Tag Archives: Sean Harris

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.


Film Review: Macbeth

macbeth

All. Hail. Macbeth. I’m not usually one for sweeping or grandiose statements but this new film version of Macbeth means I can feel a couple coming on. Here we go – this is the best Shakespeare film ever made and the best version of Macbeth I have ever seen on stage or screen. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most incredible plays and over the years I’ve seen a number of professional and fringe productions, but somehow none of them has ever produced the kind of reaction I’d hoped for. The intensity of the story and how Shakespeare builds the sense of threat should feel devastating and I’ve longed to see a production that grabs you by the throat at the beginning before turning you out onto the London streets dazed and wrecked by what you’ve seen. I’ve been entertained, engaged and disappointed but never subsumed… until now.

There are three core questions that any production must ask itself – whatever choice the company makes is fine as long as they choose and are consistent about applying it. First, what is the role of the supernatural, are the witches real and does their prophecy pre-determine Macbeth’s future beyond his control or do they merely cement his own human agency? Second which of the Macbeths is driving events, is it him with support or does Lady Macbeth convince him to do something against his own will? Finally is Macbeth motivated by power and greed, does he commit countless murders because his human frailty cannot displease his wife or is he essentially evil? Many a production has failed by not making the decisions on day one, and what is so spectacular about Justin Kurzel’s new film is not just that they choose a clear path but it is beautifully realised and reinforced throughout the film.

In a recent interview Kurzel explained that Shakespeare on film often feels a little staid because they start with the beauty of the language and try to fit the rest of the action around it. But what works on stage can be stilted on screen. Instead Kurzel began with the characters, working with the cast to discover who they were, where they came from and what they wanted, so that the language and their speeches should evolve ‘organically’ from their personality. This approach gives a real power to the events depicted and at every point you feel you’re watching living, breathing people who feel entirely believable. The enormous tragedy of Macbeth becomes an immensely affecting disaster that you live with the characters so as the brutality increases to what is here both an epic and timeless conclusion, you’re completely bereft as the credits roll. Like I say, best Shakespeare film ever.

It uses two core themes that serve to explain not just the context in which the characters exist but also the psychology of their behaviour. It opens with the funeral of the Macbeths’ only son, a pagan-like festival, almost Viking in its feel that immediately places our protagonists in the midst of an intense grief. Throughout we see children playing in the fields outside, attending events with their fathers and in a nod to Henry V, fresh-faced teenagers fighting and dying in Macbeth’s army, for Macbeth’s cause. And there is a shocking moment involving children that will be familiar to Game of Thrones fans. Kurzel has taken a rather oblique reference to the death of the Macbeths’ child and brilliantly used that as the spearhead of their motivation. The fears about producing an heir, so commonplace in medieval and early-modern kingship, add heft to Macbeth’s actions in a futile attempt to defy the prophecy that Banquo’s sons, not his, will inherit the crown. Likewise, viewing Lady Macbeth as a grieving mother helps to explain her ambition for a better place, a woman expected amongst her rank to produce heirs, failing to do so and clawing at other entrapments – fascinating.

The second theme is the effects of warfare and the nature of living in a combatant society. What is so so brilliant about this film is the observation it makes about warfare, here depicted in a medieval setting, but so contemporary in its comment about the confusing effects of conflict on the individual, referencing both ideas of manly behaviour and expectation, as well as the emotional consequences of killing and seeing your comrades killed. In Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance we see that Macbeth’s reluctance to murder Duncan comes from this notion that killing on the battlefield for a noble purpose is one thing, but doing it in cold blood in peacetime for personal ends is quite another. Even better, his mind then fails to make a distinction between the two and begins to reel with a combined survivor’s and murderer’s guilt as the ghosts of the men he led to die, now fruitlessly, for Duncan’s cause, as well as those he destroyed for his own, haunt him.

The film is bookended by some of the most extraordinary fight scenes you’ll ever see. The first follows swiftly from the child’s funeral to put the grieving Macbeth in the thick of the action with the camera right in the heart of it all as men clash and flail. Then Macbeth is still as the battle rages around him in slow motion, and the 3 witches appear to him (with an added child witch to reinforce that theme), so the audience knows in that moment his fate is sealed. Amazingly Kurzel and his crew top this for the final confrontation between Macbeth and his aggressor Macduff, which neatly addresses the movement of Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane, and takes place against a landscape filled with orange smoke with flecks of ash pouring across the scene in the wind. It’s visually stunning and epic, a little reminiscent of Skyfall’s final set-piece as Bond rushed through the coloured haze of the moors to save M, and clearly implies a new era of battle depiction that can look simultaneously fierce and lyrically beautiful. The ending too poignantly reminds us that conflict is never over and as one King assumes the throne, another rises to take his place.

And so to the performances; I could gush for hours about how wonderful an actor Fassbender is and I can’t think of a single time he’s given anything less than a commanding performance. People have mixed feelings about films like The Counselor and Prometheus but Fassbender was still wonderful in them. His ability to entirely inhabit a character, to absolutely become them means he can give a performance of considerable depth whether he’s playing a suspect in Poirot, a comic book anti-hero in X-Men or as an emotionally cold sex-addict in Shame. And he is Macbeth and I mean he absolutely is Macbeth. It’s a tough role and unlike others the pitch of it must waver along with the story. He doesn’t start on a high and fall down, or start low and progress linearly, but alters throughout. Fassbender is so utterly magnificent in this role because the audience follows the twisted path with him, starting as a loyal warrior, before he is overcome with anxiety about the murder he commits in a moment of savagery but with tears in his eyes – a phenomenal depiction of conflicting emotion. After it’s done, rather than revelling in his new kingship, he is broken with guilt and fear, seeing ghosts and slumped on the floor of his new palace. Yet he rises again after the witches confirm no man born of woman can destroy him so his confidence soars, pushing his wife aside and, so certain of his destiny, committing tyrannous acts. The bubble finally bursts again in the final battle and realisation dawns on his face with the subtlest flicker as he succumbs to inevitability. All of this is in Fassbender’s electrifying performance and it’s astonishing to watch. The only thing that should be standing between him and an Oscar is possibly his other film, Steve Jobs.

Marion Cotillard is perfectly matched as Lady Macbeth, the arbiter of the plan in this version. There is something quite ethereal about her that sets her apart from the others. Partly it’s the semi-French accent (it was quite common for European royal houses to inter-marry) but her initial grief sets her apart from the other characters so we only see her properly interact with her husband and no one else, which gives weight to the nature of their conspiracy. The scenes between them pulsate with tension as they drive each other to act and Cotillard shrewdly shows her Lady Macbeth channelling her frustrated motherhood and pain into an act of regicide which eventually has devastating consequences for herself. The supporting cast is wonderful to; David Thewlis makes a brief appearance as a bounteous and likeable Duncan, while Paddy Considine’s Banquo silently reeks of disappointment and fear of his friend. Sean Harris arrives quite late on but makes a big impression as the pinched and vengeful Macduff.

Everything about this film has been so carefully thought through and the evidence of that comes across spectacularly on screen. Kurzel has created a completely compelling film that, as all good five star productions should, leaves you both in awe and utterly drained. It is so atmospheric and throbs with danger and tension all the way through – you cannot take your eyes off the screen. It is the production of Macbeth that I have waited for and if this cast could reconvene on a London stage anytime soon that would make this even more amazing. I cannot wait to see this again, in fact I’m off to find another screening now, who’s coming?

Macbeth is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 2nd October. You should really really go! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Serena – London Film Festival

Do not watch this film, I really need to say that right up front because the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it is, and the more cheated I feel by its inclusion in the Festival programme. Admittedly I did quite well this year, saw 6 and was only disappointed by 2 (so there will be 3 more good reviews in coming weeks), but with more than 250 films on offer you start to wonder how decisions are made on the selected films and whether the organisers have actually seen everything they recommend. No one could have thought Serena good enough, so its presence in a high arts festival can only be a cynical ploy to obtain associate credibility.

Serena is the story of timber plantation owners in North Carolina during the depression-era starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper playing Serena and George Pemberton. Among the multiple plots, George has fathered a child with a local woman prior to his marriage but doesn’t care until Serena loses their unborn baby and is rendered barren and barmy as a result. Serena also couldn’t care less until she discovers he’s been sending money to the mother and harbouring a photograph in a locked drawer. Running alongside this, George is involved in some kind of unexplained fraud and if anyone sees his account books he’ll go to prison, so first of all he shoots his long-term business partner, who incidentally hates Serena, on a hunting trip while everyone’s looking for a Panther, as you do.

But it’s not over, in a third plot the local mayor played by Toby Jones is trying to get Pemberton’s land for something and uses an insider named Campbell (Sean Harris) to steal the account books, although 5 minutes before Campbell was perfectly loyal and helping Pemberton cover-up the murder. Story number four is about another plantation worker, Galloway (Rhys Ifans) who comes under Serena’s thrall impressed by her ability to tame an eagle and cut into trees in the right spot – who wouldn’t fall in love with someone who could do that?! Anyway, she then uses him as some kind of one-armed hitman and sends him to murder Pemberton’s child, ex-lover and anyone else who stands in the way. And sorry to spoil this for you but as I’ve suggested you don’t watch it won’t matter, in the end they thankfully all die as did my own will to live.

These intermingled plots on their own are so ridiculous none of them could carry the film but with so much thrown in, it’s impossible to understand anything. The characters have almost no depth and sad to say with such a cast, even the acting is pretty flat. It must have had a significant budget but the town looks like a set and not where people actually might have lived, and the actors have nothing to do but look perturbed and moody, as I would if I’d found myself in the middle of this load of nonsense. The festival catalogue describes Serena herself as Pemberton’s ‘ruthless, brilliant wife’ and Lawrence’s performance as ‘a treat, playing Serena with an evil eye Bette Davis might have envied.’ So I was expecting Dynasty meets Giant timber farming epic with a manipulative and cold-hearted woman calling the shots, what I got was a series of weak plots centred around a character who just looked hurt for most of the film. This is no Bette Davis movie and that comparison is an insult. Do I have anything good to say about it….err… Jennifer Lawrence had nice hair throughout.

There are probably about 500 ways to improve this film, but I have two main suggestions; first Serena is bad, she arrives on the plantation immediately gets everyone’s backs up and starts throwing her weight around. George can’t see it because he’s besotted with her and allows her to take charge. Maybe she cheats, manipulates, fires people and even a murder if you must, but ultimately the plantation becomes a huge success putting pay to any local attempts to force them out. Option 2, Serena is bad, she does all of the above but George kills his partner or gets arrested for fraud, and Serena has to step in to run it without him. The twist is she never loved him and secretly works to get him arrested / hanged so she can run things alone. But sadly neither of these things happened and 102 minutes of film are wasted – and even worse that hundred minutes felt like three and countless people walked out!

Serena is a very bad film indeed and I urge you not to watch it. It’s going to get a general release because it has two respected big name stars and probably a lot of money to claw back, but don’t help them. Apparently this sat on a shelf for two years and there is no question at all that it should have stayed there rather than take the place of another movie at the London Film Festival. Three messages come out of this; 1) Organisers of London Film Festival please stop making all the films in the programme sound amazing, it just annoys us when they’re utter pap; 2) Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Lawrence and even Bradley Cooper, you are all so much better than this so dust yourselves off and don’t look back; 3) to anyone planning to see this film, trust me just don’t, save your money and your time – put on your DVD of American Hustle instead, now that’s a great film!

Serena is scheduled to go on UK release on 24 October but really don’t bother. Look out for 3 further London Film Festival reviews on Cultural Capital in the coming weeks.


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