Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Sleuth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

On his sprawling country estate, an aging writer (Caine) matches wits with the struggling actor (Law) who has stolen his wife’s heart.

If you don’t know who Harold Pinter is then avoid this film like the plague. If you do know who Harold Pinter is, Nobel Laureate and Attendant Lord of British Theatre from the 1950s onwards, then you will find this film quite rewarding but not entirely dramatically satisfying. There’s a Pinter pause in the very first piece of dialogue that will unnerve the hell out of cinemagoers that have just wandered in by chance to a Jude Law film and will alert theatregoers to the fact that this is really Harold Pinter’s latest play. This is the real deal; a comedy of menace as two men fight each other with veiled verbal threats in a confined space, trying to assert control over each other, and over the woman they both want to possess, who is absent for most of the film. Sleuth features one of the most riveting opening sequences of the year as Branagh ditches his customary extremely mobile camera for fixed set-ups and long-shots, it is a full 12 minutes before the first close-up, on Michael Caine for “I understand you’re f***ing my wife”.

Law is there to discuss a divorce for Caine’s wife but Caine has a different sort of proposition for Law and the mind-games between the two escalate quickly. The original Anthony Shaffer play was filmed by legendary All About Eve director Joseph L Mankiewiecz in 1972 as his swansong. One of the best films of the 1970s it was twisted, funny and Laurence Olivier and Caine faced off against each other in a clash of RADA and cockney accents that mirrored the class divide between their characters. That tension has been replaced by a homoerotic undertone highly reminiscent of Pinter’s play No Man’s Land that doesn’t really work. Olivier’s dangerous eccentric lived in a house cluttered with useless bric-a-brac, Michael Caine’s modernist open-plan house is made to appear equally sinister thru Branagh’s clever use of lighting.

Sleuth is so strongly dependent on its plot-twists that it’s almost impossible to write about it without ruining it. Instead let us mock Jude Law. One of the twists in Sleuth depends entirely on acting ability. That twist is of regretful necessity thrown away here because while Law may be under the impression that he can do more than stand in front of the lights and look pretty, Pinter is not. His version from that point onwards departs radically from the original’s plot points becoming a depiction of malevolent psychological cruelty rather than a joyously frantic game of cat and also-cat, but Law’s acting cannot sustain such intensity, so after 86 minutes we simply end with a whimper. Sleuth must therefore be ranked as one of the most interesting failures of 2007. But I’d rather have this intelligent attempt, even with Jude Law, than the polished mediocrities that clog up the multiplexes, any day.

2/5

August 21, 2017

The Great Gatsby

When I came back from the Gate I wanted the whole theatrical world at a sort of attention to, providing seats. I wanted no more riotous excursions into costume parties.

Nick Carraway (Marty Rea) has just arrived in West Egg, and is invited by Jay Gatsby (Paul Mescal) to attend one of his Prohibition-be-damned ragers. There he meets his cousin Daisy (Charlene McKenna), her husband Tom Buchanan (Mark Huberman); an old Yale classmate; and their golfer friend Jordan (Rachel O’Byrne). Also floating around the Charleston’d chaos is the shady Meyer Wolfsheim (Owen Roe), Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Aoibheann McCann), her sister Kitty (Kate Gilmore),  Myrtle’s defeated husband George (Ger Kelly), and the protean one-man Repertory (Raymond Scannell). Over the course of an extremely long night (which makes pigswill of the chronology, content, and nuance of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel) Jay meets Daisy, Jay re-woos Daisy, but his insistence on breaking Tom’s romantic hold on her backfires completely, and Jay loses Daisy all over again. And then his business and life too.

Designer Ciaran Bagnall has raised the floor, brought forward the Gate stage; creating a double staircase and a dummy roof; and floored over the back area to create two lobbies; one for piano, one for a bar. Into this space fit maybe 170 people, instead of the usual 371, but that’s probably recouped by selling themed cocktails to the audience; roughly 70% women, who were nearly 100% decked out in full flapper garb. And therein is one problem with this production – as my regular theatre cohort Stephen Errity put it: trying to make a fun night out from one of art’s great downers. Another is the ‘choose your own adventure’ book come to life aspect: we were led into Tom’s NYC apartment, Gatsby’s bedroom, and, after the interval, Wolfsheim’s gambling den. Only the first, mostly using Fitzgerald’s actual words, worked…

Fitzgerald…  If you think his point was decadent parties then you probably didn’t finish the novel, and should be at Film Fatale’s annual Gatsby party at IMMA. Rea and O’Byrne excel at athletically dancing the Charleston, but does it gain enough from the audience playing dress-up next to it to justify staging it this way and not on the stage as Elevator Repair Service did for their choreographed bacchanalia in The Select: The Sun Also Rises? Does it make sense to segue from Carraway’s opening speech to the closing peroration, and repeatedly mash together lines from anywhere, an egregious offender being George’s decontextualised references to God seeing everything? Does it make sense to have George Wilson be a barman, yet still have Tom’s yellow Rolls-Royce that he knows as a mechanic kill Myrtle? Does it make sense to pretend this is one night when Tom, Nick, and Daisy are observed (by some people) travelling to NYC, and Jay and Daisy’s agonised tea thus apparently happens in the wee small hours? We’re into Baz Luhrmann flashy incoherence here before we reach the musical numbers that pad the 2nd act as if a half-abandoned Moulin Rouge! musical of Gatsby is poking through.

Image result for the great gatsby the gate

The interval, 80 minutes in, found me sick of standing. 70 minutes later I was aghast that the handful of remaining scenes had been fleshed out by unnecessary musical numbers, the party had definitively gone on too long. Audience interaction had started highly amusingly when actors had to go with Nick being rumoured out of the Midwest by ‘a whole 4 people’, gone downhill with the utterly pointless preparation of the tea service, and degenerated to literal pantomime boos for Tom’s denunciation of the audience as uninvited and uninteresting. Actors bellowing at each other across a milling audience doesn’t synch with large parties being intimate nor make sense for Wolfsheim offering Gatsby a gonnegtion; indeed poor Roe’s main function appeared to be glad-handing groups of theatregoers. Scannell excelled at the piano providing mood music for Daisy and Jay’s fretful tea.

The costumes, designed by Peter O’Brien, are terrific; especially Gatsby’s spiffy pink suit. Yet the point of this show, imported from the Guild of Misrule’s original production with Alexander Wright still directing, seems to be that you, the audience member, dressed in your best flapper gear, are the show as much as the actors. Which rather deflates the great performances: Rea finds all new notes of nervousness as Carraway, who’s not as sardonic as he presents himself in narration, while O’Byrne is incredibly effective as Jordan, registering a disdain for the world which shines through her musical performances, and a fearless McCann renders her sultry Myrtle as the physical embodiment of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’. Huberman doesn’t have the hulking physique but is a startlingly good Tom replete with habitual dominance (and his moustache and projection reminded me of Keith Thompson!).

Nobody amidst the rave reviews for this bold and brave use of the Gate space seems willing to acknowledge the atavistic cruelty at work. The Gate audience, as has been widely remarked, is older, there are usually a notable number of walking sticks; and the new regime welcomes them by shouting – there are no seats, dance! What exactly did they do to deserve this opprobrium? They didn’t like Crestfall, which the Irish Times just savaged for depravity. They did like Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer and Michael Gambon in No Man’s Land. They appreciate opulent costumes, clever set design, and, recently, acclaimed productions of titanic Albee and Murphy classics. Yet for these hanging offences they must be run off the premises, the Gate is trying to run a the-a-tre here! It is strange to burn your audience while feigning bonhomie…

Rea, O’Byrne, McCann, and Huberman were all splendidly cast, but I’d liked to have seen them in a coherent adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

3/5

 

The Great Gatsby continues its run at the Gate until the 16th of September.

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