Homage and Fromage
Hello again everyone, and welcome back to the column you can safely ignore. This week we have something for everyone - a bit of action, a bit of romance, a touch of class and a load of old rubbish. Hurrah!
Playing It Straight
Sometimes it's hard to believe that the elder statesmen of cinema - both film-makers and critics - regularly bewail the medium for losing its intelligence and sophistication, and becoming obsessed with big opening weekends and happy meal promotions. (Although it is perhaps telling that the 'sometimes' in question tend to be early Autumn and early Spring, well away from the blockbuster seasons but just about the times that the major awards are either beginning to prey on producers' minds or about to be announced.) For example, for the second week running we have a film opening in the UK that is a work of the utmost skill and subtlety (and, for that matter, is in part produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's Section Eight company).
The film in question is Todd Haynes' remarkable Far From Heaven, a tribute to the 50s films of Douglas Sirk. A man has to know his limitations, and I must confess that while I consider my expertise in the fields of Toho Studio's kaiju eiga and the works of David Cronenberg to be entirely adequate, my knowledge of Sirk and his films is limited to what I picked up second-hand from reading interviews with Quentin Tarantino. But this isn't an exercise in spotting the influences, with bonus points being scored for getting all the in-jokes - quite the opposite, in fact.
Julianne Moore plays Kathy Whittaker, a housewife in Cincinatti in the late 1950s. She seems to have it all: a happy marriage to successful executive Frank (Dennis Quaid), a home with all mod cons, and two charming children. But beneath this cheery surface all is not well - for Kathy stumbles upon Frank in a clinch with another man. This revelation, and Frank's 'treatment' for his homosexuality, places a tremendous strain upon their marriage and Kathy finds herself turning to her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) for solace, not quite realising the scandal this will cause amongst the ghastly daiquiri-swilling harpies who are her friends...
Well, it sounds like a fairly over-ripe melodrama, doesn't it? And to some extent it is. But what's so unusual about this film is not the story, but the way in which it's told. Haynes has opted for a style of storytelling which recreates not just the 1950s but also the films of that period - the colours are bright and luminous almost to the point of garishness, Elmer Bernstein's score is lush and passionate, even the graphic design is a perfect imitation. In many ways Far From Heaven resembles Pleasantville in its recreation of wholesome, slightly camp suburban Americana - Quaid doesn't shout 'Hi honey, I'm home!' when he appears, but you wouldn't be surprised if he did.
But the most striking thing about Far From Heaven is the way in which it crucially differs from films like Pleasantville, which pastiched this idealised nostalgia. Haynes isn't parodying Sirk, or holding the genre up to ridicule, or using the 50s setting to make ironic points about the state of America today. There's nothing here that winks at the audience, nothing to suggest that this isn't how all films look and sound today. Haynes takes his story and characters seriously and plays the film wholly straight all the way through.
And the results are, as I said, remarkable. The danger of any film with this kind of over-stylised setting is that the audience may find it difficult to get involved with the characters - a problem I had with Moulin Rouge, for example. But that's not the case here - this story is one of the most moving I've seen on the big screen for some time. As anyone who's seen Jurassic Park 2 will testify, Julianne Moore is one of America's finest actors and she is very good here, in a role utterly dependent on the subtlety and nuances of her performance. But, arguably, Dennis Quaid is equally good, if not better - it's almost certainly the best performance of his career so far. 24's legion of fans will already be aware of the integrity, decency and nobility which Dennis Haysbert routinely brings to a role, and they're all much in evidence here.
In fact the only criticism I would make of Far From Heaven is an entirely personal one. The style of this film is very distinctive and very different and my first instinct on seeing something like this is to try and figure out why the director's done it, what he's trying to say, and what the significance of it is. But so perfect and committed is the adoption of the style that it's difficult to see that it's anything other than an expression of Haynes' own affection for this kind of film, and all my ruminations that it allows him to make a more emotional film than would be credible in a more modern style, or that the racial and sexual elements of the story work better in this milieu, are probably not much more than me outsmarting myself. I spent most of the film trying to anticipate what the punchline was going to be, and the eventual total absence of one was a little disconcerting. This shouldn't be a concern of yours, of course - the fact that Far From Heaven is an impeccably made and involving drama should.
Well, after all that rich cinematic fare I was in the mood for something a bit less demanding. So what should fit the bill better than a sci-fi action thriller starring someone like Wales' own Christian Bale? Pleasingly, just such a movie happened along in the shape of Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium.
In the future, society has been reshaped to include the maximum possible number of cliches from old SF movies. All emotion has been outlawed and the population exists in a permanent drugged stupor, rather like Vulcans on valium. Enforcing this new regime are the implausibly named Grammaton Clerics, foremost amongst whose number is the fanatically calm John Preston (Christian Bale, king of the dodgy accent). Preston is shocked (or would be, were it not illegal) to learn that his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean, slumming it) is secretly breaking the law and getting all teary and emotional over poems by Yeats (his transgressions no doubt caused by the stress of having such a stupid name), but being a dedicated servant of the state does his duty, letting Sean Bean get an early bath and have a long talk with his agent about the quality of the scripts he gets sent. Bean's replacement is the ambitious Brandt, played by Taye Diggs from Chicago. But Preston inevitably finds himself questioning the values of the state, particularly after meeting hardened offender Mary (Emily Watson, really slumming it). Can he meet the challenge of bringing about a change in the system? And can Christian Bale meet the challenge of portraying more than one emotion in the same film?
Let's talk about the good things in Equilibrium first. It's rather well directed, for one thing, with a good deal of style. The production designs have a sort of brutalist grandeur even if they don't quite manage to avoid cliche. Some of the action sequences are rather well put together, too. And, fair's fair, Bale does a pretty reasonable job of portraying a man experiencing an emotional awakening (even if he is, inevitably, more convincing before than after).
But that really is all the film has going for it. Apart from this, what's not cliched is silly, and what's not silly is cliched. The list of films Equilibrium rips off seems to roll on forever: Logan's Run. THX-1138. Fahrenheit 451. Metropolis. 1984. Demolition Man. The Matrix (there's the most blatant knock-off in history of the lobby sequence from The Matrix, which is saying something). Being derivative isn't necessarily a crime, but Equilibrium fails to fuse all its influences together in such a way as to establish an identity of its own.
The only even slightly original element to the script is the new martial art of 'Gun-kata', which supposedly involves using statistical analysis to predict where the bullets are going to be in a gunfight so the exponent can arrange to be elsewhere at the time. This idea strikes me as a bit bobbins, and the fact that on-screen the practitioners just seem to be vogueing1 with a gun in each hand does not help its credibility.
Credibility is one of Equilibrium's problems throughout, to be honest. Apart from characters with silly names, the script's attempts to be moving and make serious points are torpedoed by a lack of subtlety (Preston finally turns against the system when it orders him to shoot a cute little puppy!) and some very dubious casting (at one point Bale beats up TV comedian Brian Conley - not that this is a bad thing, of course). The cast, which includes David Hemmings and (all too briefly) Lassie award laureate Sean Pertwee, do their best, but some things can't be polished. And quite why the supposedly unemotional character played by Taye Diggs spent most of the movie grinning like a loon I could not tell you.
I didn't really have great hopes for this film going in, but I would have settled for a cheerfully dumb, well-put-together, mid-budget actioneer (something like Bale's last film, Reign of Fire). But Equilibrium's pretensions to worthiness, and its meandering, poorly-paced script, stop it from being even this. It aspires to have a message about the importance of emotions and compassion - but, ironically, I suspect the audience will find it very difficult to care either way.