Tag: Donal McCann

Out of Africa (1985)

Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in this sweepingly empty romance Out of Africa

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton), Meryl Streep (Karen von Blixen), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Bror von Blixen), Michael Kitchen (Berkeley Cole), Michael Gough (Lord Delamere), Suzanne Hamilton (Felicity Spurway), Rachel Kempson (Lady Belfield), Shane Rimmer (Belknap), Malick Bowens (Farah Aden), Joseph Thiaka (Kamante), Donal McCann (Doctor), Leslie Phillips (Sir Joseph Byrne)

In the 1980s Hollywood faced an identity crisis. Throughout the 1970s, the films the Oscars honoured and those that topped the box office were often one and the same. The industry saw itself as the purveyor of classy, intelligent, popular entertainment. But in the 1980s, people flocked to see the latest Rocky or Rambo film, instead of the likes of Kramer vs Kramer. Hollywood wanted to carry on feeling good about itself: so it honoured as “Best Picture” the sort of sumptuous, prestige products it wanted to shout from the rooftops about, even if people weren’t flocking to see them at the cinema in the same way. So something as mundane, average, tasteful and empty as Out of Africa hoovered up eight Oscars.

Based on Karen Blixen’s memoir of her 17 years (from 1913) owning and running a coffee farm among the British community in Kenya, the film reorganises a deliberately non-linear memoir (full of impressions and reflections, thematically arranged) into a simpler narrative, and throws in content from at least two biographies of Blixen (played by Meryl Streep). As such, the film charts her life, specifically her relationship with philandering and unreliable husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and love affair with British game-hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).

Pollack directs this epic with a clean, smooth, professional and lifeless tastefulness that makes it a long film full of pretty things, but a fundamentally empty experience. At the film’s conclusion, Karen is invited into the Men Only club for a drink where she is toasted. It feels like it should be the culmination of plot threads running throughout the film. But instead, its under-explored and unfocused, struggling for any attention. Rather than a culmination of a nearly three-hour experience, the moment feels unearned.

That’s about par for the course for a film ticking all the boxes of “prestige” movie making, but which tells us nothing at all. It’s clear Pollack has only a limited understanding of the intricate rules of the British upper-class community. We learn nothing about Africa, or the role of Empire there or the impact this had on the Kenyan people. Instead, the Kenyan people are seen as exotics or charming superstitious eccentrics.

The film is only interested in how beautiful colonial Britain was – the lovely clothes, the sumptuous set-design, the detailed props – and the gorgeous scenery. There is some focus given to the Kenyans – particularly Karen’s relationship with her servant Farah, very well played by a stern but wise Malick Bowens – but it is always defined as Karen visiting them, encouraging their education and pleading for their rights. There is more than a touch of the white saviour, and the film fails to really give us a sense of Karen gaining an understanding of the Kenyan people on their own terms, rather than hers.

That might be because the film is determined to turn the story into a straight-forward romance, giving most of its focus to Karen’s relationship with Denys. This is the root cause of most of the film’s problems, as Pollack casts two fundamentally unconnected actors. Streep gives a performance of such technical detail, you find yourself admiring the work while never really connecting with the character. Her Danish accent is perfectly studied, she has clearly read everything on Blixen she can find, and every single beat is perfectly observed. You can’t miss she is acting in every frame: there is nothing relaxed or truly intimate in the performance. It’s the work of a master craftsman.

This detailed excellence literally feels like it is happening in a different movie to the one Redford is in. Redford looks like he just stepped off the plane and started shooting. Pollack was convinced no English actor could play Denys in the sweeping romance he had in mind (Charles Dance anyone? Michael Kitchen – very good as Denys’ best friend – is far closer to what the part actually required, and would have been excellent). Redford was parachuted in and encouraged to play the role with his natural accent (is he still meant to be British? No idea).

The two performances never click together, and Redford’s Californian approach feels totally wrong for the Houseman-quoting, Mozart-playing, Great White Hunter he is meant to be. Not for one second can you forget this is the Sundance Kid – making it nearly impossible to buy into this relationship the film is trying to sell you, as well as making Streep’s Danish accent sound out of place (I mean why is she going to so much trouble when Redford can’t be arsed?).

All the romantic hair washing in the world can’t make these two stop being a chemistry free, jarring couple. Take away the sort of epic romance the film needs – the sort of thing The English Patient would do so right 11 years later – and all you really have left are two handsome actors in a very picturesque setting. Out of Africa looks lovely – but in a National Geographic way. The African Plains look wonderful, you’d have to do a poor job to make them look bad. Really the film is visually dull.

Pollack’s limitations as a director are revealed – he can’t give this the sweep and sense of the epic it needs and he can’t find depth in this canvas. Instead, everything is painted in the broadest brush strokes and any sense of romance it gets is from John Barry’s exquisite, luscious score. The film crams in as many shots of Africa as possible – but is bored witless by the story-telling and poetry that are supposed to be at the heart of Denys and Karen’s relationship. It rips the heart out of these two characters and their romance.

Out of Africa won all those Oscars – but feels like a box-tick exercise. Like the voters just thought everything in it musthave been Oscar-worthy. 1985 was a poor year for movies – perhaps only Ran, Brazil and Back to the Future have really grown in stature – but Out of Africa feels like the emptiest, least interesting, least effective prestige picture that ever scooped the Oscar. Nothing sticks in the memory – other than the repeated “I had a farm in Africa” line in Streep’s tongue rolling accent. Kitchen, Suzanne Hamilton and Brandaurer (charming and likeable as Blixen’s husband, despite playing a complete shit) are good, but nearly nothing else really works beneath its surface impact. Middle-brow, tasteful and pointless.

The Dead (1987)

Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston in a marriage with a past in The Dead

Director: John Huston

Cast: Anjelica Huston (Gretta Conroy), Donal McCann (Gabriel Conroy), Cathleen Delany (Julia Morkan), Helena Carroll (Kate Morkan), Rachael Dowling (Lily), Ingrid Craigie (Mary Jane), Dan O’Herlihy (Dan Browne), Marie Kean (Mrs. Malins), Donal Donnelly (“Freddy” Malins), Sean McClory (Mr. Grace), Frank Patterson (Bartell D’Arcy), Colm Meaney (Raymond Bergin)

John Huston’s final film was a long-standing passion project, anfaithful adaptation of James Joyce’ short story from The Dubliners. Huston had only a few months to live when shooting the film – he was hooked up to an oxygen supply for the course of its film-making and confined to a wheelchair. His children Anjelica and Tony (who wrote the screenplay) helped to nurse him through this final project. The final film makes for a beautiful wistful, heartfelt and tragically toned story that’s small in scale but carries great emotional force.  It’s a beautiful adaptation.

The film is set at a Christmas house party for family and friends, a regular thrown by two spinster sisters, Julia (Catheen Delany) and Kate (Helena Carroll) Morkan. The soiree – with recitals, dancing and wonderful meal – is an annual treat, with a regular guest list of family and old friends. The Morkan’s nephew Gabriel (Donal McCann) frequently serves as unofficial master of ceremonies – this year nervously checking and rechecking his after-dinner speech. However, at this year’s dinner Gabriel’s wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) is caught-off-guard by a moving song, that brings back to her a flood of memories from her younger days of a late first love – a revelation of a past life that in their bedroom after the party, stuns Gabriel and causes him to reassess everything he thought he knew about his wife’s past and how his own life has been bereft of the sort of passion she has displayed over a memory.

The summary above essentially captures the entire story of this James Joyce tale that is short on events but deeply long on emotional meaning. Critics have sometimes said it can only be a shadow of the original – but it’s an adaptation not a replacement. Huston’s film is a gentle, unhurried, carefully presented chronicle of everyday lives and the emotional depth that’s can lie buried beneath them. The Dead is short on flash, but it has such warmth, love and respect for its characters, and vibrancy in its playing that it hardly matters that for almost an hour nothing (as such) actually happens. Instead, Huston and his actors so completely understand and communicate the warm bonds between its characters – from decades of knowing each other – and the entire party has such an air of truth to it you can genuinely just enjoy watching the characters enjoy it.

It’s full of perfectly observed moments that ring true – and all straight from Joyce. The younger men who attend the party, and duck out of a gorgeous piano recital for a quick drink, to return and lead vigorous applause at its end. The awkwardness of small talk between two people that don’t really know each other, but are too polite to turn away. The affectionate indulgence of the drunken son of an old friend (“sure, he’s not as bad as he was last year”) who is quietly not passed the port and leads a praise for Julia’s slightly-off-note singing that is so lavish it manages to be as touchingly well-meant as it is grin-inducingly embarrassing. Huston had a long-held regard for the warmth and generosity of Irish hospitality and feeling and this seeps into every pore of the film.

But the film is stuffed full of moments of simple, real-world pleasure crafted by a director who understood that the impact of the stories late emotional revelations depended on the everyday low-key presentation of the film’s first hour. And there is no end of delight be had from the Morkan sister’s tearful pleasure and pride at Gabriel’s sincere speech of gratitude at the dinner’s end (even if it is overladen with classical parables). Or in the quietly supportive way Gabriel goes about organising events for them in the house, from shepherding the tipsy Freddy to a bathroom to sober up to ending events by gently wakening Protestant Dan Browne at the party’s end from his drunken doze in the cloakroom. Around all these events is the conversation of people who have known each other for years and are comfortable to sink back into the patter of familiar themes.

All of which is then perfectly counter-pointed by Gretta’s quiet revelation of a past of passion and deeply held first love that she has never spoken of before – and causes Gabriel to certainly look anew at everything in his life. It’s a sad and delicate Proustian revelation of how the slightest nudges to our memory (in this case the soulful rendition of an old Irish song) can unlock sudden wells of feeling, making events from years ago suddenly seem as painfully recent as yesterday. 

For suddenly Gabriel moves from initial jealousy into a deep and abiding sadness at how nothing in his own life could ever have motivated such depth of feeling from himself – that frankly he has nothing in his experience to match the grief and unforced emotion his wife has displayed. It’s a very Joycian revelation in which the present and the future is readdressed in light of the past. Suddenly Gabriel must reflect that his life has been one of competent and forgetful mediocrity and that he himself will die – and that fate awaits us all, with the snow falling on us all living or dead, and that Gabriel will forever lack the emotional depth and poetry to express it.

The film’s elegiac qualities match perfectly with the end of Huston’s career – and maybe the sad regret of Gabriel is Huston judging whether he made an impact either. The film however is beautiful, recreating Ireland perfectly in California with a superb cast of Irish theatre stalwarts specially imported. Donal McCann is wonderful as Gabriel, Anjelica Huston quietly moving as his wife while the rest of the cast are faultless: from Cathleen Delany and Helena Carroll’s carefully judged spinsterish generosity to Donal Donnelly’s garrulously friendly drunkenness (perhaps motivated by the impossibility of living up to his mother’s – an imperious Marie Kean – high standards). The Dead may not capture all the depth and beauty of Joyce’s writing (what can?) but it captures more than enough to be a beautifully judged film.