If you’re looking for an antidote to the nonstop action or violence so typical of the summer blockbuster as we know it, you may be in the market for the newest film version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd, from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. Here, with a few significant and even shocking exceptions, the action is chiefly internal, driven by the emotions, or lack thereof, of the characters who make up the love pentangle that forms the story.
Vinterberg’s film comes exactly 100 years after the first film version of the story, a now lost 1915 British silent film that stared Florence Turner, and nearly 50 years after John Schlesinger’s poorly received 1967 film starring Julie Christie, fresh from her Oscar. Vinterberg’s is not a perfect film, but may be the best of the lot, based mainly on a fine performance by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene.
The title of the film is confusing for some folks. The fellow who sold me the ticket ssid “Okay, two for Far from the Maddening Crowd.” I stifled my pedantic reflex and just smiled. After all, I figured, nobody really has any reason to use the term “madding” anymore., and unlike Hardy, Vinterbrg does not have the reasonable expectation that any educated person in his audience was more than familiar with the lines from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a County Churchyard” to which Hardy’s title alludes:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “madding” as “Becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied,” and notes that the word is now used “chiefly in far from the madding crowd [in allusion to Gray’s and Hardy’s uses… (of a place) secluded, removed from public notice; also in other phrases modelled on this.” In other words, the only time the word is used nowadays is in allusion to Hardy’s book or Gray’s poem.
But changing the word to “maddening” ignores the deliberate irony in Hardy’s title. Gray’s lines imply that a pastoral life, away from the frenzy of the city’s crowd, is by nature calm and peaceful, a “cool sequester’d” life, while Hardy’s story of love’s turmoils and the hardships of farming life belies that naïve assumption.
Like Hardy’s other major novels (Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’urbervilles), the story is set in the English West Country, in a mythical county called Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful and independent woman who, helping on her aunt’s farm, draws the attention of a neighboring sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who somewhat surprisingly springs a marriage proposal on her. Bathsheba is taken aback, but is not in love with Gabriel and besides, does not really want a husband.
Things change when Bathsheba inherits an uncle’s farm, and despite some raised eyebrows among the local farmers, determines to manage the property herself. When Oak loses his own farm and needs a job, he applied to Bathsheba after helping put out a fire in her barn, and is employed by the new mistress as a shepherd. Their fortunes reversed, Bathsheba gives no more thought to Gabriel’s earlier proposal, but capriciously sends a valentine to a wealthy middle-aged neighboring farmer, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who, interpreting the gesture more seriously than it was intended, proposes to Bathsheba himself. She does not accept his proposal either, but does suggest she will consider it.
She doesn’t. Instead, she meets a handsome young sergeant, Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) that same night and, infatuated by his demonstration of swordsmanship, goes off and marries him. Like that’s going to be a good idea. You’d think this independent-minded woman who has resisted two other suitors and has never felt she needed a man would be able to resist this kind of foolish choice—I mean, hasn’t Bathsheba read Jane Austen? Doesn’t she know what happened to that foolish Kitty Bennett? But I digress. Anyway, turns out (shocker!) that Troy is a gambler and wastrel, too precious for farm work, and besides, has a previous mistress, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple) who shows up pregnant.
Well I won’t spoil the end for you if you haven’t read the book. Suffice it to say that the movie reads in many ways like a Victorian soap opera—no doubt if Hardy were around today, he’d be paying the bills by writing episodes of Days of Our Lives. But the film goes beyond that, in creating a believable character who insists on being her own woman against all the social mores of her time. Mulligan manages to embody every emotion one might feel being pursued by three very different men. She does this chiefly through her eyes and body language, delivering the exquisite line “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
Sheen is excellent as her high strung, emotionally unstable neighbor Boldwood. Schoenaerts is appropriately restrained and stoic as the long-suffering Oak. And Sturridge manages to squeeze something more out of his sleazy character than a simple cad and bounder. One change that David Nicholls’ screenplay makes from Hardy’s novel is the elimination of an early scene in which Troy rejects Fanny and casts her off because she has embarrassed him by not showing up for their wedding, though the silly girl had only made a mistake by going to the wrong church. Nicholls presents Troy as more heartbroken by the incident, and so manages to create a modicum of sympathy for Troy, though it is difficult to maintain it.
It’s also fun to play with the names in the movie, as Hardy no doubt expected us to. Bathsheba, of course, is David’s neighbor, married to the soldier Uriah, whom David covets. In Hardy’s scenario, Boldwood is in the position of David and Troy of Uriah. The name Troy, though, suggests a downfall brought about by the disregard for matrimonial bonds—as Paris abducted Helen and brought about the destruction of his home city of Troy, the sergeant’s misuse of Bathsheba, and of Fanny, seem to combine to bring about his destruction. As for Gabriel Oak, he is as strong and steadfast as the sturdy tree for which he is named, and like his namesake Gabriel serves despite all else as Bathsheba’s guardian angel.
This is also a beautiful film, in particular its costumes, especially those worn by Bathsheba once she inherits her own estate. And award-winning cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen manages to milk all the beauty of rural West Country England in scene after scene of beautiful natural scenes that call up like nothing else in the movie the spirit of Gray’s original lines—the cool sequestered background against which the tempest of the lover’s madding life plays out.
Certainly there are some flaws in the film, in particular in the sometimes eviscerated script that leaves out a good deal of exposition, a fact that makes Oak’s and Boldwood’s proposals seem to come out of nowhere. And without giving away the ending, it is a little disappointing to see the very unconventional Bathsheba squeezed ultimately into a conventional role, though that is Hardy’s doing, not the filmmaker’s. Still, it is no accident that Bathsheba Everdene is the spiritual mother of Katniss Everdeen, the strong willed and self-sufficient heroine of the popular Hunger Games series—who is also the object of more than one suitor’s affections. Katniss has somewhat more agency in her society than Bathsheba is allowed in hers, but it must be stated that without the Bathshebas blazing the trail, there would have been no possibility of a Katniss.
Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one. If you want to get away from the madding crowds this summer, skip by The Avengers and Fury Road, and duck into this movie. You’ll be glad you did.
Thirty years ago Australian director George Miller made Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third in his series of post-apocalyptic road-warrior movies, and it appeared to be the last—he went on to make innocuous children’s films like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet. But the 70-year-old director has gone back to his roots with Mad Max: Fury Road, and found a lot of new toys to play with.
What he has made is an adrenaline-pumping, two-hour thrill ride that feels like a perpetual video-game, full of explosions, crashes, fireworks, and pieces of wrecked auto parts and human bodies flying at you in 3D. With its panoramic desert vistas, the film is visually stunning and seems clearly the product of a director who sees film as a visual medium rather than a linguistic one. The desert scenes are reminiscent of a John Ford western, with a stagecoach replaced by a war-wagon pieced together from a rusted oil tanker and various truck parts, and the pursuing Apaches replaced by a cavalry of turbo-charged jeeps and other crazily modified vehicular hardware. The biggest difference is that the western is a movie interrupted at some point by a dramatic chase scene; Fury Road is an exciting chase scene interrupted briefly by a few snatches of dialogue.
The story is set in a waste land some time after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed civilization. The humans who are left alive are plagued by deformity, disease, cancer and mutation, while at the same time they struggle to eke out the necessities of life—particularly gasoline (they’ve got to run all those souped-up ancient vehicles) and water. There is no real exposition in the film—it opens with Max standing on a cliff, with his voice over saying “My world is fire and blood,” and bemoaning the people he had not been able to save, including his wife and a young girl who is, perhaps, his daughter, who appears to him in images that spring into his mind at various times through the movie. Then he stomps his foot down on a two-headed gecko scurrying by, and pops it into his mouth to eat raw.
In the movie’s opening scenes, Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by a gang belonging to what is in effect a primitive tribe whose chieftan, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), dresses in body armor that covers his deformed body, and a hideously barbaric mask that makes him look proto-human. He has seized power and maintains it by controlling their access to water, by using people like Max as forced blood donors to keep his War Boys alive, and by using women as personal sex slaves in the hope of begetting normal children.
Enter Furiosa—Immortan Joe’s top raider, with shaved head and blackened eye-sockets, and a mechanical arm. She is leading a band of raiders to scavenge for gas, but suddenly switches direction. Turns out she’s rescued Immortan Joe’s harem of slave-wives and has them stowed in her vehicle. When Joe realizes this, the chase is on, with Max strapped to the front of one of the pursuing vehicles, wearing a metal cage face mask and connected by IV to a skinny diseased War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Nux, whose dream is to die in battle so that he can be reborn in Valhalla (following the neo-pagan beliefs of his neo-barbaric society), just can’t seem to manage it, and, after a budding love affair blossoms between him and one of the stolen wives, ends up joining the women. Max, who at first simply wants to take off by himself in Furiosa’s truck, ultimately must join them as well as Furiosa tries to make her way to what she has promised the captive women are the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” the lands of her birth far, far to the east. She does succeed in finding the mothers, a band of battle-hardened older women called the Vuvalini. But I won’t reveal the end of the movie. Which, as you might expect, takes place after another very long climactic chase and road-battle.
Let me say, first, that this movie is not for everyone. You may have heard about the fuss raised by “male activist” bloggers, calling for a boycott of the movie, because they believe it to be “Feminist propaganda” disguised as an action movie. In particular, Miller’s consultation with Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler aroused the ire of the “men’s rights” crazies, when he brought her in to discuss her work with real-life sex slaves in the Congo with the actresses playing Immortan Joe’s five “breeders.” It seems unlikely that this “boycott” will have much of an effect on the movie, other than to make women more interested in seeing it.
So if you happen to be one of the aforementioned protectors of fragile male identities, you might have a problem with this movie. Conversely, if you are one of those women who is intrigued by the movie because of those blog posts, you may find yourself disappointed. My wife hated every minute of the movie, and said afterwards that she has never enjoyed herself less in any film she has ever seen. The film is not for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart. It resoundingly earns its R rating. So much for feminism.
Nor is this the sort of movie I am generally interested in. Like many another summer action flicks, this has the feel of a video game, but essentially it is like watching someone else play a video game for two hours. Eventually, you’re going to lose interest. Or at least I am.
But then of course, I’m not the intended audience. And neither is my wife. If you like summer action movies, you’ll like this movie. If you like video games, you’ll love this movie. If you liked the three original Mad Max movies, you’ll go nuts for this movie.
But I think there is more to it than that. I think with what is clearly a genre movie, it is important to ask whether there are aspects of it that transcend the genre. Fury Road appeals to viewers on a much deeper level than the surface story might suggest. There are archetypal themes here that not only transcend but perhaps even transform the genre. The film exploits the archetype of the waste land, which must be restored to fertility by the grail knight, whose quest heals the dead land and brings life to it. Here, Max must defeat the old king and bring the waters of life back to the people.
At the same time the film makes use of the archetypal Eden motif—the green land of fertility that existed before man lost paradise—and, in the world of the film, created the waste land. The desire to return to Eden, to regain paradise, is strong in the film, and is what motivates Furiosa and her rescued slaves. The mothers, the Vuvulini, are keepers of the seeds, restorers of fertility. The film brings the two themes together and makes the point that to regain the Eden that was, we must restore the waste land that is. It works on a mythic level, and in that way even converted skeptical me. And that took some doing.
I’m giving this three Tennysons, a ranking that will disappoint my wife, who would have given it a Robert Southey, and will disappoint the millions of adolescent video gamers, who would have given it four Shakespeares plus. But that’s how I see it.
Summer is icumin in, loude sing “kerblam”!
If it is May, it must be time for groups of comic book characters to save the world from certain destruction, and to do it while destroying much of the planet as they do so. Imagine my surprise when the latest Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, was nothing of the sort.
