Imelda Staunton

Finding Your Feet

28/02/18

It’s tempting to imagine the kind of think-tank meeting that might well have preceded this film.

‘OK, guys, we need to create a movie that appeals to the silver-haired brigade. You know, another Exotic Marigold Hotel. That made millions!’

‘Great. Well, first of all, we’ll need a few National Treasures in the cast. Imelda Staunton, perhaps? Check! Timothy Spall? Excellent! Of course, we’ll have to get Celia Imrie in there somewhere and… oh, yes, Joanna Lumley! And we’ll need to give them something to do. You know, something a bit naughty. Smoking pot, perhaps…. knocking back malt whisky and… dancing! Yes, let’s have them dancing…’

And so on. The inevitable effect, unfortunately, makes Finding Your Feet feel like a cynical exercise in box-ticking. Which is a shame, because there are some excellent actors in this, doing their level best to make it work.

Sandra (Staunton) is the well-to-do wife of Mike (John Sessions), a former chief constable. Hosting his retirement party at their palatial home, she discovers that he’s been cheating on her for the past five years with Pamela (Josie Lawrence) and, understandably miffed, she packs her bags and heads off to the council estate home of her estranged sister, Biff (Imrie), who is what might be described in these circles as ‘as a bit  of a character.’ Sandra is understandably in a foul mood when she arrives, which goes some way to explain her general unpleasantness towards everyone she encounters, but not the scene in a Chinese restaurant where her attitude borders on out-and-out racism. Quite why Biff doesn’t send her packing is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile, Biff’s close friend, Charlie (Spall), lives on a barge and is currently watching in helpless dismay as his wife, Lilly (Sian Thomas), who has been consigned the the tender mercies of a nursing home, slips further and further into the grip of senile dementia. His first encounters with Sandra are not exactly cordial but, when Biff manages to persuade her sister to come along to the weekly dance class that Charlie also attends, he and Sandra have a quick spin out on the dance floor and, against all the odds, they start to enjoy each other’s company.

What else do we need here? Oh yes, of course, let’s ship the whole cast off to an exotic location – in this case Rome – so they can participate in an international dance festival and where that new relationship can be allowed to blossom. Oh wait, there’s still one vital ingredient missing… oh yes, a terminal illness. Perfect!

All this manages to yield not one single surprise in the telling, and you have to feel a little sorry for the actors who work their socks off to sell this tosh, but even they can’t quite convince us to actually care. I think what’s been overlooked is that The Exotic Marigold Hotel was a more heartfelt affair, with the heft of a Deborah Moggach novel behind it, and – even so – its success as a film most probably came as a pleasant surprise to everyone involved. Indeed, the attempted sequel was a pretty woeful affair as the makers attempted to replicate its charms.

Viewers can easily tell the difference between a genuine story and a marketing exercise. With Finding Your Feet I simply cannot escape the feeling that behind all those light-hearted escapades lurks a mean-spirited attempt to part older viewers from their money – and try as I might, I can’t quite forgive it for that.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Paddington 2

10/11/17

Paddington is a tough act to follow. That first film got everything right – a family entertainment that really did have something for everyone. It was also highly successful, so of course there was always going to be a sequel. The modestly titled Paddington 2 says it all. Not Paddington Episode Two, or Paddington Rides Again. No, this does exactly what it says on the tin –  a second adventure featuring Michael Bond’s celebrated ursine hero.

But, can it hope to be as good as its progenitor? The fact that the film’s release has been delayed for a month while the production company scrambles to disassociate itself from a certain Harvey Weinstein doesn’t augur well but, against all the odds, this second installment of the franchise manages to unfold its delightfully silly story without putting a single paw wrong.

The film opens with a flashback to darkest Peru, where Uncle Pastuzu (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) first encounter the orphaned bear cub who will become Paddington – and we discover that Aunt Lucy has a longheld ambition to visit the city of London. After the credits we nip smartly back to the present day, where Paddington is now a valued member of the Brown family, helping Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris). He’s also fitting in nicely with the community of the street on which he lives – cue plenty of cameos from what seems like scores of celebrated comic actors.

But with Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, Paddington is looking for a suitable present for his beloved aunt so, when his friend, Mr Gruber, (Jim Broadbent) who runs the local antique shop, shows him a charming (and rather expensive) pop-up book of the city, Paddington resolves to earn enough money to buy it for her. To this end, he tries his hand at window cleaning and barbering, both with suitably hilarious results. Then, by chance, his path crosses with that of has-been actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who, it transpires, wants the pop-up book for his own nefarious purposes…

Once again, the screenwriters have managed to capture the spirit of Michael Bond’s evergreen tales, presenting us with a storyline that will have people of all ages laughing uproariously – when they’re not clutching for their handkerchieves. Yes, this is undoubtedly manipulative stuff, but it’s done with such style and such sure-footedness, that you cannot help but be swept along. Scenes where the unthinkable happens and Paddington is actually sentenced to a spell in jail will have the hardest heart breaking into tiny pieces – and the little bear’s developing friendship with prison chef Knuckles McGinty (the ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) is a brilliant conceit which occasionally yields comedy gold.

It doesn’t end there. Paddington 2 is endlessly inventive (scenes where the little bear and his aunt cavort amidst a pop-up recreation of the city of London are a particular highlight). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Hugh Grant (who, weirdly, we think we spotted walking a tiny dog near Rosslyn Chapel a couple of weeks ago). His turn as the self-obsessed Phoenix Buchanan is one of his best performances ever and he very nearly steals the show from the titular bear – still endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw.

When you witness some of the absolute dross that passes for ‘family entertainment’ these days, it’s reassuring to see something as lovingly crafted as this. The next question? Can they do it a third time? Well, that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, this will do very nicely indeed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

18/05/17

Edward Albee’s 1962 play was famously adapted as a movie in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The role of Martha is widely considered Taylor’s best onscreen performance, so it’s a tough act to follow – and perhaps, on paper, Imelda Staunton is an unlikely candidate for the role. But never underestimate her. She is an absolute revelation in this National Theatre production, beamed out live to cinemas across the UK. These screenings are a wonderful (and more affordable) way for people outside London to gain access to the very best of theatre.

George (Conleth Hill, best known for Game of Thrones) is an associate Professor of History at an American University, a man who feels that he hasn’t really achieved his life’s ambitions. This belief is constantly reinforced by his hard-drinking wife, Martha (Staunton), who seems to delight in reminding him of his failures at every given opportunity. The events of this three hour play unfold over one night, after a party at the faculty. George and Martha are already well-oiled when they arrive home and George is dismayed to discover that Martha has invited a young couple back ‘for drinks.’ They are a young biology professor, Nick (a barely recognisable Luke Treadaway) and his ditzy wife, Honey (Imogen Poots). Given the gladiatorial nature of the host couple’s conversation before the guests arrive, it’s clear that we are in for a bumpy ride… and as the drinks flow and inhibitions are increasingly broken down, the deepest secrets of everyone present are pulled out and ripped to shreds.

This is an incendiary, vitriolic drama, often wickedly funny but ultimately heart-breaking. Staunton’s extraordinary performance is perfectly matched by Hill’s dry, acerbic turn as George; indeed many of the play’s funniest moments are his, most tellingly the scene where he immerses himself in a favourite history book, while Martha and Nick cavort unabashedly just behind him. The other two actors may have somewhat less to do, but they make the most of what they’ve been given.

It’s a while since I’ve seen this performed and I was astonished at the similarities between this and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which came along more than a decade later. In both plays, an ambitious male character is pushed to the very age by an unforgiving wife. In both plays, we laugh at the resulting humiliation, only to have that laughter snatched away by the misery of the conclusion.

This was a one night only screening, so if you really want to see this show, you’ll need to head down to ‘that London’ where it’s currently showing  at the Harold Pinter theatre.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney