Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.
Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.
Yorgos Lanthimos can go either way really can’t he? I didn’t even see his The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I really liked The Lobster, and then there’s this, which seems like a carefully controlled “fvck you” to the whole industry of heritage filmmaking. It has the sumptuous sets and glorious frocks and the use of baroque music pulling it back to something like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon but then it just throws a bunch of stuff in that feels less like ‘let’s try and get the historical details exactly right’ (as many historical dramas are wont to do) and more ‘let’s do some free-form historical cosplay’. Needless to say, I think the latter is a far more rewarding strategy at this point in time, though given all the fun dance sequences, the chucking rotten fruit at bewigged naked guys, and the racing of lobsters, they might as well have cast more people of colour in prominent roles. Still, it’s a great film for it’s three leads (Colman, Weisz and Stone), and the way they just talk down to and over the men, who clearly think a lot of themselves but are also fools. The filmmaking feels at once liberated in the way it tries out ideas, but also very precise and controlled in the way it’s all filmed and put together.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos Γιώργος Λάνθιμος; Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 28 December 2018.
These grand and handsome stagings of Shakespeare made Olivier something of a predecessor to Kenneth Branagh towards the end of the century, and as with Branagh, I feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not that the acting is stodgy (there have been some patchy adaptations, but on the whole Richard III is well acted, without egregious hamminess), and it certainly doesn’t lack in visual splendour. In fact, the Technicolor Vistavision looks gorgeous, all saturated colours on beautifully theatrical sets (not quite the Brechtian level of, say, Rohmer’s Perceval, but still mightily stagy and unreal-seeming). I just find Olivier’s adaptations unengaging, with too many scenes that don’t really seem to grab much attention (Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation seemed much stronger in that regard). I still think this is one of his better ones, and I prefer it to Henry V, so maybe I’m just being churlish.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Otto Heller; Starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke; Length 161 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 11 June 2018.
I think it’s fair to say that W.E., which depicts the love affair between King Edward VIII (or “David” when he wasn’t the king) and Wallis Simpson, got a bit of a critical kicking when it came out. That’s not to say that certain elements of the film aren’t easy to deride — some of the scenes just seem misjudged or laughable (an elderly Wallis dancing for her ailing husband comes to mind), and the camera has a tendency to wander a bit loosely — but I imagine a lot of it comes down to its framing narrative, which uses historical objects as a means to enter the past. This fetishisation of material things is, indeed, an overriding element of the story — objects, clothes, set design, hairstyles and make-up, all of these things are fawned over by the camera and lavishly depicted — though it shouldn’t really come as a surprise given the film’s creator. But that needn’t be a drawback or a criticism — if anything it’s just making explicit the pitfalls of recreating historical events for the screen. In any case, the history is very much nested within a modern story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), who has grown up obsessed by the historical romance, and in communing with their personal effects at a Sotheby’s auction, via flashbacks starring Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as the royal couple, comes to understand that their love affair wasn’t perfect. At the same time, her own marriage is foundering and she is falling for a security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), hence the “W.E.” of the title refers to both of these couples. The film isn’t perfect, but the actors are all excellent, and moments of absurdity aside, this is on the whole a handsomely-mounted period production.
Director Madonna; Writers Madonna and Alek Keshishian; Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski; Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 9 January 2016.
It’s a classic trope, the fantasy of royalty cutting loose and partying with the plebs, like normal people. I’m not even sure if this was the original iteration, but you can’t possibly help but watch it 60 years on and think of A Royal Night Out (2015) or The Princess Diaries (2001) or the hundred other films of that ilk which share the theme, including Notting Hill (1999) which updates the formula from royalty to celebrity. Still, this one has Audrey Hepburn being utterly delightful as Princess Ann from some unspecified Ruritanian country (she’s convincly regal too, although she did have an aristocratic background, after all), and Gregory Peck being all solid and leading-man-like as American reporter Joe. They have an easy rapport as they spend the day together, which begins when he finds her the night before, curled up in the street sleeping, having snuck out of her comfy palatial digs, then makes the royal connection from a photo in the paper. I feel like most people probably already know this film far better than I, but suffice to say there’s a simple enjoyment to the everyday activities they cram in, going sightseeing, going out dancing, getting a haircut, and flirting. It’s a comfortable classic, and works well with the easy charisma of its stars and the photogenic quality of the setting.
Director William Wyler; Writers Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton [and Dalton Trumbo, uncredited]; Cinematographers Henri Alekan and Franz Planer; Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 December 2015.
I’m no royalist, and I’m pretty sure this film was never made with me in mind as audience, but that said, this is all very jolly and likeable in an entirely flimsy way. It charts a putative night out that the royal princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spent in London on VE Day in 1945, while their father King George VI (Rupert Everett) stayed home to deliver a speech — you may remember another recent film about his speechmaking. By his side is his wife Elizabeth (Emily Watson), and while these four central characters are based on real people, there’s little point beyond that in trying to link any of their character traits or stories to reality: this is all very much fiction. The heart of the film is a comedy romp and the two lead actors do brilliantly well in hitting the right tone for their performances, with Sarah Gadon just a little bit reserved as ‘Lilibet’, while Bel Powley is an irrepressible riot of energy as Margaret (and easily the film’s comic highlight). The challenge for the filmmakers is on the one hand making its aristocratic protagonists likeable (which it largely does, hence my caveat about setting aside any sense of historicity), and on the other in harnessing a light-hearted comedy to a respectful depiction of the gravity of the historical events and the tolls of war on the soldiers. This latter aspect is primarily represented by the cantankerous Jack Reynor as a (working-class) AWOL airman who falls for Elizabeth. Thus amongst the peripatetic tour of nighttime London circa 1945 (with, incidentally, a strange sense of geography for those who know it), there are some requisite sombre moments, but for the most part it’s all about the comedy. If you can get past the use of the royal personages and suspend your disbelief, it’s all quite charming really.
Director Julian Jarrold; Writers Trevor da Silva and Kevin Hood; Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; Starring Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Jack Reynor, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 21 May 2015.
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.
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).