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Posts Tagged ‘costume drama’

Regular visitors will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t’internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns, where does that leave me? Do I have to start actually making the films?

Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: ‘Power changes everything!’ declares the poster. Demarcation, that’s the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly ‘off’ about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney’s regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?

Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein’s name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that’s an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I’m not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film’s tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn’t a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese’s name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).

The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).

Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don’t know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.

The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison’s attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.

Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison’s personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult’s excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he was a mythologised figure even in his own lifetime (he has been suggested as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Nyarlathotep’, written back in 1920), and frequently depicted as an almost stereotypical mad scientist (see also David Bowie’s cameo as Tesla in The Prestige). There’s enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.

The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we’re honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.

This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison’s secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what’s not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes:  acerbic, snarky, very very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others… there’s no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he’s always been up to this point.

It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War‘s script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It’s by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it’s nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.

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I would like, if I may, to pose a small question: why is that we routinely refer to Mary Stuart, also known as Queen Mary I of Scotland, as Mary, Queen of Scots? We don’t adopt this slightly quaint style of nomenclature for anyone else – no references to Elizabeth, Queen of English people – at least, not that I’m aware of. I suppose it is simply that it is quite a euphonious title and it has stuck – it may also help to distinguish between Mary Stuart and her regal contemporary Mary Tudor (she of cocktail fame). And, of course, it is an equally good title for books and films about said royal personage, of which there have been many. Along comes another in the form of Josie Rourke’s (yes, you guessed it) Mary Queen of Scots.

The film is, of course, set back in the days when the dangers to the life of a regal personage extended far beyond going out for a drive without putting your seat-belt on: this is the middle of the sixteenth century, with religious war threatening to consume Great Britain. To be honest, the political situation this film deals with is extremely complex, and it only really makes a vague attempt at actually explaining it in detail. On the throne of England is Queen Elizabeth I (English, Protestant, played by someone from Australia), who in order to maintain her authority and independence has decided she cannot marry or produce a child. This is a matter of no small concern for the nobles of England (Protestant), as should the queen die without issue the throne will go to Mary I of Scotland (French, Catholic, played by someone from Ireland). (The two queens are actually cousins, but have never met.) It is decided that, in order to stop Mary from building up her power-base, her rule will be destabilised and she will be kept under control. Naturally, Mary herself has other ideas about this.

I’m only making the vaguest stab at explaining the premise of this movie, partly because it is, as I say, such a complex and subtle situation. There is also the fact that I suspect a large chunk of the sort of people who go to a film like Mary Queen of Scots are ones who… who can I put this without sounding too patronising?… don’t necessarily care that much about the story. They go to a lavish costume drama for the frocks and the language and the comforting sense of knowing more or less what’s going to happen (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; it’s one of the pleasures of genre, after all). And it’s also a fact that anyone with a modest grounding in British history sort-of knows the rough outline of Mary I’s story anyway: came to power, got married and had a baby (thus threatening the Protestant settlement in England), various disputed shenanigans, one dead husband, forced to flee to England and Elizabeth’s protection, nearly twenty years under house arrest, charges (possibly trumped up) of stirring dissent against her cousin, chopping block. Along the way some guy called Rizzo meets a sticky end.

It is a rollicking, if slightly tragic story, and it would be great to see it properly done justice in a big movie, with the details filled in and the characters brought to some semblance of life. However, Mary Queen of Scots is not that movie. You can’t fault its ambition, but even though it mostly limits itself to the period between 1560 and 1567, it still struggles to accommodate all the details without feeling rather rushed and busy. The preponderance of dour bearded men standing around glowering darkly probably doesn’t help much.

