Sunday 4 April 2010

Masculine/feminine (ST 14/02/10)

A Single Man (12A) 100 mins ***
Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin (nc) 131 mins ****
The Wolfman (15) 125 mins **

When Colin Firth emerged dripping from that pond in the TV Pride and Prejudice, it was - in every sense - a watershed moment, ensuring that a soggy white blouson would cling to the actor’s back for years to come. With Firth confirmed as a genteel heartthrob in the eyes of millions, directors found ever less inspired ways to employ him: Bridget Jones’s Darcy Mark II for starters. What exceptions there were - the Firth of Easy Virtue, damaged in a way that that anything-goes panto-movie seemed reluctant to investigate; and Firth’s crooner in Where the Truth Lies, stricken with repression and regret - went largely unheralded.

Traces of these half-forgotten Firths resurface in A Single Man, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s story that - while not wholly seductive - finally lifts that wet shirt from this actor’s shoulders and gives him a whole new wardrobe to play with. As George Falconer, a gay college professor in early 60s America, Firth asserts himself upon scenes in ways that would have been unthinkable to the passive, rigid-lipped Firth of old. “I am exactly who I appear to be - if you look closely,” Falconer states, and Tom Ford’s film feels like encouragement to re-examine an often under-engaged performer.

Falconer is uncommonly busy over the story’s 24 hours, trying to maintain a façade of sophistry while struggling to process his lover’s sudden demise. He holds court in lecture theatres, collapses in tears; he even gets to cut a stylish rug, which is one improvement over Firth’s turn in Mamma Mia!. In a darkly funny sequence, the professor wrestles with an arrangement of throw pillows while contemplating suicide. It’s touching that Falconer should, even in despair, be thinking of the mess he’ll leave behind for his housekeeper; it’s telling he should be seeking an elegant way to frame this most inelegant of acts.

For Falconer, we gather, has a true soulmate in Ford. The designer-turned-director’s debut lacks not for visual flourishes: slow-motion lingering on naked male flesh (as Ford’s Vanity Fair cover suggested, he’s a sucker for a pert derrière), endless close-ups of eyes, and a neat lighting trick whereby characters cast in bright Technicolor hues momentarily reinvigorate the hero’s austere, black-white-and-beige world. More crucially, if predictably, Ford is also alert to textures, whether thick paper book jackets, or the crisp perfection of freshly laundered shirts.

Still, after Revolutionary Road and TV’s Mad Men, the sumptuous miseries of Eisenhower/Kennedy-era America have become awfully familiar, and Ford can seem a terrible fuss. George’s unravelling perhaps merited a little more on-screen dishevelment; instead, we get Julianne Moore’s underused confidante, permitted ten minutes of screen time just to get her eyeliner right. A quietly impressive miniature, A Single Man remains hemmed-in to the last: Firth, certainly, deserves our consideration, but the send-off Ford gives George Falconer is the cruel joke of a director who can’t resist a neat symmetry.

Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin, the latest celluloid examination of German history, derives from a diary kept by a married journalist working in Berlin as the Red Army arrived in 1945, and published, to considerable controversy, a decade later. What the diary came to document was the mass rape of German women by Soviet troops, taken by some to be symbolic payback: as one of the author’s neighbours noted, “If the Russians do to us one-quarter of what we’ve spent the last few years doing to them, no German will be left alive.” Anonyma took up with a Russian major to ensure her protection, but many others weren’t so practically inclined.

A companion piece of sorts to 2005’s Downfall - laying out the horrors unfolding on the streets above Adolf’s bunker - Max Färberböck’s film effectively rethinks the war movie from the inside out. The conflict here centres on lead actress Nina Hoss’s face, with its unusual ability to both register everything and give nothing much away; it’s these flickers of intuition with which the women sought to combat a constant masculine threat. Anonyma’s feminist credentials are impeccable, but it’s the rare psychological and emotional weight that grabs you: the palpable sense of what it is to find one’s self under siege long after the fighting has ceased.

A mega-budget reworking of George Waggner’s Universal horror classic, The Wolfman is truest to its source in its casting. Like Lon Chaney in the original, Benicio del Toro is not quite right-seeming even before he’s bitten on the moors, while the ever-ethereal Geraldine Chaplin is a smart pick to assume the duties of the unmatchable Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman who knows what transpires when the full moon rises.

Otherwise, this overlong film is an object lesson in what happens when horror material is handed to the director of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Spectacle soon swamps suggestiveness, and knowingness undermines any terror: it’s The Wolf Man seen through the prism of An American Werewolf in London, an homage to an homage, and pretty thin with it. We’ve seen remakes less reverent - less enjoyable, even - but any mythos soon vanishes, like the characters’ breath into the chill night air.

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