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
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?