Gary Oldman

Mank

04/12/20

Netflix

It seems I’ve been waiting for this film for just about forever. Director David Fincher first mentioned it as a possible follow up to Alien3 way back in 1992. With a screenplay by his father, Jack, it would focus on the creation of Citizen Kane. It would provide an answer to how much involvement Orson Welles actually had in the writing of that Oscar-winning screenplay and it would, of course, look into the allegations that the film was besmirched by the machinations of powerful newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Was I up for this? Yes, big time, because this is a story that has fascinated me since my youth. But, as it turned out, I was going to have to be patient…

And now, in one of the bleakest years in human history, it finally turns up, virtually unannounced on Netflix. Needless to say, I don’t allow a great deal of time to elapse before I tune in.

And it’s worth the wait. This is absolutely sumptuous, oozing class from every beautiful monochromatic frame, courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. Here is a faultless recreation of an era, right down to the visible scene descriptions, written clickety-clackety on a manual typewriter. From the opening credits onwards, Mank puts the viewer slap-bang in the early 1940s and keeps them immersed in that turbulent era right up until the final credits.

Washed-up screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finds himself installed in a remote desert location, shortly after suffering serious injuries in a car crash. Sternly monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and ably assisted by English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he has been given the daunting task of writing the debut motion picture for Mercury Theatre’s Wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). And he has just sixty days in which to do it.

It doesn’t help that Mank (as he is known to his friends) is an alcoholic. But he sets about the task with as much vigour as he can muster and, as he writes, his mind skips back and forth (rather like the screenplay he’s working on) over his changing fortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

We encounter Mank’s hostile relationship with muck-raking press baron, Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies (an almost luminous Amanda Seyfried), and his pugilistic dealings with the extremely unlikable Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more – much more – in a packed two hours and eleven minutes; indeed, it’s probably fair to say that this is a story as rich and multi-layered as Kane itself. It’s also surprisingly prescient. The realisation that a super-rich newspaper proprietor can exert a powerful influence over the politics of a country, even going so far as to film fake news items to help steal an election, seems like a decidedly contemporary notion… but clearly that kind of thing has been going on for decades.

The film isn’t quite perfect. A scene where Mank goes on a (very long) drunken diatribe at one of Hearst’s lavish parties stretches credulity, and there are a few leaden missteps around the middle section, but these are minor blips in something that’s a giant step up from much of the so-so fodder that gets made. Fincher has created a warm, and moving testimonial to his late father’s memory, one that deserves to stand alongside the infamous movie it commemorates. Of course, it helps if you’re a fan of Kane in the first place, but it’s by no means essential.

If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, why not spoil yourselves? This is a superb piece of cinema.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Happy Prince

 

25/06/18

Oscar Wilde has been portrayed on screen several times already, most notably by Peter Finch in 1960 and by Stephen Fry in 1997. Now it’s Rupert Everett’s turn to ‘step up if you think you’re Wilde enough.’ Here, he’s gone the full Orson Welles: writing, directing and starring in this rather doleful look at the author’s decline after his brutal imprisonment for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.

When we first meet Wilde in The Happy Prince, he’s a bloated, shambling vestige of his former self, living in squalid digs in Paris, dependent on handouts from near-strangers and a meagre monthly allowance from his long-suffering wife, Constance (Emily Watson). The story then cuts back in time to his release from prison, where he’s met in France by faithful friends, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), both of whom are keen to encourage him to rekindle his writing career. They urge him to stay away from Alfred Bosie Dougas (Colin Morgan), his former lover, but Oscar simply cannot help himself and, pretty soon, he and ‘Bosie’ are sharing a rat-infested apartment in Naples, living far beyond their means and squandering what little goodwill remains for them.

This is most emphatically a ‘warts and all’ story. Bosie comes across as insufferably unpleasant and, to be honest, Wilde isn’t particularly likeable either, demonstrating a callous tendency to exploit those who care about him. It would have been nice, perhaps, ┬áto see a few more flashbacks to his heyday, in order to make us fully appreciate the charm he must once have possessed, a charm that in his latter years is wearing somewhat thin. As it stands, this is unremittingly sad stuff, as we are witness to his inexorable slide towards ignominious death. Still, there’s little doubting the power of Everett’s performance, which has the kind of grandstanding appeal that often attracts Oscars (think Gary Oldman as Churchill). The era is convincingly evoked and the use of Wilde’s popular fairy tale to frame the film is a nice conceit. There’s plenty to admire, but not really an awful lot to enjoy.

Harrowing and desperately bleak, The Happy Prince serves to remind us of one of history’s greatest injustices and the principal characters who played a part in it. It’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the cinema, but it’s nevertheless a story that needs telling.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Darkest Hour

 

12/01/17

Biopics can be a bit like buses. No sooner has Brian Cox’s Churchill drifted over the horizon than it’s Gary Oldman’s turn to don the homburg hat and wave a zeppelin-sized cigar in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. While Cox made a perfectly good fist of his portrayal of the infamous war leader, Oldman submits a simply astonishing performance, a stellar tub-thumping object lesson in how to act everyone else off the screen. Despite several nominations down the years, he’s never won an Academy Award, but this should surely be the role to rectify that situation.

It’s May 1940 and the British forces in France are being disastrously defeated by the might of Hitler’s Germany. The unpopular (and ailing) Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) opts to step down from the post of Prime Minister and a coalition government looks around for somebody to take his place. It’s a poisoned chalice and nobody on either side makes any secret of the fact that Winston Churchill is not their preferred choice, particularly after his key involvement in the military disaster that was Gallipoli. Nevertheless, he is chosen, and is faced with the almost impossible task of rallying the country to fight on, when most of his colleagues are intent on making a deal with Mr Hitler. Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, looking uncannily like a younger Gemma Arterton) is assigned to be Churchill’s secretary and so has an inside view on how he operates, often dictating his famous speeches from the toilet (why not, his initials are on the door?) and explosively losing his temper whenever she gets something wrong. Meanwhile, the British expeditionary force is surrounded and fleeing towards Dunkirk and it’s starting to look as though they are about to be completely annihilated…

Wright has already dealt with Dunkirk in Atonement, so that side of things is kept very much in the background – or, more often, glimpsed from aeroplanes as bombs drop on the British forces. Here, the director concentrates on a character study of a complex man, chronicling his struggles with depression, his occasional lapses into bluster and his almost overpowering sense of isolation. Again and again Wright shows him enclosed in small spaces – riding in a tiny elevator, framed by the outline of a window, making important phone calls from the smallest room in the house. As well as that stellar performance, Oldman is aided by an incredible transformation, achieved entirely by ace Japanese prosthetics artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. Even in extreme close up, his efforts are utterly convincing.

If there’s a price to pay for such grandstanding, it’s inevitably the fact that the rest of the cast – Ben Mendlesohn’s turn as King George VI aside – are relegated pretty much to the sidelines. Even the usually dependable Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine is reduced to wandering on to give her hubby the occasional pep talk; it would have been nice to see her given a little more to do.

But, niggles aside, Darkest Hour is pretty enjoyable, and probably worth the price of admission just to see Oldman give that speech.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney