Archive | February, 2011

Brighton fails to rock

20 Feb

Adapter and director Rowan Joffe’s remake of Brighton Rock is stylish but, ultimately, one questions its point. Relocating the post-war setting of John Boulting’s 1947 version to the 1960s adds little apart from the opportunity to give the violent, small-town hoodlum Pinkie a fishtail parka and a scooter. An unintended consequence, however, is that it makes both his Catholicism, and that of the naive Rose who he marries to prevent from testifying against him, an anachronism.

Joffe, in an interview in the Guardian, explained his decision, “We’re making Brighton Rock as contemporary as we possibly can because the story feels ‘modern’. It’s too alive, too vibrant and too relevant to be contained in the late 1930s.” A worthy enough aim, except for the implicit assumption that the audience, unlike Joffe, will be unable to recognise relevancy unless it’s given a stylish makeover. It may also be news for Joffe that the 1960s are ancient history for most cinema-goers – and  not only those who claim that not remembering is a sign they were there in the first place.

It’s not all bad though and the film does have some redeeming features. Here’s Matthew Turner in ViewLondon, ‘The film starts brilliantly, with a gripping opening scene, atmospheric photography by John Mathieson, gorgeous production design work and a terrific score from Martin Phipps. However, shortly after Hale’s murder, it completely runs out of steam and collapses under the weight of a confused, directionless script and ill-defined characters’.

To be fair, I thought Sam Riley made a decent stab at Pinkie. I wasn’t completely convinced by Andrea Riseborough as Rose, but I’ve now seen her in Made in Dagenham, followed by Never Let Me Go a few days before Brighton Rock, and failed to recognise her each time (a tribute to her acting rather than my lack of perception I hope). Unfortunately, though, I never believed in their relationship. And other characters were even less successful. Andy Serkis as Colleoni, the rival gang leader, was painfully laboured with speech patterns that made me want to slap him. While Helen Mirren as Ida, the blowsy broad determined to bring Pinkie to justice, and John Hurt, as her bookie friend Phil Corkey, both gave cold, brittle performances that veered perilously close to caricature.

The key to updating anything is to respect its roots. The fact that words such as ‘blowsy’  or ‘hoodlum’ – lovely, old-fashioned words – have crept into most reviews provides one key. Somehow, this remake’s heart wasn’t quite in the right place. Pete Postlethwaite (the original choice to play Corkey) and someone like Imelda Staunton for Ida might have struck the right note, bringing a genuineness and warmth to the roles that made us care what happened to them.

I’m also disappointed that Joffe didn’t take the chance to return to the ending from the book, rather than the one Greene wrote for the film. Or, given that the Catholicism at the heart of the plot is now difficult to understand, he didn’t confront the difficulty head on and explore the concepts of innocence and guilt.

I remember my own sense of surprise, almost shock, when a catholic priest friend stated that in an affair with a married man a single woman, having not broken any vows, had nothing to answer for. (Any guilt she therefore chose to feel was down to an unconscious desire to play the scarlet woman!) Such a clear-cut view of right and wrong challenged my more woolly C of E principles, but also left me questioning which of us was in fact more liberal.

It was any such challenging of assumptions that Brighton Rock failed to provide. I might have accused it of being muddled in its intentions, if I knew what those intentions were. Sadly, however, I’m not sure it had any, other than piggybacking on the style of the 1960s.

Barney’s Version: À la recherche du temps perdu

2 Feb

Barney’s Version, directed by Richard J Lewis, is like a generous portion of a gooey cake that you had great fun making and it shows – the icing might have slipped a little but it tastes fantastic! It’s a film-geek’s dream, too, with Dustin Hoffman’s son Jake playing his onscreen grandson Michael, cameos from Atom Egoyan and David Cronenburg and, for a British audience, a role for Mark Addy. (Although shamefully I failed to spot any of them until the credits.)

The film shares with us the memories of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), a Montreal Jew and head of TV company ‘Totally Unnecessary Productions’. Precisely, it does this at the point he’s starting to lose his memory through Alzheimers. If it’s a comedy then it’s one at which I wept so, like Billy Wilder films, it’s one of the better kind. Tellingly, both moments Barney  succumbs to hysterical laughter (once when he asks Miriam, a female guest he’s just met at his own wedding, to run away with him, and once at his father’s death) are deeply serious. Ultimately, both Barney and the film possess a finely honed sense of the ridiculous and a refusal to take themselves too seriously.

Paul Giamatti’s Golden Globe (for best performance by an actor in a comedy or musical) is well earned and the entire cast are a joy to watch. As Dana Stevens comments in an excellent review in Slate: ‘Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, and even Scott Speedman…all make hay from their tiny roles. Taken as a whole, the movie’s structure is lumpen, but scene by scene, it’s full of vivid moments between actors…The script doesn’t need to convince us that the prickly and incorrigible Barney Panofsky is, in the end, someone worth caring about. Paul Giamatti’s performance already did.’

It’s also true, however, that the narrative isn’t all it might be. Much has been made of the difficulty of bringing Mordecai Richler’s novel to the screen and, yes, the film is big, sprawling and slightly messy and, at over two hours, could have lost a subplot or two. But Stevens’ description of a ‘galumphing movie that nonetheless provides a bracing jolt of pure, uncut Giamatti’ provides the clue to its charm. Barney’s Version is hugely infectious and entertaining. It also has a fabulous soundtrack, with Donovan fast-tracking us back to the sixties and (this being Canada-fest) a double-bill of Leonard Cohen.

The only real flaw is that, in a film about memory (and its loss), the structure wasn’t more interesting – the flashbacks do start to pale. And apparently the novel (now at the top of my reading list) takes a more playful, teasing approach to how much memory can be trusted. But whether launching himself into bed wearing a proud paunch and jaunty boxer shorts, or wiggling a dance after a successful call to Miriam, you can’t help but warm to Barney. And, in a trick that must draw our attention to the moment’s transience, his leap into bed is frozen mid-air: from good to bad and back again, life keeps moving. We know, even without the benefit of the opening scene, that when Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), comments on his son’s domestic happiness with ‘you did good boychick’, it’s already an elegy.

It’s this Mickey Finn, slipped into the pure cocktail of joie de vivre, that elevates Barney’s Version to brilliance. For, if memories provide our identities, what happens when we start to lose them? And how reliable are they – and particularly their recording ? How far can the lettering on a gravestone, or the book written by the cop convinced Barney killed his best friend, be trusted? The film seems finally to suggest we – and life itself – are a glittering kaleidoscope of perspectives.