Archive for the literature Category

England Expects

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , on October 11, 2014 by dcairns

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“But father, I thought you wanted to see England?” says Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS.

“I’ve seen England,” replies Ralph Richardson, with finality (and accuracy).

Theory: nobody ever sees England in William Wyler’s films. In DODSWORTH, Mr and Mrs D are all set to see England on their transatlantic cruise, and looking forward to it mightily, when Mrs D. (Ruth Chatterton) has a dangerous liaison with David Niven on the boat and is simply too embarrassed to see England afterwards. All those English people, acting superior and telling one another of her shame, and sniggering behind their hands! So they just give England the heave-ho.

This motif of not seeing England had becomes such a central part of Wyler’s style that when forced to film in England during the war, Wyler insisted that his cast become fliers and thus spend as much of their time off England as possible. The result was MEMPHIS BELLE, and it was a documentary so that was alright. MRS. MINIVER and THE COLLECTOR presented a bigger problem, since they were not documentaries and there was no way to rewrite them so that Greer Garson spent most of her time hovering or Terence Stamp abducted Samantha Eggar and imprisoned her in the cellar of his Boeing B17F Flying Fortress. Wyler did consider that, but author John Fowles protested, and bombers don’t have cellars anyway. The solution came from filming at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, California, which already looked a bit like England due to all the dirt deposited over the years from Basil Rathbone’s boots.

Wyler’s aversion to filming on British soil (unless it was on the floor of a sound stage in Hollywood) had resulted in numerous script changes over the years. The original draft of THE LETTER took place on a rubber plantation in Wiltshire, while ROMAN HOLIDAY was at first called COCKNEY KNEES-UP and BEN-HUR had a deleted scene where Judah traveled North to Manchester with Joseph of Arimathea and started a record label. Sam Goldwyn only got Wyler to make WUTHERING HEIGHTS by pretending that Yorkshire was in South America, although it has also been suggested that Goldwyn really believed this.

***

We watched THE LETTER and THE HEIRESS on my birthday but I don’t have anything serious to say just now.

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns

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Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.

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In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…

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You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)

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Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.

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As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

Eyre Turbulence

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2014 by dcairns

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Cary Fukunaga’s JANE EYRE is a cracker.

(I remember The Scotsman‘s film critic greeting BLADE RUNNER at Edinburgh Film Fest with the opening sentence, “Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a cracker,” and thinking it was simultaneously slightly cool and slightly shocking that he should jettison the dignity of his position in such an enthusiastic, fanboyish way, but there are times when that’s appropriate.)

The director of True Detective serves up a smart period film that feels modern in all the right ways. The costumes and settings take us directly into the Bronte-world, and the authentic candlelight cinematography of Adriano Goldman allows us to feel actually present in a way not possible until very recently (Kubrick’s much-vaunted candlelight scenes in BARRY LYNDON still required huge banks of candles offscreen, erasing the flicker and rendering the effect not totally realistic, while the extremely narrow focal depth forced the actors to remain rooted to the spot.) I was reminded of The Knick — though Fukunaga doesn’t go quite so far as to deploy an electronic score to show just how modern he can go. The understated Dario Marinelli piano and violin accompaniment chosen has an appealing delicacy. You don’t want to get too clever for your own good, and what works for Soderbergh wouldn’t here.

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The performances are also strongly naturalistic — Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender not only speak in authentic-sounding Yorkshire accents (and for once Rochester sounds properly regional), they have absorbed the accents so that they are able to concentrate fully on each other.

I didn’t see the popular BBC version, so I mainly recall the Zefferelli on ’96, which strikes me as inferior in every way, save one. I had remembered Maria Schneider, as the first Mrs. Rochester, having a more fully-written role. I actually remembered her having dialogue. Not so — here’s the scene on YouTube.

Some of Zefferelli’s editing choices seem whimsical — there’s an unexpected high angle shot that seems inserted to protect us from the performances rather than to allow us to understand the scene — Jim Clark’s account of editing for Franco Z in his book Dream Repairman (he worked on YOUNG TOSCANINI) kind of suggests that Zefferelli will favour in the edit whoever he happens to be on good terms with that day — but Schneider’s reaction shots are vivid and articulate. It’s often the best policy to play mad people as sane (cf Wasikowska in MAPS TO THE STARS and Kathleen Byron in BLACK NARCISSUS, who is terrifying but consciously decided to play it sane in defiance of screenplay and director), and you can tell Mrs. R understands everything her despised husband is saying, though he talks as if she is a dumb animal. Schneider, the madwoman in the attic of European cinema, had a lot to draw on here.

Not that Valentina Cervi is in any way inadequate as Bertha in the Fukunaga — she has the appropriate menace — it’s just that I think Zeff pulled off a casting coup that would be hard to beat.

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Also in Fukunaga’s cast and of note: Judi Dench can’t suppress her obvious intelligence to play a silly housekeeper, but we don’t mind; Jamie Bell manages to not annoy in the most thankless role; Simon McBurney always adds a touch of the unexpected; Amelia Clarkson is a terrific Young Jane. The idea of starting in media res and exploring the story via flashbacks allows Fukunaga to intercut a child and an adult who don’t really look anything alike and make us forget to bother about that, a bit like Bunuel and his two leading ladies in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE –

– a casting decision that came about after Bunuel fired a recalcitrant Maria Schneider, thus closing the circle here and allowing me to escape. Sound of footsteps, door slam. Mad cackle.

 

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