Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

TV’s Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.

In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.

In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.

In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”

An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.

20th Century Women & The Sense of an Ending

20th Century Women

20th Century Women

Zumann, Gerwig, Bening, Fanning, l to r

Pity the poor teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in this film written and directed by Mike Mills and set in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s (trailer). He not only has a protective, chain-smoking single mother, Dorothea (played by Annette Bening), but she recruits his girl friend, one word, not two (Elle Fanning) and her boarder (Greta Gerwig) to help look out for him, to teach him “how to be a good man.”

Three moms could be a bit much, and is, but he is graceful under pressure, even when Gerwig inducts him into feminist thinking with Our Bodies, Our Selves. The resident handyman (Billy Crudup) could be a decent masculine role model, but he and Jamie just don’t connect.

The movie has a lot of cultural references to the 70s that may make you laugh or shake your head. A group of Dorothea’s friends sit around to listen to Jimmy Carter’s preachy bummer of a speech about the “crisis of confidence” among Americans and the need to get past rampant consumerism. This impolitic speech was reviled at the time (one of the characters says, “He is so f—–”)—and now sounds distressingly prescient.

The acting is A+, and “What is so special about Dorothea (and every character in the film) is that they aren’t ‘quirky’ in an annoying, independent film way,” says Sheila O’Malley for Rogerebert.com. They’re real people.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 88%; audiences: 75%.

The Sense of an Ending

Sense of an Ending

Rampling, Broadbent

Scriptwriter Nick Payne transformed Julian Barnes’s prize-winning novel into this movie (trailer) directed by Ritesh Batra about a self-absorbed Londoner and his growing obsession with a woman from his distant past. It appears he’d much rather be living there, with the frisson of youth and the sixties—than in his current divorced, not especially accomplished, late-middle-age state.

Tony Webster (played superbly by James Broadbent) becomes a voyeuristic observer of the life that might have been. He receives an unexpected letter from his former girlfriend’s mother telling him she’s bequeathed him the diary of his youthful best friend—the best friend who stole the girlfriend from him.

It’s an odd thing, but he becomes determined to get that diary, while the ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) is determined he not have it. The conflict sparks many nostalgic reminiscences about those days. It transpires that events were shatteringly different from how he has understood them all along.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife (Harriet Walter, who is in everything lately) is onto him, and his daughter (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) is about to yank him back into the present by producing a grandchild.

Again, the cast is terrific, even if Webster himself is annoyingly oblivious, and the source material is strong. I have not read the book, but apparently Julian Barnes told the filmmakers not to be constrained by his text: “Throw the book against the wall,” he said. The critics seem to think they followed that advice rather too well.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 70%; audiences: 59%.

*****The Lesser Bohemians

london-theater

photo: Andy Roberts, creative commons license

By Eimear McBride — You’ll have trouble with this book. I did. About page 40, I wondered, “is she ever going to write in complete sentences?” About page 90, I thought, “is it ever going to be about anything but sex?” The answer to both these questions was “almost never.” But The Lesser Bohemians is much more than a literary 50 Shades. And I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Ireland native McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and many, many other accolades for her 2013 book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and when I saw she’d written another one, I jumped at the chance to read it.

In Bohemians, released last month, an 18-year-old Irish girl—a drama student in London—meets  meets an older man, a handsome actor near 40. She isn’t a virgin much longer. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of cigarettes, a lot of alcohol. We don’t even learn these characters’ names until very far along. He’s Stephen, he calls her Eily. Her full name, her real name, Eílís, is used only once, two pages from the end, when their identity is finally clear to each other and themselves, perhaps. Their urgent and scouring intimacy is McBride’s way of flaying any falseness from the characters and laying them (literally) bare.

The story approaches somewhat closer to a conventional first-person narrative (sentences!) in the second half, in a long section in which Stephen tells her about his past, a true heart-breaker there. Most of it is written in almost a stream-of-consciousness way, and McBride is often compared to James Joyce for that reason. Conversations are presented in long paragraphs, uninterrupted by such reader-aids as quotation marks, but once I got into it, I didn’t have much trouble following.

Emphasizing the difficulty of it risks underpraising how mesmerizing it is. McBride’s approach forces you to slow down and really absorb what’s being said, as she fractures the rules of punctuation and grammar. As NPR reviewer Annalisa Quinn said, “By sacrificing grammatical precision she gets emotional and psychological sense—even as those things are in themselves impossibly and inherently imprecise, like light or color.” Or love, I’d add.  A sample:

On that said Saturday, she (Eily’s friend) helps me move into the (friend’s ex-boyfriend’s) flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The I hope you’re proud of yourself, ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road. I think I’ll blank him, she decides. Fair enough, I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up. I pity you, he’s such an–. Keep it down, I live here now. I bet he shags you before the term is out. I wouldn’t.

Conventionally, this would be handled something like this:

On that said Saturday, she helps me move into the flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The “I hope you’re proud of yourself,” ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road.
“I think I’ll blank him,” she decides.
“Fair enough,” I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up.
“I pity you, he’s such an–.”
“Keep it down, I live here now.”
“I bet he shags you before the term is out.”
“I wouldn’t.”

The Lesser Bohemians is an unforgettable book about two characters I came to really care about. I can picture their lives and prospects and I appreciate an author who doesn’t believe she has to make my job as a reader too easy.

Red Velvet – Weekend Theater Treat!

Red Velvet cast

Lindsay Smiling & Sofia Jean Gomez

Hop on New Jersey Transit’s Morristown line or jump into your car and speed out to Madison to see Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Red Velvet, on stage through September 25. It’s a knockout! Directed here by STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, Red Velvet was the breakout success for London playwright Lolita Chakrabarti in 2012, was nominated for numerous awards, and garnered two “Best New Playwright” awards for the author.

Based on a true story, Red Velvet describes the career of Ira Aldridge (played by Lindsay Smiling), an African-American actor who relocated to Europe in search of artistic and personal freedom. In 1833, he was invited to play the title role in Othello at London’s Theatre Royal Covent Garden. While audiences loved him, the critics were merciless, and he never played London again.

Actor Charles Kean (David Andrew Macdonald) refuses to perform with Aldridge and derides his more natural, emotionally true, and modern acting style. Charles’s fiancée, Ellen Tree (Victoria Mack), understands and immediately adopts Aldridge’s approach. The play’s first act contains highly entertaining scenes in which the Aldridge style is contrasted with the affected, melodramatic style then in vogue, concluding with a key bit from Othello that demonstrates his technique’s tremendous power.

In the second act, the devastating reviews are in, and the conflict between Aldridge and his friend Pierre (David Foubert), who manages the company, comes to a dramatic, wrenching climax. Aldridge won’t temper his performance and the critics (and theatre backers) won’t countenance it. Chakrabarti has said the play is about personal fulfillment in the theater (never guaranteed), disillusionment, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. It is, and all within an invigorating package.

The Covent Garden debacle takes place against the backdrop of England’s raging abolition debate. Red Velvet’s younger characters think slavery abhorrent; the older ones that cheap labor is the foundation of British prosperity. Further, though Aldridge and the younger actors believe “all theater is essentially political,” the others believe casting a black actor as Othello is going too far. Chakrabarti does not turn the play into a polemic, but provides useful context.

In real life, after the Covent Garden debacle, Aldridge became a much- admired tragedian and toured Europe extensively. Thus, Red Velvet begins and ends in a theater dressing-room in Łódź, Poland, in 1867, as a 60-year-old Aldridge prepares to play King Lear—in whiteface. Invading his privacy, a young Polish journalist (Sofia Jean Gomez) is determined to interview him; she makes the same plea for acceptance he might have made in earlier times. At one point, he caresses the red backdrop, musing that the velvet is like a “deep promise of what is to come.”

The cast members noted above were uniformly strong and received good support from Garrett Lawson, John Little, Shannon Harris, and Savannah DesOrmeaux.

STNJ provides an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston, The Night ManagerHere at Tom Hiddleston Central this week, we’ve not only seen the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, but on Tuesday at 10 pm, AMC began its six-part series starring Hiddleston in John Le Carré’s, The Night Manager. The tv show is punctuated by Jaguar ads [DO watch!] starring a Hiddleston who looks awfully like a shoe-in for that rumored James Bond role. (But should he want it? Possibly not.)

Having seen episode 1 of The Night Manager, I eagerly look forward to more. The conceit is that Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, works as the night manager in upscale hotels—in the updated AMC version, in Cairo during the Arab spring, then in Switzerland—with ample motive to bring down a British arms merchant (Hugh Lorrie), “the worst man in the world,” who tends to stay in such posh places. A delightful surprise is Olivia Colman (she is police detective Ellie Miller in the UK mystery series Broadchurch) as head of an obscure London arms control agency.

Le Carré’s original, published 23 years ago, also began in Cairo in a much less turbulent era, though the double-dealing and “whom can you trust?” elements created excruciating tension in both the book (which I read ages ago) and now in the AMC version, which has a fresh new, LeCarré-approved ending. Says Judith Warner in the New York Times, the new version is “deeply appealing, and in substance and style, for this viewer at least, moved the book forward in a number of fortuitous ways.” For this viewer too. Loved it!

Remembrance Day

poppy poppies Beefeater London

A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

The ushers give you a red paper poppy along with your program for this production of “Remembrance Day,” the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the English—Americans, too—remember their war dead. We call it Veterans Day, emphasizing the identity of the dead, rather than the obligations of the living.

Eighty-year-old war bride Nancy Ballinger has returned to England for a visit, carrying a memorial wreath, and she names two men in her prayer “oh, and even my husband.” We don’t know who the men are, but in the course of this one-hour, one-woman production, we find out. And a lot more besides.

Remembrance Day was written and performed by June Ballinger, Nancy’s daughter, now Passage Theatre’s artistic director. Nancy tells us how much June has pestered her for the secrets of her past, pre-America life, especially the war work she did at Bletchley Park, Mr. Churchill’s treasure-house of secrets. While we may not learn in great detail what she did, we find out much about who she was.

Ballinger, the actor, moves convincingly at all the ages she portrays, and her director keeps her moving. One hour, no intermission, and interest never flags. Her mother’s character wonders how she will be remembered, when so much essential to herself she felt required to keep to herself. This play, her “remembrance day,” is full of compassion, understanding, and abundant love.

Remembrance Day is one of six one-actor plays being performed at Trenton’s Passage Theatre through March 20 in its “Solo Flights Festival.” It will be repeated Sunday, March 20, 3 pm. I’ve heard rave reviews about two of the others: Manchild in the Promised Land and Panther Hollow. Check Passage’s website for the schedule

**Slade House

haunted house

(photo: Joey Gannon, creative commons license)

By David Mitchell – I’ve read all of David Mitchell’s books except 2015’s The Bone Clocks and enjoyed each of them, so looked forward to reading his latest. It’s the distinctive square book with the yellow die-cut cover through which Slade House’s floorplan shows. While many of these other novels wandered briefly into the supernatural or uncanny, this one is firmly planted there.

According to Dwight Garner in his New York Times review, the book grew out of a short story, published in 140-character tweets. It tells the story of five people who, nine years apart, happen into another dimension where the elaborate mansion Slade House exists and where they encounter a pair of twins, brother and sister, who are, as one would-be victim puts it, “parasitic soul-slayers.” They need to suck the souls of humans in order to preserve their immortality. The first victim we read about has many of the charms of the 13-year-old narrator of Black Swan Green, but don’t get too attached. He’s soon replaced by a vulnerable police detective, not nearly as perceptive as he thinks he is. And so on.

Mitchell is a superb writer and conjures images of Slade House and his all-too-human victims and all-too-inhuman protagonists that are hard to dispel. But, what’s the point? Possibly such stories are just not my cuppa. Certainly, this one didn’t appeal to me, even at the level of simple entertainment. There is no one in the book to relate to or learn from. The brother and sister are too weird (not “fleshed out,” I’d say) and their victims on the scene too briefly. Says Garner, “These characters aren’t alive enough for us to fear for them when they’re in peril.”

Nevertheless, readers who enjoy the paranormal may find themselves agreeing with the Washington Post reviewer who said the book is “devilishly fun” or The Daily Beast, which called it “dark, thrilling, and fun.” While the novel was an easy-to-complete read on a five-hour plane ride, the recurring, but temporary illusion of Slade House itself was perhaps the most stable touchpoint in the whole enterprise.

Maybe I should give Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a try and see whether I have the same reaction. Other suggestions?

****The Man in the Wooden Hat

tulips

(photo: Denise Krebs, creative commons license)

By Jane Gardam — Getting to know intimately one half of a married couple can ill prepare you for meeting the other half, who may fail to live up to their superior advance billing, or, as likely, be so surprisingly normal—even pleasant—that you mistrust your own memory of past marital revelations. Award-winning British writer Jane Gardam’s books Old Filth (from the husband’s point of view) and The Man in the Wooden Hat (the wife’s) apply these different lenses to the same 50-year marriage.

I’ve read only this one, published in 2009, but went back to reviews of Old Filth (2006) and found that many of the animating events in the couple’s life are described in both novels. While the bones of the relationship remain the same, “Little here is as it seemed in ‘Old Filth,’ and both books are the richer for it,” said Louisa Thomas in her New York Times review.

The sobriquet Old Filth—created by and applied to talented barrister Edward Feathers, later Sir Edward—is an acronym for “Failed In London, Try HongKong.” Try there, he does, and succeeds. Also in Hong Kong, his future wife Elisabeth Macintosh debates whether to marry him, decides to, and carries through at rather a slap-dash pace in ancient borrowed finery. Eddie’s preoccupation is that Betty should never leave him, and she promises she won’t. This is a promise Betty learns will be enforced by Edward’s best friend, the card-playing Chinese dwarf Albert Ross (“Albatross”): “If you leave him, I will break you,” Ross threatens, and she is sure he means it.

The wedding ceremony follows by a few hours a one-night affair, in which Betty is deflowered by Eddie’s nemesis, rival barrister Terry Veneering, a secret to which The Albatross, unfortunately, is privy. Trust Charles Dickens to recognize an allusive name when he hears one; like the nouveau riche social climbers in Our Mutual Friend, this Veneering has a charming surface. His attraction for Betty lasts for decades, and he weaves in and out of the story of the couple’s marriage.

While a story of interpersonal relationships, the book takes place after World War II, and is necessarily revelatory about broad social upheavals in Britain. Class and privilege are never the same after the unraveling of Empire, the economic upheavals of the decade before the war, and the war itself. The world into which the three protagonists were born simply disappeared beneath their feet and dissolved out of their arms.

Gardam’s novel follows the couple from youth to old age, with Betty’s death planting tulips in their rural garden. Mostly, though, it focuses on their early relationship, including the tragedy of a miscarriage that leaves Betty unable to have her heart’s desire, children. The closest relationship she maintains with a young person is with Veneering’s precocious son, Harry, whom she meets when he is nine years old and “crunching a lobster” under the table at a banquet. She has numerous lively and colorful friends in Hong Kong and later in London, whose appearance in the narrative is always welcome.

As for the everyday relationship between the spouses, the reader is shown the benefits of accommodation rather than the head-to-head battles that often characterize “relationship books.”

Well plotted and carefully written, full of good humor and getting on with it. A third book in the Old Filth trilogy, Last Friends, was published in 2013. It’s a view of the Feathers’s marriage from Veneering’s point of view. Now that should be interesting!

Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

The prize-winning play King Charles III, billed as a “future history play” and now on Broadway at the Music Box theatre, is a compelling theatrical conjecture. It anticipates the time when Queen Elizabeth is gone and her oldest son, Charles, is in position finally to become king. Charles, alas, has always been a person from whom little has been expected (some would say this is one reason QEII has hung on so long), a view which he himself has contributed to. His perceived rejection of Diana—“the world’s princess”—in favor of the unloved Camilla Parker-Bowles added fire to his critics, who had previously mustered little more than a yawn.

In the play, the Liberal Prime Minister assumes Charles will play the role of thoughtful rubber-stamp that his mother did, so well portrayed in The Audience (Helen Mirren as Queen) on Broadway earlier this year. Not so. In their very first meeting, Charles objects to a Liberal bill to restrict freedom of the press. As in a high-stakes chess game, parliamentary move and monarchal countermove ensue. In the fragile edifice of his family, the issue of controls on the frenzied media are of more than academic interest. The plot keeps turning and turning, and I won’t say more about it, except that I found it riveting.

Let’s talk about style. The simple set is intended to remind the audience of the Old Globe, showing shows five sides of an elegant brick structure. A frieze running around the entirety, about ten feet above the stage, comprises semi-abstract faces lit in various ways to denote “the people”—crowds, demonstrators, in other words, those most likely to be affected by the affairs of state on which Charles aspires to be a benevolent, active force.

The echoes of Shakespeare are more than visual. We have the machinations of Lady Macbeth, the indecisiveness of Richard II, the desperation of Lear. Written in blank verse, playwright Mike Bartlett’s language is often given an Elizabethan cadence, “Husband,” Kate calls to William, and nearly every scene ends in a rhyming couplet. This is artificial, but doesn’t seem artifice. Rather it reflects the tragedy, if tragedy is defined in the dramatic sense, as a fall from a great height, playing out before us. We are seeing critical precedents discussed and the weight of 1600 years of history. Such events are worthy of Shakespearean language in the country’s leaders, and not the territory of “Oh, whatever” or a graceless “WTF?”

The cast, which comes from London’s prestigious Almeida Theatre, is excellent. By training and experience, it manages this demanding language well. Tim Pigott-Smith is a heart-breaking Charles (The Telegraph of London calls it “the performance of his career”), and Margot Leicester is perfect as Camilla. I also especially liked pencil-thin Lydia Wilson as Kate and Richard Goulding as “the ginger idiot,” Harry. Adam James and Anthony Calf were fine as the Liberal and Conservative leaders, respectively. The program notes that many of the actors had vocal training, and that stands them in good stead in various scenes, in which solemn chanting (this is not a musical!) establishes a moody atmosphere, which is not to say there are no laughs elsewhere.

Bartlett also wrote the theatrical version of Chariots of Fire (seen in London in 2012 and greatly admired), among many others, and won a Best New Play award for Charles III. It’s nice to see something on Broadway that grapples with thought-worthy issues, including questions for which Americans are merely interested observers, like the future of the monarchy.

As in London, the production is directed by Rupert Goold, the award-winning Artistic Director of Almeida Theatre. I wondered what the U.K. critics thought of it, and found they quite approved. For example, critic Michael Billington in The Guardian said, “It gains traction as it goes along and by the end has acquired a borrowed grandeur through its Shakespearean form and a tragic dimension through the performance of Tim Pigott-Smith.” Agree. Whole-heartedly.