Category Archives: Film

Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


The King – London Film Festival

Timothee Chalamet in The King, Netflix

It’s Shakespeare but not as we know it; in recent years film adaptions of the Bard’s best-known plays have parted from a more-traditional focus on language to explore the psychological experience of the principle character, as well as giving exciting new life to the battles that define the action. Particularly notable, in 2015 Justin Kurzel redefined the Shakespeare adaptation with a powerful and purposeful two-hour Macbeth with some of the most visually beautiful battle scenes seen on film, and brought a dark, massing intensity to the unfolding narrative that is as close to live performance as you can get with a camera. Now, another Australian and his American co-writer have taken an entirely modern approach to Henry V that doesn’t use a single word of Shakespeare’s text.

Sacrilegious is may be, even “blasphemous” as director David Michôd apologetically described it at the opening of The King at the London Film Festival, but it works. The Henriad Trilogy has been tackled many times on screen with looming version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, plus a respectable BBC version of all three plays with Tom Hiddleston as part of The Hollow Crown series. And on stage the list gets even longer with celebrated performances from Jamie Parker at the The Globe, Alex Hassell for the RSC and a well reviewed Michael Grandage production with Jude Law, all in recent years – the one thing we’re never short of is Henrys.

But these were all distinctly British in their outlook – regardless of the media, this has always been a British story told by British actors within the British theatre, film and television industry. Fascinating then to see a version of this most English (and Welsh) of medieval heroes translated and reflected back to us by our Antipodean and Atlantic cousins. The result is an entirely new screenplay by Michôd and Joel Edgerton that respectfully uses the architecture of Shakespeare’s play but refocuses the overarching narrative to consider the delicate political balance of a new ruler and the weight of shoring-up a new crown in a precarious international environment of betrayal, manipulation and intrigue.

There is both a sense of freedom in Michôd and Edgerton’s film that allows the characters to breath away from the wonderful but nonetheless precise confinement of Shakespeare’s language, and a rare opportunity to delve deeper into the play as well as adding a new spin to some of the characters and scenarios that allow the actors to build their roles more conclusively without the shadow of all those stage Falstaffs, Dauphins and Henrys. There is an energy in the film that suggests a sense of thoughts unfolding naturally and spontaneously before us, and of cause and effect in a movie where all actions and decisions have visible consequences for everyone else.

The departures from and elaborations on Shakespeare’s story are some of The King’s most engaging and memorable aspects; the treachery subplot given only one angry revelation scene in Henry V is expanded, drawing attention to the close council of men around the new king to explore the depth of the betrayal. And, interestingly, this is depicted as part of a longer campaign by the French Dauphin to goad the fledgling English monarch into a costly war that he cannot win.

In this way, Michôd and Edgerton also suggest a far stronger sense of the political machinations at work in the new court as the older counsellors – who served his father – seek to shape the reign of Henry V with their own anti-French, pro-war agenda. These are additions that later set the monarch on a post-war collision course with those who shaped his mind and is a welcome and well-considered opening-out of Shakespeare’s story that shifts the central narrative on its axis to offer a new and intriguing perspective.

Similar adjustments also provide an alternative view of Henry’s approach to monarchy and diplomatic relations that add depth to the characterisation; the famous tennis balls scene which stokes Henry’s ire and shows his underlying belligerence is here reframed so he dismisses the gesture, refusing to summon-up the uncontained response the Dauphin requires, and nor is this Henry convinced by the complex Salic Law discussion that should place him on the French throne, amusingly calling-out its confusion and actively rejecting his own claim.

Alongside a more purposeful concept of the Dauphin’s attempts to provoke Henry into a war he never wanted-  rather than the dynastic quest to feed his own ambition which Shakespeare implies – there is an idea of events being outside Henry’s control, almost of a pacifist forced into fighting against his better judgement. We see this particularly in the early civil war scene as the then Prince Hal stops his younger brother’s army taking on Hotspur’s rebellion by challenging Percy to single combat in lieu of a fuller fight. War to this character is a last resort and not a light undertaking. Watching Henry navigate his reluctant kingship is one of the film’s most enjoyable and inventive aspects.

