Monthly Archives: February 2016

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theatre

Ma Rainie's Black Bottom by Johan PerssonThe history of race relations in America is complex and fascinating, with the ongoing struggle for equality frequently explored in films, TV and novels. On the stage, the access point for examining these issues has been music, and several major productions have used the development of jazz, blues and Mowtown sounds as a route to understanding the African American experience. From the hit musical Hairspray which tackles segregation in 60s Baltimore through inter-racial dancing, Memphis the recent West End and Broadway smash about a DJ who loves the blues because of his club singer girlfriend also set in the 60s, to Mowtown the Musical which recently opened in London, it is the music that helps to break down racial divides.

Into this space comes the National Theatre revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1989 play set during one afternoon in a recording studio as a blues band await the arrival of their boss, the infamous, Ma Rainey. Instead of rehearsing, the men talk about their lives, their dreams and the difficulties they experience as black musicians having to interact with their white manager and studio boss. All four men, distinguished by age and professional experience, end up in conflict at various times, sometimes over small matters like how many sandwiches they can have or which version of a song to play, while at others they argue fiercely over the human condition and the nature of suffering. Once Ma arrives the dynamic shifts as a powerful woman takes control, and making music becomes only a temporary bandage for their troubles.

This play at its heart is about masculinity but there are two types of masculinity colliding, one which looks back to the past, to deference, respect and dignity represented by piano player Toldeo (Lucian Msamati); the other is the forward facing Levee (O-T Fagbbenle) who is pushing for change, arrogant, certain of himself and refusing to believe that a white man can ever stop him achieving his dream of having his own band. As the story unfolds you learn what made these men who they are, each shaped by an early experience of oppression that sets them onto their particular path.

Levee antagonises everyone, not least band leader Cutler (Clint Dyer) who bickers intermittently with him throughout about everything from songs to religion, but what this does is show you a world in flux, it is 1929 and most of these men are scared of that change, and of the world that Levee represents. What it also does is introduce you to a familiar world of male interaction, where competition and one-upmanship are par for the course, each wanting the last word and to be proved right. Ultimately it sets you up for an ending that is entirely unexpected, but one that you actually realise was completely inevitable.

The character of Ma is a shadow for much of the production, hanging over everything in absentia. They are at the studio at the time she says to record songs she wants, in the way she wants them, but takes some considerable time to actually arrive. When she does she is a diva and everyone cow-tows to her buying her Coca-Cola before she’ll sing, allowing her stuttering nephew to do a song intro and turning up the heat to stop her getting cold. Sharon D Clarke is an awesome stage presence, dismissing those around her and completely certain she’ll get what she wants. She fills the enormous Lyttelton Stage with a ferocious presence and when the tunes eventually arrive, they are glorious – suggesting, in our celebrity-obsessed world, that you can forgive any behaviour for that kind of talent. This is who Levee wants to be.

But, Dominic Cooke’s layered production lets us see the big bad world beyond the Studio where actually Ma’s reach is limited. Here among these people she may be a superstar but she is only allowed to perform at select white functions and even a local policeman sees the colour of her skin before her fame, refusing to accept her side of the story over an alleged assault which delayed her arrival at the Studio. It’s only when her white manager vouchers for her and pays-off the cop that she is free. So however famous and powerful she thinks she is, the play shows she still needs help to maintain her status. What is so brilliant about Clarke’s performance is that she has no idea how dependent she is on anyone else, which only adds to the meaning for the audience. But she’s not a monster in any way and here again it is the music that allows us to see more of her heart when she says that singing the blues isn’t about making herself happy, it’s a necessity to get through the day and make sense of everything.

As ever with the National the designers, Ultz, have outdone themselves with in-effect a three storey construction that implies the nature of status in this play. Initially it’s a bare studio floor, just a microphone and some chairs so you can see all the rigging and lighting backstage in what looks like an enormous empty warehouse. In the centre is a small cabin recording booth up a winding staircase. The third level is downstairs from the studio floor, a rehearsal room which rises up onto the stage like a giant oblong box which is where most of the musician interaction takes place – they are the lowest in this food-chain. Ma dominates the studio area but only the white manager and studio boss are allowed into the cabin where they sit above everyone else, barring entry with a ‘No Admittance’ sign – telling you everything you need to know about this society.

