This has recently been added to BBC’s iPlayer in the UK. It’s a strange beast in some ways and I think I would like to have been an observer at whatever meeting took place in early 2015 when Ritesh Batra was offered the chance to direct it. Batra was coming off the back of his successful international début with The Lunchbox (India 2013) and this adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novella must have looked a logical step. It has some elements shared with The Lunchbox, including a focus on letters and postcards – the so-called epistolary narrative – as well as a flashback to an earlier period. Also it features a number of relationships with a pair of parallel relationship narratives involving the central character. On the other hand, Batra had to shift from a ‘middle class’ Indian story to a very different middle-class English milieu. Batra himself has spent a fair amount of time in the US for his film training but I don’t know how well he knows the UK.
Whatever the discussion at this imagined meeting, I don’t think that there was much doubt that this would be a commercial proposition. Batra was still ‘hot’ from The Lunchbox, Barnes is a well-known writer amongst a certain kind of middle-class readership in the UK and internationally and a Booker Prize carries weight with that audience. Added to this the film has a powerful cast of revered UK acting talent and targeted the 60+ plus age group who have shown that they will go to intelligent dramas that are well constructed and performed. The film had the backing of both BBC Films and CBS Films in North America and distribution in the UK by Studio Canal. It opened on 107 screens in the UK and made around £1 million at the UK box office.
The narrative is relatively straightforward but because of the ‘epistolary’ element and the development of a mystery, eventually quite complex. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is the ‘curmudgeon’, a man in his late 60s, divorced and semi-retired – we see just the one mildly irritating customer in his shop where he sells vintage cameras (Leicas in the main). One day he receives a letter informing him that he has been left something in the will of a woman who was the mother of Veronica, a girl he met at university nearly 50 years ago. Intrigued, he attempts to find out what it is all about. A sub-plot, seemingly there to explore his curmudgeonly nature in a different context, concerns his heavily pregnant daughter Susie, a single woman having a child who needs the support of her parents. She’s played by Michelle Dockery and Harriet Walter plays Tony’s ex-wife Margaret with whom he still has a fairly amicable relationship. Eventually we learn that the ‘bequest’ is a diary which Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to produce. What follows traces the events of the early period alongside Tony’s ‘investigation’ and eventual meeting with Veronica as she is now.
I won’t spoil the narrative but I presume that the world it depicts is partly based on memories of Barnes’ time at school and university as interpreted by Nick Payne who adapted the original work. The most significant characters in the 1960s story are Veronica (Freya Mavor), Emily Mortimer as her mother Sarah and Joe Alwyn as Tony’s schoolfriend Adrian. The performances are all strong but for me the presumably commercial decision to go with well-known established actors has undermined aspects of the narrative. Most of the cast are too old for their parts (established actors in their mid 20s playing 18-19 year-olds) and the school/first year university scenes didn’t work for me at all. This too is where the middle-class environment became stifling after a while. Tony’s school is presumably a London grammar/independent school and the university where Tony and Veronica meet is Bristol, the alternative to Oxbridge for the southern middle classes. The plot hinges on decisions Tony did or didn’t make in the past and the whole narrative is about dealing with memories and how they still seem to have resonance in the present. The problem is that the relationships in the film seem lacking in passion and it does seem as if it is a literary exercise of some kind. I found it difficult to engage with Tony as a character. I suppose I wanted to know a bit more about his background and how it might have affected the way in which he engaged with Veronica. I have to confess that the 1960s events deal with issues I recognise and though this did gain my interest it probably also made me more critical.
I’m not sure what Ritesh Batra brought to the film. From his two Indian-set films we know that he can handle actors with sensitivity and he can put across a complex narrative. But I think here the script probably didn’t allow him much opportunity to develop his own ideas. The narrative does have a resolution and London looks attractive, matching the nostalgic glow of the 1960s scenes. DoP Christopher Ross shot the film in 2.35:1 which is unusual for a British drama like this. There are also a few long shots but I didn’t get the sense of a specific style. The choice of music tracks shows a little imagination, mixing The Troggs, Donovan and Nick Drake with Irma Thomas and other blues/soul/jazz artists but Max Richter’s score didn’t do anything for me. I think overall that this was an opportunity lost and the commercial decisions have produced a safe, ‘well-made’ film for an older audience. In my experience that older audience is quite prepared to to engage with more daring stuff. Charlotte Rampling’s presence reminds us of the similarly-themed 45 Years (UK 2015) and I think Andrew Haigh’s film did have the passion this lacked. The school scenes might also have benefited from some of the vitality in An Education (UK 2009) which gave us Carey Mulligan as a relatively new face and made her a star. Rampling also reminds us of the French family dramas she has been part of and by comparison this film is neither arthouse or ‘vitally’ popular. It’s an attempt at the ‘quality film’ market. I wonder what Julian Barnes really thinks about it? Ritesh Batra seems now to be preparing another international film set partly in Africa and, according to IMDb, Julia Roberts on board.
I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.
My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.
The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.
The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:
“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me. You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.
. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)
I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.
Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.
Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!
Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.
I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.
Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).
I wasn’t sure about this film. I’d caught a whiff of indifference from some reviewers and I didn’t have strong expectations (I’d carefully forgotten some of the important contributors to the film).
When I came out of the screening I had the strong sense that I’d just seen one of the films of the year. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen for a long time and there was something about the tone and the sensuous feel that made me think of some examples of classical Japanese Cinema (in particular Ichikawa Kon’s Kokoro (1955) – also a literary adaptation). But when I got home and started reading through the reviews and the comments on IMDB I was dismayed by some of the negative responses and by the assumption that I couldn’t understand the narrative if I hadn’t read the book from which the script was adapted. I also found myself in agreement with the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw – something that happens only rarely. So what is the cause of this confusion?
Norwegian Wood is an adaptation by writer-director Tran Anh Hung of the 1987 Japanese novel of the same title by Murakami Haruki. The novel was inspired by the Beatles song which reminded Murakami of the late 1960s in Japan (supposedly when he heard it in an airport building). Its central character is Watanabe Toru who in the late 1980s begins to reminisce about his time as a young man starting university in Tokyo in the midst of the late 1960s student unrest. He carries with him the memory of the tragedy that befell his best friend in high school, Kizuki. One day he bumps into Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend from home. They begin a relationship but it goes dramatically wrong on Naoko’s 20th birthday. Over the next year, Toru struggles to maintain something with Naoko, who he loves, and to fend off the more assertive Midori who is pursuing him. An older student offers to give him a ‘sentimental education’ in the bars and love hotels of Tokyo, but otherwise the politics of the time and even the conventions of university life pass him by. In his spare time, Toru mainly works in a record shop and the fish market in order to maintain his modest lifestyle. As well as the two younger women, Toru also comes across Reiko, a (slightly) older woman who is Naoko’s companion.
I guess the problem for some audiences will be the slowness of this film – and the seemingly aimless life of Toru. The film is 133 mins and devotees of the book think that a lot is left out. Personally, I can cope with the slow pace if I have something to look at and to listen to. Jonny Greenwood’s score seemed very effective but I’ve since seen criticism that towards the end of the film it becomes too overwrought. I didn’t think this at the time but on reflection that might be true. The score includes three tracks from the German rock band Can.
I need to read more by Murakami but I sense that his novels are usually ‘disturbing’ in some way – or perhaps ‘unsettling’. Certainly the frank discussion/presentation of masturbation in the film seemed jarring/unsettling for the time period. Research suggests that this might be a Murakami trait. Masturbation as such isn’t disturbing of course except in the sense of how it operates as a taboo subject in polite society and in this way it marks Murakami’s ‘cool’ appeal to a mass readership much younger than he is. It goes along with his insertion of Western popular culture into Japanese stories. In the end that may be what becomes the focal point of the film – the questions about its ‘Japaneseness’. Tran is a Vietnamese director who grew up in France and the film was shot by the acclaimed Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, a long time collaborator with Hou Hsaio-hsien. He also shot Tran’s previous film. With Greenwood this makes an interesting trio of interpreters of Murakami’s story. Mark Lee’s other famous credit is Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love, a similarly ‘globally-produced’ love story – though one in which desire is never consummated, unlike the situation in Norwegian Wood. I wonder who will be first to think about putting the two films into a single double bill?
The film opened in Japan in December 2010 and lasted five weeks in the Japanese Top 10 with a box office take of around $13 million. For what is essentially a ‘specialised film’ that isn’t bad. On the other hand, Norwegian Wood is the novel that made Murakami a celebrity amongst young people in Japan and the novel has sold millions in Japan and worldwide. It’s two stars are also well-known. In the UK the film was released on just 33 screens by Soda Pictures. All we know is that it took £92,000 on its first weekend – the 4th best screen average that week, but only on a limited release. It is now sneaking round a few more arthouse cinemas. I suspect that those who have read the book will finally catch up with it on DVD – which is a shame as it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I’m pondering reading the novel and considering if I can find an excuse to show it on a cinema screen again. If you get the chance I urge you to take it.
Official UK trailer from Soda Pictures: