Mastery of Merchant Ivory

In an attempt to blog more, I’m looking back at a blog post that I started just over a year ago. A bit embarrassing to realize that I never posted it, but why not do so now, with some more context added?

A year ago, the Merchant-Ivory classic film Howard’s End appeared at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield, Michigan, for a one week re-release celebrating an impending 25th anniversary and digital restoration. Somehow I learned of the screenings, probably thanks to my regular scouting of film listings and moviegoing itself serving as a stress relief at that particular time.

I recall being retrospectively impressed by the film’s use of scale, most notably seen in the lush cinematography and music score. Most of the central cast – Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and others – felt like they are not as active in the present day, or more selective about their projects (probably a mixture of both) and so looking back at their previous work felt especially revelatory.

The theatre itself – one of my favorites in the metro Detroit area – contributed to my enjoyment as well, where it only has three screens with carefully crafted film choices and isn’t oriented towards mass market entertainment.

Howards End

It feels a bit funny to say that The Remains of The Day was one of my favorite films as a kid … but it was. Somehow I never got to see its immediate Merchant Ivory cinematic universe predecessor Howard’s End all the way through as a whole film … until today at The Maple Theater, which is screening it as part of a special limited run re-release.

I’d forgotten how intricate the Merchant Ivory world was, with elements bursting out of the frame and suggesting a wider visual and active world beyond the story. Such depth was particularly apparent in this narrative, with three parallel stories intertwining, intersecting and then branching out into their own narratives.


Mike Leigh continues to master the cinematic world: Mr. Turner

A planned theatre excursion yesterday became more modest with a trip back up to The Maple Theater to see Mr. Turner, the new film from acclaimed British director Mike Leigh that is enjoying an exclusive Detroit area engagement at that cinema.

Leigh’s masterful touch for storytelling, depth and composition is evident in every frame of this artfully assembled film. It was one of the most engaging biopics I have ever seen, in that the viewer is invited to walk along with the story as it progresses, and not given a specific sense of time via obtrusive title cards, fade outs, or montages. The level of detail in the film is quite frankly amazing, going from one setting to the next and not losing any focus, or drawing back with a wider landscape or vista from time to time.

Veteran character actor Timothy Spall appears in nearly every scene as the curmudgeonly Turner, and lends forceful presence to minor lines, especially a recurring quasi-grunt that becomes his signature statement as the film goes on. Spall reportedly spent two years learning how to paint in preparation for this role, which seems characteristic of the depth and intensity Leigh commands from performers who join him for his productions. Many actors, including Spall, recur over multiple Leigh films; others seen here include Ruth Sheen, who had a leading role in Leigh’s last film Another Year, and Lesley Manville, who also featured prominently in the previous film and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform several times onstage.

A series of short and evocative orchestral pieces by composer Gary Yershon also contribute to the rich texture of the film, and a subtle sense of time and life going on. (To reiterate) the exquisite level of detail really captivated me throughout the long film and seemed to fuse history, entertainment and cultural studies into a powerful and potent mix.

My Rating: ****


The shadow of the pearl earring

firth johannsonThis weekend I had the opportunity to see current cinematic work from onetime costars Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson (again) – pictured at left while they were promoting their film Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003, with Johansson looking noticeably younger – she was only 19 at the time!

While I saw Johansson’s latest film Under The Skin first, followed by Gambit with Firth, I’ll discuss them in opposite order, as I feel there is more to say about Under The Skin.

So, Gambit. Umm… not quite sure why I caught this one, aside from it being one of three films that were all showing at the Birmingham 8 last night that I was interested in, and I arrived too late for the other two…so I found myself in Cinema Two sitting down for a British comedy, written by the Coen Brothers.

Firth, who seems to have had a case of “I’ve won the Oscar, now what?/how do I live up to these high expectations?” (IMO) over the past few years, stars as Harry Deen, a meek art curator in London who, with an elder colleague (Tom Courtneay) comes up with a high – concept scheme to dupe his boss (Alan Rickman) into believing a piece of fake art is real. They decide that their plan will have to work with the cooperation of a frothy Texas belle (Cameron Diaz…) who comes to London after their initial legwork – and the stage is set from there. Among the featured actors, the film also includes supporting work from Stanley Tucci, doing a slight variation on his Devil Wears Prada character that generated a career renaissance, several Japanese actors, and a bizarre cameo from veteran actress Cloris Leachman.

Given this level of talent, why is this film receiving a tiny US release 18 months after it premiered in the UK? I can’t give specific reasons here, but I’m sure that the film did not turn out the way the producers might have been hoping for. It seems an oddly difficult sell, in that it’s supposed to take place in the modern era but clearly wears its 1960s origins (from the original movie) on its sleeve, and Diaz and Firth don’t really gel well as an onscreen couple.

To confound matters further, Firth’s “good guy” plot proves to be less interesting than the angle afforded to Rickman’s character, and Rickman chews up the screen in a portrayal not that far away from his real self, based on how I observed him on one memorable instance at a London theatre in 2004, which would be a great blog entry sometime.

Once her character is allowed to calm down, Diaz acquits herself solidly, though I found it hard to shake the seeming incongruity of seeing her very American presence alongside two very British actors.

Everything comes to a head in the film’s best sequence, an extended interlude at London’s Savoy Hotel (where I once attended a terrible yet oddly memorable theatre performance that would also be worth a blog entry) where all the characters collide and engage in the most heightened forms of physical and situational comedy. British actress Selina Cadell, who taught some of my classmates in our London theatre acting program, also appears in this part of the film.

I haven’t mentioned the Coen brothers contributing to the script – and they are the sole credited screenwriters – and I guess I felt that the dialogue was sharp, but not stupendous, and especially with their high profile involvement I wonder why they are not saying more about the project.

This may well be a case of more intrigue existing behind the scenes than what the audience sees in the finished product. I’d say it’s highly likely that the film will quickly appear in DVD bins as if it just floated there. But the film’s Wikipedia page gives some insight into its troubled production history, and while the actors probably won’t say much (if anything) about it, I’m sure it will take its place as a curious career anomaly for Firth, Diaz and Rickman.


I think I’ll save a post on Under the Skin until tomorrow….