Tag: Literary adaptations

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.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Hope and friendship are put to the test in one of the most beloved films ever made

Director: Frank Darabont

Cast: Tim Robbins (Andy Dufresne), Morgan Freeman (Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding), Bob Gunton (Warden Samuel Norton), William Sadler (Heywood), Clancy Brown (Guard Bryon Hadley), Gil Bellows (Tommy Williams), James Whitmore (Brooks Hatlen), Mark Rolston (Bogs Diamond)

You’d hardly believe it… but the film now routinely listed as one of the most beloved films of all time was actually a box office bomb. The Shawshank Redemption tops many public polls of great films. It’s been the number one film on IMDB practically since the site was built. What is it about it that has had such a connection with people? Perhaps it’s because, under the multitude of genres the film touches on, it’s a film about the strengths of two things crucial to all of us: hope and friendship.

In 1947 Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a mil-mannered bank manager, is imprisoned for life in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. For the next twenty years, Andy will get busy living rather than get busy dying, finding what moments of warmth, friendship and hope he can from rebuilding the prison library to helping his fellow prisoners. But he’ll also face daily danger, from sexual assault from brutal fellow prisoners to the machinations of corrupt warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton). During his time in prison, his confidant and closest friend is Red (Morgan Freeman), a smart fixer who has spent decades failing his parole hearings.

This is possibly the finest Stephen King adaptation ever made – the other major contender, Kubrick’s The Shining, has the disadvantage of being loathed by the author – perhaps because it captures both the Dickensian sprawl and sentiment of King’s best work, mixed with his edge and danger. There is a charming shaggy-dog story element to The Shawshank Redemption that helps make it delightful to watch. Not only that, it carefully builds up empathy for two people, both of whom are convicted murderers. It manages this as it turns its prison setting into a universal metaphor for the helpless victim trapped in a system.

Because, for all the pious spouting of the Warden (Bob Gunton at his most hypocritically vile), Shawshank is a place devoid of justice. On Andy’s first night in prison, a fellow new arrival is beaten to death for refusing to stop his terrified whining by head guard Hadley (a terrifyingly blank and amoral Clancy Brown). Abuse of power is pretty much endemic in Shawshank – as Andy discovers as he witnesses the guard’s casual brutality, and his accounting skills drags him into building the corrupt financial empire Norton runs with the slave labour of the prisoners.

Shawshank is all about squeezing hope out of people. It’s nothing less than a dystopian hell hole where there is no right and wrong. That’s Andy’s big impact on the place: for all its hellishness, he helps create some sort of freedom. Darabont wonderfully establishes the crushing dehumanising of the prison, so that moments where people can pretend for a moment they are free carry even more power. Whether that’s drinking cold beers on a freshly tarred roof (inveigled by Andy in return for sorting out Hadley’s inheritance tax problems) or listening to Mozart over the prison speakers. It’s there in the rebuilding of the library as a place prisoners can feel pride in or Andy coaching others to gain their school diplomas. And we feel every moment of it with them.

And that’s not even thinking about how brutish some of the other prisoners are. Much of Andy’s first few years in prison see him dodging gang rape from a group of particularly violent prisoners (led by a sneeringly vicious Mark Rolston). For that opening act, Andy is tossed as low as you can go, Darabont pulling no punches on vicious beatings or terror he has to endure. Hope becomes more powerful when it grows out of despair.

But that suffering is crucial because it gives even more warmth and power to the friendship between Andy and Red. Shawshank Redemption is a beautiful platonic love story, about a deep and lasting bond between friends. The warmth, regard and affection between these two characters, who discover how much they have in common is beautifully paced and supremely engaging.

It’s also helped a great deal by two fabulous performances from the leads. Tim Robbins’ baby-faced inscrutability is perfect for a man who may or may not be a murderer, and looks like he both needs protection and also has the internal strength to see him through anything. You can see why Red thinks, on first meeting him, he might be weak – but also never doubt for a moment that he’s strong enough to wade through the filth of Shawshank.

Opposite him is an iconic, beautiful performance from Morgan Freeman. Darabont’s film uses Freeman’s gorgeous tones to perfection through Red’s narration. Freeman of course gives Red a wonderful world-weary wisdom but also a sort of innocence. Red has worked out perfectly how to bend the rules of the prison – so confidently that he’s an awe of someone who finds out a way to break them completely. This is some of the actor’ finest work, making Red witty, shrewd, self-aware but also in some ways touchingly naïve and scared that he could never survive outside the prison.

Institutionalisation is a major danger in prison: it’s part of the danger of giving up hope, of accepting the status quo that your whole life is those four walls. But then, it’s also the terror of leaving a regimented world, where some decisions are made for you and you can always know your place. One of the film’s finest sequences covers the tragic end for Brooks, wonderfully played by James Whitmore, an educated and respected librarian inside but an irrelevant, old man outside, day-dreaming of one day being allowed to ‘go home’. It’s a danger Red knows could hit him too – after all he’s the best fixer inside, but a man with no such purpose outside.

Darabont’s film understands it. In fact, the film itself encourages the viewer to get a bit institutionalised themselves. The audience enjoys Andy’s triumphs, the commadre between the prisoners, the fun of the tables subtly turned. So much so the viewers can forget that this should be a film about getting out of this hell. (In fact you can argue, after a time, it makes prison look a little like an eternal boys camp). It shakes the viewer up as much as Andy when this status quo we’ve started to enjoy gets shaken up by the arrival of young thief Tommy (Gil Bellows). It’s a moment where the viewer realises that the film made a subtle shift from being a prison drama to a buddy movie where our heroes eek out little wins from the system: not least because this is the point when the system reminds Andy (and us) that it’s not to be messed with.

Darabont’s film reforms into a wonderful caper movie, a super-clever heist, covering Andy’s eventual escape. This is classic Ocean’s Eleven stuff and has the double delight for the audience of paying off Andy’s mistreatment and injustice and also allowing us to really enjoy how ingenious he is. Then the film switches gears effortlessly on a sixpence after this moment of delightful triumph with a low-key, tender, Red-focused coda which taps us straight back into the beautiful warmth of that friendship.

Perhaps this is why The Shawshank Redemption is so universally beloved. It’s a prison film and a buddy film, it’s a caper and it’s a film about a crushing system, it’s a film of hellish suffering and deep hope, all framed around a wonderfully judged, life-affirming friendship. Darabont’ script and direction is perfectly judged and immensely moving and the acting is perfect. It works so well because it constantly brings us back to feelings of hope and friendship. Those are universal feeling and they are beautifully presented in the film. We live with Andy being put through the wringer, and relate to him so much, that we feel as cleansed by the rainfall as he does. It’s that which lies at its success; and the brilliant way it gets you to invest in the fate of its characters.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

The French Lieutenant's Woman header
Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play star-crossed lovers (twice!) in The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Director: Karel Reisz

Cast: Meryl Streep (Sarah/Anna), Jeremy Irons (Charles/Mike), Leo McKern (Dr Grogan), Hilton McRae (Sam), Emily Morgan (Mary), Lynsey Baxter (Ernestina), Patience Collier (Mrs Poulteney), Penelope Wilton (Sonia), Peter Vaughan (Mr Freeman), Michael Elwyn (Montague), Richard Griffiths (Sir Tom), David Warner (Murphy), Gerard Falconetti (Davide), Colin Jeavons (Vicar)

Many books have been considered unfilmable. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a key member of that list. Part pastiche, part commentary on Victorian novels, Fowles not only has a narrator who acts as an ironic commentator on events, but also offers up three possible endings to its central romance, each radically different from the one before. Not easy to bring that to film! Adapting it, Reisz and Harold Pinter came up with the concept of mirroring the novel’s central relationship with a relationship between two actors playing those characters in a film being made of the novel. Got that?

So, Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play both the novel’s romantically entwined couple Sarah and Charles AND also Anna and Mike, two actors playing those very roles in a film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, also engaged in a love affair. Both affairs end in radically different ways, mirroring two of the alternative endings in Fowles’ novel. Most of the films runtime sticks with the novels’ plot, where Charles – an ambitious young scientist – is drawn away from his promising engagement to a potential business partners daughter (Lynsey Baxter), by his romantic fascination with Sarah, a woman of ill-repute in Lyme Regis, the former mistress of a French Lieutenant.

Pinter and Reisz’s adaptation is a smart idea. But I feel it misses a trick. If they really wanted to adapt the book – with its intrusive narrator and alternative endings – then the real character to focus on from a film set is not the actors but the director and producers. If our framing device had been watching the rushes in the screening room, seeing differently edited scenes play out in contrasting ways, with producers and director commenting on the action and making decisions about which ending (Happy? Sad? Open-ended?) they stick on the end of the film. Sure, that would have opened itself up to potentially on-the-nose dialogue, but it would be a better representation of the novel and its ideas, and truly translate some of the books real strength (its unique narrative style) to film.

But that’s talking about something the film doesn’t do. What it does do is offer something that is basically a 80% adaptation of the novel’s plot, mixed with 20% short interjections of the modern-day storyline. Deliberately, the film contrasts the intense romance and deeply-felt passions of the Victorian storyline – where acting on desire carries with it a huge, life-shattering cost in disgrace and social expulsion – with the shallow, off-hand flirtations of the modern era, where the stigma of a sexual affair has ceased to exist.

While this is effective in making the Victorian sections carry even more weight, it does mean the modern sections (by design) are slighter and less engaging. Their semi-regular appearance – it isn’t until the final half hour that we get anything approaching a proper sequence set in the present day, with a beautifully played garden party hosted by Mike and his wife (a magnificent putting-on-a-brave-face performance from Penelope Wilton), which is a feast of stolen glances, averted eyes and strained conversation.

But in some places the split narrative works a treat, particularly in allowing flashes of the real life, more unrestrained passion of the ‘real’ people drop into the Victorian characters. In particular, a meeting between Charles and Sarah in the woods (highly reserved), cuts to Anna and Mike rehearsing the same scene (playful and flirtatious). When the rehearsal reaches a key point – Anna/Sarah falling and being caught by Charles/Mike, the film cuts so that Anna falls but then Charles catches Sarah falling. And the scene continues. Suddenly, the Victorian couple has a burst of the same sexual freedom the modern couple has. It’s a beautiful cut. Later, Sarah falls to the ground (pushed by Charles), and suddenly bursts out laughing – and it feels like she falls as Sarah, reacts as Anna, then rises again as Sarah – either way it gives a wonderful, modern energy to the moment.

The film is wonderfully shot by Freddie Francis, with luscious forest vegetation and whipping winds and seas on the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Simmering sexual tensions are caught in lingering gazes, gestures that carry things words cannot, careful reaction shots captured by Reisz, the trapping of several characters within the ephemera of over-decorated rooms (at one point Ernestina literally can’t escape a room because of the all the knick-knacks within it).

A lot of the mood comes from the two lead actors, who give masterful performances. It’s very easy to see Streep’s performance here as overly mannered: her accent is oddly toned and highly studied, and much of her performance as Sarah is wilfully artificial and arch. But that’s deliberate: the genius here is that Streep is playing Anna playing Sarah who is in turn constructing her own fictional Sarah. With her pre-Raphaelite looks and artistic leanings, Sarah is a woman out-of-time, yearning for the sort of choices and freedom Anna takes for granted, constantly pushed into roles society can accept her in (Governess, eccentric, ‘whore’ etc.). Does she use Charles or not? Streep brilliantly captures her enigmatic, unreadable spirit, the sort of person who interjects a retelling of a possibly invented backstory, with a playful twirl around a tree. Who sometimes despises herself, at others everyone else. In contrast, Streep makes Anna assured, quiet and confident, with the power to choose risks.

Just as good is Jeremy Irons, in only his second film role and here cementing the start of a career that would see him play a parade of restrained and very British men struggling with passions they can hardly understand. Charles’ fascination with Sarah is rooted in feelings both sexual and romantic that both fascinate and terrify him. His final surrendering to being true to himself, rather than what is expected of him, carries with it both a power and strange desperate bitterness. By contrast, Mike is a far more flighty, shallow-figure – an actor who perhaps is more in love with the feelings he is playing (and the character that inspires them in his character) than he is with Anna.

Reisz pulls all this together highly effectively, and the film is at its strongest when exploring feminism and the opportunities for women in Victorian England. Those are few and far between. Women have defined roles and expectations and someone who deviates from these – like Sarah – have no place. In addition, women are held responsible for provoking dangerous erotic feelings in men (from women of poor reputation like Sarah, to the prostitutes in a London street). The ability of Sarah to make her own choices and lead the life she wants to lead is the underlying theme of her story – and her motivations. Does she want, however she might feel, a relationship that would define her again as “wife” rather than being truly herself?

These are fascinating ideas in a film full of beautiful images – their first meeting on the Cobb in particular is beautiful – scored expertly by Colin Davis (with just a tinge of suspense in the music). The framing device gives little moments of insight and reflection – even if it is only an approximation of the novel’s effect – but the Victorian set story, and it’s buried passions and social commentary is what really compels, in a way that the slighter modern story (almost deliberately) doesn’t. Either way, it has two brilliant performances, an intelligent script and handsome direction by Reisz.

The English Patient (1996)

Ralph Fiennes excels as the tragic The English Patient

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katherine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Maddox), Jurgen Prochnow (Major Muller), Kevin Whatley (Sergeant Hardy), Clive Merrison (Colonel Fenelon-Barnes), Nino Castelnuovo (D’Agostino)

Sweeping, luscious, beautiful and an epic translation of an almost unfilmable novel into something supremely cinematic, The English Patient swept the board with nine Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards. The English Patient has sometimes had a rocky reputation (not helped by an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was famously non-plussed by the film). Like some of Minghella’s later work, it’s almost too well made for some to get past, looking like prime award bait. I didn’t “get it” the first time I watched it. But I – and the naysayers – were wrong: The English Patient is rich, rewarding and throbbing with a very British sense of repressed emotion and slow embracing of dangerous passions.

Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.

Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.

But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.

Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.

It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.

It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.

Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.

The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.

Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.

The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.

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.

Great Expectations (1946)

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in David Lean’s masterful adaptation Great Expectations

Director: David Lean

Cast: John Mills (Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L Sullivan (Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Abel Magwich), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Anthony Wagner (Young Pip), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs Joe Gargery), Eileen Erskine (Biddy), Torin Thatcher (Bentley Drummle)

Of all Dicken’s books there is perhaps none so popular as Great Expectations – and no Dickens adaptations are more highly regarded than David Lean’s 1946 film. Of course, just under two hours is only time to tell a simplified version of Dicken’s original. But no-one’s taking the book away. What Lean’s film did triumphantly was turn Dicken’s prose into a clear cinematic language and style, without losing the uniqueness of the author’s voice. Lean’s visual mastery is perfectly matched with his experience as an editor of telling a story to produce an endlessly entertaining film.

As a young boy Pip (Anthony Wagner) encounters an escaped convict (Finlay Currie) in a graveyard. Intimidated, Pip brings the convict food and tools to escape his chains – acts which the convict clears him of when he is caught later that day. Weeks later, Pip is invited to the home of rich spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to provide her and her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons) with company. The visits continue until Pip’s apprenticeship as a blacksmith to his brother-in-law Joe (Bernard Miles) begins. Imagine Pip’s (now John Mills) surprise six years later when he is informed by lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) that he has come into money – that he has become a gentlemen of “great expectations”. Assuming it is the work of Miss Havisham – and that he is destined to marry Estella (now Valerie Hobson) – he is horrified to discover his life is more complex than he believed.

The film repackages Great Expectations a bit more into a romance. While the relationship between Pip and Estella, and the bond between them, is clear in the novel – and a large part of its plot – its but one thread masterfully woven together into the final storyline. Here this thread is given prominence, at the cost of several others. It’s not a complaint as such, but it makes Great Expectations into a more traditional story: a feeling added to by the film’s more conventional “feel-good” ending (very different from the much more uncertain ending of the novel, that Dicken’s edited back and forth in different editions to increase or decrease its hopefulness). However, it works for creating a film story, even if it loses some of the depth of the novel.

Its also more than balanced by how much the film gets right. Lean brilliantly captures the novel’s atmosphere, its gothic sense of impending dread, the burden of the past and the paranoia of persecution. For decades the opening scenes of the film, with its masterfully shot and edited mist covered graveyard (simultaneously a place of peace and a place of unsettling unknowability ) bursting into life through the grasping hands of Magwich, were practically used as a textbook example of cinematic language. Lean’s work is intensely cinematic. The mis en scene of Expectations is masterful – everything from casting, to camera angles to score comes together to bring Dickens world to life. This is exactly his London as he wrote it. It’s a wonderful expression of a particular author’s style, told using a mastery of cinematic language – from camera angles to editing cuts.

The characters have that perfect sense of eccentricity laced with menace that Dickens invests them with. Francis L Sullivan’s Jaggers is an unknowable legal machine who is part man of business, part fearsome fixer. Alec Guinness (in his film debut) is good-natured kindness to a T as Pip’s faithful friend Herbert (in one lovely scene he politely and gently corrects Pip’s primitive table manners). Finlay Currie’s Magwich captures the sense of danger and threat in the book’s opening that will become a fatherly meekness in the story’s later acts.

Largest of all, Martita Hunt’s gothic Miss Havisham sits like a giant spider at the centre of a decaying web. The design of Satis House – with its rotting wedding cake, sprawling cobwebbed dinner service, the heavy curtains and lack of light – is just one of the many perfect touches in the film. Hunt herself is superb as this outwardly eccentric aunt, who in fact has been nursing a core of bile and hatred that ends up only hurting those closest to her. There is something hugely dreamlike about Miss Havisham’s home – you suspect Lean may have watched some Cocteau – with its strangely angled table and mix of intimate framing and wide-angle crane shots.

Perhaps because we only see, not read, Pip’s actions in this film it’s impossible not notice what an arrogant snob he becomes. John Mills does decent work in the part, but (much as in the book) Pip ends up feeling like a slightly colourless figure. The film doesn’t always explore in detail the negative sides of his character meaning moments like his patronising dismissal of the kindly Joe (a perfectly judged Bernard Miles), don’t do the character much favours. Mills does however make a larger impression than Valerie Hobson, left slightly adrift as Estella. She’s not helped by how outstanding Jean Simmons is as the young and preciously flirtatious Estella, the perfect picture of the little cruelties teenagers inflict on each other. (A braver film might have had her play the role throughout – but then Mills would look even older than he does!)

The film is very strong on the pain caused to these two characters – and that they cause for each other. More than any other version, we get a sense here of how Miss Havisham’s misguided aim to use Estella as a weapon of revenge on all men only manages to hurt Estella herself and Pip (her one true love as presented here). Just as a Pip’s snobbish dismissal of Joe stings. And Lean’s brilliant sense of pace and rhythm means that this plays hand-in-hand with Pip’s ever more desperate attempts in the second half to save Magwich from doom.

Many of the complexities of the plot (from Estella’s parents to Herbert’s marriage to several key characters) are cut out, but it’s striking how the film still manages to feel so faithful to the book. Lean’s understanding of Dickens mix of eccentricity and darkness is communicated in every frame. The major moments and characters from the book are beautifully bought to life, from that opening scene to Satis House. But also because small moments, like Wemmick’s “Aged P” remain in the film. Sure, the canvas has been reduced – and refocused into a love story of sorts – but the picture that emerges is still very much in the style of Dickens.

That’s what makes it one of the greatest adaptations of all time: it’s both an interpretation of the original and a beautifully judged capturing of its spirit and tone. An adaptation twice the length may have caught more plot, but would not have been such a fine movie. Because so much of this film’s imagery and drama sticks in the mind long after it is finished. Lean’s masterstroke here was to understand completely the heart of the book, and to focus the film on that. Brilliantly assembled, designed, shot and acted, it’s still one of the best literary adaptations ever made.

The Little Stranger (2018)

Little stranger header
Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t believe in ghosts in The Little Stranger

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Dr Faraday), Ruth Wilson (Caroline Ayres), Will Poulter (Roderick Ayres), Liv Hill (Betty), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs Ayres), Harry Hadden-Paton (Dr David Granger), Anna Madeley (Anne Granger), Richard McCabe (Dr Seeley)

Can an adaptation of a novel work when the key to its success was the way it was told rather than the story itself? With its unreliable narrator and distinctively interior style, Sarah Waters’ book was a tough ask. But, making it even harder for the big screen, The Little Stranger is a ghost story narrated by a fervent non-believer, who witnesses none of the supernatural elements and spends his time finding detailed, logical reasons for why the people living in the haunted house are as unsettled as they are. It makes for a challenge which, for all the style Lenny Abrahamson brings, the film doesn’t quite manage to meet.

Our sceptic is Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a young village GP in the years immediately after the Second World War. Faraday grew up in the shadow of the Ayres house, a grand country seat now being lived in by the last remnants of the Ayres family who have fallen on hard times. Son Roderick (Will Poulter) has been left with debilitating injuries after his RAF service, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) seems destined to become a spinster, and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) struggles to hold together what’s left of the house’s prestige, among leaking roofs and bills that can’t be paid. Dr Faraday becomes an intimate of the household. But are the family’s problems partly linked to a malign presence in the house, perhaps the unsettled ghost of a third, long-dead Ayres sibling? Or is it all just bad luck, frozen pipes, branches on the window and creaking floorboards?

Well of course it isn’t. The film’s main problem is that it takes a book where the narrator spends the entire time stubbornly refusing to accept he is in a ghost story, and repackages it as a more conventional tale of creeps and psychological horror. While moments like this are undoubtedly unsettling, it rather flies in the face of what made the book unique in the first place.

In the book you find yourself – despite knowing deep down he’s wrong, because that’s not how stories work – thinking that maybe all this is just a series of terrible coincidences impacting a psychologically fragile family. In the film, you are never in any doubt that the ghosts are real. Not least, because we are frequently witness to supernatural events. When Charlotte Rampling’s character is terrified in the nursery by the ghost of her lost child, we share the terror with her. A truer adaptation of the book would have only shown us the aftermath – a trembling woman on the ground surrounded with broken glass – and asked us if we shared Faraday’s diagnosis of suicidal depression.

The change in perspective from the book has a particularly bad impact on the Faraday character. Faraday, deep down, is a sort of chippy Charles Ryder, as much in love with the house – and the prospect of one day owning it – as he is with the family itself. This mix of longing, envy and class jealousy bubbles under the surface of the character in the book, qualities that we have to read between the lines to detect. In the film however, these qualities are bought firmly to the surface.

This means that, for all Domhnall Gleeson has just the right rigidity and lack of imagination for the born sceptic, it means the character’s sinister possessiveness towards the Ayres house comes more to the fore. In the film it’s hard to escape the sense Faraday is as much a creep as the ghost (something the film even perhaps vaguely suggests in its open-ended conclusion). He’s cold and undeniably bitter, quietly but resentfully recording each moment where he is treated like a retainer.

The film also loses some of the context of the book as well. Part of the reason this house is falling apart is the declining wealth of the family in a world of post-war depression and higher death duties. Today the Ayres house would have been long since flogged to the National Trust. The crumbling house – compared to the grand vision in Faraday’s memories – is itself a metaphor for a particular class in Britain. However, this gets a bit lost in the film. Instead it’s easy to see the Ayres as just personally unlucky rather than symptomatic of a general collapse of the landed class.

But the film does do lots of good things. The ghost stuff is undeniably creepy – even if, as I say, it leaves the viewer in no doubt that Faraday is wrong and the Ayres are right. Will Poulter is very good in a small role as the bitter and scarred son, while Wilson captures a sense of premature middle-aged drift in Caroline, a woman unhappy in her life but unsure what she wants. Rampling is similarly very strong as a crumbling matriarch.

The film also looks lovely – perhaps too lovely, with its idealised view of a 1950s that surely was dirtier than this – and is well assembled. It just fails to bring a narrative drive to the film to replace the uncertainty and scepticism of the narrative voice that made the book so strong. There Faraday’s dismissals and self-denial about his class envy were what made the story compelling: here they are both removed – and what’s left isn’t quite interesting or unique enough to fill the gap.

Rebecca (2020)

Lily James and Armie Hammer do their best in an overblown Rebecca the swops Gothic chills for lovely costumes and locations

Birector: Ben Wheatley

Cast: Lily James (The second Mrs de Winter), Armie Hammer (Maxim de Winter), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Danvers), Keeley Hawes (Beatrice Lacy), Ann Dowd (Mrs Van Hopper), Sam Riley (Jack Favell), Tom Goodman-Hill (Frank Crawley), Mark Lewis Jones (Inspector Welch)

Hitchcock’s film version of du Maurier’s novel casts a long shadow. Few have taken up the challenge to film it since – and Ben Wheatley’s is the first film version in nearly 80 years. But you can be pretty certain that, unlike Hitchcock’s, this one probably won’t be being watched 80 years from now.

In Monte Carlo, a young woman (Lily James) meets and falls in love with rich Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower on holiday. They marry and return to his seat at Manderley. However, on arrival the second Mrs de Winter finds that she is living in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. This feeling is encouraged by the passive aggressive manipulation of Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Slowly, the second Mrs de Winter starts to worry that even her sanity starts to be slipping.

Wheatley is a director with a love of thriller and horror, and he really should be a natural fit to take on du Maurier’s gothic creepiness. But Wheatley feels almost constrained by the period title and beauty. This is a film that totally misses its gothic beats, instead settling for being a lusciously filmed costume drama. It has only a few traces of the unsettling psychology or air of ghostly possession that the story requires, and even those are chucked in haphazardly and then forgotten in order to make way for a pretty sunset or generic shot of Lily James looking sad in the rain.

The inescapable feeling on watching this is that Wheatley actually wants to turn the story into a more conventional romance. The age difference between Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter has been almost removed.  With Armie Hammer too young and Lily James too pretty, there is no ambiguity to Maxim’s feelings or motivations, nor any power imbalance to their charming, sunlit courtship, filled with carefree drives and charming beach picnics. Gone are the suspicions (for both the second Mrs de Winter and us) as to what a rich, sophisticated older man could see in a shy, unremarkable, average-looking girl who’s employed as little more than a servant.

It also removes much of the vulnerability and uncertainty Mrs de Winter should feel, by bringing her onto more equal terms with her husband. From du Maurier’s vision of an innocent woman feeling out of her depth as she’s plunged into an alien world, unable to break through the hauteur of a distant, older husband, we instead get far more of a conventional whirlwind romance that sours when the couple return home.

It’s not really the fault of the two leads, who give sterling work. Lily James has just about the right vulnerability to her, even if she’s still got a bit more spark than the quiet, demure character needs. But James has a fabulous sense determined earnestness to her, an eagerness to do the right thing and not let anyone down (her greater dignity and strength also pays off in sequences where Mrs de Winter takes on a stronger position in the marriage).

As Maxim, Armie Hammer has the right sort of authority and conveys the distance and coolness of the character, even while he is clearly too young and at times seems a bit hampered by his accent and setting. (Like some American actors, he at times struggles to fully comprehend the issues of class within the film.) Perhaps the main weakness to the casting is, by playing up his charm and romanticism, you never really think for a moment that this is a bloke who might have murdered his wife. It also makes him never feel like the sort of chap who could honestly ever have though about dispatching his new wife. It again strips out much of the darkness and dread of the original.

Needless to say, Kristin Scott Thomas has a ball as Mrs Danvers, the obsessed and bitter housekeeper, a part that hardly pushes her to her limits but which she delivers more than enough in. Wheatley pays homage to several of Hitchcock’s shooting decisions around the character, and the conveying of her menace is probably the film’s most successful beat.

However, the film fails at too many other important points. The sense of the previous Mrs de Winter haunting the home is lost completely. Too often the creepiness and psychological fear the film is aiming for gets lost, with periodic bursts of Cornish singing used too obviously to suggest unsettling menace. One very successful sequence set in a room of mirrors just serves to flag up how painfully absent the sense of threat and fear are from the rest of the film. To be honest, it’s a film that needs more darkness, more shadows. Instead everything is lit with all the prestige handsomeness of Merchant Ivory and Sunday dramas. Why did Wheatley go for this visual approach? Did he feel that it was expected from the lovely locations and luscious costumes?

And the costumes and the sets do look lovely. The shooting colours are vibrant and beautiful. It’s very grand and charming and it turns a haunting novel with dark deeds at its heart into something safe and neutered.

 The final product is what happens if a combination of styles are thrown together in a way that service not the story, but how each element of it could be best presented. When the film wants to show off the set and costumes, it’s bright and beautiful. At the few times it wants to suggest ghostly intimidation, we get some chanting and a few darkened rooms and billowing curtains. Neither plays well off the other and the film ends up feeling professionally mounted but workmanlike. It’s a shame as Wheatley could have really made something of this. But it feels like he has been forced into a prestige costume drama straightjacket.

Atonement (2007)

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are lovers divided in Atonement

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, aged 13), Romola Garai (Briony Tallis, aged 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Older Briony Tallis), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall), Patrick Kennedy (Leon Tallis), Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis), Peter Wight (Inspector), Daniel Mays (Tommy Nettle), Nonso Anozie (Frank Mace), Gina McKee (Sister Drummond), Michelle Duncan (Fiona)

The past is a foreign country. Sadly, it’s not always the case that they do things differently there. Instead, it can be a land of regrets and mistakes that we can never undo. Events that once seemed so certain, end up twisting our lives and shaping our destinies. A single mistake can mean a lifetime of never being able to atone. These are ideas thrillingly explored in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, one of the finest in his career. The same ideas carry across to this handsomely mounted adaptation, which looks gorgeous but often tries too hard to impress.

In 1935, the Tallis family owns a grand country house. Precocious Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is on the cusp of her teenage years, and believes she understands the world perfectly. A budding writer, her imagination, curiosity and romanticism overflow. But her youthful mis-interpretation of the romantic interactions between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy)ends in a tragically mistaken accusation that destroys Robbie’s life. Five years later, Robbie serves as a private during the British retreat from Dunkirk, Cecilia is a nurse in London and Briony is training to become the same – their lives still shaped by those misunderstandings on that fateful night.

Atonement is a film I’m not sure time has been kind to. Released in 2007 to waves of praise (including Oscar nominations and a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Film), it has the classic combination of literary adaptation, period beauty and big themes. But re-watching it (and it’s the third time for me), the film rewards less and less. Instead, my overwhelming feeling this time was it was a tricksy, show-off film that – despite some strong performances, in particular from McAvoy and Ronan – strained every second to demonstrate to the viewer that Joe Wright belonged with the big boys as a cinema director.

Constantly, the emotional impact of the film is undermined because nearly every scene has an overwhelming feeling of being ”Directed”. Wright pours buckets of cinematic tricksiness and flair into the film – so much so that it overwhelms the story and drowns out the emotion. With repeat viewings this overt flashiness becomes ever more wearing. Scenes very rarely escape having some directorial invention slathered on them. Direct-to-camera addresses where the background fades to back (giving the air of a confessional). Events unspooling (and at one tiresome moment played in reverse) to illustrate time reversing to allow us to see events from a different perspective. Other visual images seem cliched beyond belief: a divine flash of light behind McAvoy while he struggles against death in Dunkirk or, worst of all, Nurse Briony talking about never being able to shed the guilt from her childhood actions while vigorously washing her hands.

Perhaps most grinding of all is the (Oscar winning) score from Dario Marinelli which hammers home the questionably reality of some of the scenes we are watching (or at least the creative filter that Briony is placing over them) by building in excessive typewriter whirs and clicks into its structure. It hammers home one of the film’s key themes: that at least part of what we are watching is based solely (it is revealed) on the recollections of the much older Briony, now a respected novelist. That perhaps, some of the events are her creative interpretation, wishes or even flat-out invention. This is a neat device, but perhaps one that could have worked better with a framing device to place it into context. Instead the reveal feels tacked on at the end – for all that this is the same approach McEwan takes in the novel (with greater effect).

But then, for all the film faithfully follows the structure of the novel (in a respectful adaptation by Christopher Hampton), too often its warmth and feeling get lost in the showy staging. Although part of the tragedy is that Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship is destroyed before they even get a chance to explore it fully, the chemistry between the two of them isn’t quite there and the film doesn’t quite communicate the bond between them being as deep as it would need to be. So much of this in the book was communicated through interior monologue – and the film refuses to take a second away from its flashiness to compensate for this by allowing the relationship between the two to breathe.

Instead Joe Wright prioritises his directorial effects. For all that his over five-minute tracking shot through the beach of Dunkirk is hugely impressive and dynamic – and it really captures a sense of the madness, despair, fear and confusion of the evacuation – this isn’t a film about Dunkirk. It is a film about a relationship – and using the same flair to make us fully buy into, and invest in, this relationship would perhaps have served the film better. It’s striking that, in the long-term, the most impressive scenes are the quieter ones: Benedict Cumberbatch’s chilling house guest’s subtly ambiguous conversation with Briony’s young cousins, or Robbie and Cecilia meeting in a crowded café after years and struggling to find both the words and body language to communicate feelings they themselves barely understand. In the long term, scenes like this are worth a dozen tracking shots – and demonstrate Wright has real talent behind all the showing off.

But the film is striking, looks wonderful – as a mix of both The Go Between and a war film – and in James McAvoy’s performance has a striking lead. McAvoy’s career was transformed by his work here – boyish charm with a slight air of cockiness under his decency, turned by events into fragility, vulnerability, fear and an anger he can’t quite place into words. Knightley gives one of her best performances – although, as always, even at her best she hasn’t the skill and depth of a Kate Winslet. Or a Saoirse Ronan for that matter, who is outstanding as the young Briony – convinced that she is right and that she understands the world perfectly, but as confused and vulnerable as any child thrown into a world that in fact she doesn’t comprehend.

Atonement has its virtues. But too often these are buried underneath showing off, ambition and tricksiness. Sadly this reduces its effect and leaves it not as successful a film as it should be.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Ryan O’Neal is Barry Lyndon in Kubrick’s brilliantly distant epic

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Redmond Barry), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Michael Hordern (Narrator), Patrick Magee (Chevalier du Balibari), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Marie Kean (Belle Barry), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), André Morell (Lord Wendover), Anthony Sharp (Lord Hallam), Philip Stone (Graham), Arthur O’Sullivan (Captain Feeney)

Kubrick has been criticised as a director more interested in style and the technical tricks of cinema than emotion, and there is perhaps no argument for the prosecution than Barry Lyndon. It now seems to the cineaste’s choice du jour as the greatest Kubrick film (probably partly because it is less well-known). Barry Lyndon however is like an exercise in all Kubrick’s strengths and weaknesses, a film that you can admire at great length while simultaneously caring very little about anything that happens in it.

Based on a William Makepeace Thackeray (although it feels in spirit only), Barry Lyndon tells the story of Irish chancer Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in the mid eighteenth century. Fleeing Ireland after (he believes) killing an English officer in a duel, Barry goes from the British arm to the Prussian army, to card-sharping the courts of Europe to marrying into the aristocracy, as husband to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). But, however hard he tries, it’s difficult for an Irish chancer to be accepted by the British aristocracy, particularly when he suffers from the vocal hatred of his wife’s son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). 

Kubrick spent several years carrying out research for an epic biopic of Napoleon (he had Ian Holm lined up for the lead role – Holm read multiple biographies and spent months working on a script with Kubrick). The flop of Waterloo (with a deliciously hammy Rod Steiger as Napoleon) killed off the chances of that film making it to the screen. Never-the-less Kubrick now had a vast archive of research for the period – and how easy it was to shift the focus of this research back a few decades. Thackeray’s novel was his chance to put all this to use – and allow Kubrick to indulge what had become a passion for the style of the era.

Barry Lyndon won four Oscars – and all in the areas where the film deserves unqualified praise. This is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, surely a contender for one of the most strikingly gorgeous films ever made. Ken Adam’s set design utilises a superb range of locations across the UK, dressed to breath-taking effect. The costumes, completely accurate to the period, are exquisitely detailed (Milan Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderland) and lusciously mounted. Leonard Rosenman’s score is a wonderful riff on a range of masterpieces from classical music, including Handel, Bach, Schubert and Mozart.

Most strikingly Kubrick decided to film as much as possible with natural lighting only, rather than the vast array of lighting bought in for most films. This was part of Kubrick’s intention to avoid any sense of the studio to his film – everything was to be shot on location and to help immerse the viewer in the detail of the period. Shots were framed to imitate artists of the period, in particular Hogarth. Evening scenes were shot lit only by candle-light, leading to truly stunning images, simply superbly lit. John Alcott’s photograhy utilised (and I’m serious here) NASA designed cameras used for the moon landings to capture images in such low light. Visually, Barry Lyndon may be one of the most perfect films ever made. It’s wonderful – and any doubts that Kubrick is not a true master of cinema should be dismissed.

But Kubrick’s problem, as always? He’s a technocrat artist who lacks some soul. So much time and energy has been expelled on the visuals and the design – the film took almost a year to shoot – that, while you are constantly almost hypnotised by its sublime imagery, it slowly occurs to you that you couldn’t care less about most of the events that happen in it. For all the film’s great length and beauty, it’s a cold and distant film. Kubrick turns Thackeray’s rogueish comic tale – a picaresque dance – into a chillingly sterile meditation on fate, with Barry transformed from a rogue and chancer into a lifeless, passive figure to whom things happen rather than ever attempting to instigate them. 

Is this Kubrick’s idea of humanity? Perhaps it suits the director who was the great master of intricate design and traps, that he would be tempted to turn this story into one where humans are just another piece of set dressing moved around and manipulated by an unseen force (fate, or rather a director?). The distancing effect is further by super-imposing an all-knowing narrator over the events, who frequently pre-empts what will happen and stresses the powerlessness of men. (On a side note, the book is narrated by Barry as were early screenplay drafts – perhaps the idea of O’Neal’s flat voice narrating so much of the action horrified Kubrick. It’s a definite improvement to get Michael Hordern’s tones talking to us for three hours.)

Perhaps though, the failure to capture any sense of Thackeray’s satirical wit, is a sharp reveal of Kubrick’s own inability to appreciate comedy – without the guiding hand of a Peter Sellers to support him. The problem is exacerbated by Ryan O’Neal in the lead role. Kubrick was ordered to hire one of the top ten box office draws of 1972 in the lead role – alas only O’Neal and Redford were the correct age and sex, and Redford (first choice) could never see himself as an Irishman masquerading as an Englishman. So O’Neal got the job – and the film is a damning indictment of his lack of charisma, flat and dry delivery and inability to bring life and energy to the proceedings (although O’Neal has blamed the editing partly for this, as well as the extended shoot). The film helped put an end to O’Neal’s career as a star (already on the wane) – and he is the film’s greatest weakness, in a role that needed more of the impish charm of Malcolm McDowell (although the lead actor from any of Kubrick’s films would have been superior). O’Neal’s presence turns Barry into a character we care nothing for, in a story already coldly distant.

O’Neal is also not helped by Kubrick’s utilising again his great love of striking British character actors – every role is filled with a recognisable face from 1970s British film and TV, each bringing colour and vibrancy to their (often brief) scenes. From Leonard Rossiter – weasily as you’d expect – as the captain Barry thinks he kills, through Patrick Magee’s ambivalently sinister Chevalier, Marie Kean’s loving mother, Murray Melvin’s obsequious priest, Godfrey Quigley’s matey army officer there is not a weak turn elsewhere in the movie. Leon Vitali brings real depth and energy into the film late on as Barry’s son-in-law and hated rival. Even Marisa Berenson – reduced to a dozen lines at most – makes an emotional impression as a woman trapped into serving the needs of the men in her life.

All these actors however are revolving in a movie that gets stuck and overwhelmed in its own grandeur and beauty. There are many wonderful sequences – with the film bookended by two duelling sequences that explore the strange rules and conventions with this society with a vicious black humour. Kubrick’s points about the oppressive insularity of the establishment – and the amount of forgiveness it has for its own, compared to the instant judgement of the outsider – are generally well-made, but are at times so laced with the director’s own cynical views of humanity in general (an increasingly clear trait in his later work) that they carry little impact. Despite this the film is never less than strangely captivating, even if its very easy to let it drift past you rather than invest in it.

But above all, while the film is stunning and the direction of Kubrick near faultless, the film itself gets so close to a great painting that it becomes something you hang on the wall to admire, but not to invest in. Kubrick couldn’t match his genius with the sort of emotion or wit that the story needed (much as it’s vastly superior to Tom Jones, that film gets closer to the spirit of authors like Thackeray than this ever does). Instead, he creates a coldly sterile world, like a perfect experiment in form and style that totally forgets such trivial elements as character and story. For all the film is full of character and events, you’ll find you care very little about them – and that the brilliance of Kubrick is only a partial consolation for that loss.