In the past week or so, I’ve watched three movies that are all quite different stylistically, but have a common theme. Each story has a central character that dares to take on a power elite and all three characters experience a kind of limited success.
Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones 1995) has Liam Neeson as the title character wandering around the early 18th century Scottish highlands in a Mogadon-induced trance trying to save both his honour and a large sum of money from the clutches of the evil Duke of Montrose (John Hurt) and his despicable henchman, Archie Cunningham (Tim Roth). Neeson was about half way through his ‘Mogadon period’ when he made this movie. He first discovered the value of the powerful hypnotic when playing the role of Oskar Schindler in 1993 when he realised he’d need something to combat Steven Spielberg’s directorial technique and Ralph Fiennes channelling Peter Cook into his character of Untersturmführer Amon Goethe. The addiction was at its peak when Neeson later played the role of Qui-Gon Jinn in ‘Star Wars Episode 1; The Phantom Menace’ (1999). His lines throughout were spoken by a ‘voice double’ as Neeson was barely conscious for the entire shoot.
So despite good turns from Jessica Lange and Brian Cox, the whole thing has the feel of a pedestrian pantomime plodding around a picturesque backdrop – the ridiculous powdered wigs and brocaded costumes, indeed, only serving to induce the audience to scream , ‘Watch out! Behind you!‘ when Tim Roth scowls his way into frame.
John Grisham has stated that The Rainmaker ( Francis Ford Coppola 1997) is the best adaptation of any of his novels. And I think that there’s ample evidence to agree with him. Matt Damon has the role of a tyro lawyer, Rudy Baylor, desperate for work in Memphis, Tennessee. He accepts a position working as an associate in sleazy personal injury lawyer, J. Lyman “Bruiser” Stone’s (Mickey Rourke) ambulance-chasing practice.
What I like about Coppola’s direction is his understanding that the dynamic of ‘smaller’ lives stammering and jerking their course through time and space create a kind of intimate history of America. There are shades and nuances present in Coppola’s stories that allow the characters a subtle voice in the development of a broader plot. As Damon and his streetwise colleague, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), proceed to take on an Insurance Company and their smooth legal team, we see how the quotidian lives of the bit players draw out the mores and motives of the moneyed classes. It made me think that Grisham and Coppola were made for each other.
I cannot complete this review without mentioning Elmer Bernstein’s score which perfectly evokes time and place. As ever, Coppola recognising the importance of both sight and sound in narrative detail.
I really didn’t know anything about The Whistle Blower (Simon Langton 1986) before watching it. Taking anything on trust that stars Michael Caine is always a risky proposition – but straight off – let me say that I both liked and enjoyed his appearance in this British spy thriller set on the cusp of Perestroika.
Caine is Frank Jones, a retired Naval Intelligence officer, now a moderately successful businessman – a widower with an adult son, Robert (Nigel Havers) who he both dotes on and constantly bickers with. Robert is a naïve idealist working as a Russian translator at a British Intelligence listening station. He is also having an affair with a married woman who has a child.
What sets this film apart from many others in the genre is the ordinariness of its protagonist as he struggles to unravel the labyrinthine infrastructure of the neurosis-fuelled spy world when his son dies in suspicious circumstances. Even the name, Frank Jones, is the name of a cypher, a ‘little’ man who’s lived his life, doesn’t want any trouble, any excitement. But Caine, when he’s on form, is expert at conveying stillness, passivity that masks anger – an anger that is intensely alive once released. And he gets to display those skills here, in spades.
As Frank sets about finding the truth, I wondered how he was going to get himself out of the hole that he digs for himself as the Intelligence elite (James Fox, Gordon Jackson and John Gielgud et al) conspire to thwart his efforts. But the writers, John Hale and Julian Bond, have come up with a witty and credible denouement which I will not reveal. Watch the movie for yourself and be as pleasantly surprised as I was.