Tag Archives: Gambon

Page Eight


Page Eight, written and directed by David Hare and currently available on BBC iPlayer, demonstrates just how inadequate bite size labels like “spy thriller” can be. In a story that lasts one hour and forty minutes on screen, we are never truly thrilled or excited by events. This is not an all action look at MI5, such as Spooks, but a strangely amusing study of character and bureaucracy.

The whole thing is bookended by cool, retro jazz and Bill Nighy strutting around in a suit. But whilst Nighy’s character Johnny does have an expensive, privileged and high flying lifestyle, and he does look charismatically assured for someone in his early sixties, Page Eight isn’t a tale that glamorises the intelligence community much either. In the opening twenty minutes we meet Johnny’s key work colleagues and observe his solitary home life. He could be working in any public office for a living. But for the shots of Thames House, familiar to Spooks fans and spy buffs, there isn’t a lot to mark him out as an “intelligence analyst”.

The plot basically has two strands. Early on Johnny meets his neighbour from across the hall for the first time. Played by Rachel Weisz she may or may not be interested in him for devious reasons relating to his work. She might just be lonely. Meanwhile at work Johnny’s friend and boss Ben (Michael Gambon) has passed a potentially explosive file around. At the bottom of page eight a casual sentence from an unknown source drops the bombshell that Downing Street knew about information extracted by the Americans through torture, and decided not to share it with the security services. Ben then dies of a heart attack.

Page Eight’s overwhelming quality is intrigue. The two plots grow more complicated and intermingle, as we learn about Johnny’s messy personal life with his daughter and former lovers, all strained by his tendency to suspect everyone and always remain on guard. Nighy is excellent and Gambon delivers his lines with comic relish. A meeting with the Home Secretary about a top secret subject, surely a tense situation, turns out to be a hilarious platform for Nighy and Gambon’s playful chemistry, as well as advancement of the plot. Indeed the entire cast is impressive. James Bond fans can rub their hands together with glee as potential Bond 23 villain Ralph Fiennes pulls off a sinister Prime Minister.

Aside from the drama, Page Eight also has some interesting and thought provoking points to make. Despite its heightened elements of collusion and conspiracy, it feels oddly accurate and close to the world we live in. It simultaneously takes a swipe at the consequences of elitism, the implications of everyone important graduating from the same Oxbridge college, and defends fading ideals of honour espoused by such institutions. Most revealingly of all it highlights the conflict between those who believe in “pure intelligence” delivering facts and the challenges of too much information in the modern world, requiring interpretation, perhaps for political gain, as opposed to searching for impossible truths.

Overall Page Eight is an intelligent and satisfying watch. Somehow Hare wraps everything up in a flash, just as it seems time will run out on the plot. The dialogue is delightful in the hands of veteran performers and refreshingly free of exposition, apart from a few clunky lines for Weisz. Best of all is the characterisation of Johnny that focuses on the real, human results of spying. Just don’t expect stunts, guns, fight scenes or car chases.

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

DVD Review: London Boulevard


The trailer for London Boulevard at the tail end of last year promised the best kind of British gangster flick; slick, stylish, smart, sexy and darkly funny. A disappointingly short run in cinemas and a lukewarm critical reception suggested that something didn’t quite click though, despite the stellar cast and seductive snippets of footage. Perhaps audiences anticipated more of the same; substitute Ray Winstone for Michael Gambon and Colin Farrell for Daniel Craig and you essentially get Layer Cake. But I was inclined to disagree with the tepid expectations because of interesting parallels between criminality and celebrity.

Farrell plays Mitchell, a cockney con straight out from serving three years for GBH. He explains he was merely involved in “an altercation” (he educated himself through hordes of books inside) and that he’s no thief. He’s trying to convince Keira Knightley’s paparazzi besieged actress to employ him as a bodyguard, after he uses his street smarts and hard as nails attitude to help a friend of hers avoid a nasty scuffle.  Mitchell eventually takes the job protecting the star from crude happy snappers, whilst simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to remove himself from friendships drawing him back into London’s underworld. Without even trying he rapidly builds a reputation for himself that Ray Winstone’s crime boss wishes to utilise.

I found the idea of a gangster tied to his life by the contracts of violent deeds and debts, compared and contrasted with a celebrity trapped by fame, an extremely interesting one. Neither can easily escape those aware of their existence and constantly keeping tabs on them. The relationship between Mitchell and his globally known actress had the potential to provide a refreshing lens through which to view a swaggering, traditional gangster story.

And at times the angle is slightly different. Some of the dialogue between Knightley and Farrell, particularly when they slip away to the countryside, is both full of black humour and believable observations about their determined destinies. But sadly most of the dialogue is ordinary and predictable and has indeed been seen countless times before. Farrell’s performance is neither fantastic nor a failure, merely passably cut off and charismatic, in keeping with the genre. He is suitably cool. Most disappointing is Knightley, who despite looking the part with a withered and thin appearance, never truly inhabits a role that must be close to the reality of her life on occasion. She ought to be capable of more than caricature with such personal experience to draw on.  

For me the main problem with London Boulevard was that it boiled down to an endless simmering. The stylish and often mildly funny build up was pleasing enough for a while, but only because it seemed to hint at the plot coming together and igniting at some point. It never really does. The climax on offer lacks intensity and urgency. With funny, vivid performances in supporting roles from David Thewlis, Ray Winstone, Ben Chaplin and Anna Friel, London Boulevard ultimately lets down an impressive cast of capable Brits. As well as the audience.

2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special: Moffat keeps us on our toes


If you’re a “regular reader”, if I have such a thing, then you think I’ve just gone mad. Christmas was over a month ago. And I’m only just getting round to recording my thoughts on last year’s festive offering from our favourite Timelord. But such is the magic of iplayer that I downloaded the fantastic episode immediately afterwards, with the intention of reviewing it, only to let it wither away. Now, with it about to die, I had to re-watch it before embarking on a trip abroad and sing its praises.

Because what Steven Moffat managed to do with this seasonal special is capture the sentimental essence of Christmas and cast a magical spell over Doctor Who again. Peppered with slick, funny, genius dialogue, A Christmas Carol was a marvellous reinvention of a classic, and an expression of a truly unique imagination. Fish that swim in the fog; how wonderfully original and unexpected and inexplicably Christmassy.

The problem in the end, with Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, was that no matter how spectacular, the stories became predictable. In many ways Moffat’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol had expected elements, features expected at Christmas time. But the all important sci-fi, Whovian additions to the tale were quirky, creative and inventive. There was fantastic time-hopping which had gone missing from the Tardis until Moffat’s ascension to the throne. With all of time and space to choose from, one thing Doctor Who should never, ever be, is predictable.

This story had emotional heart as well as more laugh out loud lines, delivered by a superb Matt Smith who’s well and truly at home in the role now, than I can remember. They included though, the brilliant: “What’s it called when you have no feet and you’re taking a run-up?” and the Doctor’s advice for Kazran’s first kiss; “Try and be a bit rubbish and nervy and shaky…Because you’re gonna be like that anyway.”

Michael Gambon was excellent as the old miser transformed. Katherine Jenkins made an impressive acting debut, doing all that was required of her, including delivering some enchanting singing fit for the occasion. The music in general was wonderful. There were some impressive child performances. The script wasn’t always spot-on, with there being some cheesy, ordinary lines, mainly during the sections with Amy Pond. The episode opened with the necessarily dramatic, but disappointing, “Christmas is cancelled!” The sublime moments more than make up for this though, including the Doctor in a white tux, fretting by a swimming pool about his impending engagement to Marilyn Monroe. Talk about conveying the glamour of time travel successfully on a budget.

This story is a showcase for so much. A lot of it very Christmassy stuff. The power of carols, the warming bitterness of thwarted love and memorable quotes; “halfway out of the dark”, “Time can be written, people can’t”, “Never met anyone who isn’t important before”. Wonderful plot twists like when the Doctor shows the young Kazran his older self. Most of all it’s an example of just how amazing Doctor Who can be on so many levels. All the superlatives I’m wheeling out don’t come close to expressing how good this episode was and how much I liked it, how much I loved it. The new series this year will be split into two and the opportunities for cliff-hangers and twists for Moffat will be unprecedented. I can’t wait to see what he does.

The King’s Speech


 It’s difficult to know what one’s destiny is; or if there is such a thing. Colin Firth for example seemed set to play bumbling Brits in silly rom-coms for all time, until the perfect, acclaimed home for his restrained emotion emerged in the form of firstly, a suicidal homosexual in Tom Ford’s sublime A Single Man and now spluttering monarch King “Bertie” George in Tom Hooper’s very regal Oscar contender, The King’s Speech.  Helena Bonham Carter’s fate seemed to be mad eccentric types, inspired by her vicious turns as villainess Bellatrix in the Harry Potter franchise, only to find herself alongside Firth as the Queen Mum before she was quite Queen or indeed, merely a mother.

You’d think that at least in the Royal family destinies are clear; smooth processions along a plush red carpet blood line. But in the 1930s a scandalous affair and subsequent abdication crisis in the prelude to war meant that the poor old anxious Duke of York found himself stepping up to the throne ahead of time. The youth and popularity of his wild brother meant that he probably never foresaw himself taking on the big job. He certainly didn’t want it. And yet Guy Pearce’s Edward feels he simply must step aside if it means he can fulfil his love (or lust) for his American sweetheart.

Despite the sideshows of better known history, which adds sparkle and meaning to events, the heart of this film is the untold story of a King’s personal problems and his struggles to overcome them. Firth’s Duke of York has been struggling with a stammer for most of his life and the film begins as he and his wife seek treatment from various esteemed medics. His father, King George V played by Michael Gambon, has already noticed the wayward ways of Pearce’s Edward and starts pinning his hopes on the stuttering Bertie for a viable successor. However in the new age of radio, voice is everything for a monarch. Eventually the excellent, perfectly spoken Bonham Carter finds Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue for her husband and the film comes to life.

From their very first scene together, Rush and Firth captivate the audience. No matter what other merits The King’s Speech has as a film, you will always want the action to get the King and his speech therapist back in a room again, as no other scenes come close for simple enjoyment. That is not to say that the other actors don’t give wonderful performances; Bonham Carter, Pearce, Gambon and Spall are all spot-on. And there is drama and humour elsewhere. But the speech therapy is after all what the film is about despite all the other momentous events. It’s a very personal drama about the weight of expectation on one flawed individual, born and bred in a cotton ball world. The best of the humour from some magnificent lines in David Seidler’s script sparks rapidly in these intimate scenes too.

However I couldn’t help thinking at times during The King’s Speech that it simply wasn’t as funny for those of a younger generation. Sure it wasn’t the stuffy, serious costume drama I’d been expecting either. But the cinema was packed with the elderly and middle-aged who seemed to snigger at the slightest hint of cheek from Rush’s speech therapist, or the merest sniff of rage from Firth’s dignified Royal. Most of the humour in The King’s Speech is of this variety, with the silver haired audience exploding into laughter thinking “oh dear, imagine saying that to the Queen today”. I was inclined to look on the dialogue as clever and witty, rather than uproariously funny.

I did thoroughly enjoy The King’s Speech though. The period detail is predictably sumptuous and immersive. The script is not only lively and witty but gripping and concise. The cast are all superb. I disagree with the criticisms of some reviews that the film seems to conclude by saying the King’s personal triumph over his demons won Britain the war over Hitler. This movie simply isn’t telling that story. And the story it does tell is fresh, moving and engaging. It’s at its best when reduced to simple parts; a therapist, a patient and his troublesome speech. Firth proves once again he’s stepped up into serious Oscar worthy roles and breathes life into the British period drama. It’s worth seeing for some rare, theatre like scenes that give acting talent centre stage above all else.