Tag: Jeremy Northam

An Ideal Husband (1999)

Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Rupert Everett do the best in this Wilde mis-fire An Ideal Husband

Director: Oliver Parker

Cast: Rupert Everett (Lord Arthur Goring), Cate Blanchett (Lady Gertrude Chiltern), Minnie Driver (Miss Mabel Chiltern), Julianne Moore (Mrs Laura Cheveley), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Chiltern), John Wood (Lord Caversham), Peter Vaughan (Phipps), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Markby), Simon Russell Beale (Sir Edward), Nickolas Grace (Vicomte de Nanjac)

I have a theory that Shakespearean comedy rarely translates well to screen because what makes it work is its theatricality and how it encourages laughter by interacting directly with the audience. I think you could say the same for Oscar Wilde. Certainly, this film version of An Ideal Husband looks lovely and never misses a single Wildean bon-mot. But it’s overlong, drags rather in its final third and, above all, isn’t particularly funny.

The plot has been freshened up and adjusted in places to make for a more filmic narrative, but the principles are the same from the play. Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is a pillar of the establishment, famed for his unshakeable dedication to principle and adored by his wife Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) who sees him as a paragon. But all that could be shaken up when Mrs Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) re-enters his life, bringing with her shocking revelations that could destroy Sir Robert. So he turns to help to his best friend, the witty and debonair Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), who is himself in love with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Minnie Driver). How will events play out as they start to spiral out of control?

Oliver Parker’s film is cautious, safe and – for all that it tries to open the play out with scenes in parks and Parliament – conservative and safe. You can imagine Wilde himself would probably have wanted something a little more daring had he been involved. As it is, things that work very well on stage (the farcical elements of mistaken identity and a house with a different character hiding behind every door) don’t really work on film. These ideas are inherently theatrical and depend on the heightened unreality of theatre – in the cold hard harshness of cinema, they feel out of place.

Put frankly, the big thing the play misses is the live audience. You can imagine this cast going down an absolute storm in the West End. The lines that demand a wink to the audience, bits of business that invite laughter, just fall flat here. They are rendered lifeless by the demands of being fit into a film, or having to take place in a world that seems real, when Wilde’s plays are all about a sort of bizarre ultra-Victorian world of form covering up a suggestive naughtiness. When the characters go and watch The Importance of Being Earnest at the theatre (a sign of the film’s clumsy opening out, and its lack of wit when left to its own devices) the dialogue style that doesn’t really work in the “real world” of film suddenly feels perfectly natural when we see people speak it on stage.

Parker’s film fails to bring any particular inspiration to events. Instead it seems determined to package Wilde as a heritage product, the sort of thing you can imagine people considering a safe thing for the whole family to sit down and watch. There is no sense of cheek, sex or danger in this like you can get in Wilde. Instead it’s all about attractive actors in period-drama drawing rooms, going about their work with skill. All made to look as pretty as possible with some lovely costumes. It’s Sunday tea-time viewing.

But despite this, some of those performances are spot on. I’m not sure there is an actor alive today better suited to Wilde than Rupert Everett. His imperious drawl, his sardonic wit, his louche manner (not to mention his ability to suggest an illicit wickedness under the surface) make him absolutely perfect. Everett has shown time and again – on film and in the theatre – he has an affinity for the dryness needed for Wilde, as well as being able to communicate the intelligence without smugness. All the successful scenes of the movie revolve around him, and he invariably brings out the best from his co-stars. He’s also far-and-away the funniest thing in the film.

The rest of the cast are more mixed. Cate Blanchett is the stand-out in (sadly) the least interesting main role, the rather stuffy Lady Gertrude (you wish you’d been able to see her let rip as the more wicked Mrs Cheveley) – like Everett she “gets it”. Jeremy Northam also does excellent work in the straight-man role of Sir Robert, but his characteristic dignity and intelligence do very well in the role. Julianne Moore though seems oddly constrained by the period setting as Mrs Cheveley (strange that she did this at the same time as her superior work as a restrained Englishwoman in The End of the Affair) while Minnie Driver lacks impact as Mabel. John Wood and Peter Vaughan – two old pros from the theatre – bring much of the energy and wit in supporting roles.

An Ideal Husband is fine. But watching it you’d wonder what all the fuss about Wilde is about. And that can’t be a good thing. If Wilde wrote a review of it, it would be funnier than anything in the film.

Amistad (1997)

Djimon Hounsou excels as a slave longing for freedom in Amistad

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Djimon Hounsou (Sengbe Pieh/Joseph Cinqué), Matthew McConaughey (Roger Sherman Baldwin), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Morgan Freeman (Theodore Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (President Martin van Buren), David Paymer (John Forsythe), Pete Postlethwaite (William S Holabird), Stellan Skarsgård (Lewis Tappen), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala), Anna Paquin (Isabella II), Chiwetel Ejiofor (James Covey), Peter Firth (Captain Fitzgerald), Jeremy Northam (Judge Coglin), Xander Berkeley (Ledger Hammond), Arliss Howard (John C Calhoun)

After the American Revolution, independence left one issue in America that would profoundly split the country: slavery. This was a land divided, between abolitionists and plantation owners, the more emancipation-minded North and slave states of the South. Slavery was – and remains – the ugly stain on the American soul. Steven Spielberg’s film uses a significant court case of its day to shine a light on these contrasting and conflicting priorities in American society throughout much of the early 19th century, that would eventually lead to civil war.

The film tells the true story of the slave revolt on the Spanish slaver ship Amistad. Here the slaves, led by Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) escaped captivity, rose up and killed most of the crew (leaving just two men alive to sail the ship) and tried to return to their home in Sierra Leone. Arrested by an American naval ship while collecting fresh water, the slaves are transported to Connecticut where they find themselves on trial as escaped slaves, facing charges of piracy and murder. Their cause is taken up by Northern abolitionists Lewis Tappen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his black associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), and their lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) a property lawyer. However, the case’s international implications for slavery attracts the concern of President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), eager to support the prosecution, while former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), a lawyer and opponent of slavery, offers his advice to the defence.

Spielberg’s film has just the right balance of human interest and humanitarian concern to overcome its slight air of a civics lesson. Although largely a courtroom drama, what the film is really trying to do is capture in one moment the troubling contradiction of the land of the free built on slaves, and give a voice and empathy to the slaves themselves. 

Although some have criticised this as a “white saviour” film, I feel that’s unfair. This is a film that starts and ends with Cinqué’s story and filters America through his perception. We can well understand why he rages at his lack of comprehension of laws that can be adjusted, court decisions overturned or how words can be twisted to take on other meanings. A film front and centred, say, by Matthew McConaughey’s Baldwin and focusing on journey from seeing this as just another case into a crusade would be a white saviour film. Instead the white characters drop in and out of the story as the narrative requires, and it’s the struggles and courage of the black characters that form the heart of the narrative.

Spielberg also brings to life the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and what it does to all of us. The film opens with the confined, appalling conditions of the slave ship while Cinqué (with hands running with blood) tries to release a nail from the wood which he will use to free himself from his chains. The film intriguingly opens without the African characters being translated – giving us a sense of their isolation and perhaps also stressing how different they are from the Western “civilisation” that has taken them from their homes. 

It isn’t until half way through the film, until a translator is found for Cinqué, that the film gives us the backstory that Cinqué has struggled to communicate. Spielberg spares no punches in showing the violence of abduction, the brutality and casual slaughter of the slavers, the starvations, the floggings that end in blood sprayed death, the cramped conditions practically designed to weed out the weak. A mother chooses drowning for herself and her child rather than life on the ship. Later the slavers chain unwanted slaves to a bag of rocks and cast them overboard to reduce their cargo load. If there was any doubt about the heart-rending evil behind slavery, it’s removed from your mind.

It also serves to hammer home the injustice of America’s own system. Under political pressure – van Buren is worried about the reaction of both Spain and the Southern States to the Africans being found innocent – the trial encounters interference and appeals every step of the way. It’s a system that prides itself on being the greatest in the world, but shows time and time again how it can be weighted against the weakest. The courtroom scenes – skilfully directed and played – show time and time lawyers valuing obscure property laws above right and wrong. And we are brought time and time again to the reactions and lack of understanding of the African characters, who come from a society where there is no equivocation and no words equivalent to “usually” or “perhaps”.

The film perhaps does take a little too long over its various legal machinations, and could do with losing a few minutes here and there. But that would be to sacrifice its many strengths. Looking wonderful, with a marvellous score by John Williams (riffing on the American pipes and African tribal influences), one of the strongest acting companies Spielberg ever assembled does outstanding work. Carrying much of the film is Djimon Hounsou, who makes Cinqué anything but a victim – he is a proud, defiant and intelligent man, humble enough about his qualities but quick to act to defend his rights. Uncowed but infuriated by the situation he finds himself in, he is never a passenger but at all times a key figure in his own liberation, even if his legal case must be fought by whites.

McConaughey enjoys himself under a bad wig, glasses and dirty teeth as the lawyer Baldwin, ambitious but with more than an air of decency. Postlethwaite is at his quietly authoritative best as his opposition counsel. Freeman lends the film a large part of his grace and dignity in a small, observant part of the freed-slave turned abolitionist, with Skarsgård more political as his white colleague. Hawthorne makes a van Buren a slightly flustered, impatient figure. Peter Firth demonstrates a great contempt for slavery behind an imperious exterior.

The film’s highlight performance though is Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated turn as John Quincy Adams. Adjusting his physicality to match the ageing ex-President, Hopkins captures his slightly nasal Massachusetts twang and adds a significant amount of twinkly charm and wry shrewdness to this adept political operator. A large chunk of the film’s final 20 minutes is given over to Hopkins, with the highlight a long monologue of Adams speech to the Supreme Court (in actuality a speech over eight hours in length!), that is a tour-de-force of skilled showmanship. It’s Hopkins’ last great performance of the 1990s. 

Spielberg’s Amistad is a superb courtroom drama but also a heartfelt condemnation of the inhumanity man can show to man. It never forgets either that while this was a victory, it was only a skirmish not the war. While the film at times overplays the inevitability of Civil War (which did not exactly start over this issue), it skilfully shows the divide in the American culture between abolition and slavery – and how many felt for the first cause, but feared the supporters of the second so much they would rather not address it. Either way, Amistad may at times be a little dry – but that gives its moments of emotion even more force.

Gosford Park (2001)

Cruelty, snobbery and viciousness – just another night at Gosford Park

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Eileen Atkins (Mrs Croft), Bob Balaban (Morris Weissman), Alan Bates (Mr Jennings), Charles Dance (Lord Stockbridge), Stephen Fry (Inspector Thompson), Michael Gambon (Sir William McCordle), Richard E. Grant (George), Derek Jacobi (Probert), Kelly Macdonald (Mary Maceachran), Helen Mirren (Mrs Wilson), Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello), Clive Owen (Robert Parks), Ryan Phillippe (Henry Denton), Kristin Scott-Thomas (Lady Sylvia McCordle), Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham), Emily Watson (Elsie), Claudie Blakely (Mabel Nesbitt), Tom Hollander (Lt Commander Anthony Meredith), Geraldine Somerville (Lady Stockbridge), Jeremy Swift (Arthur), Sophie Thompson (Dorothy), James Wilby (Freddie Nesbitt)

We’ve always fancied ourselves that when Brits make films in America – think John Schlesinger’s brilliant analysis of New York hustlers in Midnight Cowboy – they turn the sharp analytical eye of the outsider on American society. But do we like it when America turns the same critical eye on us? Gosford Park is a film surely no Brit could have made, so acutely vicious and condemning of the class system of this country, without the hectoring that left-wing British filmmakers so often bring to the same material, it’s just about perfect in exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty that undermines our class system. You’ll never look at an episode of Downton Abbey the same way again.

In November 1932, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) hosts a shooting party at his country house. McCordle is almost universally despised by his relatives and peers – most especially his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) – but tolerated as his vast fortune from his factories basically funds the lives of nearly everyone at the house party. While the upper classes gather upstairs, downstairs the servants of the house led by butler Jennings (Alan Bates) and housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) order the house to meet the often selfish and thoughtless demands of the rich. The house is rocked midway through the weekend, when a murder occurs overnight. With motives aplenty, perhaps the new maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) of the imperious Countess Trentham (Maggie Smith) has the best chance of finding the truth.

First and foremost, it’s probably a good idea to say that this is in no way a murder-mystery. Robert Altman, I think, could barely care less about whodunit. While the film has elements that gently spoof elements of its Agatha Christie-ish settings, Altman’s interest has always been the personal relationships between people and the societies they move in. So this is a film really about the atmosphere of the house and most importantly how these people treat each other. Altman despised snobbery, and in a world that is fuelled by that very vice, he goes to town in showing just how awful and stifling so many elements of the class system really were.

“He thinks he’s God Almighty. They all do.” So speaks Clive Owen’s Robert Parks, valet, of his employer the patrician Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance, excellent). You’ve got the attitude right there: the rich see themselves as a different species to those pushing plates around and cleaning clothes below stairs. The idea of there being anything in common is laughable. Slight moments of casual conversation between servant and master in the film are governed by strict laws and carry a quiet tension. 

It’s so acute in its analysis of the selfishness, snobbery, cruelty and arrogance of the British class system that each time I watch it I’m less and less convinced that Downton Abbey (the cuddliest version of this world you could imagine) creator Julian Fellowes had much to do with it. This film is so far from the “we are all in this together” Edwardian paternalism of that series, you can’t believe the same man wrote both. All the heritage charm of Downton is drained from Gosford, leaving only the cold reality of what a world is like where a small number of people employ the rest.

Upstairs the hierarchy is absurdly multi-layered. Everyone is aware of their position, with those at the top of the tree barely able to look those at the bottom in the eye, let alone talk to them. The rudeness is striking. Maggie Smith (who is brilliant, her character totally devoid of the essential kindness of her role in Downton Abbey has) is so imperiously offensive, such an arch-snob, she can only put the thinnest veil over her contempt when she deigns to speak to her inferiors. Her niece, played with an ice-cold distance by Kristin Scott-Thomas, embodies aloofness, selfishness and casual cruelty.

Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, superb) – the one real person in the film, and a film star – is treated like a jumped up minstrel player, with characters falling over themselves to make snide comments about his career. His guest Morris Weissman (an excellent Bob Balaban), a Hollywood film producer, is treated with similar contempt – when reluctant to divulge details of the film he is in England researching (a Charlie Chan film) for fears he will spoil his plot, the Countess bluntly informs him “oh, none of us will see it”. Later, as Novello plays the piano (essentially singing for his supper) only the servants are pleased – most of the upper classes endure it under sufferance (“Don’t encourage him” the Countess says when there is a smattering of applause). You can see why, after only a few hours in the house, Weissman whispers to Novello: “How do you put up with these people?”

The servants themselves are bits of furniture, or barely acknowledged at all. Altman doesn’t shoot a single scene without a servant present, but this often hammers home their irrelevance to the upper classes (it’s made even more effective by seeing actors like Bates, Jacobi, Grant, Macdonald, Owen and Watson essentially being treated as extras). There are no bonds between upstairs and downstairs at all. Any upset witnessed on either side is responded to with silence. When Emily Watson’s Elsie (a brilliant performance of arch awareness of her place) momentarily forgets herself and speaks out at the dinner table, it’s treated like she has crapped on the floor – needless to say her career is finished.

The servants however echo the pointless rituals and ingrained hierarchy of their masters below stairs. For ease (!) the house servants insist the visiting servants are only addressed by the names of their employers not their own names. At their dinner table, their seating reflects the hierarchy of their employers. Many of the servants are more grounded and “normal” than the upstairs types, but they are as complicit in this system continuing as anyone else. They simply can’t imagine a life without it, and accept without question their place at the bottom rung of the house. 

Ryan Phillippe, later revealed as an actor masquerading as a servant (for research), immediately shows how hard it is to move between the two social circles. The servants despise him as a traitor who may leak secrets about their views of the employers. The guests see him as a jumped up intruder, even more vulgar than Novello and Weissman. His later humiliation is one of the few moments that see both sides of the social divide united (it’s fitting that it is an act of cruelty that reinforces the social rules that brings people together). 

The focus is so overwhelmingly on the class system – with Altman’s brilliant camera work (the camera is never still) giving us the sense of being a fly-on-the-wall in this house – that you forget it’s a murder mystery. Here the film is also really clever, archly exposing the harsh realities of the attitudes held by your standard group of Christie characters. Dance’s Lord Stockbridge in a Christie story would be a “perfect brick” but here we’ve seen he’s a shrewd but judgemental old bastard. The film throws in a clumsy Christie-style incompetent police detective, played by Stephen Fry. This is possibly the film’s only real misstep as Fry’s performance touches on a farcical tone that seems completely out of step with the rest of the film. But the Christie parody is generally wonderful, exploding the cosy English world the public perception believes is behind Christie (even if the author herself was often darker than people remember!).

It’s a hilarious film – Maggie Smith in particular is memorable, from cutting down her fellow guests, to judgementally tutting at shop-bought (not homemade) marmalade – but it’s also a film that creeps up on you with real emotional impact. Kelly Macdonald is very good as the most “everyday” character, who takes on the role of detective and has superb chemistry with Clive Owen’s dashing valet. But the film builds towards a heart-rending conclusion – a conclusion that, with its reveal about the darker side of Gambon’s blustering Sir William, feels more relevant every day – that shows the secret tragedies and dark underbelly of these worlds, with a particularly affecting scene between Atkins and Mirren (Mirren in particular is such a peripheral figure for so much of the film, that her final act revelations and emotional response carries even more force).  It’s heart rending.

Gosford Park is a film continually misremembered as either a cosy costume drama or a murder mystery. It’s neither. It’s a brilliant analysis of the British class system and a superb indictment of the impact and damage it has had on people and the country. Hilarious, brilliantly directed by Altman with a superb cast – it’s a masterpiece, perhaps one of the finest films in Altman’s catalogue.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Stellan Skarsgård is the Russian traitor whose secrets pose a danger for the British elite in Our Kind of Traitor

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry MacKendrick), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Naomie Harris (Gail MacKendrick), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Mark Stanley (Ollie)

John Le Carré’s works often revolve around a dark, cynical view of government agencies as corrupt, indolent and focused on petty or personal concerns rather than doing what’s best for the country and its people. Is it any wonder that there has been such a burst of interest in adaptations on film and television of his work? 

Our Kind of Traitor is straight out of the Le Carré wheelhouse. On a holiday to save their marriage (after his infidelity), Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomi Harris) bump into charismatic Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Perry and he strike up a surprising friendship – and before he knows it Perry is agreeing to carry information from Dima to the British intelligence services. This attracts the attention of MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) who sees this as an opportunity to expose the corrupt links between Russian criminals and high-level British bankers and politicians. Dima, however, will only hand over the goods if he is promised asylum for his family – something the British authorities, aware of the mess his revelations could cause, are not happy to allow…

Susanna White, veteran of some excellent television series of the last few years, puts together a confidently mounted and generally well-paced drama, with many of the expected Le Carré twists and turns. If she leans a little too heavily on the murk – the green and blue filters on the camera get a big workout here – it does at least mean that we get a real sense of the twilight world the characters operate in, meaning flashes of wide open space and bright daylight carry real impact. She also really understands how violence is often more shocking when we see the reaction of witnesses rather than the deed itself – all the most violent and tragic events in the film are seen at least partly from the perspective of the reactions of those witnessing them. The sense of danger on the edges of every action, stays with us while watching this unjust nightmare unravel.

It also works really well with one of the core themes of the movie: our ability to feel empathy for other people and how it affects our choices. Dima is driven towards defection because of his distaste for the increasing violence of the next generation of Russian criminals, and their lack of discrimination about who they harm. He’s all but adopted the orphaned children of a previous victim of violence, and his motivation at all points is to insure his family’s safety. Hector, our case officer, is motivated overwhelmingly by a sense of tragic, impotent fury about his rival ensuring Hector’s son is serving a long sentence in prison for drug smuggling.

And Perry is pulled into all this because he has a strong protective streak – something that eventually saves his marriage. Perry frequently throws himself forward to protect the weak, with no regard for his safety, from his unending efforts to protect Dima’s family to throwing himself in fury at a mobster roughing up a young woman. His intense empathy and protective streak motor all his actions and run through the whole movie.

It’s a shame then that his actual character isn’t quite interesting enough to hold the story together. Nothing wrong with McGregor’s performance, the character itself is rather sketchily written. Aside from his protectiveness we don’t get much of a sense of him and – naturally enough – he’s often a passenger or witness to events around him. Similarly, Naomie Harris does her best with a character that barely exists.

Instead the plaudits (and meaty parts) go to Skarsgård and Lewis. Skarsgård dominates the film with an exuberant, larger than life character who never feels like a caricature and reveals increasing depths of humanity and vulnerability beneath the surface. Lewis matches him just as well, at first seeming like a buttoned-up George Smiley type, but with his own tragic background motivating a long-term career man to slowly build his own conscience.

Our Kind of Traitor handles many of these personal themes very well, but it doesn’t quite manage to tie them into something that really feels special. Instead this feels a bit more like a Le Carré-by- numbers. We get the shady secret services, government greed, good people trapped in the middle – even some of the characters, from the foul-mouthed spook played by Mark Gatiss to Jeremy Northam’s jet black Aubrey, seem like they could have appeared in any number of his novels. 

There is a film here that is wanting to be made about the invasion of the UK by dirty Russian money – but it never quite comes out as this Dante-esque, Miltonian spiral. Instead the film too often settles for more functional thrills, a more traditional or middle-brow approach that works very well while you watch it, but doesn’t go the extra mile to turn this into something you will really remember.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

Dev Patel is mathematical genius Srinivasas Ramanujan, struggling against prejudice in The Man Who Knew Infinity

Director: Matthew Brown

Cast: Dev Patel (Srinivasas Ramanujan), Jeremy Irons (GH Hardy), Devika Bhise (Janaki), Toby Jones (John Edensor Littlewood), Stephen Fry (Sir Francis Spring), Jeremy Northam (Bertrand Russell), Kevin McNally (Percy MacMahon), Richard Johnson (Vice Master Henry Jackson), Anthony Calf (Howard), Padraic Delaney (Beglan), Shazad Latif (Chandra Mahalanobis)

The British Empire. It’s a difficult slice of British history, and it undoubtedly contributed to contemporary attitudes of superiority that affected British people and their institutions. It’s these attitudes that form the central themes of The Man Who Knew Infinity, an effective story of a struggle against the odds. 

In the early 1900s, Srinivasas Ramanujan (Dev Patel) works in Madras as a junior accountant – but his superiors quickly realise his mathematical abilities far outstrip his mundane tasks, and encourage him to write to mathematics professors to bring his theoretical work to their attention. Ramanujan starts a correspondence with GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) of Trinity College, Cambridge, who invites him to England to explore his potential. Once there, Ramanujan quickly proves his genius but, despite Hardy’s support, he struggles to be accepted by the fellows and students of the college, who only see an upstart from the colonies.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a conventionally structured biography – struggles personal and professional, success followed by setback and a final triumph combined with a bittersweet ending. It’s structurally nothing different from things you’ve seen before, but it’s told with calm, quiet, engrossing dedication, with unflashy direction, a solidly written script and some truly excellent acting. No wheel is reinvented, but it revolves with a highly enjoyable and heartfelt tenderness.

It’s a film that manages to present mathematics without using spurious real-world clunky metaphors, and gets a lovely feel for the hard work and theoretical study that go into mathematical theory. It also brilliantly communicates what the maths is about. I’m no theoretical mathematician (football stats are my limit) but even I could follow (just) why Ramanujan’s insights were so important and what they meant to the field of theoretical mathematics. The film has a real feel, not only for rhythms of academic work, but also the politics of academia (which needless to say are labyrinthine).

But the film’s main point is the resentment and outright racism Ramanujan must overcome. Played by Dev Patel with a quiet decency and modesty that only rarely bubbles over into bitterness, Ramanujan is constantly hit with everything from misunderstanding to contempt. His every achievement is met by questioning and doubt. His proofs must be demonstrated time and time again. To win the support and respect of his peers, he must constantly revise and revise his work, while the slightest slip is held up as proof his fraudulence or luck. 

If you do want to criticise the presentation of this, you could say that much of the campaigning and struggle for acceptance is championed by the establishment figure of Hardy – it’s he who does most to convert others, and who presents Ramanujan’s key theories to the Royal Society at the end. Stressing Ramanujan’s politeness and humbleness does have the downside of making him a slight passenger at times in his own movie.

But then it’s not just his movie, because this is a story of a deep, near romantic, bond that forms between the gentle Ramanujan and the shy and sensitive Hardy. Hardy, the film implies, was a man uncomfortable with emotional closeness, but he feels a huge bond with Ramanujan, having overcome similar class-based prejudice. The two men have a natural understanding, and support each other, finding themselves in perfect sync in their opinions on mathematics and their outlooks on life. In the nature of the British, nothing is ever said – but it’s clear that both men feel an intense personal connection that, quite possibly in Hardy’s case, mixes with a suppressed romantic yearning.


This relationship largely works so well because Jeremy Irons is quite simply fantastic as Hardy. Cast so often as superior types, here he gets to flex other parts of his arsenal as someone shy, timid, and sensitive. Hardy is so uncomfortable with personal friendships, he can rarely bring himself to look directly at other people. Irons sits on the edges of frames, or hunches and shrinks, his eyes permanently cast down. Saying that, he brings out the inner steel and determination in Hardy, his devotion as an advocate for Ramanujan. Irons is so shyly withdrawn, that the moments he allows emotional openness with Ramanujan, and most movingly with fellow mathematician Littlewood (played with a kindly good nature by Toby Jones), are wonderfully affecting. This might be one of Irons’ finest performances in his career.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is in many ways a conventional film, but performances like Irons’ lift it into something a little bit special. It’s a well-meaning and heartfelt film that embraces some fascinating concepts and also presents a story of triumph against adversity that feels genuinely moving and engaging. Filmically and narratively it’s very much by-numbers at times – but it hits those numbers so well, you’ll certainly have no complaints.

Eye in the Sky (2015)

The great Alan Rickman is an exasperated General, in drone-strike moral fable Eye in the Sky

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Helen Mirren (Colonel Katherine Powell), Aaron Paul (Lt. Steve Watts), Alan Rickman (Lt. General Frank Benson), Barkhad Abdi (Jama Farah), Jeremy Northam (Brian Woodale), Iain Glen (Foreign Secretary), Monica Dolan (Angela Northman), Richard McCabe (George Matheson), Phoebe Fox (Carrie Gershon), Babou Ceesay (Sgt. Mushtz Saddiq), John Heffernan (Major Howard Webb)

As Shakespeare said, sometimes we are urged: “to do a great right, do a little wrong”. Eye in the Sky is a film about that dilemma. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 on the terrorist “Most Wanted” list are meeting in a house in Kenya. They are preparing suicide bombers. A series of attacks could be minutes away. A drone strike will probably save hundreds of lives. Seems obvious doesn’t it? Unfortunately, sitting in the fatality zone is an innocent young girl, just trying to sell bread. Take out the bombers and you’ll save dozens of other children – but you’ll almost certainly kill this one child.

Your initial reaction to this sort of situation would probably be “thank goodness that’s not my decision”. Problem is, you get the feeling many of our elective representatives feel the same: as the situation escalates (from capture, to kill, to controlled strike, to a certainty of civilian casualties) so does the buck-passing, from politician to politician all unwilling to make a call.

Guy Hibbert’s well researched and thought-provoking script combined with Gavin Hood’s taut direction make this a gripping conversation thriller about the impossibility of moral debates. Hibbert’s script brilliantly piles moral debate on moral debate – just as we accept the desirability of one action, the circumstances change with bewildering speed. Everything, from a change of travel plans to battery failure on a vital piece of equipment, amps up the pressure and makes the situation more morally unpalatable.

The buck-passing becomes almost a dark farce in this expert script. A put-upon civil servant is repeatedly sent to communicate with a string of senior leaders, from the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister. Later a crucial decision takes place over a conference call, with an ever-expanding series of international attendees. It’s like a deadly serious Yes, Minister, with Jeremy Northam’s junior minister a flummoxed and vacillating Jim Hacker.

The military seems equally divided – senior officers focus on the big picture, aware of the evil they must do but seeing it as a necessity to prevent worse acts, but the junior ranks actually executing the strikes push back with increasing distress. Mirren’s colonel pressures a sergeant into effectively falsifying a fatality prediction for the girl, to push her superiors into authorising the strike on this vital target. A shallower film would have played great play of this. But Hood and Hibbert never take that easy route.

The film also explores distance conflict. Nearly all the participants are based thousands of miles away, watching on screens and pushing buttons. Rickman’s General has a knock-out final speech about his first-hand experiences of the horror of suicide bombings – and compares this to the moral objections of the greatest opponent of military action in the film, who has watched it all play out with “coffee and biscuits”. Remote warfare is neither in itself good or bad – and those objecting to actions are not angels, just as those pushing for action have their own moral reasons for doing so, and the film demonstrates that amidst all this, the “right answer” (if there is such a thing) can be almost impossible to identify.

Conversation thrillers like this are dependent on the quality of the actors – so it’s lucky we’ve got a great cast here. A gimlet-eyed Helen Mirren is as tough as you’ve seen her as the field commander who suppresses all doubt in pursuit of the greater good. In his last on-screen role, Alan Rickman gives one of his best performances as a wry, humane general who has come to terms with the hideous moral cost soldiers have to bear. His increased exasperation at the procrastination of his political masters adds some black comedy, but he also gives the character a wonderful humanity (a prologue in which he struggles to buy his grandchild a present is not only wonderfully witty, but humanises the character immediately).

Few actors do tortured conscience under the surface better than Aaron Paul – and his drone pilot turned reluctant killer provides much of the moral force of the film. Paul’s sensitive and anguished divide between following orders and living with the knowledge he’s wilfully condemning a child to death is beautifully done. Barkhard Abdi grounds his field operative not only with much of the film’s more conventional derring-do, but also layers the character with dedication and selflessness.

Eye in the Sky is a marvellous piece of tense and layered film-making. It makes high drama out of moral quandaries, and really makes us pause to stop and think about the impact of our decisions both in a wider context, and a very painful immediate one. The professional military figures – even Mirren’s cold Colonel Powell – are motivated by a painful familiarity with acceptable loss, rather than gung-ho aggression. The politicians struggle to reach a decision not only through reluctance, but with empathy for their potential victims. It overeggs the pudding with its final shots of the young girl who has unwittingly been at the centre of a major international incident, but other than that it hardly puts a foot wrong.

The Winslow Boy (1999)

Nigel Hawthrone will stop at nothing for justice for his son in faithful literary adaptation The Winslow Boy

Director: David Mamet

Cast: Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebeccca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillet (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry)

David Mamet surprised those who associate him with macho, alpha-male led drama with this sensitive and faithful adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play. After his young son Ronnie is sent down from naval college for stealing a five shilling postal order, Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne, terrific) will stop at nothing to clear his name, supported by his suffragette daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon, excellent in a difficult role). They recruit Sir Robert Morton (an electric Jeremy Northam) to champion Ronnie’s case, as the scandal rocks the nation.

There can’t be many film adaptations of plays that so completely avoid “opening up” the play. The settings and dialogue of Rattigan’s original are kept largely as is. This means that – just as in the play – all the major dramatic events happen off-stage and are reported in dialogue. The campaign to clear Ronnie’s name? Apart from flyers and newspaper prints in Winslow’s home, you’re not seeing that. Morton’s advocacy of the case in the House of Commons? The smallest of scenes. The crowds outside the Winslow home? A faint echo on the soundtrack. The pivotal court case itself? Not a single shot. If ever a production made Rattigan feel more like Chekov, I’m yet to see it.

This theatricality is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll admit it may create a film a bit too contained and low key for some. But catch this in the right mood and Mamet’s carefully considered staging brings many of its smaller moments and personal interactions into shape. Would a film full of triumphal courtroom scenes have so perfectly captured anti-climax and confusion that can come after an event that has dominated your whole life comes to an end?

This approach also allows the relationships to come front and centre – in particular the growing attraction between Catherine and Morton, treated lightly and subtly but with huge warmth. Catherine here mirrors the main plot. Her suitors are, in turn: an upright military careerist (whom she loves, but we care little for), a gentle non-entity (whom we like but she is bored by) and the imperious Morton – on the surface someone she shares few opinions with but, subconsciously, recognises a deep kinship with. Like the public reaction to the campaign, the attitudes of these people to Catherine represent the wider reactions happening off-camera. The Morton-Catherine story is a beautiful romance in which not a single word of overt, direct affection passes between the two characters, but volumes are increasingly spoken in each glance.

Mamet’s approach also allows plenty of stagy touches to translate really well to film. The film is clearly divided into acts, and each one returns us to the Winslow home, each time in less pomp than before (by the final scene it’s stripped down to bare essentials). Arthur Winslow is less and less sturdy each time we see him, the character shrinking ever closer to old age and infirmity. Each member of the family increasingly pays heavier prices, as their financial security is sacrificed (though Mamet certainly understands the characters’ very British acceptance of these turns in fortune).

The other major benefit is that the acting comes to the fore. I’m not sure Jeremy Northam has been better than he is here: the one downside of not staging the courtroom scenes is that we will never get to see Northam play them! His Morton is a perfectly pitched imperious upper-class professional, whose exterior hides a compassionate and selfless concern for “right”. The film’s most electrifying moment is his hostile examination of Ronnie, a dynamic verbal assault that rips into the film’s quiet austereness, crackling with tension. Northam is so good, at one point I am sure he muffs a line – but he carries it off with such brilliance (the austere man awkwardly burying his feelings) that Mamet keeps it in (take a look around 2:10 here and make up your own mind!). It’s also a beautifully real moment – the man of words, briefly revealed by them. This scene is, by the way, a masterpiece of unspoken emotions and affection (from both actors).


The other main performers are equally strong. Nigel Hawthorne mixes his cuddly avuncular wit with hints of the monomaniacal obsessiveness that leads Winslow to drain his resources, and strength, in pursuit of justice. While the film doesn’t always acknowledge the sometimes self-destructive effects of Winslow’s passion – and only hints at how much Winslow sees the accusation against his son as a personal affront, as if questioning his son’s honesty is questioning his own – Hawthorne keeps the character morally rigid yet sympathetic and understandable.

Rebecca Pidgeon, the director’s wife, is practically an open target for suggestions she only got the part through nepotism. Such views are unjust. While her accent seems a little forced, her performance as the slightly distant, intellectual, prickly and driven Catherine is spot-on. The crusade begins as her father’s obsession, which she shares. Their characters then evolve so naturally that you only realise at the conclusion that she has become the lead character, and the main driver of the crusade, for quite some time.

I’ve seen The Winslow Boy three or four times now. The first time I saw it I was thrown (disappointed) by its staginess, its surface stateliness. However, since then I’ve grown to appreciate its careful, respectful lack of showiness more and more. It’s an intelligent, well-handled adaptation, crammed with wonderful performances. Yes it’s sometimes a little too “Masterpiece Theatre”, but when it can deliver such stirring, and moving, moments as it does – well you could never refuse it a place in your heart. Let Right Be Done.