Wednesday, 15 February 2017

GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: The Departed (2006)


The Departed (USA, 2006)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg

IMDb Top 250: #42 (15/2/17)

One of the many effects of winning an Oscar is that the person or film in question is tied indelibly to that achievement. For some actors or directors, the Academy Award can be a curse, a moment of brief and fleeting glory which their careers never recapture. If Michael Cimino hadn't won five Oscars for The Deer Hunter, fewer people would have had so much riding on the success of Heaven's Gate, and Hollywood could be a very different place.
The Departed is another example of a film whose award-winning reputation has overshadowed whatever qualities it may possess (though, unlike The Deer Hunter, there are many qualities of which to speak). Nobody who cares about film would deny that Martin Scorsese deserves the Academy's recognition for his body of work, and there are many that about The Departed which are worthy of praise. But set against both the film that inspired it and other films in Scorsese's oeuvre, one can't help but feel that the Oscar decision was motivated by a need to atone for not awarding it to better films he made in the past.
Taken purely as an English language remake of a foreign language film, The Departed comes close to the benchmark set by Christopher Nolan's Insomnia four years earlier. It takes the central dynamic of Infernal Affairs (the cop infiltrating the mob and vice versa) and successfully relocates it from Hong Kong to Boston. While the surroundings may have been Americanised, this doesn't feel like a dumbed-down mainstream remake, like the terrible American version of The Vanishing. It still feels like a Scorsese film, and Scorsese has respectfully recreated all of the murky intrigue of the original plot while the different acts play out in a more familiar setting.
In fact, The Departed is so much a Scorsese film that it often feels like a self-pastiche. All of the normal Marty trademarks are there: a pop music soundtrack, in which the choice of music often surprises and wrong-foots you; the affectionate nods to classic Hollywood films; a wide variety of intense and inventive camera angles; a kinetic yet measured editing approach; and a range of distinctive characters. It may simply be a consequence of how embraced and widely imitated Scorsese has become as a filmmaker, but these characteristics are so much at the forefront of the film that it can feel like he's treading water.
There are a couple of other indications that this film is Scorsese-lite - namely that the director is having fun without endlessly pushing the envelope like he did at his peak. The first is that the performances are much bigger, not to say riper, than he would have allowed in the likes of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Jack Nicholson is allowed to chew the scenery in a way that he hasn't done in a serious film since The Shining; he takes William Monahan's script and turns Frank Costello into a grotesque, slug-like tyrant, somewhere between a Roman Emperor and Jabba the Hut. It's still an eye-catching performance, but you're always aware of how much room he has been given and how loose some of his scenes can feel.
The other indication is that The Departed feels much more of a procedural film than either Infernal Affairs or other similar films that Scorsese has made. Infernal Affairs had a metaphysical quality to it; the original title literally translates to "unceasing path", a reference to Avici, the lowest level of Buddhist hell, in which those present endure incessant torment and suffering. Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak created an all-pervading sense of the two main characters constantly questioning their purpose, their decisions and what awaited them when it was all over. The existential questioning both provided depth and ended up driving a fair amount of the plot.
That's not to say The Departed is shallow or empty-headed, any more than procedural TV shows like Dragnet and NCIS are inherently inferior to more suspense-driven thrillers. The set-pieces are still exciting and well-structured, and Scorsese deserves credit for keeping the characters as central to said set-pieces as possible. But there's less of an emphasis on building atmosphere as an accompaniment to the plot, as there is in Chinatown or Angel Heart, and much more of an emphasis in watching all the pieces fit together like a Swiss watch.
Once you strip away the generic conventions and the Scorsese visual grammar, The Departed is fundamentally a film about dysfunctional families and father-son relationships. Sullivan's use of 'Dad' when talking to Costello (seeing him as a father figure, just as Henry Hill viewed Paulie) is mirrored by the lack of an upstanding father figure in Costigan's life. These are all characters who are staring into the abyss, doing what they can and trying to fill the void with whatever works at the time, whether it's women, power or simply getting one over on their enemies.
The very best scene in The Departed is also one of the least heated, featuring as it does none of the Costello-driven violence and no ear-bleeding, David Mamet-esque profanity at the hands of Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg in a good performance). It comes in the second half when the respective rats - played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio - speak to each other on the phone as their efforts to find the mole in each other's organisations begins to take hold. The initial conversation, which is wordless, is thoroughly well-played, and the follow-up is tense and loaded. Like the Billy Bats trunk scene at the start of Goodfellas, this is the point at which everything changes for the characters, and the subsequent reveal involving the envelope is executed fantastically well.
One of the main changes that Scorsese and Monahan chose to make from the original was to amalgamate the love interests for both Sullivan and Costigan. Given the course of these two characters, it is difficult to see how the filmmakers would have found the time to properly establish two meaningful romantic relationships. But if we accept this, surely the solution would be to simply take the romance out of the equation altogether, rather than creating a compromise character which makes things seem needlessly contrived.
Vera Farmiga is a fine actress, as her subsequent work in Source Code confirms. There is nothing wrong with wanting to give screen time to female characters in what is traditionally a male-dominated genre, and there is an argument for combining the two love interests to make a point about the two leads sharing some form of humanity outside of their allegiances. But as a result of having to fulfil two purposes within the plot, she is given less room to work with and ends up badly written. We are asked to believe that someone in her position could be completely oblivious to what is going on, and given her characterisation that simply doesn't wash.
The Departed is a gripping and engaging thriller which is entertaining in the moment while falling some way short of the best that Scorsese has to offer. It's hard to argue that it deserved the Oscar over many of his earlier works, but taken on its own merits it's a well-oiled, nicely-plotted piece of work and, alongside The Aviator, represents a partial return to form following the flabbiness of Gangs of New York. While it isn't the finest hour for any of its participants, it's easily deserving of your time.


NEXT REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: When We Were Kings (1996)


When We Were Kings (USA, 1996)
Directed by Leon Gast
Starring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, James Brown, B. B. King

When you're making a film about an iconic figure, it's very easy to get caught up in the mythology of the person in question and lose sight of the real figure at the heart of the story. This becomes all the more impossible when that figure is Muhammad Ali, whose impact on the sport of boxing is matched only by his political reputation. It is impossible to write the history of America without at least devoting a chapter to Ali, but equally we have every right to ask whether he truly deserves the pedestal society has given him - or at least, whether he deserves one quite so tall. 
When We Were Kings is an admirable attempt to document Ali at the moment of what is arguably his greatest triumph - his comeback against George Foreman in 1974, in what was christened 'the Rumble in the Jungle'. If Entertainment Weekly is to be believed, it took director Leon Gast 22 years to finance, shoot and edit the finished film, which went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar in 1996. But just as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is often more interested in guilt and cultural ennui than it is about actual spying, so Gast's film about boxing has less of the sport in it than you may expect, something which is both its most unique quality and its Achilles heel.
The first telling sign of Gast's true intentions lies in his choice of contributors. While a more conventional boxing documentary would have interviewed the two pugilists and their close associates (whether they be family, friends, trainers or whatever), Gast's cast of talking heads consists primarily of journalists and other cultural commentators, like filmmaker Spike Lee and The Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer. By giving us a vicarious experience of the fight and its build-up, Gast is trying to avoid the trap of just letting the main players reiterate their self-aggrandising soundbites, and for the most part it works really well.
For people of my age, who grew up with the likes of Senna and the later, better works of Julien Temple, Gast's approach with regard to talking heads may come across as rather old-fashioned. But it avoids being televisual, thanks in part to his shooting style and the way in which he frames his speakers, often putting them in middle distance from the frame to convey a sense of perspective, rather than in an aggressive close-up. Mailer particularly benefits from this stylistic choice; you understand from his body language how passionate he is about his subject matter, to an extent that you would never get just from looking at his face and hearing him talk.
What becomes clear very quickly with When We Were Kings is that Gast is just as interested in the culture and politics surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle as he is in the actual fight. Much of the build-up concerns itself with the unstable political climate of Zaire and the unsavoury dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seke, with Mailer sharing a particularly forthright anecdote about the murder of criminals. Just like 'The Thriller in Manila' a year afterwards, the staging of the Rumble in the Jungle is one of two fighters with varying principles at war with each other against a backdrop of poverty and political corruption; money talked to make the fight happen, but once they enter the ring, their honour is the main thing on the line.
The film is also interested in the music of the era, including the cavalcade of musicians which played at the so-called 'Black Woodstock' festival which took place alongside the fight. We get some enjoyable clips of James Brown, B. B. King and others in their respective primes, and it's difficult not to be swept up in the atmosphere of the event. If nothing else, the abundance of this footage, together with the clips of African drummers and dancers, make us feel rooted in the build-up; we soak in our surroundings, and though we are never anything but tourists, we are not manipulated and sold a dummy version of what 1970s Africa was like.
The problem with having so much of this footage, entertaining and enjoyable as it doubtless is, is that the film becomes less focussed of the story in favour of wallowing in the atmosphere. Building up a palpable sense of tension in a thriller is a hard thing to do, but once you have it, it has to pay off in a satisfying way, and the same rules apply to documentaries. Having worked really hard to culturally and historically situate the fight, the film takes a surprisingly long time to get to the first punch being thrown, and the more footage of Ali and Foreman that we get before this point, the more restless and itchy we become.
When Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1972, he expressed regret about a scene in Sabotage in which a young boy carries a bomb onto a bus and is blown up by it. Hitchcock described his decision to let the bomb go off (rather than be found and disposed of) as "a terrible mistake" - not because it involved the death of a child, but because he had put his audience "through the mill" and not given them the relief they needed. While the parallel is far from exact, it reflects the main issue with When We Were Kings; instead of getting to the boxing sooner rather than later - something which newcomers would rationally expect - we get a lot of (albeit pleasant) shoe-leather and not enough analysis of the fight itself.
The other effect of situating us so deep within the context of the fight - to the point where it is almost hypnotic - is that we get swept up in the mythology and mystique of Ali without getting an explanation to it. It is edifying to see Ali appealing to the common humanity of Africans and African-Americans, and to see people drawn towards him as a figure. But what we don't get enough of us is the ugly side of Ali - the same person who claimed to unite Africa would also stoop to calling Joe Frazier a gorilla just 12 months later.
It may simply be a factor of my background - as a white, lower-middle-class, British male born in the late-1980s - that I will never appreciate the real impact that Ali had within black culture. It's easy to resort to platitudes, particularly since his passing, and given the broad spectrum of people he has influenced, it would be difficult for any one film to convey his legacy. When We Were Kings made the right decision of focussing on one event and using it as a microcosm to analyse the man; however, you leave the experience admiring the man but with niggling doubts as to why you admire him, or whether that admiration is fully deserved. That may be a failure of mine, but it is also a failure of the film for not pulling in complete novices like myself.
Once we do actually get to the fight, Gast's talking heads hit their stride and we begin to get the level of technical and critical insight which we had expected all along. Mailer's account of the fight is excellent, from his description of Ali's dressing room ("it was like a morgue") to his analysis of Ali throwing right-hand leads to Foreman, and the connotations therein. The fight footage is framed intelligently and the denouement is fitting; if nothing else, it knocks the re-enactment of the fight from Michael Mann's Ali out of the ring and into a cocked hat.
When We Were Kings is an absorbing and intriguing documentary which is dripping with cultural context but sadly a little too light on insight. As a time capsule of the 1970s in general and of this particular era in boxing, the film is little short of brilliant. But as an attempt at deconstruction of a myth - whether Ali's or Foreman's - it doesn't go deep enough, and may leave newcomers to the sport slightly baffled. As an introduction to Ali's mystique, it's definitely worth your time; just don't expect to come out with more answers than questions.


NEXT REVIEW: The Departed (2006)

Monday, 13 February 2017

GREAT FILMS: Minions (2015)


Minions (USA, 2015)
Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin
Starring Pierre Coffin, Sandra Bullock, John Hamm, Michael Keaton

