2000s, Biopic

Nowhere Boy (2009)

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Director: Sam Taylor-Wood

By Roderick Heath

Something that’s always struck me about the music of the peace-and-love era’s pop artists, particularly British ones like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon, is how much anger, confusion, and frustration often radiates from their lyrics. I got some insight into this through my own father and his experiences as a young British male, a personal key for glimpsing a generation that often felt they were raised like the proverbial mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. “All John Lennon Needed Was Love” states Nowhere Boy’s threateningly facile tagline, but it’s not such a long bow to draw an immediate link between the Beatle’s overt longing for a fellowship of Man and his emotionally bereft, often disturbingly abusive low points. A trait of his generation was the way in which a sense of their own psychological integrity was vitally linked to the state of the world around them, and Lennon exemplified that: the ’70s were, for him, the ultimate bad trip after a euphoric high. It’s clear in hindsight that a private psychodrama that eroded Lennon’s achievements and consumed much of his later life, began in Lennon’s adolescence. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut directorial feature attempts to discern through Lennon’s experiences a more general bildungsroman: how does the way we’re brought up affect us? Do we sense lies and mysteries in spite of all efforts to hide them? Is it useful to channel these problems into creation, or is that merely self-crucifixion?

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Lennon’s life, and others like it, represents heavily-trodden ground for rock biographers, journalists, and memoirists, but not so much for filmmakers. A few ’70s films, especially the fictionalised versions of Lennon’s life That’ll Be the Day and Stardust (both 1974), and Quadrophenia (1979), Franc Roddam’s riff on Townshend’s themes, evoked the teenage highs within the tawdry world of the first Brit-Rock era with immediacy and grit. Alan Parker’s film of the Waters-masterminded Pink Floyd opus The Wall (1982) described with inspired breadth of vision the psychic landscape of a burnt-out ‘60s rock star. Backbeat (1993), a minor, but well-directed and acted account of the Beatles’ crucial years in Hamburg (especially by Ian Hart, his second stab at playing Lennon after the 1991 telemovie The Hours and Times). Backbeat makes for a virtual prequel to Taylor-Wood’s film, which ends with Lennon setting off to Hamburg. Someday, I suppose, someone’s going to take on the unenviable challenge of trying to squeeze the history of pop music’s most definitive band into a feature film, but so far, movies have been content to describe the edges of that phenomenon. Lennon’s status as an avatar for his age’s confused masculinity could, nonetheless, be a cultural lightning rod in the right artist’s hands as much as it was in his own.

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Nowhere Boy recounts a defining triangle that’s well known to anyone who’s ever read about Lennon’s life: his relationship with his stern bourgeois aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mostly absent, free-spirited but fragile mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia left John to live with Mimi amidst the wreckage of her marriage, another part-victim of the Second World War’s chaotic impact on settled lives, and also of Julia’s own mental instability; these reasons are at least in part motivations that John (Aaron Johnson) has to discover in a variety of emotional detective story, because they’re deeply hidden under layers of protective propriety. The sudden death of John’s father figure, his Uncle George (David Threlfall), proves a catalyst for John as he’s passing through his middle teens; his behaviour becomes wilder and angrier, and he glimpses Julia for the first time in years, hovering at George’s funeral. When his cousin Stan (James Johnson) pries John away from Mimi for a day trip to Blackpool, he tells John he knows where Julia lives. When John calls on her, she grasps onto him with famished eagerness. After he’s suspended from school for touting pornography, John starts hanging out during the day at Julia’s place, and she introduces him to playing the banjo. That cosy arrangement ends when Mimi finds out what’s going on and confronts the pair; John momentarily spurns Mimi, but is forced to return to her when Julia’s husband Bobby (David Morrissey) worries that having John around might cause another of her breakdowns.

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In the meantime, John doodles in notebooks, practises funny voices, cuts class, seduces girls into elementary sex in the park—there’s one of those “fish and finger pies”—and bubbles with latent creativity. He stoically dismisses his headmaster’s abuse by calling himself a genius. As rock ‘n’ roll soon becomes John’s obsession, he finds it’s also Julia’s love, and she gleefully explains the etymology of the phrase. His channelling of his unruly, rebellious, creative energy into that despised art form is partly informed by the alternatives Julia offers, and her own wayward, undisciplined joie-de-vivre and porous boundaries. Discomfortingly, a spark of something suggesting attraction between him and Julia percolates unconsciously as the sensual older woman encounters the good-looking young bloke she barely knows. John, having found a constructive form of rebellion, announces to his mates when they’re gathered for a smoke in the school toilets that he’s going to form a skiffle band. When they prove surprisingly enjoyable at a public performance in a local park, with John’s charismatic, enthusiastic performing drawing real interest, they soon attract Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and an alarmingly young George Harrison (Sam Bell). They have prodigious instrumental skills Lennon smartly adopts forthwith, but he’s also jealous of them when he notices they can turn attention, including Julia’s, away from him. Meanwhile, John’s increasingly aggressive, brittle behaviour drives Mimi to ineffective punishments and widens the gap between them.

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Nowhere Boy is most distinguished by a smart psychological grasp on its protagonist, depicting aspects of Lennon’s behaviour that would recur throughout his life, and positing the reasons why. Taylor-Wood does bend over backwards to avoid the usual tropes for foreshadowing future greatness, portraying Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting as a deft mix of shy friendliness and power-playing, and the one moment in which a future song is preordained is an ugly one, when John attempts to drunkenly apologise to one of his girlfriends, only for her companion to pull her away dismissing him as a loser. Lennon and McCartney’s crystallising understanding commences when John learns Paul’s still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and is finally sealed, ironically, when John clobbers Paul and then embraces him with desperate self-disgust, in the wake of tragedy. The narrative builds steadily toward a night of crisis that is Lennon’s 17th birthday; Julia throws a party for John and his friends, but John’s seething frustration begins to boil over, and he slams a washboard over a friend’s head, insults Julia and confronts her over her abandonment of him, and then leaves in a fury. Returning to Mimi, he finds she prepared a birthday feast, too, and bought him a new electric guitar. Julia turns up desperate to heal the rift, resulting in a tempestuous airing of dirty laundry that reduces Julia to pleadingly explaining her mental problems whilst being dragged along the floor. John, dazed and forlorn, wanders into the night and awakens in the dawn light on the Mersey bank.

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That’s a sustained and effective depiction of the way youthful rites of passage can sometimes turn into eruptive opportunities for catharsis. Duff and Scott-Thomas are excellent at portraying opposites of character and social expectation conjoined in their pained, fractious sisterly relationship, and the preternaturally unusual and infuriating young man they share. Particularly admirable is the scene when the two sisters finally sit down together, Duff’s Julia registering Mimi’s unexpected kindness with the faintest of tremors running through her face. It’s a pity then that Nowhere Boy finally sets its sights rather low, both stylistically and thematically. A common problem with biopics is that they rarely muster anything like the invention of their subjects, and Nowhere Boy is the kind of middle-of-the-road, tasteful piece of work Lennon would likely have mocked. Similar to the pre-Swinging-60s sociology of another recent film, An Education (2009), it fails to recreate visually and convincingly the milieu in any but the most prettified and flavourless of fashions. Like Anton Cobijn, who brought a pungent, yet unforced verisimilitude to Control (2007), his film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Taylor-Wood is a former photographer. This fact usually entails an advanced visual sense and much less advanced drama-shaping skills, but oddly the opposite seems a problem here. Taylor-Wood doesn’t do anything to grit up the long-since deindustrialised environs of Liverpool, and the necessary recreation of the tactile, gritty world that produced the Beatles is missing. There’s not much invention or poetry to the visuals, and though the performance scenes are convincing and enjoyable, there’s little electricity or sense of a talented but inexperienced band getting better.

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Taylor-Wood does offer one excellent little flourish, when Julia’s given John his banjo and he strums it clumsily and makes progress in snatches of real-time whilst Julia’s household whirls in time-lapse around him: it’s a strong vision of the kind of self-removal and obsession-mastering any art requires. If Taylor-Wood had mustered more such invention, Nowhere Boy might have added up to more, but it feels like a movie that’s over before it’s getting started. More subtly, it fails as a specific portrait. Johnson’s performance is terrific in its way, in his period mannerisms, playful imitations, and deft reserve of Liverpudlian obscenities, but he never quite seems to have a handle on Lennon’s individualistic humour and spiky intelligence, and he emphasises glowering teen angst to the point of tedium: Lennon’s snaky charm is too often missing. Still, there’s an effective vision of a young man growing into his skin when Johnson’s Lennon, after wasting so much energy trying to appear tough and defiant, walks away from the art college he’s now attending clad in rocker hairdo, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, clearly, suddenly, stridently in control of his persona and his mind, if not his emotions.

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The failure to add up to much is exacerbated by the film’s last-act weaknesses and pat scripting, particularly the common fault of foreshadowing tragedy—Julia’s death in a car accident—with scenes that amble along in just such a way that lets us know something bad’s going to happen purely by their lack of urgency. The very conclusion is airbrushed into a standard-issue crisis resolution, with John seeming to have accepted Mimi as parent and setting off to conquer the world. Completely avoided is John’s later, pained encounter with his long-absent father. Modern films are under the spell of giving us closure, even when it’s inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate here. Although Taylor-Wood’s debut is filled with engaging touches, it still required more daring and personality. The guy who wrote “I Am The Walrus” as well as “I’m A Loser” deserved as much.

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2000s, Biopic, Drama, War

Che: Part One / Part Two (2008)

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Director: Steven Soderbergh

By Roderick Heath

With the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh helped make American independent film into a minor religion. He followed that debut up with a battery of peculiar, uneven, but interesting works in the ’90s before finding new traction with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but curiously hollow neo-noir. Actually, I could attach those adjectives to most of his films, which are definable by their refined surface approximations and which made him a mainstream darling with 2001’s oddly empty sociopolitical panorama Traffic and the wittily styled, equally shallow Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh has found a niche in the last decade as a polished pseudo-auteur and pet ringmaster for various movie stars, specialising in ironically deadpan satires, genre works clad in retro chic, and occasional returns to indie cinema realism. Last year’s The Informant! was interesting chiefly for combining the disparate halves of his oeuvre and preoccupations, with its genuinely probing sense of modern American values and expansive, concerned sense of political culture, mixed in with jaunty ’70s-ish music and candy-coloured, caricatured visions of Midwestern suburbia.

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His colossal Che Guevara project, on the other hand, seemed a total rejection of his Hollywood side, and it’s largely a success as that: Che looks for much of its length like something Ken Loach might have made, minus his up-the-proles sentimentality, but failing to generate the kind of gritty tragedy and rousing sense of fighting for a cause that Loach managed in his Land and Freedom and to a lesser extent his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Che as a whole seems precisely designed to alienate the people who might have paid to see it—young faux-radicals wearing Che t-shirts—as the flavour of Soderbergh’s work is purgative, studying in unremitting detail the arduous experience of Guevara as victorious and tragic revolutionary warrior. The approach to the project, coproduced by star Benicio Del Toro, is an attempt at total resistance to any whiff of romanticisation, aiming merely for tactile realism and elemental narrative. It’s also equally possible to label Soderbergh’s cool, procedural approach as avoidance of controversy. Certainly, cautionary examples are on offer, like the infamous 1969 Richard Fleischer film Che! It is, however, a coherent unit of his career, and one that casts some of what he’s been trying to get at in new light.

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Like Traffic, Che questions the cost the triumph of the United States and consumer culture has had on poorer neighbours and points out the dubious aspects of postwar American hegemony (even his otherwise totally disastrous The Good German had that element). As in many of his other films, it offers a doomed hero locked in a battle with combines and conspiracies—with the obvious difference that Guevara was a real man, one idolised and vilified with equal fervour. It’s possible either way to discern more than a dash of nostalgia in Soderbergh’s film for foreign antagonists of the U.S. and alternate political creeds about something more substantial than bristling religious prejudice and hazy geopolitical spite, for the days when even such opposites as Guevara and a U.S. senator (in this case Eugene McCarthy, played by Jon DeVries) could converse with firm but polite discourse, and for the thrill of new possibilities when Latin American socialism didn’t bring to mind the horrors of the Shining Path on one hand and the egotisms of Hugo Chavez on the other. That nostalgia is, however, troubling in itself: what exactly Guevara’s journey means to the contemporary landscape other than, in strict terms, lessons on how to fight, win, and lose guerrilla wars, is only suggested in animating spirit rather than concrete depiction. Moral necessity and moral cost are questions kept at a very distant arm’s length. One thing is certain after the film is finished: the man was determined. And even if the film’s precepts are backwards-looking, Soderbergh attempts to realise Guevara’s trials as the most immediate kind of cinema.

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The ironies of Guevara’s career are captured with some dexterity. Guevara is still venerated, and comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) has become a faded figure of sclerotic despotism, largely because Guevara gave up the tricky arts of management to keep on with the gritty arts of war. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heard to say early on in the film that “revolution is not exportable,” in the sense that each form of revolt has to be specific to the soil from which it will spring. Yet Che forgets this in ignoring warnings that Bolivia is too xenophobic and peculiar for it to accept a simple repetition of his Cuban success. The film’s diptych structure is stimulating not only as a study of diverse outcomes, but also of perspective: what looks heroic and determined in one case looks foolish and pig-headed in the second. Present is the suggestion—not analysed—that Che’s desire to bring the revolution to Bolivia is motivated by its proximity to his native Argentina, whose sleazy dictatorship he would have held in contempt.

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The screenplay by Peter Buchman, with Benjamin A. van der Veen contributing to Part Two, is adapted with few digressions and little psychological or sociological portraiture from Guevara’s own diaries and accounts. Part One is punctuated by flash-forwards to Che representing Cuba at the UN and being interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond) in New York, his air of ruffled but towering dignity and paramilitary clothing cutting a swath through that city’s chattering classes. This stands in counterpoint to the finicky business of the actual revolution: telling off sloppy soldiers, weeding out unpromising recruits, executing criminals, listening to the tales and complaints of Cubans he and his men encounter, and a hundred other tiny aspects of turning a band of uninspiring adventurers into a popularly supported, effective army, one that he finally leads to victory in a memorably filmed sequence of street warfare in the town of Santa Clara. Che, in New York, is absorbed by Soderbergh’s camera as faintly dissociated, weary, haunted, and happy in ways that are all indefinable, whilst still fierce enough to take on the cabal of petty dictatorships and hypocrites that comprise the other American delegates—out of place at parties and amusingly exasperated by his translator’s constantly absenting himself to see the town. The suggestion is there, too, that Che’s fame came as much out of the impact he made in being seen in that environment, packing the spirit and the firm corporeal rigour of the revolutionary into his intimidating person in an incongruous context, as it did from any anecdotal triumph.

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The contrast, with the younger, beardless Che and Fidel speaking seriously but amiably about their plan in an apartment in Mexico City before embarking on their Cuban adventure, is telling in itself, and even more so is the vision of Che in Bolivia, increasingly gaunt, grizzled, and wheezing in crippling asthmatic fits, engaged in what looks awfully like the kind of quixotic bourgeois adventuring he would have disdained. There he’s aided by some hangers-on of dubious relevance, like a German socialist dubbed Tania (Franka Potente), as he and all his warriors take on pseudonyms and too little organic contact with the Bolivian radicals they’re supposed to be aiding. The film takes care to note that the Soviet-backed local Communist Party refused all aid to Che, whose style and aims by this time were all too clearly as offensive to the Eastern Bloc as to the West (at least so the films suggests, whilst many historians feel that Che’s committed Marxism had the opposite effect on the Cuban revolution). The Communists instead instigate a strike that results in the massacre of miners. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most pointed scenes of contemporary relevance, American military and intelligence personnel advise and aid the Bolivian army in tracking down their insurgents.

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Soderbergh’s deliberately happenstance sense of continuity, though sometimes bewildering, is convincing in portraying a world where faces and events whip by and out of view: even Che’s battlefield romance with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only vaguely, tangentially suggested. “We’ve only won the war,” Che tells a cadre when Batista’s fall is announced: “The revolution starts now.” The irony there is that Che soon runs off to another war, bringing up the possibility it’s war that he’s truly best at and is now more comfortable in such situations than in his home life, and certainly not in the impersonal squabbles of governing and diplomacy. Soderbergh constantly notes Che’s immediate, interpersonal sense of decency that both inspires loyalty and hero-worship amongst his soldiers and the people he meets, and renders his sensibility finally inimicable to the kind of personality-cult leadership that Castro radiates. He also retains a good little middle class boy’s propriety for private property, as noted in the first part’s amusing coda, when he tells off some of his men for embarking on their triumphant ride to Havana in a stolen hotrod. The revolution will not be a joyride.

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Soderbergh’s visual discoveries are sometimes quietly revelatory. The Cuban half is defined by a sense of dynamism, with the intercutting between war and present endowing all the bits and pieces with a sense of direction and meaning. Even the denseness of the jungle is as enclosing and reassuring as it is frustrating and arduous, for it hides the revolutionaries from their enemies. The purposefulness of the structure as well as the described narrative is always apparent, as Che and his army leave behind that jungle for the flatter hinterland and, finally, the clean white streets. In Part One, Che is shown learning how to punish transgression with some neatly disposed court justice, when he quickly shoots two of his soldiers who have turned to stealing and raping, thus prefacing his eventual comfort executing hundreds of state enemies as the militarised, expedient ethos of the battlefield became the defining key of the new nation.

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In the Bolivian half, no such reassurance is present. Che and his soldiers move in less definable directions, and are as often as not discovered sitting or standing about in patient but discernable cluelessness about what to do next. Their one ambush of Bolivian soldiers is a tragicomic interlude where the enemy soldiers’ hated officer blubs and cowers, and the men are finally marched off without their guns and gear. The Bolivian landscape, often as unforgiving but more arid and less enveloping, invokes in itself the failure of Che’s efforts to flourish. He and his band are finally caught in a canyon by Bolivian soldiers whose advancing ranks, picked out in an effective long pan, are reminiscent of a similar army that appears to crush the rebels at the end of Spartacus (1960).

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Che’s two parts have definite conceptual rigour in the balance and contrast that define its hemispheres, and the project retains a compelling, hypnotic flow that suggest that by stripping himself of all obvious supports, Soderbergh found a kind of purity. But conceptual rigour doesn’t guarantee depth of purpose, and what the Che diptych finally achieves is questionable for a work of such scope and heft. As a plain portrait of a man of war, it’s an undoubted success, one charged with a kind of spare poeticism and effervescent melancholia. On the other hand, it’s a film that might have infuriated Che, at least to the extent that it’s so disengaged from any personalised, dramatised sense of what he was fighting for. If Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) reduced young Ernesto Guevara to a gap-year holiday-maker who once read a political pamphlet, it nonetheless captured a sense of a man whose sensibility was fed by interaction with the world. What that world, and Guevara’s politicised interpretation of it, means to him, is much less vaguely defined here, for Soderbergh’s approach owes less to neorealism than to television documentary, where everything is depicted through snatches of interviews and wobbly glimpses of chaos. Che’s cause is explicated through recited rhetoric and snatches of sloganeering: the meaning of Guevara’s politics, both to himself and to the political business he got involved in, remains a given—and a ghost, tantalisingly and finally irritatingly out of reach. Whilst Soderbergh’s focus is coherent in intent and effective in result, he finally seems to have worked himself into a corner, where the most interesting reasons for making a film about El Che—to wrestle with recent history and understand the revolutionary appeal—have been excised.

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Perhaps it’s because Soderbergh’s clearest similarity to Guevara is how both men quickly became dissatisfied with past achievements and must move on to new projects. Soderbergh’s wild pace of work in the past few years, playing with styles and technical challenges, feels the trait less of a radical than of a craftsman out to test his skills. The great amount of time and effort that Soderbergh takes to say some obvious things (revolution is hard work, failing and dying is a pain in the ass) is partly vindicated by the many small treasures he unearths along the way, but finally Che adds up to a fascinating and occasionally superb failure. It’s less suggestive of a creative mind avoiding cliché than of a process one witnesses too much these days: an artist-intellectual arguing himself into an expressive dead end.

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1960s, Biopic, Experimental, Fantasy, Foreign

Sayat Nova (1968)

aka The Colour of Pomegranates

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By Roderick Heath

An authentic piece of cinematic shamanism, Sayat Nova was a work that placed its brilliant Georgian-born, ethnic-Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov in hot water with the Soviet-era authorities. At first glance, this seems nearly incomprehensible. What the hell was so subversive about a plotless, characterless, almost-silent extended montage of beautiful and mysterious images? Perhaps therein lies the answer: nothing upsets the bureaucratic mindset like mystery. Of course, there are layers to such a controversy. Paradjanov was a dedicated nonconformist, a bisexual bohemian linked to nationalist and civil rights groups and celebrator of pan-Caucasian folk traditions, and his film was an aggressive act of cultural dissembling. Damn it if the commissars didn’t sense something under all the strange gestures and allusions to Armenian history. The Soviet Union, like Tsarist Russia before it, had always maintained a hegemonic domination of the many smaller nations it bordered and swallowed, and Paradjanov’s fetishist celebration of his culture’s dreamtime past seemed a jab at that hegemony.

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A contradictory quality of much post-Stalinist Soviet cinema is what appeared to be its relatively unfettered artistic bent, producing wondrously innovative cinema from the likes of Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Klimov, Shepitko, Konchalovsky and others, which rarely betrayed any sign of subordination to the familiar rigours of narrative appeal. Indeed, Paradjanov was taking to an extreme something Eisenstein had begun in his historical films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible Part I and Part II (1946-58) in reducing mise-en-scène to iconography and acting to gesture: the distance from Ivan the Terrible’s wedding dance to Sayat Nova’s figurations isn’t so great, even if the gothic force and giddiness of Eisenstein’s style is dispensed with. Such a retreat into formalism and poetic allusion angered authorities, but it often was the only mode of expression left to genuine film artists when “Soviet realism” was defined only as sanctioned realism. Either way, Sayat Nova was edited, retitled as the less culturally specific The Colour of Pomegranates (reflecting one of the first images of the film) and often completely suppressed; its director was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, including that he raped a man bigger than he was.

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None of which says much really about Sayat Nova as a piece of artistry, which in intent and effect transcends the immediate agonies of its history. Named for and, after a fashion, telling the life of famed 18th century Armenian “ashug” (poet-troubadour) Harutyun Sayatyan (his popular title means “King of Song”), Paradjanov refused to create a biopic, instead preferring images illustrating poetic metaphors and vaguely describing the key acts of Sayat Nova’s life. The opening seems to be juxtaposing images associated with one of Sayatyan’s poems on the stages of the soul’s ripening. Paradjanov apparently identified deeply with the poet, and the on-screen biography seems partly imbued with aspects of Paradjanov’s own life: both men were born in T’bilisi outside of their ethnic homeland.

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In vaguest outline, Sayat Nova is similar to Paradjanov’s good friend Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev: both examine the role of the artist in terms of society in historical contexts infused with allegorical purpose. Each embellishes sketchy life narratives with similar details as both films’ heroes reject the world after youthful pains and burrow deep into monkish asceticism, only to spurn such mortification as death-in-life, and return to the world without spurning faith. It’s easily discernable why such a narrative could fascinate artists in a troubled political milieu. There, however, similarities end: where Rublev is allusive and illustrative in a rarefied but comprehensible and mostly realistic fashion, Sayat Nova is pure artifice, exploring Nova’s poetics and life through tableaux vivant that achieve a synthesis of the aesthetics of early cinema; the Byzantine-influenced, flat-perspective stylisation of Orthodox religious art; and the ritualised dance and theatre of folk cultures.

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The biographical details Paradjanov evokes of Sayatyan’s life (he’s played at different stages of his life by Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, and Giorgi Gegechkori) can be discerned through this panoply of artifice. We see him in childhood, the son of wool vendors in a small village. He is taught a love of books by a priest and introduced to the human body and eroticism by spying on men and women in steam baths. His life as a courtier and traveling diplomat, his ill-fated romance with a princess, his retreat into a monastery, his final disillusionment with such a withdrawn life, and his failed attempt to return to the world all follow, before his final violent death at the hands of invading Persians. Much of the film was shot in or near the 1,000-year-old Haghpat Monastery, where Sayatyan really met his end. Paradjanov invokes such details with a fascinating creative method, relying on the viewer’s visual literacy, for instance, ability to infer from a woman’s beauteous mode of dress and bearing what her social rank is, and how she holds a veil of embroidery over her face to suggest the barriers of form and propriety that keeps Sayatyan from being able to love her.

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The fact that the same actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays both the young poet and his princess amour suggests the narcissism often inherent in young crushes (and also an inherent sexual ambiguity in Paradjanov’s sense of the artistic figure); Paradjanov juxtaposes this with a pair of mimes enacting a ritualised romance between the figures of a devil and an angel. In between the identifiable moments of narrative in Sayat Nova is a cornucopia of evocative imagery, built out of the cultural and religious tropes of classical Armenia, and essayed in not-quite-surrealist terms. The wonder of music as it is presented to young Sayatyan is evoked by his standing with music teachers amongst a number of hovering instruments; a love of literature explicated in a remarkable moment when a priest has him and others rescue soaked books and dry them upon the roof of a church, the young poet standing amongst dozens of the wind-wavered pages.

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The necessary connection of artistic passion to the earth is communicated when the young poet pours earth from a dish onto a cloth he holds; later, when his sense of life has degraded, he holds up an empty dish forlornly. A late crisis in his sense of life is communicated through an awe-inspiring sequence in which the roof of the church transforms into fields reaped by labourers, whilst the aged poet stands on a ledge, his pale body contrasting dead stone whilst the chaff rains, his separation from the natural wellsprings of creativity confirmed. Interestingly, Paradjanov criticised Fellini for driving ever deeper into mystification. This is a curious stance because mystification seems an objective for Paradjanov, and the men used not-dissimilar techniques.

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But it becomes apparent that such an affection for the corporeal, the tangible, an attempt to suggest through texture alone the solidity of things rather than mere dreaminess through surrealism, is altogether exceptional: Paradjanov ransacks and offers up the very building blocks of a culture in its many manifestations (songs, poems, books, architecture, clothing, paintings, dance, acting, religious and social ritual, design and pattern) as wrought from the same tactile relationship with soil and nature. Paradjanov’s visions take on the characteristics of mystical incantation, even magic, but they are certainly nonetheless linked to a subtle dialectic between spirit and flesh, earth and aesthetic, that refuses the celebratory, but arguably solipsistic reinvention of reality that Fellini offered up in his final films.

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Nonetheless, in structure and effect, Sayat Nova is a rite, a liturgy, an invocation for the sake of remembering, as well as a study in the nature of poetic elucidation and the formation of artistic character. The film is almost entirely lacking in spoken dialogue, and indeed many immediate sound effects are also muted in favour of folk music styles on the soundtrack, and recitations of Sayatyan’s poetry. Paradjanov notes a child’s fragmented, distracted way of reading existence in the early sequences, full of jagged observations of such fleeting wonders as the feet of women dancing upon carpets being washed in his home village where such carpets are made, boiled up in vats of crimson dye that becomes interchangeable with blood and therefore sustenance.

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Likewise barnyard animals constantly appear throughout the film, most memorably, a chicken that sits on the poet’s arm like a natural aide, and a flock of sheep that invades the church. Such glimpses are linked to the much later, more complex metaphors of the grown artistic imagination. Later in the film, the cloistered Sayatyan is visited by nuns, one of whom, looking like the princess, magically strips off her black gown, stepping out in blinding white, and comes to him with a carpet, as if embodying the lingering spirit of the fecund, romantic, industrious life he left behind: when she moves to kiss him, he pulls the carpet up between them, echoing the veil the princess once held up to him and reinforcing the self-imposed barrier he’s put up against life.

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This encounter precipitates his crisis, however, for the poet’s search is for an utterly selfless kind of love, and yet discovers in such a moment that his retreat is self-obsession. Begged to come perform by villagers, he ventures back into the landscape with the blessing of the monastery’s abbot to spread his art through the land. But he seems to be too late, finding nothing but empty dishes and encountering the white-clad woman’s burial. Escorted by cherubim, he returns to the monastery. There, however, he meets her again, incarnated now as a nature goddess or angel of resurrection: she tips a vat of red dye over him, symbolising his final murder, falling victim finally to utter corporeal truth. But as he dies, a workman holds up lengths of pipe and calls for him to sing; his songs echo forever from the pipes, a plain metaphor for the ability of the artist’s work to transcend death, and his songs become part of the structure of his culture and nation. The angel provides the final, reigning image, of an evergreen creativity.

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Whilst all of this might sound obscure and dull, the images flow with hypnotic rapidity and teeming imagination that always tantalise and stimulate even at their most bewildering; it’s also a weirdly, subtly sexy movie in its layered textures and obsessive refrains to Chiaureli’s ambisexual beauty. Sayat Nova moreover doesn’t so much demand intellectual dissection as emotional involvement with the intricacy and beauty of its images. Certainly such a conjuring requires an intensely shared cultural basis to work from, as well as a keenly developed symbolic imagination. Still, peculiar and unreproducible as it is, Sayat Nova also seems to have influenced many a director, like Pasolini, Scorsese (in Kundun, 1997), Theo Angelopolous, Gus Van Sant and Bela Tarr, through perhaps to Todd Haynes’ Dylan flick I’m Not There, which sustained a similar conceit of using multiple actors, including a woman, to embody a hero reduced to a series of quotes and affected figurations.

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It’s worth noting in such light that Paradjanov’s impish sense of humour is often in evidence, in moments such as when a number of monks are bathed by their fellows and then carried away as if in preparation for some rite, but actually for treading wine grapes; a flashback the poet has to his childhood of a wool fair that sees a gusting wind upsetting everyone’s wares; and those sheep in the church circling whilst the monks repeat sonorous cant to mourn their dead Patriarch evoking the silliness of religious solipsism and Pavlovian habits of worship. And yet the film’s texture surely confirms two of Paradjanov’s personal statements of his aspiration: “Direction is about truth. It’s about God, love, and tragedy”, and “Beauty will save the world.” Whether he’s right or not, Sayat Nova certainly suggests an untapped world of cinema still awaiting conquest.

Standard
2000s, Australian cinema, Biopic

Bright Star (2009)

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Director/Screenwriter: Jane Campion

By Roderick Heath

Jane Campion is a puzzle to me. She rose out of Aussie cinema in the late 1980s with something of the reputation of a firebrand and a new breed of woman director which she has never really lived up to. Her international hit The Piano (1993) was a kind of mash-up of college-level lit studies, feminist theory, and perfervid Victorian melodrama, with its half-defined metaphors for control of the female voice and the often bartered nature of erotic desire, scored through with a weird variety of emotional and sexual masochism. Those notes were something that recurred in her execrable adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), and In the Cut (2003), in all of which smart but curiously febrile ladies throw themselves at the mercy of beastly male conquerors. It seemed as if Campion’s only mode for exploring femininity was in its battles with a particularly prickly kind of masculinity, whilst never being as direct or lucidly provocative as Catherine Breillat. The cornerstone of her reputation remains, then, her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (1991). Finally, with Bright Star, about the famed poet John Keats and his amour Fanny Brawne, she goes back to English lit class.

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Bright Star begins as an intriguing and layered look at three distinctive characters: Fanny (Abbie Cornish), a dressmaker and designer who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox) and younger brother and sister Margaret and Samuel (Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster) is part of the social circle of the Dilke family. The Dilkes are renting out half of their house to two poets, Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Keats is spindly, doe-eyed, and visionary; Brown is sarcastic, stolid and jealous of Keats’ attention, aware that he’s by far the greater poet. Fanny, intelligent but uneducated, with a defensive prickliness bordering on offensive in her initial encounters with the two men, wants to understand poetry better. She purchases a copy of Keats’ poorly received first book Endymion in order to find out “if he’s an idiot.” Impressed, she makes more tentatively appealing approaches to Keats, asking him to teach her how to approach and understand the poetic process. Brown and Fanny’s encounters are punctuated by grazing, elusive cross-purposes and suspicion, but her talks with Keats are restrained, intelligent, and convivial. The penniless Keats soon falls in love with Fanny, whom he is completely incapable of marrying and taking care of in the expected style.

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The film’s earliest segments, detailing the uncoiling, complex, elusive triangle of admiration and frustration between the two poets and the invasive female, are compelling and original. The idea of introducing Fanny as a transcription of a more contemporary type of woman into a period setting to constantly set Brown on edge illustrates a well-described set of appositional tensions. The masculine fellowship of Keats and Brown, Brown’s resentment of Fanny’s intrusion into it given an even keener twist by his attraction to her, and Keats’ efforts to be fair to everyone whilst dealing with his dying brother Tom (Olly Alexander) are all given their moment’s attention.

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Campion’s firmly physical invocation of time and place, realised by Greg Fraser’s interesting cinematography, emphasises a Georgian England of flapping laundry, singing birds, insect trills, mud, colour-bleached woods, and freeze-dried winter forests. Scenery is absorbed with simple yet intimate vividness, as the natural setting that defines the characters’ lives and that both helps feed Keats’ imagination and wastes away his body. Campion’s feel for physical context is one of the strongest in modern cinema, and the setting, a Hampstead village still not yet annexed by the city of London, seems nearly as exotic as the stormy shores of New Zealand in The Piano. In a splendid early sequence, Fanny and Keats attend a soirée where Campion tries to define the fecundity of an era based entirely in oral and literary skills using a short, but droll turn by Samuel Roukin as John Reynolds, a friend who elegantly evokes the beauties of Keats’ work and a choral of singers spinning beauties in the shadows of the period house. Later, as the couple’s relationship blossoms, their play together is in a fashion that’s offhand, charming, and possessing the flavour of real life. The central pas de trois concludes when Brown writes Fanny a teasing valentine; when Keats hears of it, he erupts in jealous suspicion, Brown insultingly dismisses Fanny as a mere flirt and fan, and Fanny runs from both of them, grievously insulted. It is, however, only the momentary crisis that allows Fanny and Keats’ love to truly expose itself.

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Unfortunately from this point on Bright Star steadily ebbs away to nothingness. The trouble with almost all biopics with a focus on such ill-fated figures is that they eventually must lurch into morbid deathbed fetishism. Campion, far from trying to sidestep the problem, embraces it like an ardent hippie girl with a poet crush determined to feel every hopeless minute of it. There are endless scenes of the heretofore intriguing Fanny weeping over an increasingly desiccated Keats coughing up blood and his friends trying, too late, to secure passage to the healthier climes of Italy. The screenplay’s fatal problem is that the conception and portrayal of Keats never develops beyond spindly, endangered, romantic victim. All the originality and detail of characterisation goes into the sparring duo of Fanny and Brown; Whishaw, who’s already cornered the market on playing bedraggled, doomed avatars of creative self-consumption, is left spouting airy poetic theory and then wasting away in despairing angelic fashion, as if he were as gossamer and ethereal a creature as the famous nightingale of his poem. In one scene, having been installed in a London flat to wait out the time before he can sail, and to spare Fanny and her family the sight of his pain, he turns up lying on the lawn, having walked all the way to berate Fanny for not coming to him.

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Finally this Keats suggests less a living, or dying, man, than an idea for Fanny to fall in love with, an icon to inspire female suffering. In opposition, Schneider’s full-bodied, gratingly convincing performance is far more affecting not only because does he seem more realistic, but he also actually seems to be in the room. Of course, Bright Star is as much, or more, about Fanny, but here’s an equal, quieter failure. Fanny is introduced as a spottily-educated woman desperate to gain some intellectual traction in an almost strictly masculine field of endeavour, and Campion presents a dual-layered parallel of the difficulty Keats faces as an innovative artist in an epoch set strongly against stylistic advance (and as a poet in any era) and that faced by a woman seeking a more than merely passive relationship to both art and men. The trouble is Campion never even tries to reconcile the disparate concepts, the doomed pair of arch-romantics, the wasting troubadour and the weeping true love, and the earlier, more complex creations.

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Cornish’s terrific performance is indeed the force that drags the film along, with alternations of sniping, self-promoting anxiety, her somehow forlorn efforts to prove herself in showing off the dresses she made with their too-showy adornments as her substantial riposte to the airiness of Keats’ words, and finally devastated grief. But Campion’s script pulls the rug out from under her in the second half, and her hopefully devastating final scenes lack the impact they ought to because she’s already been crying for most of the last half-hour. Nor is the film finally interesting for saying anything new about poetry or sexism in the arts: Campion flinches from the questions she raises, so that whilst her filmmaking is artful, her concepts come up empty. Compared with, say, the Julian Temple’s Pandaemonium (2000), which tackled this kind of material with less finesse but far more intellectual heft and provocative cultural theory, Bright Star looks like a witless and stilted objet d’art.

Standard
2000s, Biopic, British cinema, Historical

The Young Victoria (2009)

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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

By Roderick Heath

There’s a new subgenre of prestige pics delving into underappreciated women of history, featuring young starlets hunting for Oscar glory by strapping on corsets like their male movie counterparts often strap on body armour. Last year’s The Duchess was, hard as it was to admit, one of the most solidly satisfying and intelligent works of its kind, a quiet success amidst the stern and manly business of making end of year best-of lists. The Young Victoria seemed primed to be a strong successor, offering the up-and-coming Emily Blunt a meaty, attention-grabbing role as the monarch who gave her name to an entire era and way of life, and yet who remains largely a cipher in the public imagination, largely envisioned as a tubby old lady speaking about herself in the collective pronoun.

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As contemporary historians have often revealed, however, Victoria was a woman—at least in her early years—who, along with her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, became synonymous with the increasing liberalisation, moral probity, and broadening outlook of British society and empire, a process that began with her own ascendance at the fading of the highly macho, less domesticated era embodied by the aged Duke of Wellington. The Young Victoria attempts to dramatise that very point in portraying the teenage Victoria as confined as much by her opportunistic mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her ferocious bully of an advisor and confidant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), as by protocol and concerns over her safety as the only heir to the throne, with her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) childless and her own father long dead. Early sequences of Conroy terrorising Victoria and kicking dogs resemble Victorian melodrama, sure enough, you know, like The Woman in White or something where the young heiress is being browbeaten by the wicked relative into signing over her fortune. Whether or not Conroy is the Duchess’ lover is mooted, yet not ventured into, and the Duchess’s willingness to let her daughter be used as a plaything of state is underscored by Victoria’s rather closer relationship with her childhood confidant and fill-in governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen (Jeanette Hain).

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Victoria, however, despite being raised as if wrapped in cotton wool, has a nascent strength of will, and this, along with William’s ranting distaste for the Duchess and Conroy, holds them at bay long enough so that Victoria, on her uncle’s death, is crowned. Meanwhile, back in Belgium (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write), the fresh prince of that newborn kingdom, King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), wants his young relative Albert (Rupert Friend) to present himself as an interested suitor to the newly minted female monarch. Albert, awkward and intellectual rather than dashing and lordly, appeals to Victoria for precisely these reasons. But Victoria soon falls under the spell not of a romantic rival but a political mastermind, the current liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), a vigorous manoeuvrer and charmer, who works to fill Victoria’s household with his friends’ wives and soon uses her influence to outmaneuver his chief rival, Robert Peel (Michael Maloney).

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Julian Fellowes’ script attempts to draw in as complete and fleet-footed a fashion as possible the proper political perspective as well as the intimate human drama at its core. The idea here, as usual, is to humanise the icons, which means moments like that in which Victoria and Albert express their giddy love for each other by skipping about in the rain. It is in many respects, and not just in being about the same woman, a prequel to Mrs. Brown (1997): where that film’s title came from the epithet spat at Victoria for presumed dalliances with her footman John Brown, here Victoria is branded “Mrs. Melbourne” for her ties to the Prime Minister after he loses an election to Peel, a way of portraying a society that couldn’t perceive a woman as anything more than an extension of whichever man was close to her. Victoria stands firm in not dismissing his cronies in her employment to please Peel, precipitating a constitutional crisis that forces Peel to concede to Melbourne and provokes the usual yowling movie mobs to chuck bricks at Buckingham Palace’s windows. Likewise, director Vallée works to keep things moving with a springy, edit-happy pace, as if trying to live up to having Martin Scorsese as a coproducer.

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Fellowes, to his credit, tries to suggest some depth to his view of the personages, from Wellington (Julian Glover, having fun) commenting on his inability to charm Victoria like Melbourne due to his dislike of her father (“The meanest officer I ever met”), to Conroy halting his gothic tantrums long enough to contemplate his wasted potential. But these remain potted little pretences to character portraiture, and you won’t come away from the film with any but the vaguest feel for who these people were. Threads that are supposed to be affecting, like the rivalry between the Duchess and Lehzen for Victoria’s heart, are doomed because neither is rendered as more than a sketch. Nor do Fellowes and Vallée come close to finding an appropriate rhythm of storytelling or a compelling dramatic arc. The film opens with a sluggishly written voiceover by Blunt and a choppy montage that suggests the techniques of a cable TV docudrama, a feeling that never truly fades. In one moment, Vallée has Victoria glide weightlessly across a ballroom floor towards Albert to take her first post-coronation dance, a gimmick designed to suggest her buoyant love in a moment of triumph, but really a mere showy rupture in the film’s technique. Rather than infuse it with vigour, Vallée’s approach sucks away whatever contiguity it might have possessed, and the comparison to any scene in Sofia Coppola’s hip, yet incisive Marie Antoinette (2006) is not becoming.

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Whilst the politics of the era are evoked and touched upon, there’s no real penetration into the complexities of governing or indeed what exactly is being governed. There’s acknowledgement of Victoria’s interest in social welfare as opposed to Melbourne’s lip-service liberalism, but precious little of the breadth of Victoria’s interests and what she meant to the people of her age—how, for instance, she forcefully repudiated and insisted on contrition for the often crazed suppression of the Indian Mutiny. The scope of the drama rarely proceeds far beyond a procession of gorgeous interiors employed in such a way that doesn’t so much suggest Victoria’s purposefully limited horizons as it does the usual contradiction of this genre: emotional brutality and repression leavened by classic real-estate porn. And, yes, the costumes, buildings, and lighting and shooting thereof (by Hagen Bogdanski) are all pretty indeed, infused with a kind of honeyed light that suggests the luxuriant beauty of being held closest to the bosom of the belle époque.

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Moreover, The Duchess at least found an intense and wrenching personal story at the heart of the period bric-a-brac, something that’s stillborn here. The romance of Victoria and Albert is not one of consuming passion, but the niceties of this kind of film don’t allow the filmmakers to find any humour and discursive unconventionality in their romance. Friend nicely captures Albert’s uneasy, but innately decent manner, but Blunt’s characterisation never quite comes into focus. Blunt has talent, but her portrayal remains curiously inert. The pitch of Victoria as a quietly gutsy woman taking on a world rigged against her self-determination remains entirely theoretical. Ironically enough, her best moment comes in the most contradictory scene, in which Victoria, having fought to assure everyone she’s not too young and too female to rule, throws a bratty fit at Albert for taking an active part in managing royal affairs, to which his entirely justifiable response is to walk out on her as she orders him to stay. In the next scene, he gamely receives a wound in throwing himself between Victoria and a lunatic assassin’s bullet, just in case you take him for some Eurotrash nancyboy. The best performance is easily that of Bettany as Melbourne (not surprising as Bettany often steals films), providing the charm offensive Melbourne requires, and yet sharpening to a wicked point in a scene in which he explains to a still-hopeful Conroy: “I’m sorry, I can see that I am not speaking clearly—you have played the game, and lost!”

Otherwise, we are only mildly amused.

Standard
2000s, Biopic, British cinema

The Edge of Love (2008)

Director: John Maybury

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By Roderick Heath

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spendthrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
In My Craft or Sullen Art, by Dylan Thomas

The above poem comprise the last words of the The Edge of Love. They are used as a kind of thematic underlining of what we’ve seen. They’re also the reason that the film has been made, to the extent that any film like this is made—to get off on the presence of greatness that lends some sense of weight to an otherwise feckless tale. At least a musical biopic is self-explanatory—there’s music we like on the soundtrack with the people who made it magically returned to youth by cinematic sorcery. Dylan Thomas, for whom the film largely has nothing but contempt, is the reason why it’s been made.

I always come to the end of films like Sylvia, Pollock, Control, or Surviving Picasso—those in which the tortured arty soul ends up like a goldfish flapping on the floor or the prick gets his comeuppance from someone speaking as the voice of contemporary sexual politics—wondering why they are made, why they treat their subjects so. In Thomas’ case, a drunkard who collapsed and died in a Greenwich Village bar at age 39, there’s not much image to despoil, and this is part of the problem. Anthony Burgess fought to have Thomas acknowledged as a meticulous craftsman who endlessly revised his ecstatic phrasings, a man used up at least as much by his own dedication as he was by drink. Thomas’ work in the film is portrayed as nothing more than an excuse to ignore his kid. It’s a common complaint that artist biopics rarely offer much in the way of insight into the art. Thomas’ poetry features throughout The Edge of Love, in disjointed voiceover readings that reduce them incoherent snatches of prettification.

The Edge of Love was directed by John Maybury, former experimental director with a Schnabel-esque love of visual gibberish who broke out with Love Is the Devil (1999), a similar portrait of Francis Bacon’s affair with his rough-trade criminal boyfriend. An obtuse, often insufferable work, that film was at least aggressive in studying how a ruthless soul makes for strong art and bad housekeeping. I wonder then if the reason such films are made is to take peeks into modes of lifestyle otherwise forbidden to mainstream filmmakers. A lot of artists have juicy private lives. And a lot don’t. I don’t foresee a film about Anthony Trollope, holding down a lifelong career as a designer of mailboxes whilst writing great English novels, anytime soon. But in what other kind of high-profile movie sporting rising stars of import are you going to get explorations of multiple-partner romance that doesn’t also include a singalong to “I Say A Little Prayer”? Films about adults doing adult things don’t get much play these days beyond certain restricted cable channels.

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The Edge of Love threatens to study a ménage a trois. The film’s early hype, its poster with Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley lying back on the grass, red lipstick lacquered on and encouraging you to take a dive in, promised gorgeous decadence and anarchic indulgence. Fooled you! Miller and Knightley lounge in bed together and giggle like they’re having a sleepover; they certainly don’t engage in any Sapphic naughtiness. Thomas does bed both women, but, of course, that funny business isn’t allowed to stand.

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I’m talking around the point—which could be because I’m not sure what the point is. One could have made The Edge of Love to explore the way society degrades talent in the living and then celebrates it once they’re dead. Thomas’ words are prostituted by wartime authorities, yet he can barely make enough to feed his family, forcing him to live by sucking friends dry, to create work that now gets films made about him. No, wait, this isn’t what the film’s about. It’s about two bestest best friends, Caitlin Thomas (Miller) and Vera Phillips (Knightley), who hide underneath the covers and giggle and make kissy faces at each other and prance in Super 8 home movies and cry when one of them like becomes a total slut with the other’s guy. No, wait, it’s about Vera’s husband, tragic soldier William Killick (Cillian Murphy) who is desperately in love with her, suffers in war, and comes back horrified to find his wife’s had it off with her old boyfriend, the fancy-pants poet who’s also spent all his money. No wonder William goes taking pokes at loud-mouthed pseudo-socialist bitches and shoots his Sten gun through the wall to shake the smart-asses up a bit. No wait, it’s a courtroom drama where Thomas tries to destroy Killick because of love for Vera. No wait, I’m bored.

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According to critics and biographers, the film is based in vague, specious speculation anyway. Most films of this sort end up, even if they don’t want to, as finger-waving moralising. Artists take and give nothing but words back. The male artist who fucks freely will be condemned for his feckless, misogynist ways. The female who does so will be celebrated for her liberation even if the world in the film condemns her. Behind every great man is a woman. Get married and stay that way. Good thing you listened to your parents and became a lawyer. Love’s intended audience—and they sat all about me in the theatre—can walk away tut-tutting about disgraceful behaviour, whilst having received a sugar rush from it. I recall my old high school English teacher doing after we’d been watching Tom & Viv (1994). Eliot! That bastard! Leaving his wife in a loony bin! For being a loony! Just goes to show you! No normal person’s marriage disintegrates because of mental instability, no. Only those of famous poet-type male chauvinists.

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The Edge of Love begins well. Maybury concentrates on texture, and the first half-hour is a dense web of impressions. He plays energetically with Dennis Potter-esque evocations of jazz-age images of perfection and exoticism colliding with hard reality in Vera’s singing act, staged bizarrely in underground air raid shelters. Thomas, Caitlin, Vera, and Killick live under the shadow of the Blitz, the threat of death a constant reality, streets reduced to dark warrens of menace, even the familiar refrains of romance taking on an existential quality and Thomas’ sonorous radio readings acting as shadowy artistic conscience for this calamitous age. Both Vera’s act and Thomas’ poetry then are presented as dichotomous cultural responses to an age of omnipresent darkness. But the truth is, the film is not in the slightest bit interested in this notion, and the drama moves to the false refuge of the Welsh coast to become a glorified bedroom farce played as lacerating character study. What begins as a layered study of the relationship between artistic effort and society becomes just another tale of what happens when you dip in more than one honey jar.

One of the few films that effectively portrayed why artists do such things was Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June (1990). Henry Miller, his wife June, and their mutual girlfriend Anaïs Nin, use each other and enjoy each other in an attempt to gain experience and push their sense of life to the limit. The Edge of Love never approaches such exploration, largely because it’s not sure what it’s exploring, and comes up with just a bunch of arty boozehounds hurting each other. The film makes sure to shame pacifistic, romantic, socially outcast, mercurial Thomas before honourable upright soldier Killick. The last images of Love see Dylan and Caitlin heading, grey-faced and dour, into oblivion, whilst Vera and William settle down to become happy rose growers. Is this really what Maybury and screenwriter Sharman MacDonald wanted to tell us?

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If I’m aggressively misunderstanding this film, it’s because I went into it dreading exactly the type of film I got. “Why do I sleep with other women?” Thomas asks rhetorically at one point. ‘Because I’m a poet!” This got a big laugh out of the audience; of course guys only become poets to get laid as often as possible. Despite Maybury’s efforts, The Edge of Love ends up as another facile bit of patronising, bohemian eavesdropping, ending by whacking all its characters as firmly on the knuckles with a hickory switch as it can get away with considering that, all in all, the drama has added up to nothing.

What one gets out of it is some uneven but generally solid acting. Nobody except Rhys is at home with their accents, but I’ve never found that as important as some critics insist it is. Energy and expressiveness are far more important. Murphy is the least well-used, putting his protean, pansexual physiognomy in such a square part. Knightley plays a woman who is as much a fascinating siren’s image as she is reality to the men in her life. Miller is the rampaging wild woman whose energy goes all outwards rather into her art. Knightley’s never really topped her ironic casting in Pride and Prejudice (2005) as a woman whose intelligence both subverts and increases her attractiveness. Here she’s left playing another sobbing Celia Johnson wannabe. Miller and Rhys both exude a kind of solidity that threatens to eat through the tinnier reductions of their characters. In films like Casanova (2005), Factory Girl (2006), and here, Miller always takes me by surprise as a broadcast from a slightly earthier age of screen femininity, with her broad freckle-spotted cheeks and surprisingly husky voice. She fills the cliché of the fiery Irish boho girl with real zest, whether thumping Thomas’ head against the floor or picking out her stitches in sadomasochistic fury. Rhys is good to watch, too. He had previously evoked a pitch-perfect Lord Byron in TV’s Beau Brummel: This Charming Man, and here presents a Thomas somewhere between the rosy-lipped fawn of Augustus John’s portraits and the bloated disaster area of his Chelsea Hotel end. Thomas once told a story about being fascinated by his grandmother’s grey face so much as a boy that he crawled under a table to lift her skirt and see if all the rest of her was grey, too. There’s not much of that Thomas in The Edge of Love for Rhys to have fun with. l

Standard
1960s, Biopic, Drama

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

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By Roderick Heath

Paul Scofield, who died this week at the age of 86, did not make many movies—a grand total of 19 feature films. A stage actor by creed, he nonetheless brought a subtlety and lucidity to the medium that most actors on the big screen barely suggest. Not that Scofield, with features of a sort of rudely chiselled nobility, was ever in any danger of becoming a teen heart-throb. He did not need to apologise for anything, except perhaps for Scorpio (1973), a bewildering sham directed by the reliably awful Michael Winner that managed to totally waste the talents of Scofield, Alain Delon, and Burt Lancaster. How that one happened, I know not.

manseasons85.jpgTo pay tribute to Scofield’s film career, I could have written about his beautifully low-key, heroic turn as Virginia McKenna’s mentor and brother-in-arms in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), his sublimely serpentine performance as a fixated Nazi culture thief in The Train (1966), his weighty, haunted inhabitations of Charles VI in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and The Ghost in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990), his hilarious and heartbreaking turn as Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show (1994), and his foreboding Judge Danforth in The Crucible (1996). But it is A Man for All Seasons that is his best claim to cinematic fame, and that’s fine with me, being as it was, an extension of a role he had played about 2,000 times on the stage in Robert Bolt’s fine play of the same name. Bolt wrote the screenplay for the film and pared back the material into a sharper, more concise work. A Man for All Seasons is the sort of film that tends to be patronised by many critics these days, apparently under the impression that intelligent acting and dialogue and skillful, measured direction are liabilities. Yet compare it to, for example, the gothic idiocy of Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth films, and one cringes at the decline in our supposedly clever contemporary culture.

