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Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Spall’

Ah, it’s probably one of my favourite films – the story of the insignificant clerk Lowry, perpetually hassled by his overbearing, critical mother, and only ever to find some respite through the sheer power and vibrancy of his imagination and his dream life. Unfortunately, that is not what we are here to talk about – well, not exactly. I’m talking about the premise of Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Brazil, but the film on the docket is Adrian Noble’s Mrs Lowry & Son, a film which appears vaguely similar on paper, but is entirely different once you actually film, edit and project it.

I think there’s something more than a bit ironic when an artist in one medium owes most of their fame to a piece of work in another, especially one which they didn’t actually make themselves. Yet here we are with the case of the painter L. S. Lowry, a prolific recorder of scenes of industrial Lancashire life in the early and middle 20th century. I think a lot of people in the UK are probably aware of Lowry and his work, but I also suspect that most of them would genuinely struggle to actually name a Lowry painting, far fewer than could sing the chorus to ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, a rather sentimental novelty record about the artist which was a substantial hit a few years after his death. (Yes, I know – I could have sworn it was Matchstick Men, etc., too…)

The song does not appear in the movie. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall do turn up in the title roles (I will leave it to the on-the-ball reader to surmise who is playing Mrs Lowry and who isn’t). It is 1934 and the duo are sharing a house in Greater Manchester; she is essentially bedridden and almost wholly dependent on her son, who has a small-potatoes job as a rent collector for the council. The late Mr Lowry was apparently a bit of a rascal and left significant debts behind upon his death, which is an issue, possibly for her more than him: Mrs Lowry is very aware of her own social status, still thinking of herself as middle-class and appalled to be living in such a proletarian neighbourhood, to say nothing of actually owing money to other people.

Lowry is famous as a painter, of course, something which the film naturally acknowledges from its opening moments, but we’re a fair way into proceedings before the fact of his putting brush to canvas is acknowledged in the story. This is because Mrs Lowry is implacably disapproving of the fact he spends all his free time either sketching or sitting in the attic working on his canvases – she’s never liked any of his paintings, feeling they are ugly, primitive daubs, and feels his time would be much better spent cultivating the right kind of social circle. Naturally, he disagrees with her – but will the possibility of public recognition of his art lead to some kind of reconciliation between them?

I suppose you could also say that this film also bears something of a resemblance to Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner from a few years ago, in that it’s the bio-pic of an artist starring Timothy Spall as the man with the magic touch. Well, again this is probably something of an optical illusion, as the new film is much more limited in its scope, less of a test of endurance, and – perhaps most importantly, for many people – does not feature Spall rumphing and gronking and making other strange noises all the way through.

This film started life as a stage play (the original playwright, Martyn Hesford, adapts), and really not much has been done to it in the process of bringing it to the screen: it mostly takes place in Lowry’s terraced house – mostly in Mrs Lowry’s bedroom, come to that – and Spall and Redgrave have the only significant roles. Nor is it the case that the two undergo a dramatic emotional transformation together. It’s clear from the opening scenes that she is a clinging, self-pitying snob obsessed with petty issues of class and status, while he is a dutiful and caring son who is nevertheless conflicted because of his calling to be A Great Artist, and this is the dynamic which essentially plays out for the rest of the film.

Not exactly even-handed, then: Lowry is by far the more sympathetic of the two. And this does feel like a bit of a rigged game: we all know that Lowry is destined to go on to be A Great Artist whose paintings sell for huge sums and who will have maudlin pop-folk songs written about him, and so we are naturally sympathetic to his desire to sit in the attic and paint. Mrs Lowry doesn’t know this, and surely this mitigates somewhat in her favour. If the film was about some anonymous schmo living with his elderly mother who spends all his free time in seclusion painting rather odd pictures, who the audience doesn’t know will end up with a major arts centre named after him, the tone of the film would surely be rather different: rather than being quite so sympathetic, one might be minded to call the social services.

Regardless of all of that, much of the film does have a rather uncomfortable and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere to it: many scenes in the bedroom of Mrs Lowry bewailing her lost middle-class youth and backhandedly putting down her son, and him quietly accepting all the abuse. It almost put me in mind of a strange variation on Steptoe and Son, only without the jokes. Naturally, there are two star actors here, and the performances are impeccable, but I did feel they were taking their characters on a journey from A almost to B. All the most interesting stuff seems to be going on around the fringes on the film – their neighbours seem to be having quite interesting rows, for instance, and the most interesting and uplifting (not to mention cinematic) part of the film comes when Lowry is out and about in a series of non-naturalistic scenes where he talks about his inspiration and art.

In the end there is a sort of emotional and dramatic climax, but it feels a little contrived, and by the end we are more or less back to the status quo from the start of the film. There’s a weird coda where Lowry appears to travel through time to visit the present-day Lowry in Salford (shades of that thing Richard Curtis wrote about Van Gogh), but this really only adds to the impression that all the really interesting parts of Lowry’s artistic career happened outside the time-frame of this movie. Mrs Lowry & Son is well-mounted and well-performed, but it does fall into the trap of suggesting that the most interesting thing about L. S. Lowry was his home life, and doesn’t really engage enough with all the thing he is remembered for, and the reason why he is deemed movie-worthy in the first place.

 

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Normally, I would suggest that all that one really needs to say about Early Man is that it is the new movie from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, the award-laden creators of the Wallace and Gromit series, the Pirates! movie, the Shaun the Sheep movie, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Aardman are, I suppose, the closest thing to a British version of Pixar, routinely producing films which are, if nothing else, a showcase for the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship, and Nick Park is their highest-profile creator (he has a habit of turning up to the Oscars in all-advised home-made bow ties).

Given it routinely takes years of work, comprising thousands of person-hours, to complete a movie, one wonders just how Park settles on one of his feature-length projects: I’d be terrified of getting bored halfway through or realising the idea just wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. No matter how his process works, the end result this time sees Park and his team venturing into new territory.

As the title suggests, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, and concerns Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of easy-going and generally inept cavemen (we should probably call them cavepeople, come to think of it). Catching even a rabbit is a push for this lot, and Dug’s ideas that they should branch out into mammoth hunting seem wildly optimistic.

Soon, however, they have bigger problems, for their verdant and peaceful valley is annexed by the forces of a much more advanced Bronze Age civilisation, overseen by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, not that you can tell). Most of the tribe is driven into the hostile badlands where they are easy prey for predatory geese, but Dug finds his way to Lord Nooth’s city where he discovers the invaders have an unexpected Achilles’ heel – they are all mad about football (or soccer, depending on which variety of English you speak).

Dug hits upon a cunning plan – he challenges Lord Nooth’s team, Real Bronzino, to a match to determine the fate of the valley. Win, and the cave people get their home back and can live there peacefully. Lose, and they all go down the mine together. The gamble seems worthwhile, except for the fact that none of them have ever played football before…

Early Man opens with a tip of the hat from one master animator to another, as Nick Park lovingly spoofs one of Ray Harryhausen’s more famous films, the Hammer caveman picture One Million Years BC. Indeed, it initially looks like the whole thing is going to be a send-up of that kind of thing, with a few slightly Flintstones-esque jokes stirred into the mix. But then there are suddenly some jokes about football, and then the bad guys turn up, doing an array of outrageous European accents, and suddenly, it’s clear that… well, it’s clear that it’s very unclear what this film thinks it is, except on the most basic level.

Let us get the slightly problematic aspect of this film out of the way. Just as virtually every major American release these days is deconstructed to determine just what its attitude is to the Trumpclasm and the Unique Moment (etc, etc), so every significant British film is equally analysed to see if it is saying something about the probable British departure from the European project. Early Man is about a plucky bunch of cave people with British accents who come together to save their homeland from the depredations of a bunch of exploitative outsiders with French, German, and Italian accents. Togetherness and old-fashioned pluck is all it takes for them to win the day and reclaim their independence (if you doubt that this metaphor about the cave people representing the UK is intentional, the script is explicit about the fact that it was Dug’s lot who initially invented football and exported it to the rest of the world, who then learned to play it better than they did).

