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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

When it comes to Rupert Goold’s Judy I find myself in grave danger of repeating things I’ve already said at least once this year. Within the wonderful world of cinema there is, of course, space for many weird and niche subgenres – I recall relatives boggling, many years ago, when I sat down one evening to watch a documentary focusing on Mexican luchador wrestling horror movies – but I never really thought of the ‘biopic focusing on the declining years of a Hollywood star, preferably set in the UK’ to be one of them. But it seems I could be mistaken: a couple of years ago we had Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, then earlier on this year there was Stan and Ollie, and now we have Goold’s Judy Garland movie.

The resemblance between Stan and Ollie and Judy is particularly pronounced – to the point where they both feature the impresario Bernard Delfont as a character – and one wonders why nobody on either production noticed this, especially when you consider that both have been made by the film wing of the BBC (hence all those UK settings). Oh well – I suppose that sometimes there’s just a natural, obvious way of telling a story, and you may as well stick to it. The potential downside to this is that you end up making exactly the film everyone is anticipating, which can be a problem.

The movie flashes back and forth between Judy Garland’s early career in the late 1930s and early 40s, where she is portrayed by Darci Shaw, and the late 1960s, by which point she has turned into Renee Zellweger. (It will probably come as no surprise if I say there is rather more Zellweger than Shaw in the film.) By this point Garland’s life has become dismayingly chaotic – she is hugely in debt, unable to get work, rootless, addicted to all kinds of substances, reduced to dragging her children on stage with her in small-time shows. One of her ex-husbands (Rufus Sewell) begins proceedings to take custody of them. The only bright spot seems to be her new friendship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a young entrepreneur.

Desperately needing money, Garland agrees to a stint appearing at the Talk of the Town in London, as this will provide funds for the custody battle if nothing else. But the ghosts of her past are hard to shake off, and her assistant/minder (Jessie Buckley) finds that she really has to earn her money getting Garland on stage, on time, in a fit state to perform every night. Is this residency in London the start of a new beginning for her, or just another stage in her decline and fall?

Well I think we all know the answer to that one, as part of Judy Garland’s still-potent allure is the heady mixture of Hollywood glamour and pervasive tragedy surrounding her: no matter what her talent as a singer – and the film does not equivocate in its presentation of her as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century – if she had turned her life around and retired into obscurity, she would not be the legend she remains today. But the film suggests this was never really an option, that the manipulation of her life by Hollywood studio bosses from a very young age, and the pressures of stardom, hollowed out Garland as a person – such was the focus on her image as a star that the real Frances Gumm disappeared somewhere along the way, and Garland was left only having any real sense of who she was while performing to an audience.

It’s a tragic story but it does rather lend itself to the style of performance that Renee Zellweger opts to give: she is playing Garland the icon, all sass and vulnerability, the brittle diva. It’s an impressive physical transformation, to say nothing of Zellweger’s recreation of Garland’s vocal style. All together, it’s very much one of those full-on I-want-an-Oscar-and-I-want-it-now turns, and I wouldn’t bet against Zellweger snagging a nomination at least. But I’m not sure she does any more than hit the marks you’d expect in a Garland impersonation; I don’t think she necessarily finds anything unexpected in the role.

Nevertheless, she does dominate the movie (as you would expect). This is almost a shame as the film does feature some very capable performers who are perhaps a bit underserved as a result – most obviously Jessie Buckley, a tremendously capable singer and actress herself, doesn’t get a huge amount to do as Garland’s handler. The brevity of Michael Gambon’s contribution as Delfont is also somewhat disappointing. A pleasant surprise is a brief but affecting appearance by the magician Andy Nyman (creator of the brilliant Ghost Stories) as a dedicated Garland fan, acknowledging her enduring popularity with a particular fanbase. I feel obliged to mention the faint oddity of John Dagliesh showing up as Britain’s King of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan, but manage your expectations: we don’t get to see Renee Zellweger giving us Judy Garland’s cover version of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (the film would have been a bit more interesting if it had).

On the whole the film sticks pretty closely to the template for this kind of thing, with the hugely talented icon given humanity by the insight into their human failings and frailties. The film plays this rather smartly – it doesn’t shy away from depicting Garland as being demanding, needy and often nearly impossible to work with, but at the same time ensures she retains audience sympathy by the inclusion of the flashbacks depicting her treatment by Louis B Meyer and others: treated as a commodity from a very young age, not allowed to eat or sleep properly, manipulated by the studios to the point where it virtually constitutes abuse. Cynical and desensitised though I obviously am, I still found these scenes to be affecting and I was surprised to find myself quite angry on Garland’s behalf; likewise, the climax of the film proved to be unexpectedly moving.

It’s not quite enough to lift the film to a higher level – it doesn’t provide the same insights as Stan and Ollie did, for example. It gives you the Judy Garland you’ve heard about and are expecting to see, but not much more than that. It is well-mounted, decently-scripted and the performances are generally well-pitched. It’s by no means a bad film, but whatever power and emotion it acquires are derived entirely from its subject.

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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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‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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I can honestly say – and I have this in common, I suspect, with a number of friends and acquaintances – that I don’t know quite what shape my life would be, in the absence of the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I probably don’t fully appreciate the scale of their influence, for the same reason that it’s quite hard to accurately gauge the size of an island while you’re living on it. That said, I don’t think I ended up living in Oxford solely because Tolkien resided here for much of his life, even though he has a palpable link with the city (much more so than Jo Rowling, not that this bothers the speciality tour operators and gift shop owners much). Anyway, it seemed entirely fitting to go and see Dome Karukoski’s new film about Tolkien’s early life, entitled (unsurprisingly) Tolkien, in Oxford. Tolkien is such a draw around here that the new film even managed to challenge the Marvel hegemony and land the biggest screen at Oxford’s most distinguished city centre cinema.

The meat of the film gets underway with Tolkien’s youth in the rustic idyll of a place called Sarehole (UK readers, feel free to come up with your own anagrams), but this naturally does not last long. With his widowed mother on her uppers and the family reliant on the charity of the church, it is still a shock when local priest Father Transporter Chief from Star Trek (Colm Meaney) has them all moved to grotty digs in industrial Birmingham.

Still, young JRR (Harry Gilby) soon makes friends with the better-off boys from the prep school he is sent to, and they swear eternal friendship and all the usual sort of thing, forming a club to discuss art and poetry and music and other sorts of culture (suffice to say that Wagner does not prove popular – ‘there’s no need to take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring,’ someone complains, one of the few flashes of genuine wit in the script). However, as the one-day-to-be Prof gets older (transforming into Nicholas Hoult along the way), he finds himself increasingly drawn to his adopted sister Edith (Lily Collins), despite the disapproval of Father Transporter Chief, who thinks he should be focusing on trying to pass the Oxford entrance exam.

Well, to cut a fairly long movie short, there is Oxford, potential failure, heartbreak, philology, and then the looming spectre of the First World War. It’s all enough to give a man the idea for a best-selling (and that’s putting it mildly) series of books…

I don’t mean to be harsh to what is an undeniably pleasant and apparently well-meaning movie, but Tolkien is basically a con trick, trying to fool you into thinking things are in it which are simply not present. As everyone involved has taken great pains to point out, they don’t have the rights to any of Tolkien’s fiction – his most famous books were brought to the screen a few years ago, as you may possibly have noticed it – and so the film can only allude to them. (They don’t even appear to have the rights to quote from Tolkien’s gravestone, the text of which is referred to but not in any detail.) So much of the film consists of subtle little hints and references intended to put you in mind of something Peter Jackson did on a rather bigger budget in New Zealand, without actually being a direct steal.

The other problem is one common to many biopics operating in this particular sphere of the arts, which is how you make the life of a writer remotely cinematic. Writers tend not to have very interesting lives (well, except for maybe Hemingway and Steinbeck); the life of Tolkien, the part for which he is remembered, with him actually putting in the hours and writing out The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and so on, was that of a middle-aged university don sitting in his study every night for years and years. How are you supposed to turn that into a film with any kind of commercial prospects?

Karukowski’s answer to this is to put together a fairly predictable coming-of-age storyline which mostly feels like off-cuts from Dead Poets Society seasoned with a sort of lament-for-doomed-youth vibe, as the bold and bright (and mostly very rich) young lads grow up together before marching off to the trenches. Intercut with this is a conventional romance-against-the-odds plot as Tolkien must overcome his own limited prospects, not to mention Father Transporter Chief’s resistance, and win the woman he truly loves.

You may be thinking ‘this all sounds very generic’ and you would be right. Karukowski’s cunning way of giving all this Added Tolkien Value is load the film with sly little references, mostly to the Jackson films: we see Tolkien the boy playing in a landscape intended to suggest the Shire, and when the family move to Birmingham, it is a dark, hellish vision of looming towers, belching smoke and spouting flame (not sure the Birmingham Tourist Board are going to be wild about the suggestion their city is effectively twinned with either Barad-dur or Isengard). Young Tolkien can’t see a tree outside the window without being inspired to start drawing Ents, and – in the film’s biggest set piece – the feverish young officer witnesses the battle of the Somme and has a vision of dragons and wraiths devastating the British army. All the while on the soundtrack, Thomas Newman is trying to sound as much like Howard Shore as possible without actually being sued. As someone else has said, it is a bit like Shakespeare in Love but without the jokes; if this film were true, it’s not really surprising that Tolkien wrote all those books, it must have been essential therapy for him.

But it’s not true, and it does Tolkien the disservice of suggesting his whole life was essentially preparation for the moment he sat down and wrote the word ‘Hobbit’ for the first time. So much of what made Tolkien such an extraordinary man is entirely absent from the film – his extraordinary facility for language is touched upon, but many telling facts are omitted, perhaps for fear they would make him seem a bit weird: the fact he claimed to recognise archaic Anglo-Saxon upon first encountering it, his habit of referring to the Norman conquest as a relatively recent event, and so on. I’ve seen it suggested that Tolkien felt the Norman conquest essentially destroyed native Anglo-Saxon culture, and that his works were an attempt to provide a substitute for this – ‘how one man, in his lifetime, did the work of nations,’ to paraphrase a quote off the back of my copy of The Silmarillion.

There are moments in the film which do fumble their way towards a more authentic notion of JRR Tolkien – there’s quite a long scene discussing his belief that the words cellar door are the most euphonious sound in the English language, and quite a long section where he and his mentor (Derek Jacobi) discuss trees, which Tolkien loved. They lift the film, but also suggest the possibilities of a much more interesting, but probably more cerebral and less commercial one, which this definitely isn’t: Tolkien is basically the romantic lead throughout, albeit one whose walls appear to be covered with pictures from Peter Jackson’s art department.

That said, the film is as well-mounted as you would expect, in the usual British hats-and-fags way, and it has to be said that Nicholas Hoult does the very best he can with a somewhat unrewarding part. The film clearly admires Tolkien and wants to be respectful towards him, but too often it makes the easy and obvious choices. The result is a good-looking but ultimately rather simplistic film that sometimes seems to be more interested in Tolkien’s books (or, even worse, their film adaptations) than the man himself.

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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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  1. Cornwall, 2010. Possibly a Thursday. 

JIM (James Purefoy) and his crew of fellow lobster fishermen gather by their boat.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Now, as you know, I am Jim Trevelyan. You probably vaguely recognise my face from various direct-to-DVD thrillers and character parts in prestige TV shows, but in this here film I am the stubborn, unsophisticated, but stalwart and principled patriarch of this fishing village, and I will be making it clear in all my dialogue just how Cornish and authentic I am.’

CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr.’

JIM’s daughter ALWYN (Tuppence Middleton) joins them.

ALWYN: ‘Now, I am your daughter, Dad, and you probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British movies. I am a feisty single mum, as this allows me to show my grounded, maternal personality while still being available for a trite romance. My job is to talk almost entirely in platitudes and clumsily communicate the message of the film, about the importance of The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘We had best be about our lobster fishing and singing, for we need to establish the tone of this film, while still providing the opportunity for some scenic footage of Cornwall.’

The boat sails about scenically while the FISHERMEN sing heartily.

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We sing and fish the whole day long, from dawn until it goes dark / We’ve Cornish clichés by the ton, we’ve even more than Poldark.’

 

2. London: a phoney, shallow necropolis of the soul, apparently, although I bet the film producers are happy enough living there.

DANNY (Daniel Mays), a music business type, meets his boss TROY (Noel Clarke) and some other friends of little significance to the plot.

DANNY: ‘Hello lads! I am the go-getting, outwardly jaded city boy just crying out to be put back in touch with The Important Things In Life. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, although I was in the recent stellar conflict movie that everyone agreed was good, too. Shall we all go on a stag weekend in Cornwall?’

TROY: ‘Sounds good to me! I am your cynical, money-grubbing American boss. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, but I was in one of the Star Trek movies, too (although not one of the good ones). In this movie I have a beard and I’m having to do an American accent, and it seems to have destroyed my ability to act. It’s like I’m first-series Mickey Smith again.’

DANNY: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Shall we go off with the intention of mocking the Cornish yokels, little realising one of us is in for a life-changing experience?’

TROY: ‘Yeah, all right.’

 

3. A harbour in Cornwall.

The FISHERMEN are preparing to give an outdoor concert.

JIM: ‘All right, we’ve established all the main characters in very broad strokes, it’s time for the inciting incident. Let’s get this plot underway.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘I love my boat, I love my hat, I love my lobster pot / Let’s sing a bit more in this style, it’ll help to start the plot.’

DANNY and TROY are watching the concert.

TROY: ‘Danny! As a strange and elaborate practical joke, I order you to stay here and go to great lengths to get these singing fishermen to sign a record contract that I have no intention of honouring while I go off back to London with the others.’

DANNY: ‘Okay! Er – why are you doing this to me? I thought we were friends, and I’ve not really done anything to antagonise you.’

TROY: ‘Sorry, man. The plot demands it.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘You’re born to be a fisherman, or born to be a farmer / You’ve no choice over what you do, when you’re in a melodrama.’

 

4. A pub in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to his MUM in the bar.

JIM’s MUM: ‘So that there outsider finds himself stuck amongst us, initially against his will, but slowly learning to appreciate the value of our authentic community-centred way of life?’

JIM: ‘Looks that way.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘So it’s basically another knock-off of Local Hero, only with less wit and charm and more folk music?’

JIM: ‘Aye.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘Don’t you just hate it when people hit on a successful formula, and then mindlessly repeat themselves.’

JIM: ‘Don’t you worry, Mum, I’m sure the reviews of new films will go back to normal soon enough.’

Outside the pub, DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, I was initially here against my will, but now I have decided to stay, either because I am falling in love with you or because your authentic community-centred way of life has shown me what The Important Things in Life are.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

DANNY: ‘Thanks for making that absolutely clear to me.’

ALWYN: ‘Is this not a sudden and not especially well-handled transformation of your essential character, Danny?’

DANNY: ‘Sorry, the plot demands it.’

 

5. JIM and ALWYN’s house in Cornwall.

DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, now we have fallen in love, and after some rather meandering plot developments I have managed to secure a record deal for your Dad’s band against the wishes of my shallow money-grubbing boss. I have also come to appreciate The Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny. How long has all this taken?’

DANNY: ‘The internal chronology has become a bit vague, I’m afraid. But everything else seems to be going well.’

JIM and the FISHERMEN enter.

JIM: ‘I’m sorry to say this, but we’re at the end of the second act and it’s time for Danny to have a dark night of the soul which will help him realise all he has learned.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr. And not before time.’

JIM: ‘Danny, you are nothing but another shallow outsider who doesn’t understand our authentic community-centric ways! Plus, someone lovable has died and we’re all very upset. Get out of Cornwall and never return!’

DANNY: ‘All right, I’ll be off then. See you all at the climax for a life-affirming resolution.’ 

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘It’s now the part with pathos so the film will seem less shallow / Just like the bit in Four Weddings, where they kill off Simon Callow.’

 

6. At the pub.

DANNY enters. Everyone else is there waiting.

DANNY: ‘I’m back for the climactic resolution, where I demonstrate my commitment to Alwyn and show just how much I have changed. I now fully understand the importance of your authentic community-centric way of life, and many other Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

JIM: ‘I will therefore have to grudgingly admit you into our community, although I do note the storyline about a folk group of singing fishermen proving unexpectedly successful has become somewhat eclipsed by a subplot about who owns the pub and its symbolic relevance to the issue of the survival of communities like this one.’

DANNY: ‘Shall we all live happily ever after while the credits show us photos of the real-life folk group?’

JIM: ‘Aye, may as well. I think we’ve time for one last sea shanty, too. Hit it lads!’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘The final verdict’s on its way, and it’s sure to be nasty / There’s less meat to this bloody film than in a Cornish pasty.’

Fisherman’s Friends (directed by Chris Foggin) is in cinemas now, and is sure to folk you up.

 

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