Jason’s January Film Round Up

Long considered one of the funniest plays in the theatrical repertoire, a new film version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit ghosts onto home screens aiming to spread wit, style and mischief.

It certainly has elegance, shot in a fabulous-looking art deco house in Surrey, the home to Dan Stevens’ writer Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher), who all swan about deliciously in Charlotte Walter’s immaculately-designed 1930s costumes, drinking cocktails and taking cigarettes out of silver boxes. How marvellous. How elegantly pointless.

Blithe Spirit

All looks rosy until Charles, a novelist struggling to write his first screenplay, invites a ‘medium’ called Madame Arcati to a seance, thinking he might get some material for his new story. Arcati is played by Dame Judi Dench, a role thought of as one of the plum parts in British theatre, up there with Lady Bracknell, and played over the years by stars from Margaret Rutherford in the David Lean film of 1945, to Beryl Reid, Hattie Jacques, Penelope Keith and Angela Lansbury. It’s a juicy comic role but, most unusually, Dame Judi doesn’t find the sweet spot.

In fact, while you’re looking at the decor, you begin to realise this production just isn’t working. The lightly stinging wit of Noel Coward pricks through only occasionally in Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft’s script and when Arcati unwittingly summons up the deceased first Mrs Condomine, Elvira, she’s played by American actress Leslie Mann, which is not a great piece of casting. 

There’s not enough difference between Ruth and Elvira and Stevens really struggles with the comedy, too, the conceit of him talking to one wife and the other one thinking it’s meant for her, just isn’t funny on film. I’ve seen audiences worked up into fits of laughter with this farcical slapstick, but not this time.

One struggles to see the point of reviving the film at all. Why not have made it thoroughly modern, for example? The film makers appear to have nothing smart to say about the era, the looming war, for example, or even the shallow depth of Coward’s writing about hiding and dissembling and covering up your real feelings, always a metaphor for his sexuality and society’s moral hypocrisy. What a drag.

Blithe Spirit is available on Sky Cinema from 15 January.

The Dig

There’s more costumed 1930s Britishness in The Dig. Having been stuck inside for most of 2020, I don’t think I can take being stuck in the past for all of 2021, although Moira Buffini’s script here is, at least, about our obsession with the past. The Dig boasts a fancy British cast fretting over an archaeological excavation during a hot and stormy Suffolk summer in 1939.

Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a local excavator about to make the biggest discovery of his life. Carey Mulligan is the frail widow Edith Pretty who wants her mounds uncovered. Fiennes has to come to the door of Mulligan’s lovely country home and ask the butler for “Mrs Pretty, Please.” And nobody even sniggers.

Anyway, they unearth an ancient Anglo-Saxon ship, complete with treasure and soon, the snobs from the British museum, led by a blustering Ken Stott and a hapless Ben Chaplin, are trying to claim the glory. Lily James pops up for no apparent reason, as does Johnny Flynn, as Mrs Pretty’s nephew to lead the film down a distracting tangent. 

Hidden traumas and buried secrets reveal themselves in the present, as the spectre of WWII looms – despite its meanderings, this handsome-looking film suggests that even this shall pass into history to become part of the layers and stories of life.

 It’s a pity we don’t dig deeper. There are some decent performances here, Fiennes in particular might have given one of his best if only the film had let him instead of getting buried in romantic subplots and a soupy music score.

Known for her Princess Margaret in The Crown, it’s good to see actress Vanessa Kirby shine in a modern setting in Pieces of a Woman (featured image). She plays a wealthy woman who has partnered with a construction worker and, for the first 30 or so minutes of an amazing opening scene – already one of the year’s best, surely – she gives birth in what feels like real time, all in one, increasingly breathless, unbroken shot. 

It’s as tough to watch as it is to take your eyes off. Kirby’s superb in it, as is Molly Parker, playing the substitute midwife. Partly because they both have to put up with her husband, played by Shia LeBoeuf, a performer whose restless, relentlessly showy acting I’ve always found intensely irritating.

What follows thereafter is a tense family tragedy. There’s a grandstanding role for veteran actress Ellen Burstyn as Kirby’s domineering mother, and a decent, nasty part for Succession star Sarah Snook all amid some remarkable, swirling cinematography – this is the English debut of admired Hungarian arthouse director Kornel Mandrusco which gives it all the look and feel of a very good film.

And yet, perhaps because it tips over into implausibility and a certain viciousness, I don’t know, it doesn’t quite work. Every character has a streak of cruelty and that stops the film becoming top notch. But it grips and surprises and Vanessa Kirby’s performance could make her a movie star.

Archive robot

Archive

Archive stars Stacy Martin as a robot. The Anglo-French actress plays J3, an automaton being engineered in an AI lab by scientist Theo James who injects this creation with the consciousness of his deceased wife Jules (also played by Stacy, in flashback). She does a decent job on both counts, though I must admit I prefer her in the flesh.

Directed by Gavin Rothery – who worked with Duncan Jones on his film Moon – there’s a firm sense of atmosphere and thematic exploration here, one that always feels rooted in a love story that’s as romantic as it is unsettling while it ponders the mysteries of the human heart.

If you’re looking for a definitive big screen biopic of David Bowie then Stardust probably won’t satisfy you. For starters, there aren’t any Bowie songs in it.

The film has received a bit of a sneery critical mauling since the trailer was released but that’s a bit harsh. Directed by Gabriel Range and starring Johnny Flynn as Bowie, Stardust has something playful about it, choosing to focus on a tour Bowie made in America in 1971 to capitalise on his success with Space Oddity.

Met at the airport with disdain from customs officials who question his sexuality and his possession of a dress – “It’s by Michael Fish, actually – he invented the kipper tie…?” – Bowie is then greeted by record company publicist Ron Oberman who takes him back to his Mum’s house for a family meal.

Stardust

It’s an inauspicious start even if Oberman is played by the always-watchable Marc Maron, in a role not dissimilar to his one in female wrestling TV show Glow.

The pair embark on an odd couple-type road trip across America, playing grubby private gigs where they can (Bowie doesn’t have the right visa for a proper tour) and trying, unsuccessfully, to hold press interviews without Bowie mucking them up by doing mime or talking pretentious twaddle. There’s an element of Green Book about it, without the racism and jazz.

Unfortunately the film needed more of a sense of humour – it feels cowed by a sense of devotion to Bowie, rather than freed by imagination. I’d have liked to see it have more fun with its premise and Bowie’s search for a voice and a character. A bit more social commentary on what he saw out of the car window would have been smart, too – although maybe Bowie was so self-obsessed he didn’t notice anything about 70s America.

I don’t mind if a film doesn’t have the rights to its star’s music, but it needs to make a virtue of it and find interesting angles and things to say. Flynn has a decent go at playing Bowie and he sparkles when he’s being camp and slightly ridiculous. Bowie’s an icon, sure, but we don’t have to treat him with so much seriousness – indeed, it seems to me in Stardust, we should celebrate the ironies and eccentricities, the daring and wit of his sly experiments in costume and performance.

Stardust mightn’t be the biopic to tell the Bowie story, but it’s an interesting doodle with a couple of nice performances.