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An Inspector Calls (1954)
Jacob Marley calls?
The moment Inspector Poole suddenly appears as if by magic, it struck a chord. When immediately afterwards the Inspector relates the story of a young woman who has just killed herself and how the family members had previously variously ill-treated her, I was absolutely certain of a similarity. I Googled it and found that I was not alone in thinking that the essence of the story is the same as Dickens': "A Christmas Carol" where Jacob Marley returns to the mortal world to warn his former business partner Scrooge to change his ways by showing him (by way of literary flashbacks) his past and present as well as his otherwise certain future.
I must declare an interest in Dickens having organised an event to celebrate his bicentenary. Recollections of his matchless "Christmas Carol" book flooded back as well as memories of Alastair Sim who had played the part of Scrooge in one of the best film versions of the book. Disappointment with "An Inspector Calls" then set in, leaving me with just thoughts of "A Christmas Carol" - and Alastair Sim in his many roles.
Toast of London (2012)
Yes I can hear you, Clem Fandango
That believe it or not has become a catch-phrase, uttered (nearly) each episode by fictional actor and voice-over artist, Steven Toast, to an incidental but reliable irritant at the sound studio.
Providence blessed Toast with a fine baritone voice, one fit for a heroic leading man. Unfortunately it drew a line after this in nearly every other department. A front runner, in his view at least, to be the next James Bond, Toast calculates that the clincher at his audition will be his white tuxedo - and a starting pistol. Just seconds later it is unclear who has been more chastened by the experience - the deafened and terrified audition panel sheltering behind furniture - or Toast himself, already retreating quickly down the corridor, cursing his evident misjudgement. How to describe Toast? Perhaps his long suffering agent, following the Bond debacle, put it best: "You F***ing Idiot!". But is he downhearted? Not for long, his natural grumpiness, randiness and over-optimism soon return, for which audiences should be truly grateful.
Empire of the Seas (2010)
Outstanding television history
Dan Snow brings together, as other contributors have said, in a very engrossing way, the different facets which were most important and uppermost in the minds of the British governments of the day and of lasting significance to the British till this day and beyond. Principally commercial advantage and security allied with new scientific and technical developments, all very energetically and capably pursued, none sacrificed for the other. Common sense suggests that to become the leading commercial and naval leading power, it could hardly be otherwise, it was not by accident and not without fierce competition. However historians generally tend to fragment the story into partitions, losing the sense of coherence and purpose which undoubtedly drove it. Dan Snow, by approaching the subject on its own terms, is able to convey the exhilarating ambition, purpose and achievement. It is a remarkable story, for once very well told.
The War Lover (1962)
Well above and beyond the average
In plot outline pretty familiar stuff but War Lover somehow gives it an edge in all departments. As a US/UK co-production it's grimmer, grittier - more realistic than either country's usual output and lost the swagger of one and the cosiness of the other. Perhaps something that appealed to Steve McQueen. It's also somewhat pushes the psychological envelope too, the McQueen character is pretty screwed up, something the war only temporarily masks. The flying scenes are better than the average - very well shot externally and the internal scenes where damage and death happen in an instant in the midst of cordite smoke and the violent hammering of guns. The scenes appeared modelled on wartime film. Overall, I think it gave as realistic a picture of life as a bomber crew as I've seen. Shirley Anne Field was given a part of much more dramatic range than the stereotypical nice girl who was all set to get married - until she receives the news etc etc. Even the B17's came across as loyal sturdy war-horses for whom crews could have affection I'd never seen the film before, it is very rarely shown in the UK.
Running the film backwards
I find it strange indeed that there is such a variety of interpretations of the film's purpose when it is laid out utterly plainly in its closing moments' summarising narration. It attributes to Cromwell a hugely beneficial fundamental irreversible change from an absolute to a constitutional Monarchy. Also that the 5 years of Cromwell's "reign" brought about an England "feared, respected and powerful". It is brief and clear - Cromwell was overwhelmingly positive for England. It takes obvious pride in him not just on England's behalf but one senses much more widely as establishing the primacy of parliament - a principal which spread and is today in the majority. The film is a celebration of the man. Surprising that reviews quibbling over points of historical accuracy don't mention this central claim.
Since 1899 a statue of Cromwell has had a prominent location in the gardens of the British Houses of Parliament, something not without controversy from then until now. The statue's continuing presence can be read as Parliament's loud - and proud - assertion of its primacy.
In a way the film is mainly a support for this England and Parliament-centric interpretation. The script and the choice of one of the UK's finest actors, Alec Guinness, gave a gracious and nuanced portrayal of Charles 1. The choice of Richard Harris added to a blunt, forceful and determined Cromwell. The portrayal of a Parliament left to make up its own rules - and Cromwell's dramatic return and denunciation has a particularly contemporary resonance.
It is a fine and interesting film, also a history lesson but one written by the winners.
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Laurence Olivier was dead - to begin with
The great actor, utterly familiar to a British audience, had aged and died, we were never to see him again. That is, startlingly, until Kenneth Branagh played him in this film. It was the oddest mixture of the affecting and the unsettling to see Olivier brought back to life. Was it him? Yes it really was. A century and more ago, actors would shamelessly make a career out of one great role and performance. Branagh's was in this league.
In contrast unfortunately with that of Michelle Williams. Anyone wondering what Marylin Monroe was capable of should watch her rendering of "Happy Birthday, Mr President" delivered from the stage to the real life President JFK principal guest (presumably accompanied by his wife Jackie)in the audience. That uber-confidence in her own desirability and the scale of (the representation of) her desire for him. A pass made at the office party it was not. Another reviewer has written of Marylin's "voluptuousness, her sexuality, her (on screen) innocence, her purring voice, or her softness". Marylin it is clear from her biography, had learned from a young age - and from results - what made men desire her - not just when she wore makeup and nice clothing and in appropriate and romantic locations - but any time, any place and any situation. Part of this was playfulness and feigned innocence. She could, in an intimate setting, be a clown and make men laugh. She could make almost any man desire her. Her insecurity lay in her ability to deliver as an actress (and be adored by America's greatest playwright?). None of the first part of this was at all hinted at in Michelle Williams' performance. Can a woman who is not a vamp, fake it?
The film revolved around these two larger than life characters, the story was the recollection of an ordinary Joe who had witnessed them together. In the film at least it did not seem particularly insightful about either.
The Barchester Chronicles (1982)
Time only adds to the glories of this production
The BBC is currently transmitting its 2nd radio version of The Warden and Barchester Towers, having made an excellent one about 10 years ago. The current radio production only emphasises how good this TV production is.
It is difficult to choose between superb performances - the two top contenders are Geraldine McEwan as the imperious consort of the Bishop (Clive Swift) and Alan Rickman as the oily, noxious, calculating over-ambitious slippery Slope, his chaplain (and once her most favoured protégé). The titanic final confrontation between the two is dramatic in the extreme, conducted nevertheless in the appearance at least of polite language, a confrontation between two courageous big beasts of the jungle who tower way above their nominal principal, the hapless Bishop whose secret prayer is that the two destroy each other in the process.
The adaptation by Alan Plater is superb - certainly keeping to the spirit of the book. Given that underlying the story are theological differences between the Mrs Proudie/Slope and the Rev Harding camps (centrally important in mid 19th C Britain) I don't think Plater got this right. However for a modern audience it perhaps doesn't matter).
Nigel Hawthorne's impressively extreme aggression and love of conflict is certainly in the script. Clive Swift's wetness perhaps a little beyond belief but an excellent foil to the "thorn" he believes God chose to give him - his wife. Susan Hampshire made an alluring Contessa Neroni whose slight but audible laughter at Mrs Proudie's expense makes the latter's humiliation all the more grievous in a memorable comic scene. The Rev Arabin might have been lifted from the 1850s in terms of absolutely authentic appearance and manner, slightly discordant compared to the rest of the cast. Donald Pleasance, who specialised in playing odd, slightly other-worldly characters, is not fully convincing as the simple and good Rev Harding.
It stops with Slopes expulsion "back to the gutter from whence he came" according to Mrs Proudie. In the book Mrs Proudie dies suddenly and unexpectedly, causing a sudden change in tone where the Bishop struggles with his beliefs and conscience at his feelings of relief.I think that the adaptation was right not to cover this. It is a long series and parts are fairly procedural rather than dramatic or comic but the set pieces are eternally memorable.
A Christmas Carol (2009)
3D spectacular remaining fairly true to the book
I have a number of versions of A Christmas Carol starting with a British one from 1935 featuring the actor Seymour Hicks who had spent a lifetime portraying Scrooge on stage. Also the Alastair Sim 1951 and George C Scott versions. None are perfect although each contains at least one thing better than any of the others. All had rather variable casting. Seymour Hicks was certainly the frostiest Scrooge. The Alastair Sim version was let down by a plump Bob Cratchit - who (very suspiciously) looked far too well fed for his 15 shillings per week. The most affecting Tiny Tim by far was in the George C Scott version but Ma and Pa Crachit showed not the least sign of lifetimes worn down by druggery and minimal wages. Nobody since this 1935 version seems to have portrayed the Cratchits as quite poor, destroying a central part of the story that Tiny Tim becomes ill and dies because of his parents' poverty (the thing Scrooge later puts right).
This version - following a Disney tradition at least 60 years old, is excessively scary for young children, quite unnecessarily terrifying at times. Its main distinguishing feature is that it was designed to be a 3D spectacular and I am sure it fully succeeds in this. The advanced graphics available in 2009 and imagination came up with some impressive spirits as well as Marley's ghost - the best I have seen. Acting is never good with animation. Given that the budget was $200,000,000 I wonder if they might have spent more of it on live actors rather than motion capture animation (Jim Carey looked, sounded and performed exactly as he had in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events).
In watching all these screen version it is clear that there is only one perfect thing - the book itself. It continues to wait for a director with the brains to fully appreciate and respect the book. Oliver Twist got this with David Lean. As the temptation to modernise and soften the book grows, understanding of the Victorian period fades and technology takes over from talent, the best film versions of A Christmas Carol will most likely to be these in the past. For timeless perfection, the book fortunately remains
Quatermass 2 (1957)
The full 1/9d's worth and much more
In 1957 1 shilling and 9 pence was the price of one of the better seats in a cinema. I was too young to be allowed to see the film at the time of its release and the recent screening on BBC 2 is the first time I've seen it - 50+ years after its release - perhaps the first time it has been screened on British television? Its high rating of 7 and many enthusiastic reviews from the US confirm that it is an important British film of the time with a wide - and lasting - appeal.
The opening is something of a teaser but the pace flags somewhat after that for the first 10 minutes or so then with the revelation of the unlimited seriousness of the problem, the pace gets faster and faster and film more and more gripping.
Not as polished as "Invasion of the Body-Snatchers" but Nigel Kneale's creative ideas and screenplay ensure, not first time, that even nearly 60 years on this is still a rocket ride.
Plunkett & Macleane (1999)
Jam for the pigs - brilliant, dazzling, disgusting, sublime
This is in a sense a buddy-movie. Two ill-matched young men, one a cash-strapped aristo, the other a street-wise low-life thief. Their meeting is surreal in its oddity where-after their common quest to avoid a gruesome fate and become rich, creates at first a bond of extreme necessity, mired in almost unimaginable filth which later, mirroring their improving luck, lightens up as necessity gives way to the pursuit of stylish pleasures - and stylish crime. The noose as always awaits but far far better to be hanged dressed in the best finery, to the tears of young women of class and to be ready and able to exit with a memorable quip. In short to die, if it absolutely could not be avoided, stylishly and like gentlemen, not common felons.
The extreme harshness of the law, the filth and squalor, the highest of fashion, shopping and vaunting ambition to enjoy the high life is a combination which existed in the 18th Century but disappeared in the Victorian era as legal reforms blunted the harshness and worthiness replaced swagger. Life became safer, fairer - and duller.