Talking Movies

August 7, 2018

From the Archives: The Duchess

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up an English period drama with many wonderful moments that never cohered into a wonderful whole.

Photo by Peter Mountain

Keira Knightley tramples all over memories of her turn in Pride & Prejudice by showing us the dark side preceding Jane Austen’s Regency era. Indeed The Duchess begins at the point where an Austen novel would end, as Georgina (Knightley) is married to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in the film’s pre-title opening sequence. Any romantic notions the teenage bride has are instantly dispatched after the wedding ceremony as the Duke dismisses Georgina’s servants and uses a scissors to quickly strip her naked and get on with the business of producing an heir for the Devonshire estate.

The publicity for this film has made painfully obvious the parallels between Georgina Spencer’s marriage and that of her great great great great niece Princess Diana as the Duke soon introduces Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as the third person in their marriage. The Duke even echoes Prince Charles late in the film when, protesting his love to a stunned Georgina, he quickly clarifies “I love you in my understanding of love”, just as Charles infamously told the media shortly before his marriage that he loved Diana, “whatever love is”. That is one of the few explicit references in the film though which instead deserves much praise for recreating the mores of the period and keeping characters spouting anachronistic modern values to a minimum. It is a particular joy to see the Whig leader Fox and the Irish politician, playwright and gambler Richard Brinsley Sheridan appear in support as Georgina’s friends. She brings an air of glamour to their electioneering while they value her in a way the Duke does not.

Atwell is magnificent in being both hero and villain of the story as she plays the game of Regency society while Charlotte Rampling is utterly chilling as Lady Spencer, sacrificing her daughter’s happiness on the altar of duty. The Duke is as cold a figure as we’ve seen in quite some time but Ralph Fiennes excellently hints at a humanity that is only occasionally glimpsed beneath the cold aristocratic exterior. And he does get to deliver the immortal line “Please put out her Grace’s hair”. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can get a confident performance from Knightley and her performance here suffers from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as her tendency to be a bit brittle in her acting surfaces from time to time.

Though replete with splendid individual scenes there are times when The Duchess drags badly as they don’t quite cohere into a driving narrative. However when Georgina’s ménage a trois comes to a crisis the film shifts up a gear with a heartbreaking scene that owes a lot to Brief Encounter and Brokeback Mountain. While not equalling their impact this is still worth seeing for a more brutal take on Georgian love.

3/5

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January 15, 2015

Testament of Youth

Alicia Vikander stars as Vera Brittain in a harrowing adaptation of her celebrated memoir of love and death in WWI.

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In the pre-war idyll we meet Vera (Vikander) swimming with her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and her diffident suitor Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan). She is furious when she discovers Edward has been distracting her to allow the installation of a piano, a present from their father (Dominic West) designed to take her mind off going to Oxford. But Vera is determined to sit the entrance exam, and the support of Edward and Edward’s school-friend Roland (Kit Harington) forces Mt Brittain to allow her try. She makes an unfavourable impression on Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson), the don running Somerville, but wins a place. Her joy is short-lived. Roland, driven by duty, volunteers as an officer; and Edward follows suit. Soon Vera herself volunteers, as a nurse; and the horrors she witnesses only increase her need to get nearer the front.

Initially this film of Testament of Youth feels in the shadow of Parade’s End, owing to the superficial resemblance of a suffragette falling for a man defined by his sense of duty who volunteers for the trenches as soon as war is declared. And the domestic sphere is of great interest: Vera throws over Victor for the more antagonistic Roland, who is the son of a famous writer Mrs Leighton (Anna Chancellor), but must still settle for the conservative chaperoning of their walking-outs by Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan). Vikander is nicely steely and abrasive as Vera, a woman given to speaking her mind and expecting people to listen. Harington is a good foil as the man she initially misjudges, but who has unexpected depths. Hayley Atwell’s cameo as a nurse is wonderful, the only true comic note in the film.

Director James Kent steps up from the likes of The Thirteenth Tale for the BBC for a handsomely mounted period drama that becomes almost unendurably sad by the end. This is partly because of his very clever casting which makes you feel the trauma of war’s losses. Along with Journey’s End, Goodbye to All That, and All Quiet on the Western Front, Testament of Youth was one of the artistic responses to the war that shaped perception of the conflict. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, previously best known for adapting Cecilia Ahern’s Love, Rosie, shows a sure hand in balancing Vera’s growing despair about the war with the Anglican mysticism of Edward’s friend Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey) towards the slaughter. Kent and Towhidi fashion a heartbreaking visual metaphor by a montage of silent shots of familiar places with the characters now absent…

Testament of Youth is an impressive film largely because of the mounting emotional effect of the successive disappearance of everyone Vera loves. By the end she really is, as someone suggests, surrounded by ghosts.

3.5/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

September 12, 2012

The Sweeney

The beloved 1970s British TV cop show gets an appropriately tough makeover with Ray Winstone and Ben Drew (aka Plan B) stepping into John Thaw and Denis Waterman’s iconic roles.

Jack Regan (Winstone) is the chief of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, the slightly unhinged individuals who respond to armed robberies. These are police officers who, explicitly in the case of Regan’s right-hand man George Carter (Ben Drew), joined the force for the thrill of the chase that the Flying Squad provides – if there’s no Sweeney, then there’s no Detective Carter. Regan and Carter’s heavy-handed tactics, including the use of baseball bats, raise the hackles of Internal Affairs chief Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), who has a grudge as his wife (and Sweeney member) Nancy (Hayley Atwell) is sleeping with Regan. Regan’s hands-off boss Haskins (Damian Lewis) defends the Sweeney, until Regan becomes obsessed with pinning a senseless murder committed during a diamond robbery on old criminal nemesis Allen (Paul Anderson). Can Regan and Carter unravel the mystery linking a bank heist, a diamond robbery, and an execution before they’re thrown to wolves?

This is not a warm nostalgia trip infused with energy because Nick (The Football Factory) Love is directing. This is a quite brutal thriller with tons of energy. There is an edge of the seat high-speed chase along a narrow country road that conveys the insane drive of these officers to catch criminals. The action highlight of the movie is a truly spectacular gun battle in Trafalgar Square. The geography of the shootout is impeccably set up from an earlier reconnaissance trip, and the choreography of the fight spilling towards the Tube before being diverted into the National Portrait Gallery is equalled by the suspense generated by the cat and mouse chase within the Gallery. Love’s use of aerial night-shots of London is also astounding because by focusing on the skyscrapers of the City he makes this feel like a glossy Michael Mann crime movie.

Love is a better director than a writer though as the dialogue displays a bit of a cloth ear despite the best efforts of his co-writer; Trainspotting scribe John Hodge who recently won an Olivier for his play Collaborators. There are some very funny lines, and a hilarious sequence of ordering delicious food as mental torture, and there’s also a wonderful cockney geezer in Regan’s informant Harry (Alan Ford), as well as delightful usages of the “You’re Nicked” catchphrase. But too many characters are left totally undeveloped like Allen Leech’s Irish Sweeney member Simon Ellis, while the critique of 1970s style brutal police tactics being out of date in the modern world but also sometimes necessary feels a bit heavy-handed.

Overall this is an enjoyable and visually impressive British film which deserves plaudits for eschewing the glib irony that infects TV adaptations for a realistic and nicely savage updating.

3/5

September 1, 2011

5 Reasons to salute Captain America

If its abrupt drop in showings in Dundrum is anything to go by Captain America is not getting much love from Irish cinemagoers. But here’re 5 reasons why it should…

“A Good Man
GK Chesterton memorably quipped that Nietzsche had never convincingly explained why, other than to gratify Nietzsche’s own perverse desires, anyone should desire that an ubermensch be modelled on Cesare Borgia rather than on Parsifal. This sentiment underscores all the scenes between Chris Evans and Stanley Tucci; “Do you want to kill Nazis?” “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies, wherever they are”; but the scene in which Tucci explains why he chose Evans over the physically stronger candidates and entreats him to remain the same – “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man” – is the best fictional articulation I’ve seen of Greg Garrett’s joyous reading of the creation of Superman by two Jewish comic-book writers as a rebuttal of Hitler’s Aryan psychosis – protecting the weak is what a real ubermensch would do.

“Dr Herzog I Presume
I thought I was losing my mind and simply hearing Werner Herzog everywhere when Hugo Weaving’s boo-hiss Nazi villain first appeared, but it turns out that he did base Dr Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull’s accent on everyone’s favourite German auteur. It’s an uncannily accurate impersonation, and nice because it delivers an odd musicality to Weaving’s delivery, as well as being an actual German accent; not one dreamt up by RADA trained British actors in the 1940s…

Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones Fassbenders his way thru the film in his accustomed role as old Texan grouch. His fantastic one-liners include “I’m not kissing you” after the climactic clinch, “I better find two more then” after shooting a Hydra stormtrooper mid-way thru his ‘Cut off one head, and –’ mantra, and “He’s still skinny” after egregiously failing to make his point by throwing a dummy grenade at the potentials to see which are the brightest and best.

Doomed Romance
Hayley Atwell is becoming quite the specialist in doomed affairs after The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited. Her tentative romance with Evans here is a terrific antidote to Bay’s Pearl Harbor nonsense, and makes for a quite upsetting finale when the flagged from the beginning suicide mission finally comes to pass, complete with their final stoic radio exchange. The Captain’s despair that he’s woken up to a world in which she’s been dead for 30 years could be absolutely heartbreaking in The Avengers. Presuming Whedon manages to learn how to write again. I’m still bitter about Buffy Season Eight

Steampunk Nazis
From the first appearance of the Red Skull’s jaw-droppingly stylised car, there’s a determination to grant Hydra technology too advanced for the era, especially their District 9 rip-off guns, to heighten the threat they pose. Admittedly the steampunk element gets a bit out of control towards the end of the film, but it’s quite a nice addition to the Captain America mythos for most of the proceedings, and feels less contrived than most of Del Toro’s clockwork nonsense.

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