This shortish documentary (84 mins) received some cinema screenings in the UK before being broadcast on BBC2 at the start of June. It also has a planned release in Australia (under the title Tea With the Dames) and IFC has it for the US. The idea for the film couldn’t be simpler. The four surviving ‘grand dames’ of British theatre, film and television meet at Joan Plowright’s country house in Sussex – something they have done regularly in the past, but this time it is a ‘choreographed’ meeting with cameras present and proceedings under the control of director Roger Michell who asks questions off-screen.
Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were all born in 1934. Joan Plowright is a few years older and she is now visually impaired. The film has several jokes about hearing aids which most of the four appear to need. Judi Dench possibly has the highest public profile of the four, regularly appearing on chat shows and telling her anecdotes. Maggie Smith also has a high public profile, here and abroad because of Downton Abbey. Both Judi and Maggie have gained many fans from working on film franchises such as James Bond and Harry Potter respectively. All four women know each other very well, primarily because they met in West End productions as young women and all have a background with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. One of the experiences they share is working with Laurence Olivier – and Joan Plowright married him in 1961 when he was considerably older. They tell stories about Olivier which only strengthen my idea of him as an unpleasant man (and I never really enjoyed his acting either). Much of this discussion is about playing Shakespeare on the stage and therefore something I know little about.
The most enjoyable parts of the film are concerned with finding out about the early lives of the women and how they got into the business. Some photographs of Eileen Atkins as a young teenager dancing in workingmen’s clubs in relatively skimpy outfits might raise a few eyebrows today, but much about her beginnings reminded me of earlier British actors like Ida Lupino and Margaret Lockwood except that Atkins eventually more involved in theatre than cinema. Of all the four, I feel that it is Maggie Smith that made the most impression on me in the 1960s and 1970s, partly through her marriage to Robert Stephens. I think I did see their stage performance together in Coward’s Private Lives in 1972. Judi Dench is a great sport and I’d seen her telling some of the anecdotes that she repeats in this film on earlier chat shows. It was nice to be reminded though of her TV sitcom success in A Fine Romance (1981-4) with her real-life husband Michael Williams. I wish I had learned a bit more about Joan Plowright since apart from The Entertainer (1960) I don’t know her work at all. Eileen Atkins is slightly different because I have seen her in quite a few films, but not necessarily in lead roles.
Since I mainly study films and now never get to West End Theatre any more, my sense of the four great actors is limited, but by bringing the four of them together like this the producers of this film (Sally Angel and Karen Steyn) raise two important issues. One is, why were these four made ‘Dames’? It occurred to me that there are at least three other women of a similar age and breadth of career – Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Sheila Hancock. I don’t know whether they would accept being made a dame (Redgrave is reported as turning one down in 1999 and I imagine that the other two would think twice about it). My point is that it does seem to be an establishment thing. I’m not arguing that Dench and co don’t deserve all their awards, only that some performances seem to have more ‘worth’ in terms of cultural kudos than others (Judi Dench has also worked extensively in the charities sector). Vanessa Redgrave is acting royalty but also politically a supporter of causes not welcomed by the establishment. She and Glenda Jackson outscore the others in terms of film rather than stage or TV work I think. Following on from this point, I think it would be interesting to contrast the seven UK actors I’ve listed above with leading actors in Europe, especially in France. It’s difficult to do this, but my impression is that the well-known stage actors in the UK tend to end up in much more mainstream fare on screen. This week I saw mention of Isabelle Huppert reading two stories from the Marquis de Sade on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Huppert seems capable and willing to do anything that interests her artistically. Would any of our four great dames do something similar? What would audiences think if they did? (If they have done similar things, forgive me, but I think you understand my drift.) Huppert is twenty years younger, but I’m sure Delphine Seyrig (born 1932, died aged 58) would have been game. In the latest honours list, the establishment skipped a generation to make Emma Thompson a fifth dame. She has a strong film background, but again mainly in middlebrow or prestige productions. The British actors who take on the widest variety of roles, such as Tilda Swinton or the late Billie Whitelaw (known for her work with Beckett) tend to get overlooked – they get the next award down, a CBE. Eventually I found this Wikipedia list of ‘dames’ and there are far more actors (stage, film and TV) than I ever imagined (but how could I have forgotten Dame Thora Hird?). My point still stands though – damehood is granted for the things you do that appeal widely to the public.
