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FILM: April 2009

I enjoyed THE YOUNG VICTORIA (cert. PG 1hr. 44mins.) which gives a picture of the young Queen (Emily Blunt) that is very different from the one we usually see of a mourning elderly woman dressed all in black. We first meet the 17 year-old feisty young woman in 1837 fighting against the strict upbringing of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) who, herself, is governed by Conroy (Mark Strong), an ambitious close confidante to the Duchess.

The Young Victoria

Victoria is so closely guarded that she is not even allowed to descend the stairs without holding the hand of her governess or mother. Victoria's handsome cousin, Albert (Rupert Friend), comes to visit her having been trained by his relatives to know Victoria's likes and dislikes so that she will want to marry him. The two become friends and write to each other after Albert returns home. His uncle - and Victoria's - King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschman) is delighted when they finally marry after Victoria is crowned Queen at the age of 18. Political manoeuvring continues when first Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) as Prime Minister and then Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney), who ousts Melbourne, attempt to direct her decisions. We see how Victoria and Albert learn to live and work together.

The film is well directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who brings an outsider's view to our British history. There is also an intelligent script by Julian Fellowes, and the cast portray the characters with gusto. Blunt shows the different sides to a very young woman who takes on a great role at a very early age. In fact Victoria ruled for 63 years but here we are only concerned with the early years of her reign. Oh, and HRH Princess Beatrice of York, daughter of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew has a tiny part of a Lady-in-Waiting in the scene of the Coronation of her great-great-great-great grandmother.

The Damned United

THE DAMNED UNITED (cert. 15 1hr. 33mins.) directed by Tom Hooper, portrays a deliberately bleak picture of Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) in his brief and ill fated career as Manager of Leeds United Football Club in 1974. Although Clough had considerable success at his earlier clubs, Hartlepool and then Derby County, assisted by his long time friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) who was not always properly appreciated by "old big 'ead" (Clough's nickname).

After he upset and provoked his Chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) at Derby with his dictatorial behaviour and downright rudeness and with repeated confrontations between the two, Brian goes too far (and again without even telling his supposed friend and No 2), submits his and Peter Taylor's resignation, which to the especial horror of Taylor is accepted! Clough can't resist taking over the Leeds United team hitherto run by Don Revie (a particularly good interpretation by Colm Meaney) the very successful manager and his arch enemy who resigned to take up managing England. In doing so he loses Taylor and unable to manage the Leeds players lasts for only 44 days.

It is said that Clough's family regarded the book on which this film is based as a dreadfully distorted view of his footballing career. Whatever the merits of their view this film makes compelling watching even if you don't like football with the excellent Michael Sheen copying Clough's voice and mannerisms almost to perfection. Although Spall does not look very much like Taylor he plays the hurt friend with great sensitivity. [with contribution from my own football pundit, Steve]

Also recommended: THE AGE OF STUPID (no cert. 1hr.32 mins.), a searing account of the dangers we face in the future if we continue along our present non-action on global warming. Directed by Franny Armstrong, it stars Pete Postlethwaite as an old man in the ruined world of 2055 looking at archive material of 2008. A number of critics thought the film rather smug. Unfortunately the British couple with wind turbines in Cornwall do come across as somewhat self-satisfied, but those in Africa and the 82-year old French mountain guide are very moving in their warning of the results of climate change

AFGHAN STAR (1hr. 27mins.) is the other side of Slumdog Millionaire. A documentary showing the talent contest, a kind of Pop Idol, that has gripped the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan. The film follows four young contestants as they pursue their dream, not without danger from death threats for the two women contestants. This is a strong, very interesting film showing a different side from the images of the country which we are usually shown.


THEATRE TIP

Seeing Nicholas de Jongh at many of the same press nights that I attend it is quite difficult to judge his play, PLAGUE OVER ENGLAND (Duchess) in the same way as other playwrights. However, here goes.De Jongh has a good feel for what works on a stage and his interpretation of the homosexual scene in the 1950s and in particular the scandal around Sir John Gielgud in October 1953 is well constructed. Sir John, recently knighted, was enticed by an undercover policeman acting as an agent provocateur in a public lavatory and pleaded guilty to a charge of persistently importuning male persons.

http://www.musicomh.com/theatre/lon_plague_0209.htm

The scandal nearly ruined an illustrious career and Gielgud was almost driven to suicide. Some friends rallied round and more importantly the audience give him a standing ovation at his first public appearance after his conviction when he comes on stage with his friend Sybil Thorndike. A number of short scenes with music in between convey the atmosphere of the time and Michael Feast captures Gielgud's voice and mannerisms well.

Dancing at Lughnasa

A delightful production of DANCING AT LUGHNASA greets our eyes at the re-vamped Old Vic (until 9 May). The name is from a festival celebrating the beginning of the harvest held every year at the beginning of August. In Ireland that festival was known as Lughnasa. The play takes place in 1936 and depicts the time when five unmarried sisters and their brother, Father Jack, who has just returned from Uganda in a somewhat ungodly state, face an uncertain future.

Brian Friel's well-written play shows how the sisters prepare for even greater poverty as they lose their jobs. Michael, the illegitimate son of Chris (Andrea Corr making her stage debut), acts as narrator looking back at his invisible self as a 7 year-old - the only part I found a bit grating. At one point Gerry (a debonair Jo Stone-Fewings), a kind of wide-boy arrives. He is Michael's father, although he hasn't visited him for 18 months, and promises all sorts of things, which Chris knows he won't deliver.

There is great ensemble acting and the dance around the kitchen table is very stirring. I remember it from the 1990 production and it is equally effective here done in the new in-the-round staging. Although all the parts are well acted, particular mention should be made of Niamh Cusack's feisty Maggie and Simone Kirby's traumatised Rose.

Two new plays at the National Theatre: first we have ENGLAND PEOPLE VERY NICE, written by Richard Bean, which has been criticised because of its use of stereotypes to tell the history of racial prejudice over the years around Spitalfields. Set in an immigration centre, where asylum-seekers are putting on a play about immigration, the author seems to me to be using the stereotypes to make satirical points about bigotry throughout the ages. Amongst those being satirised are the Huguenots, Italians, Irish, Jews and a white liberal couple.

Nicholas Hytner manages to keep the numerous short scenes speedily changing and makes excellent use of animation to tell his tale. A very lively band on stage also moves the action along musically. There are numerous Music Hall like gags such as the reply to the question, "Hey mate, want a drink?" by a man being dragged along in a cart , "Can't. I'm on the wagon." Redbridge is held up as the place to end up in. A multi-cultural, multi-talented cast act many parts each and manage to convey the essence of the characters and their origins in a few well-chose phrases. Go and see it and make up your own minds.

Then there is the excellent production of BURNT BY THE SUN (National Theatre until 21 May). Directed by Howard Davies and based on Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 film, it shows the family of General Kotow (a splendid Ciaran Hinds) enjoying a festival day. They are joined by the ex-lover of Maroussia (an attractive performance from Michelle Dockery), the General's wife. He is not the jolly full of fun person that he first appears. It is the beginning of the Stalin purges and by the end of the play life has changed dramatically for all the family and their friends. What at first seems like a Chekovian group drama develops into a sinister tragedy.

Burnt by the Sun

Roy Kinnear would have been proud to see his son, Rory give another good performance; here he plays Mitia and manages to show not two sides of the character but at least three. Holly Gibbs gives a sensitive portrayal of the Kotov daughter. The revolving stage is used to keep the action moving as we look inside different parts of the house.

Also recommended: BERLIN HANOVER EXPRESS (Hampstead Theatre until 4 April), a new play by Ian Kennedy Martin, directed by Michel Rudman. Set in an imagined neutral Irish Legation in the Berlin of 1942 the Irish staff has to deal with their own conflicts of whether to protect their German-Jewish cook or let her be arrested by the Nazis. The power of the writing and acting, along with seeing archive film footage between scenes, make it a difficult play to watch but ultimately rewarding.

     
     
     
     

Carlie Newman

   
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