High Society and me. A musical true love

A frothy and glossy escapist musical romantic comedy of 1956, High Society is a terrific example of the ability of filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age to draw on existing material and fashion a sparkling fresh and brilliant entertainment.

It can also be understood as a great example of producer power, was a commercial and critical hit, and was nominated for two Oscars in the musical categories.

Employing irresistible star wattage of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong, the timeless tunes of Cole Porter and fabulous costume design of Helen Rose, it’s unmistakably the product of MGM, the studio which made the best musicals of the era, including 1951’s An American In Paris, and 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain.

Using a well established dramatic structure, and drawing on elements of American literature, it was produced as the post-war US consensus was being supplanted by the dawn of the teenager as a social phenomenon, and the film’s struggle to wrestle with the real world are all too evident. High Society is politically reactionary and has no sense of itself as herald to the end of the jazz age in which its stars and genre were mired, and sadly for lovers of the studio’s defining genre, High Society is the last great hurrah of the MGM musical.

I absolutely love it.

Based on 1944’s Oscar winning comedy The Philadelphia Story, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, High Society glides through its 111 minute running time in bubbles of glamour, charm and wit, as we watch a pair of tabloid journalists covering the upcoming high society wedding of a spoilt socialite who’s being courted by three different men.

Bringing four leads together all of whom were previous Oscar winners, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm engage in song, dance, and repartee as they resolve various romantic entanglements over the course of one night and two days in a mansion in the wealthy enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, the high society of the title.

Crosby leads the pack of romantic leads as C. K. Dexter Haven, a wealthy composer who lives next door to his ex, Tracy Samantha Lord, played by Grace Kelly. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holme are the down at heel muckraking journalists, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, who arrive to cover the wedding.

When Crosby isn’t singing, he strolls about in cardigans or black tie, and though it’s not a performance of great range or energy, he delivers his popular brand of avuncular charm, is given a veneer of cool by his association with musicians of the calibre of Armstrong, and is offered some reflected glamour by the glittering star power of Kelly, best known at this point for her work with Alfred Hitchcock.

Kelly’s perfectly cast in her last Hollywood appearance before abandoning Los Angeles for Monaco. Whether in slacks or a ball gown, the luminous Kelly sweeps all before her in a series of gorgeous costumes, including a far from revealing but indecently sexy swim suit.

Plus she delivers a terrifically accomplished performance in the mould of screwball-era Katharine Hepburn, and whether being deliberately over the top, drunk, angry or playful, Kelly can wordlessly make us aware of what she’s thinking in the manner of another Hitchcock blonde, Ingrid Bergman.

Presumably the casting call asked for an actress less attractive than Kelly to play the second female lead. On this showing that would be every other woman in the world at the time. Which is hugely unfortunate for the wonderfully droll Celeste Holme, who’s teamed up with Sinatra in my favourite big screen performance of his.

Sinatra plays well with Holme, and he’s either smart enough to allow her space to shine, or possibly barely able to keep up with her, and Holme brings a level of dignity and self-awareness lacking in other characters. But Holme was repeatedly ill-served by Hollywood, and after High Society she didn’t make another film for five years.

Elsewhere Lydia Reed is winningly confident and sparky alongside Kelly as her young sister Caroline Lord, and John Lund plays George Kittredge, the culturally barren, nouveau rich cattle baron who’s Tracy’s intended beau.

Playing himself, Louis Armstrong is an invitee performer at a jazz festival Crosby’s character is holding on his estate, a plot device which allows Armstrong to pal about with Crosby and duet together on the number ‘Now You Have Jazz’, which is supposedly – but clearly isn’t – filmed in front of a wealthy white festival crowd.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong is granted not inconsiderable screen time, performs three songs and is granted the first and last words. This is fitting for his screen ‘character’ is a Greek chorus to the comedy, a dramatic device used by later musicals such as 1972’s Cabaret, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and 1978’s Grease.
I could write an entire post about radio broadcasters in movies acting as a Greek chorus by starting with 1979’s The Warriors and taking it from there.

Acting as a Greek chorus to the story, introducing the setting and then commenting on events as they unfold, as well as being a character in the story, Armstrong is mostly at one remove from the narrative and he could be excised from the film entirely without his absence changing the story.

In contrast to the previous year’s drama, Blackboard Jungle, the film which made a star of future Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, High Society’s principal black star is clearly at times not on same set at the same time to white actors and has to be edited into scenes in which he is ostensibly a part.

Check out the final scene (from 2.27mins) where although nominally in the same scene, he never shares screen time with Grace Kelly. Armstrong is included but never incorporated.

A generous reading of Armstrong’s separation from the main narrative would be to suggest his performing and recording scheduling conflicts prevented a deeper integration in the narrative. A less charitable reading would be the studio were wary if not frightened of too much interaction of a black character with white ones, and Armstrong’s certainly not allowed to interact with the white female cast members in any way. And good luck spotting a black female actor.

It’s important to recognise High Society was released in 1956, and although the segregation of public schools had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, it was many years before this decision was universally implemented. Other laws of segregation weren’t overruled until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With race being the defining political fault line of the US, High Society wants to exploit Armstrong’s cache as a long established and popular crossover artiste by contributing his jazz bona fides to the soundtrack and bringing his own fanbase to the films audience, but his role suggests a nervousness on behalf of the filmmakers who had to sell the film in a US market place.

MGM had at the time previous form with being vary of the controversial subject of race. The studio’s 1951 version of Show Boat notably tones down any ‘controversial’ racial elements compared to previous cinematic adaptions of the stage show on which it’s based.

However in theme and plot the film enforces existing racial boundaries. As one might expect of a mainstream entertainment which recognises social division in its title, maintenance of the status quo is a key theme of the film.

The script was written by a playwright John Patrick who’d previously written the NBC radio series Streamlined Shakespeare, and there’s a strong influence of Shakespeare scattered through the script – more of which later – so Armstrong’s narrator role may well have been included in the earliest draft. If so then casting Armstrong as the Chorus could be read as a deliberate act of segregation rather than a creative solution to a scheduling issue.

Patrick doesn’t steer away from the plot of the original film adaptation or the stage play which preceded it, but adding the Chorus – which Shakespeare used in Henry V for example – the audience to be guided into the heightened and otherworldly setting of High Society, as if leading us into a magical forest of one of Shakespeare’s arboreal comedies, one populated by the fairy Kings and Queens such as found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream perhaps.

The Chorus is a visitor to this world of wealth and definitely not of or from it, a point underlined by Armstrong’s casting, and the musician’s persona can also be read as ‘blue collar’ and so acts as surrogate for all those in the audience not born to wealth. The film wants us to be amused by the superficiality of the Lord’s family behaviour and regard them with a mocking if warm detachment, and having the Chorus played by Armstrong helps to underline the idea the wealthy do things differently to the rest of us, they are apart, they are ‘other’.

This is story is about maintaining society’s status quo, keeping the high safe and separate in their gilded mansions and the rest of us, well, anywhere else. There is to be no storming of the barricades here, no tearing down of social division, but a determined raising of the drawbridge. This is a piece of high end comfort cinema, lavishly dressed with great tunes. If you want social conflict and a conscience, check out the Poitier flick instead.

Fitting the Shakespearean comic pattern there are two central couples, and all four must gain insight into themselves to find happiness with the correct person, and ‘correct’ is defined as with one whom not only shares a social standing, but also the person who reinforces the rigidly defined social divisions. The rich and the poor have their place, and are happier when the rigid social hierarchy is maintained.

We’re safe in assuming the family name at the top of this society is ‘Lord’ is deliberately in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of nominative determinism.

Taking place in a gilded world of enormous drawing rooms, private pools and a butler who offer visitors the south parlour as a waiting room, the film can feel as distinct from reality and as gloriously make-believe as a fairytale, a feeling underlined the magical appearance of a secret mechanical private bar from a book-lined wall.

Gatecrashing this magical realm are two journalists – rude mechanicals in Shakespeare terms – who cast a wry and cynical eye over the fabulous wealth the residents seem to treat with barely a second thought. And though they are drawn to it, they realise they are and cannot ever be part of it. Mike Connor’s brief fling with Tracy is comparable with the encounter between Bottom and Titania the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Sinatra is playing Mike, comparable with the idiot turned donkey, Bottom, is surely am unacknowledged joke at the actor’s expense by the film’s producer. More of him, later.

This is a fantasy which asks us to engage and sympathise with a wealthy white upper class family as they negotiate concurrent romantic entanglements. And the softening of the cynical stance of a pair of muckraking journalistic interlopers encourage us to find sympathy in ourselves for this madly wealthy household rather than maintaining or hardening of our critical stance.

The head of the Lord household has placed his ‘kingdom in a state of chaos due to his latest extra-marital affair, a scandalous fling with a ballerina, and in doing so has become estranged from his daughter, Tracy.
Peace and order will only be brought to the kingdom when father and daughter are reconciled, which will only happen when she choses the correct romantic partner and comes to understand her parent’s worldview, making her fit to succeed her father in due course.

Father knows best, especially where his daughters love life is concerned, is a thoroughly 1950’s attitude.
This is also a coming of age tale, and if Sidney Blackmer as patriarch Seth Lord isn’t given a huge amount of screen time as the stern but loving father who uses his own discretions to teach his daughter about the adult world, it’s their reconciliation which signals the end of the movie. And the curtain comes down with a pleasing and impressive speed which some modern day filmmakers could learn from.

Like Ayesha, the white queen of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 adventure novel, ‘She’, Tracy’s power seems only to exist as long as she remains in her own world, and the suggestion is if John Lund’s character, the cattle baron George Kittredge, is successful in his courtship of Tracy and takes her away, then she will become ordinary, a mortal being almost. Much is made of George’s wanting to put Tracy on a pedestal and adore her.

