I’d put off seeing In The Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, USA, 2015) because the trailer looked dull, because I’ve never seen a fully satisfying film about man versus whales, because another attempt to demonstrate American ideals of human courage under fire, or under water or even against aliens from another dimension, all seem the same and all make one just want to curl up and die.
I’d loved Rush (Ron Howard, USA, 2013), the previous Howard/Hemsworth collaboration, but I suspected, rightly, that the undoubted excitement it incited might be a one-off: Howard is too nice — and perhaps has been too lucky — to draw out complexities and contradictions and dramatise them compellingly, e.g., In the Heart of the Sea tells us that the greed, barbarity and cost to people and the environment that drove the American whaling industry in the 19th Century is not that different than that which would later drive a different type of oil industry: oh, okey dokey.
What got me to the theatre on a cold winter’s day was seeing that Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw were also in the cast; and, really, it was the tantalising thought of Whishaw as Herman Melville that was the clincher. In the end, he was disappointing. The part is a thankless one; a mere narrative device through which to get Gleeson to narrate the story that would then form the basis of Moby Dick. Whishaw isn’t on for very long; he doesn’t have much to do; it’s a part that could have been played by many others and just as well. But what Whishaw offers that others might not is the potential for surprise. It could have been different, exciting, unexpected, delightful; it has been so many times in the past
Since 2011 and his marvellous introductory scene (see clip above) in The Hour (Abbi Morgan, UK, 2011) , where he looks straight at the camera and prophetically announces, ‘You haven’t seen my best yet’, I’ve adored him as Frobisher – composer/prostitute/petty thief and unabashedly in love — in Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer/Andy Wachoski/ Lana Wachowski, USA et al, 2012) arguably the most romantic gay hero in all of contemporary cinema; as the too-geeky-to-be-a-hipster Q in the Bond films; as the loving gay man in Lilting (Hong Khaou, UK, 2014), who tries to maintain a relationship with the Chinese mother of his deceased partner despite cross-cultural barriers preventing the son from coming out to the mother; as the voice of Paddington (Hugh Bonneville/ Sally Hawkins, UK, 2014) — no one else could have brought the purity, the optimistic and loveable innocence he brought to his voicing of the iconic teddy bear; as the abusive husband in Suffragette Abi Morgan, UK, 2015); as the singleton who does manage to find a wife whilst not quite escaping the horror in The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK et al, 2015); as the understanding homosexual supporting Eddie Redmayne through his transformation from Einar to Lili in The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, UK, 2015); and of course there’s his work in London Spy (written by Tom Rob Smith, UK, 2015) as Danny, a sub-prole variant of his role in Cloud Atlas, this one with Jim Broadbent hopelessly in love with him rather than laughing in his face at his advances, as in Cloud Atlas.
Ben Whishaw may be the first out young star who, whilst playing a great variety of roles, nonetheless is building quite a repertoire of homosexual characters. It’s instructive to compare what he offers to, say, someone like Stanley Tucci, who in the last few years has also played a whole variety of roles, gay and straight, but seemingly specialising, at least since The Devil Wears Prada, in ones clearly coded as homosexual (The Hunger Games films, Burlesque, Gambit), and playing them all in one smug note as the sort of fey cultural deviant that raises a superior eyebrow at what everyone else is saying whilst criticising their dress sense for their own good. That’s the limit of how Tucci can imagine ‘gay’.
What Whishaw brings at this point, as his star personae unfolds and changes, is the imbuing of humanity to a category; his ‘gays’ could be a widower trying to connect over his loss with his ‘mother-in-law’, or sub-proles trying to fight the system over that which is just, or marginalised people trying to find a connection, or romantic heroes who cannot see life beyond art and love. ‘Gay’ is not what defines these characters when Wishaw plays them, as is so often the case when Tucci does (and ‘gay’ always means ‘camp’ and ‘supercilious’ for Tucci). Another interesting point about Whishaw is that other than when I saw him in Mojo onstage, he never seems to depict characters with any sexual threat (and his Baby in Mojo was a psychotic so…); they might be sexy but passively so, their minds are on love and sex always seems to be connected to some higher plane of feeling, even when the narratives hint that this was not always so in the past.
Anyway, a thought.
I finally got to see The Danish Girl and was unexpectedly moved. My opinion of Tom Hooper hasn’t improved. There is a reason why his company’s called ‘Pretty Pictures’: he can make them pretty but he can’t mobilise that prettyness into meaningfulness. He’s obviously superb with actors and I think Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are believable and affecting; the former in a very risky part; also it feels like a kind of bourgeois filmmaking: all this delicate and thoughtful suffering in exquisite settings whilst thinking of art and higher things…and yet, on an emotional level, it still gets to you. It’s interesting.
There are complex themes around identity that revolve around sex, gender, but also artistic production. The need to express oneself is in this film as important as that of becoming one’s idea of who one wants to be in the face of harshly punitivie social prohibitions. The Danish Girl doesn’t necessarily present these ideas in a complex manner. For example, sometimes the film presents the question of sex as an essence struggling to overcome the boundaries of the wrong body that imprisons it; sometimes it shows gender in the very process of its construction as its costumed, painted and slipped on. Sometimes it confuses the various categories it seems to be dramatising. But what it might get muddled analytically it more than makes up for emotionally. The film gets us to understand and feel for ‘The Danish Girl’ and when he asks his wife ‘I don’t know what I’ve ever done to have earned such love’, I welled up. It’s a question often asked but this time we know the answer.
In The Danish Girl, there seems to be an overt contradiction between representing social transgression as a pathway to truth whilst deploying the most conservative aesthetics means to do so, which act as obfuscation, a kind of show-and-hide and perhaps an appeasement of potential audience reactions via gentle and extraneous pleasures. I at first thought Eddie Redmayne was too young to already seem so mannered. But then began reading the initial overdone gesture as a foreshadowing of the transformations to come and ended by thinking it a really marvellous performance. Vikander is just as good in a less showy part. Mathias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw appear intermittently to offer unstinting support and very considerable glamour.
A bit romantic, a bit surrealist, a bit dystopian, a tiny bit long. But very funny and imaginative and with some superb performances: Farrell does a great, kind of schlubby, almost anonymous everyman who nonetheless can’t get pushed beyond a certain point; even watching him walk is a joy to behold, combining both characterisation and theatre: he knows how to make the ordinary extraordinarily delightful. As to Weisz, she’s almost emotionally transparent, always also treading that line of ordinary/beautiful and thus gracing us all. They’re a joy individually and together. Farrell might not have remained in the A-list for long but he’s quickly developing into the star character actor of his generation. Ben Whishaw, Olivia Coleman, John C. Reilly and Léa Seydoux also appear and also make an impression, reminding one that it takes a lot of stars, from a lot of different countries, to get any kind of low-budget movie made today, particularly one as original as The Lobster.
The plot revolves around newly single people who are taken from their homes, institutionalised and given 50 days to find a new partner; if they fail, they get turned into an animal of their choice. Inmates can extend their stay by hunting down singletons living off the grid and hiding away. Their stay can get extended by one day per singleton shot. The single people also huddle in gangs and these are not without rules and restrictions either: no flirting, no coupling of any kind is allowed and the punishments can be terrible. There’s no place for single people or individual desires in this world and everyone in the city proper, where every singleton desires to return, has to carry documentation proving they’re in a couple or risk expulsion. The film gets very large laughs from its very low-key tone, restrained to the point of seeming recessive but punctuated by periodic bursts that embrace the absurd and that result in surreal and very funny explosions of the unexpected, sometimes including slapstick. There’s a moment where the Colin Farrell character kicks a child that elicited the same kind of disturbed laughter we get when the groundsman shoots the child in L’Age d’or. An extraordinary film.