Archive for Judi Dench

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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Walloping About

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Perusing the plays of Charles Wood, as part of my Richard Lester inquiries.

Wood was brought in to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, as one Royal Court playwright to another,  into Lester’s film THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, and formed a close connection with the director, collaborating on HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA (uncredited), THE BED SITTING ROOM and CUBA. There’s also a whole host of unfilmed screenplays, stored at the BFI – an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s The King (King Arthur in WWII), and a many-titled picture about communist Russia In which Robin Williams was to have played a bad actor with a passing resemblance to Stalin, who can do a passable Georgian accent when drunk,  who gets hired to play the great dictator in a biopic. The production treats him like shit and he gives a lousy performance, so they realize he needs the star treatment to build his ego up and make him feel like a world leader. He gets part-use of a limo (he has to share it with a performing bear) and various other perks, but now success goes to his head, he refuses the sequel, and is pursued by the authorities. Lester envisaged the film almost as a silent movie – in one gag, Williams would jump in a boat and launch it, but it’s a movie prop boat that’s only been built down one side, to give one good camera angle, like Cameron’s TITANIC. It sinks.

The movie didn’t even get a chance to sink. Williams’ career was stone-cold after POPEYE and they couldn’t get any interest from studios, who didn’t want another communist-themed movie so soon after REDS (as if there would be any resemblance).

The source for the screenplay was Red Monarch, a collection blackly comic tales by Yuri Krotkov, who had access to the real inside dope on Stalin’s Russia. For instance, Stalin’s screening room had a cement floor, like a bunker – no carpets – because film directors anxiously awaiting his verdict on their work would habitually soil themselves with terror. A smooth floor made it easier for the cleaning ladies.

Later, Wood adapted the Stalin stuff in the book into RED MONARCH, starring Colin Blakely as Uncle Joe himself, a quirky piece directed by Jack Gold. Blakely plays Stalin as Northern Irish. A bold choice, some would say.

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Wood’s best-known non-Lester film is probably THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, filmed in Turkey by Tony Richardson with a substantial budget and a mighty cast – David Hemmings and the entire British acting establishment, it feels like. Richard Williams provides animated inserts inspired by Punch cartoons…

Gielgud was terrified of his horse but managed to give a great perf in the saddle and out. “I’m an old man, Airey, and I’ve only got one arm. To fight the war with, it won’t be enough, eh?” Later, having disastrously appointed warring brothers-in-law Lucan and Cardigan to command his cavalry, he muses, “We must try to keep those two apart. Don’t let them sit together at dinner. Things are serious and they’re silly in ways.”

Wood’s syntax can resemble Burroughsian fold-ins at times. In THE KNACK he creates sentences that sound like typos spoken allowed: “Behaving? her lot was doing the behaving! All that leaping about in those… that’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour!” And no, it’s no mistake: Michael Crawford really does say “That’s what I behaviour.”

Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, with much softening of the edges of the extreme widescreen frame, and boldly and beautifully cut by Kevin Brownlow, the movie is resolutely unheroic, gloomy, absurd and peculiar, with Wood’s dialogue crafted under the influence of Thackeray and giving a real sense of the strangeness of historic speech (years later, Wood scripted an episode of Napoleonic thick-ear saga Sharpe, and the sudden influx of weird syntax and authentic military slang was startling – and totally unremarked by TV reviewers).

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What interested me about Wood’s theatre work is not just his dazzling language, so conspicuous in the films, but the filmic elements. Veterans is clearly inspired by the characters encountered on CHARGE – on stage, John Gielgud played a perfect caricature of himself (Sir Geoffrey Kendle), while John Mills embodied a character clearly, and wickedly, modelled at least a bit on Trevor Howard (Mr Laurence “Dotty” D’Orsay – probably bits of Olivier thrown in).

You can just hear Gielgud-as-Kendle’s quizzical singsong delivery in this exchange, early on, when the audience may not know if they’re dealing with actors or real Victorian soldiers ~

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. Are you called upon to do much? I’m sorry, I never know what anyone does until years afterwards… do you do much?

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Fighting? No, no, not any more. Quite a lot at the beginning of things… day after miserable day I walloped about on a carthorse sticking a sword into astonished people, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.

Even Wood’s punctuation is astoundingly right. He could have made do with a full stop after “people,” and maybe have gotten two distinct laughs on each sentence, but the comma suggests that Kendle is rushing on to the next thought, with just the right daffy air of Gielgudian distractedness. It’s exactly 45% funnier.

Later, in a classic bit of Gielgud foot-in-mouth, Sir Geoffrey accidentally insults his friend, who has just been called to battle (filming). Attempting to back-pedal out of it, he digs himself deeper ~

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. You must be wanted on the field of battle; I’m not the least surprised, it’s complete chaos, they’re dragging in everybody wears a uniform, oh, oh dear me… ah, Dotty, is that your horse there? What a nice quiet horse it is, not like my nag, a fiend on four legs, has to have a leg tied up every time I am called on to say a few words; still, you don’t have much to say, oh, you know what I mean, ah yes, he seems very gentle and considerate, I do like the look of him…

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. I may not be quite so important as you Geoffrey, Sir Geoffrey, in regard to the length of the sword knot I am given, or the words I am expected to speak… but I am an excellent horseman.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Oh you are, you are!

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. If my mount impresses you withg his manners it is perhaps because I have schooled him.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. It is, it is, a very nice old thing.

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. …and not because he is too old or lacks spirit to be troublesome.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. No, no, a most perfect animal—full of mettle, I can see it, I can see he is a first-rate ride, gives an impression of gentleness. I know you’re a fine horseman, I’ve seen you riding about awfully well and never look like falling off.

The play is dedicated to Richard Lester, and by way of wriggling out of the charge that he has written some kind of drame a clef (is that even a thing?), Wood says in his intro ~

“All the films I have worked on have contributed to Veterans and more interestingly than gossip I hope the play is concerned with deceit, exploitation and treachery within an empire/industry run by gangsters, funny in their pretensions, vicious in their actions, showing a pathetic regard for skills and talent, and how these gangsters can be used by talented people who have acquired other talents like deceit, treachery, and the ability to be totally selfish yet remain on the best of terms with everyone, but for what?”

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During the shooting of CHARGE, Wood discovered Norman Rossington, reduced to the ranks, sitting up front with the officers, and asked him why he was positioned so inappropriately. “Because I am a highly-paid feature player,” replied Rossington, and the line duly found its way into Veterans.

Has ‘Washington’ Legs? Is a quasi-sequel, an occasional play presented for America’s bicentennial. It has one character in common, the crewmember Bernie the Volt. Bob Hoskins essayed the part in the first play, but here he’s been promoted to the role of a producer (and we can already hear the patented Hoskins “Amurrican” accent) while Albert Finney played legendary director John Bean (a Huston/Ford amalgam). The best stuff belongs to the character of English writer Sir Flute Parsons (Robert Stephens), who gets many dithering speeches such as this hilariously incorrect attempt to ingratiate himself with an American ~

SIR FLUTE: I’m ridiculously grateful to you and your Revolution, taught us a lesson you see . . . of course we went on and did even better for a while without you, but what about that marvelous music you’ve given us, would we have had that? I doubt it, we threw our black people off our conscience such a long time ago and all we got was steel bands and calypso, which was a little sad, because we had treated them quite badly, obviously not badly enough, needed more than that to produce a really solid contribution, and now you all do it don’t you, white and black, possibly white a bit more than black, jitterbugging . . . I used to be able to, I do have a natural grace in the same way that many of you don’t, but it isn’t an English characteristic on the whole, wish it was, so there you are . . . you’ve done awfully well and we wouldn’t have you different, and we’re awfully glad we lost, isn’t it time we started to enjoy some of the fruits of defeat . . . perhaps we did at the time, we got India and look what that’s done for Bradford, transformed it . . . very exciting.

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Dingo was first performed in 1967 and has fascinating connections with Wood & Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR, released the same year. It shares a WWII military setting (Wood served for five years in the 17/21st Lancers Regiment) and even contains some of the same lines (“The thing about fighting a desert war is that it is a clean war. Clean-limbed, without dishonourable action on either side.”) More, it features a Comic who intersperses inane music-hall patter with the speeches of Churchill and Montgomery. It’s an extremely disturbing piece of work, even more brutal and obscene than the Lester film, and a proper bit of Brechtian epic theatre.

Wood’s script for HOW I WON THE WAR has the same density — I was surprised when I got hold of the source novel, which Lester said he hated, to find that quite big chunks are reproduced exactly, such as Michael Hordern’s disjointed ramblings about “the wily Pathan” — I would have sworn that stuff was vintage Wood. I can now see that what Lester and Wood did was superimpose the attitude of Dingo onto Patrick Ryan’s novel, which is a jolly romp. Contrasting the savagery of war with the breezy chin-up attitude traditionally applied by the Brits produces the obscenity that the film is about.

