Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: Sparkle

Scraping the Mariana Trench of the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a English movie so completely forgotten it’s very title has been obliterated by Whitney Houston.

Sam Sparkes gets his start in PR by sleeping with his demanding boss Sheila. Little does he know he’s also sleeping with her daughter Kate. Hilarity ensues.

Insipid. That’s the best word to use when discussing Sparkle. It’s not enough to decry the film as a romantic comedy with no romance and fewer jokes. There’s many another film with those twin afflictions which has just about managed to scrape by on the enthusiastic playing and natural charisma of the leads. But here the lead actors don’t even seem to show any interest in trying to salvage something from the wretched material by sheer exuberance on their part. Stockard Channing wears the baffled appearance of someone wondering why The West Wing isn’t on TV anymore rather than expressing the diva quality attributed to her character Sheila. Meanwhile Amanda Ryan as her daughter Kate seems to have wandered in from auditions for Steven Poliakoff’s thoughtful drama Gideon’s Daughter. The real blame though must be placed on Shaun Evans as our hero Sam Sparkes. He’s not to blame for the diabolical script, however, he is to blame for not being able to carry a film. The sad truth is that Evans has no charm. Not only is this a basic requirement for a leading man in a romantic comedy but it’s even more vital when the plot is posited on this Liverpudlian likely lad scaling the London career ladder from wine waiter to PR PA by charm alone.

The triangle of Sam, Kate and Sheila is only one part of this film. Sam’s mother Jill Sparkes (Lesley Manville), her landlord Vince (Bob Hoskins) and his brother Bernie intertwine with the main story throughout the film before both strands resolve into an inter-connected finale but it has all the emotional punch of watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube. The entire film plays as merely an intellectual exercise in connecting plot strands for the sake of it as there is no real warmth for the characters detectable behind it. Bob Hoskins though seems to be enjoying himself as a shy quiet man and such casting against type, see his latest snarly menacing bald bloke turn in Hollywoodland by way of illustration, is quite refreshing for the audience too.

Buffy fans (meaning yes, me, I did this) will greet the appearance of Tony Head with a cheer and justifiably too as he is one of the few things in this film worth cheering. As Kate’s louche uncle (also named Tony), Head is a hoot. His priceless reaction to finding a cuddly blue dolphin toy delivered with his milk in the morning is one of the few, few reasons to smile during the last 40 minutes. This is one comedy that fails to shine. Somewhere in England there’s a community hall that still has a leaky roof because a grant was given towards this film’s budget by the National Lottery. Register your civic disapproval…

1/5

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November 27, 2009

Glorious 39

I’m in something of a quandary about Glorious 39, a rare cinema outing by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff who specialises in making literate thoughtful dramas for the BBC. When I interviewed Bill Nighy in February he was bubbling with enthusiasm for working with Poliakoff again, having won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the sublime 2005 TV film Gideon’s Daughter. Sadly Glorious 39 has all the recognisable Poliakoff concerns but inexplicably falls apart in exploring them.

In the present day the elderly Walter (Christopher Lee) narrates to his young cousin the events of the glorious summer of 1939 when the world stood on the brink of war – a prospect with which the private dramas of the Keyes family, in which Walter played a minor part, seemed intertwined. Romola Garai, who sparkled in the lead role in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stars as Anna the eldest but adopted daughter of Bill Nighy’s aristocratic Tory MP Sir Alexander Keyes. Nighy is rather good as a compassionate man whose experiences in WWI have so unfitted him for dealing with another war that he tries to retreat into the private realm to dote on his children. Jeremy Northam is startlingly good as the sinister MI5 agent who dogs this retreat from Westminster while David Tennant has a nice cameo as a Scottish MP who makes a passionate attack on the policy of appeasement at a Keyes garden party. Anna (Garai) has little time for all this, being more concerned with her budding film career and boyfriend in the Foreign Office (Charlie Cox). However she discovers recordings of secret meetings revealing an MI5 plot to murderously suppress any opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement and is thrown into a dangerous world of espionage and intimate betrayal.

Glorious 39 starts as a thoughtful drama but unexpectedly develops Hitchockian paranoia. Poliakoff’s trademark concerns with memory, family, the moving image, and the impact of the past on the present are all present and correct and Glorious 39 is wonderfully atmospheric. All the performances are very good enabling Poliakoff to deliver some shocks with devastating emotional impact amidst a string of unsettling suspense set-pieces including a kidnapped child. Ultimately though the film degenerates into sub-Hitchockian pastiche, undermined by the knowledge that whatever action Anna takes is irrelevant to war being declared or Churchill becoming PM, as this film will not have a Tarantinoesque disregard for historical fact. Poliakoff thus switches genres to introduce a Victorian madwoman in the attic horror story before contriving a deeply odd ‘meaningful’ ending.

A character study that made us empathise with decent individuals promoting Appeasement for good reasons, even though they are on the wrong side of history, by re-inscribing their uncertainty about what the future held would be prime Poliakoff. Sadly Poliakoff eschews this route meaning that this misfiring thriller should have stayed on the small-screen.

2/5

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