Friday, September 23, 2011

DRIVE - A Real Hero

I know a lot of guys who mess around with married women, but you're the only one I know who robs a place to pay back the husband. 

From the Hot Pink titles; to the electro-kitsch soundtrack; to Ryan Gosling's silver satin jacket; to the neon lights of Los Angeles, DRIVE is a movie that oozes cool.  It's hero, simply titled "Driver" is so cool, he barely needs to speak, has no discernible back-story, merely exists. As both a stunt- and get-away-driver, he barely breaks a sweat, and even when for a sweet girl (Carey Mulligan) and her son, he barely cracks a smile.  The courtship is so low-key, chaste, Driver's attitude so stoic, at times I even doubted he had been moved at all. And then, when his girl needs a hero, that's exactly what he becomes.  The change comes by stealth, jarring, shocking, and the movie, like its hero (now capitalised) shifts from quirky romance into hard-core ultra-violence.  Driver becomes the man his angelic, virginal girlfriend needs - maybe the man he always wanted to be, and just needed the excuse to become - the violence evidently so close to the surface.  Within what feels like seconds, we have descended into overwhelming violence, no-way-out kind of snowballing craziness.  Driver seems to welcome it.  It seems to be his fate.

DRIVE is another example of director Nicolas Windig Refn's obsession with, and objectification of, men who define themselves through violence.  Again and again - whether Tom Hardy in BRONSON or Mads Mikkelsen in VALHALLA RISING, Refn glories in the image of "hard" men covered in blood and gore.  The objectification is sometimes pretty disturbing, it feels voyeuristic, slippery, fascistic - we are being made complicit in, and enjoying to the point of nervous laughter, heinous violence. This sense of deeply, deeply black humour is heightened by some genius casting in the supporting roles - Albert Brooks playing against type as a sleazy B-movie producer cum mobster - Ron Perlman as a West Coast mafiosi - and Bryan Cranston as the semi-father figure who pimps Driver out for heist jobs.  (Sadly, Mad Men's Christina Hendricks' is underused in a cameo.) The humour also comes from Hossein Amini's tightly written adaptation of James Sallis' novel. But ultimately, given the glossy, seedy, look and feel of the movie, the ultimate praise has to go to Refn, for creating both his most mainstream movie to date, but betraying none of that particular brand of "violence and romantic sexiness" - and Gosling, who with but a flicker of eyes can betray a complexity of emotion beyond most of his generation of actors.  

DRIVE played Cannes, where Nicolas Windig Refn won Best Director, and Toronto 2011. It opened on September 16th in the US, Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Canada and Poland. It opens today in Greece, Ireland, and the UK. It opens on September 30th in Malaysia and Italy. It opens on October 5th in France; on October 7th in Finland, on October 13th in Hong Kong, on October 21st in Estonia and Norway and on October 27th in Australia. It opens on November 3rd in Russia and Singapore, on November 18th in Sweden, on December 8th in Portugal and on January 26th 2012 in Germany.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Late review by Sikander - THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE- a schintzy, duplicitous tale

The 80's were brilliant. If you were in charge.
There are echoes of classical themes such as Dr Frankenstein and his monster and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE, a portrayal of moral dilemma by director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day, Mulholland Falls, Once Were Warriors). Decorated and patriotic soldier Latif Yahia is chosen by Uday Hussein, Saddam’s eldest son, to become his body double. He is reluctant, but a spell in Abu Ghraib soon convinces him that the choice is not his to make.
In order to begin his new life afresh in the Hussein household, he is forced to allow his family to think he has died in battle. Making things even worse, in doing so, the deeply moral Yahia becomes an enabler for the psychotic and paranoid rapist Uday.

This predicament is about as nuanced and complex as Tamahori’s kitsch study in 1980’s opulence and corrupt dictatorship gets. Full of marble and gold plating, disco balls, it boasts an impressive soundtrack, including Depeche mode’s excellent “Personal Jesus”. There are obvious nods to De Palma’s Scarface in the machine guns, Cuban cigars, decadence and overactive thyroid glands which abound. Violent and unsubtle, it is nevertheless fun to watch (partly because of the aforementioned bold production values) and the main cast are convincing.

The mercurial Dominic Cooper plays both lead characters very well, switching between both contrasting personalities with ease. I’ll admit to a slight man-crush on our leading man, and Cooper is at his best, a charismatic uber-mensch in one breath and a spineless, Oedipal and repellent sociopath the next. This is Cooper in Band of Brothers, AN EDUCATION, and THE HISTORY BOYS, not TAMARA DREWE or MAMMA MIA. Revel in it.Ludivine Sagnier has smouldered since THE SWIMMING POOL and does not disappoint as Uday’s Lebanese mistress Sarrab. Sadly, the love affair between her and Yahia spoils an otherwise crisp and on-message story, but then it wouldn’t be the first time that a romantic sub-plotline has spoilt a film.

THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE is hardly a contemplative analysis of Iraq’s descent from the educated, professional and middle-class country it was in the 1970’s, a leader amongst Arab nations, to the pariah state it became after the first Gulf war, however there is a subtle point to be made in Yahia’s principled, everyman who feels feisance to his country but revulsion at the family which have styled themselves as it’s benevolent master whilst defiling it.Consider this movie an amuse bouche for Charles Ferguson’s excellent investigation into the failing of Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath NO END IN SIGHT, and the equally impressive documentary THE FOG OF WAR.

THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE played Sundance, Berlin and Toronto 2011. It opened earlier this year in the US, UK, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ireland, Malta, Iceland and the Netherlands.

Friday, September 16, 2011

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY - An essay on the novel and its adaptations

I had such a visceral reaction against Tomas Alfredson’s much vaunted new film adaptation of John le Carre’s 1974 novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” that I couldn’t bring myself to review it for some time.  I have decided that the best way to explain this reaction is to describe what I believe to be the strengths of John le Carre as a writer; what I respond to so strongly in his novel; my response to the seminal Alec Guinness TV series and the more recent Simon Russell Beale radio series; and finally why I feel that Alfredson’s adaptation does a disservice to that novel.  Naturally, this essay contains many spoilers.  It also contains, more than usual, a deeply subjective reaction to the material being discussed. I do not pretend that my objections to this film will be shared by many who watch the film. Indeed, contrary to my view of the film as muddled, crass, arid, and fundamentally mis-judged, the movie is being touted as an Oscar contender, no less.


To my mind, John le Carre is one of the finest novelists of the twentieth –and indeed twenty-first century.  Because he happens to cast many of his explorations of character and geopolitics in the guise of spy novels,  he is typically seen as a genre writer.  I think this is a tremendous mistake, and underplays his ability to pen compelling, fully developed characters, and to explore the complications and compromises with which we all live – at a personal, professional and political level.  He is, for me, the ultimate essayist on the post-modern condition – the difficulty of living in a world that lives in the shadow of the horrors of World War Two – where moral absolutes have been shaken, and the triumphant est has been somehow sullied and compromised.  And he is, par excellence, the great chronicler of the particular condition of post-war Britain – the country that won World War Two, but was bankrupted in the process  - and ultimately lost its Empire and its place as a first-tier global power. 

What John le Carre does – what makes him so compelling -  is that he explodes the myths of glamour and success and the clear lines between ally and enemy that make the Bond novels so facile and fantastic, in the literal sense of the word.  Ian Fleming depicted a Britain that was in suspended animation – forever at the high water mark of World War Two.  Fleming’s novels depict a country that has retained its sense of moral and even intellectual superiority, an equal player in the Great Game of the Cold War.  The reality of course, was dramatically different -  and it’s this drastic psychic adjustment that John le Carre depicts so brilliantly.  He shows us the tragedy of Cold War espionage – a tragedy both of process and purpose.  The process is bureaucratic, thwarted by internal politics, and housed in dank, drab, unspectacular offices in the crappier parts of London. It’s a world of chits, weak tea, the patient stake-out, blown missions and shoddy furniture.  The purpose is similarly shabby.  A generation of men raised to Empire is consigned to low-level voyeurism in order to puff up the delusional belief that a post-imperial Britain is still a major player in foreign affairs.  Any romantic notion of derring-do seems faintly ridiculous.  The most that the Cold War British spy can cling to is the notion that there is some kind of moral superiority – that after all, for all the frailties of post-Imperial Britain, they do not at least suffer from the Soviet disease of fanaticism. 


The novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is framed as an investigation.  Retired spy George Smiley is called in by his political masters to investigate allegations that there is a Soviet mole, “Gerald” at the top of the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as “The Circus”.  Smiley comes to believe that the mole exists, that he has been passing high level secrets from the Americans to the Soviets – secrets bought from the Americans with counterfeit intelligence, “Witchcraft” supplied by the Soviet spy-chief, “Karla”, through a double-agent that the mole is running. Thus, not only is the Circus thoroughly compromised but Britain has been made to look a fool in the eyes of her American allies – thoroughly underlining our second-rate status in the post-war world.  This investigation takes place through careful reading of old documents, and interviews with retired Circus spies.  This is a battle of wits – intelligence – information-gathering – carried out in back-street bed-and-breakfast rooms, clapped out caravans and the quiet houses of Oxford. Pulses race when Smiley’s side-kick, Peter Guillam has to filch an old file from Circus – or when Smiley believes he is being followed – but this is not the main modus operandi of Smiley or Le Carre.  This is the novel of the quiet, probing conversation, rather than the car chase.  And, most importantly, even though Smiley succeeds in uncovering his mole, there is no real triumph.  The Circus – and Smiley and Control’s legacy – is in tatters, and while he may take over as interim-head – this is no return to the pre-mole glory years of wartime intelligence. The slow decay is arrested but there is no restoration to the Circus’ previous stature.  Karla still exists, the American allies still have the better of us, and Smiley is still painfully aware that he, essentially, an anachronism.

