A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #45: Ripley vs Ripley – who’s the most talented?

For our June episode, we’re sending the cultural baristas on a holiday in sunny Mongibello, Italy, where rich, pretty young ex-pats spend their time and money on the beach – though there are others who may be less harmless… Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley was turned into two films: René Clément’s Plein Soleil (released as Purple Noon in the English-speaking world, in spite of a distinct absence of purple-hued noons), starring a young Alain Delon, and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation, which took the title from Highsmith’s book, featuring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Ripley is a fascinating character, a sociopath reflecting the identities of those around him back at them, and it’s fascinating to compare these two very different interpretations of the character. Join Sam, Julie and Matt as they sail the treacherous waters of the mid-20th century Mediterranean and compare the talents of the various Messrs Ripley!

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: money, mermaids, MeToo, and Miranda

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest installment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: What to watch while ‘social distancing’

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest installment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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We do the same. – The same? – Exactly the same. (pause)

I’d be curious: did Michael Caine and Jude Law talk about Alfie on the set of Sleuth? Did they compare performances? Did they get drunk and watch the Stallone version of Get Carter? Or did they just stare at each other threateningly until Kenneth Branagh shouted “Roll camera”?

The Sleuth remake sounds like quite a compelling proposition at first: one of the grand old English actors facing off against a glittering, promising young guy. (Admittedly, Jude Law hasn’t quite followed up on the promise of his early films, has he?) Directed by Kenneth “Four fucking hours of Shakespeare” Branagh, who has a deft hand behind the camera when he isn’t trying to showcase his own thespian ego. And the original play and film adapted by Harold Pinter, master of intellectual menace and keeper of the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.

Alfie? Never seen it. Sounds like rubbish.

In practice, though, Sleuth is dead as a film. It has occasional moments where the individual contributors flare up and come to life, but it’s like putting an electrical current into a dead frog. Its twitches are easily mistaken for signs of life, but the poor little green guy is still as dead as, well, a dead frog.

Michael Caine probably fares best. He slips into the Pinteresque dialogue with ease and manages to make it sound relatively natural. Caine comes closest to convincing us that the film has a beating heart – but even he cannot sustain this against the wooden staginess of the proceedings. The script might work on stage, with the immediacy that a live performance brings to things, but if some scripts jump off the page, this movie lurches back onto the page.

I’ve liked Jude Law in a number of films, first and foremost Gattaca, The Wisdom of Crocodiles and The Talented Mr Ripley, and he’s got moments in Sleuth where he shines – but all too many of his line deliveries sound as if he imagined that This Is What Pinter’s Supposed To Sound Like. It gets worse in the second part of the film, after the first major twist, which I felt was badly handled; I sat there wondering whether it’s a genuine twist or whether the film suddenly decided to go all post-modern on us. I would have prefered the latter, since the twist made the characters even less credible. In any case, after half an hour Law turns up as a new character, but while his body language is convincing, his accent couldn’t be more fake. Yes, he’s supposed to be fake, but if it’s so transparent to us that this is Jude Law in disguise, it makes the Michael Caine character look stupid if he doesn’t get it… and since the film tries to convince us that the characters aren’t stupid while showing them doing utterly stupid things, it’s difficult to take anything happening on screen seriously.

The third act introduces a homoerotic component that seems to have popped in from a different film altogether. While the casting should work brilliantly here – Law has always had a peculiarly feminine quality – seeing Michael Caine trying to get his menacing paws on the younger man rarely feels anything other than awkward because the development comes out of left field, from another game, in a different country altogether.

Would the film have worked better for me if I’d seen the original? Perhaps – but I doubt it. Branagh’s main mistake in the end was to think that the staginess of the script could be counteracted by ‘clever’ (read: obvious) cinematographic choices. However, no weird camera angle will distract from the script and the performances if they’re geared towards the stage. Seeing this live might have been riveting. Seeing the film? Well. Dead frog.

If it ain’t broken…

… oh, but it is. It is. In subtle but essential ways.

Okay, that’s probably way more cryptic than you would’ve hoped for – so let’s clarify things: Anthony Minghella’s latest, Breaking and Entering, a film that feels like it was made by Guardian readers for Guardian readers, gets some things very right. If you’re into urban decay, atmosphere, good acting, if you basically want to see a mood poem set in London, or indeed if you want to ogle Jude Law and enjoy his accent, this film is for you.

