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The Dark Knight Rises

July 31, 2012

“Guns are too quick,” says Heath Ledger’s brilliantly skewed Joker in The Dark Knight. “You can’t savour all the…little emotions.”

As off-key a mind as his was, he harmonised perfectly with what the public wanted from that earlier movie. In a world that took itself so very seriously, The Joker undermined everything. Which made him so magnetic, so watchable, so scary.

In Christopher Nolan’s epic follow up, the seriousness has not shifted one bit, but The Joker, he’s long gone. Where all was steely grey and dark royal blue, now we have black. Just black. The main guy, he wears black. The chick distraction, she wears black, the big bad dude? Black mask. Even Wayne Manor seems to have stopped paying its utility bills. And the soundtrack that accompanies all of this? A thick portent of black, a soundscape mired in gloom and shadow.

I won’t give any of the plot points away. If you have a passing association with the canon, even if you’ve only played Arkham Asylum through the once, then you won’t want to hear a skeleton structure because you will guess certain developments and character intros. It echoes the earlier instalments in this new trilogy in that, again, we take a while to coalesce various strands into a viable whole. This is a pretty large canvass we’re looking at.

Which is fine, I guess, because if there’s anyone who can do that, it’s Nolan. Plus, he just knows how to do sweeping cityscapes. He just knows. Gotham looks extraordinary; no re-imagined Burton-esque gothic indulgences here, it’s very obviously NYC, but shot through with a slick modern beauty that is quite breathtaking.

And yet. And yet.

The movie struggles, sometimes it struggles manfully and majestically, but it struggles nevertheless, to find a centre. Another madman? Tom Hardy’s Bane is an odd choice. Whereas Ledger came alive behind his mask, Hardy projects nothing beyond a vague wrestler’s menace. His voice is frankly absurd, with a laughable non-specific accent that takes you out of the screen and into your own concerns straight away. Perhaps snap and guile would do it? Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman betrays the hard yards the franchise has covered to this point in pushing back against the just-another-comic-book-super-hero expectations, because she is just another comic book super hero. She looks fab, but she’s still a cartoon, a 2D blob of silly who’s there to do one thing late on that could have been re-worked. And so that leaves Bale’s re-donning of The Batman’s cowl, and as we all know, he was splendidly, not to mention easily, sidelined in the second movie.

No, the heart’s not there. Oh, a dark heart would be fine, perhaps with dashes of green and purple, but at least it’d be a heart. With this, a brutal ballet of cars and choppers, bombs and guns, the most dangerous thing on show isn’t one of the caped-up egos, it’s a nuclear reactor. It’s telling.

Constantly, the music reminds us that we’re in a dark world, BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA goes Hans Zimmer’s intrusive and repetitious thudding rhythm, and after just a few minutes you want to turn to him and say, “Yes! OK! I get it Hans. Give us a break!” I bit more of the Piaf motif, so brilliantly and sparingly used in Inception would have worked fine here, but all the while it feels like being smacked over the head by a black rubber dungeon truncheon.

Nolan can craft, of course, there is one brilliant scene right in the centre of the movie where Catwoman is trying to flee. She is apprehended by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop, Blake, and interviewed. Just that. But it is exceptional. Framed to perfection, lit like a dream and played in downbeat, careful tones. I won’t tell you what they talk about, but Hathaway’s final phrase is heartbreaking. It’s the best scene in the film, and it’s the best scene because it has soul. No action, no CGI, no masks. But you can savour the little emotions.

Prometheus

June 1, 2012

So I went to see Prometheus at a midnight showing, and swipe me, I even felt that little frisson of excitement that I used to get when I went to the flicks a great deal. Sadly, as good as it looks (and it looks great), and as fabulous as Michael Fassbender is (and he’s wonderful), it is as missed an opportunity as you will see at the movies. I have very little faith in modern blockbuster movies, and I really want to dislodge that, but this hasn’t moved me from that view

