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
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
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
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.