It’s not exactly scintillating stuff (unless you’re an op-ed chimp for the Daily Express or Daily Mail, anyway), but it least it suggests a level of depth to the film which just isn’t there most of the rest of the time: I suppose you could say Early Man is a kind of parody of sports movies (I found myself thinking particularly of Escape to Victory, but probably only because the two films are equally implausible), but a lot of the time it’s just a sports movie sprinkled with some rather variable gags, and hardly any of the little in-jokes and cinematic allusions one has come to expect from Aardman films. Quite apart from the sledgehammer satire, there are probably just a few too many gags about bodily functions for this to really qualify as a children’s film, strictly speaking, but on the other hand there’s not a great deal here for adults to enjoy on their level, either.

If you compare it to a film like Coco, which was at least as inventive and visually impressive, but also managed to be genuinely moving and included some lovely, resonant metaphors and a universal message, Early Man just comes across as rather shallow, knockabout stuff – unsophisticated slapstick backed up by a load of really bad puns. I’m not going to suggest that this isn’t a funny film, because I did laugh quite a lot, but it’s not exactly side-splitting, either, and some of the jokes earn their laughs solely because of their sheer perseverance.

There is the usual voice cast of distinguished actors, including Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and so on, and the film’s technical achievements are genuinely impressive, as usual. The problem is that the script just isn’t up to the same level, and isn’t really built around a sufficiently strong central idea. This isn’t actually a bad film, and if it had been made by anyone else I expect it would be greeted as an impressive piece of work. But judged by the standards of other Aardman movies, Early Man can’t help but feel a little underpowered.

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There are timely films, and there are timely films, and then there is Denial, the latest from veteran (though irregular) director Mick Jackson. It seems strange that not too long ago everyone was talking relatively casually about the fact we were all living in a post-truth world: if all I see on the news is true, then suddenly the truth is back in fashion – the problem is that everyone seems to have their own ideas about what it is, and most of those versions are not exactly mutually compatible. Jackson’s film may be an account of events from nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn’t stop it feeling very relevant, for it concerns the historic (in more ways than one) court case brought by an eminent Holocaust denier against a Jewish female historian.

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The late novelist Iain Banks came up with a characteristically witty and effective way of dealing with Holocaust deniers: you invite them to debate the topic on TV with you, then punch them in the mouth in front of the cameras. But it gets even better, for when they complain and call the police, you simply deny the attack ever took place. Ah, if it were only that simple (and satisfying) – taking these people on means stepping onto a hard road fraught with risks, as the film makes clear.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of a book about Holocaust denial. She has so far refused to debate with Holocaust deniers on the grounds that she does not want to give them the exposure and credibility that would result, but is nevertheless ambushed at a speaking engagement by the British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accuses her of lying about and defaming him.

Irving eventually brings a libel action against Lipstadt, in a British court where the burden of proof lies with the defendant rather than the ostensibly injured party. Naturally she feels compelled to take him on, rather than settle, and to this end employs hotshot young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and charismatic barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to lead her defence. But she is unprepared for some of the arcane details of the British legal system, and also the demands of the case: Irving proves an unexpectedly canny legal operator, and the apparent ruthlessness of the men on her own side is also disquieting. Will truth really be the victor here?

Well, if you don’t want to know how it all ends, don’t look on Wikipedia, that’s all I can say (or David Irving’s own more-than-slightly-appalling website, for that matter – for of course it still exists, offering unique insights into modern history, or possibly just its operator’s psyche). ‘Based on a true story’-movies are of course notorious for being just that – based on truth, nothing more than that, with events and characters being amalgamated and rearranged to suit the demands of the form. I wonder if this was a factor while Denial was in preparation, for it would be rather odd for a film which is so adamant in its insistence that truth should be held sacred and inviolable to depart too egregiously from reality itself.

And yet you could argue that’s just what has happened (and, sure enough, Irving has been claiming this himself), for Timothy Spall’s striking, mannered performance as David Irving, while as technically accomplished and memorable as we might expect from such a capable performer, does not seem to even attempt to be a representation of the man himself – one might even call it a theatrical grotesque. On the other hand, one of the themes the film returns to time after time is the need to deny credibility and plausibility to Holocaust deniers, whatever the source – a ‘balanced’ representation of the two sides of the argument would give the (entirely wrong) impression that both sides have merit. By presenting Irving as a comprehensively sinister and unpleasant individual, you could therefore probably argue that the film is similarly trying to avoid giving his views even the slightest credence. It’s just a bit odd for a film which is about the importance of historical honesty and objectivity to be quite so partial in its representation of a key figure in its story.

Still, Spall does give a very fine performance, in a film which is notably strong in this department – I was about to comment that Rachel Weisz does vanish somewhat behind the hairstyle and accent she adopts, but then again I suppose transforming yourself into another person is the essence of fine acting, and she is notably good in a challenging role. I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss is about where Andrew Scott is concerned – possibly I’ve just been put off by all the racket from the Sherlock crowd – but here he is extremely good, too. Best of all, however, is Tom Wilkinson, who more than anyone else brings the film to life and brings some genuine humanity and anger to many scenes. (Also in the cast are John Sessions, who almost appears to be turning into William Shatner as-he-is-today, and Mark Gatiss, giving an impressive and entirely, um, straight turn as a Dutch academic.)

You should never be short on drama if you do a courtroom-based story properly, and this film certainly delivers – one of the running themes is the slightly arcane nature of the British legal system, which is helpfully explained for foreign audiences. (Also, you would have thought it would be relatively easy to debunk the deniers, given the numbers of actual Holocaust survivors still around to give evidence, and yet no survivors, nor even Lipstadt herself, testified at the libel trial, and the film makes it very clear just why this was.) But while all this is certainly thrilling stuff, the film never loses track of the fact that it is primarily concerned with the most serious of issues, and there are a number of sequences and scenes which are not afraid to evoke the dreadful reality of what happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, without ever seeming sentimental or manipulative.

Rampton’s courtroom demolition of Irving and his prejudices was so comprehensive that the film struggles to find much in the way of tension for its closing section, as the verdict is awaited, but in a way, this is beside the point. The point it makes is surely not that truth triumphed over deceit on this one occasion, but that truth, justice, and other civilised values must be protected and fought for time and time again. Also, probably, that the existence of the principle of freedom of speech does not mean that truth itself is somehow up for grabs or subject to a popular vote. As I say, a very timely film, probably, and a well-made and very well-acted one.

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For the past few weeks now, I have been observing that we seem to have been in receipt of a selection of movies that one might reasonably expect to have been held back for the traditional awards season – serious, quality stuff, with big names both in front of and behind the camera. I think we may as well declare Awards Season to have opened this year, because the parade of high-class worthies shows no sign of stopping, and I would be very surprised if none of them scored any gongs at all.

Already having picked up a couple of prixes francais, latest on the scene is Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. Mike Leigh is, and I’m aware I’m probably about to generalise reprehensibly, best known as a sort of social historian of middle- and working-class Britain (if he ever remakes Interstellar, it will probably consist entirely of people arguing about crop rotation), but he is not averse to doing the odd period picture either: Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan, was a notable success about fifteen years ago, and he has dipped into similar territory for Mr Turner.

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Tom Cruise’s favourite actor from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Timothy Spall, plays John Mallard William Turner, the noted landscape artist of the early 19th century. Exactly when the film begins is a little unclear, but Turner has already become a noted artist.

I should point out that, of course, Mr Turner appears to have been made in accordance with the dictates of Mike Leigh’s Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method, in which Leigh and his actors basically just sit around and… well, I don’t know, actually, he must swear them all to secrecy or something. Anyway the point about the RNMSIM is that it inevitably results in an overwhelming focus on character and the minutiae of performance, and films which are not exactly powerhouses of gripping plot.

