The Virginian Suicides

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Another enjoyable Wimbledon Tennis Championship draws to a close. Each year, as a racquet-ball widower, I draw upon the alternative entertainment on offer at the Curzon cinema – and by digital extension, Curzon Home Cinema – to help me through the fortnight of tennis. I’ve already reviewed The Midwife and A Man Called Ove; here’s the second rally, effected over two days. (As an embargo prevents me from reviewing Dunkirk until tomorrow, I feel I should honour the smaller films on offer.)

The “biggest” of the five films I’ve chalked up is The Beguiled, in the sense that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, who picked up an award at Cannes for the painstaking trouble she went to in remaking an ancient Clint Eastwood film for the Millennials. It’s certainly not the longest of the five pictures that entertained me over the weekend: at 94 minutes, it’s nine minutes shorter than Don Siegel’s 1971 version, but then, Coppola has chosen to excise the black slave character Hallie (Mae Mercer) for fear – I have assumed – of muddying the waters of the story for white liberal viewers. It really is gorgeous to look at. Coppola’s films tend to be. Shot in Louisiana, for Virginia (It was set in Mississippi in the original), it’s a fecund setting, all shafts of light and trailing fronds, a wall of natural beauty between the virginal/celibate, starched female inhabitants of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (two adult tutors, five remaining young ladies) and the outside world ie. the grim reality of the American Civil War, fetchingly hinted at by photogenic wisps of smoke in the far distance and tiny thrums of gunpowder igniting. Colin Farrell plays Clint’s Corporal John McBurney, the injured Union soldier taken in by the seminary to convalesce and to ruin the hormonal balance of the plantation house.

I don’t object to beauty for its own sake. Film is a visual medium, after all. But The Beguiled lacks freight. It is almost weightless. Even when Farrell’s sap rises, it’s as glimpsed and hinted-at as the plumes of war. He has one outburst – the one with the pet turtle if you saw Clint in 1971 – but even that’s cauterised. His fate will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original film on TV, as I did as a kid , or who saw this remake’s trailer, which gives the whole game away. It’s an oddly neutered version of the original film. When Nicole Kidman’s headmistress washes the war-filthy body of an unconscious Farrell (something the slave did in the first version), he looks like he’s already been pre-washed. When the ladies do what it’s clear they’re going to from the trailer, it’s all off-screen. A tale of violent coming-of-age in a violent era it may be, but the violence is not even worth mentioning on the BBFC classification card (only “infrequent strong sex” – if you insist!) It reminded me of Coppola’s delectably moody debut, The Virgin Suicides (which shares Kirsten Dunst with The Beguiled, now all grown up) – but that really was beguiling. It’s like she’s moved from art to home decorating.

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Get Out (released earlier in the year and out on DVD next week) is the polar opposite of The Beguiled in terms of squeamishness around race. Written and directed by feature debutant Jordan Peele – half of an acclaimed sketch double-act Key & Peele, yet to be exported here – this is a horror film about race. It comes on like a laser-guided post-Girls satire on the terror of white liberals around black people, with Chris (British export Daniel Kaluuya), the “black boyfriend” of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s taken to meet the rich parents in their cloistered suburban enclave, where the only black faces belong to “servants”, about whom Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Bradley Whitford) are wracked with progressive guilt. (Rose tells Chris she never told them he was black, and why, as a colourblind liberal, would she?) From the get-go, Get Out is different. On first inspection, though drawn as figures of fun, the parents aren’t racist. The subservience of their black maid, and the compliance of their black groundskeeper, give cause for concern, but Chris is as blindsided by his own desire not to be reactionary to the casual stereotyping. (One white guest at party of Mike Leigh awkwardness actually hints at a black man’s fabled sexual prowess, while a golf fan claims to be a huge fan of Tiger Woods, as if that absolves him.) Without giving the game away, things turn nasty, and disturbing, and you won’t see the twist coming, I swear. It’s funny and terrifying, and has so much to say, it ought not be this fleet of foot. But it is. Peele treads on toes without tripping up. One of the most original films of the year.