What is the nature of the betrayal that has occurred?  Of course, the mole, Bill Haydon, has betrayed, and as Smiley’s wife Ann says, he has betrayed completely – his class, his service, his country, his lovers, his friends. And it is Le Carre’s depiction of the emotional betrayals that I find even more compelling than his fascinating insights into the reality of post-war espionage. My contention is that “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is a love story first and foremost – and that in Le Carre’s world it is loyalty to a lover that marks out the “good man” in a post-modern world where there are few moral absolutes.   George Smiley is a great romantic, not just in his taste for German literature, but because of his unfailing loyalty to his wife Ann, and despite her serial infidelity, her emotional loyalty to him.  Karla see Smiley’s devotion to Ann as his blind spot, and exploits it by making Haydon instigate an affair with Ann – but Smiley sees it as his strength.  Moral frailty, humanity is the only defense the West has against the fanaticism of the Soviet.  This link – between love of Ann – and what makes the Cold War worth fighting, not to mention winnable, is key.  And it’s why throughout the novel, characters are awkwardly asking Smiley to pass on their regards to Ann, or embarrassing Smiley with Circus gossip about her infidelity. It’s also why the pivotal scene in the novel will always be the meeting in post-war India, where Smiley tries to recruit a silent Karla, revealing far too much about himself, and allowing Karla to steal his cigarette lighter – an engraved gift from Ann.  I also think that for me, the real resolution in the novel, the consequence of the investigation that matters most, is not Smiley’s re-instatement as acting Control, but his reconciliation with Ann. It’s as though exposing Haydon can clear the way for them to speak openly and honestly about what happened.

There are other love stories that permeate the text. Indeed, the novel opens – the action is instigated – when Ricki Tarr, former Circus operative and tough guy, tells cabinet secretary Oliver Lacan that there is a mole in the Circus, information he has discovered through a love affair with a Soviet spy he now wants Circus to extradite. An imperfect love story to be sure – Iryna uses Tarr to get her message to Circus in exchange for defection – and Tarr uses his information to come back into the fold, and ideally bring both his lover and his common-law wife and child with him.

A third key love story within the novel is that between Bill Haydon and his fellow Oxonian and Circus recruit, Jim Prideaux – the debonair artistic aristocrat and the athletic, no-nonsense side-kick.  Fatefully, it is Prideaux that Control chooses to send on the doomed Operation Testify - an off-the-books mission to pick up a Soviet defector in the Czech Republic – a defector who knew the identity of the mole that Control was sure existed, and which Prideaux, in his heart, knew was Haydon.   It is heartbreaking to conceive of Prideaux, suspecting Haydon, but still warning him that this mission would expose “the mole”, and perhaps suspecting that Haydon would have to sacrifice him to cover his identity.  Consequently, the most scathing exchange between Smiley and Haydon concerns not his betrayal of Ann, nor of his country, but of Prideaux.  Haydon admits that he sent Prideaux to his fate – it had to be someone that Control trusted, and it had to be a Czech speaker – and makes an excuse “well, I got him back, didn’t I?”  Smiley responds, “Yes, that was good of you”. What depths of antipathy and disgust lie behind that response.  This betrayal proves fatal. Prideaux strangles Haydon –an intimate assassination.

The fourth love story is perhaps the most romantic – the love for the glamour and mystique of the “old Circus” – when the spies were fighting in a real war, with tangible enemies, before bureaucracy replaced  daring exploits.  It is this romantic love that the sacked researcher Connie Sachs – who first rumbled Gerald’s handler – feels for “her boys”.  A romantic love that leads to disappointment and alcoholism. Connie tells Smiley that if it’s really bad, she doesn’t want to know, but her tragedy is that she does know already. If not the identity of the real mole, then the wider truth that the Old Circus is utterly shot.  It is also the romanticism that leads the new generation of post-war spies to idealize Bill Haydon as a Lawrence of Arabia figure and to turn away from the quiet, dull methods of Smiley.  Their disillusion – and anger – is depicted in the character of Peter Guillam, who punches Haydon when he is exposed in the safe house.  It is a love that Smiley seems never to have had – always seeing things far more clearly – seeing himself as sort of “commercial traveler” trawling for defectors. But what makes him lovable is that he still has his love of Ann, his belief, ultimately in the West, for all its failings, and none of the cynicism that infects Roy Bland and the avaricious oleaginous Toby Esterhase.  I wonder a little about Percy Alleline, the puffed up Scottish dupe who is catapulted to the head of the Circus on the tide of Witch-craft, the bureaucratic man who loves the apparent importance of secret committees. He seems to hold no love for the old Circus and yet does have that same romantic delusion that, through Witchcraft, Britain can once again be the power that it was.


The 1979 television adaptation of the novel is to my mind both perfect in its own right as television, and as an interpretation of the novel. It seems to get everything right, from casting, to atmosphere, to production design and the superlative opening and closing credits. The opening credits showing ever more angry Russian dolls opening to reveal a faceless doll at the core – and the final credits roll to the soundtrack of a college choir singing a beautiful new setting of the Nunc Dimittis – Smiley supposedly laying his legacy to rest although we know it is a partial and compromised peace that he wins.

Alec Guinness’ Smiley is quiet, bemused, tired, but when interviewing has a steeliness and a ruthlessness that hints at how formidable he truly is. Ian Richardson’s Haydon is utterly glamorous and languorous and convinces of his aristocratic pedigree. I particularly like Michael Aldridge’s smug Percy Alleline – the pompous club and committee man; and Bernard Hepstone is simply dazzling as the over-looked and then over-promoted Toby Esterhase. Beryl Reid’s cameo as Connie Sachs is rich, heart-breaking, tragic. And Patrick Stewart as the young Karla is devastatingly intense, frightening and fanatical even though he never says a word – the spectre that hangs over Smiley’s world.   But most of all I love the look and feel of the show.  The fact that the Circus really is just a shabby over-crowded office on Cambridge Circus in Soho – painted in civil service magnolia and hospital green.  The fact that Smiley solves the case through reading dusty files in a cramped room in a bed and breakfast in Paddington. The damp and mist of the boarding school, the rain in Sloane Square....

Of course, one could argue that the TV adaptation was bound to be nuanced and  faithful, given that it had the luxury of seven hours of screen time, was filmed close to the time in which the novel was set, with a screenplay jointly penned by the author.  But the recent 2009 BBC Radio 4 adaptation of the novel into a three-hour radio play suggests that is possible to condense the novel and retain its thematic richness.  Shaun McKenna didn’t alter any of the structural and stylistic traits that made the novel successful. Specifically, he kept much of Le Carre’s dialogue – the wonderfully jargon-filled language of the Circus, particularly in the case of Connie Sachs. Second, he kept the Ricki Tarr-Iryna love story as the opening hook of the series.  Third, he put Ann right at the centre of the play, by making her a kind of internal voice of conscience for Smiley - an inspired and effective device.  And finally, he made sure that no matter what else was cut, the set-pieces – Smiley meeting Karla; the Tarr-Iryna story; the unmasking at the Camden house; the final Smiley-Haydon conversation; and Alleline lording it over Control with Witchcraft; were kept intact. The casting was also particularly felicitous, with the brilliant Simon Russell-Beale as Smiley.


And so we come to the review.  Tomas Alfredson (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) has created a two-hour film based on a screenplay by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (SIXTY SIX, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS).  It is a free adaptation, and has to be to reduce the run-time, but the essential story and period are the same.  What changes are the order in which the interlocking pieces are shown; the emphasis each part is given; and, to my mind, a fundamental misreading of the source text which results in a more facile, fatuous narrative.

Let’s start with the  misreading first – as this is the most important and fateful problem with the film.  The first misreading has to do with the nature of the Circus, and the “victory” that Smiley achieves in uncovering the mole. For Le Carre, the Circus is anti-Bond –it’s anonymous, shabby – just a crowded office building in Soho.  But in this film, the Circus is a monumental Victorian complex that contains, Bond-like, a hidden modernist cube that contains wide opening workspaces, nifty document carriers etc, wide banks of phone operators….The design of the Circus is nowhere more at odds with the spirit of the novel than in the design of the completely sealed ultra-modernistic, lurid orange block that is meant to be a kind of bug-proof inner sanctum for Control and his top men, but which looks more like an over-designed Bond lair. In the Q&A after the British Film Institute preview screening, Alfredson said that the concept came from trying to think of a completely unattached environment –closed and spy-proof- when of course the whole point of the novel is that the entire Circus has been penetrated and bugged.  Worse still, once Alfredson has created this ridiculous room he feels compelled to use it for a final set-piece which is entirely out of keeping with the tone of the novel – the triumphal march of Smiley back to the room in which he and his boss were ignominiously turfed out, to sit in the chair once occupied by his boss, who has now been vindicated.  The tone of that scene strikes me as simplistic and crass – and an utter misreading of the source material.

