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Fever Pitch (1997)
Funny Film about Obsession
Most of us either know an obsessive or are one ourselves. This film is about a man whose obsession with a football team has brought him years of comfort but also stunted his emotional development. Cocooned in his "family" of Arsenal fans, Paul Ashworth is clueless in real relationships.
Colin Firth, most often known to fans as restrained and aristocratic Mr. Darcy, v. 1 or v. 2, is here rumpled and unshaven and wild-haired throughout. His voice as Paul is also quite different. I'm no expert on English accents, but he swallows his consonants and broadens some of his vowels. And instead of Firth's patented watchful smoulder, here when Paul is talking about his beloved football team -- confiding unnecessarily that he would "pay extra!" to live next door to the stadium -- his face is entirely unguarded, open, and vulnerable. Paul is a man-child. One can only agree when the love interest refers to him as "a 12-year-old."
The movie has many delights: the great shaggy performance by Firth; the excellence of the writing; the truthfulness of the human observations (which pertain to many subjects beyond football); the comedy. However certain parts of the movie were frustrating for me, an American viewer. One: it's pitched to an English audience, of course, so the dialogue is very rapid and full of English slang. Without the consonants and crisp diction, and with a music soundtrack, the words can be very hard to follow. (I must have replayed "It's NOT the smoking, Steve. It's the crapness," half a dozen times before I could make it out.) I wanted to shake the director as I felt with only a very little tinkering, which would not have harmed the specific Englishness of the story, he could have created a world-wide hit. In my opinion it wasn't -- as has been written -- the background of football that kept this from happening; folks enter into entire fantasy worlds a la J.R.R. Tolkein without batting an eyelid. It was the blurry, difficult-to-follow audio! Viewers need to be able to understand what's being said! (Non-Brits may profit by turning on subtitles.) Two: a lot of the cinematography looked cheap and poorly lit. Three: I would have added a bit more to flesh out the romance, as this one, as written, though fun, was uneven and appears doomed.
Here is an audio clip from a Colin Firth fan site which illustrates the charms and frustrations of this film:
(a) Different and interesting Colin Firth accent. (b) Terrific portrayal of obsession. (c) Wonderfully written lines that I had to strain to catch. (d) Great music that unfortunately made it even harder to do (c).
However, the film is well worth the small struggle (if you're not English) to decipher. Enjoy!
Another Country (1984)
Ambition vs. Principles -- which would you choose?
Forget the premise that homosexuality was the reason Burgess became a spy... a dubious conclusion. This movie is about ambition and how far one is willing to sacrifice one's principles to achieve it. The premise is explicitly stated in the opening frames with the voice-over from the aged Guy Bennett (fictionalized Burgess): "You've no idea what life in England in the 1930s was like. Treason and loyalty... they're all relative, you know. Treason to what? Loyalty to whom? That's what matters."
It is the 1930s in a famous public school in England. Rupert Everett is the star turn as homosexual Guy Bennett, who longs to become a "God" (head boy) as a senior; Colin Firth plays the supporting role of his best friend Tommy Judd, a devout Communist. It was the first film for each actor and they're both terrific right out of the box.
While Guy (RE) is self-consciously theatrical (he refers grandly to a "tumescent archway") the dialogue between the two roommates is simple and real. In one scene Guy puts a quick move on Tommy (CF). He comes up behind Tommy, puts one hand over his eyes to pull his head back and with the other rapidly starts unbuttoning Tommy's pajama shirt.
G: Alone at last! T: (bored/amused) Get OFF. G: I'll get you one day. T: No you won't. G: Yes I will. Everyone gives in, in the end. It's Bennett's Law. T: I won't give in. G: Well, you're not normal. (later) G: The reason everyone gives in in the end is they get lonely, doing it on their own. They long for company. T: Well, I don't. Not your sort, anyway. G: (insisting) That's why my mother is marrying this awful Colonel person. T: It couldn't just possibly be that she loves him? G: Out of the question. He's got one of those awful little mustaches. Ghastly. Almost as much of a loather as my father was. T: (amused) You mean even you would draw the line? G: Don't be revolting. He's a grownup. T: Of course. And it's all just a passing phase. G: Exactly. Just like you being a Communist. T: (sarcastic) Ha ha. G: (pause) Judd-- T: Hmm? G: You and your usherette -- T: What about her? G: Is it really so different? T: From what? G: BOYS. T: Well how would I know? I've only ever had a girl.
