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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Murphy's War (1971)

Starring Peter O'Toole as the title character, Murphy's War tells the story of a WWII sailor whose ship is torpedoed by a German submarine in the dying days of the war. He sets out on a mission to destroy the submarine, angering his doctor on the island he's washed up on, Dr Hayden (Sian Phillips). He engages the help of Louis Brezan (Philippe Noiret) and his boat but his plans have disastrous consequences.

I found Murphy a difficult character to like. Although his Irish charm was probably supposed to help his appeal, I couldn't appreciate a character whose motivations were so opaque. Although he seeks revenge on the U-Boat, the only real reason given is because it sank his ship. I didn't get the impression that he had good relationships with his colleagues or that he felt national pride - it was just about getting his own back. Consequently, given the results of his first attempt on the U-Boat, I would've expected him to give up in shame for what he'd brought to the island but there is no hint of this. All in all, I found him a difficult character to care about. Much more appealing was the friendly Louis, particularly at the moment the worm turns and leaves Murphy to it.

Another problem I had with this film were the lengthy sequences. Murphy has managed to fix the ship's plane but since he isn't really a pilot he has difficulty getting it off the water. What follows is a protracted scene, first of him attempting to getting it in the air and then of his flying aimlessly around the island - wasting fuel, I might add. Although it was supposed to be a spectacular 'will-he-won't-he' scene, I was bored. The same with the scene where he goes after the U-Boat in the plane: it just felt as though I was being told to watch something that I'd already seen - a man flying a plane with the same gormless expression on his face.

To be fair on this, there was a nice exploration of the German submarine attitudes after the war has ended but Murphy's own personal vendetta continues with, as I've said, no tangible reason for it. The ending is downbeat and about the only aspect of the film I appreciated.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

An Ealing Studios production, Scott of the Antarctic focuses on the famous story of Captain Scott's final ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. It stars John Mills as the title character with able support from the likes of  Harold Warrender, James Robertson Justice and Kenneth More. It also boasts a score by Vaughn Williams and remarkable colour visuals - there is very little this film does wrong.

Since this was made in 1948 there has been a lot of revision over Scott's legacy. The man portrayed in this film is valiant, a gentleman and a victim of circumstance more than anything else. That depiction has been challenged since but, taken in the context of post-WWII patriotism, the positive portrayal is hardly surprising and can probably be excused. It doesn't detract from the story itself, which is as heroic as it is heartbreaking, and it was trading on the legend of Scott as it stood in popular opinion. It doesn't attempt to analyse Scott's decisions too much, reproducing mostly what is written in the diaries as his only kind of internal conflict. In this way it's closer to documentary than drama and the main players aren't really explained much more than is necessary to watch them on their journey.

The first half of the film is necessarily choppy as the narrative focuses on a number of things in rapid succession: Scott's first expeditions, deciding he wants to conquer the South Pole, gaining funding for that, the various legs of the journey. While there are good moments in these sections it does feel a little laboured, as though they are inserted for the sake of completeness but without real conviction. Once the five men break from the rest of the crew, though, the tension picks up: the final third of the film is engaging and compelling as they reach the South Pole, discover they've been beaten and start the lonely trek back to civilisation. Mills and the other four refrain from over-acting but the inner-emotions of the men are still hinted at. The final moments of the journey are described with subtlety and are all the more hard-hitting for that.

Arguably, the star of this film is the landscape which, I believe, was actually Norway. Thanks to excellent direction, the ice is the villain, the humongous obstacle in the way of the goal. The idea of man versus nature has never seemed so stark.

Scott of the Antarctic is an excellent film but is very pro-Scott. However, don't allow that to put you off; it's worth a watch for the spectacular filming alone, even if the tale wasn't as compelling now as it was just over a hundred years ago.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Classic Film Revew: Flight For Freedom (1943)

A highly-fictionalised account of the life of aviator Amelia Earhart, Flight for Freedom trades on the long-discredited theory that Earhart was doing a job for the US Government when she died. Released at the height of WWII, it is full of propaganda and has an agenda that threatens to sink the film on many occasions. If the story hadn't framed itself as a 'true story' and tethered itself to Earhart's memory then it wouldn't have been so bad but, as it was, it comes across as sheer propaganda. However, that's not to say the film didn't have some merits.

