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My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Unlike some other reviewers, the Oscar and BAFTA awards, and many critics, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and was blown away by Michelle Williams's performance. For a lifelong fan of Marilyn Monroe, Michelle brought this woman to life and nuanced her portrayal to include every little Marilyn pout and wiggle, Norma Jean vulnerability and lack of confidence. The interpretation of the long-gone film star was a tour de force and overlooked by everyone except the Spirit Independent Awards (thank goodness for them).
Where today do we see the luminosity, the sparkle, the sheer glamour of the golden days of Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Christina Ricci (even if she is now a size zero), Cameron Diaz, et al just do not have that 'je ne sais quoi' that Marilyn (or Audrey, or Elizabeth, or Ingrid) had and I thank Michelle Williams from the bottom of my heart for bringing Marilyn back to us with her outstanding performance. Thank you.
And thank you to the array of British stalwarts who backed Michelle up - Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh especially. Eddie Redmayne had a hard job playing the insipid Colin Clark and I thought he did very well getting across the dumb, wide-eyed wonder and infatuation of the scarcely out of school, sheltered, young man exposed to the biggest Hollywood sex symbol of the day.
A wonderful film for fans who still remember the stars that were.
Goya's Ghosts (2006)
Goya's dark side
I was not aware of this magnificent film until 2010 and did not see it till now (May 2011), but it not only does not date, but Natalie Portman was a revelation, considering I have just seen her in Black Swan, and in this much earlier film, she was already proving her acting prowess. Javier Bardem proves his worth as much as in his later award winning films (The Sea Inside, No Country For Old Men, etc.) and I wonder how such a craggy-looking man can be so charismatic. Bardem has something unusual, a rare quality of conveying total realism in his acting which becomes him, not just a superficial persona he puts on. The supporting cast, especially Stellan Skarsgaard as Goya, provide a worthy backdrop for the two central, very powerful roles played by Bardem and Portman who convey the darkness of the period in excruciatingly detailed performances, then reflected in Goya's paintings. The film brings to life Goya's dark, realistic portraits of humanity in all its terror, grotesqueness, cruelty, and suffering during a tumultuous period of war and carnage. A brilliant film by Forman and I recommend anyone wanting a challenge in film to see this if they haven't already done so.
Fame v. infamy
Toby Jones's portrayal of Capote is better acted, more accurate; captures Capote's idiosyncrasies without self-consciousness and therefore is more convincing; than Philip Seymour Hoffman's better-known version in 'Capote'. The supporting cast are wonderful too, from Sandra Bullock's underplayed interpretation of Nelle Harper Lee, where she embodies the character entirely from the way she walks, to her sense of irony and sympathy with her friend. In Lee's masterpiece, 'To Kill A Mockingbird' Lee describes the character Dill, based on the young Capote, in ways which are in keeping with the way Toby Jones plays the adult Capote. The characters are one and the same. These two brilliant performances lift this film way beyond its counterpart, 'Capote' and Toby Jones should have received the Oscar, not Hoffman, and Sandra Bullock should have received the Best Supporting Actress award. What a pity this film did not come out sooner so that it would not have been overshadowed by the other one.
And this is not all. The subtlety of direction, Daniel Craig's performance as Perry Smith, and the cameos of New York society women with Juliet Stevenson, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, and Isabella Rossellini, were great. Sets and costumes fabulous, screenplay an amazing interpretation of the facts and fiction around 'In Cold Blood'. I cannot commend this film enough. Fantastic achievement.
Le concert (2009)
concerto for film lovers
After a surfeit of mediocre American movies lately, I was mesmerised by the magical film of The Concert. Rarely seeing Russian movies, I was intrigued by the setting, characters, snapshots of Russian life today, and swept away by the way in which the actors and director lifted the ordinary into the extraordinary by way of a great plot, exquisite comedy moments, and a romantic theme which had nothing sentimental about it. The central character, Filipov, has an impossible dream and the realisation of this dream through a series of improbable connections results in a screwball comedy the likes of which we haven't seen since Billy Wilder's 'Some Like It Hot'. The musical background provides a culturally sophisticated backdrop to an earthy and simple concept: the combination of the two creates a little masterpiece of a film.
From the sub-plots of Russians in Paris trying to make a buck, to the sensitive history of the celebrity violinist persuaded to play the Tchaikowsky concerto with the makeshift, unrehearsed, pseudo-Bolshoi orchestra, the film manages to capture every last nuance of human sensibility. The depiction of the tragi-comedic figure of the arch Communist Gavrilov who ruined the original concert and the lives of orchestra musicians 30 years previously, and now is responsible for ensuring the orchestra reconvene and play in Paris a master stroke and lends the lie to the whole plot.
My only criticism is the way in which the final sublime denouement is cut across with collages of resolving the mystery between Filipov, the conductor, and Anne-Marie, the violinist. I can see the point of combining the performance of the music with the resolution - it is clever and creates a crescendo of poignancy to the highest pitch of the music itself. But it was a little confusing and, though, of course, the whole film is a contrivance to entertain, too contrived in the sudden success of this abandoned and defunct orchestra of Jewish misfits in Russia.
This film is a compelling story, beautifully played, and a lovely idea. To create a hilariously funny yet subtly and searingly poignant plot is remarkable and I cannot imagine any film lover not enjoying this lovely film.
Mar adentro (2004)
Life is beautiful
I can't praise this film enough - the style, compassionate treatment of a serious subject (euthanasia), and the brilliant portrayals by a team of magnificent actors headed by Javier Bardem in what must be one of his best roles. Despite the sadness, poignancy, and vulnerability of the characters, everyone comes across as strong beings and the whole film verifies rather than belittles life and proves love stronger than life itself. A wonderful film experience which I recommend without hesitation to anyone looking for something more in their film viewing than Hollywood treatments of real subjects. The Spanish directors Amenabar and Almodovar prove over and over again the superb quality of film-making in Spain and the excellence of their actors.
The Years Between (1946)
The Years Between has dated badly. Valerie Hobson and Michael Redgrave are wonderful actors - although Valerie Hobson is always so correct, so well-spoken, so perfect (ideal for Estella in Great Expectations, but not for the character in this contrived set-up). But the film is unconvincing. The play was probably worse - though I suspect the performance and interpretation were not exactly what Daphne Du Maurier originally wanted - she audaciously tried to present a story of how love changes, how people change, how the past cannot be revived, especially after the trauma of war (and her own experience had taught her that). But her actors and directors were unable to transfer her real intentions to the screen. The story is actually quite believable. People were singled out for special duties which could involve faked death and they did return. Meanwhile, their nearest and dearest could well fall in love again and re-marry, not knowing the truth. But this time the plot is too implausible - it would have been simpler had the heroine not taken her supposed dead husband's place in the House of Commons. She could have simply made her own career in the Forces or Civil Service - and not wanted to forsake it when hubby returns and wants a return to domesticity. Celia Johnson could have played the part with more aplomb and more feeling - torn between returned husband and new lover (but that's just my preference).
But, despite disappointment, I'm glad I got the opportunity to see this film - caught by chance on Movies4Men, I'm surprised it hasn't been shown on Film 4 or TCM - it's a likely candidate. And Michael Redgrave and Valerie Hobson are always worth watching. Flora Robson, as usual, overplayed the melodrama. The denouement with wife returning to husband was appropriate for the period (1946 - no one wanted adultery etc. to be condoned at this time) but we could have done without Valerie Hobson running madly across the lawns to reach her husband and making out she truly wanted to be reunited. Dramatic licence fitting the post-war propaganda sheet here I think - in retrospect she would have been better off staying with her lover - who seemed to be a better dad to son Robin anyway.
Never mind, an interesting little film despite all its flaws.
Renting this DVD in 2010, the film encapsulated the decade of the noughties in all its extreme materialism, consumerism, and negation of personal relationships. To begin with, I thought the film was going to be too depressing and overly precious in style and content, but as the themes developed, the intricacies and subtleties of character and plot wove carefully into a seamless whole, and the result was a satisfying, if excruciatingly cynical, survey of London society at the beginning of the 21st century. As it is necessarily a work of fiction, and not a reality show, the characters were allowed their melodrama, such as Penelope Cruz playing a prostitute dying of cancer, inexpertly 'helped' in her distress by a wonderfully subtle performance by Rhys Ifans as a social worker. Some of the darkest scenes in this dark, dark story, depicted the state of the social work system and its inefficient, uncaring way of managing those in need of the service - a scathing critique worthy of Dickens. In many ways, this film worked like a novel - it had a beginning, middle, and end; the structure was deliberate and meticulous, the style perfected, and the whole brought together by a superb cast of actors.
Kristin Scott-Thomas is, to me, one of the best British actresses ever; she can play any part with subtlety and nuance and express the minutest detail of emotion with a change in her eye expression, or a slight movement of her mouth. She is painfully affecting as the ignored and bored wife, shopping expensively to no purpose, neglecting her son because she has neglected herself, feeling frustrated, and considering breast implants to restore her self-esteem (a knock at the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in present society). Her performance, understated, with more expression than dialogue, presages her Oscar-worthy acting in 'I Have Loved You So Long'.
Having just seen Damien Lewis in a bravura performance as Alceste on the London stage in 'The Misanthrope' - a brilliant re-working of Moliere's play by Martin Crimp - I could see the origins of what he brought to the character of Alceste in the way he played Marcus in this film. All Marcus really wanted was to play the guitar in a band, not waste his life in the corporate world of high legal protection of privileged and corrupt professionals.
Ben Chaplin, Ralph Fiennes (playing himself as usual, but effectively), Ian Holm, and Harriet Walter, were all equally good and as the disparate characters weave in and out of each others' lives, the ensemble piece comes together in a moving and impressive drama. I was not sure about the redemption ending, but maybe Martha Fiennes felt the film was just too deeply dark not to have some kind of cathartic closing. After all, Dickens does the same and we love him for that. So you will love this film. Stay with it: you will not be disappointed.
Our Friends in the North (1996)
Agreeing with all the other commentators, this drama is the best that the BBC can produce. Gina McKee, Mark Strong, Daniel Craig, and Christopher Eccleston all cut their teeth in this series and went on to bigger things - but never better. Even Daniel Craig's James Bond does not outshine his performance as Geordie. Watching the DVD set years after the first viewing, I cried all over again at human weakness, corrupt politics, illusions and disillusionment, and marvelled afresh at the supremely accomplished acting skills. I have lived right through the period of the play and empathise all the way with the four protagonists' dreams and aspirations then disappointment and demoralisation. And all credit to Peter Flannery whose script's excellence matches those of such playwrights as Poliakoff and Stoppard. He never misses a trick and his grasp of the vagaries of human behaviour are pitch-perfect, and nor do his actors ever fail in conveying his meanings and intentions. And despite everything in the plot lines implying a diastrous ending, the final scenes are upbeat and positive - an admirable achievement.
I disagree with some of the other commentators who felt Mark Strong's acting was not quite as good as the others. Oh yes, it was. His character was a deceptively difficult one to play and Strong was convincing in every scene. His ingenuous naivete in its own way compared equally with Eccleston's. The different directions the four lives take were totally believable and every scene in all nine episodes was brilliantly played. And to maintain this the back-up cast were superb. The exceptional performances of veteran actors David Bradley and Peter Vaughan, and also Freda Dowie and Alun Armstrong, added acute verisimilitude, making the whole a complete and perfect drama. If I had to choose, then Daniel Craig's portrayal of the doomed but not defeated Georgie has to be the most powerful in a whole cavalcade of outstanding performances.
I can't praise this series enough and would recommend it to any teacher of drama, film studies, general studies, current affairs, or history. All the younger generation should see this. It encapsulates their immediate historical background and provides a context by which they could understand why England is in the state it's in today.
Odd Man Out (1947)
I saw Odd Man Out for the first time on TV this year (2009) and was impressed by James Mason's acting and especially by the wonderful cinematography which presaged the noir feel of The Third Man. No wonder Carol Reed used the same cinematographer in the latter film.
Despite some strange asides - Robert Newton in a surrealistic role which seemed unnecessary to the plot for one - the ambiance and contradictions in Irish loyalties were well portrayed and this is forties filming at its best. Although The Third Man is an even better film in which Reed refines his style and content effectively, I admire this film tremendously and hope to see it again soon.
Pool of London (1951)
Pool of tears
As a post-war British movie, this has it all in terms of story and setting. The backdrop in the stark, bomb-site ridden City of London, centred round the old docks by Tower Bridge, brings home the reality of everyday privations in a period of austerity before the gradual economic recovery during the 1950s. Good acting across the board from Bonar Colleano to Max Adrian. I liked Colleano in the Way to the Stars and he is just as convincing in this thriller, one of the better examples of the British (Ealing) crime film of the period.
I can see why it is sometimes called 'noir' but I think that's more to do with the effective cinematography than the storyline, which is enhanced in interest by including a Jamaican seaman. sympathetically played by Earl Cameron. As another commentator said, it is nice to see that he has consistently acted until today.
I appreciated the comments from admirers of this film who were involved in the film-making, and lived in the area where it was filmed. These kind of comments help make IMDb the informative and interesting film site it is; thank you to them.
Thoroughly enjoyed this film and recommend it to anyone interested in this crucial period of British film-making.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Imitations and Limitations
Lana Turner is at her melodramatic best in this super-weepie soap opera (which, at 2 hours long, IS an opera) yet is equalled by a wonderful performance from Juanita Moore playing Lana's housekeeper. The 1950s ambiance is spot-on; the settings and cinematography are great, the back-up acting from Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner complement Turner and Moore perfectly, and the final funeral is of Gone With The Wind proportions. All are splendid examples of Douglas Sirk's excellent grasp of what the American dream could look like in reality or imitation.
The main limitations of the film are the men who are surprisingly ineffective. I'm always disappointed in John Gavin whose only attributes are his classic good looks (viz. Thoroughly Modern Millie 10 years later) but then, Rock Hudson's acting isn't much better.
This film is an ideal Saturday matinée wallow. And watching Sirk films, one can appreciate Todd Haynes's efforts 50 years later at reproducing the effects as in Far From Heaven. Lovely stuff.
Written on the Wind (1956)
An overblown melodrama typical of its period (mid-1950s) and appropriate matinée food. Rock Hudson, the hulk everyone always falls in love with, plays his usual stereotype role, but whereas in Giant, made the same year, when his material and co-stars (Taylor & Dean) were above average, in this movie he is just not good enough to raise the calibre beyond a mushy tale of how difficult it is to be both rich and happy. The self-destructive brother and sister (Robert Stack, reeling his way through the film in a drunken stupor, and Dorothy Malone, playing a vampish poor little rich girl totally over the top) end up the losers and Hudson gets Bacall - who is rather wooden in this part which does not have enough character or wit to get her going. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, that is the meaning of fiction. However, I was interested to read that the film is based on a true story which vindicated the plot. Like other films of the period, homosexuality is disguised in heterosexual terms. Maybe the film could be remade: Stack's character would ring truer if he was hiding homosexual feelings for Mitch by marrying. Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven greatly improved on All That Heaven Allows , also directed by Sirk. Perhaps Haynes could remake Written on the Wind and give us a truly memorable film.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Heaven Might Wait
Gene Tierney's performance in Leave Her To Heaven is, indeed, worthy of an Oscar nomination. She leaves everyone else's acting standing in the wings. But then, I have never rated Cornel Wilde particularly, nor Vincent Price in his early days (he was particularly corny in Laura). Jeanne Crain was as sweet as ever, but it is Tierney's film from start to finish. The technicolour was interesting and worthy of a sultry melodrama such as this. But film noir? I don't thin so. I know film noir doesn't have to be in black and white, but the colour didn't help this sort-of noir-ish murder story. Too much colour, not enough drama. Gene Tierney's wide-eyed, or narrow-eyed, expressions, which define the story's development, may punctuate the story, but there's too much daftness ('the girl with the hoe'? Come on...) and Jeanne Crain is too simpery to convince (though maybe she is worthy of Wilde's wooden face). But the film rolled along nicely, with lovely, luxurious, domestic settings, until the courtroom scene, where Vincent Price overplays, and Jeanne Crain is found not guilty on the skimpiest of pretexts. Not convincing.
I enjoyed the film, the period stuff, Gene Tierney's loveliness - but potential predatoriness - but, ultimately, it was not as satisfying as I'd hoped. Never mind. At the end of the Second World War, who would have cared?
The Reader (2008)
Reading The Reader
Director Stephen Daldry, Producers Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack, Screenwriter David Hare, have combined to produce a brilliantly realised story of multiple layers of emotion, history, conflict, and personal tragedies. Bernhard Schlink's seriously complex novel weaves a horrific Holocaust incident into a backdrop for an unlikely but telling love story between a young innocent and an experienced, if naive and uneducated, woman, which allegorises the younger German generation finding out, and trying to come to terms with, their awful past. The novel is a great piece of restrained and convincing storytelling, and the film succeeds in re-working the novel into an equivalently convincing drama. However, the film would be nothing without the superb performances of Kate Winslet and David Kross. I am amazed at Kross's performance. Kate Winslet has had years to perfect her acting and I have never seen her perform better, but Kross, only 18 when the film was made, matches her scene for scene, and brings juvenile acting to a new level.
The only disappointment was Ralph Fiennes. He has a tendency to drag out scenes of emotional intensity to a degree that borders on melodrama. This story is pure drama, not melodrama. Unfortunately, Fiennes's role, mainly constrained to the last scenes of the film, causes the film's momentum to drop, which is a great pity. The pathos and heartbreak of the denouement of Kate Winslet's character, Hanna, is thereby undermined.
The novel is a masterpiece of intensity portrayed through spare and deliberate restraint in writing. The film manages to capture that spirit of intensity and maintain it throughout, until the last scenes where Fiennes, so self-absorbed, cannot make himself go through the mirror of his character and objectify it to make it real.
Winslet certainly deserved her Oscar for not only a fine piece of acting, but for constraining her theatrical personality and changing her acting style so dramatically, to convey the loneliness and agony of the internal Hanna, at loggerheads with the inhuman world she found herself in as a young woman which confounded her in every way. She was broken yet continued to live. She found her lost innocence again in her teenage lover, but he had to grow up.
This story is a tragedy, an allegory, an historical analysis in fictional form, an indictment of inhumanity, and yet remains, all through, an impressive and unusual love story. The film (and the book) have not, in my opinion, received enough attention. This is presumably because the story is also about uncomfortable issues and history. It deserves much more recognition than a Best Actress Oscar. It will last, though, and be watched and re-watched in future years, and time will give it its due reward to one of the best films I have seen for years - in fact since Daldry's The Hours.
The Secret Life of Bees (2008)
Bees in Black
A delightful film for a Sunday afternoon, The Secret Life of Bees is a softly poignant, but tellingly polemical, story of black and white in South Carolina in the sixties, but with a welcome emphasis on black characters rather than white. With the excellent acting skills of all involved, especially Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, and Sophie Okenedo, the tale of racism, parental abuse and neglect contrasted with kindness and compassion, with a background of beautifully shot landscape and bee-keeping, offers a commendable film of quality, and one which I recommend. A nice change to place compassion instead of violence in the forefront, and for that compassion to be strongly centred in a cultural and educated black family.
Good morning Babilonia (1987)
Artists and elephants
I loved this film for its artistic beauty, its romance rooted in realism, for its characters and story, and for the lovely acting and cinematography. After sculpting a perfect elephant relief in a panel of one of the colonnades of Pisa Cathedral which their family is restoring, twin brothers Andrea and Nicola, temperamental and emotional, but talented and artistic stonemasons, find themselves without jobs as the restoration project finishes, their father retires, and they fall out with their five brothers. They decide to try their luck in America and, after a descending series of menial jobs, they throw caution to the winds and join a group of Italian artists travelling to Hollywood to create scenery for the infant film industry.
Luck now favouring the brave, they end up working for D.W. Griffiths, the maestro of early Hollywood, albeit in dogsbody occupation. However, their burgeoning relationships with two likely girl film extras, Mabel and Edna, make their lives more interesting and then, hearing Griffiths wants elephants for the stage-set of his new project 'Intolerance', they create a brilliant elephant effigy. This is burnt by a jealous bureaucrat in Griffith's employ but, fortunately, they and friends had filmed the elephant and found an opportunity to show the film to Griffiths who commissions the brothers to make him 8 elephants for his film. Fortune shines on the brothers as they ascend into prime popularity with Griffiths for their marvellous elephants, marry the two lovely girls, and look set for a great future. Unfortunately, Edna dies in childbirth and Nicola, heartbroken, decides to join the Italian forces fighting the Germans in the First World War. Fortune's wheel turns full circle, as Andrea also joins the army and finds his brother dying on the battlefield. Nicola had taken up the army cameraman's job and the brothers film themselves before dying in the hope that someone will find the film and take it back to show their sons.
The film works as a fairy tale, a combination of romance, comedy, and tragedy. On one level, the deceptively simplistic story is a metaphor for the destruction of war fictionalising the making of, with actual footage from, Griffith's anti-war film 'Intolerance', and the death of the brothers at the end in a surrealistic montage of battle with an image of an Italian church, similar to Pisa Cathedral, in the background. But on a parallel level, the film is a delightful story of two imaginative and ambitious brothers who achieve an impossible dream. The vivid settings are historically interesting from the restoration of one of Italy's finest cathedrals, to the depiction of early Hollywood. Edna's death and the death of the brothers in the war add tragic grandeur to the film's Italian operatic style. The wonderful acting, especially from the two brothers, but which includes an excellent performance from Charles Dance as D.W. Griffiths and a lovely early performance by the beautiful Greta Scacchi, contribute to the 'Commedia del Arte' bravura of the whole film scheme. Metaphors abound, and the directors' attention to detail (the double wedding of Andrea and Nicola to Edna and Mabel is just one example) makes this a meticulous piece of film craftsmanship, echoing the craftsmanship of the stonemasons which the whole film is about. The final scene, the brothers filming themselves, emphasises the power of film and celebrates the art of film-making as one of the world forms of artistic expression, up there with painting, sculpture, and music.
The film is one of my favourites, and I was delighted to see the fictional story of the creation of elephants for Griffiths' famous film re-created in the giant elephant replicas in the new Mall in front of the Kodak Theatre where the Oscars ceremony is held in Hollywood. Viewers may also like to note that the backdrop for the title sequence is part of the Pisa Cathedral complex, the wall of the burial ground. One could continue to comment on the layers of metaphor, filmic reference, and artistic quality of 'Good Morning Babylon' but I will end by simply thoroughly recommending this film. It is a period piece and deserves to be remembered.
I read the other comments on this miniseries before offering my own observations, and found that some of them inaccurately described the plot and misunderstood the characters and their relationships. So I wish to put the record straight and submit a fairer review.
This serial style film, lavish with luxury and escapism, is a chocolates and velvet experience, intended, I suspect, for susceptible ladies who love a weepie melodramatic love story. As such, it succeeds admirably. I am one of those ladies, always have been. I picked up the film accidentally, as one does, going cheap in a supermarket. How much more have I paid for films and not gained half the value of this one? I settled down in comfort to relish this story, loosely based on the real life story of Merle Oberon, adapted from one of her husband's (Alexander Korda) nephew's (Michael Korda) novel based on the legends /history of his beautiful aunt. Facts, re-interpreted or changed to fit the film's design, intertwine with fiction. Merle Oberon (Queenie Kelly in the film) was Anglo-Indian, did grow up in Kolkata (Calcutta), did go to England and become a film star, did marry Alexander Korda (David Konig in the film) who was, by all accounts, completely infatuated with her. She did disguise her Anglo-Indian origins, pretend she came from Tasmania, disguise her darker-skinned mother as her maid (in Hollywood: her mother died in 1937), and, after divorcing Korda in 1945, marry a cinematographer called Lucien.
The film's additional plot details make a more tantalising drama. Early on, Queenie's rape by a high-up British official in India, resulting in his death and suspicion of murder falling on Queenie, provides a strong plot-line on which to hang lots of dramatic punctuation points. Plausibility is irrelevant - who needed Bette Davis or Hitchcock dramas to be plausible? One review I read of this film described it as 'shoddy'. It is not at all shoddy. The sordid details - rape, seedy clubs and strip-tease dancers, decrepit living conditions in India for poor Anglo-Indians, race prejudice which force non-white people to hide their origins, suggestions of incest, job shortages during the Depression; - all these happened (and still happen), and often to young, pretty, and vulnerable girls at the mercy of a ruthless male world around them. Some of these things may have happened to the real Merle Oberon. We live in a world that is often shoddy.
The film itself must have cost a fortune with lavish sets and glamorous costumes, gorgeous palaces and exotic Indian location (whether the real India or made to look like it matters little), film sets within film sets. Take one glorious scene where Queenie, now Dawn Avalon (her name taken from a loved poem of her childhood) arrives in India to make a big film (The Secret Palace) and is greeted by a horde of Indian press and hoi polloi complete with decorated camels, elephants, and palaces. She looks her most beautiful and enigmatic, stylish and designer-dressed (almost like the real Merle Oberon). India is red-hot with exotic luxury, no expense spared. The fictional film 'The Secret Palace' gives a nod to 'Wuthering Heights', Merle Oberon's most famous film - the fictional end of 'The Secret Palace' mimicks the end of the 'Wuthering Heights' - a neat conceit of which there are several in this film indicating a subtlety which one doesn't usually expect from a miniseries.
Mia Sara excels herself. I had not seen her before but I thought she was lovely. She was graceful and expressive and caught the quality of erotic beauty that Merle Oberon had. Helped by the make-up and wonderful costumes she was so striking and her acting skills were evident in the way her character matured from the determined but naive young girl into a beautiful, consummate actress, somewhat manipulative, and often quite ruthless in getting what she wanted - one example of the mature Queenie was how she managed both Lucien and David Konig, and despite Konig's own ruthless pursuit of what he wanted, she kept the upper hand.
And she was supported by a galaxy of stalwart older actors with impeccable pedigrees, who presumably take these parts because they are committed actors who desire to keep working. Claire Bloom (who starred herself, so many years ago, in Charlie Chaplin's film, 'Limelight' and went on to become one of Britain's leading stage and screen acresses), in one of her stranger roles, darkened up to play Queenie's Anglo-Indian mother, Victoria, complete with appropriate Indian accent; Joss Ackland (a classic British actor) as the British high official in India, Sir Burton Rumsey, and Sara Miles (who remembers her marvellous performances in Joseph Losey's 'The Servant' and David Lean's 'Ryan's Daughter'?) as Lady Sibyl Rumsey, both of which actors play similar roles in another British empire film 'White Mischief'. Martin Balsam and Kirk Douglas (as Konig, a pseudonym for Korda) as movie moguls - what did the TV company have to pay to get them!! - and Joel Grey (remember him as the amazing Master of Cermonies in 'Cabaret'?)
I thoroughly enjoyed 'Queenie'. It doesn't pretend to be a biopic, or even a 'good movie': it does what these miniseries can do so well when they try - produce an entertaining escape out of the humdrum into the sun for a few brief hours.
Between Two Women (2004)
Looking forward to a subtle period piece about love which cannot be expressed easily especially in the repressive 1950s, I was hoping for a film with plenty of subtlety and nuance, expressiveness and sensitivity. Unfortunately, these factors were demeaned by an excruciating screenplay, totally inadequate to the film and its actors; a monotonously boring and irritating soundtrack which obtruded at every point; and a labouring of obvious sentiments unnecessarily. The actors were inhibited, not by the subject, but by the production and dialogue. Watching this film was not dissimilar to watching paint dry - or in this case peeling - the door of the leading character's house was dilapidated and needed stripping down and repainting badly - a rather good metaphor for the whole film.
However, the one high point was the setting: the period detail was exact and lovingly attended to by the director (and as I read, he inherited many of the accessories from his grandmother). I was brought up in the fifties and felt totally familiar with the scenes - whether soft furnishings and wallpapers; kitchen utensils and public transport, costumes and handbags. These were a joy to see - but sadly, the film moved as slowly as the fifties I remember (maybe this was intentional!).
So I can only rate this movie as 5 out of 10. I liked the story and the characters, but the drama was too low-key to be effective and for a story of 'forbidden love' did not translate to a 21st century audience who are a world away from fifties ideology, prejudices, and inhibitions. It was nice that the film ended on a note of hope but the plot was contrived to achieve this and fell flat.
The Queen (2006)
Queen and country
Suffice to say, this was a magnificent portrayal of a potentially inflammable situation drama. The 'wet behind the ears' Prime Minister - beautifully brought to life by Michael Sheen with an edge of Rory Bremner, counteracted Her Majesty as the fool with King Lear. Helen Mirren, who will be forever associated with this role, duly complied with all that could be expected and played the weaknesses and strengths of an impotent monarch to perfection.
Helen McCrory, so often miscast (Anna Karenina? I don't think so.), was very good as Cherie, right down to that awkward walk, and that silly head-toss. James Cromwell (last seen by me in LA Confidential) did a fantastic job - Prince Philip is a daft combination of sense and nonsense, loyalty and betrayal - and Cromwell got this down to a 'T'. Sylvia Syms got to play a significant role which she managed very well, considering. I love Sylvia Syms, have always loved her, since Ice Cold In Alex, but she is, like me, overblown in middle age. But she got across the humanity combined with dignity that our beloved Queen Mother always had - and a caustic sense of humour to boot.
Restraint is not the keynote of films these days, but this film excelled in this most under-rated of virtues. My only criticism? The melodramatic intrusion of the 'Monarch of the Glen' and the Queen's emotional reaction. Appropriate to Balmoral, yes; to the plot of this film, no. But ... we can forgive Stephen Frears for taking a little licence here - one can't dispute it was a crucial moment in the film where Frears turned the audience's sympathy from Diana to the Queen.
This film could have quite an influence on the way the British Public's loyalty transfers back towards our monarchy, and away from Diana.
This is a film highlight which everyone (in Europe and America anyway) should see.
Jackie Scott-Mandeville, St Conan's Tower, Scotland
Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench do their utmost, which is always well-worth watching, with this story. Unfortunately, Richard Eyre directs with scant regard for the depth and intensity of the characters, whizzing from scene to scene, never allowing the necessary time for his audience to understand the complexities of the sexual/psychological frustrations of the two women, and absorb the intricacies of the drama. The result is an unsatisfying impression that we could have been watching a deeply involving emotional high piece of theatre, but were instead subjected to a roller-coaster melodrama reminiscent of Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.
A story that involves a 30-something woman having an unlikely affair with one of her 15 year old students, and an almost retired, lesbian teacher becoming infatuated with the younger woman, could really have brought something special to the screen. The explosiveness of the emotions and frustrations, motivations and impetuousness, of such a complicated ring of relationships - with the knock-on effects on the school and family - would have made an amazingly dramatic movie if the direction and production had been more sensitive and meticulous. But it wasn't. So we saw a torrid, rather salacious, interpretation of the characters' actions and, instead of invoking our sympathy or understanding, neither Sheba (Cate Blanchett) nor Barbara (Judi Dench), despite sterling performances, came across as other than selfish, self-absorbed, personalities only interested in satisfying their own desires. The fact that they get their come-uppance, as it were, in exposure and humiliation, just leaves a bad taste in one's mouth at the end. Perhaps that was the author's original intention - I haven't read the book - but to portray a beautiful woman's sexual infatuation with a teenager, moreover a woman with an apparently wholesome family behind her, without examining the motivations properly, is weird and makes the whole plot implausible. Furthermore, the negative way in which the lesbian character is realised does no favours to lesbians, especially those who have never been able to fulfil desires due to the generation they were born into. Okay, Barbara's character was deliberately pathetic, but the pathos was lost in unsympathetic nastiness. The only character to emerge from the mess without a stain is Sheba's husband, Richard, in an exemplary performance by Bill Nighy.
Some say this film was supposed to be a black comedy. There was nothing comedic about it. I hold Eyre responsible. Maybe I've missed the point and the film was supposed to be nasty, but I go to the cinema for intelligent entertainment and I expected some intellectual stimulation from what I had read about this film, and I was disappointed. And, anyway, I can't help feeling that the whole thing would have been far more successful as a stage play.
Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
Keen on Kern
As a musical biopic, this 1946 film has many saving graces, and for the period, uses as many of the latest techniques as possible. It is not brilliant: Robert Walker and Van Heflin are both rather wooden in the lead roles of Kern and Hessler. But as a showcase for Kern's musical achievement it does him proud. The musical numbers are great. Interesting that Kathryn Grayson sings Magnolia from Show Boat, 5 years before she played the film role. Lena Horne is ideal as Julie (a pity she couldn't have played her in the 1951 film), and Judy Garland is her inimitable self as Marilyn Miller. Angela Lansbury was always on call when a London cockney was needed, and the young Frank Sinatra probably impressed everyone with Ol' Man River (even if it would have been more appropriate to have a black singer).
I watched this on TCM yesterday (24 April 2006) and despite the inevitable datedness of the film, the technicolour shone through and the songs are simply immortal. The producers picked the best singers to render them and the film is now a classic.
Far from Heaven (2002)
Fresh from Heaven
'Far From Heaven' is a gentle, deeply moving film, full of nostalgic 50s nuances, character acting, and beautiful costumes and photography. But the smooth surface hides a searing explosion of the social undercurrents running fast below the smooth American dream world of domestic bliss in the 1950s.
In this remake of the oblique, soap-romantic Hollywood 'All That Heaven Allows' (Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, 1955), Todd Haynes updates the plot, but not the period, to sharply reiterate the opposition/ juxtaposition of class, race and creed and produces a remarkable indictment of American ideals. Our domestic heroine, a vindication of Betty Friedan's 'Feminine Mystique', is exquisitely portrayed by Julianne Moore in a definitive role. She depicts the ideal East Coast American housewife, symbolising all that 1950s America was demanding of its postwar wives and mothers, perfect housekeeping in immaculate household, perfect wife - 'Mrs Magnatech'' - to her upwardly mobile husband, perfect mother to boy and girl children. And then all falls apart: she discovers her husband is homosexual and in her grief and confusion, turns to the only truly understanding ear which is that of a black man. In the original the widow turns to the gardener, crossing the taboo social barriers. This challenged the 1950s audience, but would not convince a 21st century audience, so the gardener is black.
The story could just be a topical, contemporary take on a relevant theme, and end up just another romantic drama. Todd Haynes directs something rather different. The themes are backdropped by brilliantly conceived colour and scenic composition. He takes the period colours of Ed Hopper and translates them into filmic versions of Hopper's portraits of alienation. Anyone who has imbibed the quality of Hopper's paintings and the isolation of the individuals described will relate to the identification drawn in the characters of this film. In one scene Julianne Moore, bereft after her discovery of her husband's sexuality and his confession of love for another man, sits alone on a sofa in her tidy sitting room. The image is dramatic and effective, through the blurred and muted neonic colours, she evokes a similar painting of Hopper's and the implication is complete. The audience move into another hemisphere and the film talks a symbolic language which transcends the mere screenplay. And the actors move with this: Julianne Moore as Cathy leaves her conforming friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) behind as she moves towards Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) into an unconventional, and socially unacceptable, range of emotions and loyalties.
If this film had been made in the 1950s it would never have made it to the big screen. But now it is possible to create a beautiful film, a stunning combination of cinematography, design, music, and screenplay, and at the same time send a social message through a welter of colour and light, without the dramatic demands of today's violence and blatant race confrontations.
The performances are as immaculate as the film techniques. The period settings are perfect and the stylised, mannered behaviour, conversation, costumes, and settings, have created a film to remember forever. We hear the racial, sexual, feminist messages, still valid today, but we can enjoy a wonderful drama at the same time.
A fabulously evocative film, it should have been a top award winner in 2002 and Julianne Moore should have received the Oscar for her performance (rather than Nicole Kidman for The Hours). Ironic that Moore should take a similar role in 'The Hours', for which she was nominated as a Best Supporting Actress, and for which, again, she was ideally cast. But I'll reserve my comments on 'The Hours' for another time.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Great film, great acting. David Strathairn is exceptional, it is about time he had a leading role after the many excellent non-lead performances I've been impressed with. The essence of 1950s broadcasting is captured in this film and choosing B&W over colour was a stroke of genius, as are the facial close-ups which zoom the focus on to the personalities and individual integrity (or otherwise) rather than a more general survey of the parallels between the McCarthy-led prejudices then and the fundamental attitudes today. The 3 piece suits, incessant smoking, claustrophobic broadcasting rooms, 50s mores (such as the policy against marriage within the workplace) add compelling verisimilitude.
Cross cutting CBS footage from the period (complete with the grainy film quality) strengthened the political punch and one wonders how on earth McCarthy gained such powerful influence - he is boorish, mind-bogglingly narrow-minded, ignorant, slow-witted (of course, a reminder of a certain President). The irony, by comparison with the intelligence of the CBS reporters and broadcasters, is searing. I hope this pithy, scathing insight into an important aspect of media and political influence will inspire contemporary viewers to look further into the full history of this difficult era of American indoctrination (remember, it was also the period of the Korean War and the real entrenchment of the Cold War). It amazes me now how Murrow in fact got away with his views, and all credit for Paley for supporting his team. The implication that Murrow directly influenced the investigation of McCarthy is a new and fascinating slant on the whole issue of McCarthyism. Murrow makes it quite clear he has no Communist or Socialist sympathies and Strathairn brilliantly evokes his absolute integrity combined with 'American dream' idealism. Again, the contrast with the rampant prejudice and increasingly narrow focus of American thinking (the military as well as government) is concisely illustrated with effective economy of scene and screenplay. The film's frame - Murrow's speech criticising the way American TV is developing at the end of the 50s into moronic brain-numbing mush instead of challenging, through-provoking programming along with high-quality entertainment - neatly contains the whole film's theme of how closely media and politics have combined to sugar-coat the American people into complacency and ignorance.
One fantastic additional bonus to an already superb production was the inspired casting of Dianne Reeves. The soul singer provides a late-night relaxed broadcast immediately following the powerful Murrow broadcasts, her mellifluous voice and emotive lyrics singularly contrasting - and balancing - with the stringent gravity of Murrow's deceptively restrained tone. Her plangent delivery indirectly emphasises the emotion and idealism behind Murrow's unemotional delivery and is one of the most effective devices in the film, as well as providing a very pleasing rendition of some favourite 50s songs.
I could add several more compliments to this brilliant film, which in my opinion deserved Best Film Oscar or Golden Globe. But this year it competed with so many other marvellous films - it's been quite a year for serious issue films. I've seen all the others, Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Walk The Line etc. but this one has my vote for the best film of the year.
My House in Umbria (2003)
Gentle as the Umbrian countryside
This film would immediately appeal to anyone addicted to Maggie Smith and the idyllic Italian countryside of Umbria, but it has unexpected delights to offer in its unassuming, almost art-house, flavour, and the low-key, but affecting, performances of excellent actors Timothy Spall and Ronnie Barker. Chris Cooper is rather wooden, but his academic, unemotional character casts a strong contrast to the hapless vagaries of Maggie Smith's Emily Delahuntey, and therefore works well.
Suspension of disbelief is required for the over-imaginative plot, almost out of one of Emily's romance novels. But the pleasure of such a film is simple, and simple pleasures can entertain as much as the richer, more complex enjoyment of films it might be compared with such as 'Tea With Mussolini' (which, of course, is a much fuller film in terms of plot, characters, script, and drama). 'Enchanted April' also comes to mind as another film where the Italian countryside is almost a character of the film and much more than a backdrop.
A very pleasant interlude for a winter's afternoon, or Spring evening, and Maggie Smith is as mannered and original as ever. I especially loved her flowing clothes, which suited her and her character very well.