Tag: Suzanna Hamilton

Out of Africa (1985)

Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in this sweepingly empty romance Out of Africa

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton), Meryl Streep (Karen von Blixen), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Bror von Blixen), Michael Kitchen (Berkeley Cole), Michael Gough (Lord Delamere), Suzanne Hamilton (Felicity Spurway), Rachel Kempson (Lady Belfield), Shane Rimmer (Belknap), Malick Bowens (Farah Aden), Joseph Thiaka (Kamante), Donal McCann (Doctor), Leslie Phillips (Sir Joseph Byrne)

In the 1980s Hollywood faced an identity crisis. Throughout the 1970s, the films the Oscars honoured and those that topped the box office were often one and the same. The industry saw itself as the purveyor of classy, intelligent, popular entertainment. But in the 1980s, people flocked to see the latest Rocky or Rambo film, instead of the likes of Kramer vs Kramer. Hollywood wanted to carry on feeling good about itself: so it honoured as “Best Picture” the sort of sumptuous, prestige products it wanted to shout from the rooftops about, even if people weren’t flocking to see them at the cinema in the same way. So something as mundane, average, tasteful and empty as Out of Africa hoovered up eight Oscars.

Based on Karen Blixen’s memoir of her 17 years (from 1913) owning and running a coffee farm among the British community in Kenya, the film reorganises a deliberately non-linear memoir (full of impressions and reflections, thematically arranged) into a simpler narrative, and throws in content from at least two biographies of Blixen (played by Meryl Streep). As such, the film charts her life, specifically her relationship with philandering and unreliable husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and love affair with British game-hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).

Pollack directs this epic with a clean, smooth, professional and lifeless tastefulness that makes it a long film full of pretty things, but a fundamentally empty experience. At the film’s conclusion, Karen is invited into the Men Only club for a drink where she is toasted. It feels like it should be the culmination of plot threads running throughout the film. But instead, its under-explored and unfocused, struggling for any attention. Rather than a culmination of a nearly three-hour experience, the moment feels unearned.

That’s about par for the course for a film ticking all the boxes of “prestige” movie making, but which tells us nothing at all. It’s clear Pollack has only a limited understanding of the intricate rules of the British upper-class community. We learn nothing about Africa, or the role of Empire there or the impact this had on the Kenyan people. Instead, the Kenyan people are seen as exotics or charming superstitious eccentrics.

The film is only interested in how beautiful colonial Britain was – the lovely clothes, the sumptuous set-design, the detailed props – and the gorgeous scenery. There is some focus given to the Kenyans – particularly Karen’s relationship with her servant Farah, very well played by a stern but wise Malick Bowens – but it is always defined as Karen visiting them, encouraging their education and pleading for their rights. There is more than a touch of the white saviour, and the film fails to really give us a sense of Karen gaining an understanding of the Kenyan people on their own terms, rather than hers.

That might be because the film is determined to turn the story into a straight-forward romance, giving most of its focus to Karen’s relationship with Denys. This is the root cause of most of the film’s problems, as Pollack casts two fundamentally unconnected actors. Streep gives a performance of such technical detail, you find yourself admiring the work while never really connecting with the character. Her Danish accent is perfectly studied, she has clearly read everything on Blixen she can find, and every single beat is perfectly observed. You can’t miss she is acting in every frame: there is nothing relaxed or truly intimate in the performance. It’s the work of a master craftsman.

This detailed excellence literally feels like it is happening in a different movie to the one Redford is in. Redford looks like he just stepped off the plane and started shooting. Pollack was convinced no English actor could play Denys in the sweeping romance he had in mind (Charles Dance anyone? Michael Kitchen – very good as Denys’ best friend – is far closer to what the part actually required, and would have been excellent). Redford was parachuted in and encouraged to play the role with his natural accent (is he still meant to be British? No idea).

The two performances never click together, and Redford’s Californian approach feels totally wrong for the Houseman-quoting, Mozart-playing, Great White Hunter he is meant to be. Not for one second can you forget this is the Sundance Kid – making it nearly impossible to buy into this relationship the film is trying to sell you, as well as making Streep’s Danish accent sound out of place (I mean why is she going to so much trouble when Redford can’t be arsed?).

All the romantic hair washing in the world can’t make these two stop being a chemistry free, jarring couple. Take away the sort of epic romance the film needs – the sort of thing The English Patient would do so right 11 years later – and all you really have left are two handsome actors in a very picturesque setting. Out of Africa looks lovely – but in a National Geographic way. The African Plains look wonderful, you’d have to do a poor job to make them look bad. Really the film is visually dull.

Pollack’s limitations as a director are revealed – he can’t give this the sweep and sense of the epic it needs and he can’t find depth in this canvas. Instead, everything is painted in the broadest brush strokes and any sense of romance it gets is from John Barry’s exquisite, luscious score. The film crams in as many shots of Africa as possible – but is bored witless by the story-telling and poetry that are supposed to be at the heart of Denys and Karen’s relationship. It rips the heart out of these two characters and their romance.

Out of Africa won all those Oscars – but feels like a box-tick exercise. Like the voters just thought everything in it musthave been Oscar-worthy. 1985 was a poor year for movies – perhaps only Ran, Brazil and Back to the Future have really grown in stature – but Out of Africa feels like the emptiest, least interesting, least effective prestige picture that ever scooped the Oscar. Nothing sticks in the memory – other than the repeated “I had a farm in Africa” line in Streep’s tongue rolling accent. Kitchen, Suzanne Hamilton and Brandaurer (charming and likeable as Blixen’s husband, despite playing a complete shit) are good, but nearly nothing else really works beneath its surface impact. Middle-brow, tasteful and pointless.

Tess (1979)

Nastassja Kinski is Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine in Polanski’s Tess

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Nastassja Kinski (Tess Durbeyfield), Peter Firth (Angel Clare), Leigh Lawson (Alec Stokes-d’Urberville), John Collin (John Durbeyfield), Rosemary Martin (Mrs Durbeyfield), Carolyn Pickles (Marian), Richard Pearson (Vicar of Marlott), David Markham (Reverend Clare), Pascale de Boysson (Mrs Clare), Suzanna Hamilton (Izzy Huett), Tony Church (Parson Tringham)

At first sight it looks like a rather odd project for Roman Polanski: a faithful adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, shot in sumptuous period detail. But look a little closer and you’ll see it’s a neat fit for the director’s interests. A human interest story that revolves around the man’s capability for misusing, abusing and disregarding his fellows. With isolation, despair and depression thrown into the mix (what do you expect, it’s Thomas Hardy?!) and a depressing conclusion (again, it’s Hardy…) it feels less and less like an anomaly in its director’s CV. On top of this, it’s the film Polanski planned to make starring his murdered wife Sharon Tate (the film is dedicated to her memory).

Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is a young girl growing up in 1870s “Wessex” (Hardy surely the first major writer to create his own universe of interlocking stories in a fictional location). Her life is thrown into chaos when her father (John Collin) learns his family descends from the ancient lineage of d’Urbervilles. Tess is sent to find work and, maybe, fortune with her “cousin” Alec Stokes-d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson). But instead of a place at the family table, she finds herself charmed and then seduced (and perhaps raped) by Alec, leaving the house disgraced and pregnant. A few years later, she meets would-be-farmer and idealistic parson’s son Angel Clare (Peter Firth) – but their marriage cannot survive revelations of her past. As Tess’ life unravels, she is thrown into ever more desperate situations that entangle both men in her life with fatal consequences.

Polanski’s film is shot with a wonderful eye for period and makes extensive use of the “magic hour” (just after sunrise or just before sunset) to place some truly gorgeous images on the screen. Despite this, the film never compromises on the grinding lack of glamour in poverty, and few period dramas have had such an eye for mud, uncleanliness and shabby huts and bedding arrangements than this one. Polanski spent years making the film in several carefully selected locations, designed to make France look as much like Dorset as possible (for obvious legal reasons, Polanski had to rule out filming on location in England).

In this, Polanski creates a heartfelt drama of human suffering, with Tess repackaged as a sort of “every-woman” sufferer, whose entire life is shattered by a passing comment made to her father by a distant clergyman (a man whom we never see again). It’s part of Polanski’s theme of how events that we have little or no control over can shatter our lives and change the entire path of our existence. Tess frequently finds her life changed or altered by the actions of third parties (from the parson who speaks to her father, to the parish do-gooders who find the working boots she has quietly taken off to make a good impression for people she never meets and take them to a poor house – the sort of stunning moment of bleak “blow-upon-a-bruise” that the film does so well) and has no real power over what happens to her.

When she does finally take decisive actions with the two men in her life, both events rebound with tragic consequences on her – first with her rejection by Angel and then by her final escape from the influence of Alec. In between, we see her drifting gloomily from location to location, never able to find the energy, will or strength to make her life her own. Polanski’s film seizes on Hardy’s themes that we become trapped in our own fates, events spiralling constantly to leave us ever more at the mercy of factors over which we have no control. Tess is an isolated character, with few friends and confidantes, and whom society has left behind. It’s a film that follows an individual in a monolithic society with its own rules and structures, that makes no room for personal circumstances when rushing to its judgements.

Making Tess an innocent victim meant Polanski needed to cast someone who would not bring too much overt “actor” presence. Kinski, only 16 when filming started, brings a very natural innocence and gentleness to the role. She is certainly completely believable as a young woman who cannot truly understand what all these men who take such an interest in her really want, and feels unable to impose herself (just as Kinski struggles to impose herself on the film) on her life. That Kinski is not the strongest actor in the world, and that her accent erratically drifts between Dorset and Dutch, is counterbalanced by this gentle, unprocessed innocence. It matches perfectly Polanski’s idea of Tess as a victim, trapped in a perfectly constructed world.

It also allows the two men in her life a bit more scope for some domineering acting. Peter Firth does a very good job as the idealistic Angel who turns out to be nowhere near as liberal or understanding as he would like to think he is, until it is way too late. Firth walks a very neat line between sanctimonious, naïve and pompous. He also makes a great contrast with Leigh Lawson’s corrupt creepiness as the pervy Alec, all moustachio-twirling charm and caddish manner, but hiding a desire beneath to be the decent, better man.

Polanski positions Tess as the constant victim pulled between these two men, from the beautifully filmed misty forest glade where Alec forces his attentions on her, to the eccentrically furnished would-be family home (complete with lascivious elderly maid, giggling about the possibilities of the couple’s wedding night) where her marriage to Angel falls apart. It’s a film where Polanski throws in many lovely touches that ground the film in a particular time and place, from that giggling maid to the ominous sound of hedge-clippers when Angel arrives at seaside hotel in search of Tess. Every moment of the film feels realistically placed in Hardy’s Wessex, and it’s crammed with small sequences and moments that stick in the mind.

It’s a film with a masterful understanding of time and place (it rightly won Oscars for cinematography, costumes and production design) but uses that to build a story of a woman made an internal victim in a society that thinks it cares, but really doesn’t. Tess is a woman whose life is buffeted and changed by the actions of others, and who cannot escape from the dark shadows of being trapped in her own destiny. You can see why these themes appealed to Polanski – and perhaps this helps explain why the film feels like such a darkly personal one, right up to its near final image of Tess as a sacrificial victim laid out at Stonehenge.

1984 (1984)

John Hurt is simply perfect as Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s faithful Orwell adaptation 1984

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Mr Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Andrew Wilde (Tillotson), Phyllis Logan (Announcer)

Few novels of the 20th century have had such a far-ranging impact as George Orwell’s 1984. Its concepts and ideas have dominated the popular language around topics from politics to reality television. Orwell’s idea of a dystopia, ruled by a controlling government, has inspired virtually every other story in a similar setting since. Hell, Orwellian is now an actual word.

Michael Radford had dreamed for years of bringing a film version of Orwell’s last masterpiece to the screen. This film is the end-result, shot (as it proudly announces at the end) in the exact times and locations the original novel was set in. Radford has created a hugely faithful adaptation that strains at the leash to cover all the complex political, philosophical and personal questions Orwell’s novel explores. From the opening sequence, expertly recreating the books “Two-minute-hate”, it’s immediately clear that Radford knows (and loves) this book.

Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a party worker in Oceania (a sort of super country consisting of North America, Britain and Ireland), whose role is to edit and adjust the historical records to ensure that everything the ruling Party has ever said was always accurate and correct. Unpeople are removed from old newspaper cuttings, economic targets are edited to match the final results. In his heart he has sincere doubts about the system and yearns for freedom – but it is not until a chance meeting with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) that he finds a way to express his individuality through their love affair. But what does Inner Party member O’Brien (Richard Burton) have planned for him?

Radford’s film is a marvel of design. Its look and feel could have been ripped from the pages of Orwell. Today we’d call it almost steam-punk – every piece of technology is made of antiquated and repurposed pieces of equipment (such as phone dials or computer screens) that have a rusty, poorly maintained feeling that immediately communicates the run-down crapsack world the film is set in. Every building seems to be crumbling, collapsing, poorly made, unpleasant, dirty – every street is littered with wreckage. Who on earth would want to live anywhere like this?

The oppression of the design – all dark blues, greys, blacks and crumbling stone and rusty metal – is contrasted at key points. The (relative) opulence of O’Brien’s apartment – with actual comfortable chairs, plastered and painted walls and decent furniture – really stands out (as does Burton’s well-tailored boiler suit compared to the uncomfortable rags of the others). Roger Deakin’s photography also really mixes up the grime of London with the sweeping vistas of the countryside, the only place we see greens or brighter blues. 

Radford’s adaptation of the novel manages to hit every beat from the original. I’m not sure if it is quite accessible to someone who hasn’t read the novel: there is a lot of information only briefly communicated here, and the film makes no real effort to set up or establish the situation in Oceania. Some moments work a lot better if you know the book – the nature of Winston’s job most especially. However, Radford really captures the spirit of the original – and he really understands the contrasts in the book between its gloom and oppression and the free spirit of Julia, and what their love affair represents to Winston. 

The film contains a lot of nudity in these scenes (Suzanna Hamilton does full frontal several times –John Hurt’s bottom similarly appears a fair bit) – but it’s kind of vital. The characters are literally (and figuratively) laying themselves bare. It’s a clear visual sign of how they are rejecting the rules, systems and crushing control of the state itself. Alone they can shed the burden of being controlled and truly be themselves. It’s one of the few films where extensive nudity actually feels completely essential to the plot – and vital to communicating the character’s desire for openness.

Radford also draws some neat (inferred) visual parallels from the material of the book, most notably around Winston’s fear of rats. In the book, this visceral fear is never fully explored, but here in the film Radford has Winston plagued with dreams and flashbacks of stealing chocolate as a child from his starving mother – and returning to an empty room full of rats. Rats are linked in Winston’s mind with betrayal and inhumanity, the very qualities he most fears in the real world – and the impact of these animals psychologically on Winston seems all the more clear.

The film is further helped by the casting of John Hurt as Winston Smith. If ever an actor was born to play this role, it was John Hurt. Not only does Hunt’s gaunt face, emaciated frame and pale cragginess fit perfectly (he also looks a lot like Orwell), but Hurt’s gift as an actor was his empathy for suffering. His finest parts were people who undergo great loss and torment, so Winston Smith was perfect. He gives the role a great deal of damaged humanity, a naïve dream-like yearning, a desire for something he can barely understand. There’s a real gentleness to him, a vulnerability – and it makes Winston Smith hugely moving.

Suzanna Hamilton (in a break-out role) is a great contrast, as a confident, controlled, brave Julia – again there is something tomboyish about her that really works for the part. She’s both certain about what she is doing, but also unwise and naïve. It’s a shame her performance often gets overlooked behind Hurt and Richard Burton. This was Burton’s final film – and while he clearly looks frail, he gives O’Brien all the imposing authority of the melodious voice: you could believe Burton as both a secret rebel and as the face of the state. He’s really good here, hugely menacing and sinister.

1984 is perhaps one of the most faithful and lovingly assembled tributes to its source material you can imagine. In fact that’s the root of its two biggest flaws. Radford had an electronic score by the Eurythmics imposed upon the film (the band was unaware that Dominic Muldowney had spent almost a year working on a score rejected by the producers). This electronic, slightly popish soundtrack feels completely out of whack with the tone and style of the rest of the film. It’s very 1980s electronic tone doesn’t match the novel and it looks even worse today. That’s the danger when your passion project can only get finance from a record company!

The other problem is the film is very much an adaptation: wonderfully done, brilliantly designed and acted, but it exists best as a companion piece. In fact the full enjoyment of the film pretty much relies on having read the book – and it has virtually no appeal to someone who didn’t already know the book (even the 2-minute hate that opens the film isn’t explained). Historically I think the film is very easy to overlook as it came out at a very similar time to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Brazil doesn’t adapt the plot of Orwell’s book – but in all other senses it’s an adaptation of the heart of that novel, told with greater artistry and imagination than here. It’s a thematic adaptation that is its own beast not just a page-to-screen version. That’s what 1984 is and, however well done, it will always be in the shadow of the original.

Radford’s labour of love is still a very good film. Somehow what was pretty bleak on the page is even more traumatising on screen. A lot of this is due to Radford’s balance between oppression and freedom, and the film’s perfect adaptation of the book’s themes. But a lot of it is due to Hurt’s heartfelt, sympathetic and perfect performance in the lead role. Literally no-one else could have played this role: and from the opening shots of him at a party rally, through scenes of love, torture and traumatised aftermath, he’s simply wonderful. Read the book: but once you do enjoy (if you can!) the film.