The other major alteration which may ruffle Shakespearean purists is the inclusion of Sir John Falstaff in England’s warring party, in fact the portly and drunken companion of the Henriad Trilogy and beyond is entirely revised to instead become a war hero and chief strategist during the invasion of France, encouraging the king to practice restraint where other counsellors want rash action. With Edgerton playing the role himself, naturally Falstaff becomes far more heroic than previously seen, dispensing sage and fatherly advice. During these sections of the film the creators momentarily forget that it was Henry’s perspective the audience was following and put Falstaff centre stage instead, but it is an interpretation that works pretty well in the context of the story they are telling, and pleasingly makes us look afresh at this vital relationship between the two men.

As Prince Hal / Henry V Timothée Chalamet pitches his performance pretty well, right down to the really very good English accent. He may not be an obvious choice for the warrior king among the more strapping Henrys of the stage but his slight frame and very youthful look fit extremely well into an adaptation that emphasises inexperience and naivety. And Chalamet offers plenty of both, along with a disdain for his father and the duplicity of the courts that provides valuable context for Henry’s different approach to kingship that becomes a key motivational driver throughout.

He is less convincing as the drunken wastrel Prince Hal in the early part of the movie – although the paternal resentment and familial strife are credible enough – but as Henry grows in stature as a king so too does Chalamet’s performance, eliciting the maturing of his mind as Henry finds the statesmanship and inner mettle needed to inspire his soldiers while keeping his advisers in check. The most wonderful aspect of Henry V are those in which the man weighs-up the conflicted concepts of individual and state, and here Chalamet garners all that psychological complexity in an affecting performance that stands-up well against all those who have come before.

Joel Edgerton adopts a variable northern accent as Falstaff but grounds the character with a more restrained interpretation than often seen. Good and loyal friend to Prince Hal, Falstaff’s considerable war experience and tactical expertise prove decisive, and Edgerton clearly enjoys the the strategic scenes in which his character bests the well-born men around the king. But Falstaff is also Henry’s constant reminder of reality, that war is costly and unpleasant for those who have to fight it and not an enterprise to be treated lightly – one of the film’s major themes. There may be some who dislike this approach to Falstaff, but if Shakespeare can create fictional characters from real people, then his own fictitious creations can also find new life and rescued reputation in a different kind of story.

Robert Pattinson stands out in a skilled supporting cast, providing the film’s relatively few laughs as the ego maniacal Dauphin whose arrogance precipitates his own downfall but not before some entertaining exchanges with Chalamet. Sean Harris is also notable as chief adviser William who quickly becomes a pragmatic guide for the young king whose subtle actions belie the mighty power that William ultimately wields – a presence that becomes increasingly important as events take their course.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michôd make us wait as Shakespeare does for Agincourt and The King is primarily a film about preparation, but it well conjures the messy reality of medieval fighting, of masses of grey armored knights with visors obscuring their faces becoming increasingly embroiled in the mud as they fight in unpleasant conditions. There is a small nod here to the rain-soaked battlegrounds of the First World War, a hint about the universal awfulness of combat for those left to fight wars not of their making. This isn’t quite the version of Henry V that we know but Michôd and Edgerton’s film is a fresh and psychologically compelling retelling. Theatre purists might not approve but The King has a life of its own, one that honours Shakespeare’s text while creating something entirely new.

The King is released on Netflix on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


All About Eve – Noel Coward Theatre

All About Eve by Jan Versweyveld

Screen to stage adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years and 2019 will see plenty of new film-based shows heading to our theatres. Predominantly musicals, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is in preview at the Savoy, as is Waitress starring Katherine McPhee at the Adelphi, not to mention a Theatre Royal Haymarket run for Heathers The Musical at the end of last year, while there is a strong possibility that both the musical Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen will become the latest Broadway imports to hit the West End. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Trainspotting Live was lauded at festivals up and down the country, proving that dramatic film can also have plenty to offer as a stage experience.

Ivo van Hove has been at the vanguard of this new style, blending film and stage techniques to create a new subgenre of the arts, one which uses onstage technology to retain a story’s movie heritage, while playing with the theatricality of the material to either draw our or downplay the emotional experience of the characters. van Hove creates a hybrid experience within his adaptations that ensure the audience remain conscious of its film origins and by using the same fluidity of pace as cinema, never allowing the show to become self-consciously stagy or artificial.

It is an effect that can be hugely divisive, and while Network at the National Theatre with Bryan Cranston enjoyed a sell-out run and a current Broadway transfer, it split opinion with its use of roaming cameras and giant video screens to comment on the responsibility of television news. Likewise, an earlier production of Obsession at the Barbican with Jude Law, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice earned even more derision for the vast metaphorical hinterland it created on stage in which a highly stylised film noir played out. This director’s work is either your taste or it isn’t, so responses to this new production of All About Eve are likely to be equally contentious.

The 1950 film is one of the finest movies ever made, a sharply told and biting behind-the-scenes examination of star power and female ageing in an industry that is constantly looking for fresh faces. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is a satirical, but probably truthful, depiction of the pursuit of fame and the unstoppable ruthlessness of an individual hungry for the limelight, told through the interaction of six characters whose lives are changed by the stage door appearance of a seemingly gentle and starstruck young woman who inveigles herself into the life of stage goddess Margot Channing.

van Hove’s production has everything we’ve now come to expect from the superstar director with it’s leading lady boxed-in by the apparent limitations of her life. Long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld creates a bare, ugly dusky pink room, a vast emptiness containing nothing but a dressing table (in a fixed position permanently on stage as the scenes change). Margot is devoted to the theatre, but despite her lover Bill, a director, and best friend couple Karen and Lloyd, a playwright, she remains at a distance from them. Like previous van Hove protagonists including Hedda Gabler and Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Margot is in a box of her own making, one that the events of the play will help or force her to break out of.

Versweyveld soon starts to play with the space and on three sides, the walls lift to reveal a backstage area, a semi-junk yard of props and set, dominated by large-scale photographic portraits of Margot carefully positioned to catch your eye. The point is to suggest a world beyond the theatre where artifice is stripped away, a real life far from the self-creating dramas of this little set where another kind of life is being lived if only Margot can move beyond ego and her inherent prickliness towards it. Pointedly in van Hove’s direction, for a long time we only see her in this room and the attached bathroom, never able to break out of the confines she has set around herself.

As the story unfolds, van Hove introduces the camera techniques used to such effect in Network, slowly at first, a live feed from the dressing table mirror splayed across those bare pink walls, now a giant video screen, revealing the unrelenting close-up of Margot’s face as she removes her theatrical make-up. Later what we see on the screens becomes more complicated, no longer a direct reflection of reality but a distorted image of herself, the slowly ageing face a fantasy project from her mind, fearing the irrelevance she knows is coming with Eve hot on her trail.

Repeatedly, the cameras are used to show us off-stage activity, Margot’s quite graphic bathroom reactions to the famously “bumpy” party scene for Bill’s birthday in which she creates havoc for her guests – if you’ve ever wanted to see Gillian Anderson drunkenly vomiting then now’s your chance – a location repurposed later when Eve has finally conquered this space, using the bathroom to hide her reaction to critic Addison’s meddling. More of Bill’s party happens in the crowded kitchen, also stretched soundlessly across the vast screens, as the main stage is given over to Margot’s self-pity at the piano. It’s an interesting technique, one that creates texture but also distracts the audience from what is happening on the main stage, an approach that feels purposeful to retain a distance from the emotional lives of the characters, as if to say these are trivial self-perpetuating dramas that are less important than the overall effect – as one character rather amusingly points out “they’re actors, they’ll get over it”.

All About Eve is rich with detail which Versweyveld subtly changes as Eve’s power grows. Look out for the slow replacement of pictures in the backstage area, with Margot dwarfed or obscured by Eve portraits instead. An D’Huys’s costumes also subtly suggest the changing of the guard, taking Margot from the striking red that is a feature of all her costumes for much of the play including some stunning red dresses, morphing into black and white as she loosens her grip on fame and allows her inner life and love for Bill to change her. Note too that Eve adopts the signature red as her power grows, a baton handed between the generations as their priorities shift.

It’s no easy thing to step into the shoes of Bette Davis, but Gillian Anderson has Margot Channing exactly. Somehow it manages to be a bigger and smaller performance at the same time, showcasing first and foremost the deeply riven insecurities that drive her more outlandish behaviour. Anderson’s Margot is waspish rather than vicious so as the play opens, she is entirely caught up in her own life – the performance she’s just given and the man about to fly to Hollywood – that makes her treat the nervous Eve with a carelessness born of distraction rather than malice, a singular encounter that will be scarcely remembered by anyone tomorrow except the star struck girl.

Yet as Eve roots her way into her life, Anderson charts how brittle Margot’s ease and surety really was. While Davis could only be spiteful and ranty, our modern times, allow Anderson to be an ugly drunk, slurring and staggering around the party scene, upsetting each of her guests in turn. What follows is a chance for rehabilitation, a break through moment that in the rest of the play allows Margot to pursue the things she really wants, a transformation that Anderson makes both credible and warming.

Lily James as Eve matches her at every moment with a carefully constructed performance that draws the audience into her game as much as anyone around her. First, we see this sweet and awkward girl bat her eyes shyly in Margot’s dressing room but soon actively supervises the scene change. James’s Eve lurks at every opportunity, sidling around the set to overhear important conversations and manoeuvring herself into position, ready to grasp her chance when it comes. And note in the relayed kitchen scenes on the video screen her eyes seek out Margot’s director boyfriend Bill at every opportunity.

The play notably shifts a gear in the second hour as Eve takes her first big step into Margot’s shadow, and from that point on James shows us the duality of her character, the pleasant face no longer quite masking the frustrated schemer. Her palpable fury after a showdown with Bill leads to a well-played tantrum, while the steely switch in a similar confrontation with Karen in a restaurant bathroom is James’s highpoint in a role that showcases her versatility and ability to command the stage as well as her co-star.

The supporting performances are equally full of texture, creating the world around the warring women that is just as dominated by ego, bitterness and struggles for power. Julian Ovenden rises above all of that with a performance that draws out Bill’s essential decency, the good-guy director whose relationship with his leading lady is full of chemistry. There is a genuine romantic feeling between them that Ovenden fills with hurt as their partnership sours, while still making Bill a match for the tempestuous Margot.

It’s wonderful to see Monica Dolan in a more glamorous role, playing friend and confidant Karen who develops an excellent partnership with Rashan Stone’s Lloyd as their own marriage is affected by Margot’s behaviour and Eve’s machinations. Stanley Townsend is superb as the silky critic Addison DeWitt who makes for a more physically imposing figure than the film’s George Sanders, and while he feels underused his own big confrontation with Eve is both shocking and tense.

The movie to stage adaptation is becoming increasingly prevalent and an NT Live screening of this one that translates it back to cinema will add a further dimension. Eschewing an interval as always and running at two-hours straight through, van Hove’s distinctive and often stylised work doesn’t set out to provide a deep connection to the characters, often drowning them out with music or distracting with video and as a result, you may not feel emotionally satisfied by an approach that reinforces the central message of All About Eve – nothing is ever what you think it is. So while the dialogue and scenarios are drawn directly from Mankiewicz, if you want a faithful depiction of every line, shot and intonation then just watching the film again is probably advisable. This All About Eve is something quite different, same story deliberately new frame with staging that pushes at the boundaries of theatre and film.

All About Eve is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 11 May, with tickets from £15.Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Film Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner - Hugh Jackman

It seems an age ago that politics was anything other than entirely bizarre. In the last couple of years, the quagmire of Brexit and the personality politics of Trump-era America has made us yearn for a time when governments were elected to tackle multiple issues, balancing domestic requirements in health, education and welfare with a multifaceted role on the world stage. And, as our leaders snipe across the Chamber with miscalculated grabs for power that serve a personal rather than the general interest, it may also make us nostalgic for a time when our now Teflon-like MPs seemed more accountable, when a personal scandal was all it took to end a career.

The sex scandal was the bread and butter of tabloid newspapers in the 1980s and 90s, and every weekend the now defunct The News of the World would splash an exposé about a footballer, celebrity or politician caught with their trousers down across the front page, a supposed defence of morality that usually resulted in resignation and shame, particularly for Parliamentarians. The names of politicians and the scandals associated with them live-on far beyond their political influence, including allegations that Jeffrey Archer used prostitutes and then perjured himself in court , David Mellor’s toe-sucking liaison and even the affair between John Major and Edwina Currie, while in the US the editorial gift of the Bill Clinton years resulted in an attempted impeachment that 20-years on the office has still not entirely shaken off.

It really all began of course with Profumo, the 1961 affair that permanently altered the relationship between the press and Parliament, one that drew a direct line between an individual’s personal life and their ability to serve in an office of state, where private lapses in judgement and moral fibre were seen to be endemic of their whole approach. It took much longer for American journalists to make the same link, and while the Watergate corruption was politically and legally damaging, it wasn’t until the 1980s when revelations of adultery sunk Senator Gary Hart’s bid for the Presidency in just three weeks, which a new film argues permanently changed the electoral relationship with the press.

But how do we decide what is genuinely in the public interest and do we really have a right to know what goes on behind closed doors? Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October and arrives in UK cinemas this week, has a huge moral complexity at its heart, asking questions about the level of privacy any celebrity or public official should expect, and whether the media has become over-mighty or too officious in its self-appointed role as guardians of morality? Is democracy aided by knowing the sexual history of an MP or have journalists become too influential in shaping the careers of those we elect?

This relatively even-handed debate rages through The Front Runner, slowly revealing both the unyielding figure beneath Gary Hart’s charming exterior and the unreasonable pursuit of a story by those desperate to earn a scoop and sell newspapers. For both sides, politics becomes a cut-throat business and, compressed into just three weeks in 1987, Reitman along with co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson create an engaging tension that reflects the growing pressure on Hart and his team, as well as an almost thriller-like pace to drive the story. At the conclusion, no group emerges with their reputation intact, but by taking a multi-angled approach Reitman’s movie argues that this was a turning point in US media history, one which would have significant consequences for Bill Clinton only a few years later.

The biopic has undergone a significant transformation in the last few years, moving away from the cradle to grave approach which uses a narrative framework to show how an individual was propelled to greatness, and instead the biopic has become more focused, usually recounting in detail a single event or series of key moments in which the protagonist’s life was determined, and through which their inner world explained. Danny Boyle’s modern classic Steve Jobs was among the first to take this more psychological approach, soon followed by Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and more recently even Second World War movies The Darkest Hour and Churchill respectively honed-in on his rise to power in 1940 and his feelings of marginalisation by D-Day in 1944.

The Front Runner continues this tradition in showing only those few weeks that cost Gary Hart the Presidency – despite a now debated expectation that he would succeed Ronald Regan – and how his own personality, beliefs and values explain his demise when an indiscreet phone call to an alleged mistress is overhead by a journalist pushing Hart’s private life into the spotlight. Hart’s stubborn refusal to accept the relevance of this to his campaign creates a war with a group of journalists at the Miami Herald who are determined to prove their allegations, certain that Hart’s personal affairs are in the public interest and have considerable bearing on the campaign he vows to continue.

American Presidential politics, even at this time, was far more personality-driven than our own and Hugh Jackman in the title role brings all the twinkly charisma needed to charm a nation. But Hart has to charm the press first, and from the outside he appears to be exactly the breath of fresh air the country needs, clean-cut, attractive and refreshing in his appeal while retaining a down-to-earth homeliness as he holds a series of promotional photo shoots and interviews at his home in the Colorado mountains – a strategic move given the outgoing President was an actor famous for Westerns.

Crucially, Hart is at ease with the press, speaking openly with reporters on and off camera, never allowing the dignity of the office he pursues to separate him from the people he hopes to govern, and initially they love him for it until a chance moment of weakness offers them an even better story. In the second half of the film the tone changes rapidly and Reitman, Bai and Carson show us another side entirely, not just to Hart as the mutual and easy respect with the press pack starts to sour. As the story explodes, Hart’s halo slips, revealing his arrogance, and repeated failure to judge and respond to the escalating drama appropriately.

Jackman is an interesting and clever choice as Hart, utilising his charismatic screen presence to convey the long-forgotten Hart’s own allure while also reminding the audience of his diversity as a performer. Jackman is one of the few actors to escape the pigeon-holing of Hollywood, simultaneously working across genres and able to land parts in serious political films such as this one, while commanding respect for his work in big comic-book blockbusters such as X-Men as well as capitalising on his musical theatre background as the star of Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman.

Jackman is a fascinating Hart, oozing a Kennedy-like goodness in the early scenes that reveals so much about the perfect image we so readily respond to in our politicians. He has an easy ride to the White House and he knows it. But as the tide turns, we learn much more about the ruthlessness needed to become a political leader and how easily we are fooled by rhetoric. Insisting that the state of his marriage is a private affair, Jackman shows the hypocritical coldness beneath the surface, a resolution not to comment on matters he believes to have no relevance even after he realises the damage it is causing his reputation. This becomes a fatal flaw that will cost him the respect of the nation and his leadership dreams which Jackman plays with a blinkered tenacity. From our over-exposed modern perspective, we may argue that Hart had a point about the privacy of public figures, yet his decision to embark on an affair mid-campaign and determination to conceal it mark out his essential dubiety

But The Front Runner is more than a simple biopic and the audience is also asked to consider how the events depicted in the film affect our views on the role of the press in modern democracy. A number of recent films have lionised the integrity, bravery and determination of journalists including Spotlight and the forthcoming Private War, but Reitman takes an opposing view suggesting a tabloid sleaziness to Tom Fiedler’s (Steve Zissis) approach that broke an unofficial reporters code on what should make the news.

The feeding frenzy that follows the revelations of Hart’s affair (one of many that were subsequently revealed) escalates quickly affecting not just the Presidential candidate but hounding his wife and daughter who must visibly stand-by him while enduring a very public humiliation. It also hints at the consequences for the numerous people working for Hart and invested in his success including J.K. Simmons as the acerbic Bill Dixon, losing not just years of work but also their jobs, an effect that neither the press nor Hart can be entirely absolved of.

At a little under two hours, events move quickly with a narrative approach that evidently glosses over some of the complexities – even for a non-US audience – while leaving the moral conclusions to the viewer. The Front Runner argues that these three weeks were a turning point in American political history and the accuracy of that assessment as well as the importance of the people and events it depicts has been debated by other critics. Yet Reitman’s movie still asks important questions about the untempered and unelected freedom of the press to decide who should have power in society, as well as the nature of a political system that facilitates the rise of a certain kind of dubious morality and an undeserved entitlement in those we elect to lead us.

With Adam McKay’s biopic of Dick Cheney (Vice) also opening this month with a transformed Golden Globe-winning Christian Bale in the lead role and Amy Adams as his wife, The Front Runner may struggle to be noticed, but it is a film that gives us plenty to think about – perhaps more so for a British audience unfamiliar with the events it depicts and thus a stage removed from the veracity of the story. At a time when voters seem no longer to care about the personal life of the man in the White House, when outrageous allegations after shocking scandal barely make a dent, we have to wonder whether Gary Hart was right all along, do voters really care if you’re selling them the right dream?

The Front Runner opens in the UK on 11 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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