Tag: Play adaptation

Doubt (2008)

Amy Adams and Meryl Streep wrestle with certainty and Doubt

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Cast: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller)

It’s 1964 in a Bronx Catholic School, run with an iron hand by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). This arch-conservative is in the middle of an unspoken struggle with progressive reformer priest Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who doesn’t feel Catholicism has to be stern, unyielding and guilt-inducing. These tensions underlie Sister Aloysius’ concerns about Father Flynn’s closeness to the boys – in particular the school’s only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When young and naïve Sister James (Amy Adams) reports that Donald returned from a meeting with Father Flynn with alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius is convinced Flynn is guilty of sexual misdemeanours – and makes it her mission to remove him from the school.

Adapted from a Tony-Award winning play, and directed by its author John Patrick Shanley, Doubt is an intense, well-staged, subtle opening-out of a four-hander, that works on screen due to Shanley’s flexibility with the material and the wonderful performances from the four principals. The story serves as a parable of sorts for clerical sex scandals, but ties this smartly into questions of faith and the limits of belief.

Because there are no clear answers in the film (or the play). We never know with cast-iron certainty if Father Flynn is guilty or not. All we have are his passionate denials, Sister Aloysius’ equally passionate certainty of his guilt, and a few moments we witness of his interaction with Donald Miller and the other students that are left open to interpretation. Tied into this as well, we have a very clear clash between modernisers and conservatives within the church – and we worry that, in being drawn towards the more sympathetic Flynn, we are in fact rooting for a sex-offender.

Doubt is a film that is likely to keep you questioning who you believe. I even found that repeat viewings can change your perspective on guilt or innocence – this time I was far more alarmed by Hoffman’s genial Father Flynn than I remembered (a lecture on clean nails he gives to the boys walks a wonderful line between hygiene and unsettling creep). Shanley’s expansion gives us more scenes of Flynn interacting with other priests. It’s clear the priesthood is a boisterous boys club, with jokes and drinking – much more fun than the staid, milk-drinking silence of the nuns’ meals – but this is also the clubbish pact of secrecy that let real-life paedophiles be quietly moved from parish to parish.

Sister Aloysius may be practically a poster-child for why people find religion off-putting, but she’s absolutely on-the-money in her determination to root out abuse. Yet while her determination to rid the church of abusers is genuine, does she really believe in Flynn’s guilt, or is it a prop she reaches for to justify her own dislike of him and his beliefs about the church? We’re never certain.

And that is part of the smartness of Shanley’s work. Because in the end all we have to go on is faith and our own belief. Which is pretty much like the whole of religion itself. There is enough in the film to convince you of the guilt or innocence of Flynn, the upright justice or corrupt selfishness of Aloysius. Their approaches to religion are radically different – Flynn sees it as their duty to be open and involve the community, to integrate their interests; to Aloysius the church only works if it is strict, austere and sets a moral example to all. A meeting between the two of them is a masterclass in micro-aggressions over everything from choice of chairs, pouring of tea, serving of sugar, closing blinds, you name it.

This is the trace of theatre in the piece – and theatre is when it is at is strongest. Shanley’s direction is largely unfussy, although he is prone to overuse Dutch angles to hammer home the uncertainty and to overplay a metaphor of the wind (a storm is coming you know!). But when he avoids too much fuss, the film is very effective. The opening up of the play works very well, with most of the additional characters (be they added nuns, parishioners or children in the school) largely used as silent extras that help to create a wider world as well as adding more reaction shots that help us build up even more our questions and doubts about the versions of a story we are hearing..

And the added question over this is the identity of the victim. As the only black child in the school, does his dependence on Flynn come from Donald’s sense of isolation? Is he vulnerable because of bullying and simply in need of the genuine kindness of a substitute father figure, in place of the bullying and violent father he actually has? Or does this isolation make him the perfect target for a predator? Most daringly, Foster’s mother (brilliantly played by Viola Davis in a single extended scene) when confronted with the possibility of abuse by Sister Aloysius even suggests that abuse might be price worth paying for the opportunities being at the school will give her son, the sort of opportunities his parents never dreamed of. Race is a low-key note, but it’s there.

Doubt’s real strengths are in the acting. All four of the principals were Oscar-nominated. Streep was the obvious choice as Sister Aloysius and she delivers one of her finest performances. Aloysius is stern, unbending, dangerously, even recklessly certain of herself and her faith in herself as a force of justice – but believes she is acting for the best motives (or at least is very vocal that she is, rather that is actually true is a whole other question). Streep adds wit (this is after all a woman who views ballpoint pens as the end of civilisation), but also understanding of the vulnerabilities under Aloysius’ rigid conservatism. It’s an outstanding performance.

Amy Adams is charmingly sweet and endearing as a woman caught between two poles, naturally inclined to Flynn’s liberalism and desire to win hearts as well as minds – but also open to using Aloysius’s tactics in the classroom in her struggle to maintain order. Sharply divided, Adams leaves it open whether her desire to see the best in people make her either saint-like or a rube. Hoffman walks an extraordinarily difficult tight-rope as a character both engagingly warm but also (by necessity) unknowable and unreadable. It’s a performance bursting with emotion, but which skilfully disguises that emotion’s motivations. Davis offers a master-class of restrained anxiety, using every ounce of control to keep her difficult life together.

Doubt is a thought-provoking and well-handled staging of a very-good play. Brilliantly acted, it expands the staging of the play but never loses sight of what makes it effective to start with: and will leave you thinking over small moments and as uncertain about truth and prejudice as Sister Aloysius is at its conclusion.

Equus (1977)

Richard Burton struggles to diagnose Peter Firth in play adaptation Equus

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Richard Burton (Dr Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason

In a parallel universe somewhere, there is a film version of Equus that doesn’t have a single horse in it. It’s probably a better version than this. Peter Shaffer’s stage play was a sensation in the 1970s in the West End and on Broadway – but Lumet’s film robs it of the mystique that made it work, by introducing a (literally) brutal realism. This helps reduce the play into being a quite self-important piece of cod-psychology, with ideas that increasingly seem more simplistic the longer the play lasts.

Dr Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a depressed and discontented child psychologist, who is struggling with a general sense of ennui, not sure what is life is for and stuck in a loveless, functional marriage. These feelings grow in him, as he begins to work on the case of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a troubled young man who blinded an entire staple of horses in a seemingly random act of brutality. What were the deep-rooted psychological problems that caused Alan to carry out this senseless attack? And, by curing it, will Dysart remove from Alan anything that makes him unique?

Shaffer’s stage play used a combination of impressionistic moments, and mime artists, to create the impression of the horses that dominate the imagination (and desires) of Strang. Moments of horse riding (or eventual blinding) were presented symbolically. Meanwhile, Dysart functions as a quasi-narrator, delivering long speeches to the audience on the case, it’s causes and (increasingly) his own feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. It’s a tightrope, that manages to prevent the at-times portentous dialogue and student psychology from seeing either too self-important or slight. Lumet loses this mesmeric suggestiveness, doubling down on its pomposity. It makes for a bit of a mess.

I can totally see why, on film, it was felt necessary to go for real horses. However, it just plain doesn’t quite work. Watching a nude Peter Firth hug, stroke and eventually ride a horse until he reaches an orgasm mid-canter, might have had a sort of magic acted out on stage with dumb-show, puppets and actors as horses. On film, it’s tiresome and suddenly way too much. That’s as nothing compared to the decision to stage the blinding of the horses at the film’s end by showing us in graphic detail a sickle plunging into the eyes of alarmingly real-looking horses, blood pouring across Firth’s face. As that’s (pretty much) the last impression left on the audience for the film, rather than swept up in symbolism you’ll feel grossed out by the graphic violence. It’s not good for the play.

In fact, overlong and too full of speeches and not enough scenes, you watch this and start to wonder if Equus was much cop in any case. Certainly, the way it’s staged here doesn’t work. When Shaffer worked with Milos Forman on Amadeus that play was radically re-worked, extended and remodelled into an actual film that shared lines and DNA with the play, but was a very different beast. Equus is basically pretty close to an exact filming of the stage script, except on location. The show-stopping speeches by Dysart – brilliantly delivered by Burton as they are – come across heavy-handed, portentous and (in the end) off-putting and alienating.

That’s to mention nothing about the plays take on sex and psychology which feels very tired. Needless to say, Strang’s problem is rooted in his relationship with his parents (they fuck you up, you know). His mother (played with wound-up tension by Joan Plowright) is a holier-than-thou type who thinks sex is something a little dirty, while his father (an equally buttoned-up Colin Blakely) is a deeply repressed man who thinks sex is something to be ashamed off. Bound that up with the parents clashes about religion and you wind up with a boy who sublimates his sexual feeling into a confused horse worship, laced with religious overtones.

Which all sounded more daring then than perhaps it does now. Now this sort of sexual confusion (various theories suggest that the young Colin felt his first ever sexual longings after sharing a ride on a horse with a young man and – ashamed of these homosexual yearnings – transferred the association with sex from the man to the horse) was familiar then – it’s pretty much the first thing we look for now. And the insights the play offers around this, don’t carry nearly enough impact or insight to make you feel you are learning something. Anger, frustration, impotence, fear and shame all rear their heads as expected.

Saying that, Peter Firth – who originated the role at both the National and on Broadway – is excellent as Strang. It’s a full-bloodied, committed performance – but also one that is packed with an acute empathy and insight, a sensitive empathy and vulnerability that makes Strang deeply sympathetic even when he is at his most odd.

Richard Burton – who lost his final Oscar bid with this film – is also very good as Dysart. The rich Burton voice is perfectly used for Dysart’s monologues (all filmed in one day, in consecutive order, by Lumet). Burton’s puffy, unhealthy face also matches up perfectly with the sadness and resignation in Dysart – qualities that Burton again brilliantly conveys, his eyes brimming with regrets and his voice catching behind it oceans of confusion, sorrows and self-accusation. It’s one of Burton’s greatest performances, the ideas and elaborate language being a gift for an actor like him who worked best when challenged with complex material.

Unfortunately, the play itself is bogged down in a grimy, unattractive literalism that grinds the life out of it and ends up making it look very slight (this isn’t helped by its huge length). While the acting is very good – Jenny Agutter is also excellent as a young woman whose attempted seduction of Strang triggers a breakdown – the direction is leaden and the play ends up feeling histrionic and simplistic rather than engrossing and insightful.

One Night in Miami (2020)

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Aldris Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jnr have a passionate debate in One Night In Miami

Director: Regina King

Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali), Aldris Hodge (Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jnr (Sam Cooke), Lance Reddick (Brother Kareem), Christian Magby (Jamaal), Joaquina Kalukango (Betty X), Nicolette Robinson (Barbara Cooke), Michael Imperioli (Angelo Dundee), Lawrence Gilliard Jnr (Drew Bundini Brown), Beau Bridges (Mr Carlton)

One night In Miami in 1964… civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL super-star Jim Brown (Aldris Hodge), “King of Soul” Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr) and world heavy-weight champion of the world Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) all gathered in a motel room overnight. We’ll never know what they talked about: but playwright Kemp Powers imagined what might have gone down in that room in a play, which forms the basis of Regina King’s film directing debut.

What do they talk about? Along with some home truths, it’s mostly the state of America and the struggle for racial justice. Malcolm X – edgy and worried for his life – feels singer and businessman Sam Cooke has sold out by pandering to white audiences. Cooke angrily argues that building his own record label for himself and his black artists is beating the white man at his own game. Cassius is having last-minute doubts about converting to Islam. Jim Brown is pondering switching from sport to film-making: after all, what are he and Clay really but “gladiators”?

King’s film is passionate and directed with confidence, even if the film never really escapes from its heritage as a single-setting, one-act play. The action largely takes place in a single room – despite efforts to open it up by having our heroes visit the roof or pop out for supplies. It’s not a surprise that the best moments are also the most theatrical, not least the heated debates that allow the actors to shine.

These debates are so strong, I wish there were more of them. The heart of the film is that argument about the balance between pandering and creating something that will sell. Sam Cooke has had a lot of success – but is it at the cost of not singing about the things he really cares about? Or is he right that people like The Rolling Stones will always open doors he can’t – and if he and other artists can make fortunes from the Stones covering their songs, isn’t that a win for the black community? Malcolm X has no time for that possibility, accusing Cooke of a soft-pedal Uncle-Tomism, content to leave the sort of impassioned protest songs he could be singing to men like Bob Dylan.

Both Brown and Clay are largely left to play peacemaker and devil’s advocate. Hugely successful athletes, they balance justifiable pride with a determination to be their own men. But the film fails to really explore issues in their industries – is their success elevating their community, or just enriching rich white guys? It would have been interesting for Malcolm to turn some his fire on these two. After all an early scene with Brown shockingly demonstrates the limits of sporting success to truly change the opinions of some white Americans about their black neighbours. There would certainly have been plenty for him and Malcolm X to get into in a debate about the right way to progress civil rights. But it never quite happens.

Not that the film is afraid to turn some of its guns on Malcolm X. Kingsley Ben-Adir excels playing a far more fragile, anxious and gentler Malcolm than we expect (after all, it’s so hard not to immediately think of Denzel Washington). This is a Malcolm worried for his and his family’s safety, going through the turmoil of leaving the State of Islam and not sure where his life is heading, other than the fear it won’t be a long journey. Ben-Adir has the fire and passion, but also the nervous sense of being the youngest, least well-known (at the time) of the four, and he creates a successful ambiguity as to whether his friendship with Clay is at least partly based on self-interest.

There is some seriously rich material in this film for the four actors to sink their teeth into, and King’s direction allows each of them a showpiece, while expertly shuffling perspectives. Odom Jnr is superb – not least for his heart-rending and emotional performances of several Cooke songs – as a man who knows deep-down there’s truth to what he’s being accused of, while feeling his shared success is part of doing “his bit” and he’s being unfairly picked on.

Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is the most settled and content of the four, certain of his own destiny and comfortable with his life. In the hands of a lesser actor, his role could be potentially overlooked, but Hodge’s charisma keeps his careful performance compelling. Eli Goree perfectly captures Muhammad Ali’s exuberance, good-natured arrogance and restless energy and mixes it in with a sweet desire for everyone to get along. All four of these actors riff brilliantly off each other.

The film doesn’t let us forget the dangers of the time either. The opening sequence demonstrates the dangers and prejudices all of them face: from booing crowds to threats of physical harm. It’s something we return to time and time again – while Malcolm X’s fear about shadowy figures watching him is a constant reminder that his own death is so close.

But I feel there could have been more. Sam Cooke would also be dead by the end of 1964 – but you could watch this film and not have a clue that within 18 months half the people in it would be murdered. Away from the debates, the film takes a while to get going, and there gaps in issues of racial politics that you feel could have been richly explored.

For all that the film could have been a moment of time, it actually feels a bit disconnected from the rest of history. Where does this event – and the insights we gain about our characters – fit within the perspective of civil rights for the rest of the 1960s, let alone the rest of the century? The film doesn’t quite capture this. More ambition to expand the play beyond that one night into something more far-reaching (imagine what Spike Lee might have made of it) would have been fascinating. As it is, this is a brilliantly acted, well-made film – but still feels like an adaptation of a night at the theatre, a more reassuring rather than challenging film.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

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Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face-off in famous interviews in Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Frank Langella (Richard M Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Irving “Swifty” Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jnr), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis)

If there is a bogeyman in American politics, it will always be disgraced President Richard Nixon. Because, however divisive Donald Trump is, Nixon will always be the king who was toppled, the man some consider a crook and a war criminal, others a gifted politician and negotiator. The truth is somewhere, as always, in the middle – but what seems inarguable is that Nixon was a man of deep personal flaws, which contributed considerably to his fall. Peter Morgan’s play explored the complexities of Nixon’s character through his famous TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, a man with a few chips of his own. Ron Howard takes what was already a fairly cinematic script by Morgan, and produces a smoothly professional, entertaining and very well acted film.

After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has been forced into resigning, he is in the political wilderness. Watergate engrossed the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to follow every detail. Who in television could resist those numbers? Certainly not David Frost (Michael Sheen), who believes if he can secure an exclusive interview with Nixon he could have a television package that could pull in millions of viewers, make Frost a fortune, and catapult him into the front ranks of TV interviewers. Slowly the project comes together. But both participants have a lot to prove: for Nixon this could be a chance of redemption; for Frost to prove he is more than a chat show host better suited to grilling the Bee Gees than the President. With both men underestimating each other, who will emerge on top in the interviews?

One of Ron Howard’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to elicit fine performances from good actors. This is the real bonus he brings to this faithful adaptation of Morgan’s award-winning play. He presents it with a highly skilled professionalism and a refreshing lack of distraction that allows the audience to focus on the acting and the dialogue, its real strengths. Frost/Nixon is sharply written – with Peter Morgan’s expected mix of careful research and dramatic licence (most especially in a late-night phone call between the two men before the final day’s filming) – crammed with fine lines, well drawn characters and fascinating insights into both politics and television.

Perhaps Howard’s finest decision was to ensure the two stars of the play (in both the West End and Broadway) were retained for the film. Langella and Sheen’s performances – already brilliant in the stage version, which I was lucky enough to see – are outstanding here, both of them completely inhabiting their characters. The comfort and familiarity between the two performers are crucial – and ensure that the vital scenes between the two characters carry an electric charge.

Langella brilliantly captures the physicality and voice of Nixon, but also finds deep insights into the President’s tortured soul. He communicates Nixon’s sense of inadequacy and bitterness, his resentment at having to fight all his life for things others have been gifted. He balances this with Nixon’s pride and paranoia that constantly leads him to cheat others first. Langella’s Nixon, lost and bored in retirement, is desperate to regain his statue, but also tortured by a guilt and regret he can hardly bring himself to name. Under his robustness and confidence, lies deep shame and sorrow. It’s a brilliant capturing of perhaps the most psychologically complex leader America ever had.

Sheen is just as superb as Frost. As you would expect from an accomplished mimic, the voice is almost alarmingly accurate (he makes a better Frost than Frost did!). But just as insightful is his understanding of Frost’s psychology. Just like Nixon, Frost is a hard-working lad from a poorer background who has had to fight for everything he has. Sheen’s Frost is a phenomenal hard worker – producer, financier and star of his own career – who works hardest of all to appear an effortlessly confident dilettante. Sheen’s Frost balances immense pressures – facing personal and financial ruin – with an assured smile, keeping every plate spinning by never allowing a moment of doubt.

It leads into fascinatingly different attitudes to the interviews themselves. Nixon prepares in detail – and determines his best strategy is long winded answers that present his case and prevent attack. Frost is so focused on delivering the interviews that he sacrifices his actual interview preparation (certainly more so than he did in real life). Morgan uses the conventions of boxing dramas – corners, breaks between ‘rounds’, advice from their trainers – to capture a sense of gladiatorial combat.

However, the play is more complex than this. The reason why Frost struggles to land a glove on Nixon in earlier interviews on his domestic and foreign policies is that Nixon genuinely believes he is in the right – but (perhaps as Frost understood) the final interviews based on Watergate will see a more vulnerable Nixon as on that subject he knows he’s in the wrong. I suspect the real Frost knew that to get to Nixon on that final topic, he needed to be ‘softened up’ first to feel comfortable and produce a revelation.

Because the film is refreshingly positive in its view of television. A medium that films often attack for being trivial and boiling things down to soundbites and snippets, here acknowledges the strengths that can bring. A single snippet of an apologetic and crushed Nixon is worth thousands of words – and small moments can turn a TV programme from a failure to an event. Howard uses the power of the close-up at these moments to demonstrate how TV can zero in with a merciless gaze on a single moment. It’s a defence of the power of TV and its ability to reduce things down to moments.

Howard’s understanding of the strengths that lie at the heart of the play – and to tell the story simply – is what makes an already cinematic play translate wonderfully to the screen. With Langella and Sheen outstanding (with the supporting cast all equally excellent), the film entertainingly demonstrates the preparation and delivery of the interviews, while offering shrewd psychological insights into two men who had a lot more at a stake – and in common – than at first appeared. Professional, handsome and captivating, this is Hollywood movie making at its best.

Amadeus (1984)

Tom Hulce is the childlike genius in Amadeus

Director: Milos Forman

Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Antonio Salieri), Tom Hulce (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Elizabeth Berridge (Constanze Mozart), Roy Dotrice (Leopold Mozart), Simon Callow (Emanuel Schikaneder), Christine Ebersole (Caterina Cavalieri), Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II), Charles Kay (Count Orsini-Rosenberg), Kenneth McMillan (Michael Schlumberg), Richard Frank (Father Vogler), Cynthia Nixon (Lorl), Patrick Hines (Kapellmeister Giuseppe Bonno), Jonathan Moore (Baron von Swieten)

Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was a smash hit play, both at the National Theatre and on Broadway. With such a delicious plot line – captured so beautifully in its tag line “The Man, the Music, the Madness, the Murder!” – is it any wonder that this fable about the life of Mozart, framed around the envy of his contemporary Antonio Salieri who, as an old man, claims to have murdered the great genius, was swiftly bought to the screen? Radically reworked and restructured by Peter Shaffer for the screen, Amadeus may stand as one of the few times where the script for the film is superior to the script for the stage. And the film itself is so carved out of radiance, that every single production of the play will forever live in its shadow.

As an old man Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) confesses to the murder of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). After a suicide attempt, he tells his tale to a young priest (Richard Frank). As a younger man, Salieri was the court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). He has everything he dreamed of as a young man – fame, riches and a life of music – all of which fortune he sees as a sign from God. His world view is shaken with the arrival in Vienna of the young genius Mozart. A brilliant artist and composer, with a God-given gift for composition, Mozart is also everything the reserved Salieri is not – brash, rude, impulsive and a man of once-in-a-generation talent. How, Salieri wonders, could a man like him be given all the gifts, while Salieri’s music is merely competent? Salieri believes this is a cruel joke played on him by God – made worse by the realisation that alone in Vienna society, Salieri seems able to recognise the genius. Salieri decides to destroy this chosen child of God once and for all.

Shot on location in Prague – and Czech defector Milos Forman was treated as a returning hero when he bought the film there – Amadeus is perhaps one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made. The cinematography is luscious, the production design – utilising every inch of the almost untouched-since-the-18th-century Prague settings (Thank God for Communist inefficiency Forman joked) – sinks you into the era completely while the costume design is striking, imaginative and excellent. The film is an opulent feast. But it is a million miles from being a staid period piece – instead this is something fresh, bold and modern.

Amadeus is perhaps one of my favourite films of all time. I just think it gets everything more or less right. Not least, capturing the idea of the passions and struggle of creativity. It’s clear why this story spoke so clearly to Hollywood, because no film captures as well as this one, the horrible plight of the competent journeymen, working every hour, while watching an effortless genius create masterpieces as easy as breathing. That’s the real tension here – and what makes us all empathise with Salieri, at least on some level. All of us have looked at the things we create – be it putting up a shelf to writing a play – and frustratingly seen our grasp exceed our reach, while seeing others do what we have so failed to achieve with frustrating ease.

Matched in with this, it’s a film that understands perhaps better than any other the burdensome process of creation. It’s easy for viewers to just remember the childish excess of Mozart – but Forman and Shaffer also show a dedicated and passionate worker. Hulce’s Mozart crouches over a billiard table, oblivious to the world around him while he composes (the soundtrack, as it often does, is flooded with the score he is composing, while his wife tries to get his attention – snapping to silence as soon as she succeeds). His dedication to his music is absolute – in his first scene, only hearing the orchestra starting to play his music before his arrival snaps him out of his raucously rude flirtatious banter with Constanze. Scenes of him conducting and directing rehearsals pinpoint his exactitude and perfection. Salieri as well is seen frequently labouring carefully and precisely over his work, while lacking the inspiration of Mozart.

It’s pinpointed with a beautiful late scene, where a bed-ridden Mozart dictates his Requiem score to Salieri. Mozart is electric, precise, his thinking fast-paced, complete, his passion for the score all-consuming – with poor Salieri desperately trying to keep up (“You go to fast” he frequently whines). It’s a scene that captures completely the intensity of mining creation. (Hulce apparently deliberately skipped lines during the scene, to add to Abraham’s confusion in the scene – with Abraham’s later agreement!). Its part of what the film beautifully captures, how being able to bring your ideas, perfectly formed, into the world is the most enchanting drug of all.

So you can see why Salieri grows too loath this blessed talent. In a wonderful moment – again perfectly utilising Forman’s decision to use the music as almost a character in the piece – he flicks through a portfolio of Mozart compositions, all of them first drafts devoid of any correction, the music playing in his head (and on the soundtrack) as he reads. It’s the sort of skill his diligent and slavish composition could never achieve.

It’s pinpointed even more in their first scene together, where Mozart arrives at Joseph’s court. The emperor plays a small welcoming march, composed by Salieri, which is fine. Mozart not only memorises the tune on first hearing it (“The rest is just the same?”) but then beautifully starts to play with it before suddenly turning it into an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, composing this beautiful piece on the spot. Nothing could be more devastating but to see your hack work improved in front of others into something genius – and the genius in question to be so oblivious of the impact, that he behaves like he’s done you a favour. No scene in the movies, I believe, has ever captured so completely this world of difference between the journeyman and the artist.

The film is crammed full of moments like this, all perfectly delivered by a perfectly chosen cast. The film was controversial at the time for using American actors – with their natural accents – rather than Brits (the “American accents jar the ear” whined Brit critic Leslie Halliwell). In fact it’s an inspired idea, that adds an air of modernity to the piece, but also principally opens the door to making the whole genre less stuffy (as if 18th century Venetians would speak with received pronunciation). The only characters who speak with English accents are the most upper-class, Italian-fixated, Opera purists. Everyone else – with even Simon Callow (the original stage Mozart, here in his film debut) adopting an accent – speaks with a Yank twang.

F. Murray Abraham beat out seemingly the whole Western acting world to land the leading role of Salieri. (In a backhanded compliment if ever I heard it, Forman suggested on meeting Abraham that he simply was Salieri). Abraham’s precise, detailed and beautifully judged performance – which allows gallons of resentment and self-pity to bubble under the surface of a tight self-control. He also has a wonderful spry lightness as his elder self, who has come to terms with his failures. It’s a brilliant role – and one Abraham struggled to match for decades to come.

Tom Hulce is equally superb as Mozart. I’ve talked a lot about how wonderfully the film – and Hulce – captures inspiration. But Hulce perfectly mixes this with a childlike vulnerability, an impulsive foolishness and sense of absurdity. His Mozart is frequently rude, obnoxious and interested only in a good time – frequently losing nights to drink, sleeping around with a crude sense of humour. But he’s also sweetly childlike, who needs to be looked after – Elizabeth Berridge (very good, a late replacement for Meg Tilly during shooting) as Constanze frequently has to mother him and manage his life and career. The rest of the cast are equally strong, from Jeffrey Jones’ studied normality as the Emperor, to Roy Dotrice’s firmness as Mozart’s disapproving father.

Amadeus brings this all together superbly – Forman’s direction is faultless – and mixes it together with Mozart’s music. Not a single piece of music is used twice in the film, and each quote from the music has been perfectly chosen to reflect the scene, from the film’s opening with Symphony #25 to its close with the Requiem. Sections from opera performances are shown – with the actors conducting (both learnt). The music soaks through the whole film – Shaffer and Forman believed it was the “third lead”. And it perfectly captures the tone and emotion every time, deepening and enriching the film itself.

Winning eight Oscars (including Picture, Director, Actor for Abraham and Screenplay), Amadeus is not only the best film ever made about classical music, it’s also one of the most fascinating and profoundly engaging films ever made about creativity. Does it matter that historically it’s all bunk? Not really at all, as a fictionalised exploration of how the average can be tormented by the extraordinary it’s perfect.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are the feuding royals in The Lion in Winter

Director: Anthony Harvey

Cast: Peter O’Toole (Henry II), Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Anthony Hopkins (Richard the Lionhard), John Castle (Prince Geoffrey), Nigel Terry (Prince John), Timothy Dalton (Philip II), Jane Merrow (Alais), Nigel Stock (Captain William Marshall)

James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter did solid but not spectacular business on Broadway. But when it came to film, it surfed a wave of popularity for stories about British history and became one of the most financially successful films of its year, winning three Oscars (including for Goldman). Even more than that, it went on to be West Wing President Jed Bartlett’s favourite movie of all time. I think we know which prize is the most treasured.

Christmas 1183 (including an ahistorical Christmas tree and gift wrapped presents and all) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole), king of England and huge chunks of France, wants nothing more than family around him to mark the occasion. Problem is, this is possibly the more dysfunctional family ever. His Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) has been under “home arrest” for ten years in her castle, and his children Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry) seem to take it in turns to conspire against their father, their allegiances shifting faster than even they can sometimes follow. For added complexity, Henry is living with his late eldest son’s intended Alais (Jane Merrow) as husband and wife and her half-brother the new King of France Philip II (Timothy Dalton) is joining the family for Christmas. Over one night, this family will fight, feud and change pacts and allegiances until hardly anyone knows where the games end and the hate begins.

Anthony Harvey’s film is a stately, often wordy, faithful reconstruction of Goldman’s script that gives front-and-centre to the often scintillating dialogue between the family members, that leans just the right side of ahistorical (sample line: “Hush dear, Mummy’s fighting”) but frequently allows it’s top-of-the-line cast to let rip on some glorious speeches and dialogue duets crammed with ideas, wordplay, character and wit. Harvey therefore basically decides to sit back as much as possible and allow the actors do the work, using a mixture of medium shots and close-ups to bring the focus as much as possible to the Broadway-style staging or into the actor’s faces. He also uses the strength of the performers to allow for a series of long takes as they burn through pages of Goldman’s dialogue. The fact that there is hardly an interesting shot in the film, and its visual language never matches it’s verbal fire is a shame, but a price the film thinks worth paying.

And it matters little when Harvey is able to work as well with actors as he does here. All the performers are at the top of their game. Katharine Hepburn (winning her fourth Oscar, in a tie with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) has the perfect level of acute intelligence and imperious arrogance for Eleanor. But Harvey encourages from her a softness at crucial moments, that in-between the barn-storming speeches and verbal putdowns, Hepburn finds moments of quiet sadness and loneliness – a sense that sometimes ten years of imprisonment means she has had enough of all this – that are some of her most affecting work on screen. She’s hilarious but deeply moving – and totally believable as one of the most powerful women of the middle ages. 

She also is matched perfectly with O’Toole. Playing a 50-year old King at 35, O’Toole brings all the fire and charisma of his personality to the part, in a film where he perfectly balances the larger-than-life gusto of Henry II with his own personal disappointments, guilt and sorrow. O’Toole had already triumphed once as the charismatically brilliant king in Becket (for which he was also Oscar nominated, as he was here), but this performance is even better. Not only is his facility with the dialogue faultless, he also utterly convinces as the sort of awe-inspiring figure who dominates every room he’s in not just with force of character but the acuity and sharpness of his intellect. This might be his finest screen performance – and the one where he was most cheated of the Oscar (losing to a highly active campaign, criticised at the time, from Cliff Robertson in Charly).

To fill the cast out around these pros at the top of their game, Harvey raided British theatre to pluck some promising gems from British Theatre, more or less all of them here in their film debut. Anthony Hopkins is marvellously proud, forceful but just a few beats behind most of the others as a Richard who says what he means and sticks to it. Timothy Dalton is his polar opposite (and equally brilliant) as a Philip II who never says what he means and manipulates with a playful ease everyone he meets. John Castle (an actor who never had the career he should have had) is smugly unlikeable and coldly superior as the unliked middle-brother Geoffrey, while Nigel Terry is a snivelling punching bag as two-faced coward John. Jane Merrow is heartfelt and earnest as Alais, the only unquestionably kind and good person in this bunch.

These characters rotate sides and allegiances over the course of one evening, raging at each other like a medieval Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The brilliance of the dialogue never stops entertaining – although towards the end the film loses a bit of energy (it probably peaks with Henry’s loud double bluff of dragging the family in the middle of the night to a wedding he has no intention of seeing performed), perhaps partly because the film itself never really comes to flight as something cinematic. This is despite the decision to downplay the glamour – costumes are simple and look lived in (the cast wore them for hours off set to make them look lived in) and sets are far from pristine. It perhaps contributes to the slightly mundane feel of the filmmaking.

But the tricks are all in the dialogue and perhaps the film works best with an interval and a chance to take stock. There are several marvellous scenes, even if the constant feuding and side changing does wear you out after a while. But it’s a treat for the acting. Hepburn and O’Toole are simply at the top of their game, and the rest of the cast more than keep up with them. With an excellently imposing score from John Barry (also Oscar-winning), it’s a shame the film itself is a little too flatly and uninspiringly filmed with a murky lack of visual interest, but there are more than enough qualities for you to issue a pardon.

Born Yesterday (1950)

Judy Holliday gets a tutorial in class from William Holden – much to the chagrin of Broderick Crawford – in Born Yesterday

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Judy Holliday (Billie Dawn), Broderick Crawford (Harry Brock), William Holden (Paul Verrall), Howard St John (Jim Devery) Frank Otto (Eddie), Larry Oliver (Congressman Hedges)

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw should have tried to copyright the Pygmalion concept. After all no end of films and plays have tried their best to replicate the magic of having one working class classless type (usually the woman) learning how to use their own natural intelligence effectively by a wiser tutor (usually the man). Born Yesterday is a near text-book example of this – she’s as ill-informed as a young baby so might as well have been “born yesterday” y’see – that offers very little in the way of surprises, but a lot in the way of charm – most particularly from Judy Holliday who carries the entire the film with aplomb.

Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is a corrupt, uneducated businessman who has arrived in Washington to buy up a few congressmen. Brock may be a boreish bully, but he’s worried that his mistress, former Chorus-girl Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), is so brash and ill-educated that she will show him up in front of his new political contacts. So he hires investigative journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to educate her. But Paul and Billie have an immediate romantic frisson – and as she learns about politics, literature and the state of the world Billie starts to realise that maybe all those shares she holds in her own name (for tax purposes) in Brock’s dodgy dealings might give her the chance to put his wrongs right.

Born Yesterday was an adaptation of Broadway hit that had made Judy Holliday a star. Written by Garson Kanin, bullying Harry Brock was allegedly based on Colombia Pictures head Harry Cohn. He clearly didn’t care when he smelt a hit – and even confirmed some suspicions by ordering Kanin to do re-writes of the rewritten script for no extra payment. Cohn had been deeply uncertain about bringing the unknown Holliday along for the ride (she had made only three small appearances beforehand) so Cukor cast her in a key role in Adam’s Rib (where Hepburn generously ceded many scenes to her) to prove Holliday could make it on the big screen.

Thank goodness she did make it to the film, as Holliday makes the film. Winning the Oscar – famously beating Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard – Holliday is superb in the role. Billie Dawn may be brassy, may be load, she might have the sort of screeching Brooklyn accent that sometimes feels like nails on a blackboard – but she’s not dumb. She’s smart – as she shows by repeatedly beating Harry with ease at games of gin rummy – she’s capable and she cares. She just hasn’t learned any better, and having spent her life being told that her opinions don’t matter, she’s decided to not mention them.

But Holliday shows Billie is a woman fast – and eager to learn – and a week or so with Paul won’t turn her into a genius, but she’s more than sharp enough to work out what’s wrong about her life and her sugar daddy, and to give her the oomph to do something about it. Holliday demonstrates this endearing growth of engagement and curiosity with a superb lightness – her comic timing is faultless – and a touching sweetness. 

The script gives Billie a hilarious tendency towards malapropism and her wide-eyed innocence and desire to do her best works wonderfully in getting us onside. While she is often the source of jokes she is never the butt of them, and Holliday makes clear her decency and sharpness is innate. She’s far from a dumb blonde – although she certainly looks and sounds like it – and watching her apply good-old fashioned Hollywood liberal ideas to confound boreish businessmen is good fun.

Her co-stars give sterling performances. Broderick Crawford channels his Oscar winning turn from the year earlier as corrupt bullying Willie Stark in All the King’s Men as the loud, bullying and dim Harry Brock. Throw-away lines suggest he has killed in the past – and at one point he strikes Billie – but he’s always a comic blusterer rather than a real threat. William Holden generously cedes much of the ground to Holliday as her Henry Higgins, although unlike that guy he’s humble, supportive and pleasingly democratic (quite the year for Holden, having also played a similar supplicant role in Sunset Boulvard).

Cukor directs with his usual lack of flash, quietly setting the camera in place and letting the actor’s go about their business meaning, for all the location shooting in Washington, this still feels very much like a Broadway piece. Cukor does skilfully manage to smuggle a lot under the censor wire – not least that Billie is clearly Harry’s mistress – and keeps a fine romantic tension between Billie and Paul, even if having the pair of them kiss early on does undermine some of the “will-they-won’t-they” magic.

But then basically this is a very straight forward film that just looks to entertain. There are some dirty dealings in Washington – but it’s all sorted out very easily and we are reassuringly told that there are only a very few bad apples in this barrel, and we can trust in the decency of our leaders. It’s no surprise who ends up with who, and no real revelations in character. The most surprising character in many ways is Harry’s disillusioned, self-loathing lawyer played by Howard St John, constantly on the verge of alcoholic self-disgust.

The film is really a showcase for its star though – and Holliday delivers with a terrifically entertaining performance that hammers home even more the sad fact that she passed away at 43 with only a handful of films to her name. Pygmalion Goes to Washington it maybe, but this is still a lovely epitaph to a talented actress.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Burton and Taylor play a feuding couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), Sandy Dennis (Honey)

In 1966, Hollywood was only just emerging from the strict rules of the Hays Code. These governed everything from the themes a film could explore to the language you could use while doing it. But in the permissive 60s, it was finally beginning to crack – and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the first films to really push it over the edge. This film helped usher in 70s Hollywood, where filmmakers finally felt empowered to explore darker themes and to do so with sex, violence and bad language. Five years after this film came out, something like A Clockwork Orange could become a box-office smash and a Best Picture nominee. Talk about the changing of the guard.

Mike Nichols’ film debut is a faithful adaptation of Edward Albee’s Broadway smash, which had been controversial enough on stage for its full and frank exploration of a marriage consumed with bitterness, feuding and pain. Not to mention its open acknowledgement of extra marital sex, abortion and alcoholism all delivered with a literal “screw you!”. Elizabeth Taylor is Martha, daughter of the president of a small New England college, whose husband George (Richard Burton) is a failed associate history professor. The couple are locked into a dysfunctional marriage that mixes recrimination and a perverse, shared sense of humour. Drunkenly returning home after a party, they welcome a new professor (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) to their home for a nightcap. There they quickly rope the couple into a series of increasingly personal “games” with an edge of cruelty and lashings of verbal abuse.

Today, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has not always aged well, coming across at times as rather forced and overbearing, as is often the way with films that pushed the boundaries so effectively back in the day. Nichols has the confidence to avoid “opening up” the play too much – its single setting on stage is augmented here only with a brief drunken excursion out to a late night bar – and instead focuses on drawing out four superb performances from its actors (all Oscar nominated) and letting the camera move intricately around the confined rooms where the action takes place.

What Nichols really draws superbly from this film is the control of the film’s continual pattern of simmer, tension and release. The play is effectively a series of psychological games that George and Martha play between themselves. The film is like a drunken, truly mean-spirited version of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, where the self-absorbed hosts similarly play elaborate ”games” with their confused guests. Most games involves Martha and George turning on each other, viciously attacking the other for everything from failure to drunkenness, with their guests used as the jury, mixed with “get the guests” interludes as the couple turn on the sexual and marital issues in their guests’ lives.

It makes for a series of compellingly delivered sequences – even if the constant thrum of tension and heightened half-mock, half-real fury Martha and George keep up for most of the film finally starts to bear down on the viewer. The film starts banging its points with a transgressive pride, which looks like increasingly like a lot of sound and fury over quite minor issues. But then that’s always the way with convention defying films – so many following films have buried these conventions, that the attention grabbing way this film does it looks quite tired and overworked today.

As Martha and George, Nichols was able to cast the most famous married couple on the planet at the time, in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. With these titanic personalities working – for perhaps the only time – with a director who had the skill and authority to tame them, the two of them delivered probably their finest performances on film. It also adds to the illicit sense for the audience – like Nick and Honey – that we are trapped into seeing a series of personal and intense conversations and arguments. 

Finally accepting the sort of intense and challenging material he often overlooked for well-paid gigs, Burton is superb as George: a mass of passive aggression, condescending to everyone around him, capable of great cruelty but also a crushed, disappointed and vulnerable man, desperate for affection.

Elizabeth Taylor was similarly sensational – and Oscar-winning: puffy faced, blowsy and domineering as Martha, who similarly has buried her pain and loneliness under a never ending onslaught of aggression, mockery, tartiness and loudness. Brassy and bold, Martha at first seems the controlling, even abusive force in the relationship, but she is also isolated, scared and overwhelmed with pain. 

What’s brilliant about the relationship between the couple is at first it seems like George and Martha are a deeply unhappy couple, fuelled by hate. However, it becomes clear their feuding and contempt for each other is in fact part of a relationship grounded on mutual love and need (the final shot is their hands joined together), revolving around their mutual shared pain on their failure to have children. The couple’s primary “game” is a private one – a fictional child, invented to compensate for their mutual infertility – discussion of whom early on by Martha opens the door to the fury that follows. But it gives an insight into their relationship, actually kept fresh by their feuding.

By contrast, it’s the seemingly happier young couple who have serious problems. Nick, very well played by George Segal, is a dashing young buck who is actually selfish and, with a dream of sleeping his way to the top (despite his possible impotence), whose lack of depth is routinely savaged by both Martha and George. Despite this, Nick doesn’t seem to realise that this he’s in the middle of a series of games. He’s married his wife out of obligation for her pregnancy. Honey – an Oscar-winning turn by Sandy Dennis – on the other hand seems to be aware she’s out of his depth here, and reverts into an almost childish passiveness, mixed with awkward horror which slowly peels away to reveal her misery and depression. Slowly we realise Nick and Honey have nothing in common.

It’s a complex and intriguing play, brilliantly bought to the screen by Nichols whose camera (in stark black and white) bobs and weaves through the action, involving each actor in every scene (the camera often focuses on reactions as much as dialogue delivery). All four of the actors are great, but Burton and Taylor are nothing less than sensational (ironically their careers never seemed to recover from the amount they put out there, with more than a few speculating that their own marriage was but a few degrees different from George and Martha) and the film itself, while overbearing, is also still compelling in its complexity and stark insight into human relationships.

The Madness of King George (1994)

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren excel in this masterful adaptation of Alan Bennett’s classic play

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Nigel Hawthorne (King George III), Helen Mirren (Queen Charlotte), Ian Holm (Dr Willis), Rupert Everett (Prince of Wales) Amanda Donohoe (Lady Pembroke), Rupert Graves (Captain Greville), John Wood (Lord Chancellor Thurlow), Geoffrey Palmer (Dr Warren), Jim Carter (Charles James Fox), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Duke of York), Julian Wadham (William Pitt), Anthony Calf (Captain Fitzroy), Adrian Scarborough (Fortnum), Struan Rodger (Henry Dundas), Caroline Harker (Mrs Fitzherbert), Roger Hammond (Dr Baker), Cyril Shaps (Dr Pepys)

Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III allegedly changed its name for the film adaptation because producers worried American audiences would feel they missed the first two films in the series. It’s not actually true, but it was a lot of free publicity for Nicholas Hytner’s film debut – a marvellous, accomplished and brilliant theatrical adaptation that will always take a firm place on my list of favourite films. It’s an excitingly well-made, hilarious and heartfelt film that captures forever Nigel Hawthorne’s greatest ever performance.

In 1788 King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) is still fuming over the loss of “the colonies” (the film front and centres talk of the plucky United States, to help sell the film in the land of the free) and the behaviour of his ambitious oldest son George (Rupert Everett). Happily married to his wife Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), and the father of 15 children, George is a stickler for form and duty. So imagine the shock of his ministers when his behaviour becomes impulsive, irrational and finally obscene. With the king talking non-stop and impossible to control, the Prince of Wales schemes to become Prince Regent. Desperate, the king’s ministers call in Dr Willis (Ian Holm), a professional doctor of the mad, who claims he can (with time) cure the king. But will it be in time to prevent the regency?

Nicholas Hytner has rather charmingly claimed that he knew so little about film-making he didn’t realise the difficulty of many of the things he asked for, and if he had known he would never have asked. He gives much of the credit to the seasoned pros working on the film pulling out the stops to give him what he asked for. The end result is a brilliantly paced, lusciously filmed epic that is both a wonderfully moving personal story of a crotchety but lovable monarch and a witty look at regency politics. Several scenes are shot with an imaginative brilliance, from shots that throw themselves into the middle of scuffles at court with the unbalanced king, to sweeping landscape shots that make it look like the thing cost millions of dollars.

The other advantage of bringing in Hytner (director of the original stage production) was his brilliant understanding of Alan Bennett. Bennett’s script is superb, crammed with sensational lines and brilliant jokes that never get in the way of the humanity. Bennett is always more than radical than his cosy reputation suggests, and King George is a witty deconstruction of the purpose of the Royal family (politicians frequently comment on their pointlessness and George defines it as “smile and wave” and to act as “a model family”). It’s got a great understanding of the frustrating waiting game of long-serving heirs (being Prince of Wales “is not a position, it is a predicament”). The film even lands a cheeky gag at the end with the suggestion that the King’s condition was hereditary.

Hytner’s film uses the trappings of royalty brilliantly, contrasting them to great effect with the later degradation of the king – in an inspired moment, George’s first “enthroning” in the restraint chair Willis uses to condition him into behaving is soundtracked to Handel’s Zadok the Priest. George’s court is an uptight, staid place where people can’t relax (or even sit – George is so adamantly opposed to people sitting in his presence even a heavily pregnant woman is not exempt during an interminable bell-ringing version of Handel). George is a constrained figure – so it’s no wonder his insanity displays itself as an increasingly loose-lipped lack of inhibition.

The question of madness is richly handled. As Willis says, many of the mad consider themselves kings, so what does a king fancy himself as? And how can you tell what is normal for a king anyway? George is an eccentric from the start – and even his recovery at the end is basically eccentricity with an element of self-control rather than a full recovery. The film never shies away from making you invest in the rough treatment the king undergoes to wrestle him back to sanity. The doctors get short shrift, either incompetent or scheming (“When will you get it into your head that one can produce a copious, regular and exquisitely turned evacuation every day of the week and still be a stranger to reason” Geoffrey Palmer’s wonderfully dry Warren tells a toilet-obsessed colleague). 

The film is slightly more confused about Willis. Strongly played, with a twinkly chippiness, by Ian Holm (who is just about perfect) the film can’t quite decide if Willis is responsible for the king’s recovery or not. It’s a battle of wills, but is Willis ahead of his time or as medieval as his colleagues? Does Willis’ aggressive conditioning (punishing bad behaviour with restraints) force the king back into sanity? Or is it George’s love of his wife that provides the final push? Or is the king naturally on an upcycle where madness expresses itself in eccentricity rather than incoherence? It’s not clear (maybe this is deliberate) but Willis’ regime of punishment and reward has a slight air of quackery.

What’s pretty deliberate was Bennett and Hytner’s insistence that only Nigel Hawthorne could play the king. Thank god they did, as Hawthorne is simply brilliant. Cheated of the Oscar in 1994, Hawthorne is compelling. He also conveys the natural authority of a king, and the “grumpy old man” side of the king is mined for brilliant comic effect. But it’s also a beautifully heartfelt and hilarious performance, running the gamut from delight in obscenities to teary fury and fear at the treatment from his doctors and loss of mental control. Such a sublime performance.

And it surely inspired some top work from the brilliant cast around him, many of whom revived their roles from the stage production (chief among these Wadham’s wonderfully dry Pitt).  Helen Mirren is warm, proud and eventually desperate as Charlotte, while Rupert Everett mines the Prince of Wales for all the comic pomposity and childishness he can. Rupert Graves is excellent as a loyal equerry, while John Wood, Jim Carter and Geoffrey Palmer also excel. You’ve rarely seen such a strong cast of British stage notables, and it’s not surprising they were attracted to perform in a script that has as many good lines as this one.

It’s accomplished and luscious, is brilliantly shot and designed, and is packed full of wonderful sequences. It wears its intelligence lightly, with George as a proto-Lear struggling to hold onto his marbles. The characters even sit and read Lear at one point (“Is that wise?” questions Thurlow. “I had no idea what it was about” says the little-read Willis). George may recover his wits in time, but it’s unclear whether this makes him more or less of a human being. In many ways at the height of his insanity, he’s a warmer, friendlier person (if out of control), then he is as his buttoned-up, stickler-for-duty self. 

The Madness of King George is the sort of film all theatre adaptations wish they could be, brilliantly cast, opening out into something that not only feels compelling to watch but also brings out the great depths of the original play. What is monarchy for? How can we tell if the all-powerful are mad or not? What is sanity anyway? All this and with some superb jokes, and a story that really involves you. With Nigel Hawthorne’s simply brilliant performance at the centre, this is one for the ages.

Plenty (1985)

Charles Dance and Meryl Streep endure marital misery in the bleak, oblique and uninvolving David Hare drama Plenty

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Meryl Streep (Susan Traherne), Charles Dance (Raymond Brock), Tracey Ullman (Alice Park), John Gielgud (Sir Leonard Darwin), Sting (Mick), Ian McKellen (Sir Andrew Charleson), Sam Neill (Lazar)

David Hare’s 1970s play Plenty looked at the impact of peace on the war generation. A “state of the nation” story on the growth of prosperity in the post-war era, and the return of many to the humdrum reality of life with Britain’s importance as a world power in rapid decline, led to isolation, anger and depression. It’s a shame that much of that really doesn’t come across in this buttoned-up, murky and unclear social drama, with a hard-to-follow plot and a hard-to-like central character.

Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) is an SOE courier in France during the Second World War, who has a one-night stand with fellow SOE operative Lazar (Sam Neill) which has a profound effect on her. After the war, she marries Foreign Office civil servant Raymond Brock (Charles Dance), but is unable to find a purpose and contentment in regular civilian life. As the years tick by, and their surroundings grow ever more plentiful, Susan becomes more and more unhappy, difficult and demanding.

The central issue with Plenty (I can’t comment on the play, having never seen it) is that Meryl Streep creates possibly one of the least likeable leading performance you are going to see. Perhaps mistaking Britishness for cut-glass chill – or perhaps it’s the character – Streep’s Susan is brittle, bitter, angry, annoying and infuriating. She complains about everything around her, she lashes out at people, she sulks and whines with no self-insight, she constantly makes life difficult for those around her (most of whom are unbelievably patient) and she is almost impossible to work out. 

While the film perhaps intends her to be as sort-of PTSD sufferer, with undiagnosed personality disorders, who cannot reconcile the shallowness of her life with the excitement of war service, I’m not sure this comes across. All we really see is her deeply irritating self. We don’t get a sense of her war service – we see her breakdown early in the film in France – and her relationship with Lazar remains so ill-defined we are unclear what impact it had on her, other than part of a halcyon memory. The film’s final scene is a flashback to the end of the war: Susan watching a sunrise on a French hill dreaming of her life being full of days like this. That scene would have been helpful earlier – it’s the only time we see her optimistic or likeable in the film, and it gets lost by placing it at the end. With it in order we could have warmed to her more.

Instead she remains a shrill presence, in a hard to relate to film that never really makes clear whether we are meant to empathise with Susan, or find her as frustrating as some of the characters do. The film also fails to make this enigma part of its viewing design – I don’t feel like having the lines blurred made the film a richer experience, just one it was harder to engage in. Schepisi’s directing style is very cold and distant – from the slow camera moves, to the tight close ups on Susan at key moments, to the deliberate lack of clear time line (each scene moves on weeks, months or years from the previous one with only a few design and dialogue hints to suggest the change).

Combined with Hare’s indefinable script – crammed with elliptical conversations, unclear emotional and dramatic points, and political points delivered with a querying shrug – it makes for a film that is very hard work to engage with – and doesn’t offer much to reward the viewer if they do. 

What pleasures there are come from the performers. Charles Dance is good as Susan’s long-suffering husband – far from a domineering patriarch, his only real crime seems to be that he is a bit boring. Ian McKellen makes a great cameo as a senior civil servant, coolly and calmly telling Susan the errors of her thinking. Sting is an odd choice (I suspect his presence helped the film get backing) and Tracey Ullman does tend to go too far as Susan’s bohemian but more emotionally restrained friend.

John Gielgud steals the show. He is simply superb as Brock’s boss, an old-school diplomat who is, at first, a figure of fun with his Edwardian values but whom events (in particular Suez) reveal to have firm principles. Gielgud also gets most of the film’s best lines, while his quiet air of polite dignity is both endearing and admirable. His delivery of the following line to a tedious bore of a party guest basically is the high point of the movie: “But perhaps before I go, I may nevertheless set you right on a point of fact. Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede.”

But there aren’t enough pleasures like this in this overbearing, rather trying film that never really decides what point it’s trying to make. I think it’s something about wealth and discontent and the more selfish and scrambling build of the post-war generation towards Thatcherism. But I’m really not sure. And to be honest I’m not sure I care.