Friday, 31 December 2021

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play star-crossed lovers (twice!) in The French Lieutenant's Woman

Director: Karel Reisz
Cast: Meryl Streep (Sarah/Anna), Jeremy Irons (Charles/Mike), Leo McKern (Dr Grogan), Hilton McRae (Sam), Emily Morgan (Mary), Lynsey Baxter (Ernestina), Patience Collier (Mrs Poulteney), Penelope Wilton (Sonia), Peter Vaughan (Mr Freeman), Michael Elwyn (Montague), Richard Griffiths (Sir Tom), David Warner (Murphy), Gerard Falconetti (Davide), Colin Jeavons (Vicar)

Many books have been considered unfilmable. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a key member of that list. Part pastiche, part commentary on Victorian novels, Fowles not only has a narrator who acts as an ironic commentator on events, but also offers up three possible endings to its central romance, each radically different from the one before. Not easy to bring that to film! Adapting it, Reisz and Harold Pinter came up with the concept of mirroring the novel’s central relationship with a relationship between two actors playing those characters in a film being made of the novel. Got that?

So, Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play both the novel’s romantically entwined couple Sarah and Charles AND also Anna and Mike, two actors playing those very roles in a film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, also engaged in a love affair. Both affairs end in radically different ways, mirroring two of the alternative endings in Fowles’ novel. Most of the films runtime sticks with the novels’ plot, where Charles – an ambitious young scientist – is drawn away from his promising engagement to a potential business partners daughter (Lynsey Baxter), by his romantic fascination with Sarah, a woman of ill-repute in Lyme Regis, the former mistress of a French Lieutenant.

Pinter and Reisz’s adaptation is a smart idea. But I feel it misses a trick. If they really wanted to adapt the book – with its intrusive narrator and alternative endings – then the real character to focus on from a film set is not the actors but the director and producers. If our framing device had been watching the rushes in the screening room, seeing differently edited scenes play out in contrasting ways, with producers and director commenting on the action and making decisions about which ending (Happy? Sad? Open-ended?) they stick on the end of the film. Sure, that would have opened itself up to potentially on-the-nose dialogue, but it would be a better representation of the novel and its ideas, and truly translate some of the books real strength (its unique narrative style) to film.

But that’s talking about something the film doesn’t do. What it does do is offer something that is basically a 80% adaptation of the novel’s plot, mixed with 20% short interjections of the modern-day storyline. Deliberately, the film contrasts the intense romance and deeply-felt passions of the Victorian storyline – where acting on desire carries with it a huge, life-shattering cost in disgrace and social expulsion – with the shallow, off-hand flirtations of the modern era, where the stigma of a sexual affair has ceased to exist.

While this is effective in making the Victorian sections carry even more weight, it does mean the modern sections (by design) are slighter and less engaging. Their semi-regular appearance – it isn’t until the final half hour that we get anything approaching a proper sequence set in the present day, with a beautifully played garden party hosted by Mike and his wife (a magnificent putting-on-a-brave-face performance from Penelope Wilton), which is a feast of stolen glances, averted eyes and strained conversation.

But in some places the split narrative works a treat, particularly in allowing flashes of the real life, more unrestrained passion of the ‘real’ people drop into the Victorian characters. In particular, a meeting between Charles and Sarah in the woods (highly reserved), cuts to Anna and Mike rehearsing the same scene (playful and flirtatious). When the rehearsal reaches a key point – Anna/Sarah falling and being caught by Charles/Mike, the film cuts so that Anna falls but then Charles catches Sarah falling. And the scene continues. Suddenly, the Victorian couple has a burst of the same sexual freedom the modern couple has. It’s a beautiful cut. Later, Sarah falls to the ground (pushed by Charles), and suddenly bursts out laughing – and it feels like she falls as Sarah, reacts as Anna, then rises again as Sarah – either way it gives a wonderful, modern energy to the moment.

The film is wonderfully shot by Freddie Francis, with luscious forest vegetation and whipping winds and seas on the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Simmering sexual tensions are caught in lingering gazes, gestures that carry things words cannot, careful reaction shots captured by Reisz, the trapping of several characters within the ephemera of over-decorated rooms (at one point Ernestina literally can’t escape a room because of the all the knick-knacks within it).

A lot of the mood comes from the two lead actors, who give masterful performances. It’s very easy to see Streep’s performance here as overly mannered: her accent is oddly toned and highly studied, and much of her performance as Sarah is wilfully artificial and arch. But that’s deliberate: the genius here is that Streep is playing Anna playing Sarah who is in turn constructing her own fictional Sarah. With her pre-Raphaelite looks and artistic leanings, Sarah is a woman out-of-time, yearning for the sort of choices and freedom Anna takes for granted, constantly pushed into roles society can accept her in (Governess, eccentric, ‘whore’ etc.). Does she use Charles or not? Streep brilliantly captures her enigmatic, unreadable spirit, the sort of person who interjects a retelling of a possibly invented backstory, with a playful twirl around a tree. Who sometimes despises herself, at others everyone else. In contrast, Streep makes Anna assured, quiet and confident, with the power to choose risks.

Just as good is Jeremy Irons, in only his second film role and here cementing the start of a career that would see him play a parade of restrained and very British men struggling with passions they can hardly understand. Charles’ fascination with Sarah is rooted in feelings both sexual and romantic that both fascinate and terrify him. His final surrendering to being true to himself, rather than what is expected of him, carries with it both a power and strange desperate bitterness. By contrast, Mike is a far more flighty, shallow-figure – an actor who perhaps is more in love with the feelings he is playing (and the character that inspires them in his character) than he is with Anna.

Reisz pulls all this together highly effectively, and the film is at its strongest when exploring feminism and the opportunities for women in Victorian England. Those are few and far between. Women have defined roles and expectations and someone who deviates from these – like Sarah – have no place. In addition, women are held responsible for provoking dangerous erotic feelings in men (from women of poor reputation like Sarah, to the prostitutes in a London street). The ability of Sarah to make her own choices and lead the life she wants to lead is the underlying theme of her story – and her motivations. Does she want, however she might feel, a relationship that would define her again as “wife” rather than being truly herself?

These are fascinating ideas in a film full of beautiful images – their first meeting on the Cobb in particular is beautiful – scored expertly by Colin Davis (with just a tinge of suspense in the music). The framing device gives little moments of insight and reflection – even if it is only an approximation of the novel’s effect – but the Victorian set story, and it’s buried passions and social commentary is what really compels, in a way that the slighter modern story (almost deliberately) doesn’t. Either way, it has two brilliant performances, an intelligent script and handsome direction by Reisz.

The Last Duel (2021)

Adam Driver and Matt Damon fight The Last Duel in medieval France

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Buchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csorkas (Crespin), Željko Ivanek (Le Coq), Tallulah Haddon (Marie), Bryony Hannah (Alice), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Adam Nagaitis (Adam Louvel)

The medieval era had its own solution for “He said, She said”. Let God decide via a fight to the death. After all, He would never let the injured party lose, would he? Scott’s The Last Duel is a dramatisation of one of the last French judicial duels, in December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Scott’s Rashomon-inspired film shows the events leading up to the duel from all three characters’ perspectives.

The three different stories we see are not radically different. Unlike Rashomon – which presented totally different versions of the same events, according to the prejudices or agendas of the storytellers – The Last Duel’s versions stress subtly different reactions or presents different fragments of an overall story. So, for instance, Le Gris and Carrouges remember different elements of a battle. Carrouges recalls the noble charge to save the innocent, saving Le Gris’ life in the final stages of combat. To Le Gris it’s a suicidal charge, in which he saves an unhorsed Carrouge’s life. After the rape, Carrouge remembers offering his wife sympathy; she remembers his anger and demand they have sex at once to “cleanse her” of the stain.

These mixed recollections work best when we see each of them remember a fateful reconciliation meeting between Le Gris and Carrouges (where Le Gris and Marguerite first meet). A wedge has been driven between them ever since Carrouges believed Le Gris cheated him out of both land and his father’s former position. When the two agree to try and put the past behind them, Carrouge asks Marguerite to give Le Gris a kiss of peace. He remembers her surprise and timidity. Le Gris remembers her as being quietly excited with a kiss that lingers. Marguerite remembers a kiss from Le Gris that lingers too long. Small moments like this are where the film is at its strongest, making its concept feel very relevant today in our world of accusation and counter accusation.

But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time there isn’t this subtle variation. Where the film is weakest is when we (frequently) see the same events, presented the same way, three times. While our perception of Carrouges changes – from the ill-treated noble he sees himself to the sullen, self-entitled whiner everyone else sees – our idea of Le Gris is fundamentally the same (blissfully self-entitled). Fundamentally, when we see events the first time, later versions only really tweak our perception of them rather than challenge it.

You can see this in the rape itself, which we first see from Le Gris’ perspective. The film shows Le Gris’ understanding of consent has been twisted by most of his sexual experience being court orgies with playfully protesting prostitutes. His pursuit of a genuinely unwilling Margeurite around her room echoes exactly the pretend-chases and “chat up lines” he’s used in those earlier scenes, so we understand it’s possible he doesn’t actually understand he’s raped her. But no viewer can see Le Gris’ version as anything other than rape. In fact, the only tangible difference when we see the event from her perspective is that her screams of “No” and “Stop” are louder and the camera focuses more on her anguished face. If the film is presenting any tension about whether this is a consensual encounter or rape, it ends the second we see Le Gris’ story.

This negatively effects the drama – and actually makes Marguerite’s version seem strangely superfluous. You start to feel we might as well see all three perspectives at the same time, as the narrative trick ends up adding little to the film – especially since the film categorically states Marguerite’s version is the truth. Why not just tell the whole film from her perspective in that case? It also doesn’t help that Marguerite goes last – which means until an hour into the film, the character we should be most engaged with and sympathetic towards has stood on the side-lines.

This is particularly unfortunate as the film is striving for a feminist message. The men are callous and self-obsessed, treating women as sex toys or assets – and are praised for it. Marguerite though is intelligent and principled, marginalised by her husband and condemned as a whore when she protests her rape. She pushes her case with determination, despite discovering she will be condemned to burn if Carrouge loses (he of course is only in his own honour). Her word is only good if backed a man, and she is powerless to defend her innocence.

It’s the lot of medieval women. Harriet Walter (rocking a bizarre appearance, straight out of David Lynch’s Dune) as Carrouge’s mother tells Marguerite the same thing happened to her, but she considered it pointless (and dangerous) to press charges. What we see of the judicial system is ruthlessly unjust and misanthropic, with women harangued to confess their guild for tempting men.

But it doesn't quite click together. It’s a shame, as many scenes are highly effective. The rape – both times we see it – is alarming. The final duel is brilliantly shot and hugely tense, not least because Marguerite stands literally on the top of an unlit bonfire watching every blow. Scott’s shoots the film with the same blue-filtered beauty he gave to the early scenes of Kingdom of Heaven.

There is of course an oddness in seeing such American actors as Damon, Affleck and Driver in period setting. The accents are an odd mix: Comer basically uses her regular (non-Scouse) performance voice, Damon does a gravelly version of his own, Walter an American twang to match Damon, Affleck is halfway to plummy Brit, Driver flattens his Californian tones. Damon is pretty good as the sulky, surly Carrouge who gets less sympathetic the more we see him, Driver is suitably charming on the surface but selfish. Comer plays wounded injustice extremely well and brings a lot of emotion to a difficult role. Affleck has the most fun, flouncing around in a blonde wig as a lordly, hedonistic pervert who likes nothing more than belittling Carrouge.

The Last Duel is part way to a decent film, but it just lacks that little bit extra to make it really come to life. Its alternative versions of the truth don’t illuminate as much as they need to – even if they are at points pleasingly subtle in their differences. It has an admirable feminist message, but defers most of it to the second half of the film (were they worried about sidelining the famous male actors?) and it’s concern that we should not doubt Marguerite at any point does undermine its drama. Handsomely filmed, it doesn’t make the impact it should. Perhaps that’s why it was one of the leading box office disasters of the Covid Pandemic?

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Oliver! (1968)

Mark Lester asks for More. You may not share his sentiments in the Oscar winning Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Joseph O’Conor (Mr Brownlow), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Peggy Mount (Mrs Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypool), Megs Jenkins (Mrs Bedwin)

1968. The Vietnam War gets worse. The My Lai Massacre is a low-point in America’s global reputation. MLK is assassinated. Student protests rip through campuses, culminating in Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. RFK is assassinated. In the UK, Enoch Powell talks about “Rivers of Blood”. A flu pandemic sweeps the world. The USSR ends the “Prague Spring” with tanks. It was a year of horrific global turmoil. Perhaps it’s not a surprise the Oscars chose as Best Picture something as blandly comfortable and utterly disconnected from all this mayhem as Oliver! A personality-free re-tread of a successful stage musical, with a few good tunes bolstering a lobotomised adaptation of Dickens’ novel, Oliver! is so coated with sugar it must have helped the medicine of 1968 go down.

Young Oliver (Mark Lester with his singing voice dubbed) is an angelic orphan, thrown out of the workhouse for asking for “more” (Never before has such an event occurred), eventually escaping to London (Where is Love eh?). There he finds the Big Smoke to be nothing less than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Invited by pickpocket The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) to consider himself part of the family, he’s soon learning how to pick a pocket or two from Fagin (Ron Moody). It’s not all fun and games though: violent criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) is a wildcard, although his devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis), the sort of girl the boys will do anything for, remains loyal to Bill for as long as he needs her. But there’s a secret in Oliver’s past – who are his parents?

Carol Reed could once make a claim for being the greatest director in the world. You couldn’t make a case for that based on this cosily chocolate-box, unimaginative trudge through a musical that has little other than a couple of catchy tunes to really recommend it in the first place. The real MVP here is Onna White, whose choreography is very impressive. White takes everyday acts and, with a little bit of jazz and a dollop of musicality, turns them into dance movements. It gives the dance numbers a heightened reality that kind of works and provides nearly everything worth looking at it in the film. Reed certainly leaves her to it, carefully setting the camera up with simple wide and medium shots to capture as much of it as possible.

And you could argue that’s his job. But he brings nothing to the other parts of the production. Of course, Lionel Bart’s musical is a much lighter affair than Dickens’ original (although, in actual fact, this is much more of a musical remake of Lean’s Oliver Twist, making many identical cuts and sharing nearly all the same dialogue), but you’d think the director who gave us Odd Man Out and The Third Man could give some drama and character to London’s underbelly. Not a jot. They have the same muted technicolour cleanliness of everything else, and any hint of ruthlessness, criminality or moral conundrums are well and truly left at the door. What we get is a world where everyone – apart from Bill – is fundamentally nice and decent, and rapacious old men using children as criminals is basically not a lot different from running an after-school club.

It isn’t helped that Oliver!, like Bart’s stage original, has a weak book that offers little light or shade for its characters other than to typecast them into simplified “goodies and baddies”. Reed and the film either can’t or won’t stretch this much further – although the film does rearrange some events of the original production to give a bit more motivational heft to actions and introduce Bill earlier to at least add a bit more tension. The film is as quickly bored with the angelic Oliver as the original is – fair enough since he’s a tediously saintly chap – with Mark Lester alternating between looking winsome and shocked at the company he finds himself amongst.

Nothing can interrupt the overflowing “niceness” of what we are seeing. Ron Moody’s Fagin had been honed from performing it on stage so often (and he is very good). But his Fagin is a cuddly uncle, the sort of grown-up scamp you would invite over for a drink, only keeping an eye on the silverware when you did. This is, let’s not forget, a bloke who colludes in murder (though the film reduces his responsibility), kidnapping, grooms kids for a life of crime and willingly lets them die for him. Not a whiff of this is allowed onto the screen. The Artful Dodger (played with a cheeky but tellingly amoral charm by Jack Wild, who tragically never hit these heights again) is given more light and shade than Fagin.

Like the musical, the film downplays the abusive relationship at its heart. Nancy is little more than a walking embodiment of the cliched “tart with a heart” trope, and the film adaptation chooses to praise her for not just sticking with her abuser, but slavishly devoting herself to him. In fact, beyond being casually kind to a child once in a while, this devotion is pretty much Nancy’s entire personality – and the film approves of it. This isn’t a dark picture of a violent man victimising a young woman, folks, it’s love! See, there’s a ballad about it and everything!

It’s a family drama so her murder takes place off screen (just her death spasm legs are seen), but you’d like to think the film could have taken a few moments to put a bit of light and shade on just why this character feels the way she does and does the things she does. In fact, the film is quite dependent on Oliver Reed, the only actor in it who dares to touch some sort of psychological depth – it’s quite telling that, even though he was a famed drunk, he’s the only member of the cast to have had any success after the film was released.

Instead, this is a great big, colourful, empty pantomime of a musical, devoid of character and (outside of its choreography) inspiration. It’s a great big explosion of tasteful sets, mugging actors, pretty colours, prancing and the odd catchy tune. It’s got no idea what the original novel was about at all, and no interest in even touching some of the themes of poverty and criminality Dickens was aiming at. Reed directs the entire thing with the indifference of a gun-for-hire.

Its syrupy sweetness and hammering tweeness leaves you punch-drunk rather than sugar-rushed. Oliver is such an insipid fella you’ll be delighted when he shuts up and sits in the background for most of the second half. It clumsily unveils a mystery and then drifts towards a conclusion that lacks any real drama. It studiously avoids anything that could remotely stretch the viewer. It’s trying so hard to charm you and hug you, it comes across like a lecherous stranger offering you sweets. Oliver! wasn’t even the best musical of 1968, let alone the best film. But in a year when the world was going to hell in a handcart, perhaps a kid-friendly fable bending over backwards to charm and reassure you was what the world needed. Doesn’t mean I need to stomach it now.

Sunday, 26 December 2021

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

Lionel Atwill and of course Marlene Dietrich play out the final chapter of von Sternberg's psycho-sexual fantasies in The Devil is a Woman

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Concha Perez), Lionel Atwill (Captain Don Pasqual Costelar), Edward Everett Horton (Governor Don Paquito), Cesar Romero (Antonio Galvan), Alison Skipworth (Senora Perez), Don Avarado (Morenito)

The Devil is a Woman has more than a whiff of being made after the Lord Mayor’s Show. It’s an impression not helped by the fact that it takes place in the aftermath of a town carnival, with Sternberg having apparently emptied the Paramount props cupboard of paper streamers. The Devil is a Woman is the final film made by Sternberg and Dietrich, a piece of contractual obligation for all concerned. Sternberg’s career deflated swiftly after it and the entire film has an autumnal sadness about it. No one seems particularly interested in what they are making, and it finds nothing new to say or do that Sternberg and Dietrich haven’t already done, other than set it in Spain (a decision that did not delight the Spanish government).

Dietrich is Concha Perez, a beyond ruthless, heartless, scheming, femme fatale who teases and uses men for her own ends with nary a second of guilt. Her web is starting to form around revolutionary Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero). He’s warned off though by her former beau (victim?) Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), a middle-aged aristocrat who Concha effortlessly made dance to her tune and fund her many affairs, all while giving him just enough affection to keep him on board. Pasqual recounts his relationship with Concha in flashback – but will Antonio give a damn? Or is a duel on the cards between the two? Watch out Pasqual is an expert marksman…

For decades The Devil is a Woman was considered a lost film, until Sternberg provided one of the few copies of the film to the Venice Film Festival in 1959. This copy however did not contain the 17 minutes of footage cut from the film by Paramount (it’s a very short film, less than 80 minutes). Even found though, it’s a minor work, a little coda to seven collaborations between director and star, some of them iconic classics.

The film has all the foibles of Sternberg – and is a final indicator why this visual stylist found himself so hideously out of step in the era of the talkies. Dialogue and story are so secondary that you can’t help but notice their crudeness. When Sternberg has longer dialogue scenes, he shoots them with a cursory flatness that suggests he them over and done with as soon as possible. The passion of the film – what passion there is – goes into the visuals, whether it’s the streamer filled carnivals, the thundering rain that powers down on the duel or (of course) the sultry, painterly shots of Dietrich in luscious black-and-white.

The problem is that there isn’t really a truly striking visual in the film: perhaps Sternberg had used all his fire on The Scarlet Empress or maybe, after the disaster of that film, he was worried (or had been firmly told) that his final Paramount film had to have at least some semblance of the conventional to it. So, The Devil is a Woman is a conventional film with little flashes of imagination and visual skill – like the balloon that bursts to reveal Dietrich’s face (marksman to burst the balloon none other than Sternberg himself). It all adds to the end-of-an-era feeling that permeates the film.

The most interesting beat in the film is the feeling that we are watching yet-another on-screen playing out of Sternberg’s own psycho-sexual drama. Surely, he saw more than a bit of himself in Pasqual? The older, refined man, hopelessly infatuated with the beautiful, younger woman who drains him dry of money and prestige, but won’t commit herself to loving him? Pasqual the masochist who keeps coming back for more and more humiliation and sexual rejection? Hard not to think that there was more than a bit of Sternberg in Atwill’s performance – or that Concha’s late abandonment of Antonio to return to Pasqual was Sternberg’s own fantasy. Of course, it’s all Sternberg’s view, where he was very much the Henry Higgins. Dietrich would very well disagree.

The Devil is a Woman has its moments. Although often (despite being very short) rather slow – the long flashback-structure back story takes it time and then some – Sternberg can still find moments of beauty. Cesar Romero brings a lot more charisma and interest to the sort of handsome beefcake role John Lodge played in The Scarlett Empress. (In a bizarre advance in-joke Romero wears something very close to a Batman style mask at one point). Dietrich is given little to do other than be as cold as possible, but she manages to add depth and shade to her character. Atwill is rather good as the masochist Pasqual and the rain-soaked duel between him and Romero is worth the price of admission.

It can’t change the fact though that this is rather a sad coda to a great collaboration, an after-thought where it’s not clear that anyone was really interested in the content itself. It’s final shot is fitting: a chariot rides away into the sunset. It fits for this partnership – and effectively for Sternberg’s career which never achieved these heights again.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Max von Sydow carries a heavy burden in Steven's far-from The Greatest Story Ever Told

Director: George Stevens
Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Claude Rains (Herod the Great), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Donald Pleasance (“The Dark Hermit”), Michael Anderson Jnr (James the Less), Roddy McDowell (Matthew), Gary Raymond (Peter), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), John Wayne (Centurion)

You could make a case to prosecute The Greatest Story Ever Told under the Trade Descriptions Act. In a world where we are blessed (cursed?) with a plethora of Biblical epics, few are as long, worthy, turgid or dull as George Stevens’ misguided epic. Just like Jesus in the film is plagued by a Dark Hermit representing Satan, did Stevens have a wicked angel whispering in his ear “More wide shots George, and even more Handel’s Messiah. And yes, The Duke is natural casting for a Roman Centurion…”. The Greatest Story Ever Told has some of the worst reviews Christianity has ever had – and it’s had some bad ones.

The plot covers the whole life of the Saviour so should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Gideon’s Bible. It was a passion project for Stevens, who spent almost five years raising the cash to bring it to the screen. When he started, the fad for self-important Biblical epics was starting to teeter. When it hit the screen, it had flat-lined. It didn’t help that The Greatest Story Ever Told was first released as an over four-hour snooze fest, laboriously paced, that managed to drain any fire or passion from one of (no matter what you believe) the most tumultuous and significant lives anyone on the planet has ever led. The film was cut down to about two hours (making it incomprehensible) and today exists as a little over three-hour epic that genuinely still feels like it’s four hours long.

Stevens gets almost nothing right here whatsoever. Self-importance permeates the entire project. The film cost $20million, double the largest amount the studio had ever spent. Ordinary storyboards were not good enough: Stevens commissioned 350 oil paintings (that’s right, an entire art gallery’s worth) to plan the picture (which probably explains why the film feels at times like a slide show of second-rate devotional imagery). The Pope was consulted on the script (wisely he didn’t take a screen credit). Stevens decided the American West made a better Holy Land than the actual Holy Land, so shot it all in Arizona, Nevada and California. It took so long to film, Joseph Schildkraut and original cinematographer William C Mellor both died while making it, while Joanna Durham (playing Mary Magdalene!) became pregnant and gave birth. Stevens shot 1,136 miles of film, enough to wrap around the Moon.

There’s something a little sad about all that effort so completely wasted. But the film is a complete dud. It’s terminally slow, not helped by its stately shooting style where the influence of all those paintings can be seen. Everything is treated with crushing import – Jesus can’t draw breath without a heavenly choir kicking in to add spiritual import to whatever he is about to say. Stevens equates grandeur with long shots so a lot of stuff happens in the widest framing possible, most ridiculously the resurrection of Lazarus which takes place in a small part of a screen consumed with a vast cliff panorama. Bizarrely, most of the miracles take place off-screen, as if Stevens worried that seeing a man walk on water, feed the five thousand or turn water into wine would stretch credulity (which surely can’t be the case for a film as genuflecting as this one).

What we get instead is Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo and Van Heflin euphorically running up a hilltop and shouting out loud the various miracles the Lamb of God has bashfully performed off-screen. Everything takes a very long time to happen and a large portion of the film is given over to a lot of Christ walking, talking at people but not really doing anything. For all the vast length, no real idea is given at all about what people were drawn to or found magnetic about Him. It’s as if Stevens is so concerned to show He was better than this world, that the film forgets to show that He was actually part of this world. Instead, we have to kept being told what a charismatic guy He is and how profound His message is: we never get to see or hear these qualities from His own lips.

For a film designed to celebrate the Greatest, the film strips out much of the awe and wonder in Him. It’s not helped by the chronic miscasting of Max von Sydow. Selected because he was a great actor who would be unfamiliar to the mid-West masses (presumably considered to be unlikely to be au fait with the work of Ingmar Bergman), von Sydow is just plain wrong for the role. His sonorous seriousness and restrained internal firmness help make the Son of God a crushing, distant bore. He’s not helped by his dialogue being entirely made-up of Bible quotes or the fact that Stevens directs him to be so stationary and granite, with much middle-distance staring, he could have been replaced with an Orthodox Icon with very little noticeable difference.

Around von Sydow, Stevens followed the norm by hiring as many star actors as possible, some of whom pop up for a few seconds. The most famous of these is of course John Wayne as the Centurion who crucifies Jesus. This cameo has entered the realms of Filmic Myth (the legendary “More Awe!”exchange). Actually, Stevens shoots Wayne with embarrassment, as if knowing getting this Western legend in is ridiculous – you can hardly spot Wayne (if you didn’t know it was him, you wouldn’t) and his line is clearly a voiceover. In a way just as egregious is Sidney Poitier’s wordless super-star appearance as Simon, distracting you from feeling the pain of Jesus’ sacrifice by saying “Oh look that’s Sidney Poitier” as he dips into frame to help carry the cross.

Of the actors who are in it long enough to make an impression, they fall into three camps: the OTT, the “staring with reverence” and the genuinely good. Of the OTT crowd, Rains and Ferrer set the bar early as various Herods but Heston steals the film as a rug-chested, manly John the Baptist, ducking heads under water in a Nevada lake, bellowing scripture to the heavens. Of the reverent, McDowell does some hard thinking as Matthew, although I have a certain fondness for Gary Raymond’s decent but chronically unreliable Peter (the scene where he bitches endlessly about a stolen cloak is possibly the only chuckle in the movie).

It’s a sad state of affairs that the Genuinely Good actors all play the Genuinely Bad characters – poor old Jesus, even in the story of his life the Devil gets all the best scenes. That’s literally true here as Donald Pleasence is head-and-shoulders best-in-show as a softly spoken, insinuating but deeply sinister “Dark Hermit” who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and then follows Him throughout the Holy Land, turning others against Him. Also good are David McCallum as a conflicted Judas, Telly Savalas as weary Pilate (he shaved his head for the role, loved the look and never went back) and Martin Landau, good value as a corrupt Caiaphas (“This will all be forgotten in a week” he signs the film off with saying).

That’s about all there is to enjoy about a film that probably did more to reduce attendance at Sunday School than the introduction of Sunday opening hours and football being played all day. A passion project from Stevens where he forgot to put any of that passion on the screen, it really is as long and boring as you heard, a film made with such reverent skill that no one seemed to have thought about stopping and saying “well, yes, but is it good?”. I doubt anyone is watching it up in Heaven.

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

His Girl Friday (1940)

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant bicker and spar in His Girl Friday, one of the all-time classics I've never quite clicked with

Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (The Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson), Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Louie), Frank Orth (Duffy), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Helen Mack (Mollie Mallot)

There’s always one film classic that the world and his dog love to bits, but every time you watch it you just don’t get it. That classic for me is His Girl Friday. I’m not sure many films have appeared more than this one on film buffs’ lists of Top Ten Movies of All Time, but while I admire its many, many qualities, every time I’ve watched it – and it’s at least three now – I just don’t love it. More to the point I don’t find it funny (I know, I know I can practically hear your jaws hitting the floor), neither do I engage with or root for its lead characters (please don’t hit me).  I admire a lot of things about this film and how it is made. And I chuckle from time to time when I watch it. But for some reason even I’m not sure of, I’ve got no click with this film. Compared to The Awful Truth or The Lady Eve or The Philadelphia Story (all films this bears a lot of comparison with) I just don’t feel it.

It’s an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. In quite a modern touch, one of its lead characters is gender flipped. In the play, a newspaper editor tries to persuade his star reporter not to quit the game: in His Girl Friday the star reporter not only becomes a woman but, don’t you know it, the ex-wife of the editor, about to walk out (in more ways than one) to marry her dull fiancé. Cary Grant (who else?) is the fast-talking editor Walter Burns, Rosalind Russell the fast-talking star reporter Hildy Johnson. In fact, everyone is fast-talking, in the film that holds the world record for dialogue speed. Can Burns persuade Hildy to hold off leaving with fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – sportingly playing up to his dull reputation) for one more day so she can cover the story of strangely naïve convict Earl Williams (John Qualen)? Let the madness ensue.

Let’s focus on all the good stuff first. Not least because my general lack of connection to a film loved by all and sundry is so personal, it almost defies analysis. Hawks was, rumour has it, won round to the idea of gender-swapping Hildy by hosting a read-through of the play at a dinner party with a shortage of people, meaning Hildy was read by a woman. That opened up a host of ideas around combining this with the classic re-marriage genre and bang away we go. It is, needless to say, a brilliant idea and adds such a spark to every single interaction between the two characters that it distinctly improves the play (later productions have often carried the idea – and the dialogue – across from this film).

On top of this, Hawks wanted to make this the fastest talking comedy film ever made. And boy does he succeed at that. The dialogue of this film is delivered with such rat-a-tat speed that clock watchers report it hits a rate of over 300 words a minute (try reading that many words out in one minute to see how fast that is). It gives the film a ferocious manic energy and thunder-cracker momentum and keeps the punchlines coming fast. It also needs gifted actors, which it sure-as-hell gets here. Grant possibly hits his comedic peak here, managing to still remain suave, cool and collected, even as he’s ripping through words and shifting verbal goalposts at dazzling speed. This is also Russell’s career highlight, embodying the image of the sort of spunky, arch and no-nonsense professional woman of screwball comedy that all others (even Hepburn) are measured against.

They race through a film that makes excellent use of long-takes, intelligent single-shot camera moves and careful, intelligent editing to highlight the electric speed of the zany dialogue. In particular, Hawks makes a brilliant motif of telephones (those old candlestick phones), which characters are forever hurling instructions down, using as escape tools from awkward moments and juggling conversations with (either from multiple phones or between the phone and people in the room). They are used for short, sharp, punchy lines – and it fits a film that is all momentum and short-hand. The ultra-smart, quotable banter, littered with one-liners, is the ultimate epitome of the popular style of dialogue at the time, which favoured this style over the speeches and deeper content that was seen as more of the preserve of theatre.

Walter and Hildy in this version also become the epitome of “the screwball couple”. The divorced partners who of course still love each other, largely because they recognise that no-one else will share their insane energy and obsession. Not to mention that fighting and feuding with their intellectual equal is a million times sexier (and better foreplay) than a thousand dinners at home with someone average will ever be. Ralph Bellamy does good work here (essentially, like Grant, repeating his role from The Awful Truth) as that dull, trusting man – the only one in the film who vaguely resembles a human being and therefore, obviously, the character the audience likes the least (who goes to the cinema to see someone like themselves on the screen, eh?)

There is so much right about His Girl Friday. The actors are sublime, the dialogue delivered perfectly, Hawks’ direction is pin-point in its mix of old-Hollywood classicism, and it’s very well shot. So why don’t I like it more? It’s that most personal feeling: I just don’t find it funny enough. Maybe that’s because I need to connect with characters more – and I don’t connect with Hildy and Walter. In some ways I don’t even like them. His Girl Friday is frequently an unapologetically cruel film: Hildy and Walter treat several people like crap, largely for their own amusement or as collateral damage in their own war of foreplay. At one point a desperate, lonely woman attempts suicide (she jumps out of a damn window falling a couple of floors) – Hildy and Walter are joking about it in seconds. They are cold, self-obsessed people and for all their superficial charm, there isn’t any touch of warmth to them at all. They are very artificial people in an artificial world. In all, I don’t really like them and I find it hard to care or want them back together (other than recognising that they deserve each other).

Believe me, I understand some comedy is cruel, I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t think His Girl Friday realises it’s that kind of film. The Awful Truth has a very similar plot – but that had its characters recognise their own faults and also gave us reasons to care for them as human beings. His Girl Friday doesn’t do either of those things, meaning I laughed a lot in The Awful Truth and not so much in His Girl Friday.

Can you still bear to read on after such blasphemy? But there you go. Everyone has that stone-cold classic that they just can’t get on board with. This film is mine. I respect so much about it, but it neither tickles my funny bone nor makes me feel welcomed. I find it a cold and cruelly minded film, that looks down on people with scorn – from Bruce to criminal Earl Williams and most especially to his distraught girlfriend Molly – and invites us to do the same. It wants us to love the popular kids in the class and join them in spitting paper balls at the losers. This doesn’t do it for me. I know everyone loves it. Hell, I know I’m probably wrong. But I just don’t love His Girl Friday.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Benedict Cumberbatch rules his ranch with an iron fist in Jane Campion's extraordinary The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank), Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon), Jesse Plemons (George Burbank), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon), Thomasin McKenzie (Lola), Genevieve Lemon (Mrs Lewis), Keith Carradine (Governor Edward), Frances Conroy (Old Lady), Peter Carroll (Old Gent)

At one point in The Power of the Dog, Phil Burbank, monstrously domineering Montana Rancher, stares out at his beloved hills. Where others see only rocks and peaks, Phil sees how (like a cloud) they form themselves into looking like a howling dog. Seeing things others do not is something Phil prides himself on. It’s also something The Power of the Dog excels out: it’s a continually genre- and tone-shifting film that starts as a gothic, du Maurier-like dance among the plains and ends as something so radically different, with such unexpected character shifts and revelations, you’ll be desperate to go back and watch it again and see if you can see the image of a dog among its rocks.

In Montana in 1925, two brothers run a ranch. George (Jesse Plemons) is polite, formal and quiet, seemingly under the thumb of his aggressively macho, bullying brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil is fully “hands-on” on the ranch, priding himself on being able to perform every task, from rope weaving to bull skinning, all of which he learned from his deceased mentor “Bronco” Henry. Things change though when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil takes an immediate dislike to Rose, engaging into a campaign of psychological bullying that drives Rose to drink. However, at the same time a strange bond develops between Phil and Rose’s student son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – is Phil’s interest in the boy part of a campaign to destroy Rose or are there other forces at work?

Campion’s film (her first in over ten years) is a fascinating series of narrative turns and genre shifts. It opens like a gothic Western. The ranch is a huge, isolated house surrounded by rolling fields and its own rules. Phil is an awe-inspiring, still-living Rebecca with Rose a Second Mrs de Winter having to share a bathroom with the perfect first wife. The psychological war Phil launches against Rose, like a hyper-masculine Mrs Danvers, seems at first to be heading towards a plot where we will see a vulnerable woman either crushed or fighting back. Then Campion shifts gears with incredible professional ease; the kaleidoscope shifts and suddenly our perceptions change along with the film’s genre, which becomes something strikingly different.

This all revolves around the character of Phil. Excellently played (way against type) by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a hugely complex performance, Phil at first seems an obvious character. A bully and alpha male who mocks George as “Fatso”, hurls homophobic slurs at Rose’s sensitive, artistic son and would-be doctor Pete, and treats his duties with such masculine reverence that the idea of wearing gloves to skin a cow or washing the dirt of his labour from him is anathema.

But look at Phil another way and you see his vulnerability. The opening scenes play as a torrent of abuse to George. But look again and you see this is a man desperately trying multiple angles to clumsily engage his brother in joint reminiscences. His emotional dependence on George is so great that they still share a single bedroom in their giant house (and even a bed in a guest house, like Morecambe and Wise) and he weeps on their first night apart. Despite his brutish appearance, his conversation is littered with classical and literary allusions (we discover later he is a Yale Classics graduate). His life is devoid of emotional and physical contact and he maintains a hidden retreat in the woods, a private den the only place we see him relax.

He’s a man clinging desperately to the past. At first it feels like he has never grown up, that he is still a boy at heart. But Campion slowly reveals his emotional bonds to his deceased mentor Bronco (whom he refers to almost constantly in conversation) to be far deeper and more complex than first anticipated. He treats Bronco’s remaining belongings with reverence, maintaining a shrine to him in the barn and cleaning his saddle with more tenderness and care than he feels able to show any human being. The depths of this relationship are crucial to understanding Phil’s character and the emotional barriers he has constructed. His gruff aggression hides a deep isolation and loneliness, feelings Campion explores with profound empathy in the film’s second half.

That doesn’t change the monstrousness of the bullying Phil enacts on Rose. Played with fragile timidity by Kirsten Dunst, Rose becomes so grimly aware of Phil’s loathing that is too paralysed by intimidation to even play Strauss on her newly purchased piano in front of George’s distinguished guests (Phil pointedly plays the music far better on his banjo and takes to whistling in in Rose’s presence) and later tips into alcoholic incoherence.

Despite Dunst’s strong performance, if the film has a flaw it is that we don’t quite invest in Rose enough to empathise fully with her emotional collapse. Both she and George (a fine performance of not-too-bright-decency from Plemons, in the least flashy role) disappear for stretches and play out parts of their relationship off camera, making it harder to bond with them (a bond the earlier part of the film needs). It perhaps might have been more effective to centre the film’s opening act on Rose rather than Phil, allowing us to relate to her better and feel her decline more.

Dunst however nails Rose’s growing fear, desperation and depression while her status as an unwelcome guest is constantly forced on her. Her panic only deepens with the return of her son Peter. This is where the film takes a series of unexpected shifts. To the surprise of all Phil offers to take the sensitive, quiet Pete under his wing: perhaps he’s impressed by Pete’s indifference to the homophobic abuse from the ranch-hands, perhaps he sees a chance to spiritually resurrect his mentor by playing the same role himself to Phil (pointedly, the film implies the younger Phil may not have been dissimilar from Pete). Either way, Campion’s film heads into its extraordinary and deeply impactful second half as an unsettling and uncertain personal drama between two men who seem totally different but may perhaps have more similarities than expected.

As Peter, Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a wonderfully judged performance of inscrutability and reserve. He’s an artistic boy who creates detailed paper flowers and keeps artistic scrapbooks, but can dissect animals without a flinch and snaps the neck of an injured rabbit with ease. He seems alternately devoted to his mother then queasily distant from her, calling her Rose and unsettled by her drunken inappropriateness. His motivations remain enigmatic, just as Phil’s motivations for befriending this isolated and very different boy could fall either way. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch are both extraordinarily good in the scenes between this unlikely partnership, and Campion’s artful film keeps us on our toes as to precisely what they want from this friendship. The result is haunting.

It leads into a stunning final act which demands we re-evaluate all we have seen and leaves such a lasting impression I was still re-living the film in my mind days later. Campion’s film is masterfully shot and carries a wonderful atmosphere of intimidation and unease, helped hugely by Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant score with its unsettling piano-inspired cadences. It reinvents itself constantly, Campion’s direction shifting tone and genre masterfully. It’s quite brilliantly acted and provides Cumberbatch in particular with an opportunity he seizes upon to slowly reveal depths of emotion and vulnerability an outwardly straight-forward monster. There won’t be many finer films released in 2021: and this will be a classic to sit alongside The Piano in Campion’s work.

Monday, 20 December 2021

The Farewell (2019)

Awkwafina leads an impressive ensemble cast in Lulu Wang's excellent film

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina (Billi Wang), Tzi Ma (Haiywan Wang), Diana Lin (Lu Jian), Zhao Shu-zhen (Nai Nai), Lu Hong (Little Nai Nai), Jiang Yongbo (Haibin), Chen Han (Hao Hao), Aoi Mizuhara (Aiko), Zhang Jing (Yuping), Li Xiang (Aunty Ling), Yang Xuejian (Mr Li)

When you have lived your life as part of two different cultures, it can be difficult reconciling them together. It’s something Lulu Wang has personal experience of, born in China and moving to America aged 6. She grew up American, but with a strong Chinese heritage – and a family who held some sharply different cultural expectations than she had grown used to in her adopted country. Wang explores these details with warmth, insight and wit in the semi-autobiographical The Farewell, based on events that happened in her own family.

Billi Wang (Awkwafina) is a young graduate in America, working out what the next step of her life will be. All this is put on hold when she hears from China her paternal grandmother “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shu-zhen) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has only months to live. As per Chinese custom, the family decide to keep her diagnosis a secret from her so she can enjoy the last few months of her life untroubled by worry and fear. Billi and her parents Haiywan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin) fly to Changchun to attend a hastily arranged wedding of Billi’s cousin – the wedding being an excuse for the family to come together for one last time. But, arriving in Changchun, Billi struggles between her desire to tell Nai Nai the truth and the desire of her family (however difficult they find it) to maintain Chinese cultural beliefs.

In another world The Farewell could have been an out-and-out comedy of cultural clashes and misunderstandings. That’s not to say the film itself doesn’t have a great deal of wit in it. But Wang has directed a sharply intelligent, respectful, compassionate and heartfelt exploration of cultural legacy and split loyalties between them, that refuses easy answers or moral judgements. Instead, it encourages a great deal of thought: what would you do in this situation? Whose values are ‘right’ – those of your adopted home, or those of your family heritage? Is it even right to think in these terms of one being more legitimate than another? How does returning to the country of your birth make you reflect about the things you left behind or have forgotten?

It all comes out beautifully in Awkawafina’s delicate and tender performance as Billi. Returning to China reminds her of parts of her own past she has nearly forgotten. It’s not just changes in the land where she grew up. It’s the memory of that childhood trauma of being taken halfway across the world to a new country, leaving everything she had ever known behind. Of remembering her grandfather died shortly after they left, having been told the same story as Nai-Nai, and she never saw him again. And seeing that whole cycle about to repeat again and struggling to square that with her Western ideal to be open and truthful.

But is that the right thing? For many watching in the West, we will of course assume at first ‘yes’. But, as an English-educated young doctor in a hospital points out, what harm does it really do when you can work instead to make someone’s last few months happy and free of fear? After all, you can’t change the diagnosis. And is, as the film implies, wanting to share the truth as much, if not more, about you more than it is the person you are telling?

After all, it’s not as if the family isn’t torn apart emotionally about the impending loss. Many of them at various points choke back tears and it’s clear the pressure of maintaining the front of the happy wedding is taking its toll on everyone. Billi’s dad and brother drown mountains of beer one night and even take up smoking again. The bride and groom are so distracted by the pressure, Nai Nai worries people will think it’s a shotgun wedding. Billi is even barred at first from the wedding because her family are worried she won’t be able to keep up the pretence that all is well at a joyous celebration.

Billi’s uncle Haibin points out that this ties in with a more Chinese collectivist way of thinking, Death is a terrible burden – surely its better for the whole family unit to share it among themselves rather than force it all onto the sufferer. Nai Nai would certainly agree – it’s revealed during the film she was part of a similar lie to her husband. For our Western eyes, a more individualised view of people having all the choice themselves seems more important, but The Farewell’s strength is showing that such a view – well-meaning as it is – can also be an arrogant imposition of thinking what you instinctively believe is more legitimate than another cultures.

It’s a fascinating insight into discussions and conflicts that must be occurring in families all over our newly shrunk globe. And this might make it sound like a tough film to watch, but it’s not. It’s manages also to be wonderfully warm and life-affirming and if it tugs the heartstrings, its because Wang directs it with such truth and empathy for all the characters. Their little idiosyncrasies ring very true and the film is crammed with moments of small but truthful family humour.

It’s also superbly performed. Awakwafina is excellent. Zhao Shu-zhen manages to transcend the cliché of the larger-than-life older woman, by making Nai Nai a force of nature, but also wise and gentle with a slight air of determined sadness. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are wonderful as Billi’s parents, quietly juggling their own mixed feelings. The film mines some gentle humour from how Billi’s family Westernised ways have made them, at times, strangers in China and the actors all achieve the difficult feat of actually feeling like a real family on screen – private jokes, natural warmth, and an emotional short-hand.

The Farewell is a gentle, charming but very thought-provoking movie that asks intriguing questions about multi-cultural families and the difficulties second-generation migrants have with balancing the culture of their ancestors with the world they have grown up in. With plenty of humour and an abundance of warmth, it’s got something for everyone.

Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty brings his passion to life in Ken Loachesque Reds

Director: Warren Beatty
Cast: Warren Beatty (John Reed), Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant), Edward Herrmann (Max Eastman), Jerzy Kosinski (Grigory Zinoviev), Jack Nicholson (Eugene O’Neill), Paul Sorvino (Louis C Farina), Maureen Stapleton (Emma Goldman), Nicolas Coster (Paul Trullinger), William Daniels (Julius Gerber), Jan Triska (Karl Rodek), Gene Hackman (Pete van Wherry)

Reds is the film only Warren Beatty could have made. Imagine the pitch meeting: I want to make a three hour long biopic about American communists, with the hero being the only American buried in the Kremlin, and I need $30million dollars to do it. Only Beatty had the force of personality to get major companies to invest greenbacks into a film celebrating a man who would have happily cheered their demise. Reds is a tribute above all to the dedication of its multi-titled director and his refusal to compromise. It’s a big piece of serious minded, educational but also dramatic and romantic storytelling. Not many people could have pulled it off.

In 1915 Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a young would-be journalist and suffragette, meets and falls in love with left-wing journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty). The two of them tun off together to Reed’s bohemian circle in Greenwich Village, New York then to Massachusetts, becoming the centre of a community of anarchists, socialists and artists. Their mutual love is damaged by affairs – in particular Bryant’s heartfelt affair with the sensitive Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Reed’s own (off-screen) infidelities – but is rekindled as they are swept up in the Russian Revolution, an event that motivates Reed to try and build a similar communist party in America (with very little success). But, when Reed is trapped in Soviet Russia, how far will Bryant go to reunite with him?

Beatty’s dream of making a film on Reed’s life had been knocking around in his head since the 1960s, but it took the success of Heaven Can Wait in 1978 for him to finally have the muscle to get the film made (when Studio execs, having signed the deal, begged him to consider another subject Beatty stuck to his guns). He originally planned only to produce: that quickly expanded into also writing the script (with Marxist British playwright Trevor Griffiths, a hilarious personality mismatch with the Virginian millionaire Beatty), then directing it and finally, to be completely sure the project went where he wanted it to go, playing Reed as well. It would result in Beatty joining the short list of people nominated in four different categories for one film at the Oscars (but he won only Best Director, Reds losing out the big one to Chariots of Fire).

The real strength of Reds is probably Beatty’s producing. This is a huge epic, filmed across multiple countries in Europe (standing in for each other and for America), marshalling a vast number of sets and locations. Much like Attenborough’s Gandhi, it’s a film directed with a smooth, professional competence, but stage-managed to the screen with the flair of as master producer. Each department was staffed by an expert: Vittorio Storaro shot the film with a Golden Age beauty; Stephen Sondheim contributed to the score; Dede Allen assembled thousands of hours of footage, and dozens and dozens of takes of every scene, into a coherent, pacey movie that effectively balances politics and romance.

In many ways, Reds is like the mirror image of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (it even has a late train ambush set-piece, chugging through the Spanish wheat fields, that could have come out of Lean’s epic). That film was a romance-for-the-ages that used politics and revolution as a backdrop. Reds uses romance and personal stories as a context-setting background, to push to the forefront politics and revolution. This is perhaps the most earnest and impassioned exploration of the history of American left-wing politics in film history. Show piecing – particularly in its second half – several scenes made-up entirely of impassioned socialists sitting in a room arguing at each other over the minutia of party rules and ideology, this is the sort of epic Ken Loach would have been proud of making.

The politics are also genuinely interesting, quite a feat in itself. Beatty is unafraid to look at the fundamental weaknesses of Western left-wing politics: its own worst enemy is always itself. People who agree on 90% of the issues, swear themselves to become life-long enemies because of differences over the remaining 10%. In one dynamically filmed sequence, Bryant is a frustrated and resigned observer as Reed oversees the split of the American Socialist Party into no less than three factions, two of which set up rival claims to be the “official” Communist party of America.

Not that Reds has any sentiment for Russia: Beatty is savvy enough to know (I wonder if Griffiths was?) that the USSR is about a million miles away from ideal. Factionalism is just as prevalent there, with the difference being the main faction happily uses suppresses and crushes the others. Reed’s time in Russia sees him becoming increasingly disillusioned and homesick, as he realises a dictatorship isn’t made palatable just because it’s a Communist Dictatorship. As the representative of that system, author Jerzy Kosinski makes for a grippingly stone-faced and ruthless Zinoviev, brow-beating any deviation from the party line.

Beatty makes all this political theorising and left-wing political infighting palatable, by framing it carefully around a genuine romance between Bryant and Reed. For all the unconventionality of their open-ish relationship (their feelings on this change from infidelity to infidelity), these are two people who share a deep and lasting bond on both an emotional and a political level. Both skilled writers, we are shown time and again that they bring out their best work from the other and that when they are focused on each other, they have a mutual understanding few can hope to match.

As Bryant, Beatty (who was in a relationship with her at the time – which didn‘t survive the epic shooting schedule) cast Diane Keaton. It’s a stroke of genius – and this is certainly Keaton’s finest performance. In a way no other role has allowed her, this looks past Keaton’s comedic skills and allows her to match her intelligence and spark with a woman who challenged norms, as a skilled writer and journalist. Keaton can play heart-rending emotion just as well – her breakdown fury at discovering Reed’s infidelity is fully-committed without being OTT – and she’s perfect as the increasingly disillusioned observer of left-wing failures. She believably flourishes from a woman uncertain of who she is to become a determined intellectual willing to cross continents to find what she wants. It’s a brilliant performance, smart, sharp and moving.

Beatty fronts-and-centres her so much, he slightly short-changes himself – playing Reed he doubles down on the boyish charm and enthusiasm (and he feels really young here), making Reed an enthusiastic, vulnerable, naïve figure. We just don’t quite get a real sense of who he is beyond that. You can’t say the same for Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill, delivering a remarkably low-key, restrained and sensitive performance. He’s loving, emotionally vulnerable and eventually devastated, in one of his finest acting performances. Maureen Stapleton won the Best Supporting Actress for her Earth-mother anarchist Emma Goldman, the cuddly aunt of firey, confrontational anarchic politics.

Reds is marshalled by Beatty into an epic that powers along effectively. The first half of the film gets its narrative balance right: contrasting personal and political growth with a backdrop of War and Revolution. The second half leaves has a little too much left to chew, a vast amount of political debate rushed through with a series of increasingly short and sometimes disconnected scenes. Beatty balances the narrative with extensive “witness” interviews, from real-life contemporaries of the characters. (These are never identified, which is a bit of shame as it never allows to really know what their perspective was). It adds a feeling of earnestness to a project that gets an effective balance between politics and the personal, between showmanship and details and between scale and intimacy. While it is more of a producer’s film – and rushed in its second half – than a triumph of directorial imagination, it’s still an impressive – and informative – achievement.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

The Pawnbroker (1965)

Rod Steiger is superb in Lumet's drama of grief, The Pawnbroker

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Rod Steiger (Sol Nazerman), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marilyn Birchfield), Brock Peters (Rodriguez), Jaime Sanchez (Jesus Ortiz), Thelma Oliver (Ortiz’s girl), Eusebia Cosme (Mrs Ortiz), Marketa Kimbrell (Tessie), Baruch Lumet (Mendel), Linda Geiser (Ruth Nazerman)

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) lost his entire family – including his wife and two children – in the Holocaust. Previously a University professor, he has now cut himself off from engaging with life by burying himself in a dingy pawnbroker’s shop in Harlem, where he treats his desperate customers like “scum”, offering them nickels for their goods. On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Sol confronts his own grief, tensions from local crime boss Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the offer of a friendly ear from new neighbour Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the unwanted friendship of his assistant Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez).

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that all of this does not end well. The Pawnbroker is almost unrelentingly grim and bleak. Shot in a harsh black-and-white – superbly lensed by Boris Kaufman – it mixes French New Wave realism with a punishingly cold New York aesthetic that catches every grain of dirt on the streets. The past is virtually a character in the film, the events of over twenty years ago having far more importance than many of the trivial events Sol encounters in the present.

The constant presence of the Holocaust, and the scars it has left, are kept in our mind by the film’s constant use of quick – almost subliminal – cuts from current day events to snippets of Sol’s past. Hands pressed against windows turn briefly into hands against barbed wire. A young lady flicks back and forth into Sol’s wife. The sounds of a train inevitably transform into a transport train. Lumet makes it clear to us that everything Sol sees and encounters in the modern world, no matter how small, is just a continual reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust that defined his life.

This isn’t something as ‘simple’ as survivor’s guilt. It’s clear that, while his body survived, Sol effectively died in the camps and what we are seeing is his walking corpse. He’s deliberately alienated himself from the world and his concern, with no real desire to live but also no will for self-destruction. Perhaps he sees his continued existence as a punishment for failing to save his family. This has developed into a loathing for the melting pot of Harlem, a stubborn, conscious refusal to feel any empathy for anyone living there. Instead, he works hard to loath them as much as he loathes himself. Trapped by guilt and grief, Sol slaps away any offers of friendship, pity or warmth.

The film’s greatest strength is Rod Steiger’s towering performance. Normally Steiger was an actor who never shied away from the possibility of over-playing. Here, he’s so buttoned down and spiritually dead, every single movement like he’s walking around in a physical and spiritual straitjacket. Sol scuttles around the cages of his pawnshop, like a guy who has never left the camps. His performance is a masterclass in precision, of carefully restrained movement, gruff speech and eyes that stare into a dread a thousand miles away. Every step Steiger takes is weighted down by an impossible burden of grief, anger, despair and self-loathing.

It also avoids completely easy sentiment. For all that we see the suffering slowly revealed of Sol’s past, Steiger isn’t afraid to show Sol as a difficult, arrogant, even unpleasant character. The defence mechanism of hostility and non-engagement of the world has only increased his prickly aggressiveness. But yet, he remains sympathetic as Steiger also conveys the deep pain Sol spends every single minute of his life suppressing and controlling to stop it overwhelming him.

If there is a fault with the film, it’s that it goes about its carefully bleak and hopeless journey through a few days in Sol’s life with slightly too much precision. The Pawnbroker sometimes mistakes grim, hard-hitting and misery for emotional investment. For all that the film is a difficult, searing watch – and the terrors of the flashbacks are ghastly – it’s somehow not quite as moving as it should be. Perhaps this is because the present-day plot never quite takes off and the other characters – with the exception of Peter’s chillingly ebullient but dangerously violent Rodriguez – don’t quite connect. Fitzgerald’s social worker Marilyn is a character we don’t quite get to know. Not quite enough time is spent with Sol’s in-laws (despite good performances from Marketa Kimbrell and Lumet’s father Baruch Lumet) for their story arc to move us in its own right.

Similarly, the Holocaust sequences – brief and interspersed as they are – sometimes overplay their hand, particularly the rather heavy-handed opening sequences showing the Nazerman family playing in the field minutes before the Germans arrive (accompanied by a thudding musical score – and Quincy Jones’ score sometimes tries to do much work for the viewer). It would be hard not to make The Pawnbroker at least a little bit moving, but Lumet’s film bludgeons us with misery so heavily, that there is no sense of the lightness or warmth of life that has been lost. Scenes of the Holocaust of course are hard to watch, but The Pawnbroker bashes us with them to make us feel things. It's a film that's tough and leaves you in no doubt of the horror, but doesn't always make you feel for individual. You need a touch of what was lost to be truly moved: with no real sense of that, we can’t grieve with the characters.

But, The Pawnbroker is still a daring film that leaves a lasting impression. Lumet’s direction has a New Wave freshness and an immersive sense of the New York Streets. Steiger is fantastic in the lead role – his most restrained (and greatest) performance ever. The film broke new ground for sexuality – including making Rodriguez a non-camp, intimidating homosexual – and while the final beats of inevitable tragedy aren’t quite earned by the events we see, it’s still a grim and powerful look at the lasting damage the past causes the present and the crushing legacy of grief.