Just kidding, of course that’s what it was. The film begins with an attack by the Avengers on the hideout of Baron von Strucker in the imaginary eastern European country of Sokovia, where they meet a pair of hostile genetically-engineered super twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximof (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, whom my wife refers to as “the non-Olsen-twin Olsen”), known to Marvel comics fans as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, and they also discover the defeated Loki’s scepter. Ironman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with the help of Bruce “the Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), takes the scepter back to Avengers headquarters and finds that it contains a gemstone that holds an artificial intelligence program (yeah, I know, just go with it). Stark is able to create from this the “Ultron” program (voiced by James Spader), which he designs to be a peacekeeping system, powerful enough to defend the entire world so that, presumably, the Avengers won’t have to.
As it turns out, though, this Artificial Intelligence has a mind of its own. Ultron believes that the Avengers themselves are one reason there is no peace on earth, and determines that they must be exterminated. And while he’s at it, he figures if he can just get rid of people in general, think how peaceful THAT would make things. And so of course, Ultron is off to destroy all human life on the planet.
That means, of course, that the world’s greatest heroes—Iron Man and the Hulk, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—have to team up to stop Ultron before he can make good on his nefarious plans. For good measure Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, and a few other folks from the Marvel universe show up, and it also plays out that those crazy kids Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch finally realize they are helping the guy who’s going to kill everyone and join the good guys. There are a few other surprises along the way, and I won’t play spoiler for them, but that pretty much is the plot. There is a lot of science –fiction sounding mumbo-mumbo, none of which is really intended for us to follow, we just need to nod our heads and accept it. The details of the plot aren’t really what’s important here.
As for the characters, one thing that writer/director Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, who was also responsible for the first Avengers movie in 2012) has going for him is the fact that several of the characters—Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor—are already familiar to the audience through their own movies, or series of movies. That means that he doesn’t have to spend much time giving us background—except a bit for Black Widow and Hawkeye, who get a nod toward characterization. For the most part, though, we get snippets of interaction between a few of the characters (a budding romance between the Hulk and Black Widow, a glance of the home life of Hawkeye, a glimpse of Iron Man’s conscience, of Captain America’s regrets) many of which could be fruitful to follow up on. But there’s no chance to do that.
Because in fact the audience isn’t here (or at least the producers don’t believe the audience is here) to follow the plot or to relate to the characters, except to laugh at the occasional wisecracks, some of which—the allusion to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example—aren’t references many viewers are familiar with. What the audience is really here for is to watch all of the explosions, the fights, and the computer generated effects, almost all of which involve explosions, fights, and the destruction of large portions of every city the characters visit. The film is 141 minutes long, and it feels like a good half of it is spent on one major fight or another. As my wife so often tells me, ”you are not the intended audience,” but it does strike me that if this is what the audience wants to see, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to simply play a video game rather than spend ten to fifteen dollars or whatever it is to watch the 3D version of this stuff.
Whedon is a cultural force to be reckoned with, but he’s being asked here to invest in the crazy Hollywood mantra that “more is more.” How can you have a coherent movie with what, nine major stars? Each vying for enough screen time to make their participation in the movie worthwhile and to create something memorable about their character in the three minutes that they’ve got between the destruction of this building and the explosion in that one? A fascinating aspect of this film is the Red Witch’s ability to cause the characters to experience waking dreams, which reveal something about their hopes and fears—which would have been a fascinating thing to explore, but is shunted off almost before it gets off the ground for another big battle scene.
Oh Whedon does manage to squeeze in a few moral questions that linger in the smoke somewhere amid the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. The chief question here is, in fact, the one that Ultron raises: are the Avengers truly peacemakers, or do they cause as much destruction as they prevent? Ostensibly, the Avengers take this criticism to heart, and spend a good deal of time in the final and nearly interminable battle scene trying to save citizens of the Sokovian city from the destruction that is coming (for reasons not completely clear, the city needs to be destroyed), Underneath, though, there are at least three different cities in this film that are brought to rubble by various battles, so that Whedon, in what has been billed as his last go at directing a Marvel movie, seems to have left the answer to this question, and to the question of the value of such films, ambiguous. Maybe, like the Eugene O’Neill joke, it’s his way of saying, “Look, I know what I’m doing here, and I know what the genre requires of me. But I’m leaving you with the question.”
There’s a lot of cleverness here. Just not enough to raise the movie above its genre. Two Jaqueline Susanns.
Roger Ebert claimed never to have seen The Sound of Music. To my knowledge he never expanded on that statement, but it might be inferred that the great critic was suggesting he had no interest in seeing the film, perhaps because the tremendous affection that the movie has enjoyed in the fifty years since its first release might be reason to suspect it of appealing to the lowest common denominator in the audience—sacrificing art for popularity.
Certainly the film is nearly unparalleled in its appeal to wide audiences. Shortly after its release in 1965, it surpassed Gone with the Wind as the top-grossing domestic film of all time, and even now, fifty years later, The Sound of Music ranks third—right behind Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars—in total domestic gross all-time adjusted for inflation.
I had occasion to watch a screening of the classic film at a local theater recently, marking the fiftieth anniversary of its opening in 1965, and so took some time to consider whether the film’s popularity is earned, or merely the product of its over-the-top sentimentality, pandering to the unsophisticated tastes of a mass audience.
The story itself is well known. Ernedst Lehman based his screenplay for the film fairly loosely on the memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria von Trapp: Maria (Julie Andrews) is a young girl who wants t be a nun, but, a bit too ipetous andindependent for the abbey, is sent by the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) to be employed by a local Salzburg widower, the retired Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), to act as governess for his seven children. Not surprisingly, Maria and the Captain fall in love and, despite some token resistance from a sophisticated rival for the Captain’s heart (Eleanor Parker), Maria becomes the children’s new stepmother. Almost as an afterthought, the Nazis take over Austria, and the Captain, ordered to take command of a naval force within the Third Reich, is forced to flee with his family over the mountains into Switzerland rather than act in a manner that he believes will be against the interests of his Austrian homeland. (Though in reality, of course, Salzburg is 200 miles from Switzerland, and such a trek through the mountains would probably have killed them. In real life, the family just caught a train out of town.)
This simple story seems hardly able to sustain a three-hour film. And in fact, it doesn’t. The real focus of the film is the music. This is Rogers and Hammerstein’s most popular score, though the film does not have a great love song like South Pacific’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” or complex soul-searching songs like Carousel’s “Soliloquy,” or quirky or darkly ironic songs like Oklahoma’s “Poor Judd is Dead,” nor (though set against a backdrop of the coming Nazi terror) even seriously deep songs like South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” What it does have are very catchy but fluffy tunes like “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” in addition to the most idiotic case of pretentiousness masquerading as sophistication ever put on film—in the middle of “Good-bye, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehn, Adieu,” when the second oldest Von Trapp child, Friedrich (played by poor Christopher Hammond) sings something like “Adjuh, adjuh, to yuh and yuh and yuh”—presumably forced to do so by the director (Robert Wise), since no actual person would ever say such a thing. No doubt Oscar Hammerstein II was rolling over in his grave, having clearly written the lyric “adieu” to rhyme with “you,” assuming it would be pronounced in the song in the Anglicized way that every American would pronounce it. But I may be getting off on a tangent here.
There are a few songs with more depth in the movie: the Abbess’s inspirational “Climb Every Mountain” is a high point, as is the simple but powerful “Edelweis,” purportedly the last lyric that Hammerstein wrote. And the title song is a masterpiece, especially in the opening sequence as the camera sweeps in from above on Andrews singing the song on the top of the mountain. But truth be told, if this film were made nowadays—if anyone were even to make it nowadays—critics would laugh it into obscurity as too simple, naïve, out of date, even childish. And those kids—fairly one-dimensional for the most part except for the oldest, Liesl (Charmian Carr)—seem too obviously intended to be cte in a sentimental way, rather than developed enough for current children in the audience to identify with. In a world dominated by Broadway hits like The Book of Mormon, how can anyone these days over the age of ten be expected to take The Sound of Music with a straight face?
As a matter of fact, much of the popularity of the movie that still persists actually doesn’t take it that way: much of it is camp (a kind of ironic emulation of a simpler time) or pure nostalgia. The fact is even in its own day, many of the early reviews of the film from east coast venues like The New York Times, were negative: it was the mid-sixties after all. How, in that most revolutionary of decades, could one have the audacity to promote a play that read like a parody of something from the World War I generation?
And yet people went to see it. In droves. And perhaps even in its first run nostalgia was one of the motives that spurred people to see the film. And eventually it was the positive critics who won the day. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five of them, including best director and best picture (though a case could be made that Doctor Zhivago, which had also won five awards, should have received the Best Picture Oscar that year). Over the course of time, the film has grown in stature: Though one hears the film disparaged for all the reasons I’ve cited, those kinds of comments tend to come mostly from critics who, like Roger Ebert, never actually saw the film. It was ranked No. 55 o the AFI’s list of the “Top 100” films of all time in 1998. Ten years later, an update of that list placed the film at No. 40, suggesting that as time has passed, more critics have seen the virtues of The Sound of Music. And they are…?
Well, first, and probably foremost, it’s Julie Andrews. It doesn’t matter whether the material is hokey, she’s in for the long run and she’s giving it her all. Hers is an energetic, earnest and bold performance that has confidence in confidence alone.
And there are those songs I mentioned—some may be sappy or silly, but even those are stil memorable, and the film includes real classics like “Edelweis,” “Climb Every Mountain” and “The Sound of Music” itself. It’s no accident that AFI also ranked The Sound of Music as the third best musical ever—behind Wise’s other great triumph West Side Story, and Gene Kelly’s classic Singin’ in the Rain.
Third, there is Christopher Plummer, in his first significant film role. While apparently several other actors were considered for the role, including Yul Brynner and Maximilian Schell—and it is entertaining to consider what the film might have been like with one of those figures in the role—Plummer brings an interesting twist to the performance. While Andrews and the children bring a full-on honest intensity to their parts, Plummer often seems to be floating above things with an ironic smirk that is almost like a wink to the audience.
Fourth, the cinematography of this film is extraordinary. Beyond that magnificent opening shot, there are spectacular settings in the gardens, the castles and the religious houses in and around Salzburg, not to mention some brilliant framing of some of those musical numbers—the “Do-Re-Mi” song, for instance, is a staid and static number in the stage version, but is turned in the film into a vigorous romp through the streets of Salzburg that is a thrill to watch.
Fifth, there is that scene in the convent cemetery at the end of the film, when Rolf, Liesl’s potential beau, makes his choice to betray the family to the Nazis—it is the one scene in the film where we know for certain that even though the family will escape, happy endings are not the rule in life, and some of us will be lost along the way, sometimes by our own naïve or badly informed choices.
But despite that, last and perhaps most importantly: ultimately, no matter how many things there are in the film to scoff at from our 21st century heights of bored skepticism, there is a charm to this movie that is irresistible. Part of it comes from Andrews, of course, and a bit from Plummer. Not so much the children, except perhaps Liesl, the only part with any real meat. But the charm is really in the overall effect of the film. The beauty of the scenery, of the music, the optimism of the fresh smiling faces, the confidence that strength doesn’t lie in number or wealth, that if you climb every mountain you will find your dream, the ultimate certainty that a small flower will bless your homeland forever, and the urge to sing through the night like a lark that is learning to pray all may seem corny but they are what every heart longs for, and this is a film that tells you it can all be yours. So what if it lacks a little realism? It’s not a movie about realism. It’s a movie about dreams. And about holding moonbeams in your hand.
So I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare. If you haven’t seen this movie, or you haven’t seen it in awhile, give it another look. Celebrate the golden anniversary of a real classic.
If you’ve been to Vienna, you almost certainly have visited the Belvedere Schloss, the great Hapsburg estate now used mainly as an art museum—and you have therefore had a chance to view the Gustav Klimt masterpiece, The Kiss. If you visited before 2000, however, you would have seen Klimt’s other masterpiece, known at the time as the “Mona Lisa of Austria”: his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, known colloquial as the Woman in Gold. It’s not there anymore.
The new film from Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) starring Helen Mirren tells the story of why it isn’t, and why you can now see the painting here in the United States, at the Neue Galerie in New York City. The dramatic story of Maria Altmann’s (Helen Mirren) ultimately successful fight to recover the painting of her aunt Adele, stolen from her home by Nazis during the Anschluss of 1938, has been the subject of three previous documentaries (The Rape of Europa in 2006, Stealing Klimt in 2007, and Adele’s Wish in 2008), but is told here in narrative form for the first time.
The story begins in 1998, when Altmann, after the death of her sister, finds among her papers a record of a case dismissed 50 years earlier by the Austrian government, in which the family had tried to regain ownership of the Klimt portrait but were told that Adele herself had left the painting to the Belvedere in her will (which was never produced as evidence). Altmann enlists the aid of a young lawyer named Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal)—who happens to be the grandson of the famous Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg—and the two of them take on the Austrian art establishment and government and the American legal system all the way to the Supreme Court, and end up in an arbitration hearing back in Vienna. The film pulls no punches in depicting the Austrian government’s own shameful part in the affair, as unwilling to admit their own dark Nazi past.
The narrative alternates between the present day legal twists and turns of the case (in which Randol obsessively devotes himself to Maria’s case to the exclusion of his own wife and family and to the extent of losing his job) and the Vienna of the late ’30s in which we are shown the opulence of the Bloch-Bauer family and the threats, abuse, and larceny they suffer at the hands of the occupying Nazi forces. Maria and her husband ultimately attempt to flee the Nazis and come to America, but they must leave her parents behind, to an uncertain future under the Nazi regime.
These flashbacks are depicted as coming to Maria as she thinks of her past, and as memories are triggered when she visits Vienna for the first time in 60 years. These scenes of the past are more riveting than the rest of the film, and, even though we know that Maria escapes or she wouldn’t be having this memory, these scenes create more suspense than those set in the film’s present. Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria, is watchable and sympathetic as a strong-willed girl whom it is easy to imagine developing into the feisty Jewish grandmother that Maria becomes.
As for Mirren, she is as always remarkable in her performance, and she develops a believable chemistry with Reynolds, from the moment he enters her house and she scolds him like a mother for being ten minutes late but then forces strudel on him. Her frustrating wavering back and forth over whether she wants to pursue her case is understandable, though it ultimately drives Schoenberg past his limit. Reynolds is a little less believable: Perhaps anyone would look a little wooden acting next to Helen Mirren, but Reynolds is allowed only one scene of complex emotion, after he has visited the Holocaust memorial in Vienna and has come face to face with the Holocaust in his own family history. But I have a feeling there was a lot more to that side of Schoenberg that final cutting of the film eliminated: There are simply too many holes, and just a hint here and there about his motivations. He tells his wife that he went to Austria because of the money—The Woman in Gold has an estimated value of more than $100 million. But he has become obsessed with the case apparently for other reasons—we do see him later attend a concert of his grandfather’s music in Vienna. Other than that, however, we are left to guess at his emotional involvement.
More of a problem is Katy Holmes as Mrs. Schoenberg. We see her cuddling with her husband. We see her cleaning up dishes. We see her complaining when he quits his job without telling her. We see her telling him she supports him after all (we have no idea why). We see her leaving her house to have a baby. What we don‘t see is any kind of rational character arc for her or any scene in which either she or her husband has anything to say about their relationship. Again, and to a much larger extent than with Reynolds, it seems Katy Holmes’ part was either completely savaged in the cutting room, or was so poorly written to begin with that she was given nothing to work with.
There are a couple of remarkable smaller performances in the film: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, Rush) is memorable as an Austrian journalist intent on persuading the government to do the right thing for Maria and other Holocaust victims, for, it turns out, significant reasons of his own. Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo as a smart and sympathetic judge, and Jonathan Pryce is delightful as Chief Justice William Rehnquist—who knew that man was such a jokester? But they don’t quite make up for the problems with Reynolds’ or with Holmes’ parts.
Overall, the film is an uplifting if a bit predictable story of justice achieved, of David defeating Goliath, of the ultimate triumph of virtue and the defeat of evil. The fact that it is a true story makes it all the more uplifting. And the film is beautiful, not only for the art but for the Viennese architecture and the cinematic recreation of the world of the 1930s. But in the end it could have been much better, if the Schoenbergs had been better realized. I’m going to give this two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.
There have been dozens of movies about baseball, from the pure comedy of Walter Mathau’s iconic turn in The Bad News Bears, to the singing and dancing double play combination of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, to Tommy Lee Jones’ brilliant portrayal of a sociopathic star in Cobb. In honor of major league baseball’s opening day, this week’s “review” is actually a list of my top ten baseball movies ever. The three I’ve listed above are my honorable mentions Here are my top ten—watch ‘em if you haven’t seen ‘em!
10. 42 (Brian Helgeland 2013)
The breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947 is not simply one of the monumental events in baseball history, it is one of the most significant events in American history because the integration of America’s national game was the forerunner of the integration of American society and the success of the civil rights movement some 20 years later. The story had been filmed in 1950, the year after Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League championship, with Robinson playing himself in the title role of The Jackie Robinson Story. That film had sincerity and the integrity of Robinson’s performance, but was hampered by a short and episodic script that tried to cover Robinson’s boyhood, army service, UCLA career, and baseball career all in 76 minutes. The story itself as so dramatic, though, that it cried out to be remake on a larger scale with better production values. Robert Redford tried for years to put together a project that would have cast himself as Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey, who took the chance of bringing Robinson into the major leagues on the condition that Robinson take the abuse he was sure to receive from fans and opposing players without reacting in kind. But Redford was never able to put the deal together to make the film. He had been preceded by Spike Lee, who through the 90s tried to develop a film that would have starred Denzel Washington in the lead role (how awesome would that have been!). But that did not work out either. Brian Helelund, who had won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for L.A. Confidential, and was nominated for another for writing Mystic River, gives us in this film not a full blown biography but a look at a brief segment of Robinson’s life—from his 1945 signing by Rickey (played against type by Harrison Ford) through his historic rookie season of 1947, climaxed by teammate Pee Wee Reese’s public stand against the public abuse of his teammate. Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up) is convincingly heroic in the lead role.
9. A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall 1992)
It took a woman director to bring their story to the screen, but Penny Marshall brought to the public consciousness the role of women in professional baseball with this movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, fielded during the Second World War as a way of drawing people to the ball parks while most major league stars were serving in the military. What began as a kind of novelty act ended up lasting from 1943 to 1954, and the film shows how it proved to be a serious outlet for athletic women who, though forced to play the game in short skirts which made it a bit difficult to slide into second base, proved more than up to the challenge. Geena Davis is memorable as the Rockford Peaches’ star catcher Dottie Hinson, and much of the movie’s story arc involves her sibling rivalry with her sister Kit (Lori Petty), the team’s best pitcher. The subplot focuses on Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), an alcoholic former big-league player (inspired by ex-slugger Jimmy Foxx, who had managed the Fort Wayne Daisies in 1952) and Dugan’s struggles with involvement in a situation he seems to have his doubts about. It’s Hanks who gives us that so-quotable line, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Though Marshall’s film involves a fictional story and characters, it does place them on a real team and gives us a glimpse of an important chapter in baseball history that had been essentially forgotten, at least until 1988, when a wing in the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorating the league was opened, and sparked Marshall’s interest. Geena Davis’s character is loosely based on Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek, outfielder and first baseman for the Peaches and one of six women from the league to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
8. Fear Strikes Out (Robert Mulligan 1957)
Maybe a bit of a surprise on his list is this now slightly obscure film based on the Al Hirshberg biography of one of the game’s more troubled personalities, Jimmy Piersall. The film follows Piersall’s rise from his sandlot days to his breaking in with the Boston Red Sox at the age of 20 in 1950. Piersall suffered a nervous breakdown in 1952, however, displaying a bipolar disorder that led to his being institutionalized for several weeks that year. In the film, the mental break is depicted as the result of Piersall’s domineering and demanding father, and Jimmy realizes that his drive to excel at baseball had been all to please his father rather than for himself. The real Piersall, who went on to be selected to two all-star teams and win two gold gloves, eventually disavowed the film, saying that it made too much of his father’s influence on his mental condition. But the film is a surprisingly (for its time) sensitive portrayal of mental illness, and the young Anthony Perkins, three years before his iconic role in Psycho, gives a memorable performance as Piersall, as does Karl Malden as the unsympathetic father. Robert Mulligan, who was to go on to direct To Kill a Mockingbird five years later, received a Directors’ Guild nomination for outstanding achievement in this, his first feature film.
7. Moneyball (Bennett Miller 2011)
A baseball movie that romanticizes math geeks, Moneyball exposes the underbelly that is the business side of baseball. It takes the science of sabermetrics, the empirical analysis of baseball statistics as they apply to a player’s value to his team, and shows how a bold and relentless application of that analysis can lead to success on the diamond by adapting the real-life story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the cash-poor Oakland Athletics, who, forced to field a team on a shoestring budget, enlists the help of ivy-league statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and, challenging the conventional baseball wisdom of his own scouts and his manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), puts together a team that wins a record twenty consecutive games and proves the old timers wrong. The appeal of the film to underdogs everywhere, to anyone who wants to challenge conventional wisdom, to anyone respects data-driven rather than anecdotal evidence, is undeniable. Pitt and Hill give remarkably sympathetic performances, and Hoffman, as always, is excellent—though it must be admitted that some of the details of the film (including Howe’s stubborn opposition) are inaccurate but are included to heighten the dramatic potential of the “true” story, as depicted in the 2004 non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Still, the screenplay by West-Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, was nominated for an Academy Award. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt) and Best Supporting Actor (Hill) and two other awards, though it failed to win any. But director Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher) has put together a truly classic baseball movie that in some ways challenges the romance typical of other baseball movies, while at the same time gives the front office guys a chance to be he heroes and to win against overwhelming odds. Same story, different set of players.
6. Eight Men Out (John Sayles 1988)
John Sayles (Oscar nominee for the screenplays for Lone Star and Passion Fish) adapted the screenplay for Eight Men Out, the story of eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team that threw the world series and were banned from baseball for life, from a book by Eliot Asinof. Sayles’ deft writing and direction manages to create a tight story arc from a complex situation reported in full in Asinof’s book. Sayles achieves this by focusing on two players in particular: third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who refuses to take part in the fix but fails to report what is happening to management and as a result is banned from baseball along with the theirs, and star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), whose motives for taking the money are understandable but whose tragedy it is to fall with the others. The fact that the biggest star of all, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a player the stature of a Ty Cobb or a Babe Ruth in his day, is a sidelight in the movie is a brilliant and unexpected twist, making us familiar with the full range of the human suffering caused by the “Black Sox” scandal. In its way as important a story for baseball history as Jackie Robinsons’s itself, Eight Men Out is less interesting for non-fans who may be unfamiliar with the background of the story but it does demonstrate vividly what happens when the ideals of the game are compromised, and so has become more relevant than ever in baseball’s post-steroid era.
5. Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock 1973)
The year before his Oscar-winning portrayal of the young Vito Corleone in Godfather II, Robert De Niro starred in the most melodramatic of all the great baseball films. De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a young intellectually challenged catcher who clashes with flashy team mate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) but then is befriended by Wiggen, the team’s star pitcher, who learns that Pearson is suffering from Hodgkin’s disease and the prognosis is fatal. Eventually the whole team and manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia) get behind Pearson, whose play on the field improves even as his health declines, and Schnell and Wiggen conspire to let Pearson play the last game of the season, knowing it will be his last game. The film is of course a mammoth tearjerker, but is more about behind the scenes relationships among ballplayers. Mark Harris wrote the screenplay based on his 1955 novel, which had earlier been made into a 1956 TV movie starring Paul Newman in the Wiggen role. That’s a fascinating treatment, but watch the movie and the young De Niro practicing his craft.
4. Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson 1989)
“If you build it, he will come.” Or maybe you like “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” When lines from a film become part of the idiom of the country, you know that the movie has struck a chord in the American psyche. Phil Alden Robinson wrote and directed this adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe. The film was made when Kevin Costner was the top movie star in the country—before the disastrous Waterworld and the nearly career-sinking Postman. It was when Costner was typically hailed as the modern Gary Cooper, with a quiet strength, integrity and modesty that defined an American hero, and how much more American can a baseball movie be? Field of Dreams is a kind of magic realist romp in which three story threads are woven through the American pastime and come out reborn. Costner is Ray Kinsella, who builds a baseball park in the middle of prime Iowa farm land—a field that allows the great Shoeless Joe Jackson and his Black Sox teammates to return to life and play the game for the love of it once again. But it also restores Kinsella’s relationship with his father, who returns to play on the field as well. And it becomes the means by which Moonlight Graham, played memorably by an elderly Burt Lancaster in his last film role, returns to his youth and fulfills his lifelong dream of batting in the big leagues. Furthermore, it provides new inspiration of novelist Terrence Mann (a thinly disguised takeoff on J.D. Salinger played by James Earl Jones), who follows the players wherever it is they are going at the end. The field really is the place where lost dreams become possible. Baseball may be big business, but like the movies themselves it is also the land of our dreams, and this film captures that. Also, I can listen to James Earl Jones say “I’m going to beat you with this crowbar until you go away” all day long.
3. Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood 1942)
Baseball’s best-known and most highly regarded biopic that leaves no dry eye in the house may seem idealized and sentimental to contemporary cynics, but this beloved film about one of baseball’s most beloved heroes stands up because of Gary Cooper’s remarkably sympathetic and understated portrayal of baseball’s Iron Horse, who considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The film was made just two years after Gehrig’s untimely demise from the disease that still bears his name, and fans who loved baseball and loved Gehrig flocked to the film in surprising numbers. The movie garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress for Teresa Wright as Mrs. Gehrig, and best screenplay, winning only in the editing category. Veteran director Sam Wood, who had directed the Marx Brothers in Night at the Opera and Day at the Races, as well as directing Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Devil and Miss Jones and serving an uncredited stint as one of the directors on Gone with the Wind, effectively tells the life story of Gehrig, the son of German immigrants who attends Columbia University and goes on to follow Babe Ruth in the Yankee lineup known as “Murder’s Row.” Ruth plays himself in the film, as does Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, which adds realism and glamor to the film, but it is Cooper, in the third of his five Oscar nominated roles, who owns this picture, and who gives the character of Gehrig the everyman quality and modest greatness that the actual Gehrig apparently possessed in real life.
2. Bull Durham (Ron Shelton 1988)
Kevin Costner’s appealing performance as “Crash” Davis, a career minor league catcher, gives this film its soul, and strong supporting turns by Tim Robbins as Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, a rookie pitcher bound for the big leagues, and Susan Sarandin as Annie Savoy, a Durham Bulls groupie who sets her sights on Nuke but finds herself drawn more and more powerfully to Crash. This is a romantic comedy with minor league professional baseball as its setting, but it is professional baseball depicted more realistically than it has been in any other film, colored as it is by the experiences of writer/director Ron Shelton, who spent five years in the minor leagues himself before turning to Hollywood. Bull Durham’s 97% rating on Rottentomatoes.com is the highest of any baseball movie, and Sports Illustrated named the film the greatest sports movie of all time. Shelton’s script won a Writer’s Guild of America award for best original screenplay, and was nominated for the Oscar. It is a great script, not just because of the realistic look at minor league baseball, but because of the witty romcom dialogue and the chemistry between the characters. This is a story you would care bout even if the characters weren’t baseball players.
1. The Natural (Barry Levinson 1984)
Of all the baseball films ever made, The Natural is best at capturing the mythic nature of the game. Set in baseball’s golden era, when it was truly the national pastime and allowed people some relief from the rigors of the depression, the film’s depiction of Roy Hobbes as a heroic warrior with a kind of superhuman ability, a true knight on a quest to restore the fertility of the Waste Land that is Pop Fisher’s legacy and bring his team a pennant, hits nearly every note for the archetypal “hero” myth. Robert Redford, like that other number 9, Ted Williams, wants only to be the best there ever was in the game, but his childhood sweetheart Iris, who stands up so that he sees her in the grandstand surrounded by what looks remarkably like a halo, teaches him that a hero must be more than a good hitter. Is it overly sentimental? Is it too predictable, changing the ironic antihero of Bernard Malamud’s novel into a Homeric warrior? Maybe from one point of view. But can any real baseball fan resist Roy’s literally knocking the cover off the ball? Or the fireworks of that magnificent climax when his blow puts out the lights? Was baseball ever truly like this? If not, well, it should have been.
In the Bible, Leviathan is the name of the chaos monster defeated by Yahweh in pre-Biblical Hebrew mythology. He appears in isolated places in some of the Psalms that probably predate the composition of Genesis, and is described in detail in the book of Job, when God confronts him from the whirlwind and puts an end to Job’s questioning by showing the mortal man how impossible it is for him to understand God’s power and the construction of His universe. The Leviathan represents the chaos of the world without God’s supervision.
In the 17th century, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes adopted the term to symbolize the opposite—not chaos but the order of government: for Hobbes, human beings in a state of nature are greedy, selfish, and violent, in a constant state of war with one another, so that human life in its natural condition is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” But art (as opposed to nature) has created what Hobbes calls “that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE.” Human beings thus, for the sake of their general welfare, willingly surrender their freedom in a social contract that gives government—the great Leviathan—its power.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev plays with both of these connotations in the title of his latest film. Most obvious is the allusion to Hobbes. Certainly the film is about government, and the small town on the Russian coast of the Barents Sea which forms the film’s setting is a microcosm of contemporary Russian society. The film’s protagonist, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman and odd-job automobile mechanic, lives on a hill in a house passed down to him from his grandfather. He has a wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a teenaged son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) from a previous marriage, and we see friction between the two of them from the beginning. Lilya tells Roma to wash instead of being “like an ape,” and he tells her “you’re the ape.” And it does seem that Zvyagintsev goes out of his way to portray the animal nature of his characters: Kolya in particular is quickly angered and prone to turn to violence as his first response, but other characters are motivated by greed and lust as well. And while the characters are distinctly Russian, they also embody a kind of universal human nature of the “hold my beer and watch this” variety, though in this case it’s “hold my vodka and watch this.” Kolya’s old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer from Moscow, is able to restrain Kolya’s violent impulses when he arrives to represent Kolya in court, where he is appealing the forced purchase of his property (at a paltry sum) by the town’s mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), essentially a thug who controls both the police and the local courts with the sanction of the Orthodox church. If Dmitri represents Hobbes’ view of the purpose of the Leviathan of government—the restraint of human nature by the rule of law—then Mayor Vadim is Zvyagintsev’s critique of the Hobbesean view. For isn’t the major flaw in Hobbes’ argument the fact that governments of necessity are made up of human beings, people who are just as susceptible to the viciousness of human nature as those they purport to govern? Can someone as selfish, greedy, and vile as Vadim possibly manage to wield power in the interest of the common good?
In Zvyagintsev’s world, government is not Hobbes’ overarching power imposing order on society, but rather the Biblical Leviathan, the chaos monster of the deep, the cause, not the cure, of the “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” lives of its citizens. It cannot be otherwise under a brute like Vadim. And Kolya, who like Job himself is in danger of losing everything in the film, is moved to “curse God and die” (in the words of Job’s wife). Kolya appeals to a minor local priest at one point, after running into him at the general store where the priest is buying bread and Kolya is buying vodka. He asks Job’s question of the priest—essentially the question of why the innocent suffer. In response, the priest gives the answer God gave Job (41.1-2):“Can you draw out Leviathanwith a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?” which is to say, “Who are you to question God’s power?” In a curiously idiosyncratic summary of the book of Job, the priest tells Kolya how, after Job was reconciled with God, he had a good life and lived to be 140 years old. When Kolya asks “Is that a fairy tale?” the priest responds, “It’s in the Bible.”
That, of course, is not an answer to the question of whether the story is a fairy tale. Just as God’s response to Job is not an answer to his question about innocent suffering. The fact is that innocent suffering is only a philosophical problem if one presupposes a universe ruled by a benevolent deity. If one believes in a meaningless universe, suffering is simply part of the equation. The question matters to Job, and perhaps to Kolya, because they still have faith that God is not a fairy tale. But in a world governed by the Vadims, by the chaos monster, one can expect nothing else. Scenes of Vadim with the local chief priest only serve to underscore the irony of the story. The title page of the 1651 edition of Hobbes’ Leviathan depicted a giant (the Leviathan of government) with symbols of secular rule on one hand and the Church on the other, as the two pillars of government. Church and state are joined in Kolya’s village as well, but as the story progresses it seems clear that if indeed the god of this church had tamed the Leviathan of this government with a fishhook, it was not to subdue the chaos but rather to maintain and profit by it.
Although the performances are impressive—Lyadova is agonizingly troubled and complex as Lilya,Madyanov appropriately slimy and disgusting as Vadim, and Serebryakov as Kolya expressive of the most extreme of emotions without hamming it up—the real stars of the film are the script (co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin), which won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2014, and Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography: the stark, treeless and rocky landscape of the Barents Sea coast, above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia near its border with the northern edge of Norway, provides a brooding but magnificent background for this brutal tale. The waves pounding on the rocky shore present a stunning visual image of the chaos monster that governs all in this barren world.
And the film abounds with other memorable visual images. Playing on the modern association of the sea-monster Leviathan with whales, Zvyagintsev gives us a startling shot of the skeleton of a huge beached whale near Kolya’s village, perhaps a visual symbol of the hollow, rotted corpse of Hobbes’ Leviathan of orderly government, completely dead in the Russia of the film. In another scene, looking for his son, Kolya visits a group of teenagers hanging out in the abandoned ruin of a church (the spiritual equivalent of the whale skeleton), where he sits drinking vodka near a fire whose sparks fly up through a hole in the ceiling—a visible representation of the famous maxim from the book of Job that “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5.7). Paintings and photographs also carry bold suggestions in the film: in one scene between Vadim and the chief priest, a painting of the Last Supper hangs in the background between them, and we must wonder which of the two characters is the Judas in this scene. In another such meeting, a painting of Salome with the head of John the Baptist provides the background: what other saints, we are forced to consider, are being sacrificed by corrupt rulers for motives of lust or greed? In a darkly comic scene that needs no explanation, when the men go off to drink and have “target practice,” one of them brings large photographs of previous communist leaders—Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al.—to serve as targets. Finally, and perhaps most boldly, when we see Vadim in his office, he is always framed with a picture of Vladimir Putin behind his back—a not very subtle association of the corrupt village government with that of the nation as a whole.
This is a film of mostly unrelieved misery. Like our natural lives, it is nasty, brutish, and at 140 minutes not very short. But I highly recommend your seeing it. Here are my top five reasons you ought to go to go to this film if you can find it at a theater near you:
First, though it’s not exactly the feel-good movie of the spring, it’s an excellent film. It was nominated for an academy award this year for best foreign language film, and won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA awards in that category for 2014.
Second, it has a script that appeals not only to the heart with its startling and realistic details of the pain of human lives, but also to the mind with its exploration of political and social themes.
Third, it is a beautiful film that you can sit and enjoy visually, even if you want to ignore the subtitles completely and don’t have any idea what’s going on.
Fourth, it gives an uncompromisingly critical view of corruption in modern day Russia. Indeed, it is remarkable that the film could have been made in Russia at all, let alone that it should have been the country’s official entry in the Academy Award competition. Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, dislikes the film so much that he has proposed new state guidelines to censor films like this one that “defile” the culture and government of mother Russia. Since Americans often enjoy seeing things that make us feel superior to Russia, you might find this film satisfying, especially since we have absolutely no corruption or greed among our own government officials.
And fifth, we are in the doldrums of the American movie calendar, when film after film coming out of the Hollywood wasteland either insults our intelligence, puts us to sleep with its cliches, or has enough senseless violence to make us sick to our stomachs. If you have the opportunity to see Leviathan this week, now that it has finally reached the remote areas of Central Arkansas, opt for it rather than another soulless murder fest or pointless teen comedy. In the end, you’ll feel it was time much better spent. Four Shakespeares for this film.