A Lively Train Trip

The first mystery I remember watching when I was in my early teens was an Agatha Christie adaptation – 1965’s Ten Little Indians, with Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton. The plot, always one of Christie’s strengths, fascinated me. Later I saw the much better 1945 adaptation with Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Houston, and I read the original novel. (Thankfully no movie ever used its original English title.) Then in 1974 another classic Christie tale, Murder on the Orient Express, was released. Directed by Sidney Lumet and with a cast that truly fit the claim of “all-star,” it spawned a series of Christie adaptations, though none of them matched the beauty of the first. After the memorable original, I was a little hesitant about seeing the new version of Murder on the Orient Express.

True, it had Kenneth Branagh both as star and director. He’s done excellent work recently behind the camera with Thor and Cinderella (we’ll forget about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, since almost everyone else has), and early in his career he was responsible for a personal favorite of mine in the mystery genre, Dead Again. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent actors both new (Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad) and well-established (Derek Jacobi, Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe). Given that cast, I knew I would see the film, regardless of the trepidation I felt about it.

Thankfully the worry quickly dissipated as the movie began. Where the 1974 version started with an introduction to the motivating crime, here we have a wonderful introduction to Branagh’s Poirot. It’s not easy to take on that character after David Suchet’s sterling version on PBS, and wisely Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green go in a different direction, emphasizing the obsessive-compulsive aspect of the character. Green has had a stellar year, having written both Logan and Blade Runner 2049, along with producing and doing most of the adaptation of “American Gods” on Starz.

The one aspect of the 1974 movie that I didn’t like was its sedate, cerebral pace. While that works fine in a novel, movies are a visual medium. Directors call out “Action!” not “Time to talk!” The pacing of the new version is strong from the opening sequence. Branagh’s more of a visual stylist than Lumet was, capturing scenes from striking angles that increase the tension. True, he does change the terrain where the story’s set from flat fields to mountain passes, but it works to increase the feeling of being cut off by the elements.

There isn’t a weak performance, though there are standouts. Daisy Ridley gives a thoughtful turn as governess Mary Debenham, the first trainmate that Poirot meets. Dafoe has a fairly showy role as Austrian professor Hardman. But it was particularly good to see a much more controlled and effective Johnny Depp. And after lesser roles for most of this century, Michelle Pfeiffer glows with fire as American socialite Mrs. Hubbard. Pfeiffer also sings the song over the end credits, in a voice as clear and evocative as when she did The Fabulous Baker Boys 28 years ago. (Branagh wrote the lyrics.)

If you’ve never seen the 1974 version, do see this one, if for no other reason than to be introduced to Agatha Christie in her prime. If you have seen the earlier one, it’s still worth watching Branagh’s version to witness how two very different directors can each take a story and put their own stamp on the project, each good in their own way.


On The Beach

It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.

Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.

The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.

In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.

In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.

Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.

Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.

I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”

That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.

Happily Ever After

Last year Disney had two box office hits – Maleficent and Into the Woods – that took the fairy tales that have been the studio’s specialty for decades and turned the stories on their ear. Now they’ve gone in the opposite direction and released a faithful live-action version of the studio’s animated classic, Cinderella.

The story qualifies as a “tale as old as time,” as the song in Beauty and the Beast puts it. The European folk story existed long before it was committed to paper, and the classic version, Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” was written in 1697. The Grimm boys created their own version in the 1800s, but the classic feature of the story, the glass slipper, is only in Perrault’s take on the tale. On the surface, it seems an anachronistic story for today, with the paternalistic element of Cinderella being saved from servitude by the prince. One of the best film versions, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, threw that out and had Barrymore’s Danielle save herself before the prince arrives. But when you go back to Perrault’s tale, the two-part moral at the end makes it appropriate for almost any age. The first moral is that beauty is a treasure, but graciousness is priceless – something to remember in this Internet age! Perrault’s second moral, though, gives the story a darker edge. “Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.”

Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has followed the 1950 animated version closely, but has also expanded the story in strategic places, especially with the influence of the mother (Hayley Atwell, looking completely different from her Agent Carter role in the Marvel universe) and father (Ben Chaplin). It underlines the difference of the world once the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) takes over, as well as gives Ella (Lily James) strong motivation to remain kind and courageous in the face of it.

It would be easy to overdo the evil stepmother, especially in light of the shallowness of her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger). The two girls are like the animated characters come alive, but Blanchett rises to a higher level. Her embodiment is as smooth as a snake and completely devoid of cartoonish attributes. She too easily could be someone you’ve met, if you were ever so unfortunate.

Just as fine a job is done by Lily James, who is best known as Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” It’s not easy to play a pure and courageous character without coming across as saccharin, but she manages it. She’s ably assisted by Richard Madden as the Prince. Another addition by Weitz has the Prince and Cinderella meeting before the ball. In fact, the meeting is the motivation for the Prince to open the ball to all the women of the kingdom, in the hopes of meeting Cinderella again. Madden’s prince is charming, but with so much more depth that the love story makes sense. (One does have to wonder, though, why Madden would take a role that includes a wedding scene after his experience as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones.”).

The supporting cast is first-rate, with Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.

But it is director Kenneth Branagh who deserves a great deal of praise for whipping up this confection and making it both tasty and pleasing to the eye. He brings to the film the feel of a Shakespearean play, like “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending. The camerawork is gorgeous, while the pacing of the story is just right. There’s also a bit of the operatic element that made Thor such a success.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design by 3-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who has worked on Martin Scorsese’s films since Gangs of New York and also did Young Victoria and Shakespeare in Love. She uses a brighter color palate that fits beautifully with the fairy tale essence of the story and also provides a counterpoint to Cinderella’s blue ball gown. The CGI team works magic throughout the film, particularly with taking the mice of the animated feature and turning them into a realistic version. Even though they don’t burst out singing “Cinderelly, Cinderelly,” they’re charming and they do save the day. The team gets to go wild with the Fairy Godmother’s preparations for the ball, as well as the stroke of twelve midnight, and both sequences are pure delights.

By going closer to the Perrault story from almost 320 years ago, Branagh and crew have created a fresh and refreshing version. That is a true accomplishment.

A Punt of a Reboot

In 1984, a novel by an insurance salesman from Maryland created a sensation. The book was “The Hunt For Red October” and it started the political-military techno-thriller genre. It was a case of the right book at the right time, and it was required reading in the Reagan White House. The story introduced CIA analyst and former marine Jack Ryan, and spawned a bestselling series of books. In 1990 the movie version of Red October became one of the top grossing pictures of the year. Alec Baldwin originated the role of Ryan, then was replaced in the next two sequels by Harrison Ford. The series, both in print and on film, ran out of steam by the mid-1990s. In 2002 Clancy tried a literary reboot with a younger Jack Ryan in “Red Rabbit” and Paramount sought to revive the series with Ben Affleck at Ryan in The Sum Of All Fears. Neither was successful. Clancy wrote one more book himself which starred Jack Ryan’s son, but from then on there was only a series of ghost-written paperbacks that used his name as advertising. Clancy was only sixty-six when he passed away last year. Now Paramount has tried another reboot of the series, putting Ryan into the post-9/11 world, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit leaves the cold warrior out in the cold.

The hallmark of the series was a broad canvas story with plenty of twists and turns, but Shadow Recruit is a small scale paint-by-numbers picture. The first quarter of the movie is dedicated to backstory with Ryan (Chris Pine) pursuing a financial degree in London when the towers fall. He enlists and is sent to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is shot down and he’s severely injured. He’s sent to Walter Reed Hospital for therapy to learn to walk again, working with Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a young medical student who becomes his love interest. He also comes to the attention of Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), a naval officer now working for the CIA.

Recently there was a long discussion on the message board of the Mystery Writers of America about prologues. About half of those writing thought they were of the devil, to be avoided at all costs, while others thought prologues could be effective in a narrow, controlled way. This movie provides a strong argument for the former. In The Hunt For Red October, Ryan’s backstory was communicated with a couple sentences.  Here the extended prologue underlines the weakness of the rest of the film’s half-baked plot.

That plot involves Ryan in the present day working undercover as a Wall Street analyst with an international investment company where he discovers a plot by a Russian oligarch, Victor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), to destroy the US economy. At the same time, Ryan’s dealing with his long-term relationship with Cathy who doesn’t know of his CIA connection.

The screenplay was originally done “on spec” which means the first time screenwriter, Adam Cozad, wrote it and then looked for someone to make it. Apparently the long-time producer of the series, Mace Neufeld, liked the script (originally titled “Moscow”) and brought in a production team that included Lorenzo di Bonaventura (of the Transformers and G.I. Joe series) and David Barron, who helped produce the Harry Potter series and had worked with Branagh on several of his Shakespeare adaptations as well as his version of Frankenstein.  Veteran screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-man) was hired to work on the script, and he did enough to get co-credit for the movie. But they didn’t capture the dynamic of the original stories. What you’re left with is a Swiss cheese screenplay: plenty of holes, and what isn’t a hole is pretty cheesy. In an attempt to heighten the suspense, the terrorist plot is revealed to be taking place within a day, yet it would be impossible for either the terrorists or the good guys to get to the target in that time without borrowing the warp drive from Chris Pine’s other series, Star Trek. It’s also an insult to the audience’s intelligence when they set up a complex high-security system for Cherevin’s office, but Ryan defeats the security with ridiculous ease when he breaks in.

The actors do what they can with what they’re given, but they don’t rise above generic action/adventure characters. A problem for Kevin Costner is they took two of Clancy’s characters, Admiral Greer and CIA operative John Clark, and mixed them into one, so he’s supposed to be both a senior honcho in the CIA as well as an operations man. It strains credulity. Branagh’s direction makes the film look better than it deserves to, but there’s only so much you can do to counter a weak script.

The movie had a deservedly poor opening, which will likely mean no sequels. Jack Ryan was a good character for the 1980’s and the early 1990’s, but his time has passed. You’d be better served watching a DVD of one of the first three movies (or even The Sum of All Fears) than seeing this pale attempt to time warp Ryan back into relevancy.

10 Best Mystery Movies of the 1990s

After a lackluster decade, mysteries came storming back in the 1990s. They also got respect from the Motion Picture Academy, notching several Oscar wins. Most of the movies below are obvious choices, though two are personal favorites. You could make valid arguments for other movies that I’ve left off, such as One False Move, The Spanish Prisoner, Pulp Fiction, Se7en, Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, and Enemy of the State (a movie that could be seen as prescient given the current questions about NSA spying), along with others, but I’ll stand pat with my choices.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Running the table of major Oscars had only been done twice before Silence of the Lambs, by It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The movie, based on Thomas Harris’ bestseller, created a cultural phenomenon with Hannibal Lector, a minor character in Harris’ previous book Red Dragon (see Manhunter in the Best of the ‘80s). The image of Anthony Hopkins standing serenely in a pressed jumpsuit, after the chamber of horrors Jodie Foster encounters on her way to Hannibal’s cell, is one of the most chilling introductions of a character ever. Harris took attributes from three different serial killers to create the other villain of the piece, Buffalo Bill: Ed Gein (skinning victims), Ted Bundy (acting disabled to catch victims) and Gary Heidnick (keeping victims in a pit). Gein was also the inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho.

Fargo (1996)

Another Oscar winner (Best Original Screenplay & Best Actress) was the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. They’d explored crime with their movies before, most notably with their debut film, Blood Simple, but Fargo went to a different level with its blend of comedy and crime. Strangely enough, not a single frame of the movie was filmed in Fargo. However, if you want to see the wood chipper used in the movie, it’s on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

While it didn’t win the Best Picture award (it was swamped by Titanic) Kim Bassinger won for Best Supporting Actress while Brian Helgelund and Curtis Hanson picked up gold for the Best Adapted Screenplay, working from James Ellroy’s tough-as-nails noir novel. Jerry Goldsmith contributed an excellent score, as he did with Chinatown in 1974. Many of the scenes in the film (and the novel) were based on actual incidents that have shown up in other films and TV shows, including last year’s Gangster Squad and TNT’s Mob City, but L.A. Confidential got it right.

Out Of Sight (1998)

While it didn’t win an Oscar, this film did bring home an Edgar Award for best mystery movie of the year. (Other winners of the Edgar on this list are Silence of the Lambs, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and The Grifters.) This movie also saved George Clooney’s career after the debacle of Batman and Robin the year before. Scott Frank adapted the Oscar nominated screenplay from Elmore Leonard’s novel, and director Steven Soderbergh delivered a stylish and entertaining film.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Bryan Singer’s mind-twisting film, from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, also made a star (and Oscar winner) out of Kevin Spacey. He’d been working in Hollywood for ten years, most notably playing Mel Profitt during the first season of Wiseguy on TV, and was also the guy in the limo who wants to party with Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. The movie was made on a miniscule $6 million budget. In a poll on the IMDb website, Usual Suspects was voted as having the best plot twist ever, beating out movies like The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game.

The Firm (1993)

I’ve chosen The Firm as the best of the John Grisham adaptations that seemed to come out once or twice a year throughout the 1990s. The Firm was helped by Sydney Pollack’s excellent direction, the jazz piano score by Dave Grusin, and a screenplay by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel that actually improved on the original book. It has one of the best casts ever assembled for a motion picture. Holly Hunter received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, in spite of only appearing on screen for less than 6 minutes total. (Of course, what she does with that six minutes is incredible.)

A Few Good Men (1992)

From Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” through Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series to Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer books, the courtroom has been fertile ground for mysteries. Rob Reiner’s film, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (based on his original play), was interesting for its move to a military courtroom as well as Jack Nicholson’s performance as Col. Jessup. It made a catchphrase out of “You can’t handle the truth.” While nominated for four Oscars, it got shot down at the ceremony by Unforgiven, which took Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor.

The Grifters (1990)

This movie is based on a novel by Jim Thompson, whose hardboiled stories also include “The Getaway” and “The Killer Inside Me,” and was adapted by another legendary author, Donald E. Westlake. Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, Philomena) directed the story of three con artists trying to make a big score and then get out alive. Only one of them does. The movie features a voiceover at the beginning by Martin Scorsese.

The Fugitive(1993)

The ‘90s featured many remakes of early TV shows, most of them forgettable, but The Fugitive bucked the trend by having the movie be better than the original series. The escape sequence, which was done with a real train rather than CGI, is one of the most thrilling ever to be filmed. What really made the movie work was Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of US Marshall Sam Gerard, the most obsessive policeman since Javert. Jones deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor for the role.

Dead Again (1991)

This is a personal favorite, a twisty, metaphysical mystery that was Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to his Henry V. The movie features Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson in dual roles, and Derek Jacobi as a larcenous antiques dealer with a talent for hypnosis. The original screenplay was written by Scott Frank, who would later do two stellar adaptations of Elmore Leonard – Get Shorty and Out of Sight. It also features an uncredited performance by Robin Williams as a psychiatrist who’s had his license revoked.

A Bad Case of Karma

In 1989, Kenneth Branagh’s first film, Henry V, invited comparisons between the wunderkind Branagh and the eminence grise of English theater, Lord Olivier.  Lord Larry had also acted and directed a film version of Shakespeare’s play forty years earlier, when he himself was a wunderkind.  When it came to Branagh’s sophomore acting/directing effort, he decided to do something completely different by making 1991’s metaphysical thriller Dead Again.

The script was written by Scott Frank, and was his second full-length screenplay to be produced.  Since then, Frank has made a solid reputation for himself by writing the screenplays for such movies as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report and Marley and Me.  He also did the script for the upcoming Marvel Superheroes reboot, The Wolverine.  Frank created a twisty thriller where the echoes of an earlier murder are played out in the present day.

Branagh chose to highlight the scenes from the late 1940s by filming them in black and white, while doing the present day scenes in color.  It’s been done before and since, but Director of Photography Matthew F. Leonetti did some of his best work ever in the B&W scenes.  After starting out doing TV movies in the 1970s, Leonetti had become a journeyman cinematographer, working on such projects as Eyewitness, Jagged Edge, and Dragnet.  In Dead Again, Leonetti mirrored 1940s film noir, but accomplished a deeper and clearer chiaroscuro effect on the screen.

Behind the credits, Branagh uses newspaper headlines to tell the story of the murder of Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson) and the conviction of her husband Roman (Branagh).  The reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), who wrote the stories seen in the credits, comes to interview Roman while he’s having his hair clipped before his execution.  Roman continues to deny killing Margaret, but as he’s leaving the cell he leans over and apparently whispers something to Baker.  Baker remains in the cell, stunned, until he notices the scissors the guard was using for trimming Roman’s hair are no longer there.  As Roman walks down the corridor, we see the scissors slip from inside his sleeve into his hand.  Then, at the end of the corridor, Margaret appears.  Roman raises the scissors as he says “These are for you,” and brings them down –

– and a woman (also played by Thompson) wakes up screaming from a nightmare in the middle of a thunderstorm.  The woman (who we later learn is named Grace) has shown up at a Catholic orphanage suffering from amnesia as well as being hysterically mute.  The orphanage happens to be located in what was once Roman Strauss’s mansion.  While the sisters in charge take her in, they can’t keep her there.  They turn to Father Timothy (Richard Easton), who calls in a favor from a former orphaned resident of the home.

Mike Church (Branagh) had served in the LAPD before becoming a private eye specializing in finding people.  Church is working a case, finding Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), a psychologist who had his license revoked when he gave a bit too much comfort to his female patients.  Father Timothy prevails on Church to help discover who the woman is.  Through a newspaper contact (Wayne Knight), Church gets a picture of Grace into the paper, asking for help to identify her.  He’d planned to drop her off at the downtown psych ward, but after seeing the conditions there he changes his mind and brings her to his apartment.  The next day, after Grace’s picture has appeared in the paper, they’re visited by Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi), an antiques dealer who is also a hypnotist.  Through hypnotism, Madison takes Grace back to her previous life, and the mystery of what really happened to Margaret Strauss.

Branagh keeps the story racing along as it ping pongs between the 1940s and the 1990s.  Frank has written a beautiful twist midway through the movie, and there are sharp moments that shoot adrenalin through the audience’s veins, such as when Mike accidentally calls Grace Margaret.  The final reveal and confrontation are beautifully played out.

The lush theme music by Patrick Doyle helps build the atmosphere of the movie. Doyle has collaborated with Branagh on his directing projects from Henry V through Thor, as well as scoring other films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Pixar’s Brave. Doyle has also performed small roles in some of the films he’s scored. He’s the cop in the elevator when Church brings Grace to the psych ward.

The supporting cast Branagh assembled was excellent. Garcia’s Baker is a disheveled knight in a wrinkled white suit who has his own obsession with Margaret. When the audience meets him 40 years later, he’s become an effective anti-smoking advertisement. Campbell Scott has a brief but important scene in the film. That same year he did Dying Young with Julia Roberts, which let him come out from under the considerable shadow of his father, George C. Scott. Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun) plays Inga, Strauss’s devoted German housekeeper, while Gregor Hesse plays Inga’s speech-impaired son Frankie. Schygulla has remained busy acting in Germany, but Hesse stopped acting in films after a couple of TV episodes the next year and concentrated instead on music as a pianist and composer, which is interesting since that’s Strauss’s occupation in the film. Stage and screen actress Christine Ebersole has a cameo role as society reporter Lydia Larsen.

Both Branagh and Thompson have perfect American accents as Mike and Grace, while Thompson uses her normal English accent as Margaret and Branagh does a subtle German accent as Roman. It’s a joy to watch them play off each other. The two had met while doing an English miniseries, “Fortunes of War,” in 1987 and married 2 years later. There might have been echoes of Olivier and Vivian Leigh, as they worked together in Branagh’s first four films. But the marriage ended in 1994 and Thompson went on to carve out her own career as both an actress and an Oscar-winning screenwriter. She plays a supporting role as well as wrote the script for the movie Effe, to be released this May.

Jacobi had worked with Branagh on Henry V, serving as the Chorus who narrates the movie.  He’s excellent in Dead Again; Madison is wonderfully colorful, slightly larcenous and smooth of tongue but commanding at the same time.  Jacobi has continued to work ceaselessly through the years; recently he played the Archbishop of Canterbury in The King’s Speech and reunited with Branagh for My Week With Marilyn.  (He’s also working with Thompson again in Effe.)

After his divorce from Thompson, Branagh’s career dimmed.  His 1994 version of Frankenstein was a critical and financial failure.  He’d filmed a good version of Hamlet, doing the full four-hour play for the first time on the screen, but it was a marathon for moviegoers and didn’t earn back its investment.  Still, it did much better than his fourth adaptation of Shakespeare, Love’s Labor Lost, that he filmed as a 1930’s musical.  It was a major bomb, making only a couple hundred thousand dollars at the box office in the US (off a budget of around $13 million).  His nadir as an actor was his role as the legless Dr. Lovelace in The Wild Wild West.  He was memorable as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and also as Reinhard Heydrich in HBO’s Conspiracy.  Recently, though, he’s had a renaissance.  He was wonderful in My Week With Marilyn playing Laurence Olivier, and Branagh had his greatest financial success ever directing Thor.  Currently he’s working on the reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, both directing the film and playing a supporting role.  It will be released this upcoming December.

While not a major movie, Dead Again is a solid effort and well worth a viewing.

The Lord and the Idol (and the Boy)

At the beginning of My Week With Marilyn, we’re told it’s a true story.  Since it’s based on a memoir, that statement should be taken with a grain of salt.  Memoirs always offer one viewpoint of the truth, so they’re subjective.  However, screenwriter Adrian Hodge has expanded the source material so that we are presented with a slice of time and get to observe the fascinating characters who passed through a moment of history while filming a fluffy romantic comedy.

The story is told through the eyes of memoirist Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who served as the third assistant director (read go-fer) on the 1957 movie The Prince and the Showgirl.  Colin came from a distinguished family.  His father, Lord Kenneth Clark, was a noted art historian who achieved popular fame hosting the 1969 television program Civilization.  His older brother was a respected historian in his own right, and served in parliament.  Add in an uncle who was the Queen’s librarian, and you have an intimidating family of overachievers.  After college, Colin is unsure what to do.  A chance meeting with Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) at a party helps him land his job with Olivier’s production company.

They are preparing the film version of “The Sleeping Prince” which was a comedy written by one of England’s greatest dramatists, Terrence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables).  Olivier had done the original West End stage production in 1953 with his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond).  The movie version is to star the hottest actress in the world, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), with Monroe’s production company producing the film.  Olivier will reprise his role and direct the movie.  The title doesn’t survive the translation to film, and the movie becomes The Prince and the Showgirl.

Colin’s tasked with preparing for Marilyn’s stay in England, under the jaundiced eye of Monroe’s publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones).  At the studio, Colin takes a shine to Lucy (Emma Watson) who works in the wardrobe department.  But then Marilyn arrives, bringing along her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), the head of her production company Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and the chaos of celebrity.

Olivier’s professionalism immediately clashes with the self-indulgent Monroe.  It doesn’t help that he detests method acting, while Monroe has brought along Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), her personal acting coach and the 2nd wife of the principle teacher and proponent of The Method in the US, Lee Strasberg.  The very first day Monroe keeps the cast waiting while she tries to “find” her character, even though they’re just reading through the script.  Marilyn does have one supportive voice in the cast in Dame Sybil Thorndyke (Judi Dench), a legendary actress who first appeared in silent films and for whom George Bernard Shaw wrote “St. Joan” in 1924.

Colin begins as a supporter of Olivier in his conflicts with Monroe, but as the movie progresses he becomes infatuated with her, and she begins to return his affection.  He ignores the warning from Milton Greene that Marilyn will love him for a week, but then she’ll pull away and forget him.

The Motion Picture Academy might as well send out the Oscar ballots with a check mark already printed beside Michelle Williams’ name.  While other actresses have done notable work this year worthy of nomination, such as Charlize Theron (Young Adult) and Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Williams submerges herself in the character of Marilyn.  Or perhaps it would be better to say the characters.  She captures all of Monroe’s sex appeal when facing the press or crowds of fans, and even sings songs such as “That Old Black Magic” in perfect Marilyn style.  Yet she convincingly portrays the private, self-conscious and fragile Marilyn.  In a telling scene, she and Colin meet a group of fans, and she refers to her public persona in the third person just before flipping a switch and becoming the Marilyn seen in newsreels.

Williams is the brightest star of the film, but there are other suns burning fiercely in the firmament.  It is fitting that Branagh plays Olivier, since early in his career he was marked as the likely successor to Olivier’s crown.  Branagh did force the comparison by beginning his movie career directing and starring in Henry V, the roles Olivier had filled in an earlier classic film.  (Olivier remained in a class by himself, having been elevated to the House of Lords; the British theater awards are named after him.)  Branagh’s career has had its fallow times, but 2011 was a very good year for him, between this role and directing the very successful adaptation of Thor.  Olivier in My Week With Marilyn is in a transition period, trying to re-energize his film career yet seeing it waning.  Branagh handles this with subtlety and restraint.

Eddie Redmayne hasn’t an easy role as Colin, since he’s the supporting orchestra for the solos played by Williams and Branagh.  He does convincingly portray a youth who becomes infatuated with and protective of Monroe, but who’s also adult enough to finally realize it can’t last.

While she has only a couple of scenes, Julia Ormond is poignant as Vivien Leigh, who sees her husband drifting away from her.  Emma Watson moves on from the Harry Potter series, portraying a beautiful but common young woman who can’t compete for Colin’s attention with a screen idol.  Judi Dench is regally delightful as Sybil Thorndyke, giving us both the grand dame of the theater as well as a gracious veteran who supports the fledgling Marilyn.

TV director Simon Curtis, directing his first movie, and his production crew perfectly capture the England of the mid-1950’s, as well as the feel for making a movie at that time.  (Watch for the scene of getting a chair for Marilyn.)  They recreate the filming of the original movie from both before and behind the camera

Seeing the movie will set off reverberations for anyone with a knowledge of stage and film history.  At one point Marilyn is upset when she reads notes Miller has made about her character.  The notes eventually became Miller’s play After The Fall.  In the movie, the making of The Prince and the Showgirl leaves Olivier disenchanted with film, and he tells Colin that he’s planning to return to the theater in a play written for him by John Osborne.  The play was The Entertainer, and it was a triumph for Olivier that revived his career.  He did a film version of the play in 1960 and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  He remained busy on stage and screen until his death in 1989.  Marilyn’s next project was the classic Some Like It Hot.  Sadly, she only had 5 more years to live before her death in 1962, at age 36.

Vivien Leigh and Olivier would divorce three years after the film’s release.  She’d struggled with bipolar disorder throughout her life, but it would be tuberculosis that would claim her in 1967.  Dame Sybil outlived both Monroe and Leigh, dying in 1976 at the age of 94, after a 70 year career.  Judi Dench actually knew Thorndyke in real life, having met her first backstage at the Old Vic in 1959 when Dench was performing in Romeo and Juliet.  Dench has remarked on the accuracy of Hodges’ writing in capturing Dame Sybil.

The American characters had accomplishments that aren’t referred to in the film. Milton Greene, Marilyn’s production company partner, was a world-class photographer who shot some of the iconic images of her.  Marilyn’s publicist, Arthur Jacobs, became a well-known producer, doing movies such as Dr. Doolittle, Play It Again Sam, and the original five movies in the Planet of the Apes series.  In last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the head of the lab is called Jacobs in a tribute to him.  Paula Strasburg survived Marilyn by only 4 years, dying in 1966 at age 55.  Her daughter, Susan Strasburg, was a popular actress and also wrote a memoir about her relationship with Marilyn, whom she called her surrogate sister.

A final note about Michelle Williams’ performance: at the end of the movie, the screen shows three classic photographs of Marilyn Monroe.  But after watching the movie, you’re not sure if the photos are of the real Marilyn or recreations with Williams.  That succinctly sums up the quality of the performance.