Wood’s more recent films haven’t appealed to me much, not I think because his powers had waned but because the industry was demanding less interesting stuff. AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE offered up one shellshocked character with echolalia, whose verbal reprises offered a glimpse of the more surreal Wood of yore. On IRIS and THE OTHER MAN he shared credit with director Richard Eyre, which I always kind of resented. Only rarely should directors take a co-writing credit. IRIS began with the idea that we’d see the characters played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent at all stages of their lives, which would have made everything excitingly strange — the youthful scenes would have been obviously memories, and perhaps distorted ones, recalled from old age. Miramax nixed that idea, which led to Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville stepping in and in my view made the film not worth making. Movies about writers tend to succeed based on how they manage to evoke the writing, and IRIS doesn’t give the slightest clue to what its central character got up to with a typewriter. The only bit I really liked was the reaction of Iris, now afflicted with dementia, to a Tony Blair speech: “Education, education, education!” “Why does he keep saying that?”

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Wood has a cameo in THE KNACK — he and Lester also voiced a lot of the “Greek chorus of disapproval” muttering away on the soundtrack, a disapproving middle-aged commentary running in counterpoint to the action and consisting of peculiar non sequiturs — “I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.” “I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.” “Well I come from Hampton Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

The screenplay of HELP! was published recently as a bonus with the deluxe DVD of the film. It’s a great read — even Wood’s stage directions are magnificent. He’s incapable of ordinary sentences.

Dyer Straits

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2013 by dcairns

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I was very excited about Ray Cooney’s return to the cinema. The west end farceur made two films, or “films,” in the seventies, both based on his stage hits. I have shown several of them to friends. I don’t see most of those friends much now, strangely.

Those seventies classics are NOT NOW DARLING (1973) and NOT NOW COMRADE (1976) — just from those titles you can see that Mr. Cooney was empire-building, attempting to carve out a niche in the British comedy market somewhere between the CARRY ON films and the CONFESSIONS films. Just from the years of production and the fact that there’s only two of them, you can see that he didn’t succeed. I suppose nobody in those days realized that the saucy British comedy was on the way out, killed off by TV, which could replicate most of the same sauciness and be watched free of shame behind drawn curtains at home, and by the intrinsic rottenness of most of the films — those Robin Askwith movies are like one very long public service film promoting chemical castration.

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Cooney’s films don’t deserved to be considered with the very bleakest of the sex farces (along with the CONFESSIONS movies I’d include death-gasps like THE AMOROUS MILKMAN and I’M NOT FEELING MYSELF TONIGHT and of course the jaw-dropping, COME PLAY WITH ME, the release of which was equivalent to the British film industry taping a sign to its forehead reading SHOOT ME), films which I’m convinced were part of a government conspiracy to stop the working classes from breeding by depressing and disgusting them to the point of sterilisation, a scheme I have decided was almost certainly called Operation Prolewipe. But Cooney is still guilty of minor crimes against comedy, humanity, and cinema.

NOT NOW DARLING stars Leslie Phillips, who certainly has cinematic comedy chops, along with Cooney himself, who sadly doesn’t. Whatever abilities he brings to the stage as actor, writer and director simply don’t transmit to film — all his intended laughs are echoing endlessly in some twilight zone wormhole of mistimed punchlines and ill-conceived innuendo, where the translucent spectre of Arthur Askey holds illimitable dominion over all. Plot involves Phillips as a furrier trying to arrange a free fur coat for his girlfriend without his wife finding out. Julie Ege is the girlfriend, Moira Lister the wife, and a barely-clad Barbara Windsor is also included without fair warning or apology. As I recall, the film was shot multi-camera using some live vision-mixing system that saved time and money and made everything look a bit murky. So you get all the awkwardness of an under-rehearsed long take with all the awkward cutting of a live broadcast. And an insulting approach to the audience that panders by serving up nudity for inane non-reasons. “Here, you like tits, I’ve heard — let me shove this representative pair into your eyeballs.”

Cooney is apparently a nice man, but his films kind of make me want to hate him. I will resist the urge.

I don’t remember NOT NOW COMRADE so much, but it’s a “satirical” take on the cold war with defections and stripper’s pasties. Roy Kinnear is the token talented one, managing to wring just one laugh from the material, and there’s one moment of accidental genius when the cheap set is deserted by the cast, there’s an Ozu-like moment of emptiness, and then the dwarfish Don Estelle wanders myopically into frame in a loud check suit, hesitates a moment, and wanders off. Surreal and kind of beautiful, but entirely ruined when he turns up again later and turns out to have something to do with the plot.

These two movies are really among the worst things that have ever happened to British cinema, even if they’re not as ugly as the full-frontal Askwith stuff. So I was, as I said earlier, excited about RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, and the film’s reception, taking £747 at the UK box office, led me to believe that Cooney had lost none of his power to appall and stultify.

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In fact, not only has age not withered him, it has in some respects enhanced his capabilities. The film, like the play, tells the sorry tale of a London cabby with two wives who don’t know about each other. Concussed when trying to stop a mugging (some superannuated youths trying to steal a handbag from a bag lady played by Judi Dench — the first of many astonishing cameos — but why do they think this homeless lady is worth robbing?) he loses track of his careful schedule which allows him to (somehow) juggle two households. With hilarious consequences.

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One can see why Cliff opted for a disguise, considering the company he’s in.

Stuffing the film with cameos, Cooney contrives to include cast members from several decades’ worth of stage productions of this inexplicable hit, making it a bit like Alain Resnais’s YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET!, released at around the same time to slightly more acclaim. Although I think Cooney was probably aiming for something more like LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHEE, a dreamlike reiteration of all his artistic obsessions, in which dropped trousers and squashed cakes recur like leitmotifs.

Cooney is joined in the director’s chair by one John Luton, presumably brought in to enhance the technical side of things, and bringing his experience cutting a Lindsay Shonteff James Bond rip-off to the table. Filming farce is notoriously difficult — let’s be fair, here — and one thing that film history seems to tell us is that the longer the takes can be, the better it works. The greatest cinematic farce on record is Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (although it’s also much more than that), and it achieves some of its staggering effects by holding its shots even as the action seems to overflow them — we’re as breathless as the camera, which can’t seem to quite capture all the action. Cooney and Luton boldly jettison all this accumulated wisdom and set about chopping every scene into nuggets a couple of seconds long, so that nothing breathes and no honest interaction between players is ever captured.

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This might, however, be a mercy, as the actors on display include Danny Dyer (whose involvement is seemingly, somehow, enough to get any film made, whether it be repellent art film, repellent gangster film or repellent comedy); television presenter Denise Van Outen; pop singer (Girls Aloud) Sarah Harding… there are others with far more comedy experience hanging around to back them up, but by some strange bad movie alchemy, they’re even worse. Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair play homosexuals unconvincingly — I tend to blame the writing here — and Neil Morrissey is, from what one can discern through the blipvert cutting, terribly poor. Honorable mention to the two police inspectors, Nicholas le Prevost and especially Ben Cartwright, who manage not to make you either angry or embarrassed on their behalf.

It’s best, really, not to watch the film as a comedy, but as a kind of endurance test horror film, like FUNNY GAMES or SALO. The sets are retina-scouring in their vibrancy, and one”comic climax” involves a flood of red dye that transforms half the cast into bystanders from BRAIN DEAD. The gurning faces in close-up, the chocolate cake smeared on Neil Morrissey’s buttocks, the endless cameos by elderly and half-forgotten comics (making this not only the PARTING SHOTS of the twenty-first century, but the WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD)… There’s also the strange subplot about the breakdown of civilisation…

I should explain: since Cooney’s play was written decades ago, the plot, to work, must be protected from modern technology, which would ruin it. So mobile phones are mislaid, the internet is down, sat nav is absent, and lines of dialogue establishing this are dropped in here and there, giving the impression of a London beset by some terrible technological calamity. It’s like a version of LIFEFORCE where the space vampire apocalypse hasn’t been noticed because everybody’s trousers are falling down.

In fact, the late, lovely Richard Briers appeared in both this movie and COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES so close together that it’s not easy to be sure which was actually his final film. But my apocalyptic subtext reading of WIFE suggests that they’re actually the same movie anyway.

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Lionel Blair was in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Fact.

Kicking a film when it’s down is a critic’s favourite sport, of course. And there’s nothing really to be said in favour of such brutality. In this rare case, however, I would argue that my appraisal might actually make some people want to rent the film, as I did, to see how amazingly strange it could possibly be. Such fools will not be disappointed.