Category: Theatre Adaptation

The Whale (2022)

The Whale (2022)

Manipulative and sentimental, Aronofsky’s tear-jerker is dishonest and disingenuous

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Charlie), Sadie Sink (Ellie Sarsfield), Hong Chau (Liz), Ty Simpkins (Thomas), Samantha Morton (Mary), Sathya Sridharan (Dan)

The Whale is the sort of film that is either going to bring you out in tears or hives. Me? Let’s just say I felt incredibly itchy as I sat through this naïve, sentimental and manipulative film. I hated its dishonesty and its disingenuousness. The only thing I felt move was my stomach.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese, reclusive English professor who teaches online courses with the camera turned off. Nursed by Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his deceased partner, Charlie has never processed his depression and guilt at his partner’s suicide. Now, facing death from congestive heart failure, his last wish is to finally bond with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he has not seen in the eight years since he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton). Ellie is now an angry, high-school drop-out teenager. But Charlie is sure he can see the good in her.

So much has been made about the morbid obesity of the film’s lead. The prosthetics coating Fraser in layers of fat are impressive. An opening montage shows Charlie struggling to move around the house. Picking something up off the floor is impossible and he has to lever himself out of the bed or into the shower. But the film is hugely pleased with itself that it dares to see a fat person as “one of us”. Aronofsky initially films him like a freak show monster – already patting himself on the back about how “humanising” it will be when we learn that obese people are just as capable of being at the heart of maudlin, self-pitying films as thin ones.

The Whale is adapted from a stage play. Not only does it really feel like it (it’s all set within Charlie’s apartment, with characters announcing their arrival in a neat four-act structure), it also sounds like it. The dialogue is forced, artificial and clumsy, making on-the-nose emotional points. Characters feel like narrative constructs. Sadie Sink’s Ellie is the sort of precocious-but-angry tear-away genius brat you never find in real life. Ty Simpkins’ hipster-turned-missionary is more a collection of quirks than a person. The script leans heavily on clumsy metaphors – a walk on the beach, bible quotes, Ellie’s childhood essay on Moby Dick – milked for all they are worth.

Worst of all, a film that prides itself on being about the power of honesty feels like a big, walloping lie. It lies about its characters and it lies about the real issues that drive them. Firstly, it never once touches on issues of mental health and addiction that have led Charlie to this state. Sure, we get a scene of him compulsively eating. But Liz, his “caring” nurse, brings him medicine and huge piles of food (a massive bucket of fried chicken, enormous sub sandwiches…). It’s like caring for an alcoholic by bringing him chicken soup and a huge bottle of whisky. How is this helping someone recognise and deal with an addiction? Which is what this level of over-eating is.

Worst of all the film treats this as a “charming friendship between two eccentrics”. It eventually touches on the fact they are both hurting from the suicide of Charlie’s partner Alan. But never once is the film brave enough to link their behaviour now to this act. Charlie failed to get Alan help, keeping him away from the world and others, believing that the isolated love of a single person would solve his depression. Liz repeats the same mistakes. She isolates Charlie, encourages him to eat, never challenges him to seek help or process his grief, and creates a safe environment for him to destroy himself. If he was a drug addict, what would we say about a carer who draws the curtains and encourages him to shoot up? We’d be calling her the villain of the piece.

That’s before we even dive into the film’s lack of honesty about Charlie. It’s sad to think of a character being so depressed he’s eaten himself to death. That’s awful – even if the film never wants to reflect on the emotional and psychological reasons for this (because that would be depressing in a film as desperate to be upbeat as this one). But by showing us Charlie at the end, full of regret and self-pity, the film white-washes his mistakes and selfishness. There are clear flaws in Charlie that contributed to this state – however much the film wants to present it as a terrible accident.

Charlie abandoned his family and made no contact with his daughter for years (he complains it was too difficult and tries to blame her mother), leaving her traumatised. The film loves its sentimental device of Charlie reading to himself Ellie’s childhood essay (which he knows by heart). But this is, basically, a selfish fantasy: an idea for Charlie to cling to that he was a good Dad and Ellie a kid with a future, radically different from the actual reality. Just like he never addresses why guilt and depression drove him to destroy himself, so he refuses to deal with the issues Ellie is facing now by simply not acknowledging that she has changed from his idealised version of her as the sweet, sensitive girl who knew Moby Dick was really about Melville’s unhappiness.

Instead, the film suggests her mother is the one who really failed. Charlie – who has spent about an hour in her company in eight years – would have donebetter. Just like Liz passing him chicken buckets, Charlie’s solution to solving his daughter’s problems is to smother her with love rather than get her to ask herself why she does and says the cruel things she does. How can the film not see he is repeating the same ghastly cycle again, encouraging a depressed, vulnerable person to stick her head in the sand and hope for the best? Well, he’s wrong. And the fact that the film doesn’t see this means it’s lying to itself as much as he is.

By the end you’ll be stuffed by sentiment, greased by the insistent score. Every single frame is like being walloped over the head while Aronofsky shouts “cry damn you”. The dreadful script is well acted, even if no-one ever makes these device-like characters feel like real people (except maybe Morton). Fraser is committed, a lovely chap and I’m very pleased he’s having “a moment”. But this is a simplistic character, that requires little of him other than to wear a fat suit and cry. He never once really delves into any complexity. It’s also true of Hong Chau, a collection of quirk and tears.

The Whale is a dreadful film, manipulative, artificial and full of naïve and dishonest emotions that avoids dealing with any complex or meaningful issues. Instead, it thinks it’s achieved something by making you see a fat person as a real person. There is almost nothing I can recommend about it.

Funny Girl (1968)

Funny Girl (1968)

A star-turn is the main interest in this grand-scale but so-so musical

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Barbra Streisand (Fanny Brice), Omar Sharif (Nicky Arnstein), Kay Medford (Rose Brice), Anne Francis (Georgia James), Walter Pidgeon (Florenz Ziegfeld), Lee Allen (Eddie Ryan), Mae Questel (Mrs Strakosh), Gerald Mohr (Branca), Frank Faylen (Keeney)

Fanny Brice was the major pre-war star of Broadway, the leading lights of the Ziegfeld Follies, the sort of all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars they just don’t make any more. A fictionalised version of her life became a Broadway smash, produced by her son-in-law Ray Stark. Hollywood came knocking, leading to this film version. Shepherded to the screen by William Wyler (his first ever musical, a genre he’s avoided due to being deaf in one ear) it would tell of Brice’s early success, her relationship with Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) and her marriage to dodgy gambler Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). And to play Brice? It could only be the woman who created the role, a young sensation called Barbra Streisand.

