Category: Melodrama

The Last Five Years (US 2014)

Last5yrsposter

The Last Five Years is a film musical based on an off-Broadway 2002 stage musical by Jason Robert Brown (which I hadn’t seen nor heard of until now) and directed by Richard LaGravenese (whom I only know for his screenplay for Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic.) It is a musical melodrama rather than a musical comedy, largely a two-hander, about the rise and fall of a love affair and marriage. It’s the story of a young couple who fall madly in love only to be pushed apart by the complications of life and their relative success and failure in their respective careers. Cathy (Anna Kendrick) plays the small town girl trying to make it in the city as an actor and singer. She meets Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an ambitious young writer (the “new Jonathan Frantzen” according to his agent) searching for a publishing deal. As Jamie’s new novel projects him to the top of the literary scene, Cathy is still doing summer stock musical theatre in Ohio, and their diverging levels of success pose pressing and dire challenges to their relationship.

In a way the film reminded me of the various versions of A Star Is Born in that one of a couple feels the pain of their partner’s success. But whereas A Star Is Born involves the formerly successful partner declining while the other one rises from obscurity, Cathy in The Last Five Years never actually makes it and Jamie’s success combined with Cathy’s failure poisons the relationship.

The film is structured around sixteen scenes, each based on a song, eight for Cathy, seven for Jamie and only one where they sing together in the same scene. This occurs at the halfway point where they are in Central Park and Jamie proposes to Cathy and then the scene segues to their wedding in the same location. They sing first of all separately and then in a duet, the only one in the film. The fact that they don’t sing together, with the exception of this scene, derives from the original stage musical where the two characters sing on the stage alone in alternate scenes, appearing together only in the Central Park scene. I don’t know how effective this was in the stage musical but in the transition to film it could have been problematic. As one of the couple sings, the other stays mostly silent, reacting with looks, gestures, occasional grunts and minimal verbal responses. Sometimes the problem is dealt with one of the couple speaking to the other on the telephone and we infer the other’s responses. And in one scene, the action is conveyed by a Skype conversation. It could have resulted in mannered, one-sided interactions between the characters, but overall, I found this stylistic trope strangely beguiling in the way that it embodies visually the couple growing apart.

The first scene in the film, based on Cathy’s ‘I’m Still Hurting’, (“Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on / Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon / And I’m still hurting.”) tells of the end of the relationship. This revelation might be considered a spoiler; however, the film itself opens with this spoiler as it is the first scene in terms of the plot and the last of the story. (I’m referring here to the distinction between plot and story with story consisting of all the events we see, hear, and infer in chronological order; and plot as the way these events are presented to the audience and which sometimes departs from chronological order.)

After this scene I expected film would flashback to the beginning of their relationship which indeed it does with Jamie’s song, “Shiksa Goddessbut rather than continue the narrative chronologically, we cut to the penultimate scene (in terms of the story’s chronology) – “See I’m Smiling” – which marks the beginning of the end of their relationship five years later. It then reverts to Jamie’s song, ‘Moving Too Fast’, showing the relationship developing in its early stages. What becomes clear is that all of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards to the beginning of their relationship while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. This can be a little confusing at first but you soon grasp that it ‘s neither in chronological order nor a simple flashback. Of course this (double) departure from conventional narrative structure can be seen as gimmicky but, on balance, I found it an effective way the portray the couple drifting apart.

It is a musical as well as a drama and so performance is of paramount importance in both fields. Producers of musicals have the problem of actors who can’t sing (the film has fun at the expense of producers of musicals when Cathy expresses her frustration at a casting session of not being paid enough attention with the lines, “Why am I working so hard, these are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical. Christ!”) and singers who can’t act. Classic Hollywood film musicals used to solve the singing problem by providing – uncredited – dubbing for the voices of well-known actors; for example, Marnie Nixon is only recently getting the credit for her work as the voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But in The Last Five Years the performers cope more than adequately (Jeremy Jordan) and much better than that (Anna Kendrick). With the exception of Into the Woods, I wasn’t too aware of Anna Kendrick as I’m not exactly the demographic for the Twilight films where she got her break as the friend of the character played by Kristen Stewart (whom I wasn’t aware of until Still Alice). An interview in the Guardian last Friday reminded me that I must have seen her with George Clooney in Up In The Air but I don’t remember her. But in this film I found both her acting and singing to be excellent. She handles the fundamentals of dramatic singing — like phrasing and placing enunciation in the right places — so well. And her acting expresses very effectively the extremes of emotion Cathy is subject to.

It helps that Cathy gets the best songs and her characterisation is more nuanced than Jamie’s. Both characters get a comedy number. Jamie’s ‘The Schmuel Song – which I don’t think really worked – is a story about a tailor who achieves his dreams and, apart from cheering Cathy up after another rejection, contains a kind of ‘follow your dreams’ message. Much good it did her. Cathy’s comic song, ‘A Summer in Ohio’,  relates to Jamie (by Skype) just how miserable she is while doing summer in Ohio as Jamie remains in New York. She cheerfully belts out lyrics like, “I could wander Paris after dark / Take a carriage ride through Central Park / But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio / Where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake, Wayne”.

Brown’s score is an eclectic mixture of musical styles drawing on a number of genres  – jazz, rock, pop, Yiddish folk, ‘Sondheimian’. The songs are occasionally soulful. The best song, the break-up song that the film opens with, is quite poignant. The problem is that the subsequent songs don’t match up to this. Only a few of the songs stand out musically as opposed to being acceptable vehicles for developing the drama (though certainly no less than the much vaunted Wicked which I saw last week). This is a pity given the talent available.

Another problem for me is that, apart from a few words of spoken dialogue, it’s a sung-through musical (i.e. virtually all the dialogue sung – cf Les Misérables, Eva, Miss Saigon) and often this leads to a kind of relentlessness, depriving the audience of breathing space. One way of avoiding this is to create a soundtrack where big numbers alternate with a sort of melodic recitative with recurring musical motifs but this is not – with the exception of a section in the I’m Still Smiling scene – the approach of The Last Five Years, which is simply a sequence of songs that lack organic unity.

It seems to have been such a minimal theatrical release that it is more like an advertising campaign for its VOD release (which is where I found the film). The interview in the Guardian with Anna Kendrick I referred to above didn’t even mention the film. This is a pity as, despite the caveats I have expressed, I found the film engaging and enjoyable.

The information on the stage musical comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years

and the film from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years_(film)#Musical_numbers

Here is the UK trailer.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany 2014)

Marie Tourell Søderberg as Inge in 1864 (photo by Per Arnesen)

Marie Tourell Søderberg as Inge in 1864 (photo by Per Arnesen)

The latest Danish serial to be broadcast in the UK is a historical drama focusing on the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’ and its aftermath. I remember studying this as part of British and European political history at school but it is only more recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what a major event the loss of these two provinces was for the Danish state and the Danish people. The serial is being broadcast over four Saturdays with two 57 minute episodes each week. I’m reacting to the first two episodes here but I hope to return once the serial is completed.

To get the history out of the way first, the geopolitics of Northern Europe in the mid-19th century focused on Schleswig, the area of southern Jutland that now straddles the Danish-German border. Along with Holstein to the South, the Duchy of Schleswig had traditionally been ruled by Danish kings even though the two duchies were not officially part of Denmark. In 1849 a new ‘Democratic Constitution’ in Denmark raised the question of sovereignty in the two duchies and the Danes sought to uphold their rights. In 1851 the First Schleswig War ended with the Danes defeating the Prussians, but in 1864 they faced the new Prussian First Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used the dispute over the two duchies that followed the death of the Danish King in 1863 to force a Second Schleswig War in which the Danes were defeated by the combined forces of the German Confederation and Austria. The Danish-speaking region of Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920 but otherwise Denmark was reduced to its current size after the defeat of 1864.

Why was Schlewsig-Holstein so important? It had great strategic importance located at the ‘crossroads’ of trade, East-West and North-South. Russia and the UK were major powers concerned about trade routes and about the growing power of Prussia under Bismarck. Bismarck in turn saw the possibility of a ‘practice war’ for German military development. During the 1850s Denmark moved towards a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and gradually became reconciled to the major loss of territories in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the previous two centuries in a succession of wars with Sweden, losing control over Norway in 1814. With industrialisation arriving in the latter half of the 19th century the Second Schleswig War could be argued to mark the beginning of ‘modern Denmark’. 1864 is thus a ‘national popular’ celebration of a defeat which started the long development towards contemporary prosperity. That’s a huge task for any drama but it’s significant that Danish TV’s biggest budget has been trusted to a filmmaker with strong ideas. Ole Bornedal has written and directed the whole serial (with a co-writer for some episodes). The serial is being broadcast in something like 2.0:1 (on my TV it looks like ‘Scope) and it has a genuine cinematic feel. Certainly in Episode 2 I felt that I was watching a costume/action film rather than a UK style ‘TV costume drama’. It helps that this isn’t a literary adaptation and that Bornedal has a free hand in constructing the narrative.

Lots of money and a free hand isn’t always a good thing, however. I realise that I have seen at least one of Bornedal’s films – Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) – and that was both highly derivative but also full of energy and panache. It isn’t surprising then that 1864 adopts some familiar ‘tropes’ of contemporary film and television. The ‘national moment’ is explored through the device of a modern young woman reading the diaries of her equivalent in the 1850s to an elderly survivor of the Danish land-owning classes. Inge in the 1850s was the daughter of an Estate Manager and her two closest friends as a child are a tenant farmer’s sons. They will go off to war in 1864. The narrative will also follow the wild landowner’s son (the terrific Pilou Asbaek) and various leading political figures in Denmark (plus Otto von Bismarck and his family). Most intriguingly we are also offered the soft power of the leading Danish actress of the period Johanne Louise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen).

This is a serial and the first episode has to work hard to set up characters and situations. For me the story came to life in Episode 2, especially with the arrival of a group of Romany travellers on the estate. There is an obvious reference to contemporary migration just as there is a link via the young men going into the army in 1863 and Danish involvement in Afghanistan more recently. The serial jumps between 1851, 1863-4 and the present and it has been attacked in Denmark for ‘inauthenticity’, ‘political correctness’, ‘propaganda’ etc. I would expect nothing less – it is intended to be a ‘national story’. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect from UK audiences. What I do know is that at times it reminded me of both European cinema and Hollywood depictions of the same period. It’s worth remembering that the main events occur at a time when the American Civil War was at its height. A barn dance/harvest supper at the end of Episode 2 made me think back to my two recent screenings of Far From the Maddening Crowd and also of John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). And, of course, the recent ‘Danish Western’ The Salvation (2014) featured two Danish brothers who migrated to the US after they fought in the Second Schleswig War.

I’m delighted to have two hours of watchable TV for a month but I’ll reserve judgment on the serial until it is completed.

Far From the Madding Crowd (UK 2015)

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba  with Gabriel Oak's dog

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba with Gabriel Oak’s dog

In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to watch the new version of Thomas Hardy’s famous story just a few days after seeing the restoration of the 1967 film. I spent too much time spotting all the events ditched from the script in the new version that runs 119 instead of 169 minutes. That’s quite a chunk of screen time gone. I’ll try to be objective in comparing the two.

The new version is puzzling as a production (from BBC Films and the long-standing UK production company DNA films). I’m guessing that the funding wasn’t there to make something on the epic scale of the original. It was a brave move to hire Thomas Vinterberg whose English language films have so far not matched his Danish successes. I expected something punchy from the director of The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2013) with the same cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Although the latter conjures up some remarkable visual sequences, this doesn’t feel like a project on which Vinterberg was totally free or properly engaged. I think that Carey Mulligan, cast as Bathsheba Everdene, had a fair amount of clout in choosing Matthias Schoenaerts as her co-star (playing the shepherd Gabriel Oak) and she and Schoenaerts offer the best performances in my view. The other strength is the costume design which is truly wonderful. I wasn’t that keen on Ms Mulligan’s hats but her riding gear and several of her dresses are breathtaking, especially a blue one with white decorative motifs that glow in the evening light. As I predicted, Mulligan matches Julie Christie in terms of performance. They present quite different characters so a direct comparison is not useful. Mulligan is a couple of years older than Christie was in 1967. She presents Bathsheba as more virginal, but also more stylish – still ‘girlish’ but with the strength of an ‘independent woman’. The film is worth seeing for Carey Mulligan alone.

Unfortunately much of the rest of the film is less sure about itself. It begins badly with a strange title suggesting that we are “200 miles from London”. Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in Dorset is more like 130 miles. It’s not important, but who thought it was a good idea? As I’ve noted there are some stunning visual sequences, mainly of landscapes in mists, or in ‘magic hour’ lighting etc. – but there are some quite ‘flat’ scenes and at least one dreadful edit. The harrowing sequence depicting Fanny Robbins on the way to the workhouse (which includes this edit) is almost thrown away. I think the main problem is a poor script by David Nicholls who was probably asked to aim for the impossible in trying to condense an eventful novel to produce a two-hour film. Michael Sheen as Boldwood and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy both seem like miscastings to me. They are both fine actors but they don’t have the starpower of their counterparts in the 1967 film, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp and the characters seem a little diminshed as a result. Sturridge in particular is severely hampered by the script which doesn’t give him enough time to explore the character’s complexities. In 1967, for many female audiences in the UK, Stamp was the sexiest man alive, apart, perhaps, for those who fancied Alan Bates (who played Gabriel Oak). What was particularly missing for Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy were key scenes with Fanny and the circus sequence for his return. Instead of being a cad, charming but a little dark, Sturridge’s Troy is reduced to being pretty but brutal.

I looked at a few reviews. Keith has already had a go at Thirza Wakefield in Sight and Sound for a different film and I was intrigued to read her review which on the whole is perceptive and interesting especially about Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as the ‘modern’ woman the script constructs, though she falls into the autuerist trap of referring to ‘Vinterberg’s camera’ (and its references to Victorian paintings), when surely it’s important that it’s the female perspective of Charlotte Brus Christensen. The ‘best’ review (i.e. the one that agrees with me!) is from Fionnuala Halligan in Screendaily – she’s very good on the production team.

In sum, this new adaptation is very good in parts and Carey Mulligan is excellent throughout. She makes a great romantic heroine, but the project lacks the scope of the novel and the scale of the 1967 adaptation. Nevertheless I hope we see more from Vinterberg and Christensen in a UK context. In the meantime, audiences not making thecomparison with the 1967 version will enjoy this adaptation.

Official US trailer (good for showing off the camerawork and Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba):

Woman in Gold (UK/US/Austria 2015)

Randy (Ryan Reynolds) attempts to comfort Maria (Helen Mirren) alongside Humbertos (Daniel Bruhl). at oneof many court/tribunal hearings.

Randy (Ryan Reynolds) attempts to comfort Maria (Helen Mirren) alongside Hubertos (Daniel Brühl). at one of many court/tribunal hearings.

Woman in Gold is a film version of a ‘true story’ that has, as one reviewer put it, been ‘Weinsteined’ to within an inch of its life. This means that it is quite difficult to discuss without dealing with all the opprobrium that producer Harvey Weinstein in particular attracts. The Weinstein touch means that what would otherwise be a mainstream, middlebrow film stuffed with good performances has been accused of all kinds of terrible crimes against history and the representation of arguments about ‘art restitution’ that might be expected from a sober art picture. If we ignore the hot air created by the most violent attacks, this is a crowd-pleasing film marred for some audiences by misjudged action sequences and cartoon villains. At its centre is another striking performance by Helen Mirren that will no doubt attract admirers. However, although her exaggerated Austrian-accented English might be justified by the script, she does create a character that is probably too much like some of her other well-known portrayals.

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds pose before a reproduction of the painting.

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds pose before a reproduction of the painting.

Mirren plays Maria Altman, a woman who we later learn escaped the Holocaust, literally running from the SS in Vienna in 1938. The narrative begins in 1998 when she hires a lawyer to attempt to get back a painting of her aunt stolen by the Nazis and now hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. (The events of 1938 are represented through detailed flashbacks at various points of the narrative.) The lawyer she chooses is ‘Randy’ (Randol), the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg (who left Vienna for the US at the same time as Maria). Played by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds as a tall, intelligent but also rather nervous/vulnerable young man with wire-rimmed spectacles, Randy kept reminding me of Jimmy Stewart playing  the lead in The Glenn Miller Story. When I looked later the resemblance isn’t that close but he certainly has some of that tension between hesitancy and forcefulness that Stewart used so effectively in similar kinds of roles. The film is in effect a two-hander and Reynolds does well to hold his own with Mirren. (I hadn’t seen Reynolds before and his performance seems to have been a surprise for those who know him from action films such as Green Lantern (2011) or X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).)

The drama in the story depends on two aspects of the painting (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907) – one is the ‘personal’, involving the portrait of a beloved aunt and the trigger to remember those left behind during the attacks on Jewish families that followed the Anschluss of 1938. The other is the fact that the painting, one of five commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and painted by Gustav Klimt, was already worth around $100 million in 1998 and was considered a ‘national treasure’ of Austria. The designation ‘Woman in Gold’ was used by the Nazis to describe the painting. These factors underpin the determination of Maria and the Austrian gallery curators to fight a bitter battle through various courts to establish ownership. Unfortunately, the Austrian characters are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner and the merits of their case (i.e. the other issues in the arguments about ‘art restitution’) are lost in the general feelgood tenor of the campaign as conducted by Maria and Randy.

The film ‘works’ for its target audience (the over 50s?) and it is driven by its casting. Director Simon West is a very experienced producer/director in UK film and television and this is a co-production with BBC films. The supporting cast includes cameos from Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce and Charles Dance while the 1938 sequences include performances by Henry Goodman and Allan Corduner. Three prominent German actors appear. Tom Schilling and Moritz Bleibtreu are seen only briefly but Daniel Brühl has a bigger role as Hubertus, a local journalist who supports Maria’s cause. Brühl is a strong actor in German cinema but now seems to pop up in ‘international’ productions in a predictable way. Here he is rather wasted I fear.

The young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) with her husband Fritz (Max Irons)

The young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) with her husband Fritz (Max Irons)

In genre terms the film is primarily, I think, a melodrama – which may be one of the reasons it has been traduced by reviewers who want it to be a Holocaust story or an investigative narrative. The focus is on Maria ‘now’ and the family as it was in 1938 (the starting point of the narrative is the death in Los Angeles of Maria’s sister). There is an attempt to draw some kind of parallel with Randy’s family ‘now’ – he takes risks with his career and his marriage to support Maria. I’m not sure this works. There is a melodrama score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer and I have to confess that my eyes were moist for much of the film. I’m a sucker for Hollywood sentimentality and my critical faculties didn’t kick in until the film ended. Some audiences have drawn parallels with Philomena (UK 2013). This didn’t occur to me but in retrospect I can see the links. Visually Woman in Gold depends on a distinction between the sunny present in Vienna and Southern California and the depiction of 1938 – still bright but with more sepia tones. The ‘escape’ of the young Maria seemed ludicrous to me. However I was impressed by the playing of young Maria by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian actress making a name for herself in the TV series Orphan Black.

This film has a current IMDb rating of 7.5 indicating a strongly favourable audience response but the critics really didn’t like it. I’ve noted what I think are the weaknesses here but I understand why so many have enjoyed the film. One further point, I’ve called it a ‘Hollywood film’. This is mainly because of Harvey Weinstein’s influence. But even then it would be technically an American independent. In fact this is essentially a British film, with Harvey Weinstein as an executive producer. I’m not really sure why it is listed as a US production. Perhaps the Weinstein Company paid for distribution rights ‘up front’ and effectively co-financed the film?