CINEMA LIVE REVIEW: Private Lives

6 February 2014, Barnet Odeon

Private Lives was screened at selected cinemas on 6 February as part of the West End Theatre series. For more information, and details of future screenings, see the Cinema Live website.

After Maria Friedman’s Merrily We Roll Along back in November, Digital Theatre has once again teamed up with CinemaLive to bring audiences nationwide a chance to go back into the glorious age of Noël Coward, with a screening of one of his best-loved works, Private Lives. This production originally premièred at the Chichester Festival Theatre in autumn 2012, before transferring to the Gielgud Theatre in 2013, where this special filming was recorded starring indisputably fine actors Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens as the central on-off couple.

Some of the best and most recent revivals of plays from this era bring something new and fresh, in an attempt to make sense of what now feels like a distant age. Yet this recreation of the Coward classic demands that you revel in the old-fashionedness of it all, looking back over the decades with comical affection at the now-dated attitudes and customs. The character of Sibyl (an amusingly irritating Anna-Louise Plowman) fulfils this more than any other, with her girlish hysteria bringing laughs and frustration alternately, as does the character of Louise, the maid whose single comedic factor is her French-ness — this now feels a rather staid source of humour. Having said this, there is a flash of surprising and fascinating modernity in a passage in which Elyot (Toby Stephens) and Amanda (Anna Chancellor) discuss the varying attitudes towards male and female promiscuity — a discussion that, interestingly and rather worryingly, could easily have been penned 84 years later in 2014.

Despite the lack of anything new here, this is an enjoyable recreation of one of Coward’s best-loved works. The first re-meeting of Elyot and Amanda is wonderfully delivered, with Stephens’ calculated overacting (which works perfectly in this context) and Chancellor’s bold performance and rapidly-changing visage. It’s their dynamic that keeps the whole play going from this moment on, with much of the script being a two-hander between these two divorcees who thoughtlessly reignite their passion. Meanwhile Sibyl (Plowman) and Victor (Anthony Calf) are sidelined throughout much of the action, only really given the chance to show their comedic mettle in the final scenes. Coward’s antipathy towards these sorts of people — one dull, the other sickening in drippiness — could not be more evident in the dramatic attention he gives the rejected spouses.

There is no doubting that Chancellor and Stephens are a great double act, and we always feel in safe hands as they negotiate the extreme ups and downs of the lovers’ relationship, from sensual desire to raging anger. Their strong performances demonstrate exuberant confidence and control, with a sold grasp and understanding of both text and character. The only problem is that perhaps we sometimes feel too safe, and at times I yearned them to push the characterisation further to test the waters of what can work for this play. Both use physicality well, with Stephens’ sarcastic expressions and buffoonery drawing many a laugh — yet sadly, the physical depiction of their more violent fights is terribly cringeworthy, with none of the blows appearing genuine, and the crash of household objects, flung around with abandon, having little impact. The relationship should be a combination of hilarious and potentially dangerous, yet these fight scenes uphold neither side of the dichotomy. Perhaps at a distance they would have been more believable, and were shown up by the close-ups in this screening, but, frankly, they stick out like a sore thumb against the otherwise accomplished performances and direction.

The rapid second half comes to a cyclical ending with little resolution for either party — it’s not hard to imagine similar events occurring again and again for these characters — and comes around rather too quickly. On the whole this is a pleasing rendition of a classic Coward comedy, with an impressive central pairing, although the whole production lacks quite enough spark to make it a memorable hit.

‘The Audience’ and other stories: National Theatre Live

I’m almost starting to get confused between Helen Mirren and the Queen herself, so accustomed am I to seeing this great British leading lady playing our monarch. After the rave reviews of the 2012 film The Queen, Mirren has donned the crown once again in this new play by Skyfall co-writer Peter Morgan.

Of course by now it’s not entirely new, as this stage production hit the West End back in February, and was first broadcast to cinemas across the UK on 13 June. But the wonderful team at National Theatre Live have included this broadcast from the Gielgud Theatre in a series of  ‘encore’ screenings, as the National celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Mirren excels once again in this wonderful production. She is full of charm, warmth, wit and, most impressively for a character whose inner thoughts we know so little about, depth. Presenting a series of imagined conversations between Her Majesty and a selection of her many prime ministers, The Audience covers a wide array of political events, which are fascinating when refracted through this semi-fictional lens, but never feels like merely a history lesson. It might be beneficial if you have a basic grasp of 20th century politics and history – with references to the Suez crisis, miners’ strikes and rationing scattered across the script – but it doesn’t really matter too much. What shines through is the personal, human emotion of these figures of power. There are laughs aplenty – the bumbling Harold Wilson (affectionately and wonderfully portrayed by Richard McCabe) and hilariously accurate depictions of David Cameron and Gordon Brown  by Rufus Wright and Nathaniel Parker stand out – but also moments of poignancy, achieved through a clever script and a beautifully understated yet powerful performance by Mirren. She delivers so much in a look, in a gesture, that even in the restrained – and supposedly politically neutral – character of the queen, we feel the wealth of swirling emotions beneath the polished exterior.

Notable potential targets of this drama are absent: Tony Blair is absent from the script, reportedly at the request of producer Andy Harries, as is the death of Princess Diana. Yet the scenes are cleverly chosen, and intelligently ordered. From the first, splendidly regal appearance of Mirren, clad in a gorgeous royal blue, we subsequently jump backwards in time to the queen’s first ever audience – with, of course, the traditional and experienced Winston Churchill (Edward Fox). Her naivety and lack of certainty in the face of Churchill’s old-school formality is touching, and helps to round out the character beyond the Queen we all recognise today. Also immensely pleasing is the forceful discussion with Margaret Thatcher, terrifically played by Haydn Gwynne. Although the subject of the meeting is tense, there is something incredibly joyous and brilliant about seeing this meeting of two of the most commanding women in British history – and the audience’s reaction proves it.

This is a brilliant production, and it’s wonderful that so many more people are able to experience it through the National Theatre Live project. Although there are some great ticket offers out there, particularly for young people and local residents, the cost of West End theatre is still a barrier to many people, especially when you add the price of travelling to London. Compared to that, a £10 trip to the cinema down the road is a pretty good alternative! I’ll always prefer live theatre performance, as you unavoidably lose a great deal of the connection between audience and actor when viewing a screen; but National Theatre Live certainly provides the next best thing. When a show is a sell-out it gives access to an even bigger audience, and I for one am hugely excited about the upcoming programme of ‘encore’ screenings, which will give me the chance to see some of the National’s best recent productions that I missed out on the first time around!

National Theatre Live: 50th Anniversary Encore Screenings trailer (courtesy of National Theatre)

Fresh from his spellbinding performance as Iago in the National Theatre’s Othello (which was broadcast live on 26 September), Rory Kinnear’s critically-acclaimed turn as Hamlet will be shown on 22 October. Described as “an evening to admire and cherish” by Michael Billington, Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation moves the action to a present day Elsinore where constant surveillance means even the famed soliloquies are always under scrutiny by a hidden audience.

Creepy in a different way – and probably the screening I’m most excited about! – Frankenstein comes to cinemas from 31 October, giving those of us who didn’t make it to the theatre a chance to see Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle’s 2011 “monster hit” (credit to TimeOut London for that pun). Both combinations of cast are being broadcast on separate dates, as Miller and Cumberbatch alternated for the original run, but either should be a terrific watch. My instinct says I’d prefer Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein… either way, I can’t wait to finally see this Olivier award-winning production that I mourned missing two years ago.

Also appearing in the Encore season is Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, featuring Frances de la Tour, Alex Jennings and the glorious, much-missed Richard Griffiths, while new broadcasts include, amongst others, the underrated Shakespeare tragedy Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddlestone, and the celebrated War Horse. The latter is one I’d rather see in the flesh, as it looks to be running in London for a good while to come yet: the magic of the puppetry is surely unbeatable on stage, but as I’ve said, the opportunity to see this hit show for a few quid in your local town is fantastic – and based on the success of the book, film and stage adaptation, the cinemas are sure to be packed out!

With an increasing number of musicals, plays and operas being broadcast at cinemas on a regular basis, here’s hoping that the National Theatre Live continues to take the lead on this great idea, bringing Britain’s wonderful theatre to more and more people around the country.

FILM REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

directed by Baz Luhrmann

starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher

11 June 2013 (seen in 2D)

Official Trailer courtesy of Warner Bros.

For many, Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatbsy, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, will always be the definitive movie version. So with Baz Lurhmann taking on the classic story of the failed American Dream, there was always bound to be some controversy: after all, Luhrmann isn’t exactly renowned for this traditional tale-telling, as we all know from his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. To enjoy this particular adaptation, then, it sadly is necessary to forget the book — and undoubtedly to forget the Clayton film — as once again the flamboyant director brings his own brand of spectacle and sparkle to the Gatsby story.

With plenty of soft focus shots, anachronistic but catchy music and pure over-indulgence, The Great Gatsby certainly is a treat for the senses. The party scenes that grabbed our attention in the trailer are reeled off in full force, crammed with wildness and temptations that really do make you wish you were there. The soundtrack divides opinion (my companion at the cinema seemed most unimpressed with the idea of Jay-Z turning up in the 1920s…), but the presence of rap and hip-hop alongside jazz elements in fact captures some of the spirit of this age, yet reflects it through a modern lens. Rap and hip hop can be seen as the music of rebellion: styles which teenagers adore and parents detest, which divide generations — not all that different from the raucous jazz so beloved by the flappers of the Roaring Twenties.

Many criticisms have been levelled at the film since its first screening, but surely there can be no doubting the lead performances. Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) does ‘tortured soul’ very well in the new framing narrative, and manages to epitomise the optimism of the American Dream without becoming sickly-sweet or clichéd. Carey Mulligan’s (Daisy Buchanan) early charm gives way to a cold stillness very effectively by the film’s climax; Mulligan lures the audience into sympathy for Daisy, around whom all the film’s most potent emotions revolve, before shocking them with her distant aloofness in her final scenes. It is  a reminder of the shallowness of people which this film seems to reveal. Elsewhere, scene-stealers Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson) and Jason Clarke (George Wilson) give fantastic comic and tragic performances, but feel sadly underused: considering how much the film drags at certain points, it would have benefited from a bit more screen time from this pair of electrifying actors.

In the end, though, the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. Looking staggeringly young and unarguably handsome, he explores all sides of Gatsby’s enigmatic character with sensitivity and intelligence, maintaining that vital air of mystery throughout while allowing us an insight to the pains and joys of his life. While Luhrmann at times goes beyond over-the-top — the number of shots of DiCaprio’s smiling face bathed in soft sunlight, backed by a glittering soirée of excess, or framed by fireworks is frankly outrageous — DiCaprio somehow pulls it all off and carries the film with an impressive performance. He really is a “great” Gatsby.

Yet for all its visual pleasure (DiCaprio included, I must confess…), the gorgeousness of the New York and Long Island scenery becomes a drawback to the film itself. There are so many CGI backdrops and swooping, brightly-lit and highly-coloured shots of the city, that the whole thing seems totally unreal. This is perfect for the fantasy and escapism of the hedonistic parties, notably the drunken haze of Myrtle Wilson’s apartment romp, but it undermines the tragedy of the piece. It is beautiful, yes, but the dream-like appearance of the film means there is nothing real or grounded about it which could make the tragedy feel genuine, and therefore truly moving. Presumably this is the intention behind the starkly contrasting framing narrative, but the device doesn’t have enough impact to make a difference.

It is no doubt this dreamy sheen that has caused the complaints of a lack of depth in the film. This by itself is rather problematic, but could be over-looked if the plot has been structured with enough strength and power. Yet there are sections which are dragged out beyond their potential, and the whole thing feels too long, diminishing the suspense even as it is created. As events build to the climactic moment of the car crash, the overpowering heat and tension of the New York summer are evoked beautifully; yet the scenes are too drawn out, and this pressure is wasted.

This is an enjoyable adaptation, despite the criticisms of die-hard Gatsby fans: it is certainly more satisfying to view it as a stand-alone movie rather than a representation of Fitzgerald’s novel. Yet the over-indulgence of the parties is continued into some self-indulgent directorial decisions, and the film’s length and unreal, almost unnatural qualities undermine the powerful performances on display. It looks beautiful and is an entertaining watch, but in being so Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby sacrifices something to really get your teeth into.

FILM REVIEW: Life of Pi

Directed by Ang Lee

It was said by many that this unusual novel could not be adapted cinematically – so if it was going to be done, it had to be done in style. Luckily, Ang Lee came along and did just that, creating a film that is rich, beautiful and exhilirating to watch. It’s ironic that a film demonstrating the awe-inspiring majesty and horror of the natural world could only be achieved through the very different magic of CGI, yet in this case computer wizardry has done our planet proud, and great forces of nature are displayed in sublime colour and impressive 3D.

As a rule, this reviewer is left significantly disappointed by the supposed excitement of 3D technology; usually only adding the smallest of novelty factors to the film, it has in the past appeared an unnecessary and expensive addition. Yet The Life of Pi has certainly changed all that, as for the first time I saw its potential not only to enhance a film, but generate a whole new dimension (literally) of enjoyment. The chaos of the ocean storm is exhilarating and genuinely rather frightening, as the crashing waves and enormous volume of water feels tangible and dangerous. Similarly, Richard Parker is sublime (that’s the tiger of course, before I get accused of lusting over some poor man…) and totally, frighteningly believable. The best thing about this CGI production is the realism that somehow pervades the film, even as the most extraordinary of events unfold, largely down to the impressive attention to detail shown by the animators.

Of course, it’s not all about computer animation. Untrained newcomer Suraj Sharma deserves huge credit for carrying the large majority of the film’s action independently, delivering a performance of sensitivity and maturity, but not missing the wry humour which gives them – and indeed the novel – its warm heart despite great loss and desperate circumstances.

Photo: GBPUBLIC_PR

Charm is also offered in the ‘present day’ scenes, as the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) and his visitor (Rafe Spall) provide the framing narrative, enhancing the illusion of reality. Spall once again demonstrates his incredible variety of skills as an actor, never typecast or repetitive from role to role. He is a solid support for the storytelling of Khan, whose mature and reflective Pi adeptly links the two parts of the film and delicately portrays the effect of this miraculous adventure.

This film could easily have become too long, or too flashy. Yet Lee has balanced it skilfully, creating what could more accurately be described as a work of art, as cinematography rather than acting steals the show. As the ocean around Pi glows with mysterious life forms, the scene feels weird and fantastical, yet the cruelty and harshness of life in the wild is never far away. This may not be a film to watch again and again – its strength is in its initial impact of beauty, majesty and at times oddity – but it is an undeniably impressive piece of cinema which successfully manages to blend the latest technology with a respectful awe for largely unseen phenomena of our world.

FILM REVIEW: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina Official Trailer (courtesy of Focus Features)

With the genius of Tom Stoppard on the credits and the inspiration of Tolstoy, Anna Karenina promises big things. Its sumptuous costumes, original concept and big name leading lady all aim to create something with impact, and something to shout about, although the last time Joe Wright took on a literary classic starring Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice, 2005), the result was bitterly disappointing. I left this venture impressed by certain aspects but, I have to admit, generally unmoved: I’d be more likely to mention the film over coffee than shout its praises from the rooftops.

The film looks gorgeous, the screen practically dripping with silk, fur, pearls and lace: visual texture is almost palpable in its richness. And yes, Keira Knightley in the title role also looks gorgeous. The close-up shots certainly do her no harm as the camera lingers on her flawless skin and dark eyes. Yet the problem – once again – with Knightley is that her external suitability for the part, and more unfortunately her acting talents, possess very little depth. She has the right expression for the right moment – the girlish smile, the pained, furrowed brow of distress, the poignant stare into the distance – but there is no feeling in her eyes, no soul in her performance. The portrayal of her growing attraction and love for Vronsky verges on the ridiculous, as her succession of breathy gasps on observing his stares appears to lead directly and very suddenly to a state of utter and blissful adoration. Sadly, her lover suffers from the same limitations. Vronsky has always seemed to me a shallow and unlikeable character, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson went further in depriving him of any real, believable passion. This is partly due to the rushed courtship which the film presents, and partly due to a flatness which haunts his and Knightley’s performance. Jude Law, on the other hand, as the unfortunate Karenin, does repressed emotion beautifully; in a role which may well change perceptions of him as an actor – he has moved away from parts which emphasise his charming good looks – he is understated without being dull, and perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of sympathy and frustration which Karenin attracts. Comedy came in the form of the ever delightful Ruth Wilson (Princess Betsy) and an unusually pompous Matthew Macfadyen (Oblonsky), although a little more attention could have been brought to the always-present tensions between his affability and his repeated adulterous affairs. Wright saves the character from become irritatingly blasé with a simple yet intelligent shot of Macfadyen following the film’s tragic climax, bringing a rare moment of reflection and emotional depth in what is a busy and rather superficial film.

The concept is, admittedly, genius. The setting of a vast Russian novel in the confines (mostly…) of a nineteenth century theatre may seem bizarre and downright impossible, but what Wright admitted was a lightbulb, ‘Eureka!’ moment shows itself to be a real brainwave. The swiftly changing scenes and costumes, and the contrast between on- and off-stage action, epitomise the facades of ‘polite’ Russian society, while the musicality and dance-like movement of the opening scenes – in particular, a cleverly directed scene in Oblsonky’s workplace and a beautifully whirling dance – depict a rhythmic rollercoaster of a social scene. The transitions between Serhoza’s toy trains and the station scenes were again well-crafted, weaving intricately between the world of fantasy and pretend, and of reality. It may not be as madcap as the theatrically-set Moulin Rouge. but you could be forgiven for thinking Wright had been taking lessons from Baz Luhrmann. The symbolic use of colour is effective in the Odette/Odile-esque styling of Kitty and Anna at the ball, although goes too far when Anna and Vronsky, dressed in white, lie and frolic on a white blanket, bathed in white light. Fallen angels? Innocent love made perverse through its adulterous nature? Childlike naivety? It was all a bit too blatant and in-your-face to make any of these ideas seem interesting. Yet all this intricacy and beauty is a sheen over something that, on closer inspection, is rather shallow and lacking.

Although the Russian atmosphere was evoked by jaunty, Troika-esque music and some luscious fur coat and hats, it was lacking in a real evocation of Tolstoy’s intensity and profundity. The film hurdles towards it’s tragic denouement, but still manages to lack the real air of ominous, impending doom. Anna’s eventual death is moving but sudden: the burden of her situation does not seen great enough to warrant suicide, which renders her behaviour bizarre rather than lending the character pathos. As a sidenote, I was glad to see Wright and Stoppard retained the earlier death of a railway worker as a mirroring device, although admittedly the differences between the two unintentionally amused me: while the unfortunate worker met a gruesome, bloody end on the track, Knightley was spared any mutiliation, dying under a train with just a small splash of blood across her waxen features. What rescues the film from an overload of the purely decorative is Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander). The best example of that elusive ‘true love’ in the novel and, some have argued, in literature, Vikander and, in particular, Gleeson do a masterful job at evoking the simple yet beautiful nature of their relationship. It is not sweet and sickly, nor is it reduced to an uninteresting subplot; the scene in which Kitty tends to Levin’s sick, socially outcast brother is full of warmth and tenderness and the acting is allowed to speak for itself without fancy cinematic ornamentation.

Yet on the whole, however much I enjoyed the film’s style and visual feast, it still felt rather unsatisfying. There is a veil of brilliance here, but it covers a shallow and unconvincing heart.