I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness. However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.
Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.
Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.
In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.
The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.
My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:
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Tagged 1950s, 1984, analysis, argument, basic, BBC, BBC2, Birdsong, blog, Bond, books, brands, Britain, British, categories, characterisation, characters, chronological, Crusoe, Devil May Care, doubts, England, Engleby, everyman, Faulks, fiction, flawed, Fleming, Forced, hero, heroes, history, Holmes, humour, Ian, individual, insight, interviews, iplayer, island, James, Kingsley, labels, link, literature, live blog, lover, lovers, Lucky Jim, Martin, Millenium Bridge, Money, narrative, natural, novelist, novels, On, on the fly, Orwell, pink shirt, points, post-war, presenter, programme, rationing, research, Review, Robinson, Sebastian, self, Series, Shakespeare, Sherlock, simplistic, Smith, snob, snobs, St.Pauls, stories, story, superhero, themes, tomcatintheredroom, tv, Vanity Fair, villain, villains, war, Winston, wordpress, writing
There are a number of high profile British projects to look forward to in the coming months, with some of them already making waves at film festivals and generating Oscar gossip. Perhaps the biggest and most widely anticipated of the coming releases is unlikely to win masses of critical plaudits but shall delight and tease the expectant masses…
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Release Date: 19th November 2010
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bill Nighy and endless others!
Director: David Yates
Synopsis: In the first of a two part adaptation of the final, seventh book in the Potter series, Harry embarks on a quest to destroy the Hoxcruxes that preserve Voldemort’s immortality, as the Dark Lord tightens his controlling grip on the magical world and the country as a whole. Familiar friends are menaced as Harry’s psychological connection to his nemesis helps him learn more about both the past and the destiny awaiting him.
Will it be any good?: Whilst David Yates clearly convinced the money men behind the movies that he had mastered the magical recipe with his previous Potter films Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince, and a sizeable chunk of the critics too, I have always felt that his offerings were weak additions to the series and disappointments following Goblet of Fire and the inspired Prisoner of Azkaban, helmed by Alfonso Cuaron. To my mind Cuaron has been the only director to successfully inject exactly the right dose of the magical and fairytale, whilst also creating a gripping narrative that worked independently of the book. Goblet of Fire too was a solid entry to the series, but Yates has failed to up the level of threat and drama sufficiently as Voldemort emerged from exile, with set pieces such as the climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic in Yate’s first Potter picture disappointing fans of the books. Ralph Fiennes has tried his best as the sinister wizard but we’ve now seen so much of him being frankly less than scary that his supposed all conquering power has lost its fearful mystique and he often appears on screen as a pale and camp vampiric skinhead, prancing around like a pantomime villain. The decision to split the final book into two films was perhaps inevitable given the irresistible revenue guaranteed by such a move and also the abundance of action in the novel. It will be interesting to see how artificial the cut off point for this first instalment feels and whether or not the best action will be reserved for the finale, leaving this feeling an empty affair, a mere prelude to the real deal. The quest nature of the story shall take the action away from the formulaic comfort of Hogwarts that was the foundation of both the books and movies successful appeal. Yates will have no excuse this time round for a lack of exciting set pieces and fans will take heart from a promising and exciting trailer. It really is time these films delivered something special that does both the original stories and talented cast justice, but it does seem that this entry may be simply an elaborate teaser before Part 2.
The King’s Speech
Release Date: 7th January 2011
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall
Director: Tom Hooper
Synopsis: Taking to the throne due to his brother’s abdication, King George VI is both reluctant and unfit to lead the British Empire at the dawn of a shifting new world order. Hampered by a terrible stammer he enlists the help of eccentric Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue to improve his expression and find his true voice.
Will it be any good?: This film came away with the big prize at the Toronto Film Festival and has all the necessary ingredients for Oscar glory, including another mammoth performance from Colin Firth that looks certain to earn him a second consecutive best actor nomination, following last year’s for A Single Man. Indeed this is a film with an incredibly strong cast and one bound to be full of pitch perfect performances, with much praise already being heaped on Geoffrey Rush’s amusing and inspirational therapist, and Timothy Spall seeming a natural choice for Winston Churchill. Add in the lavish and meticulous period detail and the focused, character driven nature of the narrative at a time of enormous historical importance and this could have critics drooling and writhing in the aisles with pleasure. Of course even with the magnetism provided by awards buzz a film needs to be watchable to be a commercial success and the blend of humour and moving emotional drama promised here, set against a fascinating backdrop of national crisis and relevant media issues, looks set to ensure The King’s Speech is a hit with the ordinary cinemagoer and not simply a finely executed but essentially lifeless and dull costume drama. One to look forward to.
Never Let Me Go
Release Date: 21st January 2011
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield
Director: Mark Romanek
Synopsis: An adaptation of the dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go tells the story of three children whose lives are interlocked by love and friendship at a seemingly harmless rural boarding school. However as they grow up they must learn to come to terms with their fate and their conflicting feelings for each other.
Will it be any good?: The trailer looks incredibly moving, beautifully shot, acted and scored, and it’s been chosen to open the London Film Festival but so far this film has divided critical opinion. It may simply be that expectations were disproportionately raised by a tantalising combination of Romanek’s directorial return, an acclaimed novel being adapted and three of the brightest young stars in British film taking the lead roles. Or the film may actually be a letdown that fails to transform something vital from the book, an essence of emotion impossible to replicate in a condensed screenplay tying together all the elements of a well crafted novel. Your enjoyment of the film is likely to rest on how well you know the book. Regardless of the success of the adaptation Carey Mulligan looks set to deliver another commanding performance that could be in line for recognition come Oscar time and Keira Knightley may enjoy a return to form, despite looking flat in comparison to Mulligan in the trailer. In one of a number of upcoming high profile roles, new Spiderman Andrew Garfield will also raise his status as a capable male lead with this picture and the performances of the stars alone ought to make this more than watchable.
Untitled Sherlock Holmes Sequel
Release Date: December 2011
Starring: Robert Downey Junior, Jude Law, Stephen Fry, Russell Crowe/Brad Pitt (rumoured)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Synopsis: Holmes returns after exposing the supernatural plots of Lord Blackwood, reportedly to do battle with the elusive Professor Moriarty in this anticipated sequel.
Will it be any good?: Stephen Fry seems the perfect casting choice as Sherlock’s lazier and more brilliant older brother Mycroft. Fry himself announced the news this week in a radio interview, confessing the role would be fantastic fun to play and his personality does seem perfectly suited to the light hearted tone of Ritchie’s first film for the Victorian sleuth, whilst simultaneously lamenting a lack of meatier roles for him to get his teeth into as an actor. Of course it’s too early to pass judgement on many other crucial aspects of this sequel. If it can retain the chemistry between Holmes and Watson and Hans Zimmer’s delightful, inventive soundtrack then it will have a strong foundation for success, only improved by the announcement of Fry joining the cast. A suitably adventurous and clever caper shall have to be devised to justify the return of Moriarty. Big names such as Crowe and Pitt being linked to the role alone will not ensure the film’s blockbuster success in a difficult Christmas release slot. And with the BBC’s own well received modern adaptation set to appear again before Ritchie’s second effort, will the public still have enough love left for Sherlock, particularly one still grounded in Victoriana?
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I’ve seen A Single Man twice and I am pleased to say it lost none of its impact upon a second viewing. The first time I watched it I was shocked at how I connected with it emotionally. It was the sort of heart squeezing link I only usually make with a piece of music or a poem; it was less a film than a piece of art saying something, expressing something, profoundly true about existence.
Of course for many critics the idea that this film was a glorious piece of visual art, a stimulating feast for the eyes, was simultaneously a strength to be applauded and a glaring weakness deflating all worth from the project. I had previously only come across the director and co-writer Tom Ford as the man who designed Daniel Craig’s suits for the Bond reboot Casino Royale. Whilst the tux was suitably suave my lack of expertise in the area meant I withheld judgement on Ford as an artist and a filmmaker until after the film. Those who knew better than me talked knowingly of Ford’s accomplished designing abilities and the inevitable shiny gloss of beautiful high fashion that would be evident in every frame of A Single Man. However critics also questioned the designer turned director’s ability to make his first film something more than a 90 minute perfume ad.
There are moments that feel a little too polished. In particular a flashback sequence in black and white that pictures Colin Firth and his dead lover sunbathing on an impossibly rocky, empty hillside. The Guardian critic picked out this scene as one that felt too crisp, too artificial and more at home in the fashion world than the realm of gay, grieving George’s story. I was inclined to agree but perhaps I was being too harsh. Having seen the whole film twice and loved it both times I am certainly more than happy to overlook an artificial feel to what was after all a dream sequence.
Besides those critics too focused upon the abundance of style in A Single Man may be missing the whole point of the story. Colin Firth’s bereaved, suicidal character comes to see that life is greatly lacking substance; style wins the day. Be it the style he hides behind for his neighbours, colleagues or students, George the lecturer deals mostly in the triumph of style over substance. His substance used to be Jim, his long term lover, but this was taken from him. The film charts a single day in this single man’s life, showing us mostly the tedious motions of his stylish act, with occasional glimpses of substance through the excellent, restrained performance of Colin Firth. That essence of suppressed British emotion so often seen in trashy romantic comedies finally finds its perfect place here in a gay man pondering the meaning of life. The film climaxes with a kind of answer to this question, as through an encounter with a student who reminds him of youth, George comes to treasure the handful of meaningful moments, when all seems clear, that really do make the veneer of stylish everyday nonsense worthwhile.
So first time director Tom Ford must be praised for pulling off such a story. He should not listen to those who criticise the stylishness of his film as it simply irresistibly oozes the essence of an era I absolutely love and as discussed above, the sheer beauty of every frame adds to the meaning of the piece. He also co-wrote the script which seems to be a sensitive adaptation of Isherwood’s original work and is just the right length; this is a man capable of fine tuning the components of storytelling not just the image in front of a camera. Colin Firth’s performance, along with those supporting him, is also completely believable and compelling. Most films with a voiceover inevitably disappoint but this one pulls it off, largely due to Firth. A Single Man is certainly not a gripping, edge of your seat film experience but it is a compelling story beautiful enough to hang on your wall. If you could do so you would, for every time you see it you will ponder the nature of the human condition profoundly and re-examine your life.
To Sherlock then, a new version of the classic Holmes and Watson partnership, that updates the sleuthing to a modern day London setting. This time-leap transformation has not really been explored by filmmakers, perhaps out of respect for the characters’ grounding in Victoriana, or perhaps because it couldn’t be done well.
But if anyone can do it surely Steven Moffat, head writer of Doctor Who previously discussed on this blog, could! In partnership with fellow Whovian script writer Mark Gattis, Moffat has set out to introduce Holmes and Watson to a new generation via a new crime fighting era. The idea for the series came about during journeys to Doctor Who’s Cardiff HQ. In the title role Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I have long thought would make an excellent Doctor at some point, plays the brilliant, socially inept mastermind of detection. The music for the series is composed by David Arnold of Bond film fame. All these things meant I couldn’t not like this programme!
I did of course love the first episode, A Study in Pink, perhaps all the more for being able to note Moffat’s little tweaks from Conan Doyle’s original story that united Holmes and Watson for the first time, A Study in Scarlet. However as with A Single Man the style was sometimes more impressive than the substance. A Guardian review has already noted that the plot was thin for this first episode, despite some wonderful Moffat-esque twists such as Mycroft appearing to be Moriarty and most importantly of all the spot on characterisation. Martin Freeman’s Watson is just the right balance between war veteran and ordinary man, avoiding the bumbling screen Watsons of past adaptations. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is marvellously distant, methodical and brilliant. The Sherlock influences on Dr Who were apparent whilst watching this and vice versa. I do hope Benedict gets a shot at being a Timelord. For now though I shall enjoy his interpretation of another one of my favourite characters and hope that this promising opener was but a taster of better things to come.
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