Victoria & Abdul (2017)

2018 #52
Stephen Frears | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English, Urdu & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Victoria & Abdul

Returning to the role that earnt her first Oscar nomination, Dame Judi Dench stars as an even older Queen Victoria, who once again gets involved in a friendship with a foreign servant to the exasperation of those around her. If it wasn’t based on a true story, the similarities to Mrs Brown would make Victoria & Abdul look like a slipshod copycat sequel. Okay, this isn’t technically a sequel, but the similarities can’t be ignored.

Where the earlier film aimed for dramatic weight as a portrait of a grieving and isolated monarch finding human connection again, here the goal seems to be more comedic. Perhaps. I mean, if often shoots for funny, but it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy. At other times it’s more straightforwardly dramatic, especially as it gets towards the end, but there’s a nagging sensation that the facts have been bent to fit the expected shape of the narrative. The film begins with a card that says it’s “based on real events… mostly”, which feels a little too comical for a heritage drama such as this, and was perhaps more intended it as a “get out of jail free” card for its historical accuracy. (I don’t know what the facts are, mind, so I can’t vouch for or condemn the film’s faithfulness to them.)

Turns out we are very much amused

Dench is very good, as you’d expect. The rest of the cast don’t get to deliver as much range, but they’re a quality bunch of performers and so are easily up to what they’re given. It’s also as pretty a production as you’d expect, with Oscar-nominated makeup and costumes, plus opulent production design and grand location choices, all shown off by Danny Cohen’s pleasant cinematography.

I read someone else assess that it’s not as good as its individual parts, and I think that’s fair. Most of the scenes, moments, and performances are strong — there are notably funny bits, dramatic bits, emotional bits; even unexpected complications in how it handles some of the characters — but when it’s all put together, it doesn’t quite coalesce. If you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy this movie, there’s every chance it will please you no end. Otherwise, while it does have definite qualities, it doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its trappings.

3 out of 5

Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

2016 #38
John Madden | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Indian | PG / PG

The Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not the kind of movie you expect to spawn a sequel in the current climate (i.e. it’s not a CGI-fuelled PG-13 science-fiction action extravaganza), but when you consider that it made $136.8 million on a budget of just $10 million, the existence of this follow-up becomes more understandable. The first was based on a novel, but that doesn’t have a sequel, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the movie sequel is a shameless cash-in. Far from it — if anything, it may even be better than the first.

There’s little point me setting up the plot here, because if you haven’t seen the first movie then this one launches out of it enough that you’ll spend forever playing catch-up, and if you have seen it, well, “the storylines continue” sums much of it up. The sequel is given narrative shape both by the forthcoming wedding of the hotel’s owner (Dev Patel), and the fact that he wants to open a second location. For the latter he’s sought funding from a US chain, so when Richard Gere turns up he’s assumed to be a ‘secret shopper’ come to assess the hotel.

As that story unfolds, along with the film’s raft of subplots, it essentially repeats the tone of the first movie: gentle drama mixed with gentle humour in roughly equal measure; though this time there’s an added dose of romance in pretty much every plotline. It works because the cast are so darn good at delivering their material. Dev Patel and Maggie Smith are both hilarious, though everyone gets a moment to shine in the comedy stakes; conversely, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy carry the heart of the movie — though, again, everyone gets their emotional moment.

It’s easy to dismiss films like this as twee vehicles chasing the so-called ‘grey pound’, but, in this instance at least, that would do it a disservice. When a film is as amusing and emotional as this one, while also exploring an increasingly relevant aspect of life — an aspect which is too often ignored by mass entertainment that’s more concerned with acquiring the easily-earned disposable income of youngsters — and is as well-made, too (in particular, Ben Smithard’s cinematography is rich with gorgeous light, colour, and contrast) — then its audience should reach far wider than the age bracket of its principal characters.

4 out of 5

GoldenEye (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #40

You know the name.
You know the number.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, Russian & Spanish
Runtime: 130 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1995) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 16th November 1995 (Canada)
US Release: 17th November 1995
UK Release: 24th November 1995
First Seen: VHS, 1996

Stars
Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire, Mamma Mia)
Sean Bean (Patriot Games, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
Izabella Scorupco (Reign of Fire, Exorcist: The Beginning)
Famke Janssen (X-Men, Taken)
Judi Dench (A Room with a View, Notes on a Scandal)

Director
Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale)

Screenwriters
Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardner, Exodus: Gods and Kings)
Bruce Feirstein (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough)

Story by
Michael France (Cliffhanger, The Punisher)

Based on
James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming.

