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Archive for January, 2012

I first read Birdsong when I was in my mid-twenties.  I thought then it was powerful, serious and (I cringe) erotic.  I read it again last year, as part of my university course.  I found it plodding, pretentious and the sex scenes squirmingly badly written.  Faulks is signalling to his readers that this is Serious Literature, but a closer reading shows overlong sentences, florid imagery and descriptive passages that could be cut back to a couple of sentences.  When I was younger and not so widely read, I thought overwriting meant real writing.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy proved to me that is never true.

On rereading, I still found the sections of the novel set in the tunnels to be the best, Faulks strips his prose back and manages to capture the terror of being in a space little bigger than a man’s horizontal body, tens of feet underground, fearing explosions or discovery by German soldiers.  He writes of the stench, the smell of blood, urine, sweat and dirt, the lack of light and air and the constant claustrophobic horror of dying underground.  It it compelling and uncomfortable reading.

The television version both improved upon and lost something of the book’s storytelling.  Abi Morgan (is there anything she isn’t writing at the moment?) takes away the redundant and unconvincing section in the 70s, and transforms the entire heavy tome into a screenplay that is surprisingly light on dialogue.  The love story therefore becomes more believable, more natural and carnal and free.  It is telescoped, of course, but that improves the book ponderousness.   The first part of the adaptation seemed a huge improvement on the book.  The second part however, focussing more on the final stages of the war and Stephen’s time underground, lost the intensity of the book.  The reader’s imagination will create the particular hell of those tiny, squalid tunnels, and a television version (or perhaps this version) cannot create the same experience.  The make-up department seemed unwilling to add any significant disfigurement to either Clemence Poesy or Eddie Redmayne, so this soldier seemed to make it out of the underground tunnels looking like an upset and slightly grubby Burberry model.  In the book, we have a sense of the physical degradation of a man trapped underground for several days.  In the book it takes Stephen several backbreaking and soul-destroying days to make it out of the tunnel, and after having made a promise, he drags Jack Firebrace on his back, bent double or crawling. Even when he knows the man is dead, he will not leave his fellow soldier underground.  At this point, the novel is almost unbearably moving.  The television version didn’t really come close.

The television version gave the story pace and energy, a lightness of touch when needed, and even moments of humour.  Poesy is very good and Redmayne is terrific, his is a very pretty face but he registers very subtle changes of emotion with his eyes.  He conveys the youthful lust of the earlier sections as well as  the dead-eyed trauma of the wartime sections.  It is just a shame that the book’s strongest section was telescoped and anaesthetised, the horror muted and the power diminished.

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It is a lifetime’s journey – watching versions of Hamlet.  Different actors, different directors, different times.  Olivier’s Freudian Hamlet was a sensation, Branagh’s stage version a sombre Edwardian affair.  Ben Wishaw was a teenage Hamlet, David Tennant was wild, witty and impressive.  My mother reminisces about Peter O’Toole, I wish I’d seen Simon Russell Beale.   Recently, I saw Michael Sheen at the Young Vic, directed by Ian Rickson.  It is set in a mental hospital in the early 80s, the audience enters through the corridors and rooms of this secure psychiatric unit.  The Young Vic is tiny, and we were in the second row, voyeurs as much as audience members.  Sheen is electrifying, disturbing, pathetic.  But this is high concept stuff, and the concept begins to show the strain.  Is Hamlet imagining this?  Are the other characters inmates or staff?  Are Gertrude and Claudius really his mother and uncle?  When Laertes goes to England, he really leaves the place, but when Hamlet goes, has he just been heavily sedated and put in isloation?  So the politics have gone, and so, for me, has the weight of responsibility on Hamlet’s shoulders.  There is little at stake here, there would be everything at stake were he in a castle, pondering the magnitude of killing a king.

This is a truly creepy production, James Clyde’s Claudius is sinister and oleaginous, and Vinette Robinson gives the most convincing portrayal of a complex and nuanced Ophelia I’ve seen.  I enjoyed the final sleight of hand, finding it entirely consistent with what had gone before.  But this production does away with ambiguity, with context and for me, loses more than it gains.

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We look at Rachel Weisz through the eyes of Terence Davies.  It’s similar way to watching Penelope Cruz via Pedro Almodovar.  The gaze is sensual, erotically charged, reverential.  Beautiful women photographed by gay men, the characters living out emotional torments and ruined love affairs.  Perhaps there is something about the suffering, the vulnerability of these women that is particularly resonant for men who (at least in these cases) would have spent a good deal of their adult lives loving and desiring in secret, or at least not in public.  The Deep Blue Sea aches with lust and regret.  Rachel Weisz is incandescently beautiful, and Tom Hiddleston is fecklessly irresistible as her lover Freddie. Simon Russell Beale as the judge, her jilted husband, is dignified and generous.  The final shot, of Hester opening the curtains of her grotty flat and looking at the view of a blitz-flattened street, is both a framing device (echoing the opening shot) and a suggestion of ruination and the rebuilding that is possible.  Davies has had a uniquely difficult time getting his films made and his visions on to screen.  The Deep Blue Sea shows the doubters that he is a British auteur we should treasure.  Ter(r)ences don’t come along very often.

A Single Man shows the final day in the life of a gay man in the early 60s, a man who has recently lost his partner of 16 years in a car crash.  Unable to grieve publicly, he has become hollow, an echo chamber.  George (Colin Firth) decides to take his life, but first must go through his day, almost as usual.  Every experience is heightened, gorgeous, sensual, slow.  He notices everything, feels everything, experiences everything.  As morning is almost breaking, he has decided not to kill himself, but his weak heart gives up, and he dies thinking of his lover.  It is a beautiful film (everyone wants a life photographed, designed and clothed by Tom Ford), poignant and tender and rich.  Weekend is filmed on a council estate in Nottingham, in a flat filled with charity-shop furnishings, inhabited by Russell, a quiet and reflective man in his 20s.  He meets Glen in a bar, they have a one night stand that, over the course of a weekend, turns into something more meaningful.  These are men for whom George’s struggles are at once in the past, and yet also present.  Gay sex is no longer illegal, and civil partnerships have brought a degree of parity to the place of relationships in society.  However there is still fear, and bigotry, and telling of parents to be dealt with.  Weekend is about the fear everyone has of opening up, of risking hurt and humiliation, of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or saying nothing and letting the opportunity pass by.  They are films made by gay men about gay men, but a love story is always a love story.

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