Bolt had worked with David Lean twice by this time, providing the scripts for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. A Man for All Seasons proved to be his third great film in a row. Bolt was gifted with a droll insight into politics and how they become interlaced with human character, already well presented in the pithily caricatured Bolsheviks of Zhivago and the final scenes of Lawrence. A Man for All Seasons is one of the few historical films that successfully portrays the past as a recognisable precursor to our own era by concentrating not on battles and pageantry, but on statecraft, corruption, legal wrangling, petty bureaucracy, and the eternal clash between private conscience and public duty. The film had a perfect director in Fred Zinnemann, the Swiss-born maestro who gained his second Best Director Oscar here. Zinnemann was one of the great observational directors, with a rich sense of physical context and unobtrusive realism, and an interest in highly conflicted protagonists. Zinnemann’s eye presents a Renaissance Britain blessedly free of both ye-olde-isms and modish cinema tricks. As he had done in The Nun’s Story (1959), Zinnemann offsets the tortuous nature of human conscience with continual reference to the cycles of nature, especially appropriate here, where the seasons of the title are reflected in the shifts between acts.

A Man for All Seasons is, of course, the story of the downfall of Sir Thomas More, the scholar, lawyer, judge, and eventual High Chancellor of England after Cardinal Wolsey, who was persecuted and eventually executed for treason for refusing to support Henry VIII’s ruthless reformation and remarriage to Anne Boleyn. More became a Catholic saint, but Bolt’s conception of the man is most amusingly drawn when Scofield pats his chest and says, “This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”
Seasons%205.jpgThe film begins with More being called away from a party with his family—wife Alice (Wendy Hiller), daughter Margaret (Susannah York), and friends, like the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport)—to consult with Wolsey (Orson Welles), who wants More to support his efforts to secure a divorce for the king from his barren wife Catherine of Aragon. This scene swiftly sketches the succession of traits in More’s character and Scofield’s ability to embody them—wry wit, cagey intellect, unflappable cool, and moral gravity.

Whilst possessing an abundantly expressive face, Scofield’s first and most devastating weapon as an actor was his voice, which he used like a symphony orchestra to emphasise, explore, and imply the ideas in his lines. Note the staccato clip when outlining the hidden agenda of Wolsey’s intentions, “Pressure. Applied to the Church. Church houses, Church property;” the egoless but knowing way he says “Me, rather than Cromwell” in reply to the proposition that the oily functionary Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) become the next Chancellor; the soft, appeasing, but firm way he says “I thought Your Grace was wrong;” the severity of his pronouncement, “No, Your Grace. I will not help you” that makes it certain that despite his desire to “govern the country with prayer,” he’s no pansy-assed idealist or foolish fanatic, but a statesman of rigid will.

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Scofield’s More continues to bob, weave, duck, and strike with brainpower—the cinema’s first, and possibly last, intellectual action hero. Far from wanting to become a sacrificial lamb, More sees himself as not just bound by duty to preserve his family and himself, but also by his Christian Humanist conception of religious duty to “serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind,” to survive in the best way possible. As stoutly as any Jean Claude Van Damme kickboxer, he refuses to bend, break, or back down. He goes toe to toe with the best the newly repressive English state can throw at him. Everyone else shivers when contemplating the ferocious Cromwell. More only sneers in reply to his tactics: “You threaten like a dockyard bully!”

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Only dirty tricks finally ensnare him. More, the utterly righteous man, is ultimately brought down by the one thing he can never admit—utterly pragmatic ambition in the form of Richard Rich (John Hurt), who had repeatedly appealed to More to save him from himself. But More could only be honest with Rich—he was just not the kind of man who could serve the state like More. Rich “gains the world but loses his soul,” as More puts it in his heartbroken final entreaty. It is the worst, but most appropriate fate for More—he is undone not by an equal adversary but specifically by mediocrity.

Yet it’s the rich humanity that Scofield reveals in More, not just the brilliance and the morality, that makes the character rivet our attention. His sly, sarcastic grin when he regards his daughter in the company of William Roper (Corin Redgrave), and the way he fends off Roper’s gauche, strident conscientiousness. The kiss he gives to Alice when she admits her jealousy of his and Margaret’s intellectual bond. His momentary dissolution into despair when his family visits him in his cell in the Tower of London. The dry humour he employs in defending himself that threatens to make his trial a disaster for the prosecution. Scofield’s bright attentive eyes reveal a mind always contemplating, absorbing, thinking. Not that it’s a one-man show. Scofield is surrounded by some of the best acting in the careers of Welles, Hiller, York, Redgrave, McKern, Hurt, and Robert Shaw, whose appearance as King Henry is perfection. Bolt deliberately characterized Henry as younger than he was at the time of these events, presenting the energetic, capricious monarch of Henry’s early days rather than a flabby sybarite of Holbein’s portrait and Charles Laughton’s cinematic portrayal.

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Shaw literally leaps into the film, getting mud on his shoes after jumping from his royal barge into the Thames mud, his courtiers waiting in stricken apprehension for his reaction—which turns out to be a madly pleased bark. This is a man used to being the absolute barometer of life in his kingdom, and he will kick down any barrier between him and satisfaction. He needs More’s blessing for his remarriage “because you’re honest, and what’s more you’re seen to be honest.” Thus Thomas, one of the few men Henry truly admires, must be destroyed—regretfully, cautiously, but ultimately without scruple. More’s method of resistance, his silence, is supposed to release all of them from the situation, but in fact condemns him because it infers an indirect protest. Despite his protestations, ultimately he is bound to a final point of conscience that he will not avert, alter, or obfuscate when finally cornered. Scofield only raises his voice to a shout in the very last moments of his trial, when he has been convicted and sentenced and he cannot alter the outcome, bellowing the final, bald fact of why he has been condemned: he “would not bend to the marriage.” Zinnemann refuses to overplay the moment, instead cutting to a long shot with More’s back to us and the result of his outcry shown instead by the immediate eruption of the crowd.

A Man for All Seasons is perhaps the most ’60s of 1960s Oscar winners. As well as being defined against other, worldlier types, More is also defined against Roper, a satirically ardent, young idealist who is vociferous in his moral judgments—he has become a Lutheran and rails against the corrupt Catholic Church—but is all too willing revert to Catholicism to marry Margaret. More repeatedly has to force him to analyse and curtail his own statements and reflect on their consequence like an old-school liberal unionist reining in the radical hippie. Indeed, More must remind himself constantly to be moderate. “I do none harm. I say none harm. I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith, I long not to live,” is More’s epigram for his own fate.

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