Tag Archives: Film

Midnight Your Time and the Cinefication of Theatre

Midnight Your Time - Donmar Warehouse

Theatre has often been quite quick to react to new technologies, with set designers and directors at the forefront of integrating new approaches to staging and visualising a show. For better or worse, the association between theatre, television and film has only grown closer in the last ten years, not just with writers, directors and performers moving between the different genres with increasingly fluidity, but in the adoption of cinematic technique within productions. At a sector level, the influence of NT Live since 2009 has sometimes shaped how a show is put together. You need only look at the abstract way in which Frankenstein was shot to wonder what influence its film director Danny Boyle had on the final screening versions, and while the lure of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet brought the Barbican to a standstill, it was somewhat lost on its cavernous stage, but the production lived for its cinema-relay where the various technical decisions came together more successfully.

The use of video and film technique have also been integrated into the narrative experience  in a variety of ways, either as a means of identifying and recording action taking place “off-stage” or more directly as part of the overall visual design of a show. Ivo van Hove has made it a trademark and, love or hate it, much of his European work and now increasingly his UK output uses camera relay as an integral part of the show’s structure, projecting scrutinising close-ups of his actors even in the hidden crannies of the stage. This was notable in All About Eve where private moments in bathrooms and kitchens, from which other characters were purposefully excluded, were shared with the audience to increase the sense of dramatic irony and the notion of permanent performance which its group of creatives were experiencing. In Network at the National Theatre, van Hove had his actors begin a scene outside on the Southbank, live-streaming their arrival at the fictional TV studio where footage and the relationship between presenter and viewer was crucial. Even the more controversial Obsession – which is van Hove’s most European show to date – used its film noir ancestry to create an abstract, screen-filled experience.

But there are other kinds of show that have used film techniques for specific directorial and design effects as well as for driving narrative decisions. In 2016, Robert Icke’s superb adaptation of The Red Barn at the National Theatre adopted some of the split-screen approaches, used extensively in the 1960s, to build tension in a flowing murder mystery. Icke played with the proportions of the stage and seamlessly created window blocks to change the scale and visual impact of the action. Creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul went a step further in Dear Evan Hansen  – the first musical to fully embrace and reflect the social media age – which opened in London last November, and created a stage filled with social media feeds that run continuously throughout the show as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube content became the context and the cause of the story.

And here we are at another moment of significant change where filmic content has been the major solution for an industry desperate to sustain engagement with its existing and new theatre audiences, as well as diversifying income streams during the lockdown. Previous productions recorded live and offered for free by the National Theatre at Home initiative have been so successful that more and more theatres have started to offer archived content with The Old Vic the latest to announce its own streaming channel from June. Prepared to “give back” at a time of crisis, content created for cinema screening and / or recorded using its techniques may yet be the saving grace of the theatre industry.

In a few cases, film and video-based platforms have also facilitated the recording and sharing of brand new material. Increasingly Zoom and other similar communication channels are been used to performed Shakespeare plays or musical theatre tribute concerts. Whether we openly recognise it, these are still cinematic experiences, ones watched on a screen, often with directorial consideration of camera placement, shot selection and cut decisions that pre-plan / rehearse how plays will be presented when they appear on audience laptops, smart phones and televisions.

All of this brings us to Midnight Your Time, a 30-minute play written in 2011 by Adam Brace and performed at the High Tide Festival by Diana Quick who stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival under the leadership of her director then and now, Michael Longhurst. Nine years ago, the staging took the Ivo van Hove route, projecting protagonist Judy’s image on a screen above the actor during a series of one-sided video calls. In 2020, Longhurst utilises the tools of film editing to transpose the entire production into Judy’s screen so the audience sees the show from unseen daughter Helen’s perspective as message after revealing message is recorded.

The video-based calling platforms have become all too familiar to many of us in recent weeks and whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype or seemingly endless others, these have been our primary means of communication with friends, family and colleagues since lockdown began. So it’s with a certain weary glee that Midnight Your Time reflects our current experience back at us, without altering the very specific era and political context of the show which begins in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2010.

Longhurst’s production is a series of short ‘scenes’, each one a separate video message the despairing Judy sends to her unresponsive daughter over a period of months. The premise and the building drama of the show depends on the protagonist’s interaction with the video call platform and its functionality which allows her to record messages for the recipient, as well as the option to delete and reconstruct the conversation she wishes to have.

This becomes particularly important as the truth about this mother-daughter relationship slowly emerges, and as Brace conversationally drip-feeds information – a hint of a past row here, the growing resentment of unreturned calls there – Longhurst uses a series of quick cuts to indicate conversations happening in a compressed time frame to reflect Judy’s optimistic, concessionary mood at the beginning of the play, or, more dramatically, in a late night scene in which she repeatedly lets her temper get the better of her and has to revise her message – the screen equivalent of throwing balled-up letters over her shoulder.

The staging of this extended monologue is both casual and remarkably formal, filmed in different rooms of Quick’s house – a decision that seems to be more than one of sheer variety – feeding directly into the two halves of Judy’s personality that so distinctly emerge as the narrative unfolds. In the welcoming warmth of the clean kitchen, the audience learns of Judy’s day-to-day activities, her legal training, involvement in a women’s peace organisation and the succession of middle-class parties and dinners that comprise her social activity. The bright lighting and position of the camera, revealing a particular kind of lifestyle.

The contrast in the more emotional scenes is notable and fascinating. Set either in the plush bedroom or living room, the curtains are always drawn, the light is limited and filming seems to take place at an entirely different time of day. While the audience is invited into these other rooms of the house, there is something incredible personal and almost voyeuristic about the result as Judy’s emotional, and sometimes physical, disorder exudes from these shots, private moments of revelation, of alcoholic dishevelment and guilt that seem to spring from the cosy backdrop.

And this awareness of the camera, it’s ability to pick-up on the subtext within the play and extrapolate much through the social environment is just as essential to Quick’s performance. It may seem particularly obvious to note that this is a play in which the camera is the key means of communication, but acting to camera requires a different calibration than stage acting which changes the scale of facial movements and physical gestures. Look at Sea Wall briefly made available on Youtube last week in which Andrew Scott’s performance has an extraordinary understanding of how to elicit maxim pathos and drama from a fixed-position camera.

Unlike on stage, only Judy’s head and shoulders are visible, very rarely do we see her entire body and the audience must rely on Quick to deliver a series of social cues that reveal everything about her state of mind. In moments of confidence she leans happily back in her chair, her make-up, hair and outfit purposefully designed to show Judy in her most level and public state – something all of us will recognise as we ‘dress’ for calls.  At her most vulnerable, she slumps defeated or leans close to the camera, pleading with her daughter to notice and respond to her entreaties, which only enhances the visual effect of her disordered hair and broken expression.

The relatively short scene structure that Brace has put in place, and from which Longhurst elicits such nuance, also uses the camera to create another interesting facet to this production, that of narrative unreliability. The audience initially is asked to empathise with Judy, a mother persistently trying to contact her feckless daughter, but as the story unfolds the changing locations and style call into question Judy’s motives by slowly revealing a controlling and potentially offensive authoritarianism that rankles with her silent daughter as clearly as it seems to with her charity colleagues and neighbours. Quick and Longhurst uses performance, shot design and direction to slowly shift the balance, helping the viewer to wonder whose side we should really be on.

After lockdown, there are valid concerns that new voices may be swallowed up in the desire to programme safely or that only the larger commercial auditoriums will still be there when theatre’s re-emerge. Yet this confining period is giving the industry plenty of food for thought and conversations abound about how the sector might look when venues reopen, this is a moment for re-evaluation from which all kinds of innovation could come. And, there is no doubting that the links between theatre and film, so vital to the sustenance of community in recent months, will only strengthen. How the semi-improvised simplicity of Zoom Shakespeare or the screen-based interactions that have become our main point of contact with the world will eventually impact the stage remains to be seen, but the recording and sharing of the live theatre experience is surely changed forever.

Midnight Your Time is available on the Donmar Warehouse website until 20th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Macbeth: A Psychological Study

Macbeth - Harry Anton, Michael Fassbender and Jo Nesbo

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play and it is a story filled with death, danger and prophesy. With witches and military conquest, kingly intrigue, madness and betrayal, it speaks to us of the price of personal ambition and the consequences of power-play at the highest level of government. Consequently, its influence is widely felt across our culture, the ambiguous attraction of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly constructed antiheroes proves irresistible to so many. Yet, it is not an easy play to master, so intricately has the writer devised the psychological shape that more productions fail than succeed in creating the right (and believable) conditions for Macbeth’s crimes to flourish and die by his own hand.

Looking at successful adaptations of the play drawn from different media – a recent  theatre production, a film and a novelisation – as well as a high-profile production that failed, it is clear that the very best versions of the story exist in a complex psychological abyss. Giving due consideration to the various forces within the play and making them work in harmony is crucial to achieving a credible interpretation however different these may be.

The Play

Macbeth is a play that on the surface seems easy to understand, a regular favourite on the fringe especially (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing), this dark tale of murder, revenge and retribution seems quite straightforward. Yet, there are three fundamental questions that govern the play and regardless of how an adaptation answers them or the era in which the story is reimagined, these questions must be tackled consistently to ensure that the psychological building blocks of the play properly stack together.

First, the role of the supernatural must be determined, is the story driven by prophesy and fate to an inevitable end or are the witches merely a symbolic manifestation of Macbeth’s (and our) desire to believe that random events have divine purpose? Second, what is the role of human agency in the play, does Macbeth use the witches’ forecast to solidify decisions he would have made anyway, controlling his own path to kingship or is he the puppet of destiny, and to what extent is he consciously aware of his freedom to act or his failure to maintain power over the events he seeks to control?

Finally, what is the nature of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, is she merely another victim of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ or is his enthrallment with her own lust for power the cause of so many deaths – this is particularly relevant when, consumed with paranoia, Macbeth strikes out on his own in the second half of the play, confining Lady Macbeth to the shadows. Regardless of whether the play is set in medieval Scotland, a dystopian future or the crime-riddled streets of Inverness by way of Norway, the answers to these questions are the key to unlocking the play and ensuring its successful transition to the stage.

The Theatre Adaptation

Last summer, Antic Disposition presented their nineteenth-century set version of Macbeth in Temple Church and in doing so created one of the best approaches to the play that London has seen in recent years. Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero and with a superb performance by Harry Anton in the title role, the production chose to make the effect of the supernatural fundamental to the story, manipulating and driving events at every turn by placing the witches as servants in the Palace where they could closely observe and shape the action. It proved a smart decision, one that in the eerie setting of the church created a chilling tone as the witches appeared at every death or key moment as silent but menacing symbols of fate, ever pleased with how precisely their interference in human affairs fulfilled their intention.

In answering the first question so decidedly, the result was to create inevitability in the story that affected the impact of human agency, shown here to be fruitless as characters retained merely the illusion of free thought. Anton’s mellifluous Macbeth was cruel and soldierly with no particular love for Duncan. The witches prophesy igniting a latent ambition in him which he gruesomely pursues believing he is fully in control. Likewise, the determination of this Macbeth answers question three as his wife is jettisoned, taking control of the plan to murder Duncan and, while encouraged by her, the balance of power lay clearly with the husband, making sense of his decision to act and suffer alone as the initial object is achieved with remarkable ease.

As Macbeth assumed the crown, Anton superbly conveyed the disorder of his mind where regret and paranoia contended, showing how clearly the events he set in motion spun rapidly beyond his control, demanding further bloodshed along with his surety of purpose as the throne came under attack. There was no human agency in Antic Disposition’s approach and, combined with the ever-visible presence of the witches, Macbeth’s struggle to hold on to the trappings of majesty against the tide of fate cost him his sanity and his life. There was a feeling of psychological completeness for the audience as strands of the play intertwined to become a brutal vision of unchecked masculinity that was partly influenced by a film from four years earlier.

The Film Adaptation

There are few versions of Macbeth that compare to Justin Kurzel’s electrifying 2015 film adaptation that transformed the play into an unrelenting two hour thriller. Its key achievement was to draw-out new emphasis from this well-worn story, examining the consequences of military action and the damaging effects of parental bereavement – the result is one of the most powerful and psychologically perfect treatments of Shakespeare’s play that you will find. This insightful approach used the basis of a warlike society and the demands of masculinity to set the parameters of the story, creating the conditions in which the already damaged Macbeth is convinced to kill his friend before being broken by the parade of battlefield ghosts that plague his mind relentlessly.

In this context, the introduction of the witches and their power becomes a reflection of his fractured personality that may or may not be a figment of his splintered mind, and while they haunt the action, Kurzel focuses on the notion of post-traumatic stress (for want of a period appropriate term) and grief for a lost child as the driving forces behind Macbeth’s actions – illuminated through the inclusion of an additional child witch and framed by the funeral of Macbeth’s heir which opens the story. What ensues is, then, the triumph of human agency emerging from the hearts and minds of a damaged couple exhausted by battle and the experience of continual loss, filling their emptiness with murderous enterprise.

There is a pain in denying the maternal that moves Lady Macbeth into a central role here as her sorrow curdles into desperation for progress. Marion Cotillard’s multi-layered performance emphasises the difficulty of being a noblewoman unable to provide a successor in a deeply feudal structure where her status would depend on childbearing unless queenship becomes an alternative, desirable and unchallengeable means of demanding respect. See also her painfully sad soliloquy that portends her madness as she returns to her former home to address the dead child. And Macbeth himself is entirely in her power, their relationship ignited by a sexual chemistry and mutual respect that is so fascinating.

The psychological consequences so carefully established in Kurzel’s vision are expertly played in Michael Fassbender’s astonishing Macbeth who contends so movingly with the scorpions afflicting his mind, a performance that fizzes and burns on the screen as the effects of his actions both before and after the witches’ intervention play out. Kurzel presents a fresh take, so steeped in brutality and danger that this became one of the most psychologically convincing adaptations of Shakespeare’s great anti-hero – something that writer Jo Nesbo also achieved with his own cruel and merciless recreation.

The Novel Adaptation

Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo may seem a strange inclusion but his books instantly have an immersive and cinematic quality that made his 2018 novelisation a surprisingly successful rendering of the familiar story which he relocated to the Scandi-influenced world of the Inverness police force. An avowed fan of Shakespeare’s play, Nesbo has openly discussed the influence of Macbeth on his alcoholic detective Harry Hole, so when the chance came to reimagine the Scottish play, Nesbo seemed an appropriate choice. His version departs considerably from other stage and film approaches, offering a modern tale of corruption and power play bathed in a seedy film noir style. In taking very different decisions to the two examples discussed above, Nesbo’s 2018 novel may feel more radical, yet the psychological cohesion of the world he creates is every bit as compelling.

Making Macbeth an aspiring policeman prepared to kill his way to the top job creates different demands on the character and increases the breadth and nature of the interactions that keep him in power. The ambitious officer, by necessity, crosses paths with many powerful men including the Mayor, and while Macbeth kills his Duncan-equivalent early on, Nesbo deliberately holds him back from achieving a wider political power that must act as further motivation for him as he attempts to segue into full management of the city.

In this dark and shady version of Inverness, the great battle is not against other regions within Scotland but with a local, invisible and seemingly untouchable drug lord named Hecat, through which Nesbo poses quite a different interpretation of the supernatural. Fleshing-out Macbeth’s backstory as a reformed addict whose craving for “Brew” becomes a fatal flaw naturally establishes interactions with Hecat’s men who double for the witches. And while there is no actual magic involved, Macbeth still sets his mind and faith to the will of external forces he cannot control.

The page-turning quality of Nesbo’s writing instantly immerses the reader in the scenario he has created as you become increasingly engaged with his expansive realignment of the play including a valuable antagonistic history between MacDuff and Macbeth that colours-in some of the gaps in Shakespeare’s original while providing clear motivation for the other roles with illuminating care. There is no doubt that this is a story of human agency and while Macbeth’s casino-owning partner simply known as Lady is his equal with her own business to run, the protagonist actively pursues his own course (answering questions two and three), while the pull of addiction and lust for power are brought down upon him. It is a fantastic read, told with verve and invention, but it is the vivid complexity and detailed extent of the psychological profile that Nesbo created which makes this novel worthy of comparison with the examples above.

Getting it Wrong

When a version of Macbeth is done well it is gripping, but one duff note in the psychology will bring the whole thing crashing down, as sadly happened to the National Theatre in Rufus Norris’s 2018 attempt which forgot that translating something to a different period setting is no substitute for having a ‘take’ on the play in which its psychological construction becomes credible. Held in a dystopian future after some form of unexplained apocalyptic war – indicated by trees made from bin bags and a central ramp (hill) so steep the poor actors had to tread gingerly to avoid falling over – the court was reimagined as a ragtag group of rebels in concrete bunkers. But the wider implications were less convincingly thought through, materially impacting on the credibility of the play – what exactly was Macbeth killing for in a scenario where nothing existed, what system of aristocracy and government had survived and why did concepts of witchcraft remain?

Without being able to clearly delineate Macbeth’s world order with its fuzzy power structure and limits, this lessened the impact of cause and effect within the play so the production swiftly unraveled. There were witches running in exhausting circles around the stage but their manipulation of events was less certain, few of the incoherent production decisions held together cohesively and psychologically it fell apart. So, by the time Rory Kinnear started awkwardly swiping at the air and wondering if he could see a dagger, it was fatally flawed.

The Psychology of Macbeth

In this brief multimedia examination of the various recent forms Macbeth has taken, it is clear that the very best interpretations have tight control of the character context, creating believable and vivid hierarchies, confines and social structures in which Macbeth’s freedom to operate as a war hero, regicide and tyrant permits and informs his non-linear journey through the story. Whether his lust for power originates in a lack of love for the existing king, his own corrupted grief or mind-altering substances, his resultant actions are crucially bounded by decisions the creative team must make about the role of fate, human agency and the balance of power both within his marriage and the community around him. Build a credible scenario and a credible Macbeth can emerge. Get it right as Ben Horslen and John Risebero, Justin Kurzel and Jo Nesbo did and Macbeth is a blistering thrill-ride of self-destruction, get it wrong and you’re just swiping at imaginary daggers in the air. The psychology is all.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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.


%d bloggers like this: