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Posts Tagged ‘Paul McGuigan’

I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

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A moment’s investigation and thought would reveal that James Bond films, like white Christmases, are not as common as they once were. Back in the sixties and very early seventies, when Sean Connery (and, briefly, George Lazenby) held the post, your average wait for a new Bond movie was 1.3 years. This drifted up to 2 years throughout the time that Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were making the films. Since then, however, with Pierce Brosnan and most recently Daniel Craig, this has shot up to an average gap between films of 3.7 years.

What this means for the quality and standing of the franchise I am not entirely sure, but what it means for the folks at Eon Productions, makers of the official Bond series for 55 years now, is that they have a lot more time on their hands than has sometimes been the case in the past. So what are they going to do with themselves while not arguing with Daniel Craig’s agent over the size of his fee and coming up with damn silly ideas about Bond and Blofeld being long-lost brothers? Well, apparently they have decided to branch out and do other things, with the first fruits of this diversification being Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. (Eon’s last non-Bond film starred Bob Hope and was entitled Call Me Bwana – a poster for it appears in From Russia With Love – which should tell you how long they’ve been ploughing their very particular furrow.)

The vaguely Drop The Dead Donkey-esque title probably suggests something more offbeat and spiky than is actually the case, for this is one of those supposedly true stories based on a memoir of the same name by an actor named Peter Turner, detailing his relationship with Gloria Grahame, a noted actress of the 1940s and 50s. Jamie Bell plays Peter, and Annette Bening plays the star.

The film opens in 1981, with Grahame being taken ill while preparing to appear on stage in the north of England. Rather to their surprise, the various members of the Turner family (Peter’s parents are played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) find themselves caring for the clearly ailing star, who has fond memories of them from her prior romance with Peter. But how did the two of them even get together, given the difference in their status and age (she is, not to be indelicate about it, rather older than he is)?

Well, the movie jumps back and forth between 1979 and 1981 to fill in the details of the story: Peter and Gloria meet while staying in the same lodgings, bond through a shared love of disco dancing, go and see Alien together on its first release, and so on. She takes him to Los Angeles to meet her family (who are all surprisingly British – Vanessa Redgrave and especially Frances Barber make the most of their single scene), and so on. (However, and this is rather odd given that Gloria’s affection for Julie Walters’ character is crucial to the plot, we don’t see their first meeting.) But then her suddenly-erratic behaviour leads to a breakup. Can her time with the Turners at least bring about some kind of reconciliation between them?

On paper this looks a little like one of those films about ostensibly ordinary people coming face to face with the magic and artifice of the movie business – I’ve heard it compared to My Week with Marilyn – filtered through the lens of it being a somewhat nostalgic period piece, looking back to the late 70s and early 80s (there is the predictably banging soundtrack of songs from the time, and some utterly horrid wallpaper). However, it never quite works this way, not least because Gloria Grahame is not really that well remembered as an actress nowadays – I couldn’t have identified her from a picture, nor named any of her films, even the one she won an Oscar for (The Bad and the Beautiful, apparently), and my knowledge of old movies is not bad.

As a result, she almost becomes the stock figure of the Fading Movie Star rather than a recognisable person. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because the story works just as well as a simple relationship drama – it’s pushing it to call this a conventional romance – between two characters who are well-drawn and exceedingly well-played. Most of the attention seems to be going to Annette Bening, who is indeed very good (it’s the kind of role which gets called ‘unflattering’ and wins the actress involved plaudits for ‘bravery’), but Jamie Bell is equally effective in what’s arguably a slightly more challenging role. As mentioned, the supporting cast is impressive, too.

It probably goes without saying that this is a very atypical Eon movie, with no exploding crocodiles or satellite death rays to be seen, and you do gradually realise that despite the cleverness of the production in working around and disguising the fact, this appears to be quite a low-budget movie. Could they have a future in this sort of thing? Well, maybe. (One suspects Eon may have used some of their clout to secure the use of footage from Alien, amongst a few other bits and pieces, which I’m guessing wouldn’t usually come cheap.)

However, the question remains of what this film is actually, really, truly about. Gloria Grahame’s former status as a movie star is rather peripheral to the plot, and it doesn’t really seem to be making any specific point about this kind of age-gap relationship. The emphasis is always on the personal and the particular, rather than anything with universal resonance and applicability, with the result that the film always feels quite low-key and introspective. The fact that the arc of the movie is essentially predictable from very early on isn’t really a positive, either.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a cleverly-made and well-constructed movie, driven by a gaggle of extremely good performances which may well attract attention during awards season next year. However, for all of its quality – and there are certainly some extremely moving moments in the course of the film – given the calibre of the stars involved, not to mention the pedigree of the Eon marque, it can’t help feeling just a little bit small-time. Still, perhaps the start of a productive new direction for one of the great British movie companies, so you have to wish it well.

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