Wednesday, 24 April 2019

David at the movies: From M to OAP


 “The spy who came in from the Co-op” is how one British tabloid described the real-life pensioner on whom the Judi Dench character in this movie is based. Joan Stanley, as she is called here, was in her eighties when she was arrested on charges of espionage dating back to her youth. Played by Sophie Cookson in the flashbacks, we see Joan seduced by a Communist German √©migr√© (Tom Hughes, recycling his accent from playing Prince Albert on TV) who talks her into giving the Russians details of the developing UK nuclear programme. In doing so she not only betrays her country but also the professor in charge of the project (Stephen Campbell Moore) who is also in love with her.

I was reminded a bit of Alan Bennett’s play on Sir Anthony Blunt, who was finally exposed as the “Fourth Man” in the Cambridge spy ring after years of having his treachery hidden to avoid embarrassing the Establishment. In scenes at Buckingham Palace (Prunella Scales was terrific as HMQ) duplicity was given a dark comic edge. Alas, Mr Bennett didn’t script Red Joan, which could have done with a touch of humour.

It’s sort of droll to see Judi Dench moving from playing 007’s boss M to the shabbier side of espionage, Dench and Cookson are both excellent, but the zigzagging between Then and Now becomes slightly tiresome, and Joan’s attempts to justify her betrayal didn’t wash with me. Neither did Blunt’s, but Alan Bennett’s script allowed the viewer to relish his downfall, which we aren’t invited to in Joan’s case. We are reminded that the aptly acronymed MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) somehow prevented nuclear launches throughout the Cold War era, but, IMHO, a traitor is still a traitor. 


A Western that isn’t a Western (no cowboys or Indians), the weirdly titled Sisters Brothers is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992) or, further back, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). It’s set in the 1850s, the Gold Rush era. Charlie and Eli Sisters (the Sisters brothers – geddit? – Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are killers-for-hire, pursuing the also weirdly named gold prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his pursuer turned protector (Jake Gyllenhaal) from Oregon to California. There are misunderstandings and shoot-outs along the way, with an inevitable stopover at a bar-cum-brothel.

This rambling story only settles down when they get to the goldfields and we are introduced to a bizarre twist on the science of prospecting. There’s a lot of mumbling and squabbling in the script. Direction and cinemato-graphy are uneven: too many gloomy night scenes - and some of the daytime shoots are also very grainy. The last half hour is extremely grim. All four lead performances are rock solid, but none of these characters is particularly likeable, which makes this an Interesting rather than an Engaging experience. It’s one of those movies which will probably seem better on a second or third viewing.


Nice poster. Shame about the movie. Another pointless remake. This doesn’t add anything to the 1989 version apart from superior special effects courtesy of advances in CGI.

Only minor changes to the story. A family move from the city to the outskirts of a New England village where there’s a spooky outcrop in the woods beyond what the local kids have mislabelled as the “Pet Sematary”. Trucks thundering past their new house on Day One signal with no subtlety disasters that are to come. First the family cat and then – whoops, almost a spoiler.

There are more scares before the “resurrection shuffle” than after. The second Second Coming is totally OTT and seems to be sourced from the Chucky movies rather than Stephen King’s original novel. I’m guessing Mr King was inspired by the 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw (by W.W.Jacobs) which was somehow more spooky because they didn’t open the door when ‘he’ came back. Not enough for today’s grossed-out audience, of course.

John Lithgow is clearly slumming here as the old-timer neighbour who sets the drama in motion but he’s the best thing in this. Except maybe the CGI cat.


There's a spate of ‘Based on a true story’ movies this spring. Stan & Ollie is the best so far. Fighting With My Family, a comedy-drama biopic, is in the Not-as-good-as league, along with Fisherman’s Friends.

Soraya and Zak Bevis ( Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden) are up-and-coming teenage wrestlers living in Durham in with an amateur wrestler dad and a wrestling-mad mum. They get the chance to try out in front of Dwayne Johnson and the coach (Vince Vaughn) from the US wrestling equivalent of The X-Factor. Soraya is flown to Florida to train for the big time; Zak has to stay home and coach the local kids.

Soraya dyes her hair and changes her name to Paige. The coach (Vince Vaughn) is a hard man to please and she fails to bond with the cheerleader bimbos in the training group who all seem to have gone to school with Buffy and Willow. Will Paige drop out or will she make it to the giant stadium for a title bout at ‘Wrestlemania’? No spoilers, natch, but Paige’s story is somewhat predictable. Zak’s story is a lot more involving, as he struggles to settle for broken dreams.

I didn’t find this grabbed me emotionally in the way that Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby did but it’s an agreeable movie, with believable performances all round, crisply scripted and pacily directed by Stephen Merchant. Dwayne Johnson, who they say sold the story to the studio money men, seems immensely likeable. The wrestling scenes are a joy to watch - so much more spectacular than what we used to see on black-and-white TV screens when I was the age of Paige and Zak!


If you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, you’ll be inclined to like this; it will help if you’re a fan of sea shanties.

There’s not a lot of plot: a music executive (Daniel Mays) is tricked by his mates into offering a recording contract to a group of Cornish fishermen who sing in pubs and at country fairs. Not an easy sell to the X-Factor generation, but when Danny falls for a fisherman’s daughter (Sarah Winter) his commitment grows and – if you know your pop music folklore, the rest is history. This is a movie loosely based on fact.

Despite its slimline script, Fisherman’s Friends has a lot of charm. We’re in Poldark territory, so the scenery is a guaranteed hit, and the fishermen are a likeable (mixed) bunch.  All in all, there’s a healthy dollop of the feel-good factor that made The Full Monty and the Marigold Hotel movies such crowd-pleasers.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Theatre at the cinema: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy night."


Gillian Anderson and Lilly James as Eve and Margo

Having given us her (magnificent) take on Blanche Dubois a few years ago, Gillian Anderson now brings another of the 20th-century’s great screen ladies to the stage: Margo Channing, a role Bette Davis played like a fire-breathing dragon. Ms Anderson attacks the role with appropriate scenery-chewing gusto; I wanted to applaud when she delivered the key “fasten your seatbelts” line! The set combines backstage scenes with video close-ups which build a vivid bridge between stage and screen. The male cast members, I should add, are uniformly splendid, but this is a play about women.

Monica Dolan is excellent as Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm in the movie) and Sheila Reid milks some good laughs from the part of Birdie, Channing’s put-upon dresser (Thelma Ritter in the movie). It’s hard not to picture Sheila Reid as Madge, driving her wheelchair like Boudicca’s chariot in ITV’s Benidorm. Gillian Anderson will forever be Agent Scully to me (and maybe to you too), and a hint of Scully’s vulnerability neatly underscores her steel as Margo. I hope she adds Norma Desmond to her CV in the near future!

Gorgeous Lily James plays the pivotal role of Eve Harrington, the star-struck fan who becomes Margo’s PA and then her understudy and finally her nemesis. James has done good work in movies and TV and she is good here too, but her performance lacks the subtlety of Anne Baxter’s in the movie, although this may simply have been lost in the translation from screen to stage.

Sheila Reid, Gillian Andderson and Monica Dolan

A great actress (I know, I’m supposed to say actor) inhabits the role she is playing, becomes the character. Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith – they always do this. Bette Davis was Margo, just as she was Baby Jane Hudson. Joan Crawford was a good actress, but as with so many actors you could see her applying technique to the role. Bette Davis (ditto Katharine Hepburn) was a great actress; you see the character, not the technique at work. Gillian Anderson brings that touch of greatness to her roles. Lily James does not – not yet – but I think she will.

NT Live will bring “Encore” showings of All About Eve to cinemas in your neighbourhood. For a fraction of the price of a theatre ticket you will get a masterclass in acting. Not to be missed.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Wot I'm reading: Never too much of Mr Bennett


Having read the previous volumes of Mr Bennett’s Diaries, I put off reading this, thinking it was bound to be more of the same. Well, it is – and that’s what so joyful about it! His life is only a little bit grander than yours and mine – he and his partner shuttle by car and rail between their homes in Camden and Yorkshire (and an annual trip to a cottage in France). They take sandwiches on visits to beauty spots and country churches, they shop for antiques which usually require Rupert to do some restoration. Alan, of course, also does talks and readings and book-signings – and writes plays.

He supports causes close to his heart: keeping libraries open and schools open-minded are two of his great concerns. And he has bees in his bonnet: during the decade covered here, 2005-2015, the police kill an innocent Brazilian on the London Underground and never apologise. The British government colludes in the rendition of terror suspects. Tony Blair continues to pop up; Mr B despises him as powerfully as he did Lady T in a previous era. Nor is he a fan of David Cameron (“smart alec”), Richard Branson (“a bit of a pillock”) and Boris Johnson (“doesn’t seem to have a moral bone in his body”), among many others. He blames Classic FM and the National Trust for “the Torification of life” and deplores “the nastification of England” by property “improvers”. Waiting to go on a stage in West Yorkshire he is confronted by a pair of “sabre-toothed pensioners.”

He confesses to “a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself”. A newborn baby, his partner’s nephew “doesn’t make me feel old, just huge.” Old age (he’s approaching 85) has brought health issues and other drawbacks: “These days I am too old to be on my best behaviour. And I’m too old not to be on my best behaviour.”

Alex Jennings (who plays Mr Bennett)
 and Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van
There are insights into his creative process, in this case the writing of his Britten/Auden play, the one set in a not-so-stately home and the movies of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van. There’s a nice smutty episode when the cast of A Habit of Art are listening to sound-effect farts to choose an appropriate one for the actor playing Auden. After the Diaries there are some bits and bobs, including a lovely funeral tribute to John Schlesinger who directed An Englishman Abroad, in my opinion one of the finest hours television has ever produced.

 He is offered a cameo in the BBC mini-series of Fanny Hill – playing an old codger whom Fanny “fucks to extinction” – but turns it down: “I’ve always thought of myself a bit of a fraud as an actor.” Back in the 1960s when Beyond the Fringe was on Broadway he declined a supper invitation from Jackie Kennedy, only because of his natural shyness, from which he still suffers. Not only shy but modest. He tells us the critic Robert Hanks remarked that “personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel.

One cannot have too much of Mr Bennett.