Guy Ritchie returns to the guns ‘n’ geezers mine with The Gentlemen, a caper with a beautifully dressed and enjoyably playful cast. We discuss his stylish direction, ability to work with actors, the audiences that adore his work, how the film functions as fantasy, and its issues with being casually offensive.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
I loved Florence Foster Jenkins and I didn’t expect to: Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory) are terrific and it’s laugh-out loud funny, camp, touching. Stephen Frears is really superb in creating and maintaining a tone for the film that allows us to laugh at but also feel for all of the characters involved.
Meryl Streep plays Florence, the deluded society lady who lives for music, loves performing it, and hires out Carnegie Hall so she can share her gift with the world. Streep’s performance is a tricky one: she could have sung badly and simply grate our ears; or she could have made the singing comic but go a bit too broad and we would lose sight of the person, her delusions and vulnerabilities. Her performance is a tour de force: I laughed at each wrong note, incrementally, and more so because of the relish with which Street acts it out. She’s greatly aided by her costumes, enormous vulgar tiaras, piles of bracelets and necklaces and gigantic tassle earrings that teeter dangerously with each note and frame Streeps’ eager and gleeful eyes. It’s what she lives for.
Hugh Grant has always been under-rated. There’s been no better light comedian in the last two decades. As St. Claire Bayfield, Jenkin’s watchful husband, he’s not just funny but touching. He’s the man who makes all of Florence’s delusions possible; who cocoons her against a too harsh world; and that takes charm, and money, and steel and a considerable amount of self-sacrifice. He keeps reiterating the happiness of the world they’ve created for each other; and his performance makes you believe it. But Grant also conveys the sadness and strain of the failed actor; one who loves to recite and has played in Hamlet but too hastily adds that not the leading part of course; the toll of looking after her needs; and the price he’s paid. Grant gets each laugh and also, perhaps for the first time, not only evokes Hugh Grant but also simultaneously embodies a complex character, one we believe in, where dreams of art and acclaim, what he provides for her, have faded; and he’s been left only with her and what she provides for him: riches and glamour; it’s part of the greatness of his performance that he makes us understand both how little and how much that is.
If Grant hasn’t been given his due, neither has Frears. After, landmark films for forty years (from My Beautiful Laundrette onwards) and after the extraordinary work of restrained emotion that was last year’s Philomena, doesn’t the man deserve more credit? Who else can maintain and sustain a tone in which delicacy of feeling, farce, drawing room comedy and melodrama, can co-exist so easily in a period setting?
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is unexceptional but rather fun, in a slightly leaden way. Guy Ritchie directs the action well, attempts a cheeky ironic tone for the film he doesn’t always succeed in achieving, and is not very good with those actors who need his help: Armie Hammer is completely inexpressive physically though does a great accent and can find comic timing vocally that somehow eludes other aspects of his performance; Henry Cavill does better and is better looking doing it but he’s done so much weightlifting his body strains at his suits, evoking a kind of physical boxiness that works against that nonchalant physical elegance the character is meant to exude; a rare instance in which a great body works against the role (though his performance is also sabotaged by the cinematography); Alicia Vikander is pretty but can’t find a rhythm for her performance and seems wasted; Elizabeth Debicki fares better as the villainess and her long leggy frame, elegant way of wearing clothes, and understated ironic way with a line makes her very enjoyable to watch. But it is Hugh Grant — only in the film for what seems like two minutes — who steals the show. A trifle, not light or sparkly enough but with some clever action and a great score of 60s tunes. The audience did like it even though either the print or the projection didn’t provide the luminosity the colour palette seemed to require. It is better and more enjoyable than an episode of the old TV show.
Addendum: I have now seen this twice more on Netflix and found it great fun. My appreciation of Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander increased; my love of the soundtrack sky-rocketed. It is a trifle, very broad and fast-moving with the set-pieces working much better than my first impression. I now recommend it.