Mozart, Music, Lust, Murder: Movie Review of Interlude in Prague

“Prague contains all the people who love my music.” ~ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Interlude in Prague)

For someone who has “period drama queen” stamped on her forehead you can imagine I was foaming at the mouth in anticipation of seeing the period thriller Interlude in Prague.

The movie was filmed on location and follows Mozart’s brief time in the city as he was writing his immortal opera based on the infamous and inveterate seducer Don Juan: Don Giovanni.

Having missed its release at the cinema I duly bought the DVD and waited for a quiet evening to indulge in my penchant…

I visited Prague for a long weekend many moons ago, so the cinematography brought back a nostalgic longing. The screen filled with panoramic scenery: vibrant pinky sunsets over the city’s ancient spires, the Charles Bridge at dawn and the cobbled streets of the old city.

Not since Miloš Forman’s brilliant film Amadeus (adapted by Peter Shaffer from his stage play) has a movie been made about Mozart.  Hardly surprising, that’s a tough act to follow!

Tom Hulce’s performance of Mozart in Amadeus was the one that was seared into my mind. How would I react to someone else playing the beloved maestro?

However,  I thought the Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard did an incredible job. I had already become a fan of his from his part as the unfortunate Richard III in the television adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s The White Princess.

Compared to Hulce’s performance Barnard’s Mozart has more depth, is more relatable; not as jocular and altogether less flamboyant and hysterical (his baby son has just died and Constanze has retreated to a spa to recover).

Barnard looks like Wolfgang and he portrays a thoughtful, but nonetheless jovial maestro; who comes across as a deeply caring person and passionate about his music.

His passion extends to his beautiful new soprano for the role of Cherubino in Figaro; the young and ambitious Zuzanna Lubtak (Morfydd Clark).

Interlude in Prague (directed by John Stephenson), was wise to focus only on one aspect of the maestro’s iconic and turbulent life: his brief time in Prague in 1787.

Many aspects of the film were historically accurate; they filmed the exterior theatre scenes at the Estates Theatre where Mozart actually premiered Don Giovanni in October 1787. In Mozart’s day it was known as the Nostitz Theatre, built in around two years for the aristocrat František Antonín Count Nostitz Rieneck. It is the only surviving theatre in the world where Mozart performed.

The concerts were given by candlelight, the internal workings of the theatre were 18th century, and in rehearsals and the composing scenes Mozart played on an authentic clavichord. The costumes were a sumptuous delight to my aesthetic eye.

Mozart’s last minute completion of his opera is shown at the end of the film in a scene in which the maestro, quill in hand, feverishly completes his autograph score. Constanze immediately hands it to the copyists who then pass the sheets with barely dried ink to the theatre director who distributes it to the orchestra with no time left for rehearsal. They must sight read for the world premiere of Don Giovanni with Mozart conducting.

Interview with the director and members of the cast:

It is December 1786 and soprano Josefa Duchek, (Samantha Barks) is on stage singing an aria from Le Nozze di Figaro.  Whilst her heavenly voice rings out into the hushed auditorium another, less pure act is being committed in a dressing room.  We do not see the participants but we know that the haughty and lecherous Baron Saloka (James Purefoy) is sowing his philandering seeds…

Josefa is the toast of Prague and afterwards in her dressing room, the licentious and predatory Baron Saloka is visiting her with lustful motives. Thwarted on this occasion by the sheer number of fans clamouring outside the door, Josefa’s relief is palpable.

When Mozart arrives and begins composing at his friend Josefa’s residence he tells her about a “diabolically wicked character for one of your operas”.

The plot of the movie cleverly parallels that of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The Baron Saloka is the unrepentant rake – but will he be punished?

The baron reluctantly agrees to offer Mozart his patronage at the behest of the enthusiastic aristocracy, who want nothing more than for the great maestro to conduct the final performance of the Marriage of Figaro and to write his next opera in their city.

Baron Saloka has more than what he states is a “professional” interest in the talented Zuzanna Lubtak, but she has lost her heart to Mozart. Although Mozart clearly adores his wife, he is unable to resist Zuzanna’s innocent charm and pure voice as they rehearse her parts in Figaro.

I really loved the scene where she sings ‘Voi che sapete’ to Mozart. If you know the aria and its meaning it has a poignant effect.

There is no clip of this from the film, so here is a wonderful performance (with the words), by Cecilia Bartoli:

The baron’s flagrant abuse of power and position is entirely befitting the dark D minor key of the opening bars of the Overture to Don Giovanni. He preys on servants and nobility alike, assured of their silence out of fear.  Unhindered in his quest for carnal pleasure, his vanity and promiscuity drive him to commit murder.

“Don Giovanni is beginning to frighten me.” ~ Mozart

He even has a scheming manservant like Don Giovanni’s Leporello. The baron is also in league with an envoy from the Archbishop of Salzburg, allied in their hatred for “the loathsome little peacock” who they aim to disgrace for his relationship with Zuzanna.

I do not wish to spoil the plot other than to say if you like thrillers, or Mozart, or period drama, or even all three, Interlude in Prague is a must watch.

There is a tragic scene in a graveyard where Mozart is transfixed on a large, foreboding dark stone statue wearing a helmet – standing before him as the character of the Commendatore.

My only disappointment was that they didn’t feature my favourite aria from Don Giovanni, ‘La ci darem la mano’.

Interlude in Prague mirror’s Mozart’s life in a wonderful blend of fact and fiction, written and created by Brian Ashby.  In addition to the setting, the story, the costumes and music, the actors are all brilliant. Purefoy’s Baron Saloka made my skin crawl…

A special featurette from behind the scenes of Interlude in Prague:

To write a story around Mozart’s time in Prague and the events that inspired his writing of a darker Don Giovanni than the one he originally imagined, makes for an engaging premise. I wish I had thought of it!

In the 230 years since its world premiere in Prague, Don Giovanni continues to serve as an entertaining yet enduring cautionary tale, being one of the most popular and widely performed operas to this day.

Don Juan and the statue of the commander by Alexander-Evariste Fragonard

I’ll bid you adieu with a vintage recording of Don Giovanni:

La La Land Will Make You Feel Like ‘Fools Who Dream’

On a rainy Saturday afternoon just over a week ago, I took my daughters to see the highly acclaimed film La La Land. They were a little reticent, and quite frankly so was I. What kind of title is La La Land?

I’d heard a lot of hype about La La Land since it sashayed across theatre screens, and wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. Although I do like happy-go-lucky, it suits my temperament, and even though I love music, I’m not usually a great fan of musicals. Give me one or the other – a film or an album, a song. It’s tough to combine drama with music and pull it off in a classy, meaningful way.

La La Land does all this and more!

The dreamy, melancholy theme tune, the catchy songs, the romantic and life-affirming story line, the sheer relatability to the central characters and their situation, the acting, the dancing, not to mention its aura of heyday glitz, the bright colours, the panache of the cinematography and lavish, golden Hollywood style will ensure this film becomes a classic.

Behind the scenes featurette:

As I alluded to in the title – to writer and director Damien Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, actors Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and the entire crew, thank you for reminding me that I’m a fool who dreams! It’s easy to lose sight of them when challenges pile up.

This film really got under my skin. I can’t get the songs and music out of my head (such irresistible, infectious ear worms), and the story told itself into my heart. Like it will into the heart of anyone who’s ever had a dream. It shone a spotlight onto all the raw moments and the beautiful ones that have made up my life thus far…

How did they manage to convey the heartbreak of shattered dreams, the hopefulness that dampens with every perceived failure, and yet so wonderfully capture the beauty of life, the fleeting encounters in those ordinary moments when all seems lost, yet can still change the course of our lives?

What a work of genius…

And who doesn’t need reminding about falling in love, about their dreams, and why they matter?

Mia and Sebastian

At the centre of this heart-warming and poignant tale are Mia and Sebastian. Mia Dolan is an aspiring actress, hoping to get her first part and struggling to hold down her thankless job as a barista in a coffee shop on the movie studio grounds, whilst attending every audition she can. She’s fresh faced, honest, talented and likeable, yet she just can’t seem to catch a break.

Someone in the Crowd:

Sebastian Wilder is a gifted and passionate jazz pianist, down on his luck, cynical about the world, hiding his pain under the surface of an overly ambivalent attitude towards his life.

“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope.”

Two souls – lonely in the pursuit of their dreams under the sparkling sky of the city of stars – destined to meet. Their first inauspicious encounter happens in a bout of road rage on the rush hour freeway. From the moment of their first narky confrontation we see their separate days unfold – badly. It’s Christmas, but the joy of the season is not reaching either of them.

City of Stars:

Mia’s car is towed away that evening and she walks home after yet another shallow, hedonistic tinsel town party, only to pause outside an upmarket supper club – Lipton’s. There’s something about the sound of the piano emanating from within that draws her to step inside and listen. She instantly recognises the handsome man at the piano as the very same one who’d rudely beeped her as he passed her in her car that morning.

There’s something about his playing, she’s ready to make another friendlier introduction, but on his way out, he pushes past her without acknowledging her. What she doesn’t know is that he just got his head chewed off and was fired by the restaurant owner for straying from the set list of carols and playing his own jazz music.

At this point they’re an unlikely couple, but fate has another hand to play, this time at another party. They soon meet again: Mia as a guest, trying to shake off unwanted attentions of a bore, and Sebastian as a portable piano player in the two-bit band entertaining them. This time they have a conversation and overcome a little of the resentment each feels towards the other.  After the party they walk down the hill and discover it’s actually a lovely night.

A Lovely Night:

Gradually they strike up a friendship and romance, including the dreamy, dazzling Planetarium scene.

Sebastian draws Mia into his world of jazz. He shows her the magic made by jazz musicians jamming in the Lighthouse Cafe together, sharing their emotions through their instruments, recreating the atmosphere that defined a whole era, indeed a whole city. But jazz is dying, and Sebastian wants to invigorate it and show the world how amazing it is. He wants to open his own jazz club. The trouble is, he doesn’t have the money and he’s picked a lousy name.

“I think you should call it Seb’s because no one will come to a place called Chicken on a Stick.”

Mia gives him the name and draws out his logo, but his ego won’t listen. She tells him of her aunt, the one who inspired her love of writing and drama. He suggests she writes her own material to perform, that way she’ll get taken more seriously. She names her one-woman play ‘Farewell Boulder City’, after her home town.

They fall deeply in love, both striving for themselves and encouraging each other in their dreams, but inevitably, as it usually does, life gets in their way. Sebastian is asked to play the piano part in a new, upcoming jazz group, the Messengers, who like to perform a fusion of traditional and modern jazz. He’s not sure at first, he doesn’t quite trust the singer Keith, but the money is good and they’ve already got a record deal, but they have to go on tour.

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

Mia is naturally concerned, she will miss him, but she tries to point out that it’s taking him away from his dream of opening him own more traditional club. Mia works on her play, and gets a chance to perform it at a small, local theatre. She’s full of excitement and anticipation on her opening night, but when she steps out on the stage there’s only a handful of people in the audience, and crucially, Sebastian isn’t one of them.

He’s busy at a photo shoot for the Messengers that he thought wasn’t until a week later, only to arrive at the theatre after a demoralised Mia has finished with acting and with him.

It’s a fact of life that many of us give up after overhearing an unkind remark, we assume that’s how everyone probably thinks, and decide we can’t do it. Mia is devastated, her play has flopped and worst of all, she has no support from her boyfriend on the night she needed it the most. She leaves Los Angeles and Sebastian to return home to her parents in Boulder City.

Her dream is in tatters and her relationship over. But the next morning a dazed Sebastian gets a phone call from an unknown person looking for Mia. It turns out to be a film producer, she had seen and loved Mia’s performance and wanted her to audition for a film set in Paris.

“I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”

Sebastian promptly jumps into his vintage, open top car and high tails it to Boulder City. All he knows is that Mia had told him she lived opposite the library. He parks and beeps, much to the chagrin of the neighbourhood and a surprised Mia.

This was a magical moment for me. Mia had retreated into her shell, all vestige of self-confidence seemingly gone, even after hearing the good news, there’s no way she’s going back to Hollywood just to be humiliated again. But Sebastian won’t take no for an answer. He makes her an offer, he’ll pick her up at 8 am and if she’s there he’ll take her to the audition, if she’s not then it’s over, she wasn’t really serious about her dream.

At this point in the third act of the film we see them living more in their essence than their identities, and the turning point in both their lives is inexorable.

Luckily Mia shows up, and her audition is brilliant. It made me cry. From that point on I couldn’t stop crying. I’d had a lump in my throat almost from the start.

Fools Who Dream:

I won’t reveal the ending; I don’t want to spoil it for you, other than to say it’s perfect.

I know it’s figments of imagination, but it re-affirmed to me that it’s okay to be fools who dream. And that’s what stories are meant to do, open us up to possibilities, let you live in someone else’s shoes for a while, because they’re not that different to yours. We all live vicariously through the written word and the big screen.

There has to be a fire burning inside, it’s the best way we bring light and warmth into other people’s lives.

“People love what other people are passionate about.”

What Could Have Been:

Even if you don’t like musicals or jazz, this film will make you see the beauty of your dreams, and for that reason alone you should go and see it. In my humble opinion, La La Land deserves all the awards and accolades that have been heaped on it to date, as well as the ones to come…

Oscars anybody?

Movie Review: A United Kingdom – The Love That Defied an Empire

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Just as my daughters have Australian ancestry on my dad’s side of the family, they also have ancestors from South Africa on their paternal side. Their grandmother grew up in Serowe, the same town as Botswana’s founding father. So to get the girls in touch with their roots, (and for a trip down memory lane for Hazel), we recently saw the epic love story of an African Prince, Seretse Khama (chief of the Bamangwato people, grandson of Khama III, their king), and an English woman, Ruth Williams, in the stunning film A United Kingdom.

It is an unashamed, sweeping biopic of love against all odds. A United Kingdom tells the true story of the Khama’s much maligned, highly publicised marriage in London in 1948 and its dire consequences; not only for the couple personally, but also around the political fallout for the British Empire and South African government, which made it even more powerful and poignant.

This film blew me away. The acting felt so real and visceral, David Oyelowo (whose onscreen presence is mesmerising), and Rosamund Pike as his strong-willed English rose, were superb as the Khamas. The script, the cinematography, the way the story was portrayed and directed by Amma Asante so sensitively and closely to the facts contributed to an authentic, immersive and emotional experience.

I could see Hazel was in tears also at the end of the movie. She had met Seretse and Ruth Khama when she was a young girl growing up in Serowe, only a year or so older than my eldest daughter Emily, now aged 9. The Khamas were friends with her parents and had come to visit the Palmer family at their farm in Serowe. Hazel was told not to stare at them, as mixed race couples were rare in those days.

Emily and Ruby’s great-grandparents (the Palmers) had welcomed the couple with a gift when they first arrived in Seretse’s homeland as newlyweds, a hamper of fresh fruit and vegetables grown on their farm. It was an act of kindness that the Khamas obviously appreciated after such a hostile reception from his uncle Tshekedi – who was acting as regent.

Seretse Khama, Prince of Bechuanaland (Botswana), and his white, bride, Ruth Williams, faced overwhelming opposition to their union from her family, his uncle, the British Empire and the South African government.

Seretse and Ruth Khama in Serowe

Seretse and Ruth Khama in Serowe

Hazel recognised many of the views in the vast, scenic shots of Botswana around Serowe. Her parents are buried in the same cemetery as the Khamas on Memorial Hill, which overlooks Serowe.

Although Emily kept whispering in my ear that she was bored in the early part of the film she became more engrossed as it went on. I felt it was important for her to appreciate what love means regardless of race, and to understand the deep racial divisions in society at that time.

I’ve never felt so ashamed to be British as I sat and watched how the Labour government at the time, (and then the following Conservative one) waged war with extreme prejudice and staggering self-interest on a couple whose only sin was to love each other. Culturally they couldn’t have been born further apart, but spiritually they were perfectly aligned.

It’s one thing to face personal attack for your choice of partner, but to remain strong in the face of two nations’ bullying is nothing short of a miracle. Seretse was prepared to give up his destiny as King of Botswana in order to be with Ruth. What an example of love and integrity to set your people!

He makes a magnificent speech at the beginning of the film, imploring and winning over his people in a meeting of the Kgotla (a traditional place of tribal meetings).  He comes across as noble, honest, and a fine orator, only concerned with the welfare of his people and not with the petty discrimination of colour. He is well educated (with a degree in law from Balliol College in Oxford), compassionate, smart and strong, all attributes which are tested to the limit as their story unfolds.

Meanwhile, on his travels around the tribal lands Seretse discovers an American mining company has started prospecting for precious gems. He knows that a large diamond find would allow much needed investment and infrastructure for his people, providing he can leverage the discovery ahead of the British.

Seretse travels to the UK to plead his case with the British government as his grandfather had previously been granted a protectorate for Bechuanaland by Queen Victoria. However, Canning tells him rather smugly that instead of recognising him as the rightful King of Bechuanaland the British government has instead exiled him from his homeland.

The couple are distraught as Ruth has to give birth alone in Africa whilst Seretse seeks assistance from various lawyers and human rights activists to further his cause in London.

Jack Davenport is great as the overbearing Alistair Canning, the British commissioner to South Africa, who is underhand and does his best to obfuscate their situation at every turn. He uses the excuse that Seretse’s uncle has requested their intervention and he also hides the true outcome of a report into Seretse’s ability to rule Botswana.

“It should now be our intention to try to retrieve what we can of our past. We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.”

~ Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, speech at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, 15 May 1970, as quoted in the Botswana Daily News, 19 May 1970.

Meanwhile Ruth has stoically continued her life at their African home, helping the women and getting to know the people. She has also made a televised appeal to the British government pleading for Seretse to be allowed to return to his homeland, but to no avail.

During their time apart, through her actions, Ruth has endeared herself to Seretse’s tribe.

Eventually Ruth returns to England with their baby daughter and the pair fight against the injustice of an empire with a vested interest in uranium mining and the political stability of South Africa under the control of the disgusting apartheid regime.

The film aroused intense anger in me for the majority of the viewing time, along with sadness, admiration, respect and the vicarious joy of the Khamas.

1956, Croydon, Surrey, England, UK --- Seretse Khama - Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

1956, Croydon, Surrey, England, UK – Seretse Khama – Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Eventually their plight is heard in court, where Seretse gives up his right to rule as King. The couple ask for permission to travel to Bechuanaland on a trip to put some family affairs in order, and whilst there he and his uncle make reparations and heal their rift. In another stirring speech, Seretse Khama calls for independence and the country’s first democratic elections.

Behind the scenes featurette:

From that moment on their personal destiny and that of Botswana begins to be fulfilled. History shows that Seretse Khama was a great leader as the country’s first president, overseeing rapid economic growth and prosperity as well as social reforms. Ruth continued with her humanitarian work and bore him four children, and their second child (first son), Ian Khama, is the fourth and current president of Botswana.

Statue of Sir Seretse Khama outside the Parliament building in Botswana.

Statue of Sir Seretse Khama outside the Parliament building in Botswana.

It really says something when Nelson Mandela himself was inspired by Seretse and Ruth Khama and what they achieved in Botswana as his vision for what could be done in South Africa.

To watch a beautifully made film that is based on actual events that inspires us to follow our hearts, whether it be for love, or any other goal or dream, no matter the obstacles, is worthy of a couple of hours of your time.  It’s a must see in my humble opinion…

Film critic Mark Kermode also gives his stamp of approval:

It was a love story that I knew nothing of, but it’s not very often that our personal family history coincides with a nation’s history, and I do believe the film does them justice.

“We are convinced that there is justification for all the races that have been brought together in this part of Africa, by the circumstances of history, to live together in peace and harmony, for they have no other home but Southern Africa. Here we will have to learn how to share aspirations and hopes as one people, united by a common belief in the unity of the human race. Here rests our past, our present, and, most importantly of all, our future.”

~ Sir Seretse Khama (speech at the national stadium on the 10th anniversary of independence in 1976.)

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens (spoiler-free)

On Saturday afternoon my brood and I were transported to a galaxy far, far away…

With 3D glasses perched firmly on our faces, popcorn at the ready, the familiar yellow words began slanting across the screen and John Williams’s magnificent music score surrounded us. This movie was part of their Christmas treat and expectations were high.

Chewie and Han Solo

All I can say is that JJ Abrahams had the force with him when he made this movie. To have the pressure of making the sequel to the movies that hold such a special place in the hearts of millions of fans must have been both an exciting and terrifying prospect.

By now you’ve probably seen a few reviews about this film, so I doubt I’ll say anything that you’ve haven’t already read. However, it’s my honest opinion, adding to the chorus of high praise.

It’s very rare that the hype of a film actually lives up to its own hyperbole, but in this case; in my humble opinion, it most certainly does. My eighteen year old son (who absolutely loved Star Wars and watched the first six films numerous times growing up), turned to me and said, “Mum, that was sick!” For anyone with a teenager you’ll know that’s the highest praise he could bestow on it.

For me personally, it was like stepping back briefly into my childhood. Episode’s IV-VI are so deeply embedded in my early memories that paradoxically, The Force Awakens felt familiar and also different.

The official trailer:

What I really loved about it was the two main characters, (played by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) are both unknown actors portraying unsung heroes. You see Rey (Daisy Ridley) scavenging for old space ship parts on the arid planet of Jakku, and you sense that she is more than her circumstances suggest. Her encounter with the fleeing droid BB-8, carrying a very important map, and the AWOL Storm Trooper Finn, brings the might of the dark side to her desert home.

The edge of our seats were definitely getting more wear and tear than normal!

The film unfolds with strong focus on the characters and their stories, and the cinematography is very faithful to the themes and style of the first three films that George Lucas made. It has a true sense of reality, thankfully no overkill of CGI that can often overtake the actual people in a film.

As you would expect, you cannot have light without dark, and the darkness is infiltrating the galaxy in the form of Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, commander of the ruthless and shadowy First Order under the supremely evil leader Snoke, (played by the master of scary voices, Andy Serkis).

It always boils down to the eternal battle between good and evil, and only the Jedi can bring balance to the Force.

The special effects are amazing as you would expect, but they are more a part of the film than the central focus. The chases are breath-taking, the plot twists and turns dramatically as the film progresses and the appearances of the ageing lovable rogue Han Solo, General Leia Organa, the walking carpet Chewbacca and the fastest rust-bucket in the galaxy, the Millenium Falcon, are nothing short of brilliant. I think the new, comical but loyal droid, BB-8 will become as iconic as R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Star-Wars-BB-8

It left me hungry for more, to find out exactly what happened to Luke and how things went bad for Darth Vader’s children in the thirty years after they defeated the Empire at the end of episode VI. I expect those questions will be answered in good time in the next two episodes. The family saga will continue…

So I’ve deliberately kept this post short, because I don’t want to give away any major plot points if you haven’t yet seen the film.

Even my thirteen year old son was impressed, which is no mean feat. So it’s five thumbs up from me and my sons. If you enjoyed the original films I think you’ll be satisfied that this long awaited sequel hits the spots that other sequels just can’t reach.  Its legendary characters have made pure movie magic once again.

Star Wars The Force Awakens has smashed box office records for an opening weekend, (having already made around $238 Million on its first three days of screening in the US and $517 Million globally), which is hardly surprising – it’s a great film that’s part of one of the most beloved and iconic film brands in the world. Star Wars has ignited many imaginations over generations and holds a place of true affection for countless individuals as it reminds us of the hero’s journey.  All our journeys.

We may not be fighting the First Order or the evil Empire, but we face our own struggles in our daily lives, and boy does it feel good to get involved for just a couple of hours with characters who have bigger problems than most of us. Life and death issues…the threat of annihilation…

We emerged from screen five like proper space cadets; mute from having our minds blown away…

If Master Yoda had seen the film, I’m pretty sure he’d say something like: see it you must. Depends upon it, your life does.

Film Review: Mr Turner

“Why, Mrs Somerville, you have the arm of a blacksmith.”

Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s 2014 multiple Oscar and BAFTA nominated biopic about one of Britian’s most revered artists, the romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, spans the last twenty six years of his life.

Mr-TurnerI love Turner’s paintings, but I didn’t know much about the man or his life, and I think the film went a good way to furnishing me with the facts. Actually, it did more than that. It instilled an admiration for the man beyond his artistic genius, such as his work ethic, honesty, passion and down to earth personality, despite his elevated position in society due to his prodigious talent.

Turner’s art was so popular that it was responsible for raising the prominence of landscape painting to the same level as that of history painting in his lifetime.

Being a ‘period drama queen’, it was probably a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy this film!

Although it’s a dramatised biopic, so much about this film felt authentic. It was visceral and gritty, absolutely realistic, but those elements of the story were also beautifully interspersed with some amazing cinematography of the British countryside, atmospheric art studios and galleries.

Mr-Turner-sceneryViews of rugged mountains, the sea and the light on the coastline all evoked scenes that you can imagine he painted. There is even a moment where he is tied to the mast of a steam boat in a snow storm, so that he could later accurately paint the event. He did suffer for his art…

“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm. Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm. One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.” ~ David Markson, (Wittgenstein’s Mistress).

JMW - Snow_Storm_-_Steam-Boat_off_a_Harbour's_Mouth

It’s wonderful that Mike Leigh made sure that the use of light, (which Turner was famous for), was a visual delight throughout the film. I loved the way the light streams through the window of his studio, and his encounter with the use of a prism courtesy of the witty and intelligent Scottish science writer and polymath, Mrs Somerville.

I would say that Timothy Spall’s portrayal of this prolific and eccentric painter is his finest performance bar none. To help prepare for the role of Turner, Spall had painting tuition from Tim Wright for two and a half years prior to filming, so that he would appear authentic in the painting scenes. It clearly paid off.

The viewer is treated to scenes of Turner travelling everywhere with his large kit bag, spitting on his canvases, blowing dried paint on them, and applying his forceful brush strokes.

Probably one of the best scenes in the film is when he enters the Royal Academy (which is like another home to him), and has upbeat interactions with his fellow Academicians, such as John Constable, George Jones, C.R. Leslie, David Roberts, and Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, and is shown putting the finishing touches to a seascape by the rather dramatic addition of a red buoy, much to Constable’s annoyance:

Spall gives a very lusty portrayal of the rather portly, rugged and enigmatic artist, a man who at heart liked the simple pleasures of life; his work, travelling, being at one with nature, his food and drink, sex and female companionship. When we are first introduced to Mr Turner, he has just returned to his home in London from a trip to the Netherlands.

On the one hand Billy Turner comes across as gruff, (he does a lot of grunting), curmudgeonly and secretive, (for instance he later leads a double life as ‘Mr Booth’ with his lover in Chelsea), and yet on the other hand he is also incredibly kind, lending £50 to troubled artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, later relinquishing the debt when Haydon falls victim to financial and personal misfortune. It becomes obvious that even though he is a very private man, he has integrity, and that he prefers simplicity and comfort, even though he is accustomed to grandeur.  

His close relationship with his father, who works with him in his studio, purchasing and mixing paints and gathering materials for his work, is totally heart-warming. My sympathy went out to his melancholy housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who comes across as a rather pitiful creature that Turner uses to satisfy his sexual needs and who worships him, but her affection and devotion is not returned.

Strangely, Hannah is the niece of the even more hapless Sarah Danby, an earlier lover of Turner’s and mother of his two daughters. One feels Turner would rather forget the whole affair, but her random visits put pay to that!

mr-turner-timothy-spallMuch is made of Turner’s trips to Margate to paint the seascapes; and the development of his relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, the welcoming landlady of the guest house he stays in during his time there. They eventually become lovers and she moves to London so that they can live together. They make each other happy in their dotage.

We also see how over the years his journey to the coast by boat is replaced with the invention of the steam train and the Great Western Railway, which Turner also committed to canvas.

JMW Turner - Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_Railway

“It was a masterpiece. Nobody bought it. (Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844)” ~ Anthony Bailey, (Standing in the Sun: A Biography of J.M.W.Turner).

There are quite a few touching moments, such as when he is a guest of one of his wealthy patrons, the 3rd Earl of Egremont at his hereditary home, the magnificent Petworth House in West Sussex, (which incidentally is also featured in my novel, The Virtuoso).

JMW Turner - Petworth House

The camera floats along Turner’s paintings which are hung low to meet the eye line of dining guests, as he chats with Miss Coggins, who is playing Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ piano sonata. He asks her to play Purcell, and she obliges with Dido’s Lament, to which Turner sings along.

There is another scene where he enters a brothel, and meets a young girl for the first time. He asks her to reveal herself and arranges her seductively on the bed, and then proceeds to sit down and take out his sketch book.

Another is of Turner on a boat with friends and fellow artists on the Thames, when they witness ‘The Fighting Temereire’ Steam Boat being led to her berth to be dismantled, and it is suggested that Turner should paint her for posterity.

JMW Turner - The_Fighting_Téméraire_tugged_to_her_last_Berth_to_be_broken

We are also introduced to the young Victorian writer, art critic and patron John Ruskin, who adores and reveres Turner, (he is beguiled by his painting The Slave Ship), but the viewer is made painfully aware that he hails from a different class. It is a rather satirical portrayal of his character, lisping away, full of hubris, and quick to criticize Turner’s landscape predecessor, Claude Lorrain.

We see that despite his relative fame while still alive, Turner is also victim to changing public tastes as his style of art grows more ethereal and intensely light focused. He winces in the shadows when the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are inspecting the Royal Academy exhibition, and the monarch is definitely not impressed by Turner’s “yellow mess”. Similarly, he is mocked in the theatre for his later style of painting. He realises that the new kids on the block, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, are now in vogue.

One of the last scenes in the film takes place in Turner’s home gallery, when he is made an offer by a wealthy industrialist to purchase all of his paintings for the sum of one hundred thousand pounds. Still a significant sum of money by today’s standards; an absolute fortune in Turner’s era. But Turner just snorts and replies, ‘With somewhat of a heavy heart, it’s out of the question.’ He declines the generous offer, as he has bequeathed his completed artworks to the British nation.

If there is one small criticism of the film, it is of the modern, eerie soundtrack and music. I never thought that would be the case, but to me it felt incongruous to the subject matter it was meant to convey, and would have been more suited to a thriller. I would rather have heard music from the romantic period, which in my opinion would have suited the film better. Perhaps they were going for an atmospheric feel to align with the complex character of J.M.W. Turner.

Here is a fascinating short film about the artistic aspects of bringing Mr Turner to the big screen:

In summary, Mr Turner is a must watch film that draws you into J.M.W. Turner’s world and has a superb cast, screenplay and locations that brings his story vividly to life. I’m sure I will revisit the movie repeatedly now that I have the DVD in my possession!

What surprised me from the film was Turner’s constant sketching. He would sketch everyday events often, which is probably why his output was so prolific. He was said to have completed around 19,000 sketches during his lifetime, as well as hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings. He was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art at the tender age of 15, when it was under the leadership of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

For art lovers who want to know more about Turner’s life and work here is a fabulous documentary:

He was not just an inspiration and source of pride for the British, his paintings influenced the Impressionist movement in France, and were carefully studied by Claude Monet.

“Unfortunately I met Mr. Turner at the Academy a night or two after I received this letter; and he asked me if I had heard from Mr. Lennox. I was obliged to say ‘yes.’

‘Well, and how does he like the picture?’

‘He thinks it indistinct.’

‘You should tell him,’ he replied, ‘that indistinctness is my forte.’” ~ George Walter Thornbury (The Life of J.M.W. Turner).

Beethoven’s Heroism

“The piece is a monster. I have never seen anything like it; it may not be music at all.” ~ Wenzel Sukowaty (from the BBC film Eroica).

In honour of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 244th birthday on 17th December 2014, and the composer chat conducted by my esteemed musicians and friends on Twitter (hashtag #LvBchat), I thought I would focus on his most heroic of compositions – the Sinfonia Eroica. It was composed during the summer of 1803 and completed in April 1804.

The 9th of June 1804 was a very important day for our dear Ludwig, but it was also a watershed in the history of classical music, absolutely critical to the future development and evolution of music and for composers and artists in general. Beethoven set the benchmark. However, I doubt that Beethoven realised the profound significance of what he had achieved, he was just doing what he did best – following his heart and his muse.

This was the day that his legendary third symphony in E-Flat Major, opus 55 was first privately performed at the Bohemian residence (Castle Eisenberg), of Prince Franz Lobkowitz, to whom the work was dedicated, and one of Beethoven’s most ardent supporters and patrons. Rehearsals prior to the public premier of the symphony (which took place on 7th April 1805 at the Theater an der Wien), were held in the concert hall of the prince’s Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna, (later named the Eroica Saal after this momentous composition), and was to unleash music of the likes the Viennese had never heard before. Now that’s brave!

Ceiling of the Eroica Saal at the Palais Lobkowitz

Ceiling of the Eroica Saal at the Palais Lobkowitz

A temporary respite from the hostilities between Napoleon and Europe was holding. Beethoven embraced this revolutionary turmoil and the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and firmly placed himself as an artist at the centre of his third symphony by writing what he felt, and what he wanted, breaking away from the accepted symphonic structures and norms at the time. It was a beacon of originality. He was a man who had entered into the most creative period of his life.

Eroica: The Day That Changed Music Forever

The BBC dramatised the event of the private premier of the third symphony in the film, Eroica, with the strapline: the day that changed music forever. It was first broadcast in 2003, written by Nick Dear and directed by Simon Cellan Jones. The film follows Ludwig, Ferdinand Ries, the Lobkowitz family, friends, and the musicians as the new music unfolds on an unsuspecting audience, and takes you on Beethoven’s personal journey into the history books.

What I love about this film is the care and accuracy with which it was made, drawing on the recollections of Ferdinand Ries (Beethoven’s pupil and secretary), and from reports about the event.

Ian Hart plays Beethoven just how I imagine him; enthusiastic about his music, bold, dynamic, forthright, (blunt even), brutally honest, brusque, impatient, with frequent outbursts of temper, but underneath that he displays a simmering passion and tenderness for his lover, the widowed Countess Josephine von Deym.

The Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique directed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner perform the music on authentic, period instruments (none of the violins have chin rests, which were yet to be invented), and in the numbers and proportions that Beethoven intended it for.

I love the way it switches from Beethoven walking with Ries to the Lobkowitz residence, to the palace staff going about their business, getting ready for the event, and the musicians, especially the horn player, Otto, who is known to Beethoven.

The camera work is very sensitively done, moving around the sections of the orchestra as they tackle this new, epic work, and capturing their shocked reactions at the nature of the notes and markings presented to them by Beethoven’s copyist Wenzel Sukowaty.

It is longer, more difficult and unlike anything they have ever attempted or played before, and a few re-starts are required until Beethoven is satisfied that they have reproduced the sound he wants.

Eroica film still

It’s unthinkable that a modern orchestra would sight read a new symphony at its premiere (private or not), let alone consume beer before doing so. They might start seeing more than one baton!!

There are so many magical touches, one being the introduction of Beethoven to Prince Lobkowitz’s cousin, Count von Dietrichstein; and when asked if he is a land owner, Beethoven proclaims that he is a brain owner! Dietrichstein shows himself to be egotistical, ignorant and rigid in his ideas about music, but strangely his views on Napoleon Bonaparte turn out to be erudite.

We see a scene where the musicians, exhausted from their exertions are having a break and some lunch, and begin to debate the war and Napoleon’s agenda.

Beethoven’s views that an artist is on the same level as the nobility, are borne out by his behaviour and of course Ries’s comment, ‘that he doesn’t accept the inequality,’ to the copyist, who replies, ‘men have been executed for less.’ It could be considered heroic that Beethoven never compromised his artistic integrity for the whims or desires of any of his wealthy and titled patrons.

There is a very endearing moment when Beethoven and Josephine are alone discussing his marriage proposal, and she refers to him as ‘Louis’. However, it does not go well.  It’s my personal view that Josephine was his ‘Immortal Beloved’.

In the third movement we glimpse Beethoven’s distress and distracted expression as he deals with his rejection from Josephine, whilst directing the scherzo marked allegro vivace, which personifies his hot-blooded nature.

The elderly Haydn’s entrance just before the start of the fourth and final movement is brilliant, as is the ensuing exchange of comments about students, and what idiots they are. The inference is not lost on Beethoven, who was championed by Haydn and became his student as a young man in 1792.

I’m going to shut up now, and let you watch the film uninterrupted!

Beethoven’s idealism and his abhorrence of tyranny are at the root of the Eroica. The fervour of freedom embodied by the Eroica is just as relevant and ground-breaking today as it was 210 years ago. There is always room for heroism in our lives!

Neither before or since, has music evoked such passion as Beethoven’s. He was in-tune with his creative spirit, and had endured more than his fair share of suffering; so who better than Herr Beethoven to write music that represents the struggle and overcoming of life’s challenges?

When asked by a close friend some fourteen years later, which was was his favourite symphony, Beethoven responded without hesitation: ‘the Eroica.’

We know that with the inevitable onset of his deafness and heart-break, that his heroism would eventually far outshine what he achieved in the summer of 1804. But for me, it’s the starting point of his heroism, it’s the moment we are blessed by his courage and the music that gives us a first insight into the depth of his spirit.

“He gives us a glimpse into his soul. Everything is different from today.” ~ Joseph Haydn (from the BBC film Eroica).

Movie Review: Why I Love The English Patient

“We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.”

There are many reasons why Michael Ondaatje’s literary novel, The English Patient, dramatised in 1996 by award winning screen writer and director Anthony Minghella, is my favourite film. It’s just breath-taking on so many levels.

TunisiaThe geography of the film’s narrative is every bit as epic as the geography of its location: North Africa. The cinematography is mesmerising, as we see the opening scenes of the brush strokes on paper, and look down from the Tiger Moth over endless Sahara sand dunes, and then we hear that exotic music, by Gabriel Yared with the haunting voice of Márta Sebestyén.

The sweeping shots of the desert and the contours of the dunes are reminiscent of the female form, which adds to the sensory aspects of the film. Also, I never knew what a suprasternal notch was beforehand!

The characters are making maps of the desert, but they are also mapping each other’s souls.

Although it’s brutal in many aspects, both visually and in the writing, with the patient’s horribly burnt body and its theme of war and betrayal, the film is also deeply sensual, portraying beauty as well as pain in the all-consuming love the characters feel as they are embroiled in the carnage.

The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack (Harry Rabinowitz, As Far As Florence):

Egypt during the Second World War is the backdrop for the intense fictional love story of cartographer and aviator, Count László de Almásy and the feisty married English woman, Katharine Clifton, which gives a unique context to their story in history. Then there’s the acting. Ralph Fiennes is at his finest! The chemistry between Ralph and Kristin Scott Thomas, who play the doomed lovers, is palpable. Everything about this film is perfect. The music, the setting, the script, the casting, the way it unfolds on screen…

In fact, there’s more than one love story going on. There’s also the Canadian nurse (Hana), who cares for László in his last days, setting them up in the partly destroyed and deserted Italian villa San Girolamo. She gradually coaxes his poignant memories from him, which is how we learn of his love for Katharine. But Juliette Binoche, who plays Hana, has lost everyone she cared about earlier in the war and believes she is cursed. As she cares for the English patient whilst coming to terms with her own emotional scars, she falls in love with the courageous and dignified Indian bomb disposal expert, Kirpal Singh (Kip), played by Naveen Andrews. The scene where they meet for the first time is pure genius.

Then there’s David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), the bitter and traumatised allied thief turned spy, looking for vengeance against the man who handed aerial maps to the German’s, leading to his subsequent capture and torture. Their coming together at the villa changes them all, irrevocably.

The_English_Patient_PosterThe film is beautifully shot, mostly through the patient’s flashbacks, starting at the tragic end and then taking you to the beginning of their story, when Katharine and her husband Geoffrey arrive in the desert to join the group for their map making expedition. You can see from László’s expression as he watches Katharine when she stands before them reading Herodotus, telling the party of the Royal Geographical Society explorers the story of Candaules and Gyges; that it’s love at first sight.

The tension and social differences between them leaps out from the screen. His following her in the market and the purchase of the thimble, the discovery of the cave of swimmers at Gilf Kebir, the first time they make love. Its intensity is visceral.

As well as the passionate love affair at the centre of the story it’s also about forgiveness and the power of the human spirit under almost unbearable circumstances.  All around them, as war is breaking out and lives are being destroyed, everyday human emotions are magnified and motivations heightened.

Laszlo and HanaIt’s an emotional experience to see how the lives of the four central characters are changed by their interactions with each other, and the redemption that Hana feels from her kindness towards the English patient. Perhaps the most moving of all, is the closure and passing for the central character himself (loosely based on the real László Almásy), as we understand his torment and the reason for his seemingly reprehensible actions.

I hope I have given you a flavour of the film, and if you haven’t seen it I don’t want to spoil every delicious nuance and lingering stare. Needless to say, I picked out some of my favourite scenes to whet your appetite!

Candaules tells Gyges…

Shall I play Bach?

Let me tell you about winds:

Happy Christmas:

The Thimble:

I’ll always go back to that church:

Katherine’s letter:

It’s a total triumph, and in my humble opinion Anthony Minghella’s best picture. It won 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and grossed over $200 million at the box office.

The English Patient is an emotional rollercoaster that hooks you from the start and spits you out at the end, broken and sobbing (well, it did me anyway)… It’s best to have a stash of chocolates, a comfy sofa, and a box of tissues at the ready.

I never get bored of watching The English Patient, and have seen it many times, now I really must read the actual book that it was based on!

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient