Tag Archives: Cillian Murphy

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Barbican

Grief on stage and in popular culture is rarely considered as a psychological state of its own but as a means or driver for other behaviour. Hamlet may be devastated by the loss of his father that leads to his own existential considerations of suicide but it ultimately becomes the root of his desire for revenge. Later in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff rushes to the grave of his beloved Cathy to dig up her body, as Hamlet and Laertes once grappled with the corpse of Ophelia. Even in modern culture, our perspective on grief involves sobbing widows in black veils and, often, angry arguments at the wake – where would Soap Opera funerals be without a revelatory drama and plenty of hand wringing?

But these are all just the physical trappings of mourning, the downcast eye and sullen air that Gertrude chides Hamlet for, behaviours stemming from grief but not fundamentally representative of the internal process and experience of losing a loved one. Max Porter’s 2015 novella is different, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a manifestation of the confusion, pain and self-immolation experienced by one man on the untimely death of his wife, leaving him to raise their two Primary School-aged boys. It is a complex piece of writing in which a crow comes to care for the bereaved family, told from the perspective of the Dad, children and bird that revels in its use of language and sound.

Bringing that to the stage is no easy task but Director Enda Walsh’s production, which premiered in Ireland last year and is now playing at the Barbican, creates an innovative and challenging piece of theatre that captures the multi-layered and non-linear nature of Porter’s writing. Crucial to this is the decision to make Crow a psychological rather than a physical presence, no unsatisfactory puppetry or video design but a clear personification of grief itself in which Cillian Murphy assumes the duel role of Dad and Crow, making them ostensibly the same drowning man. In doing so, this production deepens its presentation of the experience, showing how completely subsumed Dad becomes within his own mind and while his perspective has moments of lucidity, there is a general palling of the world around him, including the existence of his own children.

There’s much here that links to David Cronenberg’s 2002 film Spider which took an equally internal perspective on one man’s delusion. There the viewer re-lived recollections of the protagonist’s childhood memories, seen through his eyes, using a refracted technique to create a jumbling effect that cast doubt on the overall veracity of the narrative. With a similar idea of going into the character’s unbalanced mind, Walsh’s production uses a variety of similar techniques to create a distorting effect built around Murphy’s central performance, and utilising his skill as a physical as well as a cerebral actor.

Most notable is Will Duke’s projection that subtly charts the growing dominance of Crow in Dad’s mind, using first the concept of an old slide-show to show large-scale images of his family drawings in which Dad has reimagined his entire family with crow’s heads. As his mind succumbs further to the Crow personality, Dad physically transforms his posture, voice and manner, using a hooded dressing gown and hunched-over shape in which his arms are tucked into a pouch on his back to create pointed wings, a sinister but effective approach which looks especially ominous cast in long shadow against the expansive rear wall.

There is no doubting that this is a level of mania, one that builds as the show unfolds, the occupation of the human mind that results in increasing frenzy as the psychological effects of grief take hold. Consequently, as with Porter’s book, a lot of what is happening or said makes little sense but the overall creative effect is of a fragmented mind bucking against the ordinariness of the real man and his world, a disruptive chaos allowing him to retreat inside while everything falls around him. The central notion of an individual being pulled under is vividly created, not least in the climactic storm scene which, like a rock concert, involves Adam Silverman’s strobed lighting design ricocheting dramatically around the walls as Murphy delivers a thunderous monologue into a close-held microphone. Like the breaking of a fever, the aftermath is a return to calm and rejuvenation.

Duke’s video design is also used to underscore the play’s literary source material and Porter’s fascination with sound and poetic rhythm. In the early moments of Crow’s arrival, the words he speaks in booming voiceover are transcribed in thick black text onto the walls of Dad’s flat, they appear at interlocking angles before being obscured by thick blocks of feathery black. The effect is as though Crow is actively obscuring Dad’s mind, erasing his conscious expression by obliterating his main form of communication, through which the almost parasitical Crow takes control.

The idea of these projections as the interior of Dad’s mind is further reinforced by scenes of his dead wife, memories and videos of days out that are at first too painful to recall, and from which Dad actively turns away. But as his mind fully processes the grief, her image recurs first more strongly and then on a much larger scale, covering the wall with scenes of a windswept beach walk. United with Helen Atkinson’s sounds design in which we eventually hear Mum’s voice (played by Hattie Morahan), there is a sense of development inside Dad’s head and as he comes to terms with her loss he can once again revisit memories with a painful happiness that revives her in his mind, displacing the destructive influence of Crow with a sense of normality once more.

