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Archive for the ‘Frank Finlay’ Category

The Merchant Of Venice

13 Sep

The Merchant Of Venice — directed by Cedric Messina. Melodrama. BBC TV Play Of The Week
★★★★
The Story: An heiress disguises herself as a young lawyer to evade the death sentence of her fiancé’s friend — by a vengeful moneylender.
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Charles Gray, with his voice like the curtains of a great opera house, plays the title character of The Merchant Of Venice, and quite right too, since the play is all about riches.

Or is it?

Launcelot Gobbo, well played by Bunny May, seeks to convince his blind old father that he is his very own son — but fails. As likewise blind Justice and blind Cupid also fail. Or are perhaps never put to proper trial.

For this production makes of the Venetians what they truly are — figurines of Venetian glass. And they are costumed as such to perfection — save that codpieces obviously don’t do well as penial prows on glass.

The play is Shakespeare’s usual admixture of modes, for the writing of the money-lender Shylock is garbed not in glass but gabardine. And so the jarring conflict of literary styles creates its own conflict amidst the conflict of the characters. The playwright refuses to allow you to know what to expect.

The greatest Shylock I ever saw was George C. Scott’s in Central Park. He played it as a Lower East Side kike in full oi-vey Hebe accent — which he allowed himself or obliged himself to do because he himself was Jewish. Frank Finlay plays in a lower key, nothing Jewish about him except what he says of himself.

This works well enough — the part is foolproof since its style is always earthy and no one else’s is. So his defeat by glass figurines has its irony in the spectacle of stone shattered by glass. It cannot fail.

The boys of Venice are fraternity boys. Their courtships are swift and lacey. They are based on nothing firmer than rash impulse, their loyalties to one another always a mite stronger to their mates than to their mates.

There’s a truth to engagements in such frivolity of choice. It’s a fairy tale and fairy tales are true.

Maggie Smith presents Portia as an adherent to ancestral law as, rueful of her duty but loyal to it, she honorably outwaits the fairy-tale plot of the courtship of the three caskets. She plays the great courtroom scene simply and directly. As the millionaire heiress she is made up like a porcelain figurine — which is right for the role — and as the young lawyer in court appears to wear no make-up at all. It’s all done with wigs. It’s a good performance, and she is well-cast for it.

The great duets — the ring duet is rushed — and the “on such a night as this” duet is unclear. Which is too bad, for we want to hear how glass sounds when singing.

But we don’t go to Shakespeare — the most heterogeneous of writers — for perfection. We are in it to endure the mélange of ourselves. So we’d best put up with what we find.

 

The Statement

19 Feb

The Statement – directed by Norman Jewison. Manhunt. A former French collaborationist is tracked by two entities, one determined to bring him to justice, the other to murder him. 120 minutes Color 2003
★★★
The fatal error of the film is also its only abiding attraction, which is the casting of Michael Caine as a man we might have cause to hate. But we could never hate Michael Caine. He’s too much of a honey. We are asked to view him as a war criminal. whereas all we can do is sympathize with this wretched human being at his lowest ebb. We are asked to view him as a once-ruthless assassin, but now, all we can do is stand back in pity and wonder at the abjectness of his devotion to the Catholic Church whose sanctuaries for him play so many roles here. We are asked to see him as a cold assassin, but all we can do is empathize with the tears of his condition, as one might that of someone suffering from a terrible disease. He is such a darling actor, that even when he is kicking a dog, we say to ourselves, Well it doesn’t really count. You never want him to get caught, and you never believe for a minute that he was ever that dreadful betrayer of the Jews.

But, if the part had been properly cast, we would still be at the mercy of the flaccid story-telling of the director the writer, who allow the manhunt to become lost in too much responsibility to detail, one sanctuary too many really. We being with a thriller and watch it deconstruct into the thuds of a documentary. And we must sit through the Extra Features to hear from that director who the person was who was trying to kill Caine and why, and learn that the final scene is telling us that this person would be soon punished. None of this is clear in the film. The assassins are murky characters – is Ciarán Hinds a cop, a member of the FBI? Is his boss, John Neville, a politico, a Jew, a churchman, a member of the Chevalier? All this is unclear. So we lack two established rivalries for the manhunted.

What is abundantly clear is the too creamy camerawork of the south of France, so out of sync with the needs of this material. We also get the pseudo-Hitchcock moves of a director experienced enough to develop his own. We are treated to the tedium of helicopters landing and cars arriving and leaving. The film becomes clumsy, as though suavity would violate the memory of the Jews this man murdered.

But we have Tilda Swinton as a French magistrate, and we have Jeremy Northam better still as the French Police Colonel who accompanies her in her pursuit. The chase takes us into the presence of other fine actors. Alan Bates is Uncle to Swinton in a scene of heavy warning beautifully played. Frank Finlay is completely convincing as a French vintner and former friend of the fugitive. And Charlotte Rampling is particularly fine as his dowdy wife.

I loved Michael Caine in this. It is the best thing I remember him doing in film. If you like him, and I sometimes do, I think he will surprise you by what he offers. But, just remember, the offer is attached to a story that has an expiration date that becomes overdue long before we come to the end of it.

 
 
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