The Damned United (2009)

March 31, 2009

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The Dumbed-down United

I went into this expecting to be underwhelmed and I was underwhelmed.  Aside from Lean’s Great Expectations I can’t remember the last film of a book I have loved that didn’t disappoint me.  It could be argued, on the basis of that evidence, that cinema is the inferior medium but I don’t believe that.  I genuinely and fervently don’t.  Cinema can be the most enriching and human and touching and uplifting of all the arts because it combines the use of vision and sound to entertain or enthrall, where it lacks the spontaneity and sheer interactivity of theatre it is equally not bound by convention nor limitation as there is.  Cinema can move me to laughter and tears simultaneously- just think about that for a moment- it can educate and challenge me, it can be beautiful or ugly or repulsive or charming or all of these things and more, moving between them in an eye-blink.  Cinema can be anything and everything to everyone and anyone, it is a wondrous and limitless gift to humanity.  I love it, I love thinking about it and writing about it and talking about it.  I love reading about it.  But I love nothing more than enjoying it when it is done really well.

Which brings me back nowhere at all near to the film in question, The Damned United.  I just wanted to say all of that to make it clear that what follows is specific and subjective, applicable only to The Damned United and nothing beyond that limitation.  Because The Damned United is a shabby, patronising, condescending, dumbed-down, own goal of a novelization.  It is not by any means the worst film of the year, or probably even of the week.  It is okay.  But it is not at all worthy of the fine novel upon which it is based- notwithstanding the excellence of Michael Sheen, dear old Tim Spall and Jim Broadbent.

The Damned United book- a fictional account of real events- is a tumultous account of a man’s hubris and paranoia and debilitating inner demons.  It takes real-life relationships and contorts them into something strange and unrecognisable, where hate becomes obsessional and from there becomes a strange sort of adoration and admiration.  It takes genuine events and distinguishes the pain and suffering involved from the mundanity, and then it takes that pain and exposes it and records the results.  The book takes great liberties with personalities and memories and real events, it is written by a man (David Peace) who clearly doesn’t give a fuck what people think of him- all he wants to do is to take whatever talent he has and apply it to his craft and create the best fucking book that he possibly can irrespective of the cost.  It is genuinely a fucking magnificent book and what makes it special is that Devil-may-care attitude (common to both the authorship of the novel and its subject) which facilitates the taking of great liberties and the general fuck off which is signalled to anyone who doesn’t agree.  And that I don’t give a fuck-ism is precisely what the film lacks.

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The Damned United film is twee and nice.  Everyone has their foibles but they’re ultimately nice people and their motivation, however selfish or spiteful the act, is always clear and understandable.  That may very well be what real life is like, but it makes for a fucking dull film.  And this turns out to be a fucking dull film based on a gripping real-life story that is still within living memory.  Made by a lot of the people involved in making The Queen it suffers from the same kind of excellent attention to detail at the expense of intrigue or drama.  When I say attention to detail, I mean costumes and sets and cars and so on.  I do not include some of the frankly hilariously bad casting decisions, nor some of the appalling players wigs.  Stephen Graham is a good actor with an excellent range but he is physically incapable of convincing as a footballer of any description, never mind as the wiry Bremner.  Likewise the feller roped in to play Johnny Giles was wisely kept in the background- this may well be because the real Johnny Giles isn’t afraid to go to court but it helps because he is bloody awful in the role.

And so the situation is thus: life throws up a fascinating, bizarre but all-too-predictable scenario; Peace twists and expands it into a dark, compelling work of fiction; the director Tom Hooper takes out all of the darkness and reads the original scenario as a tragi-comic love story between Clough and his assistant.  3/10

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The Young Victoria (2009)

March 7, 2009

I’ve seen about five films in a row without posting any notes on here, so they’ll be necessarily brief.  But that’s okay, there’s not too much to say about this really.  It has sumptuous costumes and settings, is well acted in the main by some top European actors (and we should be thankful that Keira Knightly wasn’t asked to portray the overweight monarch) and has a vaguely diverting story by the almost excellently named Julian Fellowes.  But it’s just a bit crap.  Costume dramas tend to be, perhaps it’s the period detail that distracts but I think it’s more likely that the authentically stilted dialogue works against the building up of suspense or drama or intrigue unless it is really, really well written and rendered (as in David Lean’s Great Expectations) for example.

Apart from that, there is always the problem- when making a biopic about a period of someone’s life- about how to ensure that you leave nothing unresolved.  Life simply isn’t like that and only death can really finalise matters in the way that suits a movie.  This issue is dealt with here by having half of the bad guys sent away and the remainder repenting having seen Albert take a bullet aimed at Victoria and realising that he’s more of a brainbox, hero and all-round nice guy than the conniving German sausage they had originally taken him for.  Simplistic and unsatisfying, especially in the case of Paul Bettany who had built his character’s wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing persona beautifully until he had to simply front up that Albert was tops with him.  Albert, by the way, seems to have hair that changes colour from one scene to the next.  I’ll put it down to my eyesight but it could just be that it was inconsistently dyed or managed over the course of the shooting of the film.

So anyway, Emily Blunt is passable in the lead role (if miscast physically), Jim Broadbent- who has previously played the role of Albert- has a nice cameo with a great King William quiff, Miranda Richardson underplays the role of wicked Mother well and Mark Strong is both brooding and boring as the thoroughly 2D bad-guy Sir John Conroy.  The whole thing is passably directed and the cinematography (by Hagen Bogdanski, the guy who did The Lives of Others) is markedly hit-and-miss, doing the easy things badly and the hard things well.

So it’s better than I expected but, if I’m honest, still a failure.  But a very pretty one.  With some nice wigs and pairs of trousers on display throughout.  It isn’t quite the sum of it’s parts, but it will do nice business at the Box Office.  No-one’s career will be any the worse for it and everyone’s happy.  Moderate ambitions, moderate achievement.  5/10

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Life Is Sweet (1990)

March 1, 2009

It’s a lovely film this.  Bittersweet, engaging and wonderfully performed.  A little vignette on small town English life from Mike Leigh which tackles big issues with sensitivity and small issues with wit.  The plot of the film doesn’t really go anywhere (a man is conned into buying a crappy burger van, his wife and daughter argue then make up and his friend opens a restaurant but has no customers) but the beauty is in the way that you enjoy and are enriched by this brief overview of the characters’ lives.  The dialogue has a natural flow and zippiness to it and each of the characters is well drawn, memorable and believeable with tics and affectations like Alison Steadman’s nervous laugh at the end of each sentence or Claire Skinner’s nasal sigh-  the delivery of a world-weary seventeen year old.  Even the minor characters like Aubrey and Patsy are comic characters without being caricatures.  As with all of Mike Leigh’s films this is the product of the lengthy and largely improvised rehearsals he insists upon.  The benefits are on screen forever and their value in what transpires in the film are immeasurable.

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The whole thing looks great.  Granted the opportunity for grand widescreen footage of thousands of Zulu warriors on a majestic hillside or tracking shots through the crowded streets of New York are few and far between, but it looks thoroughly authentic.  The scenes in this film are beautifully conceived and shot to imbue the whole thing with a kind of gritty resplendence- there are scenes in a scrapyard with a gaudily coloured van in the middle that look almost like a kind of fin de siècle artwork.

Leigh’s film is warm and entertaining but is also unsentimental and matter-of-fact in its presentation of the characters.  No devices are employed to elicit sympathy, as if that would cheapen or undermine the whole thing.  Bravo for that.  And yet his film is certainly empathetic towards Jane Horrocks’ bulimic Nicola, the most externally unappealing character, and her struggles.  The harrowing scenes of her emotional torture- writ large with her wringing, fidgeting panic-are finely balanced, steering clear of overbearing sensationalism, not played in adjacence to light comedy.  It is an excellently judged treatment of a tough topic.

And the small journey which each of the characters- not least Natalie- goes upon allows them to succeed in small ways and fail in comic ones.  Life is indeed sweet.  Tough, painful, mundane and yet touched with light and love and happiness.  Life Is Sweet is much like life itself.  10/10

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