The incremental success of the Despicable Me films has been one of recent mainstream animation's most pleasant surprises. Who would have thought that Illumination Entertainment, which has spent years milking the Ice Age series to death, could also have struck lucky lightning with this likeable comedy and its entertaining sequel? Certainly the films have been among the best things that Steve Carell has done, notwithstanding his recent contribution to The Big Short.
Given that the Minions have become the mascot for the Despicable Me series, it was perhaps inevitable that they would get their own spin-off film. But spin-offs from major franchises are a tough beast to predict; for every cynically commercial cash-in, like Puss in Boots, there is a genuine surprise, like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or This Is England '86. Minions is in the rarest camp among spin-offs, managing somehow to surpass its source material to deliver a genuinely hilarious comedy which rivals the best work of Aardman.
The comparison with Aardman is not empty praise, nor does it come without much soul-searching. Ever since The Wrong Trousers (or arguably, A Grand Day Out), the company has been held up as an example of what old-fashioned, character-driven animation can achieve. Even without the lasting international appeal of Wallace and Gromit, the likes of Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! display the same principles of painstaking attention to detail, intelligent plotting, well-written characters and jokes for all the family. The company has a level of film literacy that is hard to top, but its outputs also manage to be accessible for everyone.
Minions may not be as richly layered as something like Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which was Nick Park's ingenious and hilarious spin on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's not necessarily the kind of film which you would watch repeatedly to spot all the little pop cultural jokes that are littered throughout, and it may lack the immediate tactility of the stop-motion claymation pioneered by Park and Peter Lord. What it is, however, is a thoroughly digital demonstration of the lasting power of visual comedy, and of the legacy of silent cinema which still looms large over children's animation to this day.
In silent cinema, there is a more conscious emphasis on gesture, posture and facial expression, with music and inter-titles filling in the blanks for the audience. For all the technical shortcomings of silent cinema, and however much it played to and created stereotypes, silent films were able to figuratively 'speak' to everyone; they had to convey universal themes through easily-told stories and familiar imagery. Since the talkies came along in the late-1920s, films have to some extent become more word-orientated, with actors now focussing on more subtle emotions and technology advancing to the point where you no longer need to mug to the camera in strange make-up to get across the fact that you are angry, scared, evil or brave.
By making its central characters capable only of speech which is largely nonsense, you would think the closest comparison for Minions would be Teletubbies. In fact, the film in both its character conception and its execution is closer to the work of Sylvain Chomet on Belleville Rendezvous and to a lesser extent The Illusionist. By effectively removing or minimising speech, directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin use physical action and situational comedy to drive the plot. The story is easy to understand but has some nifty qualities, and the rate of jokes is higher than in many modern comedies.
The central nifty twist that Minions employs is the idea of stooges - i.e. minions - searching for a master. The Austin Powers series has touched on the dissatisfaction of underlings, and Shrek 2 brushed close to the issue in its sequence involving our heroes' infiltration of the Fairy Godmother's factory. But Minions confronts the issue head on, taking the tired old story of the small guy trying to find his purpose in the big wide world and building an entire civilisation around it. One could almost call it a justification of chivalry, with the minions being a million little Sancho Panzas waiting in vain for their Don Quixote to come along.
The opening sequence, which breathtakingly chronicles the history of minions, sets up this idea quite brilliantly. There are some stunning physical jokes in here, whether it's Napoleon Bonaparte being blasted across the battlefield by a misplaced cannon, a banana causing the demise of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or the death of Dracula at the hands of a well-meaning birthday party. Through a series of innocent yet hilarious mishaps, the minions are set-up as every bit as empathetically clumsy as Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot or Harold Lloyd's 'Glasses' persona, and the apathetic football match is a great way to top this section off.
Because the little guys are so much the focus of the film, it is interesting that the actual villains, particularly Scarlett Overkill, come across as more than a little traditional. The film does all it can to keep Kevin, Stuart and Bob as the drivers of the plot, even in the scenes driven more by responsive slapstick. Just as many of the conventions of silent cinema can trace their roots back to those of clowning and pantomime (and commedia dell'arte before that), so Minions' human antagonists do correspond to certain set archetypes, albeit with interesting costumes, unusual names or, in the case of the Tower of London guards, very 1960s hairstyles.
I stated in my Pirates! review that the difference between a convention and a cliché can be found in our emotional response to a given scene, story or gag; if we are enjoying ourselves as we paddle in familiar waters, something is a convention, and if not, it is a cliché. You would definitely struggle to argue that Minions is in any way groundbreaking or blindingly original, just as you would find it difficult to argue that Pirates! is Aardman's best film. But being in familiar territory does not mean we should take the painstaking plot and character construction for granted, in the same way that digital animation is not inherently easier to pull off than stop-motion.
Minions succeeds by taking familiar elements - including central characters who have become icons of pop culture - and delivering the jokes with an amiable efficiency which is very hard to match. It is very difficult to explain exactly why a comedy is funny without simply listing every single joke and thereby spoiling the whole experience. But suffice to say, Balda and Coffin clearly understand pacing and timing, and have learned from their mistakes on the Despicable Me films by taking out a lot of the unnecessary fast-talking which caused the action to drag.
The film also benefits from the narration of Geoffrey Rush, still best known for his role as Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Rush has always had an unusual and characterful voice, something which has given him a distinctive presence in films as varied as Shine, Quills and The King's Speech. While the script he is bringing to life isn't the most remarkable in the world, his intonations is matched very effectively to the facial expressions of the minions, providing some initial impetus and structure to prevent the whole project from becoming an episodic farce.
Minions is a hilarious and highly entertaining spin-off which is more consistently funny than either of the Despicable Me films and arguably the best thing that Illumation Entertainment has produced since the first Ice Age. It's not a perfect film by any means, being somewhat less sure of itself when on British soil rather than in America, but it more than makes up for any niggling lack of originality with its highly effective storytelling and likeable characters. If nothing else it's proof that spin-offs can sometimes surpass their sources, and sets things up very nicely for Despicable Me 3.


NEXT REVIEW: When We Were Kings (1996)

Thursday, 2 February 2017

LETTERS OF NOTE: Fellini, Scorsese and Diversity


Martin Scorsese has, perhaps deservedly, become one of the most celebrated and highly regarded filmmakers of our time. Certainly it's hard to think of another contemporary figure - besides Quentin Tarantino - who so brilliantly expresses the transformative power of art in general and cinema in particular. So given the events across the ponds in the last few weeks, it's fitting to cite this piece - courtesy, as ever, of Letters of Note.
In November 1993, the great Italian auteur Federico Fellini (most famous for 8 1/2) passed away at the age of 73. His death brought with it many outpourings of grief and gushing tributes - but also a few voices of derision in the Western press. A week after Fellini's death, Bruce Weber wrote a piece in The New York Times criticising what he perceived as the deliberately evasive and unintelligible qualities of Fellini's work.
Scorsese's response, which you can read in full here, speaks to our time as loudly as it did in the 1990s. The cultural dangers we face from shutting out those who are perceived as being 'different' to ourselves are potentially catastrophic. British society in particular has always been at its strongest when we acknowledge our history as a melting pot of different cultures, from which great work and new, shared identites can emerge. If you have found yourself in any way unnerved by the actions of Donald Trump's government, whether you voted for him or not, this letter is worth a read.
If you're still wanting more Scorsese after that, you can check out my old review of Shutter Island or check back here in a few weeks, when I'll be reviewing The Departed. See you soon!


Monday, 30 January 2017

RIP Sir John Hurt


Given that 2016 was such a relentlessly terrible year for celebrity deaths, I'll wager I was not alone in hoping that 2017 would be somewhat easier to deal with in this regard. And given that we'd almost made it to the end of January relatively unscathed, there was cause to feel vindicated on this matter. And then came the awful news that Sir John Hurt, one of Britain's greatest actors, had passed away aged 77 after a battle with cancer.
Listing Hurt's accomplishments within the film industry would take a considerable amount of time - put simply, it's very hard to imagine British cinema without him. Even if you take all his most famous roles out of the equation - and that in itself is no enviable task - all the projects to which he contributed over the years, even in some small way, are voluminous and very often glowing. Just as Sir Ian McKellen has cause to be disgruntled at people only knowing him as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, so Hurt would have been... well, hurt if all he was recognised for was his appearance as Mr Ollivander in the first, seventh and final Harry Potter films.
Thankfully, there is very little chance of that, because Hurt's CV is a cavalcade of memorable roles which touched multiple generations. In the 1960s he was the snivelling Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons (a role I got to play some years ago). In the 1970s, he was the innocent, illiterate and heartbreaking Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place, the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, the psychotic Emperor Calligula in I, Claudius, the junkie prisoner Max in Midnight Express and Kane in Ridley Scott's terrifying Alien.
 Photo of John Hurt (Kane) from "Alien" ( 1280 x 720 )
In the 1980s, following his second Oscar nod for The Elephant Man, Hurt began to diversify his roles and continued to enjoy success. He played Jesus Christ in History of the World (Part I), hung out with Rutger Hauer on The Osterman Weekend, held his own against Richard Burton in 1984 and created a memorable cinematic death scene in The Black Cauldron. His work ranged from the serious political drama of Scandal to the game self-parody of Spaceballs, and even as he settled into old age he continued to take risks, working with Lars von Trier on Dogville, Manderlay and Melancholia, revisiting British totalitarianism in V for Vendetta, turning in a memorable supporting role in 44 Inch Chest and justifying every second of his brief time as Control in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He even found time to appear in Doctor Who as the War Doctor, as part of the show's 50th anniversary celebrations in 2013.
Asking me to pick just one Hurt role as a favourite as akin to torture, since his body of work contains some of my favourite films and roles. Alien had a huge impact on me as an 18-year-old and remains one of the ten best films I've seen, while his work in I, Claudius and The Storyteller remains some of the best TV that the BBC has ever showcased. I'm struggling to make a recommendation of how to mark his memory, but perhaps that in itself is a fitting tribute; you have a lot of options to choose from to honour one of the finest acting talents that this island has ever produced. With that in mind, I shall leave you with the BAFTA tribute to Hurt, and his speech when he accepted their Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema award in 2012. RIP.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

COMEDY: Austenland (2013)


Austenland (UK/ USA, 2013)
Directed by Jerusha Hess
Starring Keri Russell, J. J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge

In my review of A Royal Affair, I stated that period drama was "one of the easiest genres to send up, sneer at or actively despise." For every highly acclaimed film or TV series which pops up on our radar, any production which candidly emphasises archaic or impractical forms of language, costume or social custom presents itself all too easily to be ribbed. It is both fitting and ironic that Jane Austen's works have become such a reliable source of parody, given that she herself was parodying the Gothic romances of her day when she wrote the likes of Northanger Abbey.
TV has a long tradition of nailing such parodies, in everything from Dead Ringers sketches to Julia Davis' jet-black comedy Hunterby via the Pride and Prejudice Land from Red Dwarf. But whether because of their length or the different style of writing involved, films which have attempted the same thing have so often come a cropper. Austenland is in the same pitiful club as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, positioning itself as a clever piss-take which ultimately falls so far short that you wondered why anybody bothered. While not the worst parody film ever made - none of the Wayans family are involved, thank God - it squanders whatever talent lies in its cast and is frequently painful to watch.
I've often complained in my reviews about how material best suited to a five-minute sketch or a half-hour TV episode is regularly stretched out to form thin and disappointing films. It's an accusation frequently levelled against films from the Saturday Night Live stable, with offerings like Coneheads and It's Pat! consisting of little more than a single joke and the misguided belief that an audience will find it funny for 90 minutes. But it's a trend that's equally common in all genres, from third-rate children's films (Good Burger) to upmarket psychological thrillers (Carnage).
Austenland contains enough material for a half-decent five-minute sketch - ten if you were feeling charitable. Despite being adapted from a full-length novel, its premise is ridiculously thin and not particularly original: the four-part miniseries Lost in Austen took a very similar concept and achieved much better results. Mark Kermode put it best when he wrote in The Observer: "what might have made a five-minute skit becomes an extended exercise in taking a joke for a walk round a country house, before allowing it to crap on the terrace and then stamping it to death on the manicured lawn."
There is undoubtedly a certain amount of merit in having modern-day characters rip outdated attitudes and social niceties to shreds. In their quest for historical accuracy or fidelity, period dramas often fall into the trap of condoning some deeply questionable attitudes, whether towards women, poor people or people who don’t happen to be white. Equally, there is plenty of scope, and much justification, for taking apart films which try all-too-consciously to be right-on with present-day society. In short, one can take the piss out of Emma and Amistad at the same time, without it coming across as having one’s cake and eating it.
Sadly, Austenland has neither the brains, nor the ambition, nor the talent to contemplate anything so nuanced for more than a fleeting moment. At best it’s a sub-par Bill and Ted with petticoats, or an Abbott and Costello film with weaker jokes, whose main characters’ primary purpose is to be shoved into shot with historical figures (or stereotypes) and comment on how silly and stuffy they are. One by one ideas for a half-decent film or shred of character development present themselves, and one by one the film dallies with them like an awkward dance partner before something else distracts it and it jumps to another unfortunate soul.
At its most superficial, Austenland could have used its comic conceit to expose some of the harsh realities of Regency society, with our leading lady learning to accept that she can find love in the modern world – or at least, that the past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be once Colin Firth is out of the picture. Not every new take on a period novel has to be as tough and unrelenting as Andrea Arnold’s bruising take on Wuthering Heights. But there is scope here for an albeit well-worn, cheesy story about scales falling from the main character’s eyes, with the rigid class system and unforgiving social etiquette being challenged by her growing self-esteem and sense of worth.
We do get hints of this in the second act of the film, particularly when Jane (Keri Russell) is wooed by Bret McKenzie, best known for his work on Flight of the Concords. We play along with his rough New Zealand charm, settling for generic convention if only because the first act has been so shaky. But the film reaches a point where it struggles to know what it wants; it fails to properly set up a Bridget Jones-esque love triangle, with Jane becoming impulsive as McKenzie’s Martin gets more and more unpleasant and self-absorbed. In the end, the payoff with J. J. Field (trying and failing to be Tom Hiddlestone) feels like a forced last resort; it isn’t credible on its own terms and it’s not a natural continuation of the plot.
Equally, the film could have played more on the disjunct between the period characters and the actors who inhabit them. Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant A Cock and Bull Story deftly combined the demands of period drama with the very postmodern, contemporary comedy borne out of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s rivalry. Winterbottom’s uneven record as a director aside (see Trishna or The Look of Love, for instance), he had a fantastic understanding of how to deconstruct historical values while making very pertinent comments about our present-day ambitions and obsessions. With Austenland, however, the scenes of the actors out of costume give us just a teasing, fleeting glimpse of the better film we could be seeing, as though we were peering through a letterbox from within our 19th-century prison.
Having botched its attempted at clichéd romantic comedy, and discarded the prospect of postmodern deconstruction, the film also contemplates seeing itself as a much broader comedy. The performance of Jennifer Coolidge (who was very good in Legally Blonde) gives one of two impressions; either that director Jerusha Hess didn’t really know what she wanted, or that she was unable to direct her with sufficient skill, allowing her star to go painfully off-piste just as Johnny Depp had done with Pirates of the Caribbean. Coolidge, like Nicolas Cage before her, has a tendency to become grating and over-the-top when not properly reined in, and while she has her moments here, she could have been so much better.
Austenland is Hess’ first and so far only film as a director, and it shows. She’s hardly a stranger to the film industry, having written Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos, all directed by her husband Jared. But as I argued in my review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writers do not always make natural directors, often because they fail to marry visual storytelling to their beloved dialogue and stage directions. The screenplay for Austenland may not be the greatest ever written, but in the hands of another director the film that resulted could have looked a lot less inept.
The visuals of Austenland try to play up the period details to create a lavish sensibility, but only succeed in making everything seem cheap and fake. Cinematographer Larry Smith cut his teeth working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, and would later prove his worth by shooting Calvary and Only God Forgives. But here his colour palette is over-saturated, turning what should be elegant architecture and refined costumes into a series of gaudy greeting cards. Likewise the editing by Nick Fenton is slapdash and the score by Ilan Eshkeri is an enormously poor relation to his excellent work on Stardust and Still Alice. Even without the weak script or the uncertain direction, this film has little sense about its sensibility.
Austenland is a deeply disappointing and infuriating offering in which every shred of potential is briefly played for laughs and then cast aside. It isn’t the worst parody ever to grace the big screen, being less mean-spirited than Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and funnier than anything farted out by the Wayans stable. But it offers far too little return for one’s time, for fans of Jane Austen and those new to period drama, and it will take a great deal of persuasion to warrant a re-watch any time soon.


NEXT REVIEW: Minions (2015)