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Archive for the ‘Filmed in England’ Category

The Man Who Understood Infinity

15 May

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow their regimen whole. We were supposed to digest their formula by rote, since that is how they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Ramanujan is thrown to the snobs.  Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are so vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He plays a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make his name a name. To type it out here, over and over as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 

 

The Imitation Game

24 Dec

The Imitation Game – directed by Morten Tyldum. BioDrama. 114 minutes Color 2014

★★★★

The Story: An odd duck of a mathematician becomes the goose that lays the golden egg when he breaks the German Enigma Code, thus hastening the end of WW II.

~

Many BioDramas just now. Selma, Wild, Rosewater, Foxcatcher, The Theory Of Everything, Unbroken, and this. Why is that?

The reason is that no one can write film drama. At least not for the silver screen. Drama has been swallowed by junk food, Blockbuster Candy. Drama has been subsumed by SciFi, Horror, and GagComedy. Drama has been gorged up by theatricalism and special effects of Action Adventure. All non dramatic genres. Drama has been devoured by series on paid TV. Besides there are too few grown-up stars to play it. To come close to making a “serious” film,” then, make a BioDrama, instead. BioDramas look dignified when the Oscars loom.

And even in BioDramas we have the foolish action sequences, as here, when haymakers fly and bodies are thrown against computers. One knows those people wouldn’t behave like that. For the English a stiff upper lip was Sufi practice.

But that is the worst of it, for, while the movie is not well directed, it is well conceived, and it has a story natural to it.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays him well: Alan Turing, a quirky lot, was the finest mathematician in England, though young – though most mathematicians show their genius only when young. He enters into the top-secret task of breaking the unbreakable Enigma code, and to do it builds what seems to be the first computer. His off-putting personality is not one to inspire overpowering amity for him in his crew, however, until the only female mathematician, well played by Keira Knightley, induces him to loosen up.

The breaks in the team’s bad luck are well recorded here and we root for them all as the code yields itself to them. How exciting!

But the breaking of the code must be kept secret. And another secret must also be kept: Alan Turing is an active homosexual. To reveal either secret would be against the law.

This is a fine and bitter story. You yourself when you see it will experience the killing imbalance in the situation. And when you do see it, you will experience also the excitements of science in the moment of breakthrough, just as we did in the old days with Paul Muni in Louis Pasteur, Edward G. Robinson in Doctor Erlich’s Magic Bullet, and Greer Garson in Madame Curie. A tedious persistence in the task precedes those thrills, but therein the drama also lies. We want so much for mankind to take a step forward. And when it happens we take it too, even in a movie theatre.

Charles Dance is particularly fine as The Adversary as is Mark Strong as the M-5 intermediary. They both threaten very particular harm. But the wireheads win through.

Except do they?

 

 

Great Expectations [2013 version]

11 Nov

Great Expectations – directed by Mike Newell. A young man is snatched out of the lower classes and thrust into the role of a gentleman. 128 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

Dickens is an author of immense imagination, and while it is perfectly easy and obviously attractive to track his characters and situations down to his biography – ingénues with names beginning with E, for instance – the greatness of him lies in a world which his words create and that has nothing to do with current events or his own life at all.

Pip is one of those characters who is a white paper outline, a figure meant for us to fill with our own selves as we pass through his crises. And actors can be quite bland in such roles. It is rare to find Alec Guinness in such a part, but there he once was. And now it is nice to find both the romantic leads of Estella and Pip played by actors with some character to them and some real responsiveness, not settling to just stand there and let us do the work.

A lot of Dickens depends upon his treatment of characters in what they say, and this is garnered to this film, thank goodness, for they do not do the melodrama-speak the plots and the times adored, no; they speak quirkily, unexpectedly, endearingly.

A lot of Dickens depends upon the supporting players; Great Expectations is rich with them.

The trouble now is that all subsequent versions must compete with the David Lean version of 1946. In making his nasty-eyes, Ralph Fiennes does not bring anything special to Magwich, and is certainly less horrifying than Finlay Currie was in the sudden terror of his first appearance. Fiennes is probably miscast. As Jaggers, Francis L. Sullivan is almost equaled by the work of the current and wonderful actor, Robbie Coltrane, a man of similar mien and girth. Sally Hawkins is all wrong as Pip’s mean sister. She is played as though a crazy woman, whereas Pip’s sister is really just an ordinary example of British child-rearing. Olly Alexander is better than John Mills as the jolly, generous, eager Pocket. But Helena Bonham Carter is over-costumed perhaps to compensate for her inappropriateness in a role forever haunted by the calamitous Martita Hunt as Miss Haversham. What Bonham Carter is doing in this part is baffling. She lacks power and therefore credibility.

But the story is so wonderful to visit and revisit. It is one of the great novels of literature because of the great vibration of its inherent ambitions, which we all have: to get back at those who have wronged us; to become sudden princes; to be allowed the love we love. These and their frustrations and barriers and disappointment are rich in Dickens. So we watch the TV version, in which we receive such satisfaction to actually see Bentley Drummle kicked to death by the horse he is beating. And we see, in the modern version with Ann Bancroft disgracefully out of place as Miss Haversham, but the enchanting Gwyneth Paltrow as an Estella we can actually believe in.

