Only 21 days, nine hours, 17 minutes to go until the Olympics. (It will be less than that by the time you read this.) But in the meantime, here’s Telly Addict, in which I take a long, hard look at some long, hard Shakespeare, namely, Richard II, the first play in the Bard’s so-called “Henriad” (Henry IV Pts 1 and 2, and Henry V follow), on BBC1; Blackout, a new noir drama, also on BBC1; and Pts 1 and 2 of The Men Who Made Us Fat on BBC2, the excellent documentary about how America invented and exported obesity, not democracy, around the world, presented by Jacques Perreti, who used to work as a researcher at the production company that made Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club and who now produces and fronts his own documentaries (we should have tried harder to crush him at the time).
Belatedly caught War Horse yesterday afternoon. (It seemed like it would suit the matinee mood, and it did.) I had been forewarned by enough critics I respect that this was not Spielberg’s finest hour, and that after the clever horse’s-eye-view of the book, and the clever puppetry of the stage play, this was a pretty conventional telling of the tale, so I went in with low expectations. My expectations were met.
I have nothing against Steven Spielberg. It would be churlish to deny him the crown of the-modern-day’s-Howard-Hawks (a big compliment from where I’m sitting), but he doesn’t always knock it out of the park. How could he? But having made two strong, serious films about World War II, I’d hoped for something a bit more meaningful and original from him about World War I. Instead, outside of a couple of good, David Lean-exhuming set pieces, War Horse felt like a string of sometimes excruciating clichés and mechnical story beats. It reminded me more of Lassie Come Home, or, for a more contemporary but no less helpful comparison, Babe, than it did Saving Private Ryan. As has been pointed out already, the establishing act, set in rural Devon, was about as authentic-seeming as The Darling Buds Of May. Since Spielberg went to all the trouble of shooting it in Devon (and a bit of Wiltshire), this is a pretty unfortunate outcome.
A mostly English cast worked wonders with the Devon accent, but set, as they were, within a totally unreal, backlot vision of country life, even the august likes of David Thewlis and Emily Watson sounded hokey. It’s not giving anything away to say that the action returns to Devon at the end, but when it does, Spielberg opts to paint the sky a golden/queasy yellow, as if perhaps Michael Bay had sat in for him that day, and everything looks post-apocalyptic, rather than Gone With The Wind glorious. This heavy-handed approach is fairly typical of the whole film. Nothing is allowed to go past without being sugar-coated or drained of blood.
Based of course on a children’s book, this is a “family film” about one boy and his horse who must both go off to war without losing their 12A certificate, and as such, even the horrors of the barbed wire and the trenches and the mustard gas feel sanitised for afternoon consumption. (At one stage, the sail of a windmill in the foreground helpfully goes past to discreetly mask an act of violence in the background. Technical masterstroke, or cheap sleight of hand?) It’s hard to convey the obscenity of a conflict that killed nine million people without showing bodyparts in massive piles, but co-writer Richard Curtis managed to do it on a BBC Comedy budget 20 years ago, which is ironic.
Novelist Michael Morpurgo’s was such an interesting dramatic approach to the conflict, too; because the Great War marked the cusp of fully mechanised combat, the one million conscripted horses sent over to France from England represented the end of an era. It’s truly bizarre to see the first cavalry charge, on horseback, with swords outstretched, the beasts eventually cut down by German machine guns. This is one of the film’s successful set-pieces. Not only is it technically brilliant, it has something profound to say, and its outcome is unexpected. Spielberg pulls back from the massacre and, in long shot, shows us a field full of dead horses. This is not to suggest that Spielberg does not care about the human dead, as one rather extreme review put it, rather that he is adapting a book and play that put a new focus on the animals, none of whom volunteered.
Hey, I’m the soppy animal lover who’s supposed to lap all this stuff up. And yes, I had a tear in my eye at one point, which I won’t spoil, but I will say it had nothing to do with the suffering of a human man. To be honest, with the subject matter, and with the obligatory button-pushing John Williams score to help prompt me WHEN TO BE SAD, I was disappointed not to be in middle-aged floods the whole way through. But I found War Horse oddly unmoving for the most part, even with all those gorgeous animal actors onscreen. (Apparently Joey was played by 14 separate horses; I was disappointed they were not named in the credits, which I sat through to the bitter end by the way.)
Drama can drift into melodrama very quickly if you don’t watch yourself, and some of the broader strokes in War Horse do just that – the “comedy” goose chasing off the nasty landlord and his men; the entire village turning out to watch Joey pull a plough through an intransigent field. And yet, the film’s most audacious sequence – its equivalent of the famous No-Man’s Land kickabout of legend, whose details I won’t spoil – works.
It’s pretty clear that War Horse is not a bad film, but I fear it was a bad idea to turn an unusual book and an unusual play (I understand Curtis and co-writer the also talented populist Lee Hall took elements of both) into a usual film. Spielberg likes to entertain as many people as possible. This is an admirable ambition, and has led to some of the best blockbusters of my lifetime. But it’s significant, I think, that he went all the way up to a 15 certificate for his two WWII films.
I don’t think you can “blame” the deficiencies of War Horse on the script, and you certainly can’t blame it on the acting. Some of our finest thesps crop up in tiny roles and do great things with them: Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, Geoff Bell, Toby Kebbel, Johnny Harris. But with all that talent on tap, and with two war horses like Curtis and Hall at the typewriter, something went awry. It must be somebody’s fault. And it wasn’t the animal trainers.
At the end of the day, it’s a battle between sentimentality and horror, and ends up in a no-man’s land of its own making.
I haven’t mentioned Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, and his chance to play the Roman emperor onscreen, having already played him onstage, but if you like your Shakespeare in a modern setting – in this case, an unnamed war-torn Balkan country, albeit filmed in Belgrade so you get the general idea – it’s convincingly done. And Fiennes makes a pretty powerful Coriolanus, with his shaved head, dog tags and khaki vest. Less impressive is Gerard Butler as his nemesis, who mangles some of his lines, but his is not the worst crime; for me, an overcooked Vanessa Redgrave had the effect of smothering all around her whenever she was onscreen. Also, there is too much reliance of faked TV news footage to explain the action and to underline the modern re-staging, and I found Jon Snow delivering Iambic pentameter to be unintentionally comic (unless it was intentionally comic, in which case I withdraw my criticism). But I really liked Brian Cox and James Nesbitt, and I managed to follow the story, which is not always easy with what are, let us not be coy, very old plays. The story is a bit repetitive, but that’s the bloke who wrote the play’s fault, surely?
I always needed a bit of visual help when studying Shakespeare at school, and will always be grateful to the BBC Macbeth with Ian McKellen, and the BBC Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins. I’m sure this will help students of Coriolanus. And hey, it’s another of the 50 films Jessica Chastain made last year. She’s the female Ryan Gosling.
Apologies for the late running of these film reviews. I am hard at work writing the second series of Mr Blue Sky and that must take priority, as you can imagine. (Deadline for all six episodes: end of February.)
More cross-platform arts. This time, Hamlet, live from the National Theatre, beamed into cinemas, in our case, the Curzon Mayfair. What a superb initiative. I will give you my opinion of Rory Kinnear’s Dane in a moment. First, a couple of practical concerns: the Mayfair is a glorious cinema, with a huge, 311-seat main screen, and a more intimate, 103-seat second screen. I saw White Ribbon in Screen One here last year, in the afternoon, and it ensured my experience of the film was about as effective and memorable as it could have been. I also hosted the Lost Q&A here last year, to a packed house of nerds, and the place really buzzes when it’s full. When we booked Hamlet, it was showing in Screen One. Unfortunately, in the interim, a charity gala premiere of The King’s Speech was booked into Screen One, and Hamlet was bumped into Screen Two. Because of the gala, with red carpet, barriers, press and people milling about in the lobby in smart coats, the bar was closed, so we couldn’t get a drink beforehand.
We could have done with one, as we were sat next to a party of three adults, a man and two women, who spent the whole of the build-up to the play playing on their BlackBerries, ignoring the pre-show film about the history of Hamlet, which was very interesting. I had to tell them to turn their phones off, as the bright, torch-like screens were in my eyeline. They did so. And then … after Hamlet had started, during the key opening scenes with the ghost of his father, they got them out again. I asked them to put them away, again. They did so, for the duration this time. What is the point of spending over the odds to see a live theatre production in a cinema and texting people? I can understand it when it’s idiot kids who know no better and have paid a few quid to be somewhere that isn’t outside, but these were grown adults! (During Act II, they munched from a massive box of popcorn. Yes, I know it’s on sale at the cinema, but this was a dramatic play, not a noisy blockbuster. During a knife’s edge soliloquy, you don’t want to hear the mouse-like rustling of hands going into popcorn and the popcorn being masticated. I put up with it.) Anyway, niggles over.
The production itself was magnificent. I speak as someone who has only seen Hamlet on film, never live, so I may be an unreliable witness – although the notices do seem to be positive – but Rory Kinnear really did make me understand the play for the first time. It is Nick Hytner’s production, and much of the appreciation must go in his direction: the decision to set it in a modern police state was very clever, and even Hamlet’s soliloquys were attended by shady men in suits with earpieces in, lurking in the dark. We get a recording device in a bible, paperwork being pushed across desks, camera crews filming Fontibras at the front … on a mostly bare stage, with lights and other props being moved around by the cast, and much of the action lit by torches and spotlights, and Hamlet’s dad’s ghost a truly unsettling grey apparition, this is atmospheric stuff indeed. Kinnear gives a smart interpretation of the Prince – an ordinary guy in a hoodie, with a smiley face drawn on his t-shirt to represent his duplicitously, villainous uncle, feigning madness with lots of comic business, that is both funny and disturbing. I noticed that he and David Calder as Polonious, used pauses very effectively, as if they were mouthing the words before saying them; quite a revelation from the more formal Shakespeares I saw as a schoolboy.
We never studied Hamlet, but it amazes me how much of it you just sort of know: the basic plot, the key markers like the gravedigger scene, and the speeches. I can almost recite “To be or not to be,” without ever having read the Brodie’s Notes. The whole thing made me retroactively despise Kenneth Branagh’s frilly and overwrought film version.
It’s unusual seeing a play, being performed live, at the cinema, with crowd murmuring beforehand, and Emma Freud popping up at the beginning and the end to top and tail it (this was being beamed not just around the UK, but across the world), but, as with Sleeping Beauty, there are advantages to close-ups you would never see from Row G of the National, and to – very sparing – camera cuts, which help to block out the action. I’m sure theatre purists would say it’s a poor substitute, but I am not one. I saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National in 2004, and was impressed by it – another production on a bare stage with minimal scenery – but I don’t go to the theatre often, unless it is to see ballet or a musical, which I feel are better value for money! I feel rather privileged to have seen Kinnear, and Calder, and Clare Higgins, and Patrick Malahide, fretting and strutting while I sat in a cinema in Mayfair, and other people sat in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and others again in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, and elsewhere. Yes, we clapped at the end!
Worth checking out NT Live for future events of this nature. It’s a top idea. Just make sure you see don’t sit next to popcorn-munching, texting fuckwits. (Of course, if it had been in Screen One, as advertised, we could have easily moved, but in Two, we were trapped.)
Oh, and I saw Colin Firth on his way into the toilets as I left. One advantage to sharing the cinema was a charity gala.