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Posts Tagged ‘costume drama’

There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

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A friend of mine tells the story of how she left her home, in a distant land, and travelled many thousands of miles, until her final arrival in Europe. Here she set about partaking of all the most famous cultural and historical experiences available to her. And so it was that she finally came to the Palace of Versailles, one of the world’s great treasures, where – in a somewhat unexpected development – she found herself seized by the overwhelming need to vomit. I don’t know, maybe it was just the French food or something.

Of all the stories one could tell about Versailles and its history, this is probably not the most profound or indeed accessible one, but then again the same could probably be said, with respect, to A Little Chaos, the new film from Alan Rickman (who also stars and co-writes). One wonders how much a factor Rickman’s personal star cachet was in getting this financed at all, because the premise doesn’t exactly scream breakout hit.

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Anyway, we’re in France in the year 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman, who’s really about 20 years too old for the part in terms of historical accuracy, but whatever) has decreed the construction of Versailles as a paradise on Earth. In charge of the grounds is Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who sets about interviewing leading French gardeners for the job. One of these is Madame de Barra (Kate Winslet), and the two do not initially hit it off, as they seem to have wildly different ideas when it comes to the philosophy of garden design.

However, le Notre realises the scope of the King’s ambitions require him to adopt the ancient French principle of aller grand ou rentrer à la maison and so he ends up hiring her anyway (if he has an ulterior motive, the film gallantly does not dwell upon it). And so begins a tempestuous story of fountain design, pipe-laying, perennial-bloom selection and water-table draining, as le Notre and de Barra come to terms with their burning mutual attraction (rather to the chagrin of his estranged wife (Helen McCrory))…

I don’t make a habit of reading reviews from proper critics for fear of being unduly influenced by them, but the Telegraph‘s line did catch my eye and make me laugh a lot -‘if you only see one film about 17th-century French landscape gardening this year, make it A Little Chaos’. (I notice they haven’t put that on the poster.) Most of the film’s publicity has concentrated on the central romance and the colourful whirl of courtly life, but in all honesty it does feel like there’s a lot of stuff with people talking about water pressure and soil acidity, with the two leads only really getting together quite close to the end. The film’s title card from the certificators promises ‘moderate sex scenes’ and I would say this was a fair description – but, hey, they can’t all be brilliant.

A Little Chaos is quite a long film, given the slightness of the central story, and you are aware of every minute of it. That’s not to say it is dull, as such, just that you may require a different mindset to fully appreciate it. As director, Rickman seems to have prioritised the performances of the actors and the look of the film over the narrative itself, and the film is pretty much flawless in both departments. He has a fondness for extravagant tableaux in which wigged and costumed actors stand immobile in front of a striking background, and the overall impression is that of a film which is under tight control, with every shot carefully considered and composed.

Alan Rickman is one of those actors with undeniable charisma and an impressive reputation – albeit one which is based on a fairly low output in recent years. His days as Hollywood’s go-to guy to play villains feel like a long time ago, with most of his recent appearances being undemanding but (one assumes) preposterously well-remunerated turns in the Harry Potter series. So I suppose it’s nice to see him back doing a movie in any capacity, even if you really wish he actually turned up on screen in A Little Chaos more often than he does. It is in every sense a stately performance, but one which Rickman invests with real pathos, humanity and wit.

Also more prominent in the advertising than the movie itself is Stanley Tucci as the King’s brother. Tucci comes on in a couple of scenes, delivers a big splash of colour and humour and flamboyance, then (usually) clears off again for a bit. Even so, between them it’s mainly he and Rickman who keep the film’s discreet, tasteful, thoughtfulness from making the whole enterprise lose any sense of momentum. This is not to criticise the performances of Winslet or Schoenaerts, both of whom deliver performances of great subtlety and commitment. It’s just that, once again, these are exquisite miniatures, and it’s sometimes the case that more energy and vitality comes when you paint with a broad brush.

There’s nothing that’s actively bad about A Little Chaos in any department – it’s impeccably acted, photographed and designed – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere surprising and the film offers no real new insights or ideas concerning the world it is depicting. If it has a deeper theme, it’s not immediately obvious, so carefully textured is the story. As a result, the film impresses much more than it actually moves – or, really, entertains. Watching a very well-made film can be a pleasure in and of itself, and there are things to enjoy here, for certain: but I think a little less control and a lot more chaos would actually have served A Little Chaos rather better.

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For the past few weeks now, I have been observing that we seem to have been in receipt of a selection of movies that one might reasonably expect to have been held back for the traditional awards season – serious, quality stuff, with big names both in front of and behind the camera. I think we may as well declare Awards Season to have opened this year, because the parade of high-class worthies shows no sign of stopping, and I would be very surprised if none of them scored any gongs at all.

Already having picked up a couple of prixes francais, latest on the scene is Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. Mike Leigh is, and I’m aware I’m probably about to generalise reprehensibly, best known as a sort of social historian of middle- and working-class Britain (if he ever remakes Interstellar, it will probably consist entirely of people arguing about crop rotation), but he is not averse to doing the odd period picture either: Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan, was a notable success about fifteen years ago, and he has dipped into similar territory for Mr Turner.

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Tom Cruise’s favourite actor from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Timothy Spall, plays John Mallard William Turner, the noted landscape artist of the early 19th century. Exactly when the film begins is a little unclear, but Turner has already become a noted artist.

I should point out that, of course, Mr Turner appears to have been made in accordance with the dictates of Mike Leigh’s Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method, in which Leigh and his actors basically just sit around and… well, I don’t know, actually, he must swear them all to secrecy or something. Anyway the point about the RNMSIM is that it inevitably results in an overwhelming focus on character and the minutiae of performance, and films which are not exactly powerhouses of gripping plot.

And so the film opens with a very long shot – in every sense of the word – of a windmill at sunrise (or possibly sunset, who can tell), in front of which two slightly Pythonesque Dutch ladies walk past fairly slowly. The camera pans with them to reveal, in slightly less long shot, Turner making a sketch of the windmill. Cut to pre-Victorian London (economically but convincingly realised) and Turner’s homecoming. There are protracted greetings between Turner and his father (Paul Jesson), and the household maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who has a skin condition, though clearly not to the point that it discourages Turner from taking the employer-domestic relationship into some fairly surprising areas.

Someone goes out and buys some paint. Turner wanders about and sketches things. His former mistress and unacknowledged children and grandchildren turn up and are given fairly short shrift. There are high-flown debates about art at the Royal Academy. Turner goes on holiday in Margate. So it goes, so it goes: the storyline of the film gradually develops, to be sure, but in a very low-key and inconspicuous way.

This is certainly a film which either drags its feet a bit or provides excellent value for money, depending on your point of view. It weighs in at a lengthy 129 minutes and is it absolutely true that every single moment of it is essential to the film’s thesis? I can’t help but think not.

Then again, it did occur to me as I was watching it that treating this as a conventional plot-driven film might be doing it a disservice: perhaps it is more a discursive piece, to be enjoyed and savoured in a more reflective way, making the most of the subtleties of performance, composition, costuming and so on. Well, maybe: there is certainly a lot to enjoy here, once you get your head around the somewhat languid pace and odd style.

On the other hand, for a film about a great artist, Mr Turner is only tangentially concerned with Mr Turner actually doing any painting. Perhaps this is the point and the aim of the film is to explore the flawed character of this astonishingly gifted human being. Well, that’s as may be, but the fact remains that quite a large proportion of this film consists of Timothy Spall grunting.

No, that’s not fair: in addition to grunting, he snorts, snuffles, croaks, groans, growls, rumbles, sniffs, and chokes a lot too. There are quite long scenes in which other characters exchange long pieces of dialogue, punctuated by the camera cutting to Turner watching them and going ‘Hrrrnnnnkk,’ or something similar, in the back of his throat. Spall finds a great deal of variation in these different vocalisations, of course: the ones he makes when hearing some ill-advised art criticism are quite different from the sounds he emits when disporting himself with the maid. (Perhaps Leigh’s next project should be a radical biography of Monica Seles, also starring Spall.)

Turner describes himself as a ‘gargoyle’ in the film and Spall himself seems to be taking ‘pugnacious’ as the starting-point for his performance. There is a lot of pop-eyed cantankerousness as things go on, especially as Turner’s style of art goes somewhat out of fashion and he begins to find the role of the artist somewhat supplanted by that of the photographer, but there are also moments of tenderness and the occasional insight into what drove Turner as an artist. It is undoubtedly Spall’s film as an actor: technically his performance is brilliant, even if Turner comes across as a bit of a Dickensian grotesque.

On the other hand, Dick Pope’s cinematography is also very striking, as you might expect in a film largely about visual spectacle and art. The film has a richness and texture that is really impressive, and at times a grandeur somewhat at odds with the nondescript nature of many of the scenes.

Does it manage to say anything particularly profound about either Turner himself or the life of an artist in general? No, not really, I think: the closest Leigh manages is to suggest that Turner’s brilliance as an artist was offset by his being fairly callous to most of those who loved him, especially Hannah the maid, whom he effectively dumps in favour of his common-law wife. Is this sort of thing justified if you’re so talented? Personally I would have thought not, but the film remains remarkably non-judgemental.

Mr Turner has racked up five-star reviews by the dozen, but even if I indulged in such things I couldn’t do the same. But I am aware that this may largely be because I have a different sensibility to Mike Leigh and his RNMSIM. Mr Turner is superbly acted and photographed throughout, and has clearly been directed and edited with a great deal of skill. It’s an extremely accomplished film. It’s just a bit too slow and mannered for my tastes.

 

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There’s an old story about about Michael Moorcock, which I may have said before – as a young writer, he decided that he could routinely produce 15,000 words a day without it causing him undue strain. And so he did. Even taking weekends off (or possibly using them to edit New Worlds or hang out with Hawkwind) that translates into three modestly-sized novels every fortnight.

Moorcock’s workrate, when you put it like that, is impressive enough, but it’s only when you look at the ‘by the same author’ list at the front of a recent edition of one of his books and see the immense number of works recorded there that it really strikes home that this man is a cottage industry as much as a literary figure. We can disagree about the actual quality of much of his early work, or indeed about whether some of his more self-consciously literary output isn’t just pretentious bibble-bobble (The Condition of Muzak and Entropy Tango, I’m looking at you), but what’s certain is that this is a huge body of work. One doesn’t so much read Moorcock’s books as travel through his world.

And every now and then you find yourself unexpectedly disconcerted. Which brings me to the collected edition of Von Bek, which I had the pleasure of reading just recently. The edition I picked up contained two novels and a short story, and was billed as the first volume in the Eternal Champion sequence – this despite the fact that the novels involved are middle period Moorcock and the title of the Champion is never used in the body of the texts.

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The first novel, The War Hound and the World’s Pain, is recognisably a Moorcock fantasy in the archetypal vein – the protagonist is a lone warrior, cynical, dangerous, on an ominous but still noble quest, accompanied by a loyal subordinate. In this instance he is von Bek, a German mercenary late of the Thirty Year War, who finds himself retained by Lucifer to find the Holy Grail and make possible the creation of a better world. (His first name is ‘Ulrich’, which in itself is enough to make Moorcock-savvy readers go ‘Ahh,’ and nod sagely.)

Moorcock’s quest-fantasies are ultimately all so samey that it’s easy to see why the great man goes to such lengths to give each series its own twist and distinct flavour. In this case it’s mainly through the use of a historical real-world setting (not that this is much gone into), and the framing of the central conflict in explicit terms of Heaven and Hell. You could certainly argue that this is a good deal less imaginative and interesting than one would expect from Moorcock, but it gives the story a certain resonance. It all boils down to a finely-judged mixture of sex, violence, and theology, with a harder edge to it than in some other iterations – von Bek and his companion don’t demur at a little cold-blooded murder and rape along the way. It’s less colourful and bizarre than, say, one of the Hawkmoon books, but also arguably more mature, if a little earnest.

The sense of a writer changing gears is only increased by The City in the Autumn Stars, the novel which comprises most of this volume. This is very much not a case of more of the same, as a quest narrative is notably absent. Set in the 1790s, this is the tale of another von Bek (a descendent of the original narrator) who finds himself fleeing the French Reign of Terror and winding up in Mirenberg, a fictitious central European city seemingly modelled on Prague.

For nearly all of the first half of the book there are only hints of a fantastical element (shades of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, a – the Doctor Who fan in me rushes to the surface – ‘pure historical’ von Bek novel, apparently not a part of the Champion sequence and so not collected here) – but then the main characters travel by balloon into another world, where they discover the fantastical counterpart to the ‘real’ Mirenberg. It seems that a rare metaphysical convergence is at hand, which will set the course of the world for many years to come. Everyone has their own idea as to how this should be exploited (except von Bek himself, who is letting himself be led around by his male member for a lot of the book), but doing so will require possession of the Holy Grail – so it’s fortunate that the von Beks have a genetic affinity for the thing…

On one level this reads like a freewheeling historical pastiche, with very atypical fantasy elements – the fantasy is actually really subdued and quite dark, now I consider it. However, there’s clearly more than this going on, but attempting to make sense of it is challenging. Much of the plot revolves around alchemical terms and concepts, and it seemed to me that in some ways this is intended to be read allegorically. Moorcock wears his erudition, both historical and esoteric, very lightly, but this is a hard book to categorise even by his standards.

Nevertheless, it is in many ways quintessential Moorcock, not least in the way it connects with the rest of his work on many levels. Mirenberg, a city existing simultaneously in many worlds, is also known as Amalorm – the obvious implication is that Mirenberg and Tanelorn , both idealised multidimensional cities (the latter from the Elric stories, amongst others), are actually one and the same. The climax revolves around an attempt to alchemically create a perfect, hermaphroditic being – in short, pretty much what actually happens in the climax of The Final Programme, the first Jerry Cornelius novel. Do all these concepts and themes add up to anything more than a collection of Easter Eggs for constant readers of the bearded titan? It would take a braver man than me to give a definite no.

The collection is rounded off with The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius, a piece of avant-garde hipster weirdness from the Sixties, retro-written to tie into the other stories (in the loosest possible sense – the main character is another von Bek and the Grail is mentioned). Set in a devastated Berlin where Einstein, Weill, and Hitler drink in the same bar, one detects the injudicious use of shock, but it’s short enough not to be wearisome. By the same coin, it’s not enough of a reason to buy this edition even if you like Sixties hipster weirdness: it’s the strange historical pastiche of City in the Autumn Stars that’s central to this collection. As a whole, not my favourite selection of Michael Moorcock, but very representative of his extraordinary range.

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Under a spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

Except when he’s played by Orlando Bloom, in which case none of the foregoing really applies (there isn’t even much of a chestnut tree near the smithy). But such is the situation at the start of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a 2005 movie dipping its toe in the treacherous waters of medieval history, in particular, the Crusades.

Landy plays Balian, a soldier-turned-blacksmith somewhere rustic in France. Following the death of his wife and child he is struggling to find a reason to live, but one arrives in the imposing form of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a baron of the Crusader Kingdom of Palestine.  Surely no-one would describe Landy as a little bastard, but it turns out that’s just what he is, and Godfrey wants to make peace with his illegitimate son and indeed make him his heir too. Balian is initially resistant, but realises that fighting in the Holy Land could grant absolution not just of his own sins, but the ones which have consigned his wife’s soul to Hell.

However, on finally arriving in Jerusalem – this takes a rather long time, involving many appearances by the staples of Ridley Scott movies, i.e. beautiful shots of landscapes and brutal gory violence – Balian discovers a kingdom in peril. The truce with the Saracens will only endure as long as the King (Ed Norton) lives, and unfortunately he’s come down with a severe case of leprosy. Fanatical elements at court are pressing for Holy War against the unbelievers. Balian finds himself sucked into the power politics of the court, not least because he gets involved with the King’s married sister (Eva Green). Sooner or later Landy’s going to have to break out the chain-mail…

Well, I saw Kingdom of Heaven on its theatrical release, thought it was, mmm, okay, for a long time would probably have expressed no desire to experience (‘sit through’) it again. So why go back to it now? First off, as is his slightly tedious wont, Sir Ridley has revisited the movie and produced a director’s cut: and this has received universally glowing notices as a vast improvement on the original. Secondly, I recently digested (‘ploughed through’) Simon Sebag Montefiore’s whopping, superlative book on the history of Jerusalem, which includes a fairly detailed section on the events which this movie purports to retell. So I was interested to see if the director’s cut was any good, and if the history was remotely accurate.

The answer to the first is that it certainly is, if you like your epic widescreen historical action dramas, and the answer to the second is that it’s frankly a bit dodgy (no pun intended, history buffs out there). Scott can produce lavish, beautiful cinematic worlds in his sleep, and this film is no exception to that – my issue with his films is that the quality of the narrative often doesn’t match that of the visuals.

The story here certainly rambles on a bit – the movie is somewhere around the three hour mark – but the world it portrays is interesting enough for this not to be a major problem. Scott’s helped by the quality of the supporting cast, which is excellent, and stuffed with well-known faces – Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, amongst others. Even Landy is not, as one critic charmingly put it, ‘actively bad’ (bear in mind that Arnie was attached to star in this project for a while during its long gestation period). And, certainly in the extended version, there seems to have been a serious effort to portray the texture of medieval life with reasonable accuracy – these aren’t just modern-day action heroes playing dress-up. Admittedly, some of this is put to the service of rather obvious themes and metaphors: most of the characters on both the Christian and Islamic sides are fond of proclaiming everything that happens to be the will of God – it’s just a bit too thumpingly driven home that a) using religion as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility is the cause of all the trouble and b) they’re all the same anyway.

And I found it a bit of a problem that the characters we’re supposed to identify with and care about – Balian, the King, and to a lesser extent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) – all share a very modern attitude to the issue of religion and how much it should dictate one’s actions and morality. I suppose this is necessary in order for them to be characters we engage with at all, but it’s still not just getting the details of history wrong, but the whole tone.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven cheerfully engages in getting the details of history wrong too. Perhaps that’s putting it a mite strong, as there is such a thing as justified artistic licence – the historical Balian obviously wasn’t a bastard blacksmith, but neither was he such an identifiable character. Some of the stuff that’s crept back into the extended cut is a bit more dubious – the leprosy that afflicted Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is a recorded fact, but the movie opts to give his nephew and successor, Baldwin V, exactly the same disease (to lose one King of Jerusalem to leprosy is unfortunate, to lose two is an obvious plot contrivance). Baldwin V died very young, it’s true, but there’s no evidence he was bumped off by his mum as an extremely pre-emptive mercy killing, as the movie depicts.

More problematic, yet also understandable, is the movie’s portrayal of the major religions involved. There are many more nutters on the Christian side than the Islamic one, and Saladin is portrayed as the civilised, enlightened statesman of popular legend. At the end of the movie he lets the Christian population of Jerusalem walk free – historically, he was rather less generous. Of course, there are perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to annoy Muslims these days, and it’s difficult not to see Kingdom of Heaven as being, on some level, a comment on the state of the modern world. ‘To this day, peace remains elusive in the Kingdom of Heaven,’ states the closing caption, in a masterpiece of understatement.

Well, true enough, but there I think the movie is falling into a trap decried by one modern historian – that of treating the Crusades as somehow emblematic of an age-old, inevitable, irresolvable clash between different philosophies, the start of something which has continued to this day. The Crusades were nearly a millennium ago and no more influential on the modern world than any other event of that time.

Still, it’s not many big-budget Hollywood movies that cause one to engage in this kind of thought process, and this is surely to the movie’s credit. That it does so without neglecting the impressive spectacle and well-mounted violent action one would expect from a movie on this subject only increases my admiration for its achievement. The movie is still fundamentally troubled by the lack of a stronger leading man, but I found the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven a huge improvement over the theatrical version – quite possibly this is now my favourite of all Ridley Scott’s films.

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I was moved to ponder, not long ago, the somewhat vexed issue of whether it might not be a good idea to institute a licensing system whereby film-makers, etc, would not be permitted to use a really good title unless they could first prove they were capable of doing it justice. This idea may have first crept into my head in the summer of 2009, when I wandered into a branch of a well-known bookseller and happened upon Seth Grahame-Smith (‘and Jane Austen’)’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Another winning title, embodying a genuinely funny concept. Unfortunately the book itself was, possibly predictably, and certainly appropriately, rotten.

And so I approached Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with a level of misgiving. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did well enough to prompt a slew of similarly improbable mash-ups, ranging from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, to (good grief) Android Karenina. Grahame-Smith himself knocked out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and has written and exec-produced the movie. So, cause for apprehension there. On the other hand, this film is a product of the same creative vision that gave us the rampantly insane excess of Wanted, an everyday tale of weaver-hitmen and their precognitive loom that did more than any other to epitomise the summer of 2008 for me. So this is a movie which looked like it might go either way.

Perhaps it takes a director of Kazakh origin, like Timur Bekmambetov, to cast such a new and original light on one of the most central and iconic figures in American history. But in this case I sort of doubt it. Semi-professional Liam Neeson lookee-likee Benjamin Walker plays the great man himself throughout most of his life (not the very early bits though), in a story which purports to reveal that Honest Abe actually had a few startling secrets in his hinterland. We first meet Abraham Lincoln as a lad, and even at this young age he is fiercely committed to justice, equality, fairness, etc, etc. You know the drill. Unfortunately this indirectly ends up putting his family on the wrong side of a shady character, who chooses to work his issues out by chowing down on Mrs Lincoln’s blood vessels. That’s right, he’s a vampire! Yowser! Who’d have seen that coming?

Naturally, when he grows up, Lincoln sets out to avenge his mum, only to discover he is not up to the task. He is taken in hand by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the forbidden lore of the undead and equips him for the battles to come. To be honest, Abraham Lincoln is a back-to-basics kind of vampire hunter and usually turns up packing only what is technically known as a damn great axe (with a silver edge, of course). When not thinning the ranks of the undead of Illinois, he dabbles in the law and with politics, and embarks on a rather sweet romance with a charming local girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as winsome as ever). However, as his battle with the forces of darkness and their leader (Rufus Sewell) intensifies, he begins to realise the full extent to which the injustices of slavery are intertwined with the vampire presence in the southern states. Could it be that he will have to take a more public role if he is to fully eradicate the menace he has dedicated his life to destroying?

Well, look, before we go any further, I’m English and the limit of my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln is basically: top hat, chinstrap beard, freed slaves, Gettysburg Address, ‘Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’, Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln, got speared to death in an episode of Star Trek. To any of our former-colonial friends reading this and feeling outraged, I would ask you to supply a brief essay on the life of Oliver Cromwell (not derived from Wikipedia) with your complaints, and we’ll take it from there. What I’m basically trying to say is that I know very little about Abraham Lincoln as a historical character, which some might consider a handicap when attempting to intelligently review a Lincoln biopic.

However, as you may have possibly surmised, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not strictly a by-the-book biopic. In fact, I suspect that a few people would consider the depiction of Lincoln as an axe-twirling bad-ass warrior to be tasteless and/or monumentally absurd. I’m not convinced about the former but it is certainly the latter. This film is impossible to take seriously, but – and this is the key thing – Bekmambetov seems to be fully aware of this, which stops proceedings from becoming actually annoying. The main problem I had with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that it took an idea which was an amusing concept in its own right, and felt the need to try and funny it up by actually playing it for laughs, inserting rather creaky old jokes. The great strength of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it’s played absolutely straight (or at least as straight as possible, given it features the President of the USA standing on top of a moving train hitting vampires with an axe) – one never gets a sense of the director or writer winking at you and going ‘Ho ho, isn’t this wacky?’

Most of the time this works really well, particularly in the opening part of the film, which deals with Lincoln’s years before he rose to prominence. For a while it even seems as if Bekmambetov is trying to handle the historical biography as painstakingly as the action-horror, because there are a few non-vampire-hunting scenes which go on for what feel like a surprisingly long time. Problems start to set in, however, when Lincoln actually becomes president and grows the beard (both of these happen off-screen, the latter not surprisingly) – and all of a sudden we’re into the historical events of the American Civil War. Now, it may possibly be that my lack of familiarity with US history is to blame, but it seemed to me that the film was taking my comprehension of what was happening for granted here. There’s also the more serious point that the film is dealing with the deaths of real people – real people from 150 years ago, admittedly, but even so. As a silly romp the film is enjoyable stuff, but attempts to hit genuine notes of pathos and human drama just feel very uncomfortable and misjudged when they occur. Thankfully the film returns to its previously nonsensical vein for an appropriately uproarious finale.

Ultimately this is a very silly film, but the actors hurl themselves into it with impressive gusto, and the CGI-slathered recreation of 19th century America looks appealing. Bekmambetov indulges himself in his usual visually-inventive but utterly implausible action-business – fun to look at but not remotely convincing – for example, a chase through the middle of a stampede, the train fight, and so on. This is not a great action film, not a great horror movie, and (you’ll be surprised to hear) not the greatest telling of the story of President No.16 ever made, and it has nothing like the breathtakingly in-your-face bonkersness of Wanted (nor even, it must be said, that film’s inventiveness of plot). But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, for the most part, a fun and amusing piece of work which just about earns its right to such a catchy title.

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There was something of a vogue, a few years ago, for sticking the boot to the big Hollywood studios for making ‘historical’ films in which the history was, um, laughable bunk, and more often than not skewed wildly in favour of America. Now, neither bad history nor bias is what you’d call a recent invention – the latter has been a mainstay of war movies for as long as they’ve been made, but it is a little surprising to find it in films made about wars which concluded many decades ago. Dubious historicity likewise has a lengthy pedigree, but the reasons for it can be more varied.

Which is a roundabout route to what regular readers may find to be a rather familiar topic: a Christopher Lee-fronted Hammer horror movie. This week’s subject is Rasputin, the Mad Monk, a film from Hammer’s mid-Sixties golden era, directed by Don Sharp. I feel obliged to promise at this point that, despite the fact this is intended to be a semi-humorous film review blog, I will not be going for easy laughs by making endless references to the Boney M song on the same subject. (No, no: thank me later.)

Anyway, our story opens deep in the Russian heartlands, which as usual in a Hammer movie bear a striking resemblence to some woodlands out the back of the studio. You can tell we are in Russia because people wear Lenin-style caps and call each other Vasily despite having Somerset accents. Gloom pervades the local inn, as the landlord’s wife is poorly and the local doctor has given up. However, who should stride through the door but Russia’s greatest love machine ahem, a mysterious stranger (Christopher Lee). He is, of course, Rasputin, but we don’t find out his name just yet.

Preferring a boozer with a livelier atmos, Rasputin takes it upon himself to exercise his mystical powers of healing to perk the landlady up a bit, which is the cue for a party, some boozing, and more ethnic folk dancing than is usual in this kind of film. (The copious hair and beard with which Lee has been issued makes it easy for someone else to double for him during the fight and dancing sequences in this movie – although knowing what a legendary polymath Christopher Lee is, he probably did it all himself anyway). When Rasputin gets a bit frisky with the young lady of the establishment, a fight breaks out, and this being a Russian pub (and a Hammer movie), someone gets maimed with a scythe before the big fella can make an escape.

However, he is tracked down to the local monastery, where he is called upon to explain this rather un-monklike behaviour. Rasputin’s answer has a certain logic – if confession is good for the soul, as the abbot is always insisting, then the more impressive the sins that you have to confess, the better. (Yes, I know: Christopher Lee, folk dancing and theological debate in the same movie – sadly the similarities with The Wicker Man pretty much end there.) The abbot is unconvinced, and – pausing only to fearfully ponder the true origin of Rasputin’s unearthly powers – has him slung out of the monastery.

Someone suggests to Rasputin that a man with his schtick could do well at the court of the Tsar, and he heads off to St Petersburg straightaway. It soon transpires his unusual attributes extend far beyond his healing hands, as in the big city he is very soon displaying hollow legs with which to win drinking contests, mesmeric eyes with which to impose his will on others, and… er…. well, let’s just say he’s popular with the ladies too. Chief amongst his conquests is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting at the court. Rasputin spies a chance to win real power and influence – but his general nuttiness and lack of manners are rubbing the cream of the young Russian gentry (primarily Francis Matthews, Dinsdale Landen, and Richard Pasco) properly up the wrong way, and plans are soon underway to eliminate him…

So, the unusual thing about Rasputin, the Mad Monk is that it’s a movie based on actual historical events which weren’t that long past at the time the film was made (48 years, give or take – bear in mind the film itself is 47 years old now). Christopher Lee himself has described meeting Rasputin’s real-life daughter (who was apparently very complimentary about his performance, which is slightly mind-boggling), and some of the actual conspirators involved in killing Rasputin were still around when the film was made. This explains the ‘No living person is depicted’ disclaimer in the opening credits, and the fact that the film casts loose from anything closely resembling actual history quite enthusiastically. (Despite the fact the real Rasputin’s death occurred in the middle of the First World War, there’s no mention of any such thing going on, for instance.)

With a proper bio-pic apparently not a possibility for legal reasons, you would have thought the sensible option would be to really push the fantasy-horror angle on the story – but Hammer seem to have backed off from this, as well. Initial scythe-maiming aside, there’s no real horror element to this movie until quite close to the end, and what we get instead is a lurid melodrama about Rasputin’s pursuit of power. What’s he going to do with it when he gets it? The film does not elucidate. Why does he want it in the first place? Well, beyond the initial implication that he has been granted strange abilities by the powers of darkness, the film is likewise silent – but it’s pretty clear throughout that Rasputin is a thoroughly bad sort.

Without a proper grounding in fact or fantasy, Rasputin, the Mad Monk constantly threatens to dissolve into vague inconsequentiality, but a few things more than redeem it. First and foremost, this is possibly Christopher Lee’s best bad guy role for Hammer – a heretical assertion, yes, but he gets more to do, with more screentime and more dialogue, than in any of the Dracula movies. Admittedly the harsh shouty voice he opts to deliver all his lines in gets a bit tedious very quickly, but many of the film’s best scenes revolve around Lee remaining silent, letting his body language and  – especially – his eyes do all the work. Much as I admire Christopher Lee, I don’t think he has the same range as a performer as – obvious candidates alert – Peter Cushing or Vincent Price, but in terms of intensity and presence he’s The Man. I don’t think Hammer ever used those qualities quite as well as in this film, as Lee is frequently quite magnetic.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk was shot back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, hence the crossover of sets and personnel between the two films (a frozen moat features prominently in the climax of both, for instance). However, the director is different, and Don Sharp does some interesting things here. There’s not a lot of proper gore in this film, but what there is has a harder edge to it than in other films of this period – the salaciousness is perhaps a touch more explicit, too. Most interesting is a sequence in which a vengeful young man attempts to confront Rasputin in his lair (the Castle Dracula set redressed, of course), which takes place almost completely in darkness, faces and weapons swimming in and out of fragments of light.

This is an interesting and fun movie rather than a really good one – unintended entertainment aplenty can be derived from the film’s total failure to authentically depict the Russian setting and characters, the more satisfying kind from watching Lee do his thing and the very decent performances from everyone else in the cast. Hammer was making all sorts of odd films in the mid Sixties as they tried to extend their brand – this is probably one of the odder ones, but not a bad one and no disgrace to the House.

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