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Women in Love (2011)
Excellent. And South African actors shine
How proud am I, how thrilled and moved and excited.
In 1969 Ken Russell - whose works ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous - gave the world his somewhat flawed, but unmistakable masterpiece WOMEN IN LOVE based on the D H Lawrence novel. (The latter remains one of my favourite authors.) The one and only Alan Bates together with Glenda Jackson, Jenny Linden, Oliver Reed, Eleonor Bron and many others brought the characters to unforgettable celluloid life.
Now, forty two years on BBC4 has produced a two part series of the same novel, mixed with themes and scenes from its prequel THE RAINBOW. Although it might be said that it would be hard to equal the Russell version, William Ivory delivers a sterling script and Miranda Bowen's direction never falters. It is, in short, as good as the original and it steers clear of ever mimicking or mocking it. Russell's work viewed the sisters Gudrun and Ursula from a male perspective. Lawrence had enough feminine wiles and qualities to truly understand his female characters and in Bowen's version this is obvious. Unlike Glenda Jackson's powerhouse and almost butch Gudrun, Rosamund Pike delivers a cunning vixen, a very feminine near nymphomaniac artist and Rachael Stirling is a stronger, more present, less demure Ursula than Jenny Linden.
The film's sequences differ from Russell's work and where essential scenes have to be repeated, they offer an entirely different insight into both character and situation. For instance here the famous nude wrestling scene between Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich features much later, is less erotic, not in front of a winter fire but on the beach in bright sunshine and therefore is more plausible and motivated. By now the two friends have strained their relationship to such an extent that they have to confront each other. Incidentally,this version doesn't shy away from Rupert's suppressed gay tendencies. There is no sign of the chilling Alpine snow scenes where the two couples 'split'. Here we have the scorching South African desert with heat so visible it has to affect and effect the characters. And gone is the final discussion between Rupert and Ursula where he declares: "Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love," With her reply:"I don't believe it. It's an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity." This has already been portrayed and would be superfluous. The film's end is almost abrupt and unexpected and has great impact.
According to sources the BBC Four production was shot entirely on location in South Africa. If so, the art director, set designers and dressers etc should be doubly congratulated for depicting the English Midlands during the early 1920s.
The reason for my pride and excitement, however, is how the local (South African) actors not only hold their own, but well-nigh outshine their British colleagues in some scenes (more about this later). I can't mention them all, but Tamia Visagie (Winifred), James Alexander (Roddice), Natasha Loring (German girl) and Michelle Maxwell (her aunt) all deliver gems. The stalwart and immensely versatile Jeremy Crutchley turns Gudrun's mentor/lover Robert (entirely overlooked by Larry Kramer & Ken Russell) into both desirable and detestable flesh. Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots creates a Samantha who is far more than the sum-total of her beautiful face and exquisite boobs; she is not merely whore but the full-blooded woman in body and mind both Brangwen sisters ache to be. As the somewhat ambiguous and mysterious Wolfgang Loerke (portrayed by Vladek Sheybal in 1969 as a vicious, scheming queer) Grant Swanby once again shows why he is one of my favourite actors. His Loerke is less obvious, less blatant - a subtle seduction of Gudrun's senses and sensibilities. And then there is Susan Danford who in 90 seconds looks like a young Geraldine Chaplin (if not for her voice I wouldn't have recognised her) but demolishes Gudrun as Robert's wife surrounded by their four or five children. She does what Jack Nicholson did to Robert de Niro in The Last Tycoon: in one short scene she totally overshadows Rosamund Pike. It's not scene stealing. It is inevitable and essential. And leaves an indelible memory.
All these actors are of course thoroughbreds on stage. When oh when oh when are we coming up with a local script and a director to do cinematic justice to so much acting talent? And there are many more out there (or should I say out here?) We have a wealth of good, great and brilliant actors. And an abundance of stories. .
Voices need no words
I saw this in 1979 and still remember some scenes vividly. Viveka Lindfors. What a 'fors' to be reckoned with! Alex Rocco superb. Michael Ontkean never better. And then Amy Irving. What an underrated underused actress. Such versatility and nuance. Loved her in Yentl. Adored her in this. Her dance sequences are unforgettable. Words are superfluous about a movie where one voice is the monotone of a deaf person, yet filled with so much light and shade and transition it leaves an indelible memory. Moreover, the subtle use of music adds to a general feel of compassion and insight. Both scriptwriter and director, as well as the photographer and composer deserve accolades. Nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, simply damn good storytelling with great and touching performances.
