REEL MEN, REAL MEN, PART TWO: Mr. Turner, Saint Laurent and The Theory of Everything


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Warning: SPOILERS
mr turnerI continue now with my reviews of the sudden spate of movies based on real people that are arriving late in the year because, well, we’re entering awards season, and what awards season would be complete without an overabundance of inspired by true event stories.
First up…
Early on in Mr. Turner, writer/director Mike Leigh’s latest film about the famed 19th century land- and seascape artist, his servants prepare a pig’s head for a meal.
What is so interesting about this, and the reason I draw attention to it, is that the porcine’s pate bears a remarkable resemblance to the great painter himself with the artist constantly snorting and grunting as if Babe was his mother (or father, I can’t remember whether that famed shoat was a boar or a sow).
In fact, one might say that, Timothy Spall, a member of Leigh’s stock company of actors and who plays the title character here, does one of the greatest, if not greatest, imitation of a sus scrofa domesticus I’ve ever encountered in cinematic history. If someone is planning a remake of Animal Farm, I think we have our Old Napoleon.
It may be a dubious distinction, but a distinction none the less.

At any rate, I’m not sure what the method is to the madness of Leigh’s swinish interpretation of the character. Perhaps it’s the irony that frames of such great and powerful beauty grew out of the more animalistic and vulgar nature of the artist.

 

Or maybe that’s just the way Turner was.

 

Like I said, I don’t know, but I must say, it’s very effective and a lot of fun.

 

Mr. Turner deals with the final two or three years of the artist’s life. It’s an absolutely stunning movie to look at, filmed, of course, as if every frame was a scene painted by Turner himself (the beautiful cinematography is by Leigh usual Dick Pope; production design by Suzie Davies; and costume design by Jacqueline Durran, all up to their usual impeccable standards).

 

It’s lush and rich in design and filled with characters equally so, who look, sound and act as if they were refugees from a Dickens’ novel. Ravishing might be the best adjective for the whole enterprise.

 

And Spall is absolutely remarkable, giving one of the finest performances of the year. He completely disappears into the character and if this isn’t an accurate representation of Turner, then it’s probably a better one than the one Turner himself gave.

 

I’m really not quite sure how Leigh achieves his results in movies like this since he never starts with a script, but with a basic idea and through improvisation with the actors, and one on one work, he eventually comes up with what appears on the screen.

 

I can understand how this works for contemporary films like Secret and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year, but it must be difficult as hell, and I’m thinking more of the actors here than Leigh, to do something like this for a period piece (like Topsy-Turvey and Vera Drake) because the dialog and way of acting is so…well, so…period.

 

But all of his films that take place in an earlier era feel so palpably accurate and Mr. Turner is no different. As in the two earlier films just mentioned, there is a remarkable period feel to the rhythm of the dialog as well as the way people interact with each other.

 

At the same time, Mr. Turner is probably the Leigh film with the least tension. Let’s face it, Leigh has never shied away from high melodrama. You might say he almost revels in it at times.

 

But here, the story tends to sort of just meander along often without strong, outer conflicts, as well as without strong, inner conflicts. In fact, one might say there’s little conflict at all.

 

It’s just Turner living his life; paintings his paintings; having himself lashed to a ship’s mast during a storm to create a more accurate picture in his mind; taking sexual advantage of his crippled housekeeper while playing house with a more refined widow who lets out rooms. You know, the usual chestnuts.

 

At times, it reminded me of the biographies created by the great Italian filmmaker Roberto Rosselini, films like The Rise of Louis XIV and Blaise Pascal, movies that reflected the lives of their characters in an almost documentary approach without trying to force an overall conflict or through line or character journey into the story line.

 

Because of this, Mr. Turner at times tends to not always be as immediately compelling as Leigh’s films usually are. In fact, at times it almost feels as if you are watching the painting of an impressionist portrait, brush stroke by brush stroke. The end result is remarkable, but the actual watching of it is only fitfully absorbing.

 

In addition, the story is not always easy to follow and the various artistic rivalries and conflicts may be a bit too underdramatized at times to be clear and as effective as one might wish.

 

And yet, this is still a strong and worthwhile film. It may take its own time in unfolding, but there is something about it that is quite fascinating, even when it isn’t.

 

With a strong supporting cast of Leigh stalwarts and others that, well, aren’t, including Dorothy Atkinson as the long suffering housemaid; Marion Bailey as Mrs. Booth, the long suffering widow Turner shared a bed with at the end of his life; Ruth Sheen as the long suffering mother of Turner’s two daughters; and Martin Savage as the long suffering artist (there’s a lot of long suffering in the film) Haydon (no, not the composer) who has some of the strongest scenes in his interactions with fellow artists who he claims are conspiring against him and refuse to recognize his genius (and then has to humiliate himself by having to ask to borrow money from them just to get by).

 

saint laurentI suppose that the title of the film Saint Laurent, a biopic of that famed revolutionary fashion designer, could be considered ironic, since, as the movie shows us, he was, well, anything but.

 

I say “suppose” because Saint is his actual name after all and I guess it could just be put down to coincidence. If so, it’s a very convenient one, and to the filmmakers’ credit that they jumped on it.

 

But in the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter, because I doubt M. Laurent is going to be beatified, much less canonized, anytime soon.

 

Saint Laurent mainly covers the formidable fashionista’s formative years from 1967 to 1976, though it also jumps to the final years of his life where he is portrayed by Helmut Berger (we should all be so lucky as to be portrayed by Helmut Berger in our final years). The story is not told in chronological order, but tends to jump around.

 

I have to say that for a movie based on the life of someone known for his strong, clear and beautiful designs, Saint Laurent is something of a mess at times.

 

It’s not so much the non-linear story telling. The actual facts of Laurent’s life are easy enough to follow. But the filmmakers just can’t seem to get a strong and satisfying rhythm going, with various scenes and through lines lasting far past their use-by date.

 

This is true for both small throw away scenes (at one point, Pierre Bergé, Laurent’s long time lover and business partner, negotiates a deal with an American businessman—Brady Corbet, who, with Force Majeure, Clouds of Sils Maria, Melancholia, among others, has apparently become the go-to American for European films—and not only does this scene go on for what seems an eternity, it feels like it takes twice as long as that since everything is being translated and said twice), as well as longer, more major events (Laurent’s affair with the faux nobleman Jacques de Bascher, the man who introduced Laurent to drugs, rough trade, public sex and vanilla S&M, an affair that almost brought down the house of Laurent, takes up what feels like more than a third of the film with all the tension drained from it because it becomes repetitive and long outstays its welcome).

 

However, I’m not sure that is really the essential issue I had with the film. The issue I had is more with Laurent himself and how he is dramatized.

 

In the beginning, Laurent’s personality, his eccentricities, his neuroses, are intriguing. He is a genius after all, and one does get drawn into his web of artistic creation and what sort of person he had to be in order to achieve what he did.

 

There’s also a certain fascination to the early scenes that document the daily details of what it was like to work in Laurent’s shop.

 

But at a certain point all that good will stops.

 

For me it’s the scene where one of his workers comes to him because she is unmarried and pregnant. He comes across as fatherly and empathetic and gives her money to get an abortion.

 

In the next scene, he tells Bergé to fire her.

 

And with that, as far as I was concerned, Laurent’s eccentricities are no longer amusing and his neuroses no longer charming. From that precise point, he turns into a spoiled, petulant little brat. Actually, I’m being polite.

 

From that point on, he and almost everything about the movie becomes insufferable.

 

Because, after all, there are some things that even genius cannot excuse.

 

And to return to my earlier point, this insufferableness feels like it goes on forever.

 

The screenplay was written by Thomas Bidegan and Bertrand Bonello, who also directed. Bidegan earlier had co-written A Prophet and Rust and Bone, two of the finest French films of the last few years, and it’s sort of surprising that the result here is a movie that has so little tension and build.

 

Gaspard Ulliel gives a solid performance as Laurent (though I suspect his toned body with six pack abs and rather blessed penile endowment is more Ulliel than Laurent).

 

However, the more interesting performances are given by Louis Garrel (The Dreamers, Love Songs and Jealousy) as the effete, decadent de Bascher; Dardonne brothers’ favorite Jérémie Renier (L’enfent, In Bruges and Summer Hours) as Bergé; and Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) as Loulou, whose second hand store gypsy like fashions Laurent used as the basis for his career changing designs of 1976.

 

For those into trivia, I would appreciate some help. Berger, as the older Laurent, spends his time watching an old movie on television. A friend suggested that Berger was watching himself in an airing of The Damned. I can’t argue against that, it didn’t really look like The Damned, but I can’t argue against it. So if anyone can confirm what that film was, you win…the honor of being the first person to tell me.

 

Sorry, times are tough and it’s the best I can do.

 

theoryThe early scenes of The Theory of Everything emphasize legs and feet. You have people racing bikes down cobbled roads; someone watching people wander around in a park; people dancing; people running; our central character hopping down from a bunk bed to a table.

 

I think this is what you call foreshadowing since the story is about someone who loses all mobility due to motor neuron, or Lou Gehrig’s, disease.

 

Though I could be wrong…but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 

The Theory of Everything is also a movie about a physicist whose main preoccupation is time.

 

I’m sorry, but I can’t really resist it. For a film about someone obsessed with such a subject, why does the movie feel like it moves soooooo slowly?

 

The subject of The Theory of Everything, for those of you who have just returned from a six month sojourn to Antarctica, is one Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who contributed to our knowledge of the origins of the universe through his contributions to the big bang theory.

 

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t pretend to understand any of that. I tried to read A Brief History of Time once, but got lost by the second paragraph (which was kind of depressing, to tell the truth, since it was supposedly written such that even laymen like me could understand it—but as I’ve said in other reviews, I could never even follow Scotty in Star Trek when he tried to explain whatever it was he was trying to explain).

 

The main emphasis of the story line is both Hawking’s first early successes in the field of physics, as well as his lack of success in his first marriage to Jane, a fellow classmate at Cambridge who believes in God and is trying to get her PhD in Spanish poetry (I was never quite sure which was the bigger sin).

 

While Hawking’s theories explode and expand like the birth of the universe, his personal relationships tend to get drawn smaller and smaller back into a black hole.

 

The dissolution of the marriage is mainly blamed upon the wife here, with her main fault being

that she isn’t a superwoman and needed help to take care of her husband and three children while trying to pursue her own PhD.

 

The reasons why the household did not avail themselves of outside help are vague and never satisfactorily explained. It takes forever for it to be revealed that they can’t afford a full time nurse (until later in the movie when they suddenly can with no real explanation). And one would think they could have asked for help from the multitude of Hawking’s friends (I mean, couldn’t they even come in one night a week and help out?).

 

But there you have it.

 

Basically, what happened is that Jane had the audacity to stop worshiping the ground that Hawking wheeled himself around on. So because Jane can’t do it all and after Hawking has a serious attack that robs him of his speech, they finally get a caregiver and Hawking pulls a Robin Williams and becomes romantically involved with the help.

 

When the end of the marriage does come through, it’s so sweet and romantic and stiff upper lip, lacking any real fire and passion, it makes you wonder why everyone isn’t doing it (though, based on divorce rates, I guess maybe they are).

 

This lack of deep emotional resonance runs throughout the movie. Though there are fireworks in the film, these are mainly literal ones that light up the sky, rather than the kind that are created between people.

 

The Theory of Everything, written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh (who directed the marvelous Man On Wire) is quite rich in period detail, but not in depth of character. Because in the end, the main problem with the movie is that Hawking is just not a very, well, interesting character.

 

What happens to him is interesting; what he does is interesting; his theories are interesting (even if I couldn’t understand them). But from a personality point of view, there’s just not that much there that is that…interesting. In fact, in many ways, he’s actually kind of boring.

 

There, I said it.

 

And when Jane first sees him at a party and becomes intrigued by him one enchanted evening across a crowded room, I have to be honest, I had no idea what she saw in him.

 

Eddie Redmayne (he of the unconventional good looks and late of Les Miserables and My Week With Marilyn) plays Hawking and it’s hard to imagine who else could have done it. It seems to be a perfect match of looks to part and Redmayne gives a perfectly solid performance. Felicity Jones is equally as solid as Jane.

 

But I’m not convinced that either really rise above that.

 

The most effective performance is given by Charlie Cox as a choir leader, a recently widowed, fatherless young man who is desperate for some emotional connection to other people, and finds it not just with the Hawkings, but especially with Jane. There is something simply so sweet and empathetic to his performance.

 

And it’s these scenes that have the most tension, as the three start a sort of sexless menage a trois in which every glance and every action carries more drama than the movie as a whole.

 

The movie also has a strong supporting cast with David Thewlis (Harry Potter’s Remus Lupin), growing comfortable in his middle age, as Dennis Sciama, Hawking’s thesis advisor; Simon McBurney (Magic in the Moonlight) as Hawking’s father; and Christian McKay (Orson Welles, in Me and…) as a physicist whose theories inspire Hawking to his greatest work.

 

It also has Emily Watson in it as Jane’s mother. You would think the star of Breaking the Waves and Hilary and Jackie (for which she got Oscar nominations), as well as such films as Gosford Park and Punch-Drunk Love would deserve more than this throw away role, but she does bring a certain gravity to it.

 

At the end of the film, Hawking gives a presentation followed by a Q&A. One audience member asks him what his philosophy of life is since he doesn’t believe in God. His response is, “Where’s there’s life, there’s hope”.

 

He gets a standing ovation.

 

I found the answer extremely depressing.

 

I’m not even sure what it means. Hope for what, for god’s sake (well, not god’s sake, that’s for sure).

 

I don’t know, but I guess it’s better than “love is the one thing that we’re capable of that transcends space and time”.

 

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