A second misreading is the treatment of love.  This is most striking in the near-elimination of Ann as a character. She is never seen, except as an arse that Haydon is groping at the Christmas party.  The constant badgering of Smiley – the gossip he has to withstand – is absent. The pivotal cigarette lighter scene with Karla is underplayed.  As a result, Smiley seems less human – more opaque (he barely speaks for the first half hour of the film) – less frail – less vulnerable – frankly, less compelling.  The movie become all procedure and less emotion.  The same impact is felt by the underplaying of the homosexual relationship between Haydon and Prideaux. Prideaux is just another pawn Haydon uses – his torture a political rather than an emotional betrayal – and Haydon’s murder an act less meaningful.   The only hint of thwarted love comes from Kathy Burke’s Connie Sachs – a character that now comes across as more banal, less dangerously alcoholic and angry than in the novel – and Peter Guillam, who has been re-cast as homosexual and has to cast off a lover as the Circus turns its gaze upon him.  The emotion that Benedict Cumerbatch displays in this parting scene is powerful – and thank god for just a flash of humanity in this emotionally arid, procedural film – but can you imagine what how much powerful that emotion would have been if placed at the very heart of the story, in the Ann-George or Haydon-Prideaux relationships?

Less important, but showing a general lack of vision and understanding, are the countless small changes to the details of the novel that are scattered through the film. Of course, a screenwriter must be free to adapt his material and serve the medium of cinema rather than be faithful to the novel.  But these are petty changes that do not serve to compress the material or heighten the drama, so why make a change at all?  Operation Testify takes place in Hungary rather than the Czech Republic. Why?  Does Budapest have a tax break on shooting there? Smiley lives in Islington rather than Chelsea. Again why? What does that add? The character of Sam Collins is given the name of Jerry Westerby, but without combining their character functions. So why not leave him as Sam Collins, and also why not leave him as the manager of a casino rather than of a pool hall? Oliver Lacon  doesn’t live in a Berkshire Camelot but in a cutting edge 1970s designed house – utterly out of keeping with his character but I suppose allowing Alfredson and Hoytema to indulge their penchant for shooting through glass, as if to make some heavy-handed point that we, the audience, are voyeurs too.  Why is Smiley’s B&B in Liverpool Street rather than Paddington? Just so Alfredson can indulge foreign audiences with a backdrop showing St Pauls?  And, in a movie with scrupulously 1970s cars, costumes and interiors, why does the B&B  look like a 2011 warehouse conversion rather than a grubby townhouse.

As for the casting, it’s hit and miss.  Gary Oldman is a good Smiley – the writing gives him less than he should have to work with – but he is fine. Tom Hardy is bang on the money as Ricki Tarr -  John Hurt is the best Control I have ever seen - Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant as Guillam – carrying the only truly emotionally charged scene AND the only truly dramatic interlude when he filches a file from Circus.  Karla - well there is no Karla! Poor Ciaran Hinds gets nothing to do as Roy Bland. And David Dencik is completely anonymous as Toby Esterhase – one of the most compelling characters in the novel. And the usually brilliant Toby Jones is utterly wrong as Percy Alleline – he has none of the power, the malevolence, of the pompous boor.  He’s just small and sniveling and hardly an opponent for Smiley.  Because Bland, Esterhase and Alleline are inadequately penned and portrayed – and because Firth has just one an Oscar, the astute audience member who hasn’t read the book, will figure out who the mole is as soon as the pieces are in play.  As for Firth, I think his role is problematic.  The actor has charisma, but does Haydon, the character, really come across as a latter day Lawrence of Arabia? Do we get that he is mocking the bureaucratic system, that underneath that soupy charm is a deeply disaffected, cynical and selfish man? This isn't helped by the fact that the screenwriters seriously shortchange Firth in the scene where Haydon justifies his actions to Smiley. In the novel, we can't really sympathise with Haydon but we do at least understand. I’d love to hear from any readers who have had the patience to read through this essay, who have seen the film, but hadn’t read the book. I’d love to know if you really felt you left the screening understanding why Haydon had done it.  Because if you don't really know why he's done it - other than some glib faux-answer regarding aesthetics, and you're left with Smiley triumphant in his orange box - what have you really learned about the Circus, about betrayal and about love?

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY played Venice 2011 to rave reviews.  It opens this weekend in the UK and Ireland. It opens in Australia on October 27th. It opens on December 9th in Portugal, Turkey and the USA; on December 15th in the Netherlands; on December 23rd in Spain and on December 25th in Sweden. It opens on January 20th in Italy; on February 1st in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany; and on February 9th in Denmark.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

JANE EYRE (2011)

You would rather drive me to madness than break some mere human law?

In the context of a literary education dominated by Jane Austen (English all-girls prep school - rolls eyes), Jane Eyre felt radical - a proto-feminist tract in the form of a gothic-romantic novel. Charlotte Bronte presented us with a mid-nineteenth century heroine that was plain and poor, rather than pretty and middle-class. A heroine with a strong morality but who rejects both the piety of Mr Brocklehurst and the Christian "cheek-turning" martyrdom of Helen Burns. A heroine that attracted her lover, Edward Rochester, with moral and intellectual strength rather than sparkling wit. A heroine that rejected that same brooding Byronic hero to protect her moral autonomy and sense of self. A heroine who, even in the very depths of desperation and poverty, was never a "damsel in distress" to be rescued by her cousin, St John Rivers. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is morally and intellectual tough, but never a prig (in the way that Austen's Fanny Price can be), and her happiness resides in finding a man who with whom she can be herself - who gives her permission to be herself - the ultimate philosophical emancipation. And whereas so many romantic novels end abruptly with a marriage, Jane Eyre ends with a resolute declaration and the readers belief that, yes, this really is a marriage of equals that will last. 

Despite my great respect for the novel, I feel that it lends itself less easily to screen adaptation that the sparkling novels of Austen. Gothic tales, if mis-handled, can seem melodramatic and ridiculous. And then there are those few episodes which stretch credulity on the page, and look absurd on screen. How should a modern audience react to the sight of Edward Rochester dressing up as a gypsy woman to read Jane's fortune? How will they react to the absurd coincidence that St John Rivers is Jane's cousin? And how far will Hollywood have the courage to cast a hero and heroine that really are plain and Byronically ugly respectively? To my mind, the most successful adaptations have been the 1944 JANE EYRE with a truly frightening and Bryonic Orson Welles as Rochester, and a script by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. The only negative was the altogether too pretty and insipid Joan Fontaine as Jane. After that, I very much liked the 1996 Franco Zefirelli JANE EYRE starring a good-looking but suitably old and menacing William Hurt as Rochester and the absolutely perfect Jane in the jolie-laide Charlotte Gainsbourg. Both of these adaptations retained the gothic, dark atmosphere of the novel and showed the struggle between passion and morality. Both are memorable and definitive in their own way.

The new adaptation of JANE EYRE from director Cary Fukunage (SIN NOMBRE) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (TAMARA DREWE) has its moments but must, overall, be judged a failure. And for that, I blame the writer and director. Buffini's screenplay is admirably concise; uses an effective flashback structure; and thankfully omits all episodes that force a willing suspension of disbelief that strains the modern viewer. (No gypsy and the Rivers aren't cousins). But, Buffini also compresses Jane's early years so radically that we do not get a sense of how she came to be the remarkably self-possessed, morally upright woman that Rochester falls in love with. The Red Room is shorn of its Gothic visions; the death of Helen Burns is dealt with in a matter of minutes; and most importantly, the good example of Miss Temple, the kind teacher who forms so much of Jane's character, is omitted entirely. And so, after a few short episodes, we go to Thornfield and see, almost as quickly as we rush through Jane's childhood, Rochester and Jane falling in love. Admittedly, once we get to that point, the love story plays out beautifully, because Buffini finally gives the story room to breathe, and Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (though both far too beautiful) finally get the chance to show what fine actors they are. 

But as the story develops into its dramatic climax, the movie and the script absolutely fails. For Buffini and Fukunaga have taken the decision to focus on the romance, the intellectual and emotional inter-play, at the expense of the Gothic. There is no "woman at the foot of the bed", no "tearing of the veil"...It's as though they are embarrassed by it, or unwilling to keep faith with Eyre's vision. Indeed, they are so embarrassed by the generally brooding and serious tone of the novel, that they feel it necessary to make Judi Dench's Mrs Fairfax comic relief - pathetic. And so we are left with a very beautifully acted and wonderfully photographed (DP Adriano Goldman) love story yes - and with no little power - the scene where Rochester begs Jane to stay is quite wonderful. But this is not Jane Eyre, not really. The proto-feminism is there - the Victorian romance is there - but the Gothic is cruelly, disastrously under-played.

JANE EYRE was released earlier this year in the US, Estonia, Latvia, Taiwan, Portugal, South Korea, Iceland, South Africa, Singapore, Israel, Kuwait and the Czech Republic. It is currently on release in Hong Kong and Russia. It opens on September 9th in Belgium, France, Ireland and the UK. It opens on September 16th in Sweden; on September 22nd in the Netherlands; on December 1st in Germany; on December 9th in Turkey and on February 23rd 2012 in Denmark.

Friday, September 09, 2011

George Ghon comments on THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Art keeps you free.
George Ghon, fashion writer, stylist, editor of ALPHA magazine, and cinephile, comments on THE SKIN I LIVE IN.......

Pedro Almodóvar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN is a multi-faceted film, an experiment that combines the tradition of Greek drama with a modern, slightly surreal medical thriller. The central character, a brilliant Antonio Banderas as Robert Ledgard, is the contemporary equivalent to a doomed ancient king. He attempts to transcend his own human powers, plays god, and is bitterly punished for his hubris. He is an enormously talented surgeon that has pushed the boundaries in transplantology, scion of a wealthy family, and yet, his life is not a happy game. He tried to save his wife after she burned in a car crash, on the run with her lover. He tried to save his daughter, after the fragile girl got abused and raped in the scenic setting of a lush garden party. Both those women, for whom he had so much affection, took their own lives and found a sudden, unexpected death when jumping out through an open window. These bitter experiences, as well as his talent and money, make for an ambivalent character. On one hand brutal and powerful, but at the same time sensitive and almost loveable in his passion.

He finds his victim and, like Pygmalion, uses his skill to shape it into his perfect partner. In Ovid’s metamorphoses Venus grants the sculptor’s wish and the ivory statue becomes alive. In the Spanish town of Toledo, set in the year 2012, the surgeon also hopes for divine intervention. From the wall of his staircase lurks an oversized Venus d’Urbino, the renaissance painting originally conceived by Titian. It can (re-) ignite love and passion in its spectators, but it has also been seen as marriage picture, as object that was deliberately made to affirm and save the relationship of a couple. 

None other than recreating his lost love is Robert’s aim. But he reverts to dubious practises in order to achieve his goal, and fails miserably in the end. During the opening shots, we can see a beautiful, slightly androgynous girl practising Yoga in a locked room (Elena Anaya as Vera). Guarding her perfect body in a tightly fitted suit, she is completely shut off from the outside world. The only solace she can find, except from physical workout, is engaging with the art of Louise Bourgeois, which she learns through books coming up in a little elevator. She tears apart swatches of fabric and re-uses them to form little sculptures. 

First this seems unusual, but not utterly bizarre. Yet. The real story we only learn later in the film. It then becomes clear that Vera is searching for a new identity and delves into sculpture to overcome an existential angst that results from traumatic surgery. She is Robert’s chosen one, the one he experiments on and tries to find love for. By and by, she comes to terms with her fate and accepts the lover’s role, before finally encountering a reawakening reminder of her past. 

This movie deals with the big themes of classic tragedy, with love, loss, and redemption. Shot in beautiful locations and executed with superb cinematography, it is a feast for aesthetes. But the picture goes deeper than just touching the beautiful surface of things. It deals with the skin of bodies, but also affects the lives beneath it. There is a lot to consider about this new Almodóvar, no matter that the story might have its flaws. 

THE SKIN I LIVE IN played Cannes 2011 and was released in August in France, Ireland and the UK. It was released earlier this month in Spain, and is released today in the Czech Republic and Hungary. It played Toronto 2011 next week and opens in Russia and Poland. It opens on September 23rd in Argentina and Italy. It opens in Brazil and the US on October 14th and in Germany on October 20th. It opens in Hong Kong and Sweden on December 2nd.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Guest review - ATTENBERG

This review is brought to you my guest reviewer, Karan Aurora:

Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg is a curious little film. For its brief running time it completely busies itself with chronicling a brief period in the life of Marina (Ariane Labed). She is a 23 year old girl who lives in an anonymous town in Greece nestled in a quiet valley with its own bay, a big industrial plant on its outskirts and a whole lot of white little matchbox houses joined neatly by perpendicular pavements and roads. One of the architects who worked building this little industrial town is Marina's father who is now dying of a terminal illness and his daughter remains his sole support. Marina, previously disinterested in guys and all things romantic is also seen starting to explore her sexuality and has started to date a guy from the town. When not shuttling her dad in and out of hospital or taking newbies around town, she is seen spending most of her leisure time either watching David Attenborough's wildlife documentaries (the film gets its title from her erroneous pronunciation of his surname) or indulging in synchronised randomness with her best friend: from time to time the film cuts to these two girls dressed in identical costumes walking step in step and doing choreographed runs down their favourite back alley. 

There is much that perplexed me about Attenberg but probably the most was Tsangari's insufferable need to underline the quirks of the protagonist (quite like my paragraph above) to the point that it came across as patronizing and slightly voyeuristic. After the fourth time a mellow moment or a contemplative conversation is intercut with two minutes of Marina's silly walk with her friend any mood and atmosphere conjured with meticulous detail by Tsangari (whitewashed interiors, gloomy grey skies, rain spattered windows and generally a pallette sucked of all colour) completely evaporates. It might be just for effect or relief or a way for a deeply conflicted Marina channelling her rage, but being jolted time and again when you are busy trying to invest in the movie's characters and the context here gets rather irksome. There are countless such instances where you see Tsangari squealing Weird Small Town People from the way she emphasises odd things in her shots and reduces her people to tics and fixations. Very briefly though, she manages to get it all right, invests some care and makes it all flow. And it works. Like how from out-of-the-blue her main characters suddenly launch into an impromptu play-fight where they mimic gestures and calls of animals they so religiously watch in Attenborough's documentaries. But outside these choice moments, the film struggles to hang together.    

I also did not particularly revel in having Marina as a protagonist. Besides being crowded with quirks and typical teenage curiosities that she feels the urge to vocalise all at once, she is given an emotional range of a toothpick. Nothing much has ever caught her fancy and frankly, she couldn't care less. On the surface, she might wonder about her "alternate" ideas about sex, relationships and how she is "above it" and "does not see the fuss about love, guys, intercourse" etc, but give her some alone time and her affectations and concerns are as twee as any teenage girl next door. Ironically even at her most subversive, like with her friend doing their dancing and singing and spitting as a twosome, she is stilted and as later revealed, incapable of empathy. Oscillating between being passive aggressive and ambivalent, there is little coherence to her actions or thoughts for the people around her and Tsangari's opaque film offers very little in terms of both explanation and warmth.

Without any emotional connect then, watching Attenberg purely at an intellectual level also proves underwhelming at best. If there was any anthropological insight into this "abandoned small town phenomenon" where people who are reared up without much stimulation and exposure from further ashore and who are not being bombarded with expected and accepted societal schemas and behaviours from the internet, TV, radio etc then grow up to be such emotionally sterile dispassionate zombies then it is (thankfully) cancelled out by the three thanklessly written functional supporting characters who surround Marina.  

Some of the inorganic elements are beautifully filmed here, like the long takes of the alumina refinery in the end credits or the water movements of garden sprinklers in the start credits but the directness and clarity with which Tsangari starts with her people in this film is never really followed upon. You do take some moments home like a father regretfully looking down from a tall terrace on the ugly town he helped form or on being asked a suitable music for her father's funeral service the girl asking if bebop is an option, but overall you come out of the cinema slightly amused but totally unmoved and unconvinced.

ATTENBERG played Venice where actress Ariane Lebed won the Volpi Cup and writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari wo the Lina Mangaicapre Award. It also played Toronto 2010 and Sundance 2011.  It opened in 2010 in Greece and earlier this year in Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia. It is currently on release in the UK and Denmark. It opens on September 21st in France.

Monday, September 05, 2011

George Ghon comments on KILL LIST

Here's a quick comment from Fashion writer, editor and stylist, not to mention friend of the blog, George Ghon:

British film doesn’t have a tradition of complete genre mash up à la Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, the two visionary directors who have pumped some pulp and horror into the American gangster film. Writer-director Ben Wheatley's (DOWN TERRACE) style is subtler, a bit more creepy, but no less genre defying. 

In his new feature KILL LIST,  he starts with a working class family drama that takes unexpected turns, evolving into a brutal hit-man saga, before finally plunging into the darkest territories of human interactions. It is deeply unsettling to watch, mainly due to the tension it creates between the normality of suburban life and scenes of surreal violence. 

A couple raises a 7 year old son, the father takes him on a casual stroll along the river, before he sets off to a series of kills, which is his job, but not only that. They are not handled professionally, but with utter, abhorrence for the victims, a style to kill that results from a dark past, which is left blank, unexplained, just exists as a haunting shadow. 

Reality is cut up, quite literally in an edit (Robin Hill) that occasionally runs the sound on a different time frame than the image, weirdly showing a character talking when he is actually displayed in silence on the screen. There are also gaps in the story line, certain things just don’t make sense, and the end is as chilling as it is ambiguous and hard to understand. But that does not take away the subliminal power that this film exerts, relying on close-up documentary style filming (DP Laurie Rose), and improvised dialogue. A welcome sign that filmmaking has not come to an end of commercialized standards that make us fall asleep every time we take a tenner out of our pockets in order to enter a movie theatre.

KILL LIST played Frightfest 2011 and is currently on release in the UK and Ireland. It will be shown at the Strasbourg European Fantasy Festival on September 17th.