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Posts Tagged ‘John Madden’

Given the sheer volume of films celebrating the achievements of plucky little Britain during the years of the Second World War, you might be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that the cupboard of history is bare, the well is dry, everything has been done – Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Enigma, The Imitation Game, The Gathering Storm, Into the Storm, Atonement, and that’s just from this century alone. Surely the British war movie industry is on the verge of finally running out of steam?

Well, maybe not: for here comes John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, which has managed to identify one of the few incidents from the war not yet brought to the screen: a feat of misdirection brought about in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion of Sicily in Summer 1943. Quite apart from allowing the Allies to open a new front in the European war, the assault on Sicily is of significance as essentially being a test-run for the Normandy landings planned for the following year.

Of paramount importance is the need to keep the Nazis guessing as to what the Allies are up to – which leads to the involvement of a top-secret committee made up of members of the different armed services, with the objective of misdirecting German intelligence. Recently seconded to the group is lawyer-turned-intelligence-officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth); also present is RAF officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen). Overseeing proceedings, and basically providing an authority figure for the protagonists to kick against heroically, is Jason Isaacs as the stuffy chairman of the committee; Johnny Flynn occasionally pops up as a junior naval intelligence bod named Ian Fleming.

The idea is to get the Germans looking at Greece as the main prospective target of the Allied attack, rather than Sicily, and the scheme that Montagu and Cholmondeley cook up is to sell this idea by putting fake plans for the Greek attack on an actual corpse, which they then dump at sea somewhere it will be washed up and found by someone sympathetic to the Nazi cause. For this they need to find an appropriate corpse, then all the relevant details must be attended to, and their superiors convinced that this gambit is going to work – get it wrong, and the Germans will know exactly where the Allied taskforce is heading…

Also on the team are doughty office manager Hester (Penelope Wilton) and office worker Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), and together they begin putting the deception together. The film makes it clear that this was one of the most spectacularly successful pieces of misdirection in military history, and it has already been the subject of one movie (1956’s The Man Who Never Was, in which Ewen Montagu himself made a cameo appearance) – but I can see how a film looking in detail at how the trick was pulled would seem like a good idea and have a decent chance of finding an audience.

The problem with Operation Mincemeat is that John Madden and scriptwriter Michelle Ashford seem to have set their sights on a more ambitious target than simply detailing one particular intelligence operation. Instead of just making a true-life spy thriller, they also have a go at making a doomed wartime romance, a drama about the personal relationships and conflicts between a group of Admiralty spies, a slightly tongue-in-cheek romp playing with some of the conventions of British espionage fiction, and… you get the idea.

Madden is probably still best remembered for Shakespeare in Love, a rich, discursive, sprawling tapestry of a movie which worked on many different levels. In a sense it was about the whole cultural impact of Shakespeare, and naturally carried with it the opportunity for many different tones. This is, in theory at least, a somewhat more serious movie about one particular Second World War intelligence operation, and so it doesn’t naturally lend itself to the same kind of approach.

Perhaps this explains the distinct sense of the movie being almost a patchwork quilt made up of fragments of different script drafts, which sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit just to get up to an appropriately ‘epic’ running time. It’s not as if the central spine of the narrative isn’t filled with fascinating and occasionally macabre detail: the first thing the team have to do is lay their hands on a corpse who could conceivably have drowned, and then ensure he is – for want of a better word – deployed before the natural processes of decay become too far advanced. Later on there is a desperate attempt to ensure the faked battle plans actually do cross the path of a German agent in Spain (the natural inclination of the principled Spanish is to give the papers straight back, unread). There could be a good, taut, interesting movie here.

Splicing onto this extended scenes in which Montagu and Leslie effectively carry on a relationship-by-proxy while working out the details of the love life of their nonexistent dead officer and his equally ontologically-challenged girlfriend changes the film’s whole centre of balance, especially when it becomes clear that Cholmondeley’s objection to this kind of office fraternisation is not entirely disinterested. Suddenly the whole issue of the deception operation feels like it’s been pushed into the background of a film which is actually about the complicated personal lives of some work colleages, and each new subplot and character only contributes to this further – there’s a subplot about Montagu’s slightly feckless brother (Mark Gatiss) possibly being a Russian spy, some quite high-level political intrigue about the possible existence of an anti-Hitler movement within the upper echelons of the Nazi administration, and even some in-jokey wink-wink stuff that felt a bit tired to me – there’s a lot of knowing material about Ian Fleming trotting down to Q Branch and playing with a watch that’s secretly a buzzsaw, while Matthew Macfadyen (veteran of a 19-episode run in TV’s Spooks) gets some equally arch dialogue about the ‘spooks’ he’s working with and the nature of their activities.