One thing the wealthy do differently to the rest of us is put on a music festival in their home. Crosby plays a composer whose house is full of musicians. And the life of Tracy Lord is full of the arts. She and her sister dance, sing, and play piano. They have no regard, interest or knowledge in the ordinary or everyday.

In part George Kittredge is a poor fit not because he’s self-made – Crosby’s character is only second generation wealthy – but because he values commerce above art.

Cole Porter’s fabulous songs have endured even more successfully than the film itself and have achieved a life of their own beyond the confines of cinema. ‘True Love’ was Oscar nominated for best song but lost out to ‘Que Sera, Sera’ from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some of them have been successfully re-recorded by later generations, such as ‘Well, Did You Evah!’, the film’s best song, which was originally written for 1939’s DuBarry Was a Lady, and latterly recorded by Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop as part of a HIV/AIDS benefit project.

Being the greatest lyricist of his generation, Porter was capable of writing lyrics reflecting the film’s sense of magic and otherworldliness. He drops in classical references such as ‘Circe’ the Greek goddess in ‘Little One’, while also referencing more contemporary concerns, such as uranium, in ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?’ And yes, the song did inspire the name of the popular TV quiz show. And ‘she got pinched in the Astor Bar’ from ‘Well, Did You Evah!’ is as sly and funny now as it was then, especially with Sinatra’s astutely comic phrasing.

Not all the songs have aged as well, ‘Now You Has Jazz’ is a decent example of the form, but the lyric ‘Jazz is the king, jazz is the thing that folks love the most.’ seems unduly optimistic as jazz was about to be swept off the pinnacle of popular culture by rock ‘n’ roll.

However that’s aged nowhere near as badly as the icky staging of the torch sing Crosby sings to Kelly’s screen sister, which summons up the spectre of child sexploitation rife at the time in the Studios, and should be shocking to a modern audience in the era of #MeToo. And were High Society be remade today it’s the song that wouldn’t make the cut. As highly problematic as it is, it sadly it fits in with other songs of the era, notably ‘Little Girls’, from MGM’s 1958 musical, Gigi.

Director Charles Walters was a choreographer turned director who as as well as directing films for Ginger Rogers and Esther Williams, made 1948’s Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1953’s Lili, and directed the Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds 1955 comedy, The Tender Trap.
There’s no signature artistry, just the absence of ego of a professional going about his business. When your star is also your producer, there’s rarely opportunity to do anything other than what you’re told. Certainly there’s none of the daring brush with 3D technology of 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate, or Gene Kelly’s experimental dance or design to be found in 1951’s An American In Paris.

Cinematography Paul Vogel as an Oscar-wining studio veteran journeyman who went on to shoot George Pal’s 1960 sci-fi The Time Machine. His shots are always well balanced and composed so the audience know who’s the most important person in the room. Characters are usually fairly static within the frame, making it all the more startling when Kelly or or her screen sister flurry across a room.

The best we can say of his camerawork is it’s efficient and economical, with occasional daring pans from left to right, and though the camera becomes more agile in the musical numbers, it’s movement generally reflects Crosby’s laid back performance style.

There are no big theatrical set pieces and even the big ballroom scene at Tracy’s hen party, a great excuse for a swirl of costumes if ever there was one, hints rather than shows a crowd. And the big song and dance during the hen party is set in a drawing room where Crosby and Sinatra hide away.

In fairness the number is the storming duet ‘Well, Did You Evah! and remains not only only my favourite song in the film, but also one of my favourites in the Hollywood musical canon. Even the one crowd scene at the festival during the number ‘Now You Has Jazz’ seems an out-take from a different picture.

Ralph E. Winters editing style allows the performances to breathe and to hold the audience in the moment. This is in contrast to the more excitable contemporary and haphazard style seen, for example, in 2019’s musical monstrosity Cats.

High Society’s production budget was an unadjusted-for-inflation $2.7 million, and US box office was a healthy and profitable $8.2 million. This compares favourably with 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain which scored for $7.2 million on a budget of $2.5 million.

Distributed by MGM, High Society sits high in their pantheon of great musicals, but was a joint production between two production houses, Sol C. Siegel Productions, and Bing Crosby Productions. Presumably the first provided the finance and the latter the talent, with the whole concept intended as a vehicle for Crosby.

Appearing in cinemas two years after Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and Brigadoon, High Society is notable for what its not doing that those prior films did. Due to Crosby limited dancing ability there’s no outrageously macho and colourful ballet such as the barn building dance in Seven Brides, or the muscular staging of a Gene Kelly number. In fact none of the leads or support are famed for dance skills, though Sinatra could hoof his way through a scene if required.

Although never upstaged Crosby is canny enough to let others have their time in the spotlight. However
there’s an unmissable line concerning how handsome he used to be, and by implication still is to a degree.
This doesn’t soften the achingly clear and embarrassing age, height and glamour gaps between romantic leads Crosby and Kelly.

Having an older male starring a younger female seems to remain every Hollywood producer’s dream pairing. And Crosby certainly isn’t immune to the fantasy. Crosby was 53 years old at the time, Kelly was 27.
Helen Rose’s costumes achieve their aim of making Kelly look divine.

Though the use of studio sets, projected backdrops and second unit location work with extras driving cars pretending to be the leads now look decidedly false, they were common practice and would have been accepted by audiences at the time.

Lacks the scale of non-MGM musicals which shortly followed, such as 1961’s West Side Story, or 1965’s The Sound of Music, which addressed the themes of social conflict and Nazism head on. Compared to those behemoths High Society is a frothy endeavour, with even Julie Andrews’ movie featuring a singing nun-turned-nanny who marries her rich boss, seem hard hitting.

The golden age of MGM musicals kicked off with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948’s Easter Parade, includes 1949’s On The Town, and you can argue amongst yourselves whether 1954’s An American in Paris is ‘better’ than 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain. I love both but always favour the latter for a rewatch as its joyous frivolity makes for the easiest of watches.

High Society saw the MGM studio declining as a creative force. It’s principal stars were ageing – by Hollywood standards – and cinema was threatened by the usual suspects such as the growth of TV, changing demographics and tastes, and the social creation of the teenage generation. But for a run of flamboyant escapist entertainment, the MGM golden age is hard to match.

MGM released ten musicals in 1948, then nine in 1951, and ten more in 1953. It released eight musicals in 1955, before High Society became one of four films released in 1956. There were five the following year, only one in 1960, none in 1961, and only five in total in the 1960s. There was one original musical in the 1970, and the anthology That’s Entertainment!, a showcase of MGM’s greatest hits and a great introduction to their musicals. Two more anthologies followed, though they were seen primarily a way of generating cash in the pre-home video era for MGM’s new owners.

Of two hundred MGM musicals listed on IMDB.com, High Society is number 177 by release date. The only ones of note which follow it are 1957’s Silk Stockings featuring Cyd Charisse, and 1958’s wildly problematical Gigi.

From the sense of other worldliness, images of ruined houses and the backdrop of fin de siècle, the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby, are inescapable. The book was enjoying a renewed interest and re-evaluation and its influence is clear. It can be seen in Crosby’s character throwing not only an extravagant party in his house but an entire festival, one clearly designed to attract the attention of his beautiful soon-to-be-married-to-someone else next door neighbour. And he pointedly describes himself as inheriting the wealth of his bootlegger father, the same means by which Gatsby acquired his fortune.

Tracy holds her hen party in one of the many emptied decaying mansions which line the coast, a situation described in the novel, and it’s possible to imagine long after the credits roll, that the characters and otherworldly kingdom the movie conjures up continue to exist in their own magical bubble of reality quite separate from our mundane reality.

High Society celebrates its 75 years anniversary this year, and as I’ve yet to watch it on the big screen, maybe I’ll get lucky and it will find itself released back into cinemas to celebrate. What a swell party that would be.

When JUDY met JOKER: Mental health in Hollywood

I was recently invited to discuss the portrayal of mental health in movies by the lovely people of the No Really, I’m Fine Podcast, and thought I’d share my notes with you.

It begins with recent films Joker and Judy, and ends with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, taking in Changeling and Airplane! along the way. I hope you enjoy and/or find this useful.

WARNING: contains spoilers

You can listen to the podcast here and give them a follow @ImFinePodcast_

Joker and Judy are two recent and very different films in which the eponymous characters suffer mental illness in very differing ways, and in doing so the pair conform to a long established pattern of gender division in the portrayal of mental illness in the movies.

Joker

Phoenix on fire

Joker is a savage and disturbing thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix an aspiring stand-up comic and part time clown who suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, he’s also generally nervous, lacks confidence and is not good socially.

When his medication and therapy is withdrawn because of funding cuts, he slowly becomes an insane and violent criminal, inspiring riots in the streets.

Judy

Zellweger on song

Judy is a biopic of Hollywood legend Judy Garland, who we see towards the end of her flagging career on stage in London, Renee Zellweger stars in a sympathetic portrait and sees Garland battles with long-standing nerves and addictions, leading to problems in her personal life including fighting a custody battle for her two younger kids, and a difficult fifth marriage.

Joker is a great example of when men in movies suffer mental illness, they typically externalise their problems and make them epic. Men seek to blame and punish others, become violent and their battles take place in a public arena. Male experiences of mental illness are closer to fantasy and framed as heroic, somehow successful, to a degree redemptive, or as in the case of Joker, they become powerful or somehow inspirational.

But when Judy and women suffer mental illness they typically internalise their problems and make them intimate. Women blame and punish themselves emotionally and physically, and their battles take place in the domestic arena. Female experiences are grounded in reality and framed as tragedy.

Plus women’s experiences of mental illness are defined by a perception of promiscuity, and of being a ‘bad’ i.e. neglectful mother, even when that ‘neglect’ is caused by the need to work in order to provide for their children.