The Story
When Russian crime syndicate Janus steal the activation codes for a new satellite weapons system called “Goldeneye”, there’s only one man who can stop them using it for nefarious ends: Jack Bauer. Only kidding — it’s Jason Bourne. No, ‘course not — it’s Bond, James Bond.

Our Hero
Pierce Brosnan is Bond, James Bond, for the first time. After the almost-franchise-killing seriousness of Timothy Dalton, Brosnan nails Bond for the nostalgic ’90s: a dash of Sean Connery’s grit, a dash of Roger Moore’s raised-eyebrow humour, a whole lot of suaveness. For a while, the old “Connery or Moore?” question became “Connery, Moore or Brosnan?”

Our Villain
The mysterious Janus, who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be former MI6 agent and Bond’s chum Alec Trevelyan, out for revenge against the British Empire for betraying his family after World War 2, and against Bond for setting the bombs’ timers for three minutes instead of six.

Best Supporting Character
It was a bold choice to cast a woman as M back in 1995, even though she was inspired by the real director of MI6 at the time. Fortunately they cast the inestimable Dame Judi Dench, who naturally made the role her own — so much so that she survived the otherwise series-wide reboot in 2006, and having a male in the part now feels kinda odd.

Memorable Quote
“I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War” — M
(If a single line saved the Bond series, it’s this. In one fell swoop Dame Judi proves that a female M will work, and that this is a franchise aware of the need to drag itself into the present day.)

Memorable Scene
The villains are driving off with the kidnapped love interest. There’s no Aston Martin in sight. Does Bond take another car? Of course not — he takes a bloody tank.

Write the Theme Tune…
Bono and The Edge of U2, hired after…

Sing the Theme Tune…
Tina Turner. According to Wikipedia, “the producers did not collaborate with Bono or The Edge,” hence why (unlike previous Bonds) there’s nothing in the main score that references the title theme. That would rather become the Bond M.O. as the ’90s went on.

Truly Special Effect
The bungee jump off the damn — because it’s not a special effect, it’s real. The Bond series’ legacy of incredible, groundbreaking stunts continues with considerable style.

Letting the Side Down
Éric Serra’s score. Hiring someone to write a very modern (for the early ’90s) score for the newly-relaunched Bond must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time… but it wasn’t. It hasn’t improved any with age, either. Tellingly, after the score was finished the producers had someone else re-score the film’s big action sequence, the St. Petersburg tank chase, with music that sounds far more classically Bondian. Bonus problem: if you had an N64 (like I did), chances are you played GoldenEye the game far more than you watched the film. It too used Serra’s score, meaning I can’t hear it without being transported back to an idyllic adolescence playing blocky video games.

Making of
Pierce Brosnan was originally cast as Bond in 1986, but was forced to pull out when his TV series, Remington Steele, was unexpectedly renewed (according to one telling, that was purely to prevent him playing Bond — they only made six more episodes). Previously, Timothy Dalton had almost been cast when Roger Moore became Bond, and Moore had almost been cast before Sean Connery. Don’t be too surprised if Henry “Superman” Cavill — who was almost cast before the producers settled on Daniel Craig — is taking his martinis shaken not stirred in a few years’ time.

Previously on…
16 previous Bond films (which are all technically in the same continuity). The last was six years earlier, and the least financially successful for 15 years in the US (did alright worldwide, though).

Next time…
Brosnan played Bond thrice more, to increasing box office (if not critical) acclaim. He was due to do a fifth, but then the producers won back the rights to Casino Royale and the rest is history.

Awards
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Best Actor (Pierce Brosnan))
2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Sandwich in a Movie for the submarine sandwich with tomatoes and provolone. It lost to the ham and cheese sandwich in Smoke).

What the Critics Said
“James Bond, the British spy with a taste for the high life and a licen[c]e to kill, comes back in surprisingly hardy and supple form. Gadgets firing, quips racing, libido unfurling, surrounded by a top-notch supporting crew of actors, designers and demolition experts, the new Agent 007 (now played by Pierce Brosnan) delivers whatever Bond devotees could reasonably want, or what newcomers anticipate. […] So much familiarity may lead to contempt in some quarters. But Bond, like Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves, Tarzan, Frankenstein or Dracula, is one of those mythical British pop figures who seem ageless, infinitely adaptable. […] Perhaps the reason is that Bond — as his detractors have always noted — is an adolescent fantasy figure, a Peter Pan popped onto the stage of international espionage. Like Peter, he can’t — won’t — grow up. [He has] caught the world’s imagination because he played out its darker dreams with fairy-tale lightness.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Score: 78%

What the Public Say
“Rarely in the Bond franchise have directing, acting, cinematography, action, and music come together to create such a stylishly sublime experience. GoldenEye has undeniably earned its now-solidified status as a classic.” — Lukas, Lukas + Film

Verdict

After diminishing box office in the Dalton years, a long gap forced by legal battles, and the Cold War ending in the interim, bringing Bond back for the ’90s was perhaps a bit of a long shot. Fortunately, this fact didn’t escape the makers: there are numerous nods to Bond’s somewhat old-fashioned values (see also: memorable quote), and a whole heap of effort was expended on large-scale action sequences and stunts. Couple that with a solid storyline, several memorable villains, and a “greatest hits”-style leading performance from Brosnan, and you have a series that wasn’t just revived but was set to reach new heights (of box office, if nothing else).

Frankly my dear, #41 doesn’t give… a damn.

Home on the Range (2004)

2016 #32
Will Finn & John Sanford | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

I have many goals within my film viewing, quite apart from trying to watch 100 films every year. Some I’ve completed (the Rathbone Holmes series), others are almost done (every Spielberg film), others not so much (every Hitchcock film), and others I’ve barely begun (the Zatoichi series). One of these goals is to watch every Disney Animated Classic, their canon of feature animations that currently sits at 55 titles (with another scheduled for later this year, in the US at least). I did a pretty good job on the real classics while growing up, and have since filled the gaps of the modern classics, so I’m left ploughing through their lesser periods: the content they pumped out in the war-affected ’40s, and the post-Renaissance pre-Lasseter clusterfrack that was their ’00s produce. My best hope is to uncover a hidden gem while I mop up this dross.

Home on the Range is not a hidden gem.

The plot, such as it is, locates us in the Old West, where a trio of singing cows hunt for an outlaw in order to save the farm they live on. The early ’00s box office was not a great place for musicals, Westerns, or traditional animations, so one does have to wonder what inspired Disney to make their 45th Animated Classic a traditionally-animated musical Western.

Still, box office failure does not equate to a lack of quality. No, the film achieves that all by itself. There’s a plodding, familiar, poorly-structured story, with dull characters, who spout flat dialogue, which does nothing to help their unoriginal relationships. The voice acting is irritating, with the exception of one or two over-qualified performers (Dame Judi Dench?!) The songs are weedy, repetitious, and unmemorable. The villain’s number is the best of a bad bunch, but only because it has a moderately amusing reveal in the middle of it. The animation is unremarkable, besides some terrible CG intrusions. It seems to be under the impression that “hog” is a word for “cow”, based on the number of puns. A couple of gags do land — I even laughed out loud once, though I’ve forgotten why — but the majority is resolutely uninspired.

It’s actually not the worst of Disney’s canon (as I mentioned, there’s the odd flash of enjoyment, which is more than can be said for Chicken Little), but it’s still one for aficionados — or completists — only.

2 out of 5

Casino Royale (2006)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #18

Everyone has a past.
Every legend has its beginning.

Country: UK, USA, Czech Republic & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 144 minutes
BBFC: 12A (cut, 2006) | 15 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG-13 (cut)

Original Release: 14th November 2006 (Kuwait)
UK Release: 16th November 2006
US Release: 17th November 2006
First Seen: cinema, 16th November 2006

Stars
Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Eva Green (The Dreamers, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)
Mads Mikkelsen (Valhalla Rising, The Hunt)
Judi Dench (Iris, Philomena)
Jeffrey Wright (Shaft, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Director
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Green Lantern)

Screenwriters
Paul Haggis (Crash, The Next Three Days)
Neal Purvis (Die Another Day, Johnny English)
Robert Wade (Stoned, Skyfall)

Based on
Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.

The Story
British agent James Bond, newly promoted to exclusive double-oh status, investigates a terrorist plot that leads him to Le Chiffre. Banker to the world’s terrorists, Le Chiffre has managed to lose a lot of his clients’ money, and intends to win it back in a high-stakes poker game at the eponymous establishment. Bond is charged with joining the game and bankrupting the banker, with treasury employee Vesper Lynd along to keep an eye on the money and off Bond’s perfectly-formed arse.

Our Hero
“James before he was Bond,” as the awful US tagline went. Daniel Craig instantly disproved the not-that-numerous-but-certainly-vocal critics (remember all the “Bond isn’t blond” rubbish?) by being perhaps the most convincing actually-is-a-highly-trained-agent Bond since Connery.

Our Villain
Le Chiffre, a total banker. Fond of poker, bleeds from his eye, brilliantly played by Mads Mikkelsen, who has deservedly gone on to many other things, no doubt some wholly due to this.

