Tag Archives: James McAvoy

From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies – Imperial War Museum

Real to Reel - A Century of War Movies - IWM

The Imperial War Museum has a real treat for film fans, a new exhibition looking at the creation and influence of war films that brings together a huge number of props, costumes, videos and documents from the last hundred years of movie-making.  An often controversial subject, movies claiming to depict real-life events can polarise opinion frustrating historians and veterans, while patronising audiences. Yet some of the greatest films ever made were war movies, many with devoted cult followings, so from Casablanca to Black Hawk Down, Das Boot to Eye in the Sky film has often reflected the nature of modern warfare.

The parameters for this rather brilliant exhibition become clear as you go along and it’s quite strict about selecting films based only on wars that have actually occurred in the last hundred years, as well as the films – both real and fictional – made in this time. So if you’re hoping to see medieval depictions like Braveheart or the recent Macbeth, or gain insight into the big battles of the British Empire such as The Charge of the Light Brigade or Zulu then this is not the show for you. Real to Reel instead fits entirely with the museums remit to represent the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Pushing the history aside, there’s plenty for film fans; if you want to see Mark Rylance’s 2016 BAFTA mask for Bridge of Spies, David Niven’s RAF flying jacket from A Matter of Life and Death, Marlene Dietrich’s ‘entertaining the troops’ dress, James McAvoy’s Atonement army uniform, an original chair from Rick’s bar in Casablanca or Clarke Gable’s trench-coat then this show has it all and more. Taking a largely chronological approach we walk through the World Wars first, grouping together examples of films made about them at any time since. Initially the layout is like a store room piled high with boxes, reels and packages – reminiscent actually of the layout of the Barbican’s James Bond exhibition a few years’ back – a stage set in a way to showcase the individual items which include the costumes mentioned above, digital screens showing excerpts from the films, screenplays, stills, director’s letters and corresponding testimony from the IWM archives for the periods examined.

Given the recent splurge of commemoration activity, naturally we start with The Battle of the Somme a landmark piece of early film-making that gave people at home a chance to see what the Western Front looked like for the first time. Although parts of it were staged, it does show wounded and dying men, the dangerous environment full of shells, craters and fear, and, from a distance, men genuinely engaged in combat. It sets the scene for the rest of the programme as we learn about the purpose of war films both as patriotic drivers made during actual conflicts to rally morale, as well as reflections on the way in which particular conflicts have shaped British and American consciousness. The fully fictional accounts soon follow, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory with original set drawings from Bond designer Ken Adams, to Lawrence of Arabia, as well as costumes and a flag from the recent Warhorse movie, the First World War has been a popular focus for films throughout the last 100 years.

Understandably, however, it is the Second World War that takes up the most room here and seems to have been the greatest inspiration for film-makers. There are several reasons for this, key among them is the idea that by 1939, film had become an important medium for propaganda and morale, so while the art was in its infancy during the Great War, many movies were made in both the UK and America to promote the cause. In addition, of course, this war had a greater effect on the USA than its predecessor, so naturally Hollywood both then and since has spent considerable resource attempting to comprehend and honour it.

We learn how several major stars joined-up to fight while continuing to make films and hold concerts, showcasing the costumes mentioned above for Niven, Gable and Dietrich along with their stories including how Dietrich gave up her citizenship rather than perform for the Nazi cause. Nearby on a giant cinema screen are some interpretations of the 1944 D-Day landings with the combat sections of several films contrasted to show us how differently the war has been interpreted in different decades. Saving Private Ryan is one of those included and in a case nearby you can see Tom Hanks’s costume from the film along with memorabilia from comparable D-Day movies.

From here on the chronological framework for the exhibition fluctuates somewhat because next up is an interpretation of the Dunkirk retreat from 1940 using Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement which includes probably one of the best tracking shots ever seen in a combat movie as we follow the hero Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and his friends along the beach. The shoreline is packed with men awaiting rescue, some enjoying the faded glory of the fairground rides, some slumped exhaustedly on the ground, and the shot, shown here in full, is compelling, eye-opening and strangely beautiful. Nearby, is McAvoy’s army uniform worn in these scenes along with a brilliant short video interview with Wright and his designer Sarah Greenwood discussing how they found the location, dressed it and prepared for the sequence. In a microcosm, this small section is why this exhibition is so successful, because it shows you the piece of film, tells you how it was made with passionate care and attention to detail so notable of modern filmmakers, and offers you a bone fide bit of Hollywood glamour with a costume worn by a movie star.

There are some final display cases on character which feel a little under prepared in comparison but cover some of the Vietnam films and Where Eagles Dare, as well as an excellent ultra-modern video with trailers and interviews for recent hits including Zero Dark Thirty and Eye in the Sky. It ends where it began with a warning that war movies are often highly controversial and glamorised versions of history that can be unreliable. But the minute the marketing machine goes into production the cultural impact of these films is inescapable. Walking around the final anteroom that contains posters, memorabilia and replicas it’s hard to disagree. The soundtrack to this section is the music from classic movies like The Great Escape and Casablanca which are instantly recognisable and firmly embedded in a wider idea of the periods they represent.

War movies, then, are a dangerous thing and for many will be the only history they will ever see. And while such fictions have no claim to absolute truth (the catch-all term ‘based-on’ helps with this), artistic licence can lead to considerable controversy – particularly when American films completely expunge other Allied forces from their own history. From Real to Reel is probably the Imperial War Museum’s most successful exhibition, in terms of logic, argument and content, since their Ian Fleming show in 2008. It is brilliantly executed with a persuasive argument that makes you think more deeply about the issues it raises, while enjoying a rare sweep of exciting artefacts. While plenty of films are left out what this show contains will delight military historians and film fans alike.

From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January. Entrance is £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 


Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

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The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios

So I spent my Saturday night watching James McAvoy unicycling in nothing but a pair of y-fronts and some Cuban heels that Patrick Swayze would have loved. Wait… before you call the Daily Mail to report this scandal, it was all in the name of theatre. He also wore a monk’s habit, ripped off his shirt and tied himself to a cross before having a Jack the Ripper fantasy… I’m not making this any better am I? There were a few hundred other people there, it wasn’t just me! Before the gossip columnists come knocking I should probably explain that this all happened in his new play The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios where McAvoy plays Jack, the mad heir to the Lordship of Gurney.

Jack has spent years in an asylum suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, believing that he is God incarnate. When his father dies in less than salubrious circumstances without changing his will, Jack inherits the title and returns to the ancestral home, much to the annoyance of his Uncle Charles who wishes him permanently committed. Wary of a public scandal, the family conspire to marry Jack off to his uncle’s young mistress, Grace, in order to produce an heir, while giving Dr Herder free reign to try and restore Jack’s sanity. But sanity comes at a price and soon Jack’s harmless delusions take a darker turn with chilling consequences for the family whose stiff-upper-lips are put to the test.

As the title suggests this is all about class and particularly how playwright Peter Barnes feels the upper classes are out of touch with real life, living in a clubbable world of appearance, old-school ties and self-protection. The programme contains an essay on our fascination with class divide; whether that’s based on breeding, money, education or some other divisive tool. Society’s need to categorise and thereby denigrate others is a persistent one and the examples Andrew Anthony calls upon include TV reality shows and recent examples of politicians condescending to people they think are inferior such as taxi drivers or the police.  Consequently, there is nothing likeable about the Gurneys here, they manipulate and conspire, have affairs and look down on their community, all of which make Jack’s early ease and freedom all the more appealing to the audience.

McAvoy is brilliant in a role that gives him a chance to display his range – and Jack is the only part that is really any more than a caricature. The first act takes us from Jack’s arrival as the God of Love in his Daz-white suit to his “cure”, and McAvoy plays him with a lightness and serene calm that is charming to watch. We also get to see an usual side to the actor – his comic timing which is so rarely used in his screen work; there’s a great moment when Uncle Charles in frustration shouts out “My God” and Jack pops his head around the door and innocently says “Yes” – hilarious. There are also quite a few utterly surreal song and dance routines which McAvoy handles with assurance.

The second half is a complete change of tone, considerably blacker than what has come before. Here Jack is trying to supress his moments of gibberish and act the part of the country squire, giving McAvoy a chance to display his abilities once again, beginning with quietly supressed frenzy and allowing it to grow and distort as the story unfolds. The great success of this performance is in making these two halves of Jack’s insanity seem part of the same man and convey a sense of outward authority that wins over his family and the community. Most of all, McAvoy looks like he’s having a great time and earned a rapturous standing ovation from the audience, which may have been for the unicycling alone!

The rest of the cast play their roles well even though the script gives them far less to do; Kathryn Drysdale’s cockney Grace Shelley was a little over the top even for this production in the first act, but was much better in the second. It was only the second night of the run so there’s still a long way to go yet. Serena Evans is great as Uncle Charles’s beleaguered wife Claire who is frustrated by her boring life and husband and is drawn to Jack’s freedom. The biggest laughs were reserved for Anthony O’Donnell however as long-serving Communist butler Tucker, who inherits £20,000 from his late master but stays to protect Jack.  There’s quite an interesting parallel drawn between these two characters, both suddenly inherit money but neither cope – Jack because he is mad and Tucker because he drinks – but they are temporarily drawn together by their new-found status. Tucker also represents the perspective of the working-classes, dismissing the idiocy of his ‘betters’ and supporting their demise. It is most obviously through Tucker that we see the consequences of Jack toxicity, and O’Donnell is fantastic throughout.

Soutra Gilmour’s production design is very fitting, largely country shades of brown and green which makes Jack’s white suit all the more eye-popping, before he adopts more muted colours in Act Two. Transporting characters to the garden is cleverly done with sunflowers growing up through the set and unfolding, before neatly retracting the same way. And the House of Lords scene, complete with cobwebbed half-skeletons representing the Peers of the Realm was also a neat satire.

Overall then, this is a great production of a very strange play. It’s a caveat worth noting if you like your drama straight and linear; the individual characters don’t have much depth and there are some very bizarre delusion sequences which may not appeal to everyone. You should also note the rather thin seating in Studio One, a shame for a purpose built modern theatre, so you’re likely to be very cosy with your neighbouring strangers. But don’t let that put you off; this is a great revival full of hilarious moments and a really great central performance from James McAvoy. So, the first of the big five performances of 2015 has set the bar high and we’ll see in the coming months whether Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch can rise to the challenge, and if any of them is brave enough to face an audience in just their pants!

The Ruling Class is at The Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. Tickets start at £29.50, although £15 tickets for Mondays are released on 2nd of every month.

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Film Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

It’s great to see films that experiment with their material and this  last minute, but very welcome addition to the London Film Festival programme, focuses on the breakdown of a marriage following the unseen death of a couple’s baby son a few months before. Essentially this is 3 films, one from Eleanor’s perspective (Jessica Chastain), one from Conor’s perspective (James McAvoy) and this third version subtitled ‘Them’ which unites elements of their individual streams into one two hour film. The ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions were shown at Cannes last year although have yet to be released in the UK, so like many others ‘Them’ is the only version of this story I had seen, and it is an engaging  film.

It begins some months after the death of their baby son and Eleanor has disappeared. At no point do we find out what happened to the child or see the couple with him which is a very sensible move from director and writer Ned Benson. It means this carefully constructed and contained film focuses on the aftermath of a tragic event and the consequences for both the individuals and their relationship. It runs on two parallel tracks as Eleanor tries to fill her time with classes at a local university where she finds a friendship of sorts with her lecturer. Meanwhile Conor is running a failing restaurant-bar with his best friend and stalling while he tries to accept his attempt at independence has been unsuccessful. Eventually he knows he’ll have to give in and join forces with his father’s trendy restaurant.

It also has some things to say about parental relationships and it’s interesting to see an American film that doesn’t entirely portray this big all-loving close family idea. Eleanor’s mother is quite distant and not entirely sympathetic to her daughter’s plight, although they clearly care about each other it’s not a close and confiding relationship. Conor likewise seems to resent his father’s success (Ciaran Hinds) and inability to match-up to it, so like a moody teenager he spends much of his time rolling his eyes or avoiding all but a surface engagement. In some ways it’s a far more realistic picture of family interaction than usually seen, and you start to wonder, with such influences, what sort of parents Conor and Eleanor would have made.

Chastain’s gives a complex and emotional performance as Eleanor; she is frustrated by her husband’s ‘put it all in a cupboard and move on’ approach, but she also decides to cut and run, creating a new emotionally unengaged life far away from the wife and mother role she used to have. Although she has a close friendship with her sister and begins to develop a bond with her caustic university lecturer, Eleanor is an isolated figure somewhat separated from her family and with no other friends which in Chastain’s performance feels partially like a deliberate severing and partly a consequence of the person she must have been before the tragedy.

By contrast Conor is far  warmer, with a group of friends at his bar and his father with whom he develops a respect as the film progresses. MacAvoy is also excellent (as ever) as the pained Conor, who cannot quite admit his marriage and business are over. Yet his approach is a more practical one, dealing with the consequences of their tragedy affects him differently but no less intensely. McAvoy’s performance is very sensitive and feels believable, but there’s no judgement about Conor, or even Eleanor, being wrong in their response. Conor is very likeable while it is actually harder for the audience to get close to Eleanor because she actively distances herself.

Interestingly Benson uses different colours to light their screen presence; Eleanor has a lighter tone, while Conor is often in tints of blue or black, which the director explained is also used in the ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions as a reflection of their character. What makes this project different is its focus on how people deal with tragedy and chooses, quite rightly, not to show you the actual events. Instead fragments of their early relationship are occasionally seen as the characters recall memories of their happier past, but again these are kept to a minimum and used to demonstrate both how optimistic their expectations were then, and the nature of the bond between them. We may not see the past and the future but there is an indication that these two will always be in each other’s lives.

There are a few occasions where Eleanor and Conor cross paths and these scenes are both intense and engaging, showing the awkwardness of a couple breaking up dealing with someone who feels both incredibly familiar and like a stranger. I loved the concept of this three version film and hope that ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ are given a UK release. At least the director hopes to have them all on the DVD together. Nonetheless, ‘Them’ stands alone as sensitive insight into the way people handle difficult events and how it affects their view of themselves, as well as being a successful experiment for Ned Benson, using the same material to make 3 different films. If you get a chance to see it, I would highly recommend you do.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was shown at the London Film Festival. No wider UK release date for any of the 3 versions of the film is yet available but look out for them on DVD.

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