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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Cruel Garden' is one of the Ballet Rambert's classics, seen here in a
television adaptation of its original production, choreographed by and
starring Christopher Bruce. It has a beautiful, guitar-led score by
It is based around the life and work of Federico García Lorca, the poet and dramatist martyred by fascists in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Rather than being a biographical dance-drama, it takes images from his works - including symbolic figures such as the Moon, the Bull, and the Nightingale - to weave a mythic image of the Poet continually sacrificed and reborn, an Orpheus figure. He appears as the Bullfighter in a scene inspired by the 'Llanto per Ignacio Sanchez Mejias' (a bullfighter fatally injured in the arena) A flamenco-café sequence set to 'El Cafe de Chinitas', one of the folksongs which Lorca collected and arranged, treats sensitively the Poet's homosexuality (a factor in his murder). He then appears in a 'puppet' version of 'Blood Wedding', and as Buster Keaton, in a silent-movie style sequence based on 'A Poet in New York'.
I hope that either the BBC or the Ballet Rambert will consider releasing this on DVD. It is an extraordinarily moving and beautiful work, which kindled my love for Lorca, and which I still remember vividly after 25 years.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The UK rental release of this film is titled 'Dark Prince: The Legend
of Dracula', rather than 'The True Story of', thereby leaving fewer
hostages to fortune re: its accuracy or otherwise, and placing it
firmly in the realm of folk-tradition. I was initially perturbed by the
blurb on the case, which described it as 'Braveheart meets Interview
with the Vampire' - conjuring some truly nightmarish but hilarious
visions of an Undead Mel Gibson running around Romania in a kilt, in
pursuit of Tom Cruise... However, it is an old-style swashbuckling
drama about the 15C Romanian warlord Vlad Dracula (which means 'son of
(the Knight of) the Dragon'), also known as 'Tepes', or 'Impaler'. It
has some interesting religious-political currents, and a (too) handsome
'Dark Prince' was made for US TV, not the cinema, so is cursed by a fairly low budget (no massive armies tramping around the countryside or large-scale battles). However, it does reasonably well within its constraints, helped by the use of location filming in Romania and a largely Romanian supporting cast, with just a handful of foreign leads. These include the dashing German actor Rudolf Martin as Vlad, and British actors Jane March and Roger Daltrey (yes, of 'The Who'!) as Lidia and King Janos. Given the 30 year time-span of the story, Janos aged more convincingly than some of the other characters, perhaps because he wasn't exactly young to start with. I had hitherto only seen Rudolf Martin as Dracula in 'Buffy the Vampire-Slayer', and had been rather taken with his looks. In 'Dark Prince' he gave a fine performance, with plenty of sword-fighting, as the same character's living form. All in all he made a good swashbuckling Vlad, though I wasn't convinced latterly that he looked like a 45-year-old who had just had a 10-year stint in prison! Needless to say, the portrayal is rather idealised. Christopher Brand as Bruno, Vlad's faithful sidekick, is good: 'Little John' as drawn by Breughel.
Mediaeval Romania is not a subject I know in great detail, but the broad outlines of the story were recognisable, allowing for the romanticisation of swashbuckling genre. It included some of the key points of the Vlad Tepes myth: impaling his enemies; nailing hats to the heads of Turkish envoys; a wife who ends up in the river; and a feud with his brother Radu who sided with the Turks. What struck me was that, within genre constraints, the script at least *attempted* to convey some of the ideological animosities that divided efforts to present a united front against the Turks just before and after the fall of Constantinople: Vlad gets into serious trouble with the Orthodox Church for getting assistance from the Catholic Hungarians and Papal money. As a bit of background plot, though, I think it would have been helpful to make more reference to the fall of Constantinople, the Second Rome - a world-shattering event for 15C people, especially in south-eastern Europe. It would have given a keener sense of how much was at stake (pun intended).
Vlad's cruelty and vengefulness are not glossed over, although somewhat sanitised (it is a TV movie). One of the most impressive scenes, closely related to a contemporary German woodcut, is the one where he sits dipping bread in wine, at a table in front of a field full of impaled boyars... The nailing of the Turks' hats scene is especially disturbing because presented as a black joke between Vlad and his young son. Lidia is the innocent 'moral viewpoint' character, but she becomes unhinged in her efforts to square her husband's motives with his methods. There is a strong thread running through the film as to how far ends can justify means: Vlad's rule is brutal, but the townsfolk feel safe (symbolised by the communal gold cup at the fountain - an element taken from the Romanian folklore about him); he wants to preserve his Orthodox country from the Turks, but must solicit Catholic help from Hungary to do so, thereby risking his soul through excommunication.
