Saturday 24 December 2011

Review of 2011: Cinema - 10 Favourite Films

Cinema-memories, 2011.

Texan boyhoods. Parisian chimes at midnight. The end of the world. On Tresco, a painter gives a young man some advice. In Nottingham, two men meet, connect, part. Somewhere, a wedding reception goes off the rails. A Roman hero in a Balkan warzone. A novel use for Viagra. A mother and daughter ponder loss. A portly fantasist turns up in someone else’s fantasy. A waiting cat gets philosophical. Christophe Honoré goes p*rn... Not quite a movie year to match 2010 for me, but, even so, 2011 offered some incredible cinema experiences, many of which demonstrated film’s ability to encompass the domestic and the cosmic as no other medium can do.

                                                         Archipelago (dir. Joanna Hogg)

Joanna Hogg’s tender, funny chamber drama, revealing under-the-surface tensions (and under-the-surface love) on a family vacation on Tresco, makes most other films this year look heavy-handed and overstated by comparison. Beautiful work from Tom Hiddleston, Kate Fahy, Lydia Leonard, Amy Lloyd and Christopher Baker. 

                                                      Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh)

Well, here’s a surprise. Not one but two British films ending up on this year’s list... Haigh’s Nottingham-set boy-meets-boy romance is perfectly scaled, beautifully observed, brilliantly acted, and convincing in every detail.

                                                        Elena (dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Oh boy. My favourite film of the London Film Festival was Zvyagintsev’s third movie, a subtle but bracingly intense drama that explores issues of class and social status in contemporary Russia through the story of the title character (brilliantly played by Nadezhda Markina). A Tarkovsky for those of us who (confession time) have been bored by the majority of Tarkovsky’s work, Zvyagintsev is as philosophically-inclined as his illustrious predecessor but without losing sight of character and narrative. Elena is a marvellously assured piece of filmmaking: beautifully rhythmed, rich in unstressed details, and full of spaces for the viewer’s involvement and interpretation.

                                                    A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

I don’t know anyone who didn’t love and admire this: Farhadi’s splendid, complex drama seemed to grip and involve everyone who saw it.

                                                    Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)

It’s the end of the world as they know it. And Lars’s characters feel… well, not exactly fine.

                                                 The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

As divisive as Melancholia. Sure, “that” montage is a chore and the ending is soggy. But Malick’s grandiose evolution opus has the most wonderful stretches: piercingly evocative scenes of Texan boyhood that strike many deep chords. Risible at its most expansive, then, but singularly affecting at its most personal and intimate.

                                                     Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)

At which American audiences finally renewed their love affair with Woody Allen. And indeed who could resist Allen’s completely charming and generous-spirited time-travel comedy, a valentine to Paris, an ode to living in the now? Less loved, Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010), which got its British release this year, also had its merits, not least a lovely performance from Gemma Jones.

                                                        The Future (dir. Miranda July)

A few very inventive and original movies emerged from America this year, among them Miranda July’s The Future, a brilliant meditation on time that made me exclaim an enthralled “Wow!” on two occasions.

                                                        Dark Horse (dir. Todd Solondz)

Toning down the misanthropy and the shock value a notch Todd Solondz produced in Dark Horse one of his most involving and resonant films, one that follows its portly protagonist into a very odd liaison - and even further into his even odder fantasy life. Its narration unravelling as the protagonist unravels, Dark Horse takes some wonderfully confounding twists and turns as it progresses, culminating in an exquisite  final shot. And few filmmakers can match Solondz’s unnerving ability to capture the sheer awkwardness of human interaction on screen.

Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes)

And wait a minute ... is that a third British film on the list? Ralph Fiennes’s big ‘n’ brawny adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s least-loved tragedies doesn’t win many points for subtlety. But it's still one of the most memorable Shakespeare adaptations seen in many a year.

Honourable mentions and 2010 releases not seen until this year:

Rabbit Hole, True Grit, Homme Au Bain, A Simple Life, Li and the Poet, Bal, A Screaming Man, Farewell, Animal Kingdom, Potiche 

Friday 23 December 2011

Review of 2011: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

Make of it what you will, there was a hell of a lot of theatre that polarised people this year, and several of those productions seem to have ended up on this list. You didn’t hear many theatre-goers saying that they “quite liked” I Am the Wind or The School for Scandal or the Young Vic Hamlet - and the diversity of responses kept post-show debates lively, both in the Twittersphere and in what used to be known as the real world. The difficulty I had in whittling this list down to just ten shows (note the unseemly amount of "Honourable Mentions") confirms that 2011 was, overall,  an excellent theatre year with many a welcome revival, a few strong new plays, and some great Shakes, plus a few inevitable disappointments, of course. And, most memorably perhaps, the work of actors, giving performances of sometimes startling originality and inventiveness. Max Reinhardt: “We can telegraph and telephone and wire pictures across the ocean; we can fly over it. But ... the human being next to us is still as far away as the stars. The actor takes us on this way.”

The Comedy of Errors (Propeller; Sheffield Lyceum)

“Madam, do you have a Devil inside you? …Would you like one?” So enquired Tony Bell’s exceedingly cheeky Dr. Pinch - Robert Duvall’s Apostle via Les Patterson - to a rather startled woman on the third row, having just led the assembled company in a raucous gospel number entitled “He Was Saved!” That sequence was the exhilarating highlight of Propeller’s altogether miraculous version of one of Shakespeare’s creakier comedies, a production that, along with their stunning Richard III (which made my list last year), constituted one of the company’s greatest-ever double-bills. Propeller’s Comedy was the feel-good show of the year for me, exemplifying the particular brand of lyricism and wild inventiveness that characterises the work of our best (fact!) Shakespeare company. What pleasure and insight these guys offer - even when they choose to draw attention to certain audience members’ bald spots. Bonus points to Henry V as well.

A Delicate Balance (Almeida)

Existential angst in a well-appointed drawing-room is something I can’t seem to resist. Especially when we’re talking about Edward Albee’s maniacally convoluted, Henry-James-goes-Pop dialogue being immaculately delivered by a brilliant cast including Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, Tim Pigott-Smith and (intoning my favourite line of the year) Diana Hardcastle. By turns funny, moving and chilling, James Macdonald’s production didn’t delight everyone. But to me it seemed perfectly attuned to the play’s own, very delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, philosophy and bitchery, craziness and calm.

Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Trevor Nunn’s season at Theatre Royal Haymarket disappointed, in the end, but it opened with a gem: a production of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path that had all the human drama, poignancy and humour that you could wish for. Few would call this WWII drama about a group of RAF pilots, crew and their wives holed up, between raids, in a Lincolnshire hotel one of Rattigan’s finest or most penetrating works. And yet in a year that saw a fair number of productions staged to mark the centenary of the playwright’s birth this is in some ways the one that I recall with the most affection. In a sterling ensemble, Sienna Miller failed to shine, but there were beautiful characterisations elsewhere, especially from Harry Hadden-Paton, James Purefoy and (star of the show) Sheridan Smith who, with Purefoy, shared one of the year’s most touching scenes. A bit of all right, all round.

Anna Christie (Donmar)

“Don’t talk dat vay, Anna!” Look - or, rather, listen - past those accents and you’ll find in Rob Ashford’s atmospheric production as strong and sensitive account of O’Neill’s hoary drama as you could ever hope to see. A strapping Jude Law - as beefy of bicep as of brogue - gave a memorable performance, but the evening belonged to Ruth Wilson, goose-bump-inducingly good in the title role.

Grief (National Theatre, Cottesloe)

Quiet heartbreak in a suburban living room. Its understated tone and measured pace proved a turn-off to many. But I found Mike Leigh’s latest to be one of the most emotionally affecting experiences of the year. (And after the disappointment of his last film Another Year, for me, this came as something of a relief.) As memorably as any other production I saw in 2011, Grief succeeded in putting an emotional state on the stage. There was something about the languid-yet-taut rhythm of this production that I found completely immersive: watching it felt like being placed, ever so gently, into a vice.  Superb performances, too, especially from the amazing Lesley Manville, here the beating heart of one of the most humane and tender dramas Leigh has ever produced.

Hamlet! The Musical (Richmond)

"Where else? Where else? Where else? ELSINORE!" Very silly but also very smart, this was one of the happiest nights I had in a theatre in 2011, so happy, in fact, that I went to see the show again three days later. Here's hoping for a 2012 revival. Altogether now: "The question is to be or not to be..."

The Golden Dragon (Arcola)

A (warmly appreciated) gesture against what its director Ramin Gray termed “crawling realism,” Actors Touring Company’s excellent production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's play anatomised economic migration and its resultant exploitations through exciting anti-naturalistic means. But as its cast crossed lines of gender, age and even species to create the diverse protagonists of the establishment of the title, the humanity of Schimmelpfennig's writing - and, ultimately, its emphasis upon theatre as a site of empathy and imaginative transformation - rang as clear as a bell.

The School For Scandal (Barbican)

Too cool for School? It’s a funny thing about Deborah Warner: there’s no director whose ideas seem more questionable, to me, in theory, but whose productions I find so totally thrilling to watch. Approaching Sheridan’s classic comedy through all kinds of self-consciously quirky means - rock and fashion show, a touch or two of Brechtian distanciation left over from her great Mother Courage - Warner’s po-mo mash-up of a production was sometimes heavy-handed but it succeeded in giving the play the shock of the new. And the themes emerged with surprising clarity, helped by great performances from Alan Howard, Leo Bill and John Shrapnel. Torture for those who didn’t respond, apparently, but a deep pleasure for those who did.

Much Ado About Nothing (Globe)

Wa-hey! They say the first time can be a disappointment, but I’m proud and pleased to have - shockingly belatedly, for shame - lost my Globe virginity to Jeremy Herrin’s joyous production of Much Ado About Nothing. Very funny, the production also succeeded in doing justice to the play’s undertow of sadness and rue. With solid work from the cast across the board (sorry, naysayers, but I even liked Paul Hunter's Dogberry), it boasted an especially delightful Benedick in Charles Edwards, while, as Beatrice, the highly-anticipated return of a certain Eve to the London stage proved conclusively that you cannot beat the Best. David and Catherine Who?

Othello (Sheffield Crucible)

Wired! The estimable Dominic West delivered two of my favourite performances of the year: first as the acerbic academic-in-meltdown in Lindsay Posner’s pitch-perfect West End revival of Simon Gray’s Butley, and then as a chillingly hale-and-hearty Iago in Daniel Evans’s Othello in Sheffield, an altogether excellent production in which Desdemona's handkerchief saw alot of exciting action indeed.  

Honourable Mentions (in very rough order of preference): Mary Broome (Orange Tree), Butley (Duchess), Eden End (Richmond), Salt, Root and Roe (Trafalgar), The Deep Blue Sea (Chichester), Richard II (Donmar), The Tempest (Cheek by Jowl/Barbican), The Children’s Hour (Comedy), Korczak (Rose Kingston), Bernarda Alba (Union), Journey’s End (Richmond), Richard III (Old Vic), The Village Bike (Royal Court),  How To Be Happy (Orange Tree), Beasts and Beauties (Hampstead), The Government Inspector (Young Vic).

Disappointments: Twelfth Night (NT), Cause Célébre (Old Vic), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (TRH), The Kitchen (NT), Doctor Faustus (Globe), Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham's). 

Nightmare: I Am the Wind (Young Vic)

Sorry to have missed: London Road (NT)

Yet to see: Matilda (RSC/Cambridge)

Unexpected bonus: Annoying Neil LaBute.

Monday 19 December 2011

Review of 2011: Music - 10 Favourite Albums

2011 turned out to be a year in which the majority of my most beloved artists put out an album (or even two). This meant that I didn’t end up making many new musical discoveries this year - and still have many 2011 releases to catch up on (Ryan Adams, M83, St. Vincent, Metronomy, Camille... I'll get to you). But it did offer the very great compensatory pleasure of finding old favourites continuing to surprise, delight and inspire by producing some of their best-ever work. What’s more, in their attention to structure, transitions, pace and song-by-song flow, most of the records featured here prove conclusively that there’s plenty of life in the album-as-art-form yet, despite claims to the contrary. To quote the venerable Mr. Sexsmith: “This ain’t no random shuffle/There’s reason in these rhymes …”

Night of Hunters, Tori Amos

Tides and waves. Fires and storms. A relationship hitting the rocks. A 3,000 year flashback.  Epiphanies. Imperatives. Blood by your thorn. A fox, a fire muse, and a constellation show the way. Adapting classical pieces by composers including Schubert, Granados, Bach and Satie and recruiting a select band of collaborators to help realise her vision (including the phenomenonal Apollon Musagete Quartett, currently ripping it up with her on tour every night), Amos’s latest opus of empowerment is a stunning  thing: by turns dramatic and delicate,  full of grit and grace. One of her finest achievements, it's an exquisite long night’s journey into day - and one that might just have created a few new classical music converts as well.  Full album review here. Live review here.

Ashore, June Tabor

Ragged Kingdom, June Tabor and Oysterband

"If you don’t like June Tabor then you should just stop listening to music," advised Elvis Costello. A little over-zealous, perhaps, but 2011 certainly proved to be a rather good year to be a Tabor fan. An appropriately immersive experience, Ashore, Tabor’s brilliant album on maritime themes, requires and deeply rewards the listener’s commitment. The choice of material is superb (a seamless mix of the political and the personal, the ancient and the contemporary, the intimate and the epic), the singing characteristically sublime, and the spacious arrangements so richly evocative that you may feel the need to bundle up in a big cuddly warm jumper every time you put this album on. If I had to pick just one song for the ages it would be the dolorous, windswept take on Cyril Tawney’s “The Oggie Man,” an indelible vision of human transience compressed into a chorus and two crisp verses. But from the stately re-visiting of  “Finisterre” to the  widescreen 11-minute close of “Across the Wide Ocean,” Les Barker's great song about the Highland Clearances,  there are no weak links on this ship. Ditto for Tabor’s long-anticipated second collaboration album with Oysterband, a vibrant reunion that even exceeded the glories of Freedom and Rain (1990) for me. Full reviews here and here.

Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, Tindersticks

Another place to set up home, this one. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Tindersticks perform live this year but this six-CD collection of their stunning soundtracks for Denis’s films was compensation enough. Full review here.

The People's Key, Bright Eyes

“You got a soul? Use it.” Catchy but contemplative, sketching both tough and redemptive times on the way to the Apocalypse, the songs on The People’s Key are some of the sharpest and most substantial that Conor Oberst has written.  The sound is cohesive yet diverse. Check out the thrilling stabby guitar-work in “Jejune Stars,” the heavy chug of “Haile Sellassie,” the steely crawl of “Approximate Sunlight,” the beautiful echoy piano intimacy of “Ladder Song,” and, especially, the utterly gorgeous electro-rock exuberance of  “Triple Spiral.”  Even the portentous Malick-ish spoken word segments - musings on time, the universe, and the whole damn thing - have grown on me by this stage. I sincerely hope that this isn’t, as has been claimed, the last Bright Eyes album. But if it so proves then Oberst, Mogis and Walcott have gone out on a high with this great offering.

Hard Bargain, Emmylou Harris

The Harrow & the Harvest, Gillian Welch

Three of the most loved and respected artists in contemporary country music (aka the O Brother Sireens) released new albums this year. As usual Alison Krauss’s record with Union Station didn’t get far beyond the “pleasant” box, for me, and wasn’t an album that I felt compelled to return to that often. But Emmylou Harris’s Hard Bargain and Gillian Welch’s The Harrow & the Harvest have continued to absorb and beguile throughout the year. The artists’ approach seems similarly minimalist, with just two musicians accompanying Harris on Hard Bargain and Welch and David Rawlings returning to their patented duo format for The Harrow… after the more expansive sound developed on their recent work. But the results couldn’t be more different: the underrated Hard Bargain turned out to be Harris’s most ambient and fullest-sounding release in some time, its clear-eyed confessions and poignant remembrances cloaked in lovely sonic layers, while The Harrow & the Harvest was quiet and hushed, offering a series of distilled hard-luck tales that combined the mythic and the everyday with consummate ease. Americana classics, both. And two very cool album covers, to boot. Full reviews here and here.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

“Wake up to your starboard breath”? “Sat down in the soup”? Surely not? As readers of this blog might be aware, I’m a fan of “bad” diction - when it comes to singing, at least. And the fact that I can barely make out a word that Justin Vernon is intoning on Bon Iver - an effect accentuated by the recourse to over-dubbing -only adds to the fascination and beauty of its haunting, gauzy songs to me. A gorgeously atmospheric work; very special. "Towers" is favourite.

Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys

What’s always set Arctic Monkeys apart from the (many, many) guitar bands who appeared in the noughties  is Alex Turner’s particular lyrical genius. (I’d nominate Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not [2006] as one of the best-written rock albums ever.) There’s less of that genius on display on Suck It and See, it must be said : recorded in the States (like its predessor, the brawnier Josh Homme-helmed Humbug [2009]) this album bleaches some of the gorgeous Britishness out of Turner’s lyrics and out of the band’s sound which is smoother and slicker here. Still, the stand-out moments - “She’s Thunderstorms,” “Black Treacle,” “Library Pictures,” “Piledriver Waltz,” and “Love is a Laserquest” - convince me that this is a band I’ll always have a soft spot for.

Cinderella's Eyes, Nicola Roberts

A list book-ended by redheads, therefore. A stronger singer might give the surprisingly sparky lyrics the punch they deserve. But for the most part Ms. Roberts acquits herself admirably on this very enjoyable solo debut, an album that contains several of my favourite pop songs of the year. Rhian Jones, of Wears the Trousers, sums up the album's appeal best: “It’s like finding extracts from The Bell Jar slipped inside a copy of Heat.” Cream of the crop: "Gladiator."

Honourable mentions: Don’t Stop Singing (Thea Gilmore), Let England Shake (PJ Harvey), Long Player, Late Bloomer (Ron Sexsmith), American Folk Songbook (Suzy Bogguss), Horses and High Heels (Marianne Faithfull), Walk (Israel Cannan), 50 Words For Snow (Kate Bush). And, from 2010, but not heard until this year Olympia (Bryan Ferry) (oh, “Alphaville”!) and Have One On Me (Joanna Newsom). (With thanks to moviesandsongs365 for finally convincing me on the Newsom front.)

Thursday 15 December 2011

Theatre Review: The Ladykillers (Gielgud)

Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s fairly disastrous 2004 film remake, it may be considered a daring team that takes on Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955) again. But writer Graham Linehan (Father Ted, The IT Crowd) and director Sean Foley have proved just such brave men. And their rather ingenious stage version of Mackendrick’s venerable comedy, now in the West End following a successful run at Liverpool Playhouse, yields considerably more entertaining results than did the Coen bros' misguided film.

One of the most beloved and best-known of the Ealing comedies, Mackendrick’s black farce concerns a gang of robbers who, posing as members of a string quintet, rent a room in the subsidence-afflicted King’s Cross abode of an elderly widow, Mrs. Wilberforce, from where they plan to carry out their next job: a raid on a security van. The humour emerges, in the main, from the way in which the genteelly innocent (yet surprisingly tough-minded) Mrs. W becomes involved in their nefarious actions, first as an unwitting accomplice and then as an unwitting foil.

Retaining the outline, structure and time-period of William Rose’s screenplay, Linehan gives the material a few contemporary spins, most of which work very well. Character histories are amusingly fleshed out - the gang now includes a cross-dresser and a pill-popper amongst their number - while the classic scene in which Mrs. Wilberforce’s friends descend on the house expecting a recital is cleverly re-imagined as a parody of “avant-garde” composition.

But what’s more surprising are the elements of inventive expressionist dash that Foley’s direction brings to the evening. Michael Taylor’s superb design is a star in itself, constructing the house as a lop-sided, tilting creation, its contents set a-quiver as trains pass by. And in a brilliant sequence that elicited a round of applause, the heist itself plays out with model trains and cars whizzing across the wall of the building. (Now, that’s the way to do driving on stage, Driving Miss Daisy people!)

Such effects would be wasted without the human element, though. And the performances are all wonderful. Peter Capaldi brings gleaming-eyed glee to the Alec Guinness role as the smugly self-satisfied and increasingly unhinged would-be criminal mastermind. Clive Rowe is adorable as the ex-boxer “One-Round,” the most dim-witted but also the most good-hearted of the group, who, in this version, reveals untapped musical potential, while Ben Miller’s volatile, old-lady-hating Romanian, James Fleet’s befuddled Major and Stephen Wight’s spiv are equally enjoyable. And as Mrs. Wilberforce the great Marcia Warren flutes, flutters and fusses beguilingly, while finally suggesting as steely a moral resolve as did Katie Johnson (whom she sometimes resembles) in the 1955 film.

The endless series of running gags and slapstick moments occasionally pall, and the evening loses is spark a little in the prolonged no-honour-amongst-thieves climax, though there are some great touches even here, especially the very memorable manner in which Rowe and Capaldi’s characters meet their fates. Super-slick but with enough eccentric elements to keep you on your toes, Foley’s production exudes assurance. It’s terrific fun.

The production runs for 2 hours 15 minutes and is booking until 14th April 2012. Website here.

Theatre Review: The Importance of Being Earnest - A New Musical (Riverside Studios)

Arriving so soon after the Rose Theatre’s production, another version of The Importance of Being Earnest may not seem an especially attractive proposition, despite the deep delight that Wilde’s classic comedy is still able to generate. But Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios are presenting an Earnest with a difference: a musicalisation of the play that boasts intriguing novelty-value casting, with Gyles Brandreth - actor, author, presenter and former Tory MP - taking on the role of Lady Bracknell. Directed by the versatile Iqbal Khan, attractively designed by Samal Black, and staged in the cosy confines of Riverside’s Studio 3, the production proves most enjoyable, and strong enough to engage even those viewers who may have felt that they’d had their fill of this particular play for a while.

Despite updating the action to the 1920s, a move that widens the piece's scope in terms of choreography and musical styles, Douglas Livingstone’s book sticks closely to the content and structure of Wilde’s play, offering no major changes or revisionist elements. This, coupled with the melodious but relatively reserved style of Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne’s piano-centred score, initially makes the evening seem a little tame. Yet after a solid  but somewhat sedate opening, in which Livingstone’s lyrics aren’t always quite Wilde enough, the production kicks into gear in its second half, which is a pure and unadulterated pleasure. Here, responding to the escalating comic complications of the plot, the tunes are stronger and the lyrics more biting and artful, with hilarious duets for those tentative would-be paramours Miss Prism (Susie Blake) and Dr. Chasuble (Edward Petherbridge), and for Cecily (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and Gwendolyn (Anya Murphy) during their face-off over tea, as well as a nicely-judged nod to the play’s (much-debated) queer subtext in Algernon (Colin Ryan) and Jack (Mark Edel-Hunt)’s bachelor-bromance vaudeville number “On the Spree.”

The performances are thoroughly pleasing, too, with spot-on turns from Edel-Hunt as a very likeable Jack, and from Ryan as a louche Algernon. The chaps are well matched by Anya Murphy’s supremely pert Gwendolen, and by Flora Spencer-Longhurst, glowing and slightly gaga as Cecily. There’s characteristically fine support from veterans Blake and Peterbridge, and wry work from the production’s Musical Director, Stefan Bednarczyk, as the butlers Lane and Merriman. And let’s not forget Brandreth’s striking Queen Mary-modelled Lady Bracknell, a decidedly unfeminine creation with an especially fine line in imperious reactions, and a truly delicious delivery on the sly xenophobe’s ode to avarice “In the Funds.” All in all, a delight. 

The production runs for 2 hours 10 minutes and is booking until 31st December. Further information here.

Monday 12 December 2011

5 Christmas Films

Five to watch within the next couple of weeks. Which films will make your list?

Home Alone (Columbus, 1990) 
“This is my house - I have to defend it.” Vigilantism and family values, John Hughes-style. A childhood obsession, this one, and still capable of inspiring warm and fuzzy feelings.

Gremlins (Dante, 1984)
“And that’s how I found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus…”

Dans Paris (Honoré 2006)
I love grumpy père Guy Marchand dragging a Christmas tree through the Paris streets and returning home to find Romain Duris having his 80s pop moment. Screen with Honoré's equally adorable wintry musical Les Chansons d'amour (2007) for maximum festive enjoyment.

Joyeux Noël (Carion, 2005)
Christian Carion’s sincere and touching film about the Christmas truce.

It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)
Must we? Oh, go on then.

Theatre Review: Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham's)

Sometimes, material that struck you as believable and poignant on film can end up seeming broad, cardboard and obvious on stage. This may sound like something of a contradictory statement after my remarks about The Deep Blue Sea in the previous review, but it’s one that I stand by in relation to the unhappy experience that was Calendar Girls and also - to a lesser yet perhaps more painful extent - in relation to David Esbjornson’s production of Driving Miss Daisy which ends its successful run at Wyndham’s next week.

Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play - which charts the gradual growth into closeness of an elderly Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur Hoke over almost three decades in Atlanta, Georgia - was made into a fine film by Bruce Beresford in 1989 with Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd in the lead roles. Beresford’s is pretty much an ideal play-to-film transposition it seems to me (the script was written by Uhry himself), skilfully “opened out” with new scenes and additional characters that add texture and nuance, and a very touching relationship, delicately underplayed, at its centre. But on stage - and despite the presences of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones - the piece seems more inconsequential and considerably less affecting.

It’s not just the way that the driving’s handled in Esbjornson’s production that’s the problem - though the sight of the two actors sitting on a bench and a chair as Jones rotates a steering wheel attached to a pole can’t exactly be said to help matters. It’s more that the social context seems much sketchier here, and also that a level of hamminess in the performances sometimes exposes the faker elements in the material.

Vanessa Redgrave - still so often a magnetic presence and so very good in the upcoming Coriolanus - doesn’t seem completely in her element in this role. She communicates Daisy’s cantankerousness amusingly enough, and tries out a few typically odd, inventive things, including a bizarre bit of Isadora-esque movement as the punch-line to the scene in which Daisy convinces herself that Hoke's been stealing. But such bits of business don’t seem precisely in character. Elsewhere, she tends to either rattle through the lines at breakneck speed - one of the loveliest passages, Miss Daisy’s recollection of the first time that she saw the ocean, is all but thrown away - or else drawls them out affectedly: “A’hm naht pre-edge-jerdiced.” (Her wavering Southern accent recalls the one she used to much greater effect in her startling turn as Miss Amelia in The Ballad of the Sad Café [1991].) James Earl Jones’s performance is all about The Voice, and although he has some effective moments, he indulges in a tad too much bellowing and cackling. And Boyd Gaines as Daisy’s son Boolie also strikes over-effusive notes. A few scenes - Hoke’s confession of his illiteracy; the Alzheimer’s-afflicted Miss Daisy finally speaking the truth about what Hoke means to her - resonate. But overall Esbjornson’s production offers less of a sense of involvement in characters and relationships than it does the spectacle of observing icons, acting. A compliant - or complacent? - mood of reverence (including applause between the scene changes) fills the auditorium.

The production runs for 1 hour 30 minutes, until December 17th.

Monday 5 December 2011

Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, 2011)

Terence Rattigans centenary has been commemorated by several major stagings of the playwrights work this year - including London revivals of Flare Path and Cause Celebre, and an excellent season at Chichester which presented The Deep Blue Sea and The Browning Version alongside new plays inspired by Rattigan’s life and work.  Apart from a series of films and TV adaptations screened at BFI Southbank, cinema has been slower to celebrate Rattigans achievements, however, despite his close association with the medium throughout the 1940s and 50s. 

So the news that Terence Davies would be making his first fiction feature in eleven years with an adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale in the lead roles was a particular cause for celebration, especially for those of us who admire Rattigan and Davies just about equally. Unfortunately, though, and despite some striking and affecting individual moments, the meeting of Terry and Terry hasn’t quite resulted in the perfect marriage that might have been anticipated.

Along with The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy, The Deep Blue Sea is recognised as Rattigan’s most flawlessly-constructed work - the epitome of the “well-made play,” indeed - its water-tight three act structure presenting the final few hours in the affair between Hester Collyer and her younger ex-RAF lover Freddie as they play out in a shabby London boarding house.

Resisting the idea of “just photographing the play,” Davies has - unsurprisingly and justifiably - transformed that structure, developing a non-linear narrative that presents episodes from Hester’s past with Freddie (Hiddleston) and her husband William (Russell Beale) in counterpoint with her present situation, and that clearly reflects Davies’s own abiding concern with the workings of memory. (Unlike the play, the film presents the events entirely from Hester’s point-of-view.) Always strong on ambience, Davies evokes the drear of 1950s London with the feeling with which he conjured 50s Liverpool in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), Florian Hoffmeister’s misty, soft-focus cinematography and James Merifield's production design sustaining a distinctive - though not precisely pleasurable - oppressive mood. The opening is masterly: a nine-minute sequence scored to Samuel Barber’s gorgeously intense Violin Concerto that pans from the Ladbroke Grove street up the front of the boarding house to find Hester in the throes of her suicide attempt. Davies-land (milk bottles on the doorstep, sounds of “the wireless”) and Rattigan-land form a perfect synthesis here. And the ending - a beautifully-judged reverse of this sequence - is similarly strong.

It’s in the middle that things get a little sticky, at times. For it’s hard not to conclude that, in re-jigging the play’s structure, Davies has removed the material’s dramatic motor. The film drifts and dribbles, tension (and humour) dissipating in sequences that sometimes feel stilted and look posed. And the new scenes and characters that Davies has devised don’t, for the most part, seem like improvements upon those he’s excised. Especially ill-advised is a bogus early sequence - striving for bitchy wit and missing the target - that finds Hester facing off with her monstrous mummy-in-law (Barbara Jefford), the latter helpfully underlining the societal forces that Hester is up against when she intones “Beware of passion... It always leads to something ugly.” (The first part of that quote has become the film’s tagline.) As Hester’s parson pater the great Oliver Ford Davies is wasted in a similarly superfluous scene in which Hester seeks his counsel (in church! Wouldn’t he grant her an audience at home?) only to be rebuffed. Such moments seem, for Davies, atypically crass ways of ensuring audience sympathy with Hester, and emphasising the rebelliousness of her actions.

Elsewhere, the director’s movie-ardour leads him into a few unfortunate indulgences too, including a Blitz flashback that seems to express nothing more than the filmmaker’s pleasure at devising an elaborate tracking shot, and a Brief Encounter homage for Hester’s second suicide attempt. (It might have been more fun if Davies had had Hester and Freddie duck into an illicit matinee at one point - to watch Alec and Laura ducking into their illicit matinee in Brief Encounter, perhaps?)

There's a crucial piece of miscasting, too, I'd argue. Weisz's commitment to the role is evident in every scene, and she acquits herself admirably throughout. But even in her strongest moments here (such as a great final scene) her performance never completely transcends the fact that she seems about ten years too young for the role, an issue that, I think, does diminish our sense of Hester's transgressiveness in falling for Freddie in the first place. (“She looks younger than he does,” mused my companion at one point.) And the re-ordering of the scenes impacts upon the arc of the character: as Davies has re-arranged the material, Hester becomes more hysterical when Freddie storms out for the evening than she does when he announces that he’s leaving her for good.

Even though he’s been directed to overdo Freddie’s RAF-slang and his belligerence (especially in an over-pitched argument scene set in an art gallery), the engaging Hiddleston comes through with a good performance. Two pub singalong scenes - quintessential Davies moments, of course - turn out to be two of the finest innovations here, adding more to our sense of Freddie and Hester’s relationship than most of the new dialogue does.

And, playing William the cuckold, it’s great to see Simon Russell Beale in a decent screen role for once. Hester and William's scenes here may lack the deep sense of complicity and history that other actors have brought to them, but Russell Beale conveys William’s predicament with touching understatement. And Davies succeeds in bringing out the poignancy of this triangle, made up of three protagonists who all desire different kinds of love.

But apart from Harry Hadden-Paton, who’s likeable in an expanded role as Freddie’s friend Jackie Jackson, the supporting roles feel somewhat mismanaged. As Miller, Karl Johnson suffers the most from the cuts, his pivotal role - which, according to Davies, “no-one is convinced by” - reduced to a bit of disgruntled comic business. Ann Mitchell portrays the grimmest Mrs. Elton ever seen before being transformed into a sentimentalised salt-of-the-earth font-of-wisdom towards the end, replacing Miller as the person to shift Hester’s perspective on her situation with the pearl: “Suicide? No-one’s worth it.” (Now how about that as the movie’s tag-line?)

Davies’s two previous adaptations - the underrated The Neon Bible (1995) and the great The House of Mirth (2000) - seemed like pretty seamless, dynamic mergings of his highly distinctive sensibility and those of the creators of the novels. Here, in contrast, the director’s admirable but sometimes heavy-handed drive to cinematise Rattigan’s material proves less successful overall. There are, to be sure, many elements to admire in Davies’s Deep Blue Sea. But along the way a level of intensity seems to have gone missing.

Theatre Review: Beasts and Beauties (Hampstead Theatre)

Following its highly successful revival last year, Melly Still’s Beasts and Beauties once again takes up residence as the Hampstead’s Christmas show. It’s a most welcome return for this dark and delectable adaptation of a selection of folk and fairytales - as well as a welcome return to theatre of the imagination at a venue whose programming has been reliant upon fact-based material this season. In its new incarnation, Beasts and Beauties has been shorn of two tales: it now comprises six rather than eight pieces, and benefits from the streamlining. Apart from an enjoyably (and appropriately) modish take on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” - which presents the hero as a hilariously strutting and posing fashionista surrounded by suited flunkies - Still and her co-writers (Tim Supple and Carol Ann Duffy) have resisted the temptation to update the stories excessively. Instead, they’ve trusted the content of the tales to resonate with a contemporary audience, and dramatised them through thrillingly theatrical means that blend diverse elements - song, shadow-play, drawing, puppetry and mime - into a cohesive and dynamic whole.

There’s female curiosity and consequent marital terror in the opening “Bluebeard” (which features one sequence so chilling that the small child behind us burst into tears); superb slapstick, suggestive butter-churning and satisfying gender politics in “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House for the Day”; manic anthropomorphising in “Toby and the Wolf”; and a frightening, funny and ultimately very touching take on “Beauty and the Beast.” The most striking and surprising of the six pieces might be “The Juniper Tree,” though, a stunning adaptation of a German tale that boldly touches upon infanticide and cannibalism before reaching its hard-won redemptive close.

The line between narrator and participant is rendered marvellously fluid in Still’s production, and the seven-strong cast - Justin Avoth, Michelle Bonnard, Jake Harders, Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty, Jack Tarlton, Jason Thorpe and Kelly Williams - work brilliantly together, demonstrating superb physical and vocal dexterity as they vividly create characters animal and human (or somewhere in between). Williams is especially effective as she trades the winsomeness of Beauty for the cleaver-wielding frenzy of the stepmother-from-hell in “The Juniper Tree,” unleashing some hilarious, Matrix-esque slow-mo moves as a disgruntled colt along the way, while Tarlton’s scary-then-sympathetic Beast and Thorpe’s dopey dog Toby are among the other stand-out characterisations. But this is the kind of show in which everyone gets their chance to shine, and its inclusive spirit is entirely winning. Still and her collaborators dramatise these tales with all the playfulness, heart and theatrical inventiveness that you could wish for, resulting in what is surely one of the richest and most entertaining family shows to be seen in London this season.

The production runs for 2 hours 15 minutes and is booking until 7 January. Further information at the Hampstead Theatre website.

Theatre Review: Calendar Girls (touring)

“The global phenomenon is back for the very last time!” trumpets the publicity material for the current tour of Calendar Girls. But whether you consider this news to be a great shame or a blessed relief will be very much down to taste.

The story that inspired Calendar Girls - that of the group of Yorkshire Women’s Institute ladies who stripped off for a charity calendar that’s now raised more than £3 million - needs no detailed introduction at this juncture. Fashioned from his own screenplay for Nigel Cole’s 2003 film, Tim Firth’s stage adaptation has enjoyed a successful West End run and sell-out national tours in the last few years. Yet despite the evident audience good-will that’s built up around the show, the stage version struggles to replicate the film’s success at an artistic level. Rather, Firth’s adaptation seems to have drained most of the poignancy and grace notes out of the material, resulting in a show that at times veers perilously close to Carry On Calendar Girls in tone.

As in its previous incarnations, the show, directed by (former cast member) Jack Ryder from Hamish McColl’s original production, benefits from strong casting, with Lynda Bellingham and Debbie Chazen reprising their roles as Chris and Ruth, Jennifer Ellison switching roles from Celia to Cora, and Rula Lenska, Jan Harvey, Ruth Madoc and June Watson now joining the team.

For some of the cast, panto season seems to have come early. Speaking in deep tones, Madoc hams outrageously as the stickler WI leader Marie, while Bellingham plays to the hilt Chris’s good-hearted cheekiness. As Jessie, the oldest member of the group, June Watson gets the best piece of writing in the play - a monologue on age - perhaps to compensate for the fact that the rest of her dialogue is simply a series of quips and rejoinders of the “No front bottoms!” variety. Channelling Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone, and using her hair as a prop when the dialogue lets her down, Rula Lenska has her stylish moments as Celia, while Debbie Chazen brings a few endearing touches to the unassertive Ruth, but ultimately can do little with a role that wrests laughs by such comic “business” as having her appear in a rabbit costume. As Annie, whose husband John’s death from cancer prompts the women to do the calendar, Jan Harvey delivers the least showy performance, but her scenes with John (an underused Joe McGann) are too brief to generate much emotional impact.

Indeed, for a piece that's based on a true story, it’s surprising just how many details here strike false notes. The back-stories that Firth has devised for the characters - a single mother here, a straying hubby there - have little weight, and the characters’ dilemmas tend to be resolved in the most contrived and obvious of manners. This is the kind of production in which absolutely everything is on the surface. Tensions arise on cue, followed by hasty reconciliations. Plaintive piano music underscores the “poignant” moments.

The achievements of the real-life Calendar Girls certainly deserve celebrating, and, judging by the vocal response of much of the audience, Calendar Girls is a show that clearly makes a great deal of people very happy indeed. But those anticipating a somewhat less broad approach may find it a disappointing experience overall.

Further information on tour dates and venues here.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Film Review: The Tree (Bertuccelli, 2010)

In The Tree (2010), Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Dawn, an Anglo-Frenchwoman living with her Australian husband Peter (Aden Young) and their four children - teen Tim (Christian Byers) , 10-year-old Lou (Tom Russell), toddler Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) and eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies)- in the Queensland outback. Peter’s sudden death throws the family into disorder and grief, and is followed shortly thereafter by Simone's announcement that she’s able to communicate with her father through the leaves of the large tree that’s next to the family’s house.

Adapted from a novel by Judy Pascoe, Julie Bertuccelli’s second feature following the superb Since Otar Left (2003) is an equally distinctive - though tonally very different - family drama. Despite the premise, symbolic and spiritual resonances are downplayed; instead, Bertuccelli locates the substance and texture of the movie in the marvellously messy and realistic scenes depicting the family’s daily life. The Australian landscapes are filmed expressively, and the performances that the director gets from her cast are superb across the board. Davies’s angelic looks belie a wonderfully tough-minded and un-cutesy portrayal of the stubborn  Simone, and her scenes with Russell, Gotting and Byers convey sibling tensions and complicities with total naturalness and believability. Marton Csokas, so very bad in Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night production at the National Theatre earlier this year, is easy and charming as the new man who (to Simone’s chagrin) enters Dawn’s life. And, as Dawn, Gainsbourg brings her particular candour and emotional transparency to the screen. Some developments in the final third feel schematic, but the movie has built up so much good will - and such a close rapport with its characters - by this stage that the elements of contrivance don’t seem to matter very much. Highly recommended.