DARKEST HOUR*** Shines no new light


ACCORDING TO THIS telling, Winston Churchill not only stood down the massed ranks of aristocrats and his own Tory party (ready to make a deal with Hitler at the drop of a hat), but he found his resolve thanks to a chance (and entirely fabricated) encounter with ‘ordinary’ people… who were prepared to fight to the last person. Darkest Hour condenses the drama of the war to a few critical weeks of crisis when Britain was facing a massacre at Dunkirk, had failed to secure the involvement of the Americans and the real threat of a German invasion was imminent.

It’s a superb piece of storytelling complemented by an outstanding piece of acting, all gloriously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). It leaves you cheering at the end and would be typical nationalistic jingoism if it weren’t essentially so very true.

The Churchill we’re introduced to is an insufferable alcoholic. He’s abusive, short tempered, eccentric and beholden to no party ideology and to no one, other than his stoic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). But he also has a clear sightedness and an understanding of the arc of history that, perhaps justified his boorish self-belief…his refusal to yield to anyone.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and his writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) seem to suggest that his (internal) enemies could see no further than Churchill the curmudgeonly, eccentric drunk. It was the other side of Churchill that won the war: Churchill the inspiring self-confident leader; the one who found the resolve and the conviction to rise to the occasion and face down the onrushing panzer divisions of the Third Reich.

Churchill not only found the resolve he needed, but the language of persuasion. As one of his thwarted opponents mutters after the “fight them on the beaches” speech, “Churchill has found his words and has sent them in to battle”. Wright threads the theme of language and persuasion throughout the narrative. Churchill’s eloquence and his way with words are, it is suggested, central to his thought process. He wrestles and tugs at language, with his stenographer, Elizabeth (Lily James), gamely following along, until he arrives at both verbal and intellectual precision.

The brilliance of Gary Oldman’s portrayal is that he exaggerates Churchill’s flat delivery just enough to make it dramatically compelling, even as he flits between his character’s two faces illustrating how the one energized the other. For it was in his drunk abrasiveness that Churchill seemed to underscore the resolve to win over his doubters and fill his people with the courage they would need to outlast the blitz.

The problem I had with the movie though is that it all felt a bit smug.

This was plucky Blighty ready to fight them on the beaches and in the fields; led by, let’s face it: God. In one farcical scene on the ‘tube’ where the ORDINARY PERSON is seen in direct contrast with Churchill’s feckless War Cabinet (the one resolved to die fighting against Nazism; the other ready to surrender), there’s even a Shakespeare-quoting Black man. (In real life, such an occurrence would probably have given Churchill, who had zero contact with the ordinary person let alone those of a darker hue, a heart attack).

Churchill and the war he led was modern Britain’s equivalent to Henry V. Anthony McCarten is a marvellous writer; but in a story deserving the complexity of Shakespeare, Darkest Hour offers us Churchill for Dummies instead.

Sadly, this, like Dunkirk, continues to be part of an eco-system of pop culture that feeds Britain’s inflated sense of identity: as the courageous self-subsistent island kingdom, who conquered the world (Who needs Europe?). This glorious version of self may have the ring of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” but it’s a sad fantasy that continues to nourish the country’s false sense of its post Brexit go-it-alone muscle.

And yet on the other hand, what Darkest Hour so startlingly reminds us of, is just how far the country has declined in this our present darkest hour: from Churchill’s (and Shakespeare’s) well wrought and eloquent exhortations to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” to Theresa May’s version of national motivation: “Brexit means Brexit”

 

DARKEST HOUR: Dir: Joe Wright. With: Gary Oldman, Lily James (Baby Driver), Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One). Writer: Anthony McCarten. Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast. Our Kind of Traitor)

 

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THE PARTY**** May the farce be with you


FINALLY, AFTER SO many pre-pubescent attempts at humor by Hollywood, here’s an intelligent, adult, very theatrical, well-acted and laugh-out loud farce.

The story centres around the small gathering (and it’s certainly no party) that comes together to celebrate the elevation of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) as a government minister and newly appointed shadow minister of health. And, as you’d expect from any self-respecting farce, there’s a loaded gun, a body and a – very British – knot of infidelities.

From the very beginning, we suspect that things aren’t quite as they seem: Janet, in the kitchen, is politely fending off an avalanche of congratulatory calls (from a phone she keeps in her bra), even as she whispers sweet nothings to her insistent lover. Within, in the living room, sitting slouched, centre-stage on a chair, is her slightly drunk, slightly catatonic husband, Bill (Timothy Spall). Between these poles of the gorgeous, well-appointed cheating wife and the sloppy, seedy-looking drunk husband, flit the guests. And what an odd collection they are: the lesbian lovers expecting triplets (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), the leftie best friend (Patricia Clarkson) with her German new-age partner spouting meaningless clichés (Bruno Gatz), and the coke-snorting, gun-toting banker (Cillian Murphy).

As their stories play out things slowly (inevitably) swing out of control. Chaos takes over, the catalyst for which, is a dramatic moment-stopping revelation.

Truth will out.

And with truth comes domestic violence, wild gun-play, burnt volevonts, infidelities unmasked and a near-death.

The cast are at the top of their form, particularly Kristin Scott Thomas who seems to delight in stripping away the sheen of her usual icy cool hauteur for a nastier, more atavistic core. Timothy Spall, whose every twitch speaks volumes, commands the screen, even though the totality of his script couldn’t be more than a paragraph’s worth of words; and Cillian Murphy, his character ever desperate to reassure himself that he’s a “winner”, is pitch perfect as the deranged, sweaty, self-obsessed picture of desperation.

The movie was written and directed by Sally Potter, an artist whose films (“Ginger and Rose”) have been consistently winning plaudits on the Independent Cinema award circuits. Maybe this one will move her up a notch or two of recognition.

It’s a delicate balance, this kind of comedy: the discussions about honesty and love, about democracy and governance; the overall appearance of normalcy and the genuine anger and fear on the part of the guests, all seem almost serious. It’s as though we’ve been invited to a genuine domestic drama, only to realize that we’ve been cleverly conned into a far from serious domestic farce. The clever trick is that everything is turned up just one notch extra (a nice touch at the beginning of the movie is when Bill turns up his record – and it is a record – one touch too high). As the move progresses, Potter turns up the ‘volume’ notch by excruciating notch. But the movie never slips into childish caricature. The characters remain –almost- real people…who have all slipped into a kind of – hilarious – nervous breakdown.

Perhaps it’s just an artist’s subtle sleight of hand. Perhaps this is no mere, lightweight, domestic farce. This is post-Brexit Britain, and the present government’s on-going, increasingly hilarious comedy routine.

A comedy of the absurd.

 

THE PARTY. Written/Dir: Sally Porter. With Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall. Cinematographer: Aleksei Podinov

 

Intelligent & Clever: IN THE HOUSE


Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas

“IN THE HOUSE” is an intelligent and cleverly gripping tale of obsession, voyeurism and creativity (which director Francois Ozon, who did the deductive “Swimming Pool”, would have us see as linked). Fabrice Luchini is Germain, who, like all the adults in the film is depressed and frustrated. He’s a teacher who, one day, sets his rowdy, generally uninterested class a project, to write about what they did that weekend. As he is reading out, sneeringly, to his wife (the ever outstanding Kristin Scott Thomas) excerpts of the expected rubbish his students hand in, he comes across a well-written story from Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a boy who sits silently at the back of the class.

Claude’s story tells of how, attracted by the middle class smell of the mother and the seemingly perfect bourgeois world of Rapha Artole, one of his classmates, he begins to insinuate himself into the life of the family. The short two page observation of what either actually happened or was fantasized as having happened, ends with the words, “To be continued”

Germaine and his wife Jeanne (Kristin) are gripped and, in order both to encourage a talented student and, like any reader of a tale, to find out what comes next, Germaine urges Claude to keep on writing. The boy becomes the Scheherazade to the Germaine’s, as his on-going story seduces them into its narrative spell, and like any good story, transports them away from their banal lives into the vicarious thrill of living through the lives of others – in this case, the lives of the Artole’s, Claude’s surrogate family/artistic creation.

We too follow, gripped by Claude’s evolving lust for Esther Artole (Emmanuelle Seigner as Rapha’s mother) which, as a manifestation of a sixteen year old boy’s obvious fantasy, may or may not have actually been consummated. Beyond this centerpiece of shape shifting creativity (as Germaine comments and offers suggestions, so does the story change) multiple other stories – layers of reality – emerge.

Jeanne’s story is of her failing art gallery (her major exhibition features pornographic blow up female nudes with the faces of dictators, symbolizing the dictatorship of sex, even as Claude begins his sexual conquest and as Jeanne questions her husband’s own sexuality) and may represent the failure of her own marriage.

Rapha Artoile Sr’s story hints at the immanence of his nervous breakdown, driven to distraction as he is, by an intrusive, disrespectful boss from China (paralleled in Jeanne’s gallery’s second major exhibition – featuring a pretentious Chinese artist).

Esther, Rapha’s wife is, like Germaine, an unfulfilled artist, but is initially made out, by Claude who we increasingly realize is an untrustworthy storyteller, to be simply a bored and vacuous housewife preoccupied with nothing grander than home improvement.

In other words, Claude presents us with one story, but through misdirection, we see multiple others.

“In the House” is at its heart therefore about how reality is observed and about how art enhances the acuity of our own powers of observation. For the centerpiece story (essentially the reality of a young man’s lust for an older woman) contains deeper truths despite itself, enabling us to observe and appreciate the less romanticized realities of the slowly destroying lives of the characters we meet in the film.

Only the French could give us a drama like this – wordily talking about art and its role in our lives, filled with existential angst and celebrating the beauty of women well past their Hollywood golden years.

MOVIES: The English Patient


f100engpat

I saw “The English patient” again recently and was delighted to rediscover how wonderful a movie it is. It’s a story set in (the deserts of) Egypt and Libya in the period just before and up to the end of World War II. It centers of the love affair between Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian map maker with the Royal Geographical Society and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who with her husband, Geoffrey (the perennially cuckolded) Colin Firth had joined the cartographers on one of their expeditions.

The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, to the now dying, broken-hearted Almasy who, having been shot down by Germans lies horribly burned and disfigured, in a British medical unit in Italy. He pretends to have lost his memory and (having been branded a German spy) conveniently cannot remember his name. He is just the –anonymous- English patient. Hana (Juliette Binoche), his French Canadian nurse, has taken pity on his agony from being moved around and sequesters them both in a deserted monastery even as her troop trundles onward to Florence. And it is there that this man without a face, without a name, without a memory, remembers and recounts the story of his love.

That Almasy is a cartographer is significant. His job is to map boundaries and locations; to circumscribe the perimeters of countries and yet he and Katherine share the impossible romance of living a borderless life – a pre-war romantic ideal that dies with the war. “We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers…” she writes in her diary as she lies dying in a cave where Almasy has left her to find help. “…we’re the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps, the names of powerful men…an earth without maps”

Is this a naïve fantasy or the reality of love? For really, the world is a world of maps; and the war breaks into this snug cocoon. Almasy’s foreign sounding name creates immediate suspicions and he is incarcerated by the English who label him Fritz the German. In order to rescue Katherine in her cave, he escapes and exchanges his maps – his borders – to the Germans for an aircraft. The Hungarian count who sees himself as a borderless mapmaker is branded German by the English and is finally shot down by the Germans who assume he’s English. It is the logic of the war: pick a side and kill the others.

But love will out; Minghella offers us a story that by juxtaposing the ugliness and brutality of the war with the sudden and unexpected flowering of love and passion, we are offered glimpses of the borderlessness of love in this world governed by borders. The idea is played out also with Hana, who has (literally) cloistered herself with Almasy in an attempt to escape from the horror of the death all around her (her lover and one of her best friends have suddenly been killed). But there, in the cloister with this dying man, she befriends a Sikh bomb expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews, of “Lost” fame) and an unexpected flame is kindled between the two of them.

We’re pointedly reminded of the racial/national/religious gulf between these two. She a white Christian French Canadian; he a black Sikh, turbaned Indian.  But their romance transcends these petty barriers (the same petty barriers at war with each other on the global stage). At one point, Kip eulogizes a friend of his who has suddenly been killed: “he never once asked me if I could spin the ball at cricket, the Karma Sutra…”

Minghella emphasizes the parallels in the two (essentially doomed) relationships. Almasy and Katheine fall in love in a cave (where she dies) in the presence of magical prehistoric drawings of people who seem to be swimming (there in the middle of the desert…talk about an image of borderlessness!). So too Kip and Hana fall in love in a darkened church where Kip swings Hana around from wall to wall to marvel at the Renaissance murals painted there. They flicker into life, as did the prehistoric paintings, as does their love. Iconic beauty and passions amidst the darkness of war.