Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

another_country

If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

Sympathy for Norman Bates: Peacock (Michael Lander, 2010)

peacock

When Inception hit in mid-2010, Cillian Murphy and Ellen Paige had already shared the screen a few months before in Peacock, a film with a far more modest budget. Peacock’s failings, however, don’t include lack of ambition. Its aim is no less than to revive one of cinema’s most famous characters: Norman Bates.

Murphy is John, an incredibly withdrawn man living in his dead mother’s house, doing his best to avoid speaking to anyone else in the small town of Peacock. Murphy is also Emma, the alternate personality who looks after John and follows a strict timetable in which they abdicate control of his body to each other. After a train derails while Emma is in the backyard, the townspeople meet her for the first time and assume she’s John’s wife. Emma decides she doesn’t want to stay confined any longer, and ventures out into the world. Of course, this has significant implications for John, including the likelihood that his terrible history will repeat itself.

Peacock expects the viewer to spend the film guessing at what exactly is going on with John and Emma. Some of it is obvious if you’ve twigged onto the Norman Bates similarities, but other matters are more ambiguous. Are John and Emma aware of each other’s existence? Which of them is stronger, and who needs who more? What was John’s mother’s role in his life? Most effectively, the story plays with the viewer’s expectations of which character should be more sympathetic.

This film is peopled with an unusual combination of familiar faces. Keith Carradine, in full charmer mode, is a local politician. Bill Pullman, sporting terrible hair, is John’s manipulative boss. Susan Sarandon is the head of a local women’s shelter, reaching out to Emma, who she sees as a downtrodden wife. Ellen Paige is a waitress with an unlikely connection to John, and she falls short in comparison to the other actors. Her accent is inconsistent, her stuttering unconvincing, and her whole demeanour inauthentic. Perhaps she was cast for her fairly androgynous features, an interesting face to put opposite Murphy, or perhaps for the one or two roles that she’s been coasting on for years.

Peacock has an oddball premise, but it’s the moments of dark weirdness that jar its believability. Through ellipses, silences, flashbacks, and repetition, it explores John and Emma’s lives. Its mysteries are intriguing, but when presented in this manner, certain elements of the story are difficult to accept. I would have preferred for the film to be either more straight-forward in its telling or less lurid in some of its plot points. As it is, the tone is uncomfortable and the whole film feels unbalanced.

None of these problems matter, however, with this lead actor. Murphy strongly delineates John and Emma, he all hunched shoulders and hostile fear, she quiet steeliness behind a demure demeanour. Excellent makeup is a help, but the inevitable scene where Murphy is playing one of these characters pretending to be the other is so masterfully done that it’s instantly clear what he’s doing. The film rests entirely on Murphy’s performance, and he makes its weak points tolerable. His commitment to pursuing challenging, unconventional roles no matter how far his star rises could not be more obvious in the contrast between Inception and Peacock.

Daring but dull: Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo García, 2011)

anobbs

Despite being centred around a complex character portrayed with restraint and sympathy by Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs is nothing short of a wasted opportunity. Set in 19th century Ireland, it is about the titular Nobbs, who was born a woman but has been living as a man for many years. Nobbs has had no one to support him and protect him, but has managed to avoid the vulnerabilities faced by women of the time. He lives a small, private, and lonely life, earning a living as a butler in a modest hotel. When he meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), a woman who not only passes as a man but has found a wife, Nobbs gets larger ambitions.

Nobbs’ tale is one worth telling, a fascinating twist on the butler who has let his selfhood disappear into his professional role. The way it’s told, however, is flawed. The movie gives very little sense that Nobbs and the other characters have existed before the opening frame. Well into the film, we hear Nobbs describe his past in a monologue, which gives Close a nice acting moment but is a clear strike against the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim. We don’t get an involving look at Nobbs’ earlier days, making him seem to have almost sprung into being all too conveniently just before meeting Hubert. By not showing much of Nobbs’ struggles, or establishing much of a status quo, it does little for the audience when his life is upturned.

As the inciting incident for this story, Nobbs meeting Hubert feels contrived. It’s a large coincidence that someone who uncovers Nobbs’ secret not only understands it but shares it. And yet, this premise is not an entirely bad choice. Characters who don’t fit into binaries of gender or sexuality, or both, are so often erased from history and in film that it’s worthwhile to see two of them. McTeer is also one of the best actors in the film, giving Hubert a gruff exterior but also a kind heart.

If Nobbs’ relationship with Jack is not approached well, but still manages to be interesting, the film’s other characters are less engaging. The woman Nobbs is fond of, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), has no redeeming aspects beyond being beautiful. It’s understandable that Joe (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) would pursue her, because he has little real respect for her or thought for the future, despite his plans of taking them both to America. However, it’s odd that even someone as socially inept as Nobbs could fail to see who she really is, especially when he’s risking so much. Meanwhile, Helen and Joe are barely tolerable whenever they’re onscreen; they may have been shaped by the same poverty that afflicts Nobbs, Hubert and so many others, but they’re a noxious pair.

Albert Nobbs had potential. I can’t help but feel, however, that it rests too much on the novelty of showing us Close and McTeer as Nobbs and Hubert. The story needed far more finesse to draw us into their world. The film manages to be moving, but that’s more a credit to these two actors than anything else.

Nicola Griffith – Ammonite

ammonite

When the Company colonised Grenchstom’s Planet, or Jeep, it was already inhabited by humans. Not only was their origin unknown, they were all women. Soon enough, a virus swept through the Company’s employees, killing all of the men and many of the women. To stop the virus from spreading, the Company keeps a ship in orbit, ready to destroy everything that lives on it, or tries to escape it. A government agency sends a representative to Jeep to determine if the Company is exploiting the planet’s ‘natives.’ This woman, Marghe Taishan, is also a test subject for a vaccine against the virus. She knew that this was a one way trip, no matter what. But she never anticipated how irrevocably Jeep would change her.

Griffith is respected as a writer of both science-fiction and crime stories concerned with gender and sexuality. First published in 1992, Ammonite is her first novel, and a winner of Lambda and Tiptree awards. It begins strongly, establishing several deeply intriguing mysteries about Jeep and its natives – principally, how they manage to reproduce. With a silent spectre hanging over the planet, and unknown dangers waiting on its surface, Marghe has many challenges to face. Her journey is disappointing in more ways than one, however.

Ammonite’s sense of tension quickly dissipates as it lets go of its hold on a focused plot. Marghe’s exploration of Jeep becomes less important than her inner growth. The link between these things seems natural but, unfortunately, it’s not often clear where Marghe is going and why. A sub-plot in which the colony’s commander, Hannah Danner, trys to keep the Company ship at bay almost revives the story, but again, this is lost as it becomes clear that months pass between the important developments. This is obviously necessary to make Marghe and Danner cross paths at certain times, but when little actually happens after Danner passes the supposed point of no return, it’s the death knell for the story’s sense of urgency.

Griffith is primarily concerned with a character study, and creating an evocative world. It’s just not an exciting story, though, and when it eventually does answer some of its mysteries, the reader may feel even more strongly that this isn’t the type of story they were expecting. They’re not bad answers, just not entirely satisfying. And the novel is totally undermined by the fact that Marghe just happens to be the ideal person to discover certain things about the natives – even though no one could have anticipated this.

Strangely, the off-worlders don’t discuss or dwell on the fact that Jeep is populated entirely by women. Perhaps Griffith is trying to make it clear that women are people first and foremost. However, Jeep is so different to what the off-world characters are used to that it’s surely worth having a conversation about! Beyond being common sense, this would tell us more about some of the social norms that the human race has in this future, and it would also tell us more about the characters. How do they feel about the idea of never seeing another man ever again? Is this the reason (never revealed) why some of the characters want to escape from Jeep, no matter the cost?

Jeep does feel like a detailed, interesting world. Griffith often uses striking descriptions, particularly of the planet’s sky. Sometimes it is full of clouds that are “low and rounded, as featureless as a basket of eggs,” and sometimes it is “the grey yellow of lentil scum, a sky full of snow.” Skilful use of imagery and language is laudable, but not a story’s sole appeal for many readers (and certainly not this one). Learning about Jeep would be more enjoyable if Ammonite did not meander so much.

Though it has an engaging premise and succeeds in presenting a story where practically every character is female (a strong statement in and of itself), Ammonite is dissatisfying in regards to plot. This is made worse by the fact that many of the conflicts that it establishes are not fully resolved. Unless Griffith returns to Jeep, which seems unlikely given that twenty years have passed, this story will still feel incomplete.

A barely justified re-telling: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

ttss

After reading John Le Carre’s novel, I have more admiration for Tomas Alfredson’s film as an adaptation. It’s remarkably compressed, yes, but not in a slavish and workmanlike fashion, as in, say, the Harry Potter movies. The plot points and pieces of information have been carefully selected and rearranged (any less care with this novel would have been disastrous) for a two hour film. Meanwhile, the additions bring something new to the source and it’s all contained within a consistent style and tone. But is all of this enough to justify telling this story again, and in this medium?

Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor have made skillful changes in their screenplay. Singapore becomes Istanbul. An action scene described near the end of the novel is reworked to open the film, reduced to a smaller scale that belies the many events that have brought it about and that it will in turn begin. Peter Guillam is changed from a womanizer to a homosexual so that his ruined relationship can comment on the effect George’s job has had on his marriage to Ann, and on why it has been so easy for Bill to manipulate Jim. Ricky Tarr is also quite different; his romance is played up to bring some badly needed pathos to the story-here he doesn’t have a wife and child, while her husband is horribly abusive.

The Circus’ Christmas party, which appears three times during the film, is particularly clever. It mirrors Le Carre’s real experiences at M16, where the Christmas parties were, apparently, wild. It also brings many of the characters into one space and results in some of the most revealing moments. Smiley seeing Ann cheating on him while everyone sings the Russian anthem is perfect.

Despite all this thought and imagination, however, I wonder: is the final film strong enough to justify a new adaptation? It goes through the plot points, but it doesn’t manage to make them feel significant on a deeper level. The film’s silence and coldness conveys the isolation and dreariness of the spying profession, but it doesn’t fully communicate the underlying complexities or emotional life of the characters, which makes it hard to invest in.

Gary Oldman is praiseworthy for his incredible stillness and for the care he takes with those moments when his George Smiley becomes less contained, but within a film full of subtle music and brown hues and elusive information he seems simply blank. Why should we care about Smiley and his task? We can only make inferences about his inner life, and I wonder if Alfredson thinks he’s made it more clear than it actually is. When the director says on his commentary that Smiley is hurt by the idea that Alleline, Bland, Haydon or Easterhase could be traitors, I was surprised. I can accept that he is, but I just think there’s hardly a trace of that in the film and have trouble believing that I’m supposed to see it.

Mark Strong is also notable for his performance here. He shows everything necessary about Jim Prideaux, including the incredible sadness of him. Strong is helped, though, by the fact that it’s a character that benefits from having the important things left unsaid. The other actors in this film aren’t so lucky and Tom Hardy and Oldman are the only ones who get to make an impression in their meagrely parcelled out screentime.

Why give this amazing cast so little to work with? Why should we care who the mole is when we barely know who any of them are? Why try to retell a story that worked as a seven-part miniseries in a two hour film? It just winds up being complicated yet insubstantial, with the closing montage the only truly affecting sequence. If the original cut of this film really was three and a half hours, that makes this all the more disappointing. Perhaps it would have worked. I’m afraid, though, that it may have given us more moments like the two minute long deleted scene that consists entirely of Gary Oldman frying an egg. That one, along with Alfredson’s commentary remarks, leaves me questioning what the director was aiming for, and what he thinks he has achieved.

Sanitised and simplified: A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)

abm

I expected this to be intolerably insipid, but found it fairly inoffensive. The ‘beautiful heart’ scene is gag-worthy and the old age makeup is dreadful, but otherwise, it’s a passably bland film. It’s fun to see Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany together before Master and Commander, and Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris do good work. Harris can play just the kind of guy you don’t want lurking around in your mind. The car chase sequence has a nicely ironic dreamlike quality to it, and um… yeah. That’s about it.

Taking a glance at John Nash’s entry on Wikipedia, however, I’m disappointed by Howard’s entire approach to the film. It revolves around a twist, which seems like a forced method of keeping the audience engaged. It also grossly simplifies Nash’s life, particularly when it comes to issues of sexuality, race, and politics. In doing so, it avoids a goldmine of potential; for instance, Nash’s (El Salvadorean!) wife divorced him in 1963, and they didn‘t remarry for 38 years. How is that relationship not more interesting than what we’re shown here?

Not that A Beautiful Mind shouldn’t be dramatised; Apollo 13, another Howard film, did an excellent job of maintaining the facts of a historical event while presenting them in a filmic and entertaining way. But when the end product dodges the facts while being unable to appeal on its own merits, it’s unavoidably clear that it’s been made with an attempt to sanitise controversial areas as much as possible.

A Beautiful Mind not only fails to capture the complexity of Nash’s life, it doesn’t really try. I’d like to see a drier film about him, one that is less concerned with pleasing crowds and winning awards and simplifying, through over-visualising, his mental struggles. The car chase just isn’t that good.

Could there ever be a cast with more chemistry?: Peter’s Friends (Kenneth Branagh, 1992)

petersfriends

I’ve known about the plot of Peter’s Friends, twist and all, for years and years and had no interest in it. I didn’t know who its actors were, however, and as such have been oblivious to what it really is. Although written by Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman, it’s a film with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh and Tony Slattery that’s seemingly inextricable from their real lives and relationships.

Though it’s not a great work of art, I’m sure that anyone who’s a fan of these actors will enjoy it. You’ve got Stephen saying things like “fluff poppet” and “I’ve never made it a secret I’m a bit of a whoopsie.” You’ve got Hugh singing and playing instruments and being grave while dressed like he’s about to step into his role as Stuart Little’s dad. You’ve got Emma being batty and frightening Stephen by taking her clothes off. And you’ve got Tony being oversexed and giggly. Not to mention Kenneth being a hilarious drunk, Imelda Staunton being serious and silly, Phyllidia Law (Emma’s mother offscreen but not on) being understated and wise, Alphonsia Emmanuel making you wonder why her career didn’t take off, and Rita Rudner unafraid of taking on the most unsympathetic role.

The cast’s chemistry is plain to see, and Branagh takes advantage of it with quite a few long takes. With other actors it would probably be a slight film, and it is, but its stars have a convincing rapport that shines through the daffy stylistic conceits and the worst-of-the-80s soundtrack. It’s cosy enough to watch during the holiday season, yet its darker elements are genuinely sad. If all that doesn’t make you want to watch it, you really don’t need to.

A story made to be filmed: Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco, 1985)

kotsw

Kiss of the Spider Woman works better for me as a film than as a novel. I wasn’t keen on the novel and may have evaluated it unfairly, but I think the ways Manuel Puig chose to tell the story are actually more effective as a film. An unconventional film, mind you (particularly for the time), hence why this was independently made, and an unlikely success. The following successes of the stageplay and musical adaptations are proof of how effective this story is when it’s made visual.

Much of the book was presented through dialogue with no description at all: more pared down than a script even. The conversations are, unsurprisingly, more complete when they are being acted and seen. I’m impressed by how much Puig manages to convey entirely through dialogue-but in this case, I actually prefer to have less left to the imagination and see William Hurt and Raoul Julia expressing who the characters are and what they feel.

Some parts of the book involve Molina describing films that he’s seen. So, we get two films within a film, and the visualisation of Molina’s words works wonderfully onscreen. (I suspect that it is the key to the adaptations’ success.) Of the five films in the novel, we only see portions of two, which, again I prefer: there’s merit to the novel’s analyses of Molina’s films, some of which really exist, but I eventually got bored with the descriptions and skimmed through them. The two films are also selected with care and made more relevant to Molina’s situation.

Other portions of the book are told through official reports, which added to the feeling of detachment that I felt as I read. However, I didn’t feel detached from the film, which is full of emotion. The government doesn’t care one bit about Molina or Valentin, so of course, reading descriptions of events written by its employees is different to seeing our protagonists take their actions and make their choices.

When Molina makes his most significant decision in the book, in my half-hearted interpretation he surrenders himself to a fantasy, making himself into an imitation of the heroines he wishes to be. Onscreen, however, there’s something more real behind his choice, something vital. The two films he describes directly parallel the situation he and Valentin are in, and this strengthens, not lessens, the importance of his choice. Meanwhile, when Valentin says that one day the revolution will be won, Molina says, “Now who’s living in a fantasy?” The relationships between reality and fantasy are complicated, and love can exist within both.

Kindness in this film is as just as valid a resistance to oppression as political revolution. It’s just as dangerous, as revolutionaries are necessarily cruel. And each may be as ineffectual as the other. Molina’s greatest kindness to Valentin is teaching him that dreams are an ever-present saviour.