17th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

’63 Boycott (2016)/Edith+Eddie (2017)

Directors: Gordon Quinn/Laura Checkoway

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the 54th anniversary of the October 22, 1963, boycott of Chicago public schools by hundreds of thousands of black residents, the Chicago International Film Festival screened two short films from Chicago’s social-justice film cooperative, Kartemquin Films. Both films deal with prejudice and injustice, one directed against an elderly couple and the other involving racial segregation and education inequality. The hour spent watching these films is likely to leave you sad, infuriated, and hopefully, fired up.

’63 Boycott is a timely look backward as the U.S. public education system stands vulnerably in the crosshairs of public officials who seem determined to destroy it. Archival footage and current interviews with some of the organizers of and participants in the boycott tell the story of an separate and unequal Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system they maintain was created and perpetuated by then Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Schools in black neighborhoods were overcrowded and underresourced. Black students used outdated textbooks, and adding insult to injury, they had to share them. Modern scientific equipment and teaching aids found in white schools stood in stark contrast to the lack of any equipment available to black students. The final straw was the appointment of Ben Willis as Superintendent of Schools. Accused of being a segregationist and a racist, Willis proposed to “relieve” overcrowding not by moving black students to nearby white schools, but rather by turning mobile homes into classrooms situated in school parking lots. Under pressure to resign over this “Willis wagon” plan, his probably insincere offer to step down was rejected by the school board. The time to boycott—and cost CPS hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid—had arrived.

’63 Boycott offers footage and still photos of various activists and activities, including the sit-in at the Board of Education and alternative Freedom Schools set up to teach black history. These images are intercut with footage of protests that broke out in 2013 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered the closing of 54 schools, the bulk of which served students of color. The images are remarkably similar, sadly emphasizing that battles fought years ago have never really been won. Still, it is worth taking heart. Sandra Murray, a bright African-American student in 1963 who was told to forget her ambition to be a research scientist went on to earn a doctorate in biology, win National Science Foundation grants for research into cell biology and endocrinology, and taught in various universities in the United States and in Ethiopia.

Edith+Eddie should have been a love story, plain and simple, but it seems nothing is ever simple for the vulnerable elderly. Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison met in 2007 when Edith came up to him while he was sitting on a bench outside of a betting establishment and asked him to play a lottery number for her. He kept playing it until it finally hit, and the pair split the $5,000 winnings. They married when Edith was 96 and Eddie was 95, and moved into her longtime home in Alexandria, Va. “Yes, it was love at first sight,” says Eddie, and as we watch them dance together, hold hands, receive the blessings of their church on their wedding anniversary, and ride around in a golf cart, it’s easy to believe.

Yes, they’re old—very old. We see their wrinkled, blemished bodies and careworn eyes. We watch them put in their false teeth. Yet, despite Edith’s mild dementia diagnosis, the pair is happy, alert with each other, able to dress and feed themselves, exercise together in a “Sit and Be Fit” way. It’s kind of a miracle in this cynical time that people can have the faith and openness to love at such an advanced age. But because we live in a cynical, cruel age, even this late-in-life joy cannot last.

Even though Edith’s daughter, Rebecca, lives nearby and is taking care of the couple full time, her other daughter, Patricia, wants to move her to a nursing facility near her in Florida. Rebecca believes this is so that she can sell or rent out Edith’s home. Eddie doesn’t want to go, and Edith insists that she has been abused in Florida. A court-appointed guardian who has never met the couple decides to do as Patricia asks. So, thanks to lies told to placate Eddie and a guardian who refuses to believe that elderly people do anything but make up stories about being abused, Edith and Eddie are pried apart.

Like the elderly couple in the Depression-era Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Edith and Eddie are pushed aside for the sake of her daughter’s future. In such a short film, we can’t know the family dynamics or financial circumstances that may have led to this decision, but its devastating consequences made me more angry than I have been in a long time about how uncivil our society has become. Ageism is a cancer that will continue to spread as the U.S. elder population continues to increase. Edith+Eddie is a cautionary tale for our new era of economic want and callous self-interest.

’63 Boycott/Edith+Eddie screen Sunday, October 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Scaffolding: An undisciplined student headed for a life in his father’s construction company sees new possibilities for his life under the influence of a kind teacher in this moving, coming-of-age drama. (Israel)

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


4th 06 - 2015 | 6 comments »

I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Brett Haley

This photo provided by Bleecker Street shows, Blythe Danner, as Carol, in a scene from the film,  "I’ll See You In My Dreams." The movie releases in U.S. theaters on May 15, 2015. (Bleecker Street via AP)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Media are very big on groups. Every generation has to have a name—the newest one is Generation Z (posing the question of what to do about alphabet names now that the end has been reached, and quickly). My generation, the Baby Boomers, has been moving into retirement for the past several years, and even though moviemakers have never gotten along that well with elderly subjects, because we are just about the last large group that attended movie theatres regularly, it makes sense that exhibitors would be interested in programming new films about our time of life. We’ve had everything from Alzheimer’s movies like Away from Her (2007) and Still Alice (2014) to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). You’ll forgive me if I don’t jump for joy at these choices—vital women vanishing into a vast blankness and quirky Brits doddering about being cranky and precious. The few films of substance about old age, such as Time to Die (2007), A Simple Life (2011), and Amour (2012)—all foreign films—also seem to care more about our deaths (with dignity!) than our lives.

ill-see-you-in-my-dreams-hero-elder1-636x363

I’ll See You in My Dreams is that rare film that takes an interest in the lives of retired Baby Boomers, a new breed of youthful elderly, with a particular emphasis on one woman, Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner), and the fabric of her life lived outside the mainstream. Carol received a large life insurance payout when her lawyer husband died in a plane crash when she was about 50. Not enjoying her career teaching reading and “subjects no one else wanted,” she decided to opt out of the rat race. Now 70, she lives in comfort with her dog Hazel in an attractive, but relatively modest Southern California house with a pool, waking up to a 6 a.m. alarm, taking her morning pills, reading the paper edition of The New York Times with her coffee, and playing cards and golf with her friends Sally (Rhea Perlman), Rona (Mary Kay Place), and Georgina (June Squibb), who live in a retirement community. Throughout, she drinks a lot of very good chardonnay and never has more than a couple of items on the “to do” whiteboard in her kitchen.

Screen shot 2015-06-04 at 10.34.53 PM

Although Carol’s husband died long ago, the film reminds us that death is part of the soundtrack of even comfortable, active people after they have entered the red zone of the life cycle. Before we have a chance to get to know Hazel, Carol must have him euthanized. Only a small comment to him at the very beginning of the film—“Did you have a good night?”—lets on that he has been unwell, and then only in retrospect. The film spares us nothing of this sad duty, as Carol sits next to her companion while the vet (Aarti Mann) administers a sedative and then the drug that will “stop his heart.” Director Haley moves his camera outside the procedure room, observing Carol’s grief from a discreet distance through a window.

see15f-3-web

In the wake of this fresh loss, Carol’s life is primed for a change. A new employee of her pool service, Lloyd (Martin Starr), shows up to clean her pool, and after an awkward beginning, the two begin a tentative friendship. Lloyd tells Carol he lives with his mother after finding that the only use he has been able to find for his degree in poetry is writing lyrics for songs he likely will never record. He notices a photo of Carol singing in a group. She says she gave it up long ago when she got married and had a daughter. He wonders how she could give up something that has the ability to make everything fall away—having a peak experience, living in the moment, these are the things Lloyd hopes to achieve. Carol knows better—such moments are elusive, even illusory, and not worth throwing a life away to experience. It’s hard to know if Carol is truly bitter about giving up performing or whether she’s trying to slap some sense into a young man whose life could pass him by if he keeps running after something so insubstantial. In turn, his very interest in her—and it truly is exceptional that a 30-year-old would choose to spend time with a retiree, even one as attractive as Blythe Danner—awakens her to possibilities for her own life, including a romance with Bill (Sam Elliott), a handsome new resident of the retirement community.

Capture

In other hands, the above scenario would make for a light, possibly distasteful romcom about a cougar who finds happiness with an age-appropriate man and passes her younger man off to her daughter. Fortunately, this is not that movie. Blythe Danner is the glowing core of this expectation-defying film, and the mere casting of her in this knockout role comments on the fact that she had a career before she became “Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom.” Her every instinct seems sharper than ever—a tearful, but dignified farewell to her beloved pet, stammering incredulousness at the spectacle of speed dating, the sparkle at seeing Bill having lunch at a table across from hers and her matter-of-fact acquiescence to his very forward invitation to dinner. She’s a no-nonsense person, a bit cold for having put herself on autopilot for so many years, but clearly engaged with her friends and open to offering up details of her life if asked. When she accompanies Lloyd to a karaoke night and sings “Cry Me a River,” the audience on screen and off are astonished by her lovely voice and able interpretation. Who knew? Who indeed. Carol’s like a lot of older folks—we’re eager to share our lives and talents with others, but have a hard time finding people who are interested.

Screen shot 2015-06-04 at 10.33.45 PM

In this regard, Lloyd is a very refreshing creation played with open sincerity by Starr. He isn’t practical or driven. He knows he’s a little too old to believe in the endless possibilities most young people think will be open to them forever, but he can’t quite let go of his romantic ideals and so avoids getting a job with a future. He may be self-deprecating and a bit of a slacker, but he has a genuine humanity. In Carol, he recognizes what he thinks is a kindred spirit and someone who needs rescuing just as much as he does. She drinks, after all, and invites a pool boy into her house, though not into her bed—another cliché that never happens in this movie; indeed, the movie upends that cliché by having Lloyd appear at Carol’s door one morning, only to find Bill there having breakfast after a night of lovemaking. Lloyd appears disappointed, perhaps romantically, but more likely because he realizes Carol won’t have time for him.

Screen shot 2015-06-04 at 10.35.59 PM

Beyond the basics, we don’t really learn very much about anyone in this film other than Carol. This is a bit of a weakness considering the incredible cast at Haley’s disposal, but Place, Perlman, Squibb, and Elliott offer perfect sketches of their characters’ personalities and how they all fit together. The scenes in which the women are together playing cards, having lunch, getting high on medical marijuana, and deciding to go to Iceland because they can are very true to how long-term friends accept each other’s differences and hold each other up in the face of life’s travails. Sexy Bill is a character that would be dodgy if he and Carol were 20 or 30 years younger. I’d say Bill was giving her the bum’s rush, but they aren’t young, and time won’t wait for them to get to know each other properly before they decide that they are compatible and could be happy together. The conditioning of a lifetime kicks in very quickly, and they start thinking about a future together after only a couple of dates.

IllSeeYouinMyDreams3

The final act of the film becomes a reckoning for Carol. Her daughter (Malin Akerman) comes to visit, and it is then that Carol acknowledges freely what was most important to her in her life. It wasn’t what Lloyd wanted for her or what her friends and Bill tried to push on her. It was her daughter and the love she had for her husband. Old age involves many diminishments, but it’s a time when we can finally be honest with others and ourselves. Danner, whose husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died in 2002 (family photos on the mantel of Carol’s home are shots of Danner and Paltrow), brings her understanding of love and loss in its many facets to this film. Her bravery and commitment provide an unforgettable portrait of a woman both older and wiser who surprises herself and us with the largeness of her heart.


12th 05 - 2012 | 1 comment »

A Simple Life (Tao jie, 2011)

Director: Ann Hui

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.” Is a simple life a free, uncomplicated life, as the song “Simple Gifts” suggests? Or is a simple life one whose complexities and nuances we are too busy or insensitive to notice? Veteran filmmaker Ann Hui is now approaching the age of the 70-year-old servant Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), the central character in her quietly observant film A Simple Life, and it appears that maturity has caused Hui to reflect on the many small details that make up a long life. Hui’s film offers us the radical idea that careful observation can make even the most simple-sounding life an incredible tale.

Busy Hong Kong filmmaker Roger Leung (Andy Lau) has never known life without Ah Tao. She entered the service of his family at the age of 10. Although her full name is Chung Chun Tao, she is now simply Ah Tao to everyone she meets, a reminder that servants the world over are a little less than full people to their employers and the outside world. Ah Tao has tended generations of Leungs, but most of the family has died or moved to the United States. Now it is only the frequently absent Roger who accepts the magnificent meals Ah Tao cooks without even looking up and walks out the door without a friendly good-bye. The taken-for-granted housekeeper doesn’t seem to mind—her job is her life, and the Leungs the only family she has.

Ah Tao worries about Roger’s health, reminding him when he asks her to cook him ox tongue that he only just recovered from heart surgery and that he must watch his diet. Nonetheless, we watch, tantalized, as Ah Tao tosses herbs and vegetables into a pot of water, places an ox tongue in it, and sets the lid on top for braising until Roger returns home that evening from a short trip. Roger rings the bell to his apartment and bangs on the door, asking Ah Tao to open it because he forgot his keys. The scene cuts to two EMTs moving Ah Tao on a gurney into an ambulance. The elderly lady has suffered a stroke. From this point on, Roger becomes aware of who Ah Tao is and what she means to him, as he attends to her in the nursing home she asks to be moved to and includes her in his life in a way he never imagined he would. He has finally noticed her.

A Simple Life could have turned into a sentimental story, reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, about a sweet old lady and the master who loves her. That certainly is communicated clearly by Lau and the luminous Deannie Yip, and the film is based on real events in the life of Roger Lee, the film’s producer, who certainly would have had a say on the tone of the story. But the realities of growing old and dying take up a great deal of the film. Ah Tao is lucky to have a family devoted to her, particularly Roger, but she never quite forgets her place. When she is too infirm to work, she tells Roger to call his mother in San Francisco and say she’s retiring. Her next instruction is to find her an “old folks home.” She feels the divide between her job and her life, and Roger can’t shame her by offering to hire a private-duty nurse for her to live with them.

The reality of life in a nursing home isn’t glossed either, with Hui shooting with a handheld camera to get as in our face as possible. Ah Tao surveys the elderly men and women lined up in chairs around the periphery of the lobby to catch the sun and some air; when she is escorted to her private room, one of only a few available, she understands why. The room—actually more of a cubicle because its walls don’t reach the ceiling—is small and has a tiny window that barely relieves the darkness and the pervasive odors that go with failing bodies. When Ah Tao has to use the rest room, she stuffs toilet paper up her nose to dampen the smell. We see the distress on her face at the new surroundings that seem designed to remind her of death, but as she has been all her life, she is uncomplaining and sure about her decision.

We recoil in horror at the sight of the home and the people in it, instinctively wanting to avoid facing our own fate, but Hui’s sure hand about making this human warehouse a home and its residents people is really quite miraculous. The nurse administrator seems harsh, but we see her human side when she and Ah Tao share a lonely New Year’s night in the nursing home. We meet one young woman who is talking with her elderly mother; in a surprise to Ah Tao and us, the young woman is living at the home because she needs the kidney dialysis they offer several times a week. When she gets worse, her doctor advises her to go to a nursing home with better equipment; if she could have afforded it—she’s too young for full government disability—she would have gone to such a home in the first place, and we worry about how long her funds will last. We are also aware that her mother may be without someone to care for her, much as the never-married Ah Tao is, when her daughter dies.

One resident, “Uncle” Kin (Paul Chun), is the life of the party, always dancing and singing and arranging games for the other residents. He also always hits Ah Tao and Roger up for money, which they never refuse, that is, until Roger sees him sneaking out with the buxom receptionist (Suet-Ka Fong) to spend it. Roger feels used, but Ah Tao tells him to let Kin have his fun as long as he can—giving to those around her is what Ah Tao’s life was all about. I was quite reminded of my father, who once gave $20 to a beggar with a cock-and-bull story about needing to take his son to the hospital in a taxi; when I told my dad the man was lying, he said, yeah, but he had a good story.

A very telling scene occurs when the Leungs and extended family fly to Hong Kong and introduce their newest family addition to Roger and Ah Tao. Roger and his sister sit in his car and talk about how Ah Tao doted on Roger. The siblings genuinely care for Ah Tao, but Roger’s sister says that taking care of Roger when he was ill really paid off for Ah Tao in her time of need. This was a rather callous statement, I thought, but one that may have been true at the beginning of Ah Tao’s decline. Over time, Roger was able to do what his sister was not—spend time with Ah Tao, learn about his family history through her memories, talk about their respective love lives, give her some pleasure by taking her to the premiere of his new movie, where we get an amusing cameo by Hark Tsui being told by Ah Tao that he shouldn’t smoke. Even the fact that she speaks Cantonese when Hong Kong is welcoming more Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders marks her as a bit of a relic, as well as a dying treasure from a rich past.

Each character, no matter how small their part, is written, played, and shot with care. From the grocery clerks who play a mean trick on Ah Tao at the beginning of the film to the maneuvers Roger and his film partners use to wrest more money out of their stingy producer, this film seems to want to honor the dignity of all human life, from the “good” characters like Ah Tao to the somewhat sleazy, like the nursing home administrator (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) who is friends with Roger. Hui takes her time in chronicling the many small facets that make up a world. A Simple Life is simply wonderful.

Tags:

28th 12 - 2010 | 9 comments »

The Ladykillers (1955)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

By Marilyn Ferdinand

To my mind, the Ealing Studios movie The Ladykillers is the most perfect comedy ever made. I acknowledge cinema’s many great comedies, both light and dark, including Duck Soup (1933), Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), and Dr. Strangelove (1963), and their claim to this title. But for me, there never was a comedic performance to equal Katie Johnson’s, whose little old lady not only cowed the robbery gang who used her crumbling old house as their headquarters, but also bested the greatest comedic actors of our time. That she doesn’t get top billing (and isn’t even listed on the box of my Korean DVD) is a crime, but her casting is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the film—she was rejected for the role initially, but won it when the scheduled star died.

Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce (Johnson) is the very picture of the shabby-genteel Victorian widow. She lives in a house at least as old and crooked as she is at the end of a street, just above London’s King’s Cross train station. It appears that her urban neighborhood sprouted up around her, since she continues to behave as though she lives in a village. She moves efficiently down her block, greeting longtime shopkeepers by name and vagrants and other transients with polite hellos. When she reaches her destination, the local police station, she is granted the solicitude of the superintendant (Jack Warner), to whom she dutifully reports that an earlier complaint she had lodged with him had been a dreadful misunderstanding and that he should dedicate the no-doubt-considerable resources spent on her case in a more productive direction. Mumbling polite assurances and appreciation of her good citizenship, he ushers her to the door and hands her the umbrella she left at the station during her previous visit; musing on how she keeps leaving places without the umbrella, Mrs. Wilberforce confesses that she never much liked it.

Before returning to her home, Mrs. Wilberforce stops into the green grocer’s and asks if there have been any inquiries about her room-to-let notice on the bulletin board. Disappointed by the answer, Mrs. Wilberforce sighs. A spot of rain starts, and Mrs. Wilberforce opens her unloved umbrella and leaves just as a shadow, accompanied by appropriately sinister music (provided by Tristam Cary), falls over her to-let notice.

No sooner does Mrs. Wilberforce return home and start fussing with the menagerie of parrots her husband probably collected from the farflung corners to which he was posted while in the army, than a stranger with a mighty odd smile comes to her door inquiring about the rooms for rent. Delighted, she shows Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) in. Before they go upstairs to look at the available room, the Professor attempts to straighten a picture on her wall. Mrs. Wilberforce says the picture will never hang straight because the house is settling. Indeed, every picture, window jamb, and doorway defies the right angle. Still, when the Professor sees the view from his window—the train platform where steel payroll boxes are brought for transport each week—he snaps it up. He mentions that he is in an amateur string quintet and that the members of his group will be over frequently to practice. Mrs. Wilberforce, a music lover, is delighted.

The image of each member of the Professor’s gang coming by with violin cases and their variants tucked under their arms is a brilliant use of a cliché for comic effect. Of course, the gang runs the gamut of types: punchy ex-boxer “One Round” Lawson (Danny Green), refined, cowardly Major Claude Courtney (Cecil Parker), aging Teddy Boy Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers), and paranoid, switchblade-happy Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom). For his part, Guinness is the model of solicitude to Mrs. Wilberforce and rather touchy about suggestions that he might be mad—which, of course, he is. He has decided to include Mrs. Wilberforce as an unwitting accomplice to their robbery, surmising that her innocence, propriety, and utterly harmless countenance will help her bypass the checkpoints that will certainly go up once the robbery has been committed and smuggle the “lolly” out of the rail station, thinking it is a trunk for Major Courtney. The robbery goes off without a hitch, but once Mrs. Wilberforce learns what has happened, it’s lace curtains for the String Quintet Gang.

The Ladykillers plays with our assumptions about old women to both confound the bad guys and amaze us with its sly humor. Mrs. Wilberforce is neither as foolish as others think her to be nor as smart as a Miss Marple. Dressed in the same lavender suit throughout the film, she is like an ancient sachet whose sweet niceties and constant offers of tea (“or coffee if you prefer”) provide a cover for her nosiness. She’s perfectly willing to see and hear what she wants—suspecting nothing when she sees Mr. Robinson hold his violin in a manner unsuitable for playing and unable to discern a recording of Boccherini’s Minuet from live playing. And she’s definitely adept at using her age and gender to get what she wants, whether it is to have the Major chase after General Gordon (“the naughty one”) when he flies out the window or insist that the men behave properly in front of her cadre of lady friends, who are eager to meet new people, especially musicians.

Watching Mrs. Wilberforce bully these grown and disreputable men through the sheer force of her indignation about their theft is priceless. Unaccountably, when she tells them to put the money, which she has discovered by accident, in the drawing room where she will lock it up and guard it, they do. When they start to work on her to remain quiet about the robbery, Johnson’s growing alarm and confusion about her situation is a comic masterpiece of timing and physical humor; when they tell her she’ll be thrown in stir and made to sew mailbags if they’re all caught, the split-second edit of a close-up of her stunned and simple face uttering a single word, “Mailbags?”, had me falling on the floor. Eventually she gets tough herself, adopting their slang about remaining “buttoned up” and waiting in growing pique as one by one, the conspirators run from the task of bumping “Mrs. Lopsided” off and do each other in instead.

The comedy of The Ladykillers works because Johnson remains completely in character, a less-pompous Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers of the British screen. Herbert Lom is dazzlingly funny as a paranoic who is a self-confessed hater of old ladies and who predicts Mrs. Wilberforce will be their undoing, though, in fact, One-Round’s casual stupidity ruins the day. Peter Sellers is quite contained here, working with the ensemble instead of breaking out into the outrageous improvisations that would become his claim to fame. I felt quite sad when Green got it; it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the dumb one, especially when he becomes Mrs. Wilberforce’s protector. Parker is an excellent ninny and seems like a fish out of water in this group, so respectable-seeming and lily-livered. Guinness is the only actor to adopt goofy make-up, which creates a certain imbalance in the deadpan humor that dominates the film. Yet, he is clearly the smartest of the gang and is brilliantly correct that Mrs. Wilberforce will believe that she is hearing them playing their instruments instead of a recording. Nonetheless, all the confederates are tied together by their greed and apparent failure to make a go of any other means of employment.

The film has a certain poignancy as well. Johnson has a short reverie about a memory from her girlhood that hearing the Minuet jogged. It makes me rather angry, as it did her, that so many people underestimate her and assume that everything she says is some kind of half-understood gossip or the onset of senility. Of course, she gets her due when a fabrication by the gang actually comes true. Her generosity with her windfall, and her realization that she doesn’t have to keep the umbrella she doesn’t like because she can now buy dozens of them, shows a woman whose honest naivete and zest for life have won the day.

Tags:

8th 08 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Venus (2006)

Director: Roger Michell

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Recently, on the occasion of Peter O’Toole’s birthday, my blog partner Rod announced on Facebook that O’Toole is his favorite living actor. One certainly doesn’t argue with favorites, as they are personal choices, but I think anyone would be hard put to disagree with his choice in any case. Anyone, male or female, who didn’t fall in love with Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia must have been very jaded indeed. His portrayal of the rather naive and vulnerable adventurer made almost mad by his experiences in North Africa is a performance for the ages. Since Lawrence, the prolific O’Toole has built up an eclectic body of work on film, in television, and as a voice actor for animated films that shows his range; his creative energy, still undimming at the age of 78 (he’s filming two movies this year and is in preproduction on a third); and his continued popularity with both those who make movies and those who watch them.

In 2006, O’Toole tackled a character very close to himself—an elderly actor of renown—who takes one more shot at love with a barely legal girl. While the stretch of his skills is not so great, the fearlessness needed to expose what certainly must be real parts of himself as an elderly man was just as great an achievement as in Lawrence. He is no longer naive, but he is just as vulnerable and at least as seductive.

Maurice (O’Toole) accompanies his actor friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) from the hospital where he has just been discharged to Ian’s flat. They shop to restock Ian’s home with food and essentials. When they reach Ian’s spotless and beautifully appointed apartment, Ian informs Maurice that his great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) will be coming to look after him. “I bought a bell to keep by my bedside,” Ian cheerfully informs Maurice, and gives the obnoxious object a tinkle.

The day of Jessie’s arrival, Ian runs to the diner where Maurice and another friend (Richard Griffiths) are having tea and says the girl is a complete nightmare. “I bought a nice piece of halibut, and she didn’t know how to cook it!” Ian despairs. Maurice decides to accompany Ian home and meet the she-devil herself. Maurice gets Ian settled and offers to make him a cup of tea. He moves through the familiar flat where he has been a visitor for decades and slowly passes an open doorway. Sitting in it like a scruffy black cat is Jessie. Her eyes are thick with liner, her clothes are barely there, and she wears the insolent scowl of most people her age. Maurice is intrigued.

He stops by the apartment again, and this time asks Jessie a little about herself. She wants to be a model. She’s not model attractive, so Maurice asks if she has a fallback plan. “Don’t you think I can be a model?” she spits at him. He backpedals. He has learned in his long life how to smooth over his thoughtless insults—he has, no doubt, made many. He says he can probably help her because he knows a lot of people. “You famous or something?” Jessie asks. “A bit,” Maurice demurs. He says his full name. She doesn’t recognize it.

True to his word, Maurice gets her a modeling job. She will be posing nude for his art class. Well, we saw this seduction coming, and now Jessie’s in on it, too. She agrees, but only if Maurice leaves the class. He tries to position himself at the transom of a door to spy on her, but ends up falling through and knocking over several easels. The comic timing of the scene, and Maurice’s guilty-but-innocent response are priceless, and shows O’Toole’s comedic chops very well. After class, Maurice takes Jessie to the National Gallery, where they study Velasquez’s Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus). He tells her that Venus was a goddess who inspired people to love. He said that a real model posed for the goddess, just like she is donig. From that moment on, he calls her “Venus” and is, too, inspired to love.

The delicacy of this drama could have been spoiled at any moment. We’re looking at what most of us would call a dirty old man. But O’Toole shows us that the old have a lot to offer in the way of love and the experience to know how to offer it. Yes, Maurice was a ladies’ man, and we see his routine. He plies Jessie with gifts and impresses her with a limousine ride and the chance to be on a movie set as he plays a bit part in a costume drama. But he really does care. He becomes faint on the set, but one look at her concerned face lifts him up, and he carries on as a man renewed.

For her part, Whittaker plays Jessie as a young girl who can’t exactly explain why she’s so turned on by this relic. She gives him small sexual favors—three kisses on her shoulder, permission to smell her neck—and becomes very cross if he tries for more. But his kindness to her, particularly when she shares the secret of a first love and a forced abortion, wins her heart as well.

The supporting cast of elderly actors, including Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice’s wife, bring the world of the aged to life in a plausible way. The concern with obituaries and raising all-too-frequent toasts to the newly dead, the long-standing relationships that are as much a part of life as breathing itself, the infirmities, hospitals, healthcare workers—this is what we all face should we reach our golden years. These images are not often seen on the screen, and very few directors take up this subject with any regularity. The master of the silver-haired screen is Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox, whose A Woman’s Tale is the pinnacle of the genre.

For his part, director Roger Michell keeps the film in perfect balance. His touch for romance has been well developed on such films as Persuasion (1995) and Notting Hill (1999). But it is to honored screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (his novel Intimacy was given a first-rate adaptation by director Patrice Chéreau) I tip my hat. This is a beautifully written screenplay, both witty and wise, that deserved to be honored with the talents of O’Toole, Redgrave, and the rest of the uniformly fine cast. Make time to see it.

Tags:

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood




Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

Collected Writings

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives