Tag: Hayley Atwell

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw and Matthew Goode make for a bad revisitation to Brideshead

Director: Julian Jarrold

Cast: Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder), Ben Whishaw (Lord Sebastian Flyte), Hayley Atwell (Lady Julia Flyte), Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain), Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain), Greta Scacchi (Cara), Patrick Malahide (Mr Ryder), Felicity Jones (Lady Cordelia Flyte), Ed Stoppard (Lord Brideshead), Jonathan Cake (Rex Mottram), Joseph Beattie (Anthony Blanche)

There are some books that have been filmed definitively and you feel just shouldn’t be touched again. Perhaps the most definitive case is Brideshead Revisited. An 11-part, almost 13-hours-long, series from the height of the mini-series era, ITV’s 1981 Brideshead Revisited dramatised literally every page and every event of the just over 300 page novel, and did it with a perfect understanding of the book’s richness and complexity. So what hope could a film have – even if it is written by that man who had such a triumph with that other definitive production, the BBC Pride and Prejudice – Andrew Davies himself?

In the 1920s in Oxford, aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) falls in with the bohemian set of fellow student Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Sebastian takes Charles to his family home of Brideshead, a beautiful, entrancing family estate. But Sebastian is an unhappy man, increasingly prone to drinking, conflicted about his family’s strong Catholic faith and his own sexuality. He’s also tortured by the growing love between Charles and his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Their domineering mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) attempts to guide the family as she wishes, but Sebastian’s alcoholism leads to a crisis. Years later Charles and Julia restart their relationship, only to find Catholicism and fate once again intruding to complicate matters.

Brideshead Revisited is a rich, sweeping, heartfelt and profound look at so many themes it seems impossible to cover them all in a single sentence. It touches upon questions of faith, class, politics, friendship, sexuality, love – all of them sensitively and intelligently explored by Evelyn Waugh. The TV series captured all these themes with an acute, empathetic emotional intelligence. This film, forced to telescope action into two hours, simplifies and sexualises the novel to make it as boiled down and simple as possible. While this probably makes for a decent, but nothing new, film for those who don’t know the novel, for those of us who do it’s nothing less than a total travesty.

Everything is made as straight-forward and basic as possible. Subtle suggestions from the novel are turned into blunt, simplified assertions that clang out of the actors’ mouths and hit the ground. This is especially clear in the character of Charles Ryder, a fascinating observer in the novel, both a snob and a romantic, capable of great warmth and kindness and also a distant indifference. Here, he’s little more than a social climber (his lower middle class roots are stressed), constantly being asked “What do you really want?” by other characters. His attachment to Sebastian, and introduction to the Brideshead house, seems based less on a magnetic friendship and more on his unspoken desire to be part of an “in-crowd”.

Ah yes, that relationship with Sebastian. Ben Whishaw’s performance as Sebastian is, quite simply, one of the worst realisations of an iconic character you are ever going to see. The novel’s Sebastian, is an impossible glamourous, handsome, slightly effete, but magnetically charismatic figure who effortlessly wins admirers and friends everywhere – so much so, that his intensely vulnerability, sadness and self-loathing that lead to his alcoholism are spotted way too late, and then hideously mismanaged. The character Whishaw plays here is so different, he’s effectively Flyte in name only.

It all stems from the film’s longing to put the book’s suggestion of a homosexual bond between Charles and Sebastian to the forefront. So we are made perfectly aware of Flyte’s feelings, and Whishaw turns the character instead into a stereotypical, limp-wristed, effete, tragic gay man struggling with a hopelessly unrequited love for Charles that pushes him over the edge to depression. Oh yes, it has to be unrequited love because we can’t have Charles show any homosexual inclinations. Particularly as the film is desperate to reposition Charles and Julia into a “love-at-first-sight” romantic couple from the start. So of course we have Charles twice rejecting sexual advances from Sebastian (once with the cold shoulder, the second time with an angry push). 

But in sexing up the content on the surface, the film totally kills the bond between the two characters. There is, frankly, no reason for Charles and Sebastian to be friends. Sebastian is from the start a slightly pathetic figure, so you never get a sense at all why Charles is drawn towards him. This then magnifies the feeling that Charles main motivation is the house (and Julia) and that he sees Sebastian as someone he must tolerate (and whom he later feels guilty about) rather than as a friend. Sebastian himself loses all his complexity, instead becoming a slightly pathetic, tragic, overlooked figure reduced to screaming at Charles “You only wanted to be my friend because you wanted my sister!” By pumping up the subtext, the film kills the central relationship of the book – and completely undermines the tragedy of Sebastian.

But then Andrew Davies was keen – as he stated himself in interviews – to reposition the novel as a conventional great romantic novel. Now it’s true that Charles calls Sebastian in the novel the “fore runner” for his feelings for Julia (and this relationship between Julia and Charles is, I will say, one thing the TV series didn’t quite nail), but in no way was she his main focus from the start. It makes Charles’ treatment (and, let’s be honest, leading on) of Sebastian crueller, and it also crudely simplifies the novel into a “love against the odds” story that we’ve seen a thousand times before. It drains the novel of one of the factors that made it original in the start.

So we end up with a Charles who basically, rather oddly, suffers the company of Sebastian but treats him as someone he wants to shrug off. We’ve got a romantic plot line between Julia and Charles that has been reduced to the most basic, cookie-cutter, Mills and Boon romance you can imagine. And the film still struggles through to attempt to deal with the book’s (perhaps) other major theme, religion. Catholicism, guilt and the power (and domination) of faith is key to the book – but here, it’s a crude subplot that positions religion as a sort of trouble-causing piece of mummery that gets in the way of happiness. Pretty much as far as you can get from Waugh’s understanding of the complex demands of faith, denial, guilt and love.

You could say it’s unfair to continually compare the film to the book and TV series. But not only is this meant to be an adaptation, but the film chose to shoot at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, just as the TV series did. So we see scenes play out, often in the exact same location as the masterful TV series. If the film doesn’t want to try and be original and find a new location, and visually apes the TV series as much as possible, it feels fair enough to compare it – and it find it wanting.

It’s a well-made film, I’ll give it that, and I like Adrian Johnstone’s score, but it’s turned an intelligent and absorbing novel into a sub-Merchant Ivory period prestige piece, with the focus on the lovely locations and the beautiful costumes rather than anything else. Performances wise, Matthew Goode is fine (but can’t escape the shadow of Jeremy Irons), but Hayley Atwell probably comes out best as a vibrant Julia (who gets, in a way, much more to do than the book gives her). For the rest, Emma Thompson gives a far too mannered performance as the domineering Lady Marchmain (here unquestionably a villain) and Michael Gambon coasts as the dying Lord Marchmain (who here turns up literally out of the blue at the end of the film to die).

Brideshead Revisited is an irrelevant piece of celluloid that brings nothing new whatsoever to the novel or the TV series. Worse it takes the key themes of the novel and subverts, ruins or mangles them in order to try and turn the story into a straightforward heterosexual romance. In doing so, it removes everything that makes the original interesting, unique or compelling – and makes people wonder why they should bother going back to the book – surely the worst offence of all.

Ant-Man (2015)

Paul Rudd springs into action as Ant-Man

Director: Peyton Reed

Cast: Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stall (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Michael Peña (Luis), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Judy Greer (Maggie), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), John Slattery (Howard Stark)

Back into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, as yet another comic book hero comes to the big screen. Is there going to be anyone who has appeared in a Marvel comic at any point who isn’t going to find their way into a live action film at some point? It’s looking unlikely!

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was formerly Ant-Man, a super-hero who can shrink himself to the size of an ant, with superhuman strength. In the present, he has been forced out of his own company by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). When newly released thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), desperate to provide for his daughter, steals Pym’s Ant-Man suit, Pym identifies him as the man who he can train up to take his place as Ant-Man and help to protect the shrinking technology from being misused by Cross.

Ant-Man was a project developed for many years by Edgar Wright, dynamic director of the Cornetto Trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But our old friend Creative Differences reared its head, and studio and director went their separate ways. Which is a real shame as you can’t shake the feeling a director with genuine invention and imagination might have been able to craft something truly original out of this, rather than the essentially solid piece of craftwork it is.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Ant-Man. It’s just a rather average, forgettable film with moments of interest. It’s a jolly, inoffensive little caper, which goes through the motions of the origins story of a hero without offering anything that different from what we’ve seen dozens of times before now. It’s all very professionally done, and even witty in places, but it’s nothing special.

This is particularly a shame since there are genuine moments of originality. A battle between Lang and Cross, both shrunken, takes place in a child’s train set, with the film cutting between the different scales of events for some effective comic impact (so we see the train crash with seismic impact on small scale, then see the same event at normal scale where it seems laughably minor). Similarly, Michael Peña’s character tells a series of anecdotal stories in voiceover in a laid back, hipster patter, with his words and phrasing exactly lip-synched by the people in the story. It’s a neat little piece of cinematic invention.

The heist structure of the film is good fun, and the pseudo-science of shrinking is entertainingly (and consistently) explained. Even our hero’s ability to control ants doesn’t seem too silly (which is really saying something).

It’s just all pretty much what you would expect. Corey Stoll’s villain in particular seems a slightly contrived after-thought, an antagonist whose existence serves as a contrast to Lang and Pym rather than a character who seems to be organically developed. Their final confrontation is amusingly done – but it’s a familiar Marvel trope now: a hero and villain with the same powers facing off. We’ve seen it done many times since the first Iron Man film.

Saying that, Paul Rudd is a decent and engaging lead (even though he seems to be effectively playing himself) and he makes Lang into a character it’s easy to root for (even if we’ve seen the sort of “Dad wants to prove himself” narrative many, many times before). Michael Douglas could do his mentor role standing on his head, but brings the role a nice lightness of touch. Evangeline Lilly brings a nice mix of resentful and caring to a tricky role as Pym’s overlooked daughter.

The problem you always have is that everything in the film feels a little bit too straight-forward and easy. It’s not a bad thing that this is a film that simply sets out to entertain, but somehow, enjoyable as it is, you want something a little bit more rather than the rather safe concoction that we have here. It’s fun while it lasts but then it disappears from your mind almost completely once it’s finished. Is that a good thing? Well it makes good escapism. But plenty of these films have managed to be more than just something to enjoyably pass the time. Which is all Ant-Man really is.

The Duchess (2013)

Keira Knightley in lusciously filmed, but shallow The Duchess

Director: Saul Dibb

Cast: Keira Knightley (Lady Georgiana Devonshire), Ralph Fiennes (Duke of Devonshire), Hayley Atwell (Lady Bess Foster), Charlotte Rampling (Countess Georgina Spencer), Dominic Cooper (Earl Grey), Aidan McArdle (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Simon McBurney (Charles James Fox)

My main memory of The Duchess is seeing the trailer while watching Mamma Mia in the cinema. The first shot was Keira Knightley’s face, met with an overwhelming groan from the female-dominated audience. There is something about Knightley that seems to get people’s goat.  If you’re one of those who struggle to warm to Knightley as a performer, this probably isn’t going to be the film that changes your mind.

In the late 18th century, Lady Georgiana (Keira Knightley) marries the absurdly wealthy, but older and duller, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She wants a meeting of minds. He just wants an heir. The marriage flounders – and gets worse when the Duke in turn starts an affair with Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), Georgiana’s closest friend. As her home-life becomes a menage-a-trois, with the Duke treating both women as wives (with their agreement) she begins to experience deeper feelings for the dashing Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), an ambitious politician.

So, first things first, Keira Knightley. She does a decent job. She’s pretty good. But, rather like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it feels like her best is a 7/10 performance. She’s dedicated, she’s really striving here – but always feels like someone trying rather than truly natural and unforced. She brings Georgina’s glamour and does a decent work of her bewildered hurt, but she (and the film) don’t communicate her intelligence and political activism, so she never really develops as a character. You can’t really put your finger on her doing anything wrong as such, it’s just a performance where you always see the acting, and never feel the naturalism.

It’s particularly noticeable here as her two supports – Fiennes and Atwell – are such accomplished performers. In many ways, the film would have been improved with Atwell in the lead. As it is, as the third corner of the triangle, she has just the right mix of guilt, warmth and mercenary self-interest. In a terrific low-key performance, Fiennes manages to turn a character the film always wants to push into being a bullying villain into a man who feels alive, real and often understandable if not (whisper it) even rather sympathetic.

The film is desperate to turn Georgiana into a suffering victim, and to push Devonshire into the role of a domestic despot. But in fact, most of Devonshire’s actions are quite forward thinking: he adopts and cares for his bastard daughter (conceived pre-marriage), he saves Bess’ children and cares for them as his own, he condones a quiet affair from his wife, he treats her with the utmost public respect and allows her to spend time with her son by another man (although this is relegated to a caption at the end). The only problem is he clearly doesn’t love her, while he clearly does love Bess. Hardly able to believe he wasn’t as besotted with Georgiana as the film is, the film works overtime to try and turn someone a little dull, with some surprisingly generous views, into a monster.

In order to make it categorical who is “right” and who is “wrong”, the film chucks in a gratuitous marital rape scene that feels so out of character and over-the-top, it actually makes you step out of the film. Did it really happen? There’s no evidence of it, and it flies in the face of virtually every other action the Duke does in the film. It’s probably also in there to further contrast Georgiana’s joyless couplings with the Duke against her passionate rumpy-pumpy with Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey (here re-imagined as a penniless adventurer and radical, rather than the son of an Earl) Like Knightley, Cooper has the glamour and dash for the high-class Mills and Boon plot the film is peddling, but fails to convey Grey’s intellect and political ideals.

The film has deliberate echoes of Princess Diana throughout – the crowded marriage, the glamourous outsider marrying into a great family, the sense that her dashing public image made him look like a dullard. And like much of the public reaction to Charles and Diana in real life, the film can’t compute why Devonshire didn’t love this public idol, overlooking the fact that they shared no interests and had nothing in common. Many of Georgiana’s negative aspects are downplayed to help this – the gambling addiction that left her bankrupt is no more than high spirits here.

Basically this is a film interested in style over substance, aiming to turn a fascinating story about a menage-a-trois into something very straightforward and traditional about a husband who treats his wife badly. Now the style is great – Rachel Portman’s score is brilliant, the photography luscious, the make-up and costumes gorgeous – but the substance often isn’t there. The idea of Georgiana’s celebrity is only briefly touched upon, and her intellect barely at all.

Not content with airbrushing out her less appealing characteristics, even her positive ones are done few favours by this candyfloss depiction of her life – one of the first women to take a prominent role in the British political scene, a published writer of novels and poems, and a famously charismatic social figure, here she is little more than a mannequin on which to hang elaborate period hairstyles and costumes, who talks about being a free-spirited intellectual without doing anything that corresponds with these interests.

It shoves in dramatic events which feel out of step with both the characters and the events to push the film towards being as straightforward as possible. Knightley does a decent job – and Fiennes is extremely good as the Duke – but it settles for being something safe and traditional rather than a really interesting look at the cultural moods of the time, or the complexities of the real people it claims to portray. It shares it’s subjects beauty, but reduces her to blandness.