Category Archives: 2010s

Snowden (2016)

*. What happened to Oliver Stone? Nothing out of the ordinary. His most creative years are now long past and he hasn’t been able to reinvent himself in an interesting way. In his prime he was a passionate, forceful filmmaker, but more recently he seems to have lost focus. Not mellowed so much as become tired and disoriented.
*. When did he lose his mojo? I’m not sure, but Savages and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the two dramatic features before this film, were both terrible. Snowden isn’t much better.
*. Though I think you could make an argument that it’s actually worse. What I mean is that it takes a true story, ripped from the headlines, dealing with matters of global importance and everyday application, bound up in a thrilling plot involving a heroic whistleblower and intrepid journalists. How do you mess that up?
*. It’s not as though Stone was uninspired. I think material like this really turns him on. But he just can’t make anything of it.
*. This is a movie with no sense of tension or outrage or much of anything going for it. It’s almost comfortably sure of its convictions about the idea of America triumphing over its enemies. As Stone remarks in his commentary for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he’s really a romantic at heart and this kind of stuff comes naturally to him.

*. The thing is, most whistleblowers are complicated and not always likeable people. Just look at Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning. Or, if you’re a film buff, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in The Insider.
*. The same could be said for most computer geeks, and I suspect Edward Snowden is cut from the same cloth. I support the stand he took, but I don’t know if I’d want to have a sandwich with him. And yet Stone seems determined to make him into an All-American Hero.
*. This makes the whole movie into something dull and formulaic. The script is full of stuffy speeches even in the most informal of settings (Snowden going on about the Nuremberg trials at a party, O’Brian lecturing on how secrecy is security while out hunting with Ed). And the look of it!
*. What was I just saying about dull and formulaic? The dialogue has nothing on the direction here. It’s hard to believe a younger Stone so un-ironically indulging stuff like (1) Snowden walking out of the tunnel from the surveillance headquarters into the blinding light of justice and freedom; (2) pointless filler shots of him playing “cute young couple in love” on the beach with his long-suffering girlfriend (a conventional part in such stories); (3) a final scene of an audience rising to give Snowden a standing ovation, which is as subtle as a sit-com laugh track in telling us what our response to the film we’ve just seen should be.
*. There are glimmers of originality. It seems at times as though they were thinking of making more out of the screen as a motif, including Snowden’s glasses often being shot in extreme close-up and reflecting some other shiny surface. The giant face of Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) as Big Brother is about the only interesting visual in the entire movie. But when Robot-Snowden wheels on to the stage at the end he seems to have shrunk, and been made less real, in a way that I don’t think could have been intentional.
*. You’re in pretty bad shape when your movie on a dramatic and important headline story is a lot less interesting than the story itself. I’m afraid Oliver Stone is in bad shape.

The Vanishing (2018)

*. Lighthouses are symbols that have long had a grip on the imagination. What they’re symbols of is often sketchy though. They remain mysterious, from Edgar Allan Poe’s final, unfinished (or was it?) story “The Light-House,” to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, to one’s obelisk-like significance at the end of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (also there in the film version).
*. In 1900 this mysteriousness took a real form when the three keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to them, though it’s assumed they were swept out to sea by a rogue wave. Their disappearance would, in turn, provide the germ of this film, which is set on the Flannan Isles. I’d thought it had also inspired Max and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse but apparently that one was based on an unfinished Poe story. Or at least that’s what they say. I didn’t see much of a connection to Poe.
*. But back to The Vanishing. Perhaps the main thing to say here is that it’s not as weird a movie as The Lighthouse. In fact, its naturalism is almost a gimmick. Three men arrive at a lonely lighthouse station: the old man (Thomas/Peter Mullan), the burly family man in his prime (James/Gerard Butler), and the kid (Donald/Connor Swindell). A nearly-dead man with a chest full of gold washes ashore. They’re rich! But then two other guys, Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) show up. They were shipmates of the (now fully) dead guy and they were just sort of wondering if the lighthouse keepers might have seen anything suspicious in the last couple of days. Like a guy with a chest of gold.

