Archive for My Week With Marilyn

As You Know, I’m Your Father…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2020 by dcairns

“As you know, I’m your father…” What vistas of the strange those six simple words open up.

We were watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, a bunch of us (four being a bunch for the purposes of this discussion). The film begins with some scenes of an expository nature. The throng (four being a throng as well as a bunch) being composed entirely of people with at least a toe in the business, we soon bridled.

First thing we see — after three pieces of text — THREE! — to tell us it’s a true story — is Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in a recreation of the Having a Heatwave number from THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS which is totally unlike the original but I suppose not wildly anachronistic or inaccurate in terms of period style. It’s not madly overedited, for one thing.Cut to an audience, Our Young Hero front and centre. Marilyn herself liked to sit front and centre when she went to the movies as a kid, which is why this is the proper place to sit: think of whom you might meet. However, I immediately don’t want to meet this guy, based on his macabre smile.

Main title.

Cut to stately home. Voice over. “Everyone remembers their first job. This is the story of mine.” Well, could be worse. A bit blunt. It’s not only going to tell you a story (as opposed to showing you it), it’s going to tell you it’s telling you a story.Here comes Our Young Hero again, walking briskly across the lawn. “I was the youngest of a family of over-achievers.” Backstory, not interested.

As the VO tells us that OYH liked going to the pictures, we cut back to him at the pictures, even though we’ve just seen this. Well, if you must. OYH mentions film people he liked, and names Olivier, and the film obligingly shows us Kenneth Branagh playing the part in a clip from a movie premiere which we’re going to see in full moments later. This is a bit shit, I remember thinking.Back to OY Hero entering some rough-stone outbuilding. Turns out it’s a posh library, and here’s a man and some other people. “Ah, Colin, come in, have you met James and Anna, my two very brilliant pupils?”

Oh, good, he’s called Colin and this man knows him and has two very brilliant pupils, who are called James and Anna (must remember that, it’s obviously important). Wait, how does Colin not already know them?

“Hello, I’m off to London now, pa.”

Brilliant, right, this chap is Our Young Colin’s father, and what’s more Colin KNOWS he’s his father. It’s not going to be like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, all confusing twists. And OYC is off to London now, and he’s telling his father that. Good. Got you. Wait, how does his dad not already know today is the day his son, Colin, his son, leaves home? For London? His son?

“Ah, your silly job interview. Well, bonne chance, dear boy, I can always get you a research position at the V&A once you’ve grown up a bit and got this film idea out of your system.”

OK, let’s see if I’ve fully grasped the layers of subtext being poured over me like slow-motion nougat. OYC’s father (OYCF for short) disapproves of his son, Colin’s choice of career and hopes he will soon put away childish things and assume a more respectable occupation. Perhaps very soon, as this is only an interview.

The film continues, but our thoughts kept straying back to this scene and its supreme awkwardness.

“I’m off, Mother.” It’s a new scene, do keep up. OYC is telling his mother (OYCM) that he’s off. “My job interview, ‘member?” OYC is a mumbler. He means “remember?” But it hardly matters because we’ve just had this scene with his dad (OYCF).OYC crosses a London street. “Like every young man, I had to make my own way.” And indeed, OYC does manage to make it across the street without being flattened by an omnibus. Well done you. On the other hand, his rich parents and expensive education and school tie might be opening just a few studio doors for the entitled little prick (ELP).

The next scene, in the offices of Laurence Olivier Productions, is confusing, as it seems OYC doesn’t have a job interview at all, nobody’s expecting him and they’re not looking for anyone, which kind of casts doubt on ELP’s street-crossing prowess after all.

At this point in the film, we were getting a bit distracted, still talking about that weirdly expository chat with OYCF (the dad: do keep up). I ad-libbed a satirical example of the kind of dialogue we’d been forced to consume: “As you know, I’m your father…”OYC hangs about Laurence Olivier Prods in the best Rupert Pupkin manner until he somehow picks up some work. Cut to him crossing the road again, successfully staying out from under the wheels of another red bus.

Enter Branagh with a thing in his lip.

Monroe’s agent is called Mr. Jacobs. Here’s Toby Jones! “Hello, Mr. Jacobs.” He’s Mr. Jacobs. “Who built this place?” Mr. Jacobs is a brash agent.What’s actually happening is fine: we see OYC display tact and ingenuity in locating a house for MM to stay in. But we are continually being spoonfed. Meanwhile, by now we’ve practically convinced ourselves that “As you know, I’m your father…” is a genuine line of dialogue from the opening of the picture. I tactfully remind everyone that I made it up. Must be fair. Plus, I want credit.

OYC arrives at Pinewood. They’ve taken the trouble to engage and costume a Norman Wisdom lookalike, which impresses me because they’re showing a heedlessness about whether anybody recognizes NW. Not typical of this film, which is so anxious that we understand everything. Then this guy glides past, and I get the impression I’m meant to recognize him, too, but I haven’t a clue. Well, I suppose that should impress me even more.

We glimpse the Romantic Interest (not Monroe: the other one) and OYC is immediately warned about love affairs in the workplace, so we know she’s going to be a Romantic Interest, especially because we recognize the girl from HARRY POTTER. And come on, Pinewood may not be Hollywood, but the British film industry was a veritable hotbed of, well, hot beds.A bodyguard, an ex-copper, is engaged for Monroe, whose habits are described as “Erratic.” “She drinks?” “Among other things.” “Pills?” GOOD GUESS!

Here’s the thing. Screenplays and movies are meant to be clear, except when they’re being mysterious on purpose. Look at the care with which Chaplin shows us that the Blind Flower Girl is blind. Also, a flower girl. But belabouring points is ugly.

Billy Wilder said it much better and quicker: as storyteller, your job is to put across your points clearly. The more elegantly you manage it, the better you are.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is a Harvey Weinstein Production. Weinstein was (I hope we can safely use the paste tense now) a true auteur. You can spot the clumsy, overanxious storytelling in ever film he touched. Usually in the form of overdubs on people’s backs, stuffing dialogue into their mouths to make sure we understand. “Master Shakespeare!” expostulates the back of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head when the front of her head sees Master Shakespeare in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. “The King!” murmurs the back of Mina Sorvino’s head when the front of her head sees the king insect in MIMIC (the company was apparently so patriarchal the insects weren’t allowed a queen).

But I think it’s even worse when the lines come out of the front of people’s heads, having been planted in their mouths by a long development process. (I don’t blame the screenwriter.)

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is also a BBC production, and seems to use all the same locations as STAN & OLLIE. I could be wrong, but it certainly has the same feel. A certain limited degree of plushness. Solidity. Craft. Zero excitement.

I would sort of like the BBC to be prosecuted for sexual offences (this more or less happened a few years ago) so that this kind of filmmaking could end. But the BBC didn’t have a hand in JUDY so I suppose it’d carry on, zombie-fashion.

It’s not even BAD, compared to lots of things, but it’s the reverse of imaginative or daring.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN stars Charity Barnum; Balem Abrasax; Sabrina Fairchild; Gilderoy Lockhart; Lily Potter; Christopher Foyle; Lavrenti Beria; Dr. Arnim Zola; Jennifer the Viking – another rapist; Sir Thomas Fairfax; Uday Hussein; Queen Victoria; Madame Hooch; Hermione Granger; I, Claudius;








Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by dcairns

“Stop the film!”

HHhH is an excellent novel by Laurent Binet, telling the story of the rise and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots parachuted back into their homeland by the Brits. What makes the novel distinctive, and almost not a novel at all, is (a) the author’s fidelity to all the known facts, and his commentary on this fidelity — his refusal to imagine ANYTHING, or at any rate his disgusted self-denunciation whenever he does, part of (b) his constant commentary on his own process, and his reluctance even to accept dialogue quoted by sources when it sounds implausible. In such cases, he can offer a fictional version that strikes him as more likely, but he still has to denounce himself for making stuff up. In a way, it allows the author to be attractively modest — in the face of the heroic acts of the Czech and the Slovak, who knowingly sacrificed their lives out of certainty that their cause was just, Binet offers his own uncertainty, self-doubt, vacillation.

So we started watching the recent movie ANTHROPOID, which takes a piece of this story — just the mission, starting from the moment the heroes drop from the skies — and serves it up as a grim-faced and desaturated spectacle. It’s certainly because I’d just read Binet’s book, but I was intolerant of the movie’s mucking about with historical fact. Right after landing, our humourless, characterless heroes (a far cry from the rather jaunty, romantic figures Binet gleans from the historical record) run into a traitor and have to kill him to escape betrayal. In fact, the agents were discovered by a gamekeeper, who helped them. So the movie has gained an action sequence, albeit a very familiar one, presented in a shaky, muddy way by director Sean Ellis, but has lost a moving scene of an ordinary man risking his life for a noble cause, which is the kind of scene war movies used to live on.

I felt, personally, that the filmmakers had departed from the facts in order to offer something LESS INTERESTING.

Likewise, the presentation of Kubis and Gabcik, played by Christian Grey and the Scarecrow, as emotionless killing machines seemed like a less effective choice than Binet’s. The movie has a far shorter emotional distance to cover if the characters are already miserable, implacable, devoid of light and shade. They’re going to be spending quite a lot of the film staring death in the face. Will we notice any difference in their mood?

Incidentally, when they jumped from the British plane, the real Kubis & Gabcik landed, Binet tells us, in a graveyard. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin eschew this. perhaps for fear of seeming to indulge in symbolism. But it really happened! It would be an interesting challenge to include this WITHOUT making it look symbolic. But, to be fair, I have no idea how this could be achieved.

When the film forgets to do wobbly sepiatone, it occasionally delivers beautiful shots, and the action scenes are pretty effective, but it has no humour and no gradation of tone. The task of creating characters defeats the screenwriters. A “poetic” touch at the end is brave, but seemed unearned, hokey and basically disastrous to Fiona & I.

Binet’s researches uncovered previous novels and films about these incidents. He’s impressed by John Carradine’s perf as Heydrich in Sirk’s HITLER’S MADMAN, which I wrote about here. A good B-picture ruined by the infusion of MGM class, was my harsh verdict, but I agree about JC. Beginning with the assassination, the film concentrates on the extermination of Lidice in retaliation. The movie’s biggest distortion of history is to stage the assassination at Lidice and not in Prague — surely the location of the incident was one of the few things known for certain at the time? But the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t follow the Nazis’ logic — why was this random village chosen? So they had to invent a reason, when in reality there was none.

The most artistic responses to the incident in film are Humphrey Jennings amazing THE SILENT VILLAGE, which imagines the fate of Lidice befalling a Welsh mining village — aiming to de-exoticise the tragedy, to literally bring it home to British viewers; and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, a wholly fictitious account of the assassination and its aftermath. Binot is very forgiving of Sirk and Lang (and their writers, including “Bert” Brecht), allowing that the true facts weren’t known at the time and filmmakers had to just make stuff up — the good filmmakers did this thrillingly.

HANGMEN deserves a wholly entry on its fantastic rogue’s gallery of gloating Nazi pigs.  It’s a masterpiece. Binot rightly credits some of this to Brecht’s excellent, made-up story. It particular, it has a fruity and vile Heydrich played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (CALIGARI, CASABLANCA) in a joke shop nose. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously alleged that Heydrich was gay (it was getting engaged to two different women at once that got him drummed out of the navy, leading to him joining the Nazi party), but that seems to be how Twardowski is playing him. Heydrich DID have a very high voice, according to Binot, but nobody’s ever played him that way. It might seem silly. Probably the only way to pull it off would be to hire an actor already known for having a high voice, so it didn’t seem so much like an artistic choice — because there’s no way to make it clear to the audience that you’re being factual here.

Another Heydrich perf Binot admires is Kenneth Branagh’s in the 2001 TV play Conspiracy. Branagh plays to his strengths — his Heydrich is warm and matey, a little overbearing with it, but he comes on like everyone’s chum, making opposition difficult by his air of affable reasonableness. As Binot says, there aren’t really any accounts of Heydrich that stress chumminess as one of his qualities, but the effect is very disturbing. The whole show is terrific — Loring Mandel’s script mostly sticks to things the actual Nazi high command said on the record at Wannsee, plotting the Final Solution, and in the unrecorded conversations between bouts at the conference table he draws heavily on other conversations they are known to have had. And there’s none of the wretched “As you know…” style of exposition we’ve grown sadly used to in British drama.

(STARTED watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with friends. The cackhanded exposition was so pervasive and dumb (Fiona says the film gets better later) that I coined the phrase “As you know, I’m your father,” and after a few real examples of this kind of writing we almost convinced ourselves that it was an actual piece of dialogue. I’m not sure I want to blame Adrian Hodges, the credited writer, because this is exactly the sort of thing execs the Weinstein Bros would insist on being included. They honestly believe the purpose of having characters is to explain things to the audience.)

Binot seems to have missed OPERATION: DAYBREAK (why the colon?), directed by Lewis Gilbert and adapted by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) from the novel by Alan Burgess, which he does know about. The film is pretty factual, it seems to me, though aesthetically quite dull, apart from the odd choice of David Hentschel’s synth score. It has a fine Heydrich, Anton Differing (he of the combustible behind) — at last, an actor with a big enough nose! I remember the film itself being a little boring, which is odd given the authentic life-or-death stakes involved.

And now there’s a film of HHhH (you wait ages for a Heydrich and then two come along at once), which I guess, following my practice of capitalising film titles, I will have to call HHHH. An awkward title either way. (Binot writes that if the book we’re holding isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, we’ll know his publisher won the argument.) The acronym stands for the German version of the phrase Heydrich Is Himmler’s Brain (which is the small H?), and not for Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich, as I may have inadvertently given you the impression. This was a popular “meme” in the Czech Protectorate, before they knew what memes were. I guess it’s precisely the fact of Heydrich being Himmler’s brain that made it such a damn good idea to kill him.

The film will have to live up to the book’s high standards of accuracy, though frankly it CAN’T — it will have to invent conversations and present them without apology or comment (I’ll be impressed as hell if it attempts anything as pomo or self-critical as the book — it just won’t). It seems to have a pretty good Heydrich in Aussie Jason Clarke, although oddly he’s doing it with an English accent and all the others are putting on German accents. Playing characters who in reality would be speaking a different language, and doing them with a mild accent, always struck me as silly. Although here we have Stephen Graham looking like a VERY good match for Himmler, and I guess if he’d played it with his native Liverpool accent, that would have been unacceptable. Though not to me, because I delight in marvellous variety.

(Graham is a smashing actor and a master of accents. He plays cockney in the recent series Taboo. Tom Hardy is playing the lead role as a very good impersonation of Oliver Reed — only Keith Allen has done it better. So Stephen Graham comes on as the late Bob Hoskins, not to be put down. The more Hardy bats his eyelashes and whispers in a threatening growl, the more expansive and waannafow Graham becomes. You may not recollect that Hoskins pronounced “wonderful” as “waannafow,” but take it from me, he did. It was part of what made him so waannafow.)

Have I missed any good Heydrichs? What are your favourite performances of members of the Nazi command, if you have any? Oh, I know… Goebbels is always good value. But let’s look BEYOND GOEBBELS…


An Alternative to Facts

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2017 by dcairns


DENIAL is something we opted to watch on BAFTA screener when something else didn’t grip us (not fair to talk about the non-gripper since we didn’t finish it). We knew DENIAL would offer a good STORY, which is what we craved, and so it did.

What has Mick Jackson been doing? I know his name from L.A. STORY, which was a while ago. He’s been on TV, I see. Well, I kind of know what he’s doing here — he’s been brought in to give it a touch of cinema. It’s a BBC film, see, and written by David Hare — very intelligently written as far as the issues are concerned, occasionally clumsy as it draws in bit players to comment on the issues. But compared to much recent exposition, very decently done.

(We attempted a screener of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN once and were appalled at the leaden way characters kept explaining things to each other that they both clearly already knew. I spoofed this with the line, “As you know, I’m your father,” and after ten minutes we’d almost convinced ourselves this was a genuine bit of dialogue.)


The trouble is, a writer like Hare, schooled in the theatre, leaves no room for cinema or “cinema” — he gives you strong dramatic scenes of people talking to each other. A master of such stuff — and it would be lovely to see Otto Preminger getting to grips with this material — can make cinema out of just such scenes. There’s nothing wrong with Jackson’s handling of them, and he renders London in photogenic, grey, wet panoramas. Lots of frosty, foggy, atmospheric shots of Auschwitz too. It’s the bursts of attention-getting technique applied to the Holocaust that seemed a bit egregious. I’ll allow the barely audible sound of screams heard as our characters stand on the roof of a former gas chamber, since I allowed the barely audible sound of cheering in the deserted Nazi Olympic stadium in THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM — the coincidence is so striking, I have to embrace it. But the sudden horror movie plunge into a photograph of a gas chamber window, which becomes live-action and filled with distressed, clawing figures who look like ZOMBIES — that was bad, both because it belonged in a different film, and because any time a filmmaker uses such historical events to show off, I get repulsed.


But that is, to be fair, one tiny moment in an otherwise strong, sensitively handled drama. Rachel Weisz, who made an unconvincing librarian in THE MUMMY and AGORA, makes a convincing historian here and her accent is enjoyable to listen to. EVERYONE is doing an accent, except Tom Wilkinson, who refuses to make any compromises in the direction of being Scottish. Good for him, I say, he has the right idea. Wilkinson brings the entertainment, as does Andrew Scott as his fellow lawyer (I won’t get into the whole barrister/solicitor thing) — Scott annoyed us no end in Sherlock (he’s Moriarty — we enjoyed the show but not him) but it turns out to have been to a large extent the fault of the writing. He uses many of the same tics here, but they don’t come off as tics: he has a sort of flip, aggressive way of jumping in with a line and cutting it off short, which is helpful as he’s essentially playing antagonist to a woman who wants to talk about things. One of those Sherlock writers is here too, Mark Gatiss playing Polish — and he’s really excellent, very restrained, he makes you forget the oddness of that casting (are there no Poles in Britain? To read the tabloids, not that we do, one would think there was nothing but.)

Holocaust denier David Irving is played by Timothy Spall, and just as Weiss is technically too cute to play Deborah Lipstadt, who should look like an ordinary person, Spall is not handsome enough to play Irving, who looks like the portrait of Dorian Gray if Gray were a big rugby-playing type — traces of handsomeness in a face grown gross and harsh and corrupt. Spall has actually lost a shit-ton of fat (by the looks of things, siphoning it off into John Sessions) and now looks kind of like Tim Roth wearing Timothy Spall’s abandoned skin, something I have no doubt Roth would do, given the chance.

But these observations ultimately don’t matter — you get used to the strange accents emanating from Weiss and Spall (and everyone else) and to the fact that they’re imperfect embodiments of the personages they represent, because the actual ACTING is what counts (along with the writing, of course) and it’s very good. And it all manages to express a point that shouldn’t need to be expressed, with enough subtleties around the edges (for instance, why one shouldn’t put survivors in the witness stand in a case like this) which are far from obvious and fascinating to hear argued so well. When Scott tells Weiss that he’s not going to let her testify, I was surprised and impressed and waited for the movie to change its mind and give her a BAFTA-winning speech from the box, but it never came. Almost uniquely in a film centred on a female protagonist, her job is to remain silent, to bear witness, to not debate a man who doesn’t deserve to be debated. The film’s courage in sticking to this principle is praiseworthy.