DUNE (2021)

Extraordinary and epic, this new adaption of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel doesn’t just demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it questions whether there exists a screen large enough to do justice to this Lawrence of Arabia meets Apocalypse Now space opera.

Directed with a relentless majesty by Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian takes the tremendous sense of scale he essayed in Blade Runner 2049 and beats it mercilessly into a cocked hat as he crafts a tale of cosmic proportions.

Assembling the considerable weapons of the Hollywood arsenal such as a huge budget, state of the art special effects, a pantheon of big name stars and a well known intellectual property, Villeneuve allies them to his astonishing vision and outstanding technical ability to deliver thumping action and spectacle on an out-of-this-world scale.

Starring as Paul, a young man is stripped of his wealth and status, and outcast on a dessert planet where he begins to develop his mystical mind control powers, Timothee Chalamet further cements his heartthrob-with-talent status with a nuanced performance geared to character development.

If this setting all sounds familiar then you won’t be surprised to find there’s also an evil all-powerful empire and a brutal lord as the villain who commands an army of faceless stormtroopers.

Dune was one of the key texts influencing Star Wars supremo George Lucas, but where he leant into the comedy, Villeneuve’s broadly faithful and respectful version embraces the slowly unfolding tragedy.

With its litany of betrayals and battles Dune is at times extraordinarily exciting, yet the script has time to explore contemporary concerns such as resource scarcity and colonialism. It’s a film rich with its own internal history and yet also is remarkably intimate, exploding with charisma as humanity blooms across the desert with romance, loyalty and love to spare.

Paul’s dreams are filled with visions of a beautiful woman of the desert planet Arrakis, as she’s played by Zendaya this seems perfectly reasonable for a person of his age. And the accomplished actress brings much needed humour as she casts her lines with a delivery even more dry than Arrakis. Fans may feel short changed by her screen time, but her charisma allows her to make an impression even among this most manly of company.

Paul’s troop of macho role models are played by Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Jason ‘Aquaman’ Momoa, and it’s the latter who’s swagger is closest the film has to a Han Solo character. Opposing them is the considerable muscle of Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard.

This remorseless machismo is partially offset the icy presence of Charlotte Rampling, and a ferociously commanding Rebecca Ferguson, who’s quite astonishing at conveying the complex layers of emotions and pain involved in being Paul’s mother as she guides him to his destiny.

Meanwhile Sharon Duncan-Brewster is given the gender-flipped role of Dr. Liet-Kynes, and makes it her own with a subtly powerful performance of openly guarded wit and grace.

Villeneuve treats his audience as adults by throwing in Herbert’s vocabulary of ‘Fremen’, ‘Mentat’, ‘Bene Gesserit’ and so on, but this is no more puzzling than Sith, Jedi, and so on. Besides, the storytelling is so well rendered you could follow the story without the dialogue. Puny humans being terrorised by giant sand worms looks the same whatever language the characters are screaming in.

Plus with the outrageous phallic symbolism of the hero having to master an enormous worm as proof of his manhood, it’s difficult not to imagine Herbert smuttily giggling to himself as he conceived the idea, and laughing out loud as he dared himself to write it.

In a film of wondrous design, it’s the rotating winged aircraft resemble mechanical insects, called ‘thopters, which make you gasp, and stand alongside the Eagle craft of TV’s Space 1999 as a classic of sci-fi iconography.

Complementing the monumental cinematography of Greig Fraser, who’s work can next be seen in next year’s superhero neo-noir, The Batman, Hans Zimmer’s score is a teeth-rattling achievement, even for this noted composer of titanic-sized themes, and Zimmer seems to have invented a new language of noise, which blends seamlessly into the equally unique and thunderous soundscape.

David Lynch’s disowned 1984 film version has been not ungenerously described as ‘a glorious mess’. But I’ve respect for its imaginative leaps of hideous design, and it scores over this version in that it manages to complete the book in one sitting, whereas Villeneuve only delivers the first half or thereabouts of the book.

However the sheer Everest-like enormity of Villeneuve’s Dune ensures it never feels like half a film, instead it feels more like a myth fashioned in primordial clay and brought to life by the lightning of the gods. This is a planet-stomping titan of a movie, and for us not be presented with part two would be a crime against cinema.

5/5

The Stolen Airship (1967)

Magnificent boys in their flying machine

A delirious fusion of live-action and animation very loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, this glorious fantasy is a heady kaleidoscope of boys’ own adventure, wild invention, political satire and knockabout action, with occasional moments of whimsy and a huge amount of humour.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War and sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island. However Czech film director, Karel Zeman, often called the ‘Czech Melies‘, uses Verne as a jumping off point for madcap escapades as a group of schoolboys makes a bid for freedom from an oppressive and corrupt regime.

Brave, bright eyed, loyal and combative, they steal an airship and fly to a remote island, and in their absence are tried in their absence and sentenced to hang.

Zeman’s energy and imagination are boundless and we’re treated to a multitude of Heath Robinson-style devices and flying contraptions, as well as Mission Impossible-style face masks, sharks, shotgun-toting boot-makers, dancing ducks, and pirates.

Heath Robinson, I presume?

Among the fights, physical humour and acrobatic antics, a woman castaway becomes allies with boys and together they run rings around the men trying to subdue them.

Old buoy; Captain Nemo

In the middle of the madness, and lifted from The Mysterious Island, there’s a brief meeting with Verne’s most memorable creation, Captain Nemo, who’s portrayed as a tech-loving Methuselah, while his submarine, the Nautilus, is handily labelled ‘Nautilus’.

Ideas tumble over each other at dizzying speed in a bewildering mix of illustrative styles, musical interludes, and stock footage.

Much of Zeman’s style may seem familiar to you and that’s likely due to his influencing not only his countryman, the famed animator Jan Svankmajer, but also to the filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, and Wes Anderson.

Spies are us

More specifically, The Stolen Airship, with it’s love of steampunk tech, a fairground rumpus, zeppelin, an incompetent bowler-hatted spy, and with a corrupt official and his glamorous wife bearing more than passing resemblance to Baron Bomburst and his wife, it seems to have been a considerable influence on the Cubby Broccoli’s 1968 family musical fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I suspect the screenwriter of that film, Road Dahl, would have enjoyed this occasionally macabre and surreal tale with its shades of Kafka. And Zeman’s merry mocking of social conventions and keen eye for the absurdities of life also takes aim at pomposity, greed and stupidity.

Scrumptious? Moi? Truly?

His film is undeniably underpinned by the thrill of freedom, and is unmistakably political in its ruthlessly condemnatory of the military, which along with the corrupt bureaucracy and a surveillance society, are ridiculed throughout.

And there’s also a great deal of courage in Zeman’s needling of authority as this was made in the period immediately before The Prague Spring, the period of political liberalisation and mass protest in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic which ended abruptly at gunpoint on 21 August 1968, when the USSR invaded the country to suppress the reforms.

Absurdly charming, and occasionally just a little bit saucy, I watched it in its native Czech language without subtitles and so lost some of the nuance and detail.

What I received in perfect clarity was Zeman’s breathless collision of invention, cynicism and optimism. An absolute delight throughout, The Stolen Airship beat The Beatles’ psychedelic animation Yellow Submarine, to the punch by a year, and I loved every extraordinary minute of it. Please watch.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1961)

A showcase for the sublime talent of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, this sci-fi fantasy family adventure sensibly swaps the plodding civilisation building of Jules Verne’s source novel for monster action and romance.

Faithful to Verne’s novel, the story begins during the US Civil War where we see a handful of men escape the war in a hot air balloon and cast by a storm to a Pacific Ocean island. And it’s at this point the film and the book depart ways, only to be reunited towards the end with the appearance of Verne’s greatest creation, the legendary sub-aquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Nemo introduces the castaways to the Nautilus

Though not related in to Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is Verne’s other novel featuring Captain Nemo, this version of The Mysterious Island is very much an unofficial sequel in tone and style, and was clearly intended to capitalise on the box office success of previous film, even if the $2m budget of Mysterious Island pales next to the $9m cost of Disney’s movie.

Very much in the Disney mould of the time, the men are suitably manly, the women exist to be rescued and romanced, and everyone is white, except for Neb who is black. He is however promoted from being the freed slave of Verne’s book to a ranking soldier, albeit only a corporal. There’s no pet dog or adopted orang-utan as in the novel, and I doubt Disney would never have failed to include those opportunities for cuteness.

A British production shot at Shepperton Studios, England, it’s directed by Cy Endfield, whose most enduring work is 1964’s action adventure, Zulu, a period war movie set during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War in south-eastern Africa. Well worth a watch, Zulu features the terrific Stanley Baker, a rousing Welsh choir, and is responsible for introducing Michael Caine to the world.

In Endfield’s hands Zulu is a Western in all but name, with British imperialism taking the place of American imperialism. And Enfield similarly delivers Mysterious Island as a Western, and has the story play out – at least until Captain Nemo appears – as disparate frontiers-people coming together to face local challenges to survive. Only with mutated creatures are the principle threat, rather than ‘injuns’.

Plus the pyrrhic endings of both films are free of triumphalism and prefer to strike a downbeat note, suggesting a disillusionment with and a critique of the development of the US, viewing it as an errand of violence, exploitation and squandered utopia.

Sting in the tale

It’s no surprise these are works of Endfield, who was exiled in Europe as a result of being blacklisted by HUAC*.

*HUAC - The House Committee on Un-American Activities - an investigative committee of the United States which investigated alleged subversive activities of citizens and organisations suspected of being communist.

The monsters are crafted by ingenious care and dedication by the peerless stop-motion master, Ray Harryhausen, who enjoyed a lengthy partnership with American producer Charles H. Schneer, one which lasted up to Harryhausen’s final creature feature, 1981’s Clash Of The Titans.

Harryhausen introduces into Verne’s work an creatures of enormous size, including a flightless bird, a crab and giant bees, the latter also appearing in Dwayne Johnson’s 2012 adaptation, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

As well as the stop-motion work, the production uses scale models and giant props such as a crab’s claw. Plus some lovely matte paintings complement the decent location work in Catalonia, Spain.

Lady Fairchild is aiming to survive

The island’s volcano provides lots of bubbling lava which is always great to see on screen, especially when it flows in torrents in the explosive finale. And the underwater photography is fun, as is the ‘incredible’ electric gun.

Plus the lost sunken city finally gives the film something of the sense of the epic, as does the battle with another great Harryhausen addition – a giant octopus. Meanwhile the exterior of Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, owes far more to Disney than to Verne.

Leela, sorry, Elena

In contradiction of Verne’s strict ‘no gals allowed’ policy, a Hollywood sensibility catapults a pair of women onto the island in the glamorous upper class form of Lady Mary Fairchild and her niece Elena, whom the balloonists find washed ashore.

As Lady Fairchild, Joan Greenwood is wonderfully, assertive and courageous in cut-glass accent, and the notorious Rank Films starlet, Beth Rogan, is generally either screaming or swooning, and ends up dressed as Leela from TV’s Dr Who. There’s little room for working class women in the world Verne.

South African-born actor, Dan Jackson, appears as Neb, the only non-white character, and the first of the balloonists to be attacked on the island. Then true to the book, he’s relegated to the domestic sphere while the other four men go off manly adventuring.

But least in this film Neb has the two ladies to keep him company, which must be something of an improvement in circumstance, for in the book he’s left home alone with an adopted orang-utan called Joop.

Neb’s dead, baby. Neb’s dead (almost)

Michael Craig plays Captain Cyrus Harding* as a stolid leader of men, who relies on his rank to lead, instead of any noticeable charisma. Far from being the genius engineer of the book, Harding breaks the balloon’s only control device and is therefore responsible for casting them across the ocean.

*Smith in some versions

Once on the island Harding immediately imposes martial law, and ‘drafts’ into his command the two Confederate balloonists: Sergeant Pencroft and Gideon Spilitt, who serve as light comic relief to Harding‘s gruff leadership.

Firmly men of the Union in the book, they’re now Confederates, presumably to help garner an audience in those US states who were on the losing side of the war.

Having previously originated the role of Riff in West Side Story on Broadway, Michael Callan is enthusiastically energetic as the romantic lead, Herbert Brown and makes an attractive pairing with Beth Rogans Elena.

Best remembered for his role as an agitated police inspector in Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther franchise, Herbert Lom appears as Nemo. Presumably the budget didn’t stretch to a return for Disney’s Nemo, James Mason.

Lom’s late entrance was echoed in 2018’s superhero movie Aquaman, and the Czech-born actor’s accent gives Nemo a sense of being ‘other’, though he doesn’t reveal he’s the deposed Prince Dakkar of India, as happens in the novel. And instead of having a grudge against the British Empire, Nemo is trying to solve the world’s food crisis.

Nemo and the castaways. We’ve circled Neb’s shoulder so you can see him

As with Harryhausen’s other classic productions such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the musical score was composed by Bernard Herrmann. Though it’s more than adequate for this film, the Oscar-winning composer for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver would probably be the first to agree this is not among his finest work.

Mysterious Island hasn’t aged terribly well, the pace will seem slow for a modern action audience and the effects will feel very creaky and stiff. And they don’t represent Harryhausen’s finest work which is undoubtedly the skeleton fight in 1961’s Jason and the Argonauts.

Nevertheless Harryhausen’s work retains its charm and should be appreciated for the craft and dedication involved in its making, and of course it’s part of an important chapter of the history of movie special effects. Plus they anchor this still very watchable film, one of the superior adaptations of Verne’s book.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Mysterious Island (1929)

This epic sci-fi melodrama feature is absolutely terrific fun due in no small part to its gleeful abandoning pretty much all of Jules Verne’s novel on which it’s based.

Discarding fidelity for crazed creative ambition, it hits the creative sweet spot between the high-minded social consciousness and outrageous spectacle of Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic, Metropolis, and the all-out gung ho whizz bang of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon adventure serial.

An army of mermen pull along a captured and tethered submarine

Verne is often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, and 1875’s The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It’s notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the story, and discloses himself to be Dakkar, an Indian Prince deposed by the British Empire.

The novel: absent

There’s an absence of Verne in terms of character or story, but a filmmaker’s love of their source material is never a guarantee of fidelity. Yet the author’s spirit is in every frame of this tremendous movie bursts with Verne’s spirit of adventure, love of exploration, and sublime imagination. Plus it’s wrapped up with a moving and respectful finale.

Plus we have land and underwater battles, a giant squid, an army of humanoid fish people with costumes inspired by Melies, and – I kid you not – a drunken orgy. Verne was a writer who hunted down every opportunity to avoid including women in his stories, and would presumably be aghast at the very thought. Great fun for the rest of us, though.

We’re treated to twice the usual number of submarines and other wondrous technology, plus there’s a volcano, a giant squid and rapacious European powers seeking to overthrow Lionel Barrymore’s Count Andre Dakkar, a generic European aristocrat, rather than the Indian Prince of the novel. The name of Nemo is never mentioned.

However we can sense Verne’s influence extending beyond this film, with Nemo/Dakkar cast as a proto-Dr Who, an irascible older scientist accompanied on his futuristic vessel by two younger and attractive companions to provide across some across-the-class-barricades romance.

You’ll forgive me for occasionally confusing the daughter Sonia here, for the granddaughter Susan in Dr Who. And yes, though the terrific Jacqueline Gadsden’s Susan spends a lot of time waiting to be rescued, is also sexually confident, violently combative, loyal, daring and scientifically trained.

The island itself is not isolated in the Pacific but just offshore the fictional European kingdom of Hetvia, and the story swaps the US Civil War for an attempted European coup. There are no balloonists, dog, castaways or pirates, and no sign of the former slave Neb, or indeed any non-white characters.

Dakkar is a scientist inventor and an egalitarian hero in this version, while the villainous black-caped Baron Falon and his army of henchmen resemble Cossack horsemen, whose invasion of Dakkar’s island home seems designed to invoke the 1917 Russian revolution and the threat of Communism. It also speaks against over-reaching power of European monarchy and in favour of the equality of all ‘men’. That is, it seems designed to play to the political prejudices of its audience in the New World by demonising the Old World.

‘I dunno boss, it sounds as if they’re singing. Something about, radio gaga?’

Produced on a grand scale which suggests this was intended as a Hollywood response to Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, the filmmakers commit to their barking vision in quite magnificent style. We’re encouraged to gasp in awe at the glorious Art Deco design, extensive use of miniatures, large crowds of extras posing as workmen, futuristic control consoles and prodigious industrial machinery.

Plus they give us giant underwater lizards interacting with live action humans long before Ray Harryhausen did it in the stop-motion classic One Million Years BC. And the giant octopus is wonderful. Various sizes of submarines and parts of submarines are used, with the smaller scale models possessing a lovely Gerry Anderson charm, and clearly inspired the look and feel of 1936’s Flash Gordon. Watching this you realise Gordon‘s rocket ships were really re-tooled flying submarines.

It’s not all a hymn to modernity and the machine age though, with the story drawing on imagery of European legend as a beautiful maiden is used as a Siren to draw an enormous sea beast to its doom.

And we’re given actual hymns, with sweaty chest-baring workmen praising god in song as a prelude to a submarine launch, a surprisingly moving scene in itself despite it being presumably included as a calculated appeal to a US Christian audience.

The not-Nautilus is ready for blast-off

Writer and director Lucien Hubbard previously produced 1927’s Oscar winner, Wings, and he fills his 90 minute running time with all manner of great stuff, such as platoons of horse guards, sunken triremes, a duel to the death and a race to repair a sub before the crew asphyxiates.

Hubbard provides us with some very impressive underwater photography where he can, and the rest of the time he uses theatrical tricks, such as making the diving-suited actors mimicking the effect of walking in water, much as later films would have actors mimic the effect of zero gravity.

And the use of sound in this this hybrid production reminds us there was no clear divide between ‘Silent’ films, and Talkies’. Many of Barrymore’s scenes’ using synchronised sound for his dialogue, and inter-title cards used elsewhere.

Plus it’s as noisy as hell. The constant score is accompanied by wonderful and frequent array of industrial noise hisses and clanks, plus hoofbeats, gunfire, animal noises, sung prayers and general alarum.

Despite the name this tremendous entertainment bears almost no relation to the novel, but it captures something of the spirit of Verne, while speaking to the versatility of his ideas and the great flexibility of his greatest creation, Captain Nemo.

I enjoyed this immensely, and if you’re more a submarine than sci-fi fan, there’s still plenty for you to enjoy as well, so dive right in.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

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

An analysis of William Shakespeare’s most undervalued character to re-evaluate her place in his canon and importance to his work.

Waterhouse.jpg

Miranda by John Waterhouse, 1916

Miranda is the only speaking female speaking role 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 comedies. 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
Richard Harris as Arthur

In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from Hollywood action star to a timeless heroic symbol of 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 its 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, mortally wounded in action and is 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 establish Bond’s mythical status.

Skyfall
007 goes sky falling

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.

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 led by a former British agent.

De la croix
Grave matters

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

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

De la Croix is revealed to be the maiden name of Bond’s mother. 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 the mistress of his MI6 colleague-turned-enemy. Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of his former ally, the Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

Dragon mouth
Enter the dragon

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 significance of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson, as Bond races to her rescue.

Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes as ‘M’

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

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would be 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 a saviour of the English.

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

@ChrisHunneysett

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

No time to die

Daniel Craig’s much delayed swan song as the world’s most famous spy concludes in spectacular style, proving once again that when it comes to being James Bond, nobody does it better.

Bond has always tailored himself in the cultural clothing of the time and now he’s refit for the #MeToo era, and his latest mission sees him not only saving the world but also being held to account for his litany of misogyny going back to the first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No.

And the most powerful asset of this globetrotting action thriller is Craig’s willingness to the essay 007’s psychological pain, a bravura performance from a script which leans purposely on aspects of Greek tragedy.

Classical allusions include a scientific project called Herakles, a henchman nicknamed Cyclops, and Ralph Fiennes’ ‘M’ suffering an enormous bout of hubris. Meanwhile the traditional pre-title sequence plays as a prologue setting out the key characters as well as the more standard 007 action set-piece. And later we’re treated to a 21st century spin on a gouging of the eyes.

These elements are no cheap grab for cultural gravitas, but are embedded in the script’s DNA. Nor are allusions to myth and legend new to Bond, feel free to read about Skyfall placing Bond on a pedestal next to King Arthur, here.

Bond suffers emotional and physical punishment which leaves him bruised, bloodied and bereft. And the closer Bond gets to happiness the more his suffering and the dramatic stakes increase. It’s a dilemma which illuminates the dark heart of Bond.

Since Judi Dench’s ‘M’ called Pierce Brosnan’s Bond ‘a misogynist dinosaur’ in 1995’s Goldeneye, the franchise filmmakers have grappled with the sexism of Bond the man, and the franchise. However No Time To Die sees a reset of values, and Bond is made to suffer a series of humblings at the hands of a pair of high-achieving younger female agents.

British star Lashana Lynch and Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas excel as play agents of MI6 and the CIA respectively, they’re equally as ruthless and skilled as Bond, and each essay a very different brand of humour. Plus the former answers the question, could we have a non-white and/or female 007, with a resounding yes.

This is all welcome but I wasn’t expecting for Bond to apologise and then attempt to atone for a lifetime of sexist behaviour. This would be a jaw-dropping move in any popcorn blockbuster, never mind the 007 franchise. Don’t assume this means Bond has gone ‘soft’. When the need arises he remains an absolute cold-blooded assassin.

With Rami Malek’s terrorist mastermind called Lyutsifer Safin plotting biological warfare, this leads to a not-so-subtle allusion to the dangers of Bond’s life of promiscuity. This is a long way from 1987’s The Living Daylights which arrived in during the AIDS epidemic, where the response of Timothy Dalton’s Bond was to keep the number of his sexual partners below three.

Having Bond confront the effect of his long-standing toxic relationship with women is presumably intended to wipe clean Bond’s ledger, a necessary step in the characters reinvention if he wants to successfully navigate the changing cultural landscape.

Billie Eilish’s haunting Grammy-winning title song sets the tone for this emotional smackdown, and the pre-title sequence offers a nod to Dr. No, before updating the long-since retired silhouettes of dancing naked women, with images of a fallen Britannia.

Craig carries us through this process with an extraordinary feat of acting, unlike anything we’ve seen in this franchise before. Having once rashly promised to ‘slash my wrists’ rather than play Bond again, the actor seems energised by the prospect of putting Bond to bed.

He strains every considerable muscle to deliver a performance which is not only hugely physically demanding for a man of our age, but dramatically impressive, wryly funny, and profoundly emotional. Craig gives it all he’s got left in the tank, and absolutely smashes it among the enormous explosions, high-speed chases and ferocious fights.

The car chases have a tremendous bone-shaking authenticity, and the four – spot them – different variations of Bond’s Aston Martin car, will have petrolheads purring with avaricious delight. Plus we have a return to the gadgets that Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ once dismissed.

Shot through with all the gun-toting glamour you’d expect, we see 007 gunning for Safin who operates from a secret lair worthy of the great Bond villains. Frankly we’ve been long overdue a proper Bond villain threatening death to millions of people, and the return to world-saving stakes are something of a relief.

Craig was cast as 007 in response to the Jason Bourne series. And having seen off that box office threat, the producers have turned their attention to Bond’s current box office adversaries, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies.

Similar to Cruise’s agent Hunt, Bond is now the leader of a diverse if undeniably posh and British team, with Naomie Harris, Whishaw, and Fiennes reprising their roles as Moneypenny, ‘Q’ and ‘M’, and they provide plenty of humour as Bond’s surrogate family.

Legacy and family are the key themes of this mission, not least with the return of Christoph Waltz as 007’s foster brother and arch-enemy, Blofeld.

Boy, this film does not disappoint. At an extravagant 163 minutes it’s the longest Bond film yet, and uses it’s running time to bring Craig’s five film 007 tenure to a satisfying climax, and comes extremely close to allowing him to depart on an all time high.

The end credits conclude withe familiar promise James Bond will return, and with Craig leaving the series in the rudest of health I can’t wait to see the face of the future.

5/5 stars

@ChrisHunneysett

James Bond 007: Top 10 villains

10 Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee)

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

At 6 ft 4 in tall, Lee brings stature as well a smooth sophistication to his role of a former KGB agent turned world’s best assassin who charges one million dollars per kill.
His favourite weapon is a gold cigarette and pen combination which transforms into a pistol, and he flies a car with detachable wings.
As well as commanding a deadly martial arts academy, he has the murderous butler Nick Nack, played with venomous glee by the diminutive Hervé Villechaize, to assist him. And the lair is an idyllic Far East island armed with a solar-powered laser cannon.
But Lee is too relaxed to intimidate the audience, and the funhouse through which Scaramanga pursues his victims is a too much ‘end of the pier entertainment’, and his underwhelming evil plot to auction off a solar energy device to the highest bidder is less world dictator and more ripoff energy salesman.

9 Tiago ‘Raoul Silva’ Rodriguez (Javier Bardem)

Skyfall (2012)

Many women have flirted with Bond in his career, but none with the same degree of outrageous camp as this former MI6 agent turned cyberterrorist.
We’re never entirely sure if Silva wants to kiss or kill 007, but the film certainly questions just how far Bond is prepared tot go to defend Queen and country.
Silva targets his former colleagues at MI6 in revenge against Bond’s boss, M, against whom he holds a homicidal grudge after a faulty cyanide capsule left him needing some botox and dental work.
Attacking Bond with a tube train demonstrates imaginative theatrical flair, and a logistical ability not normally associated with London transport.
However there’s a handful of henchmen rather than an army, and as his ruined city lair lacks luxurious comfort and a shark tank, it has to compensate with a decent internet connection.

8 Gustav Graves / Colonel Moon (Toby Stephens / Will Yun Lee)

Die Another Day (2002)

Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 sees him go head to head with millionaire entrepreneur Gustav Graves, an extreme sports enthusiast who’s also the alter ego of Colonel Moon, a North Korean military officer who‘s used gene therapy technology to change his appearance. However neither identity are terribly threatening.
His arctic gin and ice palace lair may lack a shark tank and underfloor heating, but it does have some nifty snowmobiles, a soft top car armed with a machine gun, and a deadly ice chandelier.
He also has a deadly henchwoman in Rosamund Pike’s aptly named Miranda Frost.
Diamond smuggling plays a part in Graves’ plot to allow North Korean troops to invade South Korea, and potentially trigger a third World War.
So at least Bond has something else to keep his hands full, when not tangling with Halle Berry’s high-diving CIA agent, Jinx.

7 Dr. Kananga / Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto)

Live and Let Die (1973)

Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond was very much down to earth compared to the out of this world thrills of Moonraker, and finds himself up against a Harlem gangster, whose grand scheme is to become the monopoly supplier of heroin in the US.
Yes it’s a serious problem but it’s not quite in the same world-saving league as Sean Connery’s movies or even Moore’s later ones.
However the villain’s lair does contain a shark tank, so bonus points for that, and the dastardly plot is backed up by Jane Seymour’s beautiful tarot card reader called Solitaire, a coffin of venomous snakes, a team of henchmen driving speedboats through the Louisiana swamp, and a pool of hungry crocodiles from which Bond must hotfoot it away.
Kotto’s formidably charismatic presence more than compensates for his characters earth-bound ambition, and the deadly prosthetic arm of his primary henchman, Tee Hee, is no laughing matter.

6 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean)

GoldenEye (1995)

In his first outing as Bond, Pierce Brosnan has to face a villain who’s not only 007’s equal, but also a former friend and fellow British spy, 006, he allows the film to ask the question, what if Bond were the bad guy?
Bean is terrific as the agent-turned-villain, swapping his native Yorkshire accent for something more upper class, and enjoys taunting 007 as he rockets around post-Communist Russia in a fabulous lair, a nuclear missile-carrying train, from where he plots the theft of the technology controlling a super-powerful satellite-based weapon.
Yes, there’s a conspicuous lack of an army of henchmen, however his formidable henchwoman Xenia Onatopp, is a breathtaking fighter pilot who kills her enemies with her thighs.
Sadly Trevelyan doesn’t want to rule the world or re-start civilisation, and though he’s not the last former spy wanting revenge on the British government, he is the first, which boots him up the list.

5 Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe)

Goldfinger (1964)

A villain so memorable he’s given the ultimate honour of being the first villain to put his name to a Bond film’s iconic theme song, performed by the awesome Shirley Bassey, with a thunderous take-no-prisoners conviction.
Goldfinger does take prisoners however, and enjoys tying them to a gurney and slicing them with a laser. But he doesn’t expect them to talk – or sing – while it’s happening.
German actor Fröbe plays the golf cheat bullion dealer with a carnivalesque energy, and as well as being assisted by a fleet of foxy female assassins led by Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, he has the bowler-hat throwing Oddjob, as a henchman.
However, despite having enough gold to drown his enemies in the stuff, Goldfinger has no real lair to speak of, and his lacklustre ambition to irradiate the US gold reserves is closer to a get rich scheme than world domination, making Goldfinger a silver medalist of villainy.

4 Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

A megalomaniac who prefers fish to people and is vaguely based on Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Stromberg lives in a luxurious space-age underwater lair called Atlantis.
A city-sized submersible, it comes complete with its own shark pool, to whom Stromberg despatches those underlings who fail him.
I miss the days when Bond villains kept sharks as pets.
However Stromberg’s other toys include a helicopter gunship, a fleet of mini-subs, and an enormous new supertanker big enough to swallow British and Soviet ballistic-missile submarines.
As well as the essential army of henchmen, he’s the first Bond villain to employ Jaws to do his dirty work.
Meanwhile his nefarious plan is to trigger a third World War and then recreate a new civilisation underwater. And that’s the kind of barking mad scheme that the villains which follow could take a few pointers from.

3 Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman)

Dr. No (1962)

A mad scientist possessing mechanical hands and a nuclear powered luxury secret lair on a Caribbean island, the very first Bond villain remains one of the best.
Urbane, sophisticated and with a taste for giant fishtanks in the dining room, Dr. No is a former treasurer of Chinese gangsters who after absconding with a stash of gold is now working for SPECTRE, and using a nuclear radio beam to destroy US missiles.
Dr, No insists his henchmen are equipped with cyanide-laced cigarettes so they can suicide if they’re caught, and arms them with a flame-throwing tank disguised as a dragon, as well as more standard weapons such as machine guns and err, tarantulas.
Believing criminal brains to be always superior, Dr. No offers Sean Connery’s 007 a job, before suffering one of the great dramatic Bond villain deaths, boiling in his own nuclear reactor.

2 Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale)

Moonraker (1979)

A bearded billionaire entrepreneur with dreams of colonising space seems far more relevant today than it did back in 1979, when this Bond baddie boldly went where no 007 villain had been before.
Roger Moore’s Bond is forced to blast off into orbit to prevent Drax from shooting a nerve agent at planet Earth, poisoning the atmosphere and killing off the human race.
And that’s only part one of the plan. After wards he‘s set to rebuild humanity in space with carefully selected humans, with many of his new ‘master race’ being highly attractive young women.
Helping Drax build this space nirvana is an army of laser rifle-toting astronauts, as well as was one of the greatest henchmen of the series, the metal-teethed giant mercenary assassin, Jaws.
However Drax’s dastardly plan is thwarted when Bond shoots him with a poisoned dart, after which Bond attempts re-entry with beautiful CIA agent, Dr Holly Goodhead.

1 Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence)

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Boasting an army of henchmen housed in a hi-tech volcanic mountain lair which includes a heliport and monorail plus a pool of deadly piranha fish, the first proper appearance of bald and facially scarred arch-enemy Blofeld, shows him in all his iconic white cat-stroking, and Chairman Mao-suited glory.
The ruthless head of terrorist organisation SPECTRE not only overshadows every following Bond villain, but set the bar for all the world conquering spy villains everywhere.
The Nottinghamshire-born Pleasance brings a wonderfully articulate malevolence to the role, which was written by kids author, Roald Dahl, who knew a thing or two about creating memorable baddies.
And Pleasance’s reward is to have been endlessly copied, spoofed and parodied, most notably by Mike Myers as Dr Evil, in his Austin Powers comedy spy franchise.
Blofeld is being paid by China to provoke nuclear war between the US and the USSR, and what’s his price to execute this evil plan? One hundred million dollars.

Mike Meyers as Dr Evil

Mysterious Island (1951)

Treating Jules Verne’s 1875 novel The Mysterious Island as a leaping off point, this black and white sci-fi adventure serial of 1951 is a throwback to two decades earlier and the days when Larry Buster Crabbe took to the skies as Flash Gordon.

Yes it’s preposterous and silly, yet it’s also daftly enjoyable, due in large part to its enthusiastic and impressively straight-faced cast, as well as for possessing none of Verne’s reluctance to embrace cosmic romance.

Verne’s book is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and is notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

The novel: hot air

Set during the US Civil War, the book sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where Captain Nemo assists their survival.

This fifteen chapter movie serial from Columbia Pictures is subtitled ‘Captain Harding’s Fabulous Adventures’, with the upright engineering officer and leader of the balloonists is played with no-nonsense square-jawed heroism by Richard Crane.

It all begins faithfully enough, and spending a lot time at the Civil War allows for plenty of opportunity to hook in any Western fans who may be watching by mistake.

 My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan

Anyway, five intrepid men and a dog escape in a balloon from a stockade, and when a storm carries them to an island they have to – check notes – foil an alien invasion.

As Verne’s novel is a bit of a slog, I can’t help but think had the author known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction‘ built this kind of excitement into his story, it might be more widely read today. Sadly Verne never did and the world had to wait until HG Wells‘ arrived for Martians to invade.

Bring out the gimp

The alien invaders of this story however, are from Mercury, a nod perhaps to Orson WellesMercury Theatre, whose 1938 radio play of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ became infamous for terrifying those who listened to it. Well, perhaps not. There isn’t the budget here for that kind of meta-behaviour.

Referred to as ‘a girl’ who has ‘the appearance of one from another planet’, Karen Randle manages to maintain her dignity as the comely alien scientist, Rulu, whose mission is to extract a super explosive element in order to conquer the Earth, using a laser gun and a mind-controlling wand.

And then you simply reverse the polarity of the neutron flow

Caught between the Volcano People and Mercurians, err, Mercutions? Mercuroorians? Ohh, whatever. Caught between the Volcano People and aliens, the balloonists are assisted in saving the world by Leonard Penn as the suave and avuncular Captain Nemo, who appears early but doesn’t have much to do.

African American actor Bernard Hamilton, plays Neb. He’s billed last, is often stood apart from the others or excluded from the frame entirely, and is generally the last man in line as the balloonists queue up to escape from yet another threat.

There’s a huge amount of what looks suspiciously like stock footage used at the beginning, and the costumes and props have been recycled from a production with a more generous budget than this. Which I’m guessing is any other production.

Neb; not first

The emphasis is on action with many enthusiastic fistfights and shoot-outs. Director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, a name who you may feel compelled to partially invoke at the serial’s weaker moments, seems happy enough to always accept the first take of any shot, and the editor is seemingly under strict to always, but always, cut to the chase. Plus there’s a lot of running about the Southern California countryside, later to be a favourite location of TV’s sci-fi series Star Trek.

The story rockets breathlessly along as if it’s scared it might lose your attention at any moment, consequently the balloonists aren’t able to do any of the building and farming work which occupies much of their time in the novel.

Neb, not even third

On the plus side the writers know their audience and the myths and fears of the US are played upon by dressing the pirates as English merchant seamen, a decision which has echoes of the Revolutionary War, and the technologically advanced alien invaders point to 1950’s anti-Soviet paranoia.

I have a strong nostalgic liking for this kind of nonsense, especially as no-one involved in this is under illusion as to the value of what they’re making. Cast and crew are all aware they’re making a disposable action adventure for kids of all ages, but everyone gets stuck in like the pros they are, and their love of the game is just about enough to overcome myriad shortcomings and jolly the audience along with them for the ride.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Mysterious Island (1941)

A USSR production, this historical action adventure is a straightforward and mainly faithful rendering of Jules Verne’s novel of 1875. Undermined by a varying mix of production values, it’s most notable for taking Verne’s celebration of the energy and innovation of the US and subverting it into a dire warning of capitalism’s threat to communism.

The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to Verne’s 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, both featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Being a Russian-language production of the Odessa Film Studio without subtitles, and not having the least command of Russian, all nuance within the film was lost on me, but the melodramatic broad strokes are clear.

A title card; please translate

True to Verne the film begins with a brief battle during the US Civil War and sees four men, a boy and a dog, escape by hot air balloon from a prison to a distant pacific island, where they battle pirates, redeem a wild man of the woods, adopt a pet ape and encounter the legendary Captain Nemo.

Captain Nemo; sleeping with the fishes

Eduard Pentslin’s only directed five features of which this was his second, and there’s nothing in his approach to filmmaking or to the material to suggest he should have directed more. His camera is too often and simply pointed at characters while they stand about in conversation, so on the rare occasions we’re treated to a screen wipe or whip pan, it’s quite alarming.

A midnight swim to recce a pirate ship is nicely staged, the subsequent shoot-out raises the spectre of excitement, and the volcano is impressive. But none of this is wildly exciting.

The novel

However the location work is strong, with the mountainous island composed of vertiginous slopes and wild crashing surf, all of which offers a much needed and welcome sense of the epic. And though I don’t know where it was filmed I do know the actors are risking life and limb in those breakers on the beach.

The acting style is perhaps best described as theatrically manly, and while there’s lots of joshing it never quite slips into full thigh-slapping panto-mode.

As the book spans several years, inter-title cards fill in time gaps in the narrative, and their use seem wildly outdated for a film arriving two years after the vivid Technicolor dream of Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz.

Stock footage is used to add colour rather than thrills or narrative, and though it was common practice for a considerable time after this movie, the monkeys and leopards which supposedly populate the island are so clearly library footage they feel as if they’re dropped in from a great height from a different continent.

In contrast to many other adaptations, the character of Jupe the orang-utan is included, and though his close-ups are inserts of a real orang-utan, actor Andrei Sova gets to monkey around in a hairy body suit among the rest of the cast.

Captain Smith: mean, moody, magnificent

Alexei Krasnopolsky is commanding and stern as Captain Smith*, leader of the balloonists, and to my mind resembles Rasputin, the supposedly degenerate ‘mad monk’ associated with the pre-revolutionary Russian royal family.

*Smith is named Harding in some versions of the story.

As the aged Captain Nemo, Nikolai Komissarov sports a biblical beard even more impressive than that belonging to Smith. Nemo’s advanced submarine, the Nautilus, swims very close to Verne’s description, and now submarines had dived from science fiction to science fact, the Nautilus looks ever more alien and advanced.

Of greatest interest is the subtext which twists Verne’s lauding the white male colonisation of the world into a piece of pre-Cold War anti-US propaganda, and double downs on Verne’s own apparent racism in order to do so.

The Nautilus; a craft of joy and beauty

As a determinedly militaristic score plays, the Western capitalist colonists build a thriving civilisation which includes a windmill, carts, boats and an electric telegraph.

Verne considered American expansionism a good thing, but I doubt the Russians agreed, and here American expansionism is very much portrayed as a threat. Americans are first encountered as a society at war with itself and at the end of the film the balloonists are sailing into the sunset leaving a burning paradise in their wake.

However there is a great deal of buffoonery as well and at times I was reminded of Claude Rains’ line in 1942’s classic romantic drama, Casablanca, and his description of the US ‘blundering into Berlin‘.

Central to the negative portrayal of Americans is the African American character of Neb, who in the book is a freed slave turned ‘faithful servant’ to Captain Smith. I’m unsure of the exact nature of their relationship in the film, but Neb is clearly subordinate to Smith.

According to IMDB.com, Robert Ross was an actor of African American descent who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1928 and became ‘the first black man to become a citizen of the USSR’. Alongside Weiland Rodd, Ross was one of only two African American actors employed at Mosfilm, and was also an physical instructor at The Russian State University in Moscow.

Ross plays Neb, who true to the book, is the film’s sole non-white character, is relegated to the ‘female’ role of ‘the domestic’, and is paired with the orang-utan, Jupe*, as comic relief. Neb isn’t the only balloonist to be portrayed as a simple minded buffoon, but his presence is central to the anti-American slant of the film.

*named Joop in the novel

Neb; central to the slant of the film

Though I suspect Verne would decry any suggestion of racism in his work, his paternalist racism is evident in his treatment of Neb, and it fits easily alongside the US doctrine of Manifest destiny, the belief in the God-given superiority of the white race. The survivors of the book take the fortune bequeathed by Nemo to acquire ‘a vast domain in the state of Iowa‘.

Despite Verne being a firm Americanophile, there’s no acknowledgment this Iowan land was available to be bought as a consequence of the removal of the Native Americans to Kansas, allowing Iowa to be admitted into the Union as a state in 1846.

Some filmmakers who’ve adapted The Mysterious Island have displayed their own prejudice by dismissing or marginalising Neb as a character. And nearly all filmmakers have avoided including Jupe at all, though this is probably due more to the difficulties of animal wrangling rather than any sensitivities surrounding race.

I suggest the Russian filmmakers understood exactly Verne’s racism, and decided to use it to further their own political agenda. This version makes strong use of Neb, giving him plenty of screen time and emphasising his relationship with Jupe.

But where Verne regarded African Americans as a lesser race than white Europeans and found humour in elevating Jupe to Neb’s social equal, this film uses the Neb and Jupe comic relief double act to suggest their fellow balloonists, and therefore all Americans – and by extension all western capitalists – as one step closer to animals than the fine upstanding comrades of the USSR.

Hollywood director, D.W. Griffith, would have understood exactly what the Russian filmmakers were doing.

And no doubt ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’s Politburo considered this a helpful message to propagate on the brink of war, as the USSR would have understood themselves to be when this film entered production, and were most definitely at war with Germany by June 1941.

This is a middling adaptation of The Mysterious Island, fascinating for Verne completists and for those for with an interest in pre-Cold War propaganda. Mostly I was left feeling a doofus for not being able to speak or read Russian.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Black Widow

As the titular Russian assassin of Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson is given a run for her money by her equally charismatic and talented co-star, Brit actress Florence Pugh.

In what’s intended as Johansson’s swan song in the role, the competitive pair banter to enjoyable effect in a dead pan manner through a stunt and CGI-filled globetrotting spy action thriller grounded by contemporary concerns.

Fans of the franchise will remember Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff died in 2019’s Avengers Endgame, so it’s no surprise this is set prior to that, and takes place just after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

There are parachutes, avalanches, facially scarred henchmen, a secret lair a Bond villain would be proud of, and a cadre of female assassins Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore would be happy to command. This is Marvel parking their tanks on franchise rival James Bond’s lawn, with all guns blazing while pulling wheelies and doughnuts.

Having been memorably dismissed by Judi Dench’s M as a misogynist dinosaur, 007’s next film No Time To Die features the first female 00 agent, a sign of progress from a franchise which celebrates its 60th birthday next year.

Pre-emptively spiking bond’s progressive guns, Marvel provide us with not one but four female agents, adding to Johansson and Pugh’s dynamic duo the former 007 co-star Olga Kurylenko, as well as cannily casting the Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz. Who happens to be the wife of current Bond, Daniel Craig. None of this is by accident or coincidence.

Brit actor O-T Fagbenle performs the role of ‘Q’ in providing the women with their vehicles, and in case you’re in any doubt where Marvel’s aim is, we’re even given a glimpse Roger Moore’s 007 film, Octopussy on a TV screen.
There are also nods to the Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne series, not least in the casting of one-time Bourne star, Weisz.

This assault on 007’s cinematic space is not only a further demonstration of how flexible and successful Marvel’s ongoing superhero franchise is in aping various genres, but also an example of how attack is the best form of defence.

By aggressively providing what is in essence a gender-flipped Bond film, Marvel deflects justified criticism it’s received by belatedly handing most high profile female Avenger a solo adventure long after Iron Man, Captain America and co. have had multiple films. Even Ant-Man has had two films to call his own.

However Marvel could now perhaps argue ‘we couldn’t make this movie until we’d ‘found’ a Florence Pugh’. i.e. someone who has the requisite star power and screen presence to casually outshine Johansson in her own film.

Having grabbed a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for outgunning Meryl Streep in 2019’s literary period drama Little Women, Pugh’s not the least intimidated by Johansson and is mostly in a playful mood as she steals the film with breathtaking insouciance.

And having chalked up Johansson and Streep as victims during her irresistible rise, it begs the question who else is prepared to be cannon fodder for Pugh’s career?

That said, Johansson is a generous co-star to Pugh, with the screen siblings sharing a squabbling repartee which at one point pointedly echoes that of Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a similar estranged couple rediscovering the meaning of family.

Speaking of the former Bond, Connery, you may mock some of the Russians accents in this film, in which case I suggest you check out Connery’s Russian accent in 1990’s submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, and judge whether such considerations are worth an iota of your time.

The possession of vials of mind control gas power the plot, a deliberate physical manifestation of the exploitation of women by manipulative, violent men, the key theme of the film.

In addressing the issues of the #MeToo movement, the film acknowledges and respects the victims who’ve suffered while emphasising healing and the recovery of independence and self worth, as well as offering a note of optimism.

That said, Australian director Cate Shortland puts confident entertainment at the forefront while spending enough time on character to give emotional weight to the action. If more than one set piece sequence reminds you of 1995’s Bond film Goldeneye, then all that proves is Shortland understands her brief as she brings it all nicely to a boil in a finale featuring a massive aerial assault.

This may sound a familiar ending to seasoned Marvel watchers, but far from being the unimaginative rehashing of a much used idea, it’s best understood as being in keeping with Marvel’s signature finale. It’s not as if Marvel are unaware they keep ending films in this manner.

Exciting, funny and full of in-jokes and references, Marvel fans will find plenty to enjoy, and for everyone else, well, you wait six years for one James Bond movie to arrive and now two are coming along at once.

4/5 stars

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

Deep dive into Verne

Breathtaking in its pioneering use of underwater photography, this silent two-hour feature is a globetrotting epic of action adventure, romance and comedy, and though contains some problematic elements, it’s an early high water mark in Hollywood spectacle, an impressive early entry into the canon of Jules Verne adaptations, and by far the biggest box office success of its year of release.

The novel

An adaptation of not one, but two major works of the man often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, 20,000 Leagues combines elements of two of Verne’s novels, namely 1871’s adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and 1875’s semi-sequel, The Mysterious Island, bringing together the twin adventures of Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

From this rich material we experience a tale of rape, murder, child abuse, kidnap, and betrayals. Plus there are fistfights, a sea battle, a colonial uprising, a reconciliation of long lost family members, as well as ghosts, devils, and real live sharks.

For those not overly familiar with the source material, 20,000 Leagues is set in 1866, and sees Professor Aronnax and two male companions kidnapped by a middle aged and vigorous Nemo, who takes his captives sailing around the globe in his technologically advanced submarine, The Nautilus. Meanwhile The Mysterious Island is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the novel.

The Professor & niece

When it came to adapting this material for his 1916 production, for the sake of cinematic expediency, Verne’s appallingly contradictory timeframe is rightfully given the old heave-ho by Scottish director and screenwriter Stuart Paton, who sensibly also jettisons much of the ballast of Verne’s ponderous scientific explanations, and in true Hollywood fashion introduces female characters to provide romance and intrigue to Verne’s nearly all-male world.

Paton also introduces female characters such as Aronnax’s adult niece, who replaces the manservant Conseil as one of Aronnax’s companions, and on the Mysterious Island there is a young woman wearing a leopard print dress, who replaces the male castaway of the novel. Although Aronnax’s niece plays little part in the film, the female castaway ‘A Child of Nature’ as she’s billed, is central to the story. And yes, though much of what she does is invented by Paton, there’s no denying it’s an exuberant and captivating performance by actress Jane Gail.

Paton’s script cuts back and forth between the parallel stories of Aronnax on The Nautilus, and the escaped balloonists, eventually bringing the plot-lines together in a terrifically staged finale before ending on a note of poignant dignity which I suspect Verne would approve. This is a great example of how to ruthlessly hack an unwieldy source material into a platform for great cinema.

Child of nature, right

Typical of the era, the Asian characters of Nemo and ‘A Child of Nature’ are played in brownface, a now rightfully discredited technique. Yet A Child of Nature’s inclusion allows for an inter-racial Caucasian-Asian romance between her and a balloonist, which is quite the something in a film released the year after D. W. Griffith’s infamously racist, The Birth of a Nation.

This romance doesn’t occur in Verne, and is possibly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features a crew of shipwrecked men encountering a beautiful girl and her wizard father on a desert island. Nemo is explicably described as a ‘wizard’, and also deals with issues of colonialism and race.

On another note, the romance as portrayed may not be interpreted as such as by a modern audience, there’s no explicit kissing for example. However if we the audience are expected and required to interpret two rape scenes as rape scenes, and not ‘just’ assaults, then we’re similarly beholden to interpret their flirtatious behaviour in scenes as romantic and sexual in intent.

Neb, right

However the film is less kind to the balloonist, Neb, Verne’s sole Black character in these books. Treated with jaw-dropping racism in the novel, The Mysterious Island, this film introduces Neb only to quickly cut him from the film. This happens so alarmingly abruptly I first assumed the copy of the film I was watching was missing a reel.

However Neb’s very noticeably absent from an important scene at the end where the cast are brought together. We can only speculate what happened to poor Neb, and why he ended up so ruthlessly dispatched to the cutting room floor. The treatment of Neb and the casting of Nemo in subsequent adaptations is something I’ll address in another post.

Nemo himself stands alongside Sherlock Holmes as a great example of a literary character whose cultural existence has a life beyond his creator, and who’s longevity in the popular consciousness relies far more on countless and varied media interpretations for fame than for people reading the books. Many more people will be familiar with their names than will have ever read the source material.

Featured in graphic novels, cartoons and now in video games, such the 2015 Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order, Nemo’s been portrayed by Russian, Egyptian, Czech, and Puerto Rican actors, as well as by Indian and Pakistani ones. And it’s in The Mysterious Island, not the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, that Verne reveals Nemo is an Indian Prince whose wife and child was murdered by the British during the historical Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as The First War of Independence.

Nemo

It transpires Nemo is really Prince Dakkar, son of the Hindu raja of Bundelkhand, and a descendant of the Muslim Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu of the Kingdom of Mysore. When Verne was writing The British Empire and the Third French Republic were competing for global superiority, and painting the British as the villains would no doubt be a winning strategy for the French writer, and not damage his sales either at home or in the US, a country often celebrated and the source of heroic characters in Verne’s work.

In 1914 when filming of this version of Nemo began production, the world had changed again, with The Great War, as The First World War was then known, was beginning in earnest. And here Nemo’s story is fudged considerably by Paton, who removes some historical context and shifts the blame away from the British.

The map showing India

We learn instead that Nemo’s life in aquatic exile aboard The Nautilus began after he was falsely accused of inciting a rebellion in the unnamed Asian country of his birth, one under colonial rule by an unnamed European. A map on the wall in one scene indicates it is indeed India. However the military uniforms appear more generically European, perhaps French or German than British. It’s possible all Europe colonialism looks the same to Americans. I’m not an expert in military uniform and perhaps the costume department had a surfeit of those costumes readily available.

Nemo’s tragic backstory role in the rebellion is relegated by Verne to a couple of paragraphs, however here it’s portrayed in flashback at the end of the film, with the rebellion allowing for some impressive sets and crowded battle scenes. Rather than being purpose built the sets look suspiciously as if they were borrowed from another production, but they add to the sense of spectacle and allow for a fittingly huge finale.

Williamson bros.

Despite readers of The Mysterious Island being familiar with Nemo’s origin story, interestingly, and presumably for publicity purposes, a title card claims Prince Daakar’s {sic} tragic story has never been told by Verne. The author died in 1905 and so wasn’t available to dispute the claim.

The title cards are fascinating in themselves. The first grandly proclaims this to be ‘The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed’ which is catnip to fans of submarine films such as myself, as well as making this film hugely significant in the realms of special effects and cinematography.

Jules Verne

The second tells us it was directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio, then the third card states the submarine photography was possible by using the inventions of the Williamson brothers, who ‘alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography’ and we’re introduced to the Ernest and George Williamson themselves, who smilingly doff their hats for us. They can be justly proud of their work. And then we’re shown a still photograph of Verne himself, a shame he wasn’t around to see himself honoured so. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had been so honoured by Peter Jackson in his magnificent 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The shark hunt

There’s a strong commitment to exterior location filming, and the underwater work is phenomenal. An astonishing underwater shark hunting trip is executed with the type of contemporary disregard for health and safety associated with the worst excesses of Cecil B. DeMille, which makes for a very exciting watch.

This undersea footage was shot in the Bahamas where Walt Disney 38 years later shot his 1954 James Mason-starring version of 20,000 Leagues, and for the same reasons, a great deal of natural light and very clear water.

In 1916, underwater cameras weren’t used to shoot the underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters, but the Williamson brothers used a system of watertight tubes and mirrors to allow the camera to shoot reflected images of the scenes as they took place.

The exterior of The Nautilus looks very close to how Verne described it, a very smooth cylindrical hull with a wooden platform on top for the crew to stand on. Whether in or on the water, it’s these scenes that make the film such a joy.

According to IMDB.com, 20,000 Leagues was produced at the unadjusted eye-watering cost of $500,000 by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company, a precursor to todays Universal Pictures. And it took a staggering $8million at the box office, comfortably outgrossing the second biggest hit of the year which could only scrape together $2.18million, thank you and goodnight, D. W. Griffith’s non-apology of an historical epic, Intolerance.

For the pioneering underwater photography which captures Verne’s love of technological innovation, this is madly impressive. When added to it being respectful and faithful to the source while offering spectacle, romance, comedy and action adventure, this sets an extraordinarily high bar that many of the subsequent adaptations of Verne fail to reach.

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett