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Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Wilson’

Tom George’s See How They Run is a film about a film based on a play. Initially I thought it was a film based on a play about a film based on a play, which would obviously have been a much more pleasingly symmetrical arrangement. But it turns out that See How They Run (the movie) is not actually based on See How They Run (the play, originally filmed back in the 1950s); who would have been so foolish as to think something like that? So perhaps (in the name of absolute clarity) we should say that See How They Run is a film not based on a play about a film (which, come to think of it, never gets made) based on a play (which does get made, and is indeed still being made eight times a week at St Martin’s Theatre in London). I’m glad we have got that straight.

The movie opens in London’s theatreland where celebrations are underway to mark the fact that Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has just had its 100th performance (these seem a touch lavish considering that 100 performances indicates the play has only been running for about three months, but I digress). Everyone is there, from producer Petula (Ruth Wilson) to star Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson – it’s not the actor’s fault, but this isn’t a particularly flattering or respectful portrayal). Also around and non-fictional is film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), in real life possibly best remembered for The African Queen (possibly due for a remake as The African Woman King, who can tell) and Oliver! (though lovers of the weird and obscure will also be familiar with the magisterial TV hoax Alternative 3, which he executive-produced). In the movie Woolf is very interested in making a film adaptation of The Mousetrap, and various people associated with this – the screenwriter (David Oyelowo) and the director (Adrien Brody) are also at the party.

This proves to be a bad move by Brody, as – after a fracas at the party – he is murdered backstage, his corpse left on the set of the play. As he was a fairly disagreeable character, no-one is especially surprised, but the police still have to be called in. Leading the charge of the forces of law and order are lugubrious old hand Detective Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his eager young assistant WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

What ensues is a whodunnit in the classic style, as it turns out that various parties had good reason to bear a grudge against the dead man, and various secrets are uncovered. The light of suspicion is shone into some quite unexpected places, and there is a bit more incidental mayhem, before all is done and dusted (but the film is only 98 minutes long, so there’s a limit to exactly how convoluted everything can get).

On paper is does look like a very ‘straight’ murder mystery, but from the very beginning the film has a jaunty, slightly screwball air about it which makes it very clear that we are in comedic territory at least some of the time – the presence of performers best known for their comic pedigree (Shearsmith, Charlie Cooper, Tim Key) is also a pretty big tip-off. It’s certainly not a film crying out to be taken seriously, or naturalistically – the setting is a idealised version of 1953 which in some ways more closely resembles the present day than post-war Britain (one of the film’s other historical characters, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, is played by Lucian Msamati, for instance).

If you twisted my arm and asked me to suggest a film that See How They Run is a bit similar to, my answer would not be one of the many other Christie adaptations or pastiches that have appeared in recent years – it’s actually more like Shakespeare in Love in many ways, by which I mean that the script is very carefully pitched – there is a fair degree of quite broad slapstick and wordplay, but also moments of genuine wit and erudition carefully sprinkled in (some of the jokes are so obscure that only a handful of audience members were responding to them at the screening I went to).

One of the writers on Shakespeare in Love was Tom Stoppard, and this may be partly where Sam Rockwell’s character got his name from. However, various other things – up to and included a line of dialogue where another character is described as ‘a real hound, inspector’ – lead me to suspect that this may be more a homage and reference to Stoppard’s 1968 play The Real Inspector Hound, partly a satire on The Mousetrap itself. In many ways the most distinctive thing about See How They Run is the extent to which it is stuffed with this kind of knowing self-referentiality. In the midst of one of the flashback sequences which pepper the film, a screenwriter archly proclaims that he despises the use of flashbacks in movies; he goes on to criticise the use of captions as a storytelling device – and this is, inevitably, followed by a caption. See How They Run itself starts turning into The Mousetrap adaptation Woolf is looking to produce – one of the cleverest and most impudent things about it is the way it frequently seems to be threatening to copy and thus reveal the big plot twist in Christie’s play, but in the end never actually does so. There’s a casual reference to the Rillington Place murders which really took place in London in the early 1950s – a film about them featured a notable performance from Richard Attenborough, who (as mentioned) features here as a character. There’s even a minor character who’s a stuffy butler named Fellowes, which I’m assuming is a reference to Julian Fellowes, whose Gosford Park (his best work, if you ask me) is another updated pastiche of the country-house murder-mystery genre.

Of course, once you start heading down the rabbithole this way it can be difficult to drag yourself out – the slightest little thing starts to look like a fiendishly clever in-joke. It’s also worth pointing out that the film is fast, funny, and silly enough to satisfy most audiences, regardless of their familiarity with this genre or theatrical metatextuality, mainly due to a very game set of performances – Sam Rockwell underplays things, for once, while everyone else seems very happy to put the pedal to the metal. Dame Agatha herself briefly appears, portrayed by Shirley Henderson; it is a sweet little cameo in a film I can imagine the most murderous woman in history quietly rather enjoying, if not quite admitting to approving of. It’s a rare example of a good comedy film which makes a virtue of its own cleverness, and is thus something to be applauded.

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As regular readers will probably have gathered, in happier days it was very unusual for a big studio movie with a decent release to pass me by. (Obviously there were always exceptions: I swore off Michael Bay movies nearly fifteen years ago.) Sometimes I look back at a big film that I didn’t see on the big screen, and wonder, what was wrong with this one when it was new? (Especially considering some of the rubbish I’ve gone out of my way to see in the past.)

