Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Earlier this week I almost made my brain explode. I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (no, that in itself wouldn’t have done the trick)… and then, the next evening, I saw The History Boys. From loud, complicated, essentially dumb SFX-travaganza to smart Brit drama in about 24 hours – it’s enough to give you a bad case of the cinematic bends.
At World’s End (or Pirates of the Caribbean III: Why does everything have to be a trilogy?) is undoubtedly a fine-looking film. The visual effects, by and large, are amazing, and the film’s visually inventive to boot. There are sights to behold that I’d never seen before on screen, and the digital artistry on Davy Jones’ betentacled head and face is quite amazing.
If only it was in service of a better script. Remember the first entry in the Pirates franchise? It wasn’t Bergman, but it was witty and fun, which is exactly what such a film needs. Starting with the sequel Dead Man’s Chest, though, the film lost in lightness and wit what it gained in complicatedness. Not complexity, mind you, because that would mean the plot actually adds up to something and benefits the films. Nope, what we got was messy and uninteresting. failing almost completely to serve the movies’ characters.
Yes, Johnny Depp was fun in the third film, as he was in the first two, but Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow is simply not enough to keep me engaged for three hours. Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa might have helped, but little was left of his wonderful scenery chewing in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, most of the actors acted their hearts out, but to no avail: the script is leaden and dull, only little better than George Lucas’ efforts in the Star Wars prequels. Honestly, Mr. Verbinski, here’s a suggestion: if you want to make a three-hour popcorn movie, give it a fun script, or don’t do it at all.
The History Boys, based on Alan Bennett’s stage play, is pretty much the opposite of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It’s wordy and character-driven, it gives its cast a chance to shine, and it’s funny and moving. I’d never realised that Richard Griffiths did roles other than broad caricatures, but his Hector, a gay, sad English teacher with an absolute passion for his subject, is a beautifully judged, subtle performance with no trace of Uncle Vernon. However, as much as Hector’s at the heart of the film, practically every other part is as well acted and as necessary to the whole.
Bennett’s writing requires acting this good; I’ve seen amateur productions of his shorter works, and they all came across as terribly mannered and stagey. The dialogues in The History Boys are not realistic, they are stylised (as are the characters), but that doesn’t mean in any way that they feel phony. There’s a truth to all of the performances and writing that takes a bit of time to develop – during the first half-hour, I was thinking that some of the characters were a tad stereotypical, but that’s only true in the way that many people at first seem to fit certain types, and only as you get to know them they develop their individuality.
The movie’s also surprisingly good at not feeling like a filmed play. It may have a script that feels theatrical (which makes sense, given the subject matter – school is inherently theatrical and every classroom is a stage), but it doesn’t look like it wants to be on the narrowish confines of a stage (or like it desperately tries to escape those confines, which is often worse). The film breathes throughout the spaces it evokes.
The History Boys is definitely not for everyone, and if I want to be somewhat arrogant and dismissive about it, chances are that more people will like At World’s End. It’s a film that expects its audience to engage with it, intellectually and emotionally. But the effort pays off many times.
Well, at least when it comes to her latest hit… We went to see Atonement yesterday. I think the book’s one of the best novels to come out of England in the last few years; it’s intellectually stimulating as well as moving, with some grandiose setpieces and a lot of subtlety in its characterisation. (The only Ian McEwan novel I didn’t like so far was Amsterdam, the one he won his Booker Prize for.)
It’s a hell of a book to adapt to the screen, though. So much of it – its narration, its style, its themes and motifs – is, at its heart, literary. It’s a novel about writing and about fiction, and some of this is likely to be spelled out or left out in an adaptation. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to see how often the movie chooses to be bluntly explicit when a more implicit approach would have made things more interesting. Like the trailer embedded below, the film version at times seems to be written in large capitals telling its audience what is going on: Imagination! Accusation! Betrayal! And a hard-boiled egg! (Okay, I made that last bit up.)
Also, I honestly don’t see why people keep praising Keira Knightley’s performance in this film so much. I liked her Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, but there’s nothing much in her Cecelia Tallis that we haven’t seen before. There’s stuck-up Keira, passionate Keira, angry Keira and languishing Keira, and that’s about it. Frankly, I thought her performance was fairly similar to Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films – not one of the Top 10 performances in movie history, in my opinion.
All in all, much of the first third of the film didn’t work that well for me. It takes a special skill in an actor to pull off “upper class” without falling into a caricature of the “upper class twit” worthy of school theatre and Monty Python. Many of those ageing RSC actors can do it, but in Atonement my main thought was, “If that’s what the British upper class is like, then the masses would have chopped off their heads hundreds of years ago… or otherwise they deserve them!” Every actor seems intent on showing the audience, “Class snobbery is wrong! These people are hateful, hateful idiots!” Which, frankly, I don’t need spelled out in ten-foot letters underlined three times.
However, the film gets a number of things very right. Many of the wartime scenes, especially the already famous long tracking shot along the beach, are quite stunning. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of these scenes that is miles removed from the literal-mindedness of the beginning and ending. The same goes for the scenes in hospital which do not flinch away from the horrible wounds of the soldiers coming home from France. While the cinematography is beautiful, it still gets across the ugliness of war in a few very effective shots.
Still, while there were things to admire, I have to wonder in the end: is such an Easy Reader version of Ian McEwan’s intricate, beautiful novel really necessary? And is it enough to be able to say, “Well, they didn’t screw it up too badly… They did quite okay”? And why, oh why, are so many reviewers infatuated with Keira Knightley?
P.S.: If my suspicion is correct, merely mentioning Keira Knightley in this blog entry should get me lots of hits.