Category Archives: Movies

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Some Thoughts on Finally Seeing the Film

After months of following press coverage and whetting my appetite with trailers and snippets, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” adapted from the John LeCarre novel of the same title, has finally arrived in my local theater.

It is the early 1970S, in the midst of the Cold War, and the head of British Intelligence, “Control” (John Hurt), has stepped down after a failed operation in Budapest, Hungary. Control suspects that one of four senior British agents has been acting as a Russian agent—”The Mole”—and that the operation in Hungary was an attempt to identify him. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who retired after Control’s resignation, is asked to investigate a claim by agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) that a mole does in fact exist. Smiley’s investigations—aided by the young and ambitious Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) lead him down a twisted trail of deception to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), an agent believed to have been killed in the failed Hungary operation who is at the center of the fiasco and holds the key to the identity of the mole.

Boasting a cast including Gary Oldman and Colin Firth as well as promising, young talent like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, this is a film that seems at times to call more attention to showcasing the skill of its actors than on plot detail. Gary Oldman and Colin Firth are as usual on top form; Oldman in particular is the perfect fit for George Smiley. With a quiet, understated authority, he has the bearing of a man both accustom to and weary of living in a world where mistrust and suspicion are the order of the day, and betrayal often comes at the hands of those you thought you knew. Firth’s characterization of Bill Haydon yet again displays his mastery of the ability to capitalize on very little screen time to create a character who, despite flitting along the outskirts of the story, maintains a mysteriously pervasive presence. Haydon is a character whose casual machismo and wily charm readily lend themselves to the aura of intrigue that surrounds his absence from much of the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Peter Guillam IS especially rewarding to witness, as seemingly enamored of Oldman as Guillam is of Smiley, and yet holding his own alongside his seasoned co-stars. Given Cumberbatch’s oft-quoted claim in an interview in The Observer that the call sheet for Tinker Tailor is one he will frame and keep forever, he plays that acknowledged admiration to his advantage to cultivate the relationship between hero and hero-worshiper that exists between Smiley and Guillam. The film also boasts strong performances by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, as well as Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs and Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina.

For viewers who’ve read LeCarre’s novel, the film sustains the basics of the suspenseful plot with a few minor departures, and some of the more poignant scenes—particularly those that lingered on facial expressions and wordless but heavily coded gazes did homage to Lecarre’s fluid, descriptive writing. To those unfamiliar with the original story, the plot is summarized concisely, if confusingly at times—mostly due to the challenge of adapting such a complex story into a two-hour film—but the frequent flashbacks and oft-jarring scene shifts lend themselves well to the air of suspense. The real enjoyment, however, comes from watching a selection of talented actors conquering a cast of complex characters.

Film synopsis partially taken from IMDBand thanks to Cumberbatchwebfor posting the article in The Observer.

The Firthday Five: Viewing and Reviewing Colin at his Best

For years–ever since I was a child–I’ve been an avid Colin Firth fan, and over time, my fascination has evolved into an academic investment of sorts,
from the occasional graduate student seminar paper addressing his work in literary adaptation to employing it as a teaching tool in my own courses (God
bless you, Colin, for being almost single-handedly responsible for contributing to renewed student interest in Jane Austen. If literary academia hasn’t
collectively written you a letter of thanks, It’s high time we did).

In a celebratory tribute to the man on his birthday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Firth performances. For purposes of practicality, time, and space, I’ve limited the list to five films, mostly because any more than that would make narrowing my choices considerably more challenging. Four out of five of these films are literary adaptations because I think that this branch of film represents some of his most impressive work. The intuitiveness with which he brings literary characters to life manages to tap into the popular imagination’s image of that character while presenting an authentic interpretation of his own. So: let’s have a look!

1. A Single Man (2009):

This adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same title features Firth as the middle-aged English professor George Falconer as he struggles to cope with life following the tragic death of his partner, Jim. After nearly two years since seeing this movie in theater, his performance still resonates with me—the way he gives every fiber of his being over to the character of George. In general, the movie strikes at the white hot center of life, snaps your head around and challenges you to stare your own mortality in the face, and Firth captures that perfectly, dissolving the boundary between actor and audience and inviting us into his personal space. At once shocking and sensitive, heart-warming and heart-wrenching, I’ve only since reluctantly forgiven the Academy for overlooking this performance because they redeemed themselves with “The King’s Speech.”

2. The King’s Speech (2010):

I’ve never missed an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about this film; Firth’s portrayal of the stammering monarch George VI is masterful; he maneuvers the mechanics of stammering with amazing authenticity and presents an intimate portrait of Bertie as a man, not a monarch. Needless to say, a very well-deserved Oscar. Kudos to the king.

3. Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003):

Yet another of Firth’s appearances in a literary film adaptation and, I think, one of his best. Here he plays Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. Though his character has little screen time, he is allocated a very pervasive presence throughout the film, and Firth capitalizes on every visible moment he does have. His interpretation of Vermeer is precisely how I imagined him when reading the novel; seemingly withdrawn and enigmatic, with a quiet, mesmerizing intensity, he draws his audience into his gaze and into Vermeer’s world—a world of swirling colors and intense passion. We feel, even as he entraps us in this web of color, that we want to be held captive by his gaze, if only for a moment.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001:

This film needs no introduction; in a witty adaptation of Helen Fielding’s novel—itself a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Firth’s portrayal of Mark Darcy manages to pay tribute both to the Mr. Darcy of Austen’s making that remains one of popular culture’s iconic Byronic heroes and to Fielding’s contemporary recasting of Darcy while reprising his own legendary performance of Mr. Darcy in the BBC/A & E Pride and Prejudice with grace and good humor.

5. The Importance of being Earnest (2002):

I first saw this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play as an undergraduate in a Victorian Literature course several years ago, and it’s the Firth film I inevitably reach for when my life needs a little comic relief. Alternately witty and ridiculous, Firth’s spot-on performance of Jack Worthing is one of which I think Wilde himself would have been proud—a true tribute to one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated playwrights.

Finally: two bonus picks: Pride and Prejudice (1995):

I didn’t include this in the above list because I think—and Jane Austen andColin Firth fans alike will likely agree with me—this performance defies categorization. A staple of the Austen film phenomenon, Firth’s Mr. Darcy brings our beloved hero to life in a memorable and, I think, unmatchable performance.

Lastly, The Secret Garden (1987):

I’ve included this one purely for sentimental value; Firth appears briefly here as the adult Colin Craven in Hallmark’s television adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, and it was my first encounter with Firth’s work. Short-lived and little-known though this role is, I remember, as an eleven year-old girl, being mesmerized by that face. There wasn’t anything immediately remarkable about it;
so neutral in appearance, so passive in expression, but with a hint of something rippling beneath the surface like a lake stirred by a light wind. That
was what intrigued me; that carefully modulated reserve; that passion kept in check, a characteristic Colinesque trait that fans have come to love and admire over the years.

So, Happy Birthday, Colin Firth; your talent is a gift that many cherish. Thank you for serving as a constant reminder to me, as to many others, that a life without laughter is no life at all.

Something to Ponder: Joyce Carol Oates and Domesticated Cinema

I’ve just finished reading an Essay by Joyce Carol Oates about Todd Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I’m planning to assign to my
students this fall. While reading, one of Oates’s points caught hold of me, and I’ve spent the past few hours pondering what she means by it–and what
it might mean to me. Discussing the thrill of Dracula and the story’s enduring presence in our collective imagination, she argues that the cinematic experience
is “domesticated and diluted” at home as opposed to in the theater–a point with which any avid moviegoer would agree, hands down.

I certainly agree, but the objective portion of my brain–the one forced to play devil’s advocate with my students and find new and torturous ways of challenging
their interpretations of what they read–began thinking about what Oates means and wondering whether or not her idea is one exclusive to the experience
of watching horror films. I certainly think we can easily get caught up in the thrills and chills of the horror film in the close, semi-darkness of
the theater in a way that might be difficult to replicate in the warm, well-lit safety of our living-rooms. Even if you do enjoy watching films at home
with the lights turned off, you’re still arguably in a place wherein you feel protected from the ghools and goblins intended to frighten you. We might
be surrounded by friends in the theater as well as by strangers, but even when the movie is over–when the lights have come on again and the ilusion has
slunk back into the shadows from whense it came, we’ve still got to leave the theater and walk across the eerily-lit parking lot to our cars, and what
might be lurking out there? For all we know, the guy seated in the row across from us might be the Craigslist killer. Even if this is highly unlikely,
our recent cinematic experience has tightened our nerves and heightened our senses just enough to make us believe, temporarily, that we have cause to be
afraid–very afraid. It seems far more difficult to be taken in by the ilusion in the comfort of home–the place that exudes light, warmth, hope, laughter–those
talismans against terror. (On the other hand, if you live alone, and especially if you’re female, though I hesitate to succumb to the stereotype, it might
be a bit easier).

I wondered too if this idea only translates to the experience of the horror film. No matter what the genre, none of us can deny that there’s something
magical about watching our favorite actor or actress stride across the big screen that definitely tops watching them at home, unless you have a pretty
impressive home entertainment system at your disposal. Then too, nothing can cap the experience of sitting in a darkened theater with your date of choice,
hands bumping and slipping against one another in an extra buttery tub of popcorn, though more than likely your thoughts are occupied with other matters
than the action playing out on the screen. Even so, perhaps there’s something about the thrill of the theater that heightens the horror-viewing experience.

I definitely think it’s worth creating a journal prompt for my students based on this idea, and I’ll certainly be interested to see what the Netflix and
Torrent generation makes of it.

The End of an Era: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Ten years of being Spellbound by some of the most memorable characters in Contemporary Children’s Fiction came to a magical end two weeks ago with the
release of the second installment of the final Harry Potter film: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”. Having seen it twice, I think I can safely
say that this film, despite the pressure to tie up loose ends, seemed far easier to render on screen than the others, mostly because the book was so action-packed.
ON the other hand, J. K. Rowling’s descriptive language—the thing I’ve always loved most about her writing—painted such vivid pictures in the readers imagination
that to do them justice was no small feat. The scenes depicting the battle at Hogwarts were, I think, the strongest in the film, bringing the action on
the page to life precisely as I’d imagined—everything from the clanking of the suits of armor to the creeks and crashes of a magically-infused fortress
under siege.

***Spoiler warning***

The minor plot-changes toward the end were clever suspense tactics; Nevel killing the snake while Harry and Voldemort are battling rather than before Harry
reveals Voldemort’s botched attempt at killing him kept the audience guessing; what would happen if Harry attempted to destroy Voldemort with one horcrux
remaining? Even if this as primarily employed for the benefit of viewers who hadn’t read the series (in my opinion), it nevertheless kept everyone at the
edge of their seats.
There were a few minor details I thought they might have expanded on a bit more—Snape’s memories, for instance, and Dumbledore’s conversation with Harry
following Voldemort’s attempt to kill him. They didn’t do nearly as much with Harry’s relationship to Dumbledore as they might have in either the first
or second half of the film, and Harry’s struggle to maintain his trust of Dumbledore—his alternation between feelings of betrayal and loyalty—play a tremendous
role in his coming of age. On the one hand, to cling to Dumbledore is arguably the reflex of the child clinging to a security blanket; on the other, to
recognize that Dumbledore, with all of his power and wisdom, has moments of weakness, and to accept this and trust him with all his failings, is the mark
of a mature man. Harry’s insistent declaration that “I trusted the man I knew” is a powerfully-delivered line in the film—and indeed Daniel Radcliffe’s
final Potter performance was outstanding—but it reveals very little about the long, inner struggle Harry endures to reach that point.

I think though, that the strongest performance in this film was Alan Rickman’s; his characterization of Snape has always been intriguing and enigmatic;
I’ve found it far more difficult to detest him on screen than in the books. Snape has very little screen time in the second half of the film of course,
but what presence he has is powerfully allocated; the shot of him staring out of one of the castle windows at Hogwarts conveys all of the emotion that
we don’t get when we see Snape’s memories in the book. If a lot of the film is condensed, it does a phenomenal job packing some very powerful punches
with one-liners and swift screenshots. It might certainly have been interesting to see more of Snape’s relationship with Lily played out in the pensive,
but the script more than makes up for that with Snape’s final words to Harry: “You have your mother’s eyes.”

The film certainly did do its best to strike a fine balance between action and dialogue, and for the most part, it succeeded. All in all, a highly enjoyable
and authentic adaptation.

The King’s English Doesn’t Cut the Mustard in America

This week, The Harvey Weinstein Company, distributor of “The King’s Speech,” announced the theater-release of a PG-13 version of the film, out on April 1. According to an official statement by TWC’s president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment, Eric Lomis, “The action enables those to whom it speaks most directly – young people who are troubled by stuttering, bullying and similar trials – to see it.”

The 2011 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture–starring Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue–was tagged as R-rated due primarily to the number of times the ‘F’-word is repeated. While I think that re-marketing it as a “family film” will certainly reach a much broader audience and increase revenue for a film that operated on a moderate $15 million production budget, I have two practical (in my opinion) objections to it.

1: The cursing in the film is not merely profanity for profanity’s sake–it isn’t in the script for shock-value, though it does certainly provide comic relief, a point to which I’ll return momentarily. The cursing actually serves a legitimate clinical, therapeutic function; when Bertie curses, he doesn’t stammer, and Logue incorporates the curse-words into their exercises both to draw Bertie out of his shell and to train him to speak normally–the two of which are interrelated. (Not to mention, if we don’t think today’s youth are using far more colorful expressions than Bertie and Logue make use of, then we’re fooling ourselves; I hardly think their wayward wordplay is in danger of corrupting virgin ears).

2: Anyone who has seen the film in its original splendor will agree that the cursing scenes are some of, if not the most humorous scenes. Colin Firth’s execution of the mechanics of the stammer is so masterful that there were moments throughout the film, at least for me, that were intensely draining (though absolutely remarkable) to witness; he allows the audience to experience the physical and emotional discomfort of coping with a crippling speech disorder to such an extent that the comic relief is a vital part of the viewing experience. Are there other ways of conveying humor than profanity? Certainly, but I can’t help feeling that this is an action that tampers with the integrity of the art form.

Nevertheless, I can’t deny the logic of the marketing tactic, and it will be interesting to see whether or not it proves effective.