At the heart of all of this is a performance of some intensity by Cillian Murphy, an actor who has demonstrated considerable range across his work choices. All of the many fragments of Murphy the actor seem to distil through this performance, so we get aspects of the sinister villain who sometimes frightens his children as well as himself, the frenzied loon of comic book movies and the soulful devastation of his indie film choices. As Murphy shows, Dad is a character in some flux, trapped in his own mind, both its leader and its victim, a state which can change in a second, while the mercuriality of Murphy’s performance gives gravitas and meaning to the elaborate staging around him.

Using a small microphone as Crow, his physical energy is powerfully conveyed, scampering around the set, climbing up walls and bouncing on tables, reflecting the surge of adrenalin and vigour that can be a bodily effect of mental illness. He’s truly disturbing as the off-kilter Crow, insisting on taking-over family duties but clearly a disruptive and malevolent presence in the household. Even when you’re not sure what is really happening, Murphy radiates such a compelling power that you cannot take your eyes from him.

Murphy shares the stage with the two actors playing his sons, and here Walsh amplifies the internalisation of Dad’s grief by ensuring for a long time he barely acknowledges them. They exist as he does, but Murphy, like a sleepwalker, doesn’t register them or his responsibility for them until much later in the play. Dad/Crow gives them things to do but must also come to terms with the secondary role he has been playing in their lives until now, one that he fears he cannot manage without his wife. It isn’t until the end of the story that he is better able to reach them as a proper father, and credit to both young actors that their own performances are made to feel like Dad’s perception of them.

It is a play, like Pinter actually, that requires you to feel rather than to understand, and by unfolding the stages of grief in this unusual fashion Dad’s ultimate fragility is what comes across so strongly. Some of Murphy’s very best moments are in the lulls between manic episodes, where he cogently and with great feeling tenderly tells the audience how much he’s hurting, how much he misses the everyday objects that his wife touched, the routines of their all too brief life together and how utterly besotted he was with her every day. Here Murphy is small, quiet and broken, a man who cannot compute how significantly his life has been upturned but clearly too weak to fight the arrival of Crow and the loss of mental control that follows.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is never any easy watch nor a cosy night at the theatre. If you’ve never read Porter’s part novel, part poem and go expecting a conventional play about the trappings of grief, then Walsh’s adaptation will be heavy going, resistant as it is the conventions and logic of narrative form. Nor is it a straightforwardly emotional experience, you won’t come away sobbing for this family and, although there are moments of great pain a lot of it is impressionistic – this is really challenging stuff. Yet, real experiences of loss are far more complex than popular culture might suggest and through Murphy’s impactful performance we are given a glimpse of a man struggling with the psychological effects of grief and learning to find a way forward.

Grief is a Thing with Feathers is at the Barbican until 13 April but currently sold out so check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Film Preview: Dunkirk – BFI Southbank

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

The miracle of Dunkirk is one of Britain’s most memorable war stories, and is one that combines all the key characteristics that ensure its place in history; it’s a display of ordinary heroism and stoic endurance, the triumph of the survival instinct, the combination of different groups working together, of individual and collective bravery, and most importantly, it is the story of victory against overwhelming odds – with ‘victory’ meaning the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men cornered by the advancing German army. It is this more than anything else that inflames the popular imagination.

The way Britain records and memorialises its military history is almost unique, not in outright wins and numbers of enemy forces crushed, but in specific acts of bravery against apparently insurmountable obstacles. From the precision of Henry V’s paltry archers against a French army reportedly 4-6 times the size of the English at Agincourt, to the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the defence of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War and the Battle of Britain, whatever the outcome, the courage of men fighting for King and Country is celebrated and revered. And it’s no coincidence that major war films have been made of each these incidents.

It is somewhat surprising then that the events of Dunkirk have rarely troubled filmmakers in the 77 years since a combined force of Royal Navy, RAF and “little boats” ensured Britain’s soldiers got home from the beaches of Northern France. In 1958 Leslie Norman produced a respected movie of the same name for which he is still best remembered, while the one-shot beach scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement remains one of the most technically impressive and cinematic depictions of war to date, but it was just one scene.

Dunkirk has, perhaps, been overshadowed by other later events in World War Two that capture another idea of heroism – D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and the African campaign – which have given filmmakers a more straight-forwardly heroic model and clear victory set-up to warm the nation in the years immediately after the conflict ended. Dunkirk may be a popular landmark but a retreat, even a noble one, is not necessarily the basis for a great film. That is until Christopher Nolan decided to direct it.

At this point it’s best to warn you that what follows will assume you know the history and the outcome of this story, but won’t reveal what happens to individual characters. Nolan’s approach is in many ways atypical of war films, and during a brief introduction at the BFI Southbank screening (having come directly from the premiere), Nolan explained that he wanted to create a semi-immersive experience that felt more like a thriller than a gung-ho tale of derring-do, a template that traditional war films tend to follow. If you imagine that most people seeing this film will know the outcome then the only way to create tension is to ask the audience to invest in the individual fates of a set of characters, and make the action as realistic as possible to create and prolong the suspense, which is something Nolan does masterfully.

Unusually, there is relatively little exposition at the start, the film begins with a one of the protagonists the aptly-named soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escaping snipers on the streets of Dunkirk where he emerges onto a beach full of men in lines waiting for the Navy to come for them. From this point, Nolan’s film is a full-on experience as tensions escalate, the clock ticks as the German Army approaches and four core narratives overlap. In the 105-minute run time, at least 95-minutes of this are unmissably tense so try not to take any breaks because you will miss something.

As we’ve seen from his previous work, Nolan is so accomplished at managing the multinarrative perspective, especially in Inception where the characters were situated in several layers of dream state, and he utilises this approach to considerable effect in Dunkirk. First, we follow Tommy who spends the film trying to jump the queue of men waiting for rescue, forced into short-term alliances with those prepared to push others aside to guarantee their own survival, including a role for Harry Styles that led to much conjecture. This perspective on muddied heroism is really fascinating, and while the audience is repelled by the greed of the men he meets, at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the desperation and fear that drove them to it.

The second strand is on “the mole”, a stretch of pier or jetty that extended far enough into the English Channel that the Navy’s ships could dock one at a time to take men home. Here we meet Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who represent the wider war strategy, trying to save the men, but well aware that a harder war is on its way if Germany attempts invasion for which their ships must be protected.

Flying above them is a single RAF formation with three spitfires led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter ace colleague Collins (Jack Lowden) who must keep the Luftwaffe from bombing the ships and men on the beach, engaging in dogfights and ensuring they don’t run out of fuel before they too can get home. Finally, we follow Mark Rylance’s “little boat” sent to help with the evacuation but picking up a stray soldier en route (Cillian Murphy) who survived an earlier sinking, but is so shell-shocked he tries to prevent them heading to Dunkirk.

Nolan’s approach feels more like real conflict than almost any war film you’ve ever seen, not just in the technical brilliance of the effects, but in the way the story is managed to show both the unremitting pace of combat, and importantly how the conduct of war is essentially a large system of interconnected elements, the removal of any one part of which would entirely change what happens to the rest of it. Aspects of these four stories do overlap in various ways as entirely separate characters come together momentarily, but what comes across most clearly is the sense that these men were all an important part of the same event, each contributing to the success of the rescue from different angles and with different outcomes.

The technical approach to this film is one its most impressive aspects, and with very little dialogue, it is the action that is the focus. Using real 35mm film was important Nolan explained for creating the right effect. Some of the most startling moments are in the aerial shots, with an Imax camera strapped to various parts of the substitute Spitfire, the actors were taken into the air to film Nolan explained, rather than compromise with imperfect green screening. The result is astounding, giving a kind of first-person perspective across the film that means the audience feels as though they’re sitting right next to Tom Hardy as he spirals through the clouds in pursuit of the dangerous enemy machines, standing should-to-shoulder with Kenneth Branagh on the pier or cowering during a snipper attack with Fionn Whitehead.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Sam Mendes conducted rather than directed The Ferryman, and Nolan achieves the same effect here controlling the various elements, allowing them their moment but creating a sense of harmony across the film. It is compelling stuff right from the start, and even when you finally realise Nolan is playing with the timeline as well as the perspectives, it’s done in such an understated way that you’re instantly drawn back into the action. This is so redolent of the way men describe real warfare, with no time to linger on what happened and what it means, but having to just carry on. And Nolan’s approach to death and destruction is exactly the same, it happens but during the main thrust of the film it’s portrayal it unsentimental and unfussy, part of what’s happening but so much else is occurring simultaneously that, as with real warfare, there is only time to reflect much later when it’s all over.

And much of this down to Nolan’s faith in his cast, who, with very little dialogue, must carry much of the impact of events merely in expression. Kenneth Branagh is actually sensational as the weary naval officer carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders, feeling every bit of his powerlessness. Yet the moment the little boats appear, Nolan focuses entirely on Branagh’s face as the joy, pride and incalculable relief pass across it. When the tears fill his eyes, don’t be surprised if they also fill yours.

For much of the film Tom Hardy has only experienced determination in his eyes to rely on while his face is covered by the mask of a fighter pilot but he still manages to convey the fear, concern, relief and almost total self-reliance that are the mark of aerial warfare. Mark Rylance meanwhile as civilian boatman Mr Dawson does that humble determined thing he does so well while nursing his own private heartache, and Cillian Murphy is excellent as a broken soldier who brings the tragedy of war to Dawson’s boat, unable to contain his trauma – arguably the consequences of this subplot is one of the few missteps in the film but doesn’t detract from Murphy’s performance.   

There are also a host of rising stars who add to this solid work from more established actors. First Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is the audience’s way into the film. With less dialogue than some of the supporting cast, Whitehead carries most of the soldier-journey conveying both the youth of the men fighting with the jaded weariness of the experienced fighter, seeing death and barely responding to it.

Harry Styles doesn’t disgrace himself or pull focus as a soldier prepared to clamber over anyone to be first in line for rescue, and the film frequently plays with the hero-villain divide, letting individual actions repel you while still appreciating the wider fighting hell they’ve gone through – it’s not all plucky good natured-heroism but something much more complex and human. There’s also excellent work from Jack Lowden as Tom Hardy’s fellow fighter pilot who finds himself frustratedly watching the action from another story while dealing with accusations of abandonment from the army.

The much-anticipated Dunkirk absolutely lives up to the hype and is a film that subverts the established war-movie model and makes it a thrilling but unsentimental experience until the very end, where it’s gets a little cheesy for 5 minutes. But Nolan’s skill is in reminding us that Dunkirk may have been a ‘victory of survival’ but it was far from the end of the war, and in a way, the fate of all the characters is a reminder that there was so much more to do. Dunkirk is an extraordinary war film that aptly celebrates an extraordinary moment in British military history where systematised war and the courage of fighting men met with the bravery of civilian little boats – there is certainly some kind of miracle in that.

Dunkirk is on general release from Friday 21 July in cinemas nationwide. For more information on BFI previews, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Anthropoid – BFI Southbank

Jamie Dornan & Cillian Murphy in Anthropoid

History is still too often the story of “great men” and Sean Ellis’s new film Anthropoid, which had its UK premier at BFI Southbank last week, considers whether the removal of a key individual can really change the course of events. It’s an idea we tend to take for granted, certainly in public history, and it’s one that’s used to propel any kind of historical fiction, asking us where we would have been without the Winston Churchills, Henry VIIIs and Nelsons of the world. And of course, as Anthropoid demonstrates, the inverse is true, there are also a series of “bad men” of history whose removal it is supposed would prevent all kinds of disasters, wars and genocides.

As a society, we like to tell stories that suggest progress and these are often driven by quite black and white versions of who the heroes and villains are. But real life is far more complicated than that, and key individuals, whether good or bad, are often at the heart of a large network of activities which will continue to exist without them. At the crux of Anthropoid is a debate about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi final solution, with a reputation so fearsome he earned the soubriquet ‘the butcher of Prague’ and whether removing him would release or further enslave the citizens of Czechoslovakia.

Two soldiers, played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, are parachuted into a forest on the outskirts of Prague at the start of the film with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to kill Heydrich. They are met and welcomed into the local underground resistance led by the wonderful Toby Jones, who are initially unaware of their secret mission, but help the men to integrate into Czech society, giving them a family to lodge with, jobs and even fake girlfriends as part of their cover.

There have been a number of poor reviews which largely hinge on the slightly misconceived notion that this a straightforward thriller in the style of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, which took a more ‘Mission Impossible’ approach to a botched assassination attempt of Hitler. But while the content and setting of Anthropoid draws obvious comparisons, Sean Ellis – who wrote, directed and acted as cinematographer – is aiming at something slightly different, with the big action scenes serving only to punctuate a taut exploration of a much wider organisation. While the assassination attempt is the film’s core driver, its purpose is to understand the context in which such a plan came about and the emotional and physical costs to the extended network of men and women it affected.

The first hour is entirely concerned with these preparations as Jan (Dornan) and Josef (Murphy) scout locations, secretly photograph Heydrich’s route to work and spy on his daily routine. It is pure character study as the two men begin to come to terms with the task they have to perform. For interest, Ellis has given them contrasting personalities, and during the Q&A that followed last week’s showing, explained that while his background research was extensive, such aspects of character are hard to know which gives the actors plenty of artistic licence.

Murphy’s Josef is the more serious and soldierly of the two, given a direct order that he doesn’t question and leads the scientific process of deciding how and when to strike. He is acutely aware at all times of the dangerous position they’re in, trying to blend into a tightly-wound society while keeping his emotions in check. But there’s also a paternal element to his character which Murphy brings out quite subtly in the protection of the weaker Jan from the full horror of their exposed position and maintain motivation despite objections from other resistance fighters. One point of ambiguity however is the relationship he forms with Lenka (Anna Geislerová) which he initially resists and sees only in terms of fulfilling his cover story. You’re supposed to believe he then falls for her, so as Ellis explained as the film plays out the two leads almost swap character traits, with Josef becoming softer. Some ambiguity is fine, but the idea that he suddenly melts was not entirely convincing, as Murphy’s performance is so restrained it seemed more likely that he respects Lenka for the danger she puts herself in for his sake and sees someone matching his level of sacrifice, but doesn’t actually fall in love with her.

Dornan on the other hand plays a character whose emotions are much closer to the surface and falls quickly in love with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon). Without any back-story, it’s hard to know what previous role Jan had that got him selected for this mission because he responds quite badly to combat pressure, certainly in the first half of the film as his hands shake when he tries to fire, and Josef has to calm him during panic attacks. Dornan does all of this pretty well and audiences will find his warmer character engaging, but it’s a bit hard to believe he would have been chosen for such a specialist and highly significant mission. What is interesting, however, is seeing his confidence grow in the second half of the film as the fall-out from the assassination leads to a siege that separates the two leads, and here Jan demonstrates more considerable military poise, strategy and bravery under pressure than expected.

Ellis is wearing a lot of hats in this production and some fit a little better than others. Given his photography background understandably the cinematography is very striking. Using Super 16mm film it has both a period and punchy feel which adds to the drama of the action scenes while underscoring the more introspective moments. At the Q&A, Ellis talked about recreating shots of Prague from wartime photographs and, because the city has changed, using digital effects to subsequently recreate some of their atmosphere. The linking shots are some of the best seen in a war film with noticeably beautiful images of Prague enveloped in haze and cloud standing out.

It’s clear how much research Ellis has done and this project has taken several years to come to fruition, so the balance of introspective and high action moments actually work quite well. If you don’t go to this expecting a thriller as several critics appear to have, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intricacies of the wider story. However, while the writing is largely pretty good, it feels overlong because the central assassination takes a while to occur and although the groundwork for that is interesting, it’s in the audiences mind as the main event, so some of the subsidiary stories around the romance and resistance in-fighting feel like distractions.

Most of the other characters are also too thinly drawn to add much to the plot or to create much investment in their cause, with the excellent Toby Jones essentially wasted in a small role as the group leader. There is clearly a huge amount of politics between the on-the-ground resistance and that directed from the relative safety of London, so more suspicion of the two parachutists and their motives for doing this would have added texture, particularly in the first hour rather than focusing on the somewhat dreary love interests.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is actually seeing the consequences of their actions play out, which links back to this crucial underlying question of whether removing one key person from history really changes anything. The rapid escalation of violence after the assassination, the brutal torture and efficient round-up of the extended network and how this act was utilised to justify further bloody incursions into Czechoslovakia implies that the costs and consequences were far higher than the resistance had prepared for. Try watching this in a double bill with the excellent Conspiracy a BBC film from 2001 with Kenneth Branagh as a chilling Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference and this may alter your perspective. Anthropoid leaves you to decide whether the removal of “bad men” would significantly change the course of history, but it undoubtedly highlights the real bravery and heroism of the small group of people who tried.

Anthropoid was premiered at the BFI Southbank with Q&A. It opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday 9 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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