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Posts Tagged ‘Colm Meaney’

 

I can honestly say – and I have this in common, I suspect, with a number of friends and acquaintances – that I don’t know quite what shape my life would be, in the absence of the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I probably don’t fully appreciate the scale of their influence, for the same reason that it’s quite hard to accurately gauge the size of an island while you’re living on it. That said, I don’t think I ended up living in Oxford solely because Tolkien resided here for much of his life, even though he has a palpable link with the city (much more so than Jo Rowling, not that this bothers the speciality tour operators and gift shop owners much). Anyway, it seemed entirely fitting to go and see Dome Karukoski’s new film about Tolkien’s early life, entitled (unsurprisingly) Tolkien, in Oxford. Tolkien is such a draw around here that the new film even managed to challenge the Marvel hegemony and land the biggest screen at Oxford’s most distinguished city centre cinema.

The meat of the film gets underway with Tolkien’s youth in the rustic idyll of a place called Sarehole (UK readers, feel free to come up with your own anagrams), but this naturally does not last long. With his widowed mother on her uppers and the family reliant on the charity of the church, it is still a shock when local priest Father Transporter Chief from Star Trek (Colm Meaney) has them all moved to grotty digs in industrial Birmingham.

Still, young JRR (Harry Gilby) soon makes friends with the better-off boys from the prep school he is sent to, and they swear eternal friendship and all the usual sort of thing, forming a club to discuss art and poetry and music and other sorts of culture (suffice to say that Wagner does not prove popular – ‘there’s no need to take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring,’ someone complains, one of the few flashes of genuine wit in the script). However, as the one-day-to-be Prof gets older (transforming into Nicholas Hoult along the way), he finds himself increasingly drawn to his adopted sister Edith (Lily Collins), despite the disapproval of Father Transporter Chief, who thinks he should be focusing on trying to pass the Oxford entrance exam.

Well, to cut a fairly long movie short, there is Oxford, potential failure, heartbreak, philology, and then the looming spectre of the First World War. It’s all enough to give a man the idea for a best-selling (and that’s putting it mildly) series of books…

I don’t mean to be harsh to what is an undeniably pleasant and apparently well-meaning movie, but Tolkien is basically a con trick, trying to fool you into thinking things are in it which are simply not present. As everyone involved has taken great pains to point out, they don’t have the rights to any of Tolkien’s fiction – his most famous books were brought to the screen a few years ago, as you may possibly have noticed it – and so the film can only allude to them. (They don’t even appear to have the rights to quote from Tolkien’s gravestone, the text of which is referred to but not in any detail.) So much of the film consists of subtle little hints and references intended to put you in mind of something Peter Jackson did on a rather bigger budget in New Zealand, without actually being a direct steal.

The other problem is one common to many biopics operating in this particular sphere of the arts, which is how you make the life of a writer remotely cinematic. Writers tend not to have very interesting lives (well, except for maybe Hemingway and Steinbeck); the life of Tolkien, the part for which he is remembered, with him actually putting in the hours and writing out The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and so on, was that of a middle-aged university don sitting in his study every night for years and years. How are you supposed to turn that into a film with any kind of commercial prospects?

Karukowski’s answer to this is to put together a fairly predictable coming-of-age storyline which mostly feels like off-cuts from Dead Poets Society seasoned with a sort of lament-for-doomed-youth vibe, as the bold and bright (and mostly very rich) young lads grow up together before marching off to the trenches. Intercut with this is a conventional romance-against-the-odds plot as Tolkien must overcome his own limited prospects, not to mention Father Transporter Chief’s resistance, and win the woman he truly loves.

You may be thinking ‘this all sounds very generic’ and you would be right. Karukowski’s cunning way of giving all this Added Tolkien Value is load the film with sly little references, mostly to the Jackson films: we see Tolkien the boy playing in a landscape intended to suggest the Shire, and when the family move to Birmingham, it is a dark, hellish vision of looming towers, belching smoke and spouting flame (not sure the Birmingham Tourist Board are going to be wild about the suggestion their city is effectively twinned with either Barad-dur or Isengard). Young Tolkien can’t see a tree outside the window without being inspired to start drawing Ents, and – in the film’s biggest set piece – the feverish young officer witnesses the battle of the Somme and has a vision of dragons and wraiths devastating the British army. All the while on the soundtrack, Thomas Newman is trying to sound as much like Howard Shore as possible without actually being sued. As someone else has said, it is a bit like Shakespeare in Love but without the jokes; if this film were true, it’s not really surprising that Tolkien wrote all those books, it must have been essential therapy for him.

But it’s not true, and it does Tolkien the disservice of suggesting his whole life was essentially preparation for the moment he sat down and wrote the word ‘Hobbit’ for the first time. So much of what made Tolkien such an extraordinary man is entirely absent from the film – his extraordinary facility for language is touched upon, but many telling facts are omitted, perhaps for fear they would make him seem a bit weird: the fact he claimed to recognise archaic Anglo-Saxon upon first encountering it, his habit of referring to the Norman conquest as a relatively recent event, and so on. I’ve seen it suggested that Tolkien felt the Norman conquest essentially destroyed native Anglo-Saxon culture, and that his works were an attempt to provide a substitute for this – ‘how one man, in his lifetime, did the work of nations,’ to paraphrase a quote off the back of my copy of The Silmarillion.

There are moments in the film which do fumble their way towards a more authentic notion of JRR Tolkien – there’s quite a long scene discussing his belief that the words cellar door are the most euphonious sound in the English language, and quite a long section where he and his mentor (Derek Jacobi) discuss trees, which Tolkien loved. They lift the film, but also suggest the possibilities of a much more interesting, but probably more cerebral and less commercial one, which this definitely isn’t: Tolkien is basically the romantic lead throughout, albeit one whose walls appear to be covered with pictures from Peter Jackson’s art department.

That said, the film is as well-mounted as you would expect, in the usual British hats-and-fags way, and it has to be said that Nicholas Hoult does the very best he can with a somewhat unrewarding part. The film clearly admires Tolkien and wants to be respectful towards him, but too often it makes the easy and obvious choices. The result is a good-looking but ultimately rather simplistic film that sometimes seems to be more interested in Tolkien’s books (or, even worse, their film adaptations) than the man himself.

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There is no doubt a very good reason why Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci, Peter Baynham and their various colleagues have chosen this year to release an Alan Partridge movie, but for the life of me I can’t quite make out what it is. It’s not as though all their careers have been in the doldrums, and they’re in need of a relatively safe bet to make some money – Coogan has led one film in the last twelve months and played major roles in a couple of others. Nor is it that public interest in and demand for more Alan is currently at a peak – it would have been a relatively easy prospect to secure funding for this project at any time in the last fifteen years, and I always got the impression that it was Coogan himself who was reluctant to spend too much time playing Norwich’s famous son. Nevertheless, here it is – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (the subtitle is largely irrelevant), directed by Declan Lowney.

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Everyone in the UK, surely, has some idea who Alan Partridge is, but I suspect he is much less celebrated in the wider world. Suffice to say that Partridge has bestridden the media landscape like a sports-casual-clad colossus for over two decades now, first rising to fame as a radio sports correspondent, then exhibiting a magisterial grasp of interviewing techniques in various branches of the BBC. Sadly, his chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge was cancelled in 1994 due to unacceptably low viewing figures (and the high mortality rate amongst the guests), since when the great man has retreated to become a legend in Norfolk-based local radio.

This is where we find him as the film opens. The station at which he works has just been bought by a large media company, who are intent on making changes – and when Alan discovers his name is on a list of potential sackees, he does the honourable thing and persuades them to get rid of fellow veteran DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) instead of him. Pat takes this news badly and proceeds to take everyone in the building hostage at gunpoint, insisting on being allowed to air his grievances over the airwaves. Furthermore, he refuses to speak directly to the police, accepting only one man as an intermediary and negotiator. And that man’s name is Alan Partridge.

In some ways this is a slightly odd film: Colm Meaney gets his name above the title, presumably because he has some sort of profile in the US and this will help when it comes to marketing the film over there. I still can’t imagine this will be an easy proposition as when all is said and done this is still yet another TV comedy spin-off movie, and a very, very British one. The humour is basically a mixture of slapstick farce and comedy of embarrassment – I can potentially see the former reaching an international audience, but not the latter.

This is not to say that the film is not funny, because it is – if you get the Alan Partridge character, anyway. Alan’s mixture of political incorrectness, brazen self-absorbtion, bad taste and general social awkwardness is the same as it has ever been, but as ever there are moments of pathos that ensure he doesn’t come across as a complete monster. The brilliance of the character is in the sheer precision and attention to detail with which he is written and performed, and this has not changed: one of the funniest sequences in the film is the opening credits, which simply show Alan singing along to the radio while driving to work. But he’s still quite a subtle creation, and I’m not sure the big screen is Alan’s natural home.

To repeat, though, this is a funny film that’s worth the price of admission. Steve Coogan is always, always worth watching, and here’s he’s supported by a very strong cast of British comedy stalwarts. Meaney is quietly rather impressive, inasmuch as he stops Coogan completely dominating all their scenes together, and long-term Partridge followers will appreciate appearances by several members of Alan’s regular supporting cast off the telly.

Even so – I have laughed more, and been more engaged by, other comedy films recently. This is perhaps a little too low-key and parochial, compared to – for example – The World’s End, and the siege plotline feels a bit underpowered. There are moments when the story doesn’t quite hang together, too. Then again, I’ve always preferred the very early Alan Partridge radio and TV shows in terms of their basic comedy value, rather than the later more character-based stuff. Nevertheless, for me this doesn’t quite do either Alan Partridge or Steve Coogan full justice. Still a decent, entertaining comedy though.

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