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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Michell’

There’s something tremendously familiar and comforting about The Duke (one of the last films directed by Roger Michell before his recent death) and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was part of the plan. It sits comfortably within the hats-and-fags period comedy drama genre which the British film industry is extremely adept at, it stars a couple of much-loved national treasures, and – based on the audience response at the screening I went to – it shows every sign of being a genuine crowd-pleaser.

The story is based on one of those odd little true stories which has largely slipped from public recollection, although a gag referencing it is still there at the root of British cinema’s most enduring franchise (which the movie duly references). The year is 1961 and the government has just stumped up £140,000 to save a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington ‘for the nation’, much to the annoyance of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), an aspiring playwright and genuine social justice warrior resident in Newcastle (‘that’s not a real name,’ someone complains, not unreasonably).

Bunton is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fully-paid-up member of the awkward squad. (In reality he was a disabled former bus driver, something the film opts not to explore.) His current campaign is to secure free television licenses for pensioners, which he pursues to the point of reconfiguring his set so it can only receive the commercially-funded channels and then doing a short stint of porridge for non-payment.

Bunton’s wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) has had enough of all this and orders him to pack it in. He agrees, after one last trip to London – which just happens to coincide with the Goya painting disappearing from the National Gallery one night. Soon enough Kempton and his son (Fionn Whitehead) are building a secret false back on the spare room wardrobe to hide the purloined portrait, making very sure that Dorothy never finds out about it. Kempton’s plan is to hang onto the picture until the government agrees to his demands to provide free TV licenses to the elderly – but his biggest problem may be persuading anyone to take him seriously in the first place…

There’s a big debt to many of the classic Ealing comedy films here, many of which concerned a plucky little everyman and his travails in dealing with the establishment – the setting is just after that of Ealing’s heyday, but the look of the film is still very familiar. (In a canny move, the producers have saved themselves a bit of cash by digitally inserting Jim Broadbent into archive footage of early-60s London.) Broadbent makes the most of some very funny lines, especially during the courtroom scenes towards the end of the film. But this is also a film with a contemporary sensibility, with the characters given pathos and emotional depth; there is a subplot about a family tragedy which it’s hard to imagine in a film of this kind from a previous generation.

Some critics have already begun suggesting this is a timely film – slightly ironic, this, given that it was presumably filmed pre-pandemic in order to receive its world premiere in late 2020. One would hope that this is because the film does raise questions about the degree to which we are dependent upon each other as a society, and the extent to which we should consider our collective requirements rather than remaining focused on individual success. On the other hand, Bunton’s determination to do something about elderly people being forced to pay for their TV license is potentially problematic: there is certainly a case to be made for certain specific groups being exempt. But on the other hand the issue of old people being criminalised for not paying for a license is the kind of fig-leaf pretext regularly adopted by those who would like to see the BBC completely abolished on ideological grounds. I strongly doubt most of the key players in this movie would be on board with that, and one could wish they’d handled that particular element of the story with a slightly lighter touch or different approach; as it is, one can imagine the film being adopted and championed in pursuit of an agenda it doesn’t honestly represent.

It’s not as if the film doesn’t do the usual thing of playing rather fast and loose with the actual historical events it depicts – events which actually played out over a number of years are portrayed here as occurring over a vague but shorter period, while the background to a key third-act plot twist appears to have been somewhat misrepresented, presumably at the request of the Bunton family (who were involved in the production).

Nevertheless, this is a solid production and a very likeable film – as I’ve already mentioned, this is simply the kind of film which the British film industry makes very well (often several times a year). You can sort of imagine something like it turning up on TV and being perfectly acceptable on the small screen, but it does have a cinematic polish and ambition, and some very strong performances. Helen Mirren is saddled with a slightly thankless role as, essentially, a scold with a comedy regional accent, but delivers this effectively; the film is really Jim Broadbent’s from beginning to end, balancing some quite broad comedy with moments of poignancy and sincere human decency: if it had received a wider release you would Broadbent to be in the running for at least a few gongs. (Matthew Goode works some kind of minor miracle by actually managing to make an impression opposite Broadbent as his barrister, in the courtroom sequences.)

There’s a lot to like about The Duke, not least its basic positivity and optimism about humanity in general; that it manages to put this across without being sentimental and actually working as a comedy as well as a drama is rather impressive. There is a sense in which it is, undoubtedly, the kind of film you’ve seen before, probably more than once, but on its own terms it is a superior and very effective production.

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There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

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