Talking Movies

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

Advertisements

September 21, 2009

Creation

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?

1/5

Blog at WordPress.com.