Colonel Redl

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Colonel Redl




Colonel Redl is an adaptation of John Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me and charts the rise and fall of a soldier with opportunism where principles should be. It’s a sumptuous affair set in the dog days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and builds slowly towards a painfully frenzied climax, as did the previous collaboration between director István Szabó and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. And as in Mephisto we’re following a man of few scruples making his way from relative obscurity to the top of his tree – the secret service in this case. Redl was a real man, an officer in the espionage wing of the Austro-Hungarian army who sold his country’s war plans to Russia on the eve of the First World War, thereby condemning thousands of countrymen to their deaths. The Hungarian Szabó doesn’t set out to condemn a traitor. Instead he’s delineating the mindset of someone who doesn’t know who he is. Szabó claimed in interviews when the film first debuted that his reason for making the film was that identity was one of the key drivers of the modern psyche – Redl is ashamed of his homosexuality, his poor background, his ethnic outsiderdom. But Szabó must also have been thinking about identity closer to home – the ethnic fallout from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire was yet to produce the war in former Yugoslavia but the tensions were already there (and still are, all over the former empire).

After Mephisto, made four years earlier, Brandauer had seemed set for international superstardom. He’d turned up as the stooge husband to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s lovers in Out of Africa. And he was a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again. Between then and now he has regularly popped up in English language films, often playing the villain, but has seemed happier to work on a broader canvas in German-speaking countries. It’s our loss. Here, as in Mephisto, his performance is a thing of wonder. He conveys every turn of the coat by Redl with a subtle shift of demeanour. If Szabó has given Brandauer all the canvas an actor could want, Brandauer has responded by delivering a beautiful performance of sympathetic villainy – not a white cat in sight. Szabó’s film is undoubtedly a masterpiece and Brandauer is one of the key reasons why.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Colonel Redl – at Amazon





United 93

The "let's roll" moment from United 93



A reconstruction of what happened on 11 September 2001 to the fourth hijacked plane, which went down in Pennsylvania before getting to its target in Washington DC, probably the White House. It’s shot in a documentary-like shaky-cam style, has not a single recognisable face to hook onto and there’s a complete absence of heroic Hollywood dialogue. Writer/director Paul Greengrass lets events unfold in real time which, coupled with the knowledge of how things pan out, has the effect of making every otherwise mundane detail – stewardesses sharing a joke, businessmen working on their laptops – unbearably poignant. As we have already seen in The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass is a master of dramatic irony to rival Hitchcock, setting up tension by vouchsafing something to the audience that the poor saps we’re watching are completely ignorant of. It’s rarely been worked to such grim and brilliant effect as it is in United 93. And as the frightened passengers summon up the courage to storm the cockpit and take back control of the plane, we’re utterly with them, every doomed step of the way.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


United 93 – at Amazon



The 13th Warrior

Antonio Banderas



A real proper old-fashioned Sunday afternoon film – epic in intention, ludicrous in execution. Considered to be unwatchable when it was test-screened, it was partially recast, rescored and reshot – by Michael Crichton, writer of the original book, who took over from John McTiernan, his Die Hard and Predator experience counting, apparently, for nothing. Crichton’s intervention doesn’t save it. Perhaps nothing could. Perhaps it was jinxed by the presence of Omar Sharif, an adornment of so many terrible films of a similar sort in days of yore. Or by his Nineties successor, Antonio Banderas. It’s an adaptation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf and Banderas plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, a Muslim banished to the Nordic wastes for flashing his kohl-rimmed eyes at the wrong woman. Having been received by the oafish, drunken Vikings, he learns their language in a trice and is soon taking part in raiding parties, pulling on his sandals and strapping on chainmail with the best of them. Eventually this palls and so everyone heads off on a dragon-killing quest. Ahmed’s new chums, a sort of multinational Norse eleven – with guest turns from familiar Scottish and Irish bit-players – are all manly men and immensely likeable. The film is too, at some level, and has the sort of disregard for historical accuracy that we expect, and even demand, from Hollywood. The sword-on-sword action is probably McTiernan’s rather than Crichton’s work but neither director seems to have had much luck getting a performance from Banderas, who does little more than stand around looking moody. As for Sharif, he hated the film so much he threatened to give up acting, until wiser counsel (probably his accountant) prevailed. Does this not sound unmissable?

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The  13th Warrior – at Amazon







Macki Wea and Matthieu Kassovitz in Rebellion



This ambitious and almost entirely successful drama sees Mathieu Kassovitz, the director of La Haine, back in France and back on form after a less than stellar time in Hollywood churning out studio cack such as Gothika and Babylon AD.

It tells the true story of a small kerfuffle in 1988 in New Caledonia, a far-flung outpost of France, and follows a crack GIGN team – a SWAT team with brains – led by Captain Philippe Legorjus (Kassovitz) as they seek to restore order after a breakaway group of separatists seize a group of gendarmes and hold them hostage in a cave in a remote part of the island.

Because of the way France organises the administration of what other countries would call colonies, New Caledonia in 1988 functioned as an integral part of the French Republic. So, as Legorjus reminds his unit en route for the Pacific, the people they are dealing with might be dark of skin and might have worn penis gourds a couple of generations ago. But they are French. Liberté, égalité and fraternité are their due just as they are any Parisian’s.

That’s the theory, at any rate. Complicating Legorjus’s humane, principled, softly-softly approach is the situation back home, where presidential elections are underway and the incumbent left-wing President Mitterand is being harried by his right wing Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, with the remote island increasingly becoming the focus of a dick-measuring contest between the two.

In scene after scene we see Kassovitz teasing his way towards the rebels, via village elders, splinter groups, a local minister, intent on being the honest broker who will defuse the situation. At the same time in face-to-face meetings with local officials, off-the-record conversations with journalists, phone calls to moles within the Elysée Palace, he’s also picking his way through layers of sabre-rattling military, double-dealing politicians, back towards the power brokers, hoping to head everybody off at the pass and avoid a bloody military escalation.

We’re watching scene after scene after scene of exposition, in other words, and it is remarkable that the director who, in Gothika, could not make the sight of Halle Berry going into a dark hole in the ground even faintly scary, manages to make all this blah about as gripping as it could be.

That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional dangle over the pit of ennui. This is a long film and it does feel it. Kassovitz’s decision to keep faith with his source material – the real Legorjus’s book, La Morale et L’Action – is against him at times, complexity and length not always being the friends of drama.

Realising this, the director works to keep up interest, favouring brisk no-nonsense scenes, money shots of military hardware, and long stretches of dialogue delivered in “napalm in the morning” style. There’s even, just occasionally, a bit of Willard voiceover.

If Kassovitz is winking towards Coppola I don’t think he’s attempting his own Apocalypse Now – Rebellion is far more about the tension between soldiers and politicians, action and negotiation, and is at its best on the exploitable imperfection of democracy; how a baying media at election time can encourage a politician towards sacrificing principle or even human life.

Kassovitz doesn’t only direct, he’s also by a very long way the lead actor here, in almost every scene and never less than entirely believable as the lean, tough, principled military man who’s seen it all and learnt a bit of humanity on the way.

Cinematographically, Marc Koninckx is as adept at showing us military men winding up the war machine as he is in delivering aerial shots of the island that show it as a long sliver of beauty in an azure sea. He’s equally at home on the laidback local lifestyle of New Caledonia (the film is actually shot in Tahiti) as he is at depictions of the fog of war.

Klaus Badelt’s spare soundtrack is also worth a mention. Particularly in the film’s early stages when it seems to consist of sounds like a battleship being hit by a tree trunk, all overlaid with the rat-tat-tatting of snare drums – militaristic and full of foreboding – it guides us into the action as surely as the screenplay.

What’s perhaps most unusual of all about this film is that Kassovitz takes us into a war zone and then doesn’t give us a war film. That’s peculiar, audacious. It’s nice to have him back.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


 Rebellion – at Amazon




The Leopard

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Visconti’s masterpiece is one of the best examples of the period epic ever made, a film that makes Merchant/Ivory look like kids messing about with the dressing-up box. It tells of the arrival of democracy in Italy and the decline of the fine old aristocratic way of life, as seen through the eyes of the enigmatic head of an ancient Sicilian family. The shock of this Italian-language movie is the person playing that central role, a mutton-chopped Burt Lancaster, the actor who started life as a circus acrobat. Why was a man more associated with horses and the high wire, a man so often smeared in diesel, playing an aristocrat and standing on a set with Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon and Paolo Stoppa? The answer is a grubby one – 20th Century Fox would only bankroll the film if an American star were in it. And, having paid for it, they also felt free to redub and re-edit it, ruining it in the process. Here, back in Italian and at almost full length, its brilliance is restored. And no one in it is better than Lancaster, the Leopard himself – lithe, powerful, elegant as he contemplates the possibility/necessity of changing his spots. “My best work” is how he described it. It’s Visconti’s too.

© Steve Morrissey 2007


The Leopard – at Amazon



Come and See

Aleksei Kravchenko in Come and See




Best Of lists are designed to infuriate, obviously, to provoke debate. But even so, it seems beyond the realms of the credible that Elem Klimov’s Come and See only made it to number 71 when UK television’s Channel 4 ran a Best War Movies Ever poll a few years ago, while Ridley Scott’s fart in a biscuit tin, Black Hawk Down, sat happy at number 9. The 1985 Russian film is the best film about the Russian experience of the Second World War, one of a handful of real contenders for the best war film ever made. Following a tender 14-year-old (Aleksei Kravchenko) as he is first pressganged into joining a ragtag militia fighting the ruthless Nazis in Byelorussia, it follows a similar arc to Apocalypse Now – a journey into a heart of darkness, through scenes of increasing horror. But whereas Coppola’s film builds towards a Technicolor, operatic, hallucinogenic finale, with Klimov a more realistic end is the goal. In Come and See the dirt is not applied with a make-up artist’s brush and the bullets whistling by the terrified youngster’s head are often real. I remember seeing this shortly after it came out and coming out of the cinema filled with a mixture of shock and awe, to borrow a phrase from a later conflict. Klimov died in 2003 and never made another film, declaring that he’d “lost interest” in film-making. Could he, in any case, have topped this masterpiece?

© Steve Morrissey 2007


Come and See – at Amazon