Talking Movies

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

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The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

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February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

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