Monday, 30 March 2020

A Room with a View (1985)

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter find romance from A Room with a View

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter (Lucy Honeychurch), Julian Sands (George Emerson), Maggie Smith (Charlotte Bartlett), Denholm Elliott (Mr Emerson), Daniel Day-Lewis (Cecil Vyse), Simon Callow (Reverend Beebe), Rosemary Leach (Mrs Honeychurch), Rupert Graves (Freddy Honeychurch), Patrick Godfrey (Reverend Eager), Judi Dench (Eleanor Lavish), Fabia Drake (Miss Catherine Alan), Joan Henley (Miss Teresa Allan), Amanda Walker (Cockey Signora)

Merchant-Ivory are the gold standard, practically synonymous with costume drama in the 80s and 90s. This really began with A Room with a View, their first true sensation, a box-office smash that won the BAFTA for Best Film and three Oscars. It practically defined what to expect from a Merchant-Ivory production: a classily made slice of English literature, with a wonderful cast of top British talent, tastefully directed with a sly observational wit for the foibles of the British class system. No one does such things better than Merchant-Ivory, and maybe only Howards End and The Remains of the Day did Merchant-Ivory better than A Room with a View.

Based on EM Forster’s novel (and that novel, largely thanks to this film, is probably now his best loved work), the film is set in Italy and England during the early 1910s. Holidaying in Florence, Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and her chaperone cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) are given poor rooms in their hotel – and accept an offer to swap (for the eponymous room!) with Mr Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and his romantic son George (Julian Sands). George, a free spirit, finds himself romantically drawn towards Lucy (and she to him), but something about the free Italian air frightens Lucy, and she withdraws and returns to England where she becomes engaged to the prig’s prig Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). However, when the Emersons rent a house near her home in Surrey she finds herself slowly drawn back once again towards George.

A Room with a View is the perfect expression of delicate, well-judged film-making, with James Ivory marshalling his precise judgement to create a luscious and involving reconstruction of the novel, which carefully layers its social and emotional observation with a dry wit. Ivory is a master of allowing the novel – and the film – to speak for itself, not intruding with flourishes but allowing the camera to hold moments. He captures wonderful moments of slightness: who can forget the camera holding on a rejected Cecil as he takes a moment to calm himself, then sits and begins to systematically retie his shoe laces? It’s a gentle, unforced moment of direction but it’s what makes the film work. 

And the careful grace and stateliness of much of A Room with a View is part of the film’s point. All this taste and manners, all this finery and wonderful design, is of course a trap. It’s precisely this pristineness and neatness that inhibits people from following their hearts, from actually having a bit of carpe diem. It’s telling that one of the film’s most striking moments involves George, Lucy’s brother Freddy and churchmen Mr Beebe going skinny-dipping (with long-shot full frontal nudity). There is something joyous for these men to literally cast off (for a few minutes) the shackles of society to just muck around in the all-together. And it’s a sort of exuberant liberal freedom you just don’t see in other parts of the film.

The film’s main theme is to see if Lucy will discover – and accept – enough about herself to follow the sort of romantic longings she feels within herself or if she is going to knuckle down and conform. Italy is a perfect sign of this – it’s hot, temperamental, the people wear their passionate hearts on their sleeves (whether that’s making-out in a carriage in front of uptight churchmen or stabbing each other in the piazza) – and it’s all that energy and lust for life that Lucy seems unsure about, but which George is chasing after. And it’s difficult to cast aside the rules you have grown up with – and scary – to find something a bit freer. Although I think you could criticise Ivory’s neat competence for failing to really visually get a contrast in look between Italy and England.

The film is blessed with a superb cast of British character actors. Helena Bonham Carter is excellent (in only her second film role) as a young woman who knows her mind but doesn’t want to follow it to its logical ends, part independent and free-thinking but also putting a constant block on her own instincts. Julian Sands as George does a decent job, although already the film (by far and away the best part he ever got) exposes his studied woodenness and flat, uninteresting voice and he often seems straining for a sort of depth and Byronic passion that is slightly beyond his range.

Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott were both Oscar nominated, and both bring their A-game to the roles. Smith is perfect as a spinster who slowly reveals she has more sense of life’s lost opportunities than expected (even if the part is one she could play standing on her head), while Elliott gets lot of scene-stealing mileage from a sweetly eccentric Mr Emerson. Simon Callow, also in his second film role, probably gives his best (and most intriguing performance) as Mr Beebe the affable but subtly sleazy clergyman.

The film is however stolen by Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse (originally offered his choice of parts between George and Cecil). A Room with a View opened the same day as My Beautiful Laundrette in the States and audiences were amazed that the same actor could play a self-important prig and a gay, punk fascist. Day-Lewis is the embodiment of fastidious preciseness, a man so studied in every second that each movement seems planned, with no touch of spontaneity. He even kisses Lucy with a carefully placed precision. He’s arrogantly certain of his place in the world and every moment of his life has been planned in advance with careful exactitude.

It’s the jewel in the crown of this perfect costume drama. Merchant and Ivory had longed to film the works of EM Forster for decades, and had to wait until King’s College, Cambridge (the rights holders) had someone in place who actually liked films until it was considered. They expected the main interest to be around Howards End (don’t worry its time would come!) and A Passage to India. But in A Room with a View, Merchant Ivory felt there was an unappreciated gem. They were right.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the perfect partnership in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Henry Jones (Bike Salesman), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), George Furth (Woodcock), Cloris Leachman (Agnes), Ted Cassidy (Harvey Logan), Kenneth Mars (Marshal)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a monster hit in 1969. It struck cinematic gold by combining Newman (originally first choice for the Sundance Kid) and Redford (fourth choice at best after Jack Lemmon – and what a different film that would have been! – Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen) and got the tone just about spot on between old school charm and hit 1960’s chic. It reinvents no wheels, but it’s a prime slice of classic Hollywood entertainment.

In the dying days of the Old West, the Hole in the Wall Gang is finding trade tough. The banks are wising up to how easy they are to rob, and the new idea of holding up trains is fraught with danger. Not least from the powerful backers who don’t like to see their money and goods being half-inched off the tracks by a gang of desperados. The leader of the gang, affable, fun-loving Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and his sidekick sardonic ace-shot the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) continue to ply their trade of stealing, but they are fighting a losing battle. Hounded out of the states by a crack squad of lawman they make their way to Bolivia – but find the life of crime isn’t easier there either, what with no one speaking English and the Bolivian army being even more trigger happy than the American law and order forces. What’s a couple of guys to do?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is really a celebration of nostalgia, repackaged with a wry sense of 60s cool that merrily seizes on its lead characters as the sort of anti-authoritarian, free-spirited, jokers who were bucking the rules of Vietnam-era America. But fundamentally at heart, it’s a joke filled sad reflection on a lost America and a lost sense of freedom – even if it was the freedom for two basically decent guys to make a living from robbing banks – that even shoots most of its opening segment in a romantic sepia. 

Because this is all about Butch and Sundance being two guys left behind by progress. Their way of life is dying out around them – the opening sequence sees Butch walk around a new bank, with its impressive new security measures. What happened to the beautiful old bank? Asks Butch: “People kept robbing it” comes the cold response. This follows on from a recreation of old sepia newsreal footage that states that the entire membership of the Hole in the Wall Gang is now dead – meaning that we know where the film is heading from day one. It’s a world where the train and modern communications are leaving our heroes behind. Even the humble bicycle is a sign of the future – “the horse is dead!” crows a bike salesman to a crowd of red necks.

The film may be cool and whipper-sharp in its style and the characterisation of its lead characters, but it’s a firmly nostalgic film that sentimentalises the Wild West and our heroes. No wonder at its conclusion it freeze frames (famously) as the heroes charge out to certain death in a shoot-out with the Bolivian army. It’s like Hill can’t bear seeing these guys torn apart ala Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch by the cold hard truth of a bullet. 

The film makes an interesting comparison with The Wild Bunch released the same year. In many ways the latter is a more traditional western, both in its style and its content. But in every other way it’s a far more radical piece, really embracing the lack of rules, the cruelty and the lack of glamour of life in the west – and ending with its heroes being shot to pieces on screen in a prolonged bloody shoot out that set a new record for use of squibs. Compared to this, Butch Cassidy is very light stuff, with its final image almost hopeful in its sepia toned romanticism.

Not that it’s not entertaining for all that. Its sense of sixties defiance is perfectly captured in the film’s lightness and playfulness – and in the fine lines and gags in William Goldman’s well structured (and Oscar winning) script. From its opening lines “Most of what follows is true” through the offbeat wisecracks of its lead, it’s a lot of fun. Newman and Redford are both just about perfect. Newman is the very picture of relaxed, casual cool while Redford’s style of handsame smartness works perfectly for the more plugged in Sundance. The two of them also form a very swinging sixties sexfree-Thruple with Katharine Ross as Sundance’s girlfriend, but essentially a companion to both men.

Not that Etta isn’t aware that the good times are coming to end. She makes it clear she won’t stick around to watch them die, and when (late in the film) she announces she will return to the US, it’s a clear sign to everyone that things are near the end. But then Butch and Sundance have already faced the cold realities, as an attempt to go straight protecting bank money from robbers see them gun down a group of bandits (the first real bloodshed in the film), an action that leaves them both slightly stunned.

It’s very different from the hijinks of the film’s first three quarters. The two of them spend a chunk of the film trying to evade the lawmen chasing them, each attempt failing, ending in them making a desperate jump off a cliff into water (because no one would follow unless they had to) and even their early career robbing banks in Bolivia is hampered by their inability to speak Spanish (cue a series of lessons from Eta on the rudiments of larceny in Spanish). The film’s lightness and warmth early on lies behind its popularity.

Butch Cassidy is a film that is designed to please and for you to love it. It has two fine actors giving superbly entertaining performances. It has some wonderful scenes, not least the introduction of each character, two superb scenes (Butch’s facing down of a challenge against his leadership of the gang is a scene so good I don’t think the film bests it). But Hill’s film is also a cosy and safe picture, that drips with sentimentality towards its leads and nostalgia for its era. It’s successful because it’s such an unchallenging and safe film.

Friday, 27 March 2020

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Death plays chess in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Nils Poppe (Jof), Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat), Åke Fridell (Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Gunnel Lindblom (Mute girl), Inga Landgré (Karin)

Is there a more famous arthouse film than The Seventh Seal? Winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, the film turned Ingmar Bergman into the doyen of the Arthouse across the world and many of its actors into major figures of world cinema. The film so captured the imagination it became one of those films that falls slightly in and out of fashion, largely because it’s almost impossible to come to it fresh. Its style, images and concepts have been so echoed, parodied and teased ever since that it’s become a corner stone. But it should stay in fashion, because it’s a well-made and intriguing film.

In the fourteenth century, a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), washes up on the shores of Denmark with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for them, but Block challenges him to a game of chess. If Block wins, Death will leave him be if Death wins Block will go with him. Death accepts, and Block seizes the time this will give him to try and understand more about faith, destiny and man’s place in God’s plans. As the game stops and starts, Block and Jöns travel to Block’s estate, encountering and befriending along the way Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) a pair of travelling actors, just trying to make their way in the world.

Bergman’s film is shot in a luscious but very simple black-and-white and juggles profound issues about mankind and faith with an imagination-capturing central concept of man playing chess with death. Bergman based the film on a woodcut from the famous Swedish artist Albertus Pictor (who appears in the film, decorating a church with images of death and plague – themes that run throughout the film) and used it as a jumping off point for a meditations on the inevitable end.

It makes sense then to set the film in the medieval era, where death indeed may well feel like a constant companion. Bergman’s medieval world is a smorgasbord of medieval tropes – some have criticised the historical accuracy of Crusades, plague, flagellants, Pictur, witch trials etc. all happening at the same time, which seems bizarre criticism for a film that features a white faced Death prowling the countryside with a chess board. It works very well though for creating a sense of a parable around the whole film.

Death is a continual in the film. A crowd of flagellants marches through a village at one point, a monk stopping only to harangue the crowd on the fury of God, before a mist descends and seems to pick off most of the crowd, several flagellants disappearing as they walk, leaving a mostly empty field. It’s a visual picture of death, Plague carries off one and all, an active representation of mortality. It leaves a world in which man either contemplates, gets angry or decides to just live day-to-day – reactions that we see in all the film’s characters.

Of course, Block takes the contemplative route, vainly asking what it is all about – what is God’s plan and what meaning does life have? Perfectly using von Sydow’s imperious chill, Bergman makes Block an intellectual straining for understanding, an aesthete who wants to believe his time on earth has all been part of some plan and that he himself has done (or will do) something that matters. Von Sydow is particularly fine in the role, not least in his agonising confessional scene where he slowly but with an increasing world-weariness unburdens his soul to a priest he cannot see – but who we see is of course Death himself.

But that’s just another low blow from Death, a fascinating figure. Played with a benign politeness by Bengt Ekerot, Bergman presents a Death who is cunning, intrudes on world events and doesn’t play fair. He cons Block into telling him a winning chess stratagem, cuts down a tree to claim the soul of the man hiding it and reveals himself to be the leader of a group intent on burning witches. He may be polite but he’s ruthless. No wonder he inspires such fear, and Ekerot may smile but it’s the smile of a man who knows he will win no matter what and everyone will come with him eventually. 

So what is the secret to what life is all about? In Bergman’s medieval world, God seems silent. We see two religious figures: one the haranguing Monk, the other the fallen Priest Ravel – a thief, a liar and a bully. The priest in the Church they visit turns out to be Death. The countryside is vast, unfriendly and bleak. Block’s quest to understand something of what man’s role in creation is seemingly doomed. Perhaps his squire – an excellent Gunnar Björnstrand – already understands what Block needs to learn: there is no grand secret, we must simply enjoy the moments we have been given. His squire is a simple, decent (for his time), unpretentious man with some sense of justice. And maybe that’s the trick.

It certainly seems to be the case with Jof and Mia, the more homespun actors who take pleasure in their family, their lives and the outside and welcome strangers with open arms. Extremely well played by a naïvely sweet Nils Poppe and a radiantly kind Bibi Andersson, these two (with their baby son) are the only people happy. And that happiness even spreads to Block, who starts to forget his concerns with finding a secret to life in the simple happiness of an honest meal, kindly shared. Even Death comments that Block’s interest in the game seems to fade from here.

Block’s struggle to understand why we are here, his straining for some sign and his belief (perhaps) that with this he can escape Death slowly melts under his understanding that life is what is around us and the people we share it with, perhaps not some sort of cryptic puzzle for him to untangle. And that’s Bergman’s message as well perhaps, that among our concerns to understand and control our destiny, the most truth (and pleasure) can be found in not thinking about these things. Jof sees early on a vision of the Holy Mary (we do not see it only his face). His wife laughs it off, but later only Jof can see Death – if one vision is true, why not the other? Is Jof’s innocence and decency perhaps the key?

And that is why perhaps Jof and Mia are the only two to escape Death’s grasp. Block finds his moment of purpose - and the quiet smile von Sydow gives here is perhaps the finest moment of his performance – distracting an unknowning Death to let the family escape in the forest. Death relentlessly comes for the rest of the characters at Block’s estate – to be met with anger, begging, resignation, bitterness and a strange, beatific acceptance from the mute housekeeper, who Bergman slowly tracks in on until her face fills the frame.

Death then takes them all – giving us the film’s final enduring image, a recreation of Pictur’s painting of Death leading the dead souls in a grim dance to eternity across the hills, each of them flowing in a line behind them seen only by Jof. 

What is Bergman’s marvellously assembled – and it is perfectly filmed and edited – film about exactly? Finding peace and acceptance with what is around us and our place in the world perhaps, but it’s such a rich and rewarding film that it unravels other meanings and messages throughout every frame. It deserves to remain in fashion for as long as there are films.