Favourites on Friday - 'Gladiator'

Apart from Gordon’s driving lesson, we didn’t have anything else on today, and as it was raining (oh! what a surprise!), we watched a movie this afternoon – one I’ve watched before many times but not recently, one the boys haven’t watched at all – ‘Gladiator’.

 I know I liked the film, but I’d forgotten just how much.  It was the first time I’d seen Russell Crowe, and I was impressed; personally I think he does ‘action man’ best – have enjoyed watching him in ‘Master and Commander’ and ‘Robin Hood’ … oh, and the latest ‘Superman’.  Actually having said that, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by his abilities in ‘Les Miserables’. 

But I digress … back to the film.  It’s an action film, yes, but it’s also a good ‘character’ film.  Crowe’s character, Maximus, grows and changes according to the different conditions he’s subjected to.  His acting is ‘quiet’ and full of subtle nuances; his expressions showing a range of conflicting emotions without the need for additional dialogue.

Joaquin Phoenix as Emperor Commodus does a brilliant job creating an antagonist that is equally malevolent and pitiful.  His relationship with his sister, Lucilla, played by Connie Nielsen, borders on incestuous but he never quite crosses the line.  You want to hate him, but can’t help feeling sorry for the ‘little boy’ who continues to yearn for his father’s seemingly non-existent love.

 I so felt for Lucilla; so scared of her own brother but unable to do anything about it for she had to protect her seven-year-old son, who was heir to the throne.  She had to tread so carefully around Commodus, had to make sure she didn’t anger or alienate him, couldn’t openly rebuff his advances … all to protect her son.

I enjoyed watching great actors doing what they do best – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi – such effortless acting.  And I particularly enjoyed Djimon Hounsou’s performance as Maximus’ friend, Juba; he seemed to ground Maximus and remind him that it was ok to go on living.

The action scenes were quite intense.  I found it interesting that each battle was different, whether it was the Roman army against the Germanic barbarians; the gladiator fights, one on one, or in a group.  And it showed battle to be chaotic, hard-hitting, bloody.

Visually, it is a stunning film – from the brutal and muddy battlefield, to the dusty slave-route, to the breath-taking city of Rome … so much detail packed into every scene.  The costumes all looked very authentic; Lucilla’s robes were to die-for, even the senators’ robes looked sumptuous.

And the music … it’s one of my favourite CDs.  I remember, after watching the film in the cinema, I went straight to the music store and bought a copy of the CD.  Each piece truly enhances the scene it’s composed for without intruding, if that makes sense.

The film’s ending surprised me – I won’t say how it ended, in case anyone reading this hasn’t watched the film and is planning to – but it didn’t disappoint; I think it felt right for the film.

The boys enjoyed it, more so than they thought they would.  I really like watching films with them now – don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed our film-time – but now that they’re older, we usually end up having quite interesting discussions afterwards.  

Shakespeare and the Beeb

I do like a bit of Shakespeare, even though I was thoroughly turned off it when doing ‘Julius Caesar’ at school – our teacher had not a clue how to ‘teach’ Shakespeare and made it as dry and boring as cardboard!

It was a quite a while later before I started to appreciate Shakespeare – I think my first proper experience of it was Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Henry V’. Opened my eyes to how Shakespeare should be enjoyed – by watching it performed as opposed to reading it. I haven’t seen any plays performed ‘live’ on stage, only films – ‘Hamlet’ (with Mel Gibson); ‘Much Ado About Nothing (again, with Kenneth Branagh); ‘Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino – that was an eye-opener of a performance; I was amazed that by the end of the film, he’d succeeded in making me feel sorry for Shylock!)

The plays I’m usually drawn to are the more light-hearted ones … maybe still remembering the tedium that was poor ‘Julius Caesar’! But when the BBC announced they were going to show Shakespeare’s tetralogy – Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V under the heading 'Hollow Crown' – I thought I’d give these ‘serious’ ones a go.

When the BBC ‘do’ Shakespeare, they’re, more often than not, pretty good at it. Well, am I glad I took the time to watch them. Wow!! My Shakespeare-appreciation is now on an all-time high! The performances were, across the board, brilliant. I’d love to blather on about all of them but that would go on for pages and might just put too much pressure on blogger ;o) So I’ll limit myself to the main characters …

In the first one, 'Richard II', Ben Whishaw portrayed Richard II as a bit of an effeminate monarch who didn’t have much of a clue of how things were in the ‘real world’; he honestly, truly believed in his God-given right to rule and thought everything else would just fall into place. But by the end, when he handed his crown to Henry Bolingbroke, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Rory Kinnear as Henry was a masterclass in subtlety; he delivered his lines quietly, with conviction and even when he didn’t have anything to say, his demeanour said it all … like the moment when he realised that he could actually be king. Patrick Stewart was John of Gaunt – splendid! David Morrissey as Northumberland – wish he’d had more screen time, also James Purefoy as Thomas Mowbray. And David Suchet as York … he’s so ingrained in my mind as Poirot, it always comes as a pleasant surprise to see him in such a different role.

The next play, 'Henry IV', was also peopled with fantastic actors – Jeremy Irons, Julie Walters, Simon Russell Beale, Alun Armstrong – it seems almost churlish to pick a favourite … but I will – Tom Hiddleston. I’ve only seen him on the big-screen, mainly as Loki in ‘Thor’ and ‘The Avengers’; I found his handling of Shakespeare most enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he persuades his father that he’s more than a hopeless, carousing layabout who can be depended upon to put down the rebellion. Jeremy Irons as Henry IV reminded me what a great actor he still is; you could feel his pain and frustration as he tried to deal with his wastrel son, a rebellion, his ill-health and his constant worry about the consequences of having seized the throne, totally bypassing the ‘divine right’ bit. Here, it was Alun Armstrong in the role of Northumberland, with his real-life son, Joe, as Henry Percy or Hotspur; with his volatile moods, he was most convincing as the ‘all-praised knight’.

Part 2 was quite emotional, starting with Northumberland’s grief on hearing of his son’s death. The aging king, almost physically weighed down by his worries, finally realising that his son is a worthy successor – I confess to having a bit of a weep when he died – and the prince literally becoming King Henry V, transforming from fun-loving young man to mature leader.

And finally, 'Henry V'. Whereas I remember Branagh’s ‘Henry V’ being more like a war-film, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech so rousing, I wanted to stand and cheer (I may well have done!), this production was more ambiguous. This Henry’s words were more open to interpretation, like he himself wasn’t too sure what he believed in. And yet, it was believable, a king having doubts, wondering if he was doing the right thing in staking his claim, leading his pitifully small army against the much larger, fresher French army. His St. Crispin’s Day speech was delivered to his immediate officers, mainly his kinsmen, not to the whole army, and it was all the more poignant. Later, his somewhat clumsy courtship of the French princess, Catherine, being aware that he was more soldier than lover, was utterly charming. And at the end of all that, to be rudely reminded that this king died a mere 7 years after Agincourt, felled by dysentery!! That left me feeling sad …

Anyway, despite the limited budget, I thought the battle scenes were realistic enough, focussing more on the personal, close-up fights. And from a horse-lover point of view, I was well and truly satisfied – the horse Henry V rode into battle was super-gorgeous and there was at least one Friesian that featured in the other 3 programmes …

'War Horse'

On Thursday, the boys and I went to see ‘War Horse’.

I have long wanted to go see the stage show but the prices of theatre tickets, not to mention the cost of the 3 of us going up to London, is somewhat daunting. Doesn’t stop me hoping to, one day, still go… In the meantime, I thought the movie could tide us over ;o)

Even though I have the book, I made a point of not reading it so I could immerse myself completely in the story; I’m one of those who prefers not knowing how a story, be it book or movie, will end. To begin with, it was only going to be Liam and me going as Gordon didn’t seem that interested. But, after giving it some thought and realising that there isn’t much ‘out there’ about the First World War, in book or movie form, he decided to come too. Besides, he said, there had to be at least one ‘toughie’ there to support Liam and me, who’d no doubt be blubbing!

I shan’t say too much about the plot, but we enjoyed it. The only human you do empathise with, in my opinion, is Albert, who raises the horse, Joey. The story in the book is told from Joey’s point of view, but we don’t have Joey doing the voiceover in the film (thank heavens!). Instead the story around each human he interacts with forms a mini-plot, as it were. And where I think it works is that Joey, being a horse, is non-judgmental, so you don’t really ‘take sides’ – he’s just with the person, be they English, French or German.

Some critics and movie-goers have criticised the film for being too ‘clean’, but the scenes in the trenches and ‘no man’s land’ were pretty filthy; the only thing lacking is any ‘in-your-face’ blood and gore and blowing up of people/animals. But you don't need all that to get the message across about the horrors of war, which, again in my opinion, the film does manage to do. At their ages, my two are aware of what war is about and some of their games are set in war-zones, but this was enough for them to realise the horrific reality that was the First World War.

Another criticism was about the village where Albert and his family live – apparently it’s too ‘chocolate-boxy’. And yet, we were shown how difficult life is for them, as tenant farmers. And I think the prettiness of the village and ‘life back home’ contrasted sharply with the war zone, where everything seemed to be various shades of grey and black. Even Joey, who’s chestnut with white feet and blaze, was basically black, he was so covered with mud.

I did have a little weep here and there during the film; I noticed Liam root around for his tissue at one point … and there was one scene, which has been shown in the trailers, where Joey is running through ‘no man’s land’ on his own, which really set me off – if I hadn’t had my tissue jammed up against my mouth, I would have been sobbing loudly. And the ‘toughie’ who came to support us – I turned to Gordon at the end of the film and he had tears running down his face!!!