Nothing Like a Dame is entertaining and part of the BBC’s arts programming. But it’s time we had some serious programming about film culture back on BBC television.
This screening was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.
The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.
The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her perspective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.
What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.
The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.
The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.
After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories
Jessica Chastain was recently voted MVP by Broadcast Film Critics’ Association and received the award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards Ceremony in January 2015. It is the first time this award has been given. Chastain was chosen because of the diversity of screen acting work she has achieved in 2014, namely Miss Julie, the directorial debut of Liv Ullmann; her work on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (in which she acts, but she also contributed to the writing); supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.
Chastain took the opportunity to deflect the award to her collaborators. She used the rest of her time, on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday and in the face of the (then) current controversy about Selma and its lack of Oscar nominations, to quote King and ask for a time of ‘speaking up’ when injustice is seen. Chastain is an actor who does not feel she has to conform to the expectations of her industry, particularly those demanded of female actresses. You can see the whole speech here.
I first saw her alongside Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (2011), a post 9/11 examination of American sense of insecurity and paranoia written and directed by Jeff Nichols (who went on to greater visibility with Mud (2012)). It’s an eerie and unsettling film, in which Chastain had to be reactive to Shannon’s character’s increasingly erratic behaviour and to embody her character’s uncertainty even as she challenges his belief in a coming apocalyptic storm. It showed that Chastain, who has strong, well-defined as well as a beautiful face, could be the emotional centre in the scene without having to dominate it. This is a quality she brought to Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life (2011) in which Chastain (alongside Brad Pitt) had to both be symbols – ‘mother’ or ‘father’ – in this epic (Kubrickian) examination of love and family and a believable, emotional presence. Mallick’s famous control as a director, moving them around within a frame, can lead to an underestimation of what those actors are actively doing to contribute to the overall poetic force of non-conventional cinema. Robert Bresson famously controlled actors’ movement as part of his highly aestheticised approach. Mallick’s use of improvisation – as I remember the butterfly moment (included in the trailer) is one example in The Tree Of Life – shows the freedom and responsibility performers have to understand and direct the action on screen by moving and embodying what they believe the director is trying to achieve.
Chastain is worthy of attention for her screen acting because she is so versatile, encompassing a number of styles for different genres and directors. She has worked in television and theatre, including playing in Wilde’s Salome with Al Pacino, of which a documentary was made. She works on the minutiae – any screen actor such as Michael Fassbender featured earlier on this blog takes on this kind of detail – in order to bring a character into some reality. Chastain, though, distinctly separates herself from the idea of ‘The Method’ which she alludes to here, in a Variety-sponsored discussion between actors here. Her comments call to mind Laurence Olivier’s (apocryphal) exhortation to Dustin Hoffman as the latter suffered for his art on Marathon Man (1976): ‘Try acting, dear boy.’ Acting, for Chastain, is a matter of working together in an area of trust and skill (not the self-absorption that ‘living’ the part demands).
She has, despite this visibility, a tremendous understanding of the kind of restraint that is necessary onscreen to communicate a character who has an inner life, as well as an outer expression. Her second Oscar-nominated performance was for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA operative who moves to be at the centre of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Chastain, working with Kathryn Bigelow as director, seems to recognise that playing this woman has to negotiate the stereotypical gender expectations with a greater finesse than just challenging them head-on. As Maya, the key CIA agent in the search for Osama Bin Laden, she has to embody a character who is strong, analytical, determined and fixated. The gender of the character is significant since these qualities have a greater impact as held by a female rather than a male character. However, if Maya were represented as a driven, emotionless being then no audience could ultimately relate and empathise with her search.
A brief analysis of the film’s opening scene shows how Chastain balances a lot of these conflicting needs even when she has little to say or do onscreen. Zero Dark Thirty became a very controversial film in its depiction of torture. This sequence features the torture by the CIA operatives of a prisoner, it is possible to see how Chastain controls her physical movements in the frame. As we watch, we’re not sure which way this woman will go as regards the torture happening in front of her. This has to be conveyed through very short phrases of dialogue and by small physical gestures. The film opens in the prisoner’s cell and then creates a ‘reveal’ as she takes off a suit outside to show she is, as Dan (Jason Clarke) says, ‘rocking her best suit’ for her first interrogation. The dialogue suggests Maya is the ingénue. As she replies ‘I’m fine’ in an emotionless tone, her body language acts contrapuntally to that statement (main picture above). Chastain also has to work within her placement in the frame (see screen grab below). In the sequence outside, Clarke has all the movement in the frame – crossing in front of Chastain, who is relatively still. In the interrogation room, Clarke and Reda Kateb (the prisoner, Ammar) are in the foreground and frequently shot in medium close up. Clarke and Kateb do a different, difficult acting job working in a much higher emotional register. Chastain stands in the background of the frame or is shown in a cutaway. (Although, importantly, Bigelow and DP Greig Fraser light her in a warm glow whilst leaving Clark’s face in ambiguous shadow).
Chastain builds a picture of a woman who is both determined to make a difference and quite prepared to take part (without a mask) but someone who recoils at the brutality and violence. The cutaway (below) shows her swallowing hard as the interrogation intensifies and she demonstrates her discomfort by averting her eyes with an involuntary movement. The early ambiguity is important since it will playback later in the film – when Maya takes greater charge in a similar situation and when certain events have a strong emotional impact on her. The groundwork for a complex character has been laid immediately.
Chastain, as a female actor, has achieved – and suffered – great visibility. In looking for the Critics Award film again, I found a number of celebrity reports of it, including this critique of her dress entitled: “At least her hair looks good! Jessica Chastain misses the mark in white Asian-inspired frock as she receives MVP honour at Critics’ Choice Awards.” She has also resisted the cat fight that the media wished to inflame between her and Jennifer Lawrence when they were both Oscar-nominated in 2013. Chastain wrote on her Facebook page, in response to these media reports, “I find it very sad that the media makes up bogus stories about women fighting in this industry. Filming The Help [her first Oscar-nominated role] was the most amazing experience and yet, that is the film I’m most asked about in regards to ‘fighting on set’. Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along?” Chastain seems unafraid to have her own opinions and to see social media as an outlet for her own (unmediated) views, a feature which became quickly unusual for celebrity accounts in these times of self-branding.
This is significant, since certain kinds of star image and publicity can blight an actor’s ability to do good work and inhabit characters fully onscreen. What are the models for Chastain’s future career? Here, she discusses her influences and her experiences and is clearly in thrall to the art of filmmaking and has humility in understanding her role within that (see this interview). She is a visible star, but like Julianne Moore (for example) she still seems to have the ability to be credible as a particular type of person, more ordinary than extraordinary. Last year’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an experiment in narrative structure, credited to Ned Benson (although an article I have read that Chastain was strongly involved in the writing process) which tells the story of a relationship breakdown from two perspectives. It was produced as two films – Him and Her. It has had very limited release so far (not in the UK, except at the London Film Festival) and is on European DVD as Them, a film recut out of the first two. In each, Chastain and James McAvoy play the character and then the other character’s perspective of themselves, an opportunity as Chastain says to play different nuances on the same person. The trailer gives some indication of how, in altering from ‘her’ perspective to ‘his’ it is a question of changing small gestures to infer a different emotion. It’s not had strong reviews (and they contain huge spoilers, in case you want to avoid these). However, the New York Times review ends with this strong endorsement of Chastain, despite its misgivings about the film:
She is an actress who short-circuits conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama.
This Hollywood film made mainly in the UK by novice director Rupert Sanders was Kristen Stewart’s second blockbuster lead following the Twilight films (and released between Nos 4 and 5 in that franchise). Neither an outright critical or audience ‘winner’ as such, the film still made nearly $400 million worldwide and was claimed as a major box office hit by its producers and Universal. It cost an estimated $170 million – which by my rule of thumb (a film needs to recoup around three times the production budget to move towards a profit for the producers) means its success was qualified. The questions that interest me are 1) how important was the casting and performance of Kristen Stewart as a factor in audience responses and 2) what are our expectations of narratives created on this scale and with these generic references. The relevant genres here are fantasy, action, war – but surprisingly little of ‘romance’. The source is the Snow White story but here taken back to the original Brothers Grimm story rather than Disney. The worldwide box office suggests that similar stories exist/appeal in non-European cultures (the film did well in East and South East Asia).
The obvious recent franchises which the film relates to are the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/Game of Thrones fantasy worlds. I suspect that these are more ‘coherent’ fictional worlds – but I have very little knowledge of them so I’m happy to be corrected. Snow White has a certain kind of coherence of locations since many scenes were shot in the more rugged parts of the UK. The two main fantasy locations are the ‘Dark Forest’ and the ‘Fairy Kingdom’. Where the former appears as a generic devastated world full of clever CGI trickery, the latter reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke with several almost identical images – most strikingly in the case of the white hart. Miyazaki himself may have borrowed ideas from Western literature but it is the mode of presentation that seems so familiar here. (Guillermo del Toro’s fairies from Pan’s Labyrinth also pop up.) The castle, the focus for the film’s finale, is built on rocks pushing into the sea and though it is a CGI creation it is reminiscent of several such castles in parts of the UK or Northern Europe. I was also reminded of the battle at the end of El Cid (1961). Inside the castle the ‘mirror on the wall’ to which the Evil Queen addresses her famous question “Who is the fairest of them all?” appears to have learned a trick or two from Terminator 2 as it morphs into a molten metal figure. The strangest image for me was that of the Chinese fishing nets in the village of women. I have no idea what this was supposed to summon up but it took me back to Kerala in South India. If none of these intertextual references resonate with audiences perhaps the film’s setting will not seem disjointed – but of course they were leapt on by critics eager to suggest the ersatz qualities of the film.
The casting of a blockbuster like this is crucially important. Budgets of this size imply either a film dominated by cutting-edge technology or an international cast with recognisable stars. The script for the latter must enable some form of consistent performance across the variegated group of actors. Snow White falls somewhere between the two big budget models. The CGI is important, but so are the cast. Since at least the 1930s these kinds of large scale action pictures with historical/fantasy settings have tended towards the casting of British theatre-trained actors or other Anglophone actors with similar training. In 1938 the Australian Errol Flynn crossed swords with the South African Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (with RADA-trained Claude Rains as King John). The current crop of superhero franchises is awash with the modern equivalents of these ‘Imperial actors’ – Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston etc. It isn’t surprising then that Snow White features the South African Charlize Theron and current action hero Australian Chris Hemsworth in two of the three leading roles. Theron is completely at home as the Evil Queen Ravenna. Hemsworth uses an accent I wasn’t able to fathom (he comes across as Mel Gibson channelling Sean Bean) but he too knows what he is doing. How then does Kristen Stewart fit in?
I’ve checked out all Ms Stewart’s roles since 2007 (i.e. her ‘adult’ roles) and she seems to have been cast solely in contemporary or ‘near contemporary’ roles (On the Road is set in the late 1940s). Besides the Twilight series there is only a minor role in Doug Liman’s Jumper which relates to fantasy and the main characters in Twilight relate, I think, to contemporary American teens. Snow White marks a break into a different kind of fantasy, dominated as I’ve suggested by a different acting style. Overall, I think Stewart makes the leap effectively but I do think her vocal delivery is a problem. It isn’t the accent as such, which I didn’t really notice, but the diction and projection. I realised that I had watched several of the other films with subtitles in order to catch her dialogue. On this occasion too there were moments when I couldn’t follow her dialogue. She tends to shorten sentences, to ‘swallow’ the ends of words etc. It’s a naturalistic mode and fits the portrayal of young people in contemporary America but in this kind of film, alongside not just the leads but also the band of renowned British/Irish character actors playing the (eight!) dwarves, it creates a disjuncture. My memory suggests that in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart begins to change her approach – but I must watch that film again. Partly I think it’s just a case of of playing a wider variety of roles. It is interesting though just how many young actors come out of Australia capable of appearing in American and British films with no problems and performing alongside both theatre-trained Brits and Americans. Kristen Stewart has an Australian mother – perhaps she can tap into home advice?
If there is a weakness in the film’s casting it isn’t Kristen Stewart but perhaps it is the lack of star-power in the supporting roles, specifically Ravenna’s brother Finn and ‘Prince William’, Snow White’s childhood playmate and the exiled Duke’s son. Neither actor plays their role badly but they don’t have the presence that a more distinctive figure might bring (although Sam Claflin as William is one of the lead performers in the Hunger Games franchise). On the other hand, truly distinctive performers such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane are included in the controversial decision to use CGI techniques to present character actors as dwarves. McShane could have played Ravenna’s brother and Winstone could have played William’s father.
I think a great deal of the criticism of Kristen Stewart’s performance as Snow White is prompted by her success in Twilight and critics’ (and non-fan audiences’) antipathy to that franchise. It’s worth noting the other aspects of her performance that do contribute to the film. She moves athletically and convincingly enough in the action scenes, but also looks quite regal with her exposed neck and shoulders. Best of all is her portrayal of a Snow White with grimy fingernails and a wild look after a night in the Dark Forest. (The prominent front teeth in the image above contrast with theusual bland white choppers of Hollywood leads.)
IMDb lists Stewart’s salary for the film as $9.5 million. Presumably what the film’s producers are buying is Stewart’s Twilight audience. This prompts consideration of Tom Austin’s 2002 paper, ‘Gone With the Wind Plus Fangs‘: Genre, Taste and Distinction in the Assembly, Marketing and Reception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (included in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale, London: bfi). Austin refers to Hollywood’s ‘commercial aesthetic of aggregation’ that produces a ‘dispersible text’. He identifies Coppola’s Dracula as the first in a cycle of blockbuster classic horror tales and suggests that it is constructed so that it can be marketed in different ways – as an auteur production by Coppola, a star vehicle for any of its four stars, a reworking of a popular myth, a literary adaptation, a horror film etc. Each of these options might appeal to a different audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a slightly different kind of ‘dispersible text’. It is also part of a looser contemporary cycle, this time of reworkings of fairy tales. If Stewart brings the Twilight audience of younger women, Hemsworth also has an audience – crucially more likely to include young males. Charlize Theron may not have a specific following as such, but as Ravenna she offers another interesting role for ‘older’ women (cf with Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods). Just as important perhaps is the array of CGI effects. Director Sanders comes out of TV advertising and he has certainly been able to create striking visual sequences working with Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser and designer Dominic Watkins. The cycle itself might also attract audiences. The real question is how well this aggregation works. I’ve already hinted that the visual style does seem to be too obviously ‘grabbing’ ideas from earlier films – and perhaps not integrating them fully. The low critics/users ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes suggest that the sequel may have difficulty reaching the same size of audience again. Many of the pro and anti comments refer to Kristen Stewart’s performance. The prequel that has now been announced for 2016 replaces Stewart with Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt (Theron and Hemsworth remain) and changes director to Cedric Nicolas Troyan, another novice director who was visual effects director on Snow White. This looks like a gamble to me. Losing Stewart and her fan audience means a big box office hole to fill.
The box office of the prequel will give some indication of how much Kristen Stewart was a ‘star attraction’ in Snow White and the Huntsman and it will be helpful in thinking about the development of Stewart’s star image in 2012.