British films


Most people have their reasons for picking a favourite:

  • It’s the first place I visited
  • It’s scenic/has a lot of history/…
  • The people are wonderful

Mine is a combination of the above, but the precise moment when I fell in love with the place has to do with my love for the movies.

Gdansk was indeed the first place I visited outside of India. I went there for some project meetings nearly ten years ago and one of my Polish colleagues came to the airport to pick me up. I had heard that Polish was a slightly tough language to master, so I asked my colleague Karolina how the name of the city was pronounced. Her explanation can be summarized as follows: The G in the beginning is pronounced, the d is soft and there’s an implicit i before the n. Guh-dayinsk. More or less.

In the Polish alphabet, the n used in Gdansk has a tail attached to it (like so: ɲ), which is how you know to add the i in front when you pronounce it. She explained that this letter was called Ni.

And added, by way of clarification: “Like the Knights who say Ni.”

Game, set and match.

The second installment in Guy Ritchie’s Holmes reboot reminds me, most of all, of The Dark Knight — the reference to this movie’s villain at the end of the previous movie, the theme of escalation, a triangular relationship (in a manner of speaking), the loss of a loved one and above all, the assured hand of a director hitting his stride with a franchise. There is even a scene where one of the characters looks like Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker.

But where the Joker was more interested in chaos for its own sake, Professor James Moriarty is interested in profiting from it. The plot involves Holmes and Watson racing across Europe trying to prevent catastrophe, and finding Moriarty almost always a step ahead. The challenge is something both Holmes and his arch-enemy relish, but Watson? As Mary Morstan-Watson observes at one point, Holmes is likely to want to join them on their honeymoon. Watson himself regards his dear friend with a mixture of admiration, amusement, exasperation and the occasional kolaveri.

The film is populated with a fine cast of character actors. Stephen Fry has a scene-stealing turn as Holmes’ brother Mycroft. “You mean there are two of you?” asks Mary at one point, and you can see why she feels that way. Jared Harris exudes a quiet menace as Moriarty. His exchanges with Holmes are beautifully written and acted. Noomi Rapace plays a gypsy fortune-teller — she does as good a job as the role lets her, but you cannot escape the feeling that this is scant reward for playing Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film series. (Not that the man playing Kalle Blomkvist fared any better.)

The highlight, though, is the Robert Downey Jr. — Jude Law pairing. While the books centered around Holmes and made Watson more of an observer, the films edge closer to buddy-action-movie territory (think Lethal Weapon with period costumes and more deductive reasoning) and their chemistry is absolutely electric. Downey Jr. is an inspired choice to play Holmes — he is capable of playing the role straight, I’m sure, but who better to bring out the detective’s innate kookiness? Law plays the straight man, but delivers his zingers at Holmes with such relish that he makes you wonder why Conan Doyle made Watson look like such a wuss in the first place.

It helps, I think, that the cast and crew don’t treat this like a film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, but rather like a film series involving a character who might remind you, at times, of a fictional detective you once read about. While there is a lot more action than you might find in your average Holmes story, Ritchie uses some clever editing and economical dialogue to illustrate his hero’s powers of deduction. The result is a kinetic, witty and entertaining motion picture.

 

Over the past few months, I have watched three wonderful films that have made a deep impression on me. All three involve strong women who start from humble backgrounds and work their way up.  The men along the way are sometimes supportive, sometimes not. But these stories are not really about women versus men — they are about women finding within themselves, the strength to shape their destinies. That there are unsupportive men around is simply one more obstacle for them to negotiate.

Conviction

A man is wrongfully convicted of murder and spends the better part of his adult life in prison before his sister proves his innocence and has him released. The story is not about him, though — it is about how a high school dropout and housewife and mother of two decides to get her high school diploma and then put herself through college and law school so that she could fight her brother’s case herself. If it weren’t a true story, I’d probably have dismissed it as one more instance of Hollywood putting dramatic impact above plausibility.

That the man is played by Sam Rockwell might not come as a surprise, but it is easy to imagine a number of other talented character actors in the role. But can you think of anybody else except Hillary Swank in his sister’s role?

There is a moment when she visits her brother in prison after he has just tried to kill himself. Watch the way she reacts to this and gently extracts from him, a promise never to do that again. I was reminded for a moment of Laura Linney’s performance in Love Actually, where she reacts to her brother losing control and trying to hit her. It is not a note readily suggested by the plot, but it is what lets Swank differentiate this character from the other strong women she has played before.

Made in Dagenham

As late as the second half of the last century, most companies in the industrialized world still paid women less than men for doing the same work. Then a bunch of women who used to stitch the upholstery on Ford cars at one of their plants in the UK decided to go on strike in protest. It snowballed into a nationwide movement, embarrassed the Labour Government which was in power at that time and led to the creation of new legislation mandating equal pay for women and men. Other nations followed suit.

The movement is spearheaded by a woman named Rita O’Grady (a composite character based on a number of real ones), played by Sally Hawkins. This is the first movie I have seen her in and, if this performance is any indication, I will eagerly look forward to watching anything else starring her, even if it turns out to be a commercial for some brand of fabric softener.

The crucial exchange, for me, is one she has with her husband late in the movie when he claims to have been a good husband because he doesn’t get drunk or abusive. Her response to that is: That is as it should be.

Another gem of an exchange comes when reporters ask her how they would cope if the Government refused to support their demands, she responds with: Cope? We’re women. Don’t ask stupid questions.

Queen to Play

This one’s quite different from the other two, in that it is a little story about a Corsican maid who learns to play chess under the mentorship of one of her employers and finds, within the logical labyrinth of this fascinating game, the keys to her own life. The relationship between the maid and her mentor seems poised on the edge of sexuality sometimes — there is a scene involving them playing a sort of blindfold chess that puts the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway scene from The Thomas Crown Affair to shame. But what really drives it is the respect they have for each other’s minds and talent. A bit like Girl with a Pearl Earring and Once.

The leads are perfectly cast. Kevin Kline shows himself capable of investing a line like “Knight to d4″ with more emotion than I would’ve thought possible. Sandrine Bonnaire looks like a woman you might cross on the street without noticing, but when she smiles, well… But for much of the film’s running time, you just see her thinking. I didn’t think it would be so absorbing to watch someone do that, but she makes it so. It takes a special talent to be able to do without dialogue like “Knight to d4″.

So it all ends.

And I am left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it could’ve ended a little bit better. The fault lies, I think, with Voldemort.

As much as the focus of the series is Harry growing up to face his destiny and defeat one of the greatest wizards of his time, its dramatic power derives from the dark side. The principal theme of the series is the psychology of fear. Voldemort, a creature of fear and shadows at first — almost a MacGuffin in his own way — is the key. As the series progresses, he and his Death Eaters slowly gain more and more definition until that absolutely brilliant moment in the graveyard after the Triwizard tournament when he returns as a creature of flesh and blood. In fact, the choice to leave him almost entirely out of the picture in the fifth book and to give us tantalizing glimpses of his childhood in the sixth are what get us to primed to enjoy the rollicking adventure that the seventh one is. The series is not without its faults, but overall, it’s a masterpiece of construction and build-up. That is precisely why, when Harry calls him Riddle in that final confrontation and responds with an “Yes, I dare!” to his shocked response, we feel exhilarated.

The films, on the other hand, are completely hamstrung by Voldemort. As good an actor as Ralph Fiennes is, there’s only so much he can do when every feature in his face has been eliminated by make-up. The look of the character is so distractingly bad that it takes away from the performance and characterization.

The other major compromise comes in the way the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort is played out. In the book, it’s a long conversation culminating in a short duel, much like the finale of Kill Bill. The film chooses to make them fight, run up and down staircases, even hit each other in the odd instance. What is magical in the book is mundane in the movie. Sad, really.

Outside of that, there’s little to complain. The special effects are on par with any good production, the performances are top-notch, as usual. The highlights, for me, were:

  • Helena Bonham Carter playing Emma Watson playing Carter herself, when Hermione drinks some polyjuice potion to transform into Bellatrix.
  • Maggie Smith commanding the statues to come to life and guard Hogwarts, and ending with an excited little giggle and the line: “I’ve always wanted to use that spell!”
  • Rupert Grint and Hermione Granger sharing an excited little smile after their first kiss.
  • The epilogue, whose tone is closer to a quiet smile than a laugh, and contains essentially the only line that made the epilogue necessary — the one about Snape.

But despite the positives, I keep coming back to what bothers me about this film. Maybe he must not be named, but must he not have a face either?

If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.

When you think about it, the story of a guy with a speech impediment getting over this difficulty with the help of a therapist is not exactly the stuff a gripping drama is made of. Not even if the guy is a king. But then, a film isn’t so much about its subject as its treatment.

Did the people of that time (late 1930s England) actually believe that the king’s voice mattered? I am sure a few did, and equally sure a few didn’t. You don’t actually see “the people” much in this film. You see the king and those around him, and it mattered to them, very much. And so, as we are drawn into this tale of a stammering king who turns to a failed Australian actor for help, it matters to us.

There is a more or less identical shot that appears twice in the film. The first comes right at the beginning, when the Duke of York is called upon to make a speech. There is little else apart from his face in the shot — every little twitch is magnified. Not only does it demand a lot from the actor, it also makes for a sly little commentary on the impact of radio and television on public figures who could remain not so public until then. Royalty had to become actors, says the then king, George V.

The same shot is repeated right at the end, when the same man, now king (George VI), is called upon to make another speech. This one is on the radio, which means that only he and whoever he admits into his life is privy to his agony. But his voice shall be heard across His Majesty’s colonies, and the radio is merciless in what it broadcasts. This time, he gets it right. He isn’t perfect, but he has found his voice. The drama is heightened by the context of the speech — it is the king’s address to the nation just after England has declared war upon Hitler’s Germany, and the contrast between the charismatic demagogue and his diffident enemy tells its own little war story on the side.

Between these two shots, the story is brought alive by a wonderful bunch of actors.

Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue, the speech therapist. He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t hold much by royalty, and their unlikely friendship grows precisely because he treats the king like a normal human being. The early scenes follow the Mismatched Buddy Movie playbook to the letter, but Rush’s deliberate performance elevates these interactions.

Helena Bonham Carter is wonderful in the role of the queen. There is a moment early on when she first meets the therapist — he has just come out of the loo and proffers his hand for her to shake — not an uncommon comic device, but watch how she plays it, with just a second’s hesitation and nary a twitch of her facial muscles. So crucial is her role by her husband’s side that the climactic speech sequence ends up focusing on her reaction while he tries to get through the last sentence (which ends with prevail — words beginning with p were problematic for him).

Colin Firth is magnificent as a man who deems himself unfit to be king but is saddled with an elder brother who would rather abdicate than live without the woman he loves. George VI had self-esteem issues and a lot of pent-up anger stemming from it, but he was also a good man with a wry sense of humour and a strong sense of duty — aided by some superb writing, Firth lets us see all of this without ever seeming to try too hard. Some of his scenes ought to be in acting textbooks in the chapter on understatement. Watch the wordless exchange between him and Carter where he returns from a meeting confirming his accession. You don’t see what happened in there, and he doesn’t tell her anything per se, but you know exactly how it must have gone and how he felt about it.

The only slightly incongruous note for me came right at the end, when the king was congratulated by everyone around him for his speech. Given the solemnity of the occasion, their exuberance seemed a bit unlikely — surely, a quieter approach would have worked better?

And yet, I am disinclined to complain too much about this. In the grand scheme of things, especially when that scheme includes World War Two, a king’s speech isn’t all that important an event. But just because a small story exists within the context of a much bigger one doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be told.

There is nothing extraordinarily memorable about the movie, but if I’m stuck between watching Citizen Kane and Love Actually, I am likely to choose the latter as often as not.

To quote what is probably the best line in Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect.

I very often don’t watch this movie in one go — I just fast-forward to specific portions. Sometimes, I just follow one plotline from start to finish. Sometimes, it’s a specific scene. Like the one where Rowan Atkinson gift-wraps a necklace while Alan Rickman looks on. Or the one where Hugh Grant is first introduced to Natalie. Or any of Bill Nighy’s or Emma Thompson’s scenes. Sometimes all I need in order to make my day is a glimpse of Thompson’s smiling visage when Bye Bye Baby gets played at a funeral service.

But my favourite of all time is the one where Colin walks into an American bar. To quote Ebert’s description of this particular subplot:

There’s also one hopeful soloist who believes that if he flies to Milwaukee and walks into a bar he’ll find a friendly Wisconsin girl who thinks his British accent is so cute she’ll want to sleep with him. This turns out to be true.

Exactly how much this turns out to be true is, to me, the best part of this movie.

I attended the Landmark quiz in Mumbai yesterday. Having been away from quizzing for a while, it was quite refreshing to get back to it for a few hours. My team didn’t qualify for the finals, but I am not new to being in that position, so I enjoyed myself all the same.

One of the little pleasures of these big open quizzes is that there is a prize for best team name, and the shortlist usually contains some beauties. My favourite, and the winner this year was: Pigs fly, Swine Flu.

The bigger pleasure, however, is to learn some things of earth-shattering inconsequence that nonetheless brighten your day. Did you know, for instance, that a lot of clubs in the US have blue lighting in the restrooms to discourage intravenous drug abuse? The lighting makes it more difficult to find the veins, you see.

My favourite, though, is a Swiss watch that automatically displayes the rahukaalam every day. One of the people involved in its design is Chitra Subramaniam, best known for her coverage of the Bofors scandal. Makes one wonder if Ottavio Quattrochi took her on a Ferris wheel ride in Vienna, explained a few things to her and got her thinking about brotherly love and cuckoo clocks.

The trouble with biopics — or movies based on real life incidents or characters in general — is that one keeps wondering how much of it is fact and how much is fiction. The good ones manage to create a world that is internally consistent and emotionally true, to the extent that we don’t care so much about the source material anymore.

In choosing to chronicle the goings-on in the British royal household in the aftermath of Diana’s death, The Queen treads a difficult path in some ways. Call it some kind of post-colonial hangover if you wish, but I find myself reacting to a biopic about a musician or a football player differently from that about Queen Elizabeth II.

It is to Helen Mirren’s credit, however, that from the very first moment she is on screen, she is The Queen. I have always loved her work, in movies like Gosford Park and especially in lightweight fare like Calendar Girls (the sort of comedy that only the Brits seem to know how to make). But this is easily the best thing I have seen her in.

The Queen is no doubt quite a compelling story, but when I think back on it, the scene I keep returning to is a quiet one in the countryside. The queen decides to take a drive through her estates in Balmoral one day. She refuses an escort and drives the vehicle herself. And while crossing a little stream, the car breaks down. So she calls for someone to come pick her up. 

And while she waits there alone, a strong resourceful woman rendered temporarily helpless, the weight of the world seems to finally crash down upon her shoulders and she begins to sob. But then she notices a sound and sees a magnificient buck standing at a distance, staring at her. They eyeball each other for a few moments, then she hears the sound of hunters (probably including her huband) approaching in the distance and shoos it away.

For me, this scene is a masterpiece of construction. Firstly, it comes at a point when she is beginning to feel the stress of having to deal with public expectations that are entirely contrary to her beliefs. Diana is no longer a royal, and the only concern the royal family needs to have in the matter is the well-being of her and children. However, as the PM Tony Blair points out, the British public have their own way of deciding what the royal family should or shouldn’t be doing. You see the strain building slowly over the scenes preceding it, but her reactions are carefulyl schooled to express only what she wants the people around her to know.

By having her drive her own car, the director Stephen Frears first sets it up so that you begin to see her as her own person, as Elizabeth, and not just as the queen. That distinction allows us access to her feelings rather than just her behaviour. When the vehicle breaks down, she doesn’t just explain what has gone wrong with the car, but also reminds the person at the other end of the line that she used to be a mechanic during the War.

Now, while this is a nice piece of trivia, what purpose does it serve in that conversation? And then you realize that the line isn’t just meant as gentle rebuke to the man who thought that, as queen, she was unlikely to know what was wrong with her car. It is meant as a gentle rebuke to us, who have had the same implicit presumption all along. 

The moment with the buck may be viewed simply as a diversion at that point, but it also sets up a later scene where she finds out that it has been hunted down in the neighbouring estate. (The occasioal snippet of conversation in earlier scenes establishes that there is more than one group trying to hunt it down.) A party of bankers or something, out for a weekend of sport.

She goes down to that estate to enquire and sees it hung from a hook. It is still magnificient. As though all death can do is gnaw away at the corners of its beauty, a little bit at a time. She asks the groundskeeper to convey her congratulations for the kill and walks away. Then she returns to London and makes her first concession to the public demands that she “express her grief in public”.

Now sit and think about what that episode with the buck is trying to tell you. 

Queen Elizabeth II, as a mechanic during WWII

Queen Elizabeth II, as a mechanic during WWII

At the time of writing this, Slumdog has already won over audiences around the world, snagged a few Golden Globes (and other awards besides) and is widely expected to take home some statuettes on Oscar night. And I’m happy for the cast and crew who made it this far. I really am. But here’s what I cannot get around:

The movie simply did not work for me.

There’s enough to like, believe me. The movie is beautifully structured, the concept is interesting, the performances are quite good, the camerawork is amazing… But at the end of the day, I did not feel emotionally attached to this tale of a ragamuffin from Mumbai surviving a baptism in shit, communal riots, a brother’s betrayal and numerous other setbacks to find love and 20 million rupees in the end.

A big part of that is the writing. Sample this exchange between Jamal and Latika right at the end:

Jamal: I knew you’d be watching.

Latika: I thought we would meet only in death.

Jamal: This is our destiny.

Latika: Kiss me.

If the structuring of the story and the concept are interesting enough to warrant an Oscar nomination, then tripe like the above should warrant a Razzie nomination as well. I agree that dramatic lines like this are an integral part of our own films, but the good ones learn to do it with a modicum of panache. For a movie that’s been feted all over the place, it’s surprising how pedestrian the dialogue is. When Salim tells his brother, “The man with the Colt45 says ‘Shut up!’”, I wanted to barf.

The sad part is, the performances are pretty good but are hamstrung by the dialogue. The kids who play the younger and adolescent Jamal, Salim and Latika are fantastic. Dev Patel is quite good as the older Jamal — I was initially apprehensive about his accent being a distraction, but he managed to hold my attention despite that. The actors who play Salim do a pretty good job. Frieda Pinto looks like a million bucks, but has little to do. She does adequately. Anil Kapoor is suitably supercilious — I doubt a real game show host would be this condescending on live TV, but he makes it work. Irrfan Khan is his usual dependable self.

Three of the Oscar nominations have gone to A. R. Rahman. This is genuinely puzzling, because I can’t think of a single good thing to say about the music. The celebrated Jai Ho is earth-shatteringly nondescript. I sat there listening to the song and thinking, “They love him for this?”

Rahman’s music has brightened my days for the better part of two decades now. But he’s done much better than this. Then again, sometimes the Oscars are about granting overdue recognition. If Judi Dench could win for Shakespeare in Love, then our man certainly deserves a statuette for this score.

Let me leave you with a question that has been on my mind since yesterday. I don’t think the things I have spoken of in this review add up to why the movie didn’t work for me. There was something else missing, maybe a sense of wonder, of seeing something I hadn’t seen before. Is it that I have become desensitized to the poverty I see around me? Would I have loved this movie if it was set in, say, Brazil instead?

Was the working title of this movie Thirty nine progressively excruciating ways to embarass oneself? Most of the running time is devoted to Renee Zellweger moving from one embarassing situation to another, while a love triangle and assorted eccentric Brits hover in the background. Some of those moments work quite well, others not so much.

One moment that works exceedingly well involves Renee Zellweger coming face to face with Salman Rushdie and asking him a very fundamental question. I’m sorely tempted to reveal it here, but I’m gonna desist, just this once. Go see the movie, and see the expression on Rushdie’s face.

Much of the movie is essentially crap, let me warn you. But if you’re a girl, you can drool over Colin firth and Hugh Grant. And if you’re a guy, you can marvel at how Renee Zellweger can’t help but be charming no matter what dreck she’s starring in. Or maybe it’s the other way round. But whatever your plumbing and orientation, you’ll love the Rushdie moment.

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