Film review: Les Miserables

It was 41°C in Melbourne today.  At 9pm, it’s still 38.2°C, which is just unpleasant and un-called for.  But I’m on holiday, and finally neither exhausted nor in pain, and couldn’t bear to spend another day trapped inside the house.

Cinemas, however, have air-conditioning.  As do shopping centres.  Cinemas inside shopping centres are particularly useful, because they have air-conditioning, movies, and places to buy stuff for dinner afterwards (not to mention the 2013 calendar one had not yet got around to purchasing).  So I decided to go and see Les Miserables. Continue reading

Film review: The King’s Speech

Yesterday, I went to see The King’s Speech. It’s the first time I’ve actually been to a cinema since Chicago came out, so that was a little strange. I’d forgotten how dark they are, how bloody long the ads and previews go for, and how many irritating people there are in the audience. Given that my main reason for not going to the cinema is that a) I’m not good at sitting still for a whole movie and b) I want to comment and ask questions and generally theorise and chatter, which is not polite behaviour in a cinema, I found it rather irritating to have people on my left fidgeting and moving and bouncing up and down and people to my right talking and asking questions and finishing the King’s sentences. I mean, really. It’s a film about stuttering! How is this a clever thing to do?

Anyway, my conclusion is that I loved the film, but I still prefer watching films at home where I can ask about things or comment on things or think about them or even go away and research them as they occur to me. And this film has a lot of things I want to think about and research some more. I’m definitely going to be seeing it again, possibly even in the cinema.

Continue reading

Film review: Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (BBC production)

Preliminary thoughts:

We’ve just watched the first Act of the BBC Henry VIII. This is a play to which I come with no preconceptions, as it is I think the only play that I have never read or seen and that I have not even encountered as Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.

Of course, one can never be entirely without preconceptions in a history play – I’ve successfully picked a number of characters so far based on a combination of lines and costume, though Henry’s reign is one I know relatively little about (aside from the obvious). In fact, they have dressed everyone to resemble their Holbein portraits as far as possible, at least for their first scenes. This amuses me, because the romance novel I read yesterday featured a troupe of players, and one of them commented that it was easy to pick out Henry VIII’s costume from a wardrobe, as ‘they always make him look like the Holbein portrait’.

Naturally they do – that’s what Henry looks like to everyone from the 17th century onward, I’m sure, and it’s easy to forget that in his youth he was supposedly the handsomest man in Europe (though I imagine the bar is set a little lower for kings). Continue reading

Film review: The BBC Romeo and Juliet

And after dinner, we watched the BBC version of Romeo and Juliet. I still haven’t decided what I think of it overall.

Let’s see… well, to start with, in this production Tybalt is played by a terribly young-looking Alan Rickman. He’s very good, as one might expect, but I do find it hilarious to note that he already has that sinister Alan Rickman voice even with the rather chubby young face and unfortunate costuming.

Juliet is played by Rebecca Saire in this production, and she was 14 at the time it was filmed. For me, she was the stand-out character – I’ve never seen Juliet played by a 14-year-old who could still make Juliet convincing, and Saire did a lovely job. Her Juliet had innocence, wit, passionate emotion and self-possession, she went from childlike to frighteningly adult and back again very convincingly, and the expression on her face when the Nurse advises her to marry Paris (and her delivery of that line about how she is much comforted) was excellent – you could see her just closing off and deciding that clearly she was going to have to act on her own, then, without her needing to say a word. I loved her relationships with her family and her household, and especially liked the way Lady Capulet played her role – she and Juliet had a really warm and affectionate relationship, which is not something I’ve seen before (Lady Capulet usually seems to be a bit of a Lady Macbeth in training). I was interested to see that in the big confrontation between Juliet and her parents, Lady Capulet’s ‘You are too hot’ is aimed at her husband, not to Juliet – and her final line “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word: Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee” was delivered in a hurried, frazzled sort of way – it sounded more like “fine, do what you like, I can’t stop you”, as she hurried out of the room to try to calm down her husband. Juliet’s nurse was also good, though she annoyed me by being far too ladylike – the Nurse is meant to be vulgar, and she really wasn’t!

And then we have Romeo, whom I did not like one bit. Firstly, he was 28, and it showed. He looked about twice Juliet’s age (because he was) and he and Juliet had absolutely no chemistry. Actually, I would say they had anti-chemistry, and in trying to create chemistry their scenes together he came across as somewhat sleazy. I couldn’t watch them together, actually. The age thing didn’t help, but clearly wasn’t all of it, because Paris also appeared to be in his mid-twenties, and his interactions with Juliet seemed more natural and far less skin-crawly (in fact, he’s the first non-sleazy Paris that I have seen in a production of this play). Really, you don’t want Paris to be more appealing than Romeo. Oddly enough, when Juliet and Romeo were talking to other people about their love for each other, they were entirely convincing (especially Juliet). But I was not at all convinced when they fell in love in the dancing scene, and the rest does sort of need to follow from that or there is no plot.

Incidentally, have you noticed that if only Romeo or Juliet had even a little bit of patience, this play would be a comedy? If Romeo had waited for Tybalt to be arrested for Mercutio’s death… if Juliet had actually followed the Friar’s advice and waited that extra day before taking the potion, thus allowing time for the message to arrive… if Romeo had waited for a message from the Friar before going off half-cocked…

But I digress. The Friar, incidentally, was very good, and I did like his relationship with Romeo.

Then there was Mercutio, played by Anthony Andrews. Andrew really liked him. I was in two minds… I did like a lot of things about his acting, but I did think his Mercutio was a little more unstable than he needed to be. However, I am completely incapable of being impartial on this subject, because the first Shakespeare I ever saw or read was the school production of Romeo and Juliet, in which the actress playing Mercutio was really exceptional and I imprinted both on the role and on her interpretation of it. So nobody else ever does it quite right… He did make it nicely bawdy, though, which was a relief – I was worried they were all going to be as well-behaved as the Nurse, and that would have been a crime.

The ending – particularly Lady Capulet’s reaction to Juliet’s second death – did make me cry. It doesn’t always. I even felt bad for Romeo, though not as bad as I did for Paris, who really did not deserve to die, poor boy.

So yes – I’d say it was definitely worth a look, if you haven’t seen it, even if Romeo does have 70s hair and an annoyingly sleazy nature. Juliet makes it all worthwhile.

Film review: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V

I watched the Olivier Henry V for the first time on Sunday. I intended to follow this immediately with the Branagh version for comparison’s sake, but it was getting late, and it didn’t happen. I’ll be watching it this week though. In any case, I first saw the Branagh Henry V when I was 17, and saw it more recently last year. For me, therefore, it was the definitive version, so what I primarily noticed about Olivier’s version was the bits that were missing. Well, and the radically different style of filming and acting, and the awful French accents, but that’s another matter. I had been told that Olivier’s version, being filmed in 1944, was very pro-war, whereas Branagh’s was very anti-war. Perhaps Branagh was more subtle, or perhaps his view resembles my own too strongly, but it still seems to me that his version is closer to Shakespeare’s original.

Olivier presents a very unified vision, and to this end, he takes out a lot of the ambiguities in Henry V’s character, and in the war itself. The hanging of Bardolph is lost; the threats to Harfleur omitted; the three treasonous nobles never appear, and Williams never finds out who he spoke to and challenged on the night before Agincourt. There were other omissions, I’m sure, but these were the ones that I particularly noticed. (He also omitted the lines where Harry tells Kate that he is so ugly that he’ll only improve with age – a rather endearing instance of vanity, I thought). In terms of things that Branagh didn’t show, we had the slaughter of the boys and the destruction of the campsite (though not Henry’s reciprocal slaughter, now I think about it, though Branagh didn’t show that one either. Maybe I imagined it?); we also got a much more distant and triumphal view of the battle – the glory of war, rather than the gritty reality. I don’t think Branagh showed the scene with all the French nobles expounding on their own shame after the battle, either. Olivier’s actors played that with rather a lot of enjoyment, I felt…

I also noticed that Henry did not admit to Montjoy that he still didn’t know who had won the battle – but after what we had seen, it would have been an unconvincing denial. Branagh’s Henry V, surrounded by the noise of the battle and the bodies of his soldiers could deliver that line with conviction, and did.

I should add that I have not read Henry V recently, so I’m working from memory here. Still, it seems to me that Branagh omitted less from the text, which one would think would bring him closer to Shakespeare’s original conception; and in terms of Henry’s characterisation, I think it does. On the other hand, his vision of Agincourt as completely chaotic and close fighting, and his apparent uncertainty over who had won are probably further from Shakespeare’s view – that whole tally of how many thousands of French have been killed versus the tiny number of Englishmen suggests a Glorious and Overwhelming Victory, which was certainly what Olivier portrayed; it seems to me that Shakespeare, while enjoying the not-always-noble nuances of Henry’s character, saw Agincourt as a Glorious English Victory over the Arrogant and Perfidious French (the characterisation of the French lends credence to this view), and that’s what Olivier showed. Branagh gave Agincourt a much greater ambiguity, I think more than Shakespeare intended. That said, I still prefer his version.

There were some interesting choices of characterisation and setting in Olivier’s Henry V; I loved the interactions with the audience in the early part of the play, and I rather wish he had continued doing the film that way. His characterisation of the French King as rather senile and doddering was also interesting, and has the advantage of explaining why the Dauphin seems to be running things as much as he does. I was less convinced by the Katherine, and of course the chemistry between her and Henry did not compare well to that of Branagh and Thompson (but how could it?). I rather liked the Dauphin, too – he was utterly arrogant and irritating, but a rather convincing character.

Altogether very interesting – I think this is the first time I’ve really understood just how much a director’s vision of a play can change it’s meaning. I’m really looking forward to watching the Branagh version again, and to our reading of the play itself, to see what other angles I’ve missed.