MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

WILMINGTON ON DVD (PICKS OF THE WEEK): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, White Material, Topsy-Turvy, The Mikado, The Norman Conquests


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

U.S.; David Yates, 2010 (Warner Home Video)
The beginning of the end for a very long, mostly gratifying, often magical and sometimes splendiferous cinematic journey on a constantly twisting fantastical/literary road, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One splits the last of the J. K. Rowling books in half, and leaves us suspended on the saga’s cliff-edge — with all the furious climax-building and loose-end-tying left for this year’s Part Two.

So, twist, twist … Faced with so much material in Rowling’s last Potter book, as well as with the end of a franchise, director David Yates, writer Steve Kloves and producers David Heyman and David Barron take a chance, jump off the cliff and slice us off in mid-Hallows, promising more later.

At the end here, somewhat abruptly, they leave the kids and the plot boiling their way to that long-awaited final confrontation between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and his series-long buddies Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and their Satanic nemesis, evil wizard-master Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) — a being so foul, so evil, that his soul is split into seven scattered pieces (horcruxes to you) — along with Voldemort’s fiendish company (Alan Rickman’s icy Professor Severus Snape, Timothy Spall’s squirmy Wormtail, Helena Bonham Carter‘s mad Bellatroix Lestrange, all those damned Death Eaters and the rest of the Whole Sick Crew) and the explosion we know will come in this year‘s promised “H.P. & the D. H., Part Two.”

Meanwhile, back at the cliff…

I didn’t enjoy Deathly Hallows 1 all that much overall. But I certainly admired it. It’s the darkest of all of the Potter movies, the bleakest, the most melancholy, and the least packed and stuffed with roast turkey platters of toothsome British character acting, and sugarplums of fantasy, and after-the-feast bobsled rides of slam-bang action.

There was only one time in the whole movie I felt any delight, and that was at the little interpolated tale of The Three Brothers and their wishes: an animated bon-bon supervised by Ben Hibon, that looks a bit like one of those wonderful old Lotte Reiniger silhouette films (like The Adventures of Prince Achmed,) Tim Burtonized into sepia life.  And, like everyone else, I liked the dance in the wilderness between Harry and Hermione. (With all that gray mist, shouldn’t they have danced to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes?”)

But for this outing, at least, unadulterated joy is a stranger. Instead, we start off the movie with a what-took-you-so-long appearance by Bill Nighy as dour Rufus Schrimgeour (Nighy was one of the few great contemporary British character actors, who haven’t already popped up in a previous Potter), with Rufus arriving at a ghastly feast hosted by that hideous noseless-corpse-looking fiend-beyond-fiendishness Voldemort, issuing more sepulchral threats to rid the world of all things Potter. And that’s the jolly part.

Afterward, with Hogwarts closed to Harry and company, with his adopted family (including Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths) forced to flee,  and finally lost and wandering, with lissome Hermione and scowling Ron, through what looks like the ashy, seared ruins of a sunless land out of somebody‘s nightmare (thanks to cinematographer Eduardo Serra), Harry is thrust finally, rudely into a glum, threatening, care-laden adulthood, and forced to face, undiluted with Hogwarts antics, the problems we all face, especially if we’re magic guys (or ladies) and have the devil on our tail, uh, trail.

Series devotees and Constant Readers of Rowling (R.I.P., Dorothy P.), will love it all, I’m sure. (And that’s quite a huge, huge bunch.) Less fervent Potterers may be honestly confused. I sometimes wondered what the hell was going on, and who was who, and even what a horcrux was.  And I fervently wished I’d set aside time to read the whole book. My advice to non-experts or non-aficionados. Get a crib-sheet, or bone up on a Harry Potter website, before you see it. Or better yet, read the book.

I mentioned the cast. Everybody does. Everybody should. From Part One on, this series must surely boast the most talented and luminous movie roll call of great British star and character film actors, ever — or at least since “Gosford Park,“ where the cast had richer parts and Robert Altman to turn them loose. Maybe they could all start their own rep company, called “Everybody Comes to Harry’s.”

One almost expects to see the ghosts of Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud enter from stage left, pursued by a bear, cast as the ghosts of wizards past. And I wouldn’t bet on Sean Connery and Michael Caine remaining still absent from the feast at Deathly Hallows, Part Two. (Or will Connery, Caine, Colin Firth and other no-shows start wearing, as Nighy almost did, t-shirts emblazoned “No, I wasn’t in a Harry Potter movie.”) Whatever, whenever, it shows how attractively ambitious producers Heyman and Barron have been — and how well Rowling has been served by all present and all dePottered. (Sorry.)

That stellar cast accentuates the fact that the Potter series’ central triumvirate — Radcliffe, Grint and even Watson — don’t (yet) have the acting chops, or near them, of their elders. One likes them because they’ve been with us in these roles so long. But none of these kids can nibble scenery like Helena Bonham Carter, or ooze hauteur like Maggie Smith, or swagger like Robbie Coltrane, or brood like Michael Gambon, or cast a pall like Ralph Fiennes. (That’s right: Who would expect them to?)

They can dance, though. And they can yearn. And they’re still young. And they’ve grown up, as everyone says, before our eyes, in the multiplexes. How lucky they’ll feel when they’re old and wiser and gray, and doing cameo roles — and they can drop whatever has replaced a DVD into whatever has replaced a DVD player, and watch themselves, young once more and forever muggles.


White Material (Four Stars)

France: Claire Denis, 2009 (Criterion Collection)

We are somewhere in West Africa. A slight, pretty Frenchwoman in a thin white sundress with a spray of freckles on her pale face, scurries from place to place as her world shatters and falls apart around her. Government troops are massing or leaving; gangs of boy soldiers roam the woods, the local mayor (William Nadylam) has turned mean and opportunistic, a charismatic rebel leader named the Boxer (Isaac de Bankole) has been found dead and then …

And then puzzlingly, we see that the woman’s white dress has changed to a dark-and-light patterned blouse and skirt, the present to the past (or to the future?). Things keep changing. The local soldiers, as they depart in helicopters, tell her in utter exasperation to escape with them and save herself. (She refuses). The Boxer is suddenly alive, meeting the woman at her coffee farm, staying there. A complex, off-kilter network of flashbacks and flash-forwards and flashes-sideways-in-time, begin pushing the story on.

This endlessly energetic woman jogging, walking, running, driving through it all, in seemingly constant restless motion, propelled forward and back by the crises around her and by the non-linear leaps of the story, jumping on busses packed with the frightened citizenry, or whizzing back and forth in a truck from her farm to the town, is Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) — whose family owns a coffee plantation in that unnamed African country.

Her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor, who long ago was in Godard‘s Le Petit Soldat and Hitchcock‘s Topaz) is old, ill-looking. Her handsome beaten-looking husband, Andre (Christophe Lambert) has given up, and unbeknownst to Maria, is trying to sell their farm to the mayor. Her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is an indolent, selfish, worthless pretty boy, with Oblomovian bed habits, whom fate will turn into a monster. Most of her servants and workers have left (in the past), and she pluckily recruits new bean-pickers.

Ominously, the soldiers, and a local jabbering disc jockey, keep repeating the phrase “white material,” which refers to the trinkets and belongings and property of the settlers, and also to the settlers themselves, to her, Maria.

As this little world plunges toward chaos or rebirth or both, the “white material,” like the coffee, is more and more at risk, ripe for the picking. What drives Maria on — in this perilous, crumbling hell, where child soldiers sleep with stuffed toys, rebels swarm though the woods, soldiers flee in helicopters, a friendly pharmacist and his wife lie slaughtered on the floor of their store, and Maria’s own son Marcel shaves his hair, stuffs it in a servant’s mouth, and runs amok with a rifle, laughing — is partly the inertia of the constant runner, partly some weird optimism and determination, partly a seemingly unshakable sense of entitlement, and maybe partly madness.

