A girl’s best friend

A couple of films, then. By the way, I must apologise in advance for January and February, as I am up against two deadlines, one of them for six episodes of Mr Blue Sky for Radio 4 by mid-March, so I am bound to find less time to write longer form blog entries. But I’ll try and keep up with the films. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo came out on Boxing Day and I saw it a couple of days ago. It’s very good. This is the American remake of the Swedish original; an economic inevitability when much of the English-speaking world fears subtitles. In many ways, Columbia and David Fincher are providing a public service.

I have no investment in the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy upon which the films are based (hey, they’re modern novels, ergo I haven’t read them), so have no idea how faithful the three Swedish movies were to their source. I suspect very, but don’t know for sure. Although a sometimes uncomfortable blend of nasty and flashy, I enjoyed all three to varying degrees, in the same way that I often enjoy Scandinavian films and TV for providing a vivid glimpse into another culture that couldn’t be more different to our own. It’s not just the weather, either. I loved The Killing, and felt there was little point in transposing the action to Washington state for the US remake, so stuck with my beloved original. (All they did was re-tell the same story and throw out all the national character that made Sarah Lund, Troels Hartmann and Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen so compelling and different. Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood remake of Insomnia threw out the Norwegian setting of the original and took the story to Alaska, but something was still lost in translation.)

What Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zailian have done is to sensibly retain the Swedish setting of the Trilogy, specifically metropolitan Stockholm and the remote private island, and in doing so have been able to mine the same themes of national identity and deep Nazi guilt without them seeming odd. One person on Twitter asked me if they’d “Yanked it up”. Well, not really, especially as most of the principals are English, specifically the well-cast and low-key Daniel Craig (who looks Swedish but doesn’t attempt the Swedish accent, just about getting away with it, as the English accent he uses is deliberately bland and generic), Christopher Plummer (who does a fabulous job with his), Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Donald Sumpter, Julian Sands and Joely Richardson (whose character is Swedish but moved to London, explaining her Anglicised voice). Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t obsess about the accents while watching the film. In fact, I applaud everyone apart from Craig for having a go; it means you can get on with immersing yourself in the fiction. (I couldn’t take Valkyrie seriously, for instance, as the cast spoke in their own accents, mostly American, and not German.) So, no, it’s not “Yanked up”. The only key Americans in Dragon Tattoo are Robin Wright (who looks Swedish) and Rooney Mara, who does a great job at Lisbeth – she’s just as grim-faced, androgynous and lithe as Noomi Rapace, and defies you to look upon her with laddish lust.

Gothenburg’s Stellan Skarsgård uses his own accent, of course. (He was the star of the original Insomnia by the way, doing a Norwegian accent. You should seek it out.)

Fincher really is one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. I couldn’t get on with Benjamin Button, but it was technically brilliant, and I’ve admired pretty much everything else he’s turned his assured hand to. Dragon Tattoo is a conventional thriller, but, like Fincher’s Zodiac, it puts as much store with the dramatisation of research as with the staging of the action sequences. Yes, Lisbeth does a lot of sexy motorbike riding, but for most of the film she’s at her laptop or going through files in a company archive. This accent on clerical work is brave, but it’s true to the source as Lisbeth’s escape from a lifetime of abuse and incarceration is her clerical skill. Unusually for a film about computers, the screens and websites and engines in this seem pretty real. (Lisbeth looks someone up on Wikipedia at one point, rather than an obvious faked version of Wikipedia.)

If you’ve never seen the original because you are “too lazy” to read subtitles (I don’t hold with this generalisation, by the way, I’m ironically quoting a snob who used the phrase on Twitter), then dive in. This is definitely grown up cinema – it’s an 18, and earns that not through the usual visceral violence, but through scenes of a sexual nature that are far from conventionally titillating and do not involve consent. It’s dark material. But brilliantly made. And the James Bond-style opening credits, over Trent Reznor’s cover of Immigrant Song, are almost worth the ticket alone.

My Week With Marilyn has been out even longer than Dragon Tattoo, but the Curzon in Soho seems to be showing a variety of older films with awards buzz this week, so I made the most of it. What a disappointment. It’s Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh’s as Laurence Olivier that are attracting attention, and both are commendable and in the latter case, often hilarious. But the film wrapped around them, based upon the memoir by Colin Clark, who, aged 23, found himself working as third assistant director on The Prince and The Showgirl at Pinewood (he’s played by the handsome Eddie Redmayne), is deeply confused. It begins as a sort of lively period farce about the young toff’s introduction to the British film industry and rattles along with the same spot-the-real-person appeal as, say, The Iron Lady, or, frankly, any drama about a sad British comedian’s secret pain made by BBC4: “Ooh look, that’s Vivien Leigh! That’s Dame Sybil Thorndike! That’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff! That’s Arthur P Jacobs, future producer of Planet Of The Apes!” (a couple for the cineastes, there) … But in the second half it softens into the soft-focus, doomed Platonic love affair between Clark and Monroe.

Because it’s based on Clark’s account, published after Marilyn was long dead, we only have his word for what went on behind closed doors (he died in 2002, by the way), and it all starts to feel a little like a laddish fantasy. We have to believe that after hubby Arthur Miller’s departure from England, Marilyn was unable to work without Colin by her side. He doesn’t do anything as ungentlemanly as try to get off with her while she is drugged into a hazy state of consciousness, but he does get to spend a lot of time with her, and, in one key scene, skinny dip in a river. With Marilyn Monroe. I’m not saying it didn’t happen this way, but I am saying that I found it difficult to buy into. I much preferred the film when it was Branagh having a whale of a time impersonating Olivier, stomping about and swearing around a sound stage. The period detail was good, but the story was awkward: Monroe was clearly a mess, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing this, and yet, it all ends swimmingly. The captions at the end remind us that her next film, Some Like It Hot, was a smash hit. Hooray! Never mind that Monroe would die, alone, aged 36, poisoned by barbiturates, within a few years.

Also, Emma Watson was in it. I thought she’d decided to knock acting on the head?

My Week With Marilyn is anything but lacking in appeal. But it really wasn’t worth going all the way to the cinema to see it. If Williams or Branagh find themselves with award nominations for their parts, it will be fine and dandy, as both put in good work. But the film strives to be both saccharine and sad at the same time, and, for me, ultimately curdles. It present Monroe as a dependent flake from the beginning, and then is at pains to say, actually, she was a great screen actress. I think she was, by the way, although not so much in The Prince and The Showgirl.

(By the way, the editor of Radio Times told me today that he loved the film. So it may just be me.)

The Abbey habit

Downton Abbey is, believe it or not, just a television programme. It’s on ITV1, it’s set in the past, it draws upon roughly the same transitional period for the English class system as such previous television programmes as Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited and Flambards, and everybody’s gone nuts for it. Written by Julian Fellowes, and not indebted to a literary source, it feels very much tailor-made for a Sunday night audience.

When it arrived on our screens last September, it was an instant hit, scoring around 10 million viewers an episode. Period dramas of this type have never really gone out of fashion, but they do seem to have enjoyed a renaissance over the last few years, perhaps as a reaction to the more hi-tech, CGI-dominated, sci-fi entertainments predominantly served up to us. With the fashionable success, either critical or commercial, of US imports like The Sopranos, The Wire and the CSI franchise, with their contemporary grit and violence, you can also see a gap widening for drama set in a less coarse era, when forensic science held no sway, and warfare was only just getting mechanised.

Upstairs Downstairs, to my mind one of the finest TV series this country has ever produced – for ITV, lest snobs forget – set a high bar for the historical saga between 1971 and 1975, and is just as watchable today. It was, however, basically a theatre piece, its action played out against plywood sets, and its occasional forays on location marked mainly by the jarring switch from videotape to grainy film quality. When it launched, without fanfare, and having sat in the vaults at ITV for a year, unloved, its first episode did not score 10 million viewers overnight; it went out at 10.15 on LWT and took its time to bed in.

It felt like bad timing that the BBC revived Upstairs Downstairs last Christmas, just a couple of months after Downton Abbey, when the new kid on the block was so indebted to the old kid. Downton began with the sinking of the Titanic, with a key character onboard; Upstairs Downstairs covered this in its third series, when Lady Marjorie, a major character, perished at sea on the Titanic. Perhaps this is the difference not just between the two programmes, but between the eras in which they were first broadcast. In 1971, it was fine for an ITV period drama to begin with an opening episode whose main storyline was a new parlourmaid starting work at 165 Eaton Place who wasn’t quite what she seemed; in 2010, it had to be the sinking of the Titanic and an inheritance crisis.

I can never love Downton the way I loved Upstairs Downstairs. (And when I mention it, as delighted as I was to see it back, and with Jean Marsh still in it, on BBC1, I’m always referring to the 1970s original.) This is not Downton‘s fault. It’s just that it feels the need to ramp up the melodrama and explain everything as it goes along, just in case its audience is feeling a bit too “Sunday night” to keep up. In Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Downton has its cartoon character, with her withering one-liners, but it’s all a little bit easy, isn’t it? I think audiences – even a Sunday night ITV audience – were granted with a little bit more concentration and intelligence. (Can this really be true? I guess there were only three channels in 1971, so competition for our attention was less bloodthirsty and unscrupulous.)

The other thing Downton has against it is hype. ITV1 are rightfully pleased with its success, and it’s great for the drama industry that it has found such a Teflon hit; the last thing we need in this country, culturally, is for TV drama – and comedy – to be underfunded in favour of wall-to-wall talent and game shows, and “scripted reality”. But the second series, which began on Sunday opposite Spooks, arrived amid fanfare, ticker tape, a twenty-one gun salute and acres of listings-mag, TV and newspaper anticipation (Radio Times caught the mood with its “Souvenir Issue” – my employer hasn’t been this excited, and on the money, since Doctor Who came back). It can live up to this hype, but such expectation demands numbers, and numbers are achieved not through taking risks, but throwing more big names at the screen and giving people what they want: big stories, big world events, broad brush strokes.

Watching Upstairs Downstairs – and I’ve done so on DVD box set in the last couple of years so this is not nostalgia – is like having a long, luxurious bath in the past. Downton is more like being whacked in the face with some rolled-up Wikipedia printouts. I’m not sure I’m made of stern enough stuff for that kind of an assault every Sunday.