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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Hoult’

Regular visitors will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t’internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns, where does that leave me? Do I have to start actually making the films?

Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: ‘Power changes everything!’ declares the poster. Demarcation, that’s the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly ‘off’ about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney’s regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?

Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein’s name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that’s an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I’m not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film’s tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn’t a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese’s name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).

The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).

Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don’t know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.

The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison’s attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.

Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison’s personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult’s excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he was a mythologised figure even in his own lifetime (he has been suggested as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Nyarlathotep’, written back in 1920), and frequently depicted as an almost stereotypical mad scientist (see also David Bowie’s cameo as Tesla in The Prestige). There’s enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.

The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we’re honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.

This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison’s secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what’s not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes:  acerbic, snarky, very very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others… there’s no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he’s always been up to this point.

It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War‘s script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It’s by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it’s nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.

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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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