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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Wright’

Let us go down the rabbit hole and consider the fact that there really was a poet and swordsman known as Cyrano de Bergerac: yes, I sort of had a vague idea he was fictitious too, but apparently not. It seems that not much is known about the historical Cyrano, best known as he is for inspiring Edmond Rostand’s play about him. It even seems to be the case that no-one is entirely sure whether or not Cyrano actually had the gigantic conk which his fictional counterpart is most noted for, although it does seem to have been the case that he was ‘not conventionally handsome’, as the euphemism has it.

This puts a new perspective on Joe Wright’s new film based on Rostand’s work, which I would imagine may have caused some purists to instinctively clench up for the liberties it takes with the classically accepted version of the tale (although perhaps not as much as the version set in America with the firemen). The new Cyrano had its origins as a stage show mounted as, essentially, a star vehicle for Peter Dinklage to demonstrate his undoubted talents.

Given that Dinklage is undeniably famous and celebrated, appeared in one of the most successful films of all time (admittedly in what was essentially a cameo), and also starred in possibly the most talked-about TV show of the last ten years, you would expect his hallway to be blocked with scripts every day. But, and I mention this because I feel I have to, the fact that Peter Dinklage has a form of dwarfism probably impacts on the kinds of roles he gets offered – basically, if he wants to play the romantic lead or the action hero, he has to organise that for himself. And so he has.

The film is strong on period atmosphere but a bit vague when it comes to historical detail. The setting to begin with is distinctly Mediterranean, as a small seaside town basks in the sun. Here we meet Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a slightly impecunious young woman from a good family – she is all ringlets, rosy cheeks and exuberant embonpoint. Roxanne is off to the theatre, but decides she doesn’t have to put on that red dress she’s just been sent by her slightly unwelcome suitor the Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), despite the fact she risks offending this powerful man.

Well, what should happen but that she falls head over heels in love at first sight just before the play gets underway – with a young soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). It proves to be an eventful evening in all sorts of ways, as the performance has to be abandoned when a famous actor is driven from the stage by the cutting words of famed local poet and swordsman Cyrano (Dinklage). For an encore Cyrano wins a duel against one of de Guiche’s followers, definitely putting himself on the wrong side of the Duke.

But behind the fierce façade he presents to the world, Cyrano has a secret of his own – he has long been in love with Roxanne himself, and her request that he takes Christian under his wing – they serve in the same regiment – causes him some angst. But she also wants Christian to write passionate love letters to her, something he proves very ill-suited for. Cyrano takes up this task on Christian’s behalf, and finds he is finally able to express his feelings, although the object of his affections naturally remains oblivious…

I feel I should stress that I did have a good time watching Cyrano; there is much to enjoy about this film. The costuming, sets, and cinematography are all excellent, creating a memorable and very attractive world full of life and movement. It’s also a notably well-acted film, by the principals at least. I was rather cruel about Haley Bennett in a review a few years ago, but she is quite winning here; Kelvin Harrison has perhaps the least showy part but finds a way to make an impression. Ben Mendelsohn isn’t immediately very recognisable, but eventually that vocal delivery gives him away and he turns in what’s basically another live-action Disney villain performance (which is to some extent his stock-in-trade).

Nevertheless, the film exists as a venue for Peter Dinklage to do his stuff, and he meets the challenge superbly. One of the many sources of my habitual air of smugness is the fact that I was on the Dinklage train well before Game of Thrones ever got started; I saw him in The Station Agent nearly twenty years ago and was hugely impressed by his talent and presence. Those get free rein here – no-one does brooding, wounded nobility quite like Dinklage does, but also gets to show his vulnerability, and his facility for underplayed comedy, along with much else – including sword-fighting and singing.

Yes, Cyrano is a musical, which – regular visitors will recall – is always a genre I’m willing to give a fair hearing to. However, the thing about musicals is that they have songs in them; this is really a defining feature of the form (I hope I’m not being too provocative when I say this). It’s a general rule that, the better the songs, the better the musical. The songs in Cyrano are not bad songs. They are very pleasant to listen to. They slide very agreeably into your ear. And then they slide equally easily out of the other one. Which is to say, they are not memorable or catchy at all. We were walking home after seeing the film, agreeing we had enjoyed it, when I asked my co-spousal unit if she could hum or sing any of the tunes from it. Less than ten minutes after the film finished, they had completely faded from her memory. Whatever the opposite of an earworm is, the songs in Cyrano are that.

This becomes a particular problem at the end of the film, which honestly has a slightly odd structure to it – it almost feels like it skips the third act entirely and goes straight from the middle section to the epilogue. You can tell all involved are going for a heart-rending tragedy of profound emotions, but it all falls a bit flat – possibly because the audience hasn’t had a chance to get used to the characters being in a changed situation, but also, I suspect, because the songs aren’t quite up to plucking at the heartstrings to the required extent.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy here in every other department, although to me the ending still feels a little bit mishandled. This is an odd example of a musical which might well have worked better without the songs – but it’s still a very easy film to like.

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Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.

I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…

Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler’s Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?

There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.

The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn’t to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.

Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.

What’s slightly more unexpected is Churchill’s resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn’t look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he’s in the vast majority of scenes. He’s particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we’re less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.

Not that the support isn’t good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn’t a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill’s secretary – it does rather seem that James’ part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.

And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It’s not quite so well told that you completely forget how it’s all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.

The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.

And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it’s one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn’t remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.

In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.

I mean, it’s not what you’d call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you’re infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn’t have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn’t offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.

 

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