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a song that eventually we get to hear, one of four the band is set to perform, and the one that causes such anxiety among the band. Perhaps what is so astonishing about this play is that the anxiety it speaks of is not entirely confined to race, but to the nature of people in general. There is no obvious good and bad, no heroes and villains just a group of people trying to survive and often doing the most damage to the very people they should be trying to help. The National’s production couldn’t be more timely with diversity rows overshadowing this year’s Oscars and already rearing its head in the American Presidential campaign. But this play is saying that political respect is only half the battle and respect for individuals and their histories is the key, brought together by wonderful music.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is at the National Theatre until 18 May. Tickets start at £15 and the production is included in the National’s Friday Rush scheme where tickets are sold for £20 from 1pm.

Champagne Life – Saatchi Gallery

Virgile Ittah SculpturesIf you ever thought that Chelsea was a bit trendy for you then the latest exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery may have you running for the hills. Prepare yourself now… the whole thing is devoted to female artists – I know, women doing art, the very idea! Now it’s one thing to do a bit of embroidery at home as part of your suite of accomplishments that will attract a suitor but these dangerously radical women actually produce their own paintings, sculptures and giant clay cows, and then put them on public display where people other than their husbands, fathers and brothers will see them.

Feel patronised enough yet? I’m in two minds about the purpose of this show; an all-female exhibition shouldn’t raise the slightest eyebrow these days but then again should it really be necessary – it’s like those game show quotas at the BBC that insist on one women being present, which on the one hand do guarantee a foot in the door but at the same time means now there’s only ever one women, not two or three as there might have been before, because now they’ve ticked the box. Champagne Life, as you maybe be able to tell, exasperated me for the same reason but this has nothing to do with the quality of the art on display which I cannot deride… ok I’ll deride some it further down, but in general the pieces were varied and interesting. What is frustrating is that there is no thematic structure whatsoever and the only thing these rooms have in common is that the artists are all female.

I’m certainly not against all female shows and the awareness that this will create for the dozen artists involved is excellent, but crucially with no curation it unfairly implies that the only merit required to get into these rooms is a skirt, and the only thing these people have in common is their gender – not their approach to capturing form, not the way they utilise colour or light, but their womanhood. So rant over, let’s talk about the art; first up is Julia Wachtel whose work builds on Andy Warhol’s fascination with celebrity culture and industrial image reproduction. Wachtel uses blocks of images across her canvases which are either one photographer broken into strips or the same picture repeated over and over, as is the case with Champagne Life, from which this exhibition takes its title, which has the same upside down image of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in three of the five strips, interspersed with two right way up images of a cartoon mouse. Other pieces do the same thing, inserting a cartoon character over an older grainier picture, which are interesting but perhaps a too familiar approach.

Much more exciting are Sigrid Holwood’s images of historic Swedish life in which she takes typical nineteenth-century rural scenes of everyday life and washes them with astonishing fluorescent colours to comment on the effects of industrialisation. They are extremely inviting images depicting happy peasants cuddling goats or butchering a pig but burning with highlighter-colours as if infected by industry like radioactivity. Just Googling the image now won’t show you just how vibrant these pictures are in real life as reproduction washes out the colour (which also happens with Lichtenstein actually) but Church Boats is particularly lovely with its watery reflections.

In another room two artists compare the idea of frail human flesh with the robustness of the soul and personality. Jelena Bulajic is fascinated by the lined faces of the elderly and reproduces a number of them in photograph-like detail. Her almost 3 meter high canvases are actually black and white paintings which draw out the personality of the sitter which, as the exhibition guide explains,  is contained within the map of the face.  It’s incredibly detailed work and skilfully achieved. In the same room, Virgile Ittah has created two wax sculptures of human bodies falling off two rusting bedsteads. Up close Ittah has used marble dust to give them a look of classical sculpture but with the roughened texture of the wax they have a wispy quality as though their humanity is wasting away before our eyes.

Upstairs two Alice Anderson pieces dominate the mood of one room using her copper binding technique to create an unsettling tone. Having recently enjoyed her exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on the formation and realignment of memory processes, it’s great to see more of her work her, albeit only two pieces – a giant cotton reel and giant ball, the latter being particularly disturbing, rather like the Dr Who episode where Torchwood experiment on a sphere in Canary Wharf that has no mass or existence just an ominous feel, which I liked.

Mequitta Ahuja’s paintings also uses bright colours to think about concepts of identity and each of her works contain a central figure that combines almost cave art-like figures with what we’re told are self-portraits and a mosaic approach to pattern and texture seen best in Stick Stack. Those life-sized cows mentioned above are by Stephanie Quayle a sculpture whose work examines the interaction between man and animals. Quayle has produced one of the best pieces in this exhibition in Lion Man a kneeling figure with hands tied behind its back, with the head (and luxurious mane) of a lion cowed in submission and possibly fear – a potent statement.

Not everything hits the mark of course and Soheila Sokhanvari’s donkey on giant green air balloon is certainly not my cup of tea for all its political meaning, neither are the numerous pieces by Suzanne McClelland which intersperse squiggles and numbers to ‘convey data sets pertaining to both body builders… and domestic terrorists in the US.’ I read the programme notes several times but couldn’t make sense of this stuff or what it was supposed to mean. It ends with a separate but related show of challenging sculpture by Aidan whose funereal black and white marble figures comment on religion, mortality and expectations of women in patriarchal societies.

So while I enjoyed a lot of the pieces, sparse as they are and most of the rooms feel very empty, I did feel frustrated on behalf of the artists involved whose work deserves fairer comment – particularly Alice Anderson who was deemed influential enough to warrant her own, rather intriguing, show at the Wellcome Collection recently. Given the increased coverage of female equality issues in the last year, especially around the release of the film Suffragette, it’s a clever bandwagon for the Saatchi to jump on. And one of the things I’ve liked most about visiting this gallery is the random collection of stuff with very little detail, allowing you to make up your own mind about it – I just wish this time the curators could have put a little more thought into the themes these artists explore. The politics of it aside, it should not detract from some interesting pieces and the chance to see 12 very different artists. Let’s hope that at the next Saatchi exhibition, all artists are considered based on their relevance and regardless of their gender.

Champagne Life is at the Saatchi Gallery until 09 March (currently closed  for Fashion Week but reopens on 2nd March). Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse – Royal Academy

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1903

It may be a wet and cold winter in London beset with traffic jams and seemingly endless darkness, but inside the Royal Academy’s glorious new exhibition it is high summer. Abundant flowers bloom all around you, bright green leaves and grasses almost escape their frames and the sun burns down on almost every image of verdant splendour. The British love of garden aesthetics dates back hundreds of years, from formally designed ‘classical’ styles at great stately homes beloved of monarchs and aristocrats, to the romantic wildness of later years, the opportunity to own, shape and grow our own gardens has become a widespread leisure pursuit. Napoleon may have thought us a nation of shopkeepers but we are also a nation of gardeners.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse exploits this brilliantly, bringing together the biggest artistic names in the period of Monet’s life all of whom were inspired by and painted garden scenes – Van Gough, Renoir, Singer Sargent, Klimt and Matisse (an art heist’s dream), alongside other artists representing Spain, England and Italy. The Monets, of course, are the big draw for anyone visiting this exhibition, and they are extraordinary, but don’t let them entirely distract you from everything else. This is not an exhibition to rush around but take you time, relax and enjoy every carefully chosen piece.

The exhibition is arranged thematically starting with an introductory section on Monet and Renoir who took inspiration from their gardens. Largely these are domestic scenes, not quite on the scale of the water lilies (be patient they do come a bit later) and certainly not the extensive formal gardens of stately homes. Instead we have Renoir’s charmingly meta depiction of Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil in 1873, in which the man himself stands to one side of an overflowing rose bush painting the scene ahead of him, while his friend Renoir paints him painting. This sits beside Monet’s own view of his garden from a different angle but with a similar burst of foliage and flowers drawing your eye away from two strolling figures at the back. Another domestic scene, Lady in the Garden by Monet is also exquisite and, as the exhibition argues, neatly depicts the middle classes increased pleasure in their gardens as a place of retreat and relaxation.

