Films

Polished period pieces

New movies range from ancient Rome to Victorian London and the slums of Limerick

John Bemrose,Patricia Hluchy January 24 2000
Films

Polished period pieces

New movies range from ancient Rome to Victorian London and the slums of Limerick

John Bemrose,Patricia Hluchy January 24 2000

Polished period pieces

Films

New movies range from ancient Rome to Victorian London and the slums of Limerick

Titus

Directed by Julie Taymor

Anyone looking for a map of the darkness in the human heart—a thematic blueprint to tragedies from the Holocaust to Rwanda—need only turn to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It abounds in murders, and it climaxes in a notorious scene in which the wronged Roman general, Titus, serves up the remains of his enemy’s children in a bloody pie. Titus has enjoyed many stage and film revivals in the bloodiest of all centuries, the 20th. Now, at the dawn of a new and, one hopes, more peaceful era, it returns in a stunning film version from the director of Broadway’s The Lion King, Julie Taymor. Having already mounted Titus Andronicus on the New York stage, the American Taymor has thought deeply about the play: while she has cut a considerable amount of Shakespeare’s dialogue, she has, in most respects, served its dark vision impressively.

Taymor has followed Shakespeare’s own stage directions in keeping some of the more gruesome deeds out of sight. This helps the film avoid sensationalism, and sustains its moral centre as a warning against the lust for revenge. Anthony Hopkins brings a grim, smouldering solidity to the role of Titus. The proud old warrior is one of the most opaque of Shakespeare’s heroes (no selfrevealing soliloquies here), yet Hopkins has found subtle ways to suggest his pain and moral confusion. Less satisfying is Jessica Lange’s Tamora, the barbarian queen who becomes empress of Rome—and Titus’s mortal enemy. Lange’s Tamora is fierce enough, but

the actress speaks Shakespeare’s verse like an overly earnest neophyte. Some of the film’s surreal fantasy scenes, meanwhile, seem too much like clips of rock video and simply stall the action.

But setting the story among the ruins of ancient Rome was inspired. As these unhappy, revenge-haunted humans— wearing a strange mixture of modern and period costumes—prowl among the crumbling pillars and catacombs, they seem like ghosts rising from the witches’ brew of humanity’s unconscious.

John Bemrose

Topsy-Turvy

Directed by Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh’s hit 1996 film, Secrets and Lies, had the raw immediacy of a pub crawl gone bad. Its story of duplicity in a lower-class English family— created by Leigh and his cast during

several months of improvisation—won the Palme d’or at Cannes. Now, Leigh has come up with something completely different. Topsy-Turvy is a smooth, lavish historical portrait of that great 19th-century writing team Gilbert and Sullivan. It opens in 1884, in the midst of a London heat wave made all the more terrible by those heavy suits and corsets Victorians wore. Librettist William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) have just launched their latest comic operetta, Princess Ida, to tepid reviews. One critic complains that Gilbert’s fantastic plots (he calls the writer the “King ofTopsy-Turvydom”) are wearing thin, and suggests the well of creativity that churned out such earlier hits as HMS Pinafore has run dry.

To Gilbert’s dismay, Sullivan agrees. The two men quarrel and, not for the first time, go their separate ways. TopsyTurvy is the story of how they get back

together again and go on to write what is arguably their masterpiece, The Mikado. The incident might seem to offer little in the way of dramatic possibilities, but Mike Leigh and his cast have a gift for transforming minor incidents into quiedy radiant illuminations of the human condition. The greatest achievement of Topsy-Turvy is to show the vulnerability and, in a sense, ordinariness of the two famous writers: when a horrified Gilbert watches his peevish old father (Charles Simon) slip into insanity, he is simply a man caught, like everyone, in mortality’s web. The film runs out of momentum about two-thirds of the way through, but by then its exquisitely wrought human and historical detail— and its lavish servings of fine singing— have cast a lingering spell.

J.B.

Angela’s Ashes

Directed by Alan Parker

It’s a case of mass seduction by a voice. Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes is a depressing litany of squalor and strife. And sometimes, as the author chronicles his childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, his

powers of recall seem a little too powerful: the word “blarney” occasionally shimmers between the lines. Yet McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book continues to prove irresistible, with sales of more than six million copies in 30 countries. The winning element is the author’s writerly voice—intimate, wistful and humorous, like that of a pub raconteur who’s had just the right number of pints. Director Alan Parker was clearly aware of the voice’s power when he set out to adapt Angelas Ashes for the screen. Using an offscreen narrator throughout the movie, he and co-writer Laura Jones preserve McCourt’s lilt and many of his funniest lines (“I was so happy I didn’t know whether to s—t or go blind”). But the film lacks the book’s emotional power, and the fault lies with the casting and the performances Parker has drawn from his actors.

Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge are all affecting as Frank at various stages of his childhood, although Legge is too strappingly handsome to play a forlorn, undernourished teenager. More unfortunate was the choice of Robert Carlyle ( Trainspotting, The Full Monty) for the role of the father, Malachy. As Frank describes him,

Malachy was a silver-tongued drunk whose powers of self-delusion allowed him to buy rounds for his mates rather than food for his children. Carlyle’s Malachy is pinched, brooding, and well aware of the pain he’s causing. As the matriarch, Angela, Emily Watson (.Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie) is more successful, though the filmmakers were perhaps too faithful to McCourt’s portrayal—this mother is so beaten-down and mute that she scarcely commands the viewer’s attention.

One of the film’s strengths is the art direction: never has back-lane Ireland looked so festering, sombre and raindrenched. And Parker apprehends a critical aspect of McCourt’s tale: Frank and his siblings, typical children, made the best of their grim surroundings. So whenever the McCourt kids find the ground floor of their rented house flooded by several inches of water, they giddily splash about in it. Frank McCourt still harbours some of that vitality, which is why Angelas Ashes is so beloved.

Patricia Hluchy