Tag: Tom Wilkinson

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.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

An impulsive decision leads to a wild tour through mind and memory in this mind-bending, desperately romantic classic

Director: Michel Gondry

Cast: Jim Carrey (Joel Barish), Kate Winslet (Clementine Kruczynski), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Svevo), Mark Ruffalo (Stan Fink), Elijah Wood (Patrick Wertz), Tom Wilkinson (Dr Howard Mierzwiak), Jane Adams (Carrie Eakin), David Cross (Rob Eakin), Dierdre O’Connell (Hollis Mierzwiak)

What makes us who we are? If it’s anything, it might just be the sum total of our experiences. The events of our lives, and the emotions they cause in us, shape and define us. If we cut some of them away, what would we be? Is losing painful memories worth it, if we also cut away memories we cling to as treasured possessions? What makes us love someone: instinct or the sum total of our memories with them? Ideas around this and how love works are at the centre of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s extraordinarily inventive, imaginative but also romantic and heartfelt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a truly original film crammed with rewarding moments.

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) wants to make-up with his electric but troubled girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Imagine his pain when he goes to see her and she seems not to recognise him – and how much worse that might be when he discovers Clementine has erased him from her memory. An experimental surgery, Lacuna, run by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), offers its clients an unmatchable service: they will erase a person from your memory. Struggling to get over the loss of a partner, wife, friend, child or even dog? No problem, they’ll be gone from your mind and you never need worry about their memory causing you pain again.

Hurt and angry, Joel decides to undergo the same surgery to forget Clementine. While the procedure takes place over night – supervised by techs Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan’s girlfriend (and Dr Mierzwiak hero-worshipper) Mary (Kirsten Dunst) – Joel comes to realise in his sub-conscious that he doesn’t want his memory stripped of Clementine. The cost of losing so many good memories isn’t worth it. In his sub conscious he tries to protect his memories – while in the real world the team battle to complete their contract and erase them.

Not many films like that are there? Gondry’s film could have been a slave to its concept. Instead though, it manages to juggle its deeper meanings with a truly heartfelt, winning and very sweet human story about two people who, for all their faults, become people you completely invest in. Kaufman’s script, as you would expect, triumphs as a complex and inventive magic tour but it’s also a wonderfully placed romance and heartfelt relationship story. Effectively the film manages to have something for everyone to invest in, from sci-fi nerds to lovers of romcoms to philosophy students.

It’s also a triumph of style. Set largely in Joel’s mind, the film reflects the fractured nature of the surgery as his memories are assaulted, deconstructed and destroyed. Lights fade, buildings disassemble and disappear, faces melt away from bodies and memories start to crash into each other. In his mind Joel walks through a door in a library to find himself on a beach, or rounds a corner to find himself back in his childhood memories. All of this is filmed with a series of stunning in-camera effects that make characters disappear, duplicate or seem to be in several places at once, all shot in a series of one-take effects that sees buildings disappear in front of us or fascinating memory loops. Visually the film is a feast, a tribute to Gondry’s playful imagination.

But it sticks with people because of the heart at the centre of it. Joel and Clementine become people we care about. We root for Joel to defy the odds and preserve some of his memory. Because, the film makes clear, being consciously aware of his memories being deleted is basically like going through the pain of losing her a second time – only this time knowing you won’t even be left with the parts you want to hold onto. In fact – re-enforced by the distress we see in Clementine when we see her undergoing the panic of being subconsciously aware of memory loss in the real world – Joel’s horror of what he has asked for is likely what all the other patients of Lacuna’s ‘brain damage for your own good’ surgery have gone through.

Superbly played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in cast-well-against-type performances, Joel and Clementine might at times be selfish, frustrating, even irritating people – but it’s clear their love for each other is real. Jim Carrey, dialling down his gonzo mania to an unprecedented degree, is perfect as the shy and gentle Joel, bewitched by this explosive presence in his life. Winslet is electric – cranky, brittle, damaged but also caring and playful. Kaufman’s film shows they hurt and snap at each other, but also that they bring each other happiness they can’t get anywhere else.

So, it comes back to that question: do we accept that part of the price of loving and living is pain? That the people who we love the most, are the ones that may also hurt us the most. The film is also clear that love can’t be forced or replicated. In the ‘real world’ Clementine is being wooed by Elijah Wood’s creepily needy techie, using his records of her romantic memories of Joel to replicate their special moments. The falseness of this isn’t a remote match for the true emotion of the real event: and it’s a testament to the film’s commitment that you can’t forge or force love, and that eventually it might just find a way.

Because, even without our memories, will we still be drawn towards the same people? Can love in fact survive, even if you don’t know who the person who love is anymore? It’s another fascinating thread in this film. Romantic couples throughout find themselves drawn to each other continually, a subconscious emotion surviving the purging of actual memories. It adds even more to the horrific trauma of seeing what’s happening to Joel here. His obvious distress as he realises the implications of what he rashly asked for – and there is plenty of suggestion Clementine feels the same – gets worse and worse as he realises he has signed away his own rights to decide who he loves.

Those ethical questions – is it even possible to make an informed decision here about lobotomizing your memory – mix with those philosophical questions of what makes us what we are. Will Joel and Clementine be the same people or not after this operation? How will they adjust to losing such a hugely important part of their histories? Especially as they won’t even know that they have. Kaufman’s script explores this all carefully, but never once losing track of the emotional story driving it.

So Eternal Sunshine becomes a touching love story, about two people going to huge ends against impossible odds to stay together. That, I think, is what lies behind its appeal. What makes it one of the most lasting films of the 00s is the invention and flair the story is told with – Gondry’s direction and its non-linear structure all only add to the fabulous script from Kaufman and Gondry – and the way it very lightly tackles a whole host of fascinating ideas while never losing track of its nature as an entertainment. It’s a brilliant film.

The Happy Prince (2018)

The Happy Prince header
Rupert Everett excels as Oscar Wilde in his passion project The Happy Prince

Director: Rupert Everett

Cast: Rupert Everett (Oscar Wilde), Colin Firth (Reggie Turner), Colin Morgan (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas), Emily Watson (Constance Lloyd), Tom Wilkinson (Father Dunne), Anna Chancellor (Mrs Arbuthnot), Edwin Thomas (Robbie Ross), Beatrice Dalle (Café manager), Julian Wadham (Mr Arbuthnot), John Standing (Dr Tucker)

Rupert Everett has long felt an affinity for Oscar Wilde. He saw Wilde as one of the first great martyrs of the gay community, sacrificed early to the hypocrisy of conventional society (who loved everything about this flamboyantly camp, witty man right up until they found out what he got up to in bed). He spent ten years trying to find the money to film his script about Wilde’s final days in exile in Europe. (Everett eventually recounted all this in a book, To the Ends of the Earth).

The final end result is a well-made, interesting, decent film that doesn’t reinvent the wheel or radically change our perceptions or knowledge of Wilde – but does plenty of credit to Everett. He directs with an assurance and a surprising amount of visual flair. The film is attractive and uses urgent, hand-held camerawork with a great deal of skill, giving even the most basic scenes a real spark of life. There are some intelligent and intriguing visual cuts and transitions and he gets good work from the cast (Firth, an old friend, loyally did the film for nothing to help it get made). There is enough here to make you keen to see Everett have a go at another film (although I suspect, from reading the book, that’s highly unlikely to happen).

Everett also plays the lead role, and that’s the film’s main interest. He honed his performance as Wilde after the best part of a year on stage (to huge acclaim) in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Not to mention Everett has a natural affinity for Wildean dialogue, having proven on several occasions that maybe no actor alive better captures Wilde’s wit and pathos. His Wilde is a shattered husk, slowly realising over the course of the film that his life is effectively over. This happens not so much as a raging against the light, but the slow deflation of a man who died at a very early age (barely mid 40s), collapsing into depression, alcoholism and repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The most prominent of those mistakes being taking up again with his lover (and root cause of his disgrace the first time) Bosie, played here with preening, incandescent selfishness by Colin Morgan. During a long sojourn in Naples, these two flirt, fight and fuck until the money runs out – like an appalling unfunny screwball comedy couple who keep being dragged back together because fighting each other is better than talking to anyone else. Bosie then turns up in floods of tears at Wilde’s grave – having cut all ties with him or face disinheritance, fobbing him off with a few hundred quid of “thank but piss off” money.

Wilde’s loyal friends stick by him – but in that typical blinkered way we sometimes behave when we are in love, Wilde oscillates between being sickeningly dependent and dismissive of them. Everett isn’t afraid to make Wilde often preening, sponging, selfish and deluded or to stress how easily his wit and intelligence could be turned cruel. Edwin Thomas is heart-breakingly earnest as Wilde’s devoted friend Robbie Ross while Firth gives sterling support as the equally loyal Reggie Turner.

The film follows Wilde into some pretty dark places and plays some quite daring cards when exploring Wilde’s psyche. Everett plainly shows Wilde deeply regretted the end of his relationship with his children, and the damage he caused them. But he isn’t afraid to show him taking on potential substitutes for them in a teenage boy and his prepubescent brother – while still paying for sex with the older brother (eagerly pimped by his street-smart younger brother). Despite this there’s something very sad about Wilde settling down to tell these kids the same stories he told his own. Or his gentle longing for the family he left behind that we hear in his voice when he sees them.

Where the film is strongest is in showing the prejudice and rage Wilde met and the suffering he endured. Wilde is spat at, chased through the street by drunken poshboys on tour (finally physically confronting them in a church with a foul-mouthed fury), threatened and generally treated like dirt by nearly everyone of any social standing. Scenes of him at his pomp show the same traits now treated as disgusting signs of his sexual preference, were celebrated as evidence of his charm. The Happy Prince has an angry and rage to it that I almost wish Everett had committed to more.

Saying that, it’s shot and edited with such pace and urgency that the film still works. If at the end it never quite coalesces into a clear message, it’s still a fine tribute to Everett’s efforts to bring it to the screen. And his own performance is a marvel – beautifully judged, empathetic but not hagiographic, critical but sympathetic, funny and also moving, angry but gentle. Its best legacy is the opportunity Everett the actor is given by Everett the director (as he confesses in the book one of his principle reasons for writing the script in the first place) and if the film is a little too much of a one-man showcase, it still has plenty of interest to it.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are superb in probably the greatest Austen adaptation on film, Sense and Sensibility

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars), Greg Wise (John Willoughby), Gemma Jones (Mrs Dashwood), Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood), James Fleet (John Dashwood), Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton), Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs Jennings), Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele), Hugh Laurie (Mr Palmer), Imelda Staunton (Mrs Palmer), Emilie Francoise (Margaret Dashwood), Tom Wilkinson (Mr Dashwood)

The world of Austen adaptations stands on two pillars – and both of them date from 1995. One is the BBC Pride and Prejudice, the other this luminous adaptation of Austen’s first novel, written by and starring Emma Thompson. It’s hard to pull together a review when a film pretty much plays its hand perfectly: and that’s exactly what Sense and Sensibility does. The film is a complete delight, in which Thompson takes surprisingly large liberties with many of the details of the novel, but brings to the screen a version that never once loses the spirit and heart of Austen’s work. It’s an immensely impressive achievement, and one of the finest literary adaptations ever made.

After the death of Mr Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), the Dashwood estate passes into the hands of his son John (James Fleet) and John’s ambitious wife Fanny (Harriet Walter), leaving his second wife (Gemma Jones) and their daughters sensible Elinor (Emma Thompson), passionate Marianne (Kate Winslet) and giddy schoolgirl Margaret (Emilie Francoise) suddenly homeless. However, this does bring Fanny’s gentle and kind brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) into Elinor’s life, and an unspoken romance builds between the pair. There is passion in the air for Marianne at their new home, when she is rescued from a fall in the rain by the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise). But are there secrets in the pasts of both men that could threaten the sisters’ happiness? And how did Willoughby’s life intersect with the reserved Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman)?

Thompson’s superbly written script is a faultless adaptation that makes not a single poor choice, and expands and enriches several characters (in particular the three men) to great effect. Thompson not only brings much of the humour and wit in Austen to the fore – the film is frequently very funny – she also understands here truth and tenderness. Which is why the film is so beloved: it’s a film overflowing with empathy and heart for its characters which builds the emotional investment as skilfully as it does the comedy. It culminates in a proposal scene which I don’t think has ever not placed a lump in my throat.

To list all the excellent adaptation ideas would take forever so I’ll use one example. The film wisely expands much of the early character interactions, in particular deepening and exploring the early meeting between Elinor and Edward. A section that takes up barely one of the book’s (very short) chapters here fills the first 20 minutes of the film. It’s vital as it superbly establishes the natural warmth and intimacy between these two, and their perfectly complementing personalities.

It also allows Grant – in one of his most romantically winning performances – to display some deeply endearing light comedy, as well as establishing Edward as a thoughtful, sympathetic and decent man, who forms bonds quickly with all the family (especially young Margaret) through his genuineness. It also keeps us rooting for a relationship – and for a character – who the film often has to leave off screen for vast stretches, and leaves us in no doubt that his (later revealed) engagement to Lucy Steele (a woman he does not love, and who is interested in him solely for his position) comes from the same motives of decency, duty and the desire to do the right thing.

If that’s an example of one of Thompson’s most successful changes in her adaptation, she also unerringly identifies the things it’s most important to keep. Just like the novel, the film places the warmth of the sisters’ relationship at its heart. Helped by the natural chemistry and ease between Thompson and Winslet, the film carefully contrasts the personalities of these two sisters (one sensible and reserved, the other spontaneous and passionate) but takes no sides and also shows the sisters themselves are united by their love for each other. The film frequently features scenes of confidence and intimacy between the two, and continually brings us back to each other as the key relationship in their lives. It also shows how both need to meet in the middle ground: Elinor needs some of Marianne’s sensibility, just as Marianne needs to take on some of Elinor’s sense.

Although sense would not have necessarily helped Marianne uncover the dangerous selfishness of Willoughby. Perhaps the only wrong call in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (like most adaptations of that novel), is that it makes the rogueish Wickham insufficiently handsome and too blatantly smarmy from the start, tipping the audience the wink that this man can’t be trusted. Not so here, with Greg Wise giving Willoughby so much charm, regency handsomeness, dash and warmth that you would not imagine for a moment he could be anything but what he seems. He makes a clear contrast with Marianne’s other suitor, the older, more distant Brandon – superbly played by Alan Rickman – whose qualities of kindness and decency are hidden behind his coolness and lack of flash (Rickman is, again, wonderful here as a man hoping against hope for  a second chance at love).

But then the film is filled with perfectly cast actors. Thompson is a brilliant and natural fit for Elinor (even if she is too old for the part, something she acknowledged herself) giving her acres of emotional torment under an exterior she must keep calm and controlled for the sake of her family. Winslet became a star for her enchantingly free-spirited performance, grounded by a warmth and desire for the best for others that keeps the character from ever becoming irritating or overbearing.

Among the rest, there isn’t a bum note. Walter is hilarious as the washpish Fanny, Hardy full of bonhomie as Sir John. Elizabeth Spriggs is perfect as a gossipy old maid who is a pillar of strength when her friends are ill-treated. Hugh Laurie is hilarious in a gift of a part as the dry, cynical Mr Palmer whose nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny, but who also proves his nobility in a crisis. Staunton is equally good as his flighty, mismatched wife. Imogen Stubbs brings out the simpering manipulative scheming of Lucy Steele perfectly.

The whole is bought together expertly by wonderfully paced and constructed directing by Ang Lee, whom it’s surprisingly easy to over-look. Lee was a considered an odd choice for the film – he barely spoke English at the time and was a stranger to Austen. But the film is an inspired match for him, tapping into his sensitivity, the warm eye he brings to families and their dramas, and also the observer’s wit he brings to social comedy and dynamics. Lee also brings an outsider’s eye to England – it’s a film that looks wonderful, but not simply romantic, with Lee not afraid of a stormy sky or a muddy street. Interiors are shot with a candlelit beauty, and there is a sense throughout of all this taking place in a real world. Patrick Doyle’s perfectly judged score also works wonders to help create the mood.

Sense and Sensibility is a masterful film and a, perfect adaptation of Austen. It’s hard to imagine that it will be bettered for some time. Indeed, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice, it feels like it has made all other adaptations of the book redundant. With a brilliant adaptation, superb acting, sensitive and insightful direction and a true understanding of the spirit and heart of Austen, this is one of the greatest adaptations ever made.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow juggle love and inspiration in the delightful Shakespeare in Love

Director: John Madden

Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola de Lessops), Joseph Fiennes (William Shakespeare), Geoffrey Rush (Philip Henslowe), Colin Firth (Lord Wessex), Ben Affleck (Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth I), Simon Callow (Edmund Tilney), Jim Carter (Ralph), Martin Clunes (Richard Burbage), Antony Sher (Dr Moth), Imelda Staunton (Nurse), Tom Wilkinson (Hugh Fennyman), Mark Williams (Wabash)

It’s become fashionable since 1998 to criticize Shakespeare in Love. It’s one of those films that the Oscar has diminished –you’ll swiftly find someone who’ll say “can you believe it beat Saving Private Ryan?” It doesn’t help that the film become a poster-child for Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar success, his tireless and canny promotion campaign for the film being credited for its sweeping the board. All that buzz is unfair, as it distracts from a hugely enjoyable, very funny, heartfelt and charming film, stacked with scenes that will make you laugh or let out a sad little sigh.

It’s 1593 and Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has writer’s block. His latest play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter just can’t get started despite the fact he’s promised theatre manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) that he’ll have it ready in a few days. Will only begins to find inspiration when he falls in love with Viola de Lessops (Gwyneth Paltrow) – little realising that Viola and the promising young actor in his company, Thomas Kent, are one-and-the-same. Viola, passionate about the theatre, dreams of acting on the stage and falls in love with Shakespeare (while keeping her Thomas Kent identity secret) – but her wealthy parents want her to marry the noble Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Will these two star-crossed lovers find happiness? Or will their destiny follow the lines of the increasingly dark play about two young Verona lovers, that Romeo and Ethel is morphing into?

The largest part of Shakespeare in Love’s success rests with its script. The original idea had been doing the rounds in Hollywood for several years (Julia Roberts was determined to do it at one point, but only with Daniel Day-Lewis as Shakespeare, who was not interested). Marc Norman developed the concept and a plotline (originally much darker). But the film’s captivating wit and playfulness only really cemented itself when Tom Stoppard adapted the script into the frothy, super-smart comedy it became, crammed with riffs and gags about the Bard, Elizabethan theatre and show business. It’s also got a very funny – and humanising – idea of the world’s most famous writer suffering from writer’s block and then falling in love like he’s in one of his own plays.

Stoppard’s other trick was to repackage the concept into a delightful romantic comedy, centring the love story and downplaying other elements (such as Shakespeare’s quest to go solo and build his theatre career). With that, and the plot brilliantly refracting and reflecting Romeo and Juliet in tone and structure (just like that play, the first half is pure comedy, the second half darker in tone). In particular, the film is crammed with Shakespearean plot points and themes (from cross-dressing to plays-within-plays, mistaken identities, ghosts etc etc) all of which playfully  appear, cramming the film with delightful easter eggs.

It’s a celebration of the joy and magic of theatre – but it also hit big in Hollywood, because it’s essentially a Hollywood-studio comedy transmuted into the 1590s. Henslowe feels like a chancing B-movie producer, in debt who feels that with the idea of promising a share of profits (“there never are any”) instead of a salary, that his financial backer “may have hit on something”. There are puns about the unimportance of writers, billing on posters, the neurosis of creative people (even including an Elizabethan psychiatrist), oversized production credits, forced “happy endings” and sticking to tried-and-tested formulas. Gags call back to show-biz staples (“The show must…” “Go on!”). While it may be set in a theatre, there is a lot of the Hollywood studio in this.

But, with Stoppard at the pen, it was never going to be anything other than a loving tribute to the power of theatre to change lives. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is presented as a landmark in theatre history, a shift towards putting real-life emotion on stage instead of a few cheeky laughs and “a bit with a dog”. There is a wonderful plotline for Tom Wilkinson’s at-first all-business moneylender Fennyman, who discovers in himself a sense of wonder and delight for the theatre that melts his heart. (Wilkinson is outstanding here, a brutal man turned teary-eyed spectator, thrilled to be playing the apothecary). It weaves its charms so well about the delights of theatre, that you’ll even forgive the cliché of the stammering actor who finds his confidence on the first night. You even get a belting performance of Romeo and Juliet(with all the dull bits removed).

What really sucks in audiences through is the love-story – and Shakespeare in Love has a belter of a romantic plot. Riffing on Twelfth Night, As You Like It and of course Romeo and Juliet among many others, it’s a delightful series of misunderstandings, confusions and then passion, that eventually builds to an ending that’s bittersweet but true. It’s also beautifully played by the actors. Joseph Fiennes is so good here, a masterful display of light comedy tinged with sadness, so quick and electric with inspiration that I’m still amazed he didn’t go onto to better things.

Paltrow’s teary Oscar-acceptance has rather blighted the memory of her performance, but she has an earnestness and innocence that is deeply endearing and brings with it a radiant intelligence and emotional maturity that sees her turn into a realist. Wisely, the film’s ending sheds the other, minor plots, to hone in on an ending that is both sad and hopeful, that reflects real life (Shakespeare was after all, a real man married to someone else in Stratford) and sets up a thematic idea of love and inspiration being a life-long romance, that touches every moment of our lives, even when the loved person themselves is far away.

Directed with a smooth, professional sense of pace and joy by John Madden, it becomes a sweeping, surprisingly epic film, with a brilliant reconstruction of Elizabethan England and a luscious musical score by Stephen Warbeck heightening each scene’s emotional impact. The leads are marvellous, and there isn’t a weak-link in the strong cast. Judi Dench famously won an Oscar for her 8 minutes, but then its quality not quantity that matters and Dench’s archness is perfect for the role. Rush is hilarious as the grubby Henslowe, Affleck never better than his grand-actor parody, Colin Firth scowls expertly as “the other man” and Rupert Everett is dry and witty in a brief cameo as Christopher Marlowe, feeding Shakespeare suggestions.

You could say that Shakespeare in Love is just a romantic comedy. In many ways that would be fair. It doesn’t re-invent a genre, like Saving Private Ryan did. But, it’s a brilliantly mounted, intelligent and extremely funny one, with a superb script, some brilliant performances and wonderfully mounted. While it makes some good riffs on theatre, Shakespeare and the nature of love, it’s principle mission is to entertain – a big cinematic entertainment about the greatest playwright ever. And don’t we always say that comedy is exactly what the academy is biased against?

Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale redeems the Batman in Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (William Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul), Mark Boone Jnr (Detective Arnold Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb)

In the mid-2000s, Batman on film was a joke. A series that started with the Gothic darkness of Tim Burton had collapsed into the pantomime campness of Joel Schumacher. The franchise was functionally dead, so why hot burn it all down and start again from scratch. It was a radical idea – one of the first big “reboots” of a comic book saga. It was a triumphant success, changing the rule book for a host of film series and one of the most influential movies from the last 15 years. 

After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life drifts as he is unable to get over his own guilt at believing he was partly responsible for getting his parents into a situation where they were killed. In a Gotham run by organised crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Bruce exiles himself for years to try and learn the skills he will need to return and try and find some peace and deal with his fears by tackling crime head on. Recruited by his mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into the League of Shadows – a dark group of ninja inspired vigilantes – Wayne eventually rejects the group’s ruthlessness and returns to Gotham. There, working with his old guardian and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he starts to build a new identity: by day shallow playboy Bruce Wayne, by night The Bat Man ruthless vigilante, fighting crime. 

Why did it work so well? Because Christopher Nolan understood that the key to making a film that will kickstart a series and win the love of both the casual viewer and the fan is ‘simple’ – just make the film good. Make it a film powered by ideas, characters, a deliberate story and intriguing beats and audiences will love it. Make it a lowest common denominator film offering only bangs and crashes and ‘fan service’ and audiences will reject it. Because at the end of the day we know when we are being manipulated, and the assumption too many people behind making films like that is that people don’t really want intelligent films. They do.

Batman Begins works so well because it places character front-and-centre in a way no other Batman film – and very few superhero films – had before. Unlike all the other Batman films, here Bruce Wayne (and it is definitely Bruce Wayne) was the lead character, not a staid stick-in-the-mud around whom more colourful villains danced. Combine that with Nolan’s inspired idea to return Batman to something resembling a real-world, a more grounded, recognisable version of Gotham which has problems with organised crime that we could recognise from the real world. This are intelligent, inspired decisions that instantly allowed the film to take on a thematic and narrative depth the other Batman films had lacked. 

It’s Bruce Wayne’s psyche at the centre of the film – in an excellent performance of emotional honesty and physical commitment by Christian Bale – and his attempts to find solace in a sense of duty from his fears and his loss of a father figure. It’s Fear that is possibly one of the central themes of Batman Begins and the power it has over us. Fear is what Bruce must master – on a visceral level his fear of bats, on a deeper level his fear that he has failed his parents by failing the city they loved – and fear is the weapon all the villains use. Fear is the petrol for Falcone and his gangsters. Fear is the weapon Batman utilises. Fear is the study of choice of disturbed psychologist Joanthan Crane (a smarmily unsettling Cillian Murphy). A weaponised Fear gas is the WMD that the film’s villains intend to introduce into Gotham.

Understanding fear, working with it, finding its strengths and using these for good is at the core of the film. It’s there from the first beat – a traumatised young Bruce attacked by bats after falling into an abandoned well they nest in – and it’s there at the very end. Bruce’s training with mentor Ducard is as much about understanding and living with these terrors as it is physical prowess. His impact as Batman on the city is central towards channelling his own fears – bats, the dark, violence on an empty street – into universal fears he can use to terrorise criminals. 

It’s all part of the film’s quest to work out who Bruce Wayne is. With Bale superb at the centre, the film throws a host of potential father characters at Bruce, all offering different influences. He has no less than three father figures, in his father (a fine performance of decency by Linus Roache), the austere and understanding Ducard (Neeson channelling and inverting brilliantly his natural gravitas and calm) and the firm but fair and caring Alfred (Michael Caine quite brilliantly opening up a whole new career chapter). 

The influences are all there for Bruce to work out. Should he follow a path of compassionate justice as his father would do? How much muscular firmness and earnest duty, such as Alfred represents, should this be spiced with? How does Ducard’s increasingly extreme views of justice, combat and social order play into this? Which influence will win out over Bruce – or rather how will he combine all this into his own rules? It’s telling that the film’s villain turns out to be a dark false-father figure – the entire film is Bruce’s quest to come to turn with his own legacy and allow himself to accept his father and forgive himself.

It’s also telling that both hero and villain are driven by similar (but strikingly different) agendas. Both are looking to impose justice on the world. But where Bruce sees this as compassion with a punch – a necessary evil, protecting the good in the world while bringing down the evil – the League of Shadows see their mission as one of imposing Justice through chaos, of letting a world destroy itself so that a better one can rise from the ashes. 

Its ideas like this that pepper Christopher Nolan’s film. Throw in his superb film-making abilities and you have an absolute treat. Nolan’s direction is spot-on, superbly assembled with a mastery over character and story-telling. Beautifully designed, shot and edited it’s a perfect mixture of comic book rules and logic – the very idea of the League of Shadows – with the real world perils of crime, vigilanteeism and violence. With a superb cast led by Bale – and Gary Oldman also deserves mention, Nolan finally unleashing the decency, honesty and kindness in the actor that revitalised his career – Batman Begins relaunched Batman as a serious and intelligent series, that matched spectacle and excitement (and there is tonnes of it) with weighty themes, fine acting and superb film making. There is a reason why it’s been a touchstone for every reboot of a series made since.

The Full Monty (1997)

Steelworkers from Sheffield have no options but to turn their hand to stripping, in British phenomenon The Full Monty

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Cast: Robert Carlyle (Gaz), Mark Addy (Dave), Tom Wilkinson (Gerald), Lesley Sharp (Jean), Emily Woof (Mandy), William Snape (Nathan), Steve Huisan (Lomper), Paul Barber (Horse), Hugo Speer (Guy)

In the summer of 1997, Britain was a depressed place. The country was in the middle of an intense mourning for the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps that’s why a film all about overcoming despair and to turn it into heart-warming triumph suddenly gripped the whole nation and emerged from nowhere to become the most successful British film of all time. No one expected a film about Sheffield strippers to do that.

The economy has dropped out of the Sheffield steel market, and hundreds of people are out of work and desperate. Gaz (Robert Carlyle), a genial waster, needs £700 to pay his child maintenance and not lose access to his son Nathan (William Snape). Dave (Mark Addy) has serious self-image problems, his disgust at his own weight is leading him to push away Jean (Lesley Sharp), the wife he can’t believe loves him. Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), their ex-foreman, is so ashamed of losing his job he hasn’t told his wife that he’s been unemployed for six months and is facing financial ruin. Together with three other men with no other options, they decide one way to get money quick is to follow the example of the sell-out male-strippers at the local working club – with the unique selling point that they will go “the full monty”.

It’s been nearly a decade since I saw The Full Monty. Over-exposure made it an easy film to feel a bit sniffy and dismissive about, like it was a happy accident that the film came from nowhere to achieve staggering success. But that’s hugely unfair. Watching it back now, it’s amazing how much it’s a comedic film grounded in a sense of desperation and pain, and then how brilliantly it uses this to create empathy for its characters, and how wonderfully this helps you to share their joy and triumph when they are finally taking control of their own destinies.

The Full Monty emerged from a troubled production history. It was hugely difficult to find funding for the film. It took years to get the filming sorted, and casting was difficult – in a parallel universe Nicholas Lyndhurst and Russ Abbott played the lead roles. Robert Carlyle has described the making of the film as being totally chaotic (he further claimed he was convinced the film was “pish” and heading for disaster). The first cut was met with such negativity from the distributors that it nearly ended up direct-to-video, until the producers begged for one more shot at editing the film. But then it emerged as one of the most widely loved UK films of the 1990s, eventually being nominated for four Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay and a win for Best Score). That’s what I call a turnaround!

It’s also strangely fitting for the film itself. The opening footage showing a prosperous and bustling Sheffield in the 1960s is a perfect set-up for the Sheffield of the 1990s with unemployment rampant, and our characters confined to endless days of drifting around the city and failing to gain any benefits from a workshop at the unemployment office. Every frame of Cattaneo’s well shot film stresses the relative bleakness of the environment, the run-down world the characters inhabit, and that sense that all promise is missing from the future of this city.

In the middle of this, the film doesn’t shy away from looking at – with plenty of jokes – plenty of themes which are hardly your default expectations for a comedy movie. We’ve got depression, self-loathing, body-image, fathers’ rights and suicide: if that’s not a comic gold on paper I don’t know what is!  However, what is so perfect about the film is how well it judges the tone when dealing with these themes. Simon Beaufoy’s script is warm, humane and above all immensely empathetic. Never – not once – are any of these characters the butt of the humour. While we may see the dark comedy that can occur, we never laugh at the characters.

The script gets a perfect balance between all this desperation and pain and well-worked, down-to-earth, honest and affecting humour. It’s also genuinely funny, with several stand-out gags. As an interesting side note, perhaps the film’s most famous comic moment – the boys standing in the dole queue, involuntarily practicing their routine when Hot Stuff starts playing in the radio – nearly didn’t make the film, as the producers felt it was unrealistic. Just as well they left it in, as it perfectly captures the mood of the movie.

On top of which, the film taps into the human bonds that can grow in adversity. One of the film’s principal delights is seeing this odd bunch slowly begin to come together like a family. We see them confide in each other, listen to each other’s problems, accept each other for what they are. It’s a film about the triumph of the human spirit and the rewards that can come from opening your heart to other people when all seems lost.

It further helps that Simon Beaufoy’s script draws such terrific performances from the actors. Carlyle (for all his doubts about the film) plays Gaz with a perfect, low-key, commitment and empathy. Carlyle in many ways makes the film work as well as it does because he plays the truth of each scene and is willing to be the film’s loadstone. He plays every moment truthfully and is as effective showing Gaz’s chancer wasterness as he is at allowing the real pain and fear Gaz feels at the prospect of losing his son.

The film also changed the careers of Addy and Wilkinson, turning the two into character actor superstars. Addy is fabulous as the self-loathing Dave: having had problems myself with being concerned about my own image, seeing the psychological damage Dave inflicts on himself through his own inadequacies is very moving, and perfectly played by Addy – who also brings a great deal of comic mastery to the film. Wilkinson is perhaps the pick of the bunch as the seemingly proud and haughty Gerald, who hides intense fragility and pain under the surface. He has a truly affecting breakdown scene after a job interview gone wrong – and the reaction acting to this from Carlyle and Addy is also by the way marvellous. It’s a terrific (BAFTA winning) performance.

And then you hit the final stripping scene – and all that empathy the film has been building pays off, because the triumphal dance and strip down is hugely heart-warming. After seeing the men go through such difficulty and despair it’s really affecting and joyful to see them finally take control of their own destinies. How could you not be wrapped up in it? How could a whole nation not take the whole thing to their hearts? Put out of your mind all those thoughts that this can’t be that good, or that we were all mistaken in 1997: this is genuinely very good, thought-provoking and hilarious stuff.

Belle (2013)


Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the mixed race daughter making waves in society in Amma Asante’s underwhelming pseudo-historical film Belle

Director: Amma Asante

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido Elizabeth Belle), Tom Wilkinson (William Murray, Lord Mansfield), Sam Reid (John Davinier), Emily Watson (Lady Elizabeth Mansfield), Sarah Gadon (Lady Elizabeth Murray), Miranda Richardson (Lady Ashford), Penelope Wilton (Lady Mary Murray), Tom Felton (James Ashford), James Norton (Oliver Ashford), Matthew Goode (Captain Sir John Lindsay), Alex Jennings (Lord Ashford)

The British film industry produces a constant stream of costume dramas, many covering alarmingly similar ground on the aristocracy or wealthy of the Georgian period onwards. It’s to be commended then that Belle takes a similar plot, but from a radically different direction. Here, a famous real painting of a white and mixed-race pair of ladies becomes the jumping off point for a drama about an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a wealthy family.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of naval captain and a slave in the West Indies. After his death, she his raised by her uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), Earl of Mansfield, and his wife (Emily Watson) to raise her as their own alongside their niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadron). Belle is treated as an equal among the family, but is not allowed to dine with guests or move freely in society. However, Belle has inherited a fortune from her father – unlike Elizabeth – and quickly finds herself a source of interest from the younger sons of the nobility. Meanwhile Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, is asked to rule on the slave ship Zorg case (where slavers threw their slaves overboard in a storm), a case that brings passionate abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid) into Belle’s life and makes her start to re-evaluate society’s attitude to her.

Belle is a formulaic costume drama, given an imaginative twist by placing a black woman at its heart. It explores issues around the imbalanced attitudes of British society at the time (and since), and the hypocrisy and racism that bubbles under the surface of the British gentry. Belle is rejected by all and sundry – until knowledge of her wealth becomes known, at which point many of these objections are choked back to secure her money. The film gets much mileage out of Belle slowly comparing her position first to the black servants around her and then to the slaves who lost their lives on the Zorg.

However, what undermines Belle is that it is a work of fiction – and it feels like it’s hiding it. What we do know about the real Belle (which isn’t much) doesn’t relate at all to what we see in the film. She wasn’t an heiress. She didn’t fall in love with an abolitionist lawyer – Davinier was not the aspiring son of a cleric, but a French steward. Elizabeth probably wasn’t a penniless relative. Mansfield’s credentials as a proto-Abolitionist and reformer were never in doubt – by the time of the Zorg case he had already passed a ruling 10 years earlier that there was no basis for slavery in British law. Belle actually lived in Mansfield’s house until his death as effectively a housekeeper and semi-secretary (the very fate she rejects in the film). The film’s lack of interest in historical fact even affects small details – at one point James Norton’s pleasant but empty Oliver boasts his father has purchased him a commission as a Captain in the Navy, virtually the only institution in Georgian England which promoted solely on merit! (This annoyed me a lot more than it should have.) 

Belle is not a true story by a long stretch – but that doesn’t stop it proclaiming a “what happened next” series of captions at the end. It could have got away with this in a way other non-historical films have, if its story itself was more compelling. But instead Belle offers a merely serviceable story, offering a unique prospective on the aristocracy but largely using it to tell a fairly conventional “love across the social divide” story. Honestly, for large chunks of the film you could replace Belle with any slightly shameful second daughter, and the story would remain largely the same.

Which is a shame because it feels like it wastes something really interesting – and also wastes Mbatha-Raw’s star-making turn. She is excellent – sweet and naïve, but growing in confidence, determination and wisdom, gaining the strength of will to shape her own destiny. The film introduces interesting themes as Belle begins to question the attitudes of her family – do they accept her because they must? Would they be as open to a black stranger? – but these themes don’t quite coalesce into something really solid and coherent. Instead they are trotted out, but we don’t really feel we learn anything.

Similarly, the case of the slave ship Zorg seems rather loosely defined. We don’t get a real sense of public pressure or interest in the case, or really understand the essentials of what the case involved. Instead, it’s used primarily as a tool to question the attitudes of Lord Mansfield, and whether he has the ability to expand his obvious love for Belle into a wider statement of man’s equality. Tom Wilkinson is very good as Mansfield – prickly, but essentially decent and caring under a gruff surface – even if the role can hardly be a challenge for him. But the film doesn’t really manage to make a really compelling argument about what it is trying to say, other than slavery is of course bad.

Elsewhere, the film takes simple shots and shoots fish in the barrel. The Ashton family are introduced to stand in for British society. Lord Ashton is brisk and businesslike and interested only in maintaining the status quo. Lady Ashton – played by Miranda Richardson at her most coldly standoffish – only cares about securing wealth for sons. Of those sons, James Norton gets the most interesting part as the decent but shallow Oliver. Poor Tom Felton though: his character might as well be Draco Malfoy in period costume, all but spitting out ‘Mudblood’ at Belle. None of these performances offer anything different from what we’ve seen before.

That’s part of the problem with Belle – it wastes an interesting idea by slowly turning it into a more conventional story, primarily focused on who is Belle going to marry, rather than the implications of a black woman in a racist society, or the hypocrisy of that society being only willing to accept her when she has money. Despite some good acting – Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson also give tender performances – and a star-turn in the lead, it’s not really that interesting a film. You keep expecting it to burst into life, but it never does: for such a film offering a fresh perspective on history, you don’t feel like you’ve learned anything new about Georgian society at the end of it.

Wilde (1997)


Jude Law and Stephen Fry in a disastrous love affair in sensitive biopic Wilde

Director: Brian Gilbert

Cast: Stephen Fry (Oscar Wilde), Jude Law (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas), Jennifer Ehle (Constance Lloyd Wilde), Vanessa Redgrave (Jane Francesca Agnes “Speranza” Wilde), Gemma Jones (Sibyl Douglas), Judy Parfitt (Lady Mount-Temple), Michael Sheen (Robbie Ross), Zoë Wanamaker (Ada Leverson), Tom Wilkinson (Marquess of Queensbury), Ioan Gruffudd (John Gray)

Could there be a more perfect piece of casting than Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde? Not only is Fry the spitting image of the famed Irishman, but Fry’s own mercurial talent, his enormous outpouring of novels, articles and screenplays, his skill as a raconteur and his general ubiquitous presence as a personality make him a pretty good modern equivalent of Oscar Wilde. A lifelong admirer of Wilde – and an increasingly vocal proponent of gay rights and mental health awareness – Wilde’s life plugs into many of Fry’s own outlooks on the world. So yeah, perfect casting!

Opening in 1882 with Wilde’s tour of America (he effortlessly charms a group of clichéd “yee-haw!” silver miners – who literally fire their guns into the air in delight at his bon-mots in the film’s crudest touch), the film covers Wilde’s growing career, but focuses on his personal relationships. Unaware of his homosexuality, he marries Constance (Jennifer Ehle), but discovers his true nature with her friend Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen). However, this leads to his destructive, obsessive love for alternately petulant and caring Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), his beloved “Bosie”. When he is accused publically of sodomy by Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury (a raging Tom Wilkinson, chewing the scenery), Wilde takes the matter to court – a disastrous decision that destroys his life.

Brian Gilbert’s film is a sensitive and lovingly crafted slice of period drama, that movingly demonstrates the hypocrisy of Victorian values. Wilde is celebrated by the public, despite the open secret of his and Bosie’s relationship, while rent boys (including a one-line appearance from Orlando Bloom!) and discrete gay relationships are common place. Wilde is a gentle, naïve man for whom emotional closeness is more important than physical love. He charms a society only too aware of his nature. However, the instant he causes a stink, his reputation is ruined and his life collapses. What the film does so well is give us a sense of the inner vulnerability, doubt and desire for affection at the heart of a man who, perhaps more than any other, lived his life as a public exhibition.

Halliwell’s Film Guide claimed the film attempted to reposition Wilde as a family man, a grossly unfair view of the film’s stance. As if a man who discovers he is gay could not love his children, or that he could no longer care for his wife. Similarly, accusations that the film shows Wilde’s homosexuality as the roots of his downfall are similarly misguided – Robbie Ross is unaffected by legal troubles and he’s openly gay. No, the film is making a far more conventional (in a way) point – Wilde was brought low because he fell hopelessly in love with the wrong guy.

Jude Law’s big break was in this film – and watching it again is a reminder of what a firebrand, dynamic actor he can be. He makes Bosie half monster, half emotionally vulnerable child. He alternates (sometimes within the same scene) between affection, devotion, kindness and wildly petulant rage. He’s overwhelmingly selfish and self-obsessed – even as Wilde’s life collapses, he can only whine that he is furious his father is winning – but then remorseful and guilt-stricken when the consequences of his actions become clear (but not enough to not do it again). Law juggles all these contradictions with astonishing skill – it’s an assured, magnetic performance of brilliance. We can see why Wilde adores him, while at the same time wanting to wring his neck.

It’s also clear why all the other characters around Wilde find him so appalling. Ross (and Sheen is similarly superb as Wilde’s tragically “friend-zoned” devoted admirer) can’t bear the appalling influence Bosie has, but knows he’s powerless to do anything about it. In one great scene, Bosie haughtily says he knows Ross always hated him, before cruelly saying it’s because Wilde loved Bosie, but Ross was only “one of his boys” – the look of pain on Sheen’s face is brilliantly moving. Wilde himself seems almost sadly (if inevitably) drawn into Bosie’s tastes for casual sex and rough trade – often playing voyeur at these events, while sadly accepting Bosie doesn’t find him physically attractive. Wilde’s basically the victim of an abusive relationship – and the film does a brilliant job of demonstrating why a man otherwise so blessed with intelligence can’t see it.

Julian Mitchell’s excellent screenplay (based on Richard Ellman’s award-winning biography) uses Wilde’s The Selfish Giant as a framing device – subtly comparing Wilde and Bosie respectively to the giant and the child. It also brilliantly constructs a sense of Wilde’s quick wit and staggering intelligence, and provides a host of sparkling cameos for some fine character actors. The production design and photography are spot-on, and while Gilbert may be slightly workmanlike in his filming, he certainly lets the story tell itself.

The focus on Wilde’s family life is also reassuringly different – it’s brilliant to see Wilde’s obvious adoration for his children, and plenty of indication that he was actually (much of the time) a very good husband and father. Mitchell’s script softens Constance’s reaction to Wilde’s conviction (she wasn’t as forgiving and forward-thinking in her views as she seems to be here) but it does mean that we are allowed to see the full story of Wilde’s life, rather than having him defined by his sexuality. Jennifer Ehle also does a marvellous job with very little material, and her quiet dignity and support for her husband (despite her anger at his obsession with Bosie) is very affecting.

But at the centre of all this is that perfect casting of Stephen Fry. In all the rest of his career, Fry will never be better than he is here. His Wilde is intellectual, mildly arrogant, but also naïve, gentle and almost unworldly. His voice is perfect for the aphorisms, and he is really striking physically. Above all though, he brings a deep, emotional empathy to the part – you feel how personal this is for Fry the actor, and you feel how closely he identifies with a man who discovered his sexuality late. His besotted, blind love for Bosie is as affecting as it is frustrating. His vulnerability in Reading gaol is deeply moving. It’s a quite marvellous performance, anchoring a movie that is gentle, kindly, caring and sensitive in exploring the inner life of a very public man.

Denial (2016)


Timothy Spall as Holocaust denier David Irving in this misfiring courtroom drama

Director: Mick Jackson

Cast: Rachel Weisz (Deborah Lipstadt), Tom Wilkinson (Richard Rampton), Timothy Spall (David Irving), Andrew Scott (Anthony Julius), Jack Lowden (James Libson), Caren Pistorius (Laura Tyler), Alex Jennings (Sir Charles Gray), Mark Gatiss (Professor Robert Jan van Pelt), Harriet Walter (Vera Reich), John Sessions (Professor Richard J. Evans)

In 2000, historian David Irving (here played by Timothy Spall) was exposed as a Holocaust denier who forged and distorted historical records to help his pro-Hitler agenda. This came after his unsuccessful attempt to sue American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for accusing him of Holocaust denial in her book Denying the Holocaust. The decision led to the destruction of Irving’s reputation, career and financial wealth. This film tells the story of this case. Lipstadt’s legal team are played by Andrew Scott (solicitor Anthony Julius), and Tom Wilkinson (barrister Richard Rampton). The publicity-hungry Irving famously acted as his own lawyer.

Denial has a fascinating story at its core, but bungles it by getting the focus wrong. Now I’ll admit I might know more about this trial than the regular guy-on-the-street. But the drama here was in the detail of the debunking of Irving’s denier bullshit. The film benches most of this, reducing Irving’s career of historical re-adjustments into a few simple sound bites. The fascination of this trial was the dissection of denier myths – but the film aims for more conventionally “drama”, by introducing a series of “could Irving win?” moments that never ring true. Not only does this detract from the drama – it also, arguably, makes it easier for Holocaust deniers out there to claim the film doesn’t give the appallingIrving a fair crack of the whip.

It’s a shame, as when the focus is on the facts of the case, it’s very good. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as the maverick Rampton, whose abrasiveness hides his humanitarianism. The drama skirts over the trial’s cut and thrust, but when it does tackle these moments it’s very interesting. The sequence where Rampton pins Irving to the floor over theories that the gas chambers were de-lousing stations for dead bodies (“then why are there bolts on the outside of the doors?”) or air raid shelters (“are we to imagine the SS running 2.5 miles from their barracks to a shelter in an air raid?”) are compelling, and far more interesting than anything else in the film. Even the Cliff’s Notes version of Irving and his views in this film is enough to repulse any sane viewer, and watching him skewered on the witness stand is fascinating and satisfying. There just isn’t enough of it.

One of the film’s greatest problems is pushing Lipstadt front and centre. This seems logical on paper but, as her lawyer says, “this trial is happening to you, it’s not about you”. Lipstadt was deliberately not part of the trial strategy, to keep the focus on Irving. But the film can’t accepts her “story” was to do nothing. It keeps wanting to give her a ‘Hollywood moment’, but the facts can’t provide one – so we get lots of scenes of Lipstadt jogging, or feeding her dog, or watching news reports – time that could have been much better spent elsewhere.

Despite this, Weisz’s performance is very good –she bravely makes Lipstadt prickly and hard to like . Similarly, Andrew Scott is excellent as Julius, but his character is poorly explained (“He’s using you for the publicity” Lipstadt is told – we see no indication for this anywhere) and his decision to exclude Holocaust survivors from the witness list to prevent them being harangued by Irving is botchily explained, the film not wanting to admit that this was a wise decision.

I feel a lot of the film ended up on the cutting room floor. Short scenes pop up now and again around paralegal Laura making you feel she must have been a more important character at some point. I feel huge parts of courtroom reconstruction got trimmed. I suspect there was more around Harriet Walter’s Holocaust survivor. Even Irving feels heavily trimmed – Spall is very good (and subtly vile, but with a persuasive old school charm) as the faux-historian, but the film needs more of him, if only to explore his views more, rather than just treating him like a demon.

That sums the film up: it’s ham fisted. Too much dialogue thunkingly introduces historical events or legal procedures. The film talks about the importance of research, but relies on characters “cracking the case” with flashes of inspiration. It handles the research trip at Auschwitz sensitively (and daringly, shows Rampton taking an aggressive questioning stance of the guides to prepare for the case) – but then the film can’t help throwing in Lipstadt imagining victims clawing at the gas chamber door for escape. I hated the final shot, lingering on the disputed holes in the gas chamber roof used to drop in Xyklon-B, as if we needed this to be confident that, yes, the Holocaust did happen.

I really wanted to like Denial, but it’s no more than an adequate dramatisation of a fascinating court case. It’s brilliantly acted, in particular the four principles. There is an interesting film to be made here about the increasing struggle we have with the abuse of free speech to give equal importance to views that are offensive or just plain wrong. But Denial never really becomes that film – instead it turns its fascinating historical event into a run-of-the-mill Hollywood tale of a plucky heroine vanquishing the bad guy.