Neither does the fact that the director seems to have other things on her mind than simply telling the history, or even just the story. ‘The perfect story for our time!’ declares the publicity for this movie, and I don’t think it’s just because it’s about the female leaders of England and Scotland not getting on. No, I suspect we are being invited to infer that this is a story revealing important universal truths about the treatment of powerful women. The film certainly seems to have a few agendas on the go – both the royal courts in the film seem improbably multi-ethnic (don’t set light to that torch just yet: I’m fully aware that in this period Britain was more diverse than has often been depicted, I’m only saying that the Countess of Shrewsbury wasn’t Chinese), while the implication seems to be that if Mary and Elizabeth had been left to sort it all about between themselves, without having to worry about men going on about the succession and the papacy and a woman’s place and so on, everything would have ended much more happily. (The film supports this by the contrivance of the kind of face-to-face meeting between the two women that there is no historical evidence for.) The men are cruel, or weak, or occasionally both; both queens are to some extent presented as victims. Well, it’s a coherent thesis, I suppose, I’m just not sure quite how well it serves or is served by this particular piece of history.

However, this is not to say that this is an entirely unrewarding movie. It is something of a truism to say that here in the UK we do this sort of thing rather well, and all the frocks and stretches of rolling countryside and surprising hairstyles are present and correct. The acting is also perfectly acceptable – although, in what’s undoubtedly the big showy title role, Saoirse Ronan doesn’t quite achieve full lift-off in the manner you might expect given her reputation. She is good, but not great. Rather surprisingly, the more impressive performance comes from Margot Robbie as the increasingly ravaged Elizabeth. She gets much less screen time and the film does not favour her to nearly the same extent, but she manages to bring something new to her portrayal of this most over-exposed of monarchs.

There is also a degree of fun to be had amongst the supporting cast, which is packed with solid character actors. Guy Pearce turns up as William Cecil, and Simon Russell Beale makes a cameo as (presumably) one of his own ancestors. David Tennant, who has been issued with a fake beard of such luxuriance it could probably conceal a herd of Highland cattle, is on barn-storming form as the zealous preacher John Knox.

So all in all this is still a reasonably substantial movie, it’s just that the various elements never quite cohere into something great. This story is probably just too involved to be brought to the screen without a judicious degree of editing taking place; trying to do the whole thing, while at the same time attempting to insert a contemporary metaphor, was probably never going to produce something entirely satisfactory. Some very good individual elements, though.

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‘What -‘

‘It’s a thriller.’

‘Oh, good.’

In 2006, Lithuania entered the Eurovision Song Contest with a catchy, up-beat, rather tongue-in-cheek number entitled ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision‘ – in the end this proved to be rather optimistic as the song eventually came sixth. So it goes sometimes, but while ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision’ did not eventually win Eurovision, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has managed to become the buzzy film of the moment and, quite possibly, The Favourite for the awards season which is just about getting under way. Considering that most people know Lanthimos from The Lobster, likely only to win an award for ‘Weirdest Film to Feature a Crustacean’, this is a fairly noteworthy achievement.

The Favourite is not, in fact, a thriller (this was just a cunning ploy I used to get Olinka to come and see it), but is instead… hmmm, well. A very cursory glance at the trailer might lead one to assume this is a grand costume drama in the traditional style – certainly, the setting and characters are the stuff of many a lavish, perhaps slightly staid drama (the film concerns the royal court of England in the early 18th century). However, something much more peculiar is on the cards here.

Ostensibly on the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), but the monarch is temperamental, self-obsessed, stricken with gout and obsessed with her large collection of rabbits. Much of the de facto power rests with her confidante and the keeper of the Privy Purse, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is happy to manipulate the queen, supposedly in the national interest.

Into this situation comes the Duchess’ cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a young noblewoman fallen on hard times. The Duchess is not overly moved to help her and Abigail initially finds herself working in the kitchens. However, her knowledge of herbal medicine proves to be her ticket into the queen’s good books and she finds herself moving in more elevated circles, eventually winning the approval of Anne herself.

Needless to say the appearance of a rival is met with steely hostility from the Duchess, and a superficially well-mannered but actually deeply brutal struggle for ascendancy soon breaks out. Who will eventually become the queen’s favourite? And is the queen herself quite as oblivious to what is going on around her as it appears?

The Favourite is one of those films which has been made from a script which has being kicking around film companies for nearly twenty years, with the early response usually being something along the lines of ‘We like it, but…’ – the main problem usually having something to do with the fact that all three of the main characters are women, thus making the film difficult to market according to industry logic (Nicholas Hoult appears as the scheming politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as one of his dimmer lieutenants, but these are both relatively minor roles). However, as I suspect we are likely to see across the coming weeks, in the wake of the Unique Moment there are a number of high-quality female-dominated movies jostling for attention, and there are few films more female-dominated than this one.

As I say, it may look like a traditional costume drama, but this is something really much more idiosyncratic – we were treated to some surly chuntering from a prominent right-wing writer in the weekend’s Mail on Sunday, grumbling about the film’s wild divergence from historical fact and (supposed) obsession with lesbianism, and if you turn up to The Favourite actually expecting to see a conventional film about the court of Queen Anne then I expect you will be sorely disappointed. Certainly it all looks ravishing, with sumptuous costumes and wigs (all the men look like Brian May, the women are generally more restrained), and many scenes shot solely by candle-light. This inevitably puts one in mind of Barry Lyndon, 15-18 foot lamberts and all, and there is a certain resemblance, but only up to a point. I don’t do that invidious ‘this film is X meets Y’ thing, but if I were, then I would say that, feminine dominance notwithstanding, The Favourite is almost like a cross between Barry Lyndon and The League of Gentlemen TV show – indeed, Mark Gatiss appears in a supporting role, and seems to be very much at home.

By this I mean that The Favourite contains a great deal more (mostly implied) sex and (explicit) vomiting than is generally found in a costume drama, and the whole thing has a twisted, blackly comic sensibility. This is probably the source of all the grumbling about the film’s supposed departures from strict historicity – it is apparently ‘considered unlikely’ that Queen Anne was actually a lesbian, and in any case I doubt that casual conversation around the court was quite as profanity-laden as it is depicted here – but Lanthimos makes it fairly clear from very early on that the cabinet of grotesqueries he has assembled is not intended to be taken at face value. The film keeps wandering off and focusing on oddities – the Prime Minister is obsessed with his prize-winning pet duck, a formal court dance quickly develops into something that looks more like break-dancing, and so on. The choice to use distorting lenses in the camera to give a warped, fish-eye view of events at court at certain points is also something of a giveaway.

So if The Favourite isn’t actually about the rivalries at the court of Queen Anne, what is it about? Well, I suppose on one level it’s a character piece, especially with regard to Emma Stone’s character: the story of how a (relatively) innocent young woman learns to survive in the snake-pit of court politics, eventually becoming just as ruthless and deceitful as everyone around her. Stone is very good and manages to hold her own against Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, who are both operating on full power throughout – Colman gives the bigger performance, of course, but Weisz has the least obvious character arc and perhaps gets the most nuances to play with.

Beyond issues of gender and sex and history, though, the film is basically about power: what it means to have it, what it means to use it, what people will sacrifice for it, and the other effects it has on them. If the film ultimately has a particular message to impart, it is not immediately clear: it has an oblique, slightly cryptic ending (Olinka thought it was ‘very sad’) – it may be about the isolating effects of power and its tendency to kill anything resembling a genuine relationship.

In the end, though, The Favourite does a very good job of not resembling a particularly serious film, and it really does function as a quirky black comedy-drama powered along by some fine performances. It’s certainly a striking film, but I suspect it may be just a little too off-the-wall to become more than a critical darling. Fun and thought-provoking, though.

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Sunday is Kubrick day at the Phoenix, at the moment, with a whole bunch of the great man’s films showing – presumably to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Apart from the famously cryptic SF movie, they have also shown Dr Strangelove and Spartacus (even though Kubrick himself virtually disowned it), with The Shining due to come in a week or so. This Sunday, however, it was the turn of Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. This is one of his movies with less mainstream appeal, which may explain the comparatively low turn-out for the screening (the fact it was a blazingly sunny day with England playing an easy World Cup fixture may also have had an effect on attendance).

This was also the film which arrived in cinemas, 43 years ago, accompanied by a letter from the director giving projectionists extremely detailed guidance as to how the film should be shown. ‘An infinite amount of care was given to the look of Barry Lyndon,’ Kubrick begins, ‘…all of this work is now in your hands.’ He goes on to give notes on aspect ratio, reel changeover specifics, how many foot lamberts should be on the screen (15-18, apparently), and even what music to play during the intermission. Given all this, it was slightly ironic that our screening of Barry Lyndon should be preceded by several appearances in the cinema from a somewhat sheepish member of the Phoenix’s staff, giving us updates on a ‘projection hitch’, which apparently necessitated a phone call to head office and a complete reboot of the digital projector (somewhere Mark Kermode was screaming ‘Wouldn’t have happened in 35 mil!’, to say nothing of the baleful psychic emanations doubtless coming from Kubrick’s region of the afterlife). The film eventually got underway nearly thirty minutes late, although – given the film’s somewhat challenging reputation – sitting patiently in the cinema waiting for something to happen was possibly quite good preparation for the experience of actually watching Barry Lyndon.

Based on a somewhat obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon is essentially a costume drama. Ryan O’Neal plays Redmond Barry, a young man born to a modest family in English-occupied Ireland. Over the course of a number of years, he becomes a duellist, fugitive from justice, soldier for several nations during the Seven Years War, deserter, spy, gambler and swordsman. Eventually he marries into money, in the form of the landed widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), and attempts to secure prosperity for his heirs by procuring a title for himself, but his efforts do not go as planned and it all eventually results in failure and disgrace.

Kubrick was famously one of those rare directors who was able to combine mass audience appeal with critical acclaim – the closest modern equivalent we have is Christopher Nolan, I would suggest – which probably explains why Barry Lyndon is generally perceived as his great flop, not quite making twice its budget (the criterion for success, by modern standards at least). It rarely shows up on TV, and is absent from the Kubrick box set on sale at my local DVD store, which includes all his other films from the sixties and seventies except Spartacus.

Hence, presumably, that challenging reputation. ‘Stupefyingly dull,’ according to one critic; ‘like going through the Prado without lunch,’ in the words of Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg. Well, I’m not sure I would agree with all of that, but I can certainly see where people quailing at the three-hour-plus running time are coming from. This is not a conventional film; it is not even a conventional costume drama. Kubrick’s intention seems to have been to replicate as closely as possible the tone and structure of the eighteenth century novel, not to mention the visual style of art from this period. (Needless to say, this being a Stanley Kubrick movie, it is soundtracked by various impeccably-selected pieces of classical and traditional music.)

The first half of the film is a picaresque meander across Europe, with many disconnected incidents and episodes; some of these are romantic, some comic, some tragic, some thrilling – but the tone throughout remains restrained, even muted. Perhaps this was a choice dictated by the needs of dramatic unity, for the second half of the film, concerning Barry Lyndon’s strained domestic situation and ultimate decline, is much darker and feels much better-fitted to the tone. The action is admittedly slow, with much of the exposition handled by Michael Hordern’s wry, omniscient narrator, but you sense that the look and feel of the thing was at least as important to the director than the actual storyline. So figures pick their way across rolling landscapes, massed ranks of soldiers resplendent in bright uniforms march towards the camera, lavish scenes of dining or gambling are dwelt upon… (Barry Lyndon’s great technical innovation was apparently the creation of lenses allowing scenes to be filmed solely by candlelight, which apparently possessed the lowest f-stop in history. I mention this because it sounds interesting, not because I have any idea what it means.) The plot frequently pauses while the camera dwells upon a tableau composed and framed like a painting; Kubrick’s signature move on this film is the long, slow pull-back on an almost totally static scene (when he abruptly switches to using a hand-held camera at one point, the effect is genuinely jarring).

