Tag: Timothy Hutton

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

All the Money in the World (2017)

Christopher Plummer dominates (at short notice!) Ridley Scott’s pedestrian true-life kidnap thriller All the Money in the World

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Michelle Williams (Gail Harris), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty), Mark Wahlberg (Fletcher Chace), Romain Duris (Cinquanta), Timothy Hutton (Oswald Hinge), Charlie Plummer (John Paul Getty III), Andrew Buchan (John Paul Getty II), Marco Leonardi (Mammoliti)

In 2017 something quite extraordinary happened. A string of unpleasant allegations emerged about Kevin Spacey, turning him overnight from the toast of Hollywood into a pariah. Not good news for Ridley Scott’s Getty kidnap drama All the Money in the World, which was only a month away from opening – and had Kevin Spacey in a central, Oscar-bait role as J. Paul Getty. The film looked like box office poison – until Scott decided to reshoot large chunks of the film four weeks before opening, with Christopher Plummer taking over the role of Getty. And of course they would still make the release date.

John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) is an oil tycoon, and the richest man in history, worth at least a billion dollars (the film opens with a dry history lesson showing how Getty gained a monopoly for selling Saudi oil for the Saudis, thus becoming richer then Croesus and Midas rolled into one). Scott’s drama follows the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer – no relation) in Rome in 1973. The kidnappers want $17 million dollars. The famously frugal Getty’s response is that he’s got 13 other grandchildren and won’t run the risk of seeing them all being kidnapped for cash, so he won’t pay a dime. This leaves the kidnapped boy’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) in despair – after a divorce from Getty’s son, she agreed to not take a penny and can’t pay the ransom. Getty does send his fixer Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg) to work with the police and negotiate – but basically Gail hasn’t a hope unless Getty relents.

Spot the difference: Spacey (left) heavily made up and Plummer

It’s astonishing Scott managed to completely recast, re-shoot and re-edit the second most important part in the film at such short notice – and apparently in eight days. It’s also brilliant that this gives us another vintage Christopher Plummer performance. With cold firmness, gimlet-eyed focus, and a dark twinkly charm which switches in a moment to disengaged indifference, Plummer is so perfectly cast as Getty you wonder why they didn’t get him in the first place. Plummer set a record as the oldest Academy Award nominee for his work on this film – and surely also set some sort of record in being nominated for an Oscar less than two months after he signed on to make the film!

We should be glad that Plummer got this great role – particularly as, to be honest, his performance and the story of how it came about is literally the only reason to remember this film. If it lasts at all it will solely be because of such chutzpah at defying the odds – as a film, this is a dud almost from start to finish.

Long, turgid, dull, lacking in any emotional or human interest, no sense of drama – rarely has a kidnap victim been so boring, or his fate carried so little tension – shot with a lazy blue filter that seems to say “it’s the 1970s, everything was a bit faded”, this turns a compelling story into a viewing chore. How can this happen? How can such an interesting story be made so bloody flat?

A film like this should either be a pressure-cooker, against-the-clock drama or a Faustian journey into the darkness of a man (Getty) who sold his soul for riches, or a sort of dark comedy wherein a billionaire refuses to pay out comparative peanuts. What it becomes is none of those things. It relishes Getty’s greed, but never really gets under the skin of what makes him like this. It gets bogged down in the mechanics of kidnapping but never makes them interesting. It enjoys (and most of this is down to Plummer) Getty’s indifference and selfishness, but doesn’t have the guts to go for black comedy. It’s a nothing film.

Part of it is the film’s odd opening structure. Much of the first 30 minutes is a confusing series of flashbacks and flashforwards, establishing multiple events – Getty’s fortune rising from the 1930s, the story of young Getty’s parents’ divorce in the 60s, the kidnapping of young Getty in 1973 – all are cut together with such a lack of regard for narrative drive that it’s both difficult to follow what is happening and when, and also hard to engage with anyone involved in the story. From there, when we reach a conventional timeline, events feel like they are being ticked off rather than being fashioned into a compelling and tense drama. It’s all just flat and lifeless.

It should be a film where Michelle Williams’ Gail comes to the fore, and we feel her pain, fear and frustration at being unable to save her son. Instead she is competing with so many alternative viewpoints that her story gets truncated down into the sort of performance we admire as being basically good, but develop no real empathy for. It’s a real shame, but she’s a victim of this being such a dry and lifeless film. 

It’s not helped that she also has to share screen time with Wahlberg. The two actors have virtually no chemistry whatsoever, and Wahlberg is way out of his depth here, totally unable to bring anything to the part other than his earthy chippiness. Chase is a dull character who ends up feeling increasingly irrelevant – eventually an invented scene showing him threatening Getty to stump up the cash is thrown in, you feel to give Wahlberg a “moment” rather than because it grows out of a sense that Chase has grown closer to Gail and her family.

But then that’s the whole film – it feels perfunctory and routine where it should be compelling. Rather than building a terrifying momentum as the kidnapping becomes more and dangerous for the young Getty, the tension seems to leak out of the edges. By the end you barely care about anyone involved in it. It really says something that, with only a week’s notice or so, Plummer blows most of the rest of the cast out of the water with his performance. He and his casting are the only reason to ever remember this turgid disappointment.

Ordinary People (1980)


Mary Taylor Moore, Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland pose for an awkward picture in family troubles drama Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford

Cast: Donald Sutherland (Calvin Jarrett), Mary Taylor Moore (Beth Jarrett), Timothy Hutton (Conrad Jarrett), Judd Hirsch (Dr Tyrone Berger), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine Pratt), M. Emmet Walsh (Coash Salan), Dinah Manoff (Karen Aldrich), Fredric Lehne (Joe Lazenby), James B Sikking (Roy Hanley)

In 1980, Robert Redford became the first big Hollywood stars to parlay acting success into producing and directing small scale, independent films that otherwise might never have been made. Ordinary People was the first of these – with Redford focusing on staying behind the camera – and it was a big success. It even won four Oscars – best picture, screenplay, supporting actor for Timothy Hutton (despite the fact Hutton is really the lead) and best director for Redford himself (beating out David Lynch for The Elephant Man and Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull). It was a great story for 1980 – the matinee idol turned artist. But is Ordinary People that great a film?

The film covers the emotional collapse of a wealthy middle-class American family after the eldest son Bucky is killed in a boating accident. Younger son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) has had trouble coming to terms with the accident, which he survived, and has only just left an institution after a suicide attempt. His father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is desperate to try and relate to his son again, while his mother Beth (Mary Taylor Moore) remains emotionally distant attempting to put the accident behind them. Conrad starts seeing psychiatrist Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch), to adjust – but the after effects of Bucky’s death continue to tear the family apart.

Nobody really talks about Ordinary People any more do they? Out of all the 1980s Best Picture winners it’s perhaps the most easy to overlook (except maybe for Terms of Endearment). Why is this? Well truth be told it’s just a pretty ordinary picture. There really isn’t much to it. The story it tells of a wealthy family (only a millionaire like Redford could consider these loaded people ordinary) suffering emotional trauma and psychiatry finding the answer has been told so many times before, and since, that there isn’t anything particularly unique or interesting about it. 

In fact Ordinary People is exactly the sort of small-scale, quiet, middle-brow independent film that awards ceremonies slather over and a few years later (never mind over 30!) people struggle to see what the fuss was about. Redford directs the film with a quiet professionalism – the sort of competent craftsmanship and skill with actors that dozens of other directors could have done just as well. His Oscar for best director is especially galling when you consider the artistry and imagination of Scorsese’s direction of Raging Bull, or the unbearable sadness and tragedy Lynch gave The Elephant Man. It’s the sort of direction a non-famous director wouldn’t even have been nominated for.

This film uses shot-reverse-shot like it’s going out of fashion, most of the scenes are conversations across tables that are weighted down so heavily with meaning you start to lose interest in them. The score uses Pachelbel’s music in such an overwhelming style, it makes that sound as anodyne as much of the rest of the movie. Maybe it’s just because this is such well-trodden ground, but the revelations towards the end of the movie are so blindingly obvious you wonder why it takes so long to get to them (the son blames himself, the mother blames the son and doesn’t love him as much as the dead son, the father wants the two to kiss and make-up). 

This rotates around a series of psychiatrist scenes which at least have the feeling of actual sessions, even if Judd Hirsch (good as he is here) basically plays the sort of revelation inspiring psychiatrist that only appears in movies. The film has a touching faith in the power of analysis being able to solve all problems, and spends so long luxuriating in scenes like this it virtually forgets to put actual living, breathing characters in the middle of them. With the possible exception of the father, none of these characters feel particularly real – they are just mouthpieces for the plot.

Not that it’s badly acted at all. Timothy Hutton made his film debut here and he brings a real fire and passion to the role, as well as a moving emotional vulnerability and anger directed only at himself. The supporting actor Oscar feels a bit of a cheat, as he’s clearly the lead, but he’s very good here as Conrad, struggling to express himself, bottling up his feelings and lashing out at those around him. It’s a part that feels drawn together from bits and pieces of plot requirement, but Hutton plays it to the hilt – it just doesn’t feel like a really real person, more a collection of sad traits.

Mary Taylor Moore is in a similar situation as a mother so cold and distant from her son, so repressed and controlling her distance starts damaging the entire family. She’s unable to process what has happened so almost wants to pretend nothing has (and blames her son for not doing that same), that it again feels like something from a psychiatric case-study rather than real person. Moore gained particular attention at the time as she was best known for comedy (much like Judd Hirsch, famous for the sitcom Taxi) – so the performance at the time might have looked stronger than it actually was.

The best performance might well come from Donald Sutherland in the least flashy role as the father trying to puzzle out what is going on – and trying to work out his own feelings. It’s the only character that feels less like a construct and more a genuine person, whose answers aren’t easily worked out by a bit of psychology study. Sutherland is low-key, tender, gentle and carries all his emotion on the inside – it’s a subtle and excellent performance, overlooked way too much. 

Redford essentially directed an actor’s film here (it’s all about the big moments of acting) so it’s not a surprise that it seized the attention of the Academy (largely made-up of actors) but really it’s not that far away from a well-made “movie of the week”,  with its obvious beats and not particularly surprising revelations. Perhaps it’s the point that the family’s problems seem a lot more apparent to the viewer than they do to the characters – and there is some interesting development of perceptions, not least from Sutherland’s father who starts to come to profound realisations about his wife and son. 

But Ordinary Peopleis an uninspiring and even rather tame drama, that today looks even more low-key and insubstantial. While it tries to break free from the confines of “social drama” it actually wants to tie everything up with a neat bow psychologically – and despite the fact it has an ending that suggests not everything is perfect, it really concludes with a safe full stop. There is a reason why it’s surely one of the best pictures which has been most forgotten about.