We’re back with Ridley (Sir Ridley) Scott, of course, revisiting LV-426 (or, LV-233 as it is here) the windblown planetoid that brought so much calamity to the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. In that earlier movie you’ll remember that when the team set down on the surface to investigate a beacon, they found an abandoned…structure, possibly a craft…inside which were the xenomorph eggs. And yes, you know the rest. On the way to that discovery, they also stumble upon the extraordinary ‘space jockey’, the seated behemoth, fossilised, fused I think they whisper, almost growing out of a chair-like structure. From that creature’s chest, the bones are pushed outward as if something has escaped…

Prometheus attempts to answer the questions thrown up by this peculiar figure. Where did it come from, what purpose did it have, and how is it connected to the nasties that would later create such an entertaining franchise. And does it do this? Yes, and no. Mostly no.

Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) – not, sadly, the Liz Shaw from Doctor Who‘s UNIT days – has been studying ancient symbols on Earth for years, symbols that seem to indicate we were visited by creatures from outerspace who left a star map, and finally helps bring a team together to go and investigate. With Idris Elba and Charlize Theron and the usual quota of Brit thesps (Rafe Spall doing the blink and you’ll miss it thing) they leap across space to check things out. On the way they are tended by android David (Michael Fassbender) who has not only the best lines, and gives the best performance, but who has the best scene, right at the start, as you see how he (and Ash, and Bishop, presumably?) spends his time in a spacecraft when the humans are fast asleep.

I thought we were on for something special.

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise starts to creak and buckle after the crew wake up. There is a daft appearance by Guy Pearce as a hologram which serves only to make you think, “oh, look, it’s Mike from Neighbours in lots of obvious prosthetics” and then a great deal of airy fairy von Däniken-esque guff about visitors from space colonising planets, which shifts a little clunkily into “before they created they had to destroy”, and I think we know where that’s headed.

Very quickly after landing on the planet things start to go wrong and, as Burke said so casually in Aliens, there are a few…deaths.

And it really doesn’t make a massive amount of sense. Biologically it’s hardly what you’d call robust and the conclusions are rather ropey and uncertain. A standout scene involving a main protagonist is rather suddenly arrived at and baffling; its bad taste gross-out slant could be excused if we’d got there by another route, but it is purely expeditious. And as things escalate the absurdities pile on faster and faster such that the actual central point of the damn thing, the this-is-how-we-got-to-the-Alien-ness of it all is undermined.

There are masses of inconsistencies between how this ends and what we discover at the start of that earlier movie. Not just practically, but philosophically, too. Alien was – if you wanted it to be – a stripped down survival horror, Prometheus wants to be a lot of things, and yet for all it’s overworked fluff and bluster it doesn’t simply take the time to earn the right to lay its thesis out for you.

Rapace and Fassbender work tirelessly, although Sigourney didn’t need a chap on hand, she did it all herself and grew a pair when needed. Dr Shaw’s OK, but she’s no Ellen Ripley.

And, God I hate this, but there is a mammoth continuity error that is fatal to it. Not in the film’s running time as such, but in the gap between its end and Alien‘s start. I thought I must be wrong, but others confirmed it. But, you know what, go, do go, see what all the fuss is about and enjoy a couple of terrific turns by two really talented stars…don’t expect to be transported to another world, though.

The Wicker Tree

April 30, 2012

Like many people, I guess I came to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man during a late night TV session when I was a kid. At the time I may have been hoping for – and got – the much-paused-and-rewound Britt Ekland nude song scene. Yeah, I’m sure that was it. It remains an important cornerstone in my cultural (and, I’ll be candid, sexual) awareness to this day. It’s not just about the sauce, of course. The Wicker Man is a wrong-footing masterpiece that shows you can entertain whilst still being brave, you can be visionary without crazy effects, you can be peculiar and off-kilter and succeed, you can paint a landscape with ancient song just as well as with colour. And while it is all of those things it is also a vanguard movie, setting standards for many subsequent thrillers, with its ability to set traps for its protagonist, and for the audience, until a devastating ending – still, even now, almost 40 years later – a final few minutes that rocks you back into your seat with its power and audacity.

Famously, it was dubbed “the Citizen Kane of Horror” by Cinefantastique, and has lived up to that title across the years; a lesser movie would have crumbled under the weight of such a soubriquet. Troubled in production and post-production, as almost always seems to be the case with films that make a mark, it was dismissed on release, it’s distributors demanded cuts and it was either never shown or censored or left to rot in TV graveyard slots. It is only relatively recently that a restored version was released on DVD.

Now, it has something else to contend with; not the absurd Neil LaBute remake from a few years ago, which the world seems to have quite rightly consigned to the trash, but a proper, authoritative, official almost-follow-up to the original. The Wicker Tree isn’t exactly a sequel, but it shares many of that movie’s key elements: it is directed by Hardy; it has a cameo by Christopher Lee (not as Lord Summerisle, but “old man”); it covers all of the same ground of ‘modern’ organised religion bumping up against pagan rites; and, of course, it features a wicker vessel, ostensibly for sacrificing the silly Christians who stumble into a Scottish community whose recent sacraments are beginning to falter.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In the original, of course, it was the late great Edward Woodward who unwittingly became the perfect offering for Lee’s band of hedonists as they tried, for another year, to entice the forces of nature to bless them with abundant crops. Lee’s Lord Summerisle and his ancestors had cobbled together a view, a Victorian rather than authentic view as it turns out, of a sort of pantheistic belief, where pretty much all and every part of nature is revered and requires sacrifice. Here, we do not have a Calvinist policeman to leap upon and offer up, but two earnest Born Agains, Texans Beth and Steve who come across to the Borders to re-introduce the locals to God and instead find a community in thrall to water spirits and sexual energy, who have become sterile.

Unfortunately, it is only in the framework that the two movies compare. There are funny and darkly humourous moments in The Wicker Man, sure, the first half in particular, with many grotesques causing the naive and virginal Sergeant Howie much distress to a chorus of snickering from the players and audience (the joke is on us, in the final event). With Tree, that comic touch is revisited but more consistently and with less of the gloomy tone. Much of it is very much played for laughs, some rather broad, and some rather silly. It is a path the film never manages to divert from. Whereas Howie’s destiny is always the subject of discomfort (even during the giggles) and ultimately turns into one of the most horrific moments in all of cinema, here the lack of guile just creates two brain dead cliched puppets to laugh at and an ending that fizzles out to nothing. To nothing.

If there is another film to be made using the structure that Hardy set up in 1973, then it would be surely a full-blown satire. The Wicker Tree, with it’s bright-eyed toothy evangelists could have been just that, but it backs away from that option almost immediately and is a hopeless mess instead. That first film had silliness and much to laugh at, as I’ve said, but the laughs died in your throat because of the smart moves it takes to misdirect you and the awful fate of Howie. With this, all it is is laughs and silliness. There is nothing to see here.

A little while ago, I heard that the original wicker man, the statue that is, made for the film, still existed on that cliff top in the form of the two giant legs and feet. Despite the elements they were still there and you could walk right up to them. Now, I’m told that since that snippet of information came out, they have been completely destroyed. I don’t have a source for that, but if so, I’m not at all surprised.

The Cabin in the Woods

April 27, 2012

As one of those wonderful people out there in the dark, I have come to realise that the whole charade of taking oneself away to an improbably comfy chair with holes in the arms big enough for a really big drink, and the proximity of others, strangers, who sit in the gloom, eating (EATING, mind), is a very peculiar thing to do indeed. Pitch it now, as if it were a new thing, a fad if you like, that might possibly catch on, and you’d be laughed at. The movies knows this of course (and it knows you know it, and it knows you know it knows it) and so, mostly, the whole timbre of the act is slanted at persuasion and spiel in case the utter absurdity breaks through and you wake up feeling embarrassed and silly for having gone along with it for so long, and you just want to grab your clothes and get home as quickly as possible. Like that one time in college.

And Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard probably know how the game is played out better than most, they are after all the two big kids in that whole po-mo fuck-witcha sand-shifting TV big-hitter Buffy and Lost playground. And with The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard directing and writing, Whedon writing and producing) they get to show just how smart they are, and how manipulation is key to their craft, by putting it right up there on the screen. The whole enterprise is about manipulation.

So, we start off with two guys getting to work in a sophisticated probably underground ‘facility’. They have name tags, white shirts and clip-on ties. Like at NASA, or somewhere. Governement? Military? Evil genius? It’s not clear, but Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) are gearing up for a big event.

Cut to…college students Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Marty (Fran Kranz), and Holden (Jesse Williams) who are all about to head off to a, yes, a cabin in the woods.

Now, from the off, the students are monitored (there is a chap on the roof of their dorm, who watches them drive off, and then taps his ear from which there hangs a tell-tale curly cable). We switch regularly between the kids and the technician guys and – I won’t give anything away – things develop from there.

Well, of course, it’s all very entertaining and lots of fun, if somewhat artificial. There is a clear “my line!” “No! Mine is better!” geek battle going on between Whedon and Goddard to see who can make the better wisecracks and cram in the most pop culture references. This doesn’t always work, but I did like Marty the stoner’s throwaway farewell to Creepy Garage Guy, and one pivotal scene where all five discover distinct horror movie plot development icons (a puzzle box, a pendant, a diary that ends abruptly).

That moment in fact, as we wait to see who will overstep the mark with the particular artifact they’re examining, is surely the one the film is most pleased with. It is also the one where the intent of the movie is at its most naked. It reminded me – stay with this – of Dirk Benedict in the title sequence of The A-Team, doing his “hey, don’t I know you?” look as the Cylon walks past. Seriously. At that point you, and The WhedonGoddardatron, are in a mind meld. It’s the tensest moment of the whole affair because you’re not in a movie any more, you’re sat on the sofa with these guys watching Evil Dead or Witchboard (probably on VHS) and riffing on what you think will happen next.

And it kind of killed it for me. Not stone dead, as there are some wonderful things here (mostly they revolve around Jenkins and Whitford, who are brilliant, and lovely Amy Acker, a Whedon/Goddard alumnus from way back), but it was enough to see behind the curtain and I started to fill in a lot of how it would go down after that. Which is a shame. But, you know, it’s not that I didn’t have a lot of fun, I just kind of hoped we’d see a movie that wasn’t entirely about how ‘movie’ movies are. Just make a fucking movie next time. No-one will really mourn one less homage, guys.

Oh, and Hollywood, enough with the cameos. It’s like a boom shot. Does my head in. Stop it.

The Big TheseGloryDays Competition

March 13, 2012

You are reading the TheseGloryDays film blog. You’ve probably come here looking for stylish shirts or Bruce Springsteen lyrics, and now you’re a bit confused and possibly worried. Sorry. I think you may need these guys, or this. OK, cheers. See you later. Right, if you’re still here, then there’s a chance you’re actually in the right place and you genuinely enjoy over-opinionated guff from some amateur who doesn’t completely know what he’s doing.

TheseGloryDays is my little film blog and it’s been trundling along merrily for a while, with very little fluff and bluster out in the wider world, because I hardly ever push it. It’s just a repository for my thoughts, really. Except, it does get visited by someone because I noticed the other day that I’m about to stumble into my 25,000th hit. Or they’re about to stumble into me. One or t’other.

Anyway, to commemorate this landmark, I am going to have a little competition.Take a look at my archive, just over there and you should find just under 150 movies I’ve written up. There ought to be at least one you’d quite like to own, do you think? Because it’s good, or exciting, or groundbreaking, or so utterly shocking you still can’t believe it got greenlit. Whatever, out of that little lot, I bet there’s something you wouldn’t say know to owning.

All you have to do is write a comment somewhere on the blog. Doesn’t have to be about the film you’d like to own, could be anything. The best/funniest/most interesting/whateverest one will get their choice of movie, and their choice of DVD or Blu-ray, free, and with postage included.

Just start the comment with an asterisk, so I know it’s a competition entry, and you’ll go into the hat for consideration. Closing date is 31st May 2012.

Anyway, to quote Daniel O’Donnell, that’s enough tedious wank from me. I hope you enjoy it, folks, and thanks for reading.

 

A

A Serbian Film

March 8, 2012

No Images, Lots Of Spoilers

I’ve been looking at the blank screen all morning trying to think of a way into this review. A Serbian Film wants that. It wants you speechless and aghast. Aghast is what it is all about.

I became aware of the movie as an attendee at the Film Four FrightFest in London in August 2010 when one of the organisers of the festival climbed onstage to announce that the film had been pulled following the intervention of Westminster Council. Often, movies at FrightFest will be shown pre-certificate, but here Westminster Council refused to allow it, stating that they wanted it classified by the BBFC first.

It was quite a dramatic announcement, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was one of considerable disquiet and righteous indignation. Knowing little at the time I was non-plussed, but later I wondered if the right decision hadn’t been stumbled upon. Despite being a staunch believer in minimum censure – thinking that films will gravitate to the level and audience they deserve – a closer examination of what A Serbian Film had to offer gave me pause.

At its DVD submission to the BBFC, almost 50 cuts, well over 4 minutes of material, were excised before the 18 cert was issued. It is a significant amount to lose. Some of what’s missing is implied below. You may want to miss the next bit.

In the cut I was watching, the director, Srđan Spasojević appears after the distribution company’s logo and explains a little about the movie and the roar of controversy that has echoed all around it since its troubled release. This is not an extra accessed via the bonus menus, but an actual pre-title sequence. Mostly, he speaks well and eruditely about the film and its many difficulties. He talks about the emotional and artistic raping of Serbia and its people, and peppers his introduction with some not entirely serious asides about how serious this endeavour of his is. It is a little off-key and suspicious. He is trying to get you on side. There is a hint of self-justification surrounding it.

The film begins. We are in a cheap porn movie, and our hero Miloš (Srđan Todorović) is having sex with a girl bent over a motorbike. The film is from Miloš’s glorious past as the legendary porn actor of his generation, now down on his luck and drinking too much, trying to live a straight but dull life with his wife Marija and 6 yr old son, Petar. Miloš is feeling the pressure and is soon being persuaded by one of his old colleagues, Lejla, to get back into the business. He resists, but Lejla insists he can have one last major payday by doing a single shoot with Vukmir, a new ‘artistic’ director, who wants to turn porn into a viable form. When Miloš meets Vukmir, the crazed auteur – all wide eyes, grand gestures and devilish beard – offers him a life-changing amount of money and the deal is signed.

Vukmir’s take, at least, what he tells Miloš, is that the scenes of his film will remain a mystery to Miloš; he just has to turn up and go with it. Understandably, he is wary but his wife tells him to think of the cash. This is a bad idea.

In the first scene, he follows a woman into an orphanage where he is introduced to a young girl. The girl’s age is indeterminate, but it worries Miloš. Before anything happens she is dragged away by a blonde woman, who turns out to be her mother. The mother is in turn restrained by security men. She is the widow of a deceased army hero, but has brought disgrace upon herself by becoming a prostitute. She is beaten and then ordered to fellate Miloš; while this is happening Miloš realises the young girl is watching. He sees that she is indeed very young and tries to stop, but security personnel restrain him and force him to continue.

Miloš speaks to Vukmir and tries to break his contract. Vukmir says that he merely needs to understand the ‘truth’ that is being sought. There is a political discussion. We seem to be veering into the same areas that the real director was touching on at the pre-credit introduction. To illustrate his vision Vukmir show Miloš the scene that was most heavily excised from the movie by the BBFC; a man attends at the birth of a baby and as the baby is given its first slap and screams to be welcomed into the world, he rapes it. This is not seen, and visually it makes little sense [sic] but Vukmir explains it, and Miloš’s reaction suggests all you could possibly need to know.

This is the key scene, maybe not plot-wise, but in the development of A Serbian Film as an entity. I’ll come back to it in a moment.

After Miloš storms out things get rather less linear and after waking up three days later to find Marija and Peter gone, Miloš realises that he has been drugged and there are great glaring holes in his memory. Unfortunately, and I really do mean unfortunately, he is able to induce flashbacks via convenient visual clues and heads out on a journey to discover what has been happening since he absented himself from the contract.

Firstly, he finds that the war hero widow becomes his next big scene. Tied to a bed, he is made to rape her after being injected with ‘cattle viagra’. At the height of his passion a very large machete is shoved into his hand and he cuts her head off. Second, he is himself raped by the brutal security guards. After this, we see a masked man – who turns out to be Miloš’s brother – orally raping his old colleague Lejla, who suffocates during the expeience. Finally, Miloš enters a warehouse where he and the masked man, who is revealed mid-act by the hysterical Vukmir, are enticed into forcing themselves onto two covered figures on a large bed. In the middle of this chaos, as the men suffer a moment of clarity during the act, the identities of the two figures are revealed. It is, of course, Marija and Petar.

Miloš, as you might expect, goes ape-shit and launches himself at the film crew, at Vukmir and at his security guards. Incredibly, he grabs a gun (he is naked and tumescent all the while) and kills everyone, savouring the final death by shoving his erection into a guard’s eye socket and delivering a most unorthodox lobotomy.

There is an unpleasant coda to tie it all off, culminating in Miloš’s suicide with his traumatised wife and child, after which their corpses are violated.

I know, I know.

So, there are several things that it is vital to explore at this point. To begin with, whatever may be seen on screen – and for long pauses there is very little, certainly in the first third, other than Miloš looking moody or drunk or both – Srđan Spasojević knows how to point a camera. A Serbian Film, whatever else you might wish to say about it, is well shot. Indeed, it’s more than competent, it’s almost crafted. Second, despite feeling a little bullied into it by the self-regarding introduction, I would have to agree that yes, OK then, there is something going on beyond the grimness. There is a brutal metaphor being dragged out here and it is horrifically consistent. I’m sorry, but it is; people will do anything to survive certain situations, others will judge them afterward, people do lose their humanity when given too much power. I am afraid that Spasojević has a point.

However, the scene mentioned above, while underlining this, also highlights the movie’s fatal flaw.

As horrific as that scene is, and it may just be the most gruesome thing yet submitted to celluloid, its exclusion doesn’t derail what the film wants to ‘say’. No, I agree, that at the precise moment of the cut it doesn’t make a massive amount of sense, but only for as long as it takes – a few seconds really – for the two people viewing it to respond. As soon as that happens, one with a reaction shot the other with an explanation, the essence of the scene is conveyed. And that’s the point. We haven’t seen it, but it has been conveyed. With a little more give and take it could have been even clearer with no need for a few brief jarring seconds of confusion. As it is, A Serbian Film is so busy beating us into submission, it never stops to ask if it should stop and get us to fill in our own gaps. The political posturing is hopeless if all you end up doing is washing away the agenda in a welter of blood and viscera. Long before the credits roll, any goodwill you’ve brought with you has evaporated. A Serbian Film is like one of those school bullies with a bit of brain but no smarts, the kind who never worked out when to stop and walk away, but just kept punching and punching and punching.

I didn’t care if there was anything behind it in the end, I just wanted it to go away.

My Week With Marilyn

December 1, 2011

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe tottered along to Pinewood Studios to make a mostly dreadful light comedy, The Prince & The Showgirl, starring with and directed by Sir Laurence Olivier. It was a notoriously tense shoot, although in a terribly clipped, RP, Keep Calm And Carry On, uptight British way rather than some hellfire Apocalypse Now conflagration. Marilyn and Larry did not gel, she – waylaid by pills and booze and crippling insecurities – was always late and spectacularly flaky, he was controlling, unsympathetic and frustrated by his advancing years and the realisation that here, finally, was a co-star he would never be able to seduce.

In the wings, the young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), fresh out of Cambridge and overshadowed by his ‘family of overachievers’ (father Kenneth, Civilisation; brother Alan, Diaries and serial-rogering) arrives in London to find a career in the movies. He ends up as the dogsbody on the production and, to the astonishment of everyone, not least himself, drifts into a confidante-and-possibly-more relationship with Monroe (Michelle Williams) herself.

It needs to be said as early as possible that that’s basically it, plotwise. A few stolen hours, one magical day, and some very tremulous, hesitant canoodling aside, almost nothing happens beyond what we must surely already know; that despite her crushing weaknesses and debilitating outside influences, Marilyn turns in a winning performance on a lesser movie (almost her least, really) and then goes home. And that incrementally slight, almost boring procession of one thing happening after another presents us with a first half hour that may have you wondering just what it is you’ve handed over your money to watch.

Admittedly, it is all done with precision. Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier (how irritated do you think he would be to not play it?) is an exceptional clone, a pitch perfect reconstruction of mannerisms, presence and sinister sibilant S’s. Dame Judi does Dame Sybil (Thorndike) to a knowing T, and Philip Jackson, the finest of all our small-part TV actors, turns in a terrifically touching performance as Marilyn’s dependable and warmhearted minder. There is much period detail, of course, including splendidly accurate establishment accents and cultural nods that nod toward the most telling of research. And it’s all a little stagey and clinical and empty of purpose. For that first act, where the scenario of the possibly chaste tryst is sketched out, it seems that despite the patina of authenticity beyond it, there may be nothing.

It does not help that the first voice we hear, Colin’s, as a bland and characterless narrator, is hopelessly lacking in colour.

But, as with Marilyn in her performance on the movie, these first unappealing missteps are forgotten after one sparkling moment which leads, carefully and inexorably on, to another. And another. Sent to collect Marilyn from her dressing room, Colin finds her addled and dreamily incapable, a vulnerable girl lost and alone. From here, the film shifts not into another gear, but into another movie altogether. The paper-thin story developments continue as mere noises off, and it slides into a mood piece, a character-led drama that shines a light into Marilyn’s darker corners.

I have been avoiding mentioning Williams’s performance until now, but only because I struggle to quantify it on the page. Marilyn has been portrayed dozens of times of course, but I don’t think anyone has ever managed to capture all of her, as Williams somehow, magically, manages. Skittish, funny, mischievous, infuriating, weak and also quite brilliant: at first – and this is surely intentional, to put you in Olivier’s position of being annoyed and disappointed – she is almost inconsequential. A figure of fun bordering on derision, once Colin speaks to her, and she recognises within him someone with whom she can communicate, it is at that point that we get an inkling of the many faces of Marilyn.

Oh, that’s such a lazy phrase. I apologise.

You see, Williams pulls off a remarkable trick. Marilyn, ‘they said’, glowed. She was a star at the end of the time of stars. We’ve lost that, we don’t really know about it any more. We’ve battered down and reduced people to the mere status of celebrities and Marilyn wasn’t part of that; and Williams knows it. She glows too, she’s luminous and alight and she shines all over the second half of the film. Even at her most needy, awry with pills and drink (the camera shifts around her bedroom, pinpointing the chemical trip hazards that kept her reliant on certain people), she shimmers with an attraction that goes beyond the sexual. Does Colin what to make love to her, or does he just want to be in love for her? She reaches out, and he responds because he can’t do anything else. Helpless, in her tractor beam, he is pulled hither and thither and, as much an ingenue in her world of cracked relationships as she, they stagger toward a minor but deeply affecting heartache.

He sees her only a few times, but in the middle of their encounters is one day where they walk in the country, as if they were lovers, and have, what sweethearts would call, an adventure. At the end, driving back as the sun goes down, the light slanting through the car window, first tenderly holding hands and then – as they look out, at the real world – letting go, Nat King Cole sings Autumn Leaves and the swelling strings are almost unbearable.

Williams takes Marilyn away beyond Colin, then. Beyond us, somewhere untouchable and extraordinary. As she realises she cannot be anything more to him she is as harsh and cruel as she needs to be, as she can bare to be, and with what seems, but isn’t, a wave of her hand, snaps his heart in two. His realisation later, that she could have done it no other way, is bittersweet and touching.

At the end, Olivier and Colin watch The Prince & the Showgirl and the great man suddenly sees the brilliant actress behind the troubles and he gasps. Later, he would say that she was, “the best of all”. What Michelle Williams does here is make us believe that too.

movie
x10 for Williams

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