Pirates Three

A short while back, I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End but aside from the observation that it wasn’t as totally tedious as I remember it being at the cinema, I don’t feel I’ve much to say about that. It did however motivate me to spend a weekend watching films by the three main stars.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Director Ridley Scott tries to recapture the success of Gladiator with this swords and sun and sand epic set against the backdrop of the Crusades. Orlando Bloom reprises his PotC role as a blacksmith who turns into a champion warrior, only taking it several hundred years back in time. As Balian, he turns out to be the illegitimate son of a noble knight who serves under the leper Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, and instrumental in keeping an uneasy truce with Saladin’s armies. After one quick lesson Balian is able to stand toe to toe with experienced soldiers who’ve been doing this sort of thing all their lives. When Baldwin dies and the silly arse who takes over declares war on Saladin and gets the army of Jerusalem slaughtered, Balian takes command of the city, and with a few inspirational speeches and some innovative tactics he manages to convince the besieging horde to accept an accord, else the prize is not really worth the cost. If you can deal with Balian’s transformation into a man of action and ignore the hypocrisy that allows him to fuck another man’s wife but not take that man’s place on the throne for the greater good, then overall this is a decent film, with rounded characters and perhaps a message for us today in showing that extremism, not religion itself, is the root cause of conflict, with Christian zealots forcing a war on Saladin. There were some excellent battle scenes, with the siege of Jerusalem gripping, even if I thought Bloom as Balian was channelling Shakespeare’s Henry V at times. There’s nothing profound on offer, no great insight into history or human nature, but it was a decent film with its heart in the right place.

The Libertine (2004)

Move forward in time and sideways in space to Restoration England, and a performance from Johnny Depp that reminds us he can be an amazing actor as well as pretty boy Jack Sparrow. As the poet and debauched Earl of Rochester, Depp sets the screen alight every time he appears, scaling the heights of inspiration and plumbing the depths of depravity. There are echoes here of the Marquis de Sade of Quills, both in the conflict between the demands of flesh and spirit, and also in the play that is pivotal to the story and damns each (poetic license on my part – both men were damned before the play in question, and Rochester had a more tolerable time of things than Sade). In Depp’s Rochester, we see the portrait of a flawed genius, a man who threw everything away simply because everything was his for the taking. He is a complex character, cruel and self-indulgent to the point of his own undoing, but also capable of acts of random generosity. There’s a strong supporting cast, not least Samantha Morton in whose unbridled ambition Rochester finds his match, and an engaging story, one that captures perfectly the atmosphere of troubled times and shines an unflattering light on the ego of thespian and writer alike. But Rochester is the beating heart of the film, achieving a mythic stature thanks to Depp’s performance, a larger than life presence on celluloid and in history, with the sobering thought that in today’s world he’d be nothing more than tabloid fodder, his antics reduced to the level of hubristic anomalies for the Daily Mule reader to disapprove of as he or she downs their breakfast. Someday I must make an effort to find and read a copy of the play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery.

Atonement (2007)

The Imaginary Girlfriend once told me that this was the perfect romantic drama, but I’m pretty sure if I texted her something along the same lines as James McAvoy’s note to Keira Knightley she wouldn’t be at all pleased. Based on a novel written by Ian McEwan some time after I gave up reading Ian McEwan novels, it’s set in 1930s England and Knightley stars as Cecilia Tallis, an upper class gell who is getting entangled with lower class Robbie (McAvoy). Only young sister Briony is jealous, even if she lacks the maturity to understand the emotions she is experiencing, and so accuses Robbie of attacking a young girl who is a guest at the house and he is subsequently gaoled. With the outbreak of hostilities Robbie is released to serve in the British Expeditionary Force in France, while Cecilia serves as a nurse, as does Briony at a later stage, seeking to be reunited with her loved ones and to atone for the mistakes of her past by doing the right thing now. After showing us how this all plays out the film jumps the tracks, with the adult Briony (played by Vanessa Redgrave) revealing what really happened and how she has lied about events in her latest and final novel, the biographical Atonement. Ravishing on the eye, with scenes of an idyllic England, the country house set of P. G. Wodehouse, contrasting with the hell of the Dunkirk retreat (dead schoolgirls in a field, horses being shot on a beach while a ferris wheel turns in the background), the film is a success based on its visuals alone, the aesthetic sensibility that informs the work, so that each scene has a painterly feel of composition. It has much more to offer us though, most obviously in the detailed characterisation, with so much left unspoken, conveyed by expression and gesture, these people coming alive on the screen, and the viewer moved by the simple unfairness of what happens to them, but where it really stands out for me is in the meta-fictional element, exploring the idea that in fiction we reinvent the past to make us look better, to provide comforting lies in lieu of the truth. Perhaps I need to start reading Ian McEwan again. Does he do zombies or vampires, anyone know?

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