Home page
Toff Tips


If there's any justice in movie land Imelda Staunton will pick up every acting award going for her performance as VERA DRAKE (Cert 12A 2hrs 5 mins), the relentlessly cheerful and good hearted central character of Mike Leigh's new film. Those of us old enough to remember the ration book and black market dominated post war years will recognise both the dreariness of the way the world looked then and the spirit of working people, who had somehow survived the hardships of the blitz and the black out. It's not initially a depressing film.

Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake
Imelda Staunton

Vera, her husband Stan (a first class performance from Phil Davis) and their lumpy, grown up daughter Ethel are a close knit happy family, always laughing and joking. Vera is virtually the neighbourhood saint, forever popping in to help out others worse off than her, convinced there's nothing that can't be eased by "putting the kettle on".

Tragedy strikes, when one of Vera's regular good deeds as an amateur and unpaid abortionist goes wrong and one of her clients nearly dies. As the camera lingers forever on her face, when the police arrive to arrest her, Staunton seems to age ten years. It is a brilliant performance.

The film is also full of telling social detail, such as the budding unromantic romance between Ethel and her boyfriend Reg, two young people who are almost middle aged before they start, which is really poignant. Then there's the contrast between Vera's desperate working class clients, who have no-one else to turn to, and the middle class daughter of the woman for whom she cleans, whose problem is neatly solved with 100 guineas and a Harley Street consultant.

Some medical writers have questioned the film's accuracy regarding Vera's abortion technique, which they claim would have been both ineffective and far more frequently lethal than as shown in the film. But for today's young women it's still going to be an eye opener as far as what the women of their mother's and grandmother's generation were often forced to go through if they "got into trouble".

Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby
Hilary Swank

I smell Oscar nominations for Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY (Cert 12A 2 hrs 10mins), both for Eastwood as actor and director and for Hilary Swank. The setting is the world of boxing, not my favourite, as I hate to see two human beings hitting the hell out of each other, let alone as in this case two women. Swank plays Maggie, who persuades veteran trainer Frankie (Eastwood) against his will to take her on. It's partly the classic story of working class kid makes good through boxing - Maggie's horrendous, grasping, trailer trash family are chillingly well done - but it is primarily a father/daughter love story, as Maggie gradually becomes the daughter from whom Frankie has become estranged.

And when the film changes track in a totally unexpected twist, we realise just how deep the bond between them has become. Swank's passion and fervour are very convincing, Eastwood, both as the conflicted Frankie and in his direction, shows himself a master of restraint and subtlety and Morgan Freeman gives unselfish support to them both.

I saw Patrick Marber's play CLOSER (Cert 15 1 hr 50 mins) twice in the West End I liked it so much, and I'm not disappointed by Mike Nichols' film version. He has opened out the story visually in his extensive and imaginative use of London locations. But what he hasn't done is open out the four characters' lives to give them context and interaction with people outside the quartet, which is one of its strengths.


The focus is entirely on the intense, intimate and often cruel shifting relationships amongst them, which is how your world can feel, if you're in the sort of situations the characters are. Julia Roberts plays against type in one of her best performances as Anna, the photographer, who meets and marries Larry (Clive Owen), then leaves him for Dan (Jude Law), who in doing so breaks the heart of his young partner Alice (a tremulously vulnerable Nathalie Portman). Owen is both charismatic and very disturbing, Jude Law is a convincingly flawed Dan and Marber's superb dialogue dissects their quadrille with an almost Strindbergian ruthlessness. It's also a very sexy film without a single explicit sex scene - a rarity for these days.

Ray Charles played by Jamie Foxx
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

RAY (Cert 15 2 hrs 32mins) is painted on a much larger canvas, as it tells the story of the great music artist Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx, who worked closely with Charles in the preparation of the film before his death, is terrific. He not only gives a stunning physical impersonation, in which Jamie Foxx disappears and it's like having Ray Charles himself on screen, but it's also a wonderful performance. The film's very well written and directed (by Taylor Hackford), skillfully using flashback to Ray's poverty stricken childhood and early gigs in Seattle to illuminate what's happening in present time.

It's full of telling detail, like the racial segregation on the buses in the deep South, and doesn't duck the down side of Ray's story - his womanising and his drug dependence. The women in his life are particularly well played - Kerry Washington as his devoted wife, Regina King as Margie Hendricks, a member of Ray's vocal group the Raelettes and one of his string of mistresses, and newcomer Sharon Warren as Ray's mother. The scenes where she teaches her young son independence, before he goes totally blind are particularly affecting. The music is very well used, linking the songs to his life, and it is of course terrific music. My toes were constantly tapping.

For something a bit lighter this month there's MEET THE FOCKERS (Cert tbc, 1 hr 45 mins), a sequel to the successful "Meet the Parents", which was the one where Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) was taken by his girlfriend (Teri Polo) to meet her former CIA agent father (Robert De Niro) and patrician mother (Blythe Danner). In this one the young couple take her parents to meet his parents, who turn out to be an outspoken, sexually devoted pair of middle aged hippies, played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. It's a fun movie with some good gags, Streisand makes a plumply pretty and sexy Jewish momma and Hoffman in particular looks like he's having a wickedly fun time

Meet the Fockers
Meet the Fockers

Finally let me recommend a modest but very touching little British film DEAR FRANKIE (Cert 12A dur 1 hr 43 mins). Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, single mother of deaf nine year old Frankie (Jack McElhone). They are constantly on the move to escape Frankie's brutal father, but to protect her son, Lizzie tells him his father is at sea. When her deception is threatened with exposure, she recruits a friend of a friend to play the part of Frankie's father, and for the first time in his life Frankie experiences a day with his "dad", played by Gerard Butler, very different from his "Phantom" role. Mortimer and Butler make an engaging couple and Jack McElhone shows himself to be an accomplished young performer.

Theatre Trip: January 2005
His Dark Materials

When I read the reviews of HIS DARK MATERIALS (Olivier), when it first opened last summer, my appetite was whetted. Having no children or grandchildren, I hadn't come across writer Philip Pullman's trilogy of novels, which are so popular with teenagers that it became impossible to get a ticket to the stage production at that time. However so intriguing did the story sound just from the reviews that I went and bought the books and found myself devouring them voraciously. Pullman's mix of fantasy, spirituality, science and his anti-organised religion stance makes this a much meatier read for adults than say "Harry Potter". So I was first in the queue when booking opened for a second season of this two times three hour drama. It's the story of Lyra, a 12 year old girl who has been brought up by the Masters at Jordan College, Oxford. Jordan College? Yes, there is no such college in our world. Lyra lives in an alternative world, which co-exists in the same space as ours but we are invisible to each other. Some things are the same as here, and some very different.

For example the all powerful position of the church, which is similar to that of the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. And every human being has a visible daemon, which looks to us like a pet but is actually a manifestation of the soul and personality of its owner. In the course of the story Lyra finds herself in yet another world, where she meets Will, a 12 year old boy, who has found his way in from ours through a window in the fabric between the two. And together they embark on an adventure, which is as much spiritual as physical and in which they are aided by a tribe of flying white witches and an armoured bear.

Reducing the three novels to six hours of theatre is a challenge writer Nicholas Wright has risen to magnificently, while director Nicholas Hytner has found imaginative ways of presenting the oddness of these worlds and the moving between them, with the use of sound, projection, puppetry, mask work and constant use of the Olivier stage revolve. Elaine Symons and Michael Legge play convincingly as 12 year olds and Lesley Manville is elegant and sophisticated as the manipulative Mrs Coulter.

I've no complaints about David Harewood as Lyra's explorer/scientist supposed uncle, though I suspect I would have preferred Timothy Dalton, who created the role, as he has an edge of dangerous ruthlessness which Harewood lacks. But as a theatrical experience Hytner's production is exciting, absorbing and superbly clear, even if you haven't read the books. The plays continue in the repertoire until 2nd April.

I also seized my chance this Christmas to catch up with Alan Bennett's THE HISTORY BOYS (Lyttleton). Set in a grammar school for boys in Northern England in the 80s, again we have young adult actors giving convincing portrayals of younger people, this time boys who've sat their 'A' levels and are trying for Oxford and Cambridge entrance. The play is full of ideas and debate, such as is the purpose of education learning for its own sake or as a means to a material end?

On opposing sides are Richard Griffiths as the eccentric, eclectic schoolmaster Hector and Geoffrey Streatfield as Irwin, the young teacher who has been brought in to train the boys for the Oxbridge steeplechase, with Clive Merrison as the Headmaster out to improve his place in the league table and the marvelous, dry Frances de la Tour as the history teacher.

The History Boys
Alan Bennets' The History Boys

Prominent among the boys are Dominic Cooper as the charismatic Dakin and the musically gifted Samuel Barnett as the boy, who worships him in vain. The play's not only thought provoking but very witty with some great Bennett writing. The ever busy Nicholas Hytner directs this one too, which is in the repertoire 26th April.

Carol Allen (Carlie Newman is away)


Previous Reviews
Forthcoming Trips
European Parliament
Guided walks around London
Previous Toff trips
Toff Tips
Q+A and Comments
Contact Toff
- - Home - - Forthcoming trips - - European parliament - - London walks - - Previous trips - - Toff tips - - Q + A - - Contact - -