The whole scene takes place as the boys are changing the linens on their bunks, going down to the laundry room, folding sheets, getting new ones. It's a great, understated scene. Tommy Judd is calmly not threatened by Guy's flamboyance and homosexuality. What resonates throughout the movie is the feeling of genuineness and honesty between these two in a cavernous school where everything is about power, leverage, and bullying.
The struggles in the movie concern ambition vs. principles. Guy is determined to be a God. Will Tommy sacrifice his principles for his friend's ambition? Will he sacrifice them simply for his friend? Meanwhile will Guy sacrifice his boyfriend for his own ambition?
T: I can't do it. I just cannot be a prefect. G: Why not? T: I do have my reputation, you know. G: (snorts) Your what? T: I'm a school joke, I quite realize that. But I am, don't you think, a respected joke? I do at least stick to my principles. People appreciate that. I abandon them now --
and he winds himself up into a passionate speech about how people will think he's a fake, Communists are fake, and Stalin's a fake! He's almost in tears -- and then the head boy comes and he has to dive under a table (he and Guy are out of bed after hours)!
Finally: G: (speaking of the head boy): My God, that man is really cracking up. T: Liberals always do under pressure. G: You know, you're a really hard man, Tommy. T: I've no time for him. He just wants a nice easy life and a nice easy conscience. And he's got no right to either.
There are a lot more great exchanges. G: (sarcastically, about Communism) Heaven on Earth? T: (calmly) Earth on earth. A just earth.
The friendship between Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd seems far more touching and real -- far more the heart of the movie -- than the sketched-in affair between Guy and James Harcourt, the character played by Cary Elwes.
The whole production is filled with dewy, beautiful boys, starting with Everett, who at 24 is painfully gorgeous with his big eyes and ripe, petulant mouth. Firth at 23 has the sweetness of youth but otherwise is allowed to appear rather skinny and plain. (No eyebrows, hair standing on end, and 1930s round spectacles.) But his eyes glow with intensity and commitment. You totally believe his passion. Very tough to believe it was his first time in front of a camera.
The movie itself is far from perfect. Some might think it slow and rather precious. But the messages about ambition and loyalty are timeless, and the Everett/Firth scenes are wonderful.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
a visual feast and an intense romance
This is a movie that requires some intellectual commitment. There is very little dialogue. The production is luminously photographed, and builds to great emotional intensity -- but it's not for people looking for easy entertainment. There are no plot devices. The pace is slow and watchful (as befits a study of a painter). And no one ends up happily ever after.
Griet is a serving girl who comes to work in the Vermeer household. Gradually she and and the artist realize that they share a similar vision, a similar way of seeing the world. This bond draws them powerfully together even as issues of social class, age, power, his marriage, the family's constant need for money, and his devotion to his art push them apart.
Scarlett Johansson has mentioned in an interview that she got so deeply involved in the role of Griet that she felt herself falling for Colin Firth as Vermeer; watching him play a scene caressing the "wife" made her feel so pained with jealousy that she began to hyperventilate and after the call to cut, when others broke for lunch, she had to lie down in her trailer and cry to recover. You definitely feel that passionate, obsessive, electric tension in the film.
The subtext of the film is the ruthlessness of the artist. Vermeer uses Griet. His consuming ambition is his art, and he is willing to sacrifice the people in his life to that ambition. Though I didn't like Vermeer, I recognized the truthfulness of the portrayal. And I loved this movie. Both lead performances are breathtaking -- Firth and Johansson each at the top of their game -- a pleasure to watch. Though there is a quarter century age difference between the two actors they share the gift of stillness. The camera loves them and creates worlds of thought behind their eyes.
Watch and enjoy.