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Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Bonneville’

There was a time, a few years back, when half the new movies coming out of Hollywood seemed to be adaptations of old TV shows to the medium: Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team. This sort of thing has been going on for decades, of course, and shows no signs of letting up (the Mission: Impossible franchise is now Tom Cruise’s most reliable revenue stream, while we are threatened with a new Charlie’s Angels movie before the year is out), but it certainly felt like something of a peak when obscurities like The Mod Squad and SWAT were being dusted off for a big screen outing. Such is the nature of modern cinema, I suppose: there’s currently no bigger risk than originality.

British attempts at this sort of thing go back nearly as far: in fact, back in the 1950s, Val Guest and Hammer Films were actually making films based on radio shows. The British big-screen spin-off is usually a cash-in, made while the TV show in question is still a going concern or at least a recent hit, and most of them have been based on comedy programmes. The results have been extremely variable – some of the Monty Python films are regarded as genuine classics, and the two Inbetweeners films made a stack of money, but on the other hand the Are You Being Served? film is practically a shorthand summary of the many reasons why this sort of thing is a bad idea.

Of course, they have done movies based on drama series, too: there have been a number of Sweeney films, a big-screen Callan, and (not that long ago) a Spooks movie. Appealing to a rather different demographic, however, is the current release of Michael Engler’s movie version of Downton Abbey. I don’t just mean that this film features fewer men in overcoats delivering knuckle sandwiches to each other than the typical Sweeney film; Downton Abbey, whatever you think of it, has become a globally successful entertainment, even to the point where they do jokes about it in Marvel movies. It may be a few years since it was actually on TV, but the calculation seems to have been that an audience exists that will be prepared to leave the house and pay to watch what is essentially a new instalment (the $90 million return so far on a $20 million budget suggests this was a shrewd assessment).

Full disclosure: I never watched Downtown Abbey on the telly and never felt like I was missing out on much, either; I’m not saying I would have walked five miles and stuck my head down a sewer in order to avoid watching it, but it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I did find myself taken along to watch Engler’s film by various family members who were more than passingly familiar with it. In brief, they all found it to be inoffensively engaging and occasionally rather amusing, and if you are a die-hard Downtonite this may be all you need to know.

The film opens with a lavish credits sequence concerning a letter being written and delivered, which kind of sets the tone for the high-octane thrills which follow. It turns out that the King and Queen are about to embark on a trip round the country and are intent on spending the night at Downton Abbey. Needless to say, this sends everyone into a proper tizzy, from genial good-egg Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the assistant cook (Sophie McShera).

It seems like everyone has their own particular concerns as the royal visit approaches: is the best silver going to be polished correctly? Can the boilers be relied upon to keep functioning? Will there be enough chairs for everyone? Primarily, though, the Downton domestic staff are somewhat peeved to learn that they are to be displaced by the King’s own servants for the duration of his time at the house. Can they really be expected to take this kind of treatment?

Mixed in with all this (and there are a great many other plotlines, some of them very minor indeed) is a subplot about an attempt to assassinate the King. I would hazard a guess that in 90% of films, this would be the main focus of the script, and the climax would see the domestics showing their quality by coming together to save the King’s life, a deed for which they would receive due gratitude and respect. However, this is not the kind of level on which Downton Abbey operates. The assassination plotline is resolved quite early on, without a great deal of fuss, and everyone carries on as they were for the rest of the film. The message is clear: this is not a film about tension and excitement. It’s a film about using the right knife for the fish course and knowing your place in Downton’s labyrinthine social ecology.

It’s all a bit like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the feckless but presentable upper classes wandering about in self-absorbed bemusement, while the much more capable domestic staff get on with ensuring that everything actually works – although, once again, there is never any real prospect of Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) actually eating the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), as that would be far too surprising.

Of course, to say all this is to miss the point of a film like Downton Abbey, which is absolutely not intended to surprise the audience – what it is there for is to deliver more of exactly the same sort of thing as the TV series on which it is based. (I get the sense of the movie jumping through hoops in order to ensure all the main players are in their customary positions, even though some of them departed them at the end of the show’s run.)

However, as a newcomer I couldn’t help noticing a number of things. It is true that the film contains a number of very capable actors, Bonneville, Carter and Smith most prominent amongst them – on the other hand, such is the diffuse and episodic nature of the film that none of them actually get much to do beyond simply showing up and doing their usual business. More problematically, from my point of view at least, is the essentially complacent nature of the film. The main thrust of the plot concerns a group of people who are utterly determined to go out of their way to be as servile and deferent as they possibly can: the film doesn’t so much let a particularly rigid form of the British class system go unquestioned, as swooningly celebrate it.

Of course, I suppose much of the charm of Downton for its many fans is the very fact that it depicts a picture-book version of a world that hasn’t so much vanished as never existed in the first place (who was it who said that progressive escapism tends to look to the future, while the reactionary kind is set in the past?) – somewhere that is clean, and essentially untroubled, where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. (The film is not entirely backwards-looking, but a storyline about the lives of gay men in the 1920s feels laboriously crowbarred in.)

Perhaps this is why the focus of the film remains so firmly on the continuing characters, with the newcomers in distinctly secondary roles even when they are played by people who are relatively famous (Stephen Campbell Moore shows up, along with Geraldine James and Tuppence Middleton). The rules and regulations of Downton Abbey supercede conventional movie-making concerns. In the end it only barely feels like a genuine film at all; it could be just a particularly lavish and extended episode of the TV show. Which was surely the idea; but whether this is the film’s biggest strength or weakness is a matter of perspective.

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Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a movie you particularly want to see (for example, Logan), sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film you think you ought to see (for example, Moonlight, which I’m expecting to see this week), and sometimes you go to the cinema just because you fancy going to the cinema, not least because the pub next door does a good Sunday lunch (and a good job it was next door, given the horrendous torrential rain and hailstorms we had to put up with today). So it was that I ended up seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, yet more evidence that British film-makers (and, presumably, audiences) are endlessly fascinated by India, both historical and modern. This is a film with a rather anodyne title, belying the fact it deals with some reasonably heavy material.

viceroy-house

The main thrust of the story is focused on Dickie Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), nephew of the last Tsar, cousin of the Queen, war hero, and all around good egg. As things get underway Mountbatten is flying to India to take up the post of viceroy and oversee the transition to local rule. With him is his wife (Gillian Anderson) and their daughter (Pamela Travers). Mountbatten is a little upset because he had been hoping to go to Florida and become the (wait for it) Miami viceroy (ha! ha! oh, my sides).

The path to Indian independence is set to be a rocky one, given the cultural and religious divisions that the British have stoked up (one character observes that British Imperial policy seems to be divide-and-conquer, then divide-and-leave), and the country’s Muslim minority, represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), are agitating for their own state, Pakistan. The Hindu and Sikh majority, led by Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), are set against this, and violence between adherents of the different faiths looms. Luckily, the Mountbattens have no time for this kind of intolerance, and indeed they happily include members of all religions amongst the legions of servants who wait on them hand-and-foot within the viceroy’s house (come on, guys, it’s more like a palace).

Now, you can’t these days make a film about the partition of India which is told solely from the point of view of upper-class Brits, and so the local side of the story is represented by the tale of young lovers Aalia and Jeet, played by Huma Qureshi and Manish Dayal (I guess Dev Patel must have been busy making Lion). She is a Muslim, he is a Hindu, and quite apart from the fact that she’s engaged to someone else, the difference in their religions is bound to cause them trouble.

All right, so there’s some interesting historical material here, but Viceroy’s House cops out of addressing it with any genuine rigour. ‘History is written by the victors’ is the first line of the film, which it goes on to disprove by depriving the Indians who won independence for their country of any meaningful role in the story. Even the terms of reference are suspect: ‘the British have been in India for three hundred years’ a caption informs us, making it sound rather like they’ve been enjoying an extended backpacking holiday rather than engaging in a military occupation. ‘You’re giving a nation back to its people!’ Mountbatten is told, the question of who actually took it away from them in the first place being rather skipped over. The British decision to leave is presented as an act of magnanimity, or possibly a consequence of the sacrifices made during the Second World War, rather than anything to do with the Indian independence movement.

Instead, we just get Lord and Lady Mountbatten, who are both thoroughly decent, working their absolute hardest to see the Indian people get the best possible treatment in a thoroughly inclusive way – Lady Mountbatten sacks her secretary for being a bit racist, then announces there will be more local food on the menu at official engagements from now on. (‘I spend all my life learning to make European food, and now she asks me for curry!’ cries the sous chef, periphrastically.) We are practically instructed to like these people, and feel for them when it all threatens to get a bit too much and their upper lips go a bit wobbly. (The last film I saw which went on about stiff upper lips as much as this one was Carry On Up the Khyber, not the kind of association I suspect the makers of Viceroy’s House were aiming for.)

The political aspect is not gone into in any depth, and even while watching the film you’re aware that complex historical matters are being whizzed through in a pretty facile way. The film’s overall position seems to be that partition was something of a historical tragedy (good luck on getting your film released in Islamabad!), brought about by devious British geo-political machinations, but even here it is painstaking in expunging the Mountbattens of any blame (like that really matters). There’s some strong stuff here (the man given about a month to decide on the border between India and Pakistan, played here by Simon Callow, had never set foot in India before, for instance) but it is not explored in any real detail.

Rather than this, the film opts to follow the Jeet-Aalia romance, which – in true Bollywood style – largely consists of long, longing looks, and the odd dance routine. To say this plotline is chocolate-boxey doesn’t begin to do justice to just how hackneyed and sentimental it seems, redeemed only partly by a fine performance from the late Om Puri as Aalia’s father. By the end of the film it has simply become cheesy, and almost absurdly so.

I was in the restroom after the film, attending to some pressing personal business, when I overheard a couple of other people discussing Viceroy’s House. ‘Very sanitised,’ said one of them, cheerily. ‘Yeah,’ said the other, ‘but then as soon as I saw the director’s name I understood why, ha ha.’ I would love to think this was a reference to Chadha’s track record making fairly soft-centred crowd-pleasers such as Bend It Like Beckham, but I fear it was not the case. You still can’t beat a little casual racism, it seems, even when it doesn’t actually make sense – for while Viceroy’s House is indeed a true-story film which has had all the chewy historical bits sieved out of it, the real beneficiaries of this are the British characters, not the Indian ones.

There are a lot of good actors doing their best in Viceroy’s House, and the script does contain many amusing and interesting moments, and I can imagine this film will do rather well with audiences looking for a mixture of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown. I do think, though, that it’s trying much too hard to be accessible and crowd-pleasing, because the history at the heart of the story is grossly short-changed and over-simplified as a result. It is a hard film to dislike, but I’m not sure that means you shouldn’t try.

 

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I like George Clooney. I’ve enjoyed his screen performances ever since the first movie I saw him in, which was From Dusk Till Dawn, far too many years ago for me to comfortably contemplate. I even didn’t think he was too bad as Batman, though the film in question is another matter. I have come to admire him all the more following his reinvention of himself as a progressively-inclined hyphenate, making a series of impressively entertaining and intelligent films like The Ides of March, Good Night and Good Luck, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I will give a sympathetic hearing to anything he cares to promote in my direction.

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And the trailer for his latest project, The Monuments Men, makes a good, stirring pitch, for what looks like it’s going to be a rousing, old-fashioned movie with the best of ideals at its heart. In addition to writing, producing, and directing the film, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a senior art historian who makes a heartfelt pitch to the US government: the year is 1943, and the outcome of the Second World War is no longer in doubt. However, the months ahead will see the majority of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures placed in desperate peril as the war rages around them – to say nothing of the standard Nazi procedure of stripping any significant cultural items from any territory they occupy.

Bearing this in mind, Clooney and his sidekick Matt Damon lead a crack team of character actors (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) into the war zone with a view to either protecting said cultural treasures or retrieving them from the hands of the Third Reich…

The full-blown war movie has gone a little out of fashion these days, and The Monuments Men is by no means what you’d call an action adventure. Instead, it is more of a comedy-drama, albeit one motivated by the noblest of concerns – in interviews, Clooney himself has said it originated out of his own desire to make a film which was not, on some level, a cynical one.

As I said, I like Clooney, and I’m all for idealism, and if the film is arguing for the vital importance of culture as part of the bedrock of civilisation, then I’m absolutely with it all the way – but while The Monuments Men has some moments of real quality, on the whole the film is a bit of a disappointment when compared to some of Clooney’s previous work. The trailer is great at pitching the central premise of the film – a sort of high-minded amalgam of The Dirty Dozen, Dad’s Army, and (possibly stretching a point) The Da Vinci Code – but the movie itself is less successful at turning the premise into a satisfying narrative.

For one thing, I get the impression that this movie is rather less of an epic than Clooney would have liked it to be, clocking in at a smidge under two hours, and the main consequence of this is that the whole putting-the-crew-together element of the story is raced through in the course of the opening credits. As a result, the early scenes of banter and camaraderie take place between a bunch of people we don’t actually know that well, and the effect is rather like going off on an adventure with a bunch of complete strangers. In this kind of film the first act is everything, and the film never quite recovers from this bumpy start.

The movie also struggles to accommodate the sheer scope of the story it’s trying to tell – as the characters admit at several points, the numbers involved are mind-boggling, and the story ranges across practically the entirety of western and central Europe. Forging a coherent narrative out of all this proves extremely difficult. In the end the film opts to focus on the hunt to rescue a few particularly significant pieces of art, with some other episodes woven into the story, but the final effect is still that of a film which is a collection of disparate bits and pieces. Some of these are effectively funny, or moving, or tense, but they don’t quite cohere into a really great film.

Perhaps it’s just that the ideas which The Monuments Men is trying to explore are too big and abstract to lend themselves to a film of this kind. Certainly the movie itself seems unable to quite decide on what its central message is – ‘Watch yourselves! No piece of art is worth your life!’ Clooney warns his team as they disembark in Normandy, but by the end of the film he’s stating the exact opposite to justify some of the sacrifices made in the course of the story. Hmmm. Inevitably, when dealing with the issue of cultural obliteration during the Second World War, the spectre of the Holocaust is raised at several points in the course of the film, but it never quite comes up with a way of really engaging with this beyond an uncomfortable, reverent silence.

Still, the performances are good and it’s well mounted, and it’s not what you’d actually call a bad film – it just really struggles to convert its good intentions and big ideas into the meat and drink of narrative film-making. I won’t deny it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but I still wouldn’t describe it as a bad film – average, more than anything else. One of Clooney’s minor works, I suspect, but still laudable on many levels.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st February 2002:

And now for something a little different [this followed a review of Ocean’s Eleven – A]. Richard Eyre’s Iris is the story of the last years of the brilliant philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, based on the book by her husband John Bayley. As the film opens Iris and John (played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) are living in cosy, if slightly decrepit domesticity. Both are noted academics, and they seem completely happy with their lives. And then Iris begins to unknowingly repeat herself. Her latest book becomes a struggle to write. She finds it impossible to hold onto her train of thought in an interview. Medical tests reveal the truth: she has Alzheimer’s disease, and the dissolution of her intellect will be gradual but implacable.

Intercut with this is a series of flashbacks to the romance of the couple in the 1950s – here Iris is played by Kate Winslet and John by Hugh Bonneville. It provides a real insight into the foundation of their relationship, and a poignant counterpoint to Iris’ later decline.

Iris has an intelligent, subtle script but its success, which is considerable, depends entirely on two devastatingly powerful performances by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent. Dench flawlessly suggests the horror of a philosopher losing her ability to think, and later on is painfully convincing as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. But it’s Broadbent who in many ways carries the film, and it’s John’s story as much as it is Iris’. He is staggeringly good and deserves to win every award he’s nominated for (and he’s been nominated for quite a few). They are backed up by Winslet and Bonneville who are very nearly as good playing the younger versions – it’s utterly believable that these two will grow up to be the older couple.

I could object to the way the film suggests that Alzheimer’s is somehow more of a tragedy when it happens to a great mind – it’s always a tragedy, full stop. Or to the way it suggests that Iris Murdoch’s decline and death was somehow the most notable part of her life, when the exact opposite is the case. But these are objections to the film’s conception, rather than its execution. Iris is profoundly moving, extremely powerful drama, and I might suggest – and I hope not to have to make this recommendation too often! – that you take a hankie along with you if you go. It’s that good a film.

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