Producers must have got an idea into their heads that making a film based around even the slightest of historic events will win them prestige and awards. However, one must do the maths. The amount of prestige to be garnered is in proportion to the importance of the events being portrayed. The King’s Speech is about the monarchical crisis in Britain following Edward VIII’s abdication; it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Lincoln portrays the efforts to abolish slavery to end the American Civil War; it was a strong contender for the Best Picture Oscar this year. Hyde Park On Hudson is about royals eating hot dogs and presidents getting handjobs. It’s dreadful.
Bill Murray is everyone’s favourite eccentric charmer, but even he can’t lift this limp (if based in truth) story. In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Murray) became the first US president to host a visit from British royalty. Colin Firth does not reprise his Oscar-winning role (imagine the sequel marketing opportunities! The King Speaks… er, Again?), but Samuel West ably fills his shoes. He and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) embark on their trip to Hyde Park, NY to get support from FDR in case old Mr. Hitler acts up. Had the strategy and politics been the focus, HPOH might have been noteworthy. However, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) thinks he has a culture-clash comedy on his hands. Richard Nelson’s script devotes a lot of time to the prospect of royalty having to consume hot dogs. Unless you’re six years old, there’s nothing particularly funny about hot dogs.
All this is told from the point of view of Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR’s who is summoned to the president’s residence out of the blue. She and FDR form a close bond, sometimes uncomfortably close. Apparently, FDR’s marriage to Eleanor (Olivia Williams, wasted) was more-or-less open, and so he takes a chance to get ‘close’ to cousin. There is no point to this storyline, and historians suggest it’s spurious at best. Presenting FDR as a horny old dog is a move designed to cover up the patchiness elsewhere in the script. A little research goes a long way; a little respect for history goes further still.
West and Colman bring moments of pathos and humour as the royal couple, but even those moments can feel forced. Murray grins his way through this mess, chomping his cigarette holder with gritted teeth in a surprisingly uninteresting performance, all affectation and little insight. He must have realized what kind of a disaster he’d signed up for as soon as he arrived on set, and decided not to give a damn. At its best, Hyde Park On Hudson is a forgettable curio. At its worst, it’s a downright insulting farce.
London is always a joy to visit but, now more than ever, one discovers a city infused with energy. The sunny autumn days that bathe the Southbank streets could well be the afterglow of the success of the Olympic Games, but now the stars are rolling into town for the 56th BFI London Film Festival to dazzle with exciting projects of all shapes and sizes. The annual October-fest may not be regarded as the equal of Cannes or Venice, but considering how many good films and filmmakers it attracts, it’s more than capable of standing alongside them. Indeed, before this writer arrived, the festival had already played host to the gala premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, Michael Haneke and his paean to the ravages of age Amour, and Beyond The Hills, Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to the acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That was just for starters; what treats would the next few days hold?
Marion Cotillard meets her public
One of the big screenings of the first few days was Rust and Bone, the new film from acclaimed director Jacques Audiard. The Saturday night premiere was attended by the director and his leading lady, Marion Cotillard. As a film star, Cotillard occupies the same realm as Sophia Loren – nominally exotic, stunningly beautiful and more than capable of commanding the screen. In Rust and Bone Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a whale trainer at a marine park whose lower legs are amputated after an accident with an orca. Detailing her new and tumultuous relationship with a bouncer-cum-bare-knuckle boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts), it’s an affecting examination of the fight against victimhood. To be sure, it’s miserable but it’s also ably directed, and Cotillard and Schoenaerts are dynamite. The harrowed face of the newly-disabled Stéphanie is a world away from the intimidatingly pretty Cotillard, who gave a public interview with Independent critic Jonathan Romney on Sunday. The conversation revealed a woman who, despite hard work and obvious talent, is modest and realistic about herself, though this impression may be due to her slightly broken English than a faked modesty; she’s proud of her work and the effort that goes into it. She also revealed a great trust in instinct in her performances, and proclaimed her massive love of Will Ferrell! It’s safe to say no-one in the auditorium expected that.
Sunday evening saw the the presentation of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God. The latest documentary from acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), Mea Maxima Culpa details how a report of serial sexual abuse in a school for deaf boys in rural Wisconsin in 1974 began the process of unearthing abuse by Catholic clergy. The documentary goes on to examine how the abuse was revealed across the globe, including extensive examination of the Irish experience. The eventual revelation of Vatican collaboration into covering up the abuse is a given, but seeing their silence married to the suffering of the victims and their honest, open testimonies makes Mea Maxima Culpa a sobering and powerful experience. A Q&A session with Gibney afterwards enriched the experience with his personal insights on the film and the material covered, not least because Gibney was raised Catholic.
The crowds braved the bitter cold in Leicester Square on Monday evening for the premiere of Quartet, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. Whatever the delay in finally turning to directing, Hoffman managed to assemble a fine cast, including Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Dame Maggie Smith. Their press conference revealed an easy-going and chummy cast, all of whom playfully mocked their director’s whims and wishes, though none was more self-deprecating than Hoffman himself. That chumminess extends to the film; Quartet’s tale of a retirement home for former opera singers and musicians is a warm and witty little flick, but it’s also pretty toothless and unchallenging. It’s perfect fodder for you and your granny at a Sunday matinée.
The same autograph hunters and keen punters returned on Tuesday for the Mayor of London’s Centrepiece Gala at the Empire Leicester Square. The regular autograph hounds, both collectors and acquiring for sale, brandished copies of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day as Bill Murray came to town to introduce Hyde Park On Hudson, a retelling of the tumultuous weekend in 1938 when King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) became the first British royalty to visit the United States, calling on president Franklin D. Roosevelt (Murray) at his country home. Murray’s loose beige suit matched the free and easy personality for which he’s known and loved (His opening line was ‘My apologies: I do not speak your language’). He was joined by his co-star West and director Roger Michell, who expressed his pride at returning to his hometown with his film and stars in tow. What a pity, then, that Hyde Park On Hudson is such a forced and awkward film, unsure what to do with its various subplots, its lead characters (the film focuses on FDR and close relationship with his cousin, played by Laura Linney) or its tone. A disappointment, though not enough to dampen the spirits of the folks in the auditorium, dazzled as they were by the presence of a genuine star.
Yet premieres and schedules wait for no stars. No sooner had Hyde Park On Hudson ended but the Empire’s red carpet was being trampled again. A Liar’s Autobiography is the animated and somewhat heightened retelling of the life of Monty Python’s nominal leading man Graham Chapman, and the European premiere of the film brought out a bit of Python in everyone. Fans quoted lines to one another, whilst actors playing King Arthur and Brian (He’s not the Messiah!) traipsed up and down the red carpet. The arrival of Chapman’s fellow Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin set cameras flashing and the autograph-hungry yelling. Introducing the film Palin, Jones and the film’s directors were keen for a laugh but their primary objective was to make something that captured and honoured the late Chapman, and A Liar’s Autobiography delivers. Irreverent, risqué and sometimes all-out camp, it balances great laughs with some bracing honesty about Chapman’s insecurity, homsexuality and alcoholism. To ensure the film lodged in the memory, the London Gay Men’s Choir led the crowd in an enthusiastic rendition of the film’s central musical number, a ditzy ditty entitled ‘Sit On My Face’. Chapman would have doubtlessly approved.
The opening shot of Moonrise Kingdom is of a wall with a picture of a house mounted on it; we then travel around this cosy yet well-appointed two-storey and are introduced to its inhabitants in a series of camera pans and long dolly shots. Why yes, Wes Anderson IS the director. How’d you guess?
Few directors can inspire such strong responses in both his admirers and detractors as Wes Anderson. His critics see his repetitive camera moves and offbeat plots as being overly quirky with little going on underneath. His adherents will bask in the warmth of the storytelling, the minor insanities of his characters and his clear love of the French New Wave. Moonrise Kingdom will do absolutely zilch to convince his critics otherwise, but why change now? His last feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, saw Anderson apply his trademarks to the stop-motion animation process. With its abundance of beiges and determined lack of swearing, Moonrise Kingdom feels like a cartoon made flesh. Imagine if Russell from Up were a few years older, was put on Ritalin and had earned all his merit badges, and you’d get Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). An orphaned boy scout, he goes on the run from his island scout camp with local lass/pen pal/soulmate Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). In their debut film roles, their underplayed delivery is perfect, since no-one except Bill Murray ever knowingly overreacts in a Wes Anderson film.
Murray plays the father to Hayward’s young tearaway, and is just one of a number of folks searching for the star-crossed non-lovers (They’re only 12, after all, though they do share one of the most hilariously awkward kissing scenes to come along in quite a while). Also looking for them are Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand), the local police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and his ever-prepared troop. The adult actors clearly relish the chance to send up their images (Willis and Norton are a long way from Die Hard and Fight Club here), whilst the children are all utterly engaging, brimming with scary levels of confidence. A cartography-inclined narrator, played by a bearded Bob Balaban, is the icing on a sweet little cake. Seriously, you’ll want to pop him in your pocket and take him home as a pet.
Anderson and Roman Coppola’s script imagines a sweet little island haven in 1965 that borders on the twee (No roads, only dirt-tracks, switchboard communication) but has such an attention to detail that you just can’t help but fall for it. It may see Anderson at his most Anderson-esque, but Moonrise Kingdom’s simple story of young love also sees Anderson at his warmest and most accessible. If you do have a prejudice against the overhead shots and samples of ‘60s French pop, your loss.
Lost In Translation has an unfortunate love-hate relationship with its setting, Tokyo. It all looks so bright and bustling and technological, yet it causes little else but grief to two strangers who aren’t necessarily there willingly. When the director thinks one thing and the characters think another, there’s gonna be problems.
Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star going through that apparent right of passage for so many famous actors: advertising for the Japanese market (for examples, see this and this). This is a character Murray fits perfectly; he’s had the highs and lows of a full career, and thus knows the frustrations and angsts of Bob. Bob’s in Tokyo for a photo shoot and promos for Santori whiskey; he appreciates the product but the language barrier, his own messy lot and the overall culture clash leaves him exhausted and bitter. Murray’s lived-in features and droll wit are put to full use here, but Murray also hints at the lonliness birthing the frustration. Indeed, he keeps the rest of Sofia Coppola’s film grounded when it threatens to float away on an air of self-importance. Bob has a kindred spirit in Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), another guest at the same hotel as Bob and the young wife of a professional photographer (Giovanni Ribisi); she finds herself bored in her hotel room whilst he shoots on a job in Tokyo. Maybe it’s the construction of the character (she’s a recent philosophy graduate trying to decide on a career), or maybe it’s Johannson’s obvious beauty clouding whatever acting talent she possesses, but there’s little impetus to empathize with Charlotte. When she and Bob meet, they find a bond in their isolation. Charlotte clearly enjoys the wisdom and humour of the older man, whilst Bob… well, she’s sexy. The lack of empathy for one character impacts on our feelings towards this relationship, and it isn’t helped by the age difference. In writing these characters, Coppola seems obsessed by their lonliness, but not by much else, thus leaving Murray and Johannson to do the rest. After The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s gift for interesting female characters has abandoned her.
Despite this, Lost In Translation does offer up some treats. Murray is the main draw, as he is constantly and consistently perplexed by Japanese living. Whether grappling with an exercise machine or forcing a grin on a camp-as-Christmas talk show, Murray supplies laughs and heart. Tokyo, for all the confusion it causes, is an exciting metropolis and Coppola makes sure to show it off. Garish neon glows brightly as Bob and Charlotte explore and dodge traffic. There’s enough in LIT to keep you interested, but it amuses when it should engage. A fun little Tokyo story, then, but Tokyo Story it ain’t.