Hey ho. A few months ago I was on holiday with the family and the late movie on the telly was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which is one of those movies I’d skipped on its release in 2013 – mainly, I seem to recall, due to largely terrible reviews and a general impression that the whole enterprise was somehow laboured and a touch misconceived. Rather to my surprise, it looked, if not great, then certainly intriguingly different, and I decided to check it out on catch-up the next time I had a few hours spare. Naturally, I had forgotten about the Empire of the Mouse’s hawkishness when it comes to exploiting its various properties, and the BBC hadn’t stumped up for the catch-up rights. The modern world being as it is, though, movies seem to come around with the frequency of buses, and it turned up again just the other week.

The movie opens at a San Francisco theme park in 1933 (the year is probably a reference to the first appearance of the original Lone Ranger radio show), where a young, Lone Ranger-obsessed lad is startled to come across an extremely elderly Native American featuring in one of the exhibits. The old chap claims to be the one-and-only, original Tonto, sidekick of the Lone Ranger, and goes on to reveal the truth of this legendary figure’s origins…

The bulk of the movie occurs in 1869, with the railroads unfurling and slowly taming the old west. Idealistic young lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is heading back home to see his family for the first time in years – but travelling on the same train is brutal outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who’s being taken to the gallows. (Also chained up with Cavendish is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own reasons for wanting to stay close to the bad guy.) Cavendish’s gang appear and spring him from the moving train, nearly causing a disastrous accident which Reid and Tonto only manage to avert with the help of Reid’s elder brother (James Badge Dale), a Texas ranger.

Reid Minor is soon deputised by the rangers and a posse sets off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang – but they are betrayed and ambushed, and all killed, apart from John Reid. Tonto, who has somehow managed to escape from jail, turns up and performs the necessary burial duties – but recognises that Reid’s ordeal has left a spiritual mark upon him. Adopting a mask and various other eccentric accoutrements, Reid assumes the identity of the Lone Ranger, intent on justice for the death of his brother and Cavendish’s many other victims…

The fact that the origins of the Lone Ranger so closely recall those of a superhero shouldn’t really come as a surprise, given the character was a product of the same era of pulp adventure stories which gave the world characters like the Phantom and the Shadow, many of whom were very influential on the first actual comic-book costumed heroes. A mask, a gimmick, and more often than not a sidekick was the formula for this type of character, and the Lone Ranger stories stuck to the formula with great fidelity.

These days, of course, you can’t really do sidekicks, and especially not sidekicks of a non-caucasian ethnic background. Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense that the reason Tonto is promoted to partner and co-lead of the movie is basically because Johnny Depp is playing the part. I suppose it could have been worse – at the time I got the impression that Tonto was actually the main character, a reasonable assumption considering that the Lone Ranger seems in danger of being crowded off his own movie poster by his erstwhile sidekick.

Looking back, I think it was the impression that The Lone Ranger had been rejigged as a star vehicle for Johnny Depp which put me off it: I’m not saying I’ve never enjoyed one of the actor’s performances or movies, but I got tired of the whole quirky-comedy-schtick thing which seems to be his stock-in-trade before the end of the 2000s. (No doubt the actor has bigger issues to worry about these days than the fact I’m not exactly a fan.) Nevertheless, Depp was still a big, bankable star back in 2013, which might lead one to wonder why this movie ended up costing Disney over $200 million.

As so often seems to be the case, the real question is not ‘why did this movie lose $200 million?’ but ‘how is it possible for this movie to expose its makers to that degree of liability?’ – I mean, to lose $200 million means the movie had to cost at least $200 million in the first place (maths isn’t exactly my forte, but the logic here seems sound to me) – and the total production costs for Lone Ranger were apparently closer to $400 million. And why was anyone spending $200 million on a Lone Ranger movie in 2013? It appears to have been a combination of a fumbling attempt to reproduce the success of the Verbinski-Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies, together with typically risk-averse Hollywood thinking; choosing a title that everybody knows (even if very few people actually care that much about it) rather than taking a chance on something new.

Certainly, as a reasonably-budgeted (say, $130 million) blockbuster this would have done well and probably been a better movie: the version we ended up with certainly looks lavish, and has a couple of enormous set-pieces that Verbinski handles well, but it suffers from a bloated plot and concomitantly extended duration. Furthermore, the film seems to be trying to do all kinds of things, not all of which naturally go well together: the Lone Ranger itself is, obviously, a faintly absurd pulp western premise, but the film seems intent on threading it through a very dark, revisionist and arguably subversive western narrative: the Comanche are the good guys and the US Cavalry the instruments of evil. Then on top of this comes an element of the supernatural, with the suggestion that one of the characters is possessed by an evil spirit, whose presence is disrupting the natural order (there are some carnivorous rabbits at one point, and some very odd behaviour from the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver). And then, of course, they attempt to lighten it all up with the same kind of dead-pan, off-beat comedy that you find in the Pirates movies, together with some whistles and bells with the narrative voice (Tonto is a rather unreliable narrator). It’s a very peculiar concoction.

That said, it’s usually interesting and occasionally funny and even thrilling: the closing sequence, which is of course choreographed to the rousing strains of the last part of the William Tell Overture, is an almost irresistible piece of overblown blockbuster bombast – if the rest of the film had been made to this standard, The Lone Ranger would surely have been a palpable hit. As it is, rather than capping the movie, it just helps to salvage it. This is a shame, because as well as Depp and Hammer (Hammer seems to be one of those actors who has all the essential star attributes except the ability to pick good scripts), there’s an impressive cast here too, even if most of them never need to get out of first gear: Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ruth Wilson, and so on.

But there you go. All the talent in the world isn’t enough to make a great movie if the basic conception of the thing just doesn’t quite hang together, and that’s the case here. The Lone Ranger is by no means a terrible movie, it’s just one that didn’t make enough money. But then it should never have been expected to. That’s Hollywood, I suppose.

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