Notre-Dame de Paris (1996)
André Flédérick's direction of Notre-Dame de Paris does the choreography by evergreen Roland Petit every bit of justice. This is an exquisite work relying heavily on classical ballet but shading it with so much contemporary moves that it sparkles and shines and finally moves the viewer to tears. Based on Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, it retells the story of Quasimodo and Esméralda in graphic scenes. It has a character and an overall look which is quite unique.
The opening in front of the famous Notre-Dame is perhaps the most colourful I've ever seen in ballet (or any other form of stage work for that matter.) Costume's were designed by none other than Yves Saint Laurent and what starts off with virtually all the colours of the rainbow, moves through the ballet to threatening shades of red and onto sombre, mournful black attire.
Quasimodo, danced to perfection by Nicolas Le Riche, suddenly appears amongst the frolicking dancers in a beige outfit reminiscent of sandstone. Here is a Quasimodo with no prosthesis to represent a hunch. By only squaring his right arm and spreading his fingers he completes the picture and is utterly believable. Quite a dish of a man, his facial expressions assist him in portraying a misshapen, hapless and misunderstood being. This is his story and although Esméralda gets top billing, his applause at the end is by far the most deafening and rightfully so. He portrays pain and joy with equal dexterity in pirouette and jeté, twists and turns and large soulful eyes. His frustration combined with anger about the deformity is heart-rending.
As Esméralda Isabelle Guérin also fully rises to the occasion. She is sensuous, sexy yet sensitive. The back leg extension is something to behold. I have never seen a ballerina slide en pointe and she does it twice with breathtaking accuracy. The way she reveals various facets of Esméralda's character in partnering Laurent Hilaire (as the lecherous, treacherous priest Frollo) or Manuel Legris (as her lover Phoebus) is a lesson to many an actress. Wonderful! Both Hilaire (with superb elevation) and Legris are excellent although the latter might lack the physical stature to be fully convincing as the idealised romantic hero. Their dancing, however, is of the quality one expects from the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris. (Note the exceptional choreography for Phoebus in making love...) This also applies to the corps de ballet. Even the wildest abandon is portrayed with precision and discipline.
David Garforth conducts the orchestra with a deft hand. Not many conductors understand the art of supporting dancers rather than becoming the main feature. He does both score and dance justice.
The score was written especially for the work by Maurice Jarre (yes him of the soundtracks of Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and countless others and father of Jean-Michel) with not a chord sounding like his film music. The main pas de deux for Quasimodo and Esméralda is tender and sweeping and the choreography and execution unforgettable.
Throughout the novel Victor Hugo mentions the architecture of the Notre-Dame and René Allio's decor needs a special mention. Attention was paid to minute detail and authenticity throughout. Scenes range from the exterior to the bell-tower (Quasimodo trying to stop the bell from ringing is utterly shattering).
This production is available on DVD in high definition and widescreen and belongs on every ballet/dance fan's shelf. BRAVO!
By no means miserly music
Young, and very dashing, conductor Vladimir Jurowski concludes his interview in the DVD's bonus material with: "But it's not an opera." He is right. If one is a stickler for recipes, Rachmaninoff's The Miserly Knight will be a disappointment. Even a disaster. There is no chorus. There is no female singer only five male characters. There are no memorable tunes. And thank goodness no recitatives either. The viewer/listener has to wrestle a one hour body of masculine and muscular music. The only moments you are allowed any relief are in the brief breaks between scenes. The ArtHaus DVD, by the way, is of the highest quality with genuine surround sound and high definition visuals.
Director Annabel Arden - who staged this relatively unknown work at the Glyndebourne Festival together with Puccini's Gianni Schicci in a programme called 'Avarice and Greed' - presents an equally brawny portrayal of miserliness causing misery. She even fills the orchestral interludes with strong visual material. An aerialist (depicting feminine wiles) and film images are used to flesh out the story.
Sergei Leiferkus, as the baron hoarding his fortunes, is unbelievable. Being a baritone, he has to tackle this part which is too low for a baritone and too high for a bass with every fibre in his being. He has an uninterrupted solo of twenty five minutes and he sustains this in what appears to be an effortless way. Tour de force is such a cliché but what other expression suffices? Perhaps he is the only singer in the world who can take on the role at the moment. One is left breathless by his performance AND on his behalf.
Richard Berkeley-Steele, with a shock of red hair, as Albert his hapless son is equally convincing and so are the sly servant, the glib money-lender and the smug but shrewd duke. And the aerialist lends exactly the right touches of surrealism and symbolism to the production. It is difficult to define the period in which it's set, but the work was composed in 1903-05 and premiered in 1906 so the money-lender's watch is conspicuously modern. The costumes and set(s) however are spot on.
Don't expect the Rachmaninoff of the Second Piano Concerto. Or any of his other compositions. He did not treat the original Pushkin text as holier than holy (like most Russian composers did).To him music and lyrics were of equal importance. In fact sometimes the music outweighs the lyrics. Which makes the work quite unique and brings about a full emotional experience. Add to this the visual elements of the production, the quality of voice and acting plus Jurowksi and the orchestra's excellence and it is exceptional. Bravo! And bravo for staging the work. "But it is not an opera..."
La guerre et la paix (2000)
Peace versus war in musical masterpiece
Sergei Prokofiev's opera version of Leo Tolstoy's sweeping novel (which originally appeared in serialised form in a newspaper)lends exactly the right balance of lyricism, drama and tragedy to the subject. Here are no separate arias a la Italian Opera, linked with endless recitatives. The music is a continuous line of instrument and voice changing with every scene and its context. The production gives the music and libretto its full due. It's lavish in its simplicity and vice versa. From the opening scene with Natasha and her cousin in the bedroom and the count eavesdropping outside, to opulent ball room dances and grim personal confrontations, it runs like a river in flood to the inevitability of war. Sung in the original Russian, with a number of Russian singers in the lead roles, it unfolds like the novel in chapters that are page turners. Obviously the entire novel cannot be reproduced, but score, libretto and production do it full justice. The singing is of the highest standard with Nathan Gunn and Olga Gouriakova as the star-crossed lovers excelling vocally and in acting. Vasilli Gerello as Napoleon shines, but then so do Robert Brubaker, Anatoli Koucherga and the rest of the cast. Not to forget the chorus and dancers. Hats off as well to conductor and chorus master Staging the opera is problematic as there are quite a number of soloists involved and to make the war scenes realistic virtually hundreds of chorus members are required. The set designs assist Stage Director Francesca Zambello in creating a panorama of death and destruction. So do the costumes and lighting. This is highly recommended for lovers of serious music and those who prefer Deutsche Oper (with the exception of that Night Music composer) and Russian Opera to the frills and shrills of the Italian oeuvre.
Act of God (2009)
Wish there were more
A good little film, with good acting and lots of suspense, but unfortunately it ends rather abruptly and almost unresolved. Not that issues in life itself are always resolved, but here it seems as if the writer was unsure of what to do with his characters. Had it been the female inspector's moral dilemma, the film as it stands might be the reality that she has to live with, but it's the ex-cop and the heart-surgeon who's stories are really important. Perhaps the POV should shift in which case it will be more satisfactory. Nevertheless, it's not a wasted hour or so with David Suchet proving he can be hard as nails and not only the charming Hercule Poirot. Jenny Agutter suits her character to a T and both Adrian Dunbar and Nadia-Cameron Blakely are very convincing. Max Brown is the surprise package. And the stately home is to die for...
One of a (rare ) kind
Why no-one has as yet commented on this production - which has been available on video for quite some time and is now on DVD - is beyond me. Liza Minnelli is one of a rare kind and whereas the restored "Liza with a Z" has earned accolades and raves, her (several years later) performance at RCMH deserves exactly the same. She falls into that category of belt singers which is hard to define or describe. Belonging to the same club would be Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey, Bette Midler and of course Liza's mother, the mother of them all, Judy Garland. Perhaps one can add Edith Piaf whose renditions of some of her chansons are quite torchy or belting. And always pitch perfect. All of these ladies are not afraid of singing ugly when a song and its contents beg for it. And then the next moment producing the sweetest, purest sounds...
At RCMH Liza is a breathtaking bundle of energy, delivering song after song after song and dance after dance in a non-stop ever varying fashion. Here she doesn't use the sexy male troupe as back-up singers and dancers, but to reveal more would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that Ms Minnelli is not threatened by 'competition' or other voices.
The show contains a great tribute to her father Vincente with superb photographic material. Intimate moments are achieved with a Charles Aznavour song amongst others which leaves one in tears.
The second act then builds to a heart-stopping climax with a tap sequence based on the "Stepping Out" production which starred Liza with Julie Harris and Shelly Winters. And then we move to the standard, yet freshly delivered, Cabaret and a finale to top all finales. Whereas Streisand in my eyes (or ears for that matter) is the god(dess) chanteuse, Minnelli is the indisputable queen of ballad/belt song and dance. Female singers coming after them can only aspire to these ladies' greatness. As Harold Robbins says in his comment on "My name is Barbra": 'sorry Celine, only in your dreams!' Another DVD is available featuring the concert of Charles Aznavour and Liza Minnelli in Paris. Quite a gem. And here she sings some of her well-known songs, including Liza with a Z in French!! However, I don't find any mention of it on IMDb. Nevertheless, if you find it difficult to obtain, buy yourself the Liza Minnelli Live from RCMH. It can hardly be improved on. Brava, Liza, brava! The voice is perfect, the renditions flawless, the dancing immaculate - watch the tribute to Bob Fosse and weep or jump for joy - and the orchestra great. They even join in the singing, but again, I won't spoil your fun. Discover this for yourself immediately.
