Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

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The Devil to Pay! (1930)

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A fun drama with Ronald Colman as the black sheep of a posh family who’s sold up in Africa and is back to try his luck in England with the money he’s left – which is damn all after he’s bought a cute dog in a pet shop. He catches up with old flame showgirl Myrna Loy and then returns home to take the heat from Papa but inadvertently gets in the way of the engagement of beautiful and wealthy Loretta Young whose grand duke fiance is  not impressed. Colman is great in a spirited performance in which he has a lot of colours, and all of them are charming as he is spied on, tested and does something unexpected. We can pretty much foretell the ending but it’s an entertaining watch. And that dog is great! Written by Frederick Lonsdale and Benjamin Glazer as a follow up to Bulldog Drummond, with music by Alfred Newman, cinematography by Gregg Toland (and George Barnes) and all handled neatly by director George Fitzmaurice who replaced Irving Cummings.

The Nanny Diaries (2007)

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This book is probably the most grimly depressing and dispiriting I have ever read. I literally wanted to barf up civilisation afterwards. It’s a fictionalised account of the experiences of two college grads’ nannying for the well-heeled in NYC. It’s far from Mary Poppins. Yet husband and wife team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini took the Mean Girls framework of an anthropologist’s perspective and have protagonist college grad Anne/Nanny (Scarlett Johansson) use this horrible work experience – which she literally falls into in Central Park – as field work for a graduate programme in anthropology (her minor.) She majored in business so her hard-working nurse mom expects her to be CFO some day not the indentured slave of an Upper East Side non-working lady who lunches, Mrs X (Laura Linney, in a very good performance), just not on normal food. For the first while, you want to abort the awful child Grayer (Nicholas Art) but his behaviour improves and anyhow it’s too late, he’s practically 6. Annie falls for Hayden the Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) who lives on the same floor of the Fifth Ave apartment building while Mr and Mrs X’s marriage falls apart. Annie finds out from the other nannies (they’re an army) that she’s the Type C – 24/7, no time to herself. Paul Giamatti is the philandering husband who gropes hot nanny in the end, bringing to a close everyone’s superficial relationships while Annie gets stiffed (monetarily) by Mrs X. The fantasy construction  of the Museum of Natural History-style dioramas lifts the social commentary, as does the red umbrella which gives Annie flight and amplifies the Poppins references. It’s good to see the Met in such sparkling style after a recent clean-up. This film serves horrible material awfully well and it plays much better than it reads with the Parents’ Society meetings being particularly illuminating about people who breed but don’t actually mother. Strange – but somehow understandable! Johansson is very good and has a nice slapstick physical style and her friendship with Alicia Keys (wearing makeup) is quite believable. A tart treatment of an iffy source.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

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This is one of the greats. Why? It’s about more than its ostensible subject matter, French officers making repeated attempts at escape from their German captors in WW1. Pilots Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio and Pierre Fresnay are taken to a schloss run by commandant Erich Von Stroheim. He and Fresnay are aristocrats and have a mutual understanding of duty and decency. When Fresnay allows his working class colleagues escape, he has to be shot and Von Stroheim has to do it. It’s understood. They stay with a German woman and leave her too, understanding that everything is an illusion. Renoir co-wrote this with Charles Spaak. The title came from a book by economist Norman Angell who theorised about the futility of war in Europe due to common economic interests:  how timely! Featuring Ms Dita Parlo, so beloved of Madonna, to whom she bears a superficial resemblance. To be enjoyed and studied endlessly.

 

 

The Winslow Boy (1948)

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Terence Rattigan’s play is brought to the screen adapted by the man himself (co-written with producer Anatole De Grunwald) and helmed by Anthony Asquith, directing a cast of the great and good of British acting of the time.When little Naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Neil North) is sacked from the Academy accused of stealing a postal order, his stern but scrupulous father (Cedric Hardwicke) takes his word for it and insists on justice for his unfairly accused boy. Daughter Margaret Leighton backs him to the hilt and the case goes to trial with barrister Robert Donat leading the defence. This finely calibrated argument about right and wrong, justice, guilt, innocence, decency and family is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. And how nice it must be to come from a family who don’t hang you out to dry for the fun of it! Fun to see Basil Radford (without Naunton Wayne!) as former cricketer now family solicitor helping out. Everyone pays a high price to see the boy right. Rattigan is little appreciated now but there was a time when his name was a byword for great theatre. Superbly shot by Freddie Young, scored by William Alwyn, this is another wonderful London Films production. Decades later North would play First Lord of the Admiralty in a new interpretation by writer/director David Mamet!