Category Archives: Film

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Donmar Warehouse

While few would now agree that your schooldays are the best of your life, we would still admit to being shaped by our favourite teachers. Looking back, whether at primary or secondary level, the best classroom experiences came from discovering an aptitude for a particular subject or settling on a future career that the best teachers always encouraged, no matter how outlandish. Equally important as you grew up were the teachers who could communicate with you as individuals rather than another homogeneous set of pupils, whose intelligence, interest and enthusiasm would earn your respect. No wonder that drama has so frequently turned to the schoolroom for inspiration.

From Goodbye Mr Chips to Dangerous Minds on film, not to mention Carry on Teacher, to Rattigan’s The Browning Version and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on stage, the teacher-student relationship is continually re-examined. While there has never been more pressure on modern teachers with strict curricula, endless testing and copious paperwork, fictional tutors are, for the most part, curiously free of such restrictions, able to use their unconventional methods to set their charges on the road to a brighter future. One of the most famous literary inventions of them all, is also the most controversial – is Jean Brodie a ‘progressive’ educator or a worrying menace to the mind of her ‘girls’.

A hundred years since the birth of novelist Muriel Spark, her 1961 tale The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted for the Donmar Warehouse by Blackbird playwright David Harrower and directed by Polly Findlay. Page to stage adaptations can be perilous, truncating complex inner voices and motivations to fit the conventions of theatre that on the whole tends to work to a standard 2.5 hour run time, includes an interval at a suitable dramatic moment, and relies on certain expectations of conflict and resolution to propel the plot while sustaining audience attention – some theatre has moved away from this prescriptive approach, but most retains the format. All of this is the enemy of the novel, where authors have long experimented with flexible forms, shifting narratives and prolonged introspection that can seem flat and indulgent when transposed to a visual medium.

This is not the first time Spark’s book has been adapted and several theatrical versions have gone before. Yet, most people will know the 1969 film with Maggie Smith in the title role that allowed Brodie’s most famous phrases to enter the popular consciousness and become synonymous with her performance – to the point of caricature – right down the to genteel Edinburgh accent. This brings its own weight of expectation to Harrower’s new interpretation, with audience members coming anticipating a version of the novel, the film or both, with perhaps a clearly formed idea of how individuals and circumstances should be portrayed. How much viewers enjoy this may depend on their preparedness to relinquish their preconceptions about the characters.

Told in flashback, the story is Sandy’s memory, a former Brodie girl and, as the play begins, about to become a nun planning to take a vow of silence. Tracked down by a journalist who is interested in her previously published book, Sandy starts to talk about her arrival aged 11 at the Marcia Blaine School, where she and a select number of girls – Joyce, Monica, Mary and Jenny – fall under the spell of Miss Brodie, fascinated by her air of freedom, cultural knowledge and political fervour. As the children transform into young women, Miss Brodie’s influence makes its mark on all of them, while her ongoing flirtation with Music Teacher Mr Lowther and Art Teacher Mr Lloyd spills over into all their lives, exposing the extent of her effect on the girls.

While not an especially radical reinterpretation, Harrower has created a version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that recognisably celebrates the original novel and the charisma of its leading lady, while carefully sidestepping any parallels to the famous film. From first to last, the spectre of Maggie Smith and Celia Johsnon are banished, allowing a new cast to give shape and purpose to these roles. It’s a fairly safe production, using a conventional structure that loads the first half with praise and admiration for the inspiring teacher, while the second begins to tear at her motivation.

Harrower spends plenty of time establishing the key characters in the hour before the interval, building-up Miss Brodie as a free-spirit, a vision in scarlet, unwilling to conform to the rules and expectations of Marcia Blaine. A series of classroom scenes reveal her animated, if gossipy, teaching style, and what begins as a willingness to share stories of her life with her 11-year old charges soon includes criticisms of the headmistress and making her personal opinions the definitive response to a variety of topics when she starts to treat the girls as her confidants. Harrower’s adaptation renders this well, offering a sketch of life at the school that opens-up Miss Brodie’s method. Mirroring the girls’ experience, the kindliness of Act One becomes something more complex in Act Two.

After the interval, four years have gone by and the girls, now 15, are in the senior school and not directly taught by Miss Brodie. With so much of the real plot to now fit into the final hour of the show, this production makes clear the shifting affection of some girls has severed the closeness with their former teacher. And while it covers all the key consequences of her teaching style, the Donmar’s adaptation is slightly less successful in emphasising the political and sexual corruption that Miss Brodie advocates, actively using her girls like puppets to vicariously fulfil semi-romantic ideals she refuses to succumb to herself.

Partially, this is a desire to retain a shred of sympathy for the character, not wanting to entirely dismantle the affection that Sandy in particular, and the audience has developed for her. Although this is framed as Sandy’s story, it’s clear from the final scene, which appears out of chronological sequence, that it is Miss Brodie this production wants us to look at rather than the results of her work. The significant moment of political influence that Miss Brodie wields is lightly referenced earlier but the key conversation and its outcome are quickly dispatched in two rapid scenes, likewise the sexual encounter she encourages is glossed over rather than seen as a monstrous attempt to manipulate a young woman. These moments, and the outcomes of Miss Brodie’s intimacy with her set, could be considerably darker, leaving the audience with a more ambiguous image to take home with them.

Lia Williams is an actor who never fails to find exactly the right tone for a character and always brings something fresh to her interpretation. As Miss Brodie, Williams carefully controls every aspect of her interpretation, from the way she carries herself to the particular intonation of the soft Edinburgh accent. Dressed by Designer Lizzie Clachlan in tailored reds and greens to complement a meticulously curled strawberry blonde wig, Williams steps lightly across the stage, arms outstretched, or fingers delicately poised to emphasise her point as she imparts her wisdom to the class. Her physical presence is purposefully contrived to suggest a woman who tightly controls her image, consciously designing the impression of perfection she wants to convey to garner the exact devotional response she desires.

Beneath, there is a warmth to her exuberant tales in which Williams demonstrates how easy it would be for her to charm you, but away from the classroom hints are given of the more sullied desires beneath the surface. The way Williams looks at Edward MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd conveys a raging lust she struggles to hold in check, while actively manipulating the emotions of Angus Wright’s Mr Lowther to feed her vanity while actively dismisses his advances at every turn. As events begin to unravel in Act Two, Williams suggests something almost desperate in Miss Brodie, as her star begins to wane and the affection she ‘demanded’ from the girls dissipates. Although it’s an easy association, there’s something of Blanche Dubois about her, all affectation, secrets and delusion that make you wonder if any of the elaborate stories she’s told – even that of her deceased fiancé – were ever true.

Rona Morison has the more difficult task of portraying Sandy at three different stages of her life – aged 11, 15 and approximately 25 – which isn’t always as clear as it could be. The show’s structure allows director Polly Findlay to cut directly between the elder Sandy discussing events with the Journalist (Kit Young) at the convent and walking directly into the school, but she’s not a character you come to know. Morison does the best with what she is given, but as an observer to much of the action, Sandy’s own motivations, her continuing devotion to Miss Brodie long after the other girls have departed and her crucial role in the conclusion are left fairly unexplored.

Some of the girls are less well-defined, so in a tightly packed two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, there’s only space to see the wider set as Miss Brodie describes them, the intelligent Monica (Grace Saif), the wannabe actress Jenny (Helena Wilson) and meek Mary (Emma Hindle). Nicole Coughlan’s Joyce Emily more complete captures the childlike manner than the other performers, arriving as a sweetly self-conscious and adorable 11-year-old who desperately wants to be included, but feels the pain of not quite finding her own group, while as a 15-year-old Joyce’s political awakening could be given more room in the text, Coughlan imbues Joyce with a naïve idealism and determination that make an impact.

There is good support from Angus Wright’s puppy-dog-like Mr Lowther who only has to be reasonably dull and devoted to Miss Brodie, although his insistance on pressing his feelings in front of the girls adds a nice touch of determined awkwardness. MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd has a small role but cuts a dash as a fairly glamorous figure in his own right, artistic, surprisingly carefree despite his many children and service in the Great War which contrasts well with the staid school atmosphere and makes him a worthy flirtation for Miss Brodie. As Headmistress Miss MacKay, Sylvestra Le Touzel is a granite-like presence, occasionally a little two quiet even for the Donmar’s intimate space, yet her determination to remove Miss Brodie is as calculating as it is cool.

On Clachlan’s tomb-like set, this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie contrasts cold-learning, and harsh realities with the idea of life experience and vivacity, separated by the ringing of bells that hang from the ceiling signalling the end of lessons and scenes. As the play unfolds, Harrower charts how we come to know the human foibles and failings of the adults in our lives, ones which at an impressionable age can shape you in the wrong way. It’s not quite the crème de la crème, deliberately pacifying some of Miss Brodie’s dark sexual and political influences in order to retain sympathy for her, but it is an enjoyable and distinct adaptation that does make you wonder where your favourite teachers are now and how much they really influenced you.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 July, tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

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Film Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach

Most romantic films end with a marriage, but in reality, marriage is just the beginning of a more complex story. Usually months of planning and excitement go in to creating a memorable wedding day and all the couple’s energy is focused on the perfect venue, dress or cake. But when it’s finally over, the newly conjoined couple are left alone and the actual business of being marriage stretches before them, a series of hurdles which the unprepared could find insurmountable. How much trickier this would have been in the more innocent middle years of the last century when propriety barely allowed a couple to see each other unchaperoned before they said “I do.”

Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach set in 1962 is the uncomfortable story of the first few hours in Florence and Edward’s married life as they awkwardly attempt to consummate their union. Circling each other nervously in their worn seaside hotel room, the couple recall aspects of their earlier lives including the shaping influence of their family on their current attitudes and personalities, as well as the chance encounter that brought them happily together. These interspersed memories tell of a romantic love story between two people who seemed destined for one another and certain to be happy, but their physical inexperience hangs heavy between them which leads to recrimination and unexpected truths.

Adapting novels for the screen is never easy and McEwan’s stories are particularly problematic because so much of his writing involves characters’ internalized monologues which can be difficult to replicate on screen without the use of clunky narration or too much expositionary dialogue. Unlike his previous hit Atonement in which director Joe Wright created an emotive portrait of love and war, giving life to one of the author’s finer novels, McEwan has written the screenplay for On Chesil Beach himself, ensuring the protagonists and sentiments remain exactly as he originally wrote them. If not always spritely, it makes for a faithful and sensitive transfer to the screen.

Happily, the project is also a movie debut for director Dominic Cooke, who, fresh from his sensational production of Follies at the National Theatre – which was nothing short of a theatrical triumph, earning its own reprise next year as well as multiple awards. Cooke certainly knows a thing or two about commanding stories of uneven love and the emotive power of long-held infatuations. In fact, watching On Chesil Beach at the London Film Festival last year, the parallels with Follies were striking; both stories are about couples who enter into marriage to escape some aspect of their surroundings and undergo a painful process of self-discovery that pulls them to pieces. But, more importantly, the effect of that decision, made on one particular day, can last a lifetime.

What Cooke brings to the project is the ability to infer so much meaning from a series of tiny signals that illuminate the screen, most notably the frequent focus on hands and mirrors as characters are seen holding linking fingers in moments of distress and need, or squeezing a shoulder to comfort and reassure – we know from Brief Encounter that such a seemingly insignificant gesture can be loaded with meaning, as Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder painfully explicates their final ever moment together. Cooke, fully aware of the power of such gestures, uses these small movements again and again to both emphasise the repressed physicality between Florence and Edward, as well as the more straightened expectations of the period. And in turn, this bodily restraint between them only seems to heighten the shock of their attempts at sex.

Production designer Suzie Davies creates a stiff 1960s world in the Dorset hotel room in which the couple plan to spend their first night. It’s clearly a respectable place, not quite high-end but not cheap either which suitably reflects the relative wealth of the couple, fancying itself as a place that offers silver service in the rooms while employing a couple of jack-the-lad waiters who find it hilarious. It manages to be fussy yet stale at the same time and you wouldn’t be surprised to see antimacassars on the chairs in the day room, a place that seems stuck in the past at a time when the nation was on the brink of a youthful revolution that seems a world away from the physical and emotional confines of this young couple. It’s spacious yet is a place of suffocating restriction for Florence in particular.

Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive central performance conveys a weight of expectation on Florence Ponting that has followed her through a bluestocking childhood, and later in the crushing atmosphere of the hotel room, forces her to accept the role of willing wife while being anything but. Working across two-time periods, Ronan neatly treads the line between a warmly confident young woman, raised in a staid environment and certain of the violinist talent that will ensure the success of her quartet, while the flush of seemingly easy romance with Edward Mayhew offers her a freedom and emotional connection that will release her from her family.

But, when the film returns to the hotel room, Ronan also shows the degree to which their earlier relationship had been a chaste fantasy, and once faced with the requirement for physical intimacy, she becomes afraid. In the growing awkwardness between the couple, Ronan carefully depicts the evaporation of Florence’s confidence as fear, confusion and revulsion take their place. And while the film is quite democratic in its attempt to create sympathy for both sides, Ronan’s performance of a virginal young woman, very much of her time and lacking in experience, cast into the unknown is an affecting one.

As her new husband, Billy Howle is an equal mix of contradictions, and he, along with Director Cooke, work hard to prevent him seeming callous. To facilitate this Edward’s story focuses around the easy bohemianism of his family, a clear class divide with the Pontings who beneath a veer of politeness imply he is an unsuitable match for their daughter. Howle in the flashback sections is a charming and affectionate boyfriend who has earned an academic future beyond his expectations and sees the world in rather uncomplicated terms.

In addition, his close family deals elegantly with his mother’s condition, and the audience admires how eagerly Edward welcomes Florence into his more relaxed and supportive home. His love for her seems real, not just a physical abstention, and even in the hotel room, as an eager groom his desire to consummate the relationship is never brusque or progressed without her consent. In the aftermath of their evening Howle reveals Edward’s depth of feeling, particularly in recognition of their quite different perspective on the same events, as well as his stinging feelings of betrayal that make their ultimate moment on the beach crucial to the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach has a wonderful supporting cast including Sam West and Emily Watson as Florence’s cold and snobbish parents exuding disapproval at every turn, and whose behaviour explains Florence’s own marital reticence. There have only ever been rules and silence in their home, without any attempt at physical affection or to equip Florence for the experiences to ahead. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are equally excellent as Edward’s loving parents, with Duff in particularly giving a small but powerful performance as a woman damaged by a collision with a train door, keeping her “episodes” just the right side of credible. And while they are a more successful family, Cooke suggests the Mayhews too have failed Edward, giving him a sense of romance but, despite the hardship of their lives, he’s guiless when confronted with people whose surface expression conceal their true emotions.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is one of the film’s highlights, and whether it be the stormy vision of the strange pebble beach that so fittingly reflects the turmoil of the newlywed’s relationship, or the sun-drenched nostalgia of countryside picnics and cricket matches during their courtship, Bobbit’s work reflects the emotional tenor of the scene. It is a very British film which comes with everything that tag implies including occasional cosiness and lots of repression. There is a deliberate artfulness to the way in which the film has been constructed, that departs from the book somewhat to create a purposeful impression on the audience which at times feels heavy-handed, as though manipulating the audience to change their response to the characters.

While its quietness may divide viewers, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a very different kind of love story depicted on screen, and one that questions the emotional honesty of couples and their preparedness for marriage. On Chesil Beach wonders how a single moment can change and affect the rest of your life, how a rash decision alters who and what you became, extinguishing something that can never be replaced.

On Chesil Beach opens in the UK on the 18th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Best of James Bond – Royal Festival Hall

The Best of James Bond - Southbank Centre

Another Bond film is slowly approaching; first speculation over the next actor to play the role merely resulted in confirmation that Daniel Craig would assume the mantle for the fifth time; now rumours – seemingly confirmed by the man himself – are rife that Danny Boyle will direct and is working on a script. The only other aspect of Bond preparation that garners so much attention is the song, which as well as being an early indication of the film’s tone, also has to live up to an illustrious history of incredible music that has represented Bond since 1963 – get it wrong and it could colour the reputation of the film.

And we love to rank them, type “Bond theme songs” into Google and most of the hits are for websites rating the songs from best to worst. Our favourite tunes may depend on the decade you were born and the incumbent Bond, in fact it may be easier to find a consensus on the least impressive songs – here’s looking at you Sam Smith (despite the Oscar), Madonna Jack White and Alicia Keyes – but the Bond song is indivisible from the film itself.

In the Daniel Craig era it seems that a poorly received Bond theme indicates a disappointing film, as the rather forgettable tunes that accompanied Quantum of Solace and Spectre attest. But that hasn’t always been the case and the Southbank Centre’s evening dedicated to the Bond theme performed by the London Concert Orchestra is a wonderful reminder of an unstoppable film franchise that has produced hit after hit for some of the most well-known artists of their day.

With the still fairly recent death of Roger Moore, sadly preventing any chance of every Bond actor being seen together, as well as the deaths of Chris Cornell in May last year and three-time Bond director Lewis Gilbert last month, plus the release of collectable 10p coins containing the gun barrel celebrating the Best of British, this concert is a timely reminder of how deeply the character and love of Bond is woven into our psyche. Whether born of endless Bank Holiday repeats, his Olympics special with the Queen or the sheer persistence of his reincarnations, a new Bond film is still a major event, getting it right is a matter of national pride.

Presented in chronological order, The Best of James Bond is a both a history of changing music tastes in the last 55 years and a tribute to the most talented songwriters, musicians and performers in (predominantly) British music. It begins, of course, with the instrumental Bond signature that has appeared in every movie since Dr No. Written by Monty Norman, arguably one of the most well-known pieces of cinematic music ever composed, instantly recognisable and brilliantly performed here by the London Concert Orchestra led by John Rigby.

Throughout the evening Rigby also acts as a warm and welcoming master of ceremonies, filling the spaces between songs with plenty of Bond music facts and introducing the two established musical theatre performers – Oliver Tompsett and Louise Dearman – who take on the unenviable role of doubling for singers including Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Lulu and Tina Turner. The structure is simple but effective, taking each film in turn, with the occasional digression into the wider cultural context, which makes for an entertaining and satisfying tribute to the continuing influence of the franchise.

As Rigby explains, it wasn’t until the second film, From Russia with Love, that the idea of the Bond theme was established and, with scores composed by John Barry for the remaining Connery years, this was a period of memorable music. The themes associated with the first Bond, played in full in the first half of The Best of James Bond, have much in common, and while those now familiar big brass sounds were becoming a core feature of the Bond soundtrack, heard together here, each lone voice has a haunting quality, a warning to Bond or his companions of the trials to come.

While Tompsett captures the smooth tones of wistful crooner Matt Monroe in the title track to From Russia with Love which was sung over the movie’s closing credits, he also brings the more dramatic passages of Tom Jones classic Thunderball, a particular favourite, to life – a feature of Tompsett’s performances throughout the evening – and gives a genuinely beautiful rendition of Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World from the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which Tompsett evokes all the sadness of that particular movie moment.

The first half entirely belongs to Dearman however who is introduced to the audience performing probably the most famous Bond song of all time, and the blueprint for every film and theme to come, Goldfinger. Entirely unintimidated by having to represent the inimitable Shirley Bassey, Dearman is superb and the power of her voice produces chills as she belts out this most memorable of songs. The artists don’t exactly impersonate the original musicians but, with fans in mind, equally they don’t often depart from the way each song was originally performed, so Dearman demonstrates her range as she perfectly recreates every trill and change of tone with ease in both Goldfinger and, later, Diamonds are Forever. You Only Live Twice between them just lacks the reflective softness of Nancy Sinatra’s tone, but there’s no denying the power of Dearman’s voice, and the accompaniment by the London Concert Orchestra is faultless, even as they tackle the instrumental theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The second half of The Best of James Bond which moves into the 1970s and the Roger Moore era, surprisingly omits Paul McCartney’s superb rockier tune for Live and Let Die, but the Orchestra is saving that for the encore. So, Dearman opens the second half with Lulu’s Man with the Golden Gun and then a medley of Nobody Does it Better, Carly Simon’s stunning theme to The Spy Who Loved Me and Sheena Easton’s For Your Eyes Only. The cheekier Moore era loved a romantic ballad, focusing on women in love with Britain’s irresistible spy and the Orchestra take centre stage with instrumental performances of Moonraker and All Time High from Octopussy, that brings in the saxophone as the 80s dawned.

While women have never enjoyed much agency in Bond films, often little more than lovers to be cast-aside between movies or unconvincing nuclear physicists, in the music, solo female performers have far outnumbered men, and this was particularly true in the Moore years where most of the themes were performed by female artists. It’s some time, therefore, before Tompsett reappears in the second half, signalling the brief moment in the 1980s, linking Moore with his successor Timothy Dalton, where two bands provided the title music – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill  and A-ha’s The Living Daylights (also favourites which stand well in the canon). Both suit Tompsett’s voice extremely well and offer the Orchestra more interesting challenges to recreate their distinctive synthesised sounds.

The evening concludes with a quick race through the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig eras, as Dearman sings a medley of Gladys Knight’s Licence to Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and Sheryl Crow’s Tomorrow Never Dies (one of the few instances where the song is probably better than the film). In the only gender-swapped performance of the evening, Tompsett offers an excellent rendition of Garbage’s accompaniment to The World is Not Enough, brilliantly supported by the orchestra, before the artists tackle Skyfall and The Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre. Of course, ending on one of the most divisive themes isn’t ideal, so Live and Let Die anachronistically becomes the rousing encore, showcasing the incredible skill of this most accomplished orchestra.

Carefully arranged to give due precedence to the most high-profile or complex Bond themes, the show is far more than a quick succession of performances. To add further texture, the London Concert Orchestra also perform a collection of well-known melodies from crime series down the ages to reflect Bond’s centrality to our wider interest in crime and detective fiction. Arranged into three ‘guess the theme tune’ sections, which create a bit of audience interaction, the first comprises some well-known British programmes including The Sweeney, Poirot, Sherlock, Morse and The Bill (the composer of which is part of the Orchestra), while an American compilation links the music to Hawaii-Five-O, Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues. And, as those are all rather male-dominated, there is also a section devoted to a mere seven female crime fighters, including Miss Marple, Murder She Wrote and The Gentle Touch, that tells you all you need to know about the relatively poor representation of female-hero figures in the last six decades of television.

55 years, 6 Bonds and 24 films, the music of Bond has been the soundtrack to most of our lives. Monty Norman’s original ‘James Bond Theme’ is a by-word for a character recognised the world over, and although he may still be a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’, he’s part of the fabric of British society, managing to look backwards and forwards at the same time. Danny Boyle is promising a Bond for the #MeToo era, a much-needed tonic to the victim Bond girls of recent years, and it will surely be reflected in the choice of music. Whether it’s another soloist or, perhaps, the return of the band remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, on the basis of The Best of James Bond, they have an illustrious musical history to live up to. Let the speculation begin…

The Best of James Bond was performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 March. Visit their website for future events. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Downsizing

In recent months, climate change has been at the top of the international political agenda; with America controversially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last August, extreme weather bringing plenty of devastation and the BBC’s monster hit Blue Planet warning of its oceanic effects on primetime television, momentum to understand and act to reduce the effects of global warming is growing. Of the many novel solutions addressing the damaging impact of humanity on the natural world,  and perhaps the most unusual, is the one put forward by Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing which premiered at the London Film Festival last October – if we want to reduce our impact on the world we simply need to reduce the size of humans.

This is not the first time that writers and movie-makers have used this idea for surreal or comic effect resulting in work as divergent as Alice in Wonderland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace that unite science fiction, fantasy and sometimes farce as the characters overcome numerous challenges to be restored to their true size. The difference with Downsizing is that the reduction is permanent, and so the film looks elsewhere for its dramatic drivers, with the scientific process for physically shrinking people used as a frame for a wider examination of inequality, deprivation and the empty pursuit of the American dream.

If all that sounds rather serious then don’t despair because Downsizing begins on a much lighter note. When a Scandinavian scientist stuns the world with his community of tiny humans who produce considerably less waste in miniature form than their fully sized counterparts, the ability to transform rapidly becomes a widescale commercial success. Several years later, humanity is divided into two, those who retain their full size and those who have become only 5 inches tall, with the latter living in specially designed communities.

The real story begins when Paul and Audrey Safranek’s (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to give up the drabness of their current life of making ends meet to undergo the ‘downsizing’ process. But something goes wrong and Paul is left alone in his new community where he is unwillingly dragged into the colourful world of his exuberant international neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). While at his lowest point, Paul discovers that this perfect mini-world is not all it seems, and beyond the boundaries of the rich community poverty and overcrowding exist. As Paul is introduced to the underclass by Dusan’s no-nonsense cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau) he realises life could have more meaning than he ever imagined.

Downsizing is only a partially successful film and its best moments are in the first 75 minutes where the focus on the shrinking process is convincingly plotted and well-conceived. Watching the Safranek’s evaluated their lives, meet friends who have been shrunk and even attend a cleverly-staged trade fair where companies attempt to sell them miniature houses to live in and to “buy” the lifestyle they want upfront. There is lots of nicely considered detail including the relative transfer of wealth that makes money worth more in the smaller world, so that if the struggling Safraneks transform they could live in relative luxury, in a mansion without having to work again – a key reason for many to take the plunge rather than reducing their environmental impact.

Science-fiction fans will also enjoy the focus on the physical procedure as the audience follows Paul through his preparation for reduction including the removal of all his hair and marks, being wheeled, along with the other men, into the shrinking machine before removal to recovery by tiny nurses at the other end. Payne also injects a childlike glee in visually establishing the different scale of items within the story representing its shrunken humans against now giant everyday objects including biscuit packets, bottles and a single rose head.

Payne, who wrote the film along with Jim Taylor, also manages Paul’s disillusionment well as he adjusts to his newer lonely life. Much humour is wrung from Dunsan’s elaborate parties and from Christoph Waltz’s characterisation which draws a useful contrast between the carefree sun-seeking approach to his new life and Paul’s much lonelier journey of displacement. Even the discovery of the high-rise slums beyond the Stepford-like community seems to have something interesting to say about the cost of elaborate dreams and the almost inevitable division between rich and poor that will exist regardless of socially engineered attempts to iron them out. Living your dream life will always be at someone else’s expense. If only this was presented more subtly, but it is in this section of the film that the fun dissipates rapidly, leaving a serious and rather po-faced story in its place.

In the final part of the film, Downsizing’s plotting and purpose become over-elaborate and confused, departing considerably from what seemed to be the original purpose of the film. With a misfit group of unlikely friends now established, the action sees the group leave America on a spurious premise to track down the original tiny community and link back into the original scientific purpose of shrinking people. Even though this dominates the final hour of the film, it feels rather tacked on, and by geographically opening the story out it loses the focus it had established.

The two communities are not sufficiently connected to warrant this journey, and while the film has primarily been concerned with Paul’s growing understanding and adaptation to his new world, the sudden focus on a new hippy community, climate change and the madness that ensues from cutting yourself off with the world is too jarring and cartoon-like to be convincing. Had Downsizing remained in its original community-setting, tackling the inequality it presents in living conditions while allowing Paul to find some sense of contentment, it would have felt more dramatically satisfying than what is a mish mash of silly ideas that are neither amusing or really very meaningful.

Matt Damon is decent everyman Paul whose comedy partnership with Kristen Wiig’s Audrey works very nicely in the film’s early scenes and they make for a convincing couple. Damon, though never given the opportunity to do very much, navigates the film’s changing tones quite well, conveying all of Paul’s excitement to start a new life, disappointment and depression at being left alone, frustration with his neighbour and growing admiration for the people he meets in the deprived tower blocks. Yet, there’s never a chance to get inside his head, although much of that is down to the film’s inconsistent tone – if it’s a light comedy then characterisation is less important, while something more serious needs proper character motivation.

With a broadly comic performance, Christoph Waltz as Dunsan is an unexpected highlight as the sociable but socially unaware European neighbour who rescues Paul from his malaise. Used to seeing Waltz as psychopaths and megalomaniacs, he creates a surprisingly camp and eccentric character that steals most of the film’s more amusing moments, and while in any other movie this would feel hugely exaggerated, Waltz brings some much-needed light relief in the later parts of the film.

Hong Chau is an actor to watch and her performance as former Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc is full of promise with sharp comic timing and the ability to bring out the emotional undertones of any scene. Yet, there is something slightly amiss in the way the character is written and despite Chau’s performance, it’s difficult not to feel slightly uncomfortable with way Ngoc is positioned as the butt of stereotypical jokes about her stilted English and blunt demeanour, it’s really not the 1980s any more. And as for other female characters, apart from Wiig’s all to brief appearance in the early part of the film, this ultimately boils down to yet another story about a man saving the world when, what amounts to his own greed for a more luxurious life, made him to see things differently.

What starts as a social satire that revels in the visual humour of differently scaled objects unfortunately descends into a heavy-handed message-film that takes itself a bit too seriously and ultimately has very little to do with the consequences of shrinking people. With an ending that is entirely out of kilter with the original set-up and a meandering plot that becomes too elaborate for the writers to successfully conclude, Downsizing leaves the audience both disappointed and slightly uneasy. There is about an hour’s worth of good comedy in here and if it had continued to satirise the preoccupation with individual wealth over community then it would have been a much more successful film, but with its muddied and half-hearted environmental credentials, Downsizing falls a little short.

Downsizing was previewed at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 24th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Harry Potter: A History of Magic – British Library

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, British Library

Love it or hate it, read every word or none at all, there’s no denying that the Harry Potter novels have become a cultural and literary force. Now, 20 years after the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone the books have spawned two separate movie franchises, tie-in stories, a theme park, the careers of a generation of young actors and a two-part stage play that sold out in London and will shortly head to Broadway. There’s no escaping the Potter effect, and the British Library’s new exhibition puts those seven game-changing children’s novels into the wider context of magical writing, charting the history of their influences including witchcraft, divination and herbology.

Mixing sources from the extensive and fascinating British Library collection, artefacts from other museums including the Wellcome Collection and Museum of Witchcraft, and plenty of early handwritten pages and original illustrations from Rowling’s own collection, this exhibition is an intelligent and engaging examination of the world within and beyond the Harry Potter stories, helping to explain their broad appeal. And it’s important to be clear at this point that this exhibition is entirely about the books, so anyone expecting film clips and costumes will be disappointed. Presumably Warner Bros won’t sanction any use of their material while they have their own theme park to promote, but at the same time, without them this becomes a more fitting exhibition for a library to host.

This exhibition coherently and successfully argues that the success of the Harry Potter series lies in the detailed and fully-realised world that J.K. Rowling has created. Far more than a well-plotted drama unveiling its many twists and shocks over seven increasingly weighty novels, every detail of Rowling’s world feels complete, informed and, despite its basis in magic and fantasy, entirely believable. To demonstrate this, the exhibition is divided into ten individual sections based on some of the lessons Hogwarts’ students would experience, calling upon evidence from the British Library’s own collection to show how closely Rowling’s fictitious world is grounded in our real one.

Bookending the exhibition are sections on the evolution of the first Potter story and its current impact, so as you first enter this mini-world you’re offered some preparatory material including an original synopsis of The Philosopher’s Stone, as well as artworks of characters, scenes and sketches by Jim Kay. Then it’s time for the first lesson of the day, Potions. After you’ve tried to mix one of your own prompted by an interactive display, you can see a real bezoar, some interestingly decorated potion jars, a 1200-year old cauldron and several books that discuss the identification of, and activities associated with, witchcraft, including the earliest image of them from the 15th Century, all guarded by Kay’s symbol-laden portrait of Professor Snape on loan from Bloomsbury Publishing.

The second lesson is Alchemy, focusing on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone that turns base metals into gold and can offer eternal life, that dominated Harry Potter’s first adventure. Its centrepiece are the large and fully illustrated Ripley scrolls that outline how to create the stone using various resources carefully brought together, with several detailed notes from the curators explaining the 16th century symbols and processes depicted as you move down the large display case. There’s also a section devoted to Nicholas Flamel, who is referenced in Rowling’s first story, as the man claiming to have found the Philosopher’s Stone in 14th century France. Alongside some detail about his real life as a bookseller, the exhibition also displays his tombstone which suggests his search for immortality somewhat eluded him.

Some of the British Library’s most beautiful books are on display in the Herbology section as well as Rowling’s own sketches (which feature throughout the exhibition), including a charming original depiction of Professor Sprout with her plants and a spider on her hat. The Library has contributed some stunning large scale early illustrations of key plants used for magical concoction and particularly notable are images of the mandrake plant which sit alongside Jim Kay’s more person-like interpretations used in The Chamber of Secrets. Kay’s work is also the centre piece for the Charms lesson as a multi-page, incredibly detailed pencil sketch of the shopfronts of Diagon Alley dominates one wall. There are also examples of enchanted objects like Olga Hunt’s witch’s broomstick which she claimed to have ridden around Dartmoor and, in a wry touch, an invisibility cloak in a glass case – nice to see the British Library having some fun with the concept.

Moving on, the next two sections focus on Astronomy and Divination, outlining the ways in which Rowling used both for meaningful character names and plot devices. There are star charts showing Sirius and Draco which ended up as key characters, while an interactive display allows you to look more closely at the 1693 Celestial Globe which dominates the centre of the room. There’s more interactivity in Divination, and after you’ve examined the ancient arts of palmistry, reading tea leaves and Chinese Oracle Bones from 1192 BC, you can also have your fortune told by a placing your hands on the table where a computer will select three cards interpreting your past, present and future.

One of the most engaging elements of the Potter novels has been the difficulty of retaining Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers and the sense of forbidden activity that the teenage heroes found irresistible. Here, the British Library has compiled a fascinating collection of artefacts designed to protect the wearer from evil, as well as information on dangerous creatures such as basilisks and werewolves, watched-over by Kay’s symbol-laden pencil portrait of Professor Lupin, as well as a magic staff, a statue of the Sphinx and an omitted section of text from one of Rowling’s early drafts.

Cunningly, our final lesson is also the one that leads us into the future for Rowling’s fantastical world, with Care of Magical Creatures now starting its own multi-film franchise as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But first, there’s plenty to learn about unicorns, phoenix and mermaids, including the fabricated half-fish-half-monkey loaned from the British Museum, which Japan claimed to have captured and displayed as a genuine creature from the sea in the 18th century. There’s also an illuminated manuscript depicting the lifecycle of the phoenix from the 13th century that sits close to one of the cutest exhibits, Jim Kay’s original depiction of Fluffy, Hagrid’s three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Philosopher’s Stone, which is considerably more adorable then its eventual film version.

Before you leave, if you were in any doubt that the Harry Potter series has become a considerable cultural force, there’s the chance to see book covers from around the world with their different approaches to cover art and title, while for theatre lovers there’s a copy of the stage model from the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child currently showing in London and soon heading to Broadway and Australia, which has mini-versions of stars Jamie Parker and Noma Dumezweni who created the original roles. One final treat for fans is Rowling’s original chapter plan for The Order of the Phoenix arranged by school year, and Rowling’s notes on the first Fantastic Beast’s script, assurance that this magical world will live on for some time to come.

The whole exhibition is beautifully designed to look like Hogwarts with library motifs, display cases with Norman-arched windows, flying books, teacups and broomsticks that add to the atmosphere as you wander around. With sources drawn from Rowling’s publisher Bloomsbury alongside The British Museum, Museum of Witchcraft and countless valuable books from the British Library’s own archive, this is a diverse and fascinating collection of material that full reinforces the central argument that Rowling’s influences had wide foundation in a range of established studies and practices. There’s no denying that a novel first scribbled on trains and in cafes has become one of the biggest -ever influences on all kinds of literature. 20 years, 7 books, 9 films, a two-part play and numerous spin-off books later, this British Library exhibition is a perfect tribute to the depth of knowledge and research that created a phenomenon.

Harry Potter: A History of a Magic is at the British Library until 28th February. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1


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