Cleverly, having given you some Monet’s up-front, the rest are confined to two separate rooms, one in the centre, before building to the news-worthy pieces at the end. It’s an excellent approach allowing the viewer to see chronological shifts in Monet’s work in the context of artists and movements that influenced him. It also means these other pieces get the fair deal they deserve because people aren’t just rushing to the Monet in each room and then leaving. Sticking with him for the moment, his early years at Giverny are given an entire room to themselves with several of his most famous water-lily scenes. We’re told more about his plans to divert water from a nearby stream to create the water garden and in it breed new species of lily which he went on to paint – here the use of original letters and photographs make a great addition. The influence of Japanese styles can be seen in the bridges included in some of his most famous pictures spanning the water way as cascades of lilies float on the water. My favourite, Water Lilies, painted in 1903 beautifully combines pearlescent pinks, whites and blues as reflection of the sky in the water as patches of lilies float off into the distance while a single branch from an overhanging tree peeks down from the top. It’s perfect.

The final sections of Monets are at the end, painted after the death of his wife and during the period of the First World War when he refused to leave his beloved garden. Here the tone has shifted considerably and the lightness of the early images is replaced by darker autumnal tones and heavily textured brushwork which actually reek of impending death and decay – a fitting comment on the heavy loss of life experienced by soldiers in those years. These are stunning images and seeing them together starkly underlines Monet’s style shift. Saving the best till last the RA’s exhibition packs an almighty punch on the way out – the Water Lilies (Agapanthus) triptych from 1915-1926, displayed together in Europe for the first time as each piece belongs to a different gallery. Fitting seamlessly together, the whole thing which dominates the final room is an almost overwhelming experience and almost defies description – beautiful, radiant and a privilege to see.

But Monet is only the half of it, and this splendid exhibition has plenty more to say. In room two it looks at Impressionist interpretations that rage against growing industrialisation and attempt to document a growing interest in horticultural science. Caillebotte’s The Wall of the Garden is in stark contrast to the exuberance of other works, being much more restrained, and paler than his counterparts. Meanwhile Jeanne in the Garden, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro is somewhere between the two, a more self-possessed garden with a wistful figure in the shade. This leads nicely into the International Gardens room which combines a variety of approaches including Max Liebermann’s impressions of his garden at Lake Wannsee which were not really to my taste, while Laurits Tuxen’s image of a figure consumed in an abundant sea of flowers and Peder Koyer’s charming painting of Marie in a deckchair under a white rose bush are delightful. There are a few Singer Sargent gardens although his masterpiece Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, remains firmly in the The Tate, but there is room for Van Gough’s Daubigny’s Garden at Auvers which has a textured swirly quality familiar to the artist, while Klimt’s stunning Flower Garden is a shining inclusion.

A more eerie interpretation of gardens occurs in the final rooms, looking at them in different stages of light and entirely devoid of people which changes them from places of happiness and colour to areas of shadow and fear. Artists like Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard encourage us to think more about the cycles of nature in the garden, while Santiago Rusinol’s empty gardens are unsettling, yet they are the perfect pre-amble to viewing Monet’s final works, setting the tone as you approach the last rooms. This is clever curation by the RA who use these pictures to walk you through notions of youth and bloom, before the inevitable aging that follows. As you walk this path through the gallery your mood becomes more contemplative allowing you to view these final Monet’s in the correct state of mind – brilliant stuff. Arguably the RA could’ve got into the spirit a little more with some simple stencil decoration on the walls or around the rooms, other than the park benches, but nonetheless it’s a bright and enticing show.

Amazing too how diverse this collection is and clearly the RA has put extraordinary work into tracking down and borrowing these pictures from galleries across the world and, surprisingly many from private collections. That alone makes this a rare chance to see so much work in one place, but also stunning pictures usually reserved for the pleasure of their unnamed owners. The thematic structure works well but honestly it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d just thrown everything up on the walls, the pictures are so beautiful I would’ve wandered round happily anyway. As with many high profile exhibitions, the weekend viewings are densely crowded and you must fight for space at first, but as you walk through the rooms the beauty and serenity of the pictures has a calming effect till you barely notice anyone else because you’re so drawn into those wonderful gardens, dreaming of the summer that still seems a long way off.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy until 20 April. Entry is £16 for adults (without donation) and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

The Master Builder – Old Vic


Ralph Fiennes is truly a master builder… of character, and the West End has seen two highly accomplished performances in under a year and with the announcement last week that he’ll take the lead in Antony and Cleopatra at the National in 2018 stage work is taking priority. Following on from his superb lead in Man and Superman, Fiennes has just began a 2 month run as Halvard Solness the title character in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Now Ibsen is tough to get right despite being the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare.

Thankfully after many years elapse Ibsen plays have been given a new lease of life. Following on from the searing darkness of Ghosts at the Trafalgar Studios and the Old Vic’s own production of Hedda Gabler with Sheridan Smith in 2012, this production of The Master Builder has hit the West End at a fortuitous moment, when cluttered Victorian drawings room designs have been swept away and replaced with simpler, airy designs that focus attention on character. What the National did for Chekhov last summer (in the marvellous Three Days in the Country), the Old Vic has now done for Ibsen.

The Master Builder is the story of Halvard Solness, a man who has reached the peak of his profession in his local town. A self-trained architect who started on the building sites, he has risen to control all those around him. Solness is not a good man and early on in the play (so no spoiler) we learn that he and his wife lost their children when their former home burned to the ground, and while they have lived as virtual strangers for many years, that tragedy created the opportunity for his professional success. A consummate manipulator, particularly of women’s affections, Solness’s life is thrown into disarray when a young woman breezes in announcing that he’d kissed her when she was just 13 and promised her a kingdom, which she has now come to claim. Catalysed by her arrival, over the course of three acts, Solness debates the outcomes of his life, clinging to his fame while finally verbalising his guilt and fear, wondering if the personal happiness he has long denied himself has finally arrived.

Ralph Fiennes is surely on course to earn two Olivier nominations in one year (qualifying period is 25 February 2015 to 16 February 2016) which would be an extraordinary achievement given the challenging roles he has selected, and this performance as the Master Builder is one of his finest. Over the course of three acts he drip feeds us insights which begin to change your perspective, it’s not so much a progression as a skilled unravelling of a man riven with insecurities, but clinging to the perhaps meaningless attributes of pride and fame. At the end of Act One we’ve seen a man in complete control of his life, career and the people around him, and Fiennes brilliantly uses not just his tone of voice but also an imposing physicality to make it clear that Solness is king of all he surveys. This form of domineering masculinity is expressed in a firm Colossus-like stance, feet firmly apart and hands on hips, or sitting grandly back in his chair, completely relaxed and in control as he casually flicks away the adoration of his female book-keeper. Even when Hilde Wangel arrives with kissing claims, he dismisses her as a silly girl so by the first interval the man Fiennes has given us is clearly objectionable and manipulative.

David Hare’s adaptation is by no means overwritten but on several occasions Solness gives voice to his turmoil some moments after the audience has already understood that quite clearly from Fiennes’s high calibre performance. The finest actors don’t just act but are able to completely become their characters, and in the Second Act we seen Solness weaken as the effects of the last few years take their toll and he reveals the still tender scars of loss and guilt at having success built on tragedy. His body languages changes from the confidence of the first section to a more shrunken figure, shoulders drooping and pressed into his body, and in a particularly intense scene with his wife, he curls entirely into himself. Much of the introspection he saves for his conversations with Hilde so Fiennes cleverly resumes his more masculine stance when others enter the room, almost a habit he can’t shake off, but partly an unwillingness to concede the spoils he has won even though they don’t make him happy.

Throughout the production this notion of manly expectation is given greater meaning by the knowledge that he has no heir to inherit whatever he has achieved, the lack of children somehow being an affront to his masculinity which he compensates for by being overbearing. The implied casual dalliances with other women and fear of youth taking his prizes away from him are, in Fiennes’s interpretation, a driving force, battles to be won. What was also so fascinating was its contemporary resonance with celebrity culture and the obsessions of fandom which Fiennes, perhaps subconsciously, has drawn on. The idea that the fan feels they know the celebrity, and thereby projects fantasy traits and situations onto them comes across very strongly in this version of the Hilde-Solness relationship, making you wonder how many of the Harry Potter fans in the audience are doing the same with Fiennes in that moment, and what it must be like to have young, and not so young, women (and men) be so engaged with your life in that way.

The character of Hilde then is an interesting one and is designed to bring a sense of freshness to proceedings. To some extent her projections of Solness embolden her so it appears for the first time he is challenged and understood by someone. Sarah Snook’s performance never quite allows the audience to decide if Hilde has entirely invented the kiss, and was merely confused by the awakening of adult feelings in a young girl. It’s a crucial point in the play actually, determining whether Solness was genuinely despicable enough to take advantage of a young girl or whether it’s all in her head, and it’s a good thing to leave open to interpretation. Similarly, it’s never entirely clear whether Hilde genuinely wants Solness to fulfil her dreams or is bent on revenge, and in the final moments her almost sexual excitement could suggest either. Hilde could be a fantasist affected by the repression of sexual feeling, or herself a skilled manipulator plotting the demise of a figure who let her down. While Snook implies these things, sometimes her performance gets a bit jolly hockey-sticks as if trying too hard to appear different to the others, and sadly she is no match for Fiennes who is on considerable form here, so her half of the duologues feel less psychologically complete and it’s harder to see why he’s so won over by her.

There’s good support from Martin Hutson as Ragnar Brovik, the assistant architect frustrated by Solness constantly overlooking his talents and from Charlie Cameron as Ragnar’s fiancée Kaja Fosil with whom Solness mercilessly flirts and casts aside. Linda Emond too as Mrs Solness is very touching and, despite her short stage time, creates an impression of duty that supplants the grief and suffering she feels, which nicely matches the public persona her husband has created to supress his own grief, and there’s a brilliant scene between them in Act Two where they start to move towards one another only to be interrupted, hinting at the relationship they had once had.

There is something quite Shakespearean about this production, a tragedy in the dramatic sense as the protagonist’s fatal flaw leads to an inevitable outcome. David Hare’s careful adaptation highlights the ambiguity of the characters and their position, bringing in the elements of fantasy and philosophical reflection while repurposing the language for the modern ear. Matthew Warchus directs with purpose, giving his actors room to fully explore the various nuances of character while maintaining a handle on pace and tension. Rob Howell’s design is a sight to be seen, long gone is the tiresome clutter of past productions and instead he has created a stylish architects home that feels modern and slick but surrounded on 3 sides by the charred remnants of the past, which whatever they do, they can never escape.  I was beginning to despair of the Old Vic’s new season and had been underwhelmed with the offerings so far but this is a triumph – the perfect combination of great writing, meaningful design, good direction and superlative performance. But my word is this Fiennes’s play and Oliviers or not, it will certainly be talked about for years to come. Don’t miss it.

The Master Builder is at the Old Vic until 19 March. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

Film Review: Trumbo

Trumbo Movie

For Hollywood, there’s only one thing better than making movies, and that’s making movies about making movies. Holding a mirror up to itself is almost as old as the film-making process. From classics like All About Eve, In a Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard that portray the often bitter decline and fall of the acting profession, to more recent takes on movie-making like The Artist or L.A. Confidential. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a tough place for actors, writers and crew members, all of whom seem to suffer from the cut-and-thrust of life in Tinseltown.

Now added to this list is Trumbo, examining the rise and fall and rise again of Dalton Trumbo who was once the toast of Hollywood writers before coming acropper due to his Communist views, and subsequent pursuance by the House Un-American Activities Committee who attempted to root-out and remove any public or influential figures with Communist sympathies from working in America. Known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, this film examines the experience of a group of artists and scriptwriters who were hounded by the Committee, sentenced to prison and added to an official ‘blacklist’ that barred them from working for film-makers. The cost for many was public shame, loss of income, family and opportunity, as well as criminal records for contempt by refusing to recognise the constitutional authority of a Committee to control the thoughts of American citizens.

The solution for Trumbo and his colleagues was to translate their blacklist status into black market activity, writing under pseudonyms or crediting their work to other ‘safe’ writers which meant Trumbo earned two Oscars unbeknownst to the Hollywood Establishment – one for Roman Holiday and one under a different name for The Brave One. This is the story of that process, taking in the backbiting nature of Hollywood life and the numerous betrayals that occurred among this group of people as the pressure increased from McCarthyites desperate to expose and destroy Communist sympathisers, as well as the eventual reaction against the blacklist by leading all-American figures.

With several Oscar nominations of its own, as a film, Trumbo is a mixed bag; it’s an interesting story and one that gives a fascinating insight into the politics behind the scenes of a very glamorous and powerful place. But on the other hand, this is a rather ponderous affair, meandering through the story and never truly representing the very real fear and culture of suspicion this unhappy period of American history revealed. Trumbo can’t entirely decide if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama, so the occasionally wry joke and jaunty means of conveying information sits uncomfortably alongside storylines about divorce, death and disgrace for those being persecuted, while the comedy actually takes away from the strain and danger these men were in.

Technically, the film produces some winning moments particularly in neatly combining original filmed and radio testimony of stars appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dissolves into the modern actors also being questioned. There’s also some nice scenes where sections of films like Spartacus are recreated which give a nice glossy Hollywood feel to the whole thing combining the glamour and allure of the place with the fantasy element of it, which help to explain why men like Trumbo didn’t want to just walk away and do something else. It’s also, of course, a fascinating and inspiring story, one that reveals quite a dark moment in Hollywood history where the whole industry turned its back on those who had earned it a fortune, pitting friends against each other and subsuming artistic freedom to the prevailing political wind – and one that many believed was not just unconstitutional but also inhuman. Yet still, Trumbo and his colleagues found ways to subvert the system and work with key allies to continue churning out the work they loved (and a lot they didn’t) until attitudes began to change. The rollercoaster nature of that process comes across really well.

But other decisions in the presentation of this story undermine its serious message – the appearance of ‘stars’ is more of a distraction and a cheeky wink to the audience than adding to the story. It’s a difficult one because admittedly these people were part of the unfolding drama and can’t be left out – no story about Hollywood can entirely ignore the actors – but when David James Elliot appears as John Wayne or Christian Berkl as Otto Preminger it feels like a ‘ooh look a celebrity name’ moment rather than a progression of the story. Admittedly Dean O’Gorman is brilliantly suited to playing Kirk Douglas who rides in to rescue Trumbo from obscurity, but there is a major tension in the film between trying to outline the consequences of this dark time and showing the gleaming face of Hollywood – wherein for the most part shiny Hollywood wins out.

The performances are very good throughout; Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston is a complicated figure as Trumbo showing both his political firmness in not relinquishing his principles and his willingness to sacrifice friends and family for them. One of the most interesting ideas in the film concerns whether Trumbo was a true Communist in that he’d be willing to give up the assets he has acquired to create a better society, but as he loses much of his standing he chooses work over everything else, seemingly with the goal of returning to the level of his former lifestyle –an argument he has with friend Arlen Hird. It’s a fine performance but unlikely to surpass DiCaprio as Best Actor front runner or Fassbender for Steve Jobs (much the better actor in my view but unlikely to earn him a gold statuette this year). Helen Mirren is fine but unchallenged, playing effectively a pantomime villain in lovely hats – the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who had a personal mission to assist the Committee in exposing the supposed ‘traitors’ within. John Goodman is fantastic though as the ‘couldn’t-care-less’ boss of a B-movie studio who hires Trumbo to churn out rubbish. Goodman has some fantastic comedy scenes as he chases away members of the Committee who threaten to expose him and openly acknowledges the nonsense he peddles.

But overall Trumbo is an uneven film, unsure of where it’s going, overlong and slightly fearful of condemning Hollywood too strongly. Writer John McNamara shies away from turning on the studios, actors and workers who so clearly shunned the Hollywood Ten and by reducing some of the darkness of this period doesn’t properly convey the real cost to the people who suffered it. The glossy sheen makes the audience think that it’ll all come right in the end, so that the dark times, which in reality no one knew what was going to happen and these people were in very real danger, are sanitised so that Trumbo’s return to the fold seems inevitable in a way that it never could have been. Later in the film he preaches forgiveness for those days that undermines the purpose of the film which appeared to be to name and shame those who set Trumbo and his like on this course. Yet the lack of bite is the problem which, given this is a film about Hollywood itself, is unsurprising. So even retrospective criticisms have to have a redemptive ending showing that the American dream factory is better than ever – even writers today know which side their bread is buttered.

Trumbo was shown at the London Film Festival. The film goes on general release in the UK on Friday 5th February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

%d bloggers like this: