Blithe Spirit

Leslie Mann, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench

 

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” run the lines in Shelley’s poem To a Skylark. And though there’s plenty of spirit in 2020’s remake of a 1945 film often considered a classic, this bird resolutely fails to take wing.

The basic plot remains the same as the original film (and original play): Charles and Ruth Condomine are a rich couple living in elegant boredom out in the English countryside. He’s a writer struggling with his latest novel. So he gets in a bogus spiritualist, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance, which waggish Charles will use as background material in his book.

The seance goes oddly right, or wrong. When Madame Arcati asks “Is there anybody there?” a spirit actually appears from the afterlife. It is Charles’s first wife Elvira. And she refuses to go back to wherever she came from. And that’s it: the rest of the film is taken up with much farcical to-ing and fro-ing and a lot of friction between Charles and the two Mrs Condomines, one of which only he can see.

Arch wit of a veddy Noel Coward sort was the prevailing tone of the 1945 original. That’s been replaced by kitsch, reflected in the different takes on the character of Madame Arcati. This one is a fraud and knows it. In the original everyone concerned thought Madame Arcati was bogus but she herself was entirely in earnest about her gift, her calling.

Noel Coward’s original play remains largely intact in the central section set in the Condomines’ elegant house, but early and late scenes try to filmify things a bit – we first meet Madame Arcati at a disastrous West End performance, and towards the end the action shifts to Hollywood, where Charles’s novel is being turned into a movie starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. The name Cecil B DeMille is also mentioned.

It’s a brave departure, but the changes up front mean junking some of the best writing in the original – the rapier repartee of Charles and Ruth in the opening moments of the 1945 original film. The later additions are just creative noodling.

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Charles. Obviously Stevens has done things other than Downton, but it’s an apt descriptor here because there’s more than a touch of Downton in the upstairs/downstairs gentility (Coward’s fault) and the TV-ish visuals (not Coward’s fault). Director Edward Hall is a Downton alum.

 

Madame Arcati conducts the seance
“Is there anybody there?”

 

Judi Dench as Madame Arcati realises wisely that she can’t match the scattergun brilliance of Margaret Rutherford’s gangnam physicality and instead relies on vocal inflection for laughs. Sadly, Rutherford did that too. Dench, always brilliantly herself, is able to squeeze comedy out of lines that are not intentionally funny, but even so, glimpsing Rutherford in the rearview mirror, Dench occasionally tips a hat (throws in the towel?) with line readings echoing the turkey gobble of the old Dame.

Isla Fisher is miscast as the second, very-much-alive Mrs C, her Aussie accent breaking through all over the place. She’s also badly served by a screenplay that’s made one real improvement on the original, which had a misogynistic streak a mile wide (two silly women fighting over Rex Harrison’s noble Charles, an obvious shit).

Leslie Mann reaps the rewards of the de-misogynifying (is that even a word?) – the first Mrs C turns out to be a smart operator who had a lot more to do with Charles’s success than he’s ever let on.

On the whole, though, the plot tweaks and the filmic locations at beginning and end don’t add much, and leech away much of the original film’s screwball energy.

No one comes out of it bathed in glory. Mann does best, Dench is acceptable, Stevens makes a fine cad but lacks Rex Harrison’s balancing charm, Fisher is a mistake.

The amazing white modernist house the Condomines live in was built in 1932 and is called Joldwynds. It’s the real deal. It also featured in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot once, and that’s about where this version of Blithe Spirit sits, as a good-looking, for the most part nicely made and solid piece of construction.

 

 

 

 

The original 1945 Blithe Spirit (restored)  – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Casino Royale

Eva Green and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

 

 

You only live twice, or so they say. Casino Royale is the old Bond song incarnate. Because we have been here before. Not titularly – though we have, in the 1967 spoof made by a gaggle of writers and directors (John Huston, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller among them) who must have been high. Tonally, I mean. After A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s last Bond and a bad performer at the box office, moves were made to zhuzh up the increasingly tired formula. In came Timothy Dalton, out went the eyebrow, and for a couple of films, which in retrospect, look better and better, there was a return to a badass Bond. But neither 1987’s The Living Daylights nor 1989’s License to Kill did very well at the box office either. Producer Cubby Broccoli panicked and out went not just Dalton but the grittier style. In came Brosnan and back came the eyebrow. Broccoli died shortly after, leaving his daughter and Michael G Wilson (who’d presided over the Dalton Bonds) to restart the process that Cubby had abandoned. By the mid-90s the time was right. Other directors were cannibalising 007 for their own big-budget actioners – James Cameron made True Lies, a Bond movie by any other name. While John Woo with Face/Off, Renny Harlin with The Long Kiss Goodnight, Tony Scott with Enemy of the State and Michael Bay with The Rock (starring Sean Connery) were clearly all at it too.

But though Brosnan’s Bond got dirtier during his four-film run – he grew a beard! – it’s taken till now to finally reboot properly. And so here we are, with the “blond Bond” – and what a gift to the publicity machine twittering fanboys are when someone takes their pacifier away. A reboot and a reset, Casino Royale puts Bond back in a tux and back at the gaming tables for a film that’s littered with slaughtered sacred cows – there is no pre-title stunt-filled breathtaker, instead a brutal, CCTV assassination by our new favourite Bond. There’s no sign of Q, and his “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir”, or of many of the usual gang of pantomime regulars. There’s a distinct lack of rumpy-pumpy, though Bond does get a dalliance with Eva Green, as uber-Bond girl Vesper Lynd. And 007 even seems also to be completely indifferent to the making of the perfect martini – when the estimable Daniel Craig is asked whether he’d like it shaken or stirred, he replies “Do I look like I give a damn?” Unwilling financially to match Bay or Cameron and their legions of CG technicians, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have decided instead to deliver a great spy thriller instead. The plot is bare-bones – on his very first mission, 007 must stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning at cards in a casino in Montenegro, because if he does… no idea… something to do with funding all the terrorist outfits in the world. Does it matter? Not really. Because the film is in fact more interesting watched as an exercise in franchise renewal – Bond slo-mo walking out of the waves à la Ursula Andress, Bond actually washing blood off himself, Bond apparently dying. As an actual thriller… it gets about four-fifths there before losing its way towards the end, as some old Bond tropes (moving the action to Venice, in this case, for little reason) re-assert themselves and that familiar “are we nearly there yet” feeling takes hold. That apart, it’s a great Bond movie, and Daniel Craig, scowling when he’s not running (even free-running), is a great 007. Welcome back.

 

Casino Royale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

 

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

 

 

26 August

 

Mother Teresa born, 1910

On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now in the Republic of Macedonia). Raised a Catholic, from an early age she was interested in the work of missionaries and by the age of 12 had decided to devote herself to the religious life. At 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto, became a missionary and never saw her mother or sister again. After a stint in Loreto Abbey, Ireland, where she learnt English, she went to India, arriving there in 1929, aged 19. Twenty five years later she became headmistress of the school she taught at in Calcutta. Increasing poverty, a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence in 1946 led her to believe that it was the alleviation of poverty, not the delivery of education, that was her true calling. In 1948 she moved into the slums of Calcutta, tending the sick, destitute and hungry. A small group of similarly minded women gathered around her and by 1950 she had received permission from the Vatican to start a mission to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” As the years went by, Mother Teresa (as she had become known) opened a hospice for the poor to die with dignity, a centre for the treatment of leprosy and a home for lost and abandoned children. Her Missionaries of Charity started to spread through India in the 1950s and internationally in the 1960s. Mother Teresa became internationally famous, travelling to war-torn Beirut in 1982 to rescue trapped children, to Chernobyl to visit radiation victims, to Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. After suffering a heart attack in 1983, contracting pneumonia in 1989, breaking her collar bone and picking up malaria in 1996, she died in 1997 of heart disease.

 

 

 

Philomena (2013, dir: Stephen Frears)

Philomena tells the story of two very different people. It’s a true story too. On the one hand we have a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who became a spin doctor for the Labour government before being bum-rushed out of that position (essentially by fellow journalists in one of the UK media’s regular moments of breathtaking hypocrisy). On the other is a retired Irish woman whose son, born out of wedlock, was taken off her by nuns when she was a slip of a girl. Sixsmith’s book on which this film is based tells the story of how the cynical hack first took on Philomena’s story, reluctantly (“human interest story is a euphemism for weak-minded human interest story,” says Martin to Philomena’s daughter, who he’s met at a party). Then it goes into the detail of the uneasy confessor/penitent relationship of biographer and subject, before finally describing their journey together to the US to find the by-now middle aged man. It’s a real mismatched buddies road movie of a story and would remain as generic as that sounds if it weren’t for the fact that Sixsmith wrote a poignant, self-deprecating book, and it’s been so well adapted to a screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Martin. And given Coogan’s well publicised battles with the British press, having him play one of its representatives would seem to guarantee an interesting portrait at the least. In fact Coogan plays Sixsmith as a nobber, the sort of guy who’s full of petty triumphs and little moments of self-aggrandisement. Opposite him is Judi Dench as Philomena, the dithery but inwardly independent Irish woman who’s familiar to anyone who has an Irish mother. So when Martin hires a car for them to do their preliminary scouting excursions, he gets a BMW, and is proud of its swankiness; to this party she brings some custard creams and a packet of Tunes cough sweets for the journey. When they check into a nice hotel, he’s all blasé; she’s phoning him from her room to ask “Martin, do you have a little chocolate on your pillow.” The film could survive perfectly well on the funny double act that these two do – and doesn’t it say so much about Dench that she can be 007’s boss one moment, and is wringing a laugh out of simple lines like “it’s fruit bread, Martin” the next?
“I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin…” she says later, as the film actually gets down to business and Philomena reveals the naiveté that led her to become pregnant as a young teenager, and then led her to accept the idea that her child should be taken from her. After a “fucking Catholics” by Martin, we’re off into darker territory and the destination of this film’s journey – the son, where he is now, the possible reunion, the explanations, tears and so on. I’m not going to reveal what actually happens, though plenty of reviews will, for reasons which are actually fairly understandable. Because though there is an emotional pay off at the end of the road this duo travel, first in Ireland and then in the USA, it’s the journey not the destination that is the joy of the film. Chalk and cheese (he wants to go to the Lincoln Memorial; she’d rather stay in the hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), with the obligatory “lessons learned on both sides” – but done properly.
Dench’s Irish accent drifts a touch, but it is an otherwise exquisite portrait of a resolutely fair, honest and optimistic woman, a perfect counter-balance to Coogan’s, his usual finger of Alan Partridge entirely appropriate here. I’d be happier without the pantomime evil nun Sister Hildegarde right at the end, but she does at least make the point that feelings run high on this issue, and that the nuns had a cogent worldview too, one in which “carnal incontinence” was something to be battled against. As for Stephen Frears’s direction, it’s a master class in old Hollywood storytelling – of Howard Hawks economy and lightness of touch. Invisible to the eye, all the hard work concealed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Steve Coogan script
  • A great Judi Dench performance
  • Manages to be funny and yet serious
  • Artful direction by Stephen Frears

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Philomena – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells

Judi Dench and Ian Holm

 

 

Fans of Eighties cult 1980s UK TV series The Beiderbecke Affair will know immediately what’s going on here. This ostensible “let’s put the band back together” drama is really just another opportunity for Alan Plater to resurrect the male/female comedy double act he brought to perfection back then with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn. Judi Dench and Ian Holm play the duelling duo this time out, she being the youngest member of a wartime “all-women” swing outfit, he being the drummer who had to cross-dress to keep the fiction alive. Sly old Plater also gets to indulge two other big passions. First, music of a jazzy, swingy sort – Basie and Ellington figure prominently. Second, slaughtering a sacred cow. Here he’s engaging with the boomer notion that sex began in 1963. Look, he says, forget The Beatles, Chuck Berry etc, the sexual big bang that rock’n’roll supposedly delivered actually happened in Britain during the second world war – when the national crisis trumped petty morality, the “hell, we could all be dead tomorrow” attitude wrote the licence and the blackout supplied the opportunity. It was, according to Plater’s screenplay, a sex and booze frenzy. Further joys of this bijou TV movie include getting to see actors doing things they aren’t associated with – Olympia Dukakis playing a trumpet. And Leslie Caron (yes, An American in Paris Leslie Caron) playing the bass. Grandma will love it, but broad church entertainment is what Plater’s all about, so there’s a good chance that the grandkids might too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells – at Amazon