Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Heat and Dust (1983)

Shashi Kapoor and Greta Scacchi in a love across the divide in Heat and Dust

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Julie Christie (Anne), Greta Scacchi (Olivia Rivers), Shashi Kapoor (The Nawab), Christopher Cazenove (Douglas Rivers), Nickolas Grace (Harry Hamilton-Paul), Zakir Hussain (Inder Lal), Julian Glover (Crawford), Susan Fleetwood (Mrs Crawford), Patrick Godfrey (Dr Saunders), Jennifer Kendal (Mrs Saunders), Charles McCaughan (Chid), Madhur Jaffrey (Begum Mussarat Jahan), Barry Foster (Major Minnies)

Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her Booker-prize winning novel, Ivory-Merchant’s production of Heat and Dust is much like the source: precise, admirable and both faintly enigmatic and intriguingly slight. In 1982 Anne (Julie Christie) travels to India to discover more about the life of her great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi). In 1923, Olivia lived in Satipur as wife to local official Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove). The Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) is the local Indian prince, a charismatic man who may or may not be in league with local bandits. Enthralled by India, bored by British India but deeply in love with Douglas, Olivia still finds herself drawn to the Nawab. Scandal is round the corner.

Heat and Dust is a delicate, well-mounted adaptation, but it never quite engages as much as it should. Perhaps this is because its central plot – a white woman is fascinated by India – is a familiar trope in both novels and films of the Raj. It does take a different approach by intercutting between the present and the 1920s. This presents intriguing opportunities to show ways India has changed physically (the homes of the British Raj have become offices) but also ways it has remained the same culturally.

This carries across in the contrasting stories of two women, both of whom become intrigued by their surroundings and romantically entangled with Indian men. While Olivia is (eventually) disgraced and ostracised by her community, Anne has the freedom to make her own choices. Both women find themselves drifting into life-changes through male seduction. Perhaps this is one of the points of the film in the end – that women, no matter the timeline, are people that things (or men) happen to, rather than being the true owners of their own lives?

It seems the case with Olivia, who never feels in full control her own life, but instead moves inexorably towards a destiny she can’t really influence. Charmingly played, with a sparkle and playful innocence by Greta Scacchi in her film debut, Olivia’s motivations are almost deliberately obscured. Although Ivory uses a device at first of Olivia’s letters being dramatised by Scacchi addressing the camera, this device is swiftly dropped. The letters remain a presence, but we never hear from them. Instead most of Olivia’s actions are narrated by her friend Harry (Nickolas Grace), now an old man. It places a distance between the viewer and Olivia, making her actions harder to understand.

But then that is part of the enigma. India is a land of heat and dust, where normal rules don’t apply and people (particularly those from the West) find themselves reformed by. Olivia has no time for the stuffy, racist British population (especially the frightful woman). But she’s drawn to the Nawab partly because he’s a fusion of East and West, an Indian exotic with the charm of an English gentleman. For his part the Nawab, very well played by Shashi Kapoor, plans a seduction but his motives are as hard to read as Olivia. Is it attraction or revenge on the British for their contempt?

Perhaps it’s a film where we look for deep meaning and motivations, but it is in fact about how we don’t necessarily make grand decisions about our lives, but make a series of in-the-moment decisions. Both Anne and Olivia never seem to proactively make decisions, but instead events largely occur to them. Although this can make for a film sometimes lacking in energy, it does avoid making things obvious for the audience. Even if that can be frustrating when characters remain almost deliberately oblique.

What’s also oddly frustrating about the film is its more modern section. The commentary comparing the present and the past promises much but actually adds little. Anne is a curiously uninvolving character, played with a sweet tenderness by Julie Christie. Anne is hardly proactive and there is very little narrative drive behind her exploration of the past. Strangely the issues the more modern section deals with – including digs at Western cultural tourists – end up feeling less relevant than the issues of race and empire in the 1920s.

And its unfortunate that the 1920s plot line, although well staged and managed, seems extremelt familiar – with echoes of A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown for starters. While it’s well acted (as well as those mentioned, Christopher Cazenove is very good) and creates an enigmatic atmosphere, you often feel you’re seeing something done better elsewhere. It starts as an investigation into the past, but becomes something more freeform, as if in the heat and dust of India, plans come to nothing. But its air of enigma and portrayal of characters buffeted by small events doesn’t come together into a compelling story or a rich insight into India.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Dr Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Peter Sellers tries to stop the end of the world in Dr Strangelove

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Peter Sellers (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr Strangelove), George C. Scott (General Buck Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brigadier General Jack D Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Colonel Bat Guano), Slim Pickens (Major “King” Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador), Jack Creley (Mr Staines), James Earl Jones (Lt Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Foreign Affairs)

“Gentlemen you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Kubrick’s hugely influential satire helped shape our perceptions of the Cold War and its mantra of mutually assured direction. Showing no mercy to its targets, it mixes Goonish schoolboy humour with moments of genuine tension and rising horror. Sure it features some of the faults of its director –self-importance, cold distance and much of the wit is due to Sellers and the performers rather than the not-particularly-witty-Kubrick – but there is no doubt it remains a seminal classic.

General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden - excellent) orders his planes to drop their nuclear bombs on the USSR. Ripper is launching a pre-emptive strike to protect the American way of life from the Commies and, most importantly, to protect our precious bodily fluids. Yup he’s crazy, something his second-in-command RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) quickly realises, but can’t do anything about. US President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) reacts with horror at the prospect of all-out-war, negotiating with the Soviets to co-operate in shooting down the planes, while some of his advisors such as trigger-happy General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott, hilariously OTT) argue perhaps there is some merit in striking first. And sinister former-Nazi scientific consultant Dr Strangelove (Sellers one more time) spells out the impact of nuclear war.

Kubrick quickly came to the conclusion that if you were going to make a film about nuclear war, it almost couldn’t be anything but a comedy: after all the idea of two sides building a huge arsenal of weapons capable of destroying the world was so crazy, you wouldn’t believe it if you were told it. Dr Strangelove therefore ends up taking place in a world that’s one third grounded and two-thirds heightened reality. There is a great deal of college-style humour in the film (you can see it in those characters names which reference everything from the Whitechapel killer to female genitalia and excrement), but it works because its (mostly) played dead-straight.

Part of the film’s appeal was the number of sacred cows it slays. All the things that, at the time, America was meant to respect were ridiculed. The military, politicians, the Presidency, America’s moral authority, the ingenuity of American science and engineering. It’s all shown to be ineffectual, misguided, underpinned by fascist-tinged insanity, myopically obsessed with big bangs over humanity or plain ridiculous. Every single authority figure in the film is deconstructed over its course as some combination of childish, empathy-free or useless. You can’t come out of this film and every again have an unquestioning assurance our leaders know what they are doing.

This works, because it’s placed in a film that in many ways has the plot of a far more serious film (its very similar of course to Fail Safe). Chunks of it are played completely straight, or with just the merest touch of the surreal. In particular the sequences set on the bomber, commanded by Major Kong (played at short notice by Slim Pickens after injury prevented Sellers taking on that role as well) have that true sense of Kubrickian detail in their careful staging of all the procedures a bomber crew would follow (even if it still allows some fun to be poked at the expense of the survival kit, the contents of which would give a fella “a pretty good weekend in Vegas”).

Those bomber scenes sometimes outstay their welcome in their cold technicality (it’s odd to say that a film as short of this sometimes feels a little overlong), but that’s largely because in a film that is clearly demanding us to shake our heads at the madness, it struggles to get us invested in a more conventional heroic story (especially as success there is starting a nuclear conflagration).

Perhaps that’s because of the coldness in Kubrick’s style – emotion doesn’t often find its way into his greatest works, and he was often reliant on working with the right people (get a McDowell in it or a  Nicholson and things can click, get an O’Neal and you can get a different story). Humour isn’t his strong suit, but fortunately he worked with Sellers at his finest hours. Sellers takes on three roles, all of them a sharp contrast, and he’s masterful in all of them. There were fewer more gifted improvisational performers than Sellers, and each of his parts benefits hugely from the dynamism (of various sorts) he gives them. It’s also interesting that two of them are actually the “one sane man” (Muffley and Mandrake) while Strangelove is a pantomime monster of insanity (introduced late in the film, he’s the final indicator that our fates are in the hands of complete lunatics).

For Mandrake, Sellers parodied the stiff-upper lip upper class, with Mandrake a stuffed-shirt, attempting to wheedle recall codes out with Ripper with a clumsy bonhomie. Muffley is played almost dead-straight as a weak man out of his depth. But he does have a phone call monologue with the Russian premier (largely improvised with Sellers) that is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see. There’s no restraint in Strangelove, a wheel-chair bound grotesque with a phantom (hardcore fascist) hand, constantly suppressing involuntary Hitler salutes and trying to hide his mounting excitement at the prospect of worldwide annihilation (“Mein Fuhrer! I can valk!”).

Kubrick’s directorial approach – wisely – seems to have been to acknowledge that Sellers was providing so much of the madness and dark comedy the concept demands, that he could be more restrained. Interestingly, for being his most famous film, it often feels like one of his least personal ones. It stands outside much of the Kubrick cannon – it’s short, its often brisk, technically it’s unflashy and often unobtrusive – and it plays on the director’s weakest vein, comedy.

But it’s got his mastery of detail – partly also due to its faultless set design by Ken Adam. The reconstruction of the bomber interior is overwhelmingly convincing (the Air Force was amazed at how accurate it was). Ripper’s low-ceilinged office is a visual metaphor for the character’s insular insanity. Most influential of-all, the Bond villain-ish War Room, with its vast circular table and huge screens was so perfectly conceived, it cemented the idea for generations of what war planning rooms should look like (Reagan even asked where it was when he took office). The film may be darkly surreal, but its surroundings give it an authority that is essential for its success.

Authority is what the film needed to work. Perhaps that’s the greatest contribution of Kubrick, to create a structure of convincing reality, allowing the surreal and insane actions to work. From Ripper’s clear fixation on his own impotence (“I do not avoid women but I do deny them my essence”) – to Turgidson’s increasingly bombastic militarism (“I don’t say we won’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed. Tops.”), they all work because they contrast with a setting soaked in reality and detail. It also adds the important depth that gives the film impact: sure it wouldn’t happen like this, but something like this could happen.

Dr Strangelove’s humour has at times dated – there’s something undeniably schoolboyish about its tone. Stretches showing the detail of the bomber’s operation go on way too long. The film itself also takes a while to get going, and like many Kubrick films it has an air of being pleased with itself. But in Sellers it has a comic genius at the height of his game and its impact in changing the way we think about the world can’t be denied. Still a classic.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent excel as the Gilbert and Sullivan's in Mike Leigh's superb Topsy-Turvy

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Jim Broadbent (WS Gilbert), Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Vincent Franklin (Rutland Barrington), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Shirley Henderson (Leonara Braham), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Louise Gold (Rosina Brandham), Andy Serkis (John D’Auborn), Dexter Fletcher (Louis), Sam Kelly (Richard Barker)

It seems an odd-fit: Mike Leigh, auteur of working class drama, prestige period films and the music of the middle-class in Gilbert and Sullivan. But that’s to forget Gilbert and Sullivan were among the masters of theatre – and Leigh himself is a theatrical great. Topsy-Turvy, from seeing the most uncharacteristic of the director’s works, in fact perhaps an examination of the creative process Leigh has made his life. It’s a wonderfully made, superbly executed tribute to the struggles and rewards of artistic creation. A celebration of how disparate personalities come together to create something bigger than themselves. Affectionate, heartfelt, at times quietly moving, Topsy-Turvy is both one of Leigh’s most enjoyable films and one of his most tender.

It’s 1884 and the creative partnership between WS Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is at a turning point. With their latest, Princess Ida, hardly setting the box-office alight. Sullivan feels the partnership has gone stale – and also feels under pressure to turn his attention towards more ‘serious’ composing. Gilbert refuses to change his next libretto, which Sullivan feels is effectively more of the same. Things change though when Gilbert is intrigued by an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, quickly creating a new libretto: The Mikado. The two geniuses, finally in unison, work together to bring the production to the stage.

Topsy-Turvy is probably Leigh’s most purely entertaining film. For anyone who has ever been involved in theatre or the arts, you’ll certainly recognise more than a few moments in this film, which is practically Leigh’s love letter to the arts. Leigh’s aim was to pay tribute to the difficulties of creativity and the demand of having to constantly refresh and reinvent your work to stay relevant and fulfilled. He succeeded: few films have so beautifully captured the struggle, pain, satisfaction and joy of creation or the strange anti-climax artistic success can bring.

Most of the second half of the film is a fascinating look at every step required to bring a production to life. From casting and contract negotiations, to costume fittings, staging and work in the rehearsal room. We get a fascinating insight into the complex backstage politics and squabbles in this small world. From actors bitching about the management (always incompetent, regardless of the situation) to the delight and playfulness of rehearsals as different opportunities are explored, it’s a wonderfully true insight into the theatre. Matched with the intricate and extraordinary detail of the reconstruction of the original production – and you have an enthralling insight into theatre. It also very appropriate for Leigh, whose organic methods of creating a film through copious rehearsal and improvisation remains very similar to theatre.

Alongside this though, the film has plenty of sympathy for the cost of creative exertion. Many of the actors lead sad and even lonely lives. Shirley Henderson’s Leonara Braham struggles with drink, Martin Savage’s George Grossmith is a drug addict (the company is too polite to mention it, but he’s clearly struggling with withdrawal at the dress rehearsal), Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond has constant pains from an unhealed ulcer. WS Gilbert and his wife lead a chaste life, he as terrified of intimacy and connection as he is of watching first nights. Sullivan juggles health problems and a long-running, regular-abortion marked, affair with Fanny Ronalds with a lingering sense of shame at not having exploited his talents more fully. These are lives that come to life when doused with creation, for all the off-stage world reveals trouble and strife.

Much of the first half is a wonderfully judged contrast between the extraverted Sullivan, keen to stretch himself but lacking the application and drive, and the repressed Gilbert, doggedly ploughing on with his (stale-sounding) original idea and unable to comprehend Sullivan’s reluctance. Leigh’s film could easily have manifested itself as a clash between two mis-matched partners. However, while the film expertly draws the parallels between the two, it also shows how much their energy comes from mutual respect. Sullivan is, after all, right that Gilbert’s first idea is a limp retread. But Gilbert’s Mikado idea is so good we don’t need a scene showing Sullivan change his mind – the simple contrast of Sullivan’s chuckles and animated striding while Gilbert reads him The Mikado’s libretto with his boredom and constant questions to the abandoned libretto speaks volumes.

Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Gilbert. He has the repressed distance, the grumpy-old-man bluntness but he mixes it with small flashes of excitement and rapture that speak volumes. His fascinated glances at the Japanese exhibition – soaking up inspiration – are beautifully judged, while his later excited larking around with a samurai sword (the very next scene sees him with a first draft) is perfect. Broadbent is both supremely funny, with several perfectly judged mon-bots, and also heartbreakingly, unknowingly lonely in his distance and fear of emotional contact. Allan Corduner makes a perfect contrast as the brash Sullivan, enjoying fame in a way Gilbert never can, but sharing with him a tortured sense of his need to fulfil his artistic potential.

The rest of the cast – a delightful mix of Leigh regulars and familiar faces – are also fabulous. Lesley Manville is wonderful as Gilbert’s wife, a gentle, eager-to-please woman who we discover has carefully buried deep regret about her emotionally repressed marriage and lack of children (Gilbert’s own difficult relationships with his parents have had a long reach on his life). Timothy Spall is wonderfully entertaining as bitchy leading actor who reacts with quiet despair when his big number is cut. Shirley Henderson’s fragility is perfect for a woman whose stage presence masks her emotional vulnerability and drink dependence. Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage are marvellous as two actors whose willingness to carry on under all conditions is skilfully contrasted.

Leigh’s film is also a brilliant reconstruction of time and era (rarely can a researcher be so highly billed on a film’s credits). There is a delight taken in showing how the characters react to new inventions, from Gilbert’s bellowing phone calls (“I am hanging up the phone now!”) to Sullivan’s wonder at a fountain pen (“What will they think of next?”). The design from Eve Stewart, the glorious photography of Dick Pope and the Oscar-winning costumes Lindy Hemming all are perfectly judged. The film though never becomes buried in “prestige costume drama” trappings: it’s eye for history is to acute. From alcoholism to drug addiction, broken families to the seamier streets of London, this is a film that never succumbs to easy nostalgia.

What it remains is a loving tribute to the strange families the build up around theatre. When Temple’s song is cut from the play, the chorus come together humbly but selflessly to beg for the song to be retained, because of their affection and regard for Temple. There may be disagreements, but everyone pulls together to stage the show when the time comes. Leigh’s film is full of wit, affection and a deep, loving regard for those who have chosen a life of creativity. While the film can show the cost of such a life – and the contrasting emptiness and regret away from the stage, in a life which can doesn’t always provide satisfaction – it also celebrates art in a way few other films can. One of the greatest films about the theatre ever made.

Friday, 18 June 2021

Disobedience (2017)

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams deal with love and faith in Disobedience

Director: Sebastian Lelio
Cast: Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti Kuperman), Alessandro Nivola (Dovid Kuperman), Allan Corduner (Moshe Hartog), Bernice Stegers (Fruma Hartog), Anton Lesser (Rav Krushka), Nicholas Woodeson (Rabbi Goldfarb), Liza Sadoby (Rebbetzin Goldfarb)

After the death of her father, a highly respected member of a Jewish Orthodox community in London, photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York for his funeral. Estranged from her father, due to her rejection of Orthodoxy, Ronit has been quietly forgotten by her community. She stays with old childhood friends, now married, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) Kuperman. Dovid, her father’s chosen disciple, has been offered his place in the synagogue. Esti is a teacher at the local primary school. However, Ronit and Esti are more than just friends – their love for each other being the unspoken reason for Ronit’s departure.

Disobedience is a tender, thought-provoking exploration of the struggles between faith and love – or rather the longing to be a part of a community, that rejects a big part of who you are. While Ronit is our entry point into this world, the real tragedy here is Esti. Both a believer in Jewish Orthodoxy and a lesbian, Esti has struggled her whole life to find a balance between these two. While Ronit has, to a certain extent, chosen – deciding to leave her family life behind to allow some personal freedom for her bisexuality – Esti has remained and tried to reconcile the contradictions in her life.

What works really well about Disobedience is that it avoids moral judgements. The Orthodox community is never condemned or hold up backward or wicked. Those who live in it may be traditional, but they are not cruel. Ronit felt she had to leave, and there is an awkwardness around her return (and she is not mentioned in her father’s obituary), but apart from a few individuals, the community acknowledges her. This proves especially effectively as it allows the film to focus on a very tenderly drawn love-and-relationship triangle between the three leads, rather than scoring easier political or religious points.

It becomes a beautifully acted depiction of a three close childhood friends who are torn between affection, bitterness and longing for each other. In particular, the love between Ronit and Esti is immediately apparent, but also the tensions of confusion, missed opportunities and confused messages. These are two women deeply in love, but held apart by pressures of their community and conflicts in themselves. Between them falls Dovid, the loyal scholar of Orthodoxy, desperate to make his marriage to Esti work but also feeling a genuine affection to his adopted sister Ronit.

There is no easy answers to this mess – and the film looks carefully at questions of freedom, choice and free will. How can you reconcile your faith and the pressures of your community with the things you want in your heart? How do you compress the guilt when you feel you are forcing choices onto someone you love? How willing are we to sacrifice everything we have grown up with to make our own choices? You’d expect the answers to come down on the obvious sides, but instead Disobedience frequently operates in shades of grey and complex, messy realities. Its endings are open, its conclusions emotionally strong but not clear-cut. It reflects the ambiguity of life in its refusal to supply simple, reassuring endings.

The film is directed, in a muted palette, with great sensitivity and restraint by Sebastian Leilo. The camera has a wonderful eye for passing moments, for suppressed looks of affection. He uses long takes to allow his actors to relax into their performances, helping them create characters who feel extremely natural. The moment when Esti and Ronit finally surrender to their feelings to each other is shot with an urgency and intimacy – which then makes the restraint of much of the rest of the film all the more striking, as reality returns.

