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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Fiennes’

The world being in the state that it is, the temptation to sink into a state of stupefied despair is pretty much ever-present at the moment. One of the reasons I love the cinema is that it does provide the chance to escape into a different kind of headspace, a different way of thinking, and forget about the dismal facts of reality. Oddly enough, this still seems to apply even when the film in question brings one face-to-face with some dolorous truths from the recent past – at least, it does when the film is well-written, directed and played.

(Yes, yet another movie poster with Keira Knightley staring out against a black background while her co-stars peer over her shoulders. Knightley takes some stick for always doing the same kind of thing but the publicity people are at least as bad.)

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is set in the early 2000s, in a Britain where huge demonstrations fill the streets, only to be entirely disregarded by the government in power, where a smirking excrescence with no regard for the truth is Prime Minister, and where a comparatively lowly whistleblower has the ability to inflict severe embarrassment on the US administration. How very different things were only a few years ago. The whistleblower in question is Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and communications hub. A keen follower of current affairs, Gun is appalled and outraged by what she sees as the lies peddled by Tony Blair in his attempts to win support for an invasion of Iraq.

Then she receives an email, sent to all GCHQ personnel from somewhere within the American NSA – in an attempt to swing a United Nations Security Council vote, an effort is being made to acquire sensitive intelligence on council members in an attempt to acquire leverage – or, to put it more plainly, they are digging dirt on allies in order to blackmail them into supporting the invasion. (Should I stress that this is a true story?) After struggling with her conscience, Gun eventually decides to leak the top-secret email.

It ends up on the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who quickly realises just exactly what he’s come into possession of. The situation is complex, however – he doesn’t know the source of the document, and has no way of being certain it is genuine. There is also the fact that, prior to this moment, his paper has been in favour of the war. Can the leak be verified? Can the editors be persuaded of the value of the story? And what will the consequences be for Gun if they do decide to publish?

I’ve seen all of Gavin Hood’s last few films – from Wolverine: Origins onwards – and it does seem like his dalliance with superheroes was rather uncharacteristic: he generally seems to make serious films about significant real-world issues. All right, he did make the (possibly under-rated) YA sci-fi film Ender’s Game, which got tangled up in political issues of a different kind, but even there the film quietly explored the issue of using child soldiers (through an SF metaphor, of course). His last film, Eye in the Sky, was a very powerful thriller about the ethics of drone strikes as an instrument of foreign policy.

And, needless to say, Official Secrets is also concerned with international relations, the difference here being that the film is based on actual events. You might think the film already has two strikes against it as a result – firstly, does the world really want to see another film complaining about a war which is now a matter of historical record? And, secondly, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Gun and the Observer journalists ultimately failed in their objective, which was to stop an arguably illegal war. Wouldn’t it just be better to accept things and move on?

Well, maybe, but the film has a couple of powerful things in its favour. Firstly, it deals with what are still arguably very live issues: the opaque nature of dealings within and between governments, the issue of trust, the extent to which a government is constrained by the rule of law, and so on. For a long time I was always slightly dubious about many high-profile whistleblowing cases – there is a case to be made that governments have a responsibility to keep certain information from becoming general knowledge, which means there has to be a mechanism to ensure secrecy. But the film questions just what the limits of this can and should be – the British Official Secrets Act apparently operates on the principle that there are no circumstances in which the release of sensitive information can be justified, regardless of the legality of what is disclosed. From here it is just a short step to the assumption that the government is necessarily right in whatever it does, simply because it’s the government (one of the notions toyed with in Vice, earlier this year). It is surely worth exploring the consequences of this, even if only through a film.

And this is a very well-made and entertaining film: it may tackle some legal and political chewy bits, but it does so with the pace and excitement of a proper thriller, particular in the sequences where Bright and his colleagues try to verify the truth of the leak. Nor is it entirely sombre: there’s a great moment of black comedy when overzealous use of spellchecker threatens to discredit the Observer’s big scoop. There is a great ensemble performance from the actors playing the journalists – Matt Smith’s performance does a good job of reminding you what a charismatic actor he can be, but he is well-supported by Matthew Goode and (in what’s basically a cameo) Rhys Ifans. The film’s other major supporting performance comes from Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, and he likewise makes the most of a strong script. (Most of the characters in this film are real people, but – perhaps fortunately – none of them are especially familiar faces. The only possible exception is Shami Chakrabarti, who appears in the film played by Indira Varma, but as a relatively minor figure.)

This is, of course, a Keira Knightley film – it’s her face which is most prominent on that poster, after all. I think it is fair to say she is one of those performers I have never entirely warmed to, possibly because she seems to specialise in a certain type of tastefully inert costume drama, possibly to the extent where she seems vaguely out of place appearing in anything else (I can’t recall Knightley’s Kiwi accent from Everest without having an involuntary tremor). Here she is, well, good enough to carry most of the movie, although I think it is very possible she is slightly overcooking her performance. There are a lot of tics I seem to recall from other performances, anyway. But, as I say, good enough.

This is a film which may be hampered by a slightly boring title, the sense it is raking over yesterday’s issues, and the fact that it has a poster which is largely interchangeable with that of most other Keira Knightley movies. However, this doesn’t stop it being an intelligent, involving, and very well-made film that manages to deal with serious issues without becoming heavy or slow. Certainly one of the better films of recent months; it gets my recommendation.

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Ralph Fiennes’ latest film as a director is entitled The White Crow, and it is exactly the kind of film you would expect, given that Fiennes’ image is that of a Serious Creative Person. I think it is pretty much a given that no-one is likely to turn up to The White Crow expecting a semi-remake of The Crow, as this new film is much more about ballet dancing and international politics in the mid-20th century than vengeful undead Goths, but I suppose it is just about possible – the new movie is produced by Liam Neeson, who tends to specialise in violent revenge movies. (Neeson’s involvement is not being publicised, possibly because of his recent unfortunate comments.) Any misconceptions along these lines would likely be rapidly dispelled by a quick glance at the typical audience for a screening of The White Crow, which would likely consist of older, well-heeled folk: I’m trying hard not to use the expression ‘ballet snobs’, but…  

Actually, I’m going to succumb to my less-charitable impulses and say that ballet snobs are, at least in part, the target audience for The White Crow: now, I don’t mind that many cinemas have taken to showing other kinds of cultural events as a way of making ends meet – theatre, opera, ballet, art exhibitions – you have to do what you have to do. I’m fine about them making movies about what I suppose we must call high culture, too. But being a ballet lover does not exempt you from common courtesy.

What am I on about? Well, all right: I turned up very close to start time for an early-evening showing of The White Crow and found that most of the better seats had gone; there was a very healthy crowd. I ended up near the front next to a couple who, from the look of things, were not regular visitors of the cinema, based on the fact they reacted with surprise and delight to all the adverts and trailers I’ve already seen a dozen times this year. This was somewhat endearing, but their running commentary on the pre-film material was, not to put too fine a point on it, snotty and patronising.

The crisis point arrived when the actual film got under way and I was still aware of the drone of these people discussing the events on-screen in what you could charitably describe as a stage whisper. You know me: I’m a fairly easy-going person. But I have my limits and it had been a wearing week.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying to keep my voice down, and addressing the one next to me, ‘is he going to keep talking all the way through the film?’

Acute social awkwardness flashed across the woman’s face and she did not respond. I asked again, and this time she said something I couldn’t hear (for once) to her partner. Finally she turned to me.

‘Perhaps if you go one seat to the right and we go one seat to the left, it won’t be a problem,’ she said.

‘If you just keep quiet, that won’t be a problem either,’ I said, probably quite bluntly. They cleared off down the row, and eventually they did shut up, which must have been a relief to everyone around them. As I say: give me common courtesy over cultured erudition any day of the week.

twc

Anyway, what of The White Crow itself? Well, the movie concerns itself with the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, who is still well-known as one of the greatest ballet dancers of the twentieth century (hence the fact that this film was able to secure financing). The actual telling of the tale is somewhat out of chronological order (the first scene depicts Nureyev’s mentor, played by Fiennes himself, being summoned to account for the dancer’s defection to the west, which occurs as the climax to the film), but it primarily covers two periods of Nureyev’s life: his initial training at a ballet institute in Leningrad, and the Kirov Ballet’s visit to Paris in 1961 (the trip that culminated in his claiming political asylum in France).

The central thesis of the film soon becomes quite apparent, as Nureyev (played by Oleg Ivenko) is depicted as a perennial outsider within the Soviet system of the period – talented, driven, with a self-belief that borders on arrogance. (The title of the film alludes to a Russian idiom used to describe misfits.) Naturally this leads to conflict with the authorities, especially when he is exposed to the bright lights and (supposedly) decadent culture of Paris…

I don’t know about you, but when I think of films about ballet I have a certain kind of expectation – they are going to be reserved, tasteful, comforting, polite – perhaps one of the reasons that Black Swan made such an impact was because it was a ballet movie that dared to be a bit more rock and roll. The White Crow is not another Black Swan; the whole thing is in meticulous good taste – I am aware it has drawn criticism for not really focusing on Nureyev’s homosexuality, being more concerned with his relationships with women – almost to the point where it becomes a bit stifling.

However, the film manages to stay vivid and very watchable; more than just watchable, in fact, for this is an engaging portrait of someone who was clearly exceptional. It doesn’t really attempt to explain where Nureyev’s extraordinary talent, self-belief and drive came from, but then that may not even be possible – it is the great good fortune of a tiny handful to be touched by divine madness in this way, and the greater good fortune of the rest of us to share the world with them.

Clearly the challenge for any film of this kind is how to put all the things that made its subject special up on the screen, although at least ballet is potentially cinematic in a way that writing, for example, isn’t. Oleg Ivenko has the unenviable task of dancing like the legend and, to my untrained eye at least, does a decent job of it – he may not quite be up to the standard of Nureyev, but he gets near enough. He’s also quite effective in the more dramatic scenes, acting in both English and Russian (I should have taken Olinka with me to this movie).

Ivenko is surrounded by a bunch of other very decent performances – Fiennes is good, if a touch mannered, as his ballet master (sadly, we never get to see his cabriole), while Chulpan Khamatova is his wife, Adele Exarchopoulos is Nureyev’s socialite girlfriend Clara Saint (the film-makers seems to be under the impression we should already know who she is), and Aleksey Morozov is his Soviet minder.

It has to be said that there is a slightly saggy section in the middle of this movie, where the various plotlines don’t seem to be going anywhere, but this is more than made up for by the sequence depicting Nureyev’s actual defection at a Paris airport. This is absolutely gripping stuff, and very interesting too: previously, I had no idea of how to go about defecting from the USSR to France, but now I feel I could make a pretty good job of it should circumstances make it necessary.   

There’s still an oddly muted, distant quality about much of The White Crow – no-one involved ever really seems to be surrendering fully to their emotions – but this is still a thoughtfully written and directed film that manages to be engaging even if you can’t tell an emboite from an echappe.

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Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)

Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that’s the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping from the roof overlooking Holmes’ vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes’ marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes’ detective activities as a result.

Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded ‘You know what, that actually sounds quite funny’ – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she’s a cat (Lauren Lapkus).

There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.

The film’s signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red ‘Make England Great Again’ fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he’s attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.

One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly it apparently thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn’t bite on this occasion.

I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting  a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don’t mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don’t know. I don’t know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?

The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.

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One piece of news which got relatively little attention in the days just after Casino Royale was released, back in 2006, was of the passing of veteran film-maker Kevin McClory. McClory’s name was not widely known but he was in many ways a key figure in the history of the Bond films, for all that his name only appears in the credits of a couple of them: McClory and his supporters, if no-one else, were in no doubt that the massive, decades-long success of the Bond franchise was in no small part due to the work McClory put into reconceiving Ian Fleming’s literary creation as a big-screen hero with global appeal (the most immediate product of that work being the novel Thunderball, based on a film script co-written by McClory and Fleming – McClory’s involvement being the reason why he retained the rights to make his own non-Eon version of the script, Never Say Never Again).

One consequence of the seemingly-endless tussle over rights between McClory and Eon was a decision for the official movies not to use certain characters and concepts to which McClory had been assigned ownership. With all this now resolved, one way or the other, the way has been cleared for something which I and many other veteran Bond-followers would never have anticipated coming to pass.

spectre-poster-1

Or, to put it another way, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. Following up the huge critical and popular success of Skyfall might have been an intimidating prospect, but the new film is loaded with enough tantalising concepts to make one forget about all of that. Things get underway with a bit of incidental mayhem in Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead is lavishly staged (and Mendes shows he means business by opening with a hugely extended Touch of Evil-style opening shot, which so far as I could see only has one obvious cheat in it).

It transpires that Bond (Daniel Craig) is following his own private agenda, rather to the annoyance of M (Ralph Fiennes). 007 has been put on the trail of an international criminal organisation known as SPECTRE and is intent on following it, orders or not. This leads him to Rome and a very well-scrubbed-up widow (Monica Belucci), then into the heart of his enemies’ schemes, before travelling on to Austria and north Africa, accompanied much of the time by a beautiful young doctor (Lea Seydoux), whose father Bond has occasionally made the acquaintance of in the past.

While all this is going on, M and the rest of the Secret Service team back in London find themselves under a bureaucratic assault by a new intelligence agency headed by the mysterious C (Andrew Scott). C believes Bond’s section is obselete and is determined to see him replaced both by drones and near-unlimited surveillance. But could there possibly be a connection between this and the case Bond is working…?

I know the question you are wanting to ask (always assuming you haven’t seen the film yet, or read its Wikipedia entry, or looked at a review with spoilers in it) – is there a cat in this movie? Well, on the tiny off-chance you don’t know yet, I feel obliged to keep quiet. What I will say is that the film-makers seem very well-aware that the return of SPECTRE and its leader (maybe) is a huge deal for dedicated Bond-watchers – the organisation was the main opposition in most of the Connery films, and involved with some of the most iconic Bond moments and characters. In a similar vein, the new film retcons like mad to establish that virtually all of Daniel Craig’s previous opponents have been SPECTRE operatives of various stripes, whether this really makes sense or not (it seems logical that Quantum was SPECTRE operating under another name, but not really that Silva from Skyfall was on the payroll).

Keeping at least the pretence of mystery over the SPECTRE top man’s return (or not) is presumably the reason why the film works terribly hard to wrong-foot the viewer, throwing all kinds of misdirections and double-bluffs into the pot. Is it effective or not? I really can’t say, but I do wonder whether it’s worth the effort.

Similarly questionable is the decision to establish that (and this barely constitutes a spoiler) there is a long-standing personal connection between Bond and senior SPECTRE figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What this brings to the story is really unclear, to say nothing of the monumental coincidence involved – it’s not even as if the script and performances suggest these two men have any kind of shared history together. There seems to have been a belief that the story is improved by giving Bond a personal stake in it.

I’m not sure that’s the case, and SPECTRE‘s attempts (as a continuation of Skyfall) to make a Bond movie into something of a sophisticated psychological drama arguably get in the way of it doing all the slightly outrageous, larger-than-life things a lot of people want from Bond. The dear personal friend and valued colleague occupying the workspace contiguous with mine gloomily observed that he felt he didn’t need to see another Bond film ever again, so dragged down to earth has the series become. (Another friend thought it was basically ‘a kid’s film’, although I must say it contains more eye-gouging and skull-drilling than the usual Pixar production.)

Despite all this, I must say I enjoyed most of SPECTRE hugely, as its attempts to reconcile many of the classic Bond staples with a non-ridiculous sensibility are fairly successful. Craig is by now thoroughly comfortable and convincing as Bond, Waltz is very good as the villain (or not), the stuntwork is imaginative and impressive, and there are some very decent jokes. (Although as top SPECTRE heavy Mr Hinx, Dave Bautista is used in an ever-so-slightly perfunctory fashion.) Ever since Eon first cast Judi Dench, these films have had to come up with things for the distinguished actors playing the regulars to do, and this continues here, with bumped-up parts for M, Q, and Moneypenny, but the performers are good enough for this not to be a problem.

The real problem for me comes at the end of the film. One of the things brought to light by the Sony hacking scandal was the existence of a pile of studio notes worried about the fact that SPECTRE‘s climax was both undercooked and underwhelming – and based on the finished movie, I have to say the studio definitely had a point. What’s more, the end of the film is almost the cinematic equivalent of a suspended chord – you’re not so much invited to expect something, you’re almost compelled to, and yet the film doesn’t deliver what seemed to have been promising. I was almost tempted to sit through the entirety of the credits to see if the pay-off arrived in a post-credits scene, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Oh well. I suppose it must be a sign of Eon’s confidence that a further movie is bound to happen (and after 53 years, who’s going to argue with them?). I’m still not completely convinced that the Craig formula, such as it is, is quite guaranteed to meet audience expectations, but it would take a bolder writer than I to say that SPECTRE is anything other than very impressive , even if only as a piece of spectacle.

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All hail to Ralph, lord of the house of Fiennes

Respected well both here and o’er the pond

An Oscar did he get for Schindler’s List

He’s also the new boss man of James Bond.

Director now bold Ralphie has become –

A thing’s more worth the doing if it’s hard! –

A complex tale his debut offering:

He’s giving us his vision of the Bard.

No well-known play he’s gone for, no sirree

But obscure Roman saga, Coriolanus

And old Will Shakespeare’s versing’s kept intact

Which must have been a right pain in the neck.

So hence my tribute in this verse that’s blank

The key thing to it (and this I must stress)

Is in the correct placement of the stre… er, beats

At least irregular rhyming is allowed.

(Although this conceit’s wearing rather thin –

I think the time has come to pack it in.)

Oh, be quiet: it’s not like you’re having to pay for this, is it? Yes, it’s the new adaptation of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes. (Rather mind-bogglingly, the script is credited to one John Logan, although some Shakespeare guy gets an ‘original material’ nod.) Now, I know this will come as a shock to regular readers, but there are limits to my erudition and this is not one of the plays with which I am terribly familiar. As a result I recruited an expert in literature to accompany me to the cinema, although the fact that his first words of wisdom on the play were ‘It’s a bit like 300‘ led me to worry I wasn’t paying enough attention when it came to the ancillary staff situation. Hey ho.

Fiennesy plays Caius Martius, respected and feared general in the service of the Roman Republic. The Volscians, old enemies of Rome, are playing up under the command of their military leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler – hey, what do you know! He was right!). The Romans come off better in the clash, though the personal feud of the two generals is unresolved.

On his return to Rome, he is gifted with the honorary name Coriolanus and, as is customary and expected (we’ll come back to this), proceeds towards the distinguished position of Consul, a source of much pride to his frankly scary mother (Vanessa Redgrave). However, while a brilliant soldier, Coriolanus is fatally lacking in the common touch and any kind of political sensitivity. His domestic enemies find it very easy to turn the population against him, with dire consequences for both countries and individuals…

Of necessity, any outline of Shakespeare’s plot wholly omits exactly how Fiennes chooses to present it. This is by far the most striking thing about it – rather in the same way that Ian McKellen’s Richard III movie took place in a 1930s Europe falling under the sway of Fascism, so Fiennes’ Coriolanus is contextualised in a world like the Balkans of the early 90s: bloody, senseless fighting; APCs rolling through bleak European cities; murky, self-interested politicking. This seems entirely appropriate for a film which takes as its theme the chaos which ensues when war and politics intersect.

That said, the text has a wider focus to it, and one which may possibly surprise people with only a passing familiarity with Shakespeare. This is a startlingly cynical film – the patrician class are scourged for their contempt and disdain for the wider population, but the public themselves are implicitly depicted as foolish sheep for allowing themselves to be so easily manipulated. Hardly any of the characters are presented in a remotely positive light, with the possible exception of Menenius (Brian Cox), one of Coriolanus’ political allies.

Cox, Fiennes, and Butler are just the most prominent members of an extremely strong cast, which also includes Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Jon Snow, and, most prominently, Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mum. Redgrave in particular is electrifying as a domineering, deeply controlling woman who is clearly the source of all that is both good and bad in her son’s character. Fiennes himself gives a striking central turn – he’s terrifying as Coriolanus the soldier, then chilling later on as the man falls from grace. That said, I don’t feel he ever quite gets to the heart of the character in terms of his pride and arrogance – Coriolanus the politician just comes across as awkward and a bit distant, rather than someone temperamentally unsuited to this course.

Another problem with the film is that, inevitably, the scissors have come out and much material has been excised (though my literary consultant distinctly muttered ‘I don’t remember that bit in the text’ at one point). Amongst the stuff that’s gone, alas, is whatever explanation is given for Coriolanus’s decision to become Consul. He seems fundamentally unsuited to the job and doesn’t actually seem to want it, so why’s he bothering? Is it just the done Roman thing? Is he being pushed into it by his mum? It’s central to the plot, so we really need to know why it’s happening.

Oh well – in many ways this is a very impressive film, and one that really works as a film in its own right most of the way through (although, one climactic scene has rather too much of a whiff of the Stratford stage about it in the way it’s staged). The acting is fantastic, the story is about as easy to follow as obscure Shakespeare play movie adaptations get (hmm, mayhaps damning with faint praise there), and it’s visually very interesting. If it doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about what happens when the boundaries between soldiers and politicians blur, that’s perhaps because it would be fatuous to do so. I can’t honestly believe Coriolanus will wholeheartedly convert anyone going to see it with no prior knowledge of the play, but people with a better education than mine will probably find it a very rewarding experience.

There once was a soldier named Caius,

Lambasted for anti-prole bias.

When kicked out of town

He said with a frown

‘I suppose this stuff’s just sent to try us.’

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 9th 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that would just like to thank its agent, its mother, the guy who drove the catering van and thirty-seven other people before being dragged offstage by a big hook. Yessirree, it’s Oscar time again, and while the constraints of deadlines and whatnot mean that I’m writing this the day before the ceremony, I thought it would still be appropraite to have a look at a picture with a slim chance of Oscar gold. (Alas, the halcyon days when all the Best Picture nominees had already been reviewed here by this point are long since gone.)

Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is up for four statues of varying degrees of significance. Based on a novel by John le Carre, it is the story of British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes). While on a posting to Kenya, Quayle becomes increasingly concerned about what exactly his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is up to — supposedly helping out at the local medical station, she is in fact involved in rather more dangerous forms of activism. When she is killed on a trip up-country, Quayle is forced to reconsider how well he really knew her, and embarks on a relentless search for the truth about her death. It takes him into a shadowy world where life is cheap and the lines between national governments and big business become blurred.

Well, as you can probably tell, not a lot of jokes in this one. It certainly lacks the exuberance of Meirelles’ last film, City of God, but that’s hardly inappropriate. In its place there is a greater emotional depth. The almost palpable sense of outrage at the tribulations suffered by the deprived that permeated City is still here, though, and if anything it’s even stronger. Whole evenings of worthy telethon documentaries don’t pack the same kind of punch as this two-hour film.

The Constant Gardener works on a number of levels — as a thriller, as a romance, and as a polemic — and manages to combine these elements pretty flawlessly (it reminded me a bit of the 1980s classic Edge of Darkness, without the plutonium or the mysticism, but my mum said she thought it was like The English Patient, which just shows how two people can view the same film in a completely different way). The thriller plot is complex and twisty, and Jeffrey Caine’s script does a fine job of keeping it from completely obfuscating itself. The romance is more dependent on the performances of the actors, and both leads are very good. I am a little surprised that all the critical plaudits are heading in Weisz’s direction, however, as Fiennes seems to me to give a slightly better performance in a considerably trickier role. Quayle begins the film as a slightly awkward and insecure man, consumed by the demands of his career. His progression through shock and grief towards a new resolve rings absolutely true throughout, with Fiennes managing to avoid his usual faintly detached and robotic style of acting except where it serves the story. The supporting performances are impressive as well: Donald Sumpter commands the screen as a world-weary spook, Pete Postlethwaite plays a dodgy doctor (though thankfully better dressed than the one from AeonFlux) and Bill Nighy turns up as a shady grandee, giving a performance that’s very, er, Bill Nighy-ish.

Beyond all this is a rich and sweeping portrait of Africa that doesn’t stint in displaying either the sheer beauty of the place and the vibrancy of its people or the depths of its problems — catastrophes so immense they almost defy comprehension. The film makes it very clear that most aid activities in the continent are little more than than exercises in putting elastoplasts on bullet wounds and suggests that they are little more than token gestures born of post-colonial remorse. And it’s very clear in articulating that the civilised response to this situation is perhaps very different to the humane response. The film unashamedly comes down in favour of the latter.

So, given that this is supposedly the year of the political Oscars, with serious movies like Brokeback Mountain, Crash and Munich racking up the nominations, how good are The Constant Gardener‘s chances of bringing home the gold? Well, having considered this at some length, I can confidently say I haven’t a clue. I am not entirely surprised it hasn’t scored better in the ‘big’ categories, given that this is a film about Britain and Africa which kicks off with Weisz’s character giving Fiennes a comprehensive and clearly heartfelt (if slightly hackneyed) bulwarking over American foreign policy. There may also be the fact that it doesn’t offer easy answers or allow anyone the chance to feel smug about themselves at the conclusion. But in the end the awards are surely immaterial: this is a very fine, serious film about the world we live in today. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 17th 2002:

He’s back in the public eye again, even when confined to his prison cell: a literary phenomenon, a cultured gentleman, and an iconic figure of the dark side of humanity and its most depraved appetites. But that’s enough about Jeffrey Archer, let’s focus instead on the infinitely more amiable Dr Hannibal Lecter, back on the big screen once again in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon.

In Ratner’s movie Edward Norton plays Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who formerly specialised in the profiling of serial killers. He’s persuaded to take on one more case by his boss (Harvey Keitel) – two families have already been slaughtered by an unstable psychopath (Ralph ‘Mr Sunbeam’ Fiennes, who should really think about doing a comedy or something – although if the results are anything like The Avengers, maybe not) with another set of killings due in a matter of days. As time ticks away Graham agrees to draw upon the assistance of a brilliant forensic psychologist – the only drawback being that he’s currently incarcerated in a secure facility for the criminally insane, put there by Graham himself years earlier…

It’s hard to get past the idea that this is simply one last attempt to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal. Red Dragon is the second film version of Thomas Harris’ novel in sixteen years, the first being Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the two films actually share some of the same behind-the-camera personnel), a clinically stylish thriller featuring Brian Cox as Lecktor (sic). Cox made a big impression in what was a fairly small part, because Lecter is very much a marginal figure in the story as written.

Red Dragon retells the story in an approximation of the style of Silence of the Lambs – it makes much use of the iconography of Jonathan Demme’s film, recreating Lecter’s cell, the image of him in the mask, and concludes with a pointless foreshadowing of the 1991 movie1. But above all it makes as much use as it possibly can of Anthony Hopkins. This isn’t very much, though, and it’s one of the film’s major problems. When Lecter’s not on the screen things often seem a bit dry, and you impatiently await his next appearance – but when he does appear, Hopkins’ startlingly camp and rather over-the-top performance, while magnetic to watch and very funny, does seem rather out-of-place in a movie that’s trying to sell itself as a straightforward psychological thriller.

Hopkins virtually steals the movie, and you get the impression he was heartily encouraged to. But Fiennes is also very good in a complex role, as is Emily Watson as a girl he befriends. (The two younger Brits seem to have modelled their performances on that of the great man, inasmuch as none of them ever seems to blink, and the array of fixed, glassy eyeballs rather reminded me of The Muppet Show). Norton spends rather too long talking to himself and wandering around crime scenes to be really engaging as the hero, and Keitel’s part is horribly underwritten and two-dimensional. It falls to Philip Seymour Hoffman to keep the US end up with a nice turn as a sleazy reporter.

The plot is quite engaging, though the climax seems a bit contrived and there are a few implausibility’s – about half way through Graham and Crawford make a mistake that has quite horrific consequences, but no-one, not them, not their superiors, not even the media, seems particularly bothered by this. But it’s neither especially scary or suspenseful, and Ratner seems a rather limited director – his main achievement is to keep a film with some very nasty subject matter down to a box-office-friendly 15 certificate (fantastic actor though he is, the most disturbing sight in the film is that of Hoffman in his y-fronts). Its finest moment by some way is the opening, a piece of black, grand guignol comedy reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror movie – but one that’s over all too soon.

Actually, this has much more in common with the horror genre than that of the thriller. Lecter is a fantastical figure, refined, aloof, fearsomely intelligent, his only weakness being his dietary peculiarities. Is there really that much difference between him and the horror icon for much of the last century, Dracula? I don’t think so. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, is depicted as almost superhumanly strong and resilient, deformed, haunted by an abusive female relative, and drawn helplessly to a young blind girl: there are echoes there of both Frankenstein’s monster and Norman Bates (himself a split personality, a condition with its own fantastical mirror in the form of the werewolf). These are old friends in new skins, and a sign of where this movie is really rooted.

The other way in which this is a very traditional horror film is that in it, evil is presented as being synonymous with sexual ‘deviancy’. Norton must choose between traditional family life and the twisted world of the serial killers for which he has such an uncomfortable empathy, as embodied by Lecter – whose effete, preppy turn of phrase and double entendres (‘I’d love to get you on my couch’ he simpers to Graham at one point) mark him out as the ultimate predatory gay, looking to either turn or destroy his happily married adversary. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, specifically targets the traditional, nuclear family and is portrayed as a shy, repressed mummy’s boy (another vaguely unpleasant gay stereotype) whose possible redemption comes in the form of a decent ‘normal’ relationship with a woman. Did the film-makers intend to include this homophobic subtext in their movie? I don’t know, but it’s not exactly deeply buried and I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn more criticism.

Unpleasant or not, hackneyed or not, it’s still the most interesting thing about Red Dragon. This is a reasonable thriller, with some good performances, and I quite enjoyed it (though I still think Manhunter is by far the better film). But as a film that’s being marketed and will be judged as an addition to the Lecter franchise, it’s inevitably disappointing. An entirely new outing for the doctor might have been a better idea – but as Hopkins has announced himself retired from cannibalistic service, we’ll never know.

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