Little of this is flat-out bad, but the cumulative effect of it all is to slow the film down and make it seem bloated – what feels like it should be a 100-minute movie at most eventually clocks in at over two hours. Operation Mincemeat isn’t focused or innovative enough to really stand out in what is, as noted, a rather crowded marketplace (they seem to have run out of new actors to play Churchill and so Simon Russell Beale reprises a role he’s previously played on TV). The story at the heart of this project is an undeniably fascinating one, but the problem is that Operation Mincemeat too often feels preoccupied with other matters. Predictably solid performances from a quality cast, but this feels several drafts away from a script which would be worthy of their talents.

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As you may recall, about three years ago I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on its original cinema release. One slightly noteworthy thing about this was the speed with which the showings seemed to be selling out: my companion and I planned on seeing it at the Phoenix, but even several hours ahead of start time, every seat was full, and we were obliged to relocate to the coffeeshop instead. The movie went on to recoup its budget well over ten-fold, which is why a sequel is currently doing the rounds – with, it seems to me, equally formidable success (the weekend matinee I attended was well on the way to being sold out).

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Like the original, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is directed by John Madden, and concerns the doings of a group of predominantly crinkled people living in a residential hotel in Rajasthan. Muriel (Maggie Smith) has been redeemed from her former state as a comedy bigot, and is now a comedy curmudgeon who is helping to manage the hotel. Owner/co-manager Sonny (Dev Patel) is looking to expand, but his impending nuptials are a source of stress and distraction. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Evelyn (Judi Dench) are proceeding with an intense (and intensely British) non-romance. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup have come back as well, and have their own, rather less well-developed plotlines as well. The big new addition for the sequel is Richard Gere (looking not unlike Judi Dench himself these days, it must be said), as an American staying at the hotel whose agenda may or may not be mysterious and significant.

And… well, you know, I saw this one with my folks and they were of the quite sensible opinion that if you hadn’t seen the first movie, you might struggle a bit with this one. It’s not that the plot here is such a seamless continuation, although I suppose you could possibly make a case for that. It’s that the film trades so heavily on the affection established in the first instalment. It’s all the same lovely people again! the film seems to be shouting, delightedly. They’re all doing pretty much exactly the same things! How wonderful is this?

The plot is, to be generous to it, about as underpowered as a tuk-tuk and consists of… well, not very much happening, but it happens (or not) in a very warm and life-affirming way. In an attempt to provide a few new ideas and a bit of incident, the film draws on some interesting choices of inspiration: a subplot about Sonny believing a guest to be a hotel inspector and fawning on him outrageously inevitably recalls Fawlty Towers, while a Ronnie Barker comedy playlet appears to have donated a plotline about one of the guests accidentally putting out a contract on his partner.

Most of the comedy is broad, most of the more poignant and character-based stuff is a little predictable, India remains a good-looking theme park with no other apparent purpose than to provide well-off white people with moments of personal epiphany, with the main Indian character a comic goon: in short, it is all pretty much identical to the first one, with the difference that Tom Wilkinson isn’t in it (for fairly obvious reasons). As you may be gathering, this is a sequel which differs from the original by the minimum amount possible.

In fact, this almost feels like a film shying away from actually doing a story as much as possible. There are inevitably some wedding- and hotel inspector-related shenanigans, but in terms of the main characters, the script really seems to be digging its heels in. Perhaps the Nighy/Dench relationship gets resolved, but not to the point that we actually see them being meaningfully intimate with each other. In a similar way, every single flag the film sends up about one character telegraphs the fact that they are heading for a terminal exit. And yet this doesn’t come to pass. All the signs end up leading nowhere. Perhaps the film-makers decided it would just be too downbeat an ending – or it may just be that they want to preserve the status quo as far as possible, in case a third sequel proves viable.

I wouldn’t rule it out, because for all that I have been pretty lukewarm about this film – if not actually negative – it’s actually incredibly difficult to be actively nasty about it, simply because it is stuffed with charming, likeable actors doing their very best to give some rather trite dialogue and underpowered jokes genuine impact. For the most part, they actually manage it. Maggie Smith can steal scenes in her sleep; Judi Dench can do beautifully subtle nuance while anaesthetised; Bill Nighy could probably do a technically astonishing double-take from beyond the grave.

This is not a great film. I get the sense that if the film-makers could have got away with simply re-releasing the original film under a new title, they would, and that this was the next best option. But it’s not actually a bad one. It is totally innocuous, very easy on the eye, and doing a sterling job of keeping many of the UK’s finest actors gainfully employed. I just find it very difficult to get excited or enthusiastic about it. Hey ho.

 

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When I was living in Asia, I spent a lot of time in the company of other ex-pats, and most of the time this was a very enjoyable experience. The only thing that sometimes angered me was the fact that some of my fellow visitors appeared to be treating the country in which we were living as some kind of vast theme park, existing more as a venue for them to have excitingly new and daring experiences than as a real place occupied by real people with real lives. To me this is about as bad as a blanket rejection of any kind of foreign experience, and it verges on the worst kind of poverty tourism.

I was reminded of all of this stuff by John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a Magnificent Seven of veteran British acting talent is assembled for an undertaking which is intent on warming our hearts or dying in the attempt. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup play a collection of ageing English types, who are forced by the generally crappiness of modern life to relocate to a retirement hotel in Rajasthan, run by ambitious but clueless entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel). They are all there for various different reasons – Dench has been widowed, Wilkinson is on a deeply personal quest, Nighy and Wilton are financially embarrassed following some bad decisions, Smith is there for a hip replacement, and Pickup and Imrie are there seeking to put it about a bit. Needless to say their exposure to Indian life leads all of them to reassess their lives, view the world in a different light, etc etc etc.

Well, the cast is the major draw of this movie, which seems to be doing rather well – I couldn’t get into a showing at the arthouse and had to go and see it at one of the local multiplexes (recently converted from proper cinema to coffee-shop-with-movies-showing-in-the-back), which also seemed to be doing jolly good business. That a movie with these big names involved should do well is not a surprise – what’s slightly bemusing is how they got them all in the first place.

This is just a very long-winded way (sorry) of saying that the script is nowhere near as good as actors this talented deserve. Most of the best bits are in the trailer, and practically all of the really funny bits. I didn’t laugh much at all through most of this movie, and, to be perfectly honest, was slightly disturbed that other people did. A lot of the mirth-provoking material early on comes from Maggie Smith’s character, who is basically just a nasty bigot. I am sure the film-makers’ defence would be that she’s a silly comedy nasty bigot and that people are actually laughing at her rather than with her. I’m not so sure, I sensed a degree of warmth towards her coming from around me. Needless to say she is rehabilitated by her subcontinental experiences, along with everyone else.

Once everyone pitches up in India the film does become rather episodic, with some of the cast members dropping out of sight for quite long periods. Some of these threads are rather insubstantial – to be honest, the whole film is really incredibly slight when you step back and look at it properly. So we get Judi Dench giving matronly (and not at all patronising) advice to the workers in the world’s least believeable call centre, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie on the prowl, Tom Wilkinson doing something I’d better not spoil, Maggie Smith becoming less of a nasty bigot, and so on, prior to a vaguely mechanical and definitely predictable conclusion.

A lot of this is broad and knockabout stuff, not especially engaging but not actually offensive either, on its own terms, but the problem with this material is that it gets in the way of genuinely interesting and thoughtful stuff about some of the other characters. As one might expect, Judi Dench is particularly good in a slightly heavier role. However, it’s Tom Wilkinson who is the best thing in the movie: there’s a moment where Wilkinson gently expresses his incomprehension at another character’s refusal to engage with India in any positive way that is simply terrific. On the other hand, Bill Nighy really gets very little to do compared to the others, which was a bit disappointing.

This sort of leads us to one of the issues with the film, which is that some of these actors simply don’t look old enough to be considering life in a retirement community – Celia Imrie is still in her 50s, for crying out loud. More important, however, is the fact that the film is supposedly set in India, but could just as easily be occurring in Narnia.

If we’re discussing modern British movies about India, then two words slouch implacably towards the conversation and those words are Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel is in both movies (though here he’s playing much more of a stereotype), which makes the comparison virtually obligatory. Slumdog Millionaire is set in India, but treats it as a real place, where complex people live complicated, difficult lives: it doesn’t indulge in spurious exoticism. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does exactly that – in this movie India is essentially a plot device, exposure to which allows the characters to indulge in a bit of cathartic self-realisation. Most of the Brits in this film are hardly rounded individuals, but they get a better deal than the Indians, who are virtually all ciphers.

And as a result, detached from reality and mostly bereft of any genuine sense of loss or pain, the film doesn’t earn the life-affirming pay-offs it’s clearly angling to achieve. The cast is very good, and mostly do the best they can with what they’re given: but what they’re given is rather ‘safe’ comedy and predictable, Richard Curtis-inflected emotional beats. One emerges with the overwhelming impression that, for these characters, India’s importance is solely as a catalyst for Emotional Growth – and in the modern world, as a basis for a movie, that’s surely every bit as blinkered and outdated as any of the attitudes we’re supposed to laugh at when they’re produced by Maggie Smith’s character. A slight movie, made worth seeing by the actors, Tom Wilkinson in particular. But only just.

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Every now and then a film comes along that has taken a somewhat lackadaisical approach to actually getting to the screen: it’s been hanging around in editing suites or on shelves, not remotely bothered by the need to get out there and actually start recouping investments. Usually, it must be said, when a movie takes a very long time to show its face it is out of a very appropriate sense of embarrassment: everyone was surprised when the Nicole Kidman-fronted remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers took two years to get released, until they saw it, at which point it became rather obvious why they’d been putting it off and putting it off.

Having seen John Madden’s The Debt, I am somewhat mystified as to why this film has also dragged its feet, because it has nothing to be ashamed of. It was shot a couple of years ago (in the meantime one of the cast has gone on to become somewhat noteworthy for appearing in the most lucrative movie of all time) and part of me wonders if the delay has been to allow film writers to get themselves set for its appearance, as any useful discussion of the story sort of requires you to be on your game (and possibly take a run-up).

Mainly this is due to the film’s back-and-forth narrative structure, which ping-pongs between the middle Sixties and the late Nineties, and the decision to employ different actors to play the two versions of the protagonists. It’s very difficult to go into much detail about the later section of the story without ruining the film, so I’ll keep me big fat mouth shut about it (well, mostly).

In the Nineties section, Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson play celebrated former Mossad agents, whose fame rests on a mission into Soviet East Berlin thirty years previously. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas at this point, their assignment (when not contending with incipient romantic tensions between them) is to confirm the identity of a man suspected of being a Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau, and then bring about his extraction to Israel where he can stand trial. As the man in question (played by Jesper Christensen) is working as a gynaecologist, making the ID requires Chastain’s character to go under cover rather more intimately than she might wish, but soon the go-ahead is given for the trio to move against the man. However, all does not go according to plan and the team find themselves forced into hiding and having to deal with a highly intelligent and utterly ruthless prisoner…

And to say more really would spoil the story of this film, which would be a shame as this is a quality production. I have to say that the earlier section of the story is rather more effective than the later part – there is genuine tension and excitement here, and some well-staged low key action. All of the main actors in this film are good, but I thought Worthington was particularly impressive, and Jesper Christensen (who seems to specialise in ‘creepy’) was also extremely effective as their target.

For some reason the later stages of the film fall a little flat by comparison and I genuinely can’t figure out why. Possibly they lack the claustrophobic tension of the East Berlin setting, or the strength of the relationships between the three main characters (they are separated in this section).

I’m not sure if the decision to recast the characters rather than whip out the aging make-up was necessarily the right one. As I said, everyone is good, and unlike some critics I had no trouble remembering who was who amongst the leads, but it can’t help but kick one out of the movie just a little to see Jessica Chastain suddenly turn into Helen Mirren. There’s also a slight problem in that part of the plot revolves around supporting characters living under false names, and it’s very difficult to be sure of who’s supposed to be who when they don’t necessarily have the same face as before (and not everyone is played by a different actor, which just seems mildly odd).

Based on an Israeli movie, I can’t help but suspect that the original version must have been slightly more powerful – the themes here, of guilt and duty and responsibility, never quite struck home with me. But the portrayal of people being driven apart by shared experiences rather than drawn together, and the crushing effect of regret over many years – these things worked well for me. The direction is efficient and the script effective, and this is a well-mounted film.

We’ve had quite a few thrillers that have been either retro or had period settings over the last few weeks – some of them extremely mannered and thoughtful, others much more gritty and action-based. The Debt does a very good job of having something for everyone in it. In the end this is an intelligent drama for adults rather than anything else, but that’s not to say its thriller trappings are entirely for show: it works quite impressively as both.

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