Tag: Bill Condon

Mr Holmes (2015)

Ian McKellen is an ageing Sherlock trying to understand his past in Mr Holmes

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs Munro), Milo Parker (Roger Munro), Hiroyuki Sanada (Taiki Umezaki), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Patrick Kennedy (Thomas Kelmot), Roger Allam (Dr Barrie), Phil Davis (Inspector Gilbert), Frances de la Tour (Madame Schirmer)

It’s 1946 and over 35 years since Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) last investigated a case. Living in retirement with his bees in Devon, with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker), 93-year-old Holmes’ final “case” is to try and combat the deterioration of his own mental faculties. This focuses on his attempts to remember the details of his final case, investigating the wife (Hattie Morahan) of a client, a case where he knows something went terribly wrong, but cannot recall the exact details.

Condon’s film is a quiet, gentle piece which primarily becomes a character study of the Great Detective, trying to locate the man inside the thinking machine. This is a Holmes unlike any other, haunted by past mistakes and scared of losing the intellectual abilities that have been his principal purpose. Condon’s film also makes clear that much of what we know about Holmes was a cheeky “embellishment” by Watson in his stories – from the pipe and deerstalker to the address of 221B. This is a Holmes who failed all his life to form personal connections, and found this problem magnified by becoming a real-life fictional character, a person who knows no-one but is known by everyone.

This fascinating re-evaluation of Holmes is helped by Ian McKellen’s superb performance (in his second collaboration with Condon after Gods and Monsters). McKellen’s ability to convey the intellectual sharpness of Holmes is matched by his vulnerability and fragility as he feels those same powers begin to fail. This is a Holmes who can still sharply deduce where someone has been from a quick analysis, but needs to write Roger’s name on his cuff to help him remember whom he is talking to. McKellen’s performance slowly reveals the longing for emotional connection and his own regrets at the isolation that has dominated his own life.

The expressiveness of Ian McKellen’s eyes comes into play here, both their capacity for joy – and this is a Holmes who takes an intense pleasure in his own acuity – and the way McKellen is able to allow these eyes to glaze over with forgetfulness and flashes of senility. He also forms a wonderful bond with Milo Parker (very good, genuine and real) as Roger, the two of them forming an odd couple relationship that also gives Holmes a beginning of an understanding of what he has missed from a life without family and friends. 

Alongside this fascinating character study, the actual storyline is fairly tame – but then that’s hardly the point. The modern day plotline takes in physical and mental decline, isolation, fracturing family bonds and post-war Japan (where Holmes travels in search of “Prickly ash” a plant he hopes will help to counteract his mental decline). But it’s really a quiet framework to change this Holmes into a man who sees the world only in terms of logic and puzzles, and must learn to see the humanity and emotions that underlie people’s actions. It’s a Holmes who must learn to appreciate feelings, to express them and to tell “white lies” to save people from pain.

It’s no surprise that the past sequences – where a spry McKellen also plays Holmes in his late 50s – also revolve around this. The investigation cheekily features spiritualism (the pseudo-science that obsessed Conan Doyle in his later days) but the real point is Holmes failing to understand the pain and loss that underlie the desire to believe in the possibility of life after death – that loss is a traumatic event that cannot be hand-waved away with a presentation of facts, but a has a real lasting impact on people. Hattie Morahan captures this wonderfully, in a quietly emotional performance as a grieving mother.

The final resolution of this I found slightly less satisfying – perhaps because I thought of actual “canon” stories that showed Holmes expressing far more emotional intelligence than this film gives him the credit for understanding here (e.g. The Yellow Face). I’m also not sure if this failure would really have left any Holmes punishing himself with 35 years of isolation with bees. But it fits with the film’s concept of a Holmes who finds himself pained by loneliness.

This loneliness is hammered home throughout. Mycroft, Hudson and Watson are long dead. Watson himself is implied to be a man who never understood Holmes, that the “fictionalised” Holmes became more real to him than the flesh-and-blood man. That on Watson’s part the friendship became about the stories, with Holmes always triumphant, rather than reflecting who he was. Holmes finds this disconnection between his inner self and the world’s perception hammered home at every turn – at one point the film shows him watching a Rathbone-esque film (where he is played by Nicholas Rowe, the actor from Young Sherlock Holmes), where the case that haunts him plays out with a traditional ease. Completing this disconnection, Watson remains unseen in the film: a stranger whom Holmes was tied to forever.

All this makes for a thought-provoking film, with a delightful performance from McKellen making a truly unique and original screen Holmes. There are a host of fabulous supporting performances – Laura Linney does fine work as his insecure, lonely housekeeper who feels she is losing her son to the detective – and the film is a gloriously entertaining Sunday afternoon treat, which will make you think again about a man whom the whole world knows, but who may not know himself.

The Good Liar (2019)

McKellen and Mirren excel in this enjoyable confidence trick caper The Good Liar

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Roy Courtnay), Helen Mirren (Betty McLeish), Russell Tovey (Steven), Jim Carter (Vincent), Lucian Msamati (Beni), Mark Lewis Jones (Bryn), Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Vlad)

The truth can be a difficult thing to grasp. Particularly when so many people are skilled at twisting and turning it for their own purposes. Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) is one of the best in the business, a selfish and greedy con man who preys on the vulnerable and the arrogant unlike, ruthless in is business dealings and with anyone who tries to muscle in on his business. His latest mark is Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a lonely widow who has inherited a huge fortune from her late husband. Meeting Betty through a “lonely hearts” online dating agency, Roy skilfully inveigles his way into her life and her home. But is all as it seems to Roy?

The Good Liar is an entertaining and enjoyable con trick of a film, that sets up its stall very much like a number of other films in this genre. We are presented with a picture of the conman at work, and shown many of the tricks and hoodwinks that the film will practice on us, being worked out in practice by the conman early in the film. It’s possible to see how the joins work – and do find your expectations being carefully prepped – but the film is entertaining enough that you are happy for it to let you try and lead you down the deceptive garden path even as it points out a few trips along the way.

A large part of the success is down to the brilliance of the two leading performances. Ian McKellen is at possibly his very best as the genial, amusing, waspish Roy who we only slowly begin to realise is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, with a line in casual cruelty and violence. It takes a great actor like McKellen, to play so successfully a consummate actor (and liar) as Roy, and never seem either too forced or overplaying the hand. His Roy has several excellent lines, and also a brilliant ability to look and sound genuine and heartfelt at one moment and shift gears to ruthless coldness the next. It’s a superb performance, wonderfully entertaining in its delight in its own villainy. You almost want to forgive Roy his essential vileness, such is his surface charm and McKellen’s waspish delight in playing such an unrepentantly horrible man. McKellen has done his best film work working with Condon and this film might be his best yet.

Mirren matches him well as the mark, a considerate, intelligent and decent woman. Mirren has a difficult job here, for reasons that would perhaps be spoilers, although I think it is safe to say that most viewers going into a film like this would expect that it would have a few cards up its sleeves. Needless to say Mirren is perhaps not all she seems, but she handles the difficult balancing act of seeming one thing and suggesting enough of another, that the final reveals never come as a surprise or seem inconsistent with her characterisation throughout the film. 

Instead the film takes us on a delightful dance where we know that something is going on that we don’t know about or can’t see – and playfully the film effectively shows us the mechanisms of the con very early on as Roy and his business partner Vincent (an excellent Jim Carter) carry out another confidence game on some other victims. But Condon’s playful film lets us know enough that something is happening that Roy can’t even begin to guess at, while also allowing us to enjoy his confidence, arrogance and fast-thinking willingness to dance from lie to lie depending on the mood. 

The one problem the film might have is that the final reveal of what is going on is based on information that is not delivered early in the film, but instead dropped on us at the end in an info-dump. While it makes sense that the film wishes to play its cards close to its chest, it perhaps would have been more satisfying to have little bit more of the information sprinkled throughout the film, enough for us to have a bit of a chance of piecing together they why before we are told. On reflection the film gives us moments that point towards the big picture, even if never enough information is given.

But the film still works because it has a devilish charm and waspish wit, and a delightful performance of gleeful devilry from McKellen, in one of his best roles yet. Making a superb pairing with Mirren, Condon’s enjoyable film hinges on the success of its actors and its enjoyment of the tricky narrative sleight-of-hand that con films can do so well.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl struggle through this turgid retelling of hacking derring-do in The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Moritz Bleibtrue (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr Tarek Haliseh)

In 2010 the world was thrown into turmoil when a website called Wikileaks published a host of top-secret government documents that revealed a never-ending stream of Western wrong-doing during the war on terror. The leak was co-published by WikiLeaks and the Guardian and New York Times. However Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) had other ideals – namely that the files should not be redacted in any way to protect serving US officials or informants in hostile countries. 

It should be a gripping story of the state failing to keep up with the speed of modern communications. But instead this is one hell of a turgid, dull info-dump of a film that turns this potentially explosive event into something about as gripping as watching a series of people type into a computer. On top of that, the film totally fails to develop any proper personality dynamics to engage your interest, and instead falls back into the usual crude filmic language of a star-struck protégé realising his mentor has feet of clay.

Bill Condon’s direction is totally incapable of making the entry of data into a computer dynamic or visual, and is completely unable to bring the world of computer hacking and data search to life. In fact, there is so much information given to the viewers (rather than drama) that the impression I was left with is that Condon doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the movie anyway. He certainly doesn’t manage to make it interesting or feel that important. 

Visually, the film is flat and falls back on superimposing text on the screen when people type or creating a sort of “mind palace” office to represent the inner workings of the Wikileaks server (which is basically just a big office space). In fact, the film gets less interesting as it progresses – which is a real shame after a nifty credits sequence that chronicles in images the development of the press from cave paintings, through the Rosetta stone, printing, television and the internet. 

Not to mention the lack of drama about this. Things are just happening – we never get any sense of the danger or the world-changing impact, or any reason why we should care. Poor Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are wheeled out as a trio of American government big wigs who talk at each other at great length about what is going on and how it will endanger government assets – but it’s all show and not tell. The plight of a Tunisian informant – played with his usual skill by Alexander Siddig – is reduced to a few scenes, a human element that gets trimmed so much it carries little impact. 

The film also deals with the personality clashes Assange inspires, here interpreted as a borderline sociopathic monster, an egotist and liar interested only in his own legend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a superbly detailed and richly observed impersonation of Assange, but the character has no depth. He’s merely a sort of phantom monster, who the film slowly reveals has no conscience. Compare it to the presentation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a film that is everything this clunking disaster is not). That film is also told from the prospective of a disillusioned former colleague, but there our view of the central character is shaded and given depth – and we are encouraged to recognise we are seeing one person’s perspective. Here the film swallows whole the side of the story presented by Daniel Berg.

Berg played with a disengaged flatness by Daniel Brühl, snoozing through a part shorn of any dynamism, whose views oscillate constantly until he finally settles for being a campaigner to keep sources safe. Alicia Vikander gets shockingly short shrift as a girlfriend – she even has the obligatory “stop working on the management of earth-shattering leaks and come to bed” scene. Berg allies himself with the traditional media, similarly portrayed with a clunking obviousness: David Thewlis is a standard shouty journalist, Peter Capaldi a chin-stroking concerned editor. 

The Fifth Elementis flat and unable to dramatise the world of computer coding. The dialogue is turgid and obvious (there is a terribly obvious metaphor of Assange constantly lying about the reason for his white hair – he can’t be trusted you see!) and the performances are either dull, clichéd or saddled with this terrible writing. At the end, as Cumberbatch plays Assange denouncing the entire film in a reconstruction of a talking head interview, you get a sense of the more interesting, fourth-wall-leaning film this might have been. But sadly the rest of the film reminds you what a flat, tedious, stumbling, confused, inexplicable misfire this really is.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson faithfully recreate almost shot-by-shot a much better cartoon

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (The Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Josh Gad (LeFou), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame de Garderobe), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette), Hattie Morahan (Agathe)

hhBeauty and the Beast was released at the perfect time. The generation who grew up watching the original could now take their children – or revisit the fond memories with their parents. It was a chance for everyone to wallow in sentimental nostalgia. Disney knew its market would be people who wanted something as close as possible to what they remembered: they certainly delivered.

Surely you know the story by now? But in case you’ve been living under a rock for your entire life: Belle (Emma Watson) is the beautiful but bookish village girl who dreams of a something more than this provincial life. When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned by a horrific Beast, Belle volunteers to take his place and stays in the castle. The Beast and all his servants are enchanted and only true love can break the spell – will Belle and the Beast fall in love?

I would ask why Disney feels the need to make what are effectively shot-by-shot remakes of their animated classics, but the fact this raked in almost a billion dollars at the box office kinda answers that question. But make no mistake, creatively this is karaoke: a few small flourishes have been thrown in, but effectively it’s a faithful recreation of a film that was already pretty much perfect to begin with. In fact, watching it, the only real emotion I felt was a desire to watch the “real” thing again. Damningly, twice my wife and I stopped to look up the equivalent scenes from the original on YouTube: in every case they were better.

That’s the big problem. Of all these remakes, only The Jungle Book was a genuine reimagining of the original. This one follows Cinderella and hews as close as possible to the film you’ve already seen. The plot is identical. The song and dance sequences are the same. The characterisations are the same. Hell, half the line readings are the same. It’s a film that is so dependent on people’s affection for the original that it’s terrified of offering anything too different from it. In which case – why not just watch the original? Would you rather look at a poster or the actual Mona Lisa?

Condon has thrown in some new pieces here and there to get an extra 30 minutes of action. One decent invention does involve the spell also causing the villagers to forget the castle exists, which is neat. The others add less. Belle has been turned into as much of an inventor as her father and, in one particularly bizarre sequence, invents the washing machine. There is a rather confused sequence involving a magic book which allows the Beast to go anywhere in the world (the witch clearly left a plethora of magic devices behind to entertain the Beast) – raising the question of why he needs that enchanted mirror, since he can apparently physically travel through both space and time with his Tardis-book. LeFou is subtly reimagined as gay – but this is very quietly done so as not to damage the film’s box-office potential in some markets.

There is a rather clumsily done storyline around Belle’s mother dying of plague when she was a baby, which also adds nothing. The film may possibly be trying to construct some kind of clunky commonality between the Beast and Belle with their parental traumas, but a dead mother with a rose fetish shares little with the stereotypical Cold Abusive Aristocrat father the Beast has – and anyway, they’re already giving them plenty of common ground through the good stuff they’ve lifted straight from the original film. Nothing else new really stands out.

In fact, the film is so studiously faithful, you get annoyed when it deviates from the original – particularly as it invariably does scenes less well. The final battle between Gaston and the Beast suffers horribly, with the emotional narrative of the fight thoroughly muddled, in contrast with the original’s clear and efficient storytelling. In the original, the Beast despairs and refuses to save himself from Gaston’s attack until he sees Belle. Here, he’s sort of defending himself and sort of not, and Belle is given some action nonsense, and Gaston’s death is turned from a clean narrative (one treacherous thrust hits home, then in sadistically going for the second he falls to his death) into a strange sequence where he stands and brutally shoots at the Beast repeatedly until the stonework beneath him randomly collapses and send him plummeting to his doom.

None of this, however, compares to the butchering of the moment when Belle discovers the library. In the original this is an endearingly sweet moment, with the Beast overcome with excitement at giving Belle a gift she really wants. The audience shares in his delight, and is charmed by his touching anxiety that she will like it, just as they share in her wonder at the discovery. It’s a major moment in the growth of their relationship. Here it’s thrown away – the Beast shows her the library in a fit of irritation at her pedestrian Shakespeare tastes. The film gives all the time and emotional weight to the tedious “magic book” sequence, where they travel to the “Paris of my childhood” and discover that, yup, Belle’s mum died of plague. Well that was both depressing and uninteresting…

Anyway – take a look at those two library scenes…

The acting is pretty good. Emma Watson does a decent job, particularly considering the pressure on her. She performs the songs prettily, although they don’t soar the way they did when performed by someone with the vocal power of Paige O’Hara. Her Belle is thoughtful but has a level of defiance and independence that’s been stepped up from the original. Dan Steven’s Beast is much more of a prince under a ghastly shell – unlike the original he’s literate, can dance and is well spoken (which makes his moments of animalism and his soup eating failure stick out all the more). The rest of the cast are fine – Ewan McGregor is as flamboyant as you’d expect, Emma Thompson sings the song very well, Kevin Kline makes a lot of Maurice. However for each of them, there are moments when you remember fondly that the animators invested the originals with more emotion.

The one member of the cast who does stand out is Luke Evans. How is the guy not a star yet? Sure the swaggering braggart Gaston might be the best part in the whole film, but Evans nails it with all the energy and egotism you would expect. His scenes are the best in the film by far, and he’s the only one who manages to do something a little different with his role.

Of course it looks fabulous, but it feels somehow a little bit empty. All the things that move you are done (mostly better) in the original – in fact, a major part of why they move you is the memory of the original. The acting is pretty good and it’s well filmed and made – the design is terrific. But honestly, with the original out there what’s the point? Why would you watch this rather than the other one? It’s not as moving, it’s not as exciting, it’s not as funny, it’s not as charming. All it does is to try and recreate the original as closely as possible. You can stage Hamlet thousands of times and each production would be different, but Disney can’t stage Beauty and the Beast twice without replicating it.

If you want it to exactly match your memories, without being quite as good, it’s the film for you. If you want a Disney live-action film that feels like something original, watch The Jungle Book.