Marie Antoinette

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette



It’s tempting to look at writer/director Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Marie Antoinette as a coded self-portrait – young woman born into immense privilege, continuing in the family business, expected to have an understanding of the hoi polloi though with no experience thereof, allowed to indulge her whims, and so on.


Perhaps it’s a better film seen that way, because as a straightforward biopic it’s full of problems, chief of those being the inertia at the centre, where Kirsten Dunst’s Marie – the Austrian princess bought in by the French to produce an heir – and her spouse the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) sit like a pair of bland puddings while around them wheel a menagerie of exotic creatures. Rip Torn’s baritone adds fruitcake richness to his portrayal of King Louis XV, old but still full of priapic desire for his mistress, Mme Du Barry, played by Asia Argento with a look on her face like she’s got a boiler-room of naughtiness going on between her legs. There’s also Danny Huston, as Marie’s worldly wily older brother, drafted in to help the Dauphin work out what to do in the bedroom – the Dauphin might be gay, terminally inbred or just bored, who knows? And around them a court of looks and whispers. These exotics and intriguers apart, it’s a languid portrait of inert, disconnected people that at every turn threatens to become inert and disconnected itself. Coppola knows this, hence the ripeness of the supporting characters, hence the use of modern pop music (Aphex Twin, New Order, The Cure) on the soundtrack, the largely 1980s choices being another hint that this is really more about Ms C, who became a teenager in the middle of that decade.


It drifts along, the Dauphin doing a bit of hunting, Marie getting back to nature in the model farm she set up at the Trianon palace – where she indulges in the sort of mock bucolic playing about with cows and sheep that well-to-do young women now ape with their organic foods and working holidays on farms. And then, waking up as if from a “what the hell was I doing?” reverie, Coppola gets a spurt on with a finale that packs in the “the peasants are revolting”, “let them eat cake”, “off with their heads” headlines in one urgent rush.


Coppola isn’t delivering a history lesson. And the way that she covers the well known events, merely acknowledging their existence, makes that abundantly clear. The clothes are splendid, the locations genuine (some of it was even shot at Versailles), the acting superb, and it’s a fabulously rich summoning of an atmosphere of suffocating protocol. Dramatic, though? Hardly.




Marie Antoinette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006





Trouble down below in Kon-Tiki


A festival regular in 2012, but scared from the wide-release ocean by the presence of a great white Life of Pi, the estimable Kon-Tiki finally gets a release two years later. Potential viewers include anyone interested in Thor Heyerdahl’s intriguing thesis – that the Polynesians had sailed to the islands from South America. But also anyone who likes watching half dressed blond men, or a rollicking sun-drenched adventure on the high seas.


The 33-year-old Norwegian Heyerdahl set out on his crackpot 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific in a balsa-wood boat in 1947. This film about his adventure quickly dispenses with his backstory – the reckless child who became an ethnographic adventurer, the searcher for truth whose thesis of trans-Pacific migration was laughed out of court. The film’s lack of real interest in whys and wherefores is clear in these early scenes, in the way New York, where Heyerdahl is hustling for sponsors, is bathed in the sepia matt finish of low-budget CG. It seems to barely matter, since this “getting the gang together” segment is just a warm-up for the main event, which is the journey across the ocean.


How do you lash a balsa boat together? Why balsa in the first place? Where did Heyerdahl get the plans for his boat from? Questions which go unanswered, and which show that deep down, someone at the planning stage in its production was as unsure about this film’s broad appeal as Heyerdahl’s detractors were about his quest.


This matters because, later on, after encounters with whales, buffetting by storms and an OMG of phosphorescent beasties, it’s the boat itself that starts to become the problem, and Heyerdahl’s increasing intransigence too. Why won’t he tackle running repairs with modern materials? From where does he get his great confidence that the South Americans/Polynesians did it this way too? Is the boat going to fall apart? Is Heyerdahl? We have no idea.


But what it lacks in technical grounding or a “relatable” hero, the film makes up in set pieces. And here you can really see why first Life of Pi, then All Is Lost and finally even Captain Phillips might have given Kon-Tiki pause. Though it does hit back with a few Hollywood moments of its own, as when one of the guys falls into the water and the sharks line up for dinner. Or when another of the guys literally wrestles a shark onto the raft itself – heart-in-mouth stuff, and all shot under a mercilessly bright sun in the very crispest of defs.


Yes, “guys”. There are six men on the boat, though apart from Heyerdahl (a steely Pål Sverre Hagen) and the plubby refrigerator salesman-cum-engineer Hermann Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) they play as variations on a theme of blond, in various keys of gingery beard. Even the strikingly handsome Torstein (Jakob Oftebro) who is introduced early on as the ladies man, eventually sinks into the facial hair and bronze skin anonymity of the rest.


As for wider context, this being the 1940s when the world was getting back to normal after the Second World War, and might have been less keen on adventure than Heyerdahl had anticipated, little of that. Little too of a sense of 101 days passing, though of the claustrophobia of being half a dozen men on a bit of floating wood with a shed perched atop, plenty.


Apart from those early New York scenes, Norway’s most expensive film is technically highly accomplished, and uses striking cinematography to retell a story that has become part of the cultural DNA. And like the boat itself, it swamps, it sways but it gets there.




Kon-Tiki – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014






Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival

The Isle of Wight Festival, 1970

A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 August


Woodstock ends, 1969

On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair ended. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music” it was held at a dairy farm near White Lake, New York. 32 acts had played to 400,000 people who had paid $18 in advance ($24 at the gate). Richie Havens had been the first act on and Jimi Hendrix was the last act, playing a two hour set that included his version of the Star Spangled Banner – shocking both to those who didn’t want to hear it desecrated and to those who didn’t want to hear anything so patriotic played. In fact Hendrix was playing from 9am to 11am on the morning of 18 August – overruns and flexible scheduling being at least partly what the festival was about. The entire event had originally grown from the notion that Woodstock might be a festival mostly featuring musicians who lived or worked in area, the promoters particularly keen to get Bob Dylan and The Band on board. This was not to be. On the day the festival started Dylan had embarked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail for the UK and the Isle of Wight festival. Woodstock did OK without him.




Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997, dir: Murray Lerner)

Murray Lerner’s film was a long time coming. Thanks a to a legal wrangle over who owed what money to whom, the film didn’t see the light of day until 1997. And how fitting that it was money that caused the delay. Because in among the performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, the Who and the Doors, are moments that catch the irony at the heart of the hippie ideal – it’s the straights who make hippiedom possible. But first some details: held a year after Woodstock on a small island off the coast of the United Kingdom, it was the biggest countercultural/music event of its time, with estimates of attendance ranging from 600,000 to 700,000. Along with those already mentioned, Sly and the Family Stone, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Free, Jethro Tull and Miles Davis took part. Not a bad bunch of headliners.
If the Woodstock film catches a festival full of optimism and some complacency, Message to Love catches rock culture just as it moves from being a fun ad hoc arrangement into the new establishment. There is tension everywhere, between those outside who want the fences torn down so the festival can be free, and those inside who want everyone involved to get paid. Breadheads versus dopeheads. While performers are talking about peace and love on stage, their managers are engaged in full-bore argument backstage trying to make sure their man (or woman, in Joan Baez’s notable case) gets his/her due.
Lerner had already made a film about the Newport Folk Festival, so he knew what he was doing and what’s notable about Message to Love is how well shot and put together it is. For sure, Lerner plays up the tension – the locals, the police, the crowd, the performers are all shown at their worst (Joni Mitchell calling the crowd “tourists”; she means “peasants”), and funniest. He has an eye for a performance too. Not that Hendrix or the Doors were that incendiary – and both Hendrix and Jim Morrison would be dead within a year so it’s a shame – but Lerner’s beady eye catches exactly what it’s like to be watching an iconic performer at the wrong time of day (the Doors were on at something like 3am), with inadequate sound, bad weather and a grumpy lead singer. Actually, considering, the Doors are not at all bad.
So, the walls do eventually come down and the paying ticket holders (60,000 or so) are joined by the other 500,000 or so who haven’t paid. Making the best of a bad thing, the organisers decide to declare the Isle of Wight a “free festival”. It’s clear a lot of musicians aren’t going to get their money and that the organisers are heading for bankruptcy. Lerner catches it all in painful detail.
The festival has gone down in history as a desperate financial failure, but the film is a resounding success. Murray has it all as it goes rotten in front of his lens. It’s a good story, a great one in fact. And it’s a great film about the death of the 1960s ideal – funny how many of those there are. And it’s Hendrix, king of the era, whose song provides the film’s ironic title.



Why Watch?


  • A brilliant story, well told
  • Iconic footage
  • Great music
  • Big artistic egos losing their temper


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival – Watch it now at Amazon





The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Enrique Irazoqui on set in The Gospel according to St Matthew


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



9 August


SS Firmus and Rusticus

Today in the Christian calendar is the feast day of Saints Firmus and Rusticus. They were two gentlemen of Verona who were martyred by the Emperor Maximian for refusing to bow down to, or sacrifice to, pagan idols. Their refusal won them torture, beatings with clubs and finally decapitation. That’s the official story, though no one is really sure who the men were, what they did, or even where they came from. It has been suggested they were African martyrs whose relics were transported to Verona post mortem. Or that they were men from Bergamo who only died in Verona. Or that the relics from Verona in fact went to Africa, not vice versa. Scant though their biographies are, today is their day.




The Gospel according to Matthew (1964, dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini)

The Marxist, atheist and gay Pasolini’s life of Jesus Christ is probably the best filmic version there is. Possibly because Pasolini isn’t proselytising, possibly just because he was a great film-maker. The film is a work of remarkable simple power, full of misery and glory, dirt and poetry, populated with people whose faces look as if drawn directly from the pages of the Bible. They’re poor, in other words, not here the lean long thigh bones of a Charlton Heston or the paunch of a Charles Laughton, instead Pasolini’s cast are the peasants of the district of Basilicata, where he shot the film (and where Mel Gibson would shoot The Passion of the Christ 40 years later, possibly hoping for inspiration, or even intercession). And Pasolini’s Jesus is a non-acting economics student (Enrique Irazoqui). The whole thing is shot like a documentary, without a screenplay, and using the gospel of Matthew as written to block out scene after scene. So all the dialogue is from the Bible, is the word of God if you are a believer. Though God doesn’t seem to have been given a screen credit.
The Jesus of Matthew, and of Pasolini, is the righteous Jesus, the debating hot-headed rabbi who would take on anybody in an argument and win, the Jesus of the Bible, not the meek big-eyed drip so often served up in films made by Christians, ironically. But before that we’ve been given the story of Jesus’s birth – his mother’s unusual pregnancy, the flight to Egypt, the lack of room at the inn, the three wise men. Later we get his ministry, the miracles, his rise as a prominent preacher, his trial and his execution on the cross, all done matter of factly.
It’s the story of 1960s radical politics – radical chic, possibly too – pasted back onto a figure who can take any amount of interpretation. This is Jesus the leftie, the scorner of wealth, the lover of the poor, who preaches about the kingdom of heaven because the kingdom down here is only for losers.
You might expect, with all this downbeat, non-professional, script-free business, that the film is lacking in uplift, joy or transcendence. In fact it’s full of it, Pasolini’s careful use of close-up and long shot doing what Michael Bay can’t do with thousands of CGI fiddlers, Pasolini’s focus on the right face, the right expression telling us that we’re in the hands of a director who understands that humans respond to stories about humans. With Pasolini the face is the story.
Enrique Irazoqui is exhibit A here, his slight, hunched Jesus a ball of fervent intelligence, a very human redeemer. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable film that time is treating very kindly. Surely it’s time for that Pasolini revival.



Why Watch?


  • The best Bible film? Probably
  • Enrique Irazoqui’s Jesus
  • The music – Bach to the blues
  • The faces of the support players – see Judas Iscariot


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Gospel according to St Matthew – Watch it now at Amazon





For All Mankind

The man in the moon in For All Mankind


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 July


Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon, 1969

Today in 1969, while schoolchildren the world over hugged their knees while watching, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin had landed just after 8.00pm UTC (aka GMT) and, having completed the hardest part of the mission without major mishap, then decided to bring forward the planned moonwalk. Just over six hours later they were ready to go. The Eagle, the lunar module, was depressurised, the door was opened and Armstrong climbed down the ladder to become the first man on the Moon. Armstrong delivered his “that’s one giant step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” speech, and 20 minutes later Buzz Aldrin joined him. They unveiled a plaque, erected the flag of the United States, collected a soil sample, took photos of the lunar module for the scientists back home, spoke to President Nixon, deployed instruments including a seismograph, took rock samples and went for exploratory walks. Armstrong and Aldrin’s moonwalk lasted around two and a half hours.




For All Mankind (1989, dir: Al Reinert)

A plaque left behind on one of the legs of the lunar module the Eagle reads “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” So many aspects of that sentence now seem slightly off – the word “men” (too gendered), the use of “upon” (too formal), and “AD” (too Christian). But the sentiment is still thrilling and so is Al Reinert’s film, a composite “from the Earth to the Moon” flight cut together from Nasa footage of the missions Apollo 8-17. Over the images is a commentary, voiced by the various astronauts who manned (sorry) the flights – Jim Lovell, Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Jack Swigert and various others, all names familiar to anyone who grew up in the Apollo era. Alongside them Reinert dubs in some playback from Houston, adding vital atmosphere, plus a waft of music, not too intrusive, ambient stuff by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
Against the enormity of what Nasa achieved is the humility of the men, who have the “aw shucks” quality you find in the nicest Americans – these are good natured, fun guys with enquiring minds and lively spirits. It’s the little touches that humanise it – scenes of astronauts shaving, talking about listening to Merle Haggard and Frank Sinatra in deep space. One of them liked the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Meanwhile, back at base, is a cadre of guys who also became familiar, in short sleeved white shirts, with similar buzz cuts, black-framed spectacles, quite a few smoking – the men who made it happen.
Those familiar with the grainy “one small step” footage that gets served up on TV routinely will be astounded by the quality of the footage Reinert has unearthed. At one point an astronaut talks about being able to see from space the campfires lit by desert nomads. And there they are, pinpricks of light against an inky black. Against images such as these Reinert will drop in a thoughtful comment from one of the astronauts. And it’s somewhere around here that it becomes clear that Reinert’s skills don’t stop at research. He’s also a skilful editor; the unnecessary cut out, just enough left in for us to get an appreciation of what’s going on. The result is a punchy, lean narrative. And because Reinert credits us with knowing what a rocket stage is, there is no explanation of what is happening as one drops away, leaving us to watch as it goes. But at key moments – going into Moon orbit, landing – we are offered one, which only makes what’s happening more exciting. With all its acronyms and militaristic jargon – “You are Go for TLI” [Trans-Lunar Injection] – how brutish and technologically advanced it all looked back then. But how fragile and wondrous it all looks in Reinert’s film. And how brave those guys.



Why Watch?


  • A brilliant documentary
  • Superb quality footage of all aspects of space flight, take-off to splashdown
  • Last astronaut on the Moon Gene Cernan on the commentary track
  • A reminder of the achievement


© Steve Morrissey 2014



For All Mankind – Watch it now at Amazon





An Ordinary Execution

André Dussollier and Marina Hands in An Ordinary Execution


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



15 July


John Ball hanged, drawn and quartered, 1381

On this day in 1381, a charismatic priest called John Ball was killed publicly in front of the monarch of England, Richard II. Ball had been a “hedge” priest, roaming the countryside, unattached to a parish, a “Lollard” who believed the Church to be corrupt. In prison in Maidstone at the time of 1381’s Peasants’ Revolt – a rebellion against too much taxation, villeinage (ie slavery), corvée (obligatory unpaid labour) and the new laws making it illegal to refuse work on the grounds that the pay was too low (the Black Death had given its survivors a strong bargaining hand) – Ball was released by local rebels and preached to the growing army of insurgents near Greenwich before they marched on London. It was one of many uprisings throughout the country which Richard II put down with efficiency, raising an army of 4,000 and pursuing the leaders of the Revolt, wherever they turned up. Ball was held to be one of those leaders, and was made an example of. The punishment was to be hanged, drawn and quartered – placed at the top of a ladder so the attendant crowd could see, the victim was hanged till nearly dead, then he was drawn (sex organs removed and slowly disembowelled, the resulting organs being burnt in front of him), then cut into four pieces, each part being exhibited in a different town. Ball suffered all these, and then his head was stuck on a pike at London Bridge.




An Ordinary Execution (2010, dir: Marc Dugain)

It’s the early 1950s and in the USSR Stalin (André Dussollier) is not very well. He’s terminally ill, in fact, and suspects it when he sends for yet another doctor, this time a woman (Marina Hands) who is reputed to have a healing touch. She arrives and goes to work. And Stalin is impressed – with Anna’s skill, her looks, her charisma. Eventually he decides to do what Stalin always does with those useful to him. He gives her an apartment so she can be near him. The fact that this means she has to give up her own apartment and leave her husband is immaterial. Nor does what Anna thinks about all this matter, since what is more important than serving the motherland in its hour of need?
With no husband, there is no one to go home to, to spill the beans to about how sick the man of steel actually is. In the logic associated with tyranny, the relationship between Dr Anna and Stalin must be total. But Anna isn’t just gifted, pretty and unflappable, she’s also smart, and realises that getting closer to Stalin only grants a temporary benefit. There’s a conveyor belt effect. Being “indispensable” as Stalin calls her at one point, means he’ll be forced to get rid of her, since no one can be indispensable except the boss.
An Ordinary Execution brilliantly follows this glide of Anna towards the precipice and then back again. Her relationship with Stalin, with his courtiers (who all want to sleep with her or send her to her death), with what’s left of her life outside. And though fictional – there was no Anna that we know of – it paints a remarkable picture of life in a totalitarian state, where everything is disrupted by the leader’s paranoia, where everyone lives in a constant fear of being denounced and nothing can discussed honestly and openly.
“They don’t even have to be interrogated,” says Stalin at one point to Anna about a political prisoner, “they just talk.” Dugain’s insights into the way people under tyranny start to internalise the logic of the system are well made. And the abominable manner in which life is lived gives this film a gripping quality.
The performances by the three main characters really complement this, Dussollier resisting the urge to make Stalin the folksy Uncle Joe of poster legend, and Hands resisting the urge to make her character a sex bomb (tough, considering how she looks). Hardest role of all goes to Edouard Baer (a name that must have been given by parents with a sense of humour) as the husband, an underwritten part, an expository foil in many ways, but Baer pulls it off with real nuance.
Occasionally the dialogue doesn’t ring true – would a husband really accept his wife’s explanation that she’s been having an affair and is leaving him (she’s trying to protect him by not telling him of the visits to Stalin) quite so coolly and quickly? Likely not. But the writing throughout the film has this sketchiness and is excusable on the grounds that it’s covering a lot of ground, at speed. Similarly, not everyone is going to love the decision by Dugain and cinematographer Yves Angelo to shoot in ye olde standard sepia. But these are quibbles in a film that grips hard from the start, and even has time for a joke – one of Stalin’s flunkeys mentioning that he has a grandson called Putin. “Putin”, he repeats. Point made.



Why Watch?


  • Three great central performances
  • A great debut by Dugain
  • An intelligent political thriller
  • Yves Angelo’s deliberately drab cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



An Ordinary Execution – Watch it now at Amazon





Of Time and the City

Down at the docks, in Terence Davies's Of Time and the City


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 July


John Lennon meets Paul McCartney, 1957

On this day in 1957, a 15-year-old Paul McCartney went to a gig held after a church fete at St Peter’s Parish Church, Woolton, Liverpool. The fete had been a traditional affair, with tombola, a cake stall, games of hoop-la and a rose queen. There had also been entertainment, in the shape of a young local skiffle band called the Quarry Men – so called because most of the members were schoolboys at Quarry Bank Grammar School. The band was led by a 16-year-old John Lennon and as they set up again for their evening show, Ivan Vaughan, the band’s tea chest player, introduced one of his fellow Liverpool Institute schoolmates, Paul McCartney, to John Lennon. The two talked about music – both preferred rock’n’roll to skiffle and McCartney showed Lennon the right way to tune a guitar, sang a few songs (Twenty Flight Rock, Be-Bop-A-Lula, A Whole Lot of Shakin’, some Little Richard songs). After the gig the band, plus McCartney, went to the pub, where they lied about their age to get a drink. When McCartney had gone home, Lennon talked to washboard player Pete Shotton about whether the Quarry Men should invite McCartney to join the group. McCartney was good but he was cocky and Lennon was worried about losing control of his band. Lennon and Shotton decided they needed his talent and the next time Shotton met McCartney, on his bike cycling through the Liverpool suburb, he asked him if he wanted to join the band. McCartney said he’d think about it.




Of Time and the City (2008, dir: Terence Davies)

Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City is exactly what the title suggests – a film about the passing of time and its effects on his hometown, Liverpool. “That is the land of lost content/I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again.” Early on, these lines from AE Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad set the tone, as do these from Shelley’s Ozymandias – “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair/Nothing beside remains, round the decay.”
The film is the work of a grumpy old man, in other words, a look back on the lost world of his youth, a lament that everything has gone to shit. To a brilliantly researched and edited collage of old archive footage, with just the occasional freshly filmed insert where he obviously couldn’t find what he wanted, Davies narrates his elegy to this vanished Eden of back-to-back houses, women in curlers and pans of Scouse on the hob. He’s got a fruity voice, one that’s done a bit of drinking down the decades, sepulchral you could say. Fans of Davies’s semi-autobiographical dramas such as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes will find Of Time and the City’s themes familiar – the bustle and purpose of his city, the pride, the thrift, and old fashioned values from an age of industrial production, manual labour and hard knocks. Like the best British documentarians – Ray Gosling or Jonathan Meades, for example – Davies does it his way, makes few concessions to popular taste or how the film is going to play in Utah. You either like it or lump it. Hence the TS Eliot and James Joyce, the mix of Mahler, Ewan McColl and Peggy Lee, all stuff that clearly has enormous resonance for Davies, though possibly for no one else.
At some level Of Time and the City isn’t really about Liverpool at all; it’s about Davies, this being the crypto-autobiography of a young working-class Catholic lad who used to go and watch the wrestling, got into film-making, moved away, grew up gay, became an atheist and an anti-monarchist. This highly personal take puts it in a select group of films about hometowns made by gifted film-makers. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg works in a similar highly personal way, though Davies’s intent is more chronological, cycling through the decades, the film stock changing from black and white to colour as he gets into more recent decades.
He laments that by the 1960s, Liverpool has started to fall behind the rest of the country – “We hoped for paradise; we got the anus mundi,” says Davies, who is around the same age as the Beatles but has little time for the Fab Four – “a firm of provincial solicitors” is how he bitchily describes John, Paul, George and Ringo – and he doesn’t dwell on football too long either.
By the final scenes, Davies is giving us shots of the young Liverpudlians of today, mischievously showing them as bewildered, looking around themselves, inquisitive, apprehensive, hopeful. It’s been a brilliant welding of the personal and the civic, a Proustian reverie aching with something Scousers are notorious for – sentimentality. You can take the man out of Liverpool…



Why Watch?


  • A one-of-a-kind documentary
  • Davies’s brilliant editing
  • The eclectic soundtrack
  • One of the best portraits of a city ever made


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Of Time and the City– Watch it now at Amazon





The King’s Speech

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 June


Wallis Simpson born, 1896

On this day in 1896, Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was only a few months old and she was supported by various members of her father’s family, until her mother remarried, though it was her father’s brother who paid for her to attend Maryland’s most expensive girls school. Bright, ambitious and always well dressed, Wallis was popular and in 1916 she married a US Navy aviator, Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. An alcoholic and womaniser, her husband and Wallis had an on-off relationship with Wallis also having affairs. In December 1927 they divorced. Wallis then married Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive, lost all her own money in the Wall Street Crash, but continued to be comfortable, thanks to her husband’s wealth. In 1931 she met Thelma, Lady Furness, who was the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne. As her husband’s money also started running out, Wallis was also becoming closer to the Prince and, in 1934 while Lady Furness was in New York, she took over her role as unofficial royal concubine. In 1936, the king, George V died and Edward became King Edward VIII. His relationship to the divorced Wallis (on the way to her second divorce when Prince Edward became king) caused a constitutional crisis – as head of the Church of England Edward could not marry a divorcee. Under pressure, Wallis agreed to give up the King. But the King wouldn’t give up her and abdicated his crown rather than not be with, in the slightly shocking words he used in his radio speech to the nation, “the woman I love”. Wallis and Edward married a month later, in June 1937, though were ostracised by the Royal Family. Becoming the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple moved around Europe, where they were constantly suspected of being Nazi sympathisers, before Edward was made the governor of the Bahamas for the duration of the war. Where they were again suspected of being Nazi sympathisers, or even spies. After the war they returned to France, where they lived for the rest of their lives. The Duke died in 1972, Wallis in 1986.




The King’s Speech (2010, dir: Tom Hooper)

In many ways a small and average film, The King’s Speech is lifted into another realm by its looks and its performances. The story of the man who wouldn’t be king, but who is suddenly thrust into the role by the hasty abdication of his brother, Edward VII, it’s a triumph-against-adversity tale of a stuttering king and also a tentative bromance – his relationship with the speech therapist preparing him for (jeopardy alert) the king’s big speech. These tentpoles in place, let’s take a squint at the look of the thing. Shot not in the usual sepia tones used for stories set in the past, but in bright rich colour, it also makes much of the new technology that was around at the time. In particular there’s a fetishisation of radio equipment, microphones, dials and switches. The 1930s, we see, are a staging post between the old and the modern. These people are more like us than we know.
As for the cast, Colin Firth is exquisite as the new king, Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen is a fiery ball of tenacity wrapped in fluff, a fierce terrier you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of. But it’s Geoffrey Rush who should win the plaudits, as the speech therapist whose profession requires him to establish a doctor/patient relationship, but whose bluff Australian character tends more towards the matey. His attempts to subvert or otherwise get around royal protocol are what give the film a lot of its entertainment value. Rush’s performance as a whole is majestic (if that isn’t the wrong word), so many tiny tilts of the head conveying so much withheld feeling and knowledge. Fellow Aussie Guy Pearce really isn’t bad either, as the possibly gay, certainly effete Prince Edward, a dim, self-centred, pussywhipped hedonist with few redeeming features.
Like The Queen, made four years before, The King’s Speech is unashamedly royalist. How bloody marvellous they are, these people – decent paragons of middle class values (playing with the kids before bed), humble, thrifty and so on. The film chimes entirely with our new conservative puritan age – reassuring, deferential, aspirational, apolitical, cosy. Tom Hooper’s camera catches it all with a slightly impressionistic brush but he’s not afraid to use the camera to express emotion when it’s needed – angular rooms standing in for exposition of spiky mood. Most of all Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler are to be praised for their decision to do it straight – storytelling this bold and clear isn’t anywhere near as easy as it looks.



Why Watch?


  • Four Oscars, including Best Picture
  • A cast of real depth, including Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle and Derek Jacobi
  • Geoffrey Rush – Oscar nominated but losing to Christian Bale (for The Fighter)
  • Eve Stewart’s smart production design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The King’s Speech – Watch it now at Amazon






Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



18 June


The battle of Waterloo, 1815

On this day in 1815, the battle of Waterloo was fought, in what is now Belgium. On one side was a French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, on the other the forces of the Seventh Coalition – Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK – but most notably Prussia and the UK, under the command of the Duke of Wellington. The battle marks the end of Napoleon’s adventure in Europe, which had seen him expand the natural borders of France into Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany, conquer and rule another set of nations around that central core (Spain, Naples, parts of Poland), and then finally strike alliances with the remaining powers in Europe (Prussia, Austria, Russia). He had abolished the Holy Roman Empire, swept away the remnants of the feudal system (which made him very popular with some people, not with others), standardised weights and measures, and expanded the libertarian aspects of the French Revolution across Europe. Back from initial exile on the isle of Elba, Napoleon had been fighting and winning a series of small battles against the Prussians and British in the previous few days as he drove towards Paris. Waterloo was the latest of them.

It didn’t last long – Napoleon had 69,000 men and attacked Wellington’s forces at noon. Wellington’s forces (67,000 men) stood firm. In the evening 48,00  Prussians arrived and broke through Napoleon’s right flank; Wellington seized the moment and thrust forward, scattering Napoleon’s forces as the went. The coalition troops continued their march on to Paris, where they restored King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Napoleon fled, originally intending to sail to the United States, but ended up surrendering himself to a British captain.




Napoléon (1927, dir: Abel Gance)

Abel Gance’s silent 1927 biopic about the life of one of France’s most famous sons stood, in the opinion of the New York Times in 1927, no chance of holding a candle to the man himself – “No camera is large enough to show so gigantic a figure without distorting the perspective, no lens exists with focus deep enough etc etc”. The original review continues in this manner for a while but does eventually point out that this does not mean the film is a failure. In fact James Graham’s report from the premiere in Paris heaps praise on director Abel Gance, his poetic vision, his artistry, his technical command, his avoidance of melodrama (for the most part), summing up with the verdict that the film is “a triumph of motion picture art”. Which is all very well, but had Mr Graham seen Gravity? In other words, does Gance’s Napoléon stand up today? The answer depends on the version you watch. The truncated versions, some running only 75 minutes, are simply too short, and are little more than a series of poorly connected scenes from a life. But longer versions, which clock in at anywhere from 235 to 330 minutes (yes, over five hours) justify the position on Sight & Sound’s Top 250 Films list (in the 2012 poll it’s number 144, two ahead of The Wizard of Oz). It earns that place by virtue of its technical achievement alone – Gance effectively invents CinemaScope in Napoleon, yoking together three movie cameras to shoot wide triptychs at key points of the film. The key points being the battles, of course. The film follows Napoleon from boyhood throwing snowballs at his schoolboy tormentors, shows him reinvigorating the battered French army, then on to glory after glory, culminating in his Italian campaign of 1796. The focus is on the positive – this is Napoleon the spreader of revolutionary values through Europe, not the despot who set himself up as emperor and starts aping the regimes he has just toppled. But Napoleon is maybe best seen as a prime exhibit in the case for silent film being its own art form, not some hobbled precursor to the talkies. Gance’s style is dynamic, thrusting, quick edits and fast camera movements combining to give the impression of energy and progress, the frequently tinted frames adding patriotic flag-waving scenes in red, white and blue (and sometimes all at the same time in the Polyvision sequences). As for Albert Dieudonné’s performance as Napoleon, it is as iconic as Mount Rushmore. God given is the translation of Dieudonné – you could say that about the whole film.



Why Watch?


  • An entirely iconic masterpiece
  • Gance’s innovations
  • Gance’s mastery of editing
  • Albert Dieudonné’s definitive performance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Napoleon  – at Amazon





The New World

Colin Farrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



20 May


Christopher Columbus dies, 1506

Start typing “Christopher” into Wikipedia and , after getting to “Christo…” it will auto-suggest Christopher Columbus. This man who died over 500 years ago, on this day in 1506, still has an immense hold over the imagination, though he wasn’t the first person to discover the New World, nor even the first European, as is commonly held, nor did he even accept that he had found it, preferring instead to believe that he had arrived in the East Indies (which is why he called the natives Indians). And he was an Italian, sailing under the auspices of the Spanish monarchy, his crackpot idea to sail west to the spice islands of the East Indies having been rejected by the Portuguese and the English. Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic, in search of the easterly approach to Japan, which he believed was about 3,700 km distant from the Canaries (it is around 12,500 miles) took him to the Bahamas in 1492, where he first made unwitting landfall in the New World. He made four voyages in total, between 1492 and 1503, to what we now call the West Indies, Central and South America. Having become a brutal Viceroy and Governor of the Indies after his first voyage, Columbus was removed from power in 1500, though his voyages of exploration continued. In 1503 be became stranded on Jamaica for an entire year, finally returning to Spain in November 1504. For the last two years of his life he lived in Valladolid, writing about his voyages and petitioning the Spanish monarchy for the money he believed was due to him, as per their prior arrangement. He died of a suspected Reiter’s Syndrome, a disease causing joint inflammation possibly provoked by food poisoning picked up on one of his expeditions.




The New World (2005, dir: Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s second film in four years, after the gigantic 20 year hiatus between 1978’s Days of Thunder and 1998, confirmed what had just been a suspicion when The Thin Red Line came out. That he’d lost it. At least it did if you were never quite signed up to the Malick project, which is a poetic rather than prosaic way of making movies. Telling the story of Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) and the first settlers of the New World, it first presents us with a litany of woe, as the newcomers catch diseases, start quarrelling, fighting, mutinying. Malick contrasts this with the life of the natives – who are beautiful, peaceful, wise, cultured, artistic, kindly, dressed in beautifully cut clothing finely decorated. And then Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) falls for one of the natives, a beautiful young woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) who looks like something out of a Calvin Klein perfume advertisement. Together these two then conduct one of the most languid courtships in cinematic history, which is largely wordless except for a voiceover by a mumbling Farrell, which Malick intersperses with shots of an impassive Captain Smith, then the sky, then a corn plant, birds flocking, water, trees, Pocahontas (for it is she, though she is never named), Captain Smith, water etc etc.
If you want the full Malick thing, in other words, this is it. The images are astonishing, it has to be said, but the message flirts with banality – the savages are noble, the newcomers are bad and nature is mighty. Malick also introduces his variation on the foundation myth of America, a country built on youth, as Christopher Plummer’s Captain Newport makes clear in his sinew-stiffening speech about a new generation for a new country. Malick even makes guarded claims that these early explorations and settlements are the beginning of the modern era of globalisation. And then he whisks Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) off to England – Smith having dropped out of the picture for reasons I’ll let the film elucidate – where there is more visual astonishment, in what are the best scenes of the film, Pocahontas being received as a queen in a foreign land and being dressed as such.
This is a strange film of sledgehammer subtlety, but what it does have is a naive honesty – Malick makes us see things as they might have been seen by people experiencing them for the first time, almost as an alien from outer space might (see The Thin Red Line for a war film through alien eyes). This is very unsettling. Instead of being absorbed by the story – the love between Smith and Pocahontas, for instance – Malick throws the focus onto the details of the things in front of our faces in a forceful way. So – her clothes look nice, those must be chamois leggings, oh, is that corn, they’ve got dogs in that stockade, I wonder if it smells of shit in there, oh look grass waving and so on. Depending on your point of view this is all very distracting, takes us out of the film we’re trying to immerse ourselves in, or it is the film itself.



Why Watch?


  • The debut of 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher
  • More fine work by DP Emmanuel Lubezki
  • The great cast includes Wes Studi, Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis
  • Malick’s unique view of the early colonisation of America


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The New World – at Amazon