Pretty pictures

Going to see lots of films at the moment, but too busy working to actually write about them. But hey, it’s Oscars run-up, so let me take this opportunity to catch up with three that have awards-season form. A Single Man is one of my favourite films of 2010 so far, a singular piece of work, based on a 1964 novel, set in 1962 just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Christopher Isherwood, which, despite being a key piece of gay lib lit, nobody I know seems to have read. (Perhaps you had to be there.) It’s an intrinsically gay film, in that it’s about a gay man who loses his gay lover and risks a gay affair, and even his one meaningful friendship with a woman is affected by his gayness. And yet, it’s not a gay film at all, it’s a film about grief, loss, love and lust that just happens to be about same-sex grief, loss, love and lust. I’m not spoiling anything to say that it begins with the news of the loss – a scene in which, after all these years of mucking about and narrowing his eyes, Colin Firth gets to act. With his face. This is not stage acting, this is screen acting; it’s all in the tiny nuances. These minutes are worth an Oscar – or a Bafta – on their own. The detail that makes the scene is that the family of Firth’s lover, who he’s been with for something like 14 years, don’t want him at the funeral. This stings, and reminds us that the world was very different in 1962, even if you were on a trendy Los Angeles college campus. Tom Ford is a fashion designer. I know this, even though I care nothing about fashion and have only heard of fashion designers. (I have heard of Alexander McQueen, and accept that he was clearly good at his job, but I don’t connect with him in the way that I might an actor or a writer.) I sort of don’t care what Tom Ford was, or is – can he direct? Well, he has directed Colin Firth to his first acting awards, and teases honest and full-blooded performances from Nicholas Hoult and Julianne Moore, so he’s doing something right. And A Single Man is an exquisite looking film, as you might expect. It is neat and tidy and tailored, but that’s because the main character is neat and tidy and tailored, a neatness and tidiness and tailoredness that masks the fact that he’s in bits. Some have accused the film of being cold and distant; I felt the opposite. It’s Mad Men-on-sea.

Hey, I thought Eddie Murphy had finished wearing fat suits and caricaturing black people! Ha ha. That is my little joke. Precious has been around for a while now, and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film, and if the trailer puts you off seeing it, you’re probably best off not seeing it – this is not for the socially squeamish. Based on another novel that nobody I know has read, it’s an unshowy film that moves at the sluggish, incidental pace of real life, with occasional bursts of action which, sadly for Precious herself, are usually bursts of rage or cruelty or pain. Again, some have accused the film of indulging in social and racial tourism, in that unless you live below the poverty line in an ethnic ghetto where a foot hovers constantly over your chances you are necessarily going to be viewing another world. But isn’t fiction all about taking us to other worlds? (The film is set in Harlem in 1987, although you’d hardly notice that it’s a period piece beyond the lack of cellphones.) This is a soul movie. It works like all the best soul music: it’s simple, it’s emotionally charged and it comes from here. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’nique deserve all the praise that’s being heaped upon them – especially Mo’nique, as she has to play the monster without turning this into a horror movie – but all the girls in Precious’s special education class are excellent, too. If it was all misery, it wouldn’t work, but it’s not. In the trailer, Paula Patton’s angelic teacher says, tearfully, “Your baby loves … I love you,” to a sobbing Precious, and it’s the Soul Moment – but you need to understand the context.

Well, I’ve never read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but I know people who have, mainly women, and they seem to greatly admire its tale of a 14-year-old girl raped and murdered in a small Pennsylvania town in 1973 who watches over her grieving family from a waystation between here and heaven. I am unmarried to the original text, so approached the film, directed by Peter Jackson, without prejudice. I thought it looked intriguing and would be a nice change from all his CGI stuff. Oh dear. He seems to have opted to fillet a rather bleak story and remodel it into a kids’ fairy tale. It’s a 12A, which is fine, so is A Single Man, and that’s for grown-ups. Saoirse Ronan, aged 14 when she filmed it, is a luminous presence, and does a pretty good American accent too, but she is neither here nor there in a film where two films are poured into the same jug and just swirl around but do not mix. One film is a kitchen sink drama about a girl being murdered by the local weirdo (Stanley Tucci with a comb-over, identified as the killer from the beginning, thus making any tension about his capture flimsy and uninvolving); the other is a gloopy, Yellow Submarine-style fantasy about the gap between heaven and earth, which, instead of some kind of terrifying limbo as it initially appears, quickly flowers into a kind of paradise with trees and grass and beaches and sunshine, where huge symbols crash into view – ooh, look, the model ships-in-bottles that the girl’s dad used to make as his hobby are now giant ships-in-giant bottles and they’re in the sea and they’re smashing against the rocks, subtly symbolising that all is not well in her father’s world and the fact that, oh, he’s smashing the bottles in real life. It’s like Terry Gilliams sneaked into the editing suite and inserted bits of one of his films into an episode of Waking The Dead. It’s surely significant of the film’s cowardice that there is no mention, not even a hint, that the girl has been raped in the film. The nature of her murder is also skirted around, but that’s not a problem, as she is dead. It’s as if the awkward sexual assault aspect would spoil Jackson’s film about the afterlife. Having her murdered is OK, but not raped as that’s a bit icky. So we have a film about a serious subject – death – that’s rendered ludicrous by wishful fantasy. Please tell me the book had a bit more heft and depth.

Now, back to work. Although I am on BBC News at 6.30 tonight, talking about the Baftas, so banging on about films and work collide.

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8 thoughts on “Pretty pictures

  1. Nope. 'The Lovely Bones' was a shallow, uninvolving read. One of those books you put down thinking 'what a swizz' and which (fortunately?) evaporates from your consciousness almost immediately. Like that Lionel Shriver book about snooker.

  2. Do you think it's at all likely either Colin Firth or Carey Mulligan will win at the Oscars? Me neither. And as for the ceremony, a distinct lack of Hollywood firepower really showed. It's the most unglamorous event of the year. It was like a sales conference. Jonathan Ross, by dint of being forced to rein it in, died on his arse. It was embarrassing and really boring. Everyone feels they must do their best RP too, which always makes me laugh. And while Vanessa Redgrave oozed grace and dignity, I had no clue what that speech was about. And as for that curtsey! You can't be a communist AND a royalist Vanessa!

  3. Agree with your appraisal of The Lovely Bones.I thought it was awful with so many plot holes (the bit when the killer manages to hoist a massive safe up a flight of steps and into his boot in double quick time yet needs the lenghty help of employee to drag it to the pit),poorly fleshed our characters and it jerked from cloying sentimentality to run of the mill pot boiler with little or no cohesion.The girl I was with enjoyed it but women will cry at anything won't they? There is no accounting for taste.Avoid.

  4. I hated The Lovely Bones (book) so much I threw it away sixty pages before the end. Sounds like I'd have the same response to the film. I'm quite interested in A Single Man, now you've assured me that Colin Firth gets to do more than pull 'that face'. He's been driving me mad for years with that.

  5. "So we have a film about a serious subject – death – that's rendered ludicrous by wishful fantasy."It strikes me that life's a bit a like that… so I can't see what it means. The film may be shallow; the book may be shallow; but there's nothing intrinsically shallow about wishful fantasy; and there's nothing deeper, weightier, or more meaningful about its opposite. Isn't it ultimately just wishful fantasy to believe that death is a serious subject? And how serious would your death seem if you found out after it that there's an afterlife?[Ow. When you're disappearing up your own arse, don't take a candle.]

  6. I can assure you the book isn't much better. I have a copy of the book and had to read up to about 20 pages of it before I remembered I'd read it before. (I have a habit of buying books and then buying more before I've got round to reading the first batch.)Even now I can't remember much about what happens and I've got the new Sarah Waters book to read instead so The Lovely Bones has gone back in the bookcase.Deb Holt

  7. I haven't read it, but Mrs. Swineshead has and she was unimpressed.Having said that, very little impresses her.Apparently the book has the same problem we all shared with the film – the killer is revealed from the outset and yet there is no real study of his character. Which is a cop out.

  8. Totally agree with your review for "A Single Man".I've started doing very short film reviews on twitter. My #10wordFilmReview for "A Single Man": Meditative, beautiful, moving study of love & loss. Firth magnificent.I hope Firth gets the Oscar, but then I'm seeing the Jeff Briges film next week so that may change!

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