Kenneth Branagh’s film version of the production of The Winter’s Tale

Kenneth Branagh has filmed his production of The Winter’s Tale at the refurbished Garrick Theatre.  Choosing to film the play in the theatre is a far less expensive option than making a film of the play with its attendant costs, but there are downsides.

Garrick Theatre

Garrick Theatre

This approach is designed to give the filmgoers the experience of being in the theatre and Branagh begins by giving the film-goers a lengthy (10 minute or so at least) shot looking down from the gods into the theatre. It is as if you are sitting in the theatre waiting for the play to begin. Following on from nearly 20 minutes of advertisements in the cinema, this is a trifle tedious.

This is followed by an introduction from Branagh which is only slightly less tedious than the shot of the inside of the theatre. But these are quibbles.

Less of a quibble is that the lighting in the theatre does not translate well onto the screen. The entire production is filmed in very low light that makes it difficult to discern some of the details which camera can pick up and that a theatre audience may not see. So the poor lighting loses one of the advantages of this particular form of production.

The other irritating problem with this film is that the cinematographer has not managed to get his focal lengths and perspectives right. Characters on the left-hand side of the stage are nearly three times as tall as those on the right.  As they move across stage, they either grow or shrink depending on which direction they are moving. Characters who come onstage from the left look as if they are walking in on stilts.

Now Branagh has made some of the best Shakespearean films in recent years:

Hamlet,

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Henry the Fifth

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and a glorious Much Ado about Nothing where he stars with the wonderful Emma Thompson,

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So you would expect that he would understand how to bring a Shakespearean play to the cinema screen, but his cinematographer and his lighting director have lets him down fairly badly in this production.

So what is to like about this production? Pretty much everything else. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think this is a great Shakespearean play with its clunky plot and psychological improbabilities.  But this having been said, the acting is superb.

To start with, we have the incomparable Judi Dench as Paulina.  She brings a deep compassion to the role which has echoes of the fool in King Lear.  It’s a commentary on the longevity of the talent of this actor that she has now played all three of the women in The Winter’s Tale.

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 Judi Dench as Paulina in the film of Kenneth Branagh’s 2016 production

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 as Hermione in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s 1969 production

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and as Perdita in the 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production

Some actors have a special magic when it comes to Shakespeare and Judy Dench is one of them. She brings to the role of Paulina a passionate energy when confronted with injustice but also a note of sadness born of experience. Her final speech is Shakespeare at his best.

Paulina: There’s time enough for that; 
Lest they desire upon this push to trouble 
Your joys with like relation. Go together, 
You precious winners all; your exultation 
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle, 
Will wing me to some wither’d bough and there 
My mate, that’s never to be found again, 
Lament till I am lost.

Kenneth Branagh is excellent as Leontes particularly in Act 1 Scene 2 where he oscillates between his increasingly insane jealousy and the calm exchanges he must have to disguise it.

Leontes. Too hot, too hot! 
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods. 
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances; 185
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment 
May a free face put on, derive a liberty 
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom, 
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant; 
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers, 190
As now they are, and making practised smiles, 
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere 
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment 
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius, 
Art thou my boy?

and then when the floodgates open

There have been, 
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now; 
And many a man there is, even at this present, 
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm, 
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence 285
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by 
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there’s comfort in’t 
Whiles other men have gates and those gates open’d, 
As mine, against their will.

After Paulina presents him with the baby Perdita and he begins a slow process of realisation of what he has done, Branagh’s Leontes shrinks as a stage presence and everything about him indicates the terrible price he is paying.

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Antigonus with the baby Perdita. She is to be abandoned, he eaten by a bear

As a director, Branagh skilfully negotiates one of the difficulties of the play: the overlong wool shearing scene. He turns it into an Eastern European fertility rite with the shepherds, the shepherdesses and particularly Perdita brimming with erotic energy.

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Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley as Florizel and Perdita

Miranda Raison brings a quiet dignity to the role of Hermione, Leontes’ wronged wife.

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Her response to Leontes’ histrionics is measured and restrained.

Hermione. No, by my life. 
Privy to none of this. How will this grieve you, 
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that 
You thus have publish’d me! Gentle my lord, 
You scarce can right me throughly then to say 
You did mistake.……….

There’s some ill planet reigns: 
I must be patient till the heavens look 
With an aspect more favourable. Good my lords, 
I am not prone to weeping, as our sex 
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew 
Perchance shall dry your pities: but I have 
That honourable grief lodged here which burns 
Worse than tears drown: beseech you all, my lords, 
With thoughts so qualified as your charities 
Shall best instruct you, measure me; and so 
The king’s will be perform’d!

In the final scene she is revealed as the statue that, in true fairytale form, comes to life.

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Her response is revealing.

Paulina  Turn, good lady; 
Our Perdita is found.

Hermione.You gods, look down 
And from your sacred vials pour your graces 
Upon my daughter’s head! Tell me, mine own. 
Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found 
Thy father’s court? for thou shalt hear that I, 
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle 
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved 
Myself to see the issue.

Not a word to Leontes.  Hermione has been waiting sixteen years in the hope that her daughter was alive.

And in his final speech Leontes does not have a word to say to Hermione.

If this play is reworking the themes of the great tragedies particularly Othello and King Lear, then redemption and reconciliation for Leontes are both muted and qualified.

 

Philomena and the art of cinematic propaganda

Responses to the film Philomena have been as predictable as they have been divided. In one corner filmgoers who think it is a brilliant film, also in this corner are those who applaud it for its attack on the practices of the Irish Catholic Church. In the other corner, other defenders of the Catholic Church and the Republican Party, fighting with both hands tied behind their backs, but fighting nonetheless.

The film is also extremely interesting for another reason and that is the way that the medium of the film, as distinct from the content, is used to support the political message. It’s subtle, but it’s extremely effective.

The message of the film, that the Irish Catholic Church had abused and exploited young foldable women, is reinforced by the fact that the main character is akin to a saint, not only for her steadfast faith but also for her forgiveness of the nuns who have perpetrated such enormous sins against her. How could we not sympathise with such a character? It is by enlisting the audience’s sympathy for the character, that the credibility of his story is enhanced. There’s nothing wrong with this but it is a cinematic trick. It has been used in the past to very great effect by the Dirty Harry and Rambo franchises. This linking of the character with the political message of the film is used to reinforce existing prejudices of the audience. In the case of Philomena, the outrage felt at the multitudinous abuses of children by the Catholic Church.

But most people, I feel that sense of outrage. But it is worth considering how this film manipulates that sense of outrage and how such a technique can be used to reinforce other prejudices.

Philomena’s son, Anthony/Michael, is used in much the same way. He is successful, good-looking and personable. He is also gay and has died of AIDS, big sympathy tick here. He has also died before Philomena can meet him, more sympathy for Philomena from the audience. He has kept alive his memory of his early childhood in Ireland and of his mother. What’s not to like about this bloke? But in the end, the devils of the Catholic Church haunt him to his grave. The sense of outrage in the cinema is almost palpable.

On the other side of the ledger, are nuns of the Roscrea Magdalene asylum for fallen women and the repulsive Sister Hildegard McNulty who regards Philomena’s pains in childbirth as just punishment for her carnal sins. Not only this, these women sell babies. There is no sympathy in the film for the nuns. And why should there be, they showed no sympathy for the children they were exploiting in the laundries. But this is an easy and facile judgement, and one which the film encourages us to make.

What is dangerous about this film is that it plays to and reinforces our prejudices, mine included. We of the liberal left want to feel outrage at the abuses of the Catholic Church and this film helps us do it, and in spades.

I think this is a great film and that Judi Dench deserves an Oscar for her role as Philomena. But we should not be blind to the cynical exploitation of the situation both of the film and the surrounding publicity.

When New York Post critic Kyle Smith blasted Philomena for its  “simultaneously attack Catholics and Republicans”, the real-life Philomena Lee wrote a letter to Smith, putting her side of the picture. All fair and above board. But then the Weinstein Company, which produced the film, ran the letter as a full page in the national edition of the New York Times.

To be fair, this is what you do to get Oscars. But we should not be deceived by the fact that this is a continuation of the same strategy on which the film is based:  a story for which there is massive sympathy, characters the audience has immense sympathy for and  bad guys who are irredeemably evil.

As an antidote to Philomena, we should all go to see the excellent Wag the Dog the 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Now those guys really knew how to manipulate the media.

As an antidote to Philomena, we should all go to see the excellent Wag the Dog the 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Now those guys really knew how to manipulate the media.

Other film related blogs

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/turning-books-and-films-the-case-of-great-expectations

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/the-broken-shore-no-mystery-road

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/why-we-all-love-notting-hill

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/inside-outside-upside-down-llewyn-davies

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/mystery-road-and-great-australian-film

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/shakespeare-in-love-a-minor-masterpiece

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/la-femme-nikita-and-the-pygmalion-myth

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/luc-bresson-leon-the-professional-and-moral-ambiguity

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/philomena-an-oscar-for-dench/

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/the-desolation-of-smaug-too-little-butter-to-much-bread

Philomena – an Oscar for Dench

This film is a scathing and damning indictment of the practices of the Irish Catholic Church. All the more so because the central character refuses to condemn, and finally forgives, the nuns who destroyed her life. The tone of the film is carefully nuanced. You’d expect Philomena to be angry, but she’s not. Steve Coogan’s character, Martin Sixsmith is, but his anger is contrasted to Philomena’s faith and her refusal to condemn the nuns or the church. Indeed, it was not until the end of the film, when the immense duplicity of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in County Tipperary is finally revealed to her, that she finally agrees to having her story published.

How much of this is true will naturally be the source of some debate as the Catholic hierarchy moves into damage control. No doubt much of the criticism of the film will be that it is a carefully managed, anti-Catholic diatribe, which it is. It is also a great film.

Judi Dench is magnificent as Philomena and will surely rival Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine for an Oscar. One critical difference is that Dench’s Philomena is a character we can sympathise with, her naive charm and sense of humour combines with her refusal to condemn to make a far more likeable than the abrasive and self-centered Jasmine.

The film’s ending is deeply satisfying, there is no happy ending, just closure.

At the end of the Martin says to Philomena “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” To which Philomena says,  “That’s very beautiful Martin, did you make it up?” The Oxbridge educated Martin replies, “No, it’s TS Eliot.” To which Philomena replies, “That’s all right. It’s still very beautiful.”