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Posts Tagged ‘Derek Jacobi’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-New-Film-Poster

Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

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It is a bit of a truism that you never really appreciate something until it’s gone, and – for me at least – this certainly applies to the Doctor Who created under the auspices of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner. I recall, a bit ruefully, the cheerfulness with which I was willing to disregard the flaws in the final episodes produced by this team, as they were heading out of the door anyway and a new golden age under Steven Moffat was only a year or so away.

Watching the episodes from David Tennant’s run now – those from his full seasons, anyway, as opposed to the various specials – my response is very similar to that I had upon revisiting Christopher Eccleston’s tenure, if not quite as strong. Most of these episodes are good, and some of them are very strong indeed. There is a tendency towards mid-season slumps (The Idiot’s Lantern, 42, The Doctor’s Daughter), which may be one of the factors which lead to the current format of dismembered seasons, but generally they start strongly and finish very strongly.

Picking one story in particular to write about has therefore been a bit difficult. The temptation is obviously to do a Moffat story, as his contributions are unfailingly one of the best stories each season, if not the best of all (I’m going to say it: he’s more Eric Saward than Robert Holmes, a brilliant scriptwriter but a bit questionable as a story wrangler), but they’re so very similar to the tone of the current show that I feel we would be missing out on the essential Rustiness of the Rusty Davies era.

And so – it’s a tough call, but I think David Tennant’s second season is his best. And of these episodes the one I found myself revisiting again and again, even in the days immediately after its first broadcast, is not Blink but the following episode, Utopia, written by Davies himself.

utopia

This is, by any sensible reckoning, only the initial third of a much longer story, but I’m mostly going to focus on it as opposed to the two following instalments. This is mainly because it is by far the best of the three, and one of the best episodes of 21st century Doctor Who.

The story goes thus. The Doctor pays a brief visit to Cardiff, not realising this is where his former associate, the man known as Jack Harkness, is now leading an underground team (this is underground in the sense of appearing on BBC3, not because their base is subterranean). Instinctively both he and the TARDIS recoil from Jack, who is now impossibly immortal, a fairly sizable flinch as it transports everyone involved to the planet Malcassairo in the final years of the universe’s existence – the End of Time.

However, life clings on and a tiny colony of humans are struggling to survive the predations of the feral Futurekind. Their one hope is a ship that will take them to the planet Utopia, a beacon of hope in the final darkness. But the ship is the creation of the kindly Professor Yana, a man struggling with the weight of expectation upon him – and also a terrifying secret not even he is fully aware of…

Why do I like Utopia so much? I think mainly because, more than virtually any other episode, it takes the greatest virtues of both 20th and 21st century Doctor Who and combines them almost flawlessly.

One of the ways this manifests is in the sheer amount of continuity essential to the plot, complete with copious flashbacks. The 21st century show under Davies got increasingly confident about this sort of thing, but this is still a high-water mark in terms of how involved the continuity references get. Never mind that most of the rest of the season feeds into Utopia and the two following episodes, there are also flashbacks to The Christmas Invasion and The Parting of the Ways, not to mention the fact that the Torchwood episode End of Days leads directly into this. Most gobsmackingly of all at the time, there are actually audio flashbacks to the 20th century series, although you have to be fairly hardcore to identify them as such.

Despite all this, Davies is careful to craft a story which is (I would imagine) pleasing to a wider audience and not remotely dependent on you actually having to remember the significance of the continuity for yourself. Every key point is helpfully signposted and recapped, usually by Martha. I’m not the world’s biggest Martha Jones fan, but I do think both she and Freema Agyeman weren’t really done any favours by a series of scripts which focussed on the Doctor not quite having got over his previous companion. There’s a bit of that here, but mostly she just recaps the continuity and has character-building moments with Chipo Chung.

Everything is slick and positive and generally upbeat, and the pace of the thing is a marvel – but there’s still time for a heart-to-hearts between Jack and the Doctor, so the relationships of the main characters aren’t neglected. In short, it’s a great example of how the series under Davies excelled. Except that on this occasion, the subject matter is much more like that of a 20th century story.

In some ways this is rather like a Terry Nation script, maybe even a Blake’s 7 script – most obviously in the presence of the Futurekind. Who and what they are is never really explained – despite initial appearances, they’re more of an incidental threat than the main menace of the story – but it’s clearly implied that they’re a possible evolutionary destiny of the human race. On one level this foreshadows the Toclafane from the rest of the story, but it also very much recalls the savage Links from Nation’s Terminal, and the origin of the Daleks as presented in a 1973 text story.

However, Davies also does something very clever in his presentation of Professor Yana. Davies is very keen on playing up the idea of the Master as a reflection of the Doctor, and in his Yana form the reflection is that of a generic Doctor from the 20th century series. The big difference between the Doctor in the 20th century and that in the modern show comes in his transformation from Ancient Wise Man to Juvenile Lead (I simplify, but not that much), and Yana is almost indistinguishable from an old-school Doctor in his diction and even his dress sense (there is apparently even a frock coat somewhere in Yana’s lab).

Every time the modern series revives a monster or villain from the original run it essentially constitutes a tribute, and so it makes sense for this particular revival to be so steeped in the ancient lore and mythos of the series. But this shouldn’t distract from the fact that the last third of this episode is brilliantly, brilliantly done, the slow build from the almost-casual revelation of Yana’s watch to one of the greatest cliffhangers in the show’s history being perfectly executed. Direction, music, and Derek Jacobi’s jaw-dropping performance come together and the result is simply magical.

It’s not really a surprise that The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords struggle a bit to live up to the quality of Utopia. The consensus is that this story gets weaker as it goes on, and I would tend to agree – but that isn’t to say that there’s nothing of interest here, either. There’s some serious political commentary going on in The Sound of Drums, behind all the jokes and the fanservice – and there’s possibly a piece to be written on how public views of the establishment can be monitored through how they’re presented down the years. The Delgado Master is a threat to the establishment, but the Simm Master is the embodiment of it, and neither seem out of step with their zeitgeist. Last of the Time Lords has one of those climaxes you either like or you don’t, but I’m always impressed by the scene of the Master’s ‘death’ – it seems to me to get very little comment that here we’re presented with a hero who barely reacts to the loss of a woman we’re always being told he loves, but is reduced to tears by the death of his arch-enemy.

(I feel obliged to point out the slightly eggy plot device whereby the Master, even over eighteen months, is unable to repair the damage done to the TARDIS by the Doctor – while the Doctor himself is able to fix it all up apparently in a matter of days. When the plot demands it…)

I get a sense from reading interviews published not long after this story aired that the production team thought they had perhaps pushed the boat out a bit too far, in terms of the darkness of the plot and how convoluted the season-long arc was. Certainly the story of the following year was lighter and less demanding to follow, and I do think Tennant’s final full season is also extremely strong. But if you want to see just why the Tennant years were great Doctor Who, and why Doctor Who itself is such a legend, then this is a good place to look.

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