Ben Whishaw

London Spy E1 (BBC2)

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Contains plot spoilers for episode 1.

londonspy1Having seen Spectre only a few days earlier, I confess there was a bumpy initial transition to watching the first part of BBC2’s new thriller series London Spy. That’s because both feature Ben Whishaw, and while he delivers a commendably different and indeed exemplary performance in each, he nonetheless possesses something of a unique presence and appearance and consequently it was hard not to get distracted by thoughts of Q at times. It wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the first shots of Whishaw in London Spy has him framed against the looming bulk of the MI6 building in the out-of-focus background.

This and most of the other espionage aspects of London Spy were very low key for much of the initial 50 minutes of the hour-long first episode. If it wasn’t for the title, you’d assume that you were watching a rather sweet if slow-paced urban contemporary gay love story set in the capital. Whishaw’s character Danny is a late 20-something who up to now has been indulging in a life of partying, clubs, drugs, casual sex and brief but intense love affairs, while spending his days as a drone working solo in an Amazon-esque automated dispatch warehouse. However, early one morning Danny has something of an existential crisis about the state of his life while standing on Vauxhall Bridge, his misery so profound that it’s even apparent to a passing jogger who stops to ask him if he’s alright. (Hey, it could happen – even in London!) Read the rest of this entry »

Spectre (2015)

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Contains spoilers

spectre-0As far as titles for movies go, Spectre could hardly be better named. Right from the start it’s clear that this is a film full of ghosts: past, present and future, dead or alive, benign or threatening – this latest James Bond movie is a conspicuously haunted affair.

You can’t say that they don’t warn you. Even before the film starts, there’s an on-screen caption declaring “the dead are alive” and then we open in Mexico City on the Day of Dead where by tradition the deceased are said to walk the streets once more. And to really hammer the point home, Bond is there at the posthumous direction of the late, lamented M to carry out a clinical low key hit on a terrorist planning an atrocity. Unfortunately things don’t go quite according to plan and end up being rather messily high-profile, imperilling the very existence of MI6 as a result.

Despite all the spectral signs and portents in the opening minutes, it still didn’t prepare me for the jolting glimpses we get of the late M (Judi Dench), Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) and Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) in the opening credits sequence. Nor are these just grace notes: along with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), their presence is keenly felt throughout the film from the very start and exorcising these ghosts becomes Bond’s main preoccupation during the entire endeavour. Read the rest of this entry »

Cloud Atlas (2012) [Blu-ray]

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People often read reviews of things to work out whether it’s something they themselves will like, and in that sense Cloud Atlas is review-proof. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about this film, you still won’t have any idea whether you yourself will like it until you actually see it with your own eyes. You might love it and think it the best film of all time, or may hate it and consider it the worst film ever made. Neither reaction would surprise me; the only response that would is one of indifference.

Adapted from the famously unfilmable novel by David Mitchell (the writer, not the actor/comedian/TV personality), Cloud Atlas tries to stick to the core text of the book but also takes great liberties with its unique structure of six ‘nesting’ stories. In the book you get the first half of each story in turn before dropping down into the next one, and then the latter part of the novel comes back up through the conclusions of each story in reverse order to show how they fit together and interlink into one thematic whole.

Sure enough, all six stories from the book are still present in the film: there’s the 1849 South Pacific sea voyage of young lawyer Adam Ewing on slave trade business for his father-in-law; a 1930s Britain section following young musician Robert Frobisher who goes to work for an elderly famous composer; a 1973 tale of journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into the safety of a San Francisco nuclear power plant; a modern broad comedy featuring the misadventures of publisher Timothy Cavendish in London 2012; a near-future tale featuring the plight of clones in corporate-dominated Neo Seoul in 2144; and a post-catastrophe world where civilisation has collapsed and small tribes fight for survival with other feral human survivors, a stark warning about where our own current ‘dog-eat-dog’ selfish approach to life might ultimately take us as a society and as a species. Read the rest of this entry »

Skyfall (2012)

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Even for a creative team that includes some of the best talent working in cinema today such as Oscar-winning director Sam Mandes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the prospect of taking on Skyfall must have been a daunting one. No one wants to be the person who fumbles the ball and mortally wounds one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, after all. Quite apart from the whole 50th anniversary hooplah surrounding the latest instalment of the Bond series, there is the worrisome matter of having to follow on from a previous film widely regarded as a disappointment, and after a too-long hiatus caused by the latest financial strife at MGM/UA.

But even the best creative team has to start the process by asking itself: what sort of Bond movie do we want to make? Everyone has their own image of what a ‘true’ Bond film should look like and the elements it should contain but in fact the series has been consistent only in how much it has varied through the five decades, from the style-setting early Connery thrillers to the light-hearted family entertainment Moore outings. Where the series once created a whole new spy thriller genre, it later fell behind and seemed perpetually scrambling to keep up with the competition: hence the blaxploitation and science fiction outings in the 70s, or the quintessential mid-80s drug war/vendetta instalment, or more recently the feeling that the series needed to get back to realism and basics while assimilating the parkour DNA of the Bourne franchise. At times, the series seemed so busy dodging around copycats and wannabes, finding a new raison d’être for Bond after the end of the Cold War and adapting to the latest cinematic trends that it arguably lost the heart and soul of what it meant to be a Bond film altogether. For me, the successful recent run of entries in the Bond series was under Brosnan, which managed to reinvent the character and make it relevant for the end of the millennium, combined the serious thrillers with the spectacular and absurd, and did it all with a sleek new modern style that was both old-time Bond and wholly fresh.

What, then, should Mendes and his team do for a 50th anniversary film? What film in 2012 could possibly adequately pay homage to the entire history of such a multi-faceted storied franchise? Read the rest of this entry »

The Hollow Crown: Richard II (BBC2)

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As much as it’s nice to see the BBC having a high arts year, with the first of this new set of Shakespearian adaptations coming just a few weeks ahead of the BBC Proms season getting underway, I can’t say that I was as thrilled about this adaptation of Richard II as I wanted to be – or indeed as most other reviewers seem to be.

It’s known as a ‘difficult’ play to dramatise for the screen, being one of the more talkie Shakespearian works. I’m by no means a Shakespeare expert or aficionado and can only speak from my own poorly-informed preferences, but I will say that I’ve always found Richard II an underrated favourite in how it deals with interesting themes about leadership, power, monarchy and the supposed divine right to rule – all of which are still very relevant to modern political rulers of today.

The play does so by systematically stripping away those facets of the titular character scene by scene, which puts a lot of emphasis on getting the portrayal of Richard II himself right. Unfortunately – for me at least – the 2012 film version didn’t succeed in this regard. As played by star-of-the-moment Ben Whishaw he came across as a fey, feckless and ethereal character: he reminded me of Johnny Depp’s take on Willie Wonka for Tim Burton, and I believe I recall reading that both performances had their basis in using pop megastar Michael Jackson for inspiration. But whereas Depp’s Wonka was able to suggest a dark edge and a genuinely unnerving quick and dangerous temper under the surface, Whishaw’s Richard II came across to me as a rather weak, harmless and irrelevant character who would totter at the first push. It was hard, then, to understand the bloody anger at the King that the rebels worked themselves up into, and as a consequence the balance of the original text felt lost: we are meant to be onside with the terribly picked-upon Richard from the very start, as odd and weird a king as he might be, and so see his downfall as a terrible thing wrought by nasty, uncouth turncoats.

For me, that approach denied the dramatic arc of the character envisaged by Shakespeare – of how the monstrous, warping arrogance of kingship is stripped away to reveal a normal man underneath, whom we then can identify with after all, as he becomes a better person more at ease with himself now he is no longer king. But with this Richard not being terrible to start with, and with his post-downfall persona still somewhat of a whining spoilt brat not really understanding what’s happened to him, this adaptation tells an entirely different story from what I’d always thought the original text intended. I’m sure a lot of people will like that and find it equally as valid a story; but as far as I was concerned, it made for a flat central plot and a lost opportunity.

This is not Whishaw’s fault: while it’s not an interpretation that works for me, his performance is certainly an interesting and very well constructed one, and entirely in line with the intentions of the writer and director Rupert Goold who from the start works hard to make us feel pity for Richard, and continues to do so right up to the filthy Christ-like wretch in a loin cloth lost in dank castle dungeons that we are presented with toward the end. The film goes so far as to make very obvious a ‘sub’ text identifying Richard with Saint Sebastian, so that by the time the deposed king meets his fate we are clearly expected to be on board with his martyrdom and canonisation. I have to say, I bristled at such obvious manipulations and deviations from the original play, but others won’t be so precious and will doubtless feel differently.

There was an even bigger deviation from canon concerning the character of young Aumerle, Richard’s devoted friend and supporter (and, this film seems to hint, perhaps something even more) who narrowly escapes being executed for treason by the new king. That’s where Shakespeare leaves him, but in this adaptation he is suddenly picked up for an encore replacing Sir Piers Exton as Richard’s assassin, of whom the new king spits: “Though I did wish him dead, I hate the murderer.” That’s a marked change for the character and consequently grafts on quite a different sub-plot from that which Shakespeare had in mind, and I wasn’t happy about such an ‘improvement’ on the Bard’s work – even if Shakespeare’s own late introduction of the previously unknown Exton in the ante-penultimate scene of the play was hardly his best dramatic construction, it’s fair to admit.

In all, possibly the biggest problem was that this felt a very cut-down version of the play with an awful lot of the original text excised for brevity to fit the two hour twenty minute running time. Unfortunately in the 21st century we don’t appear to have attention spans capable of anything longer, at least not in the minds of filmmakers and broadcasters. It’s possible that with more time the character of Richard II would have become more rounded, the subtext less overt, the shift of Aumerle’s arc less jarring.

This is not to say there wasn’t much to appreciate in this production. The early scenes centring on a feuding Mowbray (a sadly underused, snarling James Purefoy) and Bolingbroke (an excellent Rory Kinnear) were done just right and handsomely shot as they approached their deadly joust; it managed to do a near-impossible job of introducing a complex line-up of characters quickly and clearly. The production overall was very polished and presented many striking directorial touches: the scene where Richard II confronts the rebels led by the Earl of Northumberland (a brilliant David Morrissey, the real hard man of the plot) included the striking close-up details of sweat rolling down Richard’s face as he stood alone before the threat with nothing to shield him except his sense of divinely-granted majesty. However, some other moments such as the deposition scene in which Richard has to hand over his crown were perhaps a little too over-thought and stylised for their own good.

There were predictably top-notch performances from old theatrical hands David Suchet and Lindsay Duncan as the Duke of York and his wife, and naturally Patrick Stewart – without whom no BBC Shakespearian production can possibly be attempted – was first-class as John of Gaunt, thereby getting to recite a cut-down “this scepter’d isle” speech early before exiting. This supporting cast and set of characters was so strong in this production, in fact, that I found myself almost resenting Richard getting in the way of knowing more about them – especially in the final scenes, which centred on the new King’s growing horror at what was being done in his name as the bodies piled up. I could have watched a couple of hours of Rory Kinnear without any problem at all, so compelling was his turn as Bolingbroke-turned-King Henry IV.

Sadly, for the story in which the character does take centre stage, Kinnear himself is usurped from the throne. The part of the now-elderly Henry IV is taken over by Jeremy Irons for the next instalment of the four-part Hollow Crown season. It’s hard to fault the star-wattage of that piece of casting, and it will be interesting to see what sense of carry-over the two actors are able to achieve for the character.

The Hollow Crown is currently showing on BBC2 on Saturday nights through to July 21 and includes Henry IV – Part 1 and Part 2, and the well-known patriotic paradigm Henry V. Richard II is currently available on the BBC iPlayer through July.

The Hour S1 Ep1

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The Hour seems on the face of it to be so obviously “British TV’s attempt to do Mad Men” that the description became a cliché before the first episode even aired.

Both shows are set in the late 50s (or in the US case, into the 60s) and come at a pivotal time of change in society and in the featured industry (current affairs television in the UK, advertising in the US series). Both feature impressive and impeccable period reconstructions, some gorgeous sets, costumes and actors/actresses. And both also feature a lot of people doing an awful lot of smoking, which you don’t realise how little of there is on TV these days until something like this comes along and shocks you.

Then, having set itself up as a Mad Men-esque drama, The Hour does something quite different and inserts a murder mystery/conspiracy thriller into things. Suddenly it’s a period The Shadow Line complete with its own version of Gatehouse (Torchwood’s Burn Gorman filling in for Stephen Rea.)

The main protagonist of all this is young TV journalist Freddie Lyons who goes from office politics to suddenly being a 1950s CSI and profiler without a hitch. I say ‘protagonist’ advisedly since the character is difficult to like, let alone love – he goes out of his way to wind up the other characters and us the audience, in a way that I suspect is supposed to be devilishly roguish but just ends up being louche and brattish. But I’m not averse to unlikeable lead characters and had no problem going with him all the same.

Does all this work? Well – yes, I think it does, but the combination of genres does feel a bit odd and the overall effect is a bit scattershot, trying so many things that it’s difficult to really get an idea of what it’s really trying to do; and some of the dialogue is about as expositionary and clunky as you get. I suspect the murder/conspiracy is a viewer-friendly way of getting a mass audience to watch a story about the early years of British TV production, or maybe a murder/thriller pitch is the only way to get a show commissioned these days; but I can’t help shake the feeling that it’s unnecessary and distracting away from a really good straight drama series underneath that could be as terrific as, say, The Road to Coronation Street – a one-off drama set in the same era the success of which I can’t help but wonder wasn’t in some way the seed inspiration for this new series.

The BBC always does period drama incredibly well, and although the 1950s are more recent than most things normally considered to be “period” it’s the same here and looks terrific. It’s also got the most spectacular cast – it’s the kind of show that you open any door on the set and half a dozen familiar faces will fall out on top of you, from Anna Chancellor to Jason Watkins to Anton Lesser to John Bowe to Julian Rhind-Tutt to … Oh, yes, Dominic West, late of The Wire and here returning to absolutely crystal-cut English accent in the “… and starring” role of the smooth news anchor.

The stars are Romola Garai – as a brilliant woman producer suffering badly from the sexism of the era who makes me wonder if she isn’t inspired by the legendary TV trailblazer Verity Lambert, first producer of Doctor Who – and Ben Whishaw as the aforementioned Freddie Lyons. Whishaw’s had quite the stellar stage career and has also been in the movie version of Brideshead Revisited and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but for my mind in a spectacular cast he’s the weakest link in this first episode because he always seems to have the need to be seen acting, and it’s distracting on the small screen where less is more. Presumably he feels this is the right way to play a clearly hyperactive, nervy character but his little tics were overplayed to my mind and compared poorly with the classy underplaying of the rest of the cast. Still, he might settle down or I may get used to it.

And I’ll certainly stick with this. Like the previously mentioned The Shadow Line this is a beautifully made intelligent attempt to do something different from the norm, and I’m keen to see where it takes us.