How can she believe, with such crazy awesome resolve, that she will be able to still function and thrive, even harvest a coffee bean crop, in this world gone crazier than she?

Things Fall Apart, African author Chinua Achebe once titled a book. Yes. They do. Whatever happens here, we know — as Maria apparently does not — that things now will get worse, things will fall apart, perhaps more will suffer and die, as — defying all reason, all sanity — she continues to jog, to walk, to run, to drive, to hop aboard, to clutch at the world whirling past, and eventually …


… to stand appalled in the wreckage, in an unseen fire of hatred that will envelop and maybe consume her.


That great French actress, Isabelle Huppert, and the superb French filmmaker, Claire Denis, have made one of the film masterpieces of the year in White Material, a movie experience so moving, frightening and fine, that watching it puts your nerves on edge, your heart on ice, and your mind on fire. This is probably my favorite Claire Denis film, and I‘ve seen almost all of them (though I’d like to see again Chocolat, her other film on an African coffee plantation). And this is one of my favorite Huppert performances as well. I haven’t seen all of them, of course — one wonders if Huppert has herself — but I‘ve seen dozens. She‘s never bad, often great. Here, she surpasses herself. I will never forget Maria Vial, her tense, frayed face and her thin summer dress.

Huppert is one of France‘s most famous actresses, a critic‘s darling. Denis is a critic‘s darling too — like Huppert, trapped in the art-houses (under art-house arrest, in a way) and ignored by the larger public. It’s a shame. White Material has the texture, narrative drive and experimental structure of a fine, offbeat, hallucinatory novel — by a Duras, a Celine, or a Faulkner. Denis, who renders her various worlds like a painter with a keen sense of good and evil, has always been wonderful with people in between, people splintering apart in quiet relentless crisis — such as the African immigrant family in the Paris of 35 Shots of Rum, the Melvillean desert soldiers of Beau Travail, or the white French family and black African servant (played by Bankole) of Chocolat. And these people, trapped in hell, here.

Inhabiting Maria, slipping inside her complex persona without artifice or strain, Huppert gives a performance sublimely real, memorable and riveting. Playing this brave, energetic, perhaps foolish woman, she‘s as scary as she was as Chabrol’s Violette Noziere, as real and raw as she was with Depardieu in Pialat’s Loulou, as vulnerable and poignant as she was in Goretta‘s The Lacemaker.

Easily, un-self-consciously, immaculately, she pulls us headlong into Maria‘s reckless self-absorption, her mad run-around with revolution and death, her rapprochement with chaos — creating a fascinating human being in extremis. She stuns us.

White Material deals, of course, with race, and it’s directed and co-written by Denis, a white woman who lived in this type of environment (not necessarily in this kind of crisis,) and who interacted with the Africans that her country and her class had robbed and pushed aside. The film though betrays no sign of racial bias, condescension or over-compensation. It treats the color differences without polemic or special pleading. This is what might happen, we feel, from both sides: the white (material) and the black.

Denis’ co-scenarist here is a French woman of mixed French and African (Senegalese) descent: the Prix Goncourt winning novelist Marie NDiaye. (NDiaye is a literary virtuoso, who wrote, at 21, a novel of 200 pages composed of a single sentence.) What the two writers have managed together is a portrait of a white woman, a French colonial (with whom they both obviously emphasize) and of a world of African people of color (with whom they also sympathize) that she thinks she knows, but doesn’t.


Maria remains a sympathetic character though, even if her husband Andre is not (he lacks Maria‘s spine and stamina) and even though their son, Marcel, proves rotten indeed, a psycho and sadist. It takes one act of violence to curdle Marcel’s soul, and though his mother both adores and maybe secretly deplores him, she also obviously helped make him what he is. When we see her trying to coax him from the bed in which he seems to have taken root and buried himself — and doesn’t even berate le petit con, the little jerk — we know why he’s gone wrong, and why others of his privileged generation, leeching off their parents, holding their “social inferiors“ in contempt or in “benign neglect,” have gone so wrong as well.

White Material is not an obviously preachy move, which is why it’s so powerful. The story, since we don’t feel a nudge or sense an agenda, keeps surprising us. Things happen that we don’t expect — such as the betrayal of Maria, the first spasms of violence, and the transformation of Marcel from lazy rich bum to murderous skinhead creep. Afterwards, it may seem inevitable; as we watch, it hits like a knife-thrust.


And because the writers don’t preach, but instead make their landscape and people come alive, the film ends by conveying an awful sense of alienation and despair. We feel for the Africans, the French, the helpless citizens and bystanders, even for the soldiers, rebels, officials, the children with guns, even perhaps for a fleeting second or two, for that bastard Marcel, all caught in a crucible of revolution.

We feel for the French, even though we know why they’re hated, because they’re people swimming and floundering in the maelstrom, and because Maria keeps trying so hard, chasing so ceaselessly, that we can’t help but admire and even love her. The movie is beautiful as a fine painting, haunting as a fine poem, yet real as a slap in the face. Bravo Claire Denis! Bravo Marie NDiaye! Bravo Isabelle!

Well, have I persuaded you to see this film? Listen: trust us. Because it’s an arthouse movie, White Material probably didn’t play or last long in your city. So buy or rent the DVD, draw a circle around the title. Why? Because few actresses gave better performances in a movie last year than Isabelle Huppert as Marie. Because few scenarists wrote better scripts than Denis and NDiaye. Few directors of photography caught the world and its sunlight and nightfall with such hazy lyricism as Yves Cape. And few moviemakers directed as well — as damned perfectly, shatteringly well — as Claire Denis.

And because of one thing more. The movie is prescient. Things do fall apart.

(In French, with English subtitles.)



Extras: Interviews with Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankole; Short documentary by Denis; Deleted scene, Trailer.  

Topsy-Turvy (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Mike Leigh, 1999  (Criterion Collection)
 Some movies delight you. Some stimulate and provoke. Some enlighten and inform. And some simply hand you a rousing good time.
Mike Leigh’s marvelous  Topsy-Turvy — which re-creates with amazing detail and depth the first 1885 performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic operetta, The Mikado — does all of that and more.
So I said back in 1999, when I first reviewed Topsy-Turvy for the Chicago Tribune. And so I still feel today.


It was a surprising film project for Leigh, known then as one of the great British contemporary realists, the writer-director of Bleak Moments, Life is Sweet, Naked and Secrets & Lies, and an artist whose works, which depended on mass actor improvisation during rehearsals, seemed to be almost at opposite poles from the dazzling artifice and consummate theatricality of the wildly popular and uncommonly brilliant operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. But Leigh loved those shows madly, especially “The Mikado,” and, like many fine artists, he had more than one string to his magical bow — here, as it happens a musical string.

 I went on…

Bravo! With its huge and brilliant ensemble cast, complex story, joyous music and intriguing blend of onstage revelry and offstage dramatic fireworks, it’s a feast of a film. And though some audiences, I suspect, will be bewildered by Topsy-Turvy’s sheer plenitude, this rollicking bio-film — starring Jim Broadbent as a dour, witty W.S. Gilbert and Allan Corduner as a sophisticated, sensual Arthur Sullivan — becomes one of the cinema’s great valentines to the theater.

Broadbent, whom I first saw in a Leigh film as the dad in 1991’s Life is Sweet, went on the become one of the star character actors of the current British cinema. (He has a prominent place in that huge all-star British supporting ensemble in the Harry Potter movies, and he’s in the latest, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts One and Two. But what happened to Corduner, born in Sweden, once an aspiring concert pianist, a prolific actor on British TV — whose silkenly patrician and elegantly snobbish Sullivan, played to Broadbent‘s beefsteak and bile Gilbert, was so exemplary?


As it happens, Corduner went on being prolific, but got lesser roles in movies than Broadbent, starring mostly in British TV films and series. He was in one more great film, as the psychiatrist in Leigh’s heart-rending 2004 “Vera Drake.“ And, oh yes, he’s in some of the Harry Potter video games, including the latest, “Deathly Hallows,” as Argus Filch. It’s too bad we haven’t seen more of him. But it reminds us what a wealth of actors they have for British TV drama…

But it’s no sticky, hearts-and-flowers valentine. By showing how difficult theatrical collaboration can be — by taking us through the turmoil of Gilbert and Sullivan’s near split-up before “The Mikado,” their stormy private lives, the financial crises of the Savoy Theater and a whole Pandora’s Box of cast problems, from varicose veins to morphine addiction — Leigh strips these grand theatrical illusions bare.

Initially, it may seem odd for Leigh, famous for his working-class subjects and improvisatory style, to be making a posh period film on two triumphantly artificial stage wizards. But Leigh’s methods — “devising” the script with the cast during lengthy rehearsals — yield dazzling results again.

Topsy-Turvy, twelve years later, looks like an even greater film than it did then, a truly wondrous musical-dramatic-comic ensemble picture. It’s not as great as something like Jean Renoir’s ensemble masterpiece The Rules of the Game, of course. But you can speak of it in the same breath…

Theater itself, the film reminds us, is a job of work: a human activity, subject to human flaws and grandeur. And “The Mikado,” with its delightful Three Little Japanese Maids and tit-willows, is a pleasure palace built on pain, genius, blind chance and unrelenting hard labor.

Beginning with the troubled opening night of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s few disappointments, the 1884 production of “Princess Ida,” and ending with the surprisingly poignant aftermath of “The Mikado’s” roaring success in 1885, “Topsy-Turvy” vivisects the theatrical process as few movies ever have.

Here, Gilbert’s celebrated wit and whimsy spring partly from personal darkness: a mad father, a cruel mother, his own childless marriage. Sullivan, bedeviled with kidney problems, is a near-libertine adventurer — with his Yank mistress (Eleanor David as Fanny Ronalds) and romps in Parisian bordellos. He’s also a snob, lusting for the recognition he feels only grand opera can bring. Both these roles are beautifully done: Broadbent’s fierce, morose eyes and beefsteak face play wonderfully against Corduner’s silken speech and cognac smile.

I wondered where I got those adjectives “silken” and “beefsteak.” They still apply. And I still love and miss the theatre, which was the site of some of my happiest experiences and memories in youth and college days, working as actor and director. Yes, I prefer it to criticism. othing tops the experience of working in a grand ensemble story like this. (Shakespeare’s bread and butter). I’ll bet most of the actors, not to mention Leigh, were in heaven when they made it…

The phrase ” Topsy-Turvy” was the critical cliché aimed disparagingly at Gilbert’s plot tricks, his magic potions and role reversals. And Sullivan’s longing to escape those formulas leads to Gilbert’s anger and the gloom of their employer Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook). Leigh’s first hour daringly develops these conflicts, then abruptly resolves them when Gilbert abandons one topsy-turvy script and seizes on new Oriental subjects: inspired when his wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), takes him to a London Japanese exhibition.

That’s the same Lesley Manville, of course, who was so brilliant and moving as the alcoholic unmarried Mary — troublesome friend of happy married couple Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen no less, in Leigh’s latest film, the simple and devastating contemporary drama Another Year. I didn‘t single her out below, but I should have. As Lucy (Kitty) Gilbert, she was wonderful…

Soon Gilbert is sardonically directing the actors, while Sullivan happily marshals orchestra and chorus.

And the film makes us increasingly privy to the cast’s problems: the alcoholism of soprano Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), the tart put-downs and fragile ego of baritone-comedian Richard Temple (Timothy Spall, of Secrets & Lies), the drug habit of comic lead George Grossmith (Martin Savage).

This cast is so much the ensemble of the year (even above Magnolia’s), that it seems unfair to single anyone out — though the obvious show-stoppers are the gloomy Broadbent, the playful Corduner, the bilious Spall and the sinful Henderson. And we shouldn’t be surprised that Leigh would also keenly convey the Savoy’s class structure, as he does in the scene of the choristers’ revolt against Gilbert’s decision to excise one the show’s most famous songs: The Mikado’s “My Object All Sublime.”

The chorister’s revolt! Leigh is a strong leftist and humanist, which is why it seemed so initially strange that he would adore Gilbert and Sullivan, a couple of knights and the sugarplum maestros of the British ruling class. But of course Gilbert and Sullivan were popular (wildly) with all classes. And politics can be found everywhere, if you look…

Though it’s long (almost three hours) and very complex, this is a movie that graces and elevates the entire cinematic year. Gilbert and Sullivan have been celebrated on screen before — notably in the rarely revived 1953 Sidney Gilliat-Frank Launder Story of Gilbert and Sullivan.” But it’s safe to say that ” Topsy- Turvy” will likely remain their most wondrous, just movie tribute. Defying expectations, Leigh finds a way to show both the pair’s genius and their fun, to pry past their legend and sing them to life.

I enjoyed writing for newspapers, in their now-vanished heyday, enjoyed the audience, the newsprint smell, the newsroom camaraderie, the honing of each paragraph, the topsy-turvy excitement — though the web, I must say, is more fun. More solitary, but more fun.

All theater — and all of us, too — owe him loud applause and fervent thanks.

Yes. Again. Bravo, Mike Leigh! Bravo all! And a special hip-hip-hurrah for those contradictory yet complementary geniuses of the British theatre, Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Extras: Leigh’s short 1992 film A Sense of History, written by and starring Jim Broadbent; Commentary on Topsy-Turvy by Leigh; Conversation between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon; Deleted scenes, Featurettes; Trailer and TV spots; Booklet with a fine essay by Amy Taubin.

The Mikado (Three Stars) (Criterion Collection)
U.K.: Victor Schertzinger, 1939 (Criterion Collection)
This somewhat misguided, but occasionally glorious, version of the classic celebrated in Topsy-Turvy, Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, succeeds because of its source, which is staged attractively but statically, sung beautifully, and acted (sometimes) wittily, and remains as close to sure fire material as you get. The film was adapted, conducted and produced by the company’s former music director, Geoffrey Toye, who has to take the blame for some unwise cutting (including the whole beginning and Koko’s famous “I’ve Got as Little List”) and some questionable casting.
The film, lavishly produced without a single exterior shot, features members of the D’Oyly-Carte company and chorus, along with two notable D’Oyly-Carters Martyn Green and Sydney Granville as the skittish Lord High Executioner Koko and the pompous Lord High Everything Else Pooh-bah, plus John Barclay as the imperious Mikado, Gregory Stroud as the aptly named Pish-Tush, Constance Willis as the ferocious Katisha and Jack Benny’s radio tenor Kenny Baker as the other romantic lead, and the Mikado’s runaway son Nanki-Poo.
The plot is delightfully foolish, wittily spoken, sometimes un forgivably prejudiced, and stylish and artificial to the core. We never for a moment think the characters are Japanese, because, despite their head-tilting and bowing and shuffling, they talk and act so British. No, this is all make-believe, dress-up, mischievous fun — which is why Green and Granville, with their conscious flamboyant theatricality, are so good.
The direction is by Victor Schertzinger, a sometime composer/musician, who also directed two of the best Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” Pictures ( Singapore and Zanzibar), both of which have more local color than this “Mikado.” In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s a great show, and as long as you have some good or top-notch singers and actors, it will always entertain and amuse.


Note: Koko’s executioner’s rap, “I’ve Got a Little List”– complete with its contemporary Hitler joke and some shockingly racist original lines — is still missing from the film, but present in this DVD’s extra package. It’s a shame they didn’t just clip it back in, for all time.

Other Extras: Interviews with Mike Leigh and some “Mikado” scholars; Excerpts from two 1939 radio broadcasts of two alternative stage versions of The Mikado, The Swing Mikado and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Cool Mikado (to my knowledge, there’s no Rock Mikado; write if there is); silent 1926 promo film for a Doyly Carte production of The Mikado; booklet with Geoffrey O’Brien essay,


The Norman Conquests (Four Stars) 

U.K.: Herbert Wise, 1977 (Acorn Media)

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s 1975 play trilogy The Norman Conquests — the cornerstone of his international reputation — is a virtuoso piece of theatrical construction: three plays, often produced together, all of which record the same six characters on the same weekend, undergoing romantic crises in the same provincial English house, but with each play set in a different room of that house — and therefore with each separate segment presenting for us things that were going on simultaneously or near the same time as the action of the other plays.

So, if we watch all three plays (they’re called Table Manners, Round and Round the Garden and Living Together and they’re set, respectively, in the kitchen-dining area, the garden and the family room), we will see events running parallel to scenes we may have already witnessed, and which keep deepening our understanding of the characters and their always engaging, often dramatic, sometimes hilarious predicaments.

Ayckbourn’s subject matter is the witty stuff of much British stage comedy and family drama as well: the foibles, delusions and weaknesses, often sexual, and here laid bare, of a group of typical Britishers — in this case the three grownup children (Reg, Ruth and Annie) of an ailing bedridden old woman (whom we never see), their respective spouses (Sarah and Norman) and Annie’s friend (Tom). All of them have gathered together, somewhat accidentally, one Saturday, and they will spend the rest of a nervous weekend conversing, confabbing, bickering, joking, losing their tempers, hearing disturbing or absurd revelations, and sometimes even seducing (ore trying to seduce) each other — while occasionally sitting down en masse for several memorable and truly ridiculous meals.

The catalyst for most of the action is a clandestine affair which is secretly in progress between the husband of one of the siblings, the irrepressible Norman (Tom Conti) and his hitherto repressed sister in law Annie (Penelope Wilton), the unmarried daughter and homebody who lives with and takes care of their invalid mother. Annie and Norman are planning to sneak off for a weekend together in holiday spot Hastings (later East Grimstead, when Norman botches the Hastings reservations). And, since Annie has asked for a sub to take care of Mum for the time she’s gone (without of course, explaining that her weekend includes making whoopee with Norman), Annie’s brother and his wife have volunteered. Falsely jolly, henpecked Reg (Richard Briers) and his busybody wife Sarah (Penelope Keith) are the weekend caregivers.

It’s only after Norman has made an impromptu, and amorous, appearance at the house Saturday afternoon, before Annie‘s carefully scheduled departure, and after Reg and Sarah show up, that Annie recklessly admits her affair with her randy brother-in-law to nosey Sarah, who’s been teasing and goading Annie about her love life. Norman’s chicanery is revealed, the tryst is cancelled and the theatrical dominoes begin to fall.

Wandering around somewhat confusedly through all this is the one family outsider: Annie’s constant but astonishingly ineffectual semi-suitor and local veterinarian Tom (David Troughton), an affable but maddeningly indecisive chap, who’s been courting Annie (sort of) for three years, but claims he’s just there to help care for a cat with a septic paw. Tom is probably hurt that he wasn’t invited to Hastings (now East Grimstead) for the outing with Annie, but he’s too much of a gentleman (?) to complain, and it seems, too much of a gentleman to try to bump his and Annie’s comfy but sexless relationship up a notch.

Norman is no gentleman at all. He’s a devilish philanderer, bent on mischief with the ladies, even though his Omni-smile fools the other men into thinking he‘s a good fellow. Norman admits to marrying his wife, the sometimes sardonic and urbanely tolerant Ruth (Fiona Walker), out of “pure animal lust,” and now that he and Ruth (he claims) have burnt out up for a while, Norman has no qualms about indulging in not-so-pure lust with a sister-in-law or two. Norman is a grand British stage type: a Restoration Comedy-ish conniving seducer, a loopy Peter Pannish child-man and also a Richard III or Iago manipulative above-the-action type of character: a cad or amoralist who sees through everybody else, jokes about everyone else, keeps spinning his webs and who also — in the pursuit of adulterous pleasure rather than crowns or revenge — keeps breaking down barriers and endangering households without a twinge. Or maybe he’s just a goofy guy with a constant hard-on.