Abiding the Law

If you want a stringent story with credible character motivations and subtle writing… Meh. Not so much. It’s a shame, really, because the acting is there: I’m not usually a fan of Robin Wright Penn, but she makes her character’s pain credible, and the rest of the cast does a good, sometimes great job – but it doesn’t help that the film takes things that were already clear when they were only implied and makes them clumsily explicit. Also, one of the central two relationships seems to pop up out of nowhere in between scenes – and this, to me, almost crippled the film. (In fact, I felt like I’d fallen asleep for five minutes and had missed an important scene.)

What I really liked: the depiction of London; Martin Freeman’s character (oh so British!); Vera Farmiga’s character, miles away from her shrink in The Departed; Juliette Binoche (there are people, good friends of mine, who hate her – I’m sorry, guys, but I hope you forgive me for liking her acting a lot); the look and feel of the film. In some ways, I think I would have preferred Breaking and Entering if I’d seen it dubbed into some language I barely understand. If I could have watched the dialogues through some sound-proof window and taken in only the images and the soundtrack, I might have loved it.

P.S.: Minghella’s working on an anthology film called New York I Love You. Check out the list of directors, and give a good, hearty “What the…?”

Those who can’t, teach…

I’m about to be off and teach a two-hour colloquium on film studies. I’ve never studied the subject, but somehow the person who asked me to teach the session thought that a) having  a PhD in English and American Literature, b) being a film nut (and having 400+ DVDs to prove it) and c) having an opinion on everything qualifies me for this.

Hurm, as a certain psycho superhero might say.

Anyway, since I have to make a few last notes, I’m going to have to make this short. I’ll be analysing extracts from three films with them: The Talented Mr Ripley, Fight Club and Memento. Having re-watched the beginning of those three films, I was reminded again why I liked them so much in the first place. Ripley got a bad rap with some critics, but I still find it one of Anthony Minghella’s, Matt Damon’s and Jude Law’s finest movies. And for those who think the film lacks tension, I thought I could put a highly spoilerish excerpt in the blog. Those who haven’t seen the film yet, don’t click on the clip lest you do so at your own peril!

However, I don’t want to leave you with murder and mayhem (or soap – sorry, wrong movie…!), so here’s another, more peaceful clip from the same film. Dunno what it is about the song, but I always get an urge to snap my fingers and tap my feet when I hear it. Enjoy!

Demurely Wilde

There used to be a time, in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I thought that Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry could only be booked as an ensemble. These days, both of them seem to have done well enough on their own. Laurie appears to have become more of a star, mainly thanks to his wonderful Gregory House, M.D. (Admittedly, the series wouldn’t work without him.) Fry, on the other hand, is less visible but does more different things, a small part in a movie here, writing novels there, and voicing interplanetary repositories of knowledge in between, all of which seem to fit him quite neatly.

We watched Wilde yesterday, a film for which I had fairly high expectations. Unfortunately, for me the high point of the film was seeing a teensy, pixie-ish Orlando “Not an elf yet” Bloom playing a rent boy, wearing a bowler hat twice his size. No, that’s not quite true. (Well, the bit about the bowler hat is.) Wilde isn’t a bad film: the acting’s quite good, as is to be expected with such a distinguished cast, and it’s handsomely made. But it’s basically a run-of-the-mill, all too earnest (the pun is accidental) period drama, the only difference being that the tasteful sex scenes are between men. There’s a German word that can’t really be translated – betulich – that fits the film, in my opinion. It roughly means “staid”, “respectable”, “well-meaning”. Is this what a Wilde biopic, or indeed any film, should be?

The problem mainly lies with the script. The characters are clear-cut from the beginning and remain static throughout. Oscar is sweet, witty, but too much of a doe-eyed romantic when it comes to beautiful young men. Bosie is a shallow, callous narcissist. Oscar’s wife Constance is hard done by, but loyal. The closest the film comes to character development is when one of the protagonists grows a moustache.

And while I didn’t watch the film for hot, sweaty man-on-man action, is it too much to ask that the homoerotic scenes are actually erotic? The sex scenes are entirely too coy. (There is one ironic camera pan from a Wilde coupling to the window drapes swaying in the wind, although that was perhaps the only glint of visual wit in the film.) As a result of the movie’s consistent respectability, there’s no sense of outrage at the late Victorian homophobia and hypocrisy, just a passive acceptance of Oscar’s inevitable fate, reinforced by the film’s score working hard to make it clear that we’re watching something tragic.

Oscar Wilde, looking stylishly bored

Finally, the film succeeded most in making me think that Oscar Wilde, for all his sparkling wit, may have been a sad bore. A nice guy, surely, and very sweet, but in the end faintly pathetic and faintly boring. Like one of his aphorisms on yet another souvenir mug sold cheaply.