Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

Brooklyn (2015)

This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.

Brooklyn film posterCREDITS
Director John Crowley; Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín); Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

I suppose as a reviewer you get to the point with a long-running series where you run out of useful things to really say about it, or maybe it’s just because I’ve been writing these things every other day for the past few weeks. This sixth instalment of J.K. Rowling’s teenage wizarding series is every bit as well-crafted as the previous film, and follows in much the same vein. If anything it encompasses some even darker textures, though these are counterbalanced by some of the deftest touches of humour so far in the series, and while it draws back somewhat from the previous film’s political worldview, there’s enough here that’s enchanting.

The darkness is introduced right from the outset with an attack on London, destroying the Millennium Bridge, as well as one of the shops on the hidden little Dickensian street of the alternative wizarding world. The film closes, too, with the death of a key character, and in between is all manner of demonic details occasioned by the return of Voldemort, although some are related to the book belonging to the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ which Harry discovers. The final chapters to the saga are also set up by the revelation that Voldemort has concealed his soul in seven magical items (or “horcruxes” as they are known here), which must be destroyed in order to finally defeat him.

The darkness is of a piece with the gloomily gothical world conjured up by Rowling’s fiction and which has been elaborated in all the successive films. More interesting is the appearance of rather more levity than we’ve had so far, with all manner of situational comedy and throwaway lines from the teenage leads as the sub-plots relating to their various romantic connections are played out. Ron becomes an unlikely centre of attentions to several female characters, while Harry starts to develop feelings for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright).

Elsewhere the acting continues to be strong, with new recruit for this episode being the bumbling professor played by Jim Broadbent, a pleasant enough caricature but without some of the depth of previous faculty staff members (he brings to mind Kenneth Branagh’s turn more than anything else). If I liked the Half-Blood Prince in the end, perhaps a lot has to do with the way it builds on the previous episodes and sets up the denouement, and with my own greater investment in this world after five previous instalments. In any case, it’s put together nicely, and carries the viewer through with the deftest of touches.

Next: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Tom Felton; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

By this point it’s well enough known that the original novel on which this film is based took its inspiration from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (though not so much by me, who had to be apprised of this fact by my wife upon expressing surprise at the similarity in both name and casting between Colin Firth here and in the BBC TV adaption of said Austen novel some years earlier). Bridget Jones is a nice middle-class girl who lives in an attractive area (in this case a scrubbed-up London, above a pub in Borough Market, rather than the countryside) with a group of dedicated single friends (rather than sisters), who dallies with chaps of much greater income.

In this sense, some of the class-conscious social-climbing drama is retained from the Austen original, while those awkward rituals of social mixing set to elaborate dances are here replaced by society soirées and press launches. It is all very nicely transposed to a modern setting, and Elizabeth Bennet/Bridget Jones (played by Renée Zellweger) now has a largely thankless job in a publishing company, which suits the film’s impression of the vapidity of the media.

I suppose the problem for me is in creating a modern story of a woman in search of a man, when there is no corresponding sense that without one her family will be in penury. I suppose it’s a commentary on the way that while women’s rights and options in life have moved on in two hundred years, the messages provided by the media have changed little, though if so it’s not always very clear. She has a professional job at which she is apparently competent, though the film is more interested in those times when she makes a fool of herself (for obvious comic reasons). She does not need either her boss Daniel (Hugh Grant) or the stand-offish Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) and yet it is on these men she obsesses, and whose interest in her define her life and her story.

Of course, the story is presented as her diary, so it is very much one for which she is setting the narrative tone. Many moments are played as if scenes from big Hollywood films, with Bridget’s requisite triumphs and humiliations shot in a non-naturalistic style (it’s a precarious line separating it from Ally McBeal, a TV show I detested but which pursued a similar aesthetic, though I think the film is successful). So this is her story, and yet even if it’s one in which she seems to be beholden to all the traps of women’s magazines (a careful detailing of her diet, smoking habit, and ploys to attract men), she still seems to revel in a kind of unrestrained physicality. Zellweger looks healthy and charming in the role of Bridget despite other characters’ barbs about her being ‘fat’, not to mention her unapologetic nicotine addiction.

Whatever my reservations about the presentation of Jones’s character, it’s a likeable and charming film thanks primarily to the three leads, who all have excellent screen charisma. It certainly feels like pleasant watching for a drowsy afternoon while on holiday, which is where I saw it.


CREDITS
Director Sharon Maguire; Writers Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Helen Fielding); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 4 August 2001 (and on TV at holiday apartment, Rovinj, Saturday 1 June 2013).

Richard III (1995)

As this film is based on an over-400-year-old play (itself based on even older history), the events and characters of which are pretty much embedded into Western cultural history, I trust that the usual rules of ‘spoilers’ don’t really apply in the same way. However, if you remain concerned about this, then I shall sum up my review more pithily: track down this movie and watch it. It’s worth it, even if you think you don’t like Shakespeare.


I first saw this film on the big screen a few years after it was released, which is to say, 16 years ago now. My memory is generally terrible, and there are films I’ve seen that I have forgotten to such an extent that I’ve rewatched them and not even realised that I’d seen them already in my life. So it should say something that I still very clearly recalled the opening sequence of this adaptation of the Shakespeare play when I sat down to rewatch it recently at home.

The setting is 1930s England, and the credits sequence puts us in a military command centre, through whose wall crashes a tank. From it emerges Richard of York (played by Ian McKellen) in a gas mask to put a bullet through the head of his foe, allowing his family to seize power. This effectively is the background to the events of the original Shakespeare play — wherein Richard gets rid of his older brothers in order to take the crown for himself — and the film’s early scenes mix up speeches from both Richard III as well as the underrated play that precedes it, Henry VI Part 3.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this adaptation is the setting, which recontextualises famous British locations which are (largely) contemporaneous to the period, in sometimes surprising ways. For example, the grimly overpowering Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern), with its looming central tower, is a wartime prison (taking the place of the play’s Tower of London), while another London power station (that in Battersea) is reimagined as a coastal fortress. Meanwhile, the imposing totalitarian bulk of the Art Deco Senate House — famous for being earmarked by Hitler as the site of his London headquarters — is used for its grand marble-clad halls, perhaps in the way that Hitler might have intended. Indeed, this link to the fascist regime of the Nazis extends also to the costume design with Richard’s black uniforms, not to mention entire scenes like the political rally being lifted from Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935).

Of course, all this care given to the look of the film would be nothing if the acting wasn’t able to deal with Shakespeare’s poetry adequately, but even a cursory glance at the cast list is enough to lay any such qualms to rest. It’s practically a who’s who of British acting talent, adding a few names that would only come to prominence some years later (such as a young Dominic West as Richard’s adversary Henry). Ian McKellen, in pencil-thin moustache and exaggerated limp, is a wonderful Richard, capricious in his moods and enthusing over all his lines. One might expect the Americans in the cast to be out of place, and if in a sense this is true (their characters are outsiders to the York family), it’s certainly not the case in acting talent, with Annette Bening in particular more than holding her own against McKellen.

Cinematically opening up a stage play is always a tricky business, and it sometimes feels as if there’s just a few too many swooping camera moves and sinuous tracking shots to try and convince us that we’re not just watching actors declaiming on a stage. The use of the camera as a fourth wall, allowing McKellen to engage with us as audience, implicating us in his intrigues, is nicely done. He has some particular enjoyable small moments confiding in us/the camera with rolling eyes or sneaky sotto voce asides. The way, too, that this device is handed over at the end to his successor Henry — almost literally a sly wink at the viewer — is a great way to end the film, with that strong implication that nothing will change under Henry (as indeed history has long since tried to recorrect the balance in Shakespeare’s unkind portrayal of Richard as tyrant).

I would count this version of Richard III among my favourite screen adaptations of Shakespeare. I cannot speak to whether it is satisfying for those who have a deep love for and understanding of the original, as my familiarity with Shakespeare cannot compare to many of my friends and my wife. However, as a film, it easily stands on its own, even for those (such as I was when I first saw it) who don’t know the original, or who don’t think they like Shakespeare.


CREDITS
Director Richard Loncraine; Writers Ian McKellen and Loncraine (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr.; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Paramount, Wellington, February 1997 (also on DVD at home, London, Tuesday 7 May 2013).