Eating Crowe

Based on Peter Mayle’s 80s yuppie fantasy A Year in Provence and directed by his old friend and colleague in the advertising business Ridley Scott, A Good Year is a tired, predictable knockabout farce pushed beyond the point of blithe disregard by an atypical performance by the Gladiator star Russell Crowe, unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. His Max Skinner (played as a boy by Freddie Highmore) used to spend idyllic summers at his roguish Uncle Henry’s (Albert Finney) chateau and vineyard in Provence. Now, fully-grown but hardly matured, Max is a bond trader in The City of London, a high-flying millionaire and low-minded boor. When word arrives that Uncle Henry has died, Max takes off to France to settle his affairs, and sell his treasured home to the highest bidder, leaving Henry’s staff, Francis (Didier Bourdon) and wife Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier) out of a job and homeless. A convenient job suspension for insider trading keeps Max in Provence longer than he planned, but just long enough for the rural charm to cast its spell. Intrigue and romance arrives in the form of beautiful American girl Christie (Abbie Cornish), who says Uncle Henry was her father and who might stymie Skinner’s plans for a quick sale.

A Good Year is so mistimed and miscast that it simply collapses. The elderly jokes are uncomfortably delivered, with much supposed comedy made from Crowe peeking up ladies skirts and down blouses. Not that amusing (unless you’re Sid James and the good year in question is 1963) but eye-wideningly crass and embarrassingly broadly played. Even more painful is the steady arrangement of slapstick physical gags; inelegant tumbles and pratfalls that Crowe, no gazelle, thumps his way through without raising a single moment of humour. By naming a dog Tati, and showing a few clips from M Hulot’s Holiday, Scott is attempting to channel the master of French confusion, Jacques. By the third or fourth banana skin homage, the director has run out of ideas, leaving the remainder of the mirth over to a series of running jokes (scorpions, cyclists, senility) that, uniquely, die more painfully each time they are revived. There is even a speeded-up sequence, believe it or not. Between these excruciating moments there is a constant slideshow of chocolate-box countryside portraits and some marginally more animated, misty-eyed flashbacks to Skinner’s idyllic youth.

All of this reminiscing is supposed to uncoil itself into a damascene conversion as Skinner learns the errors of his ways, but none of it works. Despite the script’s horrible contrivances and Crowe’s desperate mugging, the film never succeeds in changing our opinion of Skinner, much less learn to like him, although it does increase our sympathy for the other characters forced into his orbit. The film is laboured to the point where you feel obliged to notify a shop steward, even up to the point of the inane and undeserved happy ending (which wouldn’t have made it out of the room at a Scooby Doo script conference). Support, from the best mate Tom Hollander, Albert Finney as the bon vivant late Uncle and romantic interest Marion Cotillard as a feisty local waitress, is all wallpaper; mere dressing for Crowe’s master-class in smarm.

Having undercooked his last epic Kingdom of Heaven, Scott sticks closely to the recipe for light comedy here, but is uninspired and uninvolved, making his clumsy film feel middle aged and slightly tipsy. Displaying all the facility for the material you’d expect from his pug face and growling tones, Crowe never relaxes into the situations the story presents him with, much less breathe through his nose. Fatally, he never changes from smug and obnoxious to human and grateful, making A Good Year just one aggressive, blundering moment after another; an arrogant, actively dislikeable experience.

Queen For A Day

Opening on a static shot of the young princess supine on a chaise longue, wrapped in lace and surrounded by cakes, Sofia Coppola’s third feature, a kind of dreaming biopic of France’s ill-fated Marie Antoinette confounds expectations, being empty and superficial, but impossible to hate for all that. High-born in Austria, the innocent Marie (gracefully played by a childlike Kirsten Dunst) is married off to the shy Dauphin Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) in a match arranged between her domineering mother Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithfull) and the King of France (Rip Torn). Making the journey by coach to Versailles, the young princess is stopped at the border, in the first of Coppola’s more complicated and emotionally resonant scenes, to be divested of everything she owns, including her friends and her beloved puppy. On arriving at Versailles, the teenage princess is astonished at the opulent luxury of the court and troubled by the constant gossip and seemingly endless, incomprehensible protocol.

After the wedding, and the young couples first night together (blessed by a bishop, watched by a crowd) Marie is pressured into creating heirs, a process that turns into a competition with her sister-in-law, but stymied by young Louis seeming disinterest in sex. He’d much rather go hunting or read about locks and keys. Surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, led by the lemon-faced Comtesse De Noailles (Judy Davis) young Marie must follow an unbending regime, heading up processions of her courtiers; a constant movement through the court to pre-set destinations following a strict timetable. When her coterie fight over who is given the privilege of dressing her in the morning, like a doll, Marie protests that the treatment is “ridiculous”. “This, Madame, is Versailles”, she is told and that is the answer to everything.

The daily life of the court, from accounts in Antonia Fraser’s detailed biography, take up much of the middle section of the film; eating rituals, montages of spending sprees (on shoes and frocks), and Marie’s struggle against the insular society (personified by two backbiting Ugly Sisters, played by Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson). With his father having died, young Louis ascends to the throne, but still spends most of his time hunting, leaving him “too exhausted” to consummate his marriage. These sections are deliberately drawn out, occupying the space where a narrative should be, but eloquently describe the tedium and routine of decadent nobility, tempered with the tang of futility and emptiness.

Coppola, who was given special permission to shoot at the Palace of Versailles, immerses herself in the splendour of the décor, with her cinematographer Lance Acord showing the influence of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon both in the naturalistic lighting and his use of jarring symmetries. Much has been made of Coppola’s use of a new-wave 80s soundtrack (songs from New Order, Bow Wow Wow and Gang of Four play over the action, much as they might have done in Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale) but soundtrack is just one element of the whole cinema, and her choices are never intrusive.

Without an heir, Marie’s situation is precarious; a fact she is reminded of in her mother’s regular admonishing letters, and the lectures delivered by her ambassador (a wry Steve Coogan). Later, her brother, the Emperor of Austria (Danny Huston in a cameo) arrives to lecture the distracted Louis about his husbandly duties and the two eventually have children. The third act has the increasingly rebellious Marie establish a hideaway in Versailles, a manicured rural idyll where she can raise her daughter and entertain her friends, including a half-imagined affair with a young Swedish soldier (Jamie Dornan). These episodes are languorously told, simple framed moments drawn out into lengthy sections, adding to the ethereal mood but short on drama, dialogue or incident. Critically, Coppola stops her story just at the point where the revolutionary mob (played mostly as noises off) are kicking in the door of the palace; preferring a poetic, symbolic bow on a balcony to showing the Queen’s final bow before Madame Guillotine.

Coppola is creating an atmosphere of understanding rather than a documentary, in order to create her own movie, an interpretation of historical events reconfigured to make a statement about class, privilege and duty. This is not Les Miserables, thankfully, and neither is it is a crusty history lesson or a complete fantasy, but lies somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that the rich, well-connected Coppola empathises deeply with her subject and that is all she must do in order to succeed in making her film, the third in her series of young women trapped inside their own lives, as sleepy as The Virgin Suicides and remote as Lost in Translation, but far more maddeningly disconnected and narratively obtuse. Like the ever-present pastries, Marie Antoinette is lovely to look at but provides only poor nourishment.

The Past Is A Foreign Country

The History Boys, the film version of the multi-award-winning play by Alan Bennett reunites the cast and director (Nicholas Hytner) from the theatre production for a snappy trip down memory lane for the 1983 graduating class in a Sheffield secondary school. As the film opens, a small group of nine high-achieving students, having just received their A-level results, are gathered together by their headmaster for an extra term to prepare for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams in December. Their favourite teacher Hector, played by the hugely entertaining Richard Griffiths (who steals the show here), tutors his charges in a loose, free-flowing curriculum covering everything from Vera Lynne torch songs to the Socratic Dialogues. The pretentious, blustering Hector argues for A.E. Houseman’s dictum that “all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”. Although married, “unexpectedly” according to his colleagues, Hector is gay, frequently touching his students inappropriately while giving them a lift home on his motorbike. Oddly, and just one of the implausibilities that damage the film, none of the students seem to mind Hector’s lecherous attentions, being devoted to the portly old rogue and all seeing the clear benefits of his scholarship and his wisdom.

Although his methods might be unorthodox, and crustily old fashioned, his commitment to his pupil’s mental advancement is not. Bennett gives Hector long, dextrous monologues, full of historical anecdotes and witty wordplay, that mark him out among the cast as the repository of philosophical education, concerned more with their joining the dots in their education than achieving high grades. All too aware of his staff’s inability to bring students on to the next phase of their education, vinegary headmaster (Clive Merrison) brings in a specialist, Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a cynical Oxford graduate, to tutor the boys in how to pass the exam and interview that will determine if they get to walk among the dreaming spires.

Hytner, who previously collaborated with Bennett to great success on The Madness of King George expertly and effortlessly captures the time and place, providing a perfect stage for deft, touching performances from both his young cast and the more familiar veterans. He is assisted tremendously in setting his mood by a classic soundtrack of early 80s British pop. It is the obvious chemistry shared by the large ensemble, and the fluency of their constantly shifting allegiances and motivations, that offer the best in the film. Of the nine younger actors, Dominic Cooper playing the cool, manipulative Dakin and Samuel Barnett as Posner, the conflicted teenager who is in love with him and clearly Bennett’s surrogate, that excel but the entire class give strong performances in what are complicated roles.

The theme here is knowledge and its application in the real world coupled with sidebars into the duty of educators to mould minds, the right-wing politics of early 1980s conservative England and the tangled mess of teenage male uncertainties, most of which have to do with questions about sexuality. Some of the plays darker themes – on the manipulation of history by politicians and the insidious influence of the media - have not made it to the screen, with what has survived being underplayed for the most part, barring one uncomfortable scene between Dakin and Mr. Irwin that is as cold and chilling as it is brilliantly played. Some of the large cast, Frances De La Tour in particular (as the world-weary Mrs. Lintott), are unhappily relegated to the background, the side-effect of trimming a large playbook into a feasible screenplay. There is still plenty of smart humour to be found in The History Boys, a constant stream of howling one-liners and witty references whizzing around the classroom, particularly during one early scene conducted entirely in French, but it doesn’t all come together entirely satisfactorily, a final scene giving us a flash-forward to what the students became adding unmerited pathos at the same time as providing a convenient conclusion.

Departed to the Judgement

After mixed success with his two grand epics, The Gangs of New York and The Aviator, Martin Scorsese returns to the mean streets of the American gangster movie for The Departed, a loose remake of the labyrinthine 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs and one of the films of the year.

Getting right into it from the opening frames, Scorsese introduces us to swaggering local mob leader Frank Costello (an electric Jack Nicholson, making his Scorsese debut) who has graduated through the ranks of South Boston mobsters to rule his fiefdom with an iron grip. He has groomed a bright neighbourhood kid, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) from an early age to join the state police and be his inside man, tipping him off about the investigations against him, in the process allowing him to extend his influence into drugs and high-tech contraband. On the other side of the divide, an unstable rookie cop from the area, Billy Costigan (forcefully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) accepts an assignment from his superiors to go deep undercover and infiltrate Costello’s mob, which means he must change identity, serve time in prison and on release, gradually gain the respect of the psychopathic Frank. Both men enter their new double lives unaware of one another, and are both charged with discovering the others identity – flushing out the rat.

Both have the backup of their respective administrations; Damon’s police are led by Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and his undercover experts, Queenan and Dignam (Martin Sheen and a never-better Mark Wahlberg), while Di Caprio has to contend with Costello’s dangerous second-in-command, Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and two henchmen, Fitzy and Delahunt (David O’Hara and Mark Rolston). It’s a brilliant set-up for the tense, twisting, violent drama that follows; rich with the language and psychology of the streets and fused for detonation as each man becomes consumed by his double life, each trying to smoke the outer out and suffering the consequences of living under a death sentence. The two moles lives also intersect at the point of police psychologist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who starts a relationship with Colin at the same time as she starts to counsel Billy, who comes to see her as part of his parole.

Of the three leads he has played for Scorsese, this is by some distance DiCaprio’s best, matched step for step by Damon. Both give astonishing performances, mature and grounded, playing men disintegrating under the strain of double lives and constantly on the verge of being found out. The film belongs, however, to Nicholson, who is just astonishing, delivering a performance of rare menace and constant threat, leavened with a dark streak of bilious humour and some killer one-liners. Still crazy after all these years, Nicholson here is the personification of evil, insane and bloodthirsty. The other noteworthy supporting performance is from Alec Baldwin, playing the cocksure, unstable police captain with an irrepressible abandon.

The brilliant script, from Boston native William Monahan takes the central notions from Infernal Affairs and spins them out into a beautifully positioned meditation on identity and guilt, like so many of Scorsese’s films, where sin and suffering are endured in the hopes of eventual redemption. These characters, the situation they find themselves in and their relentlessly cynical attitudes make The Departed Scorsese’s most uncompromisingly bleak film, darker and less forgiving even than Taxi Driver, where the abject nihilism was at least tempered by a hint of redemption. Here we descend into a startling closing reel, another sustained Scorsese bloodbath of violence and retribution, played ultra-realistically for maximum effect. Michael Ballhaus’ fluid camera, filled with dramatic noir shadows, gives the film a tremendous texture, matched by the peerless control of editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a rousing Scorsese soundtrack of ocassionally celtic-derived rock and roll. And the Rolling Stones, naturally.

Far from being just another gangster yarn, The Departed is a rich and rewarding film. Scorsese uses the colour red throughout the film to signify death and danger, particularly in a demonic scene at the opera where Nicholson leers directly into the camera. The letter ‘x’ is also used symbolically, scratched on windows and floors as a tribute to the 1932 movie Scarface. Being Scorsese, the film is packed with other references to classic cinema. A scene with Damon and a mobile phone set on vibrate matches Hitchcock for drawn-out suspense. A chase through a Chinese neighbourhood recalls The Lady From Shanghai, with another nod from The Third Man that has Madolyn ignore Colin at a funeral, walking past him with a devastatingly eloquent thousand yard stare.

Following in the wake of indifferent, similarly expensive and high-profile, offerings from his fellow noir-influenced directors Brian De Palma and Michael Mann, Scorsese shows his true class in The Departed; a gripping crime story, brilliantly realised and boasting career-best performances from the three top-lining actors. Emerging from the screening, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in and see it again. The director says this will be his last gangster picture. Let’s hope he changes his mind.

Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, cancelled
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.

Emily Dickinson [wiki]