The IRA: a commercial break
Terry George's beatification of IRA hunger strikers is rightly overshadowed by a late offering from Michelangelo Antonioni
Sunday 12 January 1997
When a film wears its political sympathies as frankly as George's, it would be disingenuous to pretend that it can be praised or damned simply on dramatic terms; which is not to say that the film has to stand or fall by its politics alone. It's possible to imagine a drama about the hunger strikes that sided with the fasters without playing saints and bogeymen (it might, for example, give a little weight to the embarrassing fact unknown to at least one intelligent American lady of my acquaintance - that the IRA has been known to kill, maim and intimidate people who aren't soldiers or prison guards), but this isn't that film. Take the scene in which Quigley, who has been involved in a lethal mortar attack, is arrested by the security forces. The scene is a Tiny Tim-style Christmas, in which cuddly Republicans shyly exchange gifts and marvel with dewy eyes at the turkey - all suddenly blown apart when the family dog whimpers and the faceless Gestapo, sorry, British Army, smashes through the door. It's a miracle George didn't show them shooting the doggie.
There are, to be unduly fair-minded, one or two ethically concessive notes (albeit hollow and easy to miss) in the film, so let's concede that for those who mind neither its beliefs nor its brazen manipulativeness, Some Mother's Son is a fairly proficient tearjerker. Quigley's mother Kathleen (Helen Mirren, suffering nobly) is the protagonist making a journey to awakening - she's meant, in other words, to act as a surrogate for the floating voters in the audience, and though she doesn't end up sticking fuses in Semtex, it seems to be a close-run thing. An ad for the IRA, then? Maybe not, but it's hard to see why they might be peeved by it.
There is more disconcerting, if also more oblique political matter to be found in Robinson in Space (PG), Patrick Keiller's sequel to his well-regarded London. Like that film, Robinson is a series of slyly composed, faintly uncanny documentary images of English landscape and architecture, which purports to be the visual record of a seven-part journey of enquiry around the nation undertaken by the unseen, unnamed narrator (Paul Scofield) and his hypothetical friend Robinson. For the most part Scofield's measured, finicky tones supply historical anecdotes, reel off statistics about profit margins and unemployment rates, and supply quotations from the likes of Baudelaire, Bergson and Raoul Vaneigem. Evita fans will love it.
While it's highly literate, Robinson isn't narrowly literary - it amounts to more than an illustrated tract. In London, Keiller nodded to the wartime documentaries of Humphrey Jennings; Robinson often seems to reprise some of Jennings' efforts to present a transfigured English landscape. Keiller is as eager to peruse a borstal as a folly, and manages to winkle out the occult connections between the two, to engrossing ends. In this regard, Robinson is further proof that geography is the new Big Thing.
Geographically speaking, Starmaker (18) is a reprise of Giuseppe Tornatore's popular hit Cinema Paradiso; it's set among the same parched fields and battered edifices of rural Sicily in 1953. However, as the director has pointed out, this film is about a cynical exploitation of movies rather than an invocation of their magic. For the first hour or so, it's essentially a set of variations on one joke, and quite a good one: the locals are so desperate to escape poverty that they fall easy prey to a travelling conman, Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto), who trundles from village to village, conducting bogus screen tests in return for money, sexual favours or other treats.
Tornatore pulls off several amusing set-pieces - such as the episodes in which Morelli talks himself out of the hands of gangsters and manages to get paid into the bargain, or in which he is reluctantly persuaded to film a dead Mafia boss - and one exhilarating spectacle, when 2,000 flag-bearing peasants swarm across a valley to reclaim the land. But the black comedy curdles into sentimentality as Morelli takes up with a pretty orphan girl and comes a cropper. The ending, meant to resonate tragically, feels more like an abandonment than a conclusion of the plot.
The Mirror Has Two Faces (15) bears the credit "A Film by Barbra Streisand". More precisely, it is An Exercise in Screaming Vanity by Barbra Streisand, since the whole mess seems little more than a pretext for its final scenes, in which the director-producer-star blossoms from a dowdy academic into a sex-goddess of such monumental babeliciousness that she has the likes of Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Bridges slobbering all over her, so dazzlingly does she outshine the pulchritude of all their former squeezes - Elle Macpherson, Mimi Rogers ... charity forbids further comment on what dark cravings have driven this aspect of the production.
In other hands, and trimmed of excess narrative fat, Mirror could have made a reasonable latter-day screwball comedy. The gimmick is promising enough: Gregory Larkin (Bridges), a maths lecturer at Columbia, is so sick of the complications wrought in his life by falling for lovely women that he decides to befriend and marry someone he can like and respect rather than moon over. Rose Morgan (Babs), a middle-aged literature professor who still lives with her mum (Lauren Bacall, giving the proceedings more zizz with a single raised eyebrow than Streisand can milk in two hours of close-up emoting), goes along with this idealistic scheme until her hormones kick in. Resenting his lack of ardour, she jogs, pumps iron, gets big hair, and buys slinky dresses and high heels. When hubby comes home after a couple of months in Europe, he's speechless, and no wonder. His wife has turned into Miss Piggy.
Witless and miscalculated as it is, Mirror still offers a few scenes to relish, such as the first glimpse we are given of Rose lecturing to a packed (of course) auditorium of adoring (of course) students, who respond to the mish-mash of grandstanding, ignorance and false modesty which she offers by way of an introduction to the conventions of courtly love with (of course) mad applause. No one ventures to correct her pronunciation of "Turandot". Lionel Trilling, Rose's eminent precursor at Columbia, would have been too fastidious to express his horror in such low terms, but I believe the demotic American expression for Ms Streisand's performance is "a pile of BS".
Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.
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