Funny Girl begins, ends and is exclusively about Barbra Streisand. Making her film debut, Streisand is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely sensational. This is charismatic, star-making stuff from an actress who knew exactly how to tailor the part (already basically written for her) to her strengths. Streisand is funny, kooky, witty but also vulnerable, shy, preoccupied with her low-opinion on her looks. She totally convinces as a charismatic figure who can dominate the room with cheek, won’t think twice at bluffing she can roller-skate to land a role or pigeon-hole Zeigfeld and argue against being asked to do something in performance. But she equally easily embodies a vulnerable woman, worried she is an unlovable ugly duckling, so certain she is destined to be alone she zeroes in on the first man who shows interest in her.

That’s not even mentioning the magnetism of Streisand. A truly confident, unique performer you couldn’t imagine anyone else so brilliantly mixing power-ballad notes with this sort of quirky character comedy. She can belt out Don’t Rain on My Parade or I’m the Greatest Stars with an awe-inspiring voice. She can add layers of pathos and tragedy to songs like People and Funny Girl. But few other performers could be both a diva and a pratfall artist on roller-stakes or mix arch-wit with low-comedy by stuffing a pillow up her dress in performance to turn her bride character pregnant in His Love Makes Me Beautiful, the Ziegfeld number she desperately doesn’t want to perform (because she can’t see herself as a beautiful bride).

Streisand is so central to Funny Girl’s success that I’m not sure that so much as three minutes go by without her appearing. It’s not a surprise as, subtract her from the mix, and Funny Girl is a fairly bland, unoriginal and at times slightly flat musical that struggles to do or say anything interesting. It’s had millions poured into its elaborate sets, it’s grandiose costumes and its vintage, sepia-tinged photography. But it’s an overlong, overblown, poorly paced film blessed with a star turn.

Wyler’s main strength as a director on mega-budget spectaculars like this was his professionalism and control, the gifts a producer likes. Visually though, Funny Girl frequently looks lost in widescreen, sets shot in a way that magnifies their emptiness and lacking the sort of affinity for timing and musicality that something like Minnelli, Donen and Kelly made look so natural (Most of the larger musical numbers were worked on by Herbert Ross). There is the odd strong shot – a showy helicopter shot pans down to Fanny on a tug steaming past the Statue of Liberty during Don’t Rain on my Parade or a sunset that pops up between the faces of Sharif and Streisand during a dockside embrace. But too many shots favour getting the money on the screen or struggle to frame two people interestingly in widescreen.

Mind you the story is a bit of a struggle. Fanny’s ascent to success is fast-paced and untroubled by conflict. Every gamble she takes pays-off, every cheeky trick goes unpunished. She can’t roller-skate when hired to do so? She sabotages the closing number of Ziegfeld’s show with her pregnancy flourish? Doesn’t matter – everyone loves it. She teeters for a few minutes on being fired, then jumps to promotion and glory. Ziegfeld – the sort of elite, New England aristocratic role perfect for Walter Pidgeon – just sighs and acknowledges talent gonna talent.

There are a few more clashes in her personal life. Her marriage to Nicky is the core emotional plotline of the film, but Nicky’s rough edges (in real life he was a conman and a swindler) are shaved off. Instead, he is played as a charming rogue, a professional gambler who bamboozles Fanny’s manager into giving her a stonking payrise and plays with honour and grace at the card table. When his business dealings go south, it’s never really his fault and he’s so noble he works to save Fanny’s honour by taking the rap for a collapsed business and arguing she should divorce him forthwith.

It doesn’t help that Nicky is played by Omar Sharif. Sharif, while a striking screen presence, had an acting range pretty much restricted to playing Sherif Ali. He’s unable to give the role any depth or interest, he can’t sing (thankfully he only tries once) and he’s overly reliant on his expressive eyes. He’s no match for Streisand, with whom he has less chemistry than rumour suggests was the case.

Streisand though was one-in-a-million here. Rumours abound she was a difficult and demanding presence, who fought tooth-and-nail with Wyler. She requested endless retakes to get her performance just right and “contributed” to script cuts (Anne Francis, playing a blousy Ziegfeld singer, was furious that her role effectively ended on the cutting room floor). Her perfectionism made her a controversial figure in Hollywood – but it’s also the brilliant fine-tuning of her own skill that won her the Oscar she shared with Katherine Hepburn. On a side note, Streisand had been controversially invited to join the Academy before she made a film, meaning the vote I assume she cast for herself was the one that guaranteed her the Oscar.

Funny Girl is large, overlong, largely visually and narratively uninteresting film that has a bright, shining, tour-de-force superstar in the lead who is in absolute, total control of her talent. Without Streisand it would be a tedious turkey – with her, it’s a strange landmark.

The Heiress (1949)

The Heiress (1949)

Is it love or is it avarice? Wyler’s sumptuous costume drama is a brilliant translation of Henry James to the screen

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), Betty Linley (Mrs Montgomery), Ray Collins (Jefferson Almond), Mona Freeman (Marian Almond), Selena Royle (Elizabeth Almond), Paul Lees (Arthur Townsend)

Pity poor Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland). She’s seems destined forever to be the spinster, the last person anyone glances at during a party. Her father Dr Sloper (Ralph Richardson) can’t so much as walk into a room without gently telling how infinitely inferior she is to her mother. And when a man finally seems keen to court her, her father tells her that of course handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) will only be interested in her inheritance. After all, there is nothing a young man could love in a forgettable, dull, second-rate woman like Catherine. He’s cruel, but is he right – is Morris a mercenary?

The Heiress was adapted from a play itself a version of Henry James’ Washington Square. It’s bought magnificently to the screen in a lush, sensational costume drama that comes closer than anyone else at capturing those uniquely Jamesian qualities of ambiguity and contradictory motives among the New American elites. Magnificently directed by William Wyler, it brilliantly turns a theatrical character piece into something that feels intensely cinematic, without once resorting to clumsy ‘opening up the play’ techniques. And it marshals brilliant performances at its heart.

Sumptuously costumed by Edith Head, whose costumes subtly change and develop along with its central character’s emotional state throughout the story, it’s largely set in a magnificently detailed Upper New York household, shot in deep focus perfection by Leo Tover, which soaks up both the reaction of every character and the rich, detailed perfection of decoration which may just be motivating some of the characters. Not that we can be sure about that, since the motives of Morris Townsend and his pursuit of Catherine remain cunningly unreadable: just as you convince yourself he’s genuine, he’ll show a flash of avarice – then he’ll seem so genuinely warm and loving, you’ll be sure he must be telling the truth or be the world’s greatest liar.

Catherine certainly wants it to be true – and believes it with a passion. The project was also a passion piece for de Havilland, and this is an extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance that delves deeply into the psyche of someone who has been (inadvertently perhaps) humiliated and belittled all her life and eventually reacts in ways you could not predict. Catherine is clumsy, naïve and lacking in any finesse. With her light, breathless voice and inability to find the right words, she’s a doormat for anyone. She even offers to carry the fishmonger’s wares into the house for him. At social functions, her empty dance card is studiously checked and her only skill seems to be cross-stitch.

She is an eternal disappointment to her father, who meets her every action and utterance with a weary smile and a throwaway, unthinking comment that cuts her to the quick. Richardson, funnelling his eccentric energy into tight control and casual cruelty, is magnificent here. In some ways he might be one of the biggest monsters in the movies. This is a man who has grown so accustomed to weighing his daughter against his deceased wife (and finding her wanting) that the implications of the impact of this on his daughter never crosses his mind.

Catherine is never allowed to forget that she is a dumpy dullard and a complete inadequate compared to the perfection of her mother. Richardson’s eyes glaze over with undying devotion when remembering this perfection of a woman, and mementoes of her around the house or places she visited (even a Parisian café table later in the film) are treated as Holy Relics. In case we are in any doubts, his words when she tries on a dress for a cousin’s engagement party sum it up. It’s red, her mother’s colour, and looks rather good on her although he sighs “your mother was fair: she dominated the colour”. Like Rebecca this paragon can never be lived up to.

So, it’s a life-changing event when handsome Morris Townsend enters her life. There was criticism at the time that Clift may have been too nice and too handsome to play a (possible) scoundrel. Quite the opposite: Clift’s earnestness, handsomeness and charm are perfect for the role, while his relaxed modernism as an actor translates neatly in this period setting into what could-be arrogant self-entitlement. Nevertheless, his attention and flirtation with Catherine at a party is a blast from the blue for this woman, caught mumbling her words, dropping her bag and fiddling nervously with her dance card (pretending its fuller than of course it is).

Her father, who sees no value in her, assumes it is not his tedious child Morris has his eyes on, but the $30k a year she stands to inherit. And maybe he knows because these two men have tastes in common, Morris even commenting “we like the same things” while starring round a house he all too clearly can imagine himself living in – by implication, they also have dislikes in common. (And who does Sloper dislike more, in a way, than Catherine?) Morris protests his affections so vehemently (and Sloper lays out his case with such matter-of-fact bluntness) that we want to believe him, even while we think someone who makes himself so at home in Sloper’s absence (helping himself to brandy and cigars) can’t be as genuine as he wants us to think.

As does Catherine. Part of the brilliance of de Havilland’s performance is how her performance physically alters and her mentality changes as events buffet her. A woman who starts the film mousey and barely able to look at herself in the mirror, ends it firm-backed and cold-eyed, her voice changing from a light, embarrassed breathlessness into something hard, deep and sharp. De Havilland in fact swallows Richardson’s characteristics, Sloper’s precision and inflexibility becoming her core characteristics. The wide-eyed woman at the ball is a memory by the film’s conclusion, Catherine becoming tough but making her own choices. As she says to her father, she has lived all her life with a man who doesn’t love her. If she spends the rest of it with another, at least that will be her choice.

Wyler assembles this superbly, with careful camera placement helping to draw out some gorgeous performances from the three leads – not to forgetting Miriam Hopkins as a spinster aunt, who seems as infatuated with Morris as Catherine is. The film is shaped, at key moments, around the house’s dominant staircase. Catherine runs up it in glee at the film’s start with her new dress, later sits on it watching eagerly as Morris asks (disastrously) for her hand. Later again, she will trudge up it in defeated misery and will end the film ascending it with unreadable certainty.

The Heiress is a magnificent family drama, faultlessly acted by the cast under pitch-perfect direction, that captures something subtly unreadable. We can believe that motives change, grow and even alter over time – and maybe that someone can love somebody and their money at the same time (perhaps). But we also understand the trauma of constant emotional pain and the hardening a lifetime of disappointment can have. It’s the best James adaption you’ll ever see.

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

The Lost Daughter (2021)

The Lost Daughter (2021)

Motherhood, loss and guilt are at the heart of this over-extended drama that doesn’t feel like it focuses on the right things

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Cast: Olivia Colman (Leda Caruso), Jessie Buckley (Young Leda Caruso), Dakota Johnson (Nina), Ed Harris (Lyle), Dagmara Dominczyk (Callie), Paul Mescal (Will), Peter Sarsgaard (Professor Hardy), Jack Farthing (Joe), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Toni), Athena Martin (Elena), Robyn Elwell (Bianca), Ellie Blake (Martha)

Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor of Italian Literature, holidays in Greece. That holiday is disturbed by the arrival of a noisy, aggressive family from Queens. A member of that family, unhappy young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) loses her daughter on a beach. Leda finds her, but it triggers her own unhappy memories of motherhood (Jessie Buckley plays the young Leda). She impulsively steals the child’s beloved doll, as her paranoia and mournful reflections grow.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a confident, assured piece of film-making, but I found it a cold and slightly unsatisfying film. There is a fascinating subject here, that the film fails to really tackle. One of life’s great unspoken expectations is that everyone should find being a parent – especially being a mother – hugely rewarding. This film studies a woman who didn’t, but still wants to reassure us of the love and happiness found in the bond with a child, no matter your mistakes as a parent. In doing so, it marginally ducks an important societal issue and reaches conclusions that feel predictable, for all the ambiguity the film ends with.

Colman’s expressive face and ability to suggest acres of unhappiness in a forced smile or gallons of frustration with a single intake of breath, are used to maximum effect. Leda is a woman comfortable with her own company, forced and uncomfortable in conversation, her eyes flicking away as if looking for an exit. She seems confused about how to respond to the quiet advances of handyman Lyle (a gentle Ed Harris) and increasingly resents the intrusion into her holiday of outsiders.

How much is this slightly misanthropic, isolated view of the world her natural personality, and how much has it grown from her choices in the past? Flashbacks reveal her struggles as a mother – and the strained relationship with her children today – and it’s clear Leda is a bubble of confused emotions, uncertain about what she thinks and feels.

That past, to me, is the real area of interest, rather than the distant, cold woman those choices have created. I’d argue a stronger film – and one that would feel like it was really making a unique point – would have focused on the younger Leda. Expertly played by an Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley –brittle and growing in claustrophobic depression – she loves her two girls. But, most of the time, finds them overbearing, all-consuming and more than a little irritating. She’ll laugh at their jokes and be terrified when one of them gets lost, while still resenting their domineering impact on her life.

When she wants to work, they demand attention. When her daughter has a small cut on her finger, Leda is repeatedly asked to kiss it better like a broken record. Leda gives her other daughter her own childhood doll – and then throws it out of a window in fit of hurt fury when the daughter covers it in crayon and says she doesn’t like it. The kids get in the way of everything: be it work (she retreats behind headphones to focus), holidays, sex with her husband or even masturbation.

Her feelings go beyond post-natal depression. She is someone who genuinely loves her children, but can’t bear the idea of mothering them. This is the meat of the film, far more than the present-day narrative. Gyllenhaal sensitively tackles a rarely discussed topic: what can we do if we find parenthood was a mistake? Knuckle down or give up and run away? A film exploring this could have been compelling: but it only takes up a quarter of an over-extended film.

Instead, by focusing on the maladjusted present-day Leda, the film presents her motherhood difficulties as the root cause of her problems. Leda sees a potential kindred spirit in young mother Nina – a brash and exhausted Dakota Fanning – who seems equally frustrated by parenting. But Leda is so insular and self-obsessed, is she only seeing what she wants to see? If she thinks Nina is also failing as a mother, will that make her feel better about her own failures?

The Lost Daughter is an unreliable narrator film – and Gyllenhaal expertly suggests much of what we see are Leda’s perceptions rather than necessarily the truth. The menace from Nina’s loud and aggressive extended family is a constant presence: but is it real, or just Lena’s paranoia. Does the family really cover every tree with a missing poster for a child’s lost doll, or does it just that way to Leda? Does Nina share Leda’s own resentments with motherhood, or does Leda just want her to?

It’s a subtle ambiguity that continues until the film’s close. It leaves many questions unanswered and open to the viewers interpretation. Different viewers will take very different messages from it. But for me, the film wasn’t quite interesting enough – and shied away from exploring the questions of guilt and doubt about parenthood. At no point does Leda even voice the possibility that she regrets having kids – for all that she surely does – which feels odd. For me the film takes a long time to not quite say as much as I feel it could have done.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Blood, guts and gore in this horror-tinged, claret-dipped Burton adaptation of Sondheim’s musical

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Jayne Wisener (Johanna Barker), Sacha Baron Cohen (Adolfo Pirelli), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy Barker/Beggar Woman), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Ed Sanders (Toby Ragg)

Sondheim’s blood-soaked musical about the infamous serial-killing barber, intent on revenge against the judge who transported him to Australia and stole his late wife, took years to make it to screen. His intensely theatrical, intricate musical masterpieces don’t always translate to film – they lack that crowd-pleasing oomph. What with Todd slashing throats with misanthropic glee, aided by besotted neighbour Mrs Lovett baking the bodies into pies, and no wonder Sweeney was a difficult pitch.

However, it’s practically tailor-made for the High Priest of Gothic Oddity, Tim Burton. A lifelong Hammer horror fan, it’s no surprise Burton had loved the musical since first seeing it in 1980. He’s a perfect match for this stuff, and his film is a bleak, heavily desaturated, oppressively grim and strikingly optimism-free descent into a subterranean hell, with almost every scene accompanied by a free-flowing deluge of Shining-style levels of blood.

Sweeney Todd is a design triumph (Oscar-winning for its production design and nominated for its costumes). It’s London is like an Oliver! set run through a fevered nightmare slasher film. Everything is grandiose, filthy and above all cold, oppressive and unwelcoming. Most of the light comes from the reflection of moonlight on the blades of Todd’s razors, and the basement of his building is a gruesome horror show, with a pumping furnace and mangled body parts in a mincer.

The film shocked critics expecting a more traditional Broadway musical translation with the dark glee it embraces the gore. When throats are slashed – which occurs as regularly as clockwork – blood sprays over the actors, camera and virtually everything else. Sweeney’s chair drops his victims head-first into the cellar: each fall is seen in terrible detail, bodies landing with a sickening crunch, twisted out of shape and heads smashed open on the stone floor. There is little black comedy, the film embracing flat-out horror.

It also focuses on the black hate in Sweeney’s heart, his fixation on revenge at any costs and the lack of any trace of humanity within him. While Mrs Lovett longs to turn this “relationship” into something more intimate and loving – she even sings about it in By the Sea to the stony-faced indifference of Sweeney – to Sweeney she is little more than a convenient means to an end. Bravely, no real attempt is made to make us feel real sympathy for this brutal killer – and the visceral brutality of his killings only adds to this.

The film is dominated by its two leads, simplifying the musical down to something leaner, swifter and meaner. This is a dark revenge tragedy doubling as a character study of its two leads’ souls. These places a lot of pressure on Depp and Carter. Sweeney Todd was very much at the apex of a trend in musical film-making where stars were trained to sing, rather than casting skilled singers who can act. Sweeney Todd is an immensely complex musical, with deeply challenging lead parts. Even using the intimacy and immediacy of the camera to bring the scale down (they don’t need to hit the back row), it still must have been intimidating to sing with very little experience.

Depp and Carter however acquit themselves well. Working with a director they both trust implicitly, they give dark, twisted performances of unspoken longings. Depp, in one of his finest and most restrained performances (which says a lot about the irritating abandon of many of his other roles) that stresses Sweeney’s sociopathic coldness. He is a tortured man, turning his unhappiness and self-loathing into a weapon to slice open the world. Carter channels sociopathic eccentricity with a tenderness, vulnerability and desperation for love.

As singers however, they are competent rather than inspired. Depp goes for an earthy, Bowie-esque, Rex Harrison-paced growl that conveys the emotion but simplifies the songs and robs them of some of their impact. Carter’s more lively rendition carries more character, but in both cases you wonder what would have happened if the film had married its cinematic visuals with assured Broadway performers. The best singers by far are Jamie Campbell Bower (whose role as the would-be lover of Sweeney’s long-lost daughter is heavily cut) and Ed Sanders, who is excellent as the orphan taken under Mrs Lovett’s wing (West End-star Laura Michelle Kelly, perversely, barely sings a note).

The focus on Sweeney and Mrs Lovett leaves little room for the other actors. Rickman brings a subtle perversion to Judge Turpin – even though, bless him, he’s not the best singer – and Spall a creepy eccentricity to the Beadle. But this is the Sweeney show, a decision that robs the film of any trace of the more hopeful elements of the original, to zero in on the dark horrors.

The film pulls few punches, but never makes us care about Sweeney. For all the trims, it’s surprisingly poorly-paced (especially considering its short run-time). Such little importance is given to the supporting characters, time feels wasted when we are with them. The cuts also stress how little actual plot there is around Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (once they decide to embark on a life of crime, there is little that happens to sustain the film through its middle act).

The film is a Gothic slasher triumph, but it’s perhaps neither a great musical nor a truly engaging tragedy. A slice more humanity, in between the slashed throats, might have helped a great deal.

West Side Story (2021)

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Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are star cross’d lovers in Spielberg’s triumphant West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Antia), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff), Rita Moreno (Valentina), Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke), Corey Stoll (Lt Schrank), Josh Andres Rivera (Chino), Iris Menas (Anybodys)

Was there actually a need to remake West Side Story? It’s the question everyone was asking before the film’s release. Judging by the disaster at the Box Office (also connected to our old friend Covid), it’s a question people are still asking. Well, you remake it by refocusing and partially reinventing it while remaining loyal to the roots of what makes this one of the greatest 20th century musicals. Spielberg’s triumphant film does exactly this, in many places even exceeding the Oscar winning original. This West Side Story is full of toe-tapping, heart-breaking numbers, gloriously choreographed numbers and scenes of high emotion and social insight.

In 1957 in Manhattan’s West Side, it’s the dying days of the San Juan Hill district, which is being slowly bulldozed to build the Lincoln Centre. Scrambling to retain control of what’s left are two gangs of youths: the Jets, a group of white rough kids led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks, a migrant Puerto Rican gang led by would-be boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez). The two groups plan a ‘rumble’ to settle matters forever. A fight that ends up carrying even more importance when both communities are outraged by the burgeoning romance between former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). Will love triumph over hate? Well, it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, so I’ll leave it to you to work that out.

The original, Oscar-laden, West Side Story is a ground-breaking and brilliant musical. Based closely on the triumphant original Broadway production, it showcased earth-shatteringly brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins. The sort of grace, power, passion and beauty in movement that very few productions of anything have got anywhere near matching. Spielberg’s remake can’t match that – and wisely doesn’t try, rejigging and reinventing the choreography with touches of inspiration from Robbins’ work. But, in many ways, it matches and even surpasses the other elements of the original.

The musical’s book is radically re-worked by playwright Tony Kurshner to stress the racial and social clashes between these two very different communities. Helped as well by the racially accurate casting (memories of Natalie Wood passing herself off as Puerto Rican are quickly dispatched), Spielberg’s film transforms West Side Story into a film exposing the kneejerk jingoism and xenophobia of the Jets (who are often deeply unlikeable) and the touchy, insecure defensiveness of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Everything in the film works to establish the difficulty the Pueto Rican community had in settling in America. From language problems – most of the characters are still mastering English, with Spanish exchanges untranslated – to the obvious bias of police officers like Corey Stoll’s bullying Lt Schrank (officers and others frequently order the Puerto Ricans to “speak English”). Maria and Anita no longer work in a dress shop, but as cleaners in a department store. Racial slurs pepper the dialogue (Spic and Gringo litter the dialogue). The Jets are first seen defacing a mural of a Pueto Rican flag. Loyalty to your community – both of whom see themselves as under siege – is more important than anything. The film bubbles with an awareness of time, place and the dangers and troubles faced by migrant communities far more than the original.

For that choreography, Justin Peck keeps the inspiration of Robbins, but mixes it with his own fast-paced, electric dynamism. The big numbers dominate the screen, from opening confrontation of the Jets and Sharks to the carnivalesque America, the playful Office Krupke, the frentic Gym Dance and the ballet inspired Cool. The choreography is earthier and punchier (in some cases literally so) more than Robbins, with a rough and tumble physicality and strenuous attack that contrasts with the balletic perfection of the original. It’s both a tribute to the original and also very much its own thing – and works perfectly.

Balancing tribute and forging its new identity is also at the heart of Spielberg’s brilliant direction. He’s confident enough to shoot many of the musical numbers with a Hollywood classic style – which allows us to see and admire all the choreography. But he also mixes this with sweeping, immersive camera work, thrilling tracking shots and beautiful images – there is a great one of Tony standing in a puddle surrounded with apartment window reflections, which looks like he’s surrounded with stars. Spielberg brings the demolished buildings very much into the visual design, part of making this West Side Story, earthier and rougher. The film is electrically paced and lensed with an expert eye.

The film’s two leads are both superior to the originals. Ansel Elgort is a fine singer (with a heartfelt rendition of Maria) and dancer (he excels at Cool), even if he at times struggles to bring his slightly bland character to life. He gives Tony a puppy dog quality – that does make hard to believe this version of the character killed a man in a brawl – as well as a wonderful sense of youthful impetuousness. Opposite him Rachel Zegler – plucked from YouTube by an open casting call – is sensationally wide-eyed, youthful radiance as Maria, naïve and in love, a superb singer.

Even better though are the supporting roles. Finest of all is Ariana DeBose, for whom this film feels like the unearthing of a major talent. Her singing and dancing is awe-inspiring, but it’s DeBose’s ability to switch from warm and motherly, to flirtatious and sexy, to grief, rage and confusion and all of it feeling a natural development from one to another is extraordinary. Her major songs are the films main highlights, stunningly performed. David Alvarez is a passionate, head-strong Bernardo, convinced that he is acting for the best (like DeBose his singing and dancing is extraordinary). Mike Faist is brilliantly surly and enraged (and struggling with repressed feelings for Tony) as Riff.

And, of course, there is Rita Moreno, now playing Valentina, a re-invention of the original production’s character of Don. Moreno worked closely as a consultant with Spielberg and Peck, and gives her scenes a world-weary sadness and desire for hope. She sparks beautifully with Elgort and to see her save Anita from gang rape (still a shocking scene, as it was when Moreno played it) and then angrily spit her contempt and rage at these boys is very powerful.

West Side Story needed to justify its existence. It does this in so many ways. Wonderfully performed by the cast, Spielberg pays homage to the original and classic Hollywood musicals but mixes this with electric film-making and a far greater degree of social and racial awareness (without ever hammering the points home) that allows you to see this tragedy from a new perspectives. It reimagines without dramatically reinventing and sits beautifully alongside the original. It’s more than justified its existence: in many ways it’s even better than the original.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

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Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are the Macbeths in this brilliant, noirish, superb Shakespeare film

Cast: Joel Coen

Director: Denzel Washington (Lord Macbeth), Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth), Corey Hawkins (Macduff), Brendan Gleeson (King Duncan), Harry Melling (Malcolm), Bertie Carvel (Banquo), Alex Hassell (Ross), Kathryn Hunter (The Witches), Moses Ingram (Lady Macduff), Ralph Ineson (Captain), Stephen Root (Porter), Miles Anderson (Lennox), Jefferson Mays (Doctor)

Shakespeare on screen is difficult to pull off. Focus too much on the language and you end up with something more theatrical than cinematic. Zero in on the visuals and you lose what makes Shakespeare great in the first place. That’s not even to mention that films – with their huge audiences – tend to focus on simple, more traditional interpretations of a play that add little to interpreting it afresh. These are all problems avoided by Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth which is bloody, bold and resolute and jumps straight into the upper tier of great Shakespeare films. Inventive, dynamic, gripping and excellently acted it succeeds in being both a creative production of the play and something truly cinematic.

Shot in a crisply clean black-and-white, the 4:3 frame frequently filled with rolling mist and stark white light (it’s superbly shot by Bruno Delbonnel), this is a Macbeth set in a Jan Kott inspired Samuel-Beckett-tinged wasteland, with Scotland a bleak, blasted country, its characters leading lives full of sound and fury that signify nothing. The Macbeth’s castle is an Esher like construction of perfectly formed empty rooms, towering walls and arches casting grim shadows and open ceilinged rooms allowing onlookers to observe everything. There are brilliant images: not least the handle to Duncan’s door which is strikingly lit to resemble a knife. Characters frequently emerge from the mist or the darkness to walk towards us and confess their darkest thoughts.

No Shakespeare film has better used set and location since Orson Welles’ Othello – a film this is sharply reminiscent of, with its brilliant use of angles and shade that constantly disconcerts the viewer (even leaving us confused at points on whether we are looking down or up). Coen also seems to have been inspired by Peter Brook’s grimly nihilistic King Lear film, with this Scotland being trapped firmly in a circle of destruction powered by the witches. All three are played by Kathryn Hunter, whose contortionist twisting and ability to switch her vocals on a sixpence from sing-song to a Gollumesque growl make them truly feel of the earth and yet not. Hunter is inspired casting – sometimes representing all three witches in a single schizophrenic body, at others playing all three at once. A brilliant image at one point shows her double reflection in a watery pool, turning her body immediately into a trinity.

Hunter’s movement is birdlike and agile – fitting since it’s suggested the witches can transform themselves into carrion crows, flying over Scotland picking bones clean of fresh. The first image is the three birds circling the Captain as he walks slowly across a beach to report to Duncan. Later Hunter perches on a crossbeam in another opened-ceiling room, subtly poking Macbeth on to greater monstrosities. There is a cycle of destruction here – and the film’s ending implies all this chaos is bound to start again.

Crucial to this is Ross. Following Polanski’s Macbeth – and again heavily inspired by Jan Kott – Alex Hassell’s unctuous Ross, ingratiates himself with all while happily engaging in acts of brutality. He personally executes Cawdor (by beheading), joins Banquo’s murderers, shows the way to the sacking of Macduff house and hands Malcolm both the crown and Macbeth’s severed head. But Coen takes it further again: rather than a cruel opportunist, this Ross seems to be an agent of the witches – or maybe even a witch himself. Hassell’s costume, with its curiously feminine robe and wing-like arms, echoes the witches and Ross moves smoothly from side-to-side even in the final acts, planting seeds of further destruction (including further implied murders) and collaborating directly with the witches to restart the cycle at the end.

All this makes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at times feel like rather tragic puppets at the heart of a terrible cycle of events they cannot control. It certainly fits with Denzel Washington’s balanced and intelligent performance in the lead. While Washington doesn’t mine as much weight and meaning from the text as the great stage Macbeths, he gives his line readings an unstudied naturalism and a dynamic and thoughtful rhythm (even if he is prone a little too much to the “soft-slow/fast” approach). His Macbeth is a weak, indecisive man, happy only when he is in action. Clearly ambitious from the start, he binds himself in knots thinking but, once a decision has been made, has no hesitation. Violence is an instinctive tool – he kills several people with no hesitation and a lightening aggression – but he’s lost without direction. He clings to the crown as if it will somehow give the things he has done meaning.

Washington’s performance shifts gears once Macbeth has decided to fully commit himself to those scorpions that fill his mind, becoming an unbalanced mixture of fatalistic and recklessly impulsive. No wonder he has less need for his wife. Frances McDormand is perhaps even better as a Lady Macbeth who sees the crown as her last chance for legacy in a world that has left her behind. McDormand really understands the way to mine nuance from the language. Frequently inpatient with her husband, she is decisive where he is not, but squeamish around violence in a way he isn’t. Both Washington and McDormand manage to suggest a great deal of unfulfilled sadness in the Macbeths, two people in the twilight of their years who pounce on a chance for a last hurrah but find themselves psychologically unsuited for the consequences.

The two leads are at the head of a uniformly strong cast. Hunter and Hassell are both superb. Bertie Carvel is a brooding but honest Banquo. Corey Hawkins a forceful but thoughtful Macduff, played with guilt and wise from the start on Macbeth’s villainy. Moses Ingram brings a lot of warmth to a striking scene as Lady MacDuff. Ralph Ineson’s delivery of the Captain’s speech is spot on. Harry Melling is an immature, stubborn Malcolm.

But the real star here might just be Coen’s direction. The brooding, overbearing beauty of the film is all part of its atmosphere of creeping intimidation and danger. There are some truly striking, haunting images: the flame lit murder of Banquo, a deranged Macbeth fighting a spectral hallucination of Banquo, water pouring down into the flagstones after Macbeth’s final visions of the future, the smoke and mist filled murder of Macduff’s children (a shot of Wellesian brilliance), Lady Macbeth standing before a sheer drop, the imaginative arrival of Birnam wood, Macduff and Macbeth’s final duel in a narrow battlements. This is a punchy, brilliant, beautiful, intelligent and unique reimagining of the play that mixes Shakespeare, visual and has something clear and unique to say about staging the play. Comfortably one of the greatest Shakespeare films ever made.

Oliver! (1968)

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Mark Lester asks for More. You may not share his sentiments in the Oscar winning Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Joseph O’Conor (Mr Brownlow), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Peggy Mount (Mrs Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypool), Megs Jenkins (Mrs Bedwin)

1968. The Vietnam War gets worse. The My Lai Massacre is a low-point in America’s global reputation. MLK is assassinated. Student protests rip through campuses, culminating in Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. RFK is assassinated. In the UK, Enoch Powell talks about “Rivers of Blood”. A flu pandemic sweeps the world. The USSR ends the “Prague Spring” with tanks. It was a year of horrific global turmoil. Perhaps it’s not a surprise the Oscars chose as Best Picture something as blandly comfortable and utterly disconnected from all this mayhem as Oliver! A personality-free re-tread of a successful stage musical, with a few good tunes bolstering a lobotomised adaptation of Dickens’ novel, Oliver! is so coated with sugar it must have helped the medicine of 1968 go down.

Young Oliver (Mark Lester with his singing voice dubbed) is an angelic orphan, thrown out of the workhouse for asking for “more” (Never before has such an event occurred), eventually escaping to London (Where is Love eh?). There he finds the Big Smoke to be nothing less than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Invited by pickpocket The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) to consider himself part of the family, he’s soon learning how to pick a pocket or two from Fagin (Ron Moody). It’s not all fun and games though: violent criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) is a wildcard, although his devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis), the sort of girl the boys will do anything for, remains loyal to Bill for as long as he needs her. But there’s a secret in Oliver’s past – who are his parents?

Carol Reed could once make a claim for being the greatest director in the world. You couldn’t make a case for that based on this cosily chocolate-box, unimaginative trudge through a musical that has little other than a couple of catchy tunes to really recommend it in the first place. The real MVP here is Onna White, whose choreography is very impressive. White takes everyday acts and, with a little bit of jazz and a dollop of musicality, turns them into dance movements. It gives the dance numbers a heightened reality that kind of works and provides nearly everything worth looking at it in the film. Reed certainly leaves her to it, carefully setting the camera up with simple wide and medium shots to capture as much of it as possible.

And you could argue that’s his job. But he brings nothing to the other parts of the production. Of course, Lionel Bart’s musical is a much lighter affair than Dickens’ original (although, in actual fact, this is much more of a musical remake of Lean’s Oliver Twist, making many identical cuts and sharing nearly all the same dialogue), but you’d think the director who gave us Odd Man Out and The Third Man could give some drama and character to London’s underbelly. Not a jot. They have the same muted technicolour cleanliness of everything else, and any hint of ruthlessness, criminality or moral conundrums are well and truly left at the door. What we get is a world where everyone – apart from Bill – is fundamentally nice and decent, and rapacious old men using children as criminals is basically not a lot different from running an after-school club.

It isn’t helped that Oliver!, like Bart’s stage original, has a weak book that offers little light or shade for its characters other than to typecast them into simplified “goodies and baddies”. Reed and the film either can’t or won’t stretch this much further – although the film does rearrange some events of the original production to give a bit more motivational heft to actions and introduce Bill earlier to at least add a bit more tension. The film is as quickly bored with the angelic Oliver as the original is – fair enough since he’s a tediously saintly chap – with Mark Lester alternating between looking winsome and shocked at the company he finds himself amongst.

Nothing can interrupt the overflowing “niceness” of what we are seeing. Ron Moody’s Fagin had been honed from performing it on stage so often (and he is very good). But his Fagin is a cuddly uncle, the sort of grown-up scamp you would invite over for a drink, only keeping an eye on the silverware when you did. This is, let’s not forget, a bloke who colludes in murder (though the film reduces his responsibility), kidnapping, grooms kids for a life of crime and willingly lets them die for him. Not a whiff of this is allowed onto the screen. The Artful Dodger (played with a cheeky but tellingly amoral charm by Jack Wild, who tragically never hit these heights again) is given more light and shade than Fagin.

Like the musical, the film downplays the abusive relationship at its heart. Nancy is little more than a walking embodiment of the cliched “tart with a heart” trope, and the film adaptation chooses to praise her for not just sticking with her abuser, but slavishly devoting herself to him. In fact, beyond being casually kind to a child once in a while, this devotion is pretty much Nancy’s entire personality – and the film approves of it. This isn’t a dark picture of a violent man victimising a young woman, folks, it’s love! See, there’s a ballad about it and everything!

It’s a family drama so her murder takes place off screen (just her death spasm legs are seen), but you’d like to think the film could have taken a few moments to put a bit of light and shade on just why this character feels the way she does and does the things she does. In fact, the film is quite dependent on Oliver Reed, the only actor in it who dares to touch some sort of psychological depth – it’s quite telling that, even though he was a famed drunk, he’s the only member of the cast to have had any success after the film was released.

Instead, this is a great big, colourful, empty pantomime of a musical, devoid of character and (outside of its choreography) inspiration. It’s a great big explosion of tasteful sets, mugging actors, pretty colours, prancing and the odd catchy tune. It’s got no idea what the original novel was about at all, and no interest in even touching some of the themes of poverty and criminality Dickens was aiming at. Reed directs the entire thing with the indifference of a gun-for-hire.

Its syrupy sweetness and hammering tweeness leaves you punch-drunk rather than sugar-rushed. Oliver is such an insipid fella you’ll be delighted when he shuts up and sits in the background for most of the second half. It clumsily unveils a mystery and then drifts towards a conclusion that lacks any real drama. It studiously avoids anything that could remotely stretch the viewer. It’s trying so hard to charm you and hug you, it comes across like a lecherous stranger offering you sweets. Oliver! wasn’t even the best musical of 1968, let alone the best film. But in a year when the world was going to hell in a handcart, perhaps a kid-friendly fable bending over backwards to charm and reassure you was what the world needed. Doesn’t mean I need to stomach it now.

Gaslight (1944)

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman excel in Cukor’s cinematic staging of Gaslight

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Charles Boyer (Gregory Anton), Ingrid Bergman (Paula Alquist Anton), Joseph Cotton (Brian Cameron), May Whitty (Miss Bessie Thwaites), Angela Lansbury (Nancy Oliver), Barbara Everest (Elizabeth Tompkins), Emil Rameau (Maestro Guardi), Edmund Breon (General Huddleston), Halliwell Hobbes (Mr Mufflin), Heather Thatcher (Lady Mildred Dalroy), Lawrence Grossmith (Lord Freddie Dalroy)

Spoilers: Spoilers here in for Gaslight both film and play

Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) has terrible memories of finding her aunt, a world-famous opera singer, murdered in their home on Thornton Square when Paula was just fourteen. Years later she falls in love with, and marries, the charming Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) who suggests she returns to London and her old home. To save his wife’s nerves, Gregory has all her aunt’s property moved into the attic. But then Alice starts to lose items, Gregory tells her she moves things and has no memory of it and at night she sees the gaslight dim and hears strange creaks in the attic. Is she slowly going mad as her husband insists? Or is she – and this is where the word comes from – being gaslit into thinking so by a husband who isn’t as nice as he seems?

Adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, George Cukor’s bring a sumptuous version of the iconic story of a decent wife manipulated by a bad husband to the screen (MGM allegedly tried to destroy all copies of a British version from 1940 so this could be the ‘only’ adaptation). While the original play is a claustrophobic one-set affair, using minimal characters and taking part in a narrow window of time, the film expands and deepens the stories timeframe and uses a host of locations to build-up Paula’s isolation and mounting insecurity. It’s a subtle and extremely well-handled costume-noir thriller, that holds it cards close to the chest and is powered by excellent performances.

It also makes several genuine improvements to the original play. There, the villainous husband is trying to drive the wife mad so he is no longer constrained by her presence while he searches the house he has purchased for missing jewels. It’s not clear why the villain has saddled himself with a wife (when his life would be much easier if he was a single man). The film improves this immeasurably by making marriage to the wife an essential prerequisite to the villain gaining entry to the house. This one change unknots many problems with the original play and also raises the stakes considerably, by increasing the personal connection to events from the wife.

Giving a traumatic backstory to the re-named Paula (all the names are changed from the play), also gives Ingrid Bergman far richer material in her Oscar-winning role. Bergman’s Paula is already nervous and vulnerable from the start, and her desperate need for love and security draws her inevitably towards a man who, even before we work out he’s a wrong ‘un, offers her a sort of fatherly reassurance. Bergman’s heartfelt performance also contains a streak of independence and determination: she struggles painfully with knowing she isn’t insane, even while being told she might be. The film also gives her a greater sense of agency, and Paula’s final act payback works as well as it does, because Bergman has made her gentleness so under-stated earlier, that her sudden iron and fury are even more striking.

Opposite her is an equally fine performance from Charles Boyer. Boyer inverts his charm and suaveness into a ruthless opportunist, devoid of morals, who takes a sociopathic delight in his own cleverness, even as he semi-regretfully mentally tortures and manipulates his wife. He’s never less than charming – making it all the more unsurprising that Paula places as much faith in him as he does – but the little marks of danger and control are there throughout. Cukor uses a wonderful shot early on of Paula disembarking from a train, at which point a hand enters frame and grasps her arm – it’s revealed as Anton, but a brilliant indicator of his threat and controlling nature. Truth is, Gregory is insane, and Boyer subtly suggests this throughout: there is another lovely shot from Cukor late on where studio lights are reflected in Boyer’s eyes giving him an insanely intense gaze.

It all revolves around finding those diamonds. If there is one area that film is slightly weaker is that it doesn’t actually dedicate much time to that dimming gaslight or those creaking floorboards at night. It feels like a beat that should be hit more regularly (a montage would have helped no end), a more constant presence would have helped make it a more convincing continual dread for Paula.

But its counter-balanced by the expansion of the film to multiple locations where Gregory manipulates Paula to disgrace herself in public. From a lost broach in the Tower of London to an evening soiree where she is made to appear as if she has stolen a watch, it all helps to tip Paula more and more into believing she is losing her mind. Again, Cukor keeps the focus within all this finery very much on our two leads, reproducing for us as much as possible the growing claustrophobic fear that is consuming Paula that was as at the heart of the stage production.

The moments away from this are slightly less strong. Joseph Cotton has a thankless role (with an awkward mid-Atlantic accent) as a police inspector, who smells a rat or two. The ‘investigation’ moments around this are often heavy handed, and labour under the sort of exposition that the scenes between Gregory and Paula skilfully avoid. Basically, Inspector Cameron barely has a personality, meaning he never really develops beyond being just a plot device.

Conversely, a character who takes on a great deal more presence is Angela Lansbury’s star-making turn as a sultry, defiantly sexual maid, parachuted into the house for goodness-only-knows what reason (!) by Gregory, who takes every opportunity to undermine her mistress. It’s a brilliantly pointed little performance from Lansbury, full of sass and smirk (it got her an Oscar nomination in her first movie) that adds even more to the feeling of Paula being a stranger in her home.

Gaslight is all smartly directed with Cukor, brilliant as always with actors, adding more visual flair than he often does with his fog-filled London and noir-tinged Edwardian home. With strong performances and many changes that materially improve the original material, it’s a fine adaptation.