Popcorn Weekend: Living and Turn Every Page

Two recent films that couldn’t be more different arrive at the same place. In both, men near the ends of their careers are determined to do the work necessary to leave behind something of importance. They prove that being a beautiful person is not age-related!

Living is a feature film, with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, directed by Oliver Hermanus (trailer). Rodney Williams, London bureaucrat in a do-nothing department, is portrayed by Bill Nighy. If you’re a Nighy fan like me, that’s all you need to know to want to see this film, but there are plenty of other reasons to do so. Given a fatal diagnosis, Williams is inspired to do something with his life, to leave behind something meaningful.

The film is more charming than sad, and pretty frustrating with its apt demonstration of how resistant to change bureaucracies are! Even so, it’s possible to make a positive difference in at least some people’s lives. Watch for the dinner scene in which Williams’s daughter-in-law desperately tries to signal her husband to confront his father about what she considers his questionable behavior.

The story closely follows that of a 1952 Japanese film, Ikuru, and you can see how its emphasis on conformity would work well in that culture.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences 86%.

Turn Every Page is a documentary that any historian or author or editor is bound to love (trailer). Subtitled The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, it tells the story of the half-century of collaboration between author Robert Caro—The Power Broker(now in its 17th printing) and the LBJ biographies, starting with The Path to Power—and his renowned editor, Robert Gottlieb. They were young men when they started; they’re elderly now, and this film about them is fascinating from beginning to end.

The film was made by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, and she never puts a foot wrong. She brings in other voices, she takes a trip to Texas, she uses maps of New York City to show how Robert Moses’s massive public works projects shaped New York, and when she showed some of the famous books Gottlieb has edited, I sat there saying, “I read that. Read that. Yep. Another one.” In a classroom discussion of The Power Broker, a teacher says we can’t know whether New York would be a better place without Moses’s projects, but it definitely would be a different place.

After dwelling on Moses’s kind of power, Caro undertook a study of political power at the national level and chose Lyndon Baines Johnson as his exemplar. Because when doing his research he “turns every page,” he uncovered information about this period that was previously unknown, about which lesser writers might say, “We’ll never know whether . . .” Now, for better or worse, we do.

Caro takes a novelist’s interest in the impact the exercise of power had on people—from those in the way of one of Moses’s new expressways to the people who supported Johnson’s political wheeling and dealing. In one of the documentary’s more amusing moments, he and Gottlieb, preparing for a grueling day of editing, must scour the Knopf offices to come up with—a pencil.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences 100%!


Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan, David Hare, Skylight

Bill Nighy & Carey Mulligan in Skylight

If Britain’s National Theatre Live version of David Hare’s remounted play Skylight, comes to a movie theatre in your area, don’t miss it! It’s a live performance filmed last summer, and, unlike the live opera shown in movie theaters, it isn’t “live, live.” But it isn’t just a camera set up in the back of the theatre, either. There are wonderful closeups of the three actors, and given who the actors are, you want to catch every nuanced facial muscle.

Carey Mulligan plays a 30ish woman (her first stage role), Kyra Hollis, who teaches in what is apparently a rather desperate London school and lives in rather minimalist circumstances in a British public housing flat, of a type familiar from U.K. crime shows. She’s visited by a young man—played briefly and brilliantly by Matthew Beard—who is the son in a family she once lived with. The young man urges her to return to try to help his father, who he says is lost in grief and rage over his wife’s death a year before. The son departs, and the father arrives.

Played flawlessly by Bill Nighy, the father is a successful restaurateur for whom Kyra once worked, and the sparring between the two over why she left his home and her work, the new life she’s constructed, and what was and is between them carries the rest of the play. When it was first produced in 1995, Skylight won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. Many funny moments. Tears, too.

Johnny Worricker

Bill Nighy, Worricker

Bill Nighy as Worricker (photo: ichef.bbci.co.uk)

If you saw the two Masterpiece Contemporary thrillers starring Bill Nighy (perfect, as ever), chances are we agree they were terrific. If you missed them, Nighy plays MI5 agent Johnny Worricker, on the outs with his bosses and trying to bring attention to the shady dealings of Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes without much hair).

Needless to say, the Powers That Be don’t approve of Worricker’s activities and are seriously looking for him. In the first of the two dramas shown this month, “Turks and Caicos,” he’s chilling out on the islands when he’s spotted by a CIA agent played by Christopher Walken, with his typical opaque style, and you’re never quite sure who’s who and what’s what. Except that Worricker’s former girlfriend, Margo Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter), wastes no time realigning her priorities and jetting down to the Caribbean when he needs her. In the second, “Salting the Battlefield,” Worricker and Tyrell are on the run, and doing a pretty good job of it, too, until family ties threaten to flush them out into the open.

These two productions are followups to 2011’s film with the same characters, “Page Eight,” which lacked only Bonham Carter’s Margo Tyrell. Somehow I missed that program when it was broadcast three years ago. Thanks, Neflix! What makes these dramas so good are the scripts. The screenplays and the direction are by British playwright, theater and film director, and two-time Academy Award nominee David Hare. Says Grantland reviewer Chris Ryan, “If it’s adult contemporary, it’s as good as adult contemporary gets.”