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Archive for the ‘Maggie Smith’ Category

The Lady In The Van

28 Oct

The Lady In The Van – directed by Nicholas Hytner. Biopic. 114 minutes Color 2105

★★★★

The Story: A cracked old woman parks her van for fifteen years in the driveway of a British playwright.

~

What is this a duet of?

It is a duet of people whose duet with one another is meant to petrify them.

That’s not a bad premise for a story, because fear of change is a universal and determining human dread.

And yet, we do watch them for 114 minutes not change. Although each is beset by the other and by the chances of life, the more things get crazy, difficult, unlikely, the more each of them becomes entrenched in their own marking time.

She remains impervious to him as a human being. She does what she pleases, says what she pleases, and shits in his driveway when she pleases. He in turn remains displeased. That is what he does, what he is meant to do, what he is a frozen expert at being. Displeasure neither changes him nor rouses him nor wakes him up.

I am not sure Alan Bennett should not have ceded this material to Jean Genet. For it does seem Bennett does not realize the full potential of it. It is a story of unintended masochism on the part of the man and unintended sadism on the part of the lady. Each in his own way is impervious to the other. Each has a hide of leather. Neither becomes intimate with the other, no matter what they may learn of the other. Neither wants to. What you watch is not paint drying. What you watch is dry paint.

But what you also get is two ripe performances. Both actors played it on the London stage to great acclaim and success. Now both performances are filmed by their West End director.

It’s really wonderful to see acclaimed, finished stage performances – such as Julie Harris and Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde in The Member Of The Wedding – brought to the screen as treasures, herein by Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith.

In doing this, the greater interest is seeing inside of the doings and workings of a bag lady’s life. We would never be privileged to witness this, were it not for Maggie Smith’s unwashed rags and opinions and the filthy interior of her van, which Alan Bennett actually hosted all those years.

The basic difference between the two humans is that the lady is actually crazy and the man is actually sane. Which makes the relation between them superficial and makes our satisfaction with the movie superficial also. The only story possible, therefore, is that of Alex Jennings as the Bennett character. But Bennett does not know what that story is. As in the film as in his life, for all that happened nothing happened to him.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Maggie Smith

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith– directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?

~

I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.

Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates the character without eliciting your sympathy for the character, well that may be her job.

 

It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But people said that because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way. Who was ever better at What John Wayne Did than John Wayne?

 

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. But like the instrument of many classical actors, Wayne’s instrument was only truly at home in costume drama – costume-legend, which is what Westerns are. Even in non-Westerns he had to be in costume, the uniform of a trade – which in modern dress would be military uniform, sea captains’ togs, naval brass, Marine fatigues, Green Berets. Even when he started in perhaps his greatest Western, The Big Trail, as a very young man, he is already in fringed white buckskin. Put Wayne in a suit and tie and you have a problem. Why? Because –– think about it – his manner is never contemporary; it is always legendary. He is never paying anyone you would ever actually know.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing less in being able to act and do that. Wayne came from, belonged to, and remained in the heroic period and mode of film acting, which started when it started and has practically expired in film, although Tom Hanks, in his modest way, sustains the tradition in certain roles. Hanks originally played comedy. No more. Why is that? In asking this question we ask what sort of actor has he become, and what sort of actor is any actor.

Wayne is or became a performer of ceremonial plots. He delivered his dialogue with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful. Paul Scofield would have failed as Ringo in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is also of a classical nature.

What does that mean – classical nature?

From the professional standpoint, it means the actor plays best in roles of high rhetoric: Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw, Restoration Comedy, Old Comedy, Operatic Melodrama and Romance, Greek Tragedy, Schiller, Corneille, Moliere, plays in rhymed or unrhymed verse.

From the technical standpoint, the standpoint of craft, an art is classical which steals from the art of the past. Sargent is a classical painter because he stole from Velasquez. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise the classical actor makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.

So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

 

As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies. That that’s the sort of actor she best and truly is.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh? (Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!) The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious? It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way her part is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back as ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager sweetly says. “Do you promise?” you laugh, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed. The Dowager has said what you yourself would wish to say to characters; Lady Trenton says what should never be said by anyone to anyone.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh. That is to say, she is happy. And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager always tells the truth and it is always out of place. So it’s doubly funny – meaning its humor is complex and we find the very complexity funny. She gets away with it? Because no one can put her in her place; because, being a countess, she has the highest title; because she is the principal and ultimate forebear; because she is unassailably old; because she is rich; because she holds grand-maternal power; because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role and therefore do not have to be acted at all and which Smith does not act. The Dowager is drenched in permission – all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. Her job, as an actress, is to find the place. The Dowager is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which make her do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position. They have everything, and so they are characters free to speak their minds. The one is funny to us in one way; the other is funny to us in another way.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.

 

Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And  actresses are quite chary and near and keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. Not glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not for roles whose conventions made her universally popular such as Bette Grable or John Wayne had. For, as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all, she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroine (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing Lady (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy Wife (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford). Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such a universally and recognizably popular sort. She is not an actress of The Great Forces That Drive Us. That is not her whateness.

You might want to put Maggie Smith in Geraldine Page’s  class, but Page’s power puts her in a class by herself, and Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things, lovely things, some of them. You might find that a certain characters she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order of universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. Miss Jean Brodie is not likeable .

So do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe. Or expectably anything. Or, rather, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.

 

Maggie Smith is now over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

Actresses take what is on offer at the time, as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be Maggie Smith’s case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James novel. It had previously been done in a Broadway play The Heiress, then in a notable film.

In all versions, Washington Square is about an upper class girl who is wooed by a good-looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on The Heiress, returns us to something nearer his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull – and calls her so, forces that view upon her, that his daughter should really be man’s best friend, a lapdog.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about a person thinking they are not lovable. That is the drama. The drama is: is this true? Or in what way true? Can the suitor prove it to be true – or not true? Lovability. A Great Theme. Because each of us may harbor that gleaming doubt. Nobody Will Ever Really Love Me is the mantra in all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it.

But by what standard of unloveability is it judged, one must ask?

By the standards of her time, her father, her family history?

The actress must decide this. She must find what she can do. She must find what the rubric of acting allows her to do.

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Modesty and humility, which is what Olivia De Havilland played in the film, don’t go far enough.

Physical awkwardness might do something – but it’s external. Here, the actress tries it in a dance scene, and it doesn’t ring true, because it’s exaggerated; she looks at her feet and counts beats. It’s too obvious, too externalized, too shown. Besides, behaving that way would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

Does Catherine Sloper have sufficiently bad taste in dress to make her a poor trophy wife? Is that why she’s unlovable?

Here, she wears one hideous dress, true, but is one ugly dress enough to make one unmarriageable?

The character lacks self-confidence? Is that the basis of her unlovability?

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence. What an actor can act is a seesawing between two choices resulting in confusion, which can be read as lack-of-self-confidence.

Lack of self-confidence can also be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this, inadvertently.

But then such a Catharine Sloper would have to be a very tiny hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

Or does Catharine Sloper think of herself as unlovable to please her father who calls her unlovable?

Does the key to the part lie in her father’s behavior towards her?

Does her confusion arise from believing her father loves her yet dubs her unlovable.

Her father resents her because her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both; it just comes out of him that way.

The father is an interesting character because his firm stand must be to declare he loves his daughter and declare she is unlovable, and in the same voice declare that the reason he says she is unlovable is because he loves her.

We can see this working itself out before us. When she is little he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We learn later what in his eyes her life should be: a permanent household companion to him. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

Yet we must believe that she believes that he loves her.

Or we must see that the extravagance of her love for him is designed to mask from her that he does not love her at all – a condition even more intolerable than the hypocrisy she fabricates to hide it.

So, we see her tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy. Is that the key: she has decided she can be loved only as a Fido, not as a human woman. Is that where we have the foundation for Catherine’s character?

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog, and agreeing to it, because it pleases the head of the house? And how would it feel buying into that fully – for her father and for everyone in their circle – and their buying into it too.

 

But now someone arrives on the scene who wants to treat her as a human being! A woman to be loved, desired, and married.

What does the actress do? Dog into human, human into dog.

Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failure of confidence is her awkwardness as she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted, is standoffish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching her behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!” Is that how to start the part? On shaky ground?

 

I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problem-actress. She usually plays creeps, or at least that’s how everything comes out – the Lois Smith syndrome, except Smith got over it. We see something unstable in Jason Leigh as she does this. The actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters go gaga. This turns her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what Jason Leigh uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. She is unlovable because she’s too dangerous.

It doesn’t work. Catherine Sloper is not dangerous. Not insane. Were she insane or in danger of being so, there would be no drama, because the suitor would be automatically disqualified by it.

But still, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited. She has to go through with it.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want the suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does. Because no one wants a handsome suitor to marry a bag lady. No wants a Catherine Sloper with such screaming eyes to marry anyone ever. And the reason we don’t is that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Catherine Sloper is a creep. Whether the father loves her or the suitor loves her is of secondary importance.  We, the audience, must love her —  must know we love her — and love her for her — and we don’t.

 

Maggie Smith plays Catherine Sloper’s in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that her Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which flattens the performance, so that’s is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void. Montgomery Clift came from an upper class family; as an actor he is a City College undergraduate headed toward accounting.

None of these allures does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent, but not developed. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy if it were and were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent. The costumes of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world are superb and are urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part.

Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, Lavinia noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere in 1850; they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin the same, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.

Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on-the-money-American. But…

But her speech patterns are British. They are of British upper-class Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled. It’s in her body.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.

 

To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find elements with which you can weigh and distinguish what you are seeing. This whatness is a quality almost so physical it will have a physical manifestation. Look for it. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance. When, in fact, they have given a good performance of a character you don’t happen to care for.

 

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper.

It helps makes one more forgiving.

Before which, of course, one must become more ruthless.

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

Washington Square

13 May

Washington Square – directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?

~

I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.

 

Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates it without eliciting your sympathy, well that may be her job.

 

It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But that was because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way.

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. Wayne’s instrument could play in costume legend, which is what Westerns are. For Wayne’s particular instrument to be effective it had to be in costume, which in Western  would be jeans and which in modern dress would be military uniform, captains’, admirals’, marines’ and such. This was true from the moment he started, in The Big Trail, where he is in fringed white buckskin. Put him in a suit and tie and you have a problem. He is or became a performer of ceremonial plots with dialogue spoken with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful, and Paul Scofield would have failed as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is of a classical nature. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise it makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.

 

So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

John Wayne?

Really, who could have been better?

 

As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more often cast in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh?

(Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!)

The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious?

It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way it is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back, for she is so ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager says. “Do you promise?” you laugh not at her but with her, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh.

And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager tells the truth and it is always out of place, except that no one can put her in her place because being a countess she has the highest title, because she is the principal forebear, because she is old, because she is rich, because she holds maternal power, because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role which do not have to be acted and which Smith does not need to act – but all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. She is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which ask her to do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position,. They have everything. And so they are characters free to speak their minds.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.

 

Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And other actresses are very chary and very near and very keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. She didn’t play glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not from roles that made her universally popular like Bette Grable or John Wayne. For as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroic (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford).

Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such universal sort. She is not an actress of the great forces that drive us. That is not her whatness,

If Geraldine Page were not in a class by herself, you might want to put Maggie Smith in her class. But Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power, which is why Page is in a class by herself.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things. You might find that a certain character she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order. She does not possess universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.

 

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. You’d best not confuse the actor with the character she is acting.

The actor will use herself to do the acting. She can play a beast and a bitch because those things are in her and because they are in everyone. She may be amusing or not.

But do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe.

As I say, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character itself, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.

 

Maggie Smith is now just over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

So actresses always take what is on offer at the time as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be the case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James’ novel of that title. It had previously been done from a Broadway Play in a film called The Heiress.

It’s about an upper class girl with no confidence who is wooed by a good looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on Henry James’ story from The Heiress, returns us to something nearer to his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull —  and calls her so.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about one thinking one is not lovable.

I think that’s what it’s about. “Nobody will ever love me,” is the mantra behind all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it

But unloveability cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Physical awkwardness might do something, but it’s external. And it doesn’t work here, because it’s exaggerated in a dance scene where she looks at her feet and counts beats. Doesn’t ring true.

Besides, doing that would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

She has bad taste in dress?

She wears one which is hideous, true, but that’s not enough to make one unmarriageable in the eyes of all the world.

The character lacks self-confidence.

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence.

Lack of self confidence can be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this.

But she’d have to be a very small hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

 

The key to the part lies in her father’s behavior towards her. Her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both. It just comes out of him that way. When she is little, he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We later learn what in his eyes her life should be: a spinster and permanent household companion. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her kept on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

So, we see her as a child tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy, and there we have the foundation for Catherine’s character.

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog but wanting to be treated like a human?

Dog into human, human into dog. Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failing is that she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted is stand-offish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!”

 

I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problematic actress. She usually plays creeps.

We see something unstable in her as she does this. This not so much in evidence here, but the actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters are all gaga. This makes her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what she uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. It doesn’t work.

Jennifer Jason Leigh does not get to the heart of anything here, but still she is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want her suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does.

 

Maggie Smith plays her in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the other qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void.

None of these does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not even great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.

 

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent.

The costumes are superb and are of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world. Urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part. Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, she noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere; in 1850 they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin also is, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.

 

Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, still does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on the money. But…

But her speech patterns are English. They are of English Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.

 

To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find in you elements for judgment with which you can weigh and distinguish what you’ve seen or are seeing. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance.

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper. Not much deeper, just a little.

It may help make one more forgiving.

 

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

15 Mar

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — directed by John Madden. Screwball Comedy. 82 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: The lively young owner of a hotel in India wants to expand his operation and get married at the same time and also continue to adore and serve and praise his elderly clientele and also….

~

What are doing sitting here reading this! You should jump up at once and grab your family and friends or just yourself and go see this inspiriting comedy of mismanagement.

It is fueled by the effervescent and insatiably charming Dev Patel, who performed the same services for us at the First Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a season or so back. He gambols through the piece like a gazelle. What an actor! What a silver-footed turn-on-a-dime comedian! What a sunburst of delight! I’m going to see it again.

So to save myself time in order to rush to do that, and to save you time too, I shall shorten this review by saying only that, like the first, the second film is a tonic!

Patel operates in the foreground of the fidelities, infidelities, careers, and Brittle British exchanges of a witty script fortified by the playing of Maggie Smith as a lower caste Scottish accountant, Bill Nighy as a duffer of frail memory who must fill his purse with lectures of tourist sites whose details escape him, Judi Dench who adores him from afar and then nearer and nearer, Diana Hardcastle as the bewitching straying wife of Ronald Pickup.

Celia Imre is the lascivious lady wooed by two maharajas, David Strathairn is the deciding executive of the deal, Tina Desai is the delicious almost forgotten bride-to-be, Shazad Larif is the stiff competition. Richard Gere, with his low class accent and high class wardrobe, is the dupe who dupes the dopes.

It all ends as comedy always should with a wedding and a dance.

All this in the flaming color of India!

Hasten my dears. You can’t do better for a comedy just now.

And when you come back, tell me you adore me!

 

My Old Lady

28 Sep

My Old Lady – directed Israel Horovitz, 107 minutes Dramedy Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: An impoverished American inherits a Paris apartment and its complications.

~

Time was in American films when you could see stories about grown-ups. Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer and Rosalind Russell and Claudette Colbert and Cary Grant were grownups. Love Story is a movie about people in their forties. So is Penny Serenade and Woman Of The Year, and they were enormously successful because grownups went to movies in those days, and because age added luster to the skills of the performers and made their exact age immaterial to the universal entertainment their gifts guaranteed.

In My Old Lady, we have such a picture. It is well worth seeing for the maturity of language dedicated to its predicament – for it is a talking picture – meaning that narration does not fall into the trap of being a function of motion only, of pictures only. The people before us are strong minded, articulate, and possessed of fully developed characters.

And they are brought to us by actors we love to watch, whom we have seen over the past twenty years and so are interested in their development.

Can Kevin Kline retain his relevance as a performer? That’s bound to be a question since his screen performances are fairly rare. The answer is up for grabs as you watch his finessing the role of a ne’er-do-well failed novelist on his uppers, as he bamboozles various French operatives out of their ready money trying to keep afloat while he sells or promises to sell a Paris apartment which is not quite yet his.

What prevents this is the presence in it of Maggie Smith who has right of residence as long as she lives – she who has already lived long and promises to live longer. And he is also met by the firm gaze of her daughter played by Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Scott-Thomas is a personality I have not cottoned to in the past, but she really takes hold here as an unmarried woman of fifty or so, learning the truth of her mother’s relations to the man who deeded her the apartment, Kline’s own father. She is interesting to watch and she presents a stern front breaking down as the truth of her life and her relations to Kline’s father emerge. Kline’s weakling breaks down too to reveal a piratical firmness at all odds. Maggie Smith herself, that past mistress of ambiguity nailed by eyes like two cockatoos, crumbles as the worst comes to be known.

The material comes from a stage play and in film form has three acts, the second of which is the richest. The first arranged the predicament for us, the second confronts it, but the third goes off into a siding of romance, which is out of character for Scott-Thomas and damages the weight of the material.

Still we have wonderful actors performing it, great support from the French cast, particularly Dominique Pinon as a real estate agent. We have a real Paris. A film beautifully filmed and well directed, and the spectacle of a virtuoso actor, Kevin Kline negotiating a role without falling into its tempting traps. Grownup fare. Dig in.

 

Downton Abby, Season 3

18 Jul

Downton Abby, season 3 – various directors. Period drama, 8 part TV series. Will the great house fall or will it not fall? Color 2012.

★★★★★

Is it based on George Stevens’ Giant? It is largely the same story: enormous holdings are  invaded by the younger generation with ideas of their own and with tolerances intolerable to the masters of the spreads. Bick Benedict is the American Robert Earl of Grantham, and The Riata the holding comparable to Downton. Outsiders and lower-class folk interlope into the families, and Robert and Bick must learn new ways, or succumb. Members of the families marry outside their station, and always hypogamously. And everywhere the ranching and the farming are impressive.

Anyhow, here we have another topping season of one’s favorite characters, acted by a first class cast. I won’t summarize the story, why should I? Once you start it, two seasons back, you tell it yourself as it goes along. This version does contain the killing of two major actors, but be it far from me to reveal who. (One of them got a job in a Broadway play, and so must die. Serves that actor right.)

The clothes gain in brilliance and beauty and cut and tailoring. The makeup. The direction. The writing.

Oh, wait, the writing. This version includes the presence of Shirley MacLaine, and writing of her part is all wrong. Why is that? Because there is nothing dramatic at stake with the character being brought in. There is no question in the MacLaine character that she will provide the money. She cannot, even if she would.

Vilely costumed and wigged, her entrance is a put-up job. The scenes she plays are also not well written in terms of the other characters. All Americans are thought of as vulgar upstarts by the aristos of Downton, and perhaps by the author Julian Fellowes as well. Indeed she is even given the Jewish name of Levinson, although nothing is made of this. Her daughter, The Countess Cora, beautifully played by Elizabeth McGovern, is the finest lady in the Abby – so how could she have such a woman for a mother?

To play the part, Shirley MacLaine, who actually as a person is vulgar, is hired, I imagine, in order to confirm this view of American vulgarity. And she does. Therefore the play, even on the level of character surprise has nowhere to go when she comes on.

Nor does anything witty or rare arise in the playing of MacLaine with the other characters, such as Mrs Crawly or The Dowager. Their scenes together are not filmed as matches.

Nor indeed can MacLaine actually act them. She has no timing. It is as if she cannot act at all any more; doesn’t even know what acting is. To all reports she is great off-camera, but on camera she is inexplicable and a mess.

But this is a minor error. The rest is tops. Of course, you will see it. It is not a question of volition. It is inevitable as birth. If you were born, then sooner or later Downton Abby lies before you.

 

California Suite

16 Feb

California Suite – directed by Herbert Ross. Low Comedy. Four sets of married couples find themselves in a series of unmarried stories in a Hollywood hotel. 103 minutes Color 1978.
★★
Unutterably vulgar.

Herbert Ross, despite the fact that he is a choreographer, has no gift for the physical comedy which poor Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby are called upon to enact. Two funny men and Ross finds nothing funny in them. Their episodes are played with pig-bladder depth. Neither actor is qualified to play physical comedy of this banana splat type. It requires tremendous, almost balletic training.

Jane Fonda at 41 is the perfect age to play the fast-talking career woman whose tongue gets the better of her marriage and motherhood. Her character is too quick on the draw to realize marriage is a draw. And Simon is too stupid to realize, even though he knows his gift for the shallows is fatal to his exploration of the possibilities of comedy at all, that the way out of that predicament is not more of the same. To think that her ex-husband Alan Alda can think of Jane Fonda as once attractive, with that mouth on her, places a new priority on our suspension of disbelief either in the sanity of Alda or the attraction of Jane Fonda, who, after all, next to Eve Arden, is one of the least romantically attractive screen personalities ever to breathe. Fonda is superb in the part.

So is Maggie Smith in hers; she won a supporting Oscar for this. She plays a British actress come over to collect a supporting Oscar, accompanied by her bi-sexual husband, to whom she is tragically sexually attracted, or so we are supposed to believe. This person is played in the far rear court by Michael Caine, who does not have a homosexual cell in his body. That’s why he plays it in the far rear court. He finds the casting as funny as I do.

The playwright further misconducts the proceedings by writing an improbable sequence involving Walter Matthau as a man who wakes up in his hotel bed to find himself next to a soporific tart. This unfunny situation is, of course, compounded by the premature entrance of his wife, played by Elaine May. They are all at a loss for what to do with lines that have no foundation in human response or human humor.

The material would work for a comedian of gross exaggeration, such as Sid Caesar, for whom Simon once wrote, where it might look good, but only, at best, on paper. Matthau plays it valiantly with his last nickel.

Neil Simon does not seem to get it that his talent completely embodies the values he himself thinks he is satirizing.

Neil Simon is a playwright whose comedies I am ashamed of.

 

Quartet

08 Feb

Quartet –directed by Dustin Hoffman. Musical Drama. Into a retirement home for English musicians comes the greatest diva of her day, who refuses to sing along with the others. 98 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Well, go and see it at once. You may expect, as I did, for it to be a sentimental bouquet to the old, but it is not. It is ripe and searching. It is funny. It is beautifully directed and filmed. You couldn’t really ask for a smarter and more gratifying entertainment.

That is to say, until the end. For it is important for me to spoil it for you before it spoils itself for you. There is no ending.

That said, there is a great leading up to it. The foibles and vanities of old age are released to our eyes without embarrassment – and why not? The locale is a beautiful old English mansion, and the musicians –Tom Courtney, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connolly – who support the diva are supported in turn by senior musicians who play their instruments and sing their songs with gusto and skill.

The diva is Maggie Smith, and once again she is really something. She is moving and funny, endearing and true. She is asked to join the other three to sing at a gala in the quartet from Rigoletto, but she won’t. Moreover, it turns out she has once been married to one of the members of the quartet. Oh dear.

I think no more needs be said. Safe to say, these wonderful actors have great big dolloping parts, assisted by Michael Gambon as the in-house director of the gala.

This is the sort of movie that gives us a reason to go to the movies at all.

 

A Private Function

19 Dec

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~ ~ ~

A Private Function – Malcolm Mobray. Comedy Of Character. England on very short rations after The War and everyone wants a pig to call their own. 94 minutes Color 1984.
★★★★★
Not farce, not situation comedy, not joke comedy – but that rare thing: comedy of character. That is to say that comedy which produces in one the barely noticeable glow.

Alan Bennett, a master of this sort of thing (The History Boys, et al.), gathers his cohorts, such as Michael Palin and Richard Griffiths, and the incomparable comedienne Maggie Smith, along with Denholm Elliott as the selfish officious mayor, and Pete Postlethwaite as the cold-eyed butcher, to chase around a small English village the person of a pignapped porker everyone wants for their very own oven.

I lived in England near to the period of 1947, and I ate my ration of one egg a week, too, so I understand what Bennett is after in creating the socially pretentious wife of the new chiropodist in town that Maggie Smith plays. We are like her or we are nothing. We deserve the flourishes of life. We deserve the dainty extras. We deserve excess in excess. Not just beans on toast, but life glazed to a turn with an apple in its mouth, and this is what Maggie Smith is given to give us. We feed on finery or we starve.

Bennett has written a Chekhovian comedy, not one of those wonderful long tragedies he called comedies, but one of his short wonderful plays, such as The Proposal. All we have is human response to the universal need for a pig. What could be funnier!

Oh, yes, funnier in a different way. But not funnier in this particularly human way. Comedy Of Character. Don’t starve yourself. Rationing is over. See it.

 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

12 Jun

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – directed by John Madden. Comedy/Drama. A group of retirees seek economic comfort at a Jaipur hotel, which they find also to be a retiree. 124 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

If by some merry chance you should be gulled into seeing this piece, relax then and wander for a time with this bunch of expatriates and be one of them, for in each of us at some time and place is each of the characters we find before us here, and are just as we would be should we find ourselves here. We first of all are the impecuniously retired. We are also the one so fearful of going out of doors in Jaipur India that we miss the fun of the color and assault of the stench and the poverty and the endless wealth and variety of life. Then we are also the one who betrayed a love long ago. We are no less the one who must cling to her safety blanket of familiar foods, never daring to nibble a dainty. We are the racially prejudiced. We are the brash strider venturing forth into the escape of a world both opposite to his own and also unavoidable. The mad and kindly proprietor of this old hotel is a young man who has just inherited it, and his enthusiasm is as boundless as his promises and equally unfulfillable. Never was a film so perfectly, so justly filmed and edited. Never was one so fortunately cast. The balance of the scenes is exquisite as played off against one another for length, tone, plot, and color. Tom Wilkinson plays the lover in search of his once lost love. My favorite, Maggie Smith, who is the most physical actor of her generation, plays the lower-class foodie, and gives to us, once again, that rare gift of an actor, embodiment. Richard Nighy is the fellow who ventures out into the wilds of the city. Which brings us to Judi Dench. I have always thought that to act opposite Judi Dench would be to act opposite a rock. I don’t like her. There is no give in her. Instead an adamantine quality in her chooses the moment for “sympathy,” as by a schoolmarm’s ferule.  She is an actress of advanced calculations, always an instant ahead of the moment. She’s mean. She irritates me. Usually. For this is not one of those times. Here she is given to play the part of a woman entirely opposite to all that, one naive to the world, a woman whose dead husband took care of everything, with the exception of providing for her in the event of his death. She plays it freshly. She appeals. All of them do, but the one who really appeals most is the young actor playing the delirious proprietor of the hotel. What a wonderful voice and face and energy. What a sense of humor. What a darling guy. He is Dev Patel of fond memory of Slumdog Millionaire. And the movie is directed by John Madden of fond memory of Shakespeare In Love. So you see. Whatever age you are, you cannot go wrong with this movie, for whatever age you are you too are a retiree from something, waking up in a new place and, just like our friends here, just like a newborn baby, comically disoriented. Catch it at once.

 

 

Becoming Jane

02 Mar

Becoming Jane — directed by Julian Jarrold. Romantic Drama. Desperate pressures to get her married beset a lovely 18 Century bluestocking eventually to become Jane Austen. 120 minutes Color 2007.

★★★★

Set here in Ireland acting as Berkshire and perfectly cast as a late 18th Century place, one feels absolutely at home in the rough, peeling-painted, rectory-cum-farm of the film’s landscape, which never fails one second of this film’s footage to look right. What does fail is the sound and sound editing. The music, which is excellent, is always too loud, never more so than in the ballroom scene early on when not a single sentence of the dialogue can be heard above it. The actors do not help, either, for they believe, perhaps, that wit depends upon speed of utterance, and it does not. The elaboration of syntax, upon which much of the wit of Austen and the age depends, requires a careful mouthing. A tasting. A lingual pondering. Like wine. And dare I say it? – a drawl. It cannot be spit out like shot. Oscar Wilde was not at all like Noel Coward. And this is the age of Byron, behind whose drawl massed the power of his position and the greatness of the style of Don Juan. Ian Richardson knows the truth. His buffalo brow of disapproval looms like a dark eave over his enunciation of sentences of death. American actors think wit requires speed. Sometimes it does. But only for arrows. Austen’s zingers even when brief are instinctually weighted, tremendously elaborated shafts sent over the immense distance of a banquet table. These the actors tend to pipe or whisper. Not good. Certainly Maggie Smith understands this as she pecks apart her opponents with her chicken head beak and eyes wider than judgment. Her character relishes speech. For her, for the English, not just language, but speech is a consummate and delicious sterling silver tool. Perfectly cast, the film is also beautifully arranged for our enjoyment by the director and costumer. Anne Hathaway could not be bettered in the role of Jane; she has the intelligence, the strength of a love of independence, and no sense that she is using her looks to land a mate. She never flirts. She also understand speriod style. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is required to use his looks, and he is suitably combed and brushed and decked, and plays the part with no frippery extras but with great earnestness. (One wonders if he will ever graduate out of the category of jeune premier.) You quite believe the attraction between the two, which counts for a lot, although it does not directly feed the real plot of the film, which is how this enforces a literary imagination in the making. Julie Walters is grand as the mother of the daughters, particularly in her big scene hoeing potatoes, and James Cromwell as the minister has just the right looseness of attention to suggest his failing bank account. It is a film whose ending does not work. It needs the same ending as Splendor In The Grass: two lovers see one another after fifteen years, and it should break your heart. Instead of which it dissipates into the sentimental distraction of his having named his daughter Jane. Responsibility to historical accuracy shoots it dead in its traces. But by that time, a pretty good film is over.

 
 
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