Monthly Archives: October 2017

Albion – Almeida Theatre

Victoria Hamilton and Nicholas Rowe in Albion, Almeida Theatre

The concept of Britain and our relationship with our nostalgic past is something many playwrights are eager to unpick and has been of particular interest since the divisive Brexit vote last year. Even before that writers like Alan Bennett had considered our engagement with the heritage industry in his 2012 play People that examined how one stately home had to think of its future to preserve its past. Now, Mike Bartlett is treading similar ground with his new play Albion at the The Almeida which charts one woman’s decision to restore and preserve a historic garden.

Having penned the acclaimed Charles III which transferred to the West End and ended up as a BBC TV movie earlier this year, as well as the family melodrama Doctor Foster, Bartlett’s star is riding high and Albion is the first production in a new season at The Almeida after a highly successful year. On paper, then, everything should come together here, the right playwright, the right theatre and the hottest hot topic – how Britain’s hankering for a long-lost past is now affecting its political future – but while the play’s set-up is a good one and it begins well, somehow too many slightly unlikely leaps and a run-time of well over 3 hours means Albion just fizzles out.

Set in the Red Garden of an unseen country house, Audrey has stepped-back from her successful London business and city life to return to her childhood home where she intends to restore the 1920s gardens to their former glory. While Audrey has dragged her long-suffering second husband and daughter to calcify in the country, her sense of purpose pits her against the village when she ends their access to the house. Controlling all around her, Audrey must deal with the girlfriend of her son who was killed in action two years before, her daughter’s absences, the expectations of the villagers who want work, all while trying to create something that honours the past and preserves it for the future.

Divided into four acts, Bartlett’s new play suffers from an unsatisfactory second half and too many storylines that feel thin despite the excessive run-time. When did it become fashionable again for all plays to last for three hours or more? Nothing at the Almeida this year has finished before 10.30pm and, not disregarding the comfort of audience members with sore backs and trains to catch, the work almost never requires these lengthy performances. Ink aside, which was gripping and charming to the end, everything else would have been improved with a judicious edit, and Albion in particular needs a fair amount of cropping.

The first two acts which last for 95-minute before the interval are the best part, setting-up a series of interesting discussions about the nature of grief, of memorialisation and the effect of war on those left behind. In addition, through Audrey, by far the most credible character superbly performed by Victoria Hamilton, avenues also open-up exploring mother-son relationships, the problem of city-dwellers moving halfheartedly into the country, the almost spiritual connection with the physical earth of England and a deep need in middle-age to rediscover your roots while guaranteeing your influence on the future.

Despite a flood of four and five-star reviews after press night a couple of weeks ago and plenty of comments about the profundity of Bartlett’s state-of-the-nation family drama, it final 1hr and 20 minutes throws it all away with unconvincing situations and circular arguments. It’s difficult to explain why without revealing spoilers but an argument that plays-out just before the interval between Audrey and her friend Katherine, is revisited again in Act Three almost exactly as it was with little progression and telling us nothing new about the characters. Likewise, one of the biggest leaps of credulity involves the grief-stricken Anna, the girlfriend of Audrey’s deceased son who’d been with him for only 3 months when he died. Yet she easily takes an important step without any reference to the medical and legal complications, not to mention that enormous expense, that would have put significant if not insurmountable obstacles in her path, as similar newsworthy cases have proven.

As Act Three rather laboriously turns into Act Four, you begin to wonder what is left to say, and when the end comes, none of the early promise has been satisfactorily delivered. All those topics Bartlett established so well are still there and it is packed with comment, but, like Against, the play becomes distracted from its original purpose with almost soapy plotting that undercuts the deeper purpose. There is a sense that the physical ground of England is somehow integral to the British soul, and like many war poets, Bartlett finds a romance in this idea but it doesn’t need three hours to come to fruition.

One of the reasons to keep watching is a wonderful central performance from Victoria Hamilton whose sharp and unforgiving exterior hides a deeply emotional centre, a woman who without realising is channelling her grief into an elaborate project that is entirely bound-up with her new understanding of life’s unfair fragility. Everything about Audrey feels real, from the hard-nosed business woman who deliberately stepped-back from the company she started from scratch to pursue a more fulfilling life, to the mother and friend frustrated by the foolish choices she perceives from those around her.

Where Hamilton excels is in making you understand that Audrey’s anger, interference and desire for control actually comes from fearing the long-term emotional consequences for her loved ones who will be permanently and regrettably altered by the things they’re doing. She’s not someone who is outwardly emotional, she resents any idea of expectation imposed on her and rails against it, but she does care and deeply about preserving and protecting all the fragile things in her garden. It is a really superb performance by Hamilton who dominates the show in the right way and exposes the paleness of the other characters.

The best of these is Anna (Vinette Robinson) who is invited to the Red Garden but finds comfort in its peaceful environs and a connection to fallen soldiers that she is unable to leave. Her conflict with Audrey is only partially about her former partner and instead is more generally about the different perspectives on the past that the two women compete over. Despite a relationship of only a few months, Anna sees that period as having shaped her and with an  importance that results in the unlikely scenario described above. And while it’s clear that Anna is forging her own link between past and future, quite distinct from Audrey’s, some of the devices chosen to express that – including rubbing soil between her legs – feel melodramatic and faintly ludicrous, especially as Robinson plays her as a remarkably sane woman.

There are plenty of good performances among the rest of the cast even if their characters are little more than sketches. Helen Schlesinger is a calm presence as novelist Katherine, and while it’s hard to believe that she wouldn’t have given-up on Audrey’s one-sided friendship years before, there is plenty of angst to drive a major subplot. Similarly, Charlotte Hope as Audrey’s daughter Zara with literary aspirations plays with ideas of hero-worship and the university process of self-discovery that examines the choices of youth, while Nicholas Rowe’s Paul is a bored but supportive presence as the husband Audrey dragged somewhat unwillingly from the distractions of the city.

There are also a series of servant-roles who give additional context but mostly serve as reflections on Audrey, who is frustrated by the ineptitude and perceived entitlement of local cleaner Cheryl (Margot Leicester), while continuing to employ her and more efficient Polish cleaner Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), a sign of the heart beneath Audrey’s brusque efficiency.

Miriam Buether’s oval garden set in the ¾ round is charming, but two long sequences in which characters symbolically plant and tear up a series of flowers and shrubs around the perimeter may be loaded with meaning but they do protract an already long evening. Albion has a lot going for it and lots of things that it starts to say, but despite Victoria Hamilton’s wonderful performance, its length works against it. It becomes a little repetitive, de-prioritising audience comfort for an overly strung-out conclusion. Albion could get where it’s going a bit fast, it just needs a thorough pruning.

Albion is at the Almeida until 24th November and tickets start from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

 

Advertisements

Young Marx – Bridge Theatre

Young Marx, Bridge Theatre by Manuel Harlan

Once you’ve been the head of one of the most respected and well-known theatres in London, what can you possibly do next? Well, apparently you take everything you’ve learned, head beyond the Southbank and Bankside to create your very own purpose-built theatre amidst the new bars and restaurant around City Hall. After announcing the project more than a year ago and frequent pictorial updates on its construction, Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre is now officially open for business next to Tower Bridge, with its first play Young Marx already looking extremely solid ahead of its press night later this week.

As much charm as there is in our Victorian theatres, their size and facilities were built for a different age, so a brand new theatre means more comfortable seats made for normal-sized people, the chance to create decent sight-lines from every vantage point, and most importantly more than two ladies toilets per floor. Happily, the Bridge has all these things, in fact the auditorium is almost a carbon copy of the Dorfman at the National, only bigger, and despite the crush in the foyer, this has the potential to become a great social and cultural space.

Its inaugural performance is a new play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman about the less well-known younger years of Karl Marx. We think of Marx these days as an old man with a big beard writing dry economic theory and giving 70s historians concepts to try and fit the past into. Bean and Coleman’s vision couldn’t be further from this image, and instead this Marx is a bit of a scoundrel, careering around Soho, pawning anything he can get his hands on, hiding from the bailiffs and exasperating his long-suffering family.

Marx, his wife and two children are hiding in 1850s London from their Prussian persecutors unable to ever return to Germany. Living in penury in a shabby two room apartment in Soho, Marx has more pressing concerns; he’s expected to start an anti-capitalist revolution but can’t write while he spends all his time trying to quell the violent tendencies of The Communist League, visiting all 18 pubs on Tottenham Court Road and hiding in a cupboard. But when secret information is revealed, Marx must uncover the spy in his midst, and, with the help of his old friend, Engels, finally write his masterwork currently titled ‘Economic Shit’.

Young Marx is an enjoyable cartoon caper, a delightful farce that also manages to be occasionally quite touching. Based on real events in his life, his Marx is a not-quite-so-lovable rogue who will make the audience despair as they’re laughing at each self-inflicted mess he gets himself into. But the play’s success is surrounding Marx with a colourful cast of radicals in The Communist League, friends and family that give a flavour of his life and the impact of his self-centred behaviour on those around him. Happily, this also includes two well-constructed roles for the women in his life, his wife Jenny and their maid Nym.

Bean and Coleman’s play also avoids many of the tiresome Dickensian clichés which have become such a lazy shorthand for any aspect of poverty in the Victorian era, giving the whole thing a thrumming life of its own, allowing it to maintain an infectious energy throughout, which Mark Thompson’s hyper-real revolving set supports extremely well. He may live in a little more than a squat, consorting with pawnbrokers and vagabonds, but Marx feels like a thoroughly modern man, deeply flawed and entirely human, but with a force of nature, a chemistry that, despite their better judgement, has other people dancing to his tune.

And this feels really relevant to the way we glorify and accept the failings of our own celebrities, with poor behaviour and diva demands written-off as “artistic temperament”. The idea that someone’s genius – be it intellectual or creative – is worth the price of their arrogance, entitlement and inability to accept that codes of decency apply to them, is one that feels especially pertinent at the moment in the wake of revelations about the misuse of power by TV personalities and Hollywood moguls that have come to light in recent years. In these examples, and beneath the comic gloss of the play, is an important central question about what we are and should be willing to forgive just because someone happens to sing or pontificate especially well.

As Marx, Rory Kinnear balances all of these competing characteristics, offering a portrait of a reprobate economic theorists whose every thought is about anti-capitalist revolution or having a good time himself. Even preparing breakfast for the family he lets down again and again, becomes a lecture on the provenance of a sausage. But Kinnear’s skill is in wrapping all of this in a perfectly-timed comic shell, keeping the tone light and breezy most of the time, and landing the more emotional moments at just the right pitch.

Marx is not a man you’re asked to love or even respect, and Kinnear shows the audience that every hilarious encounter is also an example of him betraying, using or avoiding someone to get what he wants – if he was any richer he’d be an out-and-out cad. While Kinnear has focused on serious European theatre in the last couple of years with The Trial and The Threepenny Opera, it’s clear this role is the most fun he’s had, and arguably his best, since he played Iago at The National. He relishes every ounce of his carefree rascal, delivering put-downs with a whip-like severity and trampling over his loved ones… but then he has the rights of the worker to defend.

His partner “Freddie” Engels, played with charm by Oliver Chris, is a more responsible and self-aware contrast in the jokey Vaudevillian partnership of “Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx”, a frequently repeated refrain that binds them together. Engels role is largely to protect Marx from himself and clear up his messes, and the believable brotherhood Chris and Kinnear create is vital in accepting some of the plot’s later twists. But, Chris makes Engels more than a footnote in the story of his more famous friend, giving him both a lothario’s existence and a conscience that become the voice of reason in the play.

Again and again, Engels tries to encourage Marx to write, recognising his superior talent for expressing their political beliefs and inspiring others. His own background, sent to work in his family’s Manchester factory but with independent means, is used to show his own devotion to his friend and the sacrifices he is prepared to make to ensure Marx becomes the great man he is supposed to be, and Chris’s Engels is a sympathetic figure while also making the most of the comedy double-act.

