TIFF 2011 Reviews Part IV

Reviewed here:

  • Tyrannosaur ***½
  • Wuthering Heights *½
  • Coriolanus ***
  • The Deep Blue Sea **½
  • Page Eight ****
  • Restoration ***

This article covers days 9 to 11 of the festival and brings to a close the reviews for this year.

Tyrannosaur ***½

Written and Directed by Paddy Considine / UK

Joseph is a bitter, isolated man.  He’s on welfare and drinks too much.  Picking fights is his easiest way, the only way he knows to deal with the world.  Joseph lost his wife, a great hulking woman who wasted away with diabetes, before the story begins.  “Tyrannosaur” was Joseph’s nickname for her, although the term applies just as easily to others in the film.  Even one last friend, his dog, is victim to his temper.  Rarely does a sensitive side peek out, buried under the problems of Joseph’s life.  He is played brilliantly by Peter Mullan.

Pure chance takes him to a charity shop run by Hannah (Olivia Colman), a shy and very Christian woman for whom prayer is almost as important as Joseph’s violence.  A tentative friendship develops between them, but that brings on the jealousy of her violent husband, James (Eddie Marsan), whose only seems capable of gratification through rape.  Hannah needs a salvation of her own.

A confrontation with James is inevitable, but it comes in a most unlikely manner.  There is hope for a better life eventually, but no happy families ending.

Every relationship here is broken somehow with only a boy, Sam, living across the street from Joseph showing any innocence and playfulness.  Sam gives us a view, maybe, of what the others once were, but his own father is sad image of what he will become.  The weather in Leeds is always cloudy, a physical prospect as bleak as the personal.

Patty Considine is known as an actor, but here debuts as director and author.  The screenplay is based in part on his own youth, a circumstance he has survived but, it appears, not completely escaped.  His script and characters are entirely credible, if hard to take, and the acting is excellent across the board.

Tyrannosaur won a directing award for Considine, and acting awards for Mullan and Colman at the Sundance festival.

Wuthering Heights

Directed by Andrea Arnold, loosely adapted from Emily Brontë / UK

As the title implies, this is a story with lots of wind, but it’s really more a sketch than a true adaptation of the novel.  If you didn’t know the book, you might have a challenge with a version that includes the equivalent of every tenth paragraph and leaves out big chunks in the name of simplification.  There are lots of scenes with no dialogue, just moody views of the characters, the landscape and the weather.  When dialogue does arrive, it is laboured and throws off the pace of the film.  You will not recognize any of the actors.

In the original, the outsider, the adopted boy Heathcliff is a Gypsy, but that’s really not enough of a difference for 21st century cinema.  Here, he’s a half-caste black so that we get the message and can understand why he is rejected by some of the Earnshaws, his new family.

This may be a period piece, but there are no fine drawing rooms — most of the action takes place in a poor, dirty farmhouse house and there’s lots of traipsing about in muddy Yorkshire.

Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw fall in love, but any fool can see that’s doomed.  Her brother, Hindley, has no use for Heathcliff, and once the family estate comes into Hindley’s hands, Heathcliff is sent packing.  At this point there’s a hole in the story because when we next meet him, Heathcliff is a well-off man who, by financing Hindley’s gambling habbit, will come to own the Earnshaw estate.  A poetic reversal to be sure, but I really don’t care for these people.

Director Andrea Arnold manages to distill a well known story not into fine whiskey, but muddy water.  The two-hour plus running time tried my patience and that of many others in the audience.  For the squeamish, animals are killed on camera, and the carcasses become something of a recurring theme.

In the Tiff catalogue, Cameron Bailey writes glowingly of Arnold’s accomplishment.  Cameron just dropped a notch on my personal rating scheme for the credibility of Tiff programmers.

When in doubt, Arnold cuts to sounds of the wind and a tree branch tapping on a window (it is finally opened at the end of the movie, an important Symbol, no doubt).  This version of Wuthering Heights is a triumph of style, and a not very good one at that.

Coriolanus ***

Directed by Ralph Fiennes / Screenplay by Josh Logan (adapted from Shakespeare) / UK

The story for those who don’t know the play:  The Romans are restless because they haven’t been fed for quite a while, and they’re particularly unhappy with Caius Martius, a great general.  Martius isn’t too happy with the Romans either.  The Volscians (or Volsci) live in an area south of Rome, and their army commander Tullus Aufidius really hates Martius.  Martius goes off to fight the Volsci, conquers their city Corioles (for which he receives his new name and the play’s title), but Aufidius lives to fight another day.

Back in Rome, Martius, now Coriolanus, is convinced by his mother, Volumnia, to run for consul.  Although he really doesn’t want the job, mother prevails.  Opposition forces rally a mob against the new consul, and he shows his true colours with utter contempt for the mob and democratic government.  Banished from Rome, Coriolanus plots his revenge and offers his allegiance to the Volsci.  They plan to sack Rome, but Volumnia shows up to plead for mercy, and Coriolanus, the dutiful son, relents.  The Volsci are mightly displeased and kill him.  The End.

Now that I have the plot out of the way, let’s talk about the production.  Ralph Fiennes has a strong Shakespearean background, and has played Coriolanus on stage.  Here he gets a chance to both act and direct generally to good effect.

Fiennes’ Coriolanus has a certain reserve, tough, but not very loud, up to the point of his speech against the mob where we see his real character.  It will all be downhill from there, although Coriolanus doesn’t foresee this.

Mother Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, gets to chew the scenery in her own right, and we certainly see the lineage behind her son’s character.  Unfortunately for him, she’s a bit too persuasive, too much the dominant mother.  She wants to be the power behind the throne, but winds up destroying it.

The film is set in modern times, and much of it was shot in Serbia with real soldiers and hardware.  The history of the former Yugoslavia is never far from our minds, and even the name “Volscis” has a slavic ring to it.  Passages that on stage would have been reports by messengers show up here as voice overs for TV coverage of the Rome-Volsci battles.  A BBC studio finds the usual talking heads spouting Shakespeare as they discuss the political situation.  This actually works, and it’s striking how naturally the text lies in their voices.

Did I like the film?  Yes, to a point.  With a running time of about two hours, the original text has been cut quite a lot to suit the pacing of film rather than theatre.  An interesting interpretation, but more sketch than story.

The Deep Blue Sea **½

Written and Directed by Terrence Davies (adapted from a play by Terrence Rattigan) / UK / **½

In the service of full disclosure, I will start by saying that I really like Davies’ films, his sepia-touched looks back at his youth and the early postwar era in Britain.  His work may move slowly, but Davies’ use of music and images can be haunting.

The Deep Blue Sea tries to be two different films in one.  We have the basic story of Hester Collyer, wife of a much older judge, a woman whose affair with an air force pilot is itself in ruins.  She is very sad and suicidal.  She thinks back to better times in her life.  We find ourselves transported to classic Davies scenes with soft amber lighting, singing and people who muddle through somehow.  Davies does these beautifully, but the production feels like a scaffold for these images, an excuse rather than a reason for their existence.

Rachael Weisz plays Hester, but she is not well-served by the script.  To me, Hester is simply a young woman who married an older man as much for social advantage as for love, tired of that arrangement, but now finds herself bereft of any relationship.  She lived a privileged life.  War is something that horrified her, but at a distance.  I shed no tears for poor Hester.


Page Eight ****

Written and Directed by David Hare / UK

Page Eight continues in that wonderful British tradition, the spy thriller.  David Hare gives us Johnny Worricker, and the role goes to Bill Nighy.  Worricker is a reserved man with a taste in art and jazz, although the idea of passion in such a man suggests that he’s not just a fussy secret agent of a bygone era.  Others may joke about his tenuous knowledge of modern technology, but being underestimated suits his character.

A strange neighbour, Nancy Pierpan (Rachael Weisz) appears across from Worricker’s flat, and her family ties to the Middle East suggest that Worricker may be a target.  However, the real threat lies elsewhere.  (Weisz is much more credible in this role than in The Deep Blue Sea reviewed above.)

MI5 is in a spot of trouble.  The head spook, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), is an old pal of Worricker’s.  He may seem rumpled and out-of-touch, but he knows something unsavoury is afoot in the kingdom.  A top secret review of US intelligence activities and the dubious methods used to extract information seems ordinary enough, and Baron passes it to Worricker and his fellow analyst Jill Tankard (Judy Davis).  Lurking on page 8 is simple note that the Prime Minister knows of this intelligence and how it was obtained.

In fact, the PM (Ralph Fiennes) is running his own parallel intelligence service with a mole in MI5.  His plans would remake the British agencies into a “homeland security” department complete with a much more pervasive role.

At this point, I have to stop giving away the plot.

Page Eight is very well written, and the story works itself out without the sense of contrived crises or too-convenient circumstances.  The acting work is excellent all ’round.

Although this is actually a made-for-TV production, Page Eight was shot in cinematic format by Martin Ruhe.  At Tiff we were lucky to see it on a big screen, and the next chance will probably be on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS, or maybe on TVO.  BBC aired it in letterbox format, but who knows what will happen in North America.

During the Q&A at the Ryerson Theatre, Hare talked about the differences between movie and TV production.  As a movie, there would be a big budget, years of financing, production and marketing.  As TV, the whole thing was shot in a month, produced for $3-million, and went from idea to broadcast in a few years.  Hare originally set out to write a free-standing screenplay, and bemoaned the problem writers face with TV producers who always want series.  All the same, by the time Page Eight ended, there were certainly threads that could lead to “one or two” more episodes.

Restoration ***

Directed by Yossi Madmony /Israel

Yaakov Fidelman (Sasson Gabai) restores furniture.  This is his lifelong work, his passion, but the 70-year old Yaakov has few emotional connections, not even to his son Noah (Nevo Kimhi).  As the story begins, Yaakov’s partner, Max, has just died and the future of their antique restoration business is in doubt.  Yaakov wants to continue, but Max was the “people” side of the business.  Noah wants to close the shop and build apartments on the site.  They are not on good terms.

A young drifter, Anton (Henri David), hired the day before Max died, provides a contrast, someone who is interested in learning from Yaakov, although with more eagerness than skill.  He notices an old piano, a 19th century Steinway upright, in the shop that may be worth enough to bail Yaakov out of the financial mess Max left behind.

At this point, I have to pretend to believe in the plot because the “restoration” the instrument goes through, let alone whatever value it may have, is simply not credible.  Pianos are more than a wood casing, a frame and strings.  Anyhow …

Noah’s home life isn’t in the best of shape and his pregnant wife has about as much use for him as we in the audience.  What might have become an affair with Anton goes nowhere.

In time, the piano is restored and sold; a grandson is born; son, wife and father are reconciled; Anton goes on his way.

Restoration has a slight plot, and I was surprised to learn it won the World Cinema Screenwriting Award at Sundance.  It rests on the strength of the acting, especially Gabai’s as Yaakov, a man whose whose joys must have been in the past, holding on to what remains in the present.