Tag: James Fox

The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Hopkins and Thompson are marvellous in this masterful adaptation from Merchant-Ivory

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Mr Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Congressman Jack Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr Stevens Snr), Hugh Grant (Reginald Cardinal), Michael Lonsdale (Dupont D’Ivry), Tim Pigott-Smith (Mr Benn), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Patrick Godfrey (Spencer), Lena Headey (Lizzie), Pip Torrens (Dr Carlisle), Paul Copley (Harry Smith) Rupert Vansittart (Sir Geoffrey Wren), Peter Eyre (Lord Halifax), Wolf Kahler (Ribbentrop)

Kazou Ishiguro’s Booker-prize winning novel The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourites. So, it’s not a surprise I’m a huge fan of this masterful adaptation from the House of Merchant Ivory. I’m certain this is the apex of the team’s work. Mike Nichols had originally planned a film but, wisely, recognised when it came to making movies about repressed 1930s Brits, one team had a monopoly on how to do it best. Beautifully adapted by their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Remains of the Day is a wonderfully involving and deeply moving film.

Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is a butler in a British country house purchased in 1956 by American Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Keen to solve staffing problems (and for no other reason at all), Stevens journeys to the West Country to recruit the 1930s housekeeper, Mrs Benn nee Kenton (Emma Thompson). During the journey, he remembers his service for the previous owner, Lord Darlington (James Fox). An impeccable gentleman, Darlington dedicates himself to reconciliation between Nazi Germany and England, eventually tipping into an unwise dalliance with fascism and appeasement.

Stevens had no views on that though. In fact, he prides himself on his anonymity. The goal of his life is to maintain a dignified unobtrusiveness, ensuring the smooth operation of everything, leaving as little a mark as possible. Nothing can intrude on that: not his own feelings, the illness and death of his under-butler father (Peter Vaughan) and, above all, the unspoken romantic feelings between himself and Miss Kenton. The Remains of the Day is about duty and obsession and how a fixation on both can leave someone with little to show from a long life.

Stevens is living the lessons he learned from his father, an ageing powerhouse masterfully played by Peter Vaughan, who undergoes a physical collapse (from dripping nose to dropping trays) and bouts of forgetfulness, eventually dying on a night Stevens is too busy seeing to the sore feet of an illustrious French guest to spare a moment to visit him. It tells you everything about his character that this stiff-upper lipped commitment to duty is a source of pride to our hero.

There are few as curiously blank ‘heroes’ in literature than Stevens. The narrator of Ishiguro’s book is a dull, fussy, unbelievably cold man who has dedicated himself so fully to duty that he has let any emotional life wither and die on the vine – something he only realises far too late. It’s an immensely challenging role, bought to life masterfully by Hopkins. Hopkins astonishing skill here is to play all that repressed coldness on the surface, but also constantly let us see the emotion, longing and regret he is subconsciously crushing down play in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Is Stevens even aware how much self-harm he is causing? It’s an astonishingly subtle performance.

So subtle in fact that the books conclusion – Steven’s tear-filled confession to a stranger late at night of all the mistakes he has made – was filmed but cut for being superfluous. Hopkins had done the lot, all the way through the movie, through acting skill. You can’t miss the struggle within him, not least the desperate, powerless longing he feels for Miss Kenton that, for oh-so-English reasons he can never admit to himself. Hopkins has the vocal and physical precision, but every gesture tremors with unspoken, barely understood longings. In fact, it’s a shock when he exclaims an angry “Blast” after dropping a bottle of wine (the real cause of his outburst being, of course, Miss Kenton’s announcement that she is getting married)

He and Miss Kenton conduct a professional relationship that blossoms into something like a friendship – but he consistently rejects her polite efforts to take it further. In the film’s most powerful scene, Miss Kenton enters his parlour and playfully tries to see the title of the novel he’s reading (a sappy romance). The playfulness tips into agonisingly awkward tenseness as Hopkins’ Stevens seems paralysed, his hand lingering inches from her hair but unable to bring himself to break decorum and fold her in an embrace – all while Miss Kenton continues her increasingly desperate semi-flirtatious banter. It of course ends with Stevens dismissing her: just as later he will take a snap of frustration as a signal to irrevocably cancel their late-night cups of cocoa together.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as a woman only marginally more in touch with her feelings and longings than Stevens is: aware that she, eventually, wants more from life, but unable to find the way of communicating the love she clearly feels for Stevens in a manner he can respond to. Instead, the two of them oscillate between a friendly, affectionate alliance and a discordant arguments (their only outlet for their passion), rooted in their inability to admit their feelings for each other. To further stress the point, both of them mentor young staffers (played by a very young Ben Chaplin and Lena Headey) who have the youthful “what the hell” to jack in all this for love.

Ivory’s wonderfully subtle film makes clear this is a turning point in history, the final hurrah for the this sort of deferential hierarchy. Stevens is the last of a generation of butlers, convinced that what their employers got up to had nothing to do with them – views not shared by Tim Piggot-Smith’s more grounded Benn, who chucks in his job working for a bullying blackshirt (who else but Rupert Vansittart?). Throughout the 1950s storyline, Stevens is constantly asked if he knew the infamous Lord Darlington (a sort of Lord Londonderry figure, hopelessly taken in by Hitler) – in fact, like Paul, he twice denies ever having known him.

And you can understand why, as the film has sympathy for Lord Darlington. As his decent, liberal god-son Reginald Cardinal (an excellent Hugh Grant) says, Darlington is a great asset for Germany precisely because he’s honest, well-meaning and motivated by a desire for peace. The fact that his leads him to consort with a host of Nazis, Blackshirts and the most appalling anti-democratic vestiges of the upper-classes (at one point, Stevens selflessly gives a performance of geopolitical ignorance so as to help demonstrate why men like him shouldn’t have the vote) is an unfortunate side-effect.

Played perfectly by James Fox, Darlington is misguided but genuine. As war approaches, he leads an increasingly hermit like life – camp-bed and paper-strewn, messy library – hosting conferences denounced by Jack Lewis (a fine Christopher Reeve) as a host of amateurs talking about a world they no longer understand. Beneath it all, Darlington is guided by fair play. So much so, it’s almost distressing to see him (under the influence of an attractive German countess) reading anti-Semitic pamphlets and sacking two refugee Jewish maids – an act he later regrets (far too late). This moment also reinforces Stevens’ compromised pig-headedness (not his place to judge!) and Miss Kenton’s fear to act (she’s horrified, but to scared of unemployment to hand in her notice).

All of this culminates in a series of scenes where emotions pour out of the actors, even while their words are banal and everyday memories and reflections. Ivory was never more confident and skilled behind the camera, and the film is a technical marvel, beautifully shot with a wonderful score from Richard Robbins. Hopkins is phenomenally good, simultaneously pitiable and smackable, Thompson is wonderful alongside him, Fox and Grant perfect – it’s a very well-acted piece. And a wonderfully perfect capturing of a classic modern British novel. No doubt: the best Merchant Ivory film.

A Passage to India (1984)

Judy Davis and Victor Bannerjee in Lean’s final film on tensions in the Raj, A Passage to India

Director: David Lean

Cast: Victor Bannerjee (Dr Azizi), Judy Davis (Adela Quested), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Moore), James Fox (Richard Fielding), Alec Guinness (Professor Narayan Godbole), Nigel Havers (Ronny Heaslop), Richard Wilson (Collector Turton), Antonia Pemberton (Mrs Turton), Michael Culver (Major McBryde), Clive Swift (Major Callendar), Art Malik (Ali), Saeed Jaffrey (Hamidullah), Ann Firbank (Mrs Callendar), Roshan Seth (Amit Rao)

David Lean’s final film came after a 14 year hiatus after the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Ryan’s Daughter. (During a disastrous two-hour lunchtime with several prominent US film critics, Lean was asked outright how the director of Brief Encounter could have made “such a piece of bullshit” – the experience shattered his confidence for years). When he returned, it was with this handsome literary adaptation of EM Forster’s classic novel on the tensions in the British Raj. A Passage to India is a wonderful fusion between Lean’s later films that fill the largest canvas, and the carefully judged Dickensian adaptations of his early years.

In 1920s Chandrapore, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) has arrived from England with her prospective mother-in-law Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to marry the local magistrate Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). The two women are fascinated by India and its culture – and quickly bored with the parts of it the ex-pat community will show them (basically a sort of little-England alcove). When they befriend local Muslim doctor Aziz (Victor Bannerjee) and liberal pro-Indian school superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), Aziz invites them on a trip to the local Marabar Caves. During the trip, Miss Quested flees and accuses Aziz of attempted rape. Aziz pleas his innocence – Fielding and Mrs Moore believe him, Miss Quested seems confused – but the case becomes a cause celebre that will explode the tensions between the rulers and the colonised.

Lean’s production of the book (as well as directing, he also wrote the screenplay and edited the film) is a delicate and handsome adaptation, carefully capturing the events of the book and making a manful effort to bring to life its textures and complexities. Forster had worked in India for several years as the secretary to a Maharajah and for many years was in love with an Indian called Masood. He had a unique perspective of Indian/English relations (much of it filtered into the character of Fielding) which he believed was underpinned not only by misunderstanding but also unpassable barriers that Empire throws up between East and West.

A Passage to India doesn’t always quite manage to capture this – perhaps largely because the book’s third act (which focuses in particular on the strains on the friendship between Aziz and Fielding) is truncated down to about 12 minutes of the film’s 2 and half hour run time. This does mean the film’s final impact feels rushed and unclear – and that the final parting of these characters doesn’t carry the impact it should. I can see why this has been done – that section of the book is less interesting, and also shows Aziz, at times, in a less sympathetic light – but it does mean the film misses something of the book’s engagement with moral and intellectual issues in favour of delivering the cold, hard plot of the Caves and the trial.

But these sections are well-judged, carefully structured and expertly executed. Lean’s film is very good on observing the kneejerk racism (some paternal, some outright unpleasant) from the British community. The incongruity of British clubs, garden parties and middle-class homes and lawns in a foreign land. How Indians are only welcome into these settings as silent servants or repurposed into British icons, such as brass bands. The total detachment of the rulers from the ruled: the tour of India arranged by Ronny features the British barracks, court-room and culminates in some ghastly amateur theatricals. Indians exist only to be told what to do and to applaud their rulers.

This is counterpointed with the rich, vibrant, dynamic culture of the Indians. If the film sometimes tips into displaying this as a sort of Oriental mysticism, that can be partly because our experience of it is often filtered through Adela and Mrs Moore who are bewitched and intrigued by a country of colours, emotions and passions unheard of in Britain.

Lean’s film never overlooks the Indians though. Our introduction to Aziz is to see him nearly mowed down on his bike by a speeding government car. His home is kept in good condition, but cannot compare to the wealth of the British. He and his friends talk passionately of the possibility for independence. There is a natural expectation of rudeness and dismissal from the British, that is taken in their stride.

Well played – if the role is a little passive – by Victor Bannerjee, Aziz is the victim we witness events through. Proud to befriend the British women, friendly and over-eager, Aziz is a highly unlikely would-be rapist. Put-upon and dismissed by his British superiors, he’s a lonely widower whose children are living hundreds of miles away, who suggests the trip in a moment of social awkwardness and goes to absurd ends to make the trip a success.

Sadly, its doomed. Leans film does a good job of maintaining much of the book’s mystery of what happens in the caves. Lean also finds a visual way of representing much that lies implied in the book. In an invented scene before  the trip, Adela cycles into the Indian countryside eventually finding a ruined temple filled with sexually explicit statues and hordes of monkeys in heat. Its clear the exposure to sexuality both shocks and unnerves her – but also fascinates her. Later she dreams of the statues she has seen. The same overwhelming feels seem to consume her in the caves – a heightened sense bought on by claustrophobia and a fear of a moment of personal intimacy between her and Aziz, perhaps spinning off into a temporary nervous collapse.

The film doesn’t state it for sure, but the implication is carefully put there. It leads perfectly into the well-staged trial scenes. Lean’s film focuses largely on delivering the plot of the novel, rather than the depths, but in delivering this crucial encounter he finds a marvellous way to use the language of film (music, editing and photography all interplay effectively in the sequences to add to their unsettling eeriness) to dramatise a literary sequence.

It’s not a perfect film. At times languid, it could no doubt have done with a bit more tightening and pace (it takes nearly half the film to reach the caves). While the film benefits from the build of the atmosphere and the tensions between both cultures, if Lean can do Great Expectations in less than two hours you feel he could have done this book more tightly. The unfortunate decision to cast a brown-face Alec Guinness as Brahmin scholar Professor Godbole looks more uncomfortable with each passing year – not least as all other Indian roles are played by Indian actors.

The film does however have a very strong cast. Judy Davis is both fragile, uncertain and at times even deeply frustrating (in the intended way!) as Miss Quested. Peggy Ashcroft won an Oscar (part of a late boom in her screen career – she also won a BAFTA the same year for The Jewel in the Crown) as the very grounded and worldly-wise Mrs Moore. James Fox gives his finest performance as the sympathetic Fielding caught between two worlds and eventually rejected by both.

A Passage to India has a lot of Lean’s visual mastery, but it’s less a sweeping pictorial epic and more of a careful and well-judged literary adaptation. While it does focus more on the plot and less on the meaning of the novel, and it overlong and at times lacking in energy, it also has some fine performances and brings many parts of the novel triumphantly to life. His final film does not disgrace his CV.

The Servant (1963)

Through a glass darkly: Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in a dark drama as master and The Servant 

Director: Joseph Losey

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Hugo Barrett), Sarah Miles (Vera), James Fox (Tony) Wendy Craig (Susan Stewart), Catherine Lacey (Lady Agatha Mounset), Richard Vernon (Lord Willie Mounset)

Imagine a world where Bertie Wooster was a weak-willed, sexually confused drunk and Jeeves a malign force, to whom control over and destruction of his master go hand-in-hand. That’s the basic set-up of Joseph Losey’s masterpiece The Servant, a fascinating and brilliant exploration of class and sex in Britain in the 1960s, a lean, razor sharp, gripping and sinister film that lingers in your memory like a nightmare you can’t shake off.

Tony (James Fox) is a louche, rich young man returning home to Blighty, looking to expand his inherited fortune through dodgy property investments in Brazil. Before then, he needs a home to call his own – and a gentlemen’s gentlemen to run it. Tony hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), a scrupulously polite, observant man, able to meet every single one of his employer’s needs. But why is Tony’s fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig) so instinctively hostile to Barrett? And what is Barrett’s exact relationship with the housemaid Vera (Sarah Miles) he introduces into the house – and who quickly becomes the focus of Tony’s interest? Over time, the balance of power between servant and master becomes more and more uncertain.

Losey was an ex-pat American, driven out of the country by the McCarthy hearings. This adaptation of a Robin Maugham novel is the sort of brilliant deconstruction of (and assault on) the British class system and manners that perhaps only an outsider) could have made. The film drips with an air of corruption and vice. Even the earliest, most unobtrusive frames carry an air of over-observant malice. No coincidence this is also the leading quality of Barrett, perhaps one of the most darkly malign forces on film, whose piercing intelligence sees everything and whose self-control never slips. Losey’s camera constantly lingers over the slightest shot and detail, to an increasingly unsettling degree. As the plot becomes increasingly dark, claustrophobic and horrifying, the film’s exploration of the class-fuelled psycho-sexual, alcohol-fuelled relationship between Barrett and Tony becomes ever more pointed.

Losey partnered with the perfect script writer in Harold Pinter (who also briefly appears as a posh restaurant goer). Pinter’s lean, spare and menacing dialogue, with its corrupted poetry and acute psychological insight, is easily his finest film script – and perhaps the only one that truly could sit alongside his finest stage work. Pinter’s brutal vision of this twisted world is coated in a dark menacing commentary on Wodehouse (Susan and Barrett’s “duel” over the placing of a vase comes almost straight out of Jeeves) – and above all on the weakness that underlies those dependent on servants, as well as the loathing a servant can develop for his master, while still loving the control he has over his life.

Losey responds to this masterful script with some inspired work, making the house where the action takes place increasingly claustrophobic and disturbing. The camera work slowly becomes more intimate as the film progresses – and Barrett entraps Tony increasingly into a total, infantile dependence on him. Takes become longer as the house itself – increasingly dishevelled, with Barrett’s property increasingly appearing throughout the property, while Tony’s goods are disposed of – seems to close in around the action. Reflections and mirrors increasingly dominate the film, as if pulling us with Tony through a glass darkly.

It’s a good servant who understands his master’s needs before he knows them. Barrett is the best kind of servant. Within seconds, the unctuous, Uriah Heap-like Barrett (ever so ‘umble), has dissected the character of the foppishly weak playboy Tony, and identified him as man with no will of his own, ripe to be dominated and manipulated. Dirk Bogarde has never been better than his work here, a terrifyingly precise and soulless manipulator, whose veneer of obsequious service drops away with his affected accent to reveal a deeply corrupted, terrifyingly cruel man. Bogarde never allows a second of doubt to enter Barrett’s mind – even when it (briefly) looks like he’s lost his position, Barrett’s face is contorted with a contemptuous curl of the mouth and a cocky defiance. It’s brilliant work from Bogarde, creating one of cinema’s greatest monsters, destroying because he can.

His tools are of course to use his master’s fondness for booze and pretty faces against him. Vera – played with a sparkingly flirtatious richness by Sarah Miles, which disguises her ruthless disgust for Tony and his selfishness – is inveigled into the house as Barrett’s “sister” (actually his mistress), and swiftly instructed to seduce the hapless Tony, bending this playboy to her will. Losey’s camera follows in smooth shots as this woman moves from one man’s bed to another – while you can feel the influence of Pinter in the spare, sexually charged power Vera uses to seduce Tony (and the hints of submissive excitement in Tony). Losey soundtracks their first encounter – Miles erotically discussing the weather, pure Pinter genius, while Fox’s throat is so dry you can almost feel it yourself – with first the dripping of a tap, then the rocking back and forth of a pan in the sink. It brilliantly suggests the way Tony himself seems to be being consumed in a hypnotic trap.

Not that Tony is particularly sympathetic himself: a weak-willed, rather feckless and languid playboy whose interests in pleasure quickly tip into addiction. James Fox is perfectly cast in a role that plays on his aristocratic assurance, but finds deep reserves of doubt and inadequacy in him. Pinter and Losey draw more than a bit of a question mark over the sexual undertone in the relationship between Barrett (at least metrosexual) and Tony, that travels across sharing the favours of Vera. After (temporarily) throwing Vera and Barrett out, Tony collapses into a grief-stricken mess over Vera’s bed – the bed shared with Barrett – the camera gliding gently over male nudes pinned to the wall. Later Tony will debase himself fully to Barrett, reduced to crawling around the floor, his tie used as leash, dragged to perform with prostitutes for Barrett’s dark amusement.

If there is a character who sees through this early it’s Wendy Craig’s sensitively played Susan – but even she can have no idea of the horrors of Barrett’s plans to break Tony completely to his will. Susan recognises – even if she can’t understand why – the sinister satanic nature of Barrett, even while she seems powerless to do anything about it. Her attempts to empower Tony to break his dependence on this omniscient figure fail completely. In a beautiful Pinterish touch, at the end she almost considers joining their bizarre, sex and alcohol fuelled menage – as close as cinema as perhaps got to skirting a sort of sexual hell.

The final act of the film (it has a neat three act structure, Pinter superbly constructing the screenplay to show Barrett and Tony’s shifting power relationship), sees an almost infantalised Tony now meekly accepting (almost apologising) as Barrett lets rip – all pretence at humbleness gone and Northern vowels increasingly let loose – with his abuse and disgust.

In a brilliantly dark commentary on the upper and serving class, such is the dependence on one for the other, that the house collapses in Barrett’s temporary absence. The power may lie with Tony – but when Barrett stops collaborating with that, the imbalance between them is revealed. It’s Barrett who can actually do things – from cleaning to cooking – that Tony cannot. The drive and will of the middle classes eventually overwhelms and breaks the upper class, turning them into a vehicle for their own entertainment, like some sort of dark National Trust.

The Servant is a profoundly brilliant film, one that could stake a claim for being one of the greatest British films ever made. Losey’s sharp outsider’s eye brilliantly dissects both the tensions between the classes, but also the disturbingly awkward relationship the British have about sex, a drug for the reserved, a pot of unspoken but deeply desired treats. Bogarde is quite simply superb, Barrett is one of the greatest monsters of cinema who could strike fear into the heart of Hannibal Lecter. Pinter’s dialogue is brilliant. This psycho-sexual class drama is a work of art and essential viewing.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law made a great odd couple in Sherlock Holmes

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr John Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Mark Strong (Lord Henry Blackwood), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Hans Matherson (Lord Coward), James Fox (Sir Thomas Rotheram), Geraldine James (Mrs Hudson), William Houston (Constable Clark), William Hope (Ambassador Standish)

I don’t think there has been a single character brought to the screen more often than Sherlock Holmes. Sure there are certain tent-pole performances (Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch) that people automatically think of when you say “Sherlock Holmes”, but there are hundreds of others. It’s a character that survives constant re-imagination. In fact, you could argue it’s pretty much vital to bring something of your own to the table when putting together a Sherlock Holmes dramatisation. It’s what made Sherlock so successful. And it’s something that works very well here.

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr) is part Bohemian artist, part mad scientist, part kickboxer. The sort of guy who can think so far ahead he can plan out an entire fight in his mind before it even begins. He’s partnered up with determined, smart, handy-with-a-sword Dr Watson (Jude Law). With Watson preparing to move out of 221B to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), they take on their last case: defeating creepy Dracula-lite Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who claims to have returned from the dead and wants to take over the British Empire. Along the way they are helped (or hindered) by the mysterious Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) an old flame of Holmes’.

Guy Ritchie’s rollicking adventure is actually a huge amount of fun that, underneath the crashes and bangs, actually has a really strong respect for the original stories (the film is littered with references and quotes from the originals, none of which feel shoe-horned in except maybe Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler, perhaps because the producers felt Holmes needed a love interest to stop any worries that he might be a bit too much in love with Watson). Ritchie has crafted a Holmes-Watson relationship that repositions them as a sort of odd-couple surrogate brothers, a marriage of equals (and make no mistake, a marriage is basically what this Holmes and Watson have). It’s big and silly, but then so were the original stories (The Creeping Man anyone?). 

Ritchie is a film-maker it’s easy to find faintly annoying, with his faux-geezer attitudes, his bizarre philosophical views and his love of the poor-taste gag. But on this film he’s basically a director-for-hire rather than putting his own story together and, you know what, putting this director into a studio strait-jacket is actually pretty good. It smacks some disciple on him, makes him drop his indulgent and poor-taste jokes and instead brings his strengths as a director – his sense of pace, his eye for a witty image, his rollicking sense of fun – to the fore. That’s probably why this is his most enjoyable and best film. 

It’s a film that mainly works because Downey Jnr and Law make a terrific pairing as Holmes and Watson. They have great chemistry, they spark off each other extremely well as performers and they really give the sense of two life-long devoted friends. Both actors are very good here. The film hits these notes of male friendship extremely well – a mixture of mocking and abuse, mixed with devotion and loyalty. The film gets the balance of these things exactly right: from debates to fights, you really get a sense that these two are honorary brothers, almost a bickering old married couple. 

In fact, the whole film revolves quietly around this relationship coming under threat (as Holmes sees it) of Watson leaving Holmes to get married – although, nicely, the film makes clear his fears of Mary are completely unfounded. Part of the dual engine of the film is Holmes continuing to tempt Watson into getting more and more involved with his cases, because he doesn’t want to lose his friend. It’s actually quite sweet. As are the protective feelings both have for the other: Watson knows Holmes puts himself at ridiculous risks, in turn Holmes shows a gentle worry for Watson’s gambling addiction (a popular Sherlockian society interpolation from references in the story).

All this warm, brotherly stuff from two excellent performers is built into a dramatic, thrillingly shot, series of action and detection scenes. The film’s big gimmick is Holmes’ ability to use his analytical abilities to accurately predict the outcome of fights (which the film communicates with slow motion and forensic narration by Downey Jnr, before staging the entire fight again at real time). It’s actually a fairly neat way of turning his deductive abilities into a visual language. Alongside this, plenty of this great fun – exciting or, as in Holmes’ battle with a 7ft giant, funny. All hugely entertaining.

Placing the focus on this relationship and the action does mean that the mystery elements of the plot get a bit short-changed. The story is a rather silly series of near-Dracula style high-Gothic mysteries that may or may not be real (all these occult references more than echo The Young Sherlock Holmes!). There isn’t much in the way of the small intricate puzzles of the early stories here – but then plenty of the later ones became increasingly hyper-real Gothic stories, so I guess that is fine. Mark Strong does a decent job as the villainous Blackwood, using his sinister looks and imperious voice extremely well. 

It also looks wonderful – the photography and set design is marvellous – and the score by Hans Zimmer must be one of his best ever, a sprightly mix of Irish music, Westerns and Music Hall. Ritchie directs it with a wonderfully, tongue-in-cheek, entertaining sprightliness, like Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones. Holmes more than survives his re-imagination as an action superhero – and in fact he brings across a lot of the tone and character of the original book along with him. A terrific entertainment and a more than worthy entry to the Holmes movie cannon.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Christopher Lambert is the lord of the apes in dull Tarzan epic Greystoke

Director: Hugh Hudson

Cast: Christopher Lambert (John Clayton), Ralph Richardson (Earl of Greystroke), Ian Holm (Capitaine Fyllieppe d’Arnot), James Fox (Lord Charles Esker), Andie MacDowell (Jane Porter), Cheryl Campbell (Lady Clayton), Ian Charleson (Jeffson Brown), Nigel Davenport (Major Jack Downing), Nicholas Farrell (Sir Hugh Belcher), Paul Geoffrey (John Clayton Snr), Richard Griffiths (Captain Billings), Hilton McRae (Willy), David Suchet (Buller), John Wells (Sir Evelyn Blount)

For his follow-up to Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson settled on this curious mess: part heavy-handed exploration of class and the brutality of man, part picturesque jungle picture with people in ape costumes. If anyone remembers Greystroke today, it’s for an interesting bit of trivia: original director and writer Robert Towne was so annoyed at being removed from the project, he used his dog’s name as his screenwriting credit. When the Oscar nominations were announced, this pooch became the first four-legged Oscar nominee. Strangely fitting for a film about the nobility of animals.

The film is a “real life” version of the Tarzan story. What this basically means is that it is dry and boring with a ponderous self-important message about how the real animal is in man (or something like that). It also of course means that the word “Tarzan” isn’t used except in the title (presumably so that audiences could be lured into the cinema). Anyway, after his parents are shipwrecked off the jungle coast, and die after young John Clayton’s (Christopher Lambert) birth, he is raised by gorillas and becomes one of the leaders of the pack. When a troupe of gung-ho explorers are slaughtered by natives, the only survivor is Belgian Fyllieppe d’Arnot (Ian Holm). Rescued by John, d’Arnot teaches him language and takes him home to the estate of his grandfather the Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson), who is desperate for an heir. But can John adjust to the jungle of the modern world?

So Greystoke is well filmed, looks good and has a couple of decent performances in it. But it’s a dull mess as a film. Watching it you suspect a lot of the runtime ended up on the cutting room floor. There are sudden time jumps. Characters appear and disappear, many serving no real purpose. The film drifts towards a conclusion that neither seems enlightening nor serves any real cathartic summation of what the film might be about. There are many, many lovely shots of the jungle and Scottish countryside, but we never really end up caring about any of the characters within it.

The film is thematically a mess from start to finish. It seems to be making a point about John being totally unsuited, by his upbringing, to adjusting to the world of man. But it never really gives a proper voice to John himself. Of course he’s only just learning language, but even without that you never really feel like you begin to understand him, or get a sense of half-remembered human traits emerging from his ape upbringing. Basically you don’t get a sense of conflict within him as to whether he should stay or go. Without that conflict, there isn’t really much interest in watching him work out the answer.

This is despite the fact the Christopher Lambert is actually pretty good as John Clayton. The role plays to his strengths: it’s highly physical (not just in the acts of athleticism but also in its half-man, half-ape physicality). Lambert also has this rather fine other-worldly quality that constantly leaves him looking a bit lost and vulnerable. The part may be underwritten but he is certainly doing his very best here, and he really does a brilliant job of playing an ape trapped in man’s body.

It’s a shame that the film takes so long to get going that he doesn’t really appear for the first half an hour or so. Instead we get a lot of ape-based action in the forest – and probably too much of his parents. Later in the film, the camera makes a point of returning two or three times to a large painting of Cheryl Campbell as John’s mother – but the film never suggests any link at all between these two characters. A lot of time is wasted setting up the parents’ voyage, while at the same time no time is spent on establishing any emotional link between the Claytons and their son.

Far more time is spent on the apes – which I suppose is the point of a film that wants to celebrate the purity of the world of animals over the corruption of man. Rick Baker’s ape make-up is pretty impressive for the time – and works really well in longshot – but in close-up is all too obviously a series of performers in masks. There is a sense of their natures, but not of them as dangerous or wild animals. In fact the film goes overboard in humanising them – even to the extent of giving them their own language of grunts and groans.

The ape stuff goes on too long – and then means the return to civilisation seems rushed and unclear. Ian Holm is excellent as d’Arnot, the bridge between the two worlds, and his fatherly love for John works extremely well. But the film makes no attempt to tackle the questions it raises of John dealing with his split animal-human relationship. Instead the film loads the decks by making almost every human character – epitomised by James Fox’s flat performance as Jane’s toff fiancée – a heartless uncaring moron.

Ah yes Jane. Played with an openness by Andie MacDowell, she’s dubbed in a painfully obvious way by an uncredited Glenn Close. This is another underwhelming relationship that seems skimmed over – one moment they have just met, the next they seem on the verge of a great love. It’s as rushed and slapdash as the introduction of a mentally handicapped servant – of course, with his childish outlook, he is closer to John than anyone could be – who literally appears out of nowhere.

The film was also Ralph Richardson’s final role – he died shortly after completing it – and his barmy Earl of Greystroke (part lonely old man, part semi-senile eccentric) does lift the film with a certain energy (he was posthumously Oscar nominated). But it’s an easy role for Richardson – and in fact his eccentric, hard-to-define energy kind of sums up the whole messy film pretty well. His character’s death is the final nail in its interest, his eccentric energy sorely missed.

The most damaging thing about Greystoke is it is dull and obvious. Pretty scenery and decent performances can only cover so much when the plot is empty and predictable. The film feels cut down absurdly – half the cast of Chariots appear in roles so tiny you wonder why they bothered – and by the time the film drifts towards its conclusion you’ll probably have stopped caring about what it was all about in the first place. It tries to ask questions about man’s nature, but it doesn’t even seem to notice it never answers them. A poor film.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Tom Courtenay runs for himself in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith), Michael Redgrave (Governor), Avis Bunnage (Mrs Smith), Alec McCowen (Brown), James Bolam (Mike), Joe Robinson (Roach), Dervis Ward (Detective), Topsy Jane (Audrey), Julia Foster (Gladys), James Fox (Gunthorpe), John Thaw (Bosworth)

In the 1960s British film made waves when it started to turn away from upper-class, costume-laden dramas, and accents started to be heard that weren’t cut-glass and RP. Few of these films ran (literally) further from this than The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

After the death of his father, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a working-class young man, is drawn into a life of petty crime. Sent to borstal for his re-education, his skill at long-distance running catches the eye of the Governor (Michael Redgrave). The Governor hopes to use Colin to win the five-mile cross-country run in the joint sports challenge day he has arranged with the local private school. But will Colin play ball, or will he stick to his own principles of never playing “their” game?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is in many ways a sort of British Rebel Without a Cause, but without the glamour. Instead, Colin is a council house lad, angry at the world (but not quite clear why) and brought low by the theft of £70. The film showcases Colin as a sort of anti-authority hero, a man who just simply doesn’t want those bastards telling him what to do. He’s not violent or dangerous, he’s more sullen, fed-up and laced with anger and contempt at a world that short-changed his father. 

He finds himself in the confines of borstal, an institution all about rules, regulations and changing people to match what society expects of them: everything Colin hates, and spends the film pushing against. Unlike the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s other seminal kitchen sink drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Colin isn’t out for what he can get – while that film’s lead was more frustrated the system didn’t work enough for him, Colin wants no system at all. He wants freedom to make his own choices and define his own life – and his rebelling is all about that.

What’s intriguing about Silitoe’s story is Colin has a genuine gift for running. Richardson shoots the sequences of Colin running through the country (granted special permission to go unattended by the Governor) with a lyrical freedom. It’s as if, while running, Colin can put the world aside for a moment, to focus on his own independence. Silitoe gives Colin the means to move up in the world – but to do so he has to fall in with the desires of his “betters”. Therein lies the film’s conundrum.

It helps a great deal that Michael Redgrave is terrific as the Governor – the very picture of hypocritical and self-serving authoritarianism, interested in the boys only so far as they can serve his ends. The slightest misdemeanour and punishment is absolute – with the boy banished back to the bottom rung of the borstal, and ignored by the Governor. 

Richardson shoots the borstal as a confining series of small spaces, a real contrast to the broad, open spaces Colin runs through. The flashback scenes that showcase Colin’s life of petty crime are shot with an intense realism, on-location in Nottingham streets. These scenes are perhaps slightly less engaging and interesting than those at the borstal: their content is pretty similar to other kitchen-sink dramas, and they seem more predictable (for all their engaging direction and acting) than other parts of the film.

The real success of the film is largely due to Tom Courtenay, making his film debut. It would be easy to be annoyed by Colin, an inarticulate and chippy lad who hates the system without actually being engaged enough to understand why. But Courtenay brings the part a tenderness and surly vulnerability, and for all his childish rebellion, his barely expressed feelings of grief and anger at his father’s death strike a real chord. Given a sum of money in compensation, largely frittered away by his mother (Avis Bunnage also excellent) on her fancy man, Colin symbolically burns part of it, then spends the rest taking himself, a friend and two girls to Skegness. Colin’s relationship with Audrey is sweetly, and gently organically grown – and Courtenay brings a real vulnerability to a confession of his own virginity.

Courtenay makes Colin’s principles and issues understandable to us – and relatable – even though it’s tempting to encourage him to play along with the Governor, win the race and seize and opportunity to better himself from that. But what Courtenay makes clear, is that doing that would be a sacrifice Colin’s own sense of self – and that would be a defeat.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific kitchen-sink drama, built around an empathetic lead performance, that gives you plenty to think about. It’s shot with a poetic beauty by Richardson and photographer Walter Lassally. Finally, some credit must go to the casting director – not only Courtenay, but James Bolam and (uncredited) John Thaw and James Fox fill out the cast in prominent roles. Keep an eye on those guys: they might have futures ahead of them y’know.

The Russia House (1990)

Connery and Pfeiffer go behind the Iron Curtain

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Sean Connery (Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katya Orlova), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Dante), Roy Scheider (Russell), James Fox (Ned), John Mahoney (Brady), Michael Kitchen (Clive), J. T. Walsh (Colonel Jackson Quinn), Ken Russell (Walter), David Threlfall (Wicklow)

Based on John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House was one of the first espionage thriller films released after the fall of the Soviet Union, and therefore found itself exploring the curious impact of Glasnost on the games of one-upmanship that East and West played with each other.

Barley Blair (Sean Connery) is an over-the-hill publisher with connections in Russia, who is enlisted by MI6 to recruit the mysterious “Dante” (Klaus Maria Brandauer, a little too mannered for the film and under used), whose manuscript about Russian nuclear readiness has been intercepted en route to Blair by the intelligence services. Blair’s main contact is Dante’s former lover Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman trapped in political games.

Second-tier Le Carré is brought to the screen in a film that perfectly captures the authorial voice, but missing  narrative drive. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation masterfully captures the nuances and rhythms of Le Carré’s writing – the conversations of the CIA and MI6 operatives, their lingo and phraseology, are a perfect evocation of the author’s style, while Barley comes to the screen as almost the quintessential disillusioned middle-aged romantic: scruffy with a drink problem and a public school disdain for the prefects of the intelligence service.

The film’s other major positive is the central performance of Sean Connery. The former James Bond (then in the middle of a five-year purple patch of great roles which ran from The Name of the Rose to The Hunt for Red October) brilliantly plays against type as the dishevelled Barley, a man who feels like he has spent a lifetime circling failure and unreliability. Connery tones down his athletic physicality as an actor, playing Barley as a shuffling, hunched figure, often a step behind those around him. He’s also able to capture the romantic defiance behind Blair as well as a sadness and a self-loathing, his eyes showing years of shame at his own unreliability and the disappointments he has inflicted on people. It’s one of his least “Connery-like” performances, and a real demonstration of his willingness to stretch himself as an actor.

He’s well matched by some fine supporting performances. Pfeiffer is a very good actress who balances Katya’s vulnerability with a shrewd understanding of the compromises and dangers of the world she is in. Having said that, the chemistry between her and Connery doesn’t quite click into place during the course of the film. There are also good performances from James Fox and Roy Scheider as feuding intelligence boffins, and an eye-catching “love it or loath it” one from Ken Russell playing one of Le Carré’s quintessential campy, eccentric public-school intelligence operatives.

The film’s main weakness is that the actual story just isn’t quite interesting enough. The stakes never feel as high as they should be, and the unfolding of events seems unclear rather than carefully concealed from the audience. Despite the actors’ performances, Blair and Katya aren’t quite characters we can invest in enough and the momentum of the film too often gets bogged down in a reconstruction of intelligence agent squabbles. Schepisi films the Russian locations extremely well, but too often the camera lingers lovingly on a series of locations like a travelogue, slowing down the pace of the film as the film revels in its status as only the second Hollywood production allowed to film in Russia.

It’s an intelligent and faithful adaptation, but it doesn’t quite come to life. Stoppard’s script doesn’t carry enough narrative thrust and you simply don’t care enough about the fates of many of the characters. In many ways, a less faithful adaptation – such as the BBC’s recent production of The Night Manager – might well have made for a more compelling movie. As it is, although the film feels like an immersion into the author’s universe, it also feels like a dip into one of the less engaging and memorable offerings in his back catalogue. Along with the book’s strengths, it also carries across weaknesses. It’s satisfying enough and doesn’t outstay its welcome – but it also never really seizes the attention.