Broadsword Calling Danny Boy

(or: why don’t they shoot the radio operator?)

wedAn appreciation of Where Eagles Dare at 50

 

Broadsword calling Danny Boy… Broadsword calling Danny Boy…

Richard Burton’s urgent voice, its insistent velvet rasp. Broadsword calling Danny Boy…

The master-plan of British Military Intelligence is close to triumph, the heroes need a way out, but the Germans are closing in and the castle’s going up in flames and surely Clint Eastwood hasn’t got many more ammunition clips for his machine-pistol…

Broadsword calling Danny Boy!

Where Eagles Dare premiered 50 years ago, on 22nd January 1969. And still its signature line brings a smile, a glow: faintly ridiculous, and oddly heroic, a shorthand for a film that’s melodramatic nonsense and still, somehow, strangely cool and gloriously unforgettably entertaining.

The eerie stirring theme music. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, the Hamlet-and-Hollywood legend side-by-side with the spaghetti western drifter, icon of a new cool. All the grey uniforms against the snow, then the lavish colour of the banqueting hall and the gunshot wounds. Evil Aryan Gestapo man. The cable car. Heidi. The radio operator. The cable car. The school bus. The notebooks. Everything getting blown up with cartoon-style sticks of dynamite. Danny Boy calling Broadsword…

Incredible, yes. But to the British very, very simple.

cablecar

Richard Burton’s story was that he made the film happen because his step-sons ‘were fed up with me making films they weren’t allowed to see, or in which I get killed’; he asked producer Elliot Kastner ‘if he had some super-hero stuff for me where I don’t get killed in the end’. Kastner commissioned a script from Alistair Maclean, whose Second World War adventure The Guns of Navarone had been made into a high-profile hit a few years before. Maclean delivered a script in six weeks.

By the late sixties Alistair Maclean was a well-established best-selling adventure/thriller novelist. The Gaelic-speaking third son of a Church of Scotland Minister, he had served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and subsequently become a teacher. A prize-winning short story caught a publisher’s attention, and his wartime experience on the brutal, elemental Arctic convoys gave him the background for his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses (1955). Bleak as well as gripping, it’s unlike almost anything else he would write. Something of its depth lingered in his next two or three books, and its harsh context (two were wartime, one a grim Cold War espionage). But thereafter his novels tended to be a little more pop, the espionage and the action more technicolour.

Maclean’s novels fall roughly into four blocks. The first few were darker, relatively deeper and in some cases purely action rather than mystery. The sixties produced his classics, a series of usually first-person books that successfully combine sustained action and engaging mystery; he had a knack for crudely appealing characters and shrewd plotting, parachuting the reader into the middle of things and peeling away the layers of revelation. He was writing the same sort of thing in the seventies, but they were hit and miss, the suspense more perfunctory, the descriptions more overblown; some still work alright, and some don’t. The fourth and final group of books, written in the late seventies and early eighties, are generally dire: he repeats characters and even names in rambling and incoherent plots, and even when the situations get vaguely interesting he hasn’t the patience to resolve them with any kind of tension.am

Maclean also produced short stories, including the competition-winning ‘Dileas’ which prompted his writing career and is published in The Lonely Sea collection. Perhaps prompted by the success of Where Eagles Dare, which began as a film idea, starting in the 1970s Maclean produced several film outlines, including a series based around the United Nations Anti-Crime Organization; a few of them became films and a few of them were worked up as novels by other writers. He lived as a tax exile in Switzerland, and after his death in 1987 he was buried there – almost next to Richard Burton.

Alistair Maclean wrote to entertain. His books have dramatic settings, strong plots, tension and action. Goodies and baddies are clearly and strongly-defined (though one of the former frequently turns out to be one of the latter); women are glamorous, occasionally mysterious and generally passive assistants. The books are almost deliberately cinematic, and indeed by the 1970s he was writing some books with the expectation that they would be films. Where Eagles Dare was a film outline before it was a novel.

So it’s curious that the films of his books are such a mixed bunch. A couple of classics, quite a lot of meh, and some utter rubbish.look like poster

The film Guns of Navarone, like the novel, stands alone in the series, unlike anything that came afterwards. It’s a drama rather than a mystery. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven are all Best Actor Oscar winners. At the start of the 60s, it’s closer in time to the war it portrays, and closer in style to the sober war films of the 50s. David Niven really had been a commando in the war, returning from a comfortable decade-long Hollywood career and doing reconnaissance work ahead of the troops advancing after D-Day; Anthony Quayle really had operated behind the lines in occupied south-eastern Europe. (By contrast, Force 10 from Navarone benefits from period setting, good cast – Robert Shaw, replacing Gregory Peck as the rugged Mallory, was by now married to Where Eagles Dare’s Mary Ure – and a plot that sticks broadly to the original. But, twenty years after Guns of Navarone and ten after Where Eagles Dare, the tone feels a little kitsch. Watching it, we know that Harrison Ford was also in Star Wars, Carl Weathers in Rocky, and Richard Kiel and Barbara Bach in James Bond films.) Some of the films have attractions that make them still worth watching: The Satan Bug is surprisingly successful in shifting the novel’s central England setting to the south-western US, with stylish desert and modernist surroundings; Ice Station Zebra is ambitious in scope and its Cold War message, though over-complicates the plot (which seems hardly possible) and goes off the rails a bit; When Eight Bells Toll does some shrewd slimming down and tweaking of the novel’s plot to work on screen, and benefits from the class of Nathalie Delon and particularly Anthony Hopkins; Breakheart Pass has good production values (especially considering that it’s not merely Maclean’s one pre-Second World War novel, but the best part of a century pre) and sticks pretty closely to the plot while delivering the action well. Most of the rest sank quickly.

Then there were some late TV/straight-to-video films based on Maclean ideas/outlines. (His Air Force One is Down outline hijacked the US President’s plane long before Gary Oldman snatched Harrison Ford in the unrelated Wolfgang Petersen film; when it finally became a film it had an updated post-Bosnian war plot and Rupert Graves snarling a lot as an evil Serb warlord. Death Train and Night Watch had Pierce Brosnan warming up his action hero muscles in the years immediately before he got his second and successful chance at Bond.)

So what’s the secret of the successes?von hapen

Sticking to the plot helps: Maclean’s stories were never strong on thoughtful character development, and the films rarely attracted enormous budgets, so it was better to stick pretty closely to the mysteries. Period helps: Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Navarone – and indeed Breakheart Pass – have dated less than the contemporary attempts at 60s and 70s cool. Music helps, arguably related to period (the contemporary thrillers got contemporary scores which perhaps last less well; When Eight Bells Toll and The Satan Bug aren’t bad): Dimitri Tiomkin’s catchy march for The Guns of Navarone and Jerry Goldsmith’s urgent melodrama-with-wild-west-touches for Breakheart Pass are excellent; and so of course is Ron Goodwin’s score for Where Eagles Dare, with the rising drama of the main theme and the perpetually-lurking moody mystery of the incidental music, all moaning wind and low brass.

Having the right kind of star really helps. Maclean wrote approximately one kind of hero (wrote successfully, anyway): cool, hard, sardonic; ruthless while witty; fallible but unflappable. It took a certain kind of actor to make this work. Gregory Peck gets by in Guns of Navarone because it’s chatty and historical; he was too romantic, too classic Hollywood to have carried one of the contemporary thrillers. Barry Newman in Fear is the Key, Sven-Bertil Taube in Puppet on a Chain and David Birney (reviewed by the Guardian as ‘about as expressive as a constipated owl’) in Caravan to Vaccarès couldn’t really cut it; they’re too vulnerable, too weak, like actual humans in actual mysteries. Donald Sutherland’s the wrong kind of cool – hippy not hard-man – and contributes to the general floppiness of Bear Island. But Richard Harris in Golden Rendezvous, Anthony Hopkins in When Eight Bells Toll and Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass are the right stuff; Patrick McGoohan in Ice Station Zebra is ideal.

And of course Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare is right too. The lingering whiff of theatricality isn’t so bad in the period setting and the plot elaborations. And his legendary son-of-the-pit credentials – plus a lot of cigarettes – give him credible hardness that, say, Gregory Peck couldn’t produce for Guns of Navarone. (For anti-establishment celtic toughness, see also Harris and Hopkins.)

clint

Ironically, given that he’s the most iconic element of the most iconic Maclean film, the one person who’s really wrong is Clint Eastwood. He’s too modern, too laid back, the wrong kind of cool (the wrong kind of hair). But paired with Burton he somehow works perfectly. The story goes that he didn’t like much of his lines, so had them cut, leaving Burton most of the exposition and himself even more laconic. As Burton and the other veteran British character actors exude intensity in all directions, Eastwood lopes around showing everyone how to chill a bit. He speaks for the audience’s bafflement at the labyrinthine plot. While the others pursue the detailed obligations of the double- and triple-crossing, he just blows stuff up and kills everyone he meets.

In style, the two main women in Where Eagles Dare echo the lead men. Mary Ure (Mary) was first distinguished as a stage actress, one of the original cast of Look Back in Anger (and staying for the film version which Burton joined); she was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Sons and Lovers. Her personal life was as melodramatic as an Alistair Maclean plot – she took up with John Osborne when he was still married to someone else, and seems to have had a son by future husband Robert Shaw while still married to Osborne – and her career was increasingly affected by alcoholism. She died of an overdose in 1975, aged only 42, after her new play had opened badly. Her cool brittleness works rather well for the experienced secret agent she’s supposed to be, notably when she’s struggling the remember the topography of Düsseldorf to the satisfaction of the Gestapo; but she sometimes seems aloof from the film. Ingrid Pitt as Heidi, by contrast, though a rather unlikely top undercover agent, is clearly having the time of her life – and is accordingly part of the film’s appeal. One of several cast members with German and Jewish backgrounds, she spent some of the war in a concentration camp, and then had to flee Communist East Berlin. After uncredited appearances in Chimes at Midnight and Dr Zhivago – two of the greatest serious films of the century – Where Eagles Dare set the tone for her buoyant 1970s career in Hammer horrors. While committed to serious issues – the suffering of native Americans, and maintaining awareness of the holocaust – she seems to have thrived on an exuberant willingness to try anything except taking herself too seriously: she produced spy books and ghost books and Dracula books and a script for Doctor Who, compendia such as the The Ingrid Pitt Book Of Murder, Torture & Depravity and columns for magazines including Motoring & Leisure.

hapen ++

Most of the rest of the cast were experienced character actors. Michael Hordern’s warm weary authority works as well here as it did narrating Paddington. In grim irony, Ferdy Mayne (General Rosemeyer) and Anton Diffring (Colonel Kramer) had both fled Germany in the 1930s: Mayne’s family was Jewish, and – further irony – at the start of the war he had been an informant for MI5; Diffring, also with Jewish blood, apparently had to leave because of his homosexuality. Both had to make careers playing the villainous Germans they’d escaped; you’ve seen Diffring’s distinctive sharp features many times – not least in the Michael Caine/Sylvester Stallone/Pelé/Bobby Moore war’n’football spectacular Escape to Victory, as the German radio announcer producing a ludicrously-biased commentary. Derren Nesbitt, golden blond hair and thick lips and pantomime Nazism, turns out like Heidi to be a key part of the film’s style – ripe characters performed with conviction and a certain pleasure. (His TV-dominated career including playing Number Two in The Prisoner; and if you fancy a treat, look out Episode 9 of The Persuaders, in which Nesbitt plays the louche international villain in an electric blue jacket and rouched shirt and more or less for laughs: ‘Zis is not ze way to go!’, he wails at the denouement, ‘Zis is not beautiful; zis is not right!’)

Given the relative skill of the film, perhaps it’s surprising that it was former bit-player Brian G. Hutton’s fourth of only nine films as director; he also helped tweak the script. The only other one you’ve heard of is his fifth, Kelly’s Heroes, for which he kept and developed Eastwood’s Where Eagles Dare cool, and produced a brilliantly tense opening scene and let Donald Sutherland enjoy himself (though the film suffers from the Curse of Savalas, who automatically spoils any film he appears in). Hutton eventually gave up directing to become, depending whom you believe, either a real estate man or a plumber. His success with Where Eagles Dare was probably helped by having the second unit directed by Hollywood legend Yakima Canutt, who’d been a champion rodeo rider more than fifty years earlier and went on to become one of the greatest stunt-men and stunt-directors in cinema history (John Wayne learned his walk from Canutt).

And then the music, of course. Ron Goodwin’s score for Where Eagles Dare would on its own qualify him for war-tune glory; he also composed evergreens such as Battle of Britain and 633 Squadron (as well as Force Ten From Navarone, and Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and the distinctive theme for the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marples).

The film was shot over the first half of 1968, firstly on location in Austria before studio work in the UK: Major Smith might have been right about no one being up in the hills above Hohenwerfen Castle in winter, but during the summer a couple of years earlier Julie Andrews had been dancing over them – the castle is in the background during the opening scene of The Sound of Music.

table

The shoot gathered as many anecdotes as famous film shoots tend to, especially ones involving Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who was photographed with her birthday cake surrounded by those striking grey German uniforms. Eastwood called the film ‘Where Doubles Dare’ because of all the stunt-work needed; Burton’s stand-in Alf Joint claimed he had to do extra work when Burton – reckoned by one fellow actor to be drinking anything up to four bottles of vodka a day and periodically disappearing on a spree with fellow legends – knocked himself out during filming. Joint was responsible for the cable-car jump, and it cost him three teeth. Derren Nesbitt was temporarily blinded when an explosive squib malfunctioned. Having agreed to give Eastwood a Norton P11 motorbike as part of his deal, the producers had made it very clear that he wasn’t to use it before the film was finished, because of the obvious risk. Eastwood of course ignored them, and took the bike for a spin at Brands Hatch – with Ingrid Pitt along for the ride. Because you would, wouldn’t you? Especially if you were Clint.

The film received its Royal Premiere in London on January 22nd 1969. It got pretty good reviews – more for action and style than comprehensibility – and was a commercial success. Fifty years on it’s a guilty pleasure that’s just good enough for people – men – not to feel guilty admitting. The affection it attracts is not the stuff of professional criticism; it was better captured in the below-the-line public comments on a recent article about it on newspaper website, which between them quoted most of the film to comic effect and in passing awarded Anton Diffring the prize for best ever movie lip-wobble for the moment when he’s flicking through the notebook. Steven Spielberg’s called it his favourite war film.

Perhaps there’s a hint of the film’s strength in the fact that it’s arguably better than the book it accompanies – perhaps because it was envisaged as a film first. The film-makers somehow got that the droll heroisms of Maclean’s adventure thrillers weren’t appropriate to the darker context of the Second World War. The book’s third person narration was rare in this phase of Maclean’s writing, and without the usual self-deprecating commentary of his first person narratives the Smith of the book is bland and obnoxiously infallible. And perhaps Maclean, a generation older, couldn’t really get Clint Eastwood; the book’s Shaffer is a cruder stereotyped American, wise-cracking cowboy rather than cool drifter. Mary is a wet rag, forever on the brink of tears at the possibility that Smith either doesn’t love her or might be dead; Heidi is even more explicitly a lust object, a buxom-but-brilliant secret agent who has Shaffer gazing after her with his tongue hanging out. The book makes you realize what unique finds Eastwood, and Pitt and Burton were for the film.

behind scenes

There’s a lovely series of behind-the-scenes photos of the four main players relaxing with flagons of beer in what looks like Zum Wilden Hirsch tavern. Richard Burton is in full flow: he could be singing, reciting Dylan Thomas or telling one of the Larry Olivier or ‘When I was in Hamlet’ anecdotes with which he would regale the cast into the small hours. Fragile Mary Ure looks fond, a little wistful. Ingrid Pitt is sitting on Clint Eastwood’s knee, and they both seem about as fine with that as you’d expect. You could spend a book analysing why Where Eagle’s Dare works; it would be as useful and interesting as explaining a good joke. Good raw material? A lucky gathering of production values and professionals? A plot whose madness is performed with such bravado that it becomes magnificent? (Or, as one analysis suggests, because the film ‘employs a radical approach to violence, gender politics and history’?) There’s the strong impression that it works substantially because, behind the sober intensity of the performances and the memorable melodrama of the action highlights, everyone involved was just having a good time.

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Child 44

(Child 44 , dir. Espinosa, scr. Price)

What a bizarrely dull waste. The successful Child 44 book had three or four things going for it: a stunningly atmospheric opening in a winter of starvation (here rushed over and its relevance weakened), a big reveal (cut), the evolving relationship between Demidov and his wife as they first realize the emptiness of what they thought they had and then build anew (next to Noomi Rapace’s pained wisdom Tom Hardy’s Leo is a nice picture of inarticulate bewildered loyalty, war hero as premiership footballer out of his depth, but it doesn’t go anywhere) and a reasonable cat-and-mouse/chase plot. Trying to squeeze in most of the narrative of the book, but still dropping a couple of significant facts and incidents, the film manages somehow to be both too long and too rushed. The Demidovs hurry back and forth across Russia having unpleasant train incidents, the commuter experience from hell, and then the mystery gets addressed in a couple of brisk and largely unrelated bits of business at the end. Espinosa worthily films most of the book, but loses its sense and its drama. Child 44 has some vivid styling and performances (largely for decoration – Cassel is intimidating because he’s Cassel, nothing more; Oldman has to resort to maximum shouting-and-spitting to get any drama into his scenes; Dance, as so often, is paraded as a token of film gravity), but it’s otherwise as empty and lifeless as its Siberian wilderness.

The Script Hack: if we’re skipping the plot relevance of the starvation opening, we can skip the whole scene; if we’re dropping the key bits of information gained from the mid-story return to Moscow, we can drop that whole sequence; and we could trim some of the secondary scenes (the last, for example, nicely true to the book, could be 30 seconds instead of five minutes). That would create much more time and space to pace and build the mystery and anticipation and drama of the hunt, and the relationships at its heart, and still leave a tighter more powerful film.

A Little Chaos

A Little Chaos (dir. Rickman, wr. Brock/Deegan/Rickman)

It’s worth it just for one last glimpse of Alan Rickman in full uncomfortable sneer, the pained uncle, so wounded and so wise… And it’s worth it for some other stuff too, including a Winslet somehow more mature, and some truly beautiful images from Rickman as director.

But there’s a sense that – like its late lamented director – the script of A Little Chaos could have given us so much more. Having decided for dramatic purposes to get so chaotic with the truth – in reality Le Notre the head gardener was decades older than the King, not t’other way round, and Winslet’s radical female gardener simply didn’t exist – the writers don’t take much creative advantage.

Perhaps lacking confidence in any of the strands, they try to throw in too much that remains undeveloped: the back-story of Winslet’s family is worthily sad, but neither necessary nor developed into any explanation of her relationship to natural forces; supplanted mistress Jennifer Ehle’s semi-secret court of wounded women is a surprising, haunting and beautiful moment, but basically a digression; Stanley Tucci is wasted; a couple of pat metaphors aside, the tension between order and chaos doesn’t go anywhere.

Structurally, Rickman the writer-director has made Rickman the actor part of the problem. Because from the opening scene we see the fragile warmth behind the monarchical mask – and because it’s Alan Rickman and everyone knows that Professor Snape always secretly cares – he can’t carry the kind of threat required of the capricious absolute ruler. If the King was still a distant authority, his scene with Winslet and the pear tree would be a moment of revelation and transformation; instead it’s just pleasant and a bit poignant. And by then, there’s no chance that he’s going to be anything other than indulgent of the apparent hiccough of the waterlogged garden.

There’s a similar lost opportunity around Schoenaerts. His Le Notre doesn’t develop at all. He’s a bit snooty in his first scene, but after that he’s just sort of romantically moody. The potential conflict and tension between a (much more) austere, order-obsessed Le Notre and a (more) wild and wilful Winslet is never realized. Because Madame Le Notre is such a horror, and promiscuous, and already signed up to an open relationship, there’s no practical or moral obstacle to Schoenaerts and Winslet leaping into the shrubbery. There’s no tension, and no sense of achievement.

(And they don’t even leap into the shrubbery. All that mud, and all that luscious fruit, and they finally get it on indoors, which seems rather a waste – as well as a defusing of the little passion there was.)

Pruned (sorry) and chopped around a bit, the script would have more energy and grip. If Schoenaerts was really uncomfortable about Winslet’s garden planning, and about the idea of betraying his wife, Winslet and the story would have something to aim at and work on. If Rickman seemed capable of ruining lives by banishment from employment in his Eden, the risks and tensions would have consequences and impact. Say Schoenaerts is still uncertain, about the funky horticulture and about Winslet, when the more perceptive Mrs Le Notre ruins the garden to forestall the threat of losing her husband; Schoenaerts and Winslet then have their moment of near-death near-passion in the tempest; Jennifer Ehle’s boudoir then becomes a place of real refuge, from a very grumpy King and from the unknown result of the passion; the nicely-staged Mexican stand-off between the wounded ladies and the King’s posse can then be a moment of real resolution – what if that’s the moment when she realizes that the King who could be about to ruin her is the same mysterious figure she met under the pear tree? – when Winslet’s spirit and argument must convince the King, and when Schoenaerts must decide to follow his heart and speak up for her.

Instead Rickman denies himself a fitting farewell, and we’re left wanting what might have been.

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne (dir. Greengrass, wr. Greengrass & Rouse)

A confession: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all the Jason Bourne films, but I can’t distinguish any of them now. To be honest, I thought I’d already seen one where Vincent Cassel was the baddie. (Maybe that was one of the Ocean’ses, which also rather blur.)

There’s usually Damon, and an intense-hippy girl, and a car chase around a European city, and other assassins, and Revelations about Damon’s mysterious past, and some high-level Government type trying to bring him in or work him out or kill him. It’s all professionally done, and moody, and at the end Damon more or less comes out on top, but let’s face it there aren’t any real winners in the international assassination game, are there?

So here we are again. Jason Bourne: a tense, vaguely intelligent dose of international espionage procedural, breathless action and millennial angst. And an hour after the credits I’m starting to forget chunks of it. Like an international assassin who’s seen too much.

It’s all well done: a strong cast and high end production values, all skillfully handled. (Though the problem with Greengrass’s trademark dizzy action is that half the time you don’t know what’s going on. There’s a general sense of confusion, which is presumably the point. But it’s hard to care if you don’t know what to care about; and it’s rather a shame to throw all that money at a car chase, but not to give a strong idea of who’s chasing whom, or more than a general impression of a dodgem ride in darkness.)

Much has been made of how few lines Damon speaks; it’s tight, effective writing. But the general uncertainty about his character – his numb remorseless endurance as yet another bit of Government sneakiness bounces off him – makes him a blank reflecting no more than a general sense of paranoia and nihilism.

(And in trying to have its cake and eat it, the film ends up with neither: we get glimmerings of a potentially interesting idea that Damon and Cassel are in the same predicament, victims of the times/the Man/the unbearable melancholy of existence; but by making Cassel part of the villainy in Damon’s past, and making him the climactic fight rather than uber-cynic Tommy Lee Jones, the film strains at the last for a bit of goodie v. baddie exuberance that the mood can’t support.)

And so to the over-extended postscript, with Alicia Vikander the fastest-promoted probationer in history, setting up for next time the same plot all over again. We’ve seen it before, and it’s getting harder to care. The 21st Century may be this bleak, but at least leave us a bit of entertainment on the screen.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (dir. Spielberg, wr. Charman & Coen)

Steven Spielberg is getting awfully stately. He’s always been family-friendly, but there used to be an energy, a bit of sass about him. Now the challenge to authority is no more than Tom Hanks being a bit smarter than the Government men, and the whole thing is played at an unchanging ceremonial pace at least as reverential as Lincoln.

This is Cold War thriller become costume drama. Despite the genuinely tense storyline, and some normally bullet-proof anxiety scenes (crossing the wall! waiting on the bridge!), not once does the pulse get above what you’d get from watching the documentary.

It’s an extraordinary true story with the extraordinary taken out. And the interesting: there’s some potentially really thoughtful stuff about Hank’s relationship with Rylance, and where patriotism might be when American interests clash with American values, and what he’s inflicting on his family by his stubbornness – but none of it comes to anything. Hanks attracts danger (more in America than in Germany) and shame, but then his family gets to see him on TV so it’s all ok.

Risen

(Risen, dir. Reynolds, screenplay Reynolds&Aiello)

It’s a film of two halves: a rise, indeed, and then unfortunately a fall. The first half is brilliant: a credibly gritty look at Roman Empire frontier life, a fresh angle on the troublesome Jesu and his followers, and a strong story thrust as Tribune Joseph Fiennes’s investigation of a missing body in a time of political complexity and tension starts to get into some really intriguing issues of colonialism, radicalism, and belief. Fiennes is excellent, and the rest of the cast is helpfully unstarry – and, amazingly, look like they might actually have lived in that part of the world. Scenes with Mary Magdalene, Bartholomew, and the terrified fugitive legionary who witnessed the resurrection successfully humanize and refresh things over-familiar and over-reverenced.

And then… he’s risen. And immediately the film falls into a bit of made-for-TV holiness that feels like it’s been paid for by a local Church group. Crucially, the perspective shifts from the Roman point of view, sceptical or neutral, to a clearly Christian sober ecstasy: a couple of miracles-to-order and some nice skies and kumbaya. Which may be the Truth, but we’ve seen it all before, and we badly miss the intelligence and uncertainty of the first half.

Always looking on the bright side of life already seemed ridiculous and naive when the Pythons covered this ground. Reynolds and co. would have been better stretching the first half of Risen out for the whole film. The challenging, uncomfortable, disruptive power of strong belief is a much more important story for a 21st century audience, and a much more powerful film.

About Time

About Time (w.& d. Richard Curtis)

Gosh; what a mess.

I should say that I’ve been a shameless enjoyer of Richard Curtis films. First 20 minutes of Four Weddings – probably the funniest bit of sustained comedy in twenty years of films; Notting Hill perhaps slightly less funny, but a better film (had plot and Julia Roberts); loved Love Actually.

This doesn’t come close. In fact, it makes you realize weaknesses about Curtis that in previous films were covered by the comedy and the likeability: principally, a lack of confidence in any one character or storyline, an unwillingness to trust them to carry the film. Which is why Four Weddings is a set of vignettes with some running gags and one very loose linking story, and why Love Actually is basically a variety show. And why he feels he needs to rely on a voice-over, here spectacularly dumb (“We’d get the train” over picture of speeding train; this is cinema for three year-olds).

Here the one set of characters are in a linear (if bouncing back and forth a bit) plot – and he doesn’t know what to do with them. Time travel films are fun because the superficial appeal is immediately overtaken by the unpredictable side-effects, which then have to be resolved – the Back to the Futures etc. Repeatability means the ability to learn and improve when faced with a challenge – Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow – and to get new perspectives and information.

About Time lasts an hour: that’s how long it takes boy to use his powers to overcome the obstacles to being with girl. End of film, really, except there’s then another hour of a series of episodes in which he uses time travel to solve other minor problems. (Simply swapping the two halves would at least give more of a sense of progress and climax.) Where unforeseen side-effects crop up, he immediately goes back and solves them. There’s never any sense of difficulty or tension.

The Rom is just sort of pleasantly there, without drama. And there’s basically no Com, just some low-level Curtis-upper-middle-class-banter. (I like Domhnall Gleeson; but Curtis has written a script for Hugh and not for Domhnall.) Tom Hollander: wasted. Richards Griffiths and E.Grant: utterly wasted. How can a scene with those two not be funny? And as it’s not funny, what’s it doing there? Along with up to 30 other minutes of the 120.

The film does slip in two meaningful and moving thoughts at the end. But the issue about the final loss of his father feels like an add-on when there’s been no challenge or tension with that earlier (and there’s the uneasy sense that the film can’t decide whether it’s in love with Bill Nighy or with Rachel McAdams); and so does the pleasant bit of facebook mindfulness about approaching each day as if you were reliving its most positive energies. Either theme could have carried a thoughtful and moving film; this is neither.