Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Radcliffe’

I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

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How very pleasant it is to have a Hammer production topping the UK movie charts, and rather unexpected too. That said, of course, the success of James Watkins’ The Woman in Black has probably less to do with residual affection for the House of Horror than the presence in it of Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from a certain other franchise which has received moderate financial success. Some people have described the Potter movies as ‘Hammer Horror for Kids’, which I don’t think is entirely fair to either J.K. Rowling’s work or the House, but the connection is perhaps responsible for the peculiar phenomenon of Radcliffe going on a round of appearances, supposedly to plug the movie, where he repeatedly warned people against taking their children to see it!

Being in the midst of studying for a diploma in teaching, the prospect of an atmosphere redolent in incipient dread and despair made a welcome change from one of actual dread and despair, and this, coupled to my long-time love of Hammer, made it pretty much a certainty that I’d be going along to see the new film. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, this is the story of Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young solicitor in Edwardian London. Since the death of his wife in childbirth, he has been struggling to, as they say, keep things together, and is now given one last chance to show competence in his work. He is dispatched to a remote part of the north of England to sort out the paperwork of a recently-deceased elderly woman.

Harry Arthur soon discovers that a dreadful pall hangs over the area, centred on the old house his duties require him to work in. His presence is resented by the locals, who seem besieged by a succession of fatal accidents befalling their children – accidents they attribute to the baleful presence around the house of a spectral Woman in Black… Can Arthur complete his work in the house with his sanity intact? And, even worse, can he be in such close proximity to the source of the Woman in Black’s power without being somehow tainted by it himself?

James Watkins’ previous directing credit was Eden Lake, which was an authentically gruelling and properly nasty horror movie but by no means supernatural in its focus. The Woman in Black, on the other hand, is a proper spook story, very much in the classic vein. As a result, it has more than a few similarities with films like The Others and The Awakening, even to the point of repeating some of the same dramatic beats. Nevertheless, this is a superior addition to the genre for most of its running time.

Initially, though, the decision to employ Daniel Radcliffe’s formidable star-power seems like a mis-step – he looks rather too young for the part and is issued with some painfully non-Edwardian dialogue (‘Gotta rush! Don’t wanna miss the train!’ he pipes up with near the start). But, once a London swathed in dodgy CGI fog is left behind, the film fully immerses itself in the oppressively creepy atmosphere hinted at from the very first scenes.

As well as this chilly bleakness, the film benefits from the very solid three-act structure of Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Kipps’ encounters with the Woman in Black and the effects of her power grow longer and more intense as the film goes on and his comprehension of what is happening increases. That said, the fact that the film doesn’t solely consist of the main character rattling around inside an old house in the dark is also a strength.

To be perfectly honest Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond react and look strained for most of this movie, but he does this rather well. Also near the top of the cast list are Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, who are both rather good in their individual ways. Liz White plays the title role, but I’ll be curious to see how much of this film ends up on her showreel…

It’s quite common in this kind of film for the ghostly manifestation to in some way be a metaphor for the main character’s own psychological issues or troubled past, but the movie avoids this idea along with many other cliches: the Woman in Black is wholly external, with her own story. Neither is she just a passive figure inadvertantly influencing anyone trespassing in her domain, but an active menace with her own very specific agenda.

And this is a scary film, with many shrink-back-in-your-seat or emit-a-soft-meep moments. Watkins orchestrates these rather well, as well as the film’s deeper source of disquiet. A previous TV version of this story was scripted by the great Nigel Kneale, and it seemed to me that some of his influence has filtered through into the movie – particularly his rigorously logical approach to the behaviour of supernatural forces. The slow realisation by both Kipps and the audience that the Woman in Black is not simply an unquiet spirit but an unstoppable, irrational force of vengeance is finely achieved, and the film’s most terrifying moment comes not from anything directly on the screen but a sudden understanding on the part of the viewer that Kipps has wholly misunderstood the nature of the Woman in Black…

It’s a fine moment, impressively subverting genre conventions while staying true to itself, which makes it all the more depressing when the film blows it in its final minute or so. An ending which looked like it was going to be ruthlessly dark and downbeat is, crudely, twisted so it ends up sentimental and soggy-headed.

The ending of this kind of film is, of course, the hardest part to get right – The Awakening fell down just as badly, if not worse – and there’s more than enough good stuff in the first 93 minutes or so to make this film very much worth a look. The Woman in Black is by no means a traditional Hammer horror (there’s a distinct lack of Kensington Gore and bare breasts), relying more on atmosphere to get its scares. But get them it definitely does.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 17th 2004:

Sometimes low-budget and art-house films have more of an influence on mainstream and genre cinema than you might think. Consider the kitchen-sink, realist (some might say miserabilist), socially-engaged films made by people like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke in the UK over the last twenty years, films like Meantime, Made in Britain, Naked and Life is Sweet. Consider the generation of outstanding British actors these films have made famous – performers like Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, and Tim Roth. Now consider what all these high-powered thesps are currently doing with their time!

Yes folks, it’s a review of another Harry Potter movie, in which nearly all of the above pop up – and had Tim Roth not turned a recurring role in the franchise down in favour of doing Planet of the Apes we would have had the full set. I must confess to having felt merely whelmed at the prospect of the latest installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, mostly due to the bland overfaithfulness of the first two films (and the frankly alarming behaviour of some of the more fanatically zealous Potterphiles). But, freed of its previous role as warm-up act for Lord of the Rings, and with new director Alfonso Cuaron at the wheel, the series has taken a quantum leap forward.

It kicks off in ominously familiar style, with the Dursleys being beastly to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), before the whole back-to-school routine begins once more. The appalling danger facing our hero and his chums (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) this time round is all to do with disturbed wizard Sirius Black (Oldman) who has escaped from the magical prison Azkaban and is determined to track Harry down…

To be honest, on paper the plot doesn’t have much to distinguish itself from that of the first two films, it’s the same mixture of intrigue, imagination and humour, with a few twists along the way. And in many ways this film is much like its predecessors. As noted at the top of the page, this series has the ability to attract a truly stellar cast for even quite small roles (one suspects many of them have their arms twisted by their kids). The regular cast (Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Alan Rickman) all show up once more, and this time round they are joined by Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Lenny Henry, Julie Christie, Michael Gambon, and Emma Thompson (who hams it up something chronic), to name but most of them (and I swear I saw Ian Brown from The Stone Roses as an extra in one scene). Presumably the producers have squads of hunters out looking for Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench, who seem to be about the only two classically trained British film stars yet to have appeared in this series. Admittedly some of these people have very tiny parts (the fourth-billed Christie has about three lines), but in way that’s almost more impressive. The key parts are uniformly well-performed, and Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris well, giving the character a slightly distant, slippery quality that bodes well for future appearances.

Of course, all the Potter movies have been all-star-cast affairs but what’s new this time is a welcome change in focus and direction. Steve Kloves’ script is commendably ruthless in the way it hacks back the text to produce a focussed and pacy script that never drags or outstays its welcome. Admittedly there are a few loose ends come the final credits and some of the exposition is a little shaky but probably only people who already know the story will notice this.

But the success of Prisoner of Azkaban is largely down to Alfonso Cuaron’s direction. Cuaron knows how to give a film atmosphere, as is obvious from the slightly Time Bandits-esque opening. He gives the real world scenes real grit, the ones in Hogwarts and elsewhere a genuine sense of wonder, and the contrast between the two has never been so striking or effective. It’s invidious to make comparisons, but it’s probably impossible now to make a big-budget fantasy film without setting yourself up against Peter Jackson’s mighty trilogy – and Cuaron acquits himself well, particularly in the sequences featuring the spectral Dementors. Their grim presence seems to have bled out and given the rest of the movie a rather chilly atmosphere (ironic, given this is the first Potter movie not to get a Christmas release). But there’s warmth and humour here as well as bleakness, with inventive and funny jokes and visual quirks filling the screen on a regular basis.

I may have to go into hiding for saying this, but for me Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first in the series to actually take flight and work as a film in its own right rather than just as an adaptation. And, of course, it does J.K. Rowling’s work much more justice as a result. Great fun, for all the family – dare I say it? – magic.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 28th 2002:

As dedicated readers of my collected works may recall, I wasn’t tremendously impressed by Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series of films based on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books: it seemed too pleased with itself, too doggedly devoted to the text of the novel, and – above all – much too long. Not to mention that it came out very close to The Fellowship of the Ring, next to which almost any fantasy film would be found wanting.

Obviously, though, I was in the minority on this (as with so much else) and the film duly proceeded to become the second biggest money spinner of all time – and now, implacably, inevitably, the machine has geared up and produced Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed once again by Chris Columbus.

So off we trundled to see it, pausing only to pack sleeping bags, iron rations, and a supply of batteries for our electric razors – because the first film had its moments, after all, and Chamber of Secrets is probably my favourite of the books. Breath was duly bated – would it live up to the hype this time?

Well, calloo callay, and so on, because in nearly every way this film improves on its predecessor. It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to describe it as ‘darker and funnier’, but that’s what it is. In it, Harry Potter (still played by Daniel Radcliffe, still afflicted with a dodgy barnet) finds that the onset of puberty means he must do battle with an alarming, malevolent serpent. But in his case this is more than mere metaphor. The new menace is inextricably linked to Harry’s own heritage and the history of Hogwarts, and will place Harry and his friends in deadly peril…

The producers seem to have redoubled their efforts to get every single British actor of note to appear in the series1, and joining the likes of Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters and the late Richard Harris in this installment are the likes of Mark Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Jason Isaacs, Robert Hardy, Julian Glover, an almost unrecognisable Shirley Henderson, and, best of all, Kenneth Branagh, who gives an uproarious turn as the vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart. The downside to all these new faces are that some of the cast (most noticeably Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman) are somewhat eclipsed (the chemistry between Rickman and Branagh is a delight and very under exploited).

But at the heart of the film are the performances of the various young actors in the principal roles. To be honest, some of these performances are irritatingly over-emphatic or one-note, but this made up for by Radcliffe’s increasing assurance as a performer. A brief thumbs up to newcomer Christian Coulson, too, who hits exactly the right pitch in one of the film’s crucial roles.

Chamber of Secrets is, even mores than its predecessor, arse-murderingly long, but you’re aware of this fact much less often. Only at the very end does the pace let up, and (a brief glance at the book tells me) this is mainly because a lot of extraneous material has been cut. At the same time the story has been subtly tweaked to make it more cinematic – the beefed-up encounter with Aragog and family easily surpasses anything in Eight Legged Freaks. My only complaint on this front would be that the ultimate villain’s motivation has been snipped, reducing him to the level of troublemaker rather than Machiavellian schemer. Ah well.

The technical side of things has been spruced up as well – the special effects are much less cartoony, which was probably inevitable given the wide array of CGI beasties in the story. Columbus’ direction displays new-found flair – am I the only one who sees the influence of a certain Kiwi director in the swooping camera movements around Hogwarts and its exterior? The soundtrack occasionally seems like a selection from John Williams’ back catalogue, but it does the job.

Any film based on the Harry Potter books would be pretty much guaranteed to rake in money, no matter what its quality, so it’s nice to see genuine effort has gone into trying to make a film that does justice to J K Rowling’s remarkable prose. I still can’t see how they’ll be able to tackle the other books in this much detail – at this rate Goblet of Fire won’t be so much a night out as a weekend away – but, for the time being, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a big step in the right direction.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 27th 2001:

Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact. – Sir Ian McKellen

For a critic, even a pretend one like me, there is only ever one ambition: to write about the subject accurately, entertainingly and persuasively enough to have some impact on the way the reader views it – maybe even enough to influence whether or not they decide to see it all. Sometimes success is, perhaps, achieveable. And sometimes… well, this week I’m looking at Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and faced with such a couple of cinematic colossii, whose metaphorical ankles I stand no higher than, it quickly becomes obvious that I’m staring defeat in the face.

Both these films are based on the opening volumes of well-loved fantasy series1. Both have been eagerly awaited. Both feature powerful casts and striking effects-work. Both look very certain to muscle their way up the all-time box office takings chart. Obviously, they are – superficially, at least – very similar.

And consider the storylines: the story of an ordinary, unassuming young orphan, living with relatives. After he discovers the remarkable significance of his inheritance he is forced into a journey of discovery. His ultimate opponent is a dark lord whose power is resurgent – his greatest ally a venerable wizard of formidable power, though there are friends both large and small to be found along the way. At the end the Death Star blows up. So, yes, both stories derive from the same tradition of heroic fantasy. But the way in which the stories are told for the screen couldn’t be more different.

Lord of the Rings has a large cast, containing many well-known faces: Ian McKellen – who’s fast becoming one of my favourite performers – as the wizard Gandalf, a magisterial Christopher Lee as his counterpart Saruman, Liv Tyler as the Elf maiden Arwen, Ian Holm as the legendary Bilbo2, and Sean Bean as the mercurial warrior Boromir. But all seem to have been cast solely on merit, just as with the lesser-known actors in other key roles – Elijah Wood as Frodo, the ringbearer, Viggo Mortenson as the stoic ranger Strider, and Sean Astin as the faithful Sam Gamgee, to name but three. (There are also a couple of well-known names rendered unrecognisable by their prosthetic make-up, particularly John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the dwarf.) The performances are uniformly excellent, at the very least: Wood is moving as Frodo, and as the wizard, McKellen is a towering presence.

With Harry Potter, though, it was ever-so-slightly like watching people in free-fall fighting over an insufficient number of parachutes. Every few minutes, it seemed, someone like Julie Walters or John Hurt would roll up, do a show-stopping cameo and then clear off. Now most of these people were also very good, but the overall effect was a bit distracting – a combination of ‘I wonder who’s on next?’ and ‘is that all they’re actually doing?’ Robbie Coltrane emerged from the scrum with most success, with Alan Rickman and Richard Harris not far behind. The troika of child stars were rather variable, I thought, and under-used (dialogue seemed to consist wholly of exclamations of ‘Whoa!’ for long stretches of the film). Rupert Brint was good as Ron, but as Harry, Daniel Radcliffe was a bit too passive (and looked like a strange hybrid of Walter the Softy and Liam Gallagher).

I think Lord of the Rings scores over Harry Potter in the visual department, too: admitted it has the bonus of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth, to awesome effect, but even so I found my jaw continually dropping open at the sheer beauty and power of the images on the screen – a brief but impressive glimpse of Sauron’s fastness, Barad-Dur, the manic activity in the pits below Isengard, or the infernal might of the Balrog (a stunning creation). It’s the most fully-realised fantasy world in many years. Harry Potter, of course, is set in a version of our own world, but even so the special effects, while respectable, are not as convincing as one might have hoped for (the Quidditch match is particularly disappointing).

It should be obvious by now that I rate Lord of the Rings a good deal higher than Harry Potter. And the main reason for this has nothing to do with the concerns outlined above. Harry Potter was made in consultation with the author of the books, JK Rowling, who apparently had the power of veto over all aspects of the production. Probably due to this, and also from a desire to appeal to the widest possible audience, director Chris Columbus has made a visually rather bland film that sticks very, very close to the book – too close, in fact. The result is a film that frequently seems unfocussed and a little self-indulgent and is certainly at least thirty minutes too long – Lord of the Rings is a longer film, but doesn’t feel overlong the way Harry Potter does. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but by staying too close to the original text it does Rowling’s remarkable prose no justice.

By contrast, Peter Jackson takes liberties with Tolkien that will make any purist blanch. There are many substantial changes – sections of the book have been removed and new material inserted in their place. But all the changes serve to make the story work for the screen, as a film in its own right. The memorable-but-superfluous visit to Tom Bombadil is gone completely. Glorfindel’s role is carried out by Arwen, to provide a suitable introduction for her. The pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders is suitably chilling and relentless. Frodo’s encounter with Galadriel (an ethereal Cate Blanchett) is truly startling. Most significantly, Saruman’s role has been substantially beefed up, and he and his hench-thing Lurtz provide a physical personification of evil lacking from the text. And throughout the whole enterprise, the key themes of Tolkien’s work – the corrupting influence of absolute power, the conflict between mechanisation and the natural world, and the power of true friendships such as the one between Sam and Frodo – are emphasised and explored.

It’s by no means perfect, though. Longeurs threaten in Rivendell and again in Lothlorien. The romance between Aragorn and Arwen doesn’t really justify its inclusion. There’s no real sense of the topography of Middle Earth, but short of handing out maps in the foyer I can’t think of a solution to this. The Professor himself would be appalled by the Celticisation of much of his creation. And the end is, perhaps inevitably, a little anticlimactic. But it’s still a magnificent achievement.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a superior, though overlong, children’s adventure. It’s also a film with a mountain to climb. The Lord of the Rings is that mountain, and The Fellowship of the Ring is an epic in every sense of the word – and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next years’ Academy Award for Best Picture.

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