There is always something wonderful, and there is always the wonderful story.

 

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.

 

Ginger And Rosa

18 Apr

Ginger and Rosa –– directed by Sally Potter. Drama. Two young best friends enter the arena of adolescent betrayal. 90 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

I went to it because Sally Potter directed Yes, one of my great movies.

But this one – oh, dear.

The problem is that it is based on an unrecovered resentment, a form of autobiography which always lacks penetration and balance. The author/director has not gotten over it, whatever it was. She’s still getting back at the one that done her wrong. The consequence is that a load of approval falls on the shoulders of one girl, Ginger, and scants the other, Rosa. Emptiness results.

It all ends with a confrontation scene, identical to the one at the end of another current film, The Company You Keep, in which the love-object justifies her miscreance by spouting liberal political boilerplate. Neither scene is well directed. And in this film the actor with the liberal agenda, simply does not go for it enough to make us realize what a hollow old lie he is telling.

I also went because Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks are in it, and, yet the picture is not about them. Christina Hendricks proves once again what a magnificent actress she is. Annette Bening, of course, by now doesn’t have to prove it at all. Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt circle around the proceedings and are in fine fettle, but their parts are shelved largely because of the imbalance of attention give to Ginger (ably played by Elle Fanning).

I can only say that I await Sally Potter’s next film with abated interest.

 

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.

 

Hysteria

10 Jun

Hysteria – directed by Tanya Wexler. Women Lib Drama. Two daughters become the objects of the attention of a doctor with an unusual therapeutic practice for women in the 1890s.100 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

Oh, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Repeat that word over and over for as long as this page is long and for as long as you like, and consider it an hosanna. The picture is a women’s lib version of a subject, 19th Century medical masturbation as a placebo for female ailments, also dealt with concurrently by the play In The Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which I have seen and which, like this, is unworthy to witness as a subject for a cause so great as equality of gender. The orgasms we see on screen are cartooned by the actresses and by the director; they are never taken as real, deep,and important. They are executed by actresses chosen because they are funny looking: either fat or thin or blousy, and when we see ordinary women being treated, they and their orgasms are mocked by the actresses themselves. The male doctors engage in this treatment with reverence. They take it they are engaging in a medical breakthrough. Jonathan Pryce is the senior physician in a part written only one way, so we know how he and the movie will end. As we know how it will end with his two daughters, the one proper, the other a Shavian modern woman running a settlement house, played by the great Maggie G. Watch how she stands at the trial scene. She never stands foursquare, but, like Garbo, always at an angle. Her whole performance is like that, except once. See if you notice it and how telling that is! Anyhow, the script is routine, and the performance by the leading actor is  – well, let’s say he is not such as to carry a film. But with a film this flimsy, that would take Atlas. The spectacular, even scandalous subject is not sufficient to make a good story of it. It simply plays like an oddity out of an old Sears Roebuck catalogue. It presumes to find itself important. One thing it seems to be blaring out is, “Tut tut, Men don’t understand female sexuality or even consider it to exist!” So you see, it’s really mean-spirited and as dated as a zombie.  It presumes to look down on male ignorance. Everything about it presumes, except for M.G, who simply vibrates with life. She, and she alone is the vibrator.

 

The Deep Blue Sea – 2012

04 Apr

The Deep Blue Sea — directed by Terence Davies. Romantic Drama. A woman gives her life for a man who loves her but not exactly as she wishes. 98 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

Its leads are three very good actors, of whom two are miscast. I saw this play with Peggy Ashcroft in London in 1953. Then I saw it in New Haven with Margaret Sullavan. Then in the first movie with Vivien Leigh. Now here with Rachel Weisz. Of the first three actresses playing Hester (shades of The Scarlet Letter?) only Ashcroft had the chops for the part. And all three actresses were over 40. A Phaedra story, the boy friend, associated with the husband and betraying him, must be much younger in years and energy. It’s important that all this be so, for it represents the last chance the woman has for great love. Their age difference makes her situation teeter on the brink, for if she loses that love, she will be a middle aged woman with no skills and no access to polite society, on her own in the world and no chance for love again. So to cast Rachel Weisz in this part is to lose all of that, for she is a 30 year old beauty with many years of beauty before her and she is smart and interesting. She is much too young for the part, and the boyfriend is the same age as she is. So it is with astonishment that I discover that Rachel Weisz is actually over 40. But, boy, oh boy, she does not appear to be. So what we have here instead with this actress is a woman who probably has never known sexual desperation, for she is an actress so beautiful she can pick and choose, and one who cannot or does not choose to carry the physical requirement for the part which demands exhaustion, shoulders and spirit too bent with the wisdom of the facts to be able to go on living. Also miscast is Simon Russell Beale, another good actor, but one who possess no competition for the Weisz character; he is too old looking; he is too white bearded; he is too out of shape. And he is also presented as a disloyal mama’s boy in scenes very well played by Ann Mitchel as dame bitch – scenes not in the play and accorded to the film only to demonstrate his unattractiveness to Weisz, his wife – the result being that his character is a foregone conclusion as soon as he appears, and presents no force in the play. This is one of several miscalculations on the part of the director/rewriter, errors which make his part incoherent, since he is presently presented as a kindly person indeed. The entire drama then must fall on the boyfriend and on Weisz. The boyfriend is played by Tom Hiddleston who is 30, and he is well cast, but we are not given anything in the script now to suggest what the Weisz character would see in him, save that he is young, good looking, and a great lay, none of which add up to a grand passion on their own. Kenneth More, who played it with Ashcroft and Leigh, brought to the character a lot of fun, a naughty energy, the lawlessness of a gambling rake and libertine, a big difference from the stuffy world of Judge Sir William and Lady Collyer from which Hester has come. But the real difficulty with the story would seem to lie in the material itself: a Grand Passion ending. In a Grand Passion one is in love not with the other, but with the feeling of passion inside oneself. A Grand Passion is the desire to possess the life of another, to devour that life, to have that life become one’s own. It is very convincing. And means you cannot call your soul your own – which is why you wish to die from it. But none of the characters have any inkling of this. Each in his own way wants it to be over, that is all. So one looks upon this passion here, which is photographed as through a veil or film, with a certain impatience and remove. We experience enormous empty spaces between these characters, unexplored by the script and director, but symptomized by the pauses between the lines. He has taken depth for granted. But we cannot. And he ends the story incorrectly with Weisz standing at the window of a bright new day, when the original play closes as it began with her stuffing the door with rags so that the suicidal gas she is about to turn on again will finally kill her.

