Saturday, May 26, 2012

Carry On Nurse

The impressively versatile Saoirse Ronan has played a vampire, an alien, a borrower, two assassins and a dead girl after garnering an Oscar nomination for her stunningly good breakthrough performance as the troubled and troublesome young Bryony in 2007's Atonement (pictured above alongside James McAvoy). Despite rumours of her starring in Ridley Scott's version of Robin Hood and the upcoming Effie and Anna Karenina, however, she has not opted to return to a period drama role since then. That's all set to change in the near future as amidst the glitz, glamour and controversies of the annual Cannes Film Festival this week, it was announced that she will lead the cast in a new big-screen adaptation of Vera Brittain's hugely influential memoir on life as a young British woman during the First World War entitled Testament of Youth. Brittain was left utterly disillusioned by her horrific experiences volunteering as a nurse in many war-torn areas of Europe and by the personal loss and devastation she suffered between 1914 and 1918. Hailed as a major text in the history of both the pacifist and feminist movements, the 1933 bestseller was previously adapted in 1979 as a BBC television miniseries starring Cheryl Campbell as Brittain.

Cheryl Campbell was recently seen as Lady Browne, objecting most strongly to her nursing daughter Chummy's decision to train as a midwife in London's grimy yet chirpy East End, as featured in the Beeb's Sunday evening mega-hit Call the Midwife. Luckily for the well-intentioned Chummy, who'd led a sheltered life of horse-riding and Princess Margaret, Call the Midwife's East End was populated by salt-of-the-earth types who were willing to give her a chance and, in the case of one besotted bobby, take her up the aisle. Although a tad too rose-tinted at times, the series is charming and Miranda Hart's fish-out-of-water Chummy struck such a chord with audiences and critics that she's been nominated for a Supporting Actress BAFTA at tomorrow night's television ceremony. Perhaps she'll emulate the success of her on-screen mother who won in the Best Actress category for Testament of Youth but given that she's up against such heavyweight talents as Anna Chancellor for The Hour and the Smithster for Downton Abbey, it could go any way!

Now that Upstairs Downstairs has faced the music and danced off our screens for good, Call the Midwife is the great mainstream period drama hope at the British Broadcasting Corporation, who have commissioned not just an extended second series which I previously mentioned on this very blog but also a feature-length Christmas special. Although babies and the festive season go together quite nicely, I doubt that Call the Midwife at Christmas would be put so front and centre in the schedules if not for Downton Abbey's huge success on Christmas Day last year. The Downton effect continues to be felt not just at the headquarters of rival broadcasters but at ITV itself where The Bletchley Circle has become the latest of many period projects to get the green light in recent months. Starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Julie Graham, Rachael Stirling and Sophie Rundle and written by Guy Burt, the murder mystery mini-series follows four women, whose brilliant work at top security HQ Bletchley Park during World War II helped break codes used by the German military, as they reunite in the 1950s to consider crucial evidence in the unsolved murders of two of their colleagues which has recently to light........... Sounds good. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Few Good Men

Glenn Close has garnered much publicity and an Oscar nomination for her starring role as an Englishwoman in late-nineteenth century Dublin who lives her life as a man waiting tables in an upmarket Dublin hotel and patiently storing her money underneath the floorboards of her attic bedroom until the day she can buy a tobacco shop and live independently. Life, as it invariably does, complicates matters somewhat when her secret is discovered by a man hired to paint the hotel's pantry called Hubert Page who is also, it transpires, a woman masquerading as a man. Meeting Hubert and discovering the happiness she has found for herself suggests to Albert that her singular existence does not necessarily condemn her to a life of loneliness and she finds herself drawn to vivacious young maid Helen Dawes, who is not unattached herself having fallen for the dashing yet feckless hotel handyman Joe. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we decide to live our lives as a member of the opposite sex...........

Close, who has wanted to play this part on the big screen for thirty years, produced the movie, handpicked the talented director Rodrigo Garcia, co-wrote the screenplay with novelist John Banville, provided the lyrics for the beautiful theme song sung by Sinéad O Connor and presumably baked the biscuits for the tea break on set. Playing A. Nobbs is undoubtedly a challenge for an actress and although she conveys Albert's curious mixture of childlike innocence and steely determination brilliantly, the character's motivations remain troublingly obscure throughout the film and we never really get to know Nobbs all that well. Janet McTeer's Hubert is a very engaging creation, however, unpredictable and surly yet kind and loving and evidently a graduate from the school of hard knocks, as are many of the supporting characters in this admirably unsentimental film. As the various staff members and guests, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brenda Fricker, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Brendan Gleeson, Serena Brabazon, Phyllida Law and Mark Williams are all excellent although it is Pauline Collins as vicious Mrs Baker, the proprietress of Morrison's Hotel, who makes a lasting impression. For their part, Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson's touching performances as Helen and Joe are undermined by their hopelessly unconvincing Irish accents.

Albert Nobbs is tellingly reminiscent of John Huston''s 1987 treatment of James Joyce's iconic story The Dead with its melancholy tone and its scenes of lavish parties attended by people living disappointed and unfulfilled lives while the snow falls outside. The film is rich in social detail and particularly strong on the lot of women and the class system without labouring either point although religion and politics seem strangely absent from conversations being held in Dublin in 1898. There is, in short, much to enjoy in Albert Nobbs but the main problem is, sadly, Albert Nobbs herself. At one point, a baffled character wonders why Albert lives her life as she does. I've sat through the movie and liked it but I'm damned if I know!