He also constantly surprises us, skilfully shifting perceptions from character to character. At first we feel that this is the story of the rebellious Ronit, but as the story progresses Esti emerges as a truly tragic figure, while Dovid is a man holding back huge waves of doubt and uncertainty about the rules that have defined his life.

The three lead actors are wonderful. Weisz is edgy, cagey and unapologetic about the air of rebelliousness she outly displays – but its clear that underneath she is full of regret, grief and a powerful sense of loss about the family and love she left behind. McAdams grows in statue from scene to scene as a woman who seems naïve but actually is all-too-aware of the compromises life demands – and has struggled all her life with sexual feelings alien to her culture. Nivola superbly turns a character who could have been an obstructive bore into a man who knows suffering deep down with the knowledge that his functional marriage based on duty will never bring him (or Esti) the happiness he desires.

Disobedience balances these three characters wonderfully. At times it luxuriates too much in its languid pace and stolen, lingering glances – a sense of urgency is often missing. But intelligent, sensitive, respectful and with a respect for faith that many other films would have avoided, it’s brilliantly played and sensitively directed.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Scarface (1932)

Paul Muni wants the world in Scarface

Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Paul Muni (Tony Camonte), Ann Dvorak (Francesca Camonte), George Raft (Guino Rinaldo), Karen Morley (Poppy), Osgood Perkins (Johnny Lovo), C. Henry Gordon (Inspector Ben Guarino), Vincent Barnett (Angelo), Boris Karloff (Tom Gaffney)

Before Tony Montana there was Tony Camonte. The suits may be sharper in 30s, but the bullets are just as lethal. Howard Hawks’ gangster film, strikingly violent for the 1930s (barely a scene goes by without a slaying), showcases the rise and fall of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) an Italian gangster embracing the mantra “The World is Yours”. Starting as a junior hood in Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) gang, he rises through the ranks due to his capacity for violence and his willingness to break any rule. He wants it all: money, power, Lovo’s girl Poppy (Karen Morley) and he won’t be happy until he runs this town. So long as he can still control his sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak) – because not even his best friend Guino (George Raft) can even think about touching her.

Hawks’ film is a dizzying whirligig of shootings, killings, mob violence and inventive camera-work. Fast paced and violent, many scenes are soundtracked by the rat-a-tat of Tommy guns. (Not a surprise in a film where the hero looks more excited grasping one of those in his hands than he ever does holding his girlfriend). Scarface has it all: fights, shoot-ours, car-chases, drive by shootings of bars, fist fights – you name it, Tony does it. It’s told with an electric pace and some nifty little tricks (my favourite a long cross fade of a calendar ripping off days and a Tommy gun blasting bullets, like its mowing down time itself).

Hawks uses a number of neat stylistic approaches to both present death and also signpost fate. Montage is used throughout the film, it’s inexorable build-up of violence and crime helping establish the excessive violence of Tony’s world. Shootings happen in a variety of ways, from silhouette to shadow to blatant on-screen death (though Tony’s fate, shot by several police guns, is the final blast, almost Bonnie and Clyde like as his body dances from bullet wounds under the streetlights).

You can get a good sense of whose card is marked by Hawks’ witty (and not overplayed) used of Xs. Before a St Valentine’s Day style shooting, the camera focuses on an iron girder above the victims with a series of X like metal cross beams in it – the camera returns to it, the row of Xs mirroring the victims lined up against the wall. Crime boss Gaffney is killed while bowling, his strike filled card literally marked with an X. The approach is subtle and even strangely witty.

The film is a maelstrom of excess. Starting in the aftermath of a wild party – which segues immediately into a gang hit – everything is overblown. From the violence, to the parties, to the wealth Tony builds up. It’s the same with the police as well – when it’s time for them to come out shooting they don’t hold back, assembling a small army of weapons fire which practically tears apart Tony’s apartment.

At its heart is a force-of-nature in Paul Muni’s Tony. Becoming increasingly Americanised as the film goes on (he starts heavily accented and the very picture of a scarred street thug, but becomes more-and-more accent free and smoothly dressed), Tony is not only ruthlessly ambitious he has a mania for getting more. Much like Montana, this is a man who is never satisfied until he has the world. He brags to his would-be girlfriend that he will only wear each of his new shirts once. He shows off his apartment and insists one of his henchmen (who is barely able to operate a phone) describe himself as his “secretary”. Muni’s performance mixes a grimy capacity for violence with a sordid impish delight at excess, all washed down with a childish lack of morality.

He’s also got a destructive obsession with his sister. Played with a coquettish charm by Ann Dvorak, Francesca is the apple of her brother’s eye. Is Tony even aware of the incestuous underlying his obsession? Any male attention at all sparks a jealous fury that goes way beyond a protective sibling. But there is perhaps as much to control as sexuality in this. Just as Tony wants to bring the entire city under his dominance, so he wants to control every element of his sister’s life. And in many ways she’s quite like him – as in love with flirtatious sexual excess as he is with the massive landgrab of power he’s carrying out.

Tony is moving shark-like through the city at every turn. Even while nominally following the orders of his boss Johnny (a strangely pathetic Osgood Perkins – but then power eventually makes all men weak in Scarface, even Tony. Perhaps it’s the fear of losing what you have?) he always pushes for bigger and bigger scores, making enemies Johnny can’t afford to make. The others seem paralysed in the face of him – Gaffney, default leader of the Irish mob, runs from safe house to safe house; despite the vast numbers of men following him, he never looks safe.

The film was criticised at the time for not having a sufficient moral message – tacked on in a studio reshoot was a more condemning ending with Tony (real “Shame of a Nation!” stuff), traces of which can still be seen in Tony’s brief flash of cowardice at the end. But really, in its excessive violence and cycle of destruction in a which an impulsive, brutal but not too bright killer (briefly) ends up on top was probably unsettling because it was a lot closer to the grim reality of organised crime in America. A world where the gun pays and a lunatic can take over the asylum. No wonder the censors at the time couldn’t take it. But Scarface’s compulsive violence, danger and relentless energy is what still makes it a classic today.

Monday, 14 June 2021

The English Patient (1996)

Ralph Fiennes excels as the tragic The English Patient

Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katherine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Maddox), Jurgen Prochnow (Major Muller), Kevin Whatley (Sergeant Hardy), Clive Merrison (Colonel Fenelon-Barnes), Nino Castelnuovo (D’Agostino)

Sweeping, luscious, beautiful and an epic translation of an almost unfilmable novel into something supremely cinematic, The English Patient swept the board with nine Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards. The English Patient has sometimes had a rocky reputation (not helped by an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was famously non-plussed by the film). Like some of Minghella’s later work, it’s almost too well made for some to get past, looking like prime award bait. I didn’t “get it” the first time I watched it. But I – and the naysayers – were wrong: The English Patient is rich, rewarding and throbbing with a very British sense of repressed emotion and slow embracing of dangerous passions.

Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.

Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.

But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.

Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.

It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.

It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.

Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.

The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.

Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.

The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.

Friday, 11 June 2021

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart struggles with a dark capacity for rage In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Sergeant Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Captain Lochner), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicholai), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman)

Hollywood: it’s a dark town. When movie makers turn their lens on themselves you’ve just as likely to see the dark underside of showbusiness, as you have a celebration. In a Lonely Place was made in the same year as Sunset Boulevard, and it’s even darker and less hopeful than that movie. It focuses on a person with a certain level of kudos, that has led others to overlook his deep personal flaws. In a Lonely Place reveals itself as a quite ahead of its time in its unflinching look at why people find themselves drawn into potentially abusive, controlling relationships with people who talk endlessly about how much they love you even while they try and control every aspect of your life. Overlooked at the time, it’s seen more and more as a classic.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a successful screenwriter but has gone a few years since his list hit. Hired to adapt a plot-boiler he’s so contemptuous of the synopsis he invites a waitress at his favourite restaurant, Mildred (Martha Atkinson), to his flat one night to describe the story to him. Becoming as bored with her as he is with the cliched plot, he sends her home. When she is murdered later that night, Dixon is number 1 suspect. He’s alibied by his neighbour, aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) and the two start a relationship. But the pressure from the investigation and his writing assignments bring Dixon’s barely controlled rage more and more to the surface – with Laurel slowly fearing that he could be capable of anything if pushed to it.

It would be expected for a movie of this period – say something like Suspicion where of course Cary Grant is just misunderstood not a would-be killer – for all this to simmer and then resolve itself as a terrible series of errors (mostly of course from the woman). In a Lonely Place doesn’t do this. Instead, from the start we are given no reason to doubt Dixon’s capacity for near-murderous rage. Practically the first thing we see him do is assault a producer – albeit avenging an insult to an alcoholic actor friend. His first resort is violence. It’s something he’ll resort to time and time again, his capacity for anger joined with a self-pity that makes preemptive violence more likely.

It bleeds into the relationship with Laurel, which at first is all goodness and light. The two of them are well-suited, and an excellent tonic for each other: she’s a combination of muse and amanuensis, helping Dixon turn out his script; he opens doors in Hollywood she has spent years pushing against. But Dixon’s possessiveness, resentment and suspicion become clearer, accentuated by Laurel’s reserve and caution to emotional commitment. The relationship becomes tortured as Dixon resents any trace of suspicion against him, alternating with desperately possessive pleading for love. Any deviation from his idea of their relationship is seen by him as an act of betrayal.

Then there’s that temper. It’s there all the time, a sadistic streak that suggests a damaging lack of empathy. Dixon – while vaguely sorry for Martha’s death – is also perfectly happy discussing her demise with a clinical academic interest. He’s unphased by crime scene photos. He feels no guilt about not driving her home. Later, at the house of his friend (one of the detectives) he theorises how the crime was committed with an animation that turns into unsettling excitement. After a row with Laurel he drives a car (with both of them in it) with reckless fury and then nearly beats to death someone whose car he clips. Dixon follows these moments with futile half-apologies – anonymous flowers for Martha’s family, anonymous cheques to pay for car damages. But he never addresses his deep psychological problems.

This relationship becomes one ripe with the unspoken capacity for violence. Gloria Grahame is excellent as a careful, guarded woman who opens herself romantically, only to become terrified that the man in her life could just as easily kill her as kiss her. It’s a tension we feel too. Making breakfast, Dixon may talk about how they will be together always – but his vulnerable voice underlines his own doubts, and his furious insistence that they marry ASAP carries the capacity for fury if denied.

As Dixon, Humphrey Bogart gives one of (if not the) greatest performances of his career. Playing a character who, with his dark rages, allegedly had similarities with himself, his Dixon is a bleak figure. Capable of wit and charm, Bogart also makes him a cruel, seedy and sinister in his excitement at murder, while never preventing us finding him vulnerable and weak in his fear at being abandoned. But not sympathetic enough for us to worry he may end things by murdering Laurel. He’s never sympathetic – his late, motiveless, slapping around of his decent agent ends our chance of finding him that for good – but he’s understandable.

And he lives in a dysfunctional town. Where Hollywood intrudes on the action, Ray makes clear it is dark, unsettling, alien and unfriendly town – a truly lonely place. There are no confidantes or friends: only colleagues and potential rivals. You are only as good as your last credit: when your last few credits are poor, you’re no-one. On the other hand, rage and misbehaviour will be tolerated if you can produce the goods. It’s not a place for humanity or goodness.

Ray’s overlooked classic is a beautiful fusion of film noir and Hollywood insider movie. With superb performances from the two leads, it also feels way ahead of its time in looking at abusive relationships. Abusive partners don’t arrive twirling moustaches. They seem decent, loving and passionate – its only when you start to disappoint them they start to turn angry, controlling and abusive. By the time the film’s end come – and it’s a bleak one – you’ll be hard pressed to find some hope in it. But you will certainly find some great film-making.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Hunger Games (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence takes aim against a corrupt system in The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato)

“May the odds be ever in your favour”. They certainly were for The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA trilogy. It was one of many franchises trying to ride the success of the Harry Potter series – and easily the best (it’s vastly superior to, say, Twilight or the woeful Divergent). Shepherded to the screen by a confident Gary Ross, it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from book’s social politics and darkness, while also balancing that with complex and engaging characters. It stands up well to repeated viewings and never lets you forget it’s a film about teenagers involved in a brutal series of murderous blood sports.

In the future, after disasters and wars, the nation of Panem has been built. Twelve colonies are ruled from the capital. As punishment for a past rebellion, each year each district sends two tributes to the capital. These tributes will be feted, celebrated – and then pushed into an area and made to fight to the death in “The Hunger Games”, all of it transmitted on TV across Panem. To the winner, a lifetime of fame and comfort. To the losers – well, death. In the poorest district, District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute after her sister’s name is selected. Stubborn, surly, defiant and an expert archer, Katniss surprisingly finds herself capturing the public imagination - helped by a faked romance with her media-savvy fellow District 12 tribute (Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta). But in the ring will it be everybody for themselves? Or can Katniss keep hold of her soul?

The Hunger Games is rich material. Panem feels more and more like a mix between Gilead and Trumpian pomposity (the capital is a heavily stylised and artificial Rome-inspired centre of excess), in which life and death matters for very little. It’s a film that has astute things to say not only about how totalitarian regimes operate, but also how the oppressed often connive in their own suppression. So wrapped up is the population in the excitement of the Hunger Games, so invested in the results, that they’ve almost forgotten it is a tool of oppression. That the capital can only continue to exist if all the districts co-operate in following its orders and meekly supplying anything it asks – from food and resources, to teenagers for slaughter.

What this world needs is someone like Katniss. An individual who knows her own mind, who won’t play the game and will be herself. The film is brave in not softening the edges of this often prickly personality. Expertly played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is compassionate and caring – but she’s also judgemental, untrusting, holds grudges and in person is often surly, resentful and impatient. But what makes her a hero, is her refusal to collaborate in softening the Hunger Games. She knows she is being manipulated to make a world feel better about itself – and she is repulsed by the idea of taking life needlessly and the slaughter of the weaker and more vulnerable tributes. Indeed, she will go to huge lengths to keep others alive in the games – something that helps to wake a population up to how they’ve been hoodwinked by bright lights to forget their own humanity. Her defiance is less about politics and more about simple human decency and being able to make her own choices – something a whole world has forgotten.

Even the people in the capital have forgotten that the Hunger Games exist to suppress not entertain. The film gets some delightful mileage out of its satire of blanket media coverage. The TV coverage is pure ESPN or Sky Sports, mixed with shallow chat shows. Stanley Tucci has a ball as a flamboyant anchor who lets no moral qualms even cross his mind as he banters with the tributes in interviews with the same excited ease as he will later commentate on their slaughter. Wes Bentley’s would-be Machiavel TV producer has been so drawn into the mechanics of his games, he’s stopped even seeing the combatants as human beings, just another set of ratings-tools he can use to advance his career.

It’s a neat commentary from the film on how we can be so beaten down and crushed by the everyday that we forget – or overlook – how it is both controlling our own lives and forcing us to rethink our own views on life. This is a world where people are being taught that life and death are not valuable, that murder can be entertainment and that everyday burdens are worth dealing with because you have a chance of being allowed to fight to the death for a shot at eternal comfort. It’s a deeply corrupt and savage system, and the film doesn’t flinch away from exploring it.

Alongside that, it’s an entertaining, gripping and involving film (if one that is a little overlong in places). The second half – which focuses on the games – is both exciting and terrifying in its (often implied – after all this is still a film that needs to be shown to kids) savagery. It encourages us to identify closely with Katniss, to experience the same terror she does as well as delight in her ingenuity and inventiveness to escape death and plan strikes against her brutal opponents. By the end of the film we’ve taken her to our hearts – for all we’ve seen how difficult a person she is – as much as the population of Panem have.

Ross’s film is a triumph of adaptation, and you don’t say that about many YA novels. Suzanne Collins’ adaptation of her own book captures its thematic richness, while compressing it effectively. There are a host of interesting actors giving eclectic performances, including Harrelson as Katinss and Peeta’s mentor, Banks and Kravitz as their support team, and Sutherland as the controlling dictator behind it all. The Hunger Games is prime entertainment, with some fascinating design work (the costumes and sets are spot on) and very well made. It’s a franchise to watch.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Liev Schreiber and Tobey Maguire recreate Spassky/Fischer in Ed Zwick's pointless chess drama

Director: Ed Zwick
Cast: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Father Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer)

In the 1960s and 70s, Chess suddenly became world news. Like the space race before it, it was effectively a way for the USA and USSR to combat each other without the risky side effect of blowing up the whole world. The USSR had all the best players: until American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer emerged to shatter this monopoly. In 1972 the world seemed to come to a stop to watch the world championship clash between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik. Ed Zwick’s film attempts to bring together the personal and the political – two superpowers using a game as a proxy for war – into an enlightening package. It fails.

The film opens with Fischer trashing his apartment in search for bugs on the eve of the 1972 final before flashing back in time. You’d expect the film to give us an idea of what bought our “hero” to this point. Zwick’s film utterly fails to do this. Now Fischer – very well played by an aggressively prickly Tobey Maguire – was a hugely troubled man. Though never formally diagnosed some combination of paranoia, OCD and a myriad other personality problems meant he was never more than a step away from self-destruction. Despite this he was deeply driven by an ambition to be the best chess player in the world. Its rich material, but the film never begins to get to grips with Fischer.

Could this be because it wants to tell an uplifting story – the film is really building towards the standing ovation Spassky gives Fischer in game 6 at the 1972 championship when Fischer whipped him in about 40 moves of perfect play – but is struggling with the fact that Fischer himself is deeply unsympathetic. A paranoid conspiracy freak who even by the standards of the 1960s was an aggressive, virulent anti-Semite (Fischer would later match Mel Gibson in his anti-Semitic tirades, blaming Zionism for everything from 9/11 down). A bully who refused to interact with anything except on his own terms, who cut all friends and family from his life for the most minor transgressions. There is no insight given here at all, or suggestion of what was wrong with Fischer.

It’s hard to hang a “triumph against the odds” structure – as Zwick’s unimaginative and conventional film tries to – around this. A far more interesting film would have used the 1972 tournament as an Act 2 triumph and then explored in more depth Fischer’s long spiral of self-destruction that would see him as a bearded eccentric ranting against Jews and America, in exile in Iceland. A film like that would also have then been able to properly do service to the idea of Fischer as a pawn of American state interests, who celebrate him when they want to rub the Soviet nose in it, but then drop him as soon as his purpose is served.

Instead, the film becomes formulaic and empty, leaving us with the impression that we learn nothing about Fischer at all. Why did this man of Jewish descent hate Jewish people so much? Was it self-loathing? What motivated him to seemingly self-destruct his own career so regularly? Was it a fear of being beaten? We have no idea. Instead that opening scene of Fischer destroying his apartment tells us everything we learn about the man over the course of the film. He remains an enigma – and since he’s also deeply unpleasant (the film skirts a little around how much) and we don’t get given any rich material to understand why he’s like this, he becomes a tedious figure to spend time with.

Zwick’s film also fails to communicate the cold war motivations behind this. Although there are the odd shots of the powers-that-be watching on TV in the Kremlin and the White House, we get no sense of how or why these powers are using chess to promote their own ideology. The film is endlessly reliable on vintage and reconstructed newsreel footage to constantly tell us directly things it can’t work out how to do with dialogue, from the political situation to chess moves. You learn nothing about the Cold War from this film. Michael Stuhlbarg’s lawyer turned promoter for Fischer states openly that he wants to use Fischer to show up the Russkies – but that blunt statement is it.

Instead the film is only really interesting when it is effectively recreating footage from the 1972 championship. And when a film’s strong points are recreating real events perfectly, you know you are in trouble. Zwick’s film lacks ideas, a compelling plot, insight or invention. It suffers badly today when compared to the far more dynamic and insightful The Queen’s Gambit (whose lead character is a heavily fictionalised female Fischer). Zwick’s film is him at his plodding, middle-brow worst, presenting a would-be epic shorn of anything of actual interest of controversy. The only thing that redeems it are decent performances from Maguire, Sarsgaard and Schreiber. Otherwise, this is an empty mess that tells you nothing at all about anything. You could checkmate it in about four moves.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston fights for freedom in Ben-Hur

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Martha Scott (Miriam), Cathy O’Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie (Balthasar), Frank Thring (Pontius Pilate), Terence Longdon (Drusus), George Relph (Tiberius Caesar), Andre Morell (Sextus)

Ben-Hur is big. Hammering home its monumentalism, the poster features the colossal stone-carved title dwarfing the people below. It’s the sort of Hollywood epic where the numbers – 10,000 extras! 2,500 horses! Over a million props! 1.1million feet of film! 11 Oscars! – are as much a part of what you are sitting down to watch as the characters and story. Ben-Hur sits at the apex of the Hollywood Biblical epic: three and a half hours long, the most expensive film ever made (at the time). Age hasn’t always treated it kindly, and its eleven Oscars give it a sort of classic status it’s very hard for the first-time viewer to reconcile with what you actually see on the screen. Fundamentally, Ben-Hur is part spectacle, part pageant: some striking sequences linked together by the twee and the forgettable. Entertainingly middle-brow and over honoured, it’s a classic mostly because of what it represents rather than what it is.

Adapted from General Lew Wallace’s best-selling doorstop (he basically invented the airport novel, decades before the first airport ever opened), the story follows the fortunes of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) in the early years of the first millennium. Ben-Hur grew up regarding Roman officer Messala (Stephen Boyd) as a brother. But when Ben-Hur refuses to help Messala identify Jewish insurgents, their friendship comes to an end. Before we know it, Messala suses trumped up charges to send Ben-Hur in chains to a life rowing as a galley slave while his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) are imprisoned. Ben-Hur survives the galleys – even becoming the adopted son of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). When he returns to Jerusalem, will he take his revenge on Messala? Or will the teachings of the mysterious preacher spreading the word of God change his life?

For bursts of its (huge) run-time Ben-Hur is gripping, exciting stuff. The action when it comes is superbly done and some of the moments of high-emotion really hit the spot. But it’s impossible to avoid that, for large chunks of time in-between, Ben-Hur is ponderous, overlong, more than a bit self-important and a little twee. Frequently the film grinds to a halt to parade its numbers: after all we need a long intro to the chariot race so we can see all those extras and horses. Things like this frequently don’t drive forward the story, or help the pace: but Ben-Hur was at least as much about wowing the audience as it was about telling a story.

William Wyler was offered more money than any director in history to bring it to the screen. He produces a film as faultless in its professionalism, as it is impersonal. Wyler – a director who worked best with actor-led stories – struggled with the vastness of Hur: his visual compositions often an awkward attempt to mix the width of the frame with the intimacy of two characters talking. His style doesn’t help here: the heaviness of the cameras made them difficult to move, making many of the conversation scenes of the film rather flat and dull to look at. Wyler doesn’t put a foot wrong, but it feels more like a competent professional ticking boxes.

It’s the big set piece moments – of which there three – which really have stuck in people’s minds. Those would be: the early scenes with Messala/Ben-Hur, the naval battle sequence and the chariot race. Outside of those moments – which are all, in their own ways, very memorable – it’s amazing to me every time I watch it how much of the film I fail to remember. I certainly had forgotten how damn much of the movie is left post Chariot race (over 45 minutes!), the film dragging on through the Miriam/Tirzah leprosy sub-plot intercut with moments from the life of Jesus (often with dialogue of the “He’s giving a Sermon on that Mount” variety). There are several moments in the film where events play out at great length inversely proportional to their interest.

But those set-pieces are great. The chariot race alone probably made the film the success it is. It’s ten minutes of compelling drama, gripping stunts: a feast of tight editing, dynamic camera work and thundering sound effects. Shot by a second unit – although, to be fair, supervised in its planning and editing by Wyler – it’s the heart of the movie. Viscerally enjoyable, it perhaps stands out because it’s the most earthy, exciting, real thing in a movie that can be rather stagy and turgid.

Running it close is the naval battle sequence – show-casing a gravely Jack Hawkins – very well-done (and disguising its water tank shooting origins), particularly because Wyler keeps most of the focus on the slave rowers in the bowels of the ship. While fire and arrows fly up top, and boarding parties clash, it’s from the slaves perspective that we see a vessel approach to ram the ship – and their terror at drowning that we feel. It’s another fine use of the epic big-screen. With virtually no dialogue, it’s also a triumph of visual story-telling, communicating a host of emotions and actions with brilliant efficiency.

The Messala/Ben-Hur sequences have stuck in the mind for other reasons. Long-running debates exist about who actually wrote the script. The credit goes to Ken Turnberg, but Gore Vidal long claimed his fingerprints were on most of the dialogue. (Wyler and Heston disagreed, giving the credit to playwright Christopher Fry – Heston even thanked Fry in his Oscar acceptance speech.) Vidal liked to claim he directed Boyd to play these scenes as if Messala was a spurned lover of Ben-Hur – taking an equal delight in claiming Heston had no idea of this subtext. Wyler argued he had no memory of this, and denied any such direction to Boyd took place. The truth will never really be known, but to me the idea of the writer on a film like this taking creative control seems a stretch.

Anyway, it adds a frisson to the scenes – and its undeniable there is more than a touch of camp to them. To be honest I think a lot of this is due to Stephen Boyd’s OTT performance as Messala. He plays every single scene at a ludicrous pitch – throughout the chariot race he makes Dick Dastardly look the model of underplaying – and I can well imagine Vidal enjoyed taking advantage of his over-emphasis in these sequences to spin an amusing story of sneaking in a homo-erotic subtext.

The acting in general is fairly mundane – for all the film won two Oscars for its performers. Heston (in his only nomination) was named Best Actor. He’s a monumental actor, best used in roles that could have been chiselled from marble, but this is not his best (look to Khartoum, Agony and the Ecstasy or Planet of the Apes for starters). Much like Boyd he’s prone to over-emotionalism (most of the last 40 minutes feature him throwing his face into his hands), intermixed with moments of stony po-facedness. Hugh Griffith won the other Oscar (insanely generous considering he beat out Scott and O’Connell in Anatomy of a Murder) and his hammy, black-face is increasingly uncomfortable. Few of the other performers make much of an impact (although I enjoyed seeing an unbilled John Le Mesurier as a Roman doctor).

The one thing about Ben-Hur that lives up to its grandness is Miklos Rosza’s brilliant -and hugely influential – score. A brilliant mix of the inspiring epic, the grandiose and the deeply spiritual, you can hear its DNA throughout the works of John Williams and several others. It’s one of the longest scores of all time (three hours of music!) but it captures the tone of every scene perfectly, helping to build the overall effect.

It even manages to make some of the Jesus sequences work. The film is never more twee than when it touches on the Bible. Jesus is only ever shown from behind, but always as the classic long-haired, beatific figure, practically floating through the ether. Sequences that show the nativity, the sermon on the mount and the crucifixion have a Sunday School earnestness about them, largely free of drama and seem designed to be as inoffensive (and uninteresting) as possible. It’s when the film is as its most self-consciously earnest.

And Ben-Hur is a very earnest film. A professional job – with a director wrestling all those numbers – it’s got some striking sequences but even more flat, twee and forgettable moments. With acting that ranges from overly-earnest to just over the top, its classic status is more about what it is. The largest, most expensive, most honoured film of the Biblical epic genre. Its’ most famous for all those Oscars and the chariot race: in other words ten minutes of its screen time and garlands from a ceremony we often say honours the wrong films. Judged on film merits, Ben-Hur is not the best but not the worst. But it’s more about all its numbers, the vast array of things in it. It represents Big Studio investment: it’s about money. No wonder Hollywood garlanded it with so many Oscars.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Death in Venice (1971)

Dirk Bogarde falls victim to obsession in Death in Venice

Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Björn Andrésen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Tadzio’s mother), Romoloa Valli (Hotel manager), Nora Ricci (Governess), Franco Fabrizi (Barber), Carole André (Esmeralda)

In the early 1900s a famed German composer, Gustav von Aschebach (Dirk Bogarde), travels to Venice for his health. A repressed artist who believes beauty is found not in the sensual but the spiritual, his world is turned upside down when he becomes fascinated/infatuated with a divinely beautiful teenage boy (Björn Andrésen) staying at his hotel. Gustav lingers in the city, never speaking to the boy, but reduced to watching him at the beach and following him and his family puppy-like through the city. A city that is on the verge of falling into a serious cholera pandemic. With Gustav’s health rapidly deteriorating, the title alone tells you where this all going.

That opening paragraph will probably also tell you all you need to know about whether this is the film for you or not. Increasingly, the idea of a famed artist starring with a longing, breathless admiration at a (very young looking) teenage boy (who is also at times shot with a coquettish flirtatiousness, increasingly aware that he is being looked at) has more than a whiff of Operation Yewtree to it. Take a moment though: Visconti’s extremely delicate and deliberate film largely manages to walk a tightrope between sexual interest and a deeply closeted admiration for physical beauty in the style of classical statues or paintings.

The film is not a leering pederast’s fantasy, but a melancholic meditation where this young man as much represents the loss of youth amidst a life of regret and closeted repression as it does sexual interest. Don’t get me wrong, sex bubbles under there. Gustav – even if he is struggling to process his own feelings – has a giddy schoolboy like love for this unattainable boy, something he seems aware he can (and will) never act on. Gustav becomes a rather tragic even pathetic figure. By the time the film ends and he has caked his face in the same “young” make-up that disgusts him when he sees it on the face of another ageing roue on his arrival in Venice, it’s hard not to feel he has lost his way. He seems aware death is knocking and that it is simply a matter of opening the door.

Visconti’s film is perhaps the ultimate arthouse classic. Long, slow, with lashings of Gustav Mahler playing while the camera slowly pans across incredibly detailed sets (rumour has it, even the unopened drawers were filled with period specific props) and lavish costumes. It’s got more than a puff of self-importance, taking as its subjects art, love and beauty. It’s the sort of film where nothing much really happens (there is no real dialogue for the first ten or last ten minutes), but what little happens is laced with an overwhelming spiritual and poetical importance.

The film is however outstandingly beautiful. Venice has never looked so striking – or so original. It’s not a picture postcard: the sky is frequently doom-laden pinks and reds, the streets are lined with litter, antiseptic wash and later small fires to burn away the bad air. But everything is presented with a painterly, if doom-laden, beauty. As mentioned, the period detail is exquisite and faultless. There are more than a few comparisons with Barry Lyndon in its obsession with detail, the pictorial and period over such trivial matters as storyline and humanity. Like that film it also has a languid self-importance, that has helped make it ripe for parody throughout the years.

And yet, it engages at some level slightly more than Barry Lyndon perhaps because Dirk Bogarde is a far more skilled actor than Ryan O’Neal. Bogarde is a master of the small detail. A huge portion of the film is basically Bogarde starring at Tadzio and letting a range of emotions play across his face: fascination, shame, fondness, intrigue, self-disgust, longing. Visconti frequently lets the camera just study Bogarde’s face as the actor thinks, capturing moments of almost youthful excitement that tip as swiftly into an old-man’s shame. It’s a compellingly cinematic performance from Bogarde, an actor who never quite gets the credit he deserves.

Of course, it’s also an important land-mark in gay cinema. It’s one of the few films where we have a man express a confused yearning and admiration for a beautiful teenage boy (films – such as American Beauty – which cover similar ground with men and teenage girls are far more common). Despite this, the film never tips into feeling too icky, largely because Gustav himself is a rather sexless figure. Flashbacks show his failed fumblings with (female) prostitutes and traces of a marriage with a wife (a silent Marisa Berenson – another Barry Lyndon link), with whom he shares grief at the loss of a daughter, but seemingly little else. The implication is that Gustav has carefully supressed all his emotions in to raise himself to a higher artistic plain. Tadzio perhaps shows him there is also beauty in youth and life, rather than just intellect.

Or you might think that’s just hogwash, and an excuse for a man in his fifties to leer at a pretty young boy. There are times when Visconti makes Tadzio too coquetteish, at times casting him in the role of distant seducer (although there are hints at least some of these glances and poses are in the imagination of the infatuated Gustav). Björn Andrésen has spoken about his discomfort in making the film (where Visconti and others allegedly tended to treat him with an icky fascination) and dealing with its legacy. Often the film plays more awkwardly today and while Visconti is partly aiming for the sort of admiration of beauty we see in classic Renaissance art – like Rubens co-directed the film – he’s still at times also positioning a young teenage boy as something close to a sex object. The film is not as simple as that, and its far from being crude while Aschenbach never feels predatory or dangerous only deluded – but touches of it are there.

Death in Venice has faced years of parody. It’s an easy film to snigger about, with its self-consciously arty look and feel. Visconti wants you to know this is an important film, and like Tarkovsky often hammers this home by making it slow and ponderous. But it’s also a beautiful and strangely engrossing film. A slow-paced two hours – pace that could have been helped if the heavy-handed flashback discussions about art between Gustav and piano player (lover?) Alfred had been trimmed out. Visconti directs it with a poetic mesmerism.

It’s got the feel of a classic painting. But it’s a film: and parts of that make it troubling at times. It never questions the appropriateness or not of this semi-sexual fascination of Gustav (for all that it stresses his increasingly pathetic delusion). However, it just about works because of the overwhelming air of tragedy and regret that hangs over it – and Bogarde’s delicately judged performance. Visconti indulges himself terribly here – but produces something that feels very much his own. Death in Venice is intriguing because its simultaneously bloated and self-important, but also mesmerising and beautiful.