La damnation de Faust (1999)
Magnificent Hell.... and Heaven
Von Goethe's famous story of Faust has been retold in several versions. Hector Berlioz's dramatic musical version - which he insisted is NOT an opera - is vividly brought to life here. This production was staged at the Salzburg Festival in 1998 and conductor, designers, director and cast all deserve only the highest accolades. Puritans (as in the case of Dvorak's Rusalka starring Reneé Fleming) might object to the 'modernity' of the staging. However, it is sheer brilliance and underlines the context, subtext and substance of the libretto and score in every aspect. Never has hell looked so magnificent and enticing, yet repulsive. And heaven, added like an unwanted coda, brings tears to the eyes. Vesselina Kasarova as Margarethe (although her acting borders on hamming) conveys all the nuance of the character both in voice and gesture. She is truly great. So is Paul Groves as Faust. The scene where he gets intoxicated on everything Méphistophélès (a stupendous Willard White) promises, as symbolised by Faust smoking an opium pipe, is unforgettable. Many a Hollwood actor would (SHOULD!) envy him the dreamlike, sleepy look in the eyes - proof that honesty is always reflected in the mirrors of the soul. To give away anything about the decor, costumes and direction would be to spoil any viewer's joy of discovery. The chorus, including a boys' choir, does not display the usual amateurish acting of opera choruses. Here they are a coherent whole in a stylised, stylish portrayal of mankind in general. Some of the scenes (let alone the singing and the superb accompaniment by the orchestra as well as the orchestral interludes) simply take one's breath away. This is available on DVD (ArtHauS label) and should be included in any serious music and art film lover's collection. Berlioz wrote some of the world's greatest music for this Faust.
Glorious voices and brilliant settings
This production by the Paris National Opera is not only for opera buffs. Sung in the original Czech and starring the inimitable American soprano Renee Fleming, it is a feast for the eye and the ear. The production is 'surprisingly' modern with an opening set consisting of a six inch deep pool with real water surrounded by tall walls. This is eerily lit and suggest the depths of the lake the sprites are finding themselves in. Rusalka has fallen in love with a human being and she desires to be turned into a human as well. This could only spell disaster for the water nymph, as the Spirit of the Water warns her, but she summons the witch Jezibaba nevertheless and her wish is fulfilled.
The scene changes constantly with magic sets, all stark and simple yet terribly striking, enhancing the magic and tragic feel. Rusalka's Prince is wooing a Princess from another country....
Antonin Dvorak's music is glorious, Rusalka has the most astonishing arias - which Renee Fleming delivers in a spine-chillingly beautiful fashion - and the other voices, especially baritone Franz Hawlata as L'esprit Du Lac (unfortunately translated as Water Goblin) and Larissa Diadkova as Jezibaba are magnificent. One forgives the Prince for not being fairytale handsome - Ms Fleming being so attractive at that - because of his passion and his timbre. The direction is inventive, innovative and enchanting. The subtitles are easy to follow and anyone with a penchant for drama, mystery, music and love will be swept away by Rusalka's waves. A must see. 10/10
The Sea Gull (1968)
ART IS NOT APPRECIATED
Why is that art is not appreciated? This film was directed by the very same Sidney Lumet of DOG DAY AFTERNOON, TWELVE ANGRY MAN etc fame, and it gets a 5 from 38 IMDb voters!! Sidney Lumet captured the essence of Chekhov's Russia as no other English speaking director ever has. James Mason, Simone Signoret and David Warner are all superb in their parts, but Vanessa Redgrave as Nina crawls into the skin of the character and delivers (yet another one of her) absolutely brilliant portrayal(s) Her rendition of the play within a play - not particularly well received by her mother (Signoret was truly a diamond) is heartbreaking and the symbolism of the sea gull and Nina herself fuse into an eternal unit. Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave, despite so many accolades, is the most underrated British actress. Her versatility is astounding. [Compare her in this with her portrayal of Andromache in Cacoyannis' WOMEN OF TROY.] But the interplay between all the characters, the subtleties of their longings, passions and disappointments are supremely brought to life albeit on the silver screen by Mr Lumet. Any serious filmgoer/lover should see this beautiful, touching and thought-provoking film. Bravo!