by Roderick Conway Morris

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Barney, Baloney, Celebrity, Marlowe and Good Queen Bess

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 September 1998


'No worst, there is none,' as the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in the grip of a black mood, and the line was beginning to look like a suitable epitaph for the bulk of the productions screened at the Venice Film Festival, which ends Saturday.

Of the latest batch of in-competition films, Pat O'Connor's 'Dancing at Lughnasa' held out some hope. Based on a successful stage play by Brian Friel, it is set in the mid 1930s in the depths of Eamon de Valera's Catholic rural Ireland, with pagan undertones provided by the local survival of the pre-Christian Lughnasa harvest festival.

Schoolmarm Kate (Meryl Streep) rules a family of five sisters with an iron rod, the only men in the household being Michael (winningly played by Darrell Johnston), the 8-year-old illegitimate son of Christina (Catherine McCormack), and a frail, dotty uncle, Father Jack Mundy (Michael Gambon), who has just returned from 25 years as a missionary in Africa, having gone native, and lost his marbles along with his religious faith.

The gradual decline of the women into terminal disappointment and bucolic imbecility is momentarily arrested by tensions created by a visit from Michael's absentee father, Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans), about to depart for (where else?) the Spanish Civil War to join (what else?) the International Brigade.

The cinematography is lush, although judging by the endless number of sunny days in the film, the summer of 1936 must have been the driest in Irish history. The accents would indicate that the various members of the family seem to come from different regions of the Emerald Isle, and the film ends up an unsustaining potage of nostalgia, blarney and baloney.

Other in-competition candidates, the Portuguese Joao Botelho's 'Trafico' (Traffic), the Romanian Lucian Pintilie's 'Terminus Paradis' (Last Stop Paradise) and the Italian Gianni Amelio's 'Cosi Ridevano' (officially translated as 'The Way We Laughed'), were all depressingly representative of certain self-indulgent, self-regarding tendencies in art-house cinema that seem to equate seriousness with the mind-numbing lingering shot and stultifying boredom.

Happily, toward the end of the week, like a meteor illuminating the general gloom, the Indian director Shekhar Kapur's out-of-competition 'Elizabeth' burst upon the scene. The drama revolves around the first years of Elizabeth I's reign, when the young English queen was beset with plots to topple her, the country in danger of being torn apart by Protestant and Catholic rivalries, and foreign powers poised to invade.

'Elizabeth' is visually beautiful, making brilliant use of light and dark effects, and the dialogue and interaction of the characters strikes an artful balance between courtly formality and human spontaneity. Cate Blanchett is stunning to look at and gives a superb performance as Elizabeth, amply supported by Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham, her spymaster and head of security, and a consistently well-selected cast.

The comic relief promised by Woody Allen's 'Celebrity,' also premiered out of competition, was only partially fulfilled. Kenneth Branagh plays Lee Simon, a journalist who dumps his wife of many years, Robin (Judy Davis), to go in pursuit of more glamorous fare. Given that Lee, despite seeming to be an obvious jerk, has no difficulty in catching the eye of rich and beautiful young women, it was perhaps wise of Allen to give the part to a younger man. But Branagh has mastered Allen's manner and speech so perfectly that it is hard to work out whether the director has achieved some Svengali-like hold over Branagh or whether the British actor is unconsciously sending Allen up.

Billed as a satire on the absurdity of the cult of celebrity in America, the film's problem is that it has become almost impossible to out-gross reality. 'Guest stars' include Melanie Griffith and Leonardo DiCaprio, with Winona Ryder backing into the limelight in the role of an 'extra.' There are, as always, good gags, but by the director's highest standards this is a low-octane event.

'Poodle Springs,' which features Raymond Chandler's older, newly married private investigator Philip Marlowe, existed only in sketch form at the writer's death and was completed by another hand. Marlowe's self-reflecting solitariness is such an essential keystone of his character that it was always going to be anomalous to send him strolling down 'those mean streets' arm-in-arm with Mrs. Marlowe. And to remove him from his natural urban habitat is to deprive him of the dark side of his soul.


THE playwright Tom Stoppard's script makes a brave attempt to resolve these contradictions, as does James Caan's performance as the mature Marlowe, a fish out of water in the desert resort of Poodle Springs, and in visible danger of expiring for lack of his daily dose of L.A. low life, crime and moral grime.

Consequently, the film, directed by Bob Rafelson and set in a kind of never-never land stylistically suspended between the 1940s and early 1960s, when the action takes place, never really gets off the ground. It will certainly seem a thin experience to anyone familiar with the books and the classic film adaptations.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023