It’s notable and typical Joker survives beyond the films end, and Judy doesn’t.

These gender defined portrayals and outcomes are consistent across all forms of mental illness when portrayed in movies, it doesn’t matter what form the mental illness of a character takes. Let’s look at a couple of examples, beginning with an absurdly extreme example to illustrate the point.

Dementia

Still Alice from 2014, is a small intimate, domestic drama which stars Julianne Moore as a middle aged woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011, is an epic action sci-fi adventure with John Lithgow suffering Alzheimer’s. His scientist son is trying to find a for cure Alzheimer’s, and along the way unleashes the monkey apocalypse.

Snow Cake

Weaver

Autism

Snow Cake is a 2006 indie romantic comedy drama starring Sigourney Weaver as a small town single woman with Autism, coming to terms with the death of her daughter.

Rain Man is a 1988 Las Vegas road trip comedy-drama starring Dustin Hoffman and is about the reconciliation of two wealthy brothers.

Rain Man

Hoffman

The next example is of deliberately inflicted mental damage, and the one after is a symptom of of mental illness, not a cause. However the gender division remains.

Enforced loss of memory; brainwashing.

Gaslight is a 1944 American psychological thriller starring Ingrid Bergman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane.

The Bourne Identity is a 2002 action thriller starring Matt Damon who demonstrates advanced combat skills and fluency in several languages as he fights his way across Europe.

Eating disorders

Heathers is a 1988 satirical High school comedy starring Winona Ryder, which as well as touching upon bulimia, shows high school girls struggling with bullying, fat shaming, teenage suicide and violent, toxic boyfriends.

The Machinist is a 2004 dark thriller starring Christian Bale about a troubled factory worker who loses weight due to insomnia caused by a trauma, and eventually achieves salvation and peace.

So in all these examples we see the gender divide of external/internal, public/domestic, epic/intimate and heroic/tragic. Let’s have an example which provides another typical division, sexuality and a violent response.

Multiple Personality Disorder

Split is a 2016 psychological horror thriller starring James McAvoy as a man with 24 different personalities who kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls. And similar to Joker, he is a super-villain

The Three Faces of Eve is a 1957 mystery drama starring Joanne Woodward as a married but childless woman suffering from a duel personality. Eve ‘White’ is a submissive housewife, while Eve ‘Black’, her ‘other’ personality is outspoken, promiscuous and considered a danger to other people’s children.

Filmmakers couldn’t show Eve having sex in 1957, so her promiscuity is presented in coded form, as dancing with a man other than her husband, who responds by slapping Eve.

This is important as it links madness in woman with promiscuity, and makes clear violence is an acceptable ‘cure’, or at least, a treatment.

Mental illness in men is super-villainy, mental illness in women is promiscuity and mistreating children. Sanity for men is being a superhero, and sanity for women is being married,  maternal, monogamous and submissive. And violence is the treatment. Which brings us to hysteria, and hysterical women in the movies.

HYSTERIA

Lets look at the most common mental affliction for women in the movies: Hysteria.

This can either be having a chronic attack of ‘nerves’, intense anxiety, or standing about screaming. It’s very loosely defined, if at all.

Airplane

Surely you can’t be serious?

Airplane! is a 1980 disaster comedy, the funniest film ever made but not without it’s problems. There’s a joke about a hysterical woman being slapped into submission. First a doctor, shakes her, shouts at her and then slaps her. She continues screaming, and so a fellow passenger steps up to shout, and shake and slap, and behind him is a queue of passengers, and they are armed with boxing gloves, guns and baseball bats.

This joke works because the filmmakers know the cinema audience is totally accustomed to seeing men slapping women when they’re acting hysterically.

I was 11 or 12 years old when I first saw Airplane! and even then I’d seen enough movies to understand the joke.

Hollywood allows, encourages and expects men to inflict violence on women who are mentally ill. Violent ‘treatment’ is justified, accepted, and normal.

The word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, and the Greeks believed that the uterus moved up through a woman’s body, strangling her, and causing madness.

This suggests an entirely physical cause for the symptoms but, by linking them to the uterus, it means hysteria only affects women. So madness is framed around your gender. And this thinking continued well into the twentieth Century.

Men who don’t have a uterus are inherently sane, women who do, are inherently prone to madness. For women sanity is equated with being passive, submissive, and governable.

Hysteria is a catch-all condition which because it’s definition is so broad, it makes it very easy for doctor’s to identify and treat – usually but not always with violence.

 

Hysteria

Now this won’t hurt a bit

Hysteria is 2011 period drama set in 1880, and starring Hugh Dancy as the real life
Dr. Granville, who treats hysteria.

Because the medical profession thought anxiety originated in the uterus, common practice at the time was to manage the symptoms of hysteria by massaging a woman’s genital area.

Treating so many women results in his hand getting tired. So he adapts an electrical feather duster to use as an electric massager. And invents what we know today as a vibrator.

But the point to this, and remember this is a true story is this is a case of a doctor sexual abusing a mentally ill woman.

During Hysteria a character called Charlotte is arrested and during her trial, the prosecutor recommends Charlotte is sent to a sanatorium and be forced to undergo a hysterectomy, as that would ‘cure’ her.

The important thing to takeaway from Hysteria, the film and the condition, is the link between men diagnosing women as mentally ill, and then using violence and invasive force to subdue them. And here we have another common thread in cinema. A choice between prison or an asylum. We’ll come back to that in Cuckoo’s Nest.

So as well as the public/domestic, epic/intimate, gender division, women are identified as mentally ill for not conforming to men’s ideas of submissive, domestic and maternal womanhood. Also the women are typically punished for their behaviour beyond the expected ‘treatments’, often with death. Here’s a couple of examples, again using different types of mental health for comparison.

 

Falling Down

On the streets

Revolutionary Road

In the house

Depression

Falling Down is a 1993 thriller starring Michael Douglas who walks across Los Angeles using a bat, a gun and a rocket launcher on those who annoy him.

 

Revolutionary Road is a 2008 domestic drama starring Kate Winslet as a childless housewife who has extra-marital sex, then an abortion and then dies.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

As Good As It Gets is a 1997 romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson as a misanthropic and obsessive-compulsive novelist whose reward for redeeming his previous bad behaviour is sex with the gorgeous Helen hunt.

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 docudrama starring Faye Dunaway as real life Hollywood star Joan Crawford, who’s depicted as an abusive mother who adopted her children to benefit her career, she is eventually publicly humiliated and dies of cancer.

PTSD

First Blood is a 1982 action film starring Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam War veteran John Rambos suffering PTSD, who destroys a small town in a one-man rampage.

In Our Name is a 2010 British drama starring Joanne Froggatt as a female soldier suffering PTSD, who sexually rejects her husband and struggles to care for her daughter on her return home from a tour of duty.

Schizophrenia

The Soloist is a 2009 drama starring Jamie Foxx as the real life Nathaniel Ayers, a talented but homeless musician who finds some measure of stability.

Through a Glass Darkly is a 1961 Swedish family drama starring Harriet Andersson who childless and sexually aberrant, sexually rejects her husband but has incestuous sex with her brother.

Suicide

It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 feel-good sentimental fantasy drama starring James Stewart as George Bailey who attempts suicide on Christmas Eve

The Virgin Suicides is a 1999 drama starring Kirsten Dunst, and sees five suburban teenage sisters suffer depression and make a suicide pact. They are all childless and unmarried, and one is promiscuous.

 

Dirty Harry

Men get guns

Criminality

So the gender division leads to women identified as mentally ill for not conforming to men’s ideas of submissive, domestic and maternal womanhood, and are punished for their behaviour beyond the expected ‘treatments’, often with death. Now we’ll see how these signifiers for women’s mental illness are also aligned to criminality.

Dirty Harry is a 1971 neo-noir action thriller which sees a serial killer called Scorpio shooting strangers on the streets of San Francisco, chased by a cop, Clint Eastwood.

Seven is a 1995 crime thriller with Kevin Spacey playing a serial killer, torturing strangers and being chased by a cop, Brad Pitt

Single White Female is a 1992 psychological erotic thriller which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a childless and promiscuous singleton who is obsessed with her roommate.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a 1992 psychological thriller starring Rebecca De Mornay as a childless widow out to destroy a woman and steal her family.

 

Fatal Attraction

Insane, moi?

Fatal Attraction is a 1987 psychological thriller starring Glenn Close as childless, promiscuous singleton who becomes obsessed with a married man with whom she had an affair.

In all of these films the criminal, man or woman, is killed, reinforcing the idea violence against the mentally ill is acceptable.

But cinema simultaneously aligns female criminality with madness, violent behaviour, promiscuity, childlessness and unmarried.

In all cases cinema is reinforcing a definition of sanity for women, which is to be married, maternal, monogamous and submissive.

And if as a woman you step outside this male definition of female sanity, then expect to be labelled as mentally ill and men are justified in using violence against you, and you may end up dead.Which brings us to Angelina Jolie.

Film Title: Changeling

Check out the bars and that noose.

Changeling is a 2008 crime drama based on real-life events from California in 1928, and stars Angelina Jolie as a single woman called Christine, whose son Walter goes missing. But when she’s reunited with him,  she realises the boy the authorities insist is her son, is a different boy entirely.

She is naturally angry and upset, which as a woman is not the correct mental state to be challenging the State’s authority, as being ’emotional’ allows the police and local government to define her behaviour as irrational, i.e. a sign of mentally illness, and she is vilified as delusional, labeled as an unfit mother, and confined to a psychiatric ward

A doctor diagnoses Christine as delusional and forces her to take mood-regulating pills. Steele says he will release Christine if she admits she was mistaken about “Walter” she refuses. And the film doesn’t end well for anyone.

So cinema shows women being labelled as irrational is an excuse for any manner of abuse by the state and/or medical profession.

And under the guise of ‘treatment’ a woman may suffer incarceration, drug regimes, invasive surgery and/or lobotomy, as well as losing possession of her kids. And the criteria for judging the success of any treatment is how submissive and quiet the female patient is afterwards.

Another criteria for madness is not being maternal, not liking children, women are forced into domesticity and punished when they fail. being labelled a bad mother makes it very easy for the authorities to teak your kids away from you.

There is no happy ending to this film. But it does show some of the nasty ways the mentally ill are treated in asylums.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

I love this film, made in 1975, and was the 2nd of only 3 films have won all four top Oscars, best actor, actress, film, and director.

It was filmed film in a real mental hospital, in the Oregon State Hospital, and consequently is very good on visualising the mechanics of mental health treatment, the bars on the windows, the forced drugs, the physical restrictions such as strait jackets, and the barbaric use of electro-shock treatment.

Cuckoo McMurphy

Nice hat, Chesaroo

Remember how in Hysteria a character faced being sentenced to either prison or an asylum?

Cuckoos Nest starred Jack Nicholson as convicted sex offender Randall McMurphy, who chooses asylum over prison because he wants to avoid a regime of hard labour to which he’s been sentenced. McMurphy thinks the asylum offers an easier existence, and he is of course, very wrong.

 

The central conflict in the film is between McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who runs the hospital ward to which he is restricted.

Cuckoo Ratched

The doctor won’t see you now

Presenting a sex offender as a hero was problematic, even for the 1970’s, and so the filmmakers down play the reason McMurphy is in the hospital, with his criminal behaviour rarely referred to beyond the opening scene.

And in the way Airplane! uses the audiences knowledge of cinema conventions to make a joke about hysteria, the filmmakers use the audiences knowledge of cinematic sanity to portray McMurphy as heroic, and to demonise Ratched.

McMurphy’s sanity is emphasised by showing him indulge with cinema’s male signifiers of sane male behaviour, such as playing cards and basketball, drinking, and having sex with a woman.

And it demonises the film’s authority figure Nurse Ratched by aligning her with cinemas traits of female insanity and criminality, such as being non-maternal, non-sexual, and non-submissive.

We’re asked to sympathise with and support an unpenitent rapist, a drunk, a brawler and gambler, and one who isn’t ill but wanting to avoid hard labour. Whereas the person we should be rooting for is the hard working and dignified professional, Nurse Ratched who’s been lumbered with the disruptive McMurphy.

In mental health in the movies, when woman succeed they remain defeated, and when men fail, they still win. It’s well, La La land.

ENDS.

 

Further reading:

https://hekint.org/2017/01/23/portrayal-of-schizophrenia-in-movies/

https://www.autism.org/movies-featuring-asd/

The below is from the World Health Organisation website:

There are many different mental disorders, with different presentations. They are generally characterized by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others.

Mental disorders include: depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders including autism.

Dementia is caused by a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke.

https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is a monumental epic which explores the evolution of humankind. It is is dense, slow, demanding and not normally judged to be a giggle riot. I see it as Kubrick’s cosmic sex joke.

Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick

The key to unlocking the humour and understanding Kubrick’s intentions can be found in the director’s previous film.

Released in 1964, is his wildly funny  and blackly satirical Cold War comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  

Set mostly in US military bunker populated almost exclusively by men, it charts the steps to nuclear armageddon as emotionally bereft warmongers charge into madness.

Terrified by sex and are obsessed with bodily fluids and super-phallic nuclear weapons the politicians and military plan to use an unseen army of women as breeding machines to re-populate the world with a fascistic race of supermen.

This fear drives their retreat into a toxic all-male environment such as a gang, the army, or a space mission. Free from troublesome complexity of emotions, the energy of their sexual insecurities can safely be channeled into violence.

Strangelove

Dr Strangleove

Kubrick is fascinated, appalled and amused by men’s behaviour, their fear of sex and the seeking of sanctuary in combat.

The director delights in repeatedly pointing out these idiocies and finds their behaviour so entertaining, he turned up the dial all the way to eleven for his next work, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Importantly, Kubrick described Dr. Strangelove as possessing a ‘sexual framework from intromission to the last spasm’. So does 2001.

The director employs visual metaphors to explain his thoughts on man’s attitude towards sex. Men are insecure, fearful and in response, violent. Kubrick employs outlandish bombast and an exaggerated self-important tone to satirically mock men’s failings.

In 2001 Kubrick mocks his macho technological aesthetic, by placing it within an over-arching visual framework of sexual reproduction.

The sex in 2001: A Space Odyssey is hidden in plain sight within the trippy and awe inspiring imagery, and the ground-breaking special effects.

Monolith

2001: the first monolith

2001 begins in humanity’s pre-history with a tribe of starving hominids discovering an immense black monolith

Kubrick uses this void to inform us of how he believes men regard women. Drawn by its mysterious beauty, the hominids regard the powerful and, importantly, silent intruder with fascination and fear. 

Soon the lead ape is banging his bone in an angry frenzy. Here Kubrick explicably links fear, sex, selfishness and violence. A rival tribe is slaughtered and ownership of a water hole is established.

boner

2001: a hominid gets excited

Then we see the triumphant hominid leader banging his bones with orgasmic exultation.

Dutch master Paul Verhoeven applied a similar extravagance when executing the relentless cartoon-like violence in his satirical 1987 sci-fi Robocop.

The hominids ferocious behaviour is set to the militaristic romanticism of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name.

The writer’s work was famously co-opted by Nazi’s to justify their beliefs in the Master race, another link back to Dr. Strangleove and underscoring the link between sex, violence and madness.

glob

2001: a nuclear powered spacecraft

Anyway, the ape returns to whacking off and courtesy of the most famous match cut in cinema, his bone(r) becomes a nuclear-powered penis, sorry, spacecraft. How’s that for a money shot?

If, by the way, you believe sexual metaphors are beneath the lofty talent of a consummate filmmaker such as Kubrick, you probably don’t recognise the wank jokes in Shakespeare.

docking

2001: attempting re-entry, sir

We see the rocket manoeuvre to penetrate the spinning space station. So scared of sex and emotions, all men have managed to achieve in three million years is reduce the sex act to a mechanical experience.

In fact, for Kubrick’s men this is progress. Kubrick’s use of the swooningly romantic Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss is a hilariously caustic and ironic accompaniment.

Blood

2001: chairs

See how tubelike the inside of the space station is. Those corpuscular chairs are engorged blood cells. The men i.e. semen, are deposited in to the female craft. Next stop, the Moon base.

Dentata

2001: the Moon base

Look at those teeth! Quick, someone google vagina dentata!

The second, larger monolith represents the next stage of the semen’s journey further into the reproductive system. After the sex act the men stand staring in mute incomprehension, until they recoil as the monolith screams at them as if in great pain. 

compare

Above top: Eyes Wide Shut. Above: 2001

Gang rape is a theme Kubrick returns to in later film. Men seek comfort in numbers when ‘doing’ sex. Compare the second monolith gathering in 2001 to the ‘sacrifice’ scene in 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick is always bringing together the sex and violence. See the gang rape in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, and the penis/gun metaphors employed by the drill sergeant in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. Yes, that title is a condom metaphor.

Anyway, this encounter prompts the men to attempt to conquer a new monolith near the planet, Jupiter. i.e. they travel further through the reproductive system.

Tunnel

2001: travelling the tube

There’s a lot of walking and crawling through tunnels as astronauts make their way through the tubes, sorry, corridors of the spacecraft, Discovery.

Although played by Douglas Rain, the spaceship’s computer HAL 9000 is the dominant female voice in the film.  He’s almost the only ‘female’ voice in the film.

HAL

2001: HAL 9000

Portrayed by a soft blood-red orb, HAL 9000 is a maternal figure, tasked with keeping the crew warm and snug until their arrival at the next monolith, which is orbiting Jupiter. Only one sperm is necessary to fertilise the egg, and so the crew are killed off.

Kubrick uses HAL to demonstrate the paradox of human reproduction, where a system designed to create and nurture life also involves killing off the unsuccessful contenders.

stargate

2001: the ultimate trip

And once reproduction has been achieved, the female host body is redundant. The ‘winning’ sperm immediately begins to destroy the mind of the woman who nurtured him.

The successful sperm/astronaut, Bowman, literally rips HAL’s brains out. Honestly, the injustice and ingratitude is enough to drive anyone mad.

Once the third monolith is reached, Bowman passes through the Stargate. This trippy passage represents the moment of fertilisation, the creation of a new life.

old man

2001: birth, death, movies

Here’s another of those vaginal black voids, oh yes, the new life will be pushed out soon enough.

Often misnamed a ‘star child’, The space foetus experiences a pre-birth vision of its life ahead, as an insecure, fearful and violent ape.

Earth Foetus

2001: ‘star child’

Our cyclical journey ends where we began, with Wagner’s music of war dooming us to make the same mistakes all over again.

For all our pretensions and technology, we’re still a bunch of fighting primates. And Kubrick finds all this darkly funny. Men are idiots, he says, and he can’t help pointing and laughing at them.

Men’s irrational fear of women and resultant violence is a theme Kubrick returns to in A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. They’re all best read through the dark comedic prism, or possibly the monolith, of Dr Strangelove.

From Jack Torrence in 1980’s The Shining to Dr. Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s men are puzzled, frightened and angry. And it’s the women who suffer.

Orange

A Clockwork Orange: milky bar kids

These tables from A Clockwork Orange illustrate how Kubrick believes men prefer women. Naked and subservient. Sexually available and non-threatening. Without intelligence or personality. Mute. As this image is darkly ridiculous, so men are darkly ridiculous.

When people think of Kubrick, it is of the polymath chess master and cinematic genius. A coldly arrogant and detached figure, an irate perfectionist who is dismissive of the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. He’s probably glowering through a fog of cigarette smoke.

But the Kubrick who reveals himself to me is a satirical successor to Swift. Kubrick is so bewildered by the insanity of man, his barely controlled response is to create wildly exaggerated scenarios to try and explain them. But all he can do is mock and laugh at men’s behaviour because any other response would be mad.

Of all the characters in the history of cinema, there is one who I imagine most captures Kubrick’s manically disbelieving outrage. It belongs to the  little remembered actor Peter Butterworth in the role of Brother Belcher. In particular in the dinner scene in British comedy classic, 1968’s Carry on up the Khyber.

You can watch it here.

Ends.

Postscript: I recommend you read Nicholas Barber’s recent excellent piece on humour in 2001: A Space OdysseyHere

Note: when I say mankind I’m explicitly referring to the male of the species. Kubrick seems not to have a position on womenkind and there is no evidence of feminism in his films.

 

Miranda. Admired and misunderstood

Warning: this essay about a four hundred year old play may contain spoilers..

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on 23rd April, let’s take a look at his most undervalued character and re-evaluate her true importance to his work.

Waterhouse.jpg

Miranda by John Waterhouse, 1916

Miranda is the main female character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his final and greatest play. Her tragedy is to be the most high profile character in his canon to be dismissed as a supporting character in order to allow a male character to be dominate the play at her expense.

She’s a vibrant, forceful creation sidelined by generations of productions in favour of her grumpy, duplicitous and barely sane father, the wizard Prospero.

Miranda needs to be reappraised as one half of the father daughter axis central to the play. To promote Prospero above Miranda in importance is to misunderstand Shakespeare’s intention. She is a crucial summation of Shakespeare’s grand legacy to the world.

And of course, because she’s written by Shakespeare, she’s a fabulous character in her own right.

The Play

Shakespeare .jpg

William Shakespeare.     The Droeshout portrait.     From the First Folio collection, published 1623

The Tempest is believed to have been written in 1610–11, and the first recorded performance is before James I on Hallowmas, November 1st, 1611.

Although Shakespeare is credited with having contributed to two further and generally undistinguished plays, The Tempest is regarded as his final solo and definitive work.

With the perfect and dramatic timing of the seasoned performer he was, Shakespeare milked his exit for all its considerable worth. He took every trick he knew to be successful on stage and stitched it all together into the exciting, funny, challenging and crowd pleasing final act of his career.

The Tempest is a rollicking  tale of shipwrecks, stolen kingdoms, murder plots, class warfare, magic, fairies, monsters, comedy, romance, satire and social commentary.

It was has variously been described as a comedy, a romance and a problem play. To limit The Tempest to a single category is absurd. It is an adventure, a romantic comedy, a reconciliation drama, an intimate family portrait and a deconstruction of Elizabethan politics and more. It is a dazzling combination of every art and technique at Shakespeare’s disposal, the pinnacle of his career, a four hundred year old play and the finest ever written.

It’s crowned with a moment of staggeringly self confident showmanship. In the closing speech Shakespeare demands the audience applaud his career achievements.

Shakespeare is the creator of the greatest female roles ever written such as Portia, Beatrice, Cleopatra and Lady MacBeth, to name a few.

And it is crazy to believe as many productions choose to, Shakespeare dressed this living testament, his final hurrah, with a simpering romantic female lead.

Prospero’s plans, the structure of the play and Miranda’s arc and behaviour demand she is played with strength, sexuality and humour.

The story

Prospero.jpg

Patrick Stewart as Prospero, RSC, 2006. Photo zuleikahenry.co.uk

The Tempest takes place on an unnamed and remote mediterranean island. The sorcerer Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan has been exiled there by his brother Antonio, who stole Prospero’s crown. Prospero has been plotting for the 12 years of his exile to punish Antonio and restore his 14 year old daughter Miranda to her rightful place in society.

Exploiting the powerful magic of his fairy servant Ariel, Prospero conjures up a storm, the eponymous tempest. This delivers his usurping brother Antonio to shore where while terrorising  Antonio and his party, Prospero arranges for Ferdinand, prince of Naples, to meet and fall in love with Miranda.

The problem with Miranda

Here is a typical description of Miranda, quoted by shakespeare-online.com from Shakespeare’s Comedy of The Tempest. (Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company. Pub. 1889.)

Miranda is a unique and exquisite creation of the poet’s magic. She is his ideal maiden, brought up from babyhood in an ideal way — the child of nature, with no other training than she received from a wise and loving father — an ideal father we may say

Ok, so it’s over a century old and written with the prejudices of the time but this perception of Miranda as ‘exquisite’ persists.

From Sparknotes:

Miranda is a gentle and compassionate, but also relatively passive, heroine. From her very first lines she displays a meek and emotional nature.

From Cliffnotes:

In all that she does, Miranda is sweet and pure, honest and loving.

My word she sounds dull. On this reading Miranda lacks any personal agency, reduced to a pawn of her father and married off to Naples secure the return of his Dukedom.

But this is the Shakespeare who wrote fiercely intelligent, adversarial, female characters. Not just in his tragedies such as the fiercely complex Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra, but in his comedys. There is Hermione in A Winter’s Tale; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Olivia in Twelfth Night.

Miranda is the product of an arrogant, educated, driven man and has spent her entire life solely in his company. She has been educated and raised to rule by her father who not only wants to regain his own throne, but see her placed upon it.

Let’s consider what growing up with such a man would have on the psyche of the child. What effect would it have to live with and watch ones only parent plot for 12 years the downfall of his enemy? The ferociously single minded and revenge driven pursuit of power is behaviour which would seem normal.

Prospero indulges Miranda and terrorises the domestic staff. Wouldn’t it be more realistic and more fun for the audience if Miranda grows up to be truly her father’s child; manipulative, mendacious and power hungry? Someone able to conquer the world without her father’s assistance?

Before we look at how Miranda should be played, let’s examine Shakespeare’s structure to see why Miranda should be played in a far more forceful and interesting way.

ShakespeareThe structure

The graphic (right) contains two break-downs of The Tempest by scene.

The first highlights the scenes which are broadly comic if the roles Miranda and Ferdinand are played in a traditional straight, demurely romantic manner.

If the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand is not played as comic, then laughs are sparse in The Tempest. It becomes a severe essay on an old man’s personal and political legacy, essentially King Lear with a suntan.

The sullen spirit of Prospero looms darkly over proceedings and the bright figure of Miranda is marginalised, her agency and character denied the light in which to grow.

We’re left with only the drunken antics of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban to provide comic relief to Prospero’s repetitive machinations.

Yes, Ariel’s impudence and Alonso’s jibes at the elderly courtier Gonzalo have a pointed sarcasm. But this leaves a great deal of the play without comedy.

The second shows how many more scenes are broadly comic if Miranda is played as a person with motivation and ambition.

Immediately the overall tone of the play is raised, injecting more light and therefore more shade.

And yes, playing The Tempest as a comedy alters the tone of parts to something more frivolous, but Prospero is always lurking about to ground the humour. And if these scenes are not played as humorous then the play sags.

It becomes more digestible to a wider audience who are offered a considerable amount of sugar to help swallow the bitter taste of Prospero’s revenge.

Plus of course, Shakespeare. One of the joys of his writing is the unparalleled ability to switchback between comedy, tragedy, pathos, bathos and any other tone he cares to strike. Often in a single line.

Plus watching two strangers meet and profess love without the joy of flirting is insufferably dull. Shakespeare has already demonstrated his mastery of portraying flirting couples. For example, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

It’s bizarre to imagine in what Shakespeare knows to be his final play he would provide a limp romance, especially when in all other scenes he’s pulling out all the big guns of his theatrical armoury.

Aristotle.jpg

Aristotle. Roman copy in marble of Greek bronze bust by Lysippus c. 330 BC

So The Tempest needs Miranda to be funny, clever and spirited. Our interest in her romance relies on her being so. Shakespeare knows we will only approve of her sailing away to become queen of Naples if we warm to her. And no-one would ever warms the damp dishcloth she is commonly presented as being.

On a broader structural point, The Tempest is rare in being Shakespeare’s only second play after The Comedy of Errors to abide by the classical structure of the three unities.

Greek philosopher Aristole’s unities are limits placed upon the dramatist to restrict the use of time, place and action. Shakespeare’s sudden adoption of them in his final work seems a two fingered salute to the establishment for criticising his previous refusal to adhere these strictures.

The arc of Miranda

Miranda undergoes a remarkable journey of personal growth from immature desert island urchin to a commanding future queen of Naples. This is as fascinating a character arc as any in literature.

The Tempest opens with Miranda as a 14 year old, the same age as the doomed Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In the Jacobean era of King James I she would be considered an adult woman.

King James I .jpg

King James I, by John de Critz the Elder (before 1647)

But having spent her life from the age of 2 on a desert island, she is suffering from arrested development and consequently acting like a child when we first meet her. This gap between her adult age and her childish behaviour is a seam of humour to be mined.

She shares the island with her father Prospero, the rapacious monster Caliban and Ariel the fairy. There’s not much to choose from in terms of romantic suitors there.

Caliban’s attempt at rape tells us she understands the sex act, but importantly she has not connected it to her own sexuality and doesn’t understand lust or the nature of romantic love.

However once Miranda spies Ferdinand, her sexuality is awakened, triggering her rise to adulthood and authority.

And Miranda sets out to pursue dominion over sex and love with all the single minded energy of the daughter of a man who has spent 12 years plotting revenge on his enemies.

Just like her father, Miranda knows no half measures when her mind is set. Indeed she surpasses Prospero’s expectations by dominating Ferdinand in a manner her father undoubtedly approves of.

Ferdinand.jpg

Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, The Tempest (Dir. Julie Taymore, 2010)

A great deal of the fun in The Tempest is seeing the arrogant and unsuspecting Ferdinand swept away by the force of Miranda’s assault. As Miranda becomes a woman, so Ferdinand becomes her plaything and a means to facilitate her ascent to the throne.

By the time Ferdinand claims all he wants is a quiet life, it is said with the absolute ruefulness of a man exhausted and spent.

Miranda proves to be the one wearing the metaphorical trousers. When they sail away to Naples to be wed, Miranda has outgrown her father and her ascent is complete.

Humour, sex and magic

Every character in The Tempest lies, plots or seeks to persuade another person to take a course of action. This is no less true of Miranda.

Only the faithful Gonzalo does so for the benefit of someone other than himself. In his case, the worst he is guilty of is painting an optimistic picture of the island in order to cheer the grieving Alonso.

Each performer has to emphasise the difference between what their character says and does.

When Ferdinand swears to Prospero he will respect Miranda’s virginity, the actor playing Ferdinand must communicate to the audience his character has absolutely no intention of abiding by his own words. He must project arrogant belief he is cynically seducing a hapless maid while pretending to be madly in love.

Similarly Miranda must demure to her father but be clear to the audience she shares Ferdinand intentions. She must offer supplication to Ferdinand’s smooth seduction while suggesting the awakening of ravenous desire which is about to consume the unsuspecting prince.

Plus it’s far funnier to suggest the young pair are at it like rabbits every time Prospero’s back is turned, rather than see them placidly obeying him.

How Miranda should be played

Act II begins with Miranda commanding her father to quell the storm she rightly suspects is his doing. She is fully aware of his power and his temper. Yet from her very first lines she is not the slightest bit afraid to face him down. From their very first exchange, Miranda and Prospero are engaged in a power struggle:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

Feel the childish sarcasm in her first words ‘If by your art, my dearest father‘. Plus it tells us Miranda is aware of her father’s magic powers.

Prospero’s first words to Miranda and the audience are disingenuous:

Be collected: No more amazement: tell your piteous heart
There’s no harm done.

Yes, Prospero saves the passengers of the ship. But only in order to carry out his dastardly plan an punish them at leisure. And of course he created the storm in the first place. The doting father and daughter are vying for the upper hand from the off.

We learn Miranda is highly educated:

and here Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit Than other princesses can that have more time For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.

It is reasonable to assume Miranda has knowledge of her father’s magic. Just because it is not acknowledged on the page, it is possible to infer Miranda possesses magical ability and to demonstrate it on the stage.

Miranda loses interest in Prospero’s story of exile. He repeatedly demands she pay attention:

Thou attend’st not.

And:

Dost thou hear?

But why? Well, these pauses help focus the audience attention on the lengthy exposition.

But why is she so skittish? Especially when the story is about herself?

Consider Miranda has spent nearly her entire life incarcerated on the island with Prospero and familiarity has bred a casual if loving contempt. She has been indulged for years and is a victim of arrested development. Although 14 years old and therefore an adult, she acts with the attention deficit of a 4 year old .

Having received her father’s reassurances about the storm, she’s returned to playing with her toys and is in fact ignoring her fathers story. Her tone is bored. So now the scene has humour to liven up the reams of exposition. She offers sarcasm:

Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.

Prospero doesn’t reprimand Miranda. His repeated questioning of Miranda’s attention in this scene is usually attributed to his agitated state of mind. His years of plotting are coming to fruition and he has many characters to manoeuvre. But this limited reading of Miranda relegates her to an expository device, an empty listening jar, a thankless task for an actress and a more sombre play.

Prospero puts Miranda under a sleeping spell so he can discuss his plans with his servant Ariel. But is Miranda asleep? Does Prospero have the power he thinks over his daughter? Is she surreptitiously listening to all which is being said? Is Prospero being played by his daughter?

Miranda’s sarcasm is mirrored by Ariel later in the scene. He too offers Prospero sarcasm:

All hail, great master! grave sir, hail!

But unlike Miranda, Ariel is beaten down for his impudence. Even his slave Caliban subjects Prospero to open subordination:

There’s wood enough within.

So although Prospero is tremendously powerful, domestically he is challenged at every turn. This makes him a somewhat more sympathetic figure and softens his vindictive persona enough to make his redemption feasible.

As an aside, with its emphasis on performance and illusion, The Tempest is often read as an allegory for the theatre. Here Prospero’s domestic vicissitudes are a parallel for a troubled stage director trying to herd his cast in line his creative vision.

When Miranda first spies Ferdinand it is at Prospero’s behest. It’s the last time Prospero has control over his daughter, if indeed he ever had any. Miranda gasps:

I might call him A thing divine

Note Miranda’s objectification of Ferdinand as a thing. And she goes on pantingly:

The first That e’er I sigh’d for

And from here on Miranda’s character begins to develop as Ferdinand’s arrival triggers her sexual awakening.

Prospero seems to have no little idea of the potential of the strength of her character. Certainly the unsuspecting Ferdinand has no idea of the storm of  sexual aggression soon to be unleashed upon him.

Ferdinand sees Miranda as a cheap victory, quickly making a rash promise:

O, if a virgin, And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you The queen of Naples

And we’ve no reason to suspect Ferdinand hasn’t made this offer countless times before. The greater the unthinking swagger in this scene, the further he falls later in the play.

Ferdinand freely admits through his flirtatious declaration:

Full many a lady I have eyed with best regard

With Prospero’s knowledge of court behaviour, he suspects full well the whole truth of Ferdinand’s statement of intent, causing the wizard to say:

this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning Make the prize light.

But in his desire to protect his daughter and his own machinations, Prospero is hugely under-estimating his daughter.

Which takes us to Act 3.

When we see Ferdinand and Miranda alone on stage, the scene at face value is written as two lovers delivering lyrical but dramatically dull declarations of love.

But actually Shakespeare has gifted us a comic scene of one-upmanship where a predatory Ferdinand thinks he is is manipulating Miranda but actually he is doomed from the off.

Miranda may act the innocent but is in reality always one step ahead of her suitor. It is only at the end of the play Ferdinand comes to understand he has been played like a kipper and never stood a chance against his supposed prey.

Miranda is happy to deceive her father in order to pursue Ferdinand:

My father Is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself;

Note how the last two words are a command. She physically asserts herself over Ferdinand and wrestles him to the ground, the better to seduce him and emphasise her sexual conquest of him:

If you’ll sit down, I’ll bear your logs the while: pray, give me that

Again notice how the the last three words are a command. And Miranda establishes intimacy with Ferdinand by affecting the breaking a promise of not telling Ferdinand her name:

Miranda. O my father, I have broke your hest to say so!

Though she pretends to be unaware of her own behaviour, Miranda knows exactly what she is doing. There is a humorous gap between her fake naivety and aggressive pursuit of sexual experience:

The use of wood as a phallic symbol is not a modern invention:

for your sake Am I this patient logman.

Ferdinand freely admits his desire. And Miranda plays on his expectations by offering crocodile tears:

I am a fool To weep at what I am glad of.

..before drawing from Ferdinand a declaration of love:

Do you love me?

And extracts from him the promise of the throne which is her endgame:

My husband, then?

Note, she does not offer to be his wife, but he to be her husband. Ferdinand belongs to Miranda the same way Caliban and Ariel belong to her father. Ferdinand is Miranda’s ‘thing’, to play with as she wishes. She wishes to have sex and to take his throne.

And Miranda leaves a frustrated Ferdinand wanting more:

And mine, with my heart in’t; and now farewell Till half an hour hence.

We next meet the pair in Act 4 scene I.

They enter the stage. Lets have Miranda and Ferdinand blushed and with dishelved clothing, barely hiding their sexual activity from Prospero though clearly readable to the audience. If the scene is played as comedy it provides comic relief to the drama of previous scene and it lets the audience draw breath.

Plus it makes Prospero fallible and more likeable if the grand schemer fails to read what is happening under his nose. Is he blind or does he choose not to to see as a father may well choose to when his daughter becomes sexually active?

It adds humour to the scene if everything Miranda and Ferdinand say to Prospero is a lie, designed to hide the truth of their sexual activity from him.

When Ferdinand proclaims:

I warrant you sir; The white cold virgin snow upon my heart Abates the ardour of my liver.

Shakespeare here is piling deceit upon deceit as all three scheme against each other.

Prospero thinks he has the upper hand as Miranda is doing his bidding by becoming betrothed to Ferdinand.
Ferdinand thinks he has the advantage over Prospero having consummated his relationship with Miranda.
Miranda actually has Ferdinand utterly in her power. He is under her spell but doesn’t yet realise it.

Ferdinand is so dim as to what is really happening he tries to ingratiate himself with Prospero:

This is a most majestic vision, and Harmoniously charmingly.

While Prospero has been busy with his plans for Alonso, he even invites the pair to:

retire into my cell And there repose

at which the young lovers would be hard put to disguise their glee at being told to ‘rest’ together. Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to make his women sexually active. For example Juliet in Romeo and Juliet,  Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Cleopatra in Anthony And Cleopatra. Why not Miranda?

Then in Act V we next meet the lovers with the following stage direction:

Here PROSPERO discovers FERDINAND and MIRANDA playing at chess

And Miranda exclaims having been discovered inflagrante:

Sweet lord, you play me false.

With her words ‘Sweet lord’ as an exclamation of blasphemous surprise to herself and ‘you play me false’ directed not to Ferdinand but her father.

Ferdinand being not up to speed believes Miranda is talking to him:

No, my dear’st love, I would not for the world

And Miranda, on seeing her father with Alonso, berates him for any accusation of a double standard:

Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, And I would call it, fair play.

Prospero seeks power in one way, she does it in another.

And Ferdinand, realising he has been caught with his trousers down, prostrates himself before Prospero and makes a plea for clemency:

Though the seas threaten, they are merciful; I have cursed them without cause.

And Miranda, upon seeing the crowd of courtiers, immediately recognises her universe and therefore her power base has expanded:

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

And Prospero acknowledges Miranda’s journey to a sexually active adulthood, authority and independence and power over Ferdinand with the words:

Where I have hope to see the nuptial Of these our dear-beloved solemnized

Prospero accepts Ferdinand’s proposal not only because he is to be king of Naples and willing to make Miranda his queen, but because Miranda has Ferdinand’s arm twisted behind his back and she is clearly the one in command.

Miranda, child of Prospero and Shakespeare conquers the world

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s great goodbye to the theatre and a lyrical valedictory to his own career. If he uses Prospero as an on-stage proxy to deliver his last words, then what does Miranda represent?

Well, as all children are the creative endeavour of their parents, so Shakespeare’s canon are his children. Miranda symbolises his body of work, his great plays, sonnets and poems.

In the same way Prospero anticipates Miranda to rule not only Milan but Naples, Shakespeare expects his work to rule the kingdom of theatre long after his death.

Miranda symbolises Shakespeare’s work and encapsulates his desire for it to outlive and prosper without him. This is why Miranda deserves to be considered and portrayed as a character possessed of vitality, intelligence and wit. After all, if the bard considers her to be the epitome of his work, who are we to argue?

@ChrisHunneysett

17.04.2016

 

 

 

The mythical James Bond, 007

BOND AND KING ARTHUR

King Arthur

In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from mere Hollywood action star, to a heroic symbol for England.

By employing poetry, imagery and story elements of Arthurian legend, Mendes stretches an umbilical cord through time to connect Britain’s most modern fictitious national hero, Bond, with it’s most ancient and legendary, King Arthur.

In Le Morte d’Arthur (pub. 1485), Thomas Malory codified the legend of King Arthur from disparate sources and established what we now consider to be the definitive legend.

Arthur is an orphan who wields a weapon only he can command and must fight a traitor, his step-brother Modred, to save his kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by a woman, is mortally wounded in action and hidden away from the world by the lady in the lake. There he will await until his return to once again rescue his land at the hour of his country’s greatest need.

In Skyfall these events and all occur, though not in this order, and are there to subliminally underscore how mythical Bond is.

In the pre-title sequence we see Bond shot by fellow agent Eve, before falling into a river and being pulled under water by a godlike female hand. Being brought low by a woman named Eve is obviously a very Christian idea, reminding us how closely Arthurian legend deliberately echoes the story of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, death and his resurrection.Skyfall

Bond undergoes a symbolic Christian death at the hands of his followers, but remains in limbo waiting to be reborn. He only returns from the dead , when England is threatened by terrorists lead by a former British agent.

In Skyfall Bond/Arthur are tasked with defending Britain from Javier Bardem’s Silva/Mordred. All are orphans raised to be warriors.De la croix

And just as Arthur and Mordred were related, so we have lots of references to Judi Dench’s M as their metaphorical mother.

Bond is revealed to have a birth mother with the name De la Croix.

De la Croix translates as ‘Of the cross’ and so ties in with the idea of resurrection. This feeds neatly into the conceit of Bond regenerating every time a new actor assumes the role.

It’s also a nod to Ian Fleming’s socialite mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose.

Bond’s Merlin figure of course, is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He provides Bond with a pistol registered to his unique palm print so only he can use it. It’s an updated Excalibur, the sword in the stone.

Bond sails through a dragon’s mouth prior to sleeping with his enemy’s mistress.

Dragon mouth

Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

We hear how following the loss of his parents, the barely  teenage Bond spent three days in a tunnel before emerging an adult. An echo of the vigil an aspiring knight had to endure before being allowed to join the chivalric order.

Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote a cycle of narrative poems concerning King Arthur called Idylls of the King (pub. 1859). This is the pertinence of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson as Bond races to her rescue.

All we’re missing is a character called Mallory to appear and oops, that just happens to be the new M’s real name.Fiennes

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would almost impossible to do so by accident.

These details in the subtext of the film echo in the subconsciousness of the viewer. They reinforce the idea of Bond as heroic saviour of the British people.

The conflation of Bond and Arthur places 007 at the centre of British literary, cinematic and Christian cultural tradition, elevating him from the contemporary to the mythical, the once and future king of the franchise.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Cert 15 117mins Stars 5

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982, 2007) 

Ridley ScottBlade Runner: The Final Cut is the definitive version of director Ridley Scott‘s 1982’s sci-fi noir masterpiece.

Uniquely it stands on a pedestal with 1927’s Metropolis, and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the sci-fi canon, and alongside 1944’s Double Indemnity as a doom laden noir.

AndroidsDreamBased on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner is a combination of extraordinary visuals, superlative sound, Blade Runner’s superb cast includes Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh and Daryl Hannah.

With various cuts of the film existing and offering very different endings, Scott trims The Final Cut to its noir roots and in doing so unequivocally resolves a long running debate concerning the nature of the central character, the ‘Blade Runner’, Rick Deckard.

Digitally remastered in 2007 for the 25th anniversary of the original 1982 release, Scott removed Deckard’s voice-over and a happy ending which the studio imposed on the original theatrical release, as well as reinserting a unicorn dream sequence.

Blade Runner scroll

The film takes place in Los Angeles of the year 2019. Six genetically engineered humans called replicants have escaped from an off-world colony and made their way to Earth, where their presence is outlawed.

BR fordIn Los Angeles two replicants are killed after trying to break into the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation. This prompts M. Emmet Walsh‘s seedy police captain to strong-arm Harrison Ford‘s reluctant former detective, Rick Deckard, back into harness.

Though insisting he is twice as quit as when he walked in, Deckard accepts the order to find the remaining four replicants and destroy them, and an origami-modelling cop called Gaff is assigned to monitor Deckard’s progress.

While on the case Deckard first interviews then starts an affair with Sean Young‘s Rachael. She’s the glamorous niece of the head of the Tyrell Corporation, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the chess-playing creator of the replicants.

DeckardThe euphemistic use of the word ‘retire’, reminds us Dick’s paranoid fear of the inevitable decay of our mortal bodies, reinforced by Scott scattering his sets with mannequin parts.

The screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples is a loose adaption of the source novel but is faithful to Dick’s obsessions of decay, transformation, paranoia and identity, and in The Final Cut at least, is respectful of noir’s hard-boiled cynicism.

It can also be read as a twisted riff on John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, with the replicants representing fallen angels rejecting their godlike creator.

Incorporating tolling bells, the magnificent score by Greek composer Vangelis, announces key themes as the film opens and veers between the apocalyptic and the heavenly.

The Tyrell Corporation’s HQ is a pyramidal mausoleum, a suitable resting place for a god before an ascension to a higher level of existence. The replicants can be interpreted as angels or demons who have descended to Earth from the chaotic off-world to challenge the Earth’s divine order, and possibly raise humanity to a higher plane of existence.

Br sebastian

The subjugated and animal nature of Earthbound humanity is explored through the use of rats, those harbingers of disease, decay and death. Tyrell talks of deserting rats when discussing the altering of the replicant’s DNA. There are pet rats among J.F. Sebastian’s engineered toys. Deckard is herded like a lab rat through the decaying prison of a mansion block.

Filmed in the ironwork interior of LA’s Bradbury building, the dreamlike apartment of genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian is a repository of childhood toys which Deckard must escape before he can be enlightened as to his real identity.

Br BattyThe relationship between the replicants provides the emotional core of the film. Daryl Hannah wraps herself affectionately around Rutger Hauer, who plays her partner and the replicant’s leader, Roy Batty.

And though the a homicidal Batty is set up as the villain, Hauer’s poetic and physical performance aches with life, love and loss. His powerful closing monologue which always bring s me to tears is all the more astonishing for being self-penned.

BRrachaelFor those who think Scott is a stylist indifferent to his actors labours, they should consider the performance he elicits from Sean Young, who is perfectly in tune with the demands of the role.

In a brilliantly tense conclusion we see Rachael asleep in her apartment and Deckard approaching her, gun in hand. We don’t know whether he will kill her or kiss her.

There’s a declaration of love and a big sigh of relief from the audience. But as Deckard and Rachael leave his apartment, they find an origami unicorn left by Gaff. This changes the entire thrust of the story and our understanding of it.

UnicornGaff’s origami is evidence he knows Deckard’s dreams are memory implants, causing Deckard and the audience to belatedly realise he is also a replicant. His entire life is a lie and he has unwittingly killed his own replicant family members at the behest of the police, his enemies, who he realises he now has to escape from.

This bleak revelation is perfect film noir.

But the power of Blade Runner has been diluted by the studio edit prompting a discussion over Deckard’s replicant status. This drags our focus from a brilliant noir ending to a non-debate over the nature of Deckard’s humanity.

Instead of the audience being overwhelmed by the force of this drama, for nearly forty years everyone has chuntered over the ‘is he a replicant’ debate, a controversy this definitive version retires.

Harrison Ford was strategically picked to play Deckard in a casting masterstroke of cinematic deception. The audience is fooled by their own presumption the star is playing a hero.

A huge star from his swashbuckling roles in 1977’s Star Wars, and 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Han Solo, and Indiana Jones, the audience expected more of the same. Ford’s status as heroic Hollywood leading man leads us to believe Deckard is the hero until we and Deckard realise he isn’t. We don’t expect a character played by Ford to be the fall guy.

The Big SleepAs a hard drinking detective with a laconic delivery and ready attitude in the face of authority, Ford is presented as a futuristic Humphrey Bogart, rebooted, updated and teleported in from Hollywood’s Golden Age of noir.

Ford is happy to riff on Bogart’s goofy undercover book lover in  1946’s The Big Sleep to emphasise the connection. There’s even a reference to Sydney Greenstreet in Bogart’s classic wartime melodrama, Casablanca as Deckard interrogates a fez-wearing gangster, The Egyptian.

Plus the story is told through Deckard’s eyes. So Deckard’s the hero, right? He’s an updated and rebooted sci-fi Philip Marlowe, right? Wrong.

To watch The Final Cut is to realise, and this is despite what Bryant tells him, Deckard is not especially good at his job.

He’s beaten up in turn by each of the four replicants. While failing to dispatch either of the males, he shoots the unarmed females, and he only manages to kill one of them by shooting her in the back as she’s running away. And as Batty mockingly points out, Deckard is not very sporting. Ordered to retire Rachael, Deckard has sex with her instead.

indemnityFar from being Bogart 2.0, Deckard is far more of an upgrade of Fred MacMurray’s hapless insurance salesman Walter Neff from 1944 noir masterpiece. Double Indemnity. In classic noir fashion, Deckard is too dim to realise he’s always behind the game. it’s not until the end he understands how little he knows. He’s a prize chump.

Blade Runner is rightly celebrated for its superlative sci-fi styling, but I love The Final Cut for revelling in the noir at the heart of this rain-soaked LA story.

@ChrisHunneysett

FINDING JACK CHARLTON

Stars 4

The life of one of football’s most popular and down-to-earth figures is illuminated in this fascinating, funny, poignant and deeply moving documentary of football legend Jack Charlton, who sadly died this summer.

From winning the World Cup with England to managing Middlesbrough and the Republic of Ireland, ‘Big’ Jack was a highly competitive, uncompromising, honest and passionate talent whose appeal was rooted not only in his success, but also his work ethic, charm and sense of humour.

Filmed during the last 18 months of his life and charting his struggle with dementia, this respectful and compelling account is released to coincide with an awareness raising campaign for the suspected impact of brain damage caused by playing the beautiful game.

Made with full cooperation and intimate contributions from his wife Pat and son John, it’s desperately sad to see this once most vigorous of men unable to remember his sporting exploits, and tragically it was confirmed last week his brother Bobby also suffers from dementia.

There’s room to touch upon Jack’s difficult relationship with Bobby, as well as exploring in some depth how his tenure of the Irish national side helped fuel a rise in national confidence and contributed to the peace process.

Among the excellent footage is the moment he describes his coaching style as simple and direct, which football aficionados might consider overstating the case, and as a coach he admitted to having a distrust of ball-playing centre-halves – so Lord knows what he thought of his England partner Bobby Moore then.

But there’s not enough time spent exploring his time as manager of my team, the uniquely stylish Middlesbrough – a job which would be the crowning glory of anyone’s career.

Although never denying his blunt manner was capable of ruffling feathers, Jack always delivered, was true to himself and always gave 100%, and that’s why he will always remain an inspiration.

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

Cert 15 Stars 3

An excellent cast fails to inject energy into this studiously low-key drama crafted with painful sincerity and respect for sufferers and carers of mental illness.

One time Bond villain Javier Bardem stars as a near catatonic patient who’s experiencing visions of alternative lives he could have lived, with Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney offering degrees of compassion as the women in his life.

It’s written and directed by Brit Sally Potter who includes some far from subtle political commentary and explores ideas of identity, memory and history previously touched upon in her 1992 arthouse hit, Orlando.

BATMAN: DEATH IN THE FAMILY

Cert 15 Stars 3

The latest of the Warner Bros. animated superhero adventures brings one of Batman’s most notorious stories to dynamic life as the replacement Robin the Boy Wonder, an orphan called Jason Todd, is kidnapped by arch villain The Joker.

The comic book series on which it’s based used a telephone readers’ vote to decide whether Todd lived or died, and in it’s honour this has various alternate versions of the story to entertain.

Also includes four short stories featuring Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange and more. Fun but not for the little ones.

LEGACY OF LIES

Cert 15 Stars 3

Brummie born action star Scott Adkins busts some ferocious action moves in this hard-as-nails global spy-thriller as an ex-MI6 agent making money in illegal bouts.

Honor Kneafsey is fun as his streetwise gun-toting 12-year-old daughter Lisa, who’s unfazed by his ferocious cage-fighting skills, but whose life is at stake when her dad is dragged back into the espionage game and given 24 hours to find some secret files.

The strong location work and glossy menace is anchored by Adkins, an unsung hard working professional and likeable screen presence deserving of a more high profile gig.

I AM GRETA

Cert 12A Stars 4

Hot on the heels of David Attenborough’s big screen rallying cry to save our planet comes this intimate documentary Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, who at only 15-year-old and having Asperger’s syndrome inspired a generation across the globe to go on school strike to demand immediate action on climate change.

We’re given Greta’s eye view of events as this otherwise very ordinary, shy and lonely schoolgirl is thrust into a media and political whirlwind.

Footage of her terrifying wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean shows it clearly not an empty gesture or a mere showboating of her credentials, and by the time she delivers an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York I was fully onboard with her message.

Greta is understandably and deservedly cynical about the posturing of politicians, her modesty about her achievements in raising awareness is remarkable and her composure, resilience and humour in the face of appalling abuse from politicians will make you furious.

And if such a small figure can inspire such ire in powerful old men such as President Trump then she’s doing something right.

WOLFWALKERS

Cert PG Stars 5

Be enchanted by this fabulous family fable which is a joyously magical affair, rich in character, astonishingly imaginative, vividly beautiful, wonderfully funny, terrifically exciting, and easily the best animated movie I’ve seen this year.

Set in Kilkenny in 1650, Robyn is a young girl newly arrived from England with her father, and her pet owl called Merlin. While secretly exploring the nearby forest Robyn encounters another motherless and mischievous young girl called Mebh, who is a Wolfwalker, someone who possess the ability to change between human and wolf form.

Giving voice to the pair, Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker have a wonderful rapport full of teasing humour and excitable, conspiratorial exchanges. While Sean Bean brings a weary sadness nobility as Robyn’s father.

But the girls’ blossoming friendship puts Robyn at odds with her father who’s a wolf hunter by trade, and brings them all into conflict with the puritanical and tyrannical Lord Protector, an Englishman intent on ‘taming’ Ireland by force.

Produced by the Irish studio, Cartoon Saloon who’re justly famous for their with their uniquely luscious illustrative style rooted in traditional Irish art, their previous films The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner, were all Oscar nominated for Best Animated Film, and each is on a par with the best of Disney or Pixar. And this is no exception.

Although first and foremost a wonderful children’s action adventure, it’s also undeniably political and ripe with history, but always framed in such a way your kids will understand.

It’s most damning of politicians and rulers who invoke god to support their wars and use fear mongering rhetoric to justify persecuting those who are different. And there’s also a timely environmental message about how forests are destroyed in the pursuit of profit.

As the heartbreaking story unfolded, I cried, howled with laughter and I nearly cheered at one crossbow-wielding moment. Wolfwalkers is Watership Down for a new generation – but with more bite.

THE WITCHES

Cert PG Stars 4

Roald Dahl’s prize-winning children’s book is given a Hollywood fantasy comedy make-over with Robert ‘Back To The Future’ Zemeckis transferring the story from the UK to Alabama of 1968.

Jahzir Kadeem Bruno’s young orphan teams up with on-screen grandmother Octavia Spencer to defeat a coven of evil witches, led
by Anne Hathaway who’s having an absolute blast.

Though Chris Rock’s narration is unnecessary the big budget allows for glossy SFX which brings the action to gleefully grotesque life.

It’s a lively family Halloween treat and if Dahl purists are offended, the tricks on them.

HONEST THIEF

Cert 15 Stars 3

Liam Neeson is back in action mode in this watchable action thriller which is smart enough to plays to his increasingly dour and weary strengths while never suggesting he’s going to be breaking sweat or any new ground.

The scarcely believable set up sees the big Irish actor star as ‘The In and Out Bandit’, a former marine turned bank robber, a gentleman thief who of course who never hurts anyone and is in it for the thrills not the cash.

However when he falls in love his guilty conscience insists he turn himself in and serve his time before settling down, but he’s double-crossed by two FBI agents and soon he’s on the run with his not best-pleased girlfriend, Annie.

Best known from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, Kate Walsh is bright presence, while Jai Courtney is always been better when playing the villain and is on agreeably nasty macho form as a corrupt Federal agent.

There are car chases and shoot-outs and Neeson growls down the phone in a manner familiar from his Taken franchise, but at 68 it may be time to retire the tough guy act.

PIXIE

Cert 15 Stars 3

Following her fabulous turn as Becky Sharp in the period drama miniseries Vanity Fair, Olivia Cooke plays another mischievous smart ass schemer with a silly amount of confidence in this enjoyably raucous violent comedy thriller.

As Pixie she finds herself on the run after a heist has gone wrong with compromising photographs, a body in a car boot and a stolen bag of drugs,
Swept along in Pixie’s wake are her hapless smitten accomplices, played with agreeable self-delusion by Ben Hardy and Daryl McCormack.

A modern day Irish Western set in the err, the west of Ireland it’s a foul mouthed and loose limbed affair, which it wears on its many influences on it’s sleeve.

Barnaby Thompson previously directed 2009’s St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, and does a decent job of aping the tone of the superior Colin Farrell 2008 thriller In Bruges.

The script lacks that film’s flair but there’s an enjoyable swagger to proceedings, some lovely production design and Alex Baldwin gives a much needed boost of energy as a pistol packing priest when the pace begins to flag.