Hard Stares

Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)

And inevitably — for reasons that need not detain us — I was looking back to all those long drives to holiday destinations and family in the north east, and the five tapes that passed the time: two Winnie the Pooh, two Paddingtons and a Beatrix Potter. The first two (four) were the loved ones, sharing Bernard Cribbins as a reader. And I’m pretty sure that the first theatre I saw, aside from panto, were adaptations. I’m not sure why I missed the first movie — feeling some trepidation — but I could see Ben Wishaw would be perfect for the voice.

As far as I can recall, with the exception of Paddington Abroad, the books were all short stories: Paddington would attempt to do something (sell Mr Curry a vacuum cleaner) and it would go wrong (Mr Curry had no mains electricity), but everything would turn out ok. There would be a visit to Mr Gruber and sticky buns and there’d be a hard stare. I think I have about ten books, Armada Lions, battered and fading orange.

But here we need a feature length narrative: Paddington saving up money to buy a rare pop up book of London for his Aunt Lucy’s hundredth birthday. Only someone else is after the book and will stop at nothing to get it.

In a prologue, we learn that Paddington’s Aunt Lucy was about to go on holiday to London when she found Paddington — revealing in the process that Paddington was adopted before the Browns took him on. I am shocked that Aunt Lucy is not a blood relative — is this canon? Mind you, it took me a long time to realise that Pike’s Uncle Arthur wasn’t a blood relative.

And so we are in Notting Hill, which presumably has come up in the world since the original stories, but here at least is infinitely more multiracial than the last time co-star Hugh Grant appeared in a film set there. There is a neighbourhood of lovable eccentrics, almost all charmed by Britain’s favourite illegal immigrant, and each played by the gentry of television comedy. Occasionally, this can be distracting. Mr Curry, who I’d always assumed to be Scottish, is played by Peter Capaldi, better known for Local Hero and the Oscar-winning Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Gruber, meanwhile, is Jim Broadbent, slightly confusingly as Hugh Bonneville (Mr Brown, Paddington’s reluctant adopter) has played a younger version of Broadbent in Iris.

The build is slow, as Paddington begins cleaning windows, in a borrow from the books (surely) and from a Hoffnung monologue where it was a barrel of bricks. But as the birthday approaches, Paddington finds himself behind bars with a choky full of dodgy characters. Paddington weaves his magic, setting the scene for a geographically dodgy train chase.

I assume writer-director King is a Wallace and Gromit fan, as it borrows from Nick Parks’s heterotopia and his style of piling up sight gags. I think this is a film to rewatch on DVD, pause button to hand, to unpick the notices and headlines. It’s a long film, but it doesn’t feel long. Paddington is utterly convincing, although perhaps at times he’s not sufficiently in the landscape, and I could have done without quite so many fantasy sequences. The pop up book perhaps allows homage to the Ivor Wood animated series, that never quite sold me. Meanwhile, even though I’d avoid Hugh Grant movies like the plague, he steals this film gloriously and effortlessly.

And, spoilers, it’s pretty obviously worth watching the closing credits, for one more set piece.

Perhaps it’s an air of exhaustion, but this might be my film of the year, watched through teared up eyes, eucatastrophically or for those endless drives on the A1 or the M1 all those years ago.

Moustache on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

So this comes with a weight of expectations and spoilers — is this the one where the detective did it or was it the fourth victim, who faked his death? Branagh had started his film career trying to out Sir Larry Sir Larry with worthy Shakespearean adaptations, but with the odd psychological thriller to show versatility. And the truly dreadful and misnamed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And now a crowd pleaser: an always redundant adaption of the hoary Agatha Christie novel. I think it’s a lose-lose situation: either he’s faithful to the original and we know what’s gonna happen or he’s not and we feel cheated.

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Spall’s Well That Ends Well

Electric Dreams: “The Commuter” (Tom Harper, 2017)

Now this is more like it — a fantasy partly set at Woking Station.

Funnily enough, I was looking at train times to Woking today and I’ve been there a couple of times. It get destroyed in War of the Worlds.

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Falling to Earth Again

Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I discuss the more famous, 1976, version here.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Gerber Productions/MGM Television, 1987)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

(Dir. Bobby Roth; Sc. Richard Kitter; Pr. Christopher Chulack; Cin. Frederick Moore; P.D. John Mansbridge; SFX. Charles E. Dolan; starring Lewis Smith (John Dory); James Laurenson (Felix Hawthorne); Robert Picardo (Agent Richard Morse); Bruce McGill (Vernon Gage); Wil Wheaton (Billy Milton); Beverly D’Angelo (Eva Milton))

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The Falling Man

Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I review the 1987 TV movie remake here [You’ll have to wait a few hours].

The Man Who Fell To Earth (British Lion, 1976)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

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Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.

And Then One Day Things Weren’t Quite So Fine

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

And oddly, it was only later, that I pondered which one it is.

I mean, the film is clearly meant to be about Danish artist Einar Wegener, seen fingering dresses from early on in the film, forced (not entirely unwillingly it must be noted) to wear female clothes for his wife Gerda Gottlieb’s paintings and who begins to realise that he is really she, and begins a journey to becoming Lili Elbe.

Except, it’s not taken directly from Elbe’s own diary, but rather a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, which plays hard and fast with the truth, apparently making Gerda Greta, an American. At least some of the facts get reinstated, as far as I can see. Not all, mind. Hans Axgil (art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend) and Henrik (artist and Lili’s friend) are not real people.

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