 

Albert Nobbs

31 Jan

Albert Nobbs — directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Drama. A waiter in a second tier Irish hotel is actually a female in mufti, which leads to difficulties and revelations for all. 113 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

Master actor Glenn Close has co-written a screenplay of a short story of the Victorian writer George Moore, so it is curious that she makes the error she does in creating her own part. She is remarkable in it, mind you, and the film is worth seeing for two other extraordinary performances in it as well, the celebrated Pauline Collins playing, with Dickensian relish, the old trout of a hotel owner who rules her roost with the high hand of hypocrisy. And Janet McTeer. It’s wonderful to see for the first time an actress of genius whom one has never come upon before or even heard of. Once Janet McTeer enters the screen you do not want to forsake her company no matter what. You want the camera to be on her perpetually. She is not a scene-stealer or a virtuoso actress. She is simply present wholly as the character in the moment before her. To reveal more would be to betray her part in the story and the brilliant and heartful way it is played out by her. But back to Glenn Close, who is a virtuoso actress and whom we want to steal all scenes within reach. Will she get it right this time?  Or will she fall into her usual trap? But – wait, what is clear almost from the start is that the part as written by herself is virtually unplayable, by which I mean that it can’t go anywhere. First, she has chosen the name of Albert, which no other name can exceed in tedious respectability.  She does not try to make the character masculine. She does not imitate a male. She simply presents Albert as a person without gender of any kind. Also she makes him hysterical, but with an hysteria completely lidded down by fear of exposure. That is to say, Albert is forbidden all emotional life. Also she makes Albert withdrawn, an introvert’s introvert. He is shier than shy, a person without repartee. At the staff meals in the hotel kitchen we see how he is accepted by everyone as Mr. Nobbs and taken an interest in by no one. Which is as it should be, for he is so without affect that he is entirely without mystery, even the mystery of how come he is without mystery. An automaton of self-effacing efficiency, he offends no one. The creation of this human being right before our eyes is a major treat. Here is the great Glenn Close doing the impossible, and the first half of the film gives us really one of the great performances of modern times. But the thought crosses one’s mind: where can she go, having set it up as a person so frozen there is no melting possible, no calving of a glacier? Albert has one ambition, which is to open a tobacconist shop. And that is probably the direction the story should go, but it doesn’t. Instead it goes in the direction of her trying to marry a cute housemaid at the hotel. If this worked in the original story, I don’t know, but it does not work here. First, because Albert is a watcher and a listener, and it is obvious that the housemaid is involved with the sexy cad handyman. This is known; everyone says so. So Albert loses our sympathy because she is rank stupid. Secondly, the cause given for her lesbianism is the routine TV reason that she was gang-raped when young, as though every lesbian had to be likewise to become one, whereas the fact is she has no notion about sex or love whatsoever; she is a sexual anorectic; she has no drive, not even a lesbian one. She is clueless. Her desire to set up housekeeping with a woman is not sexually based; it is commercially based: she would have a shopgirl in the tobacco store. So the character loses more and more identification as the film goes on. And Close falls into her old trap of making the character she plays holy with happiness in a beach scene in a dress. Setting all this aside, the film itself is a deep and vital investigation of hypocrisy in action in us all. And worth seeing for the three great actresses at the top of their bent in it. Don’t miss it.

 

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

20 Jan

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Action Adventure Comedy. 108 minutes Color 1998.

* * * * *

Bob Hope isn’t in it, but this is a Bop Hope film with his character divvied up into twenty parts. Bob Hope Meets Scarface it would be called if he were in it. Instead it’s a mixed salad full of various greens and surprising veggies and terrific vinaigrette holding the whole collation together. The quality of the humor lies in the plot and the plot lies in the hands of the camera work. It is a story that cannot be told without a camera because the camera is the secret screwball agent of the plot. It is a hugely mixed up mélange of betrayals and deceptions and deals and masterful meanness and young dumb luck. It never drops its comic spectacles from its nose. Even with the corpses decorating every divan, you will see that they do so with a vaudeville gesture of stage exit. Even the Cockney accents are fun, the more so when you can’t tell what they are saying — fun because the posture they assume to say it is so absurdly readable. When perversion takes its final twist it straightens up and flies right. Watch and see if aint so, corblimey.

 

The Iron Lady

13 Jan

The Iron Lady — directed by Phillida Lloyd. Biopic. A woman entering senility is visited by recollections of her career in British politics which lead her to become Prime Minister. 105 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

Because I neither watch nor read the news, I never saw Margaret Thatcher on television or heard her speak or paid attention to her work in office. So I cannot tell whether Meryl Streep is good at being Margaret Thatcher, but I do know that she is superb at not being Meryl Streep. For I do not see the actress in the performance. I see an old woman moving through her apartment, somewhat stooped with age, and not quite compos mentis, but also far from playing mad scenes, far from helpless or deranged. Her husband, admirably played, of course, by Jim Broadbent, has died some years before, but visits her here and in memory. Like a woman of good sense this both amuses and annoys her. We see her in her younger days start out with him, and proceed to enter politics and eventually take over the government, but none of these scenes are developed – partly because there is no antagonist in the film. There are The Males Of The World Of Politics and there are The People, but there is no individual and there is no ideology opposing her. She opposes. But that is her nature. Her husband has her number but she herself does not. So what we get is a portrait of an absolutist. She is always sure of herself. She never questions herself or her notions. It is a drama without a drama, that is to say,  with a protagonist but without an antagonist until she becomes the antagonist of herself, and, in a scene of astounding rudeness, makes the error of unconsciously demoting herself from Prime Minister to hectoring schoolmistress by scolding her cabinet ministers. She doesn’t get it, but it is the end of her. Her cabinet may accept her commands but not her demeans. All of this has a certain civics lesson merit, and in it we see at once her innocence and her humorlessness. But what interested me most was how she was in that apartment, just walking around from room to room, a person who seems to have forgotten she held great power once and not troubled at all that it is no longer hers. A woman who has to crack an egg, deal with over-solicitous helpers, get her pearls off and on. The ordinariness of these scenes, and they dominate, brings forward a human being unguarded, smart, and willing to live. It is fascinating to watch. It is an enactment of an historical figure largely in moments which are not historical, and as such it provides a riveting entertainment. Streep does not give a bravura performance here. You might say it is not a performance at all. It is a being being a being. It hardly matters that the being happens to be called Margaret Thatcher. As to the movie itself — never mind about the movie. It is a setting for a diamond.

 

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy

02 Jan

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy — directed by Tomas Alfredson. Spy Suspense. There is a Russian spy secreted in British Intelligence, but which of the four suspects is it? 127 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

You gaze as into an aquarium, and past your eyes many strange things pass, among which one of four identical fish may be poisonous. One is riveted by the strange slow movement of things back and forth before one and by the subterranean places one visits. This particular aquarium stretches from London to Paris to Budapest to Istanbul. Among the hunters and protectors of the poisonous fish is the premier English actor Gary Oldman, playing a man of great reserve, watchfulness, and respect. The barest response. The civillest tone. And a pair of glasses that hide everything or nothing, screening a face as closed as a shell. He is supported by a cast, which is as exquisite and apt as he is, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds (although his character needs to be given more play), John Hurt, Kathy Burke, David Dencik, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbactch. As we move through this aqueous stillness, we are held by the deliberation of the scenes, places, tones, which float the vessel of suspense entirely, for we too know nothing. We too haven’t a clue. So we surrender to that ignorance of the truth upon which suspense is built, if we participate in what is being done to us visually. We wait for it to be announced, not to be fooled but to be revealed as co-agents of the crime. Clearly the director is master hand. Clearly the editor Dino Johnsâter and the photographer Hoyte Van Hoytema are master hands, as are the set designers and art directors and composer. The medium they deliver us into is the jell of suspense itself, so we are not vexed by red herrings but prompted by them. The piece is drawn from John le Carré’s novel set in the cold war, and the movie strikes into the very center of the dirty heart of war, whose mindset is a bureaucratic tenement. We have here the drab underpinnings of espionage, so dandified up in the James Bond movies of fond memory. The film is a gem, a masterpiece, not to be missed or dismissed. Brilliant on every level of execution and a very high entertainment indeed.

 

 

Easy Virtue

09 Sep

Easy Virtue – Directed by Stephen Elliott. High Comedy. The scion of an upper crust British family brings home his American wife. 96 minutes Color 2008.

* * * *

Noel Coward’s (aged 25) drama of class snobbery is updated in diction and tone to the present day, although still set in the 20s. All that works just fine. Colin Firth, not an actor I much admire although there is nothing not to like about him, plays the veteran of WWI who fiddles with a motorcycle and keeps mum while his highly controlling wife makes life miserable for one and all. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her brilliantly. It’s the Gladys Cooper part, you understand, and we are to learn rather late in the day that she objects to the young wife because she really wishes to keep her son home because the estate is failing and presumably he can save it. But it’s a phony excuse, for the reason she is a bitch is the same as any woman is, because she wishes to blanket all the sexual energy in her bailiwick.  Some of Thomas’ lines are lost in the rush of British, a common error of English actors when scurrying through the heady regions of contempt. But the real reason the piece doesn’t work is that the American is played by Jessica Biel who is neither attractive nor fascinating and plays the character with no sense of inner style, one way or another, whatsoever. You need a modern Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Loretta Young in the part, but, I guess there are none. The Extras are informative and fun. The direction is excellent. The costumes are tops. The fabulous houses in which it was shot are worth the visit, and so is a fox hunt and a great tango scene, in which Firth takes the floor. He is very fine in the dance and in the part, there and elsewhere, and I may start to warm up to him after all.

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Jane Eyre

01 May

Jane Eyre – Directed by Cary Fukunaga. Gothic Melodrama. A governess is duped by the lord of the manor. 120 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

All the nighttime interiors are filmed like de la Tour: candles both glamorize and mortify the faces. Outdoors the sun never seems to shine. And this captures the lugubrious inner climate of Victorian fiction, with the doom of death, which we find in Dickens, in Tennyson, and here, where a wedding is the next best thing to a funeral, the first being the white prelude to the black childbirth demise of the second. All this the director has realized. And so has the costumer Michael O’Connor, and so has everyone on the technical side, with one exception, the casting director. For it is perfectly clear in the novel and it is perfectly clear in the screenplay that Jane and Rochester are homely people, yet they have been cast with handsome people. ‘Do you find me handsome?” asks Rochester at one point, and when Jane says “No,” we must suppose that she is, for the first time, lying, or that she is as blind as Rochester will one day become. The novel has the great advantage over films of this story in that we never see these two. But films of this story lie to us over and over, in version after version. Joan Fontaine, even in her wan drab stage was pretty, and Orson Welles was infernally magnificent. Without their being homely, the entire story is baffling nonsense, for the entire story is that of honesty cutting through all levels of fine and proper appearance: of wealth, of religion, of position, of gender, of face, of figure, of sexuality and even of physical deformity, since Rochester ends up blind. As it is, all you’re left with in this version is that you have got to be blind to get married. I prefer Rebecca, which is its most famous duplicate. Or I prefer the 1998 Masterpiece Theatre television version. This one is a movie; it’s too short. This one leaves out how much Jane enjoyed running the school she founded; it even leaves out that Rochester’s ward is infuriating and is actually his illegitimate child. It leaves out how come Jane starts out as a girl of high temperament and becomes a teenager of no temperament whatsoever. The 1998 TV version also has at least an unusual looking Jane. This one, however, has Judi Dench, quite fine as Mrs Fairfax the housekeeper, and it has the great Sally Hawkins as the wicked witch Mrs Reed, and it has our own Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell, as St. John. In the TV version the characters are more fully rounded, St. John, for instance, because the material is a big Victorian novel, and two hours cannot compass the long vital surgery it performs, the first layer of which is the meaning and meaninglessness of the want of beauty in its principals.

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The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells

07 Apr

The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells –– directed by Gillies McKinnon –– 84 minutes color 2000

* * *

I don’t like Judy Dench. I feel she is condescending and mean, so I when I see her pictures I hope to change my mind, and I have had cause to. This picture is hers from start to finish, and she holds it in balance skillfully, I’ve got to hand it to her. The story involves her attempt to revivify her World War II band 50 years later. She searches them out, and that’s fun. And the flashbacks to the war are fun too. The script is not great but the situation is, and I enjoyed myself finding out how the ladies (Olympia Dukakis, Leslie Caron, Cleo Laine, Billie Whitelaw) would turn out to be and whether they would turn up at the end at all. Of course, one knows they will, but, for some reason, that does not diminish the pleasure of the suspense. It’s a simple, pleasant film, neither mean nor condescending. I enjoyed watching it.

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Butterfly Collectors

05 Mar

Butterfly Collectors — directed by Jean Stewart — 2 Part TV Police Procedural. A detective becomes partisan to a crime suspect. 150 minutes Color 1999

* * * *

What gifts bring an actor to the fore? Here we have Pete Postlethwaite playing opposite a very beautiful young man, who is also a good actor, Jamie Draven. And yet if the director were tempted to put them both in the same frame at the same time, one would not watch the beautiful young man. Put Edward G. Robinson on the stage with the most beautiful actor in the world, as Richard Burton said, and you would not be able to take your eyes off Edward G. Robinson. Postlethwaite’s face. Wide-spaced large blue eyes filled with uncertainty and searching. A ruddy complexion. A wide expressive mouth. A hatchet face marred or made by time. An incipient bald spot. A sense coming off of him that you do not know what he is going to do next, and whatever it is, you might not like it. A lower class affect. It would be hard to imagine him in a leading tuxedo part. He has, however, toured in King Lear playing all the parts, which means he played the dukes and the king and evidently all the princesses too. Emotionally he seems to have that rather rare quality in an actor –—Toshiro Mifune had it — of being able to turn on an emotional dime, a faculty which saves directors and screenwriters an enormous amount of time. He’s of middle height. Slender. Moves well. Can smoke innumerable cigarettes. Can give over to being entirely, deeply internal. Does not seem to act for the camera or for the second balcony, as Ingrid Bergman did. And a curious, distinctive, and well-placed voice. Does this help? In any case, here he is in a big long principal role in this two-part detective film. One of the great actors of modern times. I owe to myself to see him wherever I can, and to bring him to you, so that you may wonder and delight.

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The Merry Wives Of Windsor

01 Mar

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – Directed by David Hugh Jones – Low Oomedy. A fat old reprobate tries to seduce two wealthy wives. 120 minutes Color 1982

* * * * *

Here we have one of the greatest recordings of a Shakespeare play ever set down. And yet it is of one of WS’s thorniest scripts. Like Henry V it is tortured with a melange of voices in Latin, French, Welsh, and German, making the script monstrously hard to parse! But it wasn’t written to be read, but to be acted, and WS understood the rubric of acting like no one else, so that in the bodies of the actors it comes alive here, understandable here, priceless here. The sixteen shifts of mood in one character’s speech on the page are gibberish, but in the craft of the great Elizabeth Spriggs as Mistress Quickly, we have a masterpiece of human truth and humor, a performance of genius. Each minor character here is enacted, embodied, played to full measure. They are characters with no history, for their history lives in the exact present entirely. The piece is a proving ground for its players, led by Judy Davis’ Mistress Ford and Ben Kingsley as her frenetically jealous hubby Frank Ford. Prunella Scales’ performance as Mistress Page gets lost and monotonized behind its regionalism, but its energy is right on the money. Richard Griffiths we have recently seen in The History Boys plays Falstaff. Now this was made 25 years ago, so our actors are in their twenties (i.e. Alan Bennett) , and perhaps Griffiths is too young for the part in the sense that he wants merriment. TMMOW is a play, unlike Henry IV 1 & 2. In those plays Falstaff is driven by a lust for zest; here he is driven by a lust for money through lust, and it’s not that he is just too old and too fat, which he is, he is also just too ridiculous to score. This complicates the part, and Griffiths makes him a little more downbeat than one wants him to be. A little less of an unmoored balloon. A little less of a roguish liar. Still, when he thinks he has finally achieved the bosom of Mistress Ford, and utters the jubilant line, “Let the sky rain potatoes!” we are in a world of comedy unparalleled. The odd attic setting and the inn and the house of Ford and Caius and all the costumes and wigs and make-up are fabulous. If you love Shakespeare or want to learn to love Shakespeare, dive in.

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All Or Nothing

28 Feb

All Or Nothing – directed by Mike Leigh – Drama. Neighbors in a London project come to grips with their futures. 2 hours 8 minutes Color 2002.

* * * *

Don’t you love Mike Leigh’s films? Such a storyteller, isn’t he? In this one we have Timothy Spall and Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville and a bunch of other fine actors giving us full value in a beautifully directed story. It’s the story of a group of people stupefied by their circumstances. It’s one of those pictures you cannot put down – until … Until the crucial event which takes it into the realm of the lachrymose. Of course, Leigh has great tolerance for sobbing women. Brenda Blethyn was the champ sobber. And in this film he lets Lesley Manville start to cry in the last reel and never stop.  There’s two things wrong with that decision. The first is that weeping is quite out of character for the woman we have watched for an hour and half, a woman absolutely dumbstruck by the barriers of her life, a woman staring into desolation; she’s in a state too deep for tears. Her instinct might be to grow ruthless; her instinct would not be to drench everyone in sight.  To dissolve into the piteous, is not the way she would go. The second thing wrong with it is that Timothy Spall has a crying scene at the same time, and you can’t have two people crying at once; they cancel one another out. But there’s a missing washer in Manville’s tap; she never stops dripping, and it fouls Spall’s scene. She can be a great actress and is so in the early part of the film, but it’s an example of an actress turning on her technique and losing her character. It’s really the director’s fault for allowing it. The scene also is badly edited. It should not be edited at all; the camera should remain entirely on Spall, and then let’s take a look at the wife’s response. I think Leigh loses his way with this material; he wanders into a sentimental rapprochement, and somehow I don’t think that’s the road to trudge here. But until then it is a heavenly picture, a cast beautifully rehearsed and free. Spall is Humpty-Dumpty after the fall, a wonderful performance of a brained man. The extraordinary Sally Hawkins is also fully present as the locale slattern, and what could be better than what Ruth Sheen has to offer? Nothing that I can think of. See it. Make it part of your Mike Leigh collection.

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The Man Who Cried

18 Feb

The Man Who Cried – directed by Michael Whyte – a man leaves a vicious wife and takes his son to seek his fortune. He finds love on the way. 2 hours and 31 minutes color 1993.

* * * * *

We ask for a movie to adhere to our moral biases in peril of bigotry. The man shown here is perfectly understandable. He is of a high moral character, for he knows that the effect his nature and appearance has on women may lead them to wish he was theirs, and he reserves himself. Ciaran Hinds is perfectly cast in the part, therefore. His masculinity lies deep, and so does the character’s. For his character, Abel, it is like a doom. Abel is honest and modest and true to himself; his beauty has not made him cold. He loves as deep as tears. Honoring the depth a male can love tells  the story. And it is a most human story, not the story of a philanderer or a bigamist, but the story of fidelity to love. This love is for his son as for a woman, and his tragedy is that he trades one for the other. This is a beautifully directed picture, in that its pace is at one with its narrative needs, clear, simple, and true. Kate Buffery is tops as one of the women. And as her sister we have Amanda Root, an actor of the first rank, here committed to all the harpy, Hilda Maxwell, is. It is a brave performance. Hinds and Root costarred in Persuasion, in a very different relation and as quite differently played characters.  The dvd is in two full-length parts and is well worth your patience.

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Waterworld

15 Feb

Waterworld – directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal – Drama. A high school teacher regales his history class with his youthful sexual history. 94 minutes Color 1992

* * *

Some actors are hired for their ability to perform a character. Others for their ability to perform themselves. Jeremy Irons is of the latter category but this film requires someone of the first category. Irons can carry a film as himself very nicely, but this knack has disastrous consequences on what might have been an interesting and comprehensible picture. Irons’ character is supposed to be that of a grownup version of an English peasant boy from The Fens on the North Sea, but he proceeds in the part with his upper class airs and charms in full swing, a person who would no more end up teaching English in Pittsburgh PA high school than The Prince of Wales would. With Irons is Sinead Cusack as his wife, and she has clearly based her performance on the character of the teenage girl she was once supposed to be, even using prosthetic teeth to duplicate the young girl’s gat-teeth. She is a character; Irons is not a character. Her scenes with Irons are professional to the max, but it must have been like playing Ophelia opposite Donald Duck. And it discombobulates the film out of reason. The two teenagers, Lena Headey and Grant Warnock are just fine as the kids. And David Morrissey, who plays the retarded older teenager, is super, and is perhaps the only person one cares about in this misguided movie. His Insolence Ethan Hawke floats through the show to no purpose in a part that probably should have been cut. Whereas Pete Postlethwaite right-sizes his small role as the father and is particularly effective in the remarkable and moving denouement. We also have John Heard, wasted again, in a supporting role, in which, however, he is excellent. And the high-spirited, laughing face of Maggie Gyllenhall in her first screen appearance flashes by. Another difficulty, and again it is a big one, is that the set decorations are completely at odds with the setting. Houses in Pittsburg didn’t have that furniture and didn’t have wallpaper and if they did it wasn’t like that. The result is that we never believe where we are watching. And because of Irons we never believe whom we are watching. See it. It is interesting to watch all this collapse the film.

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Another Year

13 Feb

Another Year – Directed by Mike Leigh – Classical Drama. A senior married couple offers hospitality to the needy. 129 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

A perfectly constructed picture, this is a Baucus and Philemon story, of two old farmers who offer hospitality and food to those who are difficult and in difficulty. In the myth, the gods reward such kindness by allowing them eventually to die simultaneously, and in the picture the reward is clearly that the two old ones retain their ability to be kind. The story is anchored in the four seasons, but even more firmly in their seasonal tasks of mucking in the soil of a gardening commons in which they have a plot and in which they raise fine small crops by themselves and for themselves. In this story, they apparently are not peasants, for they have travelled the world, they are well educated, and they both have jobs which benefit society; however the gardening gives them the privilege of peasants which is to meet the deities of their lives. Middle class people usually don’t meet such deities, but here they do. One of those deities is The Temptation To Act Out Of Impatience which the audience may feel the characters ought to feel, for the audience feels it itself, towards their three monstrous guests. The first and most eminent of these is Mary, a flirtatious alcoholic whose realization of the triteness and triviality and exile of her own destiny the movie’s story slowly shows in no uncertain terms. Her story is framed by the dull version of it, in which, at the start of the film, the wonderful Imelda Staunton plays a woman refusing to change her destiny in exactly way the character of Mary refuses at the end. Mary is played with dauntless fury by Lesley Manville, in a remarkable exposure of worldly human error. It is a great performance in a film of the highest level of performance. The balance between Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen is a wonderful piece of writing and acting, the one fitting the other, entirely without sentimentality, and without resembling the other. Any man of the right age who does not offer his hand to Ruth Sheen is an ignorant fool. The other two guests are Broadbent’s catatonic brother, played by David Bradley and his gluttonous friend Ken, played by Peter Wight. The God Of Impatience appears in full and terrifying form in the person of Carl, beautifully played by Martin Savage. It has been said this picture is about the difficulty of growing old. It is nothing of the kind. It is about the choices one makes all along – here demonstrated by a marriage that is created piece by piece before our very eyes.

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My Zinc Bed

30 Jan

My Zinc Bed — directed by  Anthony Page  — Drama. A billionaire and his wife throw temptation in the way of a recovering addict. 75 minutes color 2008.

* * * * *

Do you like His Gal Friday. Do you like that rapid crossfire of conversation laced with devilish seduction? I do. So I like this piece a lot. Billionaire Jonathan Pryce plays the Imperiousness Of Addiction, cunning, baffling, powerful, and he levels his attack on the one thing he comes nowhere near possessing,: the freedom of temperament of artistic talent. So he meets the poet and he hires the poet and he even countenances the poet making love to his wife. It’s a fascinating scenario. For the wife is played by Uma Thurman, in the role of  is-she-an-alcoholic-or-isn’t-she. Thurman is just right for this part, celestially beautiful, majestic, and opaque. The poet is played by Patrick Considine, an actor I have never heard of, and he skirts all the righteous, crappy pain an English actor would ordinarily infuse into this role: think the opposite of Richard Burton at his worst. Like His Gal Friday, also known as The Front Page, My Zinc Bed is a stage play masterfully rendered into film by David Hare who wrote it and by Anthony Page who directed it. This, the fastest tennis game on camera, is shot perfectly and directed perfectly and played out perfectly by these three fine actors. Does Jonathan Pryce know everything? How could he? But one look into his eyes and you can see that not only does he know everything, but he knows everything in particular. His wife calls him constantly kind, but one wonders, how could a man so knowing and so taunting ever be also always kind? Well, this is one of the koans of this material. Well worth the experiencing for all 12 Steppers, all friends of Bill W, as it outlines the perils of white-knuckling it, the collapse of white-knuckling it, the restoration to sanity from white-knuckling it. Well worth the experience of everyone else as well.

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The King’s Speech

06 Jan

The King’s Speech – directed by Tom Hooper – drama about a man who needs to speak properly and his conflict with the man who is hired to help him. Color 2010.

* * * * *

I wept. Helena Bonham Carter, playing the Duchess Elizabeth of Kent, a lady of high good spirits, deep wifely devotion, and a taste for sweets, Geoffrey Rush playing the Australian speech therapist, who without leaving his chair, wrestles her husband to the ground, and Colin Firth playing the to-be and then King George VI of England, who can’t address his people without a stammer, make this a splendid pudding of a picture. The long road to partial mastery of his life-long impediment brought tears to my eyes, and when he finally gives his speech I wept again. The picture is like a horse-picture in which the unlikely mare wins through. And it’s true to life, just as horses are true to life. It takes great heart to overcome a genetic defect or to win a race; both are temporary triumphs and all the more poignant for that. But like horse-pictures, this film bids to be inspiring to us all. I don’t like Colin Firth; I find him technically immature as an actor; I don’t like to look at him; and I don’t think he has much to offer to his roles. Maybe he has always been miscast as leading man, but I sat through this film and watched him here, and he was bearable. Geoffrey Rush is exquisitely funny as the pirate therapist, and Helena Bonham Carter won my heart as the witty dear lady helping her husband to freedom. The great Guy Pearce is probably miscast in the role of King Edward, for he plays it with an intensity incongruent with the louche, diffident, spoiled, pretty, sensual, and stupid David. People like the Prince of Wales who have been given everything do not need to be intense about anything. They are waited upon hand and foot, and all other protuberances besides. He has the right suits, though, and they are a pleasure to see, for The Duke Of Windsor was always spiffy, and Pearce has the part in his hair exactly perfect. But this is a small matter in a small role. You will love it. It’s a picture for hopeless and debauched teenagers. And for folks like me. For anyone who wants a lift in the limousine of  the hopes of couple of odd role models. See it and weep too.

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Last Chance Harvey

27 Oct

Last Chance Harvey –– directed by Joel Hopkins –– comedy: two losers win. 93 minutes color 2008

* * * * *

This film has a certain winsomeness in its removal from passion, as love finds its way into the affections of its two characters. Both these folks are over 50, so you are in for a very pleasant journey indeed, one more comical and charming than the Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant An Affair To Remember, which it in some ways resembles, this time with the man as the invalid. Kathy Bates has a grand small scene as the former wife of Hoffman, and Richard Schiff and Eileen Atkins carry their parts as far their parts allow them. What we are faced with is the two leads, and no two individuals could be more disparate. Dustin Hoffman is a squirt, and this is “used” consciously by the actor, who is shorter than Thompson. It is at one with the highly controlled sort of acting he always done; his “method”. There is much talk about his “detail” and his “preparation,” but I never see the results on the screen. What I see is banal, shallow, and routine. Besides which, I suppose he is one of the most unpleasant movie stars I have ever seen. His face is uninteresting, but setting that aside, he is an actor who often smiles, but perfunctorily always; he smiles but he never smiles. His voice has an excellent timbre, but it monotonizes everything he says. But what is worst, it and his entire physical manifestation exude self-pity. The note of its pitch is in every noise he makes. It is a bid for a sympathy he does not have the gift or the grace to naturally inspire. And one does feel sorry for him for that. Only once does he appear real: towards the end of the film there is a shot of him in which he looks very very old, and it occurred to me that he has always been old and that that was his forte. Opposite him is the infallible Emma Thompson, and how it comes about that these two play together so well, or are able at least to perform their own roles with separate excellence is a mystery to me. She has true wit, openness, smarts, readiness, openness, grace, womanliness, openness. Anyhow, I recommend the piece. It is a film for grown-ups, the story of older people who, not supposing they ever could, do begin to love someone again.

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