Best Supporting Character
Eva Green is Vesper Lynd, a woman so remarkable that Bond names his personal Martini recipe after her. He also falls in love with her. Considering the rest of the Bond canon, that’s not likely to end well.

Memorable Quote
“I’m afraid your friend Mathis is really… my friend Mathis.” — Le Chiffre

Memorable Scene
At dinner on the train to Montenegro, Bond meets Vesper for the first time. They verbally size each other up. She wins. “How was your lamb?” “Skewered. One sympathises.”

Write the Theme Tune…
Easily the best Bond theme of the Craig era (though I like the QoS one more than most, and my main objection to Adele’s is that it’s about a flying baby horse and its receptacle for bread waste), You Know My Name was co-written by the series’ regular composer since the mid ’90s, David Arnold. That meant he could integrate the tune into his score, which was a Good Thing.

Sing the Theme Tune…
Far removed from Bond’s Bassey-imitating default style, the slightly gravelly sound of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (the first male vocalist on a Bond theme for nearly 20 years) helped indicate the series’ harder, manlier new direction.

Technical Wizardry
After four films of honing the Maurice Binder “naked silhouettes” style, title designer Daniel Kleinman cuts loose with an array of inventive playing card-based imagery. The most original Bond title sequence since at least Thunderball and, by being so atypical, the most unique of them all.

Truly Special Effect
Chasing after a kidnapped Vesper in the middle of the night, Bond suddenly sees her in his headlights, tied up in the middle of the road. He swerves, his Aston Martin crashes, and barrel rolls… seven times. The stunt team set a world record with that, which (despite Fury Road’s best efforts) is still unbeaten a decade later.

Making of
James Ferguson, a doctor from Aberdeen, came up with the idea for the scene in which Bond is poisoned and then remotely diagnosed by experts at MI6 HQ in London. Ferguson, a Bond fan, was retained as medical adviser for future Bond films.

Previously on…
Casino Royale was adapted for TV in 1954, starring the great Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, and its title (and little else) was used for the awful 1967 Bond spoof. This version is the 21st in the canonical James Bond film series, and the first time that series has performed a reboot: the film opens with Bond attaining his famed double-oh status, something we’ve never seen before.

Next time…
Daniel Craig’s second outing, the somewhat misunderstood and underrated Quantum of Solace, was the first direct sequel in the Bond canon, picking up on various plot threads from Casino Royale and even resolving a few of them. After Craig’s third, Skyfall, went off on its own, last year’s Spectre tried to tie together the entirety of Craig’s era, with mixed success. Beyond that, James Bond will return indefinitely, though Craig may not.

Awards
1 BAFTA (Sound)
8 BAFTA nominations (British Film, Actor (Daniel Craig), Adapted Screenplay, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Visual Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
4 Saturn nominations (Actor (Daniel Craig), Supporting Actress (Eva Green), Writing, Music)
2 World Stunt Awards (Best High Work, Best Stunt Coordination and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 World Stunt Awards nomination (Best Fight)

What the Critics Said
“I never thought I would see a Bond movie where I cared, actually cared, about the people. But I care about Bond, and about Vesper Lynd, even though I know that (here it comes) a Martini Vesper is shaken, not stirred. Vesper Lynd, however, is definitely stirring, as she was in Bertolucci’s wonderful The Dreamers. Sometimes shaken, too. Vesper and James have a shower scene that answers, at last, why nobody in a Bond movie ever seems to have any real emotions.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“While there is very much a dramatic and sensitive undercurrent to this Bond film, Casino Royale doesn’t shortchange the audience on action. From Bond chasing a skilled free runner enemy to a brutal staircase battle, Casino Royale delivers a harsher and bleaker sense of violence that had been missing from some of the predecessors and not seen since Timothy Dalton’s dark turn in Licence to Kill.” — vinnieh

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before Quantum of Solace was released in 2008, I wrote that Casino Royale was “a damn fine Bond film, returning to Fleming and resetting the character without losing anything truly essential about the franchise. […] this one’s up there with the very best, not just of Bond but of action-spy-thrillers in general.”

Verdict

In the early ’00s, it didn’t feel like the Bond series was in need of a reboot. Die Another Day had been a huge hit at the box office and gone down pretty well with critics (no, really, it did), and Brosnan was all set to do a fifth (though, considering his age, likely final) film as Britain’s top secret agent. Then Bourne happened, shifting the playing field of the spy-action genre, at the same time as Bond’s producers finally regained the rights to Fleming’s very first Bond novel. For the first time in the series’ 40-year history, they decided to reboot.

What Casino Royale does skilfully is acknowledge the changes brought by Bourne, but adapt them to Bond’s slightly more classical style (something Quantum of Solace fumbled). At the same time, it acknowledges and frequently subverts that Bond formula (“Shaken or stirred?” “Do I look like I give a damn.”), the antithesis of DAD’s uber-referentiality. In itself, it took Fleming’s relatively slight novel, with its lack of action by modern blockbuster standards, and expanded and modernised it effectively to fit current tastes. The result is arguably the best Bond movie ever made.

#19 will be… the last days of the human race.

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5

A Room with a View (1985)

2008 #14
James Ivory | 112 mins | download | PG

A Room with a ViewI can’t help but wonder if, back in 1985, there was any audience confusion between A Room with a View and A View to a Kill. One can imagine legions of Bond fans accidentally finding themselves with a witty heritage drama, and legions of old dears accidentally finding themselves with a man twice their age trying to be an action hero. (In actuality the films were released about a year apart — that being just one reason this is a particularly silly notion.)

Putting aside such nonexistent confusion, what of that witty heritage drama? Once again, thanks to the adaptations module of my degree, I’m stuck watching a film straight after reading the novel it’s based on. So far these viewings have supported my long-held theory that reading any novel before watching the film version (especially immediately before) is a Very Bad Idea. However good A Room with a View may be — and it certainly has its share of positives — it still pales slightly in direct comparison to the novel.

The film’s faithfulness is admirable at least, combining events effectively at times and at others leaving well alone. Unfortunately this “copying out” style of adaptation means that the dialogue is exactly as written but sometimes loses important elements through its abbreviation. In the novel, characters frequently mean something entirely different to what they say, but you wouldn’t guess so in the film. Similarly, a lot of the novel’s wittiness is lost — unsurprising, as much is carried in Forster’s narration, which here is largely left unadapted. “Largely”, because chapter names occasionally intrude as intertitles or subtitles. These usually merely skip what would be a few lines of expositional dialogue, but occasionally they’re entirely pointless, and frequently are rendered meaningless by what would otherwise be minor tweaks to the plot. As I suggested at the start, however, a lot of these flaws are only blatant when placed in stark contrast with the novel.

Others aren’t. Julian Sands is disappointingly flat as love interest George Emerson, and he frequently drags Helena Bonham Carter down with him (and not in the “written by Andrew Davies” sense). In my opinion, Bonham Carter is the weak line in an otherwise flawless cast, neither acting nor looking much like my image of Lucy (Sands might not give much of a performance, but at least he looks the part, and Emerson is meant to be quite awkward). This could well be just my personal vision clashing with that of the filmmakers, of course, but there you have it. Those two aside, the rest of the cast are excellent: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are note-perfect, especially in the handful of scenes they share (it’s a real shame Dench’s character disappears before the halfway mark); Daniel Day-Lewis is the right mix of comical, annoying and unfortunate truth as Cecil; and Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott and a young Rupert Graves are also perfect fits for their roles.

Finally, no Room with a review (ho ho) can be complete without praising how gorgeous Italy looks here. The camera lingers on the art and architecture more like a documentary than a fiction film, taking the viewer on a sightseeing tour just as much as the characters. There are essays to be written (indeed, they have been) on why such spectacle is a bad thing, but if you don’t want to be so pretentious then it’s wonderful to look at. Which, in many ways, sums up the entire film.

4 out of 5

Mrs Brown (1997)

2007 #89
John Madden | 101 mins | TV | PG / PG

Mrs BrownPeriod drama focusing on the friendship between Queen Victoria and her Highland servant John Brown, alongside political threats faced by the British monarchy in the 1860s.

There are undoubtedly some parallels to be drawn with recent Oscar-winner The Queen (British Queen retreats to Balmoral to escape the public eye amidst political events threatening the monarchy’s future, etc), but the real treats here are the performances. Judi Dench is fantastic as ever as the Queen, a character more complex than the stereotypical “we are not amused” image; and comedian Billy Connolly is surprisingly effective in a rare serious role.

4 out of 5

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

2007 #36
Charles Dance | 100 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

While You Were SleepingJudi Dench puts in her fourth appearance in this list (far and away the most represented actor, I should think) in Charles Dance’s first film as writer and director.

Dench and her long-time friend Maggie Smith play believable sisters in a beautiful Cornish setting who discover a young Pole washed up on their beach. The story progresses from there in a gentle but engrossing fashion, and the cast of experienced Brits are as excellent as ever.

4 out of 5