The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Truncated and abbreviated to 125 minutes from its intended original 200+ minute running time it might well be, but there is much to love about this Billy Wilder-IAL Diamond screenplay adaptation of everyone’s favourite ‘tec. With two stories instead of the four plus a flashback (apparently available on Laserdisc – remember them?!), Robert Stephens is the intuitive one with Colin Blakely as Watson, whom he pretends to a forward Russian noblewoman is gay to get out of fathering her child. Then he is taken in – for a spell – by a German spy masquerading as a woman in peril (Genevieve Page) with a detour to Scotland where a Jules Verne-esque submersible, Trappist monks and dwarves at Loch Ness are involved in an elaborate scheme which even attracts the attention of Queen Victoria. Brother Mycroft shows up in the person of Christopher Lee. Warm, witty, compassionate and sad, with a beautiful sense of irony, this is the underrated but gorgeously charming film that inspired the current BBC show. Happy International Sherlock Holmes Day!

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Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

The Queen (2006)

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31 August 1997. We all know where we were when we heard the news. It was our generation’s JFK. Or John Lennon. In London the scent of the flowers left for Diana at the gates of Buckingham Palace was overpowering, stretching out to the west, as far as Heathrow Airport. Peter Morgan’s screenplay grasps the nettle of this story’s symbolism – Diana the huntress, hounded to her death. The Queen, a hunter, hiding out in Balmoral. And he extends the symbolism to the hunting of a stag whom she finally feels is a kindred spirit and who is wounded by an investment banker on a neighbouring estate and fatally shot in order to be relieved of his agonies by the proprietor’s men. The knotty issue of Queen Elizabeth II’s controversial response to her former daughter in law’s death in Paris is teased out both on this dramatic cord and that between her and her new Prime Minister, freshly elected Tony Blair (and boy was that a moment). “She hated her guts,” declares Cherie Blair while her husband wrestles with a public announcement which will culminate in his famous speech written by Alastair Campbell, with the line ‘the People’s Princess.’ “”They screwed up her life, let’s hope they don’t screw up her death,” Tony says to Cherie. Prince Charles wants a private jet to take Diana home. The family objects. Ironically he fears being shot, such is the growing public anger to which the Queen and Prince Philip appear oblivious on their 40,000 acre Scottish hunting estate. It’s a private family matter as far as they’re concerned. Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin the Queen’s secretary, plays go-between as the staff at Number 10 try to deal with the mounting crisis, with daily newspaper headlines and TV vox pops expressing public distress at the Queen’s failure to appear in London or even to raise a flag at half mast. “One in four,” muses the Queen when she hears how many people want the monarchy to end. “I’ve never been hated like that before.” How the compromise is reached between this model of royal restraint and the arriviste smiling moderniser is masterfully accomplished with a brisk, clean style effectively delivered by Stephen Frears. And, as Cherie Blair whoops, “At the end of the day, all Labour Prime Ministers go gaga for the Queen.” Witty, sharp, smart as anything and goodness what a time it was, as the extremely well chosen archive clips remind us. Helen Mirren won the Academy Award for a particularly well observed performance. Peter Morgan continues to write about the Royals, to some acclaim! And Mirren continues to play the Queen now and then. But the elephant in the room of course is the absent woman at the drama’s centre – and what a shadow the People’s Princess has left. A considerable achievement in all respects.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

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It starts with an exceedingly tall albino monk committing a religiously-driven murder … that’ll be Lewis Perdue’s thriller The Da Vinci Legacy which someone in the Dan Brown household read and thought it would be a good idea to combine with The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail and whaddyaknow!!!! Blockbuster time. The world and his wife read it and you know what I mean in terms of the lawsuits that went … not very far. Unfair and very harsh, IMHO. The clever thing about the book is that in a very insidious way it makes the armchair thriller reader feel like they know a bit about a wide variety of subjects courtesy of our hero, Harvard symbologist (it’s a thing), Robert Langdon, played here with a very full head of hair by Tom Hanks. He gets blamed for a gruesome murder at the Louvre, teams up with Surete detective Audrey Tautou, does a runner from her Parisian colleagues led by the untrustworthy Jean Reno and while the chase proceeds across the Channel with Ian McKellen bringing us to Temple in London and eventually Rosslyn Chapel, we learn about Opus Dei, the anti-feminist basis of the Roman Catholic Church,  how to drive backwards at speed and how to interpret great art. The lifeblood is drained out of the subject(s) by screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and despite Ron Howard’s efforts to make a fast-moving giallo from the source material it never really comes together. Sigh. Not so much an unreliable narration as an unreliable writer. Just ask Lewis Perdue…