Game, set and match

Can Hollywood still make an intelligent mainstream movie? Sheila Johnston puts Quiz Show to the test. Plus round-up

NEW RELEASES

Quiz Show (15)

Dir: Robert Redford

The River Wild (12)

Dir: Curtis Hanson

Beijing Bastards (no cert)

Various directors

Lift to the Scaffold

(no cert)

Dir: Louis Malle

Now your starter for 10: when did you last hear a joke about Immanuel Kant in a mainstream Hollywood movie? Quiz Show, Robert Redford's new film, which he directs but does not appear in, is something that's fast- becoming a rarity: an entertaining, funny, intelligent studio picture. For that alone it should be celebrated, even if, on inspection, it's not quite what it first appears to be.

A quick recap: the story is set against the American quiz show scandals of the late Fifties, when it emerged that almost all these popular programmes were rigged. John Turturro plays Herb Stempel, the disappointed player who blew the whistle; Ralph Fiennes is his suave antagonist Charles van Doren, the crown prince of a dynasty of distinguished academics headed by his father, Paul Scofield. Rob Morrow is Richard Goodwin, the young attorney investigating the corruption (the principals, by the way, are only half the story; the film is uniformly well-played by a large cast of sharply drawn secondary characters).

The script (by Paul Attanasio, who also wrote the upcoming Disclosure) is, at its best, fast-moving, smart and highly condensed. In one scene, for instance, Morrow visits Fiennes's clever, cultured family at their country retreat and observes son and father playing a high-speed game in which each quotes a verse from Shakespeare and the other must identify the play. It shows the pair's closeness, their intellectual agility, the way they close ranks to dazzle the outsider. And, on top of that, it's a coded statement of their different moral positions. Fiennes, the cheat, chooses quotes in favour of expediency ("To do a great right, you must do a little wrong") while Scofield occupies the high ground.

Most of the pre-publicity for Quiz Show has focused on the true-life background. The controversy, too: the film has taken a good deal of heat in the American press for its cavalier way with history. In reality Goodwin was a small cog who moved in late on the public investigations, and, in making him the man who uncovers the scam single-handedly, Redford has been accused of praising the very false gods he sets out to condemn. But the director (who does touch on the Grand Jury hearings that preceded Goodwin's arrival, in a brisk montage) has quite properly replied that the full, true tale would make for very dull cinema.

In a way, though, by speaking at length and passim about how the affair represents for him a defining moment in America's loss of innocence, Redford is doing himself and his movie a disservice. For one thing, there are more of these defining moments in US history than you can shake a stick at, from the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball scandal (when players took money to throw a game) to Watergate and beyond. They've become a clich of the liberal Hollywood cinema.

For another, it's a little hard to think of a quiz show swiz on quite the same level as the murder of JFK. When Scofield's character says, "Cheating on a quiz show is like plagiarising a comic strip", you inwardly applaud him, and sense that the film is being called upon to carry more symbolic weight than it can bear. It's an odd coincidence that Quiz Show opens here alongside Natural Born Killers (reviewed opposite), another take on the poisoned chalice of television celebrity. Taken together and at face value, they seem to pitch a seductive but silly thesis: once upon a time TV was innocent, but then we were all betrayed and it was downhill all the way to celebrity murderers.

If Quiz Show works, it's as a character-driven piece; at root it's something both less and more than yet another treatise on what went wrong with America - it's that ancient perenniel, the Oedipal struggle. When Fiennes casually mentions the novel he wrote in Paris (he's that kind of intellectual), we note that its subject is patricide. When he finally loses on the show, it's over a question about the King of Belgium: Fiennes names the father (to whom Scofield has already compared himself, "usurped before my time"), instead of the son in whose favour he abdicated - a deliberate error that stands for his failure to escape from his parent's shadow.

The film gives the other main characters their dues, but this conflict is at its heart. Compare the scenes where the two contestants' families discover the betrayal. Turturro's is over in seconds; Fiennes's is long and dramatically weighty. At the hearing, Turturro's evidence is played for laughs. The producers behind the programme get even shorter shrift: seen in snippets or merely heard on the soundtrack. It's Fiennes's speech that is the climax.

In this sense, Quiz Show is a more subtle betrayal of its subject. On the surface, it's gunning for the underdog, the Turturro character who was evicted from the show out of anti-Semitic prejudice. Underneath, its real interest is in the patricians. And for all the ultra-American setting, Fiennes's role is not a million miles from the Prince he's currently playing in Hackney.

The River Wild is another film that doesn't achieve what it claims, although it is still an impressive attempt to create a different kind of role for an older actress. Meryl Streep plays (very convincingly) an avid sportswoman who takes her young son and husband on a white-water rafting vacation. It turns sour when hoods on the run (Kevin Bacon and John C Reilly) hijack the vessel. And, in the course of navigating dangerous rapids, Streep also saves her marriage from the rocks.

The film is energetically directed by Curtis Hanson (who made The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), and it's certainly a refreshing change to see an action heroine at the helm, bossing all the men about. At heart, though, The River Wild takes an arch-traditional view of marriage and family, and often seems more interested in Streep's husband - a snooty city-slicker type who undergoes a mystical learning process that is compared in the film (deeply sentimental, like all Hollywood these days, about Native Americans) to an Indian initiation rite. At the end, he's even credited as the one who saved everybody's life! Still, as family entertainment, this is classy stuff.

Chinese cinema in the West means Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Farewell my Concubine and To Live. But beneath these prestige festival movies there's a stratum of quite different film-makers: independent, operating outside the studio system, without access to co-production money from Hong Kong or Taiwan, flying by the seat of their pants. They're celebrated in a short season called Beijing Bastards, after one of their more provocative movies.

Beijing Bastards itself, and Mama, about a young mother with a handicapped son, are both worth seeing, although unfortunately the film chosen for the press screening, The Days, looks like one of the least interesting of the batch. About two young painters whose relationship has long since gone stale, it looks for all the world like an old-fashioned black-and- white European art movie. It makes meticulous use of framing, lighting and sound effects, but the net impression is of inertia; the characters are bored with each other and we're bored with them. But the season is well worth checking - a snapshot of the future of the world's most dynamic national cinema.

A brief mention, finally for the revival of Lift to the Scaffold, Louis Malle's first film. It begins like a film noir, as Maurice Ronet and Jeanne Moreau commit the perfect murder, until he gets stuck in a lift in uncomfortable proximity to the crime. Then the mood turns to black farce - instead of staying with Ronet as he tries to escape (and fails - a poor show for a war veteran and ex-Legionnaire, I thought; Keanu Reeves would have had no problem), Malle follows a wild young couple who steal the car and commit more murders in his name. Made in 1957, the film in some ways looks its age (characters get excited about a car that has windscreen wipers); in others, it still seems very modern.

n All films open tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home