Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Sense and Sensibility, Kate Hepburn and whatever the opposite of a miracle is - Reviews #203

I read a book and went to a couple of shows, but you're here - if at all - for the film stuff, right? Film stuff:

CINEMA: Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
- It’s one of the defining scenes of ‘90s British cinema: a star on the cusp of supernova, accompanied by a stunning Patrick Doyle score and Michael Coulter’s sumptuous cinematography, all of it capturing a very old-fashioned sort of English vision. Kate Winslet’s Marianne walks purposefully, forlornly through the driving rain to a hill overlooking her lost love’s house. “Love is not love,” she says, leaning on Shakespearean sonnet in her hour of need, “Which alters when it alteration finds/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken…” Then the poetry dries up and she just breathes: “Willoughby, oh Willoughby... Willoughby... Willoughby.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the sequence is that it doesn’t appear at all in Jane Austen’s source novel. Marianne doesn’t walk to Willoughby’s, and she’s never swept up by a similarly sodden Colonel Brandon; her dalliance with death is inspired by sheer morosity and listlessness, not a second, unwise walk on the wild side. It’s one of innumerable smart creations and clever excisions made by screenwriter Emma Thompson, who spent five years on this – her first script – and subsequently scooped one of the more deserved Oscars of recent years. I asked her about her conception of the scene at a Q&A event held on Sunday to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, and she said this: “That just seemed obvious to me. What would be more natural than going to the place where your lover is and just repeating his name? That’s what love is”, adding self-mockingly of Marianne’s subsequent malaise that “people weren’t as sturdy then – it was ‘Oh, I’ve got a bit wet, now I’m nearly dead’.”

As well as scripting, Thompson also stars: she is Elinor, a detached, unfailingly proper 19-year-old, who with flighty, tempestuous younger sister Marianne (Winslet) experiences love and loss in a vivid, irresistible Austenian world peopled by rogues, unhappily conflicted gentlemen and the odd thoroughly decent chap. In the past year, I’ve become a huge Austen fan, but Sense and Sensibility isn’t her best book: it’s romantic, clever and full of her usual understated wisdom, but its wit is so relentless – and so caustic – that at times the tone borders on smug superiority, and the pacing of the story is far less assured than in works like Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion.

Here, though, thanks to Thompson’s intelligent and exhaustive approach, its flaws becomes virtues: the flabbiness of the book allows her to slice away without losing much of real value (Willoughby’s fantastic monologue bites the dust, but its job is done by a line from Edward and a magnificent shot near the end), and her inventions both comic and dramatic succeed in matching the tone of what remains, ramping up the emotional resonance, retaining the dryness of the humour, and occasionally allowing the more caricatured comic elements passages of free rein, with hilarious bit-parts for Hugh Laurie (as the immortal Mr Palmer) and Imelda Staunton.

The cast is just about perfect: a who’s who of contemporary British talent, with Thompson giving arguably her finest performance, Winslet nailing Marianne’s combustible, impulsive nature – and eventual maturity – Hugh Grant displaying his astonishing comic timing (I’ll say it again – he’s a light comedian to match Cary Grant or Bill Powell) and Greg Wise rocking the cape, pointy sideburns and pouty, feckless caddishness you dream of when you read Austen’s words. Alan Rickman isn’t given a huge amount to work with as Colonel Brandon, but creates a handful of truly glorious moments, usually standing in doorways. And Imogen Stubbs? In the nicest possible way: what a bitch.

As I sat down to watch the film for the first time in almost 15 years, it took me a little while to settle into it. The opening scene seemed like a Comic Relief sketch, the villainess was played too broadly by Harriet Walter, and as the minutes rolled on, the film seemed oddly and unfortunately aloof. But with the arrival of Grant, it all clicks, then begins to build in resonance, before a succession of elegant emotional gut-punches to rival anything in director Ang Lee’s diverse and wonderful career. And it ends in the only way you’d ever want to, with Thompson playing the ending for both pathos and laughs, as she dissolves in wracking sobs. “Are you going to do that all the way through my speech?” asked Grant crossly on the set. “Yes,” Thompson replied. “It’s funny.” (4)


"The calla lilies are in bloom again..."
CINEMA: Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937) - I could only stretch to one movie in the BFI's current (and long overdue) Kate Hepburn season, so I plumped for this one, a long-time personal favourite.

It's a crackling feminist masterpiece that passes the Bechdel Test 90 times a minute, as a flawless ensemble cast trades blistering, bitchy, pitch-black wisecracks while hanging out in a theatrical boarding house for women.

Based on a Broadway melodrama by Edna Ferber and George Kaufman, in which the stage and screen battled for the souls of young actresses, La Cava and his writers chucked out everything except the character names and a couple of plot points, and devoted two weeks to improv-heavy rehearsal, creating in the process one of the fastest, funniest films of the 1930s, as well as the one that has the most profound emotional impact on me. Floods of tears. Floods.

Hepburn is Terry Randall, the well-off wannabe who turns up at the Footlights Club, hoping to turn her hand to acting. There she finds a multitude of cynical young women - among them Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and a 13-year-old Ann Miller - hardened by Depression-era knockbacks and offended by her easy, affluent manner. The Footlights is also home to Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), a painfully sensitive soul who a year ago was the next big thing.

A movie about a "different race of people" - actresses resistant to failure and oblivious to the charms of prospective family - it sees both Hepburn and Rogers in career-best form as the sparring, none-more-different roomies, and fosters a unique atmosphere, building to a genuinely gobsmacking climax that spotlights its stars to stunning effect, reaching an emotional apogee unparalleled in its era, and - to me at least - in cinema at large. (4)


"Whaddaya hear, whaddaya say?"
Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938) - One of the truly great films: a fusion of gangster picture and message movie, as career criminal Rocky Sullivan (Jimmy Cagney) returns to his old neighbourhood, where he reunites with his childhood pal - now a priest (Pat O'Brien) - and becomes an immoral mentor to a gaggle of impressionable adolescents.

The immortal Cagney is in the form of his life here, drawing on characters from his own, impoverished youth to create one of the indelible characterisations of '30s cinema. O'Brien too gives by far the best performance of his patchier career, exuding a Spencer Tracy-like essence of quiet authority that, coupled with intelligent writing, makes his character's speechifying immensely affecting, rather than patronising or heavyhanded.

For though Angels does present Sullivan as a sympathetic character - one to admire in some ways, and pity in others - it also shows the consequences of its hero's actions in a more explicit and far-reaching manner than any earlier crime classics attempted to; this is Warner holding its former glorification of gangsterism to account, without an ounce of the sanctimoniousness that sunk less assured productions.

The film is frankly littered with unforgettable sequences, from the gutting prologue to Cagney's reunion with O'Brien and his first meeting with the Dead End Kids, and if their cartoonish antics grate - and serve to stall the film's momentum - there's such greatness in the script, Curtiz's stylish, magnificent direction and the chemistry between Cagney and O'Brien, that you can forgive it almost anything. There's also iconic imagery to spare - not least in a shootout sequence strewn with sweat, bullets and exploding tear gas canisters - and an important early showcase for Ann Sheridan, as a bruised widow drawn to Rocky despite her better judgement.

It all leads, fatalistically, to a denouement forever etched on the mind of anyone who's seen it: an ambiguous climax that still engenders fierce debate, intense emotion and a sense of awe at the sheer artistry involved, whilst offering a treatise on redemption and making an enduringly relevant, humane argument about the manner in which criminals are created.

Yes of course Leo Gorcey is really irritating, but in this case that's honestly OK. (4)


Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961) - Sam Fuller's gloomy gangster tale deals with lowlife crook Cliff Robertson, who tangles with crime kingpins as he seeks to avenge his father's death. As with all of Fuller's films, it starts brilliantly - conjuring an atmosphere not experienced on screen since Warner's '30s crime wave - but sadly this one rather loses its way, due to a B-grade script and cast, despite a clutch of spectacular sequences in the director's familiar, sensational style.

On a personal note, I just upgraded from the secondhand TV I got in 2007 to a sleek Samsung widescreen thingymabob, so when Fuller was on form, it looked utterly delicious. (2.5)


The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986) - Earlier this month, I went to see Ennio Morricone in concert. Among the innumerable delights of the evening – which included bumping into Elizabeth McGovern mere minutes after hearing her Once Upon a Time in America theme song – was the performance of three numbers from The Mission, the 1986 film that boasts an erratic reputation but a devoted and sizeable following. As a huge Morricone fan, I've listened to the soundtrack many times over the years, but I'd never actually seen the movie, so I thought I better remedy that.

Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Bolt (who went to my school, *high five*), it turned out to be an extremely slow, ponderous Aguirre/Fitzcarraldo hybrid (not *high five*), based on a true story, about a Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons), who takes a lushly-bearded former mercenary (Robert DeNiro) under his wing, whilst running a remote South American mission. As the church moves to close the progressive outpost, violence returns to the jungle and DeNiro reverts to type in the defence of his adopted home. What could be beguiling and fatalistic is instead portentous and remarkably dull, as Bolt alternates between profundity when considering personal duty and the battle between church and state – subjects he dealt with in his legendary work, A Man for All Seasons – and complete ineptitude when trying to write anything else, including small talk. There’s also the issue of De Niro’s changeable accent, which moves between New York and generic “foreign”, the absence of insight offered into these pale characters, and a climax that manages to be completely underwhelming despite featuring fiery bows and arrows that you shoot with your feet, and Liam Neeson in a canoe chase.

There are utterly wondrous things about the film – De Niro’s facial acting, Chris Menges’ breathtaking cinematography and one of the finest scores ever composed – but they’re in the service of a script that manages to take a potentially fascinating story and bore you half to death. (2.5)


The Time Traveler's Wife (Robert Schwentke, 2009) - This glossy adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s staggeringly popular 2003 sci-fi romance takes a couple of ludicrous liberties and botches the central relationship, but has a handful of hugely persuasive moments all the same.

It tells the cyclical, ingeniously-conceived story of time-traveller Henry (Eric Banana) and the titular character, Clare (Rachel McAdams). She meets him for the first time when she is six and he is 38; he meets her for the first time when he is 28 and she is 20. And, as in the book, they fall in love, quarrel, search for a cure and try to conceive (cue the most unrealistic fake tummy of all time: it looks like a papier mache-covered balloon, then coloured in with a felt tip).

In a way, you’d think that film would be the ideal medium for a novel that had a great premise and some moments of real visceral, emotional impact, but a rather weak writing style, its clunky copy peppered with tedious detail about meals and outfits. Apparently not. One issue is that the meticulous plotting had to inevitably be picked apart in order to fit a 528-page book into 107 minutes, another is that the film opts for soft focus romanticism instead of kicks to the guts (even the way Henry disappears: gradually ebbing away rather than being dragged into another time-frame, arriving in a sea of vomit, is soft-pedalled), and a third is that the central relationship just doesn’t work.

I’m not one of those who fell head over heels for these characters, but they had a certain something on the page. Not here. The presentation is pure patronising chick flick, the leads are completely miscast (with McAdams lacking in any perceptible dynamism and missing Clare’s defining characteristic, red-blonde hair, while Bana rarely looks interested), and the script does a frankly risible job of articulating the depth of feeling between the pair that Niffenegger, for all her linguistic failings, gets dead-on. The writers’ lack of understanding about why the book works is evidenced by two idiotic inventions: in the first, McAdams essentially rails at Bana for grooming her as a child, in the second, the film manages to incinerate the novel’s famous coda, replacing it with a running-through-the-fields bit of faux-tearjerking nonsense that has no place in cinema at all, let alone in this film.

Where the movie does score, oddly enough, is in its articulation of the relationship between Bana and his mother (Michelle Nolden), who share one extremely touching scene that doesn’t appear in the novel, and in the sequences featuring Alba (no spoilers), which are often very moving. Sometimes it pushes too far, but mostly it works; ironically, the film even managed to make me cry – a feat the book didn’t approach. It’s a shame that those moments shine out like rare jewels in a wasteland. A glossy wasteland made of chick flick. (2)


Aled Jones and his bird.

Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica, 1951) - The Bicycle Thieves' silly little brother, incorporating a three-minute tongue-in-cheek remake of that earlier masterpiece, an endless parade of L'Âge d'Or-apeing surrealistic gags and almost no story.

There are a few laughs at the beginning, but it gets very old very quickly, its trivial, one-dimensional approach and gimmicky fantasy sequences failing to successfully spear any of its apparent targets, from supercilious capitalists to traitorous proles.

If there's a point to any of it, then I'm afraid it rather escaped me. (2)


Thanks for reading.


  1. The finest compliment I can pay Sense and Sensibility is that I saw it at school, with a brood of similarly cretinous teenagers, and everyone was completely enthralled by it.

    I must admit I am one of those that likes The Mission. It is a few years since I saw it, though, so maybe I'm just remembering the photography and score more than anything. Interestingly I saw Aguirre for the first time last week. Not sure what all the fuss is about if I'm honest...

  2. Cheers, Scott. That is the highest compliment anyone can pay, I think. We laughed at Jean de Florette quite a bit.

    I love Aguirre - for its sense of scope and atmosphere of deepening madness - but I think I can see what some wouldn't.