The film climaxes with an entirely a-historical scene more reminiscent of Scottish history: think John Comyn vs. Robert de Brus (Vlad's death was really rather less dramatic.) Judging by other reviews, the shift into fantasy clearly flummoxed some. However, there is in it a nod to the Orthodox cult of ruler as 'Strastoterpets' ('Passion-bearer'), a Christianised form of sacrificial kingship. Meanwhile, Father Stefan, whose machinations stemmed from his obsessive belief that a 'bleeding' icon was proof that Vlad was the Antichrist, pays by turning him into something almost as disconcerting... In this, the film serves as an effective precursor to the purely fictional, Stoker-derived 'Dracula' stories and films we know and love. Indeed, it can be watched as a prologue to the Coppola version.
The film essentially projects the Romanian folk-tradition of Vlad Tepes as national hero, akin to that other ruthless, violent, clergy-harrying 'son of the Chief Dragon' whose story followed the fall of the First Rome, at the other end of the Empire. The caption at the end, that there is a myth of his return, completes the analogy: Vlad Dracula as the Romanian Arthur?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'El Naser Salah el Dine' is a curious blend of Nasser-era pan-Arab
nationalism with plot- elements and characterisations derived from the
works of Walter Scott. It is not Islamist in approach: the fictional
romantic hero, like the director and co-writer Youssef Chahine, is an
Arab Christian, and is named 'Issa' - 'Joshua'/'Jesus' in Arabic. (He
is played by Salah Zulfikar.) He is *very* loosely inspired by a
historical 'Issa the Swimmer' - in the same way that Ridley Scott's
'Balian' is by the real one. (The name and one attribute are taken from
history... and um, that's all! At least there's an excuse that less is
known about Issa the Swimmer!) As he explains to the Frankish heroine,
Louise de Lusignan (Nadia Lutfi), his loyalty is to his fellow-Arabs,
across religious differences. Like 'Kingdom of Heaven' (2005), the film
imposes a positive ideology of toleration and peaceful cross-cultural
links, all very worthy in modern times, but *nothing* to do with 12C
attitudes; in this case, it reflects a secular Arab nationalist
ideology. It is never mentioned that Saladin was not an Arab, but a
Kurd, and Issa claims, "Jerusalem has always been an Arab land". The
depiction of the situation of the Arabs under Frankish rule is clearly
intended to echo that of the modern Palestinians. Walter Scott-derived
components, perhaps from Chahine's education at a British-run school,
include the negative characterisation of Conrad of Montferrat, Louise
being threatened with burning as a witch (straight out of 'Ivanhoe'),
and Saladin, in person, tending Richard after he is shot with a
poisoned arrow (from the 1954 Hollywood film adaptation of 'the
Talisman', 'King Richard & the Crusaders', which this film resembles in
As with Western historical films, there are numerous inaccuracies in fact and characterisation. Guy de Lusignan is depicted as a peaceable elderly man, who wants to negotiate with Saladin, but is over-ruled by Reynaud de Châtillon: he was actually probably in his late 30s, and quite reckless in the 1187 campaign. Reynaud is depicted as being killed in a duel with Saladin: he was, in fact, summarily executed. Richard I (Hamdi Geiss) receives remarkably favourable treatment, partly through the influence of Scott; also, I suspect, because the film may have an agenda of repairing links with the UK, post-Suez. Philippe Auguste (Omar El-Hariri), meanwhile, is depicted as a villain, and is shown giving the order for the massacre of the prisoners from Acre - when in reality he had already set off home to France. It was actually Richard who was responsible for the massacre. Again, I think this reflects contemporary (1963) anti-French sentiment because of the war in Algeria. The siege of Acre itself is depicted as "a picnic" for the Franks, aided by a treacherous Arab governor: in fact, it lasted for 2-3 years, with hard fighting and many deaths (including those of the Queen of Jerusalem and her daughters) from disease in the camp. The hostile characterisation of Conrad of Montferrat - in reality respected by his Muslim contemporaries as a tough warrior and an intelligent diplomat with whom they could negotiate - is Walter Scott-based: Mahmoud El-Meliguy plays him as scheming and treacherous, much as Josef Schildkraut did in Cecil B DeMille's 'The Crusades' (1935) and Michael Pate in 'King Richard & the Crusaders'.
The female leads are both fictional, although one, the villainess (played by the voluptuous Leila Fawzi), is purportedly Reynaud de Châtillon's widow. She is named (surely ironically) Virginia, and depicted as bedding in turn all the movie villains - the treacherous governor of Acre, Philippe, Conrad, and the elderly Duke Arthur, Richard's fictional scheming adviser - in the hope of becoming Queen of Jerusalem! As is usual in the historical adventure genre - in Western films also - she pays a high price for her intrigues, although she seemed to me the most interesting character. Louise is a more conventional winsome romantic lead: again, as is typical in the genre, she is on the other side, but has to be persuaded of the superiority of the hero's cause, and won over. Less conventionally - and rather implausibly - both young women are depicted as donning mail and fighting in battle (although Louise gives this up, for fear of confronting her beloved Issa in action). Louise is, in fact, depicted as an officer of the Hospitallers! (While there were Hospitaller sisters, they were nurses, not fighting members of the Order, and as nuns, romantic involvements would not have been approved.)
'El Naser Salah el Dine' is a very colourful film, and strikes me as a lightweight period adventure in much the same vein as DeMille's 'The Crusades' or 'King Richard & the Crusaders'. In the same way as DeMille, it tries to be portentous and 'deep', but isn't, and only the political baggage is different. The armour and costumes are no more authentic than in Hollywood, and the blond and auburn-wigged Arab actors as Franks are certainly no more or less odd to the eye than Rex Harrison in brown make-up as Saladin in 1954 Hollywood! (While both the leading ladies are attractive, the only really good-looking man in the film is Saladin, played by Ahmed Mazhar.) However, where this film has the edge is some interesting cinematography: use of stills-montage, and a very effective use of split-screen, evocative of mediæval manuscript painting, and cross-cutting during Louise's trial, to compare and contrast Saladin and Richard.
What surprised me most about the film, though, is how little screen-time Saladin himself has: the intrigues of the Franks dominate the narrative, much as in the related Western films. This is unfortunate: the intrigues and battles of his own rise to power are fascinating, although would require a less reverential treatment than is customary with historical heroes in Arabic cinema.
'Harrison's Flowers' is a harrowing drama set during the 1990s Balkan
wars, seen through the eyes of war photographers and correspondents. I
don't recall it getting a cinema release here in the UK - but caught up
with it on DVD.
The 'hook' of the story is that Sarah Lloyd (Andie MacDowell) travels to Croatia in 1991 to try to find and rescue her husband Harrison, a prize-winning journalist who is missing, presumed killed. (The flowers of the title are those in his greenhouse - tended in his absence by their young son). It's a contrivance - indeed, because we don't see the characters together for long, it's difficult to invest much in their relationship - but functions as the plot mechanism (however creaky) to get the heroine away from her safe life in the US into the war zone, where her adventures really start. So it's essentially a classic quest-and-rescue narrative - unusually, with a woman doing the seeking. (Hence, I suspect, some of the criticisms about Sarah's search risking orphaning her children; I'm not sure this would be raised if the sexes of missing person and seeker were reversed.)
The film does not glamourise the realities of late 20C Balkan warfare, graphically depicting the atrocities perpetrated by all sides in the wars which engulfed the former Yugoslavia. The story reaches its dramatic climax with the siege of Vukovar.
Adrien Brody gives an outstanding performance as the bitter, troubled but brave young front-line photojournalist Kyle Morris. Like many in his profession, Kyle takes drugs and swears like a trooper - but he also has courage, integrity, and the face of an El Greco saint. He is the real hero of the story, and Brody, a truly remarkable actor, comes to dominate the film. Brendan Gleeson is also excellent as his older colleague, Stevenson. It is refreshing, too, to see Andie MacDowell in a role in which she is not simply eye-candy/cute chick-flick heroine. The fact that Sarah is not always likable is one of the strengths of the film, and surely a sign that it is a European production: Hollywood films seem too hamstrung at times by worrying about making their protagonists 'likable' - flawed, difficult characters are more human and more interesting. Gerard Butler and Alun Armstrong, among others, provide good support.
As to whether Sarah finds Harrison, or if she and her friends make it home in one piece - I'm not saying: see the film! All I will say is, it did not turn out how I had expected, and my h/c complex kicked in significantly at one point.
On DVD, get the French 2-disc Special Edition if you can. There are deleted scenes (mainly Sarah and Harrison, family and friends in the US), cast interviews, a digital effects feature, theme song video, & c.. Sadly, the only UK release was a single disc with just a trailer. One of the deleted scenes addresses an issue which concerned some reviewers - Sarah's guilt-feelings about leaving her children. The interview with Adrien Brody (looking very handsome) is interesting: he discusses how he sees Kyle's relationship with Sarah, and also how he drew on his photographer mother's colleagues in portraying the character.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Some spoilers, but as the play was written in 1890, it should be
'Hedda Gabler' is one of my all-time favourite plays, but I had never seen this version. I recently caught up with it on a secondhand VHS tape. It preserves, or rather, embalms, in a golden glow like Norwegian amber, Trevor Nunn's RSC production, which starred Glenda Jackson. I found it disappointing in comparison with Deborah Warner's 1993 production, with Fiona Shaw.
'Hedda' has beautiful photography (those amber sunsets!), settings, and costumes, but somehow lacks vitality. Some aspects of the acting have dated: some of the delivery seems a bit too arch at times, too self-conscious of being 'classic drama'. Yes, Ibsen was a 19C dramatist, and, of course, the script is a translation, but he aspired to naturalism: in this production I was conscious that I was watching a play, rather than eavesdropping on the lives of real, living people. The incidental music is overly 'romantic', especially when it accompanies the arrival of Ejlert Løvborg, silhouetted against the sunset. I do not think the film intended to satirise Hedda and Thea's romantic illusions about him at this point, but it was very hard to take him seriously after such an entrance. I understand why the designers, wishing to convey Hedda's domestic oppression, depicted the villa as over-cluttered and ornately decorated. Unfortunately, it made scenes too 'busy' visually: it was too easy for the eye to wander from the actors and get lost among various fascinating bits of Victorian bric-à-brac and furniture. Also, the Tesmans have only recently moved in; this house looked far too 'lived in'.
Any production of 'Hedda Gabler' depends heavily on its lead actress. Despite her Oscar nomination, Glenda Jackson did not completely convince me as Hedda. The character can be infuriating, but she is also heartbreaking, like Eustacia Vye in Hardy's 'Return of the Native'. Glenda, fine actress though she is, simply did not move me. Nunn's production had clearly decided to adopt the hard, brittle "ice-queen" interpretation of Hedda; as a result, I did not sense her underlying unhappiness and desperation, which Fiona Shaw conveyed so effectively. Poised and assured, this Hedda did not strike me as a woman falling towards suicide: I would have expected someone of her mettle to shoot the blackmailing Judge Brack (Timothy West), not herself, and run off with Thea, along the lines of 'Thelma & Louise' or (more successfully) Corky and Violet in 'Bound'! Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of her performance was when she reminds Thea Elvsted (Jennie Linden) of her schoolgirl threat to burn her hair off - leaning forward as if to kiss her, but drawing back at the last moment, more than once. This slightly Sapphic note suits Hedda: she is a General's daughter, motherless; she rides and shoots, but has never mastered all 19C conventions of domesticated 'femininity'; she wants to hear about men's adventures; she does not want to be a mother. One of Ibsen's great insights in 'The Doll's House' (1879), as well as in this play, is that society's definition of 'femininity' is largely a cultural construct - learned behaviour, not innate or 'natural' to every woman. Hedda has missed some of the lessons, but is still expected to fit the template; at the same time, she cannot break free of it. I have often thought that she and Thea would have fared better together, without the hopeless men!
Patrick Stewart was dashing as Løvborg, although it was hard to imagine him ever having been drunken and dissolute: he lacked loucheness. This was not his fault as an actor (I have seen him in a range of roles), more a reflection of the reined-in nature of this production - competent but playing it safe and 'classic'. Neither he nor Timothy West's Brack exuded the necessary sexual danger. The low-key approach best suited the 'nice' characters: Jennie Linden's Thea, Constance Chapman's Aunt Juliane, and Pam St Clement's awkward, well-meaning Berte.
The truly outstanding performance in the film was that of Peter Eyre, as Jørgen Tesman (here called George). I would go so far as to say that his was the definitive filmed portrayal of the character. He was perfect: every inch the pedantic, eager PhD scholar brought up by maiden aunts. I felt I knew him: I have lived in halls of residence with postgrads just like him. Tesman is good-natured enough, a likable geek - but he really should never have married, and certainly not a bride like General Gabler's daughter!
I would like to see this film released on DVD, to capture the fine detail of the costumes and settings, but I recommend the 1993 BBC production, directed by Deborah Warner, for a more profound portrayal of Hedda herself.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had longed to see this film for years, having only seen b/w stills
and brief clips. Finally, Glasgow Film Theatre got a new print in their
Visconti retrospective in 2003, and it was certainly worth the wait!
'Il Gattopardo' is a marvellous film, a magnificently realised slice of 19C history presented through the lives of engaging but humanly fallible characters. Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, is a shrewd, benevolent man of 45, trying to navigate a passage for his family through the social and political turmoil of the Risorgimento in Sicily. (I was stunned that some reviewers thought there was too much discussion of politics in the film - it is essential to the story and its context!) Burt Lancaster gives surely his greatest performance as Don Fabrizio, coming to terms with the fact that he is among the last of a dying breed: born too late to dwell in an unchanging aristocratic world, but too early to adapt fully to the modern world, unlike his nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon). As he tells the royal envoy from the mainland: "We are the leopards, the lions; after us will come the jackals and hyenas".
Tancredi embodies the best and worst of the rising generation: he is dashing and full of vitality, but he breaks the heart of his shy, sensitive cousin Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), and is just as fickle in his political loyalties - although this ensures he will survive in the new Italy. His engagement to Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), daughter of the nouveau-riche mayor, secures the family's future. Angelica is a fine example of how well the characters are drawn: no idealised romantic heroine, but a vital, beautiful girl with a vulgar streak. She laughs interminably and loudly at Tancredi's coarse jokes at the table - not how a 19C young lady was expected to behave: you sense the cringes this induces in the rest of the family, despite the fact she is 'a good catch' in material terms, and is basically good.
The other supporting characters are worth attention, delineated with affectionate humour: Angelica's social-climbing father; Princess Maria Stella (Rina Morelli), with her glum piety and fits of the vapours (one can easily believe her husband's quip, "We have seven children, but I've never even seen her navel!"); the family chaplain, Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli), with whom Don Fabrizio has amusing bouts of verbal sparring.
But it is as much the look of this film, besides the intelligent script and excellent characterisations, which makes it so special. The costumes are among the best I have ever seen in a 19C-set film. The landscape and architecture of Sicily are shown to tremendous effect: you can feel the heat, the dust. Dust? Yes - and that is one of the best things about the film: its physical realism. When the characters go on long carriage journeys, they get visibly dusty; their palaces have shabby, disused rooms and semi-derelict wings, as well as majolica floors; the all-night ball - a tour-de-force of colour and spectacle - results in a retiring-room full of used chamber-pots; the rural villages are as dilapidated as picturesque. Too many costume dramas present perpetually well-groomed characters in immaculate environments, no dirt or untidiness: 'Il Gattopardo' does not.
The film ends with Don Fabrizio walking home after the ball, having come to terms with his mortality and seen the younger generation preparing to take centre stage. If you want to meet him again in his final years, and see what becomes of Concetta and Angelica as the 20C dawns, then read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's original novel, of which this exquisite film is a faithful and sensitive adaptation.
And to see the characters now? About the same time I first saw this film, I got a picture-book of the mummies of Palermo: fragile parchment-skin and bone in fraying 18-19C finery. The same sense of the transience of beauty, of change and mortality, pervades the mummies and the film alike: one auburn-haired youth even resembles Francesco Paolo, the Salinas' young son. "Dust and ashes!" writes Browning; "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" says Villon. But thanks to Visconti's masterpiece, we can still see 'the snows of last year' at the point of their dissolution.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Now refers to Director's Cut)
In theatrical and director's cut alike, 'Kingdom of Heaven' is a botched opportunity. It has spectacular cinematography, and is highly atmospheric, but would have been better if Scott and Monahan had used more of the real story. It suffers from problems common to historical films and novels: the fictionalised hero's travails are irritating, and the sympathetic characters' anachronistic attitudes break suspension of disbelief. All the heroes express open-minded religious/moral values of a post-Enlightenment, near-Unitarian nature, which would have got them burnt in the 12C; more plausibly mediæval mind-sets belong to the villains. Monahan's interpretation of characters and incidents are based on now-outdated historiography, e.g. the depiction of Patriarch Eraclius, in reality a competent figure. The attempts to make the story an anti-imperialist parable for contemporary Middle-Eastern conflicts fail, too, because they are built on misunderstandings of the 12C situation and modern cultural guilt-tripping. The history is interesting in itself; why strain after 'contemporary relevance'? My chief reason for rating it above DeMille's 'The Crusades' is that at least it leaves my favourite Crusades character off-screen and unscathed!
The battles aspire to the standard of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films: Jerusalem is Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith without the unusual wildlife. (I kept expecting Orlando to skate downstairs on his shield while firing arrows...) His charge at Kerak is Faramir's suicide mission crossed with the ride of the Rohirrim. There is a superfluous shipwreck, yet the dramatic - and vital - battle of Hattin, in which the real Balian and Raymond fought, happens off-screen. The importance of the military orders in the Kingdom's defence is diminished. The personal conflict between Raymond and Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort is replaced by depicting all Templars as 'baddies', in the Walter Scott tradition.
Orlando Bloom's 'Balian' strains credulity. Only his defence of Jerusalem and negotiation of its surrender connect him with the real Balian d'Ibelin. Balian was in his 40s, an Outremer-born baron of Italian descent: not illegitimate, not French, never a village wright and smith. He married King Amaury I's Byzantine widow Maria, and did not have an affair with Sibylla (Amaury's daughter by his first wife). So far, so 'Braveheart', in gratuitous inaccuracy...
Sibylla (played by Eva Green) is equally misrepresented. She was devoted to Guy, refusing to divorce him when pressed to: hardly a casual adulteress. ***SPOILER*** She was not regent for her son, Baldwin of Montferrat - Raymond of Tripoli was. The child was not a leper (leprosy is not hereditary or easy to catch), and she did not kill him: he simply died young. The tacked-on 'happy ending' is absurd. She died in the siege of Acre in 1190. And I'm sure she'd *rather* have died than go to live in a village with a blacksmith. In the feudal 1180s, you didn't 'downshift'.
Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is portrayed as a scheming villain, dressed as a Templar. 'Scheming' suggests a degree of intelligence few writers associate with Guy: not evil, but over-enthusiastically chivalrous, easily led, and simply unlucky. After Sibylla's death, his claim to the throne crumbled, and by then nobody wanted him apart from Richard Oc-e-Non (a cameo-role from Iain Glen) - because he was one of his Poitevin vassals. (Richard also figures in a script gaffe: Sibylla, teaching her son geography, says he is King of England, having succeeded Henry II: in fact, Henry (her cousin) outlived her son by about 3 years!)
Four characters are vaguely recognisable: Baldwin IV (Ed Norton) is the true hero of the film: a gifted, noble and courageous 24-year-old, dying of leprosy. Even finally seeing the ghastly disfigurement behind his serene silver mask does not erase the viewer's perception of his real beauty: his character. The true extent of his disability is played down, however: in his last years, he was blind and crippled, but still went on campaign in a litter, tended by his mother. Also, he is portrayed as essentially peace-loving; in fact, he was a hard-fighting Angevin warrior-king, Henry II's first cousin. And he would not have spurned the sacrament from the Patriarch.
Jeremy Irons plays Count Raymond of Tripoli - but the film (to avoid confusion with Tripoli in Libya) changes his title to Tiberias (in reality, held by his wife). He looks very much the wise, wily, battle-scarred Raymond I've loved. However, the film strikes a wrong note in claiming he withdraws in self-imposed exile to Cyprus. He fought at Hattin, and died of pleurisy - and a broken heart - in Tripoli, aged 47, during the siege of Jerusalem.
Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) also lives up to expectations: brave, tough, charismatic, and shrewd. It is good to see him played by a Middle-Eastern actor, not - as in previous Crusade films - a Western actor in brown make-up, but his ruthlessness is played down. He would have invaded with or without provocation. Reynaud de Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) is portrayed as opportunistic and violent as he was, but is dressed as a Templar, which he wasn't. Nor did he kill, or even abduct, Saladin's sister. However, his execution by Saladin is a high point of the film: one of the few scenes taken faithfully from contemporary sources.
There are moments when the film takes wing into magnificence: Baldwin's meeting with Saladin in front of their armies, the True Cross flashing in the sun; Saladin praying over his slain soldiers. (I could have done with more in-period music accompanying these images, too.) But Balian's tedious Bildungsroman and anachronistic moralising drag it back to earth. If the real story is to be changed and fictionalised so heavily, why not change the names and set it in a fantasy universe? Why pretend to verisimilitude? I *might just* forgive Ridley Scott if he makes an *accurate* sequel that opens with a ship from Constantinople pulling into the beleaguered port of Tyre, and a dashing, 42-ish blond Italian coming ashore and taking command of the defences...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
****Spoilers only if you don't know 19C history.**** I saw this DVD
advertised online, and bought in the shops in France this summer. It
was worth the search. At over 5 and a half hours, it is of epic length,
but the intimacy of the drama and the exhilaration of its debates make
it an inspiring and involving experience. Simultaneously uplifting and
heart-breaking, it brings to life one of the greatest stories of 19C
which (thankfully) Hollywood has never touched: the 10 weeks of the
Paris Commune which ended in the 'Semaine Sanglante', in which
20-30,000 Parisians were slaughtered by Thiers' Versailles government.
Peter Watkins is one of British TV's 'originals', famous in the 1960s for his time-bending approach to historical subjects such as 'Culloden', with modern-day reporters interviewing the characters in the field. Controversy over 'The War Game' led to a permanent rift with the BBC and over 30 years working abroad. 'La Commune: Paris 1871' harks back to the dramatised-documentary style of 'Culloden', but is more sophisticated in form and more appealing in subject ('Culloden' was more about Vietnam than 18C Scotland). It engages with contemporary debates on global capitalism, the media, and social activism versus consumerist passivity. It's a true ensemble-piece: the actors, mostly non-professionals (including present-day 'misérables': the unemployed and asylum-seekers), combine scripted work with improvisation: the debates are real.
We are led into the story by our main narrators, who address us as themselves - Gérard Watkins and Aurèlia Petit - then in character as Communard reporters Gérard Bourlet and Blanche Capellier. Peter Watkins uses the deliberately anachronistic device of having TV stations from both sides - the Commune and Versailles - covering the events, with their reporters interviewing participants in the conflict. Helped by a journalist from the satirical magazine 'Père Duchêne', Joachim Rivière (Joachim Gatti), Blanche and Gérard guide us around the 11th Arrondissement. The Versailles station, National TV, relies on interviews with pundits (including Bonapartist historian François Foucart as himself), and an attempt at undercover reporting which endangers their hapless young journalist when the crowd rumbles his disguise and thinks he's a spy!
Most of the characters are not great names of history, but ordinary citizens of Rue Popincourt, pupils of a convent-school in Rue Oberkampf, artisans, National Guard, a pawnbroker, bourgeois, clergy, soldiers, and Algerians bearing news of colonial suppression in their homeland. Unlike many historical films, 'La Commune' emphasises women's aspirations *without* anachronism, given the real-life importance of the Women's Union, Louise Michel and Elizaveta Dmitr'eva, & c. We meet Françoise Boidard (Armelle Hounkanrin) and Marie-Louise Beauger (Véronique Couzon), two young teachers who want to give girls a proper education, not the needlework, prayers and passive obedience taught by the nuns. The seamstresses, washerwomen and gunsmiths want greater control over their working lives, so form co-operatives. At the town hall, the Women's Union struggles to secure a meeting-room: many of the male Communards still have a lot to learn about female emancipation! The local Women's Union organiser is a dynamic character, vividly realised. Of the actors in identified historical rôles, Catherine Humbert is excellent as Marguerite Lachaise, the 66th Battalion's jauntily uniformed cantinière, as are the men playing Augustin Verdure and the sculptor/subcommittee delegate Charles Capellaro (rather more dashing than his historical original!).
But we also see dangerous problems within the Commune: the tensions between centralisation and grass-roots democracy, authoritarianism and egalitarianism, Jacobinism and socialism. The spectre of the Committee of Public Safety is resurrected. Some Communards turn on the reporters for daring to be critical; press censorship is re-introduced, despite protests. As in Spain in the 1930s, a noble cause, under external threat, stumbles over internal disputes. The government's massacres are answered by the Commune's execution of hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris. But the Versailles response is hideously disproportionate: 'total expiation', including killing the wounded in hospital. As the army slaughters its way through the city, the government of the Commune retreats to the Mairie of the 11th Arrondissement. The people we know are now on the front line, from Françoise and Marie-Louise's little schoolgirls to the aged Jules Thibaudier. Thanks to the long running-time, and lengthy on-screen discussions, we have learned to care for them through sharing their struggles for empowerment. To see them risking death on the barricades or by firing squad is heart-breaking.
Aesthetically, the film succeeds by understatement. The warehouse-bound set conjures a claustrophobic atmosphere of narrow streets, of siege and barricade. The stark black and white photography is reminiscent of 19C photographs: freeze-frame some of the characters, and you could be looking at cartes-de-visite of the era. Although groups of characters sing to raise morale or celebrate: 'La Marseillaise', 'La Carmagnole', 'Le Chant des Ouvriers', and a ferocious war-chant of 'Ça ira', there is no constant musical soundtrack to manipulate the emotions à la Hollywood. The simple staging and shooting, the use of monochrome and the lack of gruesome special effects are the antithesis of modern blockbusters, yet the climax of 'La Commune' - true and tragic - is a more powerful and moving piece of epic heroism than the Battle of Helm's Deep in 'The Two Towers' (I say this as a fan of Jackson's Tolkien trilogy). I also recommend this film to admirers of Hugo's unabridged novel 'Les Misérables': the next generation's story?
Stepping out of character, the actors relate the issues of the Commune to contemporary society: "Fight with us for Utopias: there are still some left to defend!" "...Today it's up to each person to be his/her own barricade!" When Jean-Baptiste Clément's 'Le Temps des Cerises' begins over the credits, I found myself singing along, despite lump-in-the-throat. In this cynical age, the vibrant optimism and courage of 1871 are vital: it's heartening to know that many of the participants have formed 'Le Rebond pour la Commune', to aid in the film's distribution and to carry forward its vision.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This evocative and revealing play has haunted me for nearly 27 years.
Seeing it again, at long last, it is every bit as lovely and lyrical as
Harry (Anthony Bate) is a writer who is suffering from depression, migraines, and writer's block. He lives in what appears to be Alan Garner's own house, the timber-framed Toad Hall (T'owd Hall - "The Old Hall"), near the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in Cheshire. The spectre of a beautiful woman, dressed in blue in mediæval style, appears. Her voice dictates to him a new poem mysterious and mystical, with Arthurian echoes. However, when he reads it to David, his secretary/agent, it is nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness bawdry not at all what he believed he had written. He goes for a walk to clear his head, reciting repeatedly verses from the traditional ballad, 'Child Waters'. He finds an ancient stone head in a pool (interestingly, his sister later refers to his migraines as "his heads".) The lady appears again, this time in green, and he hears a voice singing 'Child Waters'. Clare, his sister, arrives unexpectedly. Harry realises he is being stifled by her and David alike. The typewriter begins to type by itself, asking for 'HELP'. Alone, after an emotional outburst, Harry tidies his appearance and returns to work, now able to write down the poem that the lady had dictated. She reappears, dressed in red, seated by his fireside.
Harry clearly contains elements of Garner himself: the author has a bipolar condition, and has been quoted on a Radio 4 website as saying that "he finds his creativity in the house (Toad Hall), tapping into an energy that he is only now beginning to understand". Is the mysterious woman a ghost, a Jungian anima figure Harry/Garner's personal poetic muse (perhaps embodying the house's energy?) or a pre-Christian goddess, such as have figured in some of Garner's earlier novels? Garner has also said: "A work of art is a product of the unconscious mind". It seems to me, then, that rather than being a supernatural 'ghost story' 'To Kill a King' is a depiction of the creative process, as Harry's anima/muse helps him break out of the depression that has halted his writing. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and conveys much that I recognise about writing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Le Pacte des Loups' takes the Beast of the Gévaudan (to which over 100
deaths were attributed 1764-67) as the starting-point for a thrilling
action-adventure fantasy. 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' meets a
'Crouching Tiger' for a 'Dangerous Liaison' with 'The Last of the
Mohicans' in 'Sleepy Hollow'. Result: an exciting, beautifully
photographed and well-acted film.
The film opens during the French Revolution: a middle-aged gentleman writes his memoirs, while a hostile mob, singing "Ça ira", gathers outside his home. Only towards the end will we know for certain which of our protagonists he is.
25 years previously, a mysterious Beast terrorises the Gévaudan. Strangers avoid the region - except for the Chevalier Grégoire de Fronsac and his Iroquois friend Mani. After rescuing peasant animal-healer Jean Chastel and his beautiful, mute daughter (ironically nicknamed 'The Gossip') from some men in drag, Grégoire and Mani stay with the Marquis d'Apcher and his grandson Thomas.
Grégoire, a naturalist from the King's Gardens, has been sent to return the Beast (preferably stuffed) to the royal collection. He is a religious sceptic and libertine, representing rationality and Enlightenment values. Mani, a medicine-man and warrior who became his blood-brother during the Seven Years' War, is attuned to the natural world: his totem animal is the wolf. Together, these embodiments of Reason and Rousseauesque proto-Romanticism make a formidable team.
Grégoire's Parisian scepticism ruffles the reactionary local clergy and nobles, including Father Henri Sardis, and the pious Geneviève, Comtesse de Morangias. Her husband the Comte warns that a Papal spy is also investigating the case. Their son, Jean-François, seems at first a potential ally. An ex-naval officer, maimed by a lion in Africa, he is courageous and witty - but has secret torments.... Why does he resent the developing attraction between his sister Marianne and Grégoire? Who is the Italian courtesan, Sylvia, who ensnares Grégoire at the brothel in Mende? Whom can Grégoire and Mani trust? While a book by the mysterious 'The Wolves of God' attacks the King and calls the Beast's predations a divine judgement on the nation, the killings continue.
Cue thrilling hunts, battles with Gypsies, treachery, murder, poisoning, madness, incest, clerical conspiracies, heresy, and trick-weaponry any 18C James Bond would covet. There is a spectacularly acrobatic climactic sword-fight in a ruined church, a happy ending for two characters, while our narrator, at last identified, 25 years later goes bravely to his doom.
The film is lavishly produced and filmed, and splendidly acted. Some have thought Samuel Le Bihan insufficiently glamorous as Grégoire: but glamour is not a trait I expect in an 18C natural historian, and I found him likable and credible. The problem is, the other two leading men are so striking and charismatic that he is overshadowed. This is no criticism of him as an actor: simply that his character is inherently less showy.
Mark Dacascos' wolf-shaman warrior Mani is engaging: serenely beautiful, thoughtful, yet dynamic in action. He is a man of few, but telling words, and powerful presence: he expresses so much with his eyes that one believes his ability to communicate with trees, birds and wolves. Emilie Dequenne (Marianne) grows in courage and maturity as the film progresses. Jérémie Renier (Thomas) is an appealing ingénu.
But real-life couple Vincent Cassel (Jean-François) and Monica Bellucci (Sylvia) steal the show. Both their characters rely, literally and metaphorically, on masks to conceal loyalties, emotions, and - in Jean-François' case - insanity: both actors convey these complexities with panache. Cassel combines extraordinary emotional range with terrific swashbuckling, and ultimately attains 'tragic villain' stature. (Having been a lion's chew-toy would, I suspect, be enough to derange most people.) He also looks strikingly handsome in 18C costume. Bellucci is superb as Sylvia the courtesan/spy - like a beautiful but deadly snake. She's glamorous, intelligent, powerful, dangerous; sexy, but no mere sex-object: one of the best heroines of any film I saw in 2001.
The most familiar face in the supporting cast is Edith Scob ('Eyes Without a Face') as Comtesse Geneviève: a mother you would *not* want making your cocoa. Jean Yanne plays her long-suffering, amiable husband. Virginie Darmon, as Chastel's mute, epileptic daughter, is a haunting, feral presence. Possibly more could have been made of her implied attraction to Mani, a fellow outsider.
The mystery of the Beast's identity is preserved by its disguise - more effective than revealing it to be "only a wolf/lion/hyena/white rabbit", & c. The Jim Henson Workshop brings it to life as a tormented creature for which, at the end, we have some pity. The live animal cast must also be mentioned with some credit: Mani's spirit-wolf is beautiful!
As with 'Sleepy Hollow', 'Pacte's genre-bending, fantastic approach immunises it against those criticisms regarding accuracy and anachronism which 'realistic' historical dramas court. But it was good to hear Occitan spoken by a child survivor in hospital, and I enjoyed the scene in the ruined church which placed the story in a longer continuum of heresy and religious violence. As Mani senses, and Marianne explains, the church had been the site of a massacre of Cathars in 13C by the Knights Templar (in turn judicially murdered on heresy charges a century later). The ruin then becomes the site of the meetings of the 'Wolves of God' and of the dramatic climax. Some viewer criticisms of Grégoire's visits to Sylvia while he is courting Marianne show ignorance of 18C social mores: since unmarried girls of good family were meant to be chaste before marriage, their lovers would turn to professionals for sex.
My main quibble is one of the final twists, when the script backs away from a romantic tragedy which would have strengthened the already poignant ending. I wonder whether a preview audience is to blame? Even so, 'Pacte' should have garnered the international plaudits and awards heaped instead on 'Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain' - who surely would have been Beast-food in the 1760s Gévaudan!
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