Archive for Colin Firth

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on September 8, 2011 by alexlarman

The career of Gary Oldman – frequently cited as the finest actor working today never to have been nominated for an Oscar – is something of a mystery. In the 1980s, he appeared in British films as disparate as Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears and The Firm, and rivalled Daniel Day-Lewis for versatility. A move to Hollywood in the early 90s did nothing to stop his curiosity and desire to play a huge range of roles, which included, from 1990 – 1994 Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven, Dracula, Rosencrantz and, most wonderfully of all, Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon, a linen-suited corrupt cop to end all corrupt cops.

Then, around the mid-90s, something appeared to change. The films became more about the fee and less about the performance. He was still good value as flamboyant villains in the likes of Air Force One and The Fifth Element, and contributed interesting shadings to a Republican senator in The Contender, but an element of vitality was missing. Sit down, if you can, and watch his vivacious, witty, sexy performance in Prick Up Your Ears, and then endure his by-the-numbers Dr Zachary Smith in Lost In Space. It might as well be two different actors.

With the honourable exceptions of his excellent James Gordon in the Batman films, and his noble Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series (movies that he has candidly described as ‘the least amount of work for the most amount of money), his work in the past decade has been negligible. You haven’t heard of most of the films he’s made, because they snuck onto the shelves, straight-to-DVD, as if ashamed. There’s been some lucrative voiceover work, the odd baddie in a low-rent film that wanted a bit of prestige, and little else. Apparently this is due to his desire to raise two young children by himself, as a single father. While personally commendable, the world has been waiting for a performance by Oldman that reminds the world of this fine actor’s immense talent.

Now, at last, we have one. Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel succeeds on pretty much every level, but the first thing that we must be thankful for is that it rehabilitates one of the greatest British actors of the past quarter century. As George Smiley – the frighteningly controlled, breathtakingly ordinary, middle-aged spy – Oldman underplays as effectively and captivatingly as he hammed it up two decades ago. With silver hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a brilliant, analytical mind, his Smiley is as much great detective as he is super-spy – a feeling reinforced by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as his Dr Watson, Peter Guillam, and the unseen presence of Karla, his Russian nemesis and Dr Moriarty. It’s a subtle performance, almost too subtle for those who want moments of Big Acting to win awards, although there are a couple of moments –a  monologue about the sole time that he met Karla, and the electrifying second when he finally loses his temper – that are about as strong as anything you’ll see in a male performance on screen this year.

The complicated plot is actually, in Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s classy and economical adaptation, made relatively straightforward. As civil service bureaucrat Simon McBurney puts it on, ‘there is a mole at the top of the Circus’. After a botched operation in Budapest involving spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the head of the shadowy intelligence service known as the Circus, Control (John Hurt) and his lieutenant Smiley are forced out. However, when it becomes clear that one of the four principal staff of the Circus, ‘Tinker’ (Toby Jones),’Tailor’ (Colin Firth), ‘Soldier’ (Ciaran Hinds) and ‘Spy’ (David Dencik) is a bad apple, Smiley is recruited, secretly, to flush them out. All this is connected with the sweeping evocation of the failed love affair of junior agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) and the wife of a Russian asset. But how?

As you will have gathered from the cast list, this is a very, very classy piece of work. With the odd exception of Hinds, who has very little to do (presumably because most of his scenes were cut), everyone here, often cast against type, rises to the occasion spectacularly. Cumberbatch and Hardy are both deeply affecting as two young men who find their personal and professional lives intersecting to ghastly effect, while Mark Strong proves that there’s a huge amount more to him than baddie-of-the-week as Prideaux. The likes of Jones, Hurt and Firth are all dependably excellent, and a welcome appearance by Kathy Burke produces one of the biggest laughs, when she describes herself as ‘seriously underfucked’.

Alfredson was also very much the right man for the job. Building on the success of his superb vampire film Let The Right One In, he creates a paranoid, anxious milieu in which everyone smokes, nobody can be trusted and where everyone – friends, lovers, colleagues – ends up betraying everyone else, almost as a reflexive action. It’s the polar opposite of a Bond or Bourne film, resembling, if anything, the first Mission Impossible film if that had had the gadgets, explosions and masks stripped away and the Tom Cruise role had been played by Jon Voight. Still, a good spy film has to have some good set-pieces and there are some crackers here, such as the Budapest-set opening, a tension-building infiltration of the Circus and, of course, Smiley’s Karla monologue.

It’s extremely likely that this is going to figure very highly in the awards season next year (though for my money, I see this cleaning up at the BAFTAs rather than at the Oscars). Hopefully it will prove a sterling success, and it’s actually not impossible to hope that le Carre’s follow-up novel, Smiley’s People, is eventually filmed with the same personnel if this is a conspicuous success. But this is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, one of those rare films that you could happily watch for several hours more, so all-encompassing is the milieu created. And, finally, how can you not like any film that uses George Formby’s ‘Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now’ in a key scene?

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The King’s Speech

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on December 19, 2010 by alexlarman

As with this year’s other hotly tipped Oscar contender, The Social Network, the plot of The King’s Speech sounds so dull it’s almost comic. ‘English prince with speech defect becomes king due to brother’s abdication, conquers said defect with help from eccentric Australian, rallies country for WWII’. Actually put like that it doesn’t sound quite so bad, does it? And so it proves in Tom Hooper’s compelling film, which takes a topic which could easily have turned into BBC2 Sunday afternoon middlebrow filler and makes it altogether more cinematic and vital, aided by two magnificent central performances.

The action begins in 1925, with Prince Albert, aka ‘Bertie’ (Colin Firth) delivering a miserably fated speech, made unintelligible by his appalling stammer. It then moves to 1935, with the ageing George V (Michael Gambon) past his peak, and his playboy eldest son David (Guy Pearce) expecting to inherit the throne, even as he dallied with the wildly unsuitable Wallis Simpson. Bertie is no better, despite years of ineffectual treatments. In despair, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the help of failed Shakespearean actor and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox treatment leads to a good deal of witty back-and-forth between the two men, courtesy of David Seidler’s’ amusing script, before the predictable beats of this kind of film are hit – a disagreement leading to an estrangement, a reconciliation, and then the final build-up before the uplifting climax and triumph. It’s familiar from any number of sports movies (and actually not that dissimilar to Good Will Hunting, in its near-constant mining of Bertie’s grim childhood as the source for his current predicament), but done with style and verve.

Both Firth and Rush are given marvellously compelling parts to play, and do so with elan. Firth, in his second great performance of the year after A Single Man, beautifully captures the fear and shame of a man for whom greatness has very much been thrust upon him, especially when he is forced to become king after his brother’s abdication, but also his wry wit and ever-so-English stoicism at his plight. Rush, in the showier role, is marvellously entertaining as the useless actor but ahead-of-his-time therapist, exploring Bertie’s plight with unconventional therapies including orgies of swearing. They’re backed up by a fine supporting cast of great British character actors (and Pearce), mainly playing types rather than people, but it’s good to see the likes of Anthony Andrews and David Bamber (as, respectively, Stanley Baldwin and a dismissive theatre director).

If the ending’s move from a personal, private drama to something more sweeping and universal does feel like a change of tone, it’s at least accomplished elegantly and movingly – indeed, only the inclusion of Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ could make it more obvious that it’s supposed to be an uplifting climax. Never mind that it’s almost entirely fudged for dramatic purposes, there’s no denying that it works as a piece of audience-pleasing tub-thumpery, as does the entire film. Oscars have gone to worse pieces of cinema.

A Single Man

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by alexlarman

A Single Man, Tom Ford’s directorial debut and an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, opens in the UK the same week that Alexander McQueen killed himself – an unsettling, if entirely coincidental parallel, given that the film revolves entirely around a man’s decision to commit suicide after the death of the person closest to him. Given that Ford’s Gucci group acquired a controlling stake in McQueen’s company in 2000, there is a connection between the two events that lends an added poignancy to a film that needs little extra.

Revolving around a day in the life of George (Colin Firth), an English professor in America who has decided to end his life after the recent death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode), the film is, first and foremost, a triumph of its aesthetic. Set in 1962, with the Cuban missile crisis in the background, Ford ensures that the period details are utterly pitch-perfect from start to finish. (As you would expect, Firth, clad entirely in Tom Ford, is immaculately styled, groomed and presented throughout.) As the protagonist encounters a besotted student (Nicholas ‘Skins’ Hoult), has dinner with his old friend Charlie (Julianne Moore) and prepares to put his affairs in order before facing the great beyond, Ford stages the action in pitch-perfect detail and clarity. Moving between deliberately desaturated colour to show the empty, hollow nature of George’s life and heightened colour to indicate the changes in George’s fortunes, Ford demonstrates a compelling visual aesthetic that makes this a wonderful watch.

Thankfully, it’s not just  a feast for the eyes either. Firth, so often an actor who looks uncomfortable or out of place on screen, is perfect from start to finish, conveying equal parts stoic resolve, oh-so-English repression and a sly wit and intelligence, all qualities which were absent from, say, Nanny McPhee, apart perhaps from the English repression. It’s very much his film, and he’s very moving, especially in an early scene when he’s curtly informed of his lover’s death by his cousin over the phone, and the grief and shock is written over his face, even as he tries to keep his emotions under check. Compared to him, the other actors can only really play types, although Moore is very good as his booze-sodden old friend who still holds a torch for him, and Goode is dependably charming in the flashbacks that give a sense of George’s previous life.

Sadly I imagine that Firth will lose to Jeff Bridges come the Oscars, but nonetheless this is a powerhouse performance in a splendidly mounted and executed film, which promises great things from Ford. My colleague Catherine Bray has speculated as to what an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History by him might be like – on this evidence, I can only say I’d be intrigued to see.

UPDATE: Can I also commend the score by Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi, which sounds like a cross between Nyman, Glass and Hitchcock-era Herrmann? Glorious stuff.