Tag Archives: Timothy Spall

The English Way

Spencer

by George Wolf

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, it is a story draped in sadness and longing, but one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

Much like 2016’s Jackie – his compelling take on Jackie Kennedy – director Pablo Larraín has no interest in the overreaching realism of bland biopics. Here, he chooses to dissect a few precious days over the Christmas holiday, roughly ten years after Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) married Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and became Princess Di, worldwide obsession.

Diana is late arriving at the family gathering on the sprawling Sandringham estate in Norfolk, and this, like so many other aspects of her behavior, simply will not do. Diana and her two young sons often complain about feeling cold, and though she wonders why they can’t just “turn up the heating,” screenwriter Steven Knight isn’t just referring to the thermostat.

Through evocative visual storytelling and restrained, insightful dialog, Larraín and Knight set clear parameters for the haunting pressure of Diana’s daily life.

A new head of security (the great Timothy Spall) seems to lurk around every corner, reminding Diana of expectations and missteps. Her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins, perfect as always) has been sent away, apparently for the crime of being Diana’s one true friend. And as Charles’s longtime affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles becomes impossible to ignore, unsettling visits from Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) make their way into Diana’s dreams, reinforcing her belief that past and present have conspired to deny her a future.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves. Yes, she has the mannerisms (shoulder turns, head tilts), the lithe movements and even the voice and accent down, but Stewart carries this film by completely embodying the quiet desperation (“the English way,” as Pink Floyd famously dubbed it) of a woman suffocating in real time.

Jonny Greenwood’s score should also be an Oscar contender, as his cascades of alternating strings, organs, drum rolls and a solitary horn give Larraín a major assist in setting a disorienting, almost Hitchcockian mood.

Diana must work hard to enjoy even a few moments of happiness, like a beach stroll with Maggie or eating KFC and singing along to Mike + the Mechanics with her boys. But when Charles admonishes Diana for forgetting that public persona always trumps whatever the heart might crave, the true weight of her crown is finally felt.

Spencer approaches Diana’s story from perhaps the only angle that fits such an icon. The goal here isn’t to tell her life story, but instead to reimagine it, and rethink what it may have cost – and Larraín is clearly unconcerned with any cost from alienating Royal Family fans. He chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20BIS4YxP5Q

Get the Guests

The Party

by Matt Weiner

Sally Potter’s jet-black comedy The Party mostly succeeds as social satire examining the savagery churning just below the surface of the polite and prosperous. Where it definitely succeeds, in ways that must seem truly unfair to every single other actor alive today, is crowning Patricia Clarkson as a national treasure.

Not that the rest of the tight ensemble is full of slouches. Clarkson plays April, one of five guests attending a party for Janet (the almost equally superb Kristin Scott Thomas), who is celebrating a political promotion.

Janet’s guests fall into broadly recognizable personalities who are practically begging to have their worlds turned inside out: from the New Age life coach Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) to the supercilious professor Martha (Cherry Jones, also—and you might be sensing a theme here—outstanding).

Timothy Spall plays Bill, Janet’s husband and a literal odd man out: he is nearly catatonic when the guests arrive. When he finally reveals why, it sets off a series of violent delights, both verbal and physical.

The cast might actually be too good for the material (written by Potter). That’s an envious problem for a movie to have, but it’s still a real one. The repartee is shocking and funny in turn. Just about every single line delivery from Clarkson, Scott Thomas and Spall is perfectly measured—so much so that the barbs feel like they’re cutting a lot deeper than they really are.

And Emily Mortimer provides a welcome degree of grounding as Jinny, Martha’s partner and the only party guest who seems recognizably human rather than an outsized target ripe for mockery.

But for all the wicked pleasures to be had from watching this masterclass in verbal sparring, there’s a nagging superficiality to it all. The rapid-fire pace distracts from the reality that nobody besides maybe Jinny ends up discovering some deeper personal meaning about themselves other than rank hypocrisy. And a gimmicky twist at the end doesn’t help.

And yet. It’s easy to forgive The Party’s shortcomings after you’ve heard Clarkson tell someone “You are surpassing yourself” or “You could consider murder” in tones so deadpan that we really ought to invent a new adjective.

It’s a strange, perfectly flawed bunch Potter has thrown together. And I could have stayed with them for hours more.

 

 





Soccer Buddies

Early Man

by Hope Madden

There is something adorably British about Nick Parks’s latest plasticine adventure, Early Man.

No I am not being condescending. It’s animated. It’s supposed to be adorable.

This Aardman export—the Brit animation studio responsible for the Wallace & Gromit classics, among others—pits dunder-headed but lovable cave dwellers against greedy Bronze Age Euro-trash as it spoofs sports flicks.

We open at the dawn of time, when dinosaurs and cave men and giant, toothy mallards roamed the earth outside Manchester, England. Around lunchtime.

It’s silly. And sweet. And basically a 90-minute mash note to Manchester United.

When those posh bullies from the Bronze Age (led by Tom Hiddleston’s Lord Nooth) push Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his nincompoopy cavemen friends out of their fertile valley, Dug devises a challenge to regain his beloved home.

Like all great sports films, Early Man pushes the underdog narrative to epitomize more than simple foot-to-ball competition. Plus, you really do want these earnest faces, overbites and all, to learn to believe in themselves.

And why can’t a pig play soccer?

Dug’s quick trip into town square offers opportunities for the Aardman Easter eggs—be sure to scan the vendor booths for hilarious names. With voice talent to spare (Timothy Spall and Rob Brydon are among those with smaller roles), you’re assured the intentionally silly jokes are delivered expertly.

The problem is that Early Man would have made for a really hilarious short.

The story doesn’t benefit from a 90-minute stretch. The setting—mainly an imposing landscape littered with enormous rib bones—doesn’t offer enough opportunity for visual distraction and the characters are not memorable enough to keep your attention for the full run time.

Expect much of the familiar: googly eyes, enormous teeth, simple characters and kind-hearted laughter. CGI mixes with the stop-action to rob the film of some character, but Early Man has charm to spare.





Brushes With Greatness

Mr. Turner

by George Wolf

Mike Leigh is the best kind of storyteller: visual but never showy, patient and confident in his plan to let a collection of smaller moments resonate as a whole. His films, which include Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Happy Go Lucky and Another Year, reveal a natural gift, and Mr. Turner is another impressive entry in his catalogue.

The Mr., specifically, is J.M.W. Turner, widely regarded as the greatest British painter in history. Long before the populism of Kincade, Turner was known as “the painter of light,” with landscape works that many art historians point to as a vital forerunner of Impressionism.

And as is the case with many creative masters, Turner was a bit of an eccentric, and he’s brought to life onscreen through a career-defining performance from Timothy Spall. Known to many audiences as a longtime “that guy,” Spall captivates from the very first scene, making Turner an achingly human mix of God-given talent and curious motivation.

Leigh, who wrote and directed, is savvy enough to avoid trying to cover Turner’s entire biography, and instead settles on the last third of Turner’s life, years that found the artist both enjoying, and running from, his success. Turner’s interactions with his father (Paul Jesson), his housekeeper (a heartbreakingly good Dorothy Atkinson) and his longtime companion (Marion Baily) give us intimate glimpses into a complicated genius.

Cinematographer Dick Pope earns his recent Oscar nomination, providing a naturally beautiful bridge between canvas and reality that Leigh utilizes to perfection. Yes, he constructs various shots as paintings in a frame, but he does so with such a stylish, subtle touch the device never feels forced, and works on an almost subliminal level to enhance the richness of the film’s scope.

A legendary artist and a modern-day filmmaker, both with a calling to find the light, even in the most unlikely places. Kindred spirits? I’m guessing one of them thinks so, and I bet the other is just fine with that.

 

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