And so the film opens with a very long shot – in every sense of the word – of a windmill at sunrise (or possibly sunset, who can tell), in front of which two slightly Pythonesque Dutch ladies walk past fairly slowly. The camera pans with them to reveal, in slightly less long shot, Turner making a sketch of the windmill. Cut to pre-Victorian London (economically but convincingly realised) and Turner’s homecoming. There are protracted greetings between Turner and his father (Paul Jesson), and the household maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who has a skin condition, though clearly not to the point that it discourages Turner from taking the employer-domestic relationship into some fairly surprising areas.

Someone goes out and buys some paint. Turner wanders about and sketches things. His former mistress and unacknowledged children and grandchildren turn up and are given fairly short shrift. There are high-flown debates about art at the Royal Academy. Turner goes on holiday in Margate. So it goes, so it goes: the storyline of the film gradually develops, to be sure, but in a very low-key and inconspicuous way.

This is certainly a film which either drags its feet a bit or provides excellent value for money, depending on your point of view. It weighs in at a lengthy 129 minutes and is it absolutely true that every single moment of it is essential to the film’s thesis? I can’t help but think not.

Then again, it did occur to me as I was watching it that treating this as a conventional plot-driven film might be doing it a disservice: perhaps it is more a discursive piece, to be enjoyed and savoured in a more reflective way, making the most of the subtleties of performance, composition, costuming and so on. Well, maybe: there is certainly a lot to enjoy here, once you get your head around the somewhat languid pace and odd style.

On the other hand, for a film about a great artist, Mr Turner is only tangentially concerned with Mr Turner actually doing any painting. Perhaps this is the point and the aim of the film is to explore the flawed character of this astonishingly gifted human being. Well, that’s as may be, but the fact remains that quite a large proportion of this film consists of Timothy Spall grunting.

No, that’s not fair: in addition to grunting, he snorts, snuffles, croaks, groans, growls, rumbles, sniffs, and chokes a lot too. There are quite long scenes in which other characters exchange long pieces of dialogue, punctuated by the camera cutting to Turner watching them and going ‘Hrrrnnnnkk,’ or something similar, in the back of his throat. Spall finds a great deal of variation in these different vocalisations, of course: the ones he makes when hearing some ill-advised art criticism are quite different from the sounds he emits when disporting himself with the maid. (Perhaps Leigh’s next project should be a radical biography of Monica Seles, also starring Spall.)

Turner describes himself as a ‘gargoyle’ in the film and Spall himself seems to be taking ‘pugnacious’ as the starting-point for his performance. There is a lot of pop-eyed cantankerousness as things go on, especially as Turner’s style of art goes somewhat out of fashion and he begins to find the role of the artist somewhat supplanted by that of the photographer, but there are also moments of tenderness and the occasional insight into what drove Turner as an artist. It is undoubtedly Spall’s film as an actor: technically his performance is brilliant, even if Turner comes across as a bit of a Dickensian grotesque.

On the other hand, Dick Pope’s cinematography is also very striking, as you might expect in a film largely about visual spectacle and art. The film has a richness and texture that is really impressive, and at times a grandeur somewhat at odds with the nondescript nature of many of the scenes.

Does it manage to say anything particularly profound about either Turner himself or the life of an artist in general? No, not really, I think: the closest Leigh manages is to suggest that Turner’s brilliance as an artist was offset by his being fairly callous to most of those who loved him, especially Hannah the maid, whom he effectively dumps in favour of his common-law wife. Is this sort of thing justified if you’re so talented? Personally I would have thought not, but the film remains remarkably non-judgemental.

Mr Turner has racked up five-star reviews by the dozen, but even if I indulged in such things I couldn’t do the same. But I am aware that this may largely be because I have a different sensibility to Mike Leigh and his RNMSIM. Mr Turner is superbly acted and photographed throughout, and has clearly been directed and edited with a great deal of skill. It’s an extremely accomplished film. It’s just a bit too slow and mannered for my tastes.

 

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