*. So the set-up has us expecting the usual sort of moral fable you get with all such tales of discovered gold, from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are, of course, eruptions of violence, but the real theme the movie wants to address is guilt. These aren’t zipless kills. The men have to assure themselves that all this isn’t their fault. Even Gerald Butler breaks down! How many people have we seen Mike Banning kill without batting an eye? Now there’s some serious casting against type.
*. It’s a new take on what I thought going in was going to be more of a straight action-thriller. I’m not sure that’s enough though to recommend it. And I can’t help thinking a big part of the problem is Butler being miscast. Also, for a character study I didn’t think it had enough traction. I just didn’t feel I knew these people well enough, or cared enough about them and their problems. Tom had a family, and they’re gone. So what? James has a family back on the mainland we don’t know anything about. It’s hard to feel any of these connections.
*. Instead, the two visitors provide all the spark. Malling is great as the sinister Locke, eyes just dripping with malice and menace. And I love it when Boor rages at James, calling him a pig. Because he’s right! The money isn’t his! So where’s the damn gold? And what happened to the other guy they took it from? From Boor’s point of view the lighthouse keepers are pigs, and probably murderous pigs at that.
*. A good looking movie, as you should expect given that lighthouses are among the most photogenic locations imaginable. But the direction by Kristoffer Nyholm never dials up any suspense and the whole thing just felt like a bit of dead weight. If they were going to tell such a story and make it about the men then somehow it had to find a way for us to care more about them, and I feel almost a little ashamed to say that I didn’t. Maybe it’s just a case of falling between two stools — action film and existential drama — with neither really taking hold. It’s a tough trick they tried to pull off and I want to give them credit for trying but that’s the best I can do.

El Camino (2019)

*. Subtitled A Breaking Bad Movie. The producer thought it was a standalone movie (well, he would), but showrunner/writer/director Vince Gilligan thought he was making it for fans. I think Gilligan had it right.
*. It picks up directly where the series finale left off and I couldn’t imagine someone getting much out of it if they didn’t know all the back story and the various characters. Personally, I barely remembered the girlfriend (Jane) who reappears at the end. Didn’t she die in the third season? I thought it was pretty early in the show.
*. I loved Breaking Bad, thinking it was the best thing on television at the time, and I’m a big fan of a lot of the cable series that were contemporary with it. They set a new standard in television drama and long-form storytelling. But is this movie more than just a coda, and a not very necessary one at that? A farewell to Albuquerque and the gang of deceased and soon-to-be-deceased, loveable and not-so-loveable, rogues? Badger and Skinny Pete. Walter and Mike. The chilling psychopath Todd. But no Saul. He had his own show by now.

*. I don’t think it is much more than that long good-bye. And while it’s a nicer send-off than the show’s final episode (which I thought was awful), the dramatic highlights don’t measure up to any of the most memorable moments from the series. There’s a Western-style showdown which feels contrived and improbable. A dry negotiation between Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Ed (Robert Forster). And really that’s about it. Not much happens and there isn’t a lot of interesting interaction going on between the different characters.
*. While Aaron Paul is a decent actor, I’m not sure Jesse Pinkman is that interesting a character. He was basically Walter White’s sidekick in the series and while he travels a bit of an arc here it’s mostly what you’d expect. Meanwhile the story itself is quite downbeat and, as noted, it plays out as a long denouement.

*. One thing I do have to credit them for, or at least credit the producers of the DVD on, is the “super-commentary!” they put together. This isn’t the usual monologue by a director or writer. In fact Gilligan isn’t on it at all (he’s featured more in the “making of” documentary also included with the DVD). Instead you get insight from a line-up of not the usual suspects: wardrobe, make-up, gaffer, editor, co-supervising sound editor, special effects coordinator, prop master, sound mixer, key grip, casting directors . . . dozens of voices in all. Everyone takes turns talking a bit about what’s going on and they’re all in a good mood and enthusiastic because, let’s face it, this is their Super Bowl.
*. Along the way you learn lots of interesting things. Like when the prop master talks about the scene where Jesse consults a phone book. Apparently this was difficult because phone books aren’t that common anymore. In addition, all the names and numbers you see on screen, however briefly, have to be cleared for legal reasons. I like these bits of insight into the amount of work that goes into a production like this.

*. And it is a good-looking production. Gilligan has a real eye for expressive sets and settings and he gets to indulge that eye here in widescreen. It’s well written in the tense and dry style of the show. But at the end of the day there isn’t much of a story to tell, and nothing much to say. Fans were keen to know what happened to Jesse, and Gilligan winds that part of the story up, but that was really the only loose end. It’s more satisfying than the series finale, and much better than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as far as big-screen codas to popular television shows go. But it’s not a standalone feature and even plays more like an alternate ending or extended director’s cut to the series than a sequel. One for the fans, in other words, and I don’t think they have any cause to be upset.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

*. This movie is based on a famous story by James Thurber that was published in 1939. I say famous, but while I think a lot of people have heard of it and know what it’s about it (an everyday man who likes to daydream about being a hero), few have actually read it. It had previously been made into a movie in 1947 starring Danny Kaye, which I think even fewer people today have seen. Which does make you wonder what the draw was for doing it again now.
*. I think the people making it had much the same question in the back of their heads, at it was a project that spent nearly 15 years in development hell, with various stars, writers, and directors attached to it. At the time Ben Stiller was a hot property so in 2013 it was his turn, to both star and direct.
*. The results are dismal. This is another movie where a load of money and talent was thrown up on the screen with almost nothing to show for it. As I’ve pointed out in some of my other notes (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Get Smart), there’s something about going big in comedy that rarely pays off. The budget starts to work against you, and you end up with scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but which aren’t funny at all. What’s funny about Walter swimming with sharks? Or getting in a superhero-style fight with Ted over a Stretch Armstrong doll? Those scenes must have cost a fortune to shoot, but they’re worthless.
*. Not that there’s anything funny going on in the quieter moments either. The plot is stupid, and it’s all set in motion by some mistake that doesn’t make any sense in the first place. Why wouldn’t Walter just say the 25th frame from the roll of film was missing? Why would he be blamed for that?
*. Instead he has to go visiting Greenland and Iceland so we can see some expensive locations and watch a volcano erupt, etc., with lots of useless musical interludes thrown in. What kid would trade his skateboard for a Stretch Armstrong doll? That’s dumb. And the only reason for it is . . . so that we can see Walter riding a skateboard into town. Wasn’t that fun? Not really.
*. I think Ben Stiller is a very funny guy. At least he’s done some really funny stuff in the past. He doesn’t even have the chance to be funny here. And he’s still given way more to work with than poor Kristen Wiig, an actor who needs to spend some more time thinking about the roles she’s accepting. Adam Scott steals the show when he’s allowed to. Patton Oswalt is a character so unreal I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be an imaginary friend. Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn show up and have nothing to add, which is too bad because I thought Penn might have been really interesting. But the script is awful. Aside from just jerking us from one splashy set-piece to another nobody has anything to say.
*. There is the usual moral lesson about living life to the fullest. Or something along those lines. Unlike Thurber’s story, the dreams become reality and Walter becomes an actual hero and gets the girl and the cover photo and all the rest of it. Instead of a character study with all sorts of complex angles to explore it settles for being a big-budget rom-com that’s a total waste of time.

Come to Daddy (2019)

*. Not much to say here, though I don’t mean that Come to Daddy is a bad movie or not worth checking out. It’s quirky and decently put forward. But “quirky” has come to seem less quirky in the crowded field of horror-action-comedy these days. If this movie had come out in the 1970s it might be regarded today as a cult favourite, but today it seems like a typical production of the zeitgeist. If they’d added some barely-remembered rock song from the ’80s they would have assembled all the essential ingredients.
*. Elijah Wood plays Norval, a young man with a strange caterpillar moustache and a very, very strange bowl haircut (he works in the music industry in Los Angeles, you see) who is summoned by his estranged father, a reclusive figure he has never known, for a visit to the father’s fashionable, and isolated, coastal chateau. Norval shows up and is met by a weird old alcoholic crank played by Stephen McHattie. McHattie is always fun to watch, but he’s not with us for long and soon Norval is discovering that things are not what they seem.

*. I can’t say much more, as there’s a big median break in the plot that actually sends things spinning in a not entirely predictable new direction. So full credit there. Unfortunately, once we start going off in this new direction the movie unravels in a mostly formulaic way without ever picking up speed. It remains interesting, in that quirky way I mentioned, but at the same time never feels as fresh as you’d imagine.
*. Billed as a horror comedy it’s neither scary nor funny, but it gets by on its X factor. The violence is quick and nasty, particularly the scenes involving various improvised stabbing weapons like a pen, a roasting fork, and a bill spindle. The sexual tension is enjoyable, especially in the unconventional but touching desire Norval feels for an attractive coroner. There’s a message about father-son bonding that thankfully only gets introduced as an afterthought. So there’s stuff here to enjoy, if not be enthusiastic about. A good little movie in the genre of dark quirk, but it has to be said that this is a genre now so it’s not as challenging as it wants to be.

Dr. Feelgood (2016)

*. I don’t know when the term Dr. Feelgood first started being applied to doctors who obliged their patients with the abuse of prescription drugs to help ease their pain or to just get them through the day (“momma’s little helpers”). Both John F. Kennedy’s and Elvis Presley’s personal physicians were referred to as Dr. Feelgoods, so it goes back a way.
*. The profession, of Dr. Feelgood really took off with the opiate epidemic in the United States though, where pills like OxyContin became a drug of choice and then an addiction for sufferers of chronic pain. This documentary examines the case of one such Dr. Feelgood, Dr. William Hurwitz.
*. Was Dr. Hurwitz a caring professional or an unscrupulous pusher running a pill mill? Healer or dealer? If you’re familiar with the way these docs work you know that they’ll set you up to think one thing at the beginning and then pull the rug out from under you at some point with a disturbing revelation. That’s basically what happens here, as we hear from a couple of patients who are sad cases and who claim Hurwitz saved their lives. But then we hear from the police, and the families of less fortunate patients (who committed suicide or died of overdoses), as well as tape recordings made by patients who went in to the clinic wearing a wire. On this evidence it seems like Hurwitz was basically a pusher. He is convicted at trial, though much of this is reversed on appeal. To this day he has his defenders, but there are also those who think he got off easy.
*. There’s a third alternative. Hurwitz’s wife calls him a fool, which is just possible but unlikely. It’s the way some of his peers also saw him, and he may have indeed been foolish, but more than that he was terribly irresponsible. It was obvious he was giving a lot of pills to people who shouldn’t have been getting them. That part is on him, and his defence that he was just doing his job and he wasn’t a cop doesn’t come across as very convincing. Everyone will have their own take, but I didn’t find him a very sympathetic figure when being interviewed.
*. I also didn’t find this true-crime part of the movie particularly interesting. What it does draw attention to, however, is the whole question of personal choice vs. the public good. If you want something, and can afford it, should you be allowed to have it regardless of the consequences? That would be the libertarian judgment. Prohibition doesn’t work! And isn’t it better to do this through these sort of channels instead of having junkies hooked on heroin out on the street?
*. But of course substance abuse doesn’t just affect the addict, and so the government has to step in because when dealing with a product this powerfully addictive people can’t stop themselves. It’s a message that could have been more powerfully made here, as Dr. Feelgood never rises much above the level of a rather average Frontline episode.

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

*. Welcome to Marwen is a biopic based on the life of the photographer Mark Hogancamp, whose story had already been told in the acclaimed documentary Marwencol. As I said in my notes on that film, Hogancamp’s story is compelling but it’s really a pretty humdrum doc that didn’t give me much insight into his personality. Welcome to Marwen tries to do more, but left me even more frustrated.
*. First and foremost, I wasn’t sure how much of it was true and how much only “inspired by” Hogancamp’s story. Did the real Mark Hogancamp have a breakdown during a sentencing hearing for the men who nearly killed him, running screaming from the courtroom? Did he really propose to Nicole, the woman who lived across the street from him? Did she really have a scary ex? Or were scenes like these just made up for the movie?
*. You can tell what would have attracted Hollywood, and Robert Zemeckis in particular, to the material. Hogancamp is, after all, an auteur: building sets, creating characters, writing a script, and shooting film of an alternative reality that provides an escape and an antidote to reality. All that and the chance to do some state-of-the-art animation as well. How could you miss?
*. Well, miss they did. By a mile. I got the sense that Steve Carell literally didn’t have any idea how he was supposed to play Hogancamp so just settled on distant. But then he wasn’t given a lot of help. Despite foregrounding a lush psychodrama I still have no idea what makes the guy tick. He’s lonely, sure. But what exactly does his obsession with women’s shoes and stockings amount to? Is it even sexual? The movie offers us nothing.
*. I could go on here but I don’t want to because I really hated this movie. Why so strong a reaction? Because they took a dark and difficult story and dressed it up as the usual Hollywood tripe about the triumph of the human spirit. Some of that might have to do with making a biopic of a living figure, which means any sort of critical attitude or exploration was off the table. But the rest of it?
*. And so Hogancamp’s male friends, who we met in Marwencol so we know they exist, disappear completely and we get a message about how women are the greatest (I think at one point the title was actually going to be The Women of Marwen). Then, as the music soars, the Nazis are finally defeated, Mark stands up to his tormentors in court, and his anxiety pills all get tossed down the sink! His photography show opens at a swank gallery and his gal pal tells him “Gosh darn Mark, you did it.” Did he ever!
*. To take a story that is, as I say, as dark and complicated as this and turn it into such feel-good cartoon pap is inexcusable. And it’s all very dull too. In any event, critics weren’t impressed and audiences hated it, turning it into one of the year’s biggest bombs. A fate that this time was entirely deserved.

Marwencol (2010)

*. Marwencol was one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the past decade, winning raves from critics, appearances on a pile of year-end lists, a plethora of awards (there are ten listed on the front of the DVD box), and even the ultimate accolade of a (less well-received) dramatic adaptation: Welcome to Marwen (2018), starring Steve Carell.
*. Given all this, and the genuine feel-good nature of the story, it seems churlish to register any doubts and reservations. But I will anyway.
*. The first thing I’d insist on is the difference between a great documentary subject and a great documentary. This is a pretty basic distinction but one that few people seem interested in or capable of making anymore. Put simply: one test of a great documentary is to make a difficult or boring subject accessible and interesting, or a seemingly simple one complex. That’s not what happens here.
*. Mark Hogencamp, the man whose life and work is documented in Marwencol, is a fascinating character with a compelling story. Beaten nearly to death outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York, he recovered by way of creating a world of 1/6 scale dolls and toys populating an imaginary Belgian town of Marwencol during the Second World War. I don’t think it would be possible to make a documentary out of this story and for it not to be interesting. Throw in a twist like Hogancamp’s crossdressing, and give it all a happy ending with a successful Greenwich Village show, and you’ve got a movie that can’t miss.
*. But is it a great movie? I don’t think so. Is it particularly well filmed? Does it do anything inventive with the documentary form? No. It basically plays like an extended 60 Minutes profile. The DVD contains a pile of deleted scenes and when I was watching them I tried to figure out why they were left out. I didn’t see how the movie would have been any worse if they’d been included, or if they’d been substituted for some of the material that made the final cut. Most deleted scenes are left out for what are pretty obvious reasons. Here I just didn’t have a sense that they were any better or worse, significant or less important, than the parts that made it in.
*. The structure is also formulaic for this kind of a movie. As soon as we’re told the story of Hogancamp’s horrific beating I wanted to know what was being left out. Five guys don’t usually just jump another guy outside a bar and beat him to a pulp. I assumed Hogancamp was gay and it was a hate crime. But the movie has to wait until it’s halfway over before springing the “surprise” of Hogancamp’s being a crossdresser on us. I thought this was just being coy, and in an obvious, manipulative way.
*. A lot of complicated ideas could have been explored further. Art as obsession. Art as therapy. Art as the sublimation of sex. Art as world-building. Now by “explore” I don’t mean they had to explicitly address any of these topics, but I thought they could have used Hogancamp’s story to examine and develop them in insightful ways. But this is a movie that really doesn’t have anything it wants to say. It basically lets Hogancamp tell us his story, but he’s a very private person and doesn’t seem especially introspective or articulate anyway.
*. In short, it’s a movie I’d recommend to anyone but not because I think it’s a particularly good movie. It’s a documentary about an interesting personality that doesn’t dig very deep. I don’t know how much of that was by necessity and how much by design. To take one example, I was wondering throughout just how much of a catalyst the attack was for Hogancamp. Did he play with dolls and toys much before the beating? Did he build tiny towns? What about his marriage? Hogancamp says he doesn’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, but doesn’t somebody know something? All we know is he was an alcoholic and isn’t now, which tells us nothing.
*. So if you want to just enjoy the art, which I think is marvelous, you can buy the coffee-table book. I think it might be more revealing.

Salt (2017)

*. Salt is a very short horror film, of the kind that used to be known as a calling card. I don’t know if they’re still called calling cards. What the term meant was that it was supposed to give producers and studios an idea of the kind of work you might be expected to do.
*. There’s no need for a calling card to be very risky or inventive. In fact, that might be counterproductive. Instead the point is to just to show that you can do work in a particular genre or vein.
*. That’s one reason I can think of for Salt being so unexceptional. A woman is nursing a sick child in a house. There’s a demon in the house and to protect themselves the woman and the girl have to be surrounded by a circle of salt all the time, which creates a barrier the demon can’t get through (though he also has trouble with doors, for some reason).
*. With a running time of only 2 minutes you can’t expect any of this to be explained, and it isn’t. There’s a post-apocalyptic feel to what’s going on, which might explain why the woman doesn’t phone for help. I don’t know what they’re eating, or why all the medicine is on another floor of the house, or why all the rest of the stuff in the house is piled up like they’re getting ready to move. You just have to flow with the story as given until you end with the usual business of a car that won’t start and the sort of punchline that so often ends a short film.
*. The CGI is surprisingly OK, though the demon itself is nothing special, and the team of director Rob Savage and writer Jed Shepherd, who’d done the Dawn of the Deaf short, were now set to debut with a feature, Host, that would be similarly effective, professionally turned out on a low budget, and frankly unoriginal. Not that originality was the point, but still I feel like they’re a team that’s been showing a lot of talent without much creativity thus far. Or put another way, they’re still handing out calling cards.

Henry V (2012)

*. I really don’t envy the task set before director Thea Sharrock of trying to make another Henry V in the shadow of two of the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare on film: Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version. That said, the rest of the Hollow Crown episodes had been very good, and their edition of Richard III with Benedict Cumberbatch was solid, even with Olivier and McKellen as great precursors. So I had my hopes up here.
*. Sadly, I found this to be the weakest of the Hollow Crown films. Not just a disappointment in relation to Olivier and Branagh, but a movie that I think fails in large part by trying too hard to differentiate itself from them. But more on that in a bit.
*. First off though I have to say that in terms of the text of the play this is a radical pruning. The Archbishop’s explanation of Henry’s right to the French crown, usually played as comic, is cut entirely. They weren’t going for laughs. Which is also why Fluellen is given a much restricted role to play, and only as a gruff Welshman and not at all as an ethnic stereotype who talks funny (Captains Jamy and MacMorris have also both disappeared). The exposure of the “three corrupted men” at Southampton is gone. And the editing of the text isn’t just a matter of cutting a few lines here and there. Whole speeches have been disposed of, including important ones like Henry’s attempt to argue against his moral responsibility for his soldiers’ ends. There are some giant gaps here that will startle fans of the play.
*. What’s gained? Well, the business of the glove exchange, which is pretty much dropped in Branagh and totally left out by Olivier, is here in full. Aside from that, not much.
*. I said that they were trying hard to go in a different direction with this production. Not just a greater emphasis on realism or naturalism, but a consistent underplaying of the dramatic highlights.
*. With regard to the first point, things get off to a naturalistic start with the Chorus reduced to a voiceover. None of that meta-stuff from earlier versions, drawing attention to the play as theatrical construct. Then there’s the usual blood and mud of the battles, which by now is a constant that can only be advanced by making it muddier and bloodier. To the point where I kept wondering why, in all the post-battle scenes, Henry hadn’t washed his face. He’d had plenty of time, and I really shouldn’t have been noticing it as much as I did.
*. Also, possibly, there is the fragmenting of the text (by Ben Power) to make it less stagey. I don’t mind this all that much, but I’m not sure anything is gained by it. Certainly all of the rhythm of the language is lost, and I don’t think that rhythm is necessarily unnatural. Branagh, for example, makes it sound fluent. But here’s Tom Hiddleston on what they were going for: “we have for the first time spoken it very differently, spoken with a fluency and an ease, a very sort-of off-the-cuff spontaneity that I think is immediately accessible to the ear. Shakespeare is at its best when you speak it like you’re making it up, when it sounds as if it was written yesterday.” Do we say yea or nay to this? I say nay. Mainly because I just don’t hear the fluency and ease he refers to.
*. The second point I mentioned is the underplaying of the dramatic highlights. Henry V is a play of loud, rousing, set-piece scenes but they come off as muted here. Before Harfleur the “Once more unto the breach” speech is almost whispered by Henry among a group of men huddled together. And then later the St. Crispin’s Day speech is directed, quietly, only to a handful of nobles surrounding Henry. No climbing onto a cart to address the army. To be sure this is something different and new. But how effective is it? Not very.
*. As for music, it is quiet, and many scenes have no score at all. So none of the epic fanfare of William Walton, or the signature arrangement of the Non Nobis by Patrick Doyle. Nothing really memorable at all.
*. I can’t say I liked many of the cuts, or the artistic decisions taken. Why begin with Henry’s funeral? Sure it rounds things off, but what is gained? And if the Boy grows up to be the Chorus (John Hurt), as seems to be suggested, how is that possible, given that Henry died only 7 years after Agincourt? And given how quietly so many of the scenes are played, why stick Hiddleston with having to give a Wrath of Khan howl at the murder of the poys and the luggage (an event that is itself elided, though the English execution of their prisoners is presented in full).
*. In all kinds of ways it’s a production that feels like it’s straining to be different. The French king isn’t feeble or a fool but is a perfectly normal kingly type. Montjoy isn’t supercilious but surly. In such ways Shakespeare’s types (like Fluellen, already mentioned) are, I suppose, made to seem more realistic. But are they any more interesting as characters?
*. A bit of a change, for anyone looking for that. But overall uninspiring. Even Henry’s wooing of Katherine, which really should have been lively given two attractive young people, is pretty dull. There’s a point where a realistic Shakespeare starts to defeat itself, and in the case of this movie I think that’s a line they jumped over.