Archive for the ‘Tom Courtanay’ Category

Nicholas Nickelby

03 Jun

Nicholas Nickleby – directed by Douglas McGrath. Period Dramedy. 132 minutes Color 2002.


The Story: A multitude of coincidences and outrages and improbable persons converge to thwart and encourage a nineteen-year-old to care for and save his sister and widowed mother from destitution, derangement, and doom.
The recipe for a Dickens pie is to cook the first comic characters early and let their tang fade as the villains appear and let the villains fade as the romantic leads cinch the finale. Sprinkle Pathos Persons over the crust and devour.

What this means – but, fear not, the plot will out – is that love conquers all. It may as well, because the love interest here is played by two young beauties, Charlie Hunnam and Anne Hathaway.

The problem is that romantic love in Dickens is more a function of pity than sexual drive. Sex drive in his romantic leads is pictured more as feeling sorry for someone. Lovers are drawn to one another on rafts of compassion splashed with the lesser rain of pathos. Thus – real– but not quite real.

This means that the meanies and clowns dominate our interest.

So that Christopher Plummer’s brilliance as Old Man Nickleby astonishes us with his perfectly distributed sang froid, while the travelling theatre impresario Mr. Crummles of Nathan Lane fades under his nutty general good-heartedness – not without leaving behind a vivid memory of his wife played to a T by Barry Humphries inhabiting Dame Edna Etheridge as his grandiosely burbling and blindly devoted wife.

And the early villains fade behind the later ones. Jim Broadbent plays the defective school principal Wackford Squeers all out, and, boy, is he frightening! – as he should be – and, if he is not excelled in cruelty to children by his wife, done by Juliet Stevenson, that is because we are too blinded by the brilliance of both actors to distinguish one meanness over the other. You wonder how it is possible that English actors dare to body forth persons of such characteristic English vileness, but here they are, no holds barred.

But such is Dickens plenitude, that he has lots to spare as one richness is supplanted by the next.

The lubricious Sir Mulberry Hawk is given to Edward Fox to personate and bring to ruination, but he too disappears under the pustules of his disgrace, while Tom Courtenay as Plummer’s insolent coocoo-clock butler bores through his tippling to save the day for one and all.

You find Jamie Bell as Smike – the crippled dogsbody of the Squeers’ Dotheboys school and confidante of our hero, young Nickleby who kidnaps him away from it and saves Smike from being beaten to death. He dies beforehand, though.

The moving picture medium suits such a character as Smike because his painful lameness becomes visible there, so it carries an impact unwitnessed on the printed page, even those of the impressive Dickens. Likewise true of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee characters of the Cheeryble brothers played by Timothy Spall and Gerald Horan, masterfully bewigged for the roles – or role. Hello. Goodbye.

Because of the great entertainment value of Dickens’ material from its start as a serial in a magazine, then into a 600-page novel, Nicholas Nickleby has charmed its way into drama before now, as in the filmed 8-hour stage version.

But you cannot beat this 132-minute movie for its writing and casting and fully realized parts. It contains Christopher Plummer’s greatest film performance. The scar of his handsome, cockeyed face presents a temperament seized with the discretion of a rapier never drawn, always sheathed, always covered with blood. I love actors, let me say it again: I am always at a wonder how they dare to admit to the light of day that they have in them persons so vile.

Or so foolish. Or so funny.

Of course, no smart actor thinks his character is vile or foolish or even funny.

Every actor must take his character as the one vital to embody and preserve the highest of human values for all God’s eternity!

Those values, in their rainbow scope, are available to the reader or watcher of Dickens. Film nowadays may be interloped with an exclusifying crudeness, but the values of Nicholas Nickleby are real and do exist and are abroad in the air in their conflict with one another still. One place we go to appreciate, remember, and take sides with them, in and for our souls and hearts, is in the work and the fun of Charles Dickens.


45 Years

02 Feb

45 Years – directed by Andrew Haigh. Marital Drama. 95 minutes Color 2016.


The Story: On the brink of their 45th wedding celebration, the past catches up with them.


The eyes of Charlotte Rampling are two sphinxes, but not the same sphinx. Hers is a mouth of serious sensuality, not given comfortably to smiling. Indeed, smiles on her face seem out of place. An actress of narrow range, her talent and type would seem to be on the same order of – say Lauren Bacall.

All this is true, so you might wonder how come she could be cast as a woman long married for love to a middle-class, middle-range executive in a provincial manufacturing plant. She walks her dog. She makes their meals. She is friends, with her husband, to local couples. You would take Rampling for a woman who could go out on a tear from all this, but the character does not.

You would also have to take Rampling as having absolute confidence in herself sexually, as a woman, and as a human.

That is why to cast her as a character who slowly falls apart in all these departments makes her story so telling. You keep saying to yourself, “This can’t be happening to her.” But it does happen.

It’s an example of the advantages of casting against type. For the sort of talent Rampling has is exactly the right size to reveal in quiet, inward, minute collapses the catastrophe of her character’s self-doubt as it takes hold in her.

The character does it to herself. But that is what makes the story so universally human. She takes information and she uses it against herself. Her husband should never have revealed to her the contents of that letter, but, of course, he could scarcely help it, for the letter is unwittingly opened at the breakfast table.

There are things people should never, never be told, as Rampling in her personal life well knew. The truth imprisons as often as it sets free. But keep watching Rampling’s watchful eyes. It’s a wonderful performance by an actress of small talent and considerable fascination and honesty.

Tom Courtanay plays the husband, married for 45 years to Rampling. As an actor I always feel Courtanay is “acting” natural, which makes his acting unnatural. He plays the addled hubby. To me the performance never looks grounded. He playacts the character rather than simply leave it alone and let it take care of itself. To “make” the character addled is to invest it with the contempt of the actor for the character. The actor who thinks there must be something “done” to the character is like the pianist who thinks something should be “done” to the nocturnes of Chopin to make them melancholy.

It is beautifully filmed, just what we like in terms of pace and registration, which is to say that it is played in exactly the right key at exactly the right speeds. Geraldine James is superb as the best friend. The film is well worth seeing, mainly because the inside story Rampling is called upon to play is never seen in film. The failure of film is that it generally prefers the dramatic over the true. Rampling brings to her part the essential characteristic of being ingrown, and, with that, we witness life lived as we really do live it outside the picture palace every day.




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.

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