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Match Point (2005)
Si Dieu n'existe pas, tout est permis
Top tennis players are not generally notable culture-vultures- Jim Courier was allegedly much teased by his fellow-professionals for his habit of reading literary fiction such as Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" in the locker room- so heaven knows what the men's tour would have made of Chris Wilton, the central figure of this film, with his love of Dostoyevsky, Modernist art and Grand Opera.
As the film opens, Chris, who hates the stress of touring and realises he will never be a Grand Slam champion, has retired from professional tennis and is working as a coach at an exclusive London tennis club. Drawn together by their shared love of opera, he befriends a young man named Tom Hewett, one of his pupils at the club. Tom introduces Chris to his wealthy family, and before long everything seems to be going his way. Chris ends up married to Tom's sister Chloe and is given a job as an executive in the family firm.
"Match Point" was written and directed by Woody Allen, but during the first half it bears little resemblance to what we have come to think of as a "Woody Allen film". It is set in London rather than New York, none of the characters are Jewish- Woody himself does not appear- and it contains little or no humour. For much of its length it resembles nothing so much as a melodramatic soap opera set among the moneyed classes, "Westenders" rather than "Eastenders". Despite his marriage, Chris cannot resist having an affair with Tom's ex-girlfriend Nola, a beautiful but struggling American actress. Nola, however, is not content with a mere affair. She wants Chris to divorce Chloe and marry her. He does not want to do any such thing but manages to string Nola along by making promises he has no intention of keeping. Matters come to a head when Nola reveals that she is pregnant and threatens to inform Chloe about the affair.
It is at this point that "Match Point" starts to resemble a Woody film, one Woody film in particular- "Crimes and Misdemeanors" from 1989, which also dealt with a successful professional man threatened by an inconvenient mistress. In this case Chris, who knows that a divorce would jeopardise his job and his social position, reaches the same conclusion as did Judah in the earlier film- his mistress must die. He comes up with an elaborate scheme to kill Nola and make it look as though she was killed by a burglar.
Like "Crimes and Misdemeanors" , "Match Point" can be seen as Woody's debate with the spirit of Dostoyevsky over the themes of his "Crime and Punishment", the novel which Chris is seen reading. Like Dostoyevsky's anti-hero Raskolnikov, both Chris and Judah are atheists and, whereas many people without religious beliefs nevertheless have strong moral principles, they take the view that "Si Dieu n'existe pas, tout est permis". They believe that, if necessity so dictates, any crime, up to and including murder, can be justified.
Self-plagiarism is not always a good idea unless one can equal (or, better still, improve upon) one's previous effort, and I am afraid that here Woody falls a long way short of equalling the success he had with "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (in my view one of his greatest films), still less of improving on it. This is only partly because Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris is not nearly as good as Martin Landau, who played Judah. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is a much more complex film in which the bleakness of the "Judah" plot is counterbalanced by a more positive viewpoint put forward by Sam Waterston's rabbi and by a lighter tragi-comic subplot involving Woody himself as one of his trademark neurotic worriers and which contains a good deal of humour. As he demonstrated in "September" (in my view one of his worst films), Woody does not always handle high seriousness unrelieved by humour very well.
"Match Point" is at least better than "September", for two reasons. The first is that some of the acting is good, especially from Scarlett Johansson as Nola, a tragic figure who genuinely loves Chris and cannot quite accept that he is only using her for sex. (She prefers to believe that he is emotionally torn between her and Chloe, but the truth is that Chris does not love either woman and is only using Chloe for her family's money). Johannsson was a late replacement for Kate Winslet who was originally cast in the role but dropped out.
The second reason is the film's ending. Chris has always believed in the importance of luck, comparing life to a tennis match in which a player can either win or lose a point depending on which side of the net the ball falls. The question of whether Chris will be found guilty of Nola's murder or escape scot-free depends upon a similar matter of chance- and there is a brilliant twist at the end, worthy of a great writer like O. Henry or Roald Dahl. The difference is that the twists produced by Henry and Dahl came as the climax to intriguing, economically-written short stories. Woody's twist comes as the climax to a meandering and at times rather dull long story. 6/10
Born to Kill (1947)
Only Man (and Woman) Is Vile
This is a film with three different titles; it was released in America as "Born to Kill", in the U.K. as "Lady of Deceit" and in Australia as "Deadlier than the Male", a misquotation from Kipling's "The Female of the Species". (Kipling actually wrote "more deadly than the male"). The British and Australian titles refer to the film's main female character Helen Brent, the American one probably to her partner-in-crime Sam Wilde who, pace Mr Kipling, is more deadly than the female. Helen may be callous and amoral, but it is Sam who is the really dangerous one. (Helen never actually kills anyone during the film; Sam kills several people).
The action begins in Reno, Nevada, where Helen, a San Francisco socialite, has gone to obtain a divorce. (We never see Helen's husband or learn why their marriage broke down; this detail seems to have been a moralistic touch pandering to those cinema-goers who would automatically assume that any divorcée was a "bad woman"). While in the city she meets, and is attracted to, the handsome Sam, who follows her back to San Francisco. Sam has a motive for leaving Reno, quite apart from Helen's good looks. He has just murdered his unfaithful girlfriend Laury and her lover, motivated less by jealous passion than by an insane obsession with saving face; he will not allow anyone to (as he puts it) "make a monkey" out of him.
In San Francisco Sam makes two discoveries. The first is that Helen is engaged to be married. (Indeed, it would appear that she became engaged even before her divorce was finalised). The second is that Helen has a step-sister, Georgia, who is not only equally attractive but also the really wealthy one of the family. Sam therefore starts paying court to Georgia and, after a whirlwind romance, marries her, but their marriage does not prevent him from pursuing an affair with Helen.
The film is sometimes described as "film noir" because of its lurid and violent plot, but only a few scenes are shot in the classic expressionist noir style. Much of the action takes place in Helen and Georgia's elegant mansion, making it, in visual terms at least, more of a high society melodrama. Noir tended to be a male-dominated genre with female actors in secondary roles ("Gilda" is perhaps something of an exception), but here Lawrence Tierney as Sam and Claire Trevor as Helen are roughly equal in prominence. The strong female character in a central role recalls "women's pictures" such as "Mildred Pierce", with the obvious difference that the heroine of a "women's picture" was generally someone admirable, or at least likable, and Helen is far from being either of those things.
The main problem with the film, in fact, is that none of the characters are particularly admirable or likable. Tierney and Trevor throw themselves into their roles with gusto, and there is a good cameo from Walter Slezak as a worldly, cynical private detective. (Neither his worldliness nor his cynicism prevents him from quoting from the Bible or from well-known hymns; his favourite quotation, taken from Reginald Heber's "From Greenland's Icy Mountains", is "Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile").
The more virtuous characters, on the other hand, are generally weak or inconspicuous. Helen's fiancé Fred tends to fade into the background (although at least he has the sense to call off their engagement when he realises just how heartless Helen is). Audrey Long's Georgia comes across as weak and naïve; if she couldn't spot the arrogant, overbearing Sam as a wrong'un from the start she must have been naïve indeed.
The film's other flaw is that characters often act in inexplicable ways. Although the story opens with a double murder, nobody seems to want to go to the police. (Indeed, the police do not make an appearance until the very end). Helen is the first to discover the bodies of Laury and her boyfriend, but for some reason doesn't think that a double killing is worth reporting to anyone. (Why?) Laury's landlady has her suspicions about Sam, but instead of reporting these suspicions to the police she decides to spend her own money in hiring a private detective to investigate. (Why?) Unanswered questions like these mean that the plot is full of holes.
Robert Wise was a versatile director, able to turn his hand to a number of different genres. He started his career, for example, with that fine supernatural fantasy "Curse of the Cat People", and among his later hits was "West Side Story", one of the greatest musicals ever made. On the basis, however, of this overheated, lurid melodrama and of some of his other efforts in the genre, such as "The House on Telegraph Hill", I suspect that crime dramas may not have been his forte. 5/10
Richard III (1955)
That slit-eyed, snaky, deformed embodiment of evil
"Richard III" was the third, and last, of the three Shakespearean films directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, after "Henry V" and "Hamlet". The story is too well known to be set out here; indeed, Shakespeare's version of history is probably more familiar than the story of the real King Richard. The prologue states that the film is based as much upon legend as upon historical fact, thereby acknowledging that Shakespeare used a good deal of artistic licence. In some ways, in fact, the film goes even further than Shakespeare in its rewriting of history, although normally for a good artistic reason. The film opens with a scene not found in the play, the coronation of King Edward IV who is accompanied by his wife, two sons and adult brother Richard. In fact, Edward's coronation took place in 1461, when he was unmarried, his sons as yet unborn and Richard still a child. This scene, however, enables Olivier to assemble all the main characters and introduce us to them.
The real Edward IV was a strong, vigorous man, standing around 6' 4" tall, who died suddenly at the age of forty. Here he is played by the diminutive, sixty-something Cedric Hardwicke, as a feeble old man. The purpose behind this piece of casting was to emphasise Richard's Machiavellian nature, secretly laying long-term plans to seize the throne in the inevitable event of his brother's demise. (In reality, Richard was probably as taken by surprise as anyone else by his brother's death, and his rise to power was a quick reaction to fast-moving events). Similarly, Edward's death and Richard's seizure of power took place in the spring and early summer of 1483, but here these events are shown as occurring during a bleak, snowy winter, to emphasise that the brief "glorious summer of this sun of York" is now over and that England faces a return to the "winter of our discontent".
Olivier does correct one of Shakespeare's inaccuracies by removing the character of Queen Margaret who, at the time of the events depicted, would either have been in exile, or dead. This, however, was probably an inadvertent by-product of Olivier's cutting the original text to produce something more suited to the cinema. On the stage "Richard III" can be a rather unwieldy play, with a full production lasting up to four hours; at just under three hours the film is already considerably longer than the average fifties feature film.
Unlike some more recent productions of the play, most notably Richard Loncraine's film from 1995 which updates the story to the 1930s and quite deliberately portrays Richard as a fascist-style dictator, Olivier does not attempt to draw parallels- at least not explicit ones- between Shakespeare's story and modern politics. (Of course, one could argue that those parallels are still there because Shakespeare understood the essential psychology underlying fascism and communism long before either ideology formally existed). Like Olivier's Henry V, the film is shot in vivid colour and attempts to reproduce the visual splendour of the Middle Ages with authentic period costumes. Most of it was shot on stylised Gothic sets in the studio, although the final scenes depicting the Battle of Bosworth Field were for some reason filmed on location in a region of Spain that looks nothing like Leicestershire.
Olivier's Richard is not just a pantomime villain; he is also a consummate hypocrite, able to be all things to all men as the occasion demands, so Olivier has to call upon the full range of his acting skills to play the parts of loyal brother, ardent lover and man of the people as well as ranting tyrant. Although Olivier plays him with a limp, Richard's disabilities are not as evident as in some productions, so his speeches lamenting his "misshapen body" seem more like self-pity than genuine complaints. Olivier dominates the play, but there are other good contributions, especially from John Gielgud as Clarence (a far more sympathetic figure than the treacherous drunkard of legend) and Claire Bloom in the thankless role of Lady Anne, Richard's wife, who should have every cause to hate him but who inexplicably marries him.
The film was not a great box-office success when first released in 1955, particularly in America where its prospects were harmed by the curious decision to broadcast it on American television on the day that it opened at the cinema. That relative failure ended Olivier's series of Shakespearean dramas; a film of "Macbeth" scheduled for 1957 had to be cancelled when Olivier was unable to secure the necessary funding. (That must be one of the great unmade films of cinema history!) Today, however, its reputation seems secure as a classic, at least as good as the Oscar-winning "Henry V" which was much-praised upon its release. Olivier's performance as Richard, portraying him as (in the words of the historian Professor Richard Harrison) that "slit-eyed, snaky, deformed embodiment of evil" has passed into legend; for many people it has become (to the disgust of the king's modern apologists, and he has many) the definitive image of King Richard III. 8/10
Some goofs. As stated above, a number of key scenes are switched from spring/summer to winter. I have no quarrel with this change, which was done for good artistic reasons, but Olivier should have cut that line about "strawberries" which in the fifteenth century would not have been available out of season. Some of the heraldic banners are incorrect; Lord Stanley, as King of Man, would indeed have been entitled to quarter the Manx arms with his own, but the Manx "three legs" symbol should appear on a red background, not a blue one as here. And Richard III never used the arms attributed to him of a white boar between four white roses on a red shield.
La Vénus à la fourrure (2013)
A provocative look at aspects of human sexuality
The Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's controversial erotic novel "Venus in Fur" has been filmed on a number of occasions, but by no means all those versions are faithful to the original. The last one I saw was Jesus Franco's from 1969, which is (at best) only very loosely based on the novel, keeping little except the title and the name of the heroine (Wanda). Roman Polanski's version, "La Vénus à la Fourrure", is not based directly upon Sacher-Masoch's book but upon a French translation of a play by the American playwright David Ives. It is set not in the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire but in contemporary Paris. Thomas Novachek, a theatrical director and author is putting on an adaptation, written by himself, of Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Fur" and auditioning actresses for the role of Wanda. One evening, just as Thomas is about to leave the theatre, an actress named Vanda Jourdain arrives and begs him to let her read for the part The film observes the classical unities of place, time and action; there is no attempt to "open the story up", as is often done with films based upon stage plays, or to bring in more characters. Thomas and Vanda are the only two people we see, although we do occasionally hear Thomas talking on the telephone to others. We learn that Thomas is married, but Madame Novachek never puts in an appearance. Our attention is therefore focused upon these two individuals and the way in which their relationship progresses. At first Vanda comes across as a rather uncultured and unpromising young woman, but as the reading progresses she begins to show a greater intelligence and insight than Thomas had originally thought her capable of. Thomas finds himself attracted to Vanda and their relationship gradually begins to mimic that of Wanda and Severin in the original novel.
The film is centred upon sexual politics and relations between the sexes, something highlighted by Thomas and Vanda's contrasting views of Sacher-Masoch and his novel. Thomas, whose own sexual tastes and preoccupations seem to be those of Severin and his creator, regards the book as a great classic of European and world literature. Vanda has read it, but dismisses it as a nasty piece of sado-masochistic pornography. In her view sado-masochism is all about acting out male fantasies and is therefore an expression of male power over women, even when the woman nominally plays the "dominant" and the man the "submissive" role.
Given that Emmanuelle Seigner, who plays Vanda, is actually married to the director, it is interesting that the film critic of the New York Times described Amalric's performance as Thomas as "very close to a Polanski impersonation". I can't really comment on that- I don't actually know Polanski personally- but there is certainly a strong contrast between the two characters. As played by Seigner, Vanda comes across as a volatile, energetic and aggressive personality, whereas Mathieu Amalric makes Thomas quieter and more passive. (Perhaps it is not surprising that he should identify with a character like Severin). Both actors are excellent- Amalric is much better here than the last time I saw him, when he was giving a feeble imitation of a Bond villain in "Quantum of Solace". Perhaps he finds it easier to act in his own language than in English.
The story unfolds in real time within the confines of the theatre, and this can make the film seem rather claustrophobic. I do not, however, necessarily regard this as a fault. Indeed, it seemed to me that Polanski was deliberately trying to evoke this sense of claustrophobia in order to focus our attention on the "battle of the sexes" being played out between Vanda and Thomas, without the distractions of changes of scene or the introduction of other characters. This is not a film which will appeal to everybody; those allergic to sexual references or bad language should give it a wide berth. (Those who wish to increase their knowledge of the earthier elements of French vocabulary will, however, probably be richly rewarded). In many ways, however, it is an absorbing drama which takes a provocative look at aspects of human sexuality. It is certainly a lot better than Franco's dreadful version which rarely, if ever, rises above the level of nonsense. 7/10
Tale of Four Underdogs
Horse racing is one of a number of sports which, although immensely popular, only rarely serve as the inspiration for feature memorable films; other examples include cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, track-and-field and even soccer. "Seabiscuit", telling the story of a famous American racehorse from the 1930s, is one of the few exceptions. (Another film about Seabiscuit, which I have never seen, was made in the late forties).
Although Seabiscuit had a distinguished pedigree, he was at first regarded as an unpromising prospect. He was unusually small for a thoroughbred and had a difficult temperament. His owner Charles Howard and trainer Tom Smith, however, saw his potential, and eventually he became the best horse on the West Coast. In the thirties, however, this was little more than the equestrian equivalent of being a big fish in a small pond, as most of the great racing stables were in the East. Determined to prove Seabiscuit's status, Howard desperately tried to arrange a race against War Admiral, undoubtedly the greatest racehorse on the East Coast at this period. The media seized upon the story and started promoting the proposed race as a David-versus-Goliath clash, with Seabiscuit as the underdog, a champion of the little man in the days of the Great Depression.
The film is, in fact, the tale of four underdogs, the others being Howard, Smith and jockey Red Pollard. On the face of it, Howard, a millionaire car dealer and one of the wealthiest men in San Francisco, seems an unlikely underdog. He was, however, a self-made man and rather looked down on by the big East Coast owners, who tended to be old-money aristocrats like War Admiral's owner Samuel Riddle. He also faced problems in his personal life such as a divorce and the death of his son in a car accident. Smith, a man with a deep love for and knowledge of horses, is a virtual down-and-out before Howard hires him to manage his racing stables. Pollard is the son of a once-affluent Canadian family ruined by the Depression; he uses his skill as a horseman to make a career as a jockey, but at first has little success. He also tries his luck at boxing, but enjoys even less success at that, being left blind in one eye after one fight.
The film's main fault is that it is too long at both ends. Seabiscuit himself does not actually make an appearance until about forty-five minutes into the film; the early scenes are taken up with a rather leisurely exposition of the back-stories of the three main human characters. By rights, the climax of the film should be the duel with War Admiral which established Seabiscuit's claim to be the greatest racehorse in America. There would, however, be a problem with making this the climactic scene. Pollard, who had been injured in an accident shortly beforehand, did not actually ride Seabiscuit in this race. (He was ridden by George Woolf, a highly successful jockey whom it would be difficult to portray as an underdog). Now some scriptwriters would have had no compunction about rewriting the record-books so as to consign both Woolf and Pollard's injury to the dustbin of history, but this is a film which is more respectful of historical fact than some I could mention, possibly because it is based on a non-fiction book. The film-makers therefore obviously felt compelled to insert a lengthy coda dealing with Pollard's battle to return to fitness and with his victory in Seabiscuit's final race, and this coda inevitably comes as something of an anti-climax.
On the plus side, this is a visually attractive film and the racing scenes are exciting and well-handled. There are no outstanding acting performances- the human characters are generally outshone by the horse- but also no particularly bad ones. Overall, "Seabiscuit" is an enjoyable, heart-warming feel-good movie. Had it been a bit shorter it might have got a higher mark. 6/10 A goof. Riddle is confident that his horse will beat Seabiscuit because of his "superior breeding". In reality, an experienced owner like Riddle would have known that Seabiscuit came from the same illustrious bloodline as War Admiral. In human terms they were uncle and nephew, War Admiral being the son and Seabiscuit the grandson of Man o' War, one of the greatest American horses of all time.
Into the Blue (2005)
Unacknowledged Remake of the Deep
You can just imagine the discussions among the studio executives.
"Let's make a film with Jessica Alba in a bikini!" "Great idea! What's the plot angle?" "Plot? With Jess in a bikini do we need a plot? Make her character a swimwear model or something!" "Naah, too obvious. What about pirates of the Caribbean, sunken treasure, that sort of thing? Make Jess a scuba diver. In a bikini, of course".
And so we end up with a sort of unacknowledged remake of "The Deep" from the seventies. Like the earlier film, it is about treasure hunters diving for sunken treasure and tangling with drug-dealing gangsters, and like that film it relies heavily upon the charms of its scantily-clad leading lady, Alba here and Jacqueline Bissett in "The Deep". (Indeed, "The Deep" itself can be seen as an unacknowledged remake of "Underwater" from the fifties, a film whose main attraction was the sight of a scantily-clad Jane Russell). "Into the Blue", however, does offer a bonus to its target young male audience; we have two couples, not just one, diving for the treasure, so we get to see two pretty girls in bikinis. (Ashley Scott is the other).
There is a problem with remakes, acknowledged or unacknowledged. Or rather, there are two problems. If you try to remake a good film, the critics will gleefully claim that your effort is nowhere near as good as the original. And if you try to remake a bad one, they will (equally gleefully) accuse you of desperately trying to succeed with a formula which failed last time. Well, "The Deep" was (in my view at least) a pretty bad film, and "Into the View" does not improve on it. Indeed, it is probably even worse.
The main flaws of "The Deep" were a clichéd plot, some manic over-acting from Robert Shaw and some rather dull photography. The main flaws of "Into the Blue" are firstly a plot which is so tortured as to come, at times, close to well-nigh incomprehensible. Secondly, the dialogue is often difficult to hear clearly. I spent the whole of the running-time, for example, thinking that Paul Walker's character was called "Gerry"; it wasn't until I saw the closing credits that I realised this was actually supposed to be "Jared". Mishearing a character's name would not in itself have spoilt the film for me, but this was merely one symptom of a wider problem, and frequently mishearing crucial lines of dialogue certainly did spoil it.
And thirdly there is the acting. Alba put me in mind of Louis B. Mayer's famous dictum about Esther Williams- "Wet she's a star, dry she ain't". She earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress. None of her co-stars were so nominated, although if Mayer had seen their performances here he might have opined that "wet they ain't stars, and dry they ain't either". And that includes that other big name, Walker, for once in his career acting in a film without any fast cars in it.
Alba and Walker are merely wooden, but Scott Caan as Bryce, the other boy in the foursome, is something worse than wooden. He makes Bryce so unsympathetic (admittedly, with a lot of help from the scriptwriters) that we end up wondering just when he is going to get his well-deserved come-uppance along with the rest of the villains. Incredibly, however, we are supposed to accept Bryce as one of the good guys, even though he can see no moral objection to collaborating with a vicious gang of drug smugglers and even though he shows very little emotion when his girlfriend is killed by a shark. (He would be a lot more upset about losing the gold than he is about losing his girl). Bryce is supposed to be a hot-shot New York lawyer; the New York Bar Association should sue the film-makers for implying that they would ever permit such an unprincipled jerk to practice law.
About the most one can say for the film is that the underwater sequences are generally attractive and well done. And, of course, Jessica Alba looks gorgeous. But, I'm afraid, sometimes bikinis are just not enough to turn a badly written, badly directed and badly acted film into a good one. 3/10
The Chain (1984)
A Moving Story. In both senses of the word.
The "chain" of the title is a property chain comprising seven households, all moving house on the same day, from one district of London to another. It tells the story of each household and the reasons why they are moving, and also features some of the removal company employees who assist them. It opens with a clergyman preaching a radio sermon on the seven deadly sins, and the idea is that at least one member of each of the households is guilty of one of these sins, but this theme is never applied very consistently. Nigel Hawthorne's miserly, penny-pinching Mr. Thorn is a fine exemplar of avarice, and the family moving from upmarket Holland Park to even more upper class Knightsbridge an equally fine one of pride. (Even when they arrive in Knightsbridge, their materfamilias tries to pretend that they live in the even ritzier district of Belgravia). Some of the other sins, however, are not dealt with as fully. Nobody, for example, is actually guilty of gluttony in the literal sense, even if one character is described as a "glutton for punishment".
The film was made while Margaret Thatcher was in power. Films about "Thatcher's Britain" often concentrated upon industrial strife or the plight of the unemployed, but this one deals with some other aspects of the period. The government placed great importance upon social mobility and upon creating what they called a "property-owning democracy", and something of this is reflected in the film. The chain begins in working-class Hackney, with a young man moving out of his mother's home into his first rented flat, and ending up in Knightsbridge. Along the way we meet a young couple leaving rented accommodation for their first home of their own (with the aid of a £29,000 mortgage, a substantial financial commitment in 1984) and several families who are moving to a more upmarket area or from a smaller property to a larger one. The film also reflects London's growing ethnic diversity, with Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Greek Cypriot characters.
It was not just individuals who could move up the social ladder; whole districts could do the same. At one time few people would have moved between Hammersmith, once one of the poorer districts of West London, and the upper-middle-class heights of Hampstead, as the Thorns do here, but the eighties gentrification of the Hammersmith/Fulham area made such a move quite plausible. An unexpected plot twist at the end brings the story back full circle to where it began in Hackney.
The film stars some major names from the British acting profession of this period; perhaps the most memorable performances come from Hawthorne, Billie Whitelaw as the grieving widow Mrs. Andreos, Leo McKern as the elderly millionaire Thomas Jackson and Maurice Denham as the irascible old grandfather, forever trying the patience of his long-suffering daughter and son-in-law. (Rather surprisingly, in the catalogue of deadly sins he represents envy rather than wrath). There are also good contributions from Warren Mitchell as the philosophy-reading removal man, Bamber, and from Bernard Hill as his more earthy colleague Nick. (Bamber's nickname, a reference to his vast store of general knowledge, derives from the television quiz-show host Bamber Gascoigne).
The script was one of the few written for the cinema by the late Jack Rosenthal, best remembered as a television playwright, and displays Rosenthal's normal combination of wit with powers of social observation and psychological insight. Although "The Chain" is normally described as a comedy, and although it does indeed contain a good deal of humour, it also has its more serious side, particularly in the story lines involving Mrs Andreos and Jackson when it becomes a "moving story" in both senses of the word.
The British film industry, which seemed moribund for much of the 1970s, saw a remarkable resurgence in the 1980s. Some of the fine movies produced during this revival, such as the Oscar-winners "Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi" are now regarded as classics, but others have been largely forgotten. "The Chain" is a case in point; I saw it when it was first released in the cinema in 1984 and again on television in the nineties, when it was shown to publicise the ITV spin-off series, "Moving Story", but since then it appeared to vanish from sight before resurfacing recently on the "London Live" TV channel. Perhaps it is overdue for a revival. 8/10
Elegiac and Poetic
Alexander Pushkin's verse novel "Eugene Onegin" is well-known in English-speaking countries, partly due to the influence of Tchaikovsky's opera, so I need not set out the plot in any detail. It centres upon the relationship between Yevgeny Onegin, a 19th century Russian landowner, and a teenaged girl named Tatyana Larinа, the daughter of a neighbour. Tatyana falls passionately in love with Onegin and writes him a letter setting out her feelings, but he replies that he cannot return them. Six years later Onegin meets Tatyana again and discovers that she is now married to a prince. A subplot deals with a duel fought between Onegin and Vladimir Lensky, the fiancé of Tatyana's sister Olga.
Some have seen the story as a case of "the spurner spurned" and have regarded Onegin's eventual rejection by Tatyana as a just punishment for his cruel treatment of her. I think, however, that Pushkin intended his story to be more than a simple morality tale. In the first place (and I know many people will disagree with me here) I think that Onegin was right to reject Tatyana; he clearly knew himself well enough to realise that with his cynical, nihilistic nature he would be far from an ideal match for the idealistically romantic Tatyana and that any union of their clashing personalities would only lead to unhappiness for them both.
Moreover, when Onegin meets Tatyana again, he only falls in love with her because she is no longer available. He falls in love with the dazzlingly elegant society beauty she has become since her marriage; if she were still unmarried, a twenty-something version of the pretty but dowdy teenager he once knew, a minor provincial aristocrat's daughter with no real fortune, he would not give her a second glance. Onegin, however, does not understand Tatyana's nature as well as he understands his own. He predicted that she would soon forget him, but she is even more of a romantic idealist than he thought and his prediction has not come true. Tatyana is still desperately in love with the man who once rejected her, but she can see no option but to reject him in his turn. To embark upon an affair would be to risk public disgrace, and although she does not love her husband she still feels a certain loyalty to him.
I felt that Liv Tyler was wrong for the part of Tatyana, coming across as rather too sensuous and knowing for this innocent, idealistic young woman. The saturnine, world-weary Ralph Fiennes, however, seemed just right as Onegin, the bored, cynical "superfluous man", a type so beloved of Pushkin and other Russian poets. Toby Stephens is also good as Lensky, a character who could be difficult one to play because of the way in which social conventions have changed since the novel was written. Pushkin (later to die in a duel himself) may have intended us to see Lensky's fierce determination to defend his honour and the honour of his beloved Olga as something admirable, but to the modern reader or viewer his readiness to fight his former friend to the death over a trivial insult seems like, at best, a toxic, misguided idealism and, at worst, rank bloodlust disguised as gentlemanly behaviour.
This was the first film to be directed by Martha Fiennes. Several other members of her family were involved; apart from her brother Ralph in the leading role, her sister Sophie also appeared, and another brother, Magnus, wrote the music. Adapting a verse novel for the screen is always going to be a difficult project. Pushkin's complex verse-form is so much a part of this particular work that his translators have generally tried to imitate it in English, often with impressive results. Cinema audiences, however, are unlikely to accept a film in verse- certainly not rhyming verse- so film-makers have to make do with a prose version, and prose translations of poetry can often fall rather flat.
What I think Martha Fiennes does to try and overcome this difficulty is to try and find a visual equivalent to Pushkin's poetry. She does this by giving the film a very distinctive look, with an austere palette dominated by blacks, whites and greys, although there are occasional flashes of brighter colours, such as the sumptuous dark red dress which Tatyana wears in the later scenes. Two scenes in particular are dominated by a sombre tone, the fateful duel and the sequence at the end after Onegin has separated from Tatyana for the final time.
This is a risky strategy, but I think that here it comes off. Although the characters speak in prose, "Onegin" has an elegiac and poetic sensibility appropriate to the great work on which it is based. 8/10 A goof. When Tatyana writes her letter she addresses it to "Monsieur Onegin". Now it is quite possible that she might have written to him in French- many Russian aristocrats were fluent in the language- but had she done so she would not have used this English spelling. The normal French transliteration would be "Onéguine" or "Oniéguine".
Rio Lobo (1970)
Variation on a not-so-original theme
"Rio Lobo" was the last film directed by Howard Hawks and, like his penultimate film "El Dorado", is often regarded as an unacknowledged remake of his "Rio Bravo". All three films star John Wayne and all three were made from a script by Leigh Brackett. All three are Westerns, although at first "Rio Lobo" does not seem like one. It starts with an extended prologue set during the American Civil War in which a group of Confederates, led by Captain Pierre Cordona and Sergeant Tuscarora Phillips, carry out a daring raid on a Union train carrying a valuable cargo of gold bullion.
The main action takes place after the war in the town of Rio Lobo, Texas. Wayne's character, former Union Colonel Cord McNally, is seeking revenge for the death of a close friend killed during the raid on the train." He is not, however, seeking revenge upon the men who carried out the raid, as he regards what they did as a legitimate act of war. The men he is after are the traitors within the Union army who sold information about the bullion shipments to the Confederates. He discovers that these men are now the leaders of a gang of outlaws terrorising the town of Rio Lobo with the assistance of a corrupt sheriff. McNally joins forces with his former enemies Cordona and Tuscarora to lead the fight against the gang.
Anyone with a knowledge of the conventions of the Western, especially the John Wayne Western, will be able to work out how the film progresses. This being a Howard Hawks film there also has to be a strong, determined female character of the sort Hawks loved to include in his films; critics even talked about the "Hawksian woman". Actually, this film contains not one Hawksian woman but three, in the shape of Tuscarora's girlfriend Maria Carmen, her friend Amelita and Shasta Delaney, a young woman seeking revenge for the killing of her lover by the bad guys and who becomes the love interest of the handsome Cordona. (By 1970, Wayne had probably regretfully concluded that he was getting a bit too old to expect a love interest in every movie).
The film was not a great success when first released; the critics generally disliked it, and when the reviewer of the New York Times attempted to defend it the paper received numerous angry letters in protest. Since then, with the virtual canonisation of Wayne as an American icon, its stock has risen, although to my way of thinking it is not quite in the same class as some other late-period Wayne Westerns such as "Chisum" or "True Grit" or the original "Rio Bravo"; it is certainly not in the same class as that great film "The Shootist".
The film has its good points. The attack on the train is well handled and I liked the title sequence in which a guitarist picks out the main theme of Jerry Goldsmith's musical score. On the acting side, however, Wayne is rather left to carry the film on his own, as the other main actors such as Jorge Rivero, Jennifer O'Neill and Christopher Mitchum are not particularly distinguished; in "El Dorado", by contrast, he received good support from Mitchum's better-known father Robert. Brackett does not self-plagiarise his script for "Rio Bravo" quite as blatantly here as he did in "El Dorado", but "Rio Lobo" still suffers from a disadvantage which had affected the earlier film, namely that its storyline is simply a variation on a well-worn standard Western plot which had been so widely used throughout the thirties, forties and fifties that it had become over-familiar. There were a few exceptions such as "The Shootist", but by the seventies it was becoming more and more difficult to say anything new in the Western genre, which partly explains (although there were other factors) its abrupt decline from the second half of the decade onwards. 6/10
En kongelig affære (2012)
Europe in the late 18th century saw the heyday of the "enlightened despots". These were monarchs such as Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, Charles III of Spain and Gustav III of Sweden who, while retaining their personal power and making no concessions to democracy, tried to rule as "philosopher kings" and used their position to bring reform to their countries in the spirit of the Enlightenment. (Joseph I of Portugal is sometimes included in this list, but there the real guiding spirit behind the reforms was not the King but his Prime Minister, Pombal).
"A Royal Affair" tells the story of the strangest of the enlightened despots, Johann Friedrich Struensee, a man who was not of royal birth and who unlike Pombal held no official government position. Denmark might today be regarded as one of Europe's most liberal countries, but 250 years ago it was a conservative backwater, an unenlightened despotism dominated by a reactionary aristocracy who held most of the population in serfdom. The country had a new young King, Christian VII, but as he was mentally ill his subjects placed little hope in him. Denmark, however, found its own enlightened despot in the shape of Struensee, the King's German-born physician. He became Christian's trusted confidant and adviser, and used his influence over the King to promulgate a series of Enlightenment-inspired reforms, including the abolition of censorship, the abolition of torture, and compulsory vaccination against smallpox. He also became the lover of Christian's wife, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, something of which Christian was either unaware or to which he turned a blind eye. (Caroline was the younger sister of Britain's own "mad king", George III).
Struensee's power grew until he became the de facto ruler of Denmark, but he had made many enemies among the aristocracy, whose power he had tried to limit, in the Church, which he had offended by his openly atheistic views and his ill-disguised contempt for Christianity, and among the wider Danish public, many of whom saw him not as an enlightened reformer but as an immoral, godless and interfering foreigner who was cuckolding their King and arrogating too much power to himself. In 1772 he was toppled in a palace coup and beheaded for treason; Caroline was divorced and sent into exile.
Contrary to what we in Britain might sometimes think, the "heritage cinema" style of film-making is not something uniquely British; three have been a number of European (as well as American) examples. The European ones, however, rarely turn up here, either in the cinema or on television, possibly because the multiplexes and television channels feel that the British public will not be interested in films based upon foreign history or literature. (There has also in recent years been a trend away from showing foreign-language films of all sorts on British television, even on specialist movie channels). "A Royal Affair", however, was an exception and I caught it when it was recently shown on BBC2; perhaps the BBC decided to make an exception because its heroine was originally British by birth or because the actress who plays her, the lovely Alicia Vikander, has also appeared in a number of English-language movies.
As is normal with films of this type, the sets and costumes are lavishly done, and all three leading roles are very well played, by Vikander, by Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee, the sort of head-in-the-air idealist who is so convinced of his own rightness that he cannot comprehend why anyone might oppose him and who cannot see the danger with which he is threatened, and perhaps most of all by Mikkel Følsgaard as Christian. Følsgaard has the difficult task of playing a character who is unsympathetic, but yet not a villain in the normal sense of that word, merely tormented.
Another film about Struensee was made in 1936; I have never seen it but its title, "The Dictator", would suggest that it does not take a very favourable view of him. This film, however, takes a more sympathetic view. It is told from the viewpoint of Queen Caroline, a beautiful, intelligent young woman who is either neglected or brutally ill-treated by her unstable husband and who finds consolation in the arms of the handsome young doctor. It is not, however, simply Struensee's looks which attract Caroline to him. She also sympathises with his liberal views and reformist agenda, and the failure of their project is presented here as the triumph of reaction over reason. We are left with the impression that Caroline could have made an impressive monarch in her own right had she been the eldest son rather than youngest daughter. We are told that King Frederick VI, Caroline's son by Christian, went on to become Denmark's own "enlightened despot" and not only re-enacted all Struensee's reforms but also abolished serfdom altogether, something Struensee had never dared do. 7/10 Some goofs. Frederick VI did not actually reign for 55 years as we were told. His reign lasted for 31 years, from his father's death in 1808 to his own in 1839. Between 1784 and 1808 he governed Denmark as Prince Regent, but his father officially remained King. Caroline and Struensee are shown conversing in fluent Danish, but in reality they would have spoken in German, as he could not speak a word of Danish. (Another reason why he was unpopular with the Danes).