Tag: Emily Mortimer

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Emily Blunt is practically perfect in every way in Mary Poppins Returns

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Jack), Ben Whishaw (Michael Banks), Emily Mortimer (Jane Banks), Pixie Davies (Annabel Banks), Nathanael Saleh (John Banks), Joel Dawson (Georgie Banks), Julie Walters (Ellen), Colin Firth (William Weatherall Wilkins), Meryl Streep (Topsy), Dick van Dyke (Mr Dawes Jnr), David Warner (Admiral Boom), Jim Norton (Mr Binnacle), Jeremy Swift (Hamilton Gooding), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Templeton Frye), Noma Dumezweni (Miss Penny Farthing)

Some sequels go into production even before the first film hits the cinemas. Others give you a good long wait – and Mary Poppins has had you waiting 54 years. Of course, part of that was down to her creator, PL Travers. Travers so hated the Disney original (I mean, she really hated it) she outright banned all other adaptations of her work – but her estate were far more open to the prospect (and let’s be honest, probably also to the money) that Disney could finally go ahead with a sequel.

And thank goodness for that, since this delightful film is practically perfect in every way. It’s 25 years since the events of the first film, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is now a widower with three children, whose home is about to be repossessed by the bank for non-payment of loans. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is trying to help, but the pressure and sadness are showing on Michael and are forcing his children Annabel, John and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) to grow up fast. The Banks family is in trouble – so it’s the perfect time for the arrival of Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to save the day – with a little bit of help from gas-lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Mary Poppins Returns is a triumphant mix of nostalgia and originality, that walks a very difficult tightrope between being a loving pastiche and tribute to the original film while also managing to bring its own original charm and magic touch. That’s a difficult trick to pull off – but it basically takes a slight remix of the original film’s story and adds a heft of emotional impact to create something that feels modern and fresh while also being very close tonally to the original.

This is never clearer than in Emily Blunt’s sublime performance as Mary Poppins. If there is anyone who had a more difficult job in this film than Blunt I can’t think of them. She had to take on the most iconic character of an iconic actress – and does so brilliantly, but creates a character who feels an equal mix of both Andrews and Blunt. This is clearly the same character as before, but Blunt mixes in a wonderful heart-warming care and concern under the pristine English exterior that melts the heart. She has a glowing twinkle to her, an almost bottomless charm with an endearing delight for the wonder and silliness that is part of Poppins world. And boy can she sing and dance? She carries the film with effortless grace – to such endearing effect that, just like with Julie Andrews, you miss her as she becomes less prominent in the final act.

And of course she is matched by a superb company of actors. Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the transition to the big-screen like a duck to water, hugely loveable, wonderfully charming and superb (as you would expect) at the musical sequences. The three children give exemplary performances, with never a hint of sickly sentimentalism. Emily Mortimer is radiantly giddy as Jane, while Ben Whishaw will bring a lump to the throat as a Michael who is struggling under a huge amount of grief.  That’s not the mention wonderful turns from the whole of the cast, especially from Holdbrook-Smith as a kindly lawyer.

All these actors are “marshalled” brilliantly by director Rob Marshall. With his experience of musicals – both on screen and stage – Marshall knows his stuff and brings all his experience to bear here to create a sequel that will be seen (I’m sure) as a worthy companion to the original. Marshall’s direction of the musical sequences is faultless. He knows exactly how and where to place the camera for maximum effect, and gets just the right tone and mood from these scenes. He’s also, let’s not forget, a brilliant choreographer and has put together some exquisite sequences, not least the lamplighter song Trip the Light Fantastic, a whirligig showstopper of a number that if you saw it in the West End would have the whole crowd on their feet.

The songs make for easy criticism (reviewers seem duty-bound to say they are not as good as the original) – but to these ears Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s songs and scores are both catchy and engaging. Give them time and I’m sure you’ll find them as replete with impact as the Sherman brothers’ tunes from 1964. Saying that, there might be one musical number too many – but that’s a very minor criticism. 

Because this is a film that gets so much else right. The storyline is certain to leave a lump in the throat, with its delicate handling of grief and the sadness both of growing up and also children being forced to leave their childhoods behind in impossible circumstances. These are universal themes – and they certainly impacted on me, and on a cinema packed with families all of whom were engrossed. That’s part of the magic of what Marshall has achieved here – heck, even the final Big Ben set-piece starts pushing you towards the edge of your seat in tension. I also loved the bravery of the colour-blind casting. It’s a film that stands on its own feet so well, it almost takes you out of the film when Dick van Dyke appears at the end – it doesn’t need the cameo, this film is its own beast.

Mary Poppins Returns will leave a smile on your face and a glow in your heart. It’s totally lovely from start to finish. Emily Blunt is superb (with wonderful support from all) and Rob Marshall triumphs as director and choreographer in this, surely his finest movie ever. It’s got something for all ages, and a truly heart-warming story. It takes everything that works so well in the first film and builds on it. It’s a wonderful mixture of homage and originality, that you will enjoy time and time and again. Practically perfect!

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a kids film in name only

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Papa Georges), Sacha Baron Cohen (Inspector Gustave Dasté), Ray Winstone (Claude Cabret), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Jude Law (Mr Cabret), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name you think of when your mind turns to directors of children’s films. So perhaps it makes sense that, in Hugo, he directed a children’s film aimed at virtually anyone except children. A huge box-office flop, Hugo was garlanded with awards and critics’ acclaim – but I’d be amazed if you find any child with a DVD of it. It’s a film made by a passionate lover of cinema, aimed at lovers of cinema, which just happens to have a child at the centre of it. 

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the Paris train station fixing the clocks, and attempting to fix a curious automaton which his late father (Jude Law) had taken from the Paris museum to repair. After being caught by Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley) stealing parts from his toy shop in the station, Hugo must earn back his confiscated notebook on the workings of the automaton. Hugo starts a friendship with Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and together they begin to investigate the mysterious past of Papa Georges – and his connection with the early days of cinema.

Any understanding of what makes a good film for children is missing here. It’s not exciting, it’s not engrossing, it’s not particularly fun, it doesn’t place the child (really) at the heart, and most importantly it doesn’t have a story children can relate to. The characters spend a lot of time talking about the glorious adventure they’re on – but none of the excitement translates to the screen. Instead the action creeps forward uncertainly, with the motivations of Hugo himself unclear. There are half hearted attempts to aim at a universal fear children can relate to – losing your parents and searching for new ones – but the film doesn’t run with it. 

Its real interest is the power of the movies. So Hugo’s story gets lost halfway through the film, as Scorsese focuses in on the redemption of famed cinema auteur and pioneer Georges Méliès. The children’s adventure is nothing more than visiting a library to find out who Méliès was – after that, they are effectively superfluous to the story. Details about Hugo’s relationship with his father, or with his distant uncle, are completely dropped – and the automaton that seemed like it held the key to Hugo’s purpose, becomes a MacGuffin. It’s a film about a giant of cinema, made by a giant of cinema.

So let’s put aside the marketing of this film as children’s film. The only element of the film that feels remotely like it is part of some sort of kids’ flick is Sacha Baron Cohen’s slapstick, funny-accented railway inspector – and as such Cohen’s hammy mugging sticks out like a tiresome sore thumb. The rest of the film is what you would expect from a cinema enthusiast making a film about the movies – a glorious, loving recreation of old silent movies and the methods of making them, shot and told with a sprinkling of movie magic. 

The film looks wonderful. The cinematography is gorgeous, the production design astounding. It’s beautifully made and has a light and enchanting score. Scorsese goes all out to homage the shots and set-ups of old silent movies. In fact the film only really comes to life in its second half, where flashbacks show the methods Méliès used to make his films. The recreation of scenes from these old classics is brilliantly done – and Scorsese’s designers delight in filling the screen with the sort of colour that you couldn’t find in the original. The photography also goes out of its way to give these scenes the sort of colour tinted look that the hand-painted prints of old movies had. Even the editing is designed as much as possible to replicate these old films.

Truly, these sequences are delightful – and Scorsese’s joy in making them is evident in the camerawork, and the emotional force he gives to Méliès’ story (helped as well by Ben Kingsley’s sensitive underplaying as the depressed genius). It’s just a shame that he couldn’t get as engaged with the first part of the film. Hugo’s story is largely dramatically inert – in fact the whole plotline around Hugo feels like a hook on which to hang the second half of the film. As if Scorsese couldn’t make the second part of the film without making the first. 

That’s why this film doesn’t work for children, but works better for film-loving adults. The ins and outs of Hugo’s early story just aren’t that interesting – and we aren’t given any real reason to relate to Hugo or to feel any empathy for his journey (whatever that might be). In fact the film stretches this plot line long past any actual content – already I’m struggling to remember exactly what happened in the first hour of the film. This is no comment on the performances of Butterfield or Moritz, who are both very good (even if Moritz is saddled with sub-Hermione Grainger character traits). While it always looks great, it never really finds the heart to get us engaged with Hugo.

So Hugo is a film for cinema-fanatics. Scorsese directs with great invention – but it’s all too clear where his heart is: and that’s why the film failed so spectacularly as a kids’ film. Compare this to Toy Story 3say, and it’s clear which one most children are going to want to watch. However, if you want to see Scorsese make a charming film about his passions, one that is overlong but looks gorgeous, that playfully recreates the silent cinema era, even while its narrative is basically pretty dramatically inert, you’ll love it. There are moments in this film to treasure – it’s just not really for kids. Just because Scorsese made a film without someone’s head in a vice or zipped into a bodybag, doesn’t suddenly mean he’s going to find a new audience.

Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

Shakespeare meets Musicals in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Alessandro Nivola (King Ferdinand of Navarre), Alicia Silverstone (Princess of France), Kenneth Branagh (Berowne), Natascha McElhone (Rosaline), Carmen Ejogo (Maria), Matthew Lillard (Longaville), Adrian Lester (Dumaine), Emily Mortimer (Katherine), Timothy Spall (Don Armado), Nathan Lane (Costard), Richard Briers (Nathaniel), Geraldine McEwan (Holofernia), Richard Clifford (Boyet), Jimmy Yuill (Constable Dull), Stefania Rocca (Jaquenetta)

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedies. There is a reason for that – it’s simply not that good (it’s certainly the weakest Shakespeare play Branagh has brought to the screen). I’ve sat through some turgid, and terminally unfunny, stage productions of the play in the past – but this movie version presented something different, as Branagh plays fast and loose with the script and turns it into an all-singing, all-dancing musical, with only the barest sprinkling of Shakespeare dialogue.

LLL isn’t really about anything. The King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola), invites his three best friends (Kenneth Branagh, Adrian Lester and Matthew Lillard) to join him in three years of academic study, during the course of which they will forsake all female company. Of course, no sooner than the deal is made but the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her three companions (Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer and Carmen Ejogo) arrive in Navarre. Will love blossom to prevent the plans of the King? You betcha.

It’s slight stuff. The play always feels a little bit unfinished – it ends with the lovers separated (or as the play puts it “Jack hath not Jill”) but with hints of hope. It’s oddly structured – more like the first part of a series of plays than a standalone (the lovers don’t get together until almost Act 4, and the men and women spend very little time together). There is a series of dull sub plots revolving around the academics of Navarre, with whole scenes made up of obscure Latin jokes. As the icing on the top, a clown and a foppish Spaniard form a bizarre love triangle with a busty country wench. None of these plots is really resolved at the end. It’s a play that focuses a lot more on floral dialogue and intricate poetry rather than narrative.

Branagh addresses a lot of these problems by simply trimming the play to the absolute bone. I would guess at least 65% of the dialogue has been cut – probably more. Although this means some roles are now so small they feel like sketches (in particular many of the more working-class characters and academics), it does mean that this has a bit more narrative thrust and energy than most productions. Moving the setting to 1939 also gives a good context to the play, and places the political issues into an understandable context. It also gives a tension to underlie the lightness of the rest of the play. Branagh manages to remove most of the cumbersome exposition dialogue by replacing it with a series of 1930s-style cine-news reels (spryly voiced by Branagh himself). He even resolves the “cliffhanger” ending of the play with a similar device (reflecting the tonal shift at the end of the original play), which helps to ground the otherwise lightweight play in a very real world, where war carries a cost.

Of course, the main invention was to replace the intricacy (and obscurity!) of some of the dialogue with song and dance routines. The songs are carefully chosen from the great musical composers of the 1930s and 40s, and are delicately interwoven with the dialogue. Now for the purist this could of course be a source of fury, but when the material is one of the weaker plays, getting this “greatest hits” version of the text alongside some excellent songs works really well.

The song and dance numbers also have a certain charm about them. Most of the cast are not especially talented singers and dancers – only Nathan Lane and Adrian Lester have song and dance experience (and it certainly shows when Branagh allows them to let rip). The actors went through an extensive “musicals boot camp”, which certainly taught them the steps, but the musical numbers still retain a charming amateurishness about them. Sure it helps a truly gifted dancer like Adrian Lester stand out, but it’s also quite sweet to see actors like Richard Briers tripping the light fantastic. (Check Lester out at around 3:10 in the video below).

The real issue with some of the actors chosen is less with their song-and-dance strength, but that their acting strength doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Branagh’s delivery and comic timing is spot on, and McElhone is a worthy adversary cum love interest for him; but Nivola and Silverstone are a little too out-of-their-depth to bring much more than blandness to their key roles. Amongst the supporting roles, Nathan Lane stands out in making Costard actually quite funny, but Lillard mistakes gurning for wit. Mortimer and Ejogo are engaging but have precious little screentime.

The film is shot with Branagh’s usual ambition on a set that has a deliberate air of artificiality about it, evoking the classic 1930s studio musical. All exteriors deliberately feel like interiors, and there are homages aplenty, from Singin’ in the Rain to Ethel Merman. Each musical number has its own unique feel and the majority are shot with Branagh’s usual love of long-take. Some of the numbers stick in the head longer than others – but that’s just the nature of musicals. Particularly good are I Won’t Dance, I Get a Kick Out of You, I’ve Got a Crush on You, Cheek to Cheek and a steamy tango to Let’s Face the Music and Dance.

LLL doesn’t want to do anything more than entertain – and sometimes it probably tries a little too hard to be light and frothy, as if Branagh was consciously kicking back after the mammoth undertaking of his uncut Hamlet. Perhaps that is why LLL appealed to him – Shakespeare comedies don’t get less treasured or more inconsequential than this, so he had total creative freedom to do what he liked, in a way that a Twelfth Night or a Much Ado About Nothing wouldn’t allow him. It’s the sort of film you need to plug into the mindset of – and some aren’t going to be able to do that. It’s not a perfect film, but the lightness Branagh handles things with pretty much carries it through.

Perhaps that lightness however is slightly the problem: in Branagh’s previous films he found a perfect mixture between influential reimaginings (Henry V), wonderful crowd-pleasers (Much Ado) and reverential labours of love (Hamlet). People probably expected something else from him than a high-budget, lightly amateur musical with precious little Shakespeare in it. I think this partly explains the hesitant response this has received from the public and critics since: it’s just such an unlikely ideal that people didn’t seem to know how to respond to it.

Of course, as anyone who has sat through an average production of the play can tell them, they weren’t missing much from what has been cut – and this is still an infectiously funny, frothy concoction. It may have a slightly mixed acting bag – some of the leads are underpowered, while some strong actors like Timothy Spall are underused – but the actors do seem to be enjoying themselves, and this enjoyment basically communicates to the audience. It’s not a concept that could have worked with a long running time, but it sure works for the short term. It’s an odd concept – and it was a huge box office bomb – but it’s one that works.

Match Point (2005)

Love and lust collide in Woody Allen’s bizarrely classless Britain

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Chris Wilton), Scarlett Johansson (Nola Rice), Emily Mortimer (Chloe Hewett Wilton), Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett), Brian Cox (Alec Hewett), Penelope Wilton (Eleanor Hewett), Ewen Bremner (Inspector Dowd), James Nesbitt (Detective Mike Banner), Rupert Penry-Jones (Henry), Margaret Tyzack (Mrs Eastby), Alexander Armstrong (Mr Townsend)

Match Point was originally intended to be filmed in New York, but Woody Allen could only raise the cash in Britain – so the location was shifted to London. The effect is a little bit like Julian Fellowes switching Downton Abbey to become a kitchen-sink drama in Liverpool: research has been done, the facts are all ticked off, but the understanding of the people and their situation just isn’t there. Maybe Allen should have hired Fellowes as a consultant. At least Fellowes could have told him an upper-class Covent Garden opera buff probably isn’t going to be in raptures about Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Woman in White.

Chris Winter (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a tennis pro, now making a living as a coach in an upmarket London club. He coaches Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), and they discover a shared love of opera. Soon Chris is a regular visitor to the Hewitt family, a suitor and later husband to Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and an employee at his father’s big city firm. He has everything he wants – except for Nola Rice (Scarlett Johnasson), Tom’s American actress fiancée…

The film was critically acclaimed in America but received a much more muted response here in Blighty. I can see why. Allen’s main problem is that he is tone deaf to the class hierarchy in this country. As such, he creates a Britain here that is close to something we would recognise, but subtly off. Chris is clearly from a lower social class than the family he marries into, he’s employed as a coach in a tennis club and he’s clearly less well travelled than the others. The family he marries into has a massive country house with servants, goes shooting at the weekend, runs a huge London business – it’s a modern day Downton Abbey.

If the same story was created by a British writer and director, Chris would clearly be presented as an ambitious, even ruthless, social climber looking to move up the ladder by doing everything he can to marry into a rich family and inveigling himself into their lives. Allen, however, doesn’t present the relationship like this – in fact, watching the film, I think it’s clear that he doesn’t really realise that Chris and his in-laws are in a totally different social class. He treats them all as if they are basically social equals, with money the only difference between them. For the British this just doesn’t fit in at all with our experience of the class system in this country – we know the Hewetts and Chris would always be aware of the social background difference between them, and that someone would comment upon it during the course of the film. No-one ever does. Class remains unmentioned. For a British person this just isn’t right.

So the “tragedy” if you like (or character flaw) of Chris should be that he is drawn sexually towards Nola Rice, despite it flying against his ambitions for moving upwards in his class. Instead, Allen’s script treats it solely as an affair of passion: the fact that the two “outsiders” in the social class (the working-class Irish boy and the American actress) are drawn to each other isn’t commented upon at all. The Hewetts are more suspicious of Rice because she’s an American and an actress, but the fact she (like Chris) doesn’t have a penny isn’t an issue. There is a lot of fertile ground here that any British director or writer would just know – but Allen fundamentally just doesn’t get it: he thinks the Hewetts are middle class not the loaded 1%+.

Of course, some of the problems are connected to Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the lead part. Watching him in this film, I can’t help but feel this is a solid 7/10 performance by an actor who normally bats a 5-6: he’s doing some of his best work on film, but his inadequacies as an actor can’t be overcome. It’s the eyes and voice for me: there just never seems much going on behind the eyes, and his unmodulated voice doesn’t bring any shading to his line deliveries. Chris should have the air of a slightly ruthless, ambitious but charming social climber – think Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets – but this is out of his range. Instead Chris is just a sort of blank that you can impose their own ideas on: it sort of works for the film, but it misses dozens of possibilities. He does well with the second half of the film and his guilt about the murder is well played, but it’s simply less subtle acting than is called for in the first half. He’s an average actor giving a performance above himself here.

Scarlett Johansson fares much better as a character who changes and develops dramatically over the course of the film, from mysterious, confident, sexy girlfriend to needy, frustrated, betrayed mistress. It’s a dramatic development throughout the film that is so skilfully done, it never feels jarring. Much of the cast is also strong: Matthew Goode is a real stand-out as Chris’ subtly spoilt brother-in-law, as is Emily Mortimer as a happy wife who never wants to think about the lie her life is. Rupert Penry-Jones and Margaret Tyzack have great cameos among the all star British cast.

The film takes place in a picture-postcard London (all the great sights are ticked off), and Allen directs with his traditional unfussy camera work. There is a certain pleasure to seeing big name British comic actors in tiny roles throughout (Paul Kaye, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Alexander Armstrong among others pop up in small roles).

Allen doesn’t understand Britain like he does Manhattan, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a decent film. The story’s theme of luck or chance vs fate doesn’t quite coalesce for me, but the feeling of events closing in on Chris late in the film does work very well, and I certainly felt the tension of whether Chris would get away with his eventual crime (even if I never really quite cared for Chris himself). Allen rates this as his favourite of his own films – which I guess goes to show you are never the best judge of your own work.