Cinema: Everything stops for tea

Gilbert Adair
Saturday 03 April 1999 23:02

Tea with Mussolini (PG)

Director: Franco Zeffirelli Starring: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Cher, Lily Tomlin

117 mins

The Night of the Hunter (12)

Director: Charles Laughton Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

92 mins

The title says it all. On my left, tea, the quintessential English ritual. On my right, Mussolini, a dictator who didn't walk when he could strut and who - could anything be less English? - made the trains run on time. Even if we hadn't been forewarned by the film's advertising slogan, "A story of civilised disobedience", it would be a naive spectator indeed who failed to predict which set of values was due to emerge victorious.

Since, according to its credits, Tea with Mussolini is adapted from something called The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, one must suppose that the events and characters it depicts bear a passing resemblance to things that happened to the director and people he once knew. Which is, let's say, faintly bemusing, since - whatever qualities it possesses, and it has some - its storyline, at least the way Zeffirelli tells it, is not what anyone would call credible. That, as an adolescent in pre-war Florence, he was adopted by an expat clique of dotty, indomitable English ladies, fair enough. That he was as pretty an ephebe as Baird Wallace, whom he has cast as his alter ego "Luca", undoubtedly true, from the evidence of early photographs. That he joined a resistance cell which supplied false passports to Jews anxious to quit Italy once it had been occupied by the Nazis, I'm perfectly willing to believe. That one of the ladies actually did take tea with Mussolini and simpered - as one just knows she's going to simper - "Shall I be mother?", well, why not, wars make strange bedfellows. But that all this occurred as it does in the film, pull the other one.

Tea with Mussolini is what used to be described as a "wallow", whose old-lace charm (and it should be said that, despite the supposedly menacing presence of the Fascists, it's very much old lace without arsenic) derives from the fact that it never pretends to be anything but a wallow. At least in its light-textured first half, there's so much to look at in the film - Ballas and de Chiricos, frocks and fripperies, glorious knickerbockers and Knickerbocker Glories - one needn't spend too much time looking at the film itself. And if the second half is a bit less entertaining, it's not because the ladies are unceremoniously herded up and confined to a sordid barracks (don't worry, they're soon back in a nice, cosy hotel, serving tea at four o'clock on the dot), but simply because there are no more Ballas or de Chiricos for the eyes to feast on and the frocks are starting to look a trifle the worse for wear.

Then there are the performances. On my left, a trio of English Dames, Smith, Dench and Plowright. On my right, a pair of American dames, Cher and Tomlin. Of Maggie Smith's Lady Hester Random, Variety's reviewer commented that the actress "basically phoned in her patented performance", which is spot on, though I'd have written "faxed". Wearing a fossilised grimace of pinched hoity-toitiness, Smith so uncannily resembles Quentin Crisp in drag one rather regrets Zeffirelli didn't go the whole hog and cast Crisp himself.

Better are Judi Dench as a dippily extravagant Sunday painter ("I've drunk deep the wine of Firenze!") and Joan Plowright, all twinkly-eyed decency and pragmatism. Best of all, though, are the two Americans, who let some air into this Madame Tussaud's gallery. Lily Tomlin has nothing to do, unfortunately, except look leathery and ever so slightly Lesbian, but she's alive and warm and has blood flowing through her veins and one's glad to see her again. And Cher, as a wealthy, vulgar benefactor to the English dowagers who despise her (a touch of Maupassant's Boule de Suif here), is a genuine copper-bottomed movie star who knows how to inhabit a screen.

As for the young Baird Wallace, he can't yet act, but that's not too important, as he has a sweet, dimply, bashful smile that he's required to turn on for almost every occasion. It's as if, when about to film him in close-up, Zeffirelli called out "Cheese!" not "Action!". And if that's how he sees his younger self, who are we to disagree?

It's very easy to mock Tea with Mussolini. It's a lazy, thoroughly old- fashioned entertainment that could have been directed by Lady Hester herself. Yet it's also unexpectedly watchable and unpretentious - campy, too, if you're into that kind of thing - and it communicates a sense that everyone involved had a super time making it. I didn't have a super time watching it, though I must say I didn't mind it at all.

But if you feel like a real work of art, there's always the re-release of Charles Laughton's sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter, the 11th on every film buff's "Ten Best" list. It's based on a little- known novel by Davis Grubb which is persuasively defended by David Thomson in the current Sight and Sound. A magical melodrama about two orphaned children pursued by a demented preacher (played by Robert Mitchum) with, famously, the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed across his knuckles, this is one of those rare movies that are utterly sui generis, a UFO (an Unidentified Filmic Object), like absolutely nothing else in the American cinema.

Which is not to say one cannot trace the influences that shaped its uniqueness - except that it was made in 1955 and the influences are D W Griffith and F W Murnau, two of silent cinema's finest artists. The splendour of Laughton's imagery, as of his masters', is that, in purely cinematic terms, it calls a spade a spade. The moon seen in this movie is the moon such as you've never seen it before. An owl really is an owl. A frog isn't just a living, throbbing frog but the Platonic essence of frog-ness. There are films we call sleepers; Laughton's is a dreamer.

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