Tag Archives: Johnny Depp

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…

For reviews of London plays, exhibitions and culture follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Black Mass – London Film Festival

Depp

The gangster flick is one of cinemas oldest genres with its origins in the film noirs of the 1930s and 40s which set the template for many of the films we know today. Films like The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Key Largo and even Gilda have had a long legacy with their focus on the perpetrators of organised crime in America. Originally reliant on menacing character rather than overt violence, the implication of threat and perhaps a hammy punch or two were all the censors would allow, these films were incredibly moral with the good guys and bad guys getting the right ending.

And in the years since, while the films first became increasingly brutal with often graphic depictions of violence (think Scarface, Goodfellas or even Reservoir Dogs), they have graduated to presenting the gangster as a glamorous figure living in a world of power and respect, which recent films like Legend have done much to perpetuate. How refreshing then that Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass which received its UK premiere at the London Film Festival this week may signal a return to depicting this world as grim, dangerous and non-aspirational, punctuated with moments of alarming violence that seem a far cry from the arty portrayals of recent years.

The story is a true one, that of the American gangster Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) whose growing dominance of Boston is depicted in three key stages in the 1970s and 80s, during which time he developed an ‘alliance’ with the FBI, nominally as an informant but actually in extracting information from the Bureau to neutralise his competitors. Bulger managed this through his relationship with John Connolly who grew up together in The Projects choosing different sides of the law. But when Connolly approached Bulger to work with the FBI to bring down the Mafia, it opened up a new world of prosperity and unchallenged dominance for both of them. Running alongside this, although not fully explored, is Bulger’s relationship with his Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a clear affection for his sibling if an ambiguous knowledge of his criminal activities. So Black Mass as well a biography is the story of the blurred boundary between crime and law enforcement where the allure of power and loyalty is far from black and white.

Coming to this with virtually no knowledge of Bulger it’s episodic style takes a little while to get into the story and piece things together, but you’re very quickly drawn into the this excellent no-frills gangster movie. It success comes through the intriguing characters that keep you engrossed as the sense of danger ebbs and flows throughout. Central to this story is actually Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger’s childhood friend who returns to the neighbourhood as an FBI agent and hopes to use that relationship to entrap bigger criminals with information Bulger can supply on their activities. What transpires is much more interesting than a straightforward story of gangster-tuned-nark and it is Connolly who becomes attracted to and embroiled in Bulger’s affairs while simultaneously protecting him from his FBI colleagues. This is where Edgerton’s performance is particularly effective – this portrayal of a man whose head is turned by the excitement of the gangster’s world and the sense of complacent respect it gives him. You see him frequently walking into the FBI offices as though his is untouchable and fobbing his colleagues off to keep them at bay while he manipulates the ’intel’ he supposedly receives from his friend. In a key moment his increasingly fearful wife notes that he’s wearing a new suit and his stance has changed to a swagger, showing how he’s morphing into one of Bulger’s henchmen. Later in the film as the net closes in, Edgerton is also very good at portraying the desperation and fear that his web of deceit has created.

One of the great things about a film festival is how often you see work where actors have upped their game. I recently noted that Helena Bonham Carter had given her best performance in years in Suffragette and here her regular Burton-film collaborator Johnny Depp does the same as Bulger. Like Bonham Carter, it’s nice to see Depp in a straight acting role, no gimmicks, no quirks, no ticks, just a pure performance and it’s a great reminder of what he’s capable of. His Bulger is a constant seething presence in this film, almost always restrained, totally controlled so when he does lose his temper it’s terrifying. There are lots of classic gangster tropes to navigate – relationship with mum (see also Legend), relationship with son, volatile relationship with wife and beloved by the community that he protects by helping old ladies across the road with their shopping (again see Legend) – but Depp takes all of that and still makes you believe that his Bulger is a ruthless killer and convincing leader of a crime empire.

There’s good additional support for a host of famous faces including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss whose suspicions of Bulger increase as time goes on, as well as actors you’ll recognise from House of Cards and The Newsroom. In a small but interesting role Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger a local Senator who has an affectionate relationship with his brother and is one that retains a significant degree of ambiguity. With both men still alive it’s clearly difficult to imply that a former Senator would have knowledge or even engagement with criminal activities, but while Cumberbatch gives a good performance as the authority figure / family man, it does seem a shame that such a fascinating avenue remains unexplored – particularly as two brothers chose such completely different paths. It would also have added a stronger leg to the gangster-FBI-politician triangle which implies a level of corruption allowing all three to prosper.

Those tiny caveats aside this is an excellent film and one that successfully manages to convey just how grim that time was – Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the design decisions almost make this look as though it was filmed in the 70s and 80s. Best of all, it never looks glamorous which seems to be a departure from the usual style of modern gangster movies making this actually much grittier and believable because of it. It’s certainly a far cry from Legend (which admittedly had a slightly different agenda), and in fact has more in common with the look and feel of A Most Wanted Man Anton Corbijn’s similarly grainy adaption of John le Carre’s novel staring Rachel McAdam and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Black Mass is a great addition to the gangster film collection, packed with fantastic performances and a thoroughly engrossing story. Even the concluding notes will leave you with plenty of questions about the nature of corruption and justice. And who knows, this may signal a turning point in the presentation of gangster violence on screen ushering in a bleaker style that more accurately reflects the threat of that world.

Black Mass was shown at the London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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