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FILM:February 2012

January brings a plethora of new films which are trying to be seen before the Award season. In this edition of my film and theatre reviews I am therefore concentrating on films, but to try not to give you too much screen overload I shall keep most of them brief!

However, all of the films reviewed below are worthy of a viewing, so dig into your pockets and get to your nearest cinema to form your own opinion.

Let us start with Steven Spielberg who we see at his most lyrical and emotional in WAR HORSE (cert.12A 2hrs.26mins.), an equine kind of Gone with the Wind tale of a horse who goes to the battlefields in WW1 and the young lad who searches for him. Michael Morpurgo's story has been brought to life on the stage in a National Theatre version where the horses are portrayed by giant puppets …and still the audience cries.

In this version Spielberg starts in rural Devon in 1913, when a horse named Joey is bought by farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) and then trained by Ted's teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine, see picture above), When war breaks out Ted needs money and sells Joey to a kindly cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston), who takes him away. Joey is then passed from one owner to the next including a young German soldier and an elderly French farmer (Nils Arestrup) and his young grand-daughter (Celine Buckens). Joey ends up in the very midst of war-torn France. Albert joins the army and goes to France hoping to be reunited with his beloved horse.

Beautifully shot, particularly as the horse gallops through No-Man's land when he finds himself free, only to be caught up in barbed wire. Spielberg films both the lovely pastoral scenes and the battle scenes with great skill. They are all set to the rousing, somewhat lush music of John Williams.

Kenneth Branagh, having played the part of Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn is now challenged for the real-life crown of actor-director by Ralph Fiennes who both directs and takes on the main part in CORIOLANUS (cert.15 2hrs. 3mins.). This is a modern take on Shakespeare’s play and we find ourselves in a 21st century city – still called Rome (although shot in Serbia) – where Caius Martius (Fiennes), having led a successful campaign against the Volscians, who are led by his enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) is given the title Coriolanus in honour of his securing the town of Corioli.

Ralph Fiennes & Vanessa Redgrave

His mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) is very proud of her son and wishes him to always do well in battle even if he is killed. When faced with speaking on behalf of his candidature for Consulship, he comes across as too arrogant and is expelled from Rome. He then allies himself with his former enemy, Aufidius to do battle against Rome. Coriolanus at first ignores the pleading of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his mother.

Fiennes manages to bring a human face to this most difficult of Shakespeare's characters and Butler shows he can do more than just show of his beautiful body! Fiennes gives an impressive debut: the direction is taut and visually impressive (director of photography, Barry Ackroyd). Fiennes uses his mainly British cast members well and there are good characterisations from Bran Cox, and James Nesbitt. There is a fantastically good portrayal of the war-mongering mother by Redgrave, who, devoid of make-up, shows no vanity as she portrays the elderly widow pleading to her son to make peace with his enemy.

And some quick recommendations: THE DESCENDANTS (cert. 15 1hr. 55mins.) stars lovely George Clooney learning to cope with his two daughters and coming to terms with discovering his dying wife was having an affair.

Michael Fassbender deservedly won the British Actor of the Year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards for his performance as Brandon in Steve McQueen's compelling SHAME (cert. 18 1hr. 40mins.). Fassbender gives a strong performance as the sex-addicted man who is in danger of falling to pieces when his sister (another exceptional performance by Carey Mulligan) comes to stay bringing her own problems associated with the inability to form long-lasting meaningful relationships.

Director Clint Eastwood brings to life some of J.Edgar Hoover's characteristics in J.EDGAR (cert. 15 2hrs. 16mins.). Eastwood concentrates on J.Edgar's homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) seemingly without physical completion. Eastwood only touches on Hoover's virulent anti-communist obsession.

For February you can look forward to:

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (cert. 12A 1hr. 35mins.) is a real old-fashioned ghost story. Young solicitor Arthur Kipps (a humourless, stony-faced Daniel Radcliffe, very different from his Harry Potter role) investigates the mysterious deaths of children and the strange woman dressed in black.

Based on the stage play, Roman Polanski's CARNAGE (cert. 15 1hr. 19mins.) which has a star-studded cast - Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly - has two sets of parents meeting to discuss the playground fight between their sons. While well-written by Yasmina Reza, it remains somewhat stage-bound.




The concept for FRANKLAND & SONS (Camden People's Theatre until 28 January) is well-thought out and original, but unfortunately the execution is altogether too amateurish to merit an unqualified welcome.

Tom Frankland, along with his father John, was moved to put on this play when the two of them discovered a number of suitcases which were full of letters written by his grandparents. They opened the suitcases following the death of John's sister Barbara in 2006. While doing their research they found not only love letters between his parents but the letters revealed an amazing secret that had been hidden from John all his life.;

Directed by Jamie Wood, the performance begins promisingly with members of the audience being asked to each write a significant memory on a scrap of paper. The bits of paper are then strung on time-lines stretched across the stage. John and his son add their own important family events to the lines.

Whilst it is admirable that the two wanted to put on a show together, neither has the skill to really bring it off. In addition some of the comic business just didn't work well and there were a few hold-ups to adjust pictures hanging on the back wall and to pull up falling trousers and so on. Also the big revelation was almost lost in the general fussiness of the time-lines and other activity on the stage. This was a pity as the writing was interesting and the ideas leading to the production obviously well thought out.

David Haig (front) and Clive Francis in The Madness of George III

Although George 111 was generally thought to be a good monarch - upright, interested in the arts, he was married and was faithful to the same woman with whom he had 15 children - he is chiefly known for his bouts of lunacy.

Alan Bennett's play THE MADNESS OF GEORGE 111 (Apollo Theatre until 31 March) presents us with a well-rounded portrait of the King's debilitating illness. Christopher Luscombe's direction brings out the poignancy of the King's position as well as the play's wit in the early scenes.

George claims that, "I have had no peace of mind since we lost America." He is also very troubled by the thought of the very tubby Prince of Wales becoming Prince Regent if he is too ill to carry out his duties.

David Haig could have had a difficult time competing with the well-loved Nigel Hawthorne who gave such a passionate performance in 1991. That Haig manages this part so brilliantly is due to his own interpretation of the character which begins by presenting us with a demanding King who expects and receives respect. He is a man who loves his wife, "Mrs King (Beatie Ednney), and is able to show tenderness when the play asks for it and wild behaviour as he descends like Lear into madness. And like Lear (which he enjoys play reading later), the King realises that he is acting in a very disturbed manner; "Let me not be mad." Actually, modern medical opinion says that George 111 suffered from the rare metabolic disorder of porphyria.

Haig presents as a very sweet, kindly actor and he interacts well not only with Queen Charlotte, but with William Pitt the Younger (Nicholas Rowe) and with the doctor who manages to cure him, Dr. Willis (Clive Francis). The other doctors want to bleed or blister the King.

Haig shows a range of emotions from his jolly "What what" which punctuates almost every sentence at the beginning to his anguish when he is suffering so terribly at the end. For one of this year's most memorable performances do go to see this play; I am sure you will appreciate it.

In a well-written, rather clever satire, based on the character of the absurd Ubu Roi, the creation of Alfred Jarry, Simon Stephens has developed the idea that Jarry liked the use of puppets to portray the world of Ubu and uses them in THE TRIAL OF UBU (Hampstead Theatre, London until 25 February). In Jarry's 1896 play, Ubu is a violent dictator who has committed atrocious crimes. Stephens has devised an International Tribunal to try him in a Court of Law.

He starts and finishes the 80 minute play by using puppets to depict Ubu. Ubu and his wife argue and punch each other like a mad version of Punch and Judy and we see them act out the original story in a very short version, using an array of characters. Ubu sends the three judges "down the tube" as they disappear to their - we presume - deaths. The stage then opens to a wider box to reveal two female interpreters who question and also give the answers of the witnesses. Ma Ubu, wife of Ubu, tries to put all blame on her husband but we only hear her words through the interpreters (very well portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Biord and Kate Duchene). A long list of crimes is read out under the heading of Crimes Against Humanity. Ubu questions the validity of the court. We note the passing of time through the entrances and exits of the two women and their changes of clothes to reflect the changing seasons. Still later we learn that, in fact, the trial has been going on for 436 days.

The stage opens up twice to reveal at one side Ubu (Paul Leary in white face with big red lips) talking to his jailor about his possible freedom and on the other side the two lawyers discussing the rules of interrogation and the manner in which criminal trials are conducted.

Just before the Judges retire, Ubu presents a statement in which he gives a long list of atrocities that have followed his crimes including Nagasaki and Belsen.

While the play is always interesting, I kept wishing that we could see the actual characters talk rather than just hear their words through the lips of the interpreters. But director Katie Mitchell is nothing if not inventive and this is certainly a most unusual theatrical experience.




Carlie Newman

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