Bob Ellis on the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech (available on DVD this month), Biutiful, The Company Men and the passing of Sidney Lumet.
The Oxford scholar Peter Levi had a theory that Shakespeare was popular because he had only one theme. A man or a woman, he said, is given a task to which he or she is unequal, and comedy or tragedy follows. Thus Hamlet, an adequate joshing student, is a poor avenger, Brutus, an adequate stoic philosopher, a poor generalissimo, Othello a fine generalissimo but a dumb older husband of a young white wife, Malvolio a shambolic wooer, Viola a lousy transvestite, and so on.
This theory well fits The King’s Speech and explains its international popularity. We all of us as children have been made to recite, or sing, or perform acrobatics on stage, and have dreaded the anguished humiliation the experiment was bound to bring to us. And thus we identify with a stammering King, painfully and memorably. And some of us, like me, who overcame years of stage fright at public speaking by, in the stutterer Nye Bevan’s words, ‘torturing my audiences’, cried in the movie, blubbed in the foyer, and wept in the taxi home, so involved were we in the late monarch’s disability and his overcoming of it.
When I saw the film again last week I cried less but saw, this time, how skilfully it was shaped. From some dull conversations in some shabby rooms it broadens out into banquets, palaces, royal deathbeds, a gorgeously-appointed coronation, a world at war, and one unwilling man who can stiffen a nation at the time of its gravest peril by speaking live to a microphone. It is Pygmalion Meets The Gathering Storm, with Rush as Higgins and Firth as Liza, the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, King George he’s got it! King George he’s got it!, and exactly the same sort of struggle, and trial, and failure, and victory, that My Fair Lady showed, and lured a billion awed admirers to esteem world wide.
Firth gives perhaps the best male performance on film in this tense cranky narrative: a regal panther entrapped by a net and lashing with claws at a captor he cannot reach: the Duty he was born to, the Family that mocked his defect, reversed his left-handedness, painfully straightened his bow-legs and thrust upon him the greatness he dreaded, and choicelessly wore amid a nation in battle, fearing every syllable he uttered might bring him undone.
Rush as Lionel Logue, we realise (an Adelaide man, what else), is to his King just one more tormentor in a life of torment: what’s that you’re saying, b-b-b-Bertie, speak up, a torment his brother Edward relished lifelong. Logue too invades his space, takes him out of his comfort zone, ignores his royal prerogative and slaps him around like the others, at one point advocating, treasonously, he displace his king, a shallower fellow altogether. This scene, outdoors in fog, walking and rancorously arguing, closely resembles Cassius’s temptation of Brutus in Julius Caesar and reminds us that Logue, a Shakespearian actor, sees very theatrically, pushing his luck and preparing his memoirs, this mighty story he is in.
Rush is of course magnificent, lithe and watchful and game as only a displaced Australian ‘colonial’ in London can be, craving a knighthood, a box at the coronation, while scorning the system that so debased him while it enlarged his testy pupil and nearly unhinged him. He is every talented Australian expatriate becalmed in Earl’s Court or Eastcheap, the Clive James, Barry Humphries and John Pilger of his day. And Helena Bonham Carter, tiny, exquisite, gracious and condescending, gives the eventual Queen Mum the formidable credit she deserves for stage-managing a dithering klutz into a kind of greatness against long odds. Michael Gambon is Rushmore-majestic as George V, a big wounded royal bear disgusted by his sons and bewildered on his deathbed, and Guy Pearce as Edward VIII, a selfish, petulant spoiled darling of Empire brought to his knees by a wily Baltimore sexpot, outclasses, if anything, Edward Fox’s version a generation ago.
More should be said, I suppose, of the thirty-year pilgrimage of David Seidler the screenwriter to his final draft, and the brilliance of Tom Hooper who, for a mere thirteen million dollars, gives us an entire nation at war, not skimping the engrimed drudgery in which its poorest lived and festered, while being prepared to die in war (again), for the system that had so demeaned them. Danny Cohen, the wide-angled cameraman, should be mentioned, and Jenny Beavan, the costume designer.
It is a film that ends with a King calling a commoner ‘my friend’ and a surge of the heart that makes monarchists of us all, alas. How good it is. And how good it is that so many Australians – republicans all, I have no doubt – are in it and around it.
EVERYTHING IS BIUTIFUL
Firth got the Oscar, of course, and beat Javier Bardem for it narrowly. But if Firth is the best male actor in English on screen, Bardem may be the best male actor in Spanish, for it is hard to think of another.
He plays Uxbal, a drug survivor and small-time crim divorced from a mad wife, caring in crowded grime for his two young children, and squalidly accommodating and underpaying illegal Chinese on unsafe building projects, comforting the relatives of dead children with coffin-side vigils and communicating (he has a gift) with the dead. And, oh yes, dying swiftly himself of cancer, it seems, in two months’ time.
He inhabits, in short, the modern global world, and responds, as we all do, with fury when things go wrong: his entire drug-pushing rabble of refugee Senegalese are busted and deported; the wife of one, with a plaintive baby, comes to live with him; his mad wife seems cured and moves back in with him and starts, as before, to torment Mateo, their little son, for wetting the bed; and so it goes.
The pensive, dark-mooded, globe-bestraddling director-screenwriter Alejandro Gonzalez Inarratu, who made Babel, makes of this engorged hell-banquet a mild-mannered, low-key and somehow disarming orchestration of love gone wrong and grief eluded for one more day. We co-experience in depth what each character is going through: the mad wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), hooking for better, speedier drugs than the free prescription ones she now avoids taking and yearning for her children, snatched from her when she endangered them; the racketeer brother Tito who sells their father’s gravesite and views, for the first time, preserved in formaldehyde, the twenty-year-old boy who sired them both and died of cold while fleeing Franco; Ige the tender African nanny who, with a child of her own, and the stash of money he promises her, may run out on him, posthumously, to Senegal, abandoning his children and squandering his ill-gotten patrimony; the children who just want their mother back, and feel guilty over everything, as children do.
The plight of refugee ‘illegals’ is portrayed here as never before. We understand, in the round and in depth, what they are running from and dare not go back to, and the enslaved, comfortless misery they now will cop to have a chance in the new jackal-capitalist hell-hole – Barcelona – they have come to, for the sake of their children, in a leaky boat. We understand why this mad mother must not be allowed near her kids any more. We understand it all.
Bardem’s profile, Aztec in its contours with a forehead that all too soon becomes a nose, is like a Rodin bust of the entire human species in manly despair. Yet he saunters on, making do and sorrowing when he is wrong. It is a work of magnificence, and should, with a deep breath and a goodly whack of chocolate, be seen.
IN A BETTER WORLD
As should In A Better World, so involving you believe it’s happening, or will happen, or has happened, to you. The winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it presents us with the two worlds, civil war-front Africa and calm provincial Denmark, of Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a volunteer doctor, and the world of his troubled son Elias (Markus Rygaard) whose parents are separated, and his new friend Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), whose mother is lately, painfully dead of cancer and all his school friends and peer group in England.
Violence as a theme unites the wildly different layers of this narrative: the bullying of Christian, whose accent is funny, in the schoolyard, the belly-ripping of pregnant women by a revolutionary chief in Africa, who turns up needing treatment while tribesmen, victims of his atrocities, propose to kill him, and Anton defends him, risking his life, for he is a patient too.
Needless to say, the bullying is hardest to bear. Studies have shown its effects are worse than being anally raped by one’s father throughout one’s prepubescent years. In this case the pushing and mocking, the letting down of tyres, the mimicking and name-calling, draw the bereaved, expatriate Christian to thoughts of suicide. Scarcely better off is Elias, whose mother Marianne (Irine Dryholm) loves but cannot forgive his father for a sexual fling with a nurse in a period of wartime stress in Africa, although she knows she should. The solitary, saddened and bullied Christian is further buffeted by his belief that his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, the star of Brothers) is fucking Marianne.
The team that wrote and made Brothers and After the Wedding (Anders Thomas Jensen and Susanne Bier) show no let-up in their suspense and moral intensity, their up-close view, in the Bergman way, of marriage, parenthood, male bonding and solitary despair. All the performances are astonishing but Persbrandt as Anton, burnt by the sun and seared by his work, yet steadfast still in his humanism even when it threatens him with mutilation, shows a kind of secular sainthood, albeit wormed with grief and lust, that will stand like a pillar of flame in screen acting for a week or two yet, in an age when so many films are good, and underpraised, and sometimes, out of fear like this one, unseen.
THE COMPANY MEN
…In Boston, meanwhile, as usual, Ben Affleck, as usual, is in trouble and angry and conscience-racked. He is Bobby Walker, a corporate sales executive ‘let go’ when the Meltdown consumes a biggish ship-building company diversified now into other areas. He shouts a lot at the puny offers made by other companies, rails at his black instructress in job applications, scares his wife Carol (Adrianne Krstansky) when she entreats him to sell the Porsche and the house and take a job with his sneery cement-dusted low-bred brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) as a carpenter’s assistant and resentfully notes that his boss got twenty million last year and six hundred million worth of company stock while running the whole show into ruin.
Soon he is living (again) with his father in the house he longed as a boy to escape and his two children – gloomily building a tree house — begin to fear him.
Other company honchos ‘let go’ are sorer-arsed than he. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who has worked his way up from the shop floor, responds inappropriately, as Phillip Ruddock might say, gets drunk, hurls stones at the building by moonlight and ponders suicide. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who started the company with his present boss, continues to fuck Sally Wilcox, the executive who fired him (Maria Bello) and to ignore his anguished wife Diane (Nancy Villone), but comes to dislike himself as a role model and plan a rival company.
This film will do well in America where 90 percent of the citizenry will recognise the plotline – of stricken male pride, family grief, retrospective jealousy, marital shouting and dark preparation for self-slaughter.
No part of it criticises capitalism itself, or its unbalanced reward of stockholders with the blood-sacrifice of workers, but those who think on these things will extrapolate from it a kind of subcutaneous Marxism worth pondering after midnight. All the performances are excellent: Chris Cooper (as always) the most luminous, haggard and communicative; and Adrianne Krstansky as Walker’s knowing, tender, horny, worried wife Carol scared they’ll all lose everything to his pride and content to share a small house with in-laws so long as they all still have each other, the most affecting. A fine, flawless film, the third or fourth of a grand procession one might call Meltdown Masterpieces, of a hundred yet to come.
Kaboom is a genre-jumping romp that goes from teen porn to witch-flick to Facebook to End of Days and a super-oedipal Darth Vader ‘I am your father’ Apocalypse-climax with a mild, Woody Allenish voice-over (the meek bisexual jumpy hero Smith may be channelling prophecies, or doped, or dreaming) and some of the sexiest young people in a hundred Hollywood years. Haley Bennett, as Stella, Smith’s glib dyke buddy, is Lauren Bacall plus Charlotte Rampling plus Uma Thurmond, lynx-eyed, seen-everything, about fourteen and pursued by a lesbian witch keen to give her a fourteenth orgasm that night with paranormal powers. Chris Zylka as Thor, his hunky nude goofy dumb-ox roommate, with be on a thousand gay calendars by Thursday. Gene Temple plays London, a cool, mostly nude nice girl who just likes fucking and isn’t possessive (in the English way) and supplies at last what my generation never got from Hayley Mills.
The plot, a series of fast-reveals, always keeps you going, but, like North by North-West, is more a string of gags and thrills than the Armageddonish murmuration it now and then claims to be.
Genuine fear, however, sometimes rushes at you like the men in rat-masks who pursue Smith and vanish and reappear below his window looking up, and the dyke-witch Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida) whose eyes turn scarlet while she’s giving head.
No-one under thirty will fail to love this film, and bounce along with its lissom absurdities. No-one over 60 (like me) will fail to wish you were 50 again and in the market for London and Stella (or Thor) and the thrill of the sexual chase.
As Smith, Thomas Dekker seems the kind of juve superstar that Zac Ephron, lately, proved not to be, or not quite. And Greg Araki, the possibly gay director, has joyfully disgorged a comic-strip teen-masterpiece that stalks, arouses and cheers you up, in a bad week, with a deft assiduous wit like that of Preston Sturges:
‘You got something better to do?’ Smith asks at one point.
‘Yeah,’ says Stella, ‘like sucking a fart out a dead seagull’s arse.’
AN OVERLOOKED SATIRE
I saw The Invention of Lying on Foxtel at long last and was amazed at how good it was. Far from the fat-headed one-joke wadge of smirky shallowness I’d heard it to be, it seemed to me a deft and shapely science-fiction fable of humanity’s deepest concerns.
It portrays a provincial town in a modern world where fiction, exaggeration, mendacity, obfuscation, rhetoric and even tact are unknown. Office workers tell other office workers how much they hate them and how soon they will be fired. Waiters reveal how bad the food is. A girl reveals to Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) that she loves him but cannot possibly marry him for fear of having chubby, snub-nosed children. Movies are no more than seated historians recounting the thirteenth century. Bellison is writing one, on the Black Plague, and is fired because it’s so depressing.
Yet it all seems pretty real somehow. Gervais and Matthew Robinson, his director, have achieved a mild, smooth mode of gentle utterance we can somehow believe, even when Bellison, with his first lie, contradicts the bank computer and the female teller apologises and gives him much more money.
Then he lies to his dying mother, telling she’s going to a happy place where all her best friends are and she’ll be young again, and live in a mansion. The story gets out, and crowds, a bit like the crowds in The Life of Brian, gather at his front door beseeching further information. Do we get a mansion each? Or can we live in a friend’s mansion if we want to?
No more amiable devastation of Christianity has been thus far put on screen. It’s a fine, flawless parable of human credulity by Gervais, an auteur as accomplished already as Woody Allen, and it should be seen.
REMEMBERING SIDNEY LUMET
Sidney Lumet, who died on Saturday April 9, made more good films than any other American. Twelve Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Fugitive Kind, A View from the Bridge, The Hill, Fail-Safe, The Anderson Tape, The Pawnbroker, The Seagull, Murder on the Orient Express, Bye Bye Braverman, Serpico, Prince of the City, Equus, Deathtrap, Network, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon, Q&A, Power, A Family Business and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are, from memory, a few of them.
He invented a great new concept – rehearsal – and achieved astonishing performances by rehearsing the whole film like a play, making the actors run from chalk mark to chalk mark in a big empty room, building energy as they rushed from scene to scene. It was a method he brought from live television, on which he directed Marty, with Rod Steiger, on Philco Playhouse.
Another short stubby New York Jew like Woody and Kubrick, Mel Brooks and Paul Mazursky, he scarcely left Manhattan and in scores of masterpieces set down its urban folkways. He gave Mamet his start, and Chayefsky, and Fonda and Brando and Newman and Pacino and Peter Finch their best roles. He celebrated O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Chekhov, Agatha Christie. He made a film about three Jewish film critics in a Volkswagen looking for a funeral. In his last film he gave us a Jacobean tragedy, perfectly motivated, and set in modern Boston.
His films never made much money, and he never won an Oscar, but twenty or thirty of his works, all cheap, on budget and on time, are classics now. And attention, attention should be paid to such a man.
And so it goes.