Tag Archives: Film

Playwright on Screen: Martin McDonagh and The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonagh is a writer able to adapt his style to the medium he is using and there are usually notable distinctions between his stage and screen work, responding to the quite separate demands of these outlets. But in his latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin which screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 last week, there is a keen crossover between these worlds in a movie that in location, style, themes and structure draws on some of McDonagh’s most renowned Ireland-set plays. Looking specifically at The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there are plenty of similarities with his new film as McDonagh uses the intimacy of Insiherin and its characters to explore his much visited notions of gentle masculinity, isolation, friendship and violence that slowly seeps into the community from the world beyond.

Remote Locations

McDonagh’s work is quite tightly focused in its nature, usually built around a small group of characters in a confined place and often untouched by the world beyond. Even when he creates a modern setting as with In Bruges or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, that location is made to feel confining and old-fashioned, a place that traps the characters and, crucially, is to them ‘boring’. But while both of these films have a cinematic expanse, it is in McDonagh’s stage work where the claustrophobia and limitation of location are best felt, and this idea sweeps across McDonagh’s Ireland plays particularly, set in places where little happens and there is no means of escape beyond the bounded existence in which they live. That this often resonates as a mental as well as a physical confinement is part of the psychological dimension of the plays in which education and opportunity are often lacking as well as financial freedom to choose a different path.

There are beautiful shots of the vast arable landscape in The Banshees of Inisherin which link directly to the material isolation of the characters. Houses miles from one another are a feature of the playwright’s Irish work where the concept of neighbours may mean farmsteads many miles apart where separation from other human beings is a way of life and characters must actively seek connection in places of social gathering if they want company. This is manifest in The Banshees of Inisherin with seemingly great distances across beautiful but often rugged or steep countryside to reach the village or a friend’s home. When Padraic (Colin Farrell) calls for his friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) at 2pm every day for their pub visit, that journey is not easily accomplished nor is the subsequent walk to the pub or harbour. These are beautiful locations but McDonagh is doing two things here; first, emphasising the investment of time required to physically move around this space – with arguably little else to do – that offers an insight into the restrictions they live under, but second, it brings a different kind of charge to character conversations, giving them a far more serious purpose if individuals will trudge or ride for miles for entertainment or, as is the case here, for important confrontations, telling us much about their psychology and feelings. The sufficient depth and immediacy of that rage and sorrow can seemingly outlast the long time it must take them to reach their object in order to unload it.

And it is within those physical limitations that McDonagh generates a kind of drama in which characters rub along quite badly together through years of over exposure. Sometimes, as with mother and daughter Mag and Maureen in the Beauty Queen of Leanne, this manifest as a familial jadedness, two people who have lived together for a long time and find each other’s company tiresome. Similarly in Hangmen, where most of the action takes place in a single pub run by a bickering family unit among a group of derided regulars, they nonetheless unite against a suspicious interloper. These are places where little love is lost within and between households, and McDonagh draws both humour and drama from the interactions of people confined together in an almost Beckettian hell waiting for something to happen.

Elsewhere, McDonagh uses the tight-knit community as a place where gossip can spring up, and secondary characters often like nothing more than to pass comment on the business of their neighbours. It is a dreadful rumour of moggy mortality that brings crazed Padraic back to Inishmore seeking the truth while the almost fantastical possibility of her daughter eloping with her childhood sweetheart causes Mag to intervene disastrously. In The Banshees of Inisherin, then, McDonagh draws on his theatre work and uses this small island lifestyle to great effect, establishing both a weariness between a brother and sister – another Padraic and Siobhan – between Padraic and his friend Colm as well as a hilarious backdrop of gossipy islanders either directly trading in scandal in the convenience store or openly challenging Padraic in the pub and other locations with hearsay about the breakdown of his friendship with Colm. The success and credibility of these interactions as well as the jokes that develop from them emerge directly from McDonagh’s experience of writing for the stage where the fine-grained creation of small places and the incumbent behviours they generate is sharply pointed towards the drama and developing sense of violence beating beneath the surface.

Masculinity and Violence

Male violence and disrupted notions of masculinity are essential themes in McDonagh’s work on stage and screen, often developing out of their physical and emotional confinement. Many of these works end in quite gruesome and candid attacks on individuals that take on a cartoonish savagery that the viewer only half takes seriously. But this is often tempered with personal grief, decline and even a form of justice being rightly served. That these can be simultaneously shocking and moving is characteristic of McDonagh’s style but it always leaves room for an ambiguous if somewhat bleak ending with an unresolved resolution in which characters get a conclusion they deserve but not one that necessarily ends the scenario itself.

But masculinity in McDonagh’s work is not solely defined by violence and instead the writer tempers his characterisation with depths of feeling or affection which may be comic, cultural or intellectual. In The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh draws a direct line between Padraic’s love of his miniature donkey and “Mad Padraic’s” love of his cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore in which both men express greater connection to and affection for a cute animal than to any human characters in their stories. And this becomes a means to explore ideas of manliness and particularly violent masculinity through humour. The notion that a psychopathic INLA man’s greatest love is a black, fluffy cat is inherently funny, that there is a deep well of tenderness and feeling for this creature that not only sends him home in haste on a revenge spree but, crucially, causes him to publicly weep upon first hearing the news.

Likewise Padraic’s equivalent love of the small donkey is a comical projection, but one that ultimately asks bigger questions about his violent impulses and the softer aspects of his character. It becomes an important plot device which in one sense is quite different to the cat-loving terrorist because The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Padraic is a nice, albeit “dull” man at the start of the film who is led to violent outcomes through the course of the story in which the tiny donkey plays a significant role. This Padraic is also a broader animal love, wanting his farm animals to freely enter the house, a scenario that is again pitched as hilariously sweet, but speaks to the connections McDonagh draws between brutality and the far gentler psychology that underpins it, challenging stereotypical concepts of aggressive masculinity and its origins.

But a love of cute animals is not the only way that McDonagh does this, and his male characters also have an almost soulful desire or need to express their inner selves through culture. Colm in The Banshees of Insherin abandons his friendship with Padraic largely to pursue a role as a composer, wanting to leave behind a tangible legacy through the creation of an Irish melody. His friendship, he explains, consumes time, talking about very little and could be better spent in contemplating his own mortality by creating a piece of music that can outlast him, for which he engages a group of students to perform it in the pub. The denial of this by others also becomes the catalyst for other kinds of personal savagery, and, like both The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, present a gaudy and excessive violence as part of its conclusion.

Warlike aggression is also the backdrop to many of these works as unseen men vie for land and power off stage or screen, usually with a political dimension that foreshadows or even creates the conditions for that violence entering into the consciousness of the remote dwellers of Inishmore or Leenane and it almost makes itself the inevitable outcomes of their interactions. Whether it be national struggles between Ireland and Britain as in the Lieutenant of Inishmore set in 1993 at the outset of the peace process or in The Banshees of Inisherin staged in 1921 where the distant sounds of guns and bombs during the Irish Civil War can be heard on the mainland. These are great moments where political and social instability, uncertainty about the future and new outlets for male aggression present themselves, creating the conditions in which the characters of McDonagh’s plays and those in this film feels those effects filter through and shape their own lives, regardless of their direct involvement in them.

A Theatrical World

The Banshees of Inisherin is then a theatre film, not because it is based directly on a stage play or involves long and static scenes of complex dialogue but because it draws so heavily on McDonagh’s theatrical creations in which characters are hemmed in by their physical, psychological and emotional space. While cinematographer Ben Davis creates considerable cinematic beauty in the island landscape shown in aerial shots as well as the several scenes taking place on country roads or at the beach, nonetheless much of the film’s action occurs in interior locations that resonate with his theatre work including Padraic’s farmhouse, the pub and to a lesser extent Colm’s home and the shop.

There is a simplicity to this that accords entirely with equivalent places referenced in plays about Inishmore, Leenane and Inishmaan. These are ultimately domestic plays grounded in a latent violence that makes its presence felt as both the exterior world and, in the case of The Banshees of Inisherin, an existential obsession intrude upon the simple and unremarkable lives of the inhabitants. His most theatrical film to date, these elements would make a reverse adaptation fairly simple to construct, turning a cinematic experience into a stagey one.

The Banshees of Inisherin was screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 and is released in the UK on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

NB This post expands an idea first presented in a review of the film published on The Reviews Hub website.

Film Review: Death of England: Face to Face

One of the great theatre series of the past eighteen months, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ The Death of England universe adds a new perspective by bringing together characters Michael and Delroy for the first time in a hybrid film, Face to Face, given a one-night only cinema release ahead of its free Sky Arts broadcast on 25 November. Building on two fierce monologues premiering either side of the first lockdown, this latest edition extends the vivid world of two friends struggling to connect when race, identity, family ties and concepts of Britishness come between them. Filmed in the closed Lyttleton Theatre, Face to Face joins the the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet as a co-production with Sky Arts that blurs and extends the boundaries between theatre and film, being made available to audiences for free in one of Dyer’s first projects as Deputy Artistic Director.

Although a piece that can standalone, there is value in some familiarity with the preceding plays with the story picking up shortly after the conclusion of Death of England: Delroy which memorably (and briefly) reopened the National Theatre last autumn and christened the Olivier’s in-the-round space. Fascinating explorations of working class masculinity and legacy, the separation of the two friends stems from Michael’s rant at his father’s funeral, directed at his best friend, and from Delroy missing the birth of his baby daughter due to an officious police stop and search detailed in his monologue.

The expectation that Face to Face will involve a decisive clash between Delroy and Michael is part of the set-up as Dyer and Williams look to explore notions of male rage and the recourse to violence that stems from feelings of isolation and otherness that merely perpetuate rather than resolve issues. Filmed in Delroy’s flat during the course of several hours in which Michael unexpectedly brings his niece to see her father for the first time, Dyer and Williams’ third instalment is primarily a linguistic piece in which (as is their style) both characters report events in retrospect while dramatically reproducing voices of other unseen characters and each other’s. As a director, Dyer retains this approach to a point but uses film techniques to create drive and visual interest by placing multiple versions of Delroy and Michael on screen simultaneously.

We see the pair in the present speaking to the viewer and casting aspersions on the other’s testimony while at the same time looking back to hours before to replay the scenario they are describing. Only, when Michael remembers these events, he continues to speak for Delroy with his voice coming from Delroy’s lips and vice versa, linking back to the original stage plays in their use of mimicry to tell multi-character stories. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to, but is used sparringly enough that it rarely jars but references the particular theatrical language of Dyer and Williams’ writing style.

The version control of Michaels and Delroys at different points in time is also drawn from this context, and a feature of both earlier Death of England stories has been this tendency to talk about events in retrospect during which the individual slips into dialogue as though it were the dramatic present. In Face to Face, that idea is given a visual signature by editing and layering shots of the actors together to imply the present and past versions co-existing rather than using flashback techniques or a more simplified chronological structure. Here, it also creates a jauntiness that highlights the comedy in the writing, where Delroy or Michael can comment on their own behaviour in the recent past and, crucially, each others by raising an ironic eyebrow or appearing from unusual places.

The overall effect can be hit and miss but it does two important things; first in utilising camera techniques unavailable if this were purely a stage piece that offer an alternative visual means to tell this story, while, secondly, questioning the veracity and integrity of the storyteller. One thing audiences have learned from meeting Delroy and Michael separately are the areas where their accounts complement or contradict one another through the information they choose to share or omit. As a theatre studies exercise, placing these three plays side-by-side like oral history testimonies highlights these differences, suggesting an ultimate truth lies somewhere between all of them while acknowledging the validity of individual interpretations and, most importantly, noting that each successive play offers character as well as dramatic development in the overall story.

There is an integral he said / he said structure at work, but both Delroy and Face to Face chronologically move the story on, so while Alan’s funeral and Michael’s speech as well as Delroy’s confrontation with Michael at the hospital where his daughter is born are continual references, key turning points in the friendship and the narrative, each new play takes place months later, giving the story fresh momentum. The comprehensiveness of this universe and the vivid nature of the surrounding characters is such that new scenarios for them appear to grow organically from what has gone before. By the end of Face to Face, we know both men a little better, not only how they have dealt with the consequences of their individual stories, guilt and separation, but the audience is shown their friendship, how they interact and respond to one another when their pal is physically present in front of them which moves the Death of England series from memory plays in which individuals look backwards, to a construct where activities in the present equally shape the outcomes and suggested future direction of their relationship.

We see this shift from past to present, from reflection to forward-looking across the film through the change in their friendship, which seemed hostile and broken beyond repair, moving first to common ground and rapprochement and then to camaraderie and mutual support as the pair must unite to take care of the baby and deal with the persistent angry neighbour upstairs. And it is a slow thawing as the issues of identity, race, family and betrayal play out, so while these were already rich and multifaceted characters, from their interaction, the banter and teasing, comes an extraordinary affection as well.

These two people know each other incredibly well, best friends for more than half their lives and as the previous instalments have demonstrated, they can hurt each other more deeply than anyone. But underneath the bile, outrage and anger, these men are forever connected, not quite two halves of a whole but a partnership that may change or even lapse yet remains solid at its foundation. Face to Face reminds Michael and Delroy that for all the things they have allowed to come between them and to distinguish them, ultimately they are more the same than different, grown in the same soil of their East London neighbourhood and better together than apart. And while all of that may sound grandiose or even overly romantic, Dyer and Williams rarely make it so in practice, couching their tale in explorations of male violence and the effects of bandwagoning when so much else is at stake.

When we meet them in Chapter 1 entitled ‘The Aftermath’, Delroy’s flat is in considerable disarray as though an altercation of some kind has taken place. With it comes certain expectations about the cause of that disruption against which Dyer and Williams must work, managing and subverting our expectations about the next 80-minutes. And, eventually, there is a well-staged confrontation that looks at why men commit violent acts, notions of tribal loyalties and the results of these encounters which only ever escalate rather than resolve a dispute.

More interesting though is the impulse control the leads experience in which the tendency to violence erupts instinctually and almost in spite of themselves. Too limited time is ultimately given to this debate but there are character insights into the nature and cultural expectations of modern masculinity, particularly when juxtaposed with a nurturing or caring role for Delroy’s new baby. This muddies the waters for them all and suggests a future direction for these stories exploring manliness in transition as age and responsibility alter their view of themselves and their primary purpose as men.

Face to Face is a chance for Giles Terera to return to a role that ill-health prevented him from playing and was instead assumed by his understudy Michael Balogun who gave an astonishing performance to reopen the National Theatre with Death of England: Delroy – now both actors are touring in a two-character piece. Terera has lost none of his feel for Delroy and here the character has somewhat mellowed, taken beyond the painful and incendiary circumstances that preceded the birth of his child. Stuck alone in lockdown, Delroy is now calmer, more at ease with his paternal status and ready to revisit his feelings about the Fletcher family.

Terera plays the street-smart Delroy as a man maturing as the story unfolds, able to put the past into a different perspective to find the long connection to it, the integrated experience of shared memory and friendship with Michael and sister Carly that will continue to shape his future. But Delroy is also concerned with legacy and the world that he is creating, so while Terera finds comedy in the appearance of Alan’s mouth on his baby which links seamlessly with the conclusion of the previous play, he also acknowledges the impact of the baby’s presence in defining not just who Delroy is but who he now needs to be.

Neil Maskell also inherits the role of Michael from Rafe Spall who launched the series in terrific style with the powerful series opener in February 2020. But Michael too is a different man now, chastened and regretful about his past actions and seeing his niece as an opportunity to make amends with his best friend. Maskell’s Michael is almost a broken man by this point, certainly some energy or feeling within him has died since the manic funeral oration that severed his friendship. We got an inkling of someone trying to turn their life around through Delroy’s earlier monologue and Maskell gives him an inner calm and compassion, a man who has learned things about himself that he doesn’t particularly like and now wants to atone.

He feels like the junior partner sometimes, waiting for Delory’s lead but while ashamed, he recognises the value of this long friendship in defining who he is now, their shared memories and experiences integral to Michael’s personality and confidence. But Michael is still haunted by his overbearing parents and we briefly glimpse both mother and father in cutaways – played by Maggie Saunders and the wonderful Phil Daniels. These flashes of memory and unresolved issues with Alan continue to shape the lives of both men, while Maskell also draws on the greater exploration of the relationship with sister Carly (Amy Newton) who now connects the friends. This strong Fletcher family dynamic drives Maskell’s Michael, seeing their new blood link as a means to repair the relationship and, while tentative, Michael is the most forward-looking of the two as he seeks reconciliation and a more stable future connection, something he is prepared to physically fight for.

Death of England: Face to Face may be most meaningful to those with an understanding of the character histories but does offer both a satisfying conclusion and future possibilities for the series. Should Dyer and Williams turn their hand to a female voice, then Carly seems an obvious choice, although domineering Alan may eventually earn his own prequal. Primarily, the continuation of this story in a new hybrid format after showing Delroy for free during the second lockdown, further emphasises the growing adaptability of the Death of England collection as it explores the changing demands of British identity.

Death of England: Face to Face was screened in cinemas on 2 November and will be broadcast via Sky Arts on 25 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Dune: Coming of Age in the Period-Future

Dune by Denis Villeneuve

Released just weeks apart, two major movies have been tasked with the job of luring people back to the cinema after the pandemic delayed their original release dates. No Time to Die has done brisk business from its first weekend with fans arriving for midnight and early morning screenings that close the book on the Daniel Craig era in some style. Now, Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated adaptation of Dune is set to continue the cinema-going momentum with a film that speaks equally to the fan base who hold Frank Herbert’s original novel close to their hearts, and the casual viewer attracted by a stellar cast coming to the material for the first time.

On the surface, they may seem like entirely different propositions but Bond and Dune have a great deal in common; the growing appreciation for cinematography and the beautiful possibilities of light have been characteristic of the 007 movies since Sam Mendes took our breath away in Skyfall, while the insistence on real stunts and locations has been a calling card of the franchise over more than 60 years while other blockbusters have leaned in to CGI and backlot filming approaches. A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune adopts much the same approach, and while some CGI is required – it is a space film after all – the director situates his narrative style in the reality of locations and stunt-work that make this a very satisfying cinema experience.

At a small UK preview, screening at the BFI Southbank, Villeneuve described his setting as the “period-future,” a place that is recognisable in its visual aesthetic, with technologies in particular as well as costume design that reference medieval, Middle Ages and incongruously (but rather brilliantly) the 1980s, while simultaneously presenting a futuristic vision of inhospitable alien planets, sleek design and what is assumed to be cutting-edge assault weaponry. Together, this visual approach from Patrice Vermette creates instant familiarity for the viewer, easing us into a story that has just enough elements of identifiable human existence to introduce and frame the characters without needing to spend too much expositional time trying to get to grips with the context in which they are operating. Instead, with a bit of societal and political explanation, the story can hit the ground running.

Villeneuve’s masterstroke is to combine classic depictions of machinery but wrap them in futuristic packages, so many of the helicopter-like ships and guns are drawn from 1970s and 1980s references with buttons to press, monitors to track altitude, while the film also has an interest in the effect of knives, poisons and swords as well as the more explosive armoury that gives the film this depth. In fact, the influences from the big action movies and space films of these decades are clear, not only Star Wars of course, but, surprisingly, Top Gun which set a standard for the way in which the aerial attack and tracking sequences take place.

Villeneuve draws on Tony Scott’s prior work in showing both the high stakes perspective of the craft under attack, taking an internal and external cockpit perspective that shows the strain on the pilot – be it protagonist Paul or mentor Duncan (Jason Momoa) – as well as his view of enemy ships preparing to hone-in on their target. The quick cuts heighten the tension in these aerial battles, adding jeopardy in the same way that Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ experienced in simulator flights and MIG attacks which is an interesting reference point for a film set thousands of years beyond the action of Top Gun.

We see similar influences in Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s Medieval meets Middle East meets centuries from now dress design that also take-in a responsiveness to the desert elements so vital to the credible creation of place and character in Dune. To cope with heat and the often destructive sand-filled wind, fabrics are loose, blowsy or draped for both men and women when venturing beyond the Palace compound while drawing a determined class distinction between those growing up off-world (and in regal surroundings) and the Fremen desert community led by Javier Bardem’s Stilagar, seeking to protect themselves from the imposition of different colonialist communities.

The references to flexible and even fight-proof Medieval / Early Modern costume design are vast, most obviously Game of Thrones, The Witcher and films like Outlaw King, Macbeth and The King (also Timothee Chalamet), mixing with futurist and, even more notably, religious influences that favour high-necked, floor-length gowns for women at court. The famous stillsuit that protects fighters in battle, allowing them to breath in the spice-infused desert air, are built as grey exoskeletons, costumes that are given a uniform look and feel to strengthen the sense of conformity and military force – like the X-Men bodysuits from First Class but with added safety features in camouflage colours.

Villeneuve’s vision is complete and evocative, weaving these varied influences seamlessly together and then blending them with a sprawling dynastic story about the imposition of rulers, climate change and interplanetary political conflict that must display differences in class, culture, experience and belief while taking the hero on a coming-of-age journey that by the end of Part One leaves him ready to assume the responsibilities he has been born to, as well as those prophesised for him by believers seeking Messianic intervention and deliverance. That astute combination of visual spectacle, context creation and narrative development is achieved in a film that Villeneuve makes both epic and intimate, complex and driven specifically by Paul’s evolution and growing understanding that makes Dune an exciting and enthralling piece of cinema.

The family unit is an important construct in the first part of Dune, creating an interesting sense of inherited entitlement for a House given the opportunity to return to and rule their homeland, noting the generations before who, like Paul, have learned to fight, to participate in political counsels and to understand the culture of leadership. This coming-of-age trope is familiar, even in space movies where the hero is required to put those skills into practice before the end of the film to demonstrate his worthiness to inherit the mantles of his historic forebears.

Along the way, there must be trial and tribulation, suffering to shape the young protagonist, often with the sacrifice of a beloved item or companion, that gives personal depth to his quest. This, Dune manages particularly well as Paul adjusts not only to his new home but also to the budding responsibilities that his future requires of him. The sacrifices that inevitably accompany this before the end of Part One must leave him in a position to relinquish the past, knowing the his future is not only to apply his training but to forge a new path alone.

Chalamet is perfectly cast as Paul, carrying the film with considerable ease, and Villeneuve has been savvy in choosing an actor capable of great depth ad capacity. Action and Sci-fi movies have given gravitas to their subject matter by countering the CGI and action scenes with character development and, crucially, psychology. This has been best achieved with respected actors including McKellen and Stewart in the original X-Men series and then Fassbender and McAvoy (the more recent films suffering by moving away from their compelling chemistry). Likewise, Marvel has taken the once small role of Loki and, based largely on Hiddleston’s performance, created a beloved character with his own spin-off parallel world. Chalamet has those same qualities as an actor, able to express so much with few words while bringing a seriousness of purpose and grounding to the dialogue that helps to embed the film’s more fanciful tropes.

As he did with The King, Paul is also a creation feeling the burden of his father’s expectations and wanting to find a different, more responsive path. Sensitive and alive to the implication of conquest that his family’s presence represents, Chalamet’s Paul is initially dismissive of the various prophesies and predictions that accompany his arrival. Part of that coming-of-age journey is to recognise and understand the fallibility of his parents as he learns more about the religious background of his mother and the powers that his dual heritage brings.

Crucially, Chalamet has that double capacity to carry those weightier scenes involving family, politics and the future of an empire resting on his shoulders as well as credible action sequences as his character learns to fight, to escape and ultimately to lead as the events of Part One unfold. And charting Paul’s development across this film merges perfectly with the changing audience perspective so we, like the people of Arakkis see Paul evolve in Chalamet’s performance, absorbing the official lessons as well as the circumstantial changes that help his protagonist become a credible action hero by the end of the film, one who becomes an accepted and blooded fighter in a crucial test of mettle that leaves the story and the character on the cusp of significant change.

And part of this coming-of-age development is to live through and instigate the breakdown of pre-existing social structures, aided by those purposeful action sequences, discussed earlier, in which the life Paul has known and his support system are effectively curtailed. War in the later stages of Part One results in changes to the medieval hierarchy which had divided into three classifications, nobility, military services and established religious leaders, who held power within the court. In taking Paul through the story, a democratisation occurs both in his thinking and his position that leaves him closer to the forgotten native people of Arrakis, a point at which the character encounters the feared Fremen tribe and becomes synonymous with the natural world and the political emancipation and education that will seemingly determine his future path and the future stability of the planet.

Like Bond, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser create a beautiful and artistic visual style for the film, most obviously referencing the epic desert films Lawrence of Arabia in the sheer scale and intensity of the landscape as well as The English Patient, notable particularly for Antony Minghella’s aerial shots that captured the undulating sand dunes which Villeneuve nods to here. But Fraser creates a place that is both glossy and forbidding, a dreamscape almost, often obscured by the particles of sand in the wind that blend the unmistakable location footage with the fantasy world of Arakkis. Together, these visual choices and production decisions give the film its authentic feel that help to underpin and properly situate the Atreides family saga.

With plenty of political, social and scientific messages in Herbert’s original novel as well as meaningful performances from a fine cast including Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stelland Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and Golda Rosheuvel plus cinematic influences from a huge range of action movies, there is plenty of depth and scope to Dune. The thoughtfulness of Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of Dune and the wide-ranging directorial, historic and aesthetic influences that combine to create this two-part production are hugely appealing, providing enough familiarity to root the story in a recognisable period-future context that enhances the central coming-of-age narrative.

Dune is released in cinemas on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Last Night in Soho – London Film Festival

Last Night in Soho - London Film Festival

The allure of Soho may have dimmed in recent decades as chain coffee shops, pubs and restaurants have taken over the tiny patch of land between Shaftesbury Avenue and north Oxford Street. But the tiny cobbled streets are filled with an exciting social and cultural history, particularly from the immediate post-war era until really the 1980s that drew countless men and women eager to drink and dance, a place they could be themselves or even someone better. The exciting revelry and alternative culture found in its subterranean bars, members clubs and residential housing is endlessly attractive to dramatists looking to tell stories of wide-eyed youngsters finding new lifestyles in those heady days of abandon and happy oblivion.

But this vision of Soho was never real, it is a backwards projection, an attempt to recapture the nostalgia of times that felt free and unencumbered before everything decisively changed. And whether that was the economic depression and anti-corruption work of the 1970s or the terrible toll of AIDs in the 1980s, cultural projections of Soho are trying to bottle a single spark, a moment not dissimilar to that last Edwardian summer before the start of the First World War, as we try to retrospectively impose order on the chaos of the past, as though somehow the people there should always have know their time was running out.

Soho was a very dangerous place in the 1960s and Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, released later this month and previewed at the London Film Festival, has an astonishing craft and seems designed to specifically jolt the audience out of its romanticised image of the era. Filled with people who had nowhere else to go, Wright’s historic Soho is alive with dangerous men who exploit women, preying on their fantasies of being someone special, luring them along darker paths to a kind of soulful and bodily destruction. A place of lurking shadows and lurid faces, Wright’s Soho is a grubby abyss, and, strangely, far easier to believe in than its glamorous alternatives.

The Duality of Women

It is a strange concept for a movie, using a young fashion student, Eloise, arriving from Cornwall to train as a designer at the University of the Arts, arriving in present-day London for the first time filled with hopes and the inevitable dreams of escape from the solitude of her country life. The film uses those sleeping visions as a means to awaken her to her own innocence. And Wright’s method for doing that is not just an aggressive welcome from the, somewhat underwritten and distinctly high school movie, bullies in her fashion class, or by giving her a terrible love affair with a suave but underserving rake, but by utterly terrorising Eloise with the timeslip biography of a fallen women whose body the young student unwillingly inhabits each night.

1960s Sandie is everything Eloise is not, confident, driven and certain that she will make it big from the moment she first steps into Soho. Seeking out a spot as a singer and dancer, Sandie is assured with men, dresses with flair and refuses to be second best. She wants everything right now and she is determined to get it. Eloise, by contrast, is initially rather homely, calmed by the easy rhythms of the 60s music she listens to endlessly, and isolated by her shyness from those around her, feeling out of place and particularly ‘uncool’ next to her more worldy course colleagues.

Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do something quite interesting in merging these characters together and, while played by separate actors, in the early part of the film, they share a personality with Eloise subsumed into the body and image of Sandie, allowing her to see and experience those Soho nights as though they are really happening to her. We see the two traditionally assigned sides of female personality in these characters, the vamp and the virgin or, as Mad Men referred to it, the Marilyn and the Jackie.

Yet, the writing doesn’t linger too long here and as the film heads in some darker directions, we see personality development in both characters that frees them from the stereotypes being projected onto them, largely by others in the story. There is vulnerability within Sandie, a deep wound that grows as circumstances play out, and we see her become almost greyer as the continual round of suffering wears down that bubbling confidence. Similarly, Eloise becomes increasingly frightened but in doing so, reaches a greater degree of independence and resilience than she did before, finding her way in the present day and, quite quickly, developing her own distinctive look to reflect the growth of her character.

Ultimately, Wright and Wilson-Cairns do much here to reinstate the more negative and seedier side of 1960s Soho and its less appetising consequences for young women threatened and coerced into performing for men. Those wistful Soho memories of drinking and carousing in this garish light now become male-only stories while the history for women at this time was quite different. And, despite what is so often recounted as a positive era of sexual liberation, for the waitresses, nightclub singers and hostesses of Soho, their bodies were not their own.

Creating the Whirl of Soho

Working with Art Directors Victoria Allwood, Tim Blake, Emily Norris and Oli van der Vijver, Production Designer Marcus Rowland and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, Soho is beautifully rendered and warped on screen, asking the audience to consider which version of the area is the true distortion. As Eloise and Sandie experience 60s Soho for the first time at the Cafe de Paris, it is a vision of colour as Sandie’s striking coral dress stands out against the rich scarlet drapes and plush seating in the club, filled with mirrors and light in which the women can see one another. It’s exactly what we have been told these spaces looked liked, elegant and charismatic, filled with energy and life.

But as the film unfolds, those visual choices and Wright’s camerawork becomes increasingly erratic, imposing on and disorientating our perspective as events blur. The past and present shatter and fragment, bleeding into one another, while the growing sense of foreboding, of something sinister building, strips away the gloss of those early scenes. That much of this reflects a kind of madness in Eloise, a manifestation of the disintegration between her daily life and the night terrors that grip her is interestingly achieved and, while likely to be divisive, Wright’s approach is unashamedly bold, all the more so for hitting the mark more often than it misses.

Modern Soho has a more pedestrian feel in the daytime but looks increasingly appealing in the night shoots as Eloise comes to appreciate some aspects of her present day life. The use of neon signs and interior light here makes Soho look more welcoming than in the earlier decade while some of the rain-based shots that create colourful reflections are lovely. The parties may be less stylish to look at, but Wright still creates that consistent sense of crowds drawn to small rooms in this part of town to drink, dance and forget, adding energy to the present day that retains Soho’s liveliness.

Staging London Past and Present

Taking place, then, in two versions of Soho, the very recognisable present day and, grafted on top, the initially more beguiling 1960s version, Wright’s time-bending film pays tribute to the exact geography of the place. With street names unchanged, we see both Eloise and her earlier counterpart Sandie tripping down the same roads on their way to adventure-filled encounters, both nervous but open to the possibility of what lies ahead. Wright heightens the late 1960s era just a touch, creating different shop fronts and street furniture that brings a keen eye to the changing physicality of the district but purposefully draws geographical consistencies between the decades in the warren of streets.

For the keen-eyed Londoner there is much to delight-in and those familiar with Soho and the surrounding areas will note a true rarity in film, that characters are seen to walk through genuinely connected streets, turning corners and arriving at exactly the right place. A minor distraction in many films and television shows set in familiar places and the cause of much post-viewing debate when, for example, Parliament is ludicrously visible from Tower Bridge. So this wonderful precision about Wright’s decision-making here enhances the story, adding an awareness that the filmmakers want their version of Soho to be as credible as possible for those who will notice.

However, Fitzrovia does pop into the film on occasion with Goodge Place as the lodging house for both women and Eloise’s student halls, while one notable scene tracks Sandie through a little known alleyway leading from Rathbone Street, which are technically beyond Soho. Yet, some suspension of disbelief is permissible in a film that is otherwise remarkably faithful to the area it depicts.

The End of the Night

Wright’s film is on far shakier ground as it draws to its horror-infused conclusion in which Eloise is first tormented by the ghosts of the past and then confronts a possibly predictably reality, one that feels a little too cartoonish in execution to fully shock. The film has built the premise that the past and the present are entwined and there are many precedents for the kind of haunting we see here, but the approach tips almost into parody in the hunt for a conclusion that goes slightly too far, becomes too melodramatic to satisfy the greater nuance and multi-layered storytelling that has gone before.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s star continues to rise and she is stunning as Sandie, a character we only see snippets of but who feels rounded and alive. Taylor-Joy is especially good at showing the wear in Sandie, almost as though she’s turned off the lights from the inside which affectingly captures the lot of many Soho women in one short scene. Her counterpart Thomasin McKenzie is a very likeable heroine, emitting a palpable outsider status and growing discomposure as the truth emerges. Matt Smith is charmingly vicious as 1960s manager Jack and Diana Rigg gives landlady Miss Collins some interesting edges. Synnove Karlsen could be better used as Jocasta, a rather one dimensional character for an actor capable of carrying a TV series, while a very unexpected and unnecessarily brief cameo from Sam Clafin seems a waste of another talented performer in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, some of which must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Last Night in Soho celebrates the craft of filmmaking; it is vibrant, ambitious and in marrying together a stylistic approach, storytelling and the physical layout of a beloved part of London, feels like something really new. The ending and the slightly overblown effect of the horror tropes may be forgivable given the interesting things the film has to say about our cultural memories of Soho and the experience of the forgotten women who suffered for it.

Last Night in Soho opens in UK cinemas on 29 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Film Preview: In the Heights

The stage to screen transfer is never a straightforward process and what a show loses in immediacy, direct flow and the intensity of live performance, a movie director must replace with imaginative shot choices and enough visual flair to not only fill the expanse of a cinema screen but to overcome the physical separation from its arguably more passive audience. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s much anticipated filmic treatment of their own stage musical In the Heights has much to recommend it, a rare opportunity to see representations of and diversity within New York communities centered around the deprived but beloved neighbourhood of Washington Heights. And while the film never entirely overcomes the flaws in the original stage show, Director John M Chu’s contemporised soundtrack and integrated choreographic sequences speak to emerging trends in the style and impact of twenty-first-century movie musicals.

It may not have been universally admired but La La Land was a game-changer for the genre, repurposing a cliched format for modern audiences while simultaneously paying homage to the great technicolor song and dance films offered by the big studios during the Golden Age of the movie musical. Director Damien Chazelle’s techniques – which arguably pay their own debt to Baz Lurhmann’s equally genre-busting Moulin Rouge – were deliberately and effectively disruptive both within the story and the wider musical movie industry. In particular, the playing of instruments and the process of creating music becomes as dynamic as the character stories within his films.

The creation of dreamlike states and glamorous locations in La La Land were enhanced by swirling, even fizzing camerawork, and big, sweeping tracking shots that move to the beat of the music rather than the path of the character, following its leads, for example, through a giant house party that even takes the audience into the obligatory LA pool and underwater to create the almost riotous excess of this lifestyle. Similarly, Chazelle offers grand romance in the finale section as Mia and Sebastian travel through a fantasy sequence that distills their lives and speaks to what might have been if only the Director wasn’t really contrasting these unashamedly grandiose moments with the drab and disappointing reality that the lovers were really living in which he uses sophisticated cinematographic styles to burst the bubble of the Hollywood dream.

In the Heights employs some of these same visual narratives to tell its story, understanding the centrality of the big set piece moments when the neighbourhood comes together at the local swimming pool, in after-dark festivals and in celebration to create vibrant and fast-paced dance sequences reminiscent of La La Land as Chu feeds his camera into, above and around the big movement numbers to emphasise and partially create the heat, mass and intensity of the action.

It gives these parts of the film an immersive energy, a chance for the audience not just to aesthetically admire the precision and skill of the dancers from a respectful distance, but to imagine the proximity of the camera and, through rapid cut and track shots, create the feeling of being in the action as well – something which distinguishes modern movie musicals. A fantastic Busby-Berkeley-inspired sequence sees the characters decamp to the local swimming pool to fight the heat and dream of winning the lottery as they sing 96,000. The final segment staged in the water uses synchronised swimmers, floating lilos and reclining songstresses to create one of the film’s strongest visual spectacles.

And like La La Land, the fantasy sequence retains its place within In the Heights including a sequence that directly echoes Mia and Sebastian’s ability to defy physics and waltz through the stars at the Griffith Observatory. In their parting number, College-student Nina and taxi operator Benny sing When the Sun Goes Down from a balcony overlooking the Hudson river and the bridge that will soon take Nina back to the city and some other life. Here again, physics gives way to romance as the couple find themselves in a Christopher Nolan world of rotating buildings and changing perspectives as the couple dance up the side of their tenement block, over the windows of their astonished neighbours’ flats and across the balconies. The CGI isn’t quite as sharp as La La Land nor the concept as rich as perhaps Gene Kelly’s layered dream sequences from Singin’ in the Rain, but this fantasy premise in which love allows people to view the world differently is part of the visual language of In the Heights and its more contemporary choreography.

In fact, where Chu’s film particularly excels is in these big dance moments peppered throughout the film, and on screen these complex creations which sometimes involve what at least is made to look like hundreds of people are visually arresting and energetic while emphasising the community spirit that sits at the heart of the film. The influence of Chazelle and his musical director forebears is notable here too, not least in set pieces staged on the streets of Washington Heights including Carnaval del Barrio and Abuela Claudia’s fantastic dream sequence during the blackout in which she leaves the style of the film behind and moves into an imagined world of beautifully designed ghost figures in 50s and 60s styles dancing in rooms and endless corridors, a stylised representative memory of her life and one of the most impactful pieces of jazz choreography in the movie.

The influence of the LA highway opening number from La La Land is clear, focusing in on individual stories within the overall narrative of the dance but retaining control of the camera to also take in the bigger picture when everyone comes together in unison in what are both show-stopping and traffic-stopping sequences. But while Chazelle phases out these grand numbers through the film as the Hollywood dream slowly curdles into a greyer vision of a lonely city, Miranda and Hudges’s story retains a sense of hope and as characters start to move on, In the Heights variously uses dance as a tool for community building, as a memory of something that is fading away and for sustaining dreams that all of the characters somehow retain of a better life out there somewhere.

In the Heights is tapestry drama uniting collective memories of the area, its people and their Dominican and Cuban heritage with a common American dream of getting out, of finding a better life through hard work, perseverance and a, perhaps, naive belief in meritocracy – a notion questioned in the second half of the story. The show underscores this wider kaleidoscopic examination of community drivers by charting the individual paths for a group of characters each planning different routes out of the borough. But a patchwork narrative can sometimes be patchy and, like the stage incarnation, this filmed version stumbles when trying to strike a balancing between the personal and group levels of storytelling.

The experiences of the younger characters are foregrounded – Vanessa looking to be a designer in Manhattan, Nina unsure about continuing at Stanford and Usnavi who runs the shop and wants to move back to the Dominican Republic, the latter fulfilling dreams set for them by their parents and grandparents. And each of these perspectives is richly told as individuals struggle to get a foot on the ladder, questioning their ability to endure and noting the incipient racism that holds them back in the world beyond the Heights. And while these emotional and romantic entanglements have much to say about the formation of immigrant communities and the complexities of hybrid identity in second and third generation families born in the US but immersed in the heritage of their forbears, they don’t have quite the same fizz as the group numbers when Chu looks at the bigger picture.

Partly this is the minimal time given to characters beyond this core group and while gossipy beauty salon owner Daniela or taxi firm owner Kevin (Nina’s father) feature, their own experience is either downplayed or absorbed within the neighbourhood sections. This affects the group numbers because the audience is less familiar with and therefore less invested in these trajectories. As a result, the intense emotional response that the film wants the audience to feel for Nina, Vanessa and our guide to Washington Heights Usnavi, is not replicated as effectively amongst the wider group of central characters who become comedy sideshows or barriers to the happiness of the core group.

Hamilton-alumnus Antony Ramos plays Usnavi who is the film’s eyes and heart, retelling the story not to the audience but to a group of children in the future from where he reflects back on the events of a few years before – a new frame for the narrative that also advances the stage show’s original conclusion. Ramos is a charismatic lead and whether mooning after love-interest Vanessa, caring for his beloved Abuela Claudia or serving the needs of his, often cheeky, customers, Usnavi anchors the film, connecting the sometimes disparate embroidery. Ramos captures all of the pride his character has in the neighbourhood as well as the conflict he feels between his heritage, the present and the future.

Melissa Barrera is a sympathetic Vanessa whose big dreams of a downtown apartment and entry into an elite world of New York trendsetters is well managed as the character explores a future identity that she wants to adopt. Barrera captures the hope and pain in those aspirations well, and, while rummaging in bins for fabric off-cuts and painter’s rags, Barrera simultaneously demonstrates Vanessa’s ambition and talent with just how far she still has to go in achieving it. Leslie Grace’s Nina and Corey Hawkins’s Benny are a slightly diluted second couple but Nina is a projected version of Vanessa, and having tasted society beyond the Heights, Grace captures all of Nina’s feelings of displacement, the pressure of her father’s expectations and need to overcome her own fears to fully claim the intellectual place she has earned.

As a modern movie musical, In the Heights employs many of its shot, direction and choreographic techniques to create a swirling visual experience that immerses the audience in the story. And while it doesn’t always strike quite the right balance between spectacle and emotional investment, Miranda and Hudges’s film is still a relatively rare example of a musical about working class lives and aspirations that also expands on the experience of immigrant communities with multifaceted identities. With so few of these on stage, it stands to reason that even fewer make the transition to the screen. A significant step forward then, and one that Steven Spielberg’s reprised West Side Story later in the year may advance as movie musicals continue to evolve.

In the Heights is released in the UK on 18 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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