Given all this, does it really matter that Ryan O’Neal is, um, not terribly good in the central role? Barry Lyndon himself is ultimately a bit of a berk, but O’Neal turns him into a cipher, someone that things happen around, rather than to. This is a particular problem in the second half of the film, which dwells much more on his personal problems and tragedies. I have to say I think it does make a difference: the lacuna at the heart of the film, where the central performance should by rights be, may be one of the main reasons it can seem so inaccessible and chilly.

In any case, I found the film quite mesmerising to watch, and only started glancing at my watch once the presentation entered its fourth hour. Regardless of what you think of the whole, the film is made up of a series of vivid moments and scenes – the extraordinary lyrical delicacy of the hunt-the-ribbon scene, Leonard Rossiter’s spectacular dancing, the brawl between the soldiers (it’s amusing to see that Pat Roach was being beaten up by Ryan O’Neal long before Harrison Ford, Sean Connery or Arnold Schwarzenegger got in on the act), Barry’s encounter with the lonely German woman Lieschen (Diana Koerner) – it goes on. And on and on. And then on some more. The film is worth watching for this alone, to say nothing of the string of cherishable cameos from actors like Rossiter, Hardy Kruger, Andre Morell, Simon Magee and Frank Middlemass.

In the end I almost get the sense that it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else says about Barry Lyndon: you may be depressed by it, repelled by it, bored into a coma, or moved to a fit of swooning joy – the film will grind over you in its stately, imperious way regardless of your actual opinion. In this sense it is Kubrick at his most magisterially impressive, even if for once he seems to be making a film solely for himself, as a rigorous formal exercise, rather than as a piece actually intended for a paying audience. I think this is still a great film, but whatever you think of it, you will be dealing with it on Kubrick’s terms, not yours.

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There were, of course, many things about the pre-financial crisis world that any sensible person might look back on with a sense of regret and nostalgia. For myself, one of these is Borders, a chain of bookshops which operated on an epic scale – just a bit too epic, as it turned out. These days the Borders which I most often frequented have turned into branches of Tescos or pet supply shops; I suppose I should just be grateful that Waterstones survived the cull.

Adding just a little piquancy to all this fond remembrance (don’t worry, we will get to something of substance fairly soon) is the fact that, during the last months of Borders’ existence, I found myself somewhat financially embarrassed and was entirely unable to take full advantage of the bounty on offer. The only thing I remember buying was a book which, on later reflection, I found myself almost wishing I hadn’t: Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (based, obviously, on the famous novel by Jane Austen, who is rather cheekily credited as co-writer).

I will spare you yet further ramblings about my somewhat turbulent relationship with different incarnations of Pride and Prejudice, and merely note that Grahame-Smith’s parody is another manifestation of the Great Zombie Boom of recent years. The book itelf was successful enough to spawn various follow-ups, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, while Grahame-Smith put his obvious talent for a snappy title to work and went on to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, filmed by Timur Bekmambetov a few years ago.

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it’s a funny title which tells you exactly what to expect, but is it actually something you can drag out for the length of a whole novel? It’s a funny concept, but you need a bit more if you’re making anything longer than a comedy sketch.

All very relevant, one would suspect, to the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written and directed by Burr Steers, and produced by Natalie Portman, who was clearly at one point really desperate to play Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what the context. This is another of those films that never made it to the local cinemas in Oxford, and I was quite glad to catch up with it, even if my expectations were, shall we say, moderate at best.

Steers has a conscientious go at setting the scene in a manner which is vaguely coherent: the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century brings all kinds of foreign exotica to England’s green and pleasant lands, most notably the zombie virus, which proceeds to sweep the nation. London is fortified (a touch of steampunk here), and sensible folk of the upper classes invest in combat training so they may defend themselves against the undead hordes.

It is against this backdrop that much of the same plot as in the traditional Pride and Prejudice unfolds: the Bennets are a well-bred but slightly impecunious family, and Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is determined to find good and wealthy husbands for her five daughters. Top of the list are Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Elizabeth (Lily James). The arrival at the neighbouring estate of the dashing and wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) is surely a good sign, but his stern friend Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seems to disapprove entirely of the Bennets. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds her head turned somewhat by Wickham (Jack Huston), a young soldier who appears to have been badly wronged by Darcy. Can the Bennet girls find romance and happiness? Could it be that Elizabeth has badly misjudged Darcy?

And, of course, there are also zombies rampaging about the countryside, although as this film is only a 15 certificate in the UK, the actual blood-soaked horror is inevitably a bit low-key. One of the big differences between the Grahame-Smith novel and the movie is that the latter moves much further away from the original Austen story, inserting much more of an action-adventure climax involving the Four Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse, not to mention the Zombie Antichrist.

I can kind of see why they’ve done this, as its identity as an action-horror zombie movie is clearly very important to this film – note the poster, on which the word ‘Zombies’ is considerably larger than the others. But it does inevitably take the movie further away from Jane Austen, which – given the whole point of the thing is that it’s an Austen-based mash-up – is surely a mistake. Perhaps it’s just an indication that this film has a fundamental problem, trying to bring together things which just don’t fit in the same story.

Well, maybe, maybe not. My problem with the book was that Grahame-Smith seemed to have chickened out of just putting zombies into Pride and Prejudice – which is, as noted, a funny idea – and had started trying to be actively funny, with creaky jokes like ‘Mr Bingley was famous for the size of his balls’, and the inclusion of the whole martial arts element, which isn’t rooted in the works of either Jane Austen or George A Romero.

Perhaps the problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is quite funny as an idea, but once you start actually writing the story and genuinely attempt to stay true to both elements, it turns into something else. You could make it work, probably, but it wouldn’t be the comedy that the title suggests.

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sort of hangs together as a zombopocalypse movie with a period setting – and in its own way it’s not much tonally weirder than Maggie, for instance – and in some ways it’s the Austen-specific bits of the plot that feel intrusive. It’s as any kind of comedy that it falls down, being fatally short on wit and self-awareness. Mostly, it takes itself painfully seriously, and the actually funny bits are the ones that feel like they’ve wandered in from a different film – Matt Smith (one of many actors who’ve managed to swing the ‘and’ position in the credits on this film) goes into comedy overdrive as Mr Collins and blasts everyone else off the screen, while a crucial scene between Elizabeth and Darcy juxtaposes authentically Austenesque dialogue with the pair of them engaging in hand-to-hand combat: suddenly the film comes to life, even though it feels like much more of a spoof as it does so. (The moment where a hot-under-the-collar Darcy dives into a lake, an emendation of the story first added by the BBC in 1995, makes an appearance, apparently because it’s expected to nowadays. It’s handled completely straight even though it’s surely ripe for spoofing.)

But these are only a handful of moments in what is quite a long film which never quite figures out its own identity – does it want to be a proper costume drama, a rom-com, an action horror movie, or what? Is it actually supposed to be funny? And if so, on what level? Is it trying to be clever, or knowingly dumb? It’s genuinely difficult to tell, not least because the answers seem to change throughout the course of the film.

As I have often noted in the past, you can do a lot with zombies (as recent films have shown). But you can’t do everything with them, or at least not all in the same movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes a talented and attractive cast and doesn’t give them the material they deserve, apparently never quite knowing what to do with them. It may be the film-makers never settled on the type of film they wanted to make. It may be that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is only funny as a title, not an actual story. I’m not actually sure. But I’m sure that this is a movie which doesn’t really work.

 

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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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