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Posts Tagged ‘Vanessa Redgrave’

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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All hail to Ralph, lord of the house of Fiennes

Respected well both here and o’er the pond

An Oscar did he get for Schindler’s List

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

Director now bold Ralphie has become –

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

A complex tale his debut offering:

He’s giving us his vision of the Bard.

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

But obscure Roman saga, Coriolanus

And old Will Shakespeare’s versing’s kept intact

Which must have been a right pain in the neck.

So hence my tribute in this verse that’s blank

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

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

At least irregular rhyming is allowed.

(Although this conceit’s wearing rather thin –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There once was a soldier named Caius,

Lambasted for anti-prole bias.

When kicked out of town

He said with a frown

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

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