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

 

DENIAL*** Grippingly Relevant


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THIS IS AN absorbing, highly relevant, brilliantly well-acted movie about Holocaust denial. The story (from her book, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”) pits the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz affecting a very credible Jewish American – Queens – accent) against Holocaust denier and bogus academic, David Irving. (Timothy Spall; as usual, outstanding… as a showy, media savvy, cunningly intelligent populist). It’s the battle between fact and the denial of fact (or, in Trump-speak, “alternative fact”).

Not too long ago (about fifteen years or so), Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books. His suit claimed that Lipstadt’s book, “Denying the Holocaust” (in which she called out Irving’s pro-Hitler, Holocaust denials as bogus academia, distorted history and anti Semitic lies) defamed his integrity and maliciously caused his loss of reputation. The suit was lodged in the U.K. courts, which unlike the USA courts, demand that the defendant (there not “innocent until proven guilty”) prove the plaintiff wrong. In other words, Lipstadt, who until then had refused to debate the actuality of the Holocaust with its deniers (As she notes in one of her lectures, “I also won’t debate that Elvis still lives”), was forced to prove Irving wrong…forced to prove that the Holocaust did actually exist.

The movie makes clear that the price of her failure to do so would open the door to Nazi sympathizers and deniers everywhere. To those survivors still alive and their families, it would be a tragedy.

English playwright and “Denial’s” writer, David Hare, no doubt overly cautious of not simply penning a polemic, lays out the story in classic courtroom drama style. He charts the twists and turns of the court case…in particular, he emphasizes the strategy developed by Lipstadt and Penguin’s two ferociously intelligent, arrogant, no-nonsense lawyers: solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott…the devious civil servant and Bond’s nemesis in “Spectre”) and his barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom WIlkinson). The strategy they chose, was to deny Irving the grandstanding oxygen of the public gallery by hearing the case in front of a judge, not a jury. And their tactic was to focus not on the actuality or not of the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of Lipstadt) but on the deliberateness of the deception; that Irving willfully lied and willfully distorted the facts of history to suit his own racist agenda.

The focus was on the nature of and the intent behind the act of denial.

Director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) and writer Hare build the movie as meticulously as they would a case. They balance the private dramas of a testy Lipstadt (whose relationship with her legal team was often fraught, distrusting, and confrontational ) and the arcane intricacies of the law.

Weisz is outstanding. She’s a very subtle actor; and even though her character is quite the showman (as you’d expect of many a great presenter), it’s in her almost imperceptible facial twitches where she manages to communicate such an array of emotions. For she is the story: the heartfelt sense of loss and agony, the fierce determination to resist and win, the public persona of defiance, the private tremble of doubt and anxiety…they belong both to the person and to the history she represents.

But in the end, though thoroughly enjoyable, the movie feels constrained within an imagined Proscenium. It remains too faithful to its historical topic. It’s about Holocaust denial, not the (so achingly immediate) pathology of denial. The alt-right have successfully managed to conflate facts with opinions; so the denial of fact is presented simply as a difference of opinion. Indeed, if it’s one conversation this movie has stimulated (OK, it’s only a conversation with myself) it’s the link between the denial of the Holocaust (essentially rooted in anti Semitism and, as the movie suggests, its close family: racism and misogyny) and the denial of Climate change (rooted in the fake -Fox-news campaigns of the profit threatened oil industry).

Certainly the role of denial, once the harmless tactic of cheating spouses (and now that we have a denier in chief running the US) has gained a new, and much more sinister twist. No wonder Irving, whose career was ruined after he lost his case, is back in the limelight. We’re thirty-three years after 1984…and doublespeak, never quite gone from political discourse is baaaaack with a vengeance.

It will simply not be denied

 

DENIAL. With: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott. Dir: Mick Jackson. Writer: David Hare. Cinematorgrpher: Haris Zambarloukos (“Eye in the Sky”)

 

MR. TURNER**** Portrait of the artist as an old man


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THE FIRST SCENE of Mike Leigh’s stunningly beautiful new movie, “Mr. Turner” presents us with a couple of Dutch women gossiping as they stroll along a twilight-gold dyke. The camera pulls back to reveal, in silhouette, the rotund shadow of Timothy Spall’s Turner sketching the scene. The movie has been in the works since the 1990’s and over the years, apparently, Leigh and his cinematographer, Dick Pope would, in the midst of shooting something else, be stilled by unexpected moments of Turner-esque light. As any artist would, they stored these moments of light somewhere in their cavernous memories so as to inform the visualization of the movie they eventually made ten years later.

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For in “Mr. Turner”, every frame is crafted and composed with a painterly precision. One of the most visually poignant of these is one in which Turner sights the Temeraire, subject of one of his more famous paintings, “the Fighting Temeraire”. In real life, the ship Turner would have seen, as it was being hauled away to Rotherhithe by tugs would have been a shell of its former self. No matter, here Leigh offers us a vision of the vessel, steaming into sight, hazy against an ethereal sunset. We are seeing what Turner would have seen. And throughout the movie, Leigh locates us within the observing eye of the artist to see the mid nineteenth century England as he would have seen it.

Leigh was keen to ensure that his bio-pic never descended into a docu-drama. There is no question that the artist he shows us lived a life almost entirely through the lens of the art he sketched. He is always sketching, always painting. But the more overt biographical details of Turner’s messy domestic arrangements, his near bankruptcy, his Messianic determination to outpaint the accepted masters – Poussin, Rembrandt, daVinci – the expected chronology of life events etc. are merely glanced at, never dwelt upon.

Instead what Leigh offers us is a Turner who is almost the antithesis of the reverential, passionate, light infused works we associate with the artist. The eloquence of his art (he left behind some 20,000 pieces) is contrasted by a growling, snorting, porcine man of very few words. Here is beauty produced by a man who saw himself as a gargoyle (thought Turner himself was very much the handsome, debonair gallant).

The movie offers us a series of such stark contrasts and dualities: Turner is insensitively indifferent to his wife and children, who he often does not even acknowledge as having, and yet is tender and loving with the mistress in whose arms he dies (Marion Bailey as Turner’s Margate landlady Mrs. Booth). He lives between the twin worlds of the salon with its elegance and the bordello with its dangers. His grunting inarticulateness is contrasted with the refined and nonsensical eloquence of Ruskin’s set. He is the working class cockney in an upper class world. He is both on jocular, camaraderie terms with his fellow artists (and great rival Constable) and he is set apart and slightly sneering of them. He is famous and celebrated and yet reviled and scorned. He is withdrawn and also a supreme showman (we see him pulling off a wonderful moment of artistic triumph at Varnishing Day – when artists are permitted to add last minute touches to their hanged works – at the Royal Academy). He is impecunious and yet indifferent to an offer of great wealth. He is the married Mr. Turner as well as the philandering Mr. Booth and Mr. Mallord. He is a benevolent employer and a serial abuser of his dim-witted maidservant.

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The one place he seems comfortable, where he can be master of his domain, is his studio. Leigh suggest not only that this is where it all comes together, but that Turner’s ability to focus only on the things that were important to him (and therefore to shut out anything else, no matter the consequences to others) is both what makes the man and what makes the art.

The movie therefore offer us its own fine duality as a means of suggesting the true pigments of the artist’s palette: of a rich, glowing, light-filled ‘artistic’ visual reality – the external world of the land and the sea- as well as the darker reality of his relationships and often sordid life. This an indoor, internal world of darker rooms and closed curtains (In a nice symbolic touch, patrons are shown into Turner’s darkened, unlit studio which bursts into light as the curtains are thrown back and the canvases – bearing light?- are revealed)

Timothy Spall is outstanding as Turner. He has very little dialogue to work with, and communicates his approbation, discomfiture, joy, sadness, passion and despair through nods, grunts, smirks and facial tics. If Turner only knew how to express his real self through the medium of paint, Spall channels Turner to enable us to see this self through the medium of his body language. It is a marvel to behold.

This meticulously realized movie is actually quite quiet and unassuming in the way it presents itself. In the hands of another, there’d be much more sturm und drang, more swelling music and histrionics. Perhaps for this reason, my initial response after the movie was that it all felt a bit flat. Here was a tale filled with so much inherent drama that somehow we saw the drama…but without the drama. And Mike Leigh was right. This is a movie that needs (with me anyway) to season overnight before its power soaks in. and when it does, it bears seeing again