Making perfect sense
Sunday 25 February 1996
Any one of these films would lead this column most weeks. I'll take them in chronological order. Not that there is anything musty or antiquated about Jane Austen's 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility (PG), here adapted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee (the producer's decision to entrust this English classic to a Taiwanese director suggests a shrewd appreciation of the book's universality). Austen's novel is a timeless moral inquiry into the merits of passion and common sense in human affairs (of the heart and otherwise). The two approaches are roughly represented by the Dashwood sisters: steady Elinor (Thompson) and intemperate romantic Marianne (Kate Winslet), who, along with their mother (Gemma Jones) and younger sister, are left in comparative penury after their father's death.
Emma Thompson is the guiding intelligence behind this movie: it is her sense and sensibility that make Sense and Sensibility a success. For one thing her adaptation is first-rate. No mere shifting of speech from page to screen, it is an astute combination of fidelity and invention. She is attentive to the detail of Austen's ordered world (the way, for instance, as oldest sister her character is referred to as "Miss Dashwood"; Winslet's as "Miss Marianne"). Yet by taking liberties with the text, she liberates characters neglected by Austen in this, her first novel. An early scene in which Elinor's beloved, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), coaxes the sulking youngest Dashwood sister out from under a table brings two characters unrealised in the book humorously to life. This is also Thompson's best performance since Howards End: a perfect fit for her blend of goodness and intelligence. Learning of her sister's betrayal by the bounder Willoughby, her eyes encompass compassion and fury.
Yet Thompson, and everyone else, is eclipsed by Kate Winslet's Marianne. With the face of a Joshua Reynolds portrait and the soul of a romantic heroine, Winslet is heart-stopping. We see her first playing a dirge on the piano, her features taking on a marmoreal whiteness, her lips pursed in grave aesthetic contemplation. Her Marianne could no more hide her emotions than stop breathing. Her breeding is at war with her unreined spirit. Sweetness and disdain mingle in her look when confronted by the blast of vulgarity that is the gossipy Mrs Jennings (an irrepressible Elizabeth Spriggs). When delighted, she whelps with joy, and when she is jilted by Willoughby, she has a pallor beyond make-up. (Thompson, when Ferrars appears lost to her, looks almost as poorly - a lighter shade of pale.)
The film is full of fine acting. Indeed, Alan Rickman's Colonel Brandon is a supporting performance that borders on greatness. The essence of a supporting player, he never grandstands but always hints at unexplored depths. His smile is that of a wounded man, the noble attempt at warmth of a wintry soul. Hugh Grant's Ferrars is too handsome, but correctly diffident, walking as if he had an ironing board up his coat. Greg Wise is less accomplished, as Willoughby, but his callowness fits his character. With such an array of acting talent (including the laconically hilarious Hugh Laurie) it would be easy to think of the film as directing itself - but mistaken. The movie has the decor of Merchant Ivory but far greater emotional impact - surely due to the stern restraint of Lee. It is less harsh than Austen (or than the fine recent BBC adaptation of Persuasion), softer on her themes of secrecy and sickness, but worthy of her.
Martin Scorsese's Casino (18) is about a man who has everything, and then mistakenly lets love enter his life. In this fact-based fiction Robert De Niro plays Sam "Ace" Rothstein, a gambler, who takes over the running of a Las Vegas casino in the Seventies - so setting himself up with all the salmon-pink ties and tangerine jackets money can purchase - by virtue (or maybe vice) of his skill at monitoring scams. His smooth life is ruffled by the arrival in town of boyhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), an explosive little man whose veins run with concentrated venom. Worse, Ace falls for a hooker (Sharon Stone) hotter on drugs and alcohol than fidelity. Casino is about fate, and how it's muddled by desire. "The gods were happy - or as happy as the gods would ever be - and I was about to complicate my life," recalls Ace.
Ace does a lot of recalling in Casino; so does Nicky - their voice-overs rarely let up throughout the movie's near-three-hour length. There is an obvious problem with this: the movie too often tells us what it should show; and the drama becomes fitful in the face of the acres of exposition. But if you are prepared to accept the voice-over, Casino becomes fascinating: a documentary on an unsavoury species - Vegas vermin. With its constant narration and dark characters, Casino resembles film-noir docu-dramas such as Anthony Mann's T-Men, whose superb John Alton cinematography Scorsese echoes. We're shown the mechanics of the grim casino money- making machine: the tables and the gamblers, the scams and the precautions, the summary, brutal justice dealt out to the cheats.
Scorsese shoots the movie with his customary hyped-up brilliance. Oliver Stone's cameraman Robert Richardson, working for the first time with Scorsese, makes Vegas seem noirish but also luridly real. The different feints and dummies of the casino, a world where everybody has an eye on somebody else and the only blind eye is turned towards morality, are beautifully choreographed. And Scorsese stylishly underlines his key moments, as with the first meeting between Pesci and Stone. Scorsese marks its fatefulness with three swift zoom-ins, which echo the similar camera movements when Winona Ryder rumbled Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence. Scorsese's soundtrack, though overladen with his Seventies record collection, can also be slyly effective; Stone's first appearance is greeted by the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone".
The acting honours go to De Niro and Stone. De Niro is back in Heat mode: repressed, controlled, ever watchful, with an enigmatic little smile, and a furrow across his brow - a man too wary for love. Stone shows us Ginger's manipulativeness and her streetfighter's morals, her screeching hysteria and her rightful, vain fury at the misogynistic world around her. With their grafting, untrusting personalities Abe and Ginger are mirror images: perfectly unmatched. Completing a weird romantic triangle Pesci has all the horrific violence of earlier roles (he squeezes a man's head in a vice), without the terrifying lurches of mood he showed in GoodFellas. He's monotonously psychotic.
Casino struck me as a great disappointment when I first saw it during the London Film Festival last November. Renewed acquaintance reveals that it still has faults, especially its lack of moral focus. Scorsese seems in thrall to despicable characters, who lack the weight to give his film the tragic grandeur it's searching for. The film ends with a disingenuous suggestion that the vileness we've just witnessed was preferable to the Disneyfication of Vegas. But the film has depths and details that repay repeated viewing. It's a vast mosaic without a moral, a wild gamble that partly comes off.
Hip, hyped, slick, smart, and scabrously funny, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (18), a quick fix of a movie, makes good much of the promise of Shallow Grave. Screenwriter John Hodge has done a witty pick-and-mix job on Irvine Welsh's classic novel. The movie plays as a series of surreal sketches on the highs and horrors of drug addiction, shaping in the final third, set around a heroin deal in London, into a caustic thriller. The narrator (used more sparingly than in Casino) is Ewan McGregor's Renton, the smartest of a bunch of heroin addicts who live for "scag" and a male pleasure in lists and minutiae, such as ranking the films of Sean Connery. This loose gang includes the suave and self-obsessed Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller); the gormless Spud (Ewen Bremner); and the non-user Begbie, a less gentle version of Joe Pesci. As Begbie, Robert Carlyle gives the pick of the performances, his nostrils flaring with aggression.
The movie has been criticised by ex-addicts, among others, for glamourising drugs. Bizarrely, they have missed the point, which is not so much that Trainspotting shows more of the degradation of drugs - such as junkies shitting themselves in bed, agonisingly detoxing, or finding their baby dead - than the joy (though it does). Or even that drugs do have glamour: and the film's not afraid to depict their brief, mortifying thrill. It's that Trainspotting is a satire on the drug-taking mentality: it shows how drug-takers, who think they are fleeing from stereotyped lives, merely end up living another stereotype. The movie opens with Renton rejecting a litany of shibboleths ("Choose life ... Choose a job ... Choose a career ...") - and ends with him embracing them. Its nihilism is bleaker and funnier than an endorsement of drugs: it suggests drug addiction is as cliched a life as any other. It would be hard to be more deglamourising.
If the movie has a problem it is that in going for a swift and surreal approach, it can become cartoonish. In Welsh's novel (much of the verbal richness of which is understandably jettisoned), we inhabit the minds of the characters; in the film, some are close to caricatures (the novel's Spud, for instance, is scary, as well as goofish). Like Shallow Grave, the movie is a little overdesigned, and its photography has the feel of TV (Boyle over-uses low angles to put depth into his compositions). But such faults are minor set aside the huge brio, wit and empathy. Masahiro Hirakubo's editing is out of this world. And Boyle never allows his visual invention to flag, using jump-cuts, freeze frames, and other devices pioneered by the likes of Scorsese and Kubrick. Refreshingly, here are British film-makers on the side of excitement and entertainment. You can imagine a more daring version of Welsh's novel, but not a more enjoyable one.
Cinema details: Review, page 76.
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