It stars Rosalind Russell as Tonie Carter (the fictional version of Earhart), Fred MacMurray as fellow pilot Randy Britton and Herbert Marshall as Carter's flight instructor and potential husband Paul Turner. Early in the film, Carter has an altercation with Britton that leads to romance but he's a sexist hotshot who flies off on his next mission and she doesn't hear from him for two years. When he returns, his renewed arrogance leads Carter to throw her efforts into creating flying records. Finally, after agreeing to marry Paul, she is encouraged by the US Government to do one more flight to enable them to take pictures of some Japanese islands and finds Rnady Britton as her navigator.

The love triangle provides some tension throughout the film but, really, it feels like an unnecessary distraction from the very valid achievements of the Earhart-based heroine. On occasion, it seems to fall back into the 'woman unable to do anything without men' mindset when, in actual fact, she's more accomplished than most of the men she comes into contact with. The romance with Britton feels laboured on MacMurray's part, but this may be because we see Carter's reactions more. However, there was one moment where Britton is on the phone to Carter at a pivotal moment in her career and the camera focuses only on him until the conversation is over: considering what this moment was leading up to I thought it detracted from the importance of Carter and related her once again to the men in her life.

All criticisms aside, Rosalind Russell's performance is as excellent as ever. Even with a story that falters, she portrays Carter with her trademark subtlety and there is an undercurrent of fear regarding her acceptance that runs through the first half of the film. There is one excellent scene towards the end of the film between Russell and MacMurray where they talk about their relationship and, for me, that scene was the best of them all because it was so raw and honest. Equally worth a mention is Eduardo Ciannelli as Johnny Salvini, the owner of a bar pilots frequent. His scenes are quite amusing, giving lulls in what is actually quite a heavy film.

This is undoubtedly propaganda - and the representation of a Japanese spy is ridiculous - but seen in the context of the period that's understandable. If they hadn't linked this story to Earhart then I would've enjoyed it more but Russell's performance was enough to make it partly enjoyable.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Bhowani Junction (1956)

Bhowani Junction stars Stewart Granger as Colonel Rodney Savage, one of the British officers facilitating the withdrawal of the British from India in 1947. Sorry to see them go are the Anglo-Indians who have enjoyed some privileges from their British cousins and are concerned about their place in the new India. One of these is Victoria Jones (Ava Gardner), a WAC. She finds herself disgusted by Savage's treatment of Indians engaging in protest and receives unwanted advances from Lieutenant Graham McDaniel (Lionel Jeffries). Following an incident, she slips into the world of Ranjit Kasel (Francis Matthews) whose mother poses more of a danger to her than she realises.

This is Victoria's story. It jars a little to hear it narrated by Savage because it feels as though it's detracting from the fact that her experiences are central to the plot. On the other hand, as they went down the 'framing' route with Savage telling the story to a colleague on the train as he leaves Bhowani Junction, I suppose this makes sense. However, Victoria is the character we see and sympathise with. She embodies the conundrum of the person 'in the middle' with no heritage to speak of and constantly trying to define her place in the world. Gardner portrays this conflict admirably, with only a few slips into melodrama. Her Victoria is personable and, most importantly, coherent. Her feelings may change but we often see the reason why.

Aside from the narration aspect, there was only one other thing that really bothered me: the long-winded introduction by Savage about what was going on at the time. It could have been explained much more naturally in dialogue, and that goes for Savage's periodic interruptions to tell us 'what's going on'. The film was actually doing a decent job of conveying that and so the interruptions felt redundant and, again, removed focus from Gardner's Victoria.

There is one scene that stands out from all the rest and Gardner doesn't say a word. Victoria's in the temple with Ranjit and begins thinking about all the things that have been said to her and by her that have brought her to this moment. Gardner doesn't speak but her facial expressions do the work for her. You don't need words in that moment to have a full understanding of the character and that's rather special.

I don't think that the Granger/Gardner pairing was particularly inspired in that their arguments were more exciting that their supposed attraction but, overall, this was an interesting and colourful film that built to a conclusion I actually cared about.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Book Review: Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

Tom-All-Alone's is a very clever novel which takes Charles Dickens's Bleak House as its starting point. Charles Maddox is an ex-police officer struggling to make his way as a private detective after being unfairly dismissed from the force. Lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn approaches him with an apparently simple request to find out who has been sending threatening letters to a client of his. Maddox accepts but soon realises that the case is more complex than it seems and his headstrong urge to uncover the truth may put him in real danger.

As the title suggests, the book draws heavily on Bleak House but it isn't necessary to have read it, I don't think, in order to enjoy this one. For fans of Dickens there are numerous little nudges towards one of his greatest novel, characters passing through the narrative who you click your fingers at noticing. But Shepherd's own plot is fascinating, not just because it involves the mysterious Tulkinghorn. Maddox is an interesting character to follow around the dregs of London society but the most engaging portions of the novel, for me, came during his interactions with his ageing uncle, also a former detective who's gradually losing his grip on reality.

Shepherd's ability to bring the underbelly of Dickensian London to the fore is remarkable. There are several gruesome moments which I won't spoil but I will say that I had to continue reading just to distance myself from the scenes described - that's one way of pushing you to finish a book, although in this case I was eager to anyway.

The phrase that came back to me time and again as I was reading this was 'indecently clever'. That's certainly  an apt description of Shepherd's powers to merge Bleak House (and other sources but I won't say what) with her own story. It manages to be both a homage to Dickens and an exceptional read in its own right. I honestly can't say more than that apart from that I highly recommend it.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Television Review: Shetland

Based on a book by Ann Cleeves, Shetland follows DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) and his team as they investigate a murder on one of the islands. The murder is tricky - the victim is an elderly woman who was lured outside and shot but the team can't ascribe a motive at first. She had nothing to steal and no one could really have wanted her dead. The answer may be in the past and the results of an archaeological dig on her land could prove pivotal.

I've read mixed reviews about this, mainly from locals disgruntled at accent representation and light patterns etc. All important in the representation of the islands, I admit, but they didn't hinder the actual drama elements. It's a slow burn drama, that's for sure. The plot itself is intricate but, while I thought I knew 'who' from fairly early on, the 'why' was slower to emerge. I liked the resolution and I liked the way the pace picked up in the last twenty minutes or so, as it needed to.

The landscape is arguably the main character and the gloomy, windswept hills compliment the murder mystery quite nicely. Equally, the music wasn't intrusive and added to, rather than masking, the drama. This is also the role that Douglas Henshall was made for - the dour Scot with a sense of humour and emotion hidden underneath the surface. His personal situation - he lives with his step-daughter, Cassie (Erin Armstrong), while her real father, Duncan Hunter (Mark Bonnar) lives nearby - is interesting and also contrasts the main narrative of family differences by showing a situation that does work well. Of Perez's colleagues, Alision O'Donnell as DC Alison 'Tosh' MacIntosh stands out the most. Young but pretty bright, her interactions with Perez gave the drama a few much-needed humorous touches.

This has certainly been set up for future episodes and I hope it gets them. While I had a couple of script niggles, I think it worked well as a mystery drama which blends into the environment rather than just being pushed on top of it. Accent and pronunciation gripes from locals aside, I think this was a great advert for Shetland and, hopefully, more episodes in future will add to that.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Theatre Review: A Kind of Loving

A Kind of Loving, based on the 1960 novel by Stan Barstow and adapted here by John Godber, tells the story of Vic Brown (Byron Owen) and his troubled relationship with Ingrid Rothwell (Vicky Binns). At first he is infatuated with her but quickly loses interest until Ingrid drops the bombshell that she's pregnant. Vic reluctantly marries her and moves in at her mother's but tragedy soon strikes.

Probably the most vital component of this play is Byron Owen's rapport with the audience. Although the character is downright despicable at times, his direct conversations with the audience keep them almost on his side. A side-effect of Vic's charisma, though, is that the character of Ingrid fades into the background a little. Despite the fact that she is (mostly) in the right, the story is Vic's and the audience certainly identifies with him more. Ingrid comes and goes whilst Vic is onstage much of the time. In addition, the other four members of the cast take on multiple (and sometimes hilarious) roles. When I think of the most memorable scenes it's unfortunate that they include Vic alongside someone else and not Ingrid.

The staging of this works extremely well. The doors around the stage have a dual function: they allow characters to come and go quickly and the plot to jump ahead but they also impose a sense of community on the story. Frequently, there is the sense that Vic's being watched and judged as heads pop out of the doors, portraying with simplicity the tight-knit relationships in a working-class northern town in the late 1950s/1960s. Once in a while there is a dip too far in the lighting (in fairness, that could have just been where I was sitting) but it doesn't hinder the production. In fact, the lighting works very well throughout, a standout moment being the end of the first act where the back of the stage practically glows. The music utilised often certainly compliments the story and helps set the scene - any play that begins with Doris Day singing is definitely for me! Also of note are the brief set changes, comprising of bringing stools, chairs and a sofa on to the stage: these get gradually more amusing as the play goes on with Dicken Ashworth and Christine Cox as Mr and Mrs Brown particularly hilarious offenders.

As I mentioned, four versatile cast members take on thirteen roles between them. A couple of them stand out: Dicken Ashworth as music shop owner Mr Van Huyten has a thick accent but a very distinctive personality that comes across in his lines. His appearances were welcome, although at one point his line was drowned out by the music playing at the time and I was a little disappointed. Also amusing to watch were Jacky Naylor in her brief stint as Ingrid's friend, Dorothy, and Robert Hudson as Percy Walshaw.

There are three scenes which make this play worth seeing on their own and all of them are in the second act. Vic's drunken scene with Percy is nothing short of hilarious and the audience was in stitches as it progressed. Immediately following this was Vic's confrontation with his mother-in-law (Jacky Naylor) then, finally, there was Vic's discussion with his sister (also Jacky Naylor), a poignant conversation which consolidates the themes of the play.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable night out. Although the decade has changed, the themes of love, ambition and responsibility are still as important as they ever were.

A Kind of Loving runs at Theatre Royal Wakefield until Saturday 23rd March.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)

Mr & Mrs Smith is technically a Hitchcock film but if you watch it solely because of that fact you'll be heartily disappointed. It's a comedy starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery as Ann and David Smith, a warring couple married for three years who discover (separately) that their marriage is invalid due to a legal technicality. Despite their differences, Ann is certain that David will rush to propose so they can be 'properly' married. However, when he neglects to tell her, he sets in motion a chain of events that see him thrown out of his own home and desperate to get his wife back. Unfortunately, his friend and partner Jeff (Gene Raymond) sees this as the perfect opportunity to make a move on Ann, leaving David out in the cold.

Although the plot does dip in places, this is actually a very enjoyable film. Montgomery's performance as the leering but lovable David is perfect but, as always, I have a far greater admiration for Lombard in this one. She has one of the best sequences of the piece with Gene Raymond as they are first stuck on a parachute ride in the pouring rain then go back to Jeff's place to warm up. Jeff is teetotal but Ann pushes some alcohol on him to make him feel better. It's difficult to describe the scene but Raymond's hilarious in it.

Montgomery has his fair share of memorable scenes too, particularly in the restaurant where David goes on a double date because he knows Ann and Jeff are going to be there. After seeing that his date is not the type of woman to make Ann jealous, he decides to make believe he's with the woman on the other side of him by opening his mouth and pretending to talk whilst the stranger remains oblivious - for a while. There's also a gorgeous scene a little earlier when Ann is still thinking that David will propose but he's more interested in the fact the cat sat on their table refuses to eat the soup in front of it. And, before that, you get the delight of Ann shaving David - honestly don't miss that gorgeous little scene.

Perhaps my biggest gripe about this film is that the ending feels a little anti-climatic. Ann and Jeff have gone away only to find David there too. While this leads to some amusing moments, I think the actual final few minutes are drastically wrong. The ending to a romantic comedy is, of course, a foregone conclusion but I wish they'd made more of it.

However, on the whole I enjoyed Mr & Mrs Smith. This was Lombard's second to last film and really makes you long for what might have been: the energy she brings to the film would keep it going even if she didn't have the talent of Robert Montgomery on her arm.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Book Review: The Carrier by Sophie Hannah

The Carrier is the eighth novel by Sophie Hannah which focuses on the same group of police officers and the case that is foxing them at the time. This time round it's highly complicated: Gaby Struthers is on a day-long trip to Germany for business when her flight's cancelled. When they are transported first to another airport then a hotel a hysterical woman, Lauren, latches onto Gaby, finally startling her with the news that an innocent man is in prison for murder. Gaby knows that Lauren's appearance can hardly be coincidental when she finds out that the murder victim was Francine Breary, the wife of the man Gaby loved and couldn't have.

I have to admit, I didn't find The Carrier as captivating as some of Hannah's previous books. However, there were many aspects of it that I did like. The first chapters dealing with Gaby and Lauren in Germany were excellent to read, both intriguing and funny. Gaby is a very honest person, a bit of a sarcastic snob, and that makes her fantastic to read about for the first third of the book. Lauren, equally, is a character who bounces off the page and remains a vivid character throughout as her relationships with her husband, father and employers are explored.

Perhaps one of the main difficulties I had with this book was the sense in the middle that things were being repeated far too often. Tim Breary's relationship with his wife is documented via several sources and that repetition felt a little redundant at times. It also seemed for a little while that we weren't getting anywhere, with other characters and the police finding out things the reader was already aware of. This was a necessary evil and it well may be that the problem was magnified by my eagerness to find out what was going to happen - never in itself a bad thing.

Did I think the ending was good? Most definitely, yes. Working out the truth behind Francine's death was as intricate as it usually is with Hannah's books but I was satisfied by both the discovery and the aftermath of the discovery. In addition, I thought the police elements continue to spread out beyond the (still excellent) central pairing of Charlie and Simon to explore some of the other detectives in a little more detail. Every novel with these characters feels like a butterfly gradually unfurling its wings and I can't wait to see where she takes them next.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Grandmother Update

Last Monday I wrote about my grandmother's latest downward spiral. After those events we had a quiet middle-of-the-week but on Friday things reached - what I wish was - a climax.

In the early hours, about half-past two, I was settling down. I'd had an odd Thursday night full of secondary reading and journal searching that had kept me up then I'd unwound with the final episode of Mayday (don't get me started on how disappointing that was). Anyway, I was just dozing off when I heard the phone ring in my dad's bedroom. We'd put it back there because she'd gone quiet over the previous few days and it needed charging. I hurried down the stairs to find a very confused message on the answering machine from a woman far too alert for half-two in the morning. I called her back, though it took a few attempts because she was engaged. What followed was one of the most bizarre conversation I've had with her.

She was dressed. She said she'd fallen over but couldn't tell me if it hurt anywhere. She told me she'd been wandering - and that she knew she shouldn't have been - and that she fell over outside the flat in the corridor.  Again, I tried to ascertain if she was hurt but what happened next made me doubt the validity of her statement. You see, she said there were two people, a man and a woman, outside in the corridor then she said that they'd come in and were in the bathroom. More alarmingly, she then put the phone down on the table and went to the bathroom to talk to them. I could hear her chattering to herself in the background but it was ages before she remembered me and came back to the phone. She was suddenly anxious about keeping me up and, after extracting a promise from her to go straight back to bed, I was pretty much hung up on. My options at this point were to call the night-number (which I didn't have because my aunt handles all that), call her back (I didn't want to confuse her more) or cross my fingers she'd listen to me. After a long calming-down session I chose the latter, rightly or wrongly.

On Friday I was woken at lunchtime by the warden requesting a call from my dad to arrange a meeting between herself, us and my aunt. After lunch (after I'd got the warden's version of events from my dad) I decided to call my grandmother to check how she was doing. It took her a while to answer the phone and, when she did, there was another peculiar conversation to get through. She'd hurt herself, so she said, and had been crawling on the floor all morning because she couldn't lift herself up.If that wasn't alarming enough I could tell from her voice something wasn't right. Without telling her what I was doing, I gathered all the loose change in the house and made a break for the bus stop, not easy given the way I was feeling myself.

When I got there she was at least on her feet again but she stumbled on her left side. When I sat her down as well, she sat in a very awkward position. The inclination that had driven me over there - a minor stroke - seemed plausible so I went to get the warden. After a lot of discussion we discovered something else alarming on the table - the course of antibiotics meant to last till Sunday were all gone. All of a sudden, that seemed to account for the hallucinations. The warden got onto the doctor for some advice while I inwardly cursed the very same man for giving a confused woman some antibiotics to take on an evening just after putting her on a regime of taking all her pills before breakfast. No wonder she got muddled.

I spent three hours there that afternoon and by the time I left she was considerably more switched on and mobile than when I'd arrived. I think just seeing me helped - and I made sure she ate something too. What the warden thinks - and what we think - is that she needs extra support and that'll be discussed at the meeting, whenever it happens.

I was in quite an unfit state when my dad got me back here on Friday night. Whilst making sure my grandma had eaten I had only had a few biscuits since the night before. I let go of the urge to do something work-related and instead just ate and watched a film before trying to go to sleep. It didn't come easily - I spent a good twenty minutes talking to thin air and crying - but I got there eventually and I slept like a log. Saturday was good too: I had an hour with two of gorgeous nieces with the biggest hugs ever then when me and my dad took my grandma out for her usual meal she seemed fairly okay.

It feels like the storm has reached its peak, for now at least. I'm under no illusions - it will be back and it will probably be worse than ever. All this begs the question of how I continue being productive and getting on with my PhD work as things steadily disintegrate around me. I was fit for nothing all weekend really, recovering and just about managing to focus on words in a book I was reading for pleasure. Some of you might suggest taking it easy but I refuse to 'waste' (I use that word because I know of no other that fits) her money on my PhD unless I'm throwing my all into it. So, once again, I find myself a bit stuck and the only option is to get on with it.

(Note: big thanks needs to go out to the friend who happened to be awake at three am on Friday morning and calmed me down, also had a very nice discussion about spiders and silverfish.)

I feel like poor Gene - it's going to hit but when?! 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is widely considered to be one of the best films ever made - and rightly so. It tells the story of impoverished screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) who stumbles across what he thinks is an abandoned old Hollywood mansion. However, it turns out that it's occupied by former star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who lives there with her faithful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Gillis is persuaded to stay and help Norma finish her screenplay about Salome but he finds it difficult to handle Norma's moods, suicide attempts and her overwhelming desire for him to love her. Complicating matters is Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), an aspiring screenwriter he's met and wants to work with on one of his old projects.

This film is a scathing depiction of how Hollywood uses up stars and discards them, as true today as it was sixty years ago. Swanson is nothing sort of magnificent, particularly as the film goes on and she becomes more and more unstable. Her final scene, much discussed, is one of the most powerful scenes in cinematic history. Throughout the film she is suitably startling, every single gesture and facial expression adding to the character portrayal. Erich von Stroheim is equally as captivating as the faithful Max, his own involvement in the finale being almost as nuanced as Swanson's.

And what of William Holden? It's no secret that I have mixed feelings about him (liked him in Sabrina 1954), detested him in Picnic (1955)) but in this film he was ninety percent excellent. Although I found Gillis a difficult character to like, Holden's portrayal of him was just as it should be. Nancy Olson as his love interest was very refreshing in comparison to the rest of the cast - until she finds out the truth she is an antidote to the machinations of Norma and the bleak atmosphere of the mansion.

There are some truly memorable scenes in this films, scenes which have justifiably found their way into the consciousness of classic film fans. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the final one - the staircase scene already mentioned - but others include the bizarre New Year's Eve party where Norma and Gillis dance on an empty floor, the bedroom scene where Gillis finally gives in to Norma, the moment on the film stage where the spotlight hits her and the final confrontation between Norma and Gillis. In fact, most of this film could be considered worthy of memory. Billy Wilder's excellent direction helped to create a masterpiece, one that will be watching over and over again for years to come.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Rebecca (1940)

Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca tells the story of the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) who marries Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) after a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo and returns to England to his family home of Manderley. Once there, however, she finds the house, her husband and the servants - particularly housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) - all preoccupied with his first wife, Rebecca. Mrs de Winter at first feels inferior but the truth has the potential to be much more damaging.

You can certainly tell this is a Hitchcock film. Even as an early one, it displays some of the techniques he employs to such effect in later films. For instance, the scene when Mrs de Winter ventures into Rebecca's chamber is atmospheric to the extreme, with camera angles and lighting being deployed to their full potential. Equally, the character of Mrs Danvers is represented as menacing at all times thanks to Hitchcock's direction. Mixed with excellent performances from the three main actors, along with those from George Sanders, Florence Bates, Edward Fielding and Leonard Carey, this is a truly remarkable film.

Joan Fontaine is outstanding as the anxious bride. In a few scenes she seemed to almost quiver out from the screen, especially in her pivotal scene in the bedroom with Mrs Danvers. Laurence Olivier is equally engaging in his pivotal scenes towards the end of the film. In fact, whether it's a small scene or a large one, Olivier commands attention. In his first few scenes with Fontaine I actually found it difficult to concentrate on her, so overwhelming was Olivier's presence.

This is truly a gripping film. Some elements were altered in the transition from book to film but they work cinematically and that's the most important thing. Judith Anderson's performance works completely and I came away this film deeply unsettled by the character of Mrs Danvers. For me, she was the one who lived on, despite the chilling finale.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Book Review: May 1812 by M.M. Bennetts

May 1812 is essentially a romance set during one of the most unsettling months in the early nineteenth century. The Earl of Myddelton discovers that he has to fulfil his part in a marriage arranged by his late father or he will lose his fortune. The girl he is meant to marry is Jane Heron, a young woman of better education and breeding than he had anticipated. They marry as required but their efforts to get to know each other properly are hindered, not least by the assassination of the prime minister, Sir Spencer Perceval. As Myddelton finds himself even more immersed in work, rumours and scandal threaten to destroy his fledging marriage before it's begun.

This is an excellent novel, deftly weaving fact and fiction together. Against the backdrop of the Napoleonic war and Perceval's assassination, Bennetts creates a compelling romance that frequently had me groaning at yet another mix-up. Myddelton works at the Foreign Office and so is in the thick of the action; this doesn't bode well for his marriage. Jane herself is a pragmatic girl but coping with her new situation proves difficult at times, especially when a love rival decides to cause problems.

There are some stand-out moments in this book. Early in the novel when the Myddeltons visit Vauxhall Gardens the scene is evoked wonderfully. Equally, the scene of Perceval's murder is gently depicted, along with Myddelton's reactions to it later through the eyes of his wife. I also enjoyed the descriptions later of Myddelton's little adventure. Some of the supporting characters were difficult to keep track of but this may have been a memory problem on my part. In addition, I struggled with the omniscient narrator, but I feel that's also a personal preference. It certainly suited this type of novel and allowed the reader to be steps ahead of the characters. Towards the end that became vital!

The level of detail in this book is astounding but it doesn't make itself known. The 'info dumps' are only really there when necessary; the rest of the historical context comes across naturally within the narrative. From a bizarre premise of an arranged marriage from beyond the grave, May 1812 becomes a romance novel you truly want to have a happy ending. The pace irritated me at times but only ever because I was on the side of the characters - that's a fine way to be irritated I think. Excellent book, recommended for any fans of historical fiction in general and Regency fiction particularly. The mentions of the Prince Regent and Beau Brummell are amusing for a start!

Monday, 4 March 2013

More Grandmother Problems

Regular readers of this blog and my tweets will know that I have an elderly grandmother who's gradually requiring more and more attention. Notable posts on this subject are: 'One Personal Sensation Story' and 'Don't Read - You're Too Old!'.

Recently, her capability seems to have slipped steeply. She was suddenly unable to 'deal with' the television and the phone and, most of all, the days when she was forced to leave her flat. She hates it there but she worries about not being ready to go for an appointment to the point where she calls us and my aunt a dozen times in a short period. We have an answering machine which captures the calls while we're eating etc but my aunt doesn't. Equally, while we nearly always answer the phone, my aunt seems to think that ignoring it and getting on with her own life is best. I must admit, the phone calls wear at my patience, particularly the lovely one I had at quarter-past six the other morning, but I'll gladly sleep with the phone in my room if it means that, one, my dad isn't disturbed in the middle of the night and, two, she doesn't get too distressed by not being able to get through to someone.

You see, that's another problem. She's now taken to wandering around the sheltered accommodation in the middle of the night because she's deteriorating to the point where she can't connect what she sees on the clock with reality. If it's still dark outside, she panics. She particularly panics when she's got something on that she thinks she's missed. For example, she had an appointment on a Friday morning. She was being picked up at ten o'clock in the morning but she was so frightened about sleeping in that she had a shower at seven o'clock the evening before, got dressed in her appointment clothes then slept in the armchair in her clean clothes. Inevitably, she woke in the middle of the night disorientated and was caught wandering around (or banged on some doors nearby, we don't know for sure) by neighbours. She's now a source of gossip for people that she didn't really get on with in the first place. She's sobbing down the phone to me daily and there's not a damn thing I can find to do about it.

In order to solve the problem of the television, and thus keep her distracted, me and my dad got her a new remote. It's white and lights up green and only has six buttons - On/Off, Mute, Channel +, Channel -, Volume + and Volume -. It's literally the easiest one on the market but she's still having tremendous difficulty with it. On Sunday lunchtime we got a series of phone calls: she was having trouble with her oven, she said, and she'd thrown away some ready meals. It turned out that she thought the new remote worked her oven (no, I don't know either) and had got herself into a muddle. When we got there we found that she hadn't wasted two meals, she'd wasted five, all her provisions for the week. My dad tried to explain to her where she was going wrong while I repeatedly bashed my head against a cupboard door in the kitchen.

I refuse to do what my aunt does and just not answer the phone. I hate knowing that she's upset most of her waking hours and feels utterly alone. I'll answer the phone when she calls (whilst writing this I've directed her verbally back to BBC 1 when she got muddled) and I'll try and help. But I'm not always here. On Tuesday, for instance, I have a supervisor meeting; I may be down in Birmingham this weekend as well. She won't call my mobile because she can't 'deal with' the long number and I'm worried what's going to happen in my absence. I've got a headache that's lasting weeks at a time but, I have to keep telling myself, that's nothing compared to the way she must be feeling.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Vivacious Lady (1938)

Vivacious Lady stars Ginger Rogers and James Stewart as a couple who have a whirlwind romance, get married and then have to face his domineering father. Francey (Rogers) is singing at a club when Peter (Stewart) arrives to take his cousin, Keith (James Ellison), home to the town they live in. Unfortunately, Keith doesn't want to go because he has fallen for a girl. After five minutes alone with her, so does Peter and they quickly marry. When they travel to Old Shannon, though, they are met at the station by Mr Morgan (Charles Coburn) and Peter's fiance, Helen (Frances Mercer). Peter promises to break the news but finds himself increasingly unable to get past his father's self-importance.

This is a gorgeous little film. With Rogers at the height of her powers, she puts in a fantastic comedic performance as vivacious Francey, a woman who's not ashamed of who she is and doesn't want to feel her husband's ashamed of her. Equally, Stewart is hilarious as the occasionally bumbling professor who really does want to be his own man but frequently makes a hash of it. There are a couple of standout moments in this film. The first is when Francey gets into a rather physical fight with her romantic adversary. Rogers's comic timing in this scene is impeccable. Equally, when Peter decides to teach his father a lesson by getting drunk in front of a class the result is fantastic. Rogers and Stewart spark well off each other, and also off the rest of the cast. The other excellent moment comes with Francey, Keith and Mrs Morgan (Beulah Bondi) dancing along to the radio only to be interrupted by Mr Morgan. Again, Rogers's eyebrows are on their best behaviour.

I laughed out loud in several places while watching this. Yes, it employs the old whirlwind romance trope but it's so much fun that I couldn't help but enjoy it. It's a lovely comedy that I would thoroughly recommend, not least for a look at James Stewart, who seems so young in this one!