Features EssaysScreen Published 23 October 2012

Stage on Screen

The 56th BFI London Film Festival took place at venues around the capital between 10th - 21st October 2012.
Neil Dowden

Although this year’s BFI London Film Festival – the 56th, which finished on Sunday night following record attendance figures – may not have featured the same exceptional number of plays on screen as last year, as always there was a strong showing from writers, directors and actors heavily involved in the world of theatre.

In Hyde Park on Hudson, American dramatist Richard Nelson (who’s written ten works for the RSC, most recently a play about the life of Harley Granville-Barker, Farewell to the Theatre, staged at the Hampstead in the spring) has adapted his own 2009 radio play. Dubbed ‘The King’s Speech sequel’ on account of its royal disability period nostalgia, it’s a gently reflective pastoral piece set in upstate New York on the eve of the Second World War. It’s a double take on the special relationship: the personal intimacy between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret Suckley, and the public friendship between FDR and the visiting King George V and Queen Elizabeth foreshadowing the transatlantic wartime alliance.

Based on the revelatory papers Suckley left when she died about 20 years ago, Nelson uses her as a part-time narrator as well as participant, with a voiceover indicating the film’s radio drama roots. Her middle-aged sexual affair with a polio-stricken but still philandering president is portrayed with touching awkwardness but the script is too slight to offer a convincing account of the Big World Events lurking in the wings.

Roger Michell (who is equally at home in the worlds of cinema and theatre, including directing two of Nelson’s plays and Joe Penhall’s Birthday at the Royal Court this summer) conducts proceedings with a stately pace. Lol Crawley’s sumptuous cinematography and Simon Bowles’s elegant production design make the Roosevelt family home in summertime very easy on the eye. Bill Murray offsets FDR’s patrician dignity with delightfully quirky humour, a man who usually gets his own way by using his considerable charm. Laura Linney’s shy, dowdy ‘Maggie’ movingly shows an unexpected passion as she struggles to fit into the complicated female set-up surrounding the president, with Olivia Williams as his high-spirited wife Eleanor clashing with his old-fashioned mother Elizabeth Wilson, and Elizabeth Marvel as his long-suffering PA. The repressed royals portrayed by Samuel West and Olivia Coleman are mainly played for laughs, flustered by Native American musicians and hot dogs.

Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson.

Another Anglo-American collaboration is Quartet, a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel set in the peace of an English   country mansion rather than the chaos of a crumbling Indian palace. Ronald Harwood (who won an Oscar for the adapted screenplay of The Pianist, and is best known in the theatre for plays about performers, such as The Dresser, Taking Sides and Collaboration) has adapted his 1999 play about a charitable retirement home for classical musicians.

Harwood’s title refers both to Verdi’s famous ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ aria from Rigoletto which runs through the soundtrack and to four retired opera singers who sang it together fifty years ago and are now living in the same home which is in danger of closing down. Though music echoes around the building, there is not much harmony between two of the quartet, who were once married until infidelity led to a bitter divorce. It seems that only acceptance of the infirmities of old age and encroaching death can overcome painful memories to achieve reconciliation. Moments of irreverent comedy help to enliven a somewhat sentimental and predictable drama, while its stage origins are easy to see.

This may seem a strange choice for Hollywood legend Dustin Hoffman’s debut as film director at the age of 75, but it is very much a vehicle for fellow actors, whom he handles with aplomb. Impeccably cast, Maggie Smith plays a diva in decline, as her hauteur gives way to pathos, while Tom Courtenay plays her betrayed ex-husband with characteristically melancholic idiosyncrasy. Pauline Collins is a well-meaning but forgetful peacemaker, and the scene-stealing Billy Connolly provides much-needed comic relief as a sex-obsessed dandy with a dodgy prostate. In a particularly nice touch several real musicians – such as soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones playing a bitchy rival prima donna – also feature in the film.

In contrast, middle-age and youth are jointly centre stage in In the House (Dans la Maison), a French film of the Spanish play The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga, skilfully adapted into pure cinema by director François Ozon. In this ingenious meta-narrative, a jaundiced high-school literature teacher has his enthusiasm reawakened by a 14-year-old boy who shows a real if disturbing talent for storytelling. The boy writes about how he has inveigled his way into a fellow student’s middle-class home by helping him to pass his maths exam, thus gaining the gratitude of his father and mother (whom he lusts after). But, with shades of Pasolini’s Theorem, this unreliable narrator’s intent seems to be to exploit the weaknesses in this apparently happy family to create drama for his story.

With the rigour of an intellectual thriller, the movie proceeds with compelling suspense – like the teacher we are voyeuristically complicit in wanting to know what happens next, as reality and fiction start to merge. The teacher recognizes a kindred creative spirit with a ‘chip of ice in his heart’ (to borrow Graham Greene’s phrase), as he neglects his art-gallery curator wife who’s in danger of losing her job, failing to give her the emotional support she needs.

Fabrice Luchini is fully convincing as the increasingly obsessed teacher who guiltily encourages his protégé because he values art more highly than personal relationships, while Ernst Umhauer gives a nicely ambivalent portrayal of a young writer as both sociopath and victim. Emanuelle Seigner is the frustrated housewife and Kristin Scott Thomas the curator who does not want to be left out of the story.

As in many of his plays, storytelling is also central to Seven Psychopaths, writer and director Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his impressive feature-film debut In Bruges. This time the setting is Los Angeles, as a heavy-drinking screenwriter struggles to come up with ideas for a new script. His failed actor buddy, who scrapes a living by kidnapping dogs and then returning them to get the rewards, gives him ideas for a story about seven different psychopaths, but when he unwittingly steals a gangster’s shih tzu violent reality forces its way into fantasy.

Mixing the ironic violence of Tarantino with the witty machismo of Mamet, plus his own Catholic preoccupations with spiritual redemption, McDonagh has once again created a superbly plotted black comedy whose twists keep you guessing until the end. Although it will alienate some with its apparently cynical postmodernism and graphically violent episodes, the movie crackles with great one-liners and surreal banter, as it moves from a soulless LA to a climactic shoot-out in the Joshua Tree National Park.

Once again, Colin Farrell stars, though this time rather than a hitman he plays someone who writes about serial killers but who is afraid of guns, as he becomes enmired in an underworld he has previously only imagined. Sam Rockwell gives a brilliantly edgy, unpredictable performance as his dodgy mate, a misfit who shoots his own movie in his head – and sometimes other people’s heads – while Woody Harrelson revels in the role of the ruthless mobster sobbing for his lost lap-dog. And playing against type as a born-again Christian who chooses self-sacrifice over revenge is the inimitable Christopher Walken, who starred in McDonagh’s most recent play premiered in the States A Behanding in Spokane – if it’s anything like as entertaining as this film, let’s hope we see it over here soon.

Release dates: Seven Psychopaths on 7 December 2012; Quartet on 4 January 2013; Hyde Park on Hudson 1 February 2013; In the House on 29 March 2013

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

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