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We’ve already seen Elle Fanning in The Beguiled, and although I understand why her willowy presence is so fashionable right now, it’s a dangerous game to appear to be in everything. (I guess when you’re that thin you slot in easily.) She’s in 20th Century Women, a film you’d be certain from its title and its publicity was written and directed by a woman. It’s written and directed by Mike Mills, the one who isn’t in REM and who gave us the memorable Beginners, a film about men, a son and his gay dad. This is, inevitably, more female. Set in 1979 and appealingly soaked in punk and post-punk including Talking Heads, The Damned and The Clash. Fanning is a willowy occasional patron of Annette Bening’s free-for-all hippy boarding house in Santa Monica. Another tenant is Greta Gerwig’s pretentious cancer patient who discovers she has an “incompetent cervix” from her gynaecologist, dances to exorcise her anger, and, we’re told in voiceover, “saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” Bening had her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) late and feels she’s too old to meaningfully steer him to young adulthood, recruiting the other women in her orbit to do it in shifts. So, it’s a coming-of-age, like The Beguiled, except the women are in charge of a teenage boy, not a wounded man. Ironically, he seems old beyond his years, confused that Fanning rejects him since he got “horny”. (“We don’t have sex!” she assures an adult who finds them in bed together.) Billy Crudup, another tenant, also a carpenter who’s renovating the tumbledown hotel California, is too obsessed with wood to find any traction with the kid.

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Pregnancy, cancer, menstruation, feminism, all are fit subjects for his ad hoc home-education, and you sort of envy him, as he drowns in radical thinking. I felt that the reliance on narration in the recent Bryan Cranston film Wakefield eventually did for it (it was adapted from a New Yorker short story, much of it word for word). But in 20th Century Women, it suits the quirky, episodic, Wes Anderson-indebted style. When the narration mentions a particular brand of fertility medication, we see a rostrum shot of a single pill from above; when Gerwig talks of a photography project, we see the Polaroids in sequence. That kind of caper. Mills also slots in genuine photos from the period (of Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, that kind of caper), and it reminded me of the original of The Beguiled, which set its scene with genuine photos of the Civil War. There are no rules against it. I also loved Bening’s line about smoking: “You know, when I started, they weren’t bad for you.” Such economical signposting of age. She says, in narration, that she will die of lung cancer in 1999. It gives you quite a start: she’s suddenly omniscient. Bold writing, and worthy of its Oscar nomination.

In Get Out, Chris is lured into something unpleasant by psychotherapists. In 20th Century Women, everybody is either in therapy, or should be, or offers amateur psychoanalysis at the drop of a hat. If Get Out if post-Girls, this is pre-Girls. Jamie is artistically bullied by Black Flag fans – who spray-can his mother’s VW (“ART FAG”) – because he likes Talking Heads! (“The punk scene is very divisive,” observes Gerwig.) Jamie ends up telling his mom, “I’m dealing with everything right now. You’re dealing with nothing.”)

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My Cousin Rachel is the second big-screen adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel that’s actually a kind of “reverse Rebecca.” (Why wasn’t that on the posters?) Adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it’s as perfectly poised as The Beguiled, but its dramatic tableaux carry freight, emotional and narrative. Rachel Weisz was kind of born to play the title role, as she is also called Rachel, when Olive de Havilland wasn’t in the 1957 version. Sam Claflin in well cast from the neck up, in that he convinces as the orphaned heir of a wealthy cousin who inherits a Cornish estate and discovers another claimant on his inheritance, the titular cousin, half-Italian and suspected of foul play. When I say Claflin – who takes the role etched by Richard Burton in the 1957 one – is well cast from the neck up, I mean it literally. His face acting is first-rate – although when he has been a gullible fool throughout and finally admits, “I’ve been a fool”, one gentleman in the Curzon quietly exclaimed, “Yes, you have!” and other patrons laughed without malice. But at one point when, as in all costume dramas, he is forced by a sexist orthodoxy to take off his shirt, we see that his shoulders are not shoulder-shaped but triangular, as if perhaps this country fop was a bodybuilder. (In real life, like all young male actors, he presumably feels duty-bound to work out to within an inch of his life, and this often breaks the spell of costume drama. I mean there’s no way Ross Poldark got like that by cutting the grass.)

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Look at the above still. It’s a fabulous bit of location scouting in Devon, costume design, lighting, framing and cinematography. They have done Du Maurier proud.

I relish this Catholic spread of cinema. The most generic of all was Berlin Syndrome, a film I took to be German, as it’s set in Berlin, but turns out to be Australian, the third film of Cate Shortland, whose entire output I have seen without trying to. (She also made Somersault, set in Australia, and Lore, also set in Germany.) In it, an Aussie backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer) goes back to the flat of a German teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt); they sleep together; he goes off to work the next morning; she finds herself accidentally locked in his apartment. He gets home; she discovers that he has no intention of letting her out. (Imagine the torture of being a globe-trotting Australian traveller being locked into a flat with reinforced, acoustically soundproofed windows so no-one can hear you scream!) This film is a thriller, a chamber piece, and a very effective one. A touch of Rear Window about it, and a bit of hobbling that recalls Misery and The Beguiled.

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It’s not deep, but it is lyrically shot by Shortland, showing scenes of “normality” outside the flat that becomes Clare’s cell in slow motion, as if to underline the freedom of ordinary existence. There’s gore and terror, and more than a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – or is it? – to keep the otherwise claustrophobic story going. Andi is well played – he really is charming enough to convince girls back to his flat, and to keep his workmates in the staff room from suspecting (until he starts to unravel) – but it’s Palmer’s triumph. She is the victim, but does not play the victim. You’re willing her to get out.

The tennis is literally just finishing as I finish typing (Jamie Murray and Martina Hinglis are being interviewed after the doubles final). Five worthwhile films, two at the cinema, three at the laptop in coffee shops. If you’ve seen any of them, let me know what you thought.

Love film. Film love.

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The national health

In this week’s Telly Addict, I sign off on season three of Downton Abbey on ITV1; ask what kind of coup Secret State on C4 is; finally take my medicine with Getting On on BBC4; and sneak a look at a young person’s comedy that isn’t aimed at me, Some Girls, on BBC3. (We apologise for the late arrival this blog alert; I’ve been on a train from Manchester with what can only be described as intermittent wi-fi.)

Two feet in the past

There is a period drama theme to this week’s Telly Addict. Not my doing, really, but the overworked drama departments, whose current obsession with the past might well be due to a commissioner-led preference for the “theme park with safe rides” option, as persuasively discussed by Mark Lawson in, oh yes, the Guardian the other week. We catch up with BBC4’s Room At The Top (delayed by a mere 18 months due to rights issues); BBC1’s The Paradise; and Sky Atlantic’s Boardwalk Empire, back for its third season and as vital as ever. (Unless you don’t have Sky, in which case, it will be back for its third box set in the New Year.) Also, back in the real world, nods to Doctor Who and The Great British Bake Off, specifically, Cathryn and her old-fashioned, family-friendly exclamations while under teacake pressure.

Theatrical release

It was Baz Luhrmann who coined the phrase “red curtain cinema” to cover his loose trilogy Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. What he meant by it was film that embraced the theatre and revelled in the theatricality of performance, even when frozen in celluloid and thus robbed of that particular verité. Song, dance, heightened reality, a certain opulence, a sense of camp, grandeur and all-round stagey staging add to the effect, and as someone who saw Moulin Rouge in a huge, impersonal West End cinema in the immediate, overcast aftermath of 9/11 and found myself part of an ordinary paying audience cheering at the end, I can account for the best of the effect “red curtain” achieves.

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is part of that tradition. It wasn’t always meant to be this way – indeed, Wright’s last-minute decision to re-stage and shoot Tolstoy’s torrid aristo-romance in a theatre and to make that its narrative and visual advantage apparently drained the colour from screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s cheeks, and has rubbed some critics up the wrong way, too. Me? I found it not only bold and brave, but mostly thrilling. A gamble that paid off.

Historically, the novel was staged before it was filmed, in 1907, but its most famous adaptations have been for the screen – Greta Garbo in the 1935 version; the 1977 BBC series with Nicola Pagett; perhaps even the 1997 one with Sophie Marceau, the first Hollywood adaptation to be filmed in actual Russia. This, however, is something different. It begins in the theatre, with Matthew McFadyen playing Count Oblonsky in heightened farce mode, and the actors moving betweens sets and backdrops, with stage hands lurking and scenery being changed. The “realism” of the theatrical setting is challenged at key moments; firstly, when Levin (a suitably dour and serious Domhnall Gleeson) leaves St Petersburg for the countryside and steps outside of the theatre into a vast, David Lean-style snowy landscape. (I haven’t read or studied the book, but I can see that the contrast between the ritualised dance of town and the agrarian honesty of the country is key.)

For me, when the action deliberately and symbolically moves outside of the constrictions of the theatre to convey the vastness and openness of the country – where, for instance, Levin mucks in with the workers on his estate in what looked like a deliberate, dappled echo of Days Of Heaven – some of the film’s singular magic ebbs away and the film becomes conventional again. (That said, the way the scythes swoosh in time to Dario Marianelli’s soundtrack pulls it back a bit.) Conversely, when Keira Knightley, as Anna, sits beneath a toy railway to reassure her young son before heading off to Moscow, and then we zoom in on the lit carriages of the toy train in a fake snowscape, wherein Anna now travels, it is a captivating leap from artifice to “reality”.

Some have found Wright’s approach a bit “arm’s length”, and criticised him for removing us from the emotion of the story by placing obstacles in our way, but while I accept that much of the cleverness – including a horse race with actual horses also held inside the dilapidated auditorium, and a government office building transformed into a restaurant, with workers revealing aprons beneath their formal suits to become waiters – is designed to dazzle rather than involve, this is an artistic risk, and you have to credit Wright for taking it.

And anyway, the performances are rich and real enough, notably Knightley’s and that of Jude Law as her cuckolded husband. Both these performers improve with age, and while Law might have been playing the cocky Count Vronsky if the film had been made ten years ago, I prefer him as the balding, formal, upstanding Count Karenin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Vronksy, and embodies all the arrogance of privileged youth. He’s not likable, but is he supposed to be? Too many decent actresses are reduced to cameos – Shirley Henderson, Holliday Grainger, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery, even Ruth Wilson’s part is relatively small – but then this is one of those lavish costumed productions that actors presumably fall over themselves to be in, and in the patriarchal society it depicts, the men are in charge while the ladies fan themselves in royal boxes. Of the female characters, only Anna is allowed any real substance.

At its most Luhrmann-esque, a courtly dance, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, seems to blend a more modern framework over the 19th century formality, with an intricate interweaving of hands and arms that almost threatens to usher in a modern dance track, as per Moulin Rouge (amid whose wayward wackiness, it might have worked). Thankfully, this never happens, and Wright keeps a tighter lid on the inner logic of his production. I almost yelped when Vronksy and Karenin – by now locked in a Cold War for Anna’s affections – leave and enter by adjoining revolving doors in the lobby of the theatre, glimpsing each other through the glass; this is Wright hitting the jackpot.

It’s a long book, and the film is too, at 130 minutes, towards the end of which I found myself drifting a little. But overall, despite the aforementioned remoteness, I thought this Anna was a treat. Oh, those Russians.

Moor of the same

Jane Eyre, the latest version of which arrived at the Curzon on Friday, has been adapted for the screen about 30 times in numerous languages over the years, and it was only while watching it on Saturday afternoon that I realised I’ve never seen it.

I knew I’d never read it – to be honest, it’s the sort of literary classic that, if I wasn’t taught it on the syllabus at school, I was never going to seek out for my own pleasure – but assumed that I must have seen one of the many TV adaptations at least. I know it’s the one with Mr Rochester in it, but that, it seems, is the kind of information that seeps in by osmosis. I know this: I didn’t recognise the plot as it unfolded in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation.

This also means I can’t compare it to, say, the famous 1940s version with Orson Welles as Rochester, or the more recent Franco Zeffirelli one, with William Hurt as Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anna Pacquin as Jane. Nor even the most recent BBC one, with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephenson. Where have I been? I’m a sucker of costume dramas of this type. I thought I’d collected ’em all. I mean, I’ve seen Sense & Sensibility in more than one incarnation, and Pride & Prejudice more than that. Likewise, Vanity Fair, North and South, Wives and Daughters, Sons and Lovers, Cranford, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations … I’ve seen Daniel Deronda and The Way We Live Now, and every Hardy in the library. But never Jane Eyre. Weird. (I’ve even seen the BBC’s 2006 adaptation of The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, the prequel!)

So, this is the best Jane Eyre I’ve ever seen. Put that on the poster!

Actually, I can compare it to the other bonnet-based costume dramas I’ve seen. And it compares well. Mia Wasikowska – previously Alice in Alice In Wonderland – made a pale and windswept but striking and deep Jane, and for an Aussie, her Yorkshire accent was a hell of a lot more convincing than the American Anne Hathaway’s, to pluck a recent example. I’m already a big fan of Michael Fassbender, whose Killarney accent did come through a bit in his Rochester, but he was otherwise strong, moody and unknowable (which is a good thing, as he’s the man with the secret). I must admit I’m a bit bored of Judi Dench being automatically cast as the mousey/formidable old maid in these things, but enjoyed Jamie Bell coming of age with his whiskers, and Simon McBurney is an actor who I’m only just starting to spot and identify, but he was a scene-stealer as the sadistic Mr Blocklehurst.

Lit flicks like this rely on suitable casting, and a too-modern-looking face can be their undoing, such as – to my mind, and through not fault of her own – Charity Wakefield’s in the BBC Sense and Sensibility. (It feels churlish and unfair to use this yardstick, but it’s amazing how much an inexplicably modern face can break the spell.) As such, Eyre was well populated – Jane’s two “sisters” particularly good in smaller parts: The Borgias’ Holliday Grainger, and The Tudors’ Tamzin Merchant. Odd to see Imogen Poots in a small role, too, having just recently seen her play a convincing American in the stupid Fright Night, but it takes all sorts.

Shot in Yorkshire, it looked the part, and was as torrid and buttoned-up as it ought to have been, with Jane’s indomitable spirit released in just the right amount and at just the right junctures. I wonder if the novel’s big “moments” weren’t slightly thrown away, as if Fukunaga didn’t want to be too obvious – the camera pulls back from the first kiss, and the big revelation upon which the story hinges didn’t quite provide the Gothic punch it promised (also, I didn’t make the link between the first fire and this seismic reveal, which ought to have been more explicit, I feel – you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’re already a student of Brontë).

Overall, a decent bash. And one thing I will say, the sound design was exquisite. You really got a sense of the sound of the resonant old houses with their stone floors that our characters are forced to rattle around in. As with Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, modern technology didn’t interfere, but it provided a new layer of realism, and took us back to the period. Gorgeous music by Dario Marianelli, too (it was his score for Pride & Prejudice, and for Atonement).

I wonder if we shall ever tire of these literary classics being re-made and remodelled? I have a big appetite for them and say: bring on the bustles and bodices. And Keira Knightley’s just signed up for Wright’s Anna Karenina (having already essayed Lara Antipova and Elizabeth Bennett), so, in the words of her boyfriend’s band The Klaxons, it’s not over, not over, not over, not over yet.