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Parky at the Pictures (DVD 19/4/2012)
A pair of Oxford alumni dominate this week's DVD column. Margaret Thatcher studied chemistry at Somerville between 1943-47, while Aung San Suu Kyi read Philosophy, Politics and Economic at St Hugh's in the mid-1960s before settling in the north of the city as the wife of Tibetan scholar Michael Aris. They went on to have very different political careers and each is now the subject of a contentious biopic. But, while one picture survived accusations of insensitivity to earn its star an Academy Award, the other has been rather unfairly dismissed as sentimental propaganda.
Luc Besson's The Lady opens with a prologue set in 1947 showing how the three year-old Suu Kyi lost her father, when General Aung San, who had played a key role in liberating Burma from British rule, was assassinated by his political rivals. The scene soon shifts to Oxford in 1988, where Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) is a contented housewife caring for husband Michael (David Thewlis) and sons Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse). But her entire life changes when she returns to Rangoon to care for ailing mother Daw Khin Kyi (Marian Yu) and is so appalled by the repressive regime imposed by General Ne Win (Htun Lin) that she is swayed by the entreaties of old family friends and student activists to become the figurehead of the National League for Democracy.
Aware of his wife's passion for her homeland and her significance as the daughter of the founder of the nation, Dr Aris reluctantly bids Suu Kyi farewell. But they couldn't know how little they would see each other after she threw herself into the cause following the 8888 Uprising and called for passive resistance in her famous speech to around half a million people at the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1990, after the new junta refused to accept the result of a landslide election defeat, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest on University Avenue in Rangoon, where she was denied access to newspapers, television and a telephone and only saw Aris on a handful of further occasions before his death from prostate cancer in 1999.
Her confinement also prevented her from accepting in person the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and Besson stages the Oslo ceremony (and Suu Kyi's response to it, as she plays along with the Pachelbel Canon while listening on a smuggled radio) with a restraint and dignity that is also evident in what turned out to be Suu Kyi's last meeting with Aris over the Christmas period in 1985. He also conveys the steely determination beneath the placid exterior that earned Suu Kyi international admiration and the loathing of General Than Shwe (U Agga), who seized evey opportunity to test her patience, even down to refusing Aris a visa when his condition was confirmed as terminal.
However, Besson and first-time screenwriter Rebecca Frayn shy away from the deeper complexities of the political situation to concentrate on the tragic love story and the unbreakable family bond. Moreover, they struggle to capture the essence of their heroine beyond her sense of duty, tenacity and placidity, while much of the dialogue is earnestly leaden. Yet, while this may be over-long and disappointingly simplified, it is also a genuine attempt to bring a remarkable story of courage and commitment to a wider audience. Although her `steel orchid' is perhaps too reverentially stiff, Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis deliver admirable performances, while Thierry Arbogast's cinematography and Hugues Tissandier's production design ably juxtapose the Anglo-Burmese settings.
Rather like the enterprise itself, Eric Serra's score tries a tad too hard to generate emotional sweep and historical momentousness. But, while this frequently risks lapsing into teleplay hagiography, it is markedly more controlled than Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, which also avoids delving too deeply into contentious political issues in its depiction of Britain's first woman prime minister. Much fuss was made over the seemliness of screenwriter Abi Morgan's decision to flashback over Margaret Thatcher's career from her dementia-addled old age. However, considering the concessions this sloppily glossy film makes to the Conservative cause, it's somewhat surprising that there were not more howls of protest from the left and those whose communities were so seismically affected by the policies pursued by the `iron butterfly' between 1979 and her dramatic downfall in 1990.
As the news broadcasts details of the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott in 2008, Baroness Thatcher (Meryl Streep) potters back to her Chester Square home unnoticed by anybody and clutching a pint of milk. She chatters happily to her long-deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who had been such a source of support during her struggle to ascend the greasy pole, and assistant June (Susan Brown) is surprised to find her alone in the kitchen.
Thatcher's daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), has been trying for some time to persuade her mother to remove Denis's clothes from the wardrobe and, during a dinner party, she begins thinking over her long and eventful life. She sees her younger self (played by Alexandra Roach) in the Grantham grocery shop of her father, Alfred Roberts (Iain Glen), who not only provided her with her basic political and moral education, but also encouraged her to battle against the prejudice she experienced when her middle-class grammar school attitudes were sneered at by her upper-echelon Somerville contemporaries. She also recalls her courtship with divorced businessman Denis Thatcher (initially played by Harry Lloyd) and the brief period of domestic bliss when she devoted herself to raising their twin children.
However, Margaret had ambitions to secure a seat in the House of Commons and she finally succeeded in 1959, only to once again face sniping about her class and, this time her gender, from her male colleagues within the Tory Party. But Thatcher found a mentor in MP and wartime Colditz escapee Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) and rose steadily through the ranks until she was appointed Education minister in the 1970-74 administration of Edward Heath (John Sessions).
Stung by the stir caused by withdrawing free milk to schoolchildren, Thatcher subjected herself to a physical and psychological makeover, as she lowered her voice, changed her hairstyle and began to power dress in a bid to emphasise her femininity and strength. These sequences owe too much to The King's Speech and overly reinforce the Yes Minister playfulness that enables Streep to humanise her exceptional impersonation, while seriously undermining the film's value as a work of recent British history or political biography. But they serve as a solid platform from which to launch the seduction of the grandees and the tilt at the Tory leadership that earned her the undying detestation of the ousted Heath.
Her time for betrayal would come. But, first, Lloyd and Morgan have to whizz through swathes of inconvenient incident, as Thatcher sought a drastic economic reorganisation that would divide the country and lead to riots in Brixton and other inner cities in the summer of 1981, the miners' strike of 1984-85 and the 1990 poll tax demonstrations. Against these difficulties, however, Thatcher reclaimed the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982, forged a much-mocked alliance with US President Ronald Reagan (Reginald Green) and survived the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton by the Irish Republican Army (which had earlier murdered Neave with a car bomb).
However, the makers are less interested in the wider consequences of these landmarks than in how they impacted upon Margaret's marriage to Denis and the growing cabal of `wet' malcontents within her cabinet that was led by Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant), Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) Francis Pym (Julian Wadham) and John Major (Robin Kermode), who would replace her as PM after her enemies staged a leadership challenge in November 1990. Even though Thatcher's removal was a pragmatic political decision aimed at winning the next election, Lloyd and Morgan get away with reducing such a showdown to personal animosity, as the former acolytes had fallen out of love with their mistress and the Thatcherism that had kept her (and them) in power for longer than any other 20th-century Prime Minister.
Hugely abetted by hair and make-up designer J. Roy Helland, Meryl Streep captures the changing face and tone of Thatcher over the years. She also conveys her stern authority and appetite for confrontation and hard work. But there's too little political substance to the Downing Street scenes and no real sense of how she polarised opinion or alienated men and women alike. Indeed, those who lived through the era will recognise much less here than they did in Stephen Frears's The Queen (2006) or Oliver Stone's W. (2008). With more of a twinkle in her eye than Thatcher ever revealed, Streep revels in the role and her Oscar win is probably justified. But this is very much a rose-tinted tribute to a true blue Tory.
The week's third fact-based drama also has an Oxford connection, as Colin Clark had only just gone down from Christ Church when he landed the job of third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1957 costume comedy that starred director Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe and whose making is recalled in Simon Curtis's genial memoir, My Week With Marilyn. Smartly adapted from Clark's eponymous tome by Adrian Hodges (himself an Oxford graduate and resident) and capably designed on Pinewood sets by Donal Woods and Charmian Adams, this may feel in places rather like a TV-movie. But, despite its cinematic deficiencies, it nonetheless deftly captures the uneasy alliance between Hollywood and the ever-struggling British film industry and also poignantly touches upon the emotional stresses that would precipitate Monroe's still to be satisfactorily explained death at the age of 36 just five years later.
The son of the renowned cultural historian Sir Kenneth Clark, Colin (Eddie Redmayne) is disappointed when Hugh Perceval (Michael Kitchen) assures him there are no opportunities on the shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl. However, he once met Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) at a party and his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) talks him into hiring Clark as an assistant. He immediately proves his worth by finding a secret location for incoming star Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and her playwright husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) after the press get wind of their chosen retreat and publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones) is effusive in his gratitude.
When not flirting chastely with wardrobe assistant Lucy (Emma Watson - another Oxford link, o course), Clark tries to calm Olivier down as he becomes increasingly frustrated by Monroe's tardiness and her inability to learn lines, in spite of the constant ministration of acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). Miller and business partner Milton H. Greene (Dominic Cooper) also take her side and even veteran actress Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) advises Olivier to go easy on his co-star, as she is clearly much more fragile than the ditzy blonde persona familiar from her movies would suggest.
Indeed, Monroe's vulnerability is further exposed when Clark calls on her at Parkside House to find her crying on the stairs clutching a notebook containing the outline of a new play in which Miller appears to mock her celebrity and insecurity. But this is not the only marriage under strain, as Leigh (who has psychological issues of her own) becomes increasingly jealous of what she perceives to be Olivier's growing affection for Monroe and she refuses to listen to any explanation that he is merely trying to be a supportive director. Thus, when Miller leaves for the States, it is Clark who is sent to find Monroe when she fails to turn up for work and he coaxes her into returning and she charms cast and crew alike during a dance sequence.
Lucy has noticed Clark's growing attachment to Monroe and Greene also warns him against getting too close. But he takes her sightseeing with Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi) in Windsor and Eton and they even kiss after skinny-dipping in the Thames. However, such happiness is fleeting, as Monroe suffers a miscarriage a few days later and she only returns to work after confiding in Clark that she wants to forget the pain and get on with her life. She finishes the film and accepts Olivier's praise without fully understanding that her behaviour has put him off film directing for life. Monroe comes to thank Clark en route to the airport and he concedes to the sympathetic Lucy that, against all her warnings, his heart might have been slightly broken after all.
Both Branagh and Williams landed Oscar nominations for their fine work in this enjoyable picture. Even at a remove of 55 years, there is still something irresistibly glamorous about names like Monroe, Olivier and Leigh and Curtis and Hodges catch the aura of fading allure splendidly. The insight into the stellar alliances is also well judged, with Miller and Olivier's callous chauvinism cleverly contrasting their approaches to drama with that of Monroe's new-found dependency upon Method acting. However, the script is not blind to Marilyn's flaws and Williams taints the damaged helplessness with sufficient manipulativeness to make Clark seem the sap he clearly later realised he had been.
Considering the emphasis that Hodges puts on Monroe's relationship with the camera, Curtis's direction is disappointingly theatrical. Moreover, he also allows some of the supporting performances to seem excessively florid (even bearing in mind the characters they are supposed to be representing), with the result that the action can often feel flat when bereft of Williams's beguiling presence, as an enigmatic icon uncertain who she was or who she wanted to be. An actress also proves key to Sheree Folkson's The Decoy Bride, a sprightly comedy of marital manners scripted by New College alumna and Smack the Pony star Sally Phillips and Neil Jaworski. Clearly designed to evoke such Scottish charmers as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going (1945) and Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore! (1949), this strives too consciously after the Ealing sense of whimsy, with the consequence that it lacks both screwball edge and the kind of Gaelic quirkiness that made Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) so captivating.
Nursing the latest in a long line of broken hearts, Kelly Macdonald returns to Hegg to reclaim her job at the McValues convenience store and help dying mother Maureen Beattie run the island's only bed and breakfast. They get few guests, but Hegg is anything but a forgotten backwater, as English author David Tennant once wrote a novel about it. However, he did so without ever visiting the island and the locals despise The Ornithologist's Wife for the myths and inaccuracies he has perpetuated. He is unaware of this, however, when he arrives in the Orkneys with Hollywood actress Alice Eve in the hope that they can finally get married without the occasion being ruined by Frederico Castelluccio and his paparazzi pals.
Feeling sorry for the runaways, Beattie tries to protect them when Castelluccio arrives hot on their heels. However, in complaining to his editor, she simply brings even more shutterbugs to the island and a near-hysterical Eve goes into hiding until agent Michael Urie can find a solution. His plan is wildly far-fetched, but Tennant and his fiancée go along with it and Macdonald agrees to stand in for Eve at a bogus wedding ceremony that will convince the paps that the deed has been done and the scoop photo opportunity has been lost. But, while it's loathe at first sight for Tennant and Macdonald, they begin to discover they have more in common than they thought as they lie low in the honeymoon suite of the historic castle that Urie and his assistant Sally Phillips are having made-over for the service. Indeed, he is even amused that she is also a writer (for a men's fashion magazine) and plans on publishing a guide to Hegg to correct his mistakes.
Obviously, there are no prizes for guessing how this turns out. But, amidst the accidental nuptials, Phillips and Jaworski have plenty of fun at Richard Curtis's expense, while Tennant and Macdonald banter amiably after he rescues her from drowning and has to dress in her late father's old clothes. There are also some gentle laughs to be had as the islanders devise all manner of quaint schemes to separate the members of the press corps from their cash. But, while this is never anything less than agreeable entertainment, it lacks the spark vital to the most memorable romcoms.
Another writer finds herself at the centre of a much more disconcerting dilemma in Nick Murphy's directorial debut, The Awakening. However, this chiller set in the period after the Great War has too much in common with Spanish haunted house sagas like Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2000) and Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (2007) to spring enough surprises to win over genre aficionados. Moreover, it lacks the jolt factor to satisfy those who prefer their horror to provoke screams rather than shivers.
Bestselling novelist Rebecca Hall has acquired a reputation for exposing the fake mediums who preying on a vulnerable population still grieving for loved ones lost in the trenches and the postwar influenza epidemic. Indeed, her fame persuades teacher Dominic West to come to London to ask her to return with him to Rookford School in order to demonstrate that a recently deceased pupil did not die of fright on seeing the spirit of a boy who had been murdered on the manor estate years before.
Headmaster Shaun Dooley is less than pleased to have a woman with progressive ideas lurking on his premises, while groundsman Joseph Mawle appears equally brusque. However, matron Imelda Staunton is a fan of Hall's books and confides that even the sceptics will be relieved to have the ghost rumours laid once and for all. As half-term is approaching, Hall pretty much has the school to herself and she tries to be kind to Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who is staying on for the duration because his parents are in India.
Somewhat conveniently, he also happens to be a friend of the late lamented and claims to have witnessed the apparition. However, Hall quickly identifies the member of staff she insists was behind the haunting and he is summarily dismissed. But there's more to the Rookford spectre than Hall had surmised and her expensive equipment proves of little use as she is led a macabre dance before the reason for the phantasm is revealed in a Scooby-Doo- like denouement specked with childhood traumas and narrative contrivances.
Co-scripted under the influence of Henry and MR James by Murphy and Stephen Volk (whose genre entries include Ken Russell's 1986 drama Gothic and the 1992 BBC spoof Ghostwatch), this is a competently made mystery. But, even though Eduard Grau's camera roams the gloomy corridors with a growing sense of foreboding, editor Victoria Boydell struggles to inject much suspense into proceedings or disguise the lacklustre nature of the special effects conjured up by Sean H. Harrow and his team.
The performances are pretty ropey, too, with West glowering and blustering like a latterday Orson Welles, Dooley and Mawle competing to out-grouch each other and Staunton essaying a sweetness that always seems to good to be true. More damagingly, Hall limns a cross between a young Miss Marple and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and devotes too much time to showing off her suffragist credentials rather than fighting against the sense of loss and bitterness that prompted her to leave the security of her desk to pursue sham spooks. So, while this has its eerie moments, they are often clumsily staged and even the least demanding viewer will feel let down by the reveal.
In this section
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 18/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 18/4/2013)