Nancy Carroll’s Jenny is a suitably conflicted wife, furious with her husband’s lack of respect and failure to provide for his family, while also still being drawn to his revolutionary charisma. She’s part of the faction that meet to debate ideas and offers input into his writing, all the while remaining desirable to potential lovers. Laura Elphinstone as maid Nym is equally part of the family, supporting husband and wife while becoming increasingly drawn into the household dramas with a convincing sense of her own agency. Crucially, you believe both women exist when the men are not around.

It’s a large cast that add texture to a catalogue of comic incident among London’s immigrant population, easing us between Bean and Coleman’s delightfully surreal scenarios including a gloriously modern line for a policeman who is thanked for not hitting Marx and Engels when he catches them urinating in Soho Square, saying he’s been on a course. Interestingly, the family use German accents when speaking to someone English but the rest of the time talk in their own variations of British voices, adding to the idea of Marx as a bit of a geezer and neatly navigating the line between the perception of them as a West End foreign colony, but also that they’re just like us.

The Bridge Theatre’s opening performance is, then, a very entertaining night at the theatre and Hytner’s smooth direction ensures that the 2.5 hour run time doesn’t seem enough. It’s a bold and significant decision to christen this new space with a fresh play rather than a well-known classic, but one that pays-off handsomely. And with tickets from as little as £15, the trip to Tower Bridge is all the more worthwhile. Bean and Coleman will irrevocably alter your idea of Karl Marx with this charmingly cartoony comic caper; Communist economic theory has never been this much fun!

Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 December and will be broadcast by NT Live on 7 December. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


A Woman of No Importance – Vaudeville Theatre

A Woman of No Importance - Vaudeville Theatre

Having once been the Artistic Director of a major London theatre whatever you choose to do next will generate significant interest. Next week former National Theatre head Nicholas Hytner welcomes his inaugural press night to The Bridge Theatre, London’s first brand new playhouse in years, while tonight former Globe AD Dominic Dromgoole launches his year-long celebration of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre, opening with this production of A Woman of No Importance.

It’s fairly unusual for a Wilde play to open cold in the West End these days and more often versions come from regional or touring productions that earn a transfer, so this is a particularly interesting choice for Dromgoole. Last year, Kenneth Branagh concluded a 12-month residency at the Garrick Theatre that has brought the curated season back into fashion, so Dromgoole’s four-play collective under his new Company Classic Spring, that will also include An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and up next Lady Windermere’s Fan from January is less of a risky venture than it would perhaps have been considered 2 years ago.

Wilde’s comedy plays are frequently performed by professional and amateur theatre companies and much loved by audiences. Like Noel Coward, you know exactly what you’re going to get before you sit down and the less frequently performed A Woman of No Importance has all the ingredients that you expect; a collection of snobby aristocrats, a comedy vicar, a dark secret that threatens to expose the leading man and as many witticisms on the nature of man and society as you can stuff into 2.5 hours. But by the end of Dromgoole’s sparkling production it also has something else… it has heart.

At the country home of Lady Hunstanton, a collection of society’s finest have gathered for a dinner party where it is announced that young Gerald Arbuthnot is to become secretary to the eternal bachelor Lord Illingworth. Still in his prime, Illingworth flirts mercilessly with the ladies as the guests happily exchange gossip and bon mots, while espousing their political ideas on love, marriage and social decency. Into this happy scene comes Gerald’s mother, the sorrowful Rachel Arbuthnot who is surprised to come to face-to-face with a figure from her past and a shocking secret is revealed.

The downfall of many an Oscar Wilde production is trying too hard to make it funny rather than trusting the rhythm of the lines which do almost all the work for an actor. Dromgoole’s production suffers no such concerns and has assembled a very fine cast who create a genuine impression of a group of people who’ve become comfortable with each other’s caprices over the years, while mostly delivering the text as though it were natural speech. It’s a large cast which has been carefully considered and directed to ensure even the smallest role is distinct, and even the servants have a quietly present role to play in suggesting the life of a busy household.

Absolutely stealing the show, Anne Reid is a magnificent Lady Hunstanton, the comfortable dowager whose easy hosting style reveals a love of life and real pleasure in the diverting company of her friends. Reid exudes warmth and makes you long to be her guest, but, in what could have been a quite an empty role relegated to ushering people from room to room in search of food and entertainment, Reid allows her Lady Hunstanton to become subtly more inebriated as the evening unfolds, throwing in an overlarge turn here, one restrained hiccup there, that make you long for her return every time she leaves the stage. With spot-on timing, her performance is a comic joy.

The production’s coup de theatre however is to use Reid and her servants as the entertainment between Acts and while the curtain momentarily comes down to rearrange the set, Reid and co sing a selection of appropriately themed drawing-room songs while we wait. It’s a cunning and entirely successful piece of staging that keeps the plays momentum through the frequent changes of location while offering the audience a touch of innovation as Reid sings to us as her character as though revealing the after-dinner accomplishments all ladies were expected to have, a wonderful Vaudevillian moment (in the most appropriately named theatre). One of the servants then invites us back to join the other guests, a lovey touch.

As the woman of the title, Eve Best is quite the opposite as Rachel Arbuthnot, a sombre and emotional figure walking through the party like the spectre at the feast. Best is always very good at delivering long-repressed emotion, and although she slightly overdoes the histrionics in the Third Act, she makes up for it in the Fourth with a nice sense of self-possession and vindication as her experiences lead to the play’s conclusion. At times, perhaps, a tad more bitterness and vitriol could be introduced when faced with the person who wronged her, but her final extensive monologue to her son is full of love and delivered with feeling.

This is very much a play about women and their power in society so much of the action focuses on their interaction in the drawing room as well as the airing of their contrasting political views. Emma Fielding is excellent as the modern Mrs Allonby, talking to the men as their equal, flirting openly and revelling in her position as a married woman with considerable freedom away from her husband. She has a nice frisson with Dominic Rowan’s Lord Illingworth as well as frosty dislike of the more puritan Hester Worsley. Eleanor Bron has a natural superiority as Lady Caroline Pontefract who easily dismisses the concerns of others while keeping close watch on her husband, and Crystal Clark as Hester manages the contrast of her discomfited American puritan among careless wealth well.

Apart from the central scandal, the men all seem rather superfluous in this world of women, but Dominic Rowan is suitably scathing as Lord Illingworth, maintaining a sense of the magnetism of the character that makes him popular and attractive to women, but balances this with a slightly unsavoury predatory approach to young women and a final flourish that should blow away any audience sympathies. Harry Lister Smith is an innocent and eager Gerald while Sam Cox as Sir John and Will Kelly as servant Farquar get plenty of laughs.

Dromgoole’s direction creates a smooth and sparkly production that zips along, makes the best of Wilde’s social comedy and brings out the anguished undertones and comment on the consequences of privilege that make the final act convincing. A Woman of No Importance is a fine start to this year of Wilde plays and while I harbour a secret hope that at least one of the four productions will surprise us with a more innovative setting, this opener proves that with a clear vision and a very fine cast this should be quite the crowd-pleaser.

A Woman of No Importance is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 30 December and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Killing of a Sacred Deer – London Film Festival

Yorgos Lanthimos makes undeniably odd films and his latest movie The Killing of a Sacred Deer, premiered at the London Film Festival is no exception. At its heart is a tale of sacrifice and the need for justice wrapped in a family drama meets sci-fi meets horror shell. So many genres echo around this film that it should be a mess, but in fact this deeply weird story is a fantastic piece of abstract cinema that references everything from the thrillers of Hitchcock, particularly the music, to the psychological terror of Kubrick’s rolling camera, and does it with flair.

At the 2015 Film Festival Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster also staring Colin Farrell was warmly received and although its premise was equally odd and well executed, the film’s narrative tailed off in the second half as it moved beyond the satirical confines of the hotel and into the woods where it’s purpose became somewhat muddied. The Killing of a Sacred Deer has no such problems, and beneath its bonkers veneer, maintains a searing purpose from start to shockingly dark finish.

And this is because the central concept is an alarmingly simple one, a straightforward revenge-based dilemma with the fear of dire consequences the longer the characters prevaricate. It’s a clever choice to make this a movie about the most universal emotion, love, and one which everyone can related to in some way, but it is the way Lanthimos frames the story, flattens the emotional responses of the characters and contrasts this by employing a range of tension-building techniques that create a genuine sense of jeopardy throughout, leaving the audience questioning what you would do in the same situation.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven has the perfect life; a successful career, a beautiful and loving wife of 16 years and two children who are popular and settled at school. But Steven has a secret friendship with misfit teenager Martin, the son of a man who died during an operation some months before, who sees Steven as a replacement father and starts to become too dependent. Keen to step back, Steven begins to understand the full extent of Martin’s power when his son Bob suddenly becomes sick. With his family under threat Steven trust that science will cure everything, until the increasingly menacing Martin gives him a terrible ultimatum.

Right from the start as the camera pans out from the beating heart of someone undergoing surgery, Lanthimos’s film, co-written with Efthymis Filippou has a striking visual style that seems entirely sinister. Much of this film’s success is down to Jade Healy’s production design and the shrewd use of Johnnie Burn’s music that create a strange world of clinical perfection and hidden agendas. All of the sets seem oddly unreal, particularly Steven’s hospital where he strides down endless squeaky-clean corridors with apparently no patients or other staff loitering about. It’s vast emptiness and eerie silences, only broken by the perfect swooshing of automatic doors, is reminiscent of the kind of “facility” beloved of science fiction where dubious human experimentation is being carried out or murderous robots are manufactured, and gives what should be a safe place of health and healing a much more uncertain purpose. This is amplified by the rapidly retreating camera that moves with the actors making these corridors seem longer and unforgiving, like a shot taken from The Shining.

Even the tastefully decorated Murphy family home that is the basis for most of the other scenes has its dark recesses, mixing the cosy luxury of the couple’s light-filled bedroom and sleek kitchen with the concrete desolation of the basement, a place that features more and more as the assumed perfection of their lives begin to unravel. Frequently too, Lanthimos adopts the Hitchcock technique of filming characters through windows, both distancing the viewer from the individuals to blunt our sympathies, while simultaneously distorting our impression of them. And there’s a shot of Steven and Martin with a bridge in the background that’s pure Vertigo.

The music is a swirl of heavy strings and drum beats that’s also right out of Hitchcock, and because the delivery of the lines is purposefully unemotional, it signals the highest moments of tension and some of the crucial twists, as though it rather than the actors is portraying pain, fear and disgusted comprehension. The music is also deliberately overbearing, it’s not there to gently underscore a scene but to act as an integral part, an additional character in the unfolding drama that does as much to affect the audience’s perception of time, place and tone as any other part of the film.

It can be difficult for Hollywood actors to shake off industry expectation and the easy typecasting that sees them make the same film repeatedly, but Colin Farrell, who also starred in Lobster, has successfully moved away from the generic action roles of his 20s and 30s to take on a more varied selection of projects in recent years, and a willingness to embrace a different physique and appearance to suit the smug middle-class existence of this role. His Steven is a fascinating depiction of misdirection, delivered in the entirely deadpan tone that makes Lanthimos’s work so strangely watchable.

Farrell plays with our preconceptions about the arrogance of surgeons and God-complexes and through his predicament the idea of having life and death in his hands becomes something else entirely. He’s also extremely hard to read, and while initially we sympathise with his insistence on fact and procedure, the effect of his evasiveness raises plenty of questions about his character, his ethics and even his skills as a doctor. Farrell slowly unveils these layers as the story twists and turns, leaving the viewer with no sense of what he’s going to do, yet maintaining a consistent idea of Steven as a person, as though these traits were always there, just hidden and distorted.

Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s Anna evolves past the role of dutiful wife, devoted mother and apparently successful career woman – she has a clinic we never see. Cast initially like a Hitchcock blonde, a hostage to fate, awaiting rescue, her own motives become increasingly difficult to discern. On learning of the ultimatum, she is as guilty as Steven for prolonging events, fearing as much for herself as for her family, and she becomes more of an accomplice in the eventual outcome. Like her husband, Anna has a cool demeanour that seemed like contentment but has murkier depths as the tension heightens, which Kidman delivers with a degree of ambiguity that nicely compliments the film’s disturbing tone.

There are few things more alarming in a horror film than creepy children and the three young actors successfully pitch their performances to leave open severely interpretations of the script. Barry Keoghan as Martin is a shy damaged boy who on the surface takes a paternal shine to the man who last saw his father. But Martin has a more complex psychological role in the drama which Keoghan plays with an understatement that maintains credibility in the most bizarre moments. Likewise, Raffey Cassidy as daughter Kim and Sunny Suljic as Bob also tread an interesting line between manipulator and victim that take the film into some extremely black territory as they play with audience sympathies.

The purposefully restrained, emotionless and stilted delivery of the lines takes a while to get used to and is often at odds with what’s being said, but is a core ingredient of the uneasy world of compromised morals and impossible choices. The Killing of a Scared Deer is a film that has to be watched without too much knowledge of the plot to truly enjoy its many twists and surprises. Lanthimos’s skill as a director and co-writer is to deliberately subvert your expectations of what the end should be and how you expect characters to behave given the issues they face, and it is this that heightens your investment, wanting to find out who they really are and how far they will go. Sinister, weird and with the blackest heart, The Killing of a Scared Deer is a sacrifice worth making.

The Killing of a Scared Deer was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 3 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Battle of the Sexes – London Film Festival

In a year in which women’s sport has received more television coverage than ever before, it seems appropriate to revisit one of the occasions that made that possible. 44 years ago, tennis ace Billie Jean King took part in an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs, a match he was sure he would win, that changed the view of women’s sport and the dedicated athleticism of its players. Battle of the Sexes is an insightful look at a core moment of change not just in sport but one that marked a shift in societal perceptions of female strength and ability.

Unusually, this film crosses two established genres and Battle of the Sexes is essentially a biopic meets sports movie. While the latter tend to unpick the particular personal characteristics that create individual success in a chosen sport examining their intensity, stamina and personal drive to be the best, the new wave of biopics have eschewed the cradle to grave approach to consider crucial periods in the lives of their protagonists. At the forefront of this redrawing of the biopic boundaries was Danny Boyle, the director of Steve Jobs, a film that will only grow in stature as it ages, and it is no surprise to hear that Boyle, who has long explored the boundaries between art, technology and popular culture, was one of the originators and producer of this new film.

In 1973 Billie Jean King led a significant revolt against the United States Lawn Tennis Association when they refused to make the tournament prize money equal for male and female winners. Establishing the Women’s Tennis Association with membership fee of $1, King and her fellow outcasts quickly set-up their own tournament and it is here that Battle of the Sexes begins as King butts heads with USLT President Jack Kramer. This is significant in the context of the exhibition match because the film argues that while the televised battle with the sexist Riggs may have been all anyone wanted to talk about, the true battle of the title refers to the one she had with Kramer.

But this is more biopic that sports movie and the film’s driving force in the first two thirds is Billie Jean King’s relationship with hairdresser Marilyn, a sensitively managed and engaging story that sees the two women drawn together by an instant chemistry and the consequent effect on King’s marriage and her ability to perform on the courts. The narrative drive comes from the various pressures on King to conform in her personal life and in the management of her tennis, which are pitted against her struggles to forge a new kind of sporting equality.

And this is very much King’s story, and while the character of Bobby Riggs is given plenty of screen time and his own crumbling marriage backstory to give context to his desire for shock-value attention, he’s really a sideshow to the various dramas and events of King’s experience at this time. The famed match itself, which takes up about 20 minutes at the end of the movie, the audience comes to realise is not the point of this film (as it would be in a pure sports movie), only that the circus it created was a platform for King to be taken more seriously in her call for change at an equally pivotal point in her personal life.

Appropriately co-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the film revels in its 70s period detail but keeps the approach subtle and unshowy. Hollywood has been in love with this decade for some time and while films like the excellent American Hustle flaunted its 70s credentials, Battle of the Sexes is more restrained, sticking to a realistic look and feel without the self-consciousness of similar movies.

Emma Stone has become quite an accomplished character actor, unafraid to play less glamorous or quirky individuals, and earning an Oscar this year for the superlative La La Land (previewed at the 2016 London Film Festival). It’s always fascinating to see what an Academy Award winner does next and playing Billie Jean King allows her to throw off the rom-com heroine with ease and tackle a role that requires considerable sensitivity and the complexity of a person driven almost entirely by sport.

It’s rare that an actor makes films in the order that they’re released, but it is useful that the next big movie Stone is seen in is entirely different to her last. And the dual impact of the personal and professional collision explored in the film is one Stone manages with considerable aplomb. Her Billie Jean is by no means a timid creature, happy to go out on a limb against the Establishment to achieve her aims, and it’s clear that this determined energy and inner steel are part of the make-up of any high-ranking sporting star. Her refusal to be drawn into a war of words with Riggs, wanting her tennis skill to speak for her, signal King’s professional demeanour.

But, it is in the softer moments that Stone makes this film more than a by-numbers tale of triumph over adversity. Inwardly, she is timid, afraid of the emotions that frequently threaten to derail her and for a time affect her game. Every step forward with her sexuality is followed by guilt and self-flagellation which add to the confusion of feeling. Stone develops a believable connection with Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn, but also a genuine care for her husband Larry and the root of her struggle is in trying not to hurt him without entirely negating her own feelings.

Steve Carell is given less to do as the self-styled ‘male chauvinist pig’ Bobby Riggs whose clown-like presence in the film adds much of the humour. With the focus on King, the relatively less time given to Bobby feels deliberate and Carell is clearly having a great time spouting his sexist nonsense and playing-up to Riggs’s cultivated public persona. But the film could have delivered more in terms of understanding his character and his constant need to prove that he is superior to the women he challenges. He’s given a crumbling marriage a love of the spotlight and a gambling problem that add some light and shade to the buffoonery, but it’s all relatively light-touch in comparison to the exploration of King’s character, so by the end of the film it’s still not really clear what his purpose was and what this added to his own sense of self-worth.

There’s an interesting supporting cast led by Bill Pullman in darkly unpleasant form as Jack Kramer who not only supports Riggs, but you feel he genuinely believes every word of his attacks on women’s tennis, so every appearance on screen induces a little shiver. Andrea Riseborough is likeable as hairdresser Marilyn and a convincing love interest while learning about the sacrifices of being a sports wife. Alan Cumming has a small but humorous role as the openly gay designer who dresses King, suggesting the double standard in this era that a man can be gay in certain professions, but as a woman and a sports star King was advised repeatedly to hide herself to protect her career.

Despite its subject there is relatively little actual tennis in Battle of the Sexes and while the famous exhibition match is proposed very early on, it does take a little too long to occur. But, by the time it does, Faris and Dayton clearly show what a circus it really was, delighting in the over-the-top details including both players being carried on in exuberantly decorated sedan chairs. And while the idea of it may be ridiculous – a 55-year old who refuses to train, playing a 29-year old at the top of her game – the real battle for recognition and acceptance was happening off the court with the men running American tennis.

The parallels with women’s experience today are strong and ones which many other reviewers have commented upon. Equal pay is still far from a right, and recent tides in UK and US politics have revealed deep-rooted division and bigotry with even the current White House incumbent known for his derisive views about women. Battle of the Sexes is not a perfect film and one that occasionally struggles with its duel biopic-sports movie approach which in focusing on Billie Jean, waters down the context and some of the surrounding characters. But only a decade on since Wimbledon awarded equal prize money for champions regardless of gender, and 44 years after Billie Jean King’s stand, Battle of the Sexes is a reminder that there’s still plenty more equality to fight for.

Battle of the Sexes received its European premiere at the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on 24 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: