Friday, 24 November 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (but some films do)

Paul McGuigan’s film is based on a memoir of the same name by Peter Turner, an actor and writer from Liverpool, about his romance with the nineteen fifties movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). In the 1970s, Gloria was in her fifties, Peter (Jamie Bell) in his twenties. Her career is over but she is trying to revive it with theatre performances. Already ill, in 1981 she collapses in a Lancaster hotel and turns to Peter and his family for help.

For me this film bears all the marks of a phoney confection. How do you cover up the deficiencies of an inauthentic script? Focus on production design and wardrobe, in this case execrable wallpaper, nasty net curtains and horrible furniture to recreate the Turner household in Liverpool, plus hideous orange and brown clothing for the working class characters. 

Then the location: it’s going to be something overstated. It must have taken a scout a long time to find such dreary alleyways and streets, dimly lit of course. 

To pad out the film’s flimsy substance, there has to be a sub plot, here a comedy hearts-of-gold Liverpool Mammie played by Julie Walters with Kenneth Cranham, her silent husband, given nothing much to do but some unconvincing DIY business with a circuit board.

The biggest give-away of all is the simplistic characterisation.  There have been some touching, funny and intelligent films about what happens to famous actors, real life and fictional, as they age. The preoccupation with talent, good looks and fitness that blessed their heyday becomes a curse as they get older. These films range from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, with a star turn from Michael Keaton as an absurd and hilarious Superman-figure desperate to reinvent himself. I also enjoyed the gaudy chutzpah of Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s film about the last ten years of Liberace’s life.

In the kind of memoir which is the basis of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, the writer wants to elevate their own significance in the relationship, but the chances are that the star was of far more importance in the writer’s life than the writer was in the star’s. When turned into a film the result looks slight. For another example, see the similarly unimpressive My Week With Marilyn.

Phoniness becomes a particular risk when the film is a biopic. Here it is rare for a film to deal honestly with its subject: complexity is sacrificed for hagiography or else savage satire, exaggeration and melodrama. 

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The real Gloria Grahame did indeed refuse some treatment for breast cancer but she also had a great deal of plastic surgery, became obsessed by her thin upper lip which she padded with cotton wool, evidently a complication in scenes involving kissing where the co-star ended up with a mouthful of cotton wool too. 

Her fourth husband was also her stepson, a relationship that reportedly began when he was only thirteen. She battled her third husband for custody of their daughter. She had a breakdown and was treated with ECT.

All of this is a far cry from the bland, cutie-pie character that Anette Bening does her very talented and honest best to convey. As a result the film descends into schmaltz. The last twenty minutes is excruciatingly drawn out with the loveably eccentric Liverpool family in full cry and a ridiculous scene where Bening and Bell play out dialogue from Romeo and Juliet on the stage of an empty theatre. Oh please, let the woman die!

There is one scene which shows what the film might have been. The naïve Peter makes his first visit to LA. Over dinner at Gloria’s home, where her aim is to show off her handsome young lover to her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and spiteful sister (Frances Barber), he learns something of what may lie behind the glamorous front. Here, the dialogue and acting are sharp, surprising and funny, but alas this was the only scene which woke me from torpor as the film sluggishly wound its way to its entirely predictable conclusion.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Well-meant but misleading

Jenny hardens her heart with only 2 stars for Breathe

I met my friend Bob at university. He had been unlucky enough to get polio as a child – the tail end of the epidemic just before universal vaccination banished this horrible illness in the UK. He was in a wheelchair. His way of managing the reactions of those around him was to refer to himself sardonically as Brave Bob. ‘Oh yes’, he’d say, ‘Brave Bob still has a working brain’, and woe betide anyone who patronized, asked intrusive questions, for instance about sex, what worked and what didn’t, or made comments intended to be tremendously encouraging about how amazing it was that he could manoeuvre his wheelchair in and out of lecture theatres. Bob already saw the attraction of the Supercrip to the world of able bodied people.
Image resultBreathe unfortunately follows the familiar Supercrip stereotype that we see in films about disability. The film, which is directed by Andy Serkis, is based on the real life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife Diana (Claire Foy). Robin contracts polio as a 28-year-old in Kenya, is permanently paralysed from the neck down, can only breathe thanks to a mechanical respirator and is given months to live. Diana springs him from hospital despite the dastardly opposition of his doctors and finds a friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) who can make him a wheelchair which includes the respirator. They entertain, they travel, Robin campaigns for disabled people and lives for another 36 years. Judging from his Wikipedia entry, the real life Robin was a thoroughly inspiring man see and this film is intended to commemorate his life and work, especially as the producer is his son Jonathan Cavendish.
The film will work for many people as a lovely weepie – I heard a lot of snivels from fellow audience members, but alas, I hardened my heart. Full disclosure: I lived with a severely disabled man until his death 7 years ago. He was in a wheelchair for the last five years of his life. He, too, mocked the Supercrip stereotype, refusing people’s pity. I promise you that living with disability is nothing like it is depicted in this film and I hated the way it fell into the easy stereotypes:

The disabled person is always a man.

The actor is slim, able-bodied and good looking. 

He uses a wheelchair because this is a visible symbol of disability that everyone can understand. 

The man is saintly, brave, uncomplaining and clever. 

The man needs the wisdom of a good woman to save him from a life of despair but she must sacrifice everything because her purpose in life is to serve him. 

The cost in money of disability must never be mentioned, for instance of equipment, adaptations to the home, special clothing, laundry, helpers. 

People who oppose the hero are creeps, jerks and bullies. 

The emotional costs to the rest of the family must never be mentioned. 

The disabled person ingeniously discovers ways of overcoming his physical handicaps through inventions usually involving string, bells, teeth and eye movements. 

Towards the end of the film the disabled person makes a rallying speech about prejudice. 

The disabled person must die in the film, often to prevent further exploitation of their loved ones.

Breathe falls into all of these clichés, with added heartswelling orchestral accompaniments in case we miss the point. The characters never age, except for some terrible prosthetics added to poor Andrew Garfield’s face for the film’s final sequences. A rosy glow permeates the gracious if slightly tatty home and its surrounding rural landscapes. Everyone smiles most of the time and Andrew Garfield does a lot of splendid acting with his eyebrows.

Diana appears to deal solo with Robin’s needs, but did she really? Did she manually evacuate his bowels and change the catheter? Did she dress him and feed him?  Did she do all the extra laundry? Did she, a slight woman, turn him, a heavy man, every few hours on her own and deal with the ugly threat of pressure sores every day? Did she service the respirator? Where did the money come from? How did she manage to do all of this and care for a small child? Did the child never resent the time and attention that his father necessarily absorbed?

No, I don’t think this would have been possible. There must be a good documentary to be made about the extraordinary life of Robin Cavendish which would salute his role in raising awareness and horizons for disabled people and which would not shy away from all the things most people really don’t want to know. We would all rather preserve our cosy fantasies, the most malign of which, perpetuated in every feature film as in this one, is that if disabled people try really really hard, they can overcome their handicaps.
This film is a touching tribute by a son to his father, but it is also a good argument for never being involved in a film where you are one of the real life characters.

My old friend Bob lived a distinguished life as an acerbic critic, writer and academic. His feisty wife, Marie, is nothing like the pastel-coloured character depicted by Claire Foy. In his way Bob was as much a pioneer as Robin Cavendish. You can read his Guardian obituary here

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

5 stars for Yorgos Lanthimos’s best film so far

As we left the cinema my companion asked me what I thought of the film. ‘Brilliant,’ I said. She stared at me with incomprehension. ‘How anyone can say that film is brilliant I do not know.’ Explaining, arguing or justifying was pointless on either side and we walked to our bus in virtual silence.
Image result for the killing of a sacred deer posterLanthimos divides people, he’s a Marmite director; there’s no middle way, you either think he is a genius or that he is an art-house poseur.

I thought this his best film to date. He has attracted a bigger budget, he has secured the loyalty and admiration of two distinguished actors, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. The narrative here is fluid, confident and, as ever with a Lanthimos film, mystifying, with much left intriguingly unexplained.

To enjoy the full horror of apprehension, you need to know the meaning of the title. In Greek myth, the king Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer. To placate Artemis, the goddess of hunting, and to spare his fleet from destruction, she demands that he sacrifice his daughter Iphegenia. When you know this tale you understand that you are going to be tortured by waiting to find out if the same story will play out here.

The film starts naturalistically with Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) living in a handsome house with palatial rooms, each one pristine. He is a successful cardiac surgeon, she is a successful ophthalmologist. They have two beautiful children. What could possibly be wrong? The first sign that all is not well is that they play a sex game called General Anaesthetic. Next, Steven has an oddly intimate relationship with the teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan). Martin has a gormless, unhealthy look to him but Steven is buying him expensive presents, meeting him often and inviting him back to the family home for no discernible reason. Then there is Colin Farrell’s appearance, much of his face, including his mouth, thickly hidden behind a dishevelled black beard and moustache.

Slowly we realize that Martin’s father has died on Dr Steven’s operating table. The infallible king of surgery, the ultra-successful man, has made a mistake but it is not one he can admit to. In fact his stated opinion is that if something goes wrong, it is always the anaesthetist’s fault. Later, his anaesthetist, in the grip of another kind of corruption, insists that it is always the other way around.

Soon we are into the surreal territory of earlier Lanthimos films. Buildings become prisons where there is no escape as horror, magic and warped logic descend. The man of science, the man in control, tries all the known remedies, desperately bullying colleagues for an answer to the bizarre sickness that strikes and could kill both his children and then his wife. But science can’t help because the family has been cursed and he is being punished for his sense of entitlement, his arrogance and lack of remorse, for being a heart surgeon who lacks heart. I was reminded here of George Bernard Shaw’s opinion in the preface to his play The Doctor’s Dilemma, that all professions are ‘conspiracies against the laity’, just as true now as it was in 1906.

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Lanthimos has his own unique style but he seems to have been influenced by the work of two other directors: the icy command of Michael Haneke and the blending of gothic dream and mundane reality in the films of David Lynch. His subject matter, like theirs, is the deeply irrational nature of human thinking. He composes with geometric precision, often very long shots or using an extremely wide angle lens from a static or swooping camera, dwarfing the people. His camera is often slightly above or slightly below the actors’ eyelines, giving the film a voyeuristic quality and a feeling of unease about how far you can trust anything you are seeing.

Fine performances all round, clever use of classical music in the score, immaculate cinematography from Thimios Bakatakis, a mythical and brutal horror story deftly told that lives on in your mind: what’s not to like?