries of his father, the fearsome Henry IV (a broodingly miffed Ben Mendelsohn) or why he should continue the wars that the council pressures him into. When he becomes king, however, Henry is persuaded by his counsellor William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), that the path to peace for the realm – and safety for his subjects – can only be through unifying the kingdom by war with France. Appointing the only man he trusts – his old drinking companion and famed soldier Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) – as the Marshal of his armies, Henry heads to France where destiny awaits.

Michôd’s film is at its strongest when it focuses on the visuals and the aesthetic of its age. It’s beautifully shot, with several striking images, from execution courtyards to the battle of Agincourt itself, which takes place in an increasingly grimy field. The battle itself ends up feeling more than a little reminiscent of ideas from Game of Thrones – in fact a few core images are straight rip-offs from the famous “Battle of the Bastards” episode – but it at least looks good, even if there are few things new in it. The costumes and production design don’t feel like they strike a wrong note either with the grimy, lived-in feel.

More of the issues come around the script. The film’s concept of Henry initially as this rather woke modern king – he just wants peace and to give up these tiresome obsessive conflicts of his father – who slowly becomes more colder and ruthless as the film progresses does at least make thematic sense in the film, but it still rings a little untrue. Much as I would like, it’s hard to believe that any prince like this could ever have existed at the time, and so cool and calculating is Chalamet’s performance from the first that he never feels like a genuine, young, naïve princeling whom we can sympathise with early on. 

It makes the film’s arc rather cold, and Hal an even more unknowable character than the film perhaps even intends. There is very little warmth or genuine friendship between Hal and Falstaff, and Hal moves so quickly to the imagining (and enacting) of war crimes during his time in France that his descent towards potential tyrant feels far too sharp to carry impact. Even in the early days of his reign he’s swift to have potential destablisers in his court executed with no mercy. Where is the fall, if he is such a cold fish to start with? And with Chalamet at his most restrained (like the royal baggage and the accent are a straight-jacket around him), how can an audience invest in him? 

And what are we supposed to be making of this anyway, since the film is at equal pains to suggest that the king may be the subject of manipulation and lies that force his hand into war? This Henry, we learn, values truth and honesty highest – but this doesn’t stop him getting pissed when met with counter-arguments from his advisors (even Falstaff) or reacting with cold fury and disavowal when things don’t go his way. It’s a confusing attempt to add an ill-fitting modern morality to a king who essentially in real life spent most of his life at war, and was to die on campaign in France still trying to cement his rights at a young age.

Edgerton and Michôd’s script fails to really square this circle, and all the attempts to have its cake and eat it (the peace loving king still manages to kick arse, including killing Hotspur in single combat thus averting the Battle of Shrewsbury from ever happening) don’t quite pan out. Edgerton writes himself a decent role as Sir John Falstaff, here reimagined as a million miles from the drunken, cowardly knight into a courageous and hardened soldier who has no time for the compromises and deceit of court (in contrast to Henry’s other advisor, the Machiavellian Gascoigne played with a playful archness by Sean Harris). Making Falstaff a respected figure like this rather flies in the face of the logic of why Henry IV is so annoyed about his son spending time with him, but never mind.

It’s not really Shakespeare and it’s not really history. It sticks closest perhaps to Shakespeare in its portrayal of the French as arrogant fops – led by Robert Pattinson going delightfully OTT as the Dauphin – but it never really quite works out what it wants to be. With its Game of Thrones look and feel, and prince who is both great warrior and reluctant warlord, peace-lover and ruthless executor of his enemies, it feels scattergun and confused rather than coherent and whole.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Henry V (1944)

Once more unto the breach with Laurence Olivier as Henry V

Director: Laurence Olivier
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Renée Asherson (Princess Katherine), Robert Newton (Pistol), Leslie Banks (Chorus), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Robert Helpmann (Bishop of Ely), Nicholas Hannen (Exeter), Ernest Thesiger (Duke of Berri), Frederick Cooper (Nym), Roy Emerton (Bardolph), Freda Jackson (Mistress Quickly), George Cole (Boy), Harcourt Williams (King Charles VI), Russell Thorndike (Duke of Bourbon), Leo Genn (Constable of France), Francis Lister (Orleans), Max Adrian (The Dauphin), Esmond Knight (Fluellen), Michael Shepley (Gower), John Laurie (Jamy), Niall McGinnis (MacMorris), Valentine Dyall (Burgandy)

Olivier’s pre-eminence as the leader of the acting profession in Britain for a large chunk of the last century probably found its roots in his imperiously sublime production of Henry V, the first time he directed a film, but also the point where it seemed that Olivier and the country of Britain seemed to be almost one and the same. Filmed as a propaganda piece, heralding the indomitable spirit of the British in the face of foreign wars, Olivier’s film is a triumph that also set the tone for what the public expected from Shakespeare films for decades to come. 

Originally Oliver balked at the idea of directing the film, approaching William Wyler to take the job on. But Wyler, rightly, knew he could never bring the Shakespearean understanding to it that Olivier could, so the soon-to-be Sir Laurence took the job on himself – meaning he directed, co-produced, co-adapted and starred in the film. I’m not sure anyone else could have done it – or invested the entire project with such certainty, such confidence, such power of personality that the entire project flies together into a sweeping, brightly technicolour treat of pageantry and theatre.

Olivier’s concept for the film is ingenious – and influential. Taking as its cue the words of the chorus (delivered with a archly bombastic confidence by Leslie Banks), the call to “let your imaginary forces work”, the film is set initially in a genuine Elizabethan era staging of Henry V (including unfortunate rain downpour after the first scene).Slowly, it develops over the course of the film from set to cinematic sound stage (still designed with influence from medieval illustrations) and finally into a realistic location setting for the Battle of Agincourt, before turning heel and repeating the journey back until the film ends again in the Globe theatre, with the actors taking their bow (and the female characters now played by fresh-faced boys). It’s marvellously done, and a neat play on the limitations of both film and theatre, and a testament to the powers that imagination can have to expand the world of what we are presented with.

The style of the play develops as we watch it, becoming more natural and restrained as we get closer to Agincourt, then progressing gently back the other way. The opening scenes play Canterbury and Ely’s long-winded legal argument in favour of war for laughs (with neat comic timing by Felix Aylmer and Robert Helpmann), with an avalanche of papers across the stage, Canterbury frequently lost in his exposition and Ely (and even Henry) having to prompt him with precise points. This is a nice set-up for the comic characters of the play, Falstaff’s old retainers here are the very picture of high-spirited, rowdy common folk (though I must say Robert Newton’s high-energy, gurning Pistol is a bit of a trial, even if it perfectly captures the playing-to-the-cheap-seats mania the role seems to require). 

This comic exuberance (and the stuff with Canterbury is genuinely quite funny) gives a perfect counterpoint for Laurence Olivier to perform Henry at his imperious best. Olivier was an actor who invested his Shakespearean delivery with far more naturalism than he is often given credit for, and his Henry here has more than enough true feeling, emotion, determination, courage, bravery and nobility behind his almost sanctified greatness. And of course you get Olivier’s outstanding delivery, that wonderfully rich voice with just a hint of sharpness, delivering the lines not as just poetry, but as true moments of invention. Olivier also has the mastery of the small moments – and Henry doesn’t get much of those – with two particular favourites being the small cough in the wings to clear his throat before entering for his first scene, and that satisfied, exuberant smile at the curtain call at the play’s end. His Henry – the true warrior king of virtue – cemented perception of the character for decades to come.

True, Olivier never touches on Henry’s darker side. Olivier neatly cut anything that could introduce any shades of grey into the character: gone is the summary execution of the traitors at Southampton, cut are the references to naked newborn babes being spitted on pikes before Harfleur, nowhere do you hear the order to execute all prisoners at Agincourt. This is film-making with a purpose, to pushing the message of England, for good, against all. 

As a director, Olivier revelled in the possibilities of cinema, marrying it to theatre. For the large speeches, Olivier invariably starts small and close, and then pans sharply and widely out to turn the cinema into a theatre – also allowing the actors (often to be fair, himself) to not feel restrained by the intimacy of the camera, but to deliver the speeches as intended, larger than life and bursting with impact. Olivier’s confidence with the camera is striking, his film a celebration of sweeping shots, of carefully placed tracking shots, of well-delivered acting. The camera work in the Globe is beautifully done, a series of carefully selected angles and shots. The long panning shot over a model of London leading to the Globe that book-ends the film is beautifully done, and the confidence with which Olivier slowly transitions from artifice to reality is superbly well done.

The style of the piece is extraordinary, with its primary colours like a medieval book brought to life. There is some pleasing comic mileage from the French court, reduced almost to a man to being a bunch of camp moral weaklings. The courting of Princess Katherine (Renée Asherson, in a role intended for Vivien Leigh) has a playful charm to it (even if, as in the play, it’s probably a scene too far after the highpoint of Agincourt). But the heart of it is that long build to the campaign, for Agincourt to be brought to life (at huge expense at the time), a beautiful rendering and explosion of reality after the careful artificiality of the rest of the film, as if we really have got our imaginations working and brought it to life before us as the Chorus instructed.

The film established a regular Olivier company that would work with him on films to come. William Walton’s score seems to capture that mood of England at war and believing it was in the right. The cast – plucked from English theatre by Olivier – give striking performances, from Leo Genn’s stern Constable to Max Adrian’s bitter Dauphin, with Esmond Knight’s pernickety Fluellen leading the way for the English. Olivier is of course at the centre as the master conductor, a man who fitted so naturally into the role of leader that he basically seemed ready to take it on for the whole country, never mind just the film. Is there an actor around who was more suited and natural in positions of authority than Olivier? Who was so easily able to inspire and dalliance with genius? 

Turning Henry V into a patriotic celebration of England was what was needed, but turning Shakespeare into something that worked on film, that married the theatrical qualities with the cinematic sweep of the camera was exactly what the Bard needed to find a life on screen. Olivier’s daring was to strip down the play and work out what would work on screen and how to make that come to life. Doing so, he defined Shakespeare films for a generation.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

The Beguiled (2017)

Nicole Kidman struggles to resist the charms of Colin Farrell in The Beguiled

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Nicole Kidman (Miss Martha), Kirsten Dunst (Edwina), Elle Fanning (Alicia), Colin Farrell (Corporal McBurney), Oona Laurence (Amy), Angourie Rice (Jane), Addison Riecke (Marie), Emma Howard (Emily)

A remake of Don Siegel’s adaptation of the original novel, The Beguiled throws a feminist slant on a story of a confederate soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) who, in the later years of the Civil War, is found injured in the grounds of a girl’s school, where the women have continued to run the operation while the menfolk are consumed with (and by) the war. The school is run by the distant Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), with the lead teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five students of varying ages. All of the girls and women find themselves entranced (beguiled!) with the deceptively gentlemanly McBurney, whose true aims may be darker than assumed.

Sofia Coppola’s version of the story shifts the attention onto the women of the piece, and their plight and emotional journeys. This is a perfectly legitimate stance to take – and showing effectively a colony of girls and women in the 1860s living some sort of structured commune life is interesting and different – but Coppola’s film has a coolness and distance to it that ironically makes it far less than beguiling than it should be.

Beautifully filmed as the film is, it’s slow pace and meditative tone – as well as the rather obvious points it seems determined to make about male and female relations – actually serve to make the film less engaging than it should be. Wonderfully framed and painterly in its execution, with an effective mix of classical and 1970s style, it still never quite sparks into life.

The cast also struggle to bring a heartbeat to their characters. Nicole Kidman brings her customary reserve and elegance to a woman who has hints of a mysterious past that troubles her to this day, but the role remains distant and difficult to read – more than the film really requires. A clash or seduction between her and Colin Farrell’s corporal keeps promising dynamite but the explosions never really seem to come. Farrell laces his role with charm and a gruff masculinity, but the role misses a sense of his own darkness or manipulative nature until quite late, with the final act revelations making him appear more angry and bitter than the role really requires. It all kind of sums up the film that gets lost in its artifice and fails to uncover its heart.

The film, you could argue, does its best to beguile the audience with McBurney as the film’s character are. We are shown at every angle his vulnerability and tender politeness, and hidden from us for too long are his more manipulative elements. Coppola’s film becomes an intense study instead of sexual feelings and relations within a confined space. From sensual hand washes from Miss Martha, to intense declarations with lonely teacher Edwina, to not-so-innocent flirtations with the pupils, there is more than enough evidence that McBurney’s desire to stay may well be as much linked to seeing the school as having the potential to be his own private harem. The film’s failure in this intense sexual politics is that, while it captures moments of the simmer of attraction, it fails to really establish the danger that McBurney could suggest, as a violent man of action with complete control over a group of women.

Indeed the final moments of the film even suggest that the school itself may be a sort of siren’s bay – although lord knows McBurney is no Odysseys – which I found a rather confusing beat. Effective as the final images, or the film’s last supper betrayals, may be, they don’t carry quite enough wait because the film never quite nails the sexual tension it is aiming for, or the sensual danger it is trying to establish as a theme within the film. 

Other changes make less sense as well. Coppola deliberately changes the race of Edwina, from a mixed-race young woman to someone white enough to be played by Kirsten Dunst. While Dunst’s performance is fine, many of the themes of Edwina’s lack of confidence, her self-loathing, her feeling of having no place outside of the school, of being somehow less than other women are left in place. These themes of course make perfect sense for a mixed race woman in the 1860s who has landed a job through the connections of her father, but they make less sense for an attractive young schoolteacher with a privileged background. Coppola made the change because she felt that she could not do the theme justice, but she misses the fact that the very appearance of the character is the context needed for her to make sense.

The Beguiled is beautiful to observe and has its moments, but it never really comes to light the way it should. Thoughtful and poetic a director as Coppola is, she has created a film here that feels all artifice and no depth, that wants to paint a picture of the life of women in the civil war but never really has the energy and fire to make this come to life in a way to make the audience as engaged as they should be.