Norman’s conquests are the meat of the play. His lustful appetites keep the plot and the ladies spinning. But Norman is playful rather than truly evil. Conti portrays him with impish eyes, an ingratiating Let’s-have-a-lark smile and a hippie-ish Serpico-like haircut and beard: plays him as an overgrown child who can’t help trying to steal toys and playmates, though he would have preferred to keep his infidelity tidily under wraps. The movie’s biggest joke is that he can’t, that his entire family (and even dense Tom) knows his and Annie’s secret almost from the start. That’s why they all wind up spending a (perfectly horrible) weekend together.

I must say that Norman’s subsequent actions struck me as shameless — and in Conti‘s hands, shamelessly funny. The others are marvelous too: Penelope Keith bristling with winking sneakiness and fierce bourgeois disapproval as Sarah, Richard Briers a positive fountain of bad jokes expertly mis-told as Reg, Penelope Wilson very likeably put upon while playing the piece’s one straight man (or woman) as Annie, and David Troughton dumb as burnt toast, as thick Tom, the hapless lover and local expert on septic paws.

These six characters don’t have to search for an author (a la Pirandello) because, as with Noel Coward or P. G. Wodehouse or even Harold Pinter, Ayckbourn in present in every line: his wit, his humanity, his cool eye, his grasp of just how nasty to make a wise crack, just how poignant to make a revelation.

The Acorn Media three-disc collection of “Conquests” has a terrific cast — you can tell it’s a British show because it has two Penelopes out of six actors — and they take real relish in playing with each other and savoring and diddling with Ayckbourn’s smart subtexts and crisp, beautifully shaped lines. It’s not the original cast from Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre (the regional theatre where Ayckbourn has written and directed the debuts of most of his more than 70 plays), or the original Tom Courtenay-Michael Gambon London stage cast (except for Penelope Keith, who seems the definitive Sarah).

But it is the superlative award-winning Thames TV production, brilliantly executed and immaculately played, co-produced by David Susskind and elegantly directed by that British TV master, Herbert Wise — whose innumerable British television credits include the renowned Derek Jacobi version of Robert Graves‘ I, Claudius (which Wise made just before The Norman Conquests, with a cast that also included Fiona Walker).

It’s not really a fully-fleshed out movie, totally reshaped for cinema, but an unabashed stage transcription, intended to preserve Ayckbourn’s original text, with each play confined to its main set, or to the exterior real-life garden. But why do we say “merely?” Opened-up plays can be great too, but sometimes the opened up scenes look as artificial and unneeded as the sudden, transplanted road house scene in the Burton-Taylor movie of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of the great qualities of The Norman Conquests as a play is precisely its Noel Coward-ish theatricality, our sense that the structure is partly proscenium-determined and its performances are “performances.“ Isn’t it a bit churlish to dismiss as “too stagy” a splendidly executed version of the most famous play of one of the world‘s bona fide great playwrights, and to dismiss as irrelevant (because it isn’t “pure cinema”) the near-flawless ensemble work of such an excellent cast, Penelopes and all? We’re often starved in our movies for good dialogue, let alone great writing, and here it is. Simmering golden-hued, with every word in place and topped by the thoroughly enjoyable demonic conniving and impertinent love-making of Tom Conti as Norman, conquering.

Includes: The three plays of Alan Ayckbourn’s Trilogy The Norman Conquests are Table Manners, Round and Round the Garden and Living Together, all U.K. Thames TV productions, directed by Herbert Wise.

Extras: Biography of Alan Ayckbourn; background info on The Norman Conquests.

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2 Responses to “WILMINGTON ON DVD (PICKS OF THE WEEK): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, White Material, Topsy-Turvy, The Mikado, The Norman Conquests”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon