Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger in Candy



Though there’s plenty of people who take drugs for entirely recreational purposes and never go to hell in any sort of handcart, there’s not much drama to be had from making movies about them. So instead drugs movies tend to be about people hitting the buffers. Candy does at least do it with a roster of good Australian actors, who are required to pull out most of the thespian organ stops as they make the familiar journey – from “we’re just fooling around” to “oops, someone’s dead”, calling in between at all the usual stations on the degradation line. And luckily for us, it’s Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish who brighten up the journey on what could be a potential misery mile. Ledger is again quietly unassumingly excellent as the greasy, smelly, flaky but under it all rather decent guy who introduces his girl to the world of mainlining heroin and then goes to hell with her. The girl is Abbie Cornish – mesmerising in Somersault, still compellingly watchable here and still in the taking-her-top-off phase of her career.

“When you can stop, you don’t want to. When you want to stop, you can’t,” is the key line, delivered by Geoffrey Rush in a blur-on as an old druggie habitué, but making enough of a mark that you wished he would stay. We’re still early on in the Heaven, Earth and Hell chapter headings given to the three-act structure, before Ledger’s Dan has gone from well-groomed and super cool suburban poet to lank loser; and Cornish’s Candy has ditched painting, learnt to steal and gone out on the game to earn enough money for a hit.

In its favour is that the film does manage these transitions very well – how does a nice girl who wouldn’t ordinarily sell her body for cash get talked into – and talks herself into – doing it? And on the other side it does take druggies to some extent at their own estimation of themselves – as doomed tragic heroes. Perhaps that’s the way you sell a film to a demographic who aren’t exactly the most eager and thirsty for any new experience, unless a high comes with it.

For the rest of us, we can remark on the way that Cornish has, since she came to movie-watchers’ attention in Cate Shortland’s Somersault, picked up a couple of Nicole Kidman tics (the eighth profile to camera, the half-downturned mouth), and that the way that she and Ledger invest these beautiful losers with such a belt of underdog likeability that you care for them, feel with them and hope against hope – because films generally aren’t made about people who take drugs and then stop – that they’re both going to be OK.



Candy – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006





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






Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd in Frida


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



31 January



Leon Trotsky exiled, 1929

On this day in 1929, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, aka Leon Trotsky, was exiled from the country he had helped create. A member of the victorious Bolsheviks in the revolution of 1917 (having earlier switched allegiance from the Mensheviks), Trotsky rose quickly through the party, proving himself decisively in the civil war against the Mensheviks in 1918. Ideologically he was loosely aligned with Lenin, believed in mass democracy, permanent revolution and internationalism and was opposed to the “socialism in one country” of Stalin. Trotsky found his ideas and those of the Left Opposition increasingly marginalised in the USSR and was also out-manoeuvred by the far wilier Stalin, who would make piecemeal alliances with whoever was most useful to him on the way to the top. Though one of the first members of the ruling Politburo, the head of the Red Army and Lenin’s heir presumptive, Trotsky was nudged aside when Lenin died in 1924, though he remained a public figure long after he had lost political force inside the leadership. By 1927 he had been formally removed from power. And in 1929 he was deported, heading first for Turkey, then France, then Norway, then finally Mexico, where he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in which he railed against the “degenerated workers’ state” run by an undemocratic bureaucracy which, he prophesied, would eventually be either overthrown by a political revolution or would turn into a capitalist class. In the light of 1989 and the rise of the oligarchs he seems to have been right on both accounts. On 20 August 1940, having survived an assassination attempt earlier in the year, Trotsky was attacked with an ice axe by a USSR agent. He died the next day.




Frida (2002, dir: Julie Taymor)

The role that Mexican Salma Hayek was probably born to play, that of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), she of the vivid paintings, the affairs with fellow artist Diego Rivera and exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the bisexuality, the drug abuse and the infamous unibrow. Director Julie Taymor finds a way of locking all that together without going too low on one knee, and without bogging down in too much detail, in a film that looks very much like a labour of love for Taymor, though it obviously was one for Hayek too – years of lobbying, wads of her own money. The casting is the thing in this one: Hayek not only looks the part, she’s also a Mexican and unafraid to speak her mind, like Kahlo. But gaze too upon Alfred Molina as Rivera, a big tousled bear of a man brimming over with life and optimism. Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Even Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. Reminding us that she’d been a roaring success with her counter-intuitive (masks, puppets) directing of The Lion King on Broadway, Taymor sprinkles a bit of magical realism here and there – such as when Kahlo has the terrible bus accident that broke her back, pelvis, ribs and collarbone and impaled her on an iron handrail, which pierced her womb. Some things don’t need spelling out too clearly. Cinema’s approach to the life of the artist is always a fraught affair. Why talk about the person at all if the art is the thing? And though the worked and reworked script does bog down in explication, seems hung up on the domestic arrangements of Kahlo and Rivera, and is shy of examining Kahlo’s motivations, Taymor makes up for it in the visuals. Why look for text when you can have image?



Why Watch?


  • The classic Salma Hayek role
  • Director Julie Taymor’s fabulous command of imagery
  • Imagine Madonna in the lead – it nearly happened
  • The under-rated Molina – another great performance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Frida – at Amazon





House on Haunted Hill

Geoffrey Rush in House on Haunted Hill



When you buy a Bentley – as you do – you’re not looking for a holographic dashboard, an in-car virtual chauffeur, or an ejector seat. You want walnut and leather everywhere. The same is true of some horror movies. House on Haunted Hill was originally directed in 1958 by William Castle, the man who fitted cinemas seats with buzzers, had skeletons drop from the ceiling. Castle was – in the best sense of the word, a horrible man. In 1958 wonderful Vincent Price was the star. In 1999 for this remake it’s the magnificent Geoffrey Rush – as a crazy millionaire called Price – complete with pencil moustache, cravat and lop-sided leer. The plot is familiar too. Some variously disposable young people attempt to stay all night in the spooky mansion, hoping to win $1 million if they do. They nearly all die. It’s a sleek, swishing and curiously well made film and apart from Rush’s character name being a nod to the original star there’s no irony, no Scream-style self-reference and, let’s be honest, no scares. But then House on Haunted Hill isn’t really a horror film – it’s a bespoke hand-tooled homage.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


House on Haunted Hill – at Amazon