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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Harvey (1950)

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Harvey has overcome not only time and space but any objections. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece who enjoys a daily tipple especially when it’s with his best friend, a six foot three and a half inch rabbit, the titular Harvey. And Harvey is invisible, in Elwood’s words, a pooka (a ghost in Celtic mythology). When Elwood’s social-climbing sister Veta (Josephine Hull) tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium it’s she who winds up incarcerated after she admits she’s heard so much about the rabbit she sometimes sees him too…. Mary Chase’s hit Broadway play ran for a long time and it gets a delightful treatment here with Hull reprising her role:  one of the good visual jokes is her short stature. She has some nice jibes about psychiatry including, That’s all they talk about – sex. Why don’t they get out, take some long walks in the fresh air?! The sanitarium director Dr Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) tries to help Elwood but then he has some experiences with Harvey himself … Chase’s Irish Catholic background helped her conceptualise this invisible helpmate as a kind of friendly ghost and it was one of three of her plays translated to the screen. Delicately handled by director Henry Koster, this was adapted by Oscar Brodney (and an uncredited Myles Connolly) and is perfectly judged between staging and characterisation. Great performances make it an enduring entertainment.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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Whoever heard of a cowardly ghost. It’s 1900 and widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is finally breaking away from the oppression of the awful in-laws, renting a sea cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and maid Martha (Edna Best). That’s despite the estate agent’s advice to take another property because … it’s haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a presumed suicide. When he appears to her on a regular basis he insists it was an accident when he fell asleep in front of the gas fire. They have a frosty relationship but it becomes something more than mutual tolerance and he calls her Lucia because she’s more Amazonian than she believes. He insists on keeping his portrait – in her bedrooom. He is incensed when she cuts down the monkey puzzle he planted himself. He teaches her salty language and by dictating a sensational book – Blood and Swash! – he saves her from penury and a dread return to her late husband’s home. He appears at the most inopportune moments, for a year anyhow. One day at the publisher’s she encounters Uncle Neddy (George Sanders) a most unlikely children’s author. She is romanced, to the grievous jealousy of Daniel. She is the only person who likes the suave one, and the joke’s on her as she finds out one day in London.  The years pass … The paradox at the centre of the story is perfectly encapsulated by Tierney whose very blankness elicited criticism:  for it is the dead seadog who brings her back to life. There’s a very funny scene when he’s seated beside her on the train and the clever writing actually conveys the joke. Philip Dunne adapted the novel The Ghost of Captain Gregg and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick, a pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. This is utterly beguiling, a sheer delight and an enchantment from another time. Directed rather beautifully by Joseph Mankiewicz.

Scarlet Street (1945)

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Fritz Lang reunited his three stars from The Woman in the Window for this darkly subversive noir, an adaptation of a French novel previously filmed by Jean Renoir, and subjected to extreme censorship (it was banned in New York state) probably due to its sordidly suggestive style more than anything explicit. Dudley Nichols adapted the book. Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is the milquetoast cashier and part-time artist, Joan Bennett is Kitty the prostitute who marks him and Dan Duryea is Johnny her crook lover. Chris steals from his wife Adele and his employer to fund an apartment where Kitty can live and he can paint. Kitty and Johnny scheme to sell Chris’ work as hers and he lets them do it – until Adele recognises it in the window of a gallery and everything starts to unravel when her first husband, thought dead, turns up and tries to extort money that Chris doesn’t have because Kitty is keeping the profits from the art … Nasty shrewish women, put-upon men, crooks, whores and thieves, coalesce to form a social portrait of rare compromise and loneliness, desire and despair. Robinson – was he ever young?! – was not impressed with the script and is dull as the man whose life is riven by ambition and normalcy, pulled in so many different directions and bullied by the two women who dominate him. I’ve always found Bennett a little shrill. It’s not the prettiest noir, but it’s one of the more effective if only for the plumbing of the marital theme. The art works produced by John Decker were sent for exhibit at MoMA.

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

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Winter is coming. So my thoughts naturally gravitate to films whose titles reflect grim weather. Political and otherwise … Shamim Sarif adapted his own Cold War novel which has a parallel narrative structure. In 1992 Alexander Ivanov or Sasha (Charles Dance) is living in NYC, a long-time exile from Russia where he was part of the political elite. His artist niece Lauren  (Rebecca Ferguson) lives with him, unaware of his past. Her portrait of her late aunt Katya stirs memories. Between 1959 and 1961 we learn of his romance (he’s played by Sam Reid) with Katya (also Ferguson) a Russian woman turned American agent who was using him for his access to arms secrets and who married him. She had sworn revenge on the Stalinist regime that saw her parents murdered. Her boyfriend Misha (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) helps her but then she really falls in love with Sasha and persuades him to defect with her … In 1992 Lauren wants to go to Moscow for an exhibition and a woman journalist Marina (Antje Traue) with whom she begins having sex is revealed to have a connection to her late aunt’s espionage activities, fully revealed when Sasha visits and Misha (Anthony Head) crawls out of the woodwork. Sasha learns what really happens to his lost love. This starts convincingly, with Sasha’s Cold War defection to the US, but overall the tension in the drama isn’t especially well handled and some of the intimate scenes are not put over well by the cast. Bizarrely, Dance and Head resemble the actors playing each other’s younger selves, which kills the drama. A promising story that seems like something from an entirely different age – until you start listening to the news.

A Stolen Life (1946)

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What could possibly be better than a Bette Davis film? Why, a film with two Bette Davis performances, of course! And this, her first self-produced outing, is a compelling drama with that hoary Forties trope of the good twin/bad twin variety. Reserved artist Kate Bosworth (I know…) goes to visit her cousin Charlie Ruggles at the family’s enormous cottage getaway on Martha’s Vineyard only to fall for lighthouse keeper Glenn Ford, whom Davis ensured to cast. Their cosy dates are usurped by the visit of her identical twin Pat, a confident, glamorous and highly sexed character who masquerades as Kate, steals her beau, marries him and then dies in a boating accident with her twin, after which Kate pretends to be her and discovers the truth about her sister’s life …  This is a brilliant, Grade A  melodrama, a blend of noir, horror and psychology, playing on Davis’ complex duality, all set on open seas, fog-enshrouded cliffs, chi-chi Boston townhouses and an artist’s garret. Davis’ performance as her introverted Self and her own Other  – rumoured to be based on professional nemesis Miriam Hopkins! – is captivating. This was technically a remake, the story having already been made in England before WW2, adapted from the source novel by Karel Benes with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead. But this is very much a Hollywood adaptation by Margaret Buell Wilder and the screenplay came from the practised hand of hit playwright and novelist Catherine Turney, a woman regularly hired by Warner Bros for the films of Davis and her other great rival, Joan Crawford. I’ve written an essay on the subject which you can find here:  http://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part1.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

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The great thing about this is:  the gang’s all here. With added baby for extra flavour. Five years on from saving NYC the Ghostbusters are in disgrace. Venkmann (Bill Murray) has a shonky psychic cable show while Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) are terrible kids’ entertainers and Spengler(Harold Ramis) has a real job in a lab. Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) calls upon them when her kid (from the man she divorced after turning down Murray) displays some haunting behaviour. Add a supernatural sea of sludge sailing through the sewers – an existential despair on the part of city dwellers? – and a very driven diabolist (Peter MacNicol) keen to adopt said baby to channel the demonic Vigo of Carpathia and we have a paranormal debacle. It’s not great and some of the writing is lazy but the players all give it their best in this riff on the original. It’s zany, funny stuff and the baby’s great. Directed again by Ivan Reitman, with supersized slime.