This could jolt anyone accustomed to fast-cut, high speed modern cinema. Here is a film that relies on the traditional (dare I say old-fashioned?) values of fine actors speaking eloquent words and a master director who knows how to set up and frame every image to maximise its impact. Spanning just a few months and focussing mostly on the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (the abolition of slavery), it also depicts key aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s public and personal life. Essentially, this is an analysis of power, how it is gained, how it can be used and how it affects someone who possesses it and those around them. Director Steven Spielberg is in his “Schindler’s List” mode, serious, restrained and pensive, correctly allowing the writer and the actors to do their work unimpeded. Potentially, any Hollywood bio-pic is a minefield of cliches, but Spielberg avoids most of them so deftly that it comes as a surprise when one occasionally surfaces. That said, Spielberg allows himself a few flourishes which lighten the mood and add to the enjoyment; for example, quite early in the film a crowd of Congressmen parts to reveal the first appearance of Tommy Lee Jones; in a theatre, this would draw a round of applause for the entrance of a major actor; in cinema, it is the equivalent to a fanfare of trumpets and it says “here comes a star turn, Oscar voters take note”. And indeed this is an Oscar-worthy supporting performance, but taking the leading role is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, subtle, powerful, towering, human and completely unforgettable. At the film’s heart is Tony Kushner’s beautifully literate screenplay which encourages all the actors to shine; even Sally Field, as Mrs Lincoln, is for once bearable. It is unwise to label a film a masterpiece too soon after seeing it, as the passage of time can alter perspectives, but right now this seems to me to be the greatest film so far this century.
Archive for January, 2013
In the last of the Donmar’s season showcasing the work of new directors, Simon Evans directs this 1941 French play by Vercors (in a version by Anthony Weigh). In a remote part of the French coast, a German officer (Leo Bill) is billeted on the home of an uncle and niece (Finbar Lynch and Simona Bitmate), presenting thinly veiled parallels with the German occupation of France. Whilst the woman is, for the most part, silent, the two men talk to each other and about each other but never engage in conversation. In effect, they are delivering alternating monologues which provide an eloquent commentary on the experience of occupation but deliver no dramatic tension and no human interest. Vercors was a prominent figure in the Intellectual Resistance movement in France during World War II and, revived now, this is still of historical significance. However, it is in essence a collection of well-written and well-spoken thoughts that could be gripping if performed as a radio play, but, judged as a drama for live theatre, it never really works.
Set in 1948 and, when first performed almost 30 years later, Peter Nichols’ loosely-structured comedy (with songs by Denis King) was far enough removed from the events it depicted to satirise them, but close enough to resonate with audiences. Revived now under Michael Grandage’s direction, the contemporary relevance of the piece looks questionable, yet in another 30 years and relocated to Afghanistan, it’s observations about how Britain perceives its place in the World could still be just as cutting. The play draws from the writer’s own experiences in post-War Malaysia and centres on a group (SADUSEA – Song and Dance Unit South East Asia) putting on shows to entertain troops. At the forefront of the group is a flamboyant drag queen, played with great relish by Simon Russell Beale who extracts every possible laugh from the camp humour. As always with this actor, there is as much enjoyment to be had from the expressions on his face when he is not speaking as from the delivery of his lines. There are also stand out performances from Joseph Timms as the innocent new arrival and Angus Wright as the over-zealous Major. Amidst the hilarity, the more serious themes are brought out well and, despite the dating, I still found it a satisfying and pleasurable evening.
Chekhov is the staple diet of middle brow theatre-going, with four plays (occasionally a fifth), all firmly fixed in time and style, rotating to make regular appearances. This production certainly lives up to the best West End traditions, the sets and lighting are excellent and Lindsay Posner’s direction is solid and meticulous. The play is Chekhov’s lament on ageing, unrequited love, missed opportunities, wasted lives, boredom and (presciently for 1899) damage to the environment. Ken Stott is superb as the title character, moving effortlessly between sardonic humour, frustration, rage and resignation. He is ably supported by Samuel West, Anna Friel, Laura Carmichael, Paul Freeman, Anna Carteret, etc, all perfectly cast in their roles. However, what I was really looking for was the spark of originality to ignite this production and set it apart from all the other Chekhovs. Sadly it never appeared.
Whenever a great piece of theatre is translated into cinema, it is inevitable that many who loved the original will be disappointed. The makers of this could have risked alienating the devotees by choosing to discard many of the show’s key features to create a new cinematic vision, but this adaptation does not take that road; it sets out to be a definitive version of the original and, whilst it cannot replicate the experience of live theatre, it can offer the highest production values and optimum casting. Judged by these criteria, it is difficult to imagine how it could have been better done. For the first time in a major screen musical, the performers all sing live to camera rather than miming to pre-recorded tracks and this innovation is a brilliant success that will change film musicals forever. Russell Crowe as Javert looks slightly uncomfortable but, otherwise, the singing is exemplary. Karaoke style singing might suffice in comedic musicals but here it was critical not to repeat the disastrous mis-casting of Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd” and to use only actors who can really sing. Among leading Hollywood stars, only Hugh Jackman has a background in musical theatre, so maybe he cast himself, but more to the point is that he seems born to play Jean Valjean; he is utterly magnificent throughout.
Devised and performed by the Stan’s Cafe group, this show Is part of the 2013 London International Mime Festival. It consists of four performers, three as Roman Catholic cardinals and one as a Muslim stage hand, acting out scenes from Middle East mythology and history, stretching from the Old Testament to an apocalypse in the near future. My own lack of knowledge of the Bible meant that many of the jokes in the first half went over my head but, nonetheless, I found it inventive, consistently amusing and often hilarious with much of the humour arising from intentional mishaps in the seemingly chaotic staging.
Exquisite puppets and expert puppetry are deployed to tell the tale of an “angel” descending on a small coastal community. Beautiful story telling, amusing for children and thought-provoking for adults.