Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Betrayal and Kristin Scott Thomas

I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in forty five minutes as prep for the new production at London’s Comedy Theatre. On the page, the dialogue looks like mental scratchings. Language pared down to the bare essentials, operating at the outskirts of anything we might commonly recognise as human discourse. Pinter’s tics and pauses carrying the terrifying freight of unspoken meaning. It is in all that is left unsaid or suggested that we complete the picture of ourselves. As Wittgenstein famously put it, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

In Betrayal, communication has been eroded by the failure of human beings to act personally and love faithfully. Infidelity, lies and unspoken knowledge have damaged the channels of human relationships, leaving the participants of this ménage a trois tongue tied by their actions:

You’re looking very pretty.
Really? Thank you. I’m glad to see you.
So am I. I mean to see you.
You think of me sometimes?
I think of you sometimes.
I saw Charlotte the other day.
No? Where? She didn’t mention it.
She didn’t see me. In the street.
But you haven’t seen her for years.
I recognised her.

Betrayal is the perfect play for an actress such as Kristin Scott Thomas. It shows the full range of her remarkable acting ability. She can act below the surface of the words, every subterranean emotion visible in the tiniest vocal inflection or hesitation. Every facial detail or physical gesture signifiers of some pathos at the heart of what it is to be human.

This is not method acting where an actor attempts to psychologically inhabit a character. Instead, this is acting that feels more like a form of possession. Here it is the character that appears to inhabit the soul of the actress. Such acting, bypasses the familiar ways of understanding performance, that is, the action of people pretending to be other people in order to tell a story. The pretence element appears to have almost entirely dissolved, leaving a performance with a crystalline transparency and honesty. Kristin Scott Thomas is a very special actress and acting at the very height of her abilities.

Part of what makes us human is that we are creatures who must communicate. It is not an optional exercise. Discussing the nature of communication, Adam Philips in Monogomy writes, “you cannot be for it or against. You can only do it more or less well – by your own standards or by other people’s – but you can’t not do it.”

In Betrayal, Kristin Scott Thomas’s finely calibrated performance shows how words can mask what we really want or need to say. We are given a real sense that the lies, spoken and unspoken, that surround marital infidelity exist as a cover for our destructive actions. Yet, what we cannot escape, whether it comes to light or not, is the truth about ourselves and our actions.

Sunday, 12 June 2011


The verdict that so-and-so is “a legend” is passed too frequently and glibly these days. Once probed, there is often scant evidence to prove the case. But, after watching Asif Kapadia’s engrossing (if ten minutes too long) documentary, Senna, it is clear that there is an abundance of evidence to justify Ayrton Senna’s place in the pantheon of sporting legends.

Kapadia presents a chronological biography of Senna using dramatic footage not only of Senna racing, but of the politics and arguments behind the Formula 1 scenes. As the film unfolds, the Tamburello corner that took his life comes into view. With little commentary or talking heads to colour one’s opinion of the man, the footage is allowed to speak for itself and the audience (especially people like myself who know little about F1) are allowed to come to their own conclusions about Ayrton Senna. There is something uncomplicated and refreshing about this approach.

There is all the drama of Senna’s rivalry with the taciturn Frenchman, Alain Prost. There is remarkable footage of Senna racing and when racing in the rain, doing so with an inspiring fearlessness. There is Senna speaking his mind and standing up for what he believes in. There’s Senna the playboy and symbol of hope for the people of Brazil. But, as Simon Barnes, points out:

Senna’s response to the separation imposed on him by his gifts was humility. It was not he who was great, it was God. His talent was both burden and gift. His great rival, Alain Prost, openly scoffed that Senna’s problem was that he believed he was immortal, but that was not the case.

Senna never saw himself in messianic terms. He saw himself as a vehicle, a strange thing for a driver, but he was a vehicle for God’s power on earth. After one particularly brilliant drive, he said in wonder: “I saw God.” For him, there was far more to sport than victory. Such things are just stations on the way to a greater revelation. Sport reveals truths – about humans and their relationship with the world, about God too, if you will – that are far greater than two-nil or three sets to love.

It is clear that Senna was no mystic in a yellow racing helmet. The film makes clear he enjoyed too much the sensual pleasures of life. However, Senna does appear to have had a sense that he was set apart, that his remarkable talent was pure gift from something that transcended his own abilities and finiteness. For him, that something was God.

His was a talent that pushed him beyond ordinary human limits, to levels unimaginable and previously unseen. He could see the gap that no one else could see and take the risks (often with his own life and sometimes with others lives) that no one else would. It wasn’t just his expertise in a car, pushing it to the outer edge of its limits, that people admired but his mental stamina in achieving this. Senna manages to capture this – the flair of an incredible sportsman and the inner world, with its own chiaroscuro, that can turn a man into a legend.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Apocalypse Now - a flawed masterpiece?

The making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has passed into cinema history. A catalogue of disasters threatened to railroad the film. These have been documented in his wife, Eleanor Coppola’s 1991 film, Hearts of Darkness: a filmmaker’s apocalypse. Shot on location in the Philippines (a scheduled 17 week shoot ended up being 34 weeks and the budget spiraled from $12-13 million to $31), a rain drenching typhoon destroyed huge sets and stopped the production. The star, Martin Sheen (who had replaced Harvey Keitel), suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Marlon Brando (then being paid the enormous fee of $3.5 million for a month’s location work) turned up so overweight that he could not perform his scenes in the script and his performance was reduced to the famous talking head in shadow. There were extra marital affairs on set, drug taking and Coppola became suicidal as he shot hundreds of hours of material in the face of adversity. When he finally presented a cut to the studio it ran for over six hours and he was sent back to the editing suite.

He returned to the studio bosses with a 153 minute version of the film and it is this that has just been re-released in this country. It is a remarkable cinematic experience. Without the aid of CGI engineering, there are scenes that are so technically complex, emotionally evocative and visually dense that it is a small miracle that they ever made it from one man’s imagination on to celluloid. These supercharged moments, choreographed with fearless audacity, take your breath away. Mixing symbolic, Bunuel-like sequences with straight war-genre action, Coppola scrambles our expectations and creates a disorientating space where the confusion, violence and madness of war and human hubris can be viewed from multiple perspectives. A film of such scale and artistic ambition, a film that defies facile categorization, cries out to be seen on the big screen. Don’t watch it on DVD.

The general orthodoxy is that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece but a flawed one. That in the final analysis, Coppola was not in control of his material and that the last twenty minutes of the film (those where Marlon Brando appears as the demented Kurtz) lack cohesion and sap the film of its explosive energy. I disagree. Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece and all the kinetic expansiveness of the earlier parts of the film find a proper resting place in the dreamy, meditative quality found in those final eerie scenes in Kurtz’s lair. Coppola’s brave decision not to conclude the film with another bravura set piece, but to steer the audience towards quotations from T.S.Eliot’s Hollow Men and Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness is correct. Coppola understood that he wasn’t making an action movie, but a literary movie that could move an audience to deeper consideration of human failure and moral contradiction.

Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece. Go and make your own mind up, but go.