Oh my gosh, this is so nearly over and it’s probably testament to how many Hugh Grant movies I’ve watched that the way I chose to express my emotions on this occasion was to say ‘oh my gosh’. I’ve got 5 movies left to review in the Grant oeuvre. I’ll do four in this post and end on Paddington 2 and an overview (overhugh?) of the whole project.
I feel ambivalent about this film. On one level, it’s absolutely the kind of shit I like and I’m actually really fond of the book. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling with either the book or the film that it mostly exists as a vehicle for a clever structural trick. And, for me, that trick works fairly well in the book because it unfolds more slowly and so you get a gradually dawning sense of what’s going on and how the stories fit together. Whereas in the film, because of the constraints of the medium, it’s a lot more obvious from the beginning and, therefore, you’ve got a lot more time to get bored of it.
At which point, I should probably explain what happens in the film and what its central gimmick is. Warning, spoilers. Although mainly spoilers for, like, the structure? Cloud Atlas consists of six stories covering a time span from the mid-19th century to an imagined post-apocalyptic future. And, where in the book, they’re told strictly in chronological and then reverse-chronological order the movie jumps between them more much freely. The stories are: a 19th century travelogue, a set of letters written by a composer to his gay lover in the 1930s, a Grisham-esque 70s conspiracy thriller, an almost Ben Elton-esque farce about a vanity publisher whose brother tricks him into committing himself to an old people’s home, a cyberpunk thriller set in Dystopian future Korea, and a Leibowitz-esque post-apocalyptic tale narrated in an an imaginary future-dialect. The twist, as it were, is that the central character in each story reads or otherwise accesses and generally identifies with the story of the central character from the previous narrative. This makes a lot less sense in a movie because we keep jump-cutting between the stories so it’s easy to lose track of the point where the overlap is supposed to happen, although to be honest I feel like a lot of the links are quite tenuous anyway.
I can buy the idea that the tortured Ben-Whishaw-playing-the-character-he-always-plays-in-everything composer could have read and might have become fixated with journal of a 19th century lawyer. And that he might read parallels between the experiences of Adam Ewing, as he finds himself trapped in the middle of the ocean being slowly poisoned by a man he thinks is he friend, and his own situation, stuck in a country house, being gradually undermined and exploited by a man he used to admire. Perhaps, more to the point, I can see how having that explicit link between both stories makes them both stronger. But a lot of the links after that just feel quite forced. I mean, I can just about see how a story about a disempowered old man trapped in an old people’s home could have resonance to an artificial human in a Dystopian future but I don’t see how that cultural artefact of all cultural artefacts survived two hundred years and got to Korea and, also, why does she even speak English? And I get that I’m being a little bit pedantic here but I think the reason it bugged me is that it felt like an idea that was really strong as a way to connecting two stories was stretched out into a way of connecting six to the point that it just fell apart.
The other way that the movie tries to communicate the connectedness of its various narratives is to have the same actors playing different roles in different timelines. And this successfully reinforces a sort of nebulous theme of connectedness but introduces a number of other quite significant issues. The first issue, and I wasn’t sure when to bring this up but now seems as good a time as any, is that it does mean that in the Dystopian Korea segments quite a lot of significant characters are played by white actors in, um, the sort of makeup they put Sean Connery in for that one James Bond movie? And, um, I just don’t think that’s okay. To be very, very fair to the film, there are also a couple of scenes where the Asian actors are whited up to play Europeans but the context is very very different, much in the same way that there’s a difference between having a black Captain America (which I believe they did for a while) and a white Black Panther (which they have sensibly avoided).
The less problematic and more structural issue with the recurring cast is that you spend more time trying to work which character is a different character in a false beard than you do really paying attention to the story. I think the basic issue with the recurring actors gimmick is that it seems to have implemented without intent. There are times when it seems to imply that these two characters are literally reincarnations of the same person enacting similar stories throughout time (like, Adam Ewing makes it home, declares eternal wav for his wife, who is played by the same actress who plays Sonmi in the cyberpunk story, and that he will spend the rest of his life fighting against slavery, and the same actor plays the lover of Sonmi, and they are both in wuv and fighting against clone slavery 200 years in the future). Then there are times when it seems that a particular actor has a particular role in the story, like the way Hugo Weaving always plays enforcers or interrogators or symbols of corrupt authority (which may or may not also represent literal reincarnation which, if it does, it seems odd that Hugo Weaving always reincarnates as some kind of dickhead and what does that say about, well, anything). And also there are times when it just seems like a pointless Easter egg, like Ben Whishshaw, and indeed, Hugh Grant (yes, he is actually in this movie – I’ll talk about that in a second) both turning up as random cannibals. All of which just renders the whole thing incoherent.
I think what I’m working around to here is that this is just not a great film. It’s also three and a bit hours long which is simultaneously too short because it means each story basically gets as much time as one episode of the average sitcom, and far too long because, dude, it’s three and a bit hours.
Goodness of film: 2.5. Like what it does, it does well. But what it does is largely meaningless if very stylish. It’s basically exactly what you would expect a David Mitchell novel adapted by the Wachowskis to be like.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 1.5. He plays multiple roles in it, but at least one of them is a non-speaking cannibal and the others are around for all of eighteen seconds. Also he never dances or punches anyone.
So this is Music & Lyrics but with screenplays, and also not a lot like Music & Lyrics. It did, however, make me want to Music & Lyrics. In this film, Hugh Grant plays a washed up one-hit-wonder, only this time his one hit instead of being pop music was a late 90s movie called Paradise Misplaced, about two angels who have to go and rescue someone from hell (minor nerdy pedant point, every single person he meets loves and fondly remembers this movie, even though I can think of zero examples of fantastical films from the 90s that achieved anything remotely resembling critical or commercial success. I mean, yes, there was City of Angels but the film that’s described in this movie seems more like a Neil Gaiman thing). Anyway, he hasn’t had a hit in years and his agent books him a gig on Battles of the 80s Hasbeen… I mean teaching screenwriting at a university in upstate New York.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re probably thinking, he starts off resenting this role and believing that he’s too good for it, cutting a bunch of corners, behaving really unprofessionally and generally not doing the job properly, but then gradually he comes to realise that he cares about his students and really wants to help them achieve their goals and dreams so he pulls it out the bag and becomes the best university teacher ever. And you’d be absolutely right. This is not an unpredictable movie.
There are, in fact, exactly two unpredictable things in this film. The first is that the romantic interest is actually only four years younger than Hugh Grant, which for a Hollywood romcom is positively subversive. And the second is that there’s a bit where he realises that one of his students has written a script that is way better than anything he has written in years and he just behaves really well and professionally about it (despite behaving badly and unprofessionally about pretty much everything else).
I’m aware that I say this a lot about poorly received Hugh Grant romcoms but I did actually really enjoy this movie. Much like Music & Lyrics, its themes are deeper than its vehicle suggests – in that it seems genuinely interested in the way that our context shapes our behaviour and expectations. To take the most obvious example, the central thematic question of the film is incapsulated by the arguments that Hugh Grant’s character has with Marisa Tomei over whether writing can be taught. He argues that it can’t, she argues that it can but the point is that his beliefs are grounded in his experiences in Hollywood and hers in her experience of pursuing her dreams and failing but not giving up on them. Because his first movie was a huge success, and because (as he says himself in the film) being a huge success in Hollywood is incredibly seductive it was for easy for him to develop a worldview where your work is a reflection of who you are rather than what you can do. So when his later films were less successful he wasn’t able to go back and analyse the factors that had led to his writing one good movie and three terrible ones because, from within the paradigm he accepted, creative output is defined entirely by this nebulous, innate thing called talent. By contrast Marisa Tomei’s character has been a dancer, which requires a lot more specific practice than being a writer (there’s no way to get good at dancing without drilling specific moves and no amount of talent will make up for a lack of technique) and so she views success in any area as a matter of application.
This theme of people existing in a specific context is reinforced by the secondary cast – from CJ Cregg’s elitist Austen scholar who is unable to see value in anything that isn’t classical literature to the Head of Department who, despite loving and being extremely happy with his wife and four daughters, feels an overwhelming social mandate to voice complaints he doesn’t really feel about how terrible it is to be the only man in a house of five women. And for what it’s worth both of those characters skirt a problematic borderline because it’s not clear to what extent we’re supposed to look at them and think “ah yes, I can see the ways in which these people’s personality quirks are reflections of the way they are restricted by their past experiences and cultural expectations” and to what extent we’re just supposed to shrug and go “women, am I right?” On an only tangentially related noted, I do feel constrained to mention that I have never met an Austen scholar who didn’t love Clueless so this was an element of Allison Janney’s character I found deeply unrealistic. And the upset me.
Goodness of film: 3. It’s not bad and it’s definitely trying to do interesting things. I’m genuinely not sure if the film really counts as a romcom because the actual romantic relationship is quite secondary and I can’t decide if that means it’s expanding the kind of stories you can tell within the romcom format or if it just, well, isn’t one. For example, rather than the film ending on a declaration of undying love, it ends with the main characters committing to maybe giving a relationship a go at some point in the future, which some people might find disappointing but I found created this nice sense of two more mature people who have other shit going on in their lives and can’t just drop everything for a fairytale ending.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 3. He’s perfectly fine in this but I can’t help comparing it unfavourably to other films where he does the slightly-washed-up-used-to-be-big-in-the-80s-slash-90s thing in a way that’s either sleazier or more endearing.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
I think the weird thing about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is that it’s kind of like Bond movies were before Bond movies stopped being like Bond movies and started being like Le Carres. It’s this weird mix of action, suspense, high camp and black comedy. Apparently it bombed at the box office and I can sort of see why because it feels like its a little out of step with the aesthetic of 2010s (I was going to say “of it’s time” but, actually, I’m so far through this project that I’m now reviewing films that came out comparatively recently). However you cut it, TV and movies, especially of the actiony-adventurery variety have been getting increasingly grimdark for the last decade. Hell, look at the DC cinematic universe, and its more than slightly painful attempts to make Superman gritty and realistic. So I get how cinema goers in 2015 might have not known how to handle a film where, for example, a guy sits eating a sandwich in a stolen truck while, in the background, his partner/rival has a spectacular and explosive laden duel to the death with nazis on a submarine. But I’ve got to admit, I kind of dug it.
There’s not much to say here, really. The film is a sequence of strung together set pieces, the plot makes zero sense and it’s got that problematic thing that goes back to Indiana Jones where “nazi” is kind of used as a code for “non-specific bad guy” which is trope on which people’s mileage legitimately varies. Also Hugh Grant is barely in it. The character he plays—Waverley—was quite a significant figure in the TV series, because he’s head of U.N.C.L.E., but because this film is sort of an origin story he basically just shows up at the end and is briefly cool. He’s playing enigmatic British spy guy number 47 but he’s sort of the person you’d want to play that role, especially now he’s older and looks a bit more used teabag and a bit less lost puppy.
Goodness of film: I think it’s another 3. It’s a perfectly serviceable spy flick and a nice antidote to modern Bond or all of the grainy sad-faced espionage stuff that’s on the BBC at the moment. I feel sort of bad that it’s so badly angling to be a franchise and so definitely isn’t going to be one.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. It’s a good role for him but he’s in the film for all of twelve seconds, and mostly sitting in a helicopter giving instructions over a radio.
Florence Foster Jenkins
This one is deeply tragic. And, obviously, it’s sort of difficult because the part of me that still has a sense of class consciousness is always a bit sceptical about stories that ask you to feel sorry for somebody whose life is very sad apart from the tiny detail of them having been born into massive wealth, often at time when truly unimaginably horrendous things were happening to the sorts of people who don’t get historical biopics made about them.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person who was something of a cult figure in what can loosely be dubbed artistic circles in New York in the first half of the 20th century. Her basic claim to fame is that she was an incredibly bad singer who nevertheless gave opera performances. These shows were mostly private and delivered to a carefully cultivated audience of people who could be relied on not to be dicks about it, and historians are divided about whether she was in on the joke. The narrative presented in the film (which more or less tracks to Foster Jenkins’ real biographical details, although obviously the emotional arc is pure speculation) is that that Florence Foster Jenkins was a young and talented pianist (she was) whose passion for music was so great that she ran off against her father’s wishes with a musician (she did) who gave her syphilis (he did) which caused nerve damage that ruined her musical career (this isn’t entirely true – she actually injured her arm in an unrelated incident) and she was left alone in New York with no creative outlet but tonnes of money and so threw herself into singing, even though she was demonstrably terrible at it.
Frankly, she lived a weird life and it is a weird premise for a film but there is something strangely affirming about it because it’s essentially about a woman who is dealt a shitty hand by life (apart from the aforesaid small detail of her massive wealth), is denied the opportunity to truly fulfil her dreams, largely as a consequence of other people’s selfishness, who, by sheer force of will, constructs a world around herself in which she lives them anyway. It helps a lot that she’s played by Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep is the bomb.
Hugh Grant plays her common-law husband, St Clair Bayfield, who is sort of cheating on her and lying to her for the whole film but who also makes real sacrifices to protect the illusions that allow her to be happy. Maybe I’m just inclined to be supportive of non-standard relationships but it seems like he’s genuinely devoted to her and understands her, and is as thwarted as she is in some ways, his own career as an actor having gone essentially nowhere. The central conflict of the film revolves around Florence Foster Jenkins’ one public performance, in which she caved to public pressure and sang at Carnegie Hall. In real life, the show received terrible reviews, which she found distressing. In the film, this is recast as one vindictively terrible review from a legitimately evil journalist that she finds so distressing it literally kills her. To be fair, she did die the same year as that concert but she was in her late 70s at the time.
Perhaps I’m just getting sentimental in my old age but I did find it an incredibly moving film, partly because I have a soft spot for historical eccentrics, and partly because Streep and Grant are really good at what they do, and have amazing on-screen chemistry. Streep is strong and vulnerable and weird all at once. And Grant is devoted and charming and slightly duplicitous. And strangely enough, it’s his comfort with duplicity that allows him to be what Florence needs him to be: someone who will let her live in the world that she wants to live in.
Goodness of film: 4.5. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Pretty much the last line in the movie is a real Florence Foster Jenkins quote, which is “people may say I can’t sing but no-one can say I didn’t sing” which I just find weirdly inspirational.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. This isn’t a typical Hugh Grant role, although the more of his films I’ve watched, the more I realise that “typical Hugh Grant role” is something of a dismissive oversimplification. But it is a strong, late-career example of the kind of the character work he’s not been allowed to do since Four Weddings. He’s just really good in the film. Also he dances. And he dances the motherfucking Lindy hop.