Hope and Change

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Hope Davis has replaced Julianne Moore as Hillary Clinton in The Special Relationship, Peter Morgan’s third Tony Blair movie, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Which, judging by this picture, is pretty spot-on casting. Morgan has also pulled out of directing the film, which was due to be his debut, with Richard Loncraine (Richard III, Wimbledon) taking over. Shooting starts next week.

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Hail to the Chief!

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We’ve been speculating for a long time here about Peter Morgan’s upcoming debut as a director, The Special Relationship. We knew who would be playing Tony Blair, of course: Michael Sheen. But who would be taking on Bill Clinton? Various names were suggested. Travolta, of course, already gave us a terrific sideways look in Primary Colors. Philip Seymour Hoffman could bring the Clinton combination of piercing intellect and moral lassitude. And I’d love to see Vince Vaughn break out of his frat boy comfort zone. Now, according to Variety, the cast is coming together, and it’s great: Dennis Quaid is lined up for Clinton, with Julianne Moore as Hillary (now there’s a movie in itself).

My favourite films of 2008

The film year is a slightly stretchy one. Different release dates means that different movies qualify for BAFTAs, BIFAs and Oscars. But, with a little licence, and in alphabetical order, my favourite ten films from 2008 were —

Oh. Wait. What does favourite mean? I mean the movies that I’ve talked about, thought about, argued over and looked forward to seeing again. They’re not necessarily the most artistic, or the most significant, or the most ground-breaking, although I think there are films on this list that count as all of those. They’re the films that have had the most effect on me — and the ones I wish I’d worked on. So —

FROST / NIXON I saw this on stage and thought that Frank Langella gave a fine performance; then I saw it on screen and thought it was one of the best I’d ever seen. Langella looks very little like Nixon, but he absolutely inhabits the man and, with the help of Peter Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction, he makes you feel deeply for him, without ever diminishing the scale of his crimes. While the play felt very much a two-hander, the film gives the whole cast room to breathe: there are terrific performances too from Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and Rebecca Hall, who brings a radiant, sly intelligence to her role. And Michael Sheen’s Frost is fascinating: his performance is a kind of cubism, looking at the man from every angle without ever quite seeing the whole. I’ve written elsewhere about Peter Morgan that he makes every story a thriller, and watching last week’s hushed, tense audience at the Curzon there was no doubt that he’s done it again.

HELLBOY 2 I’m not a big fan of superheroes, partly because they’re super. When you have a character who is virtually invincible — and guaranteed to win — it’s hard to create a story in which anything really feels at stake. But with Hellboy 2 Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, has created another beautiful, dark fable, in which the future of mankind hangs in the balance. Like Tim Burton, del Toro is often dismissed as a “visual” director, as if this were somehow detrimental to the craft. What matters, and what both Burton and del Toro have (as opposed to imitators like Gore Verbinski or Brad Silberling) is a deep knowledge of art and symbols, and an uncanny understanding of the emotional power of images. Del Toro, too, wears his heart on his sleeve; where Burton can drift off into irony, del Toro’s films feel intimate and heartfelt, even when he’s working on a truly epic scale. This is a Hollywood summer blockbuster that loves its villains as much as its heroes (and mourns their eventual defeat), and is confident enough in its pacing to detour, in the middle of a hundred million dollar movie, into this

MAN ON WIRE I called this “the best superhero movie of the summer,” and I still think so. You can check out my review of it here.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN I’m not an uncritical fan of the Coen brothers; I found Burn After Reading perhaps the most joyless comedy ever made. But I’ve thought a lot about No Country, which sits alongside Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There: beautiful, sombre, slightly supernatural stories that search for meaning in a brutal world. I wrote last year about the overlap between No Country and The Seventh Seal, and another look at the film only reinforces that impression. The film’s denial of a sense of closure — the murderer is never caught and the climactic killing is offscreen — is a key part of its philosophy: we search for structure, narrative and purpose, but life tends not to offer them. Does this make it irredeemably bleak? I don’t think so: what it suggests is that there’s no point in being shocked by the world’s brutality, but that equally there’s something to be won by standing up to it. It’s just that you have to find your solace in the battle, because there’s not going to be an end to the war. 

PERSEPOLIS and WALTZ WITH BASHIR Two very different movies, both reinventing animation in a brilliant and satisfying way. You can see what I wrote about them here

QUANTUM OF SOLACE The most tonally daring, most artistically innovative, most faithful to Fleming movie of the series — and the most successful Bond movie at the US box office to date. Do you think the audience might be trying to tell us something, Hollywood? Let’s hope that more producers take the same kind of risks, and with the same kind of success. My original review is here

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Check out my review above.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY Along with Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, this was one of the films last year that most felt like innovation in cinema, and made me hopeful for its future. The bold decision to trap the audience within the single eye of its hero, Jean-Do Bauby, for the full first twenty minutes of the picture was a risk that paid off brilliantly as the film developed and we got to know and love him more. It also features my single favourite performance of the year, by Max von Sydow, still mesmerising at 80, as Bauby’s father, conveying more emotion in a look than any lengthy speech could show. It’s wonderful, uplifting cinema.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Not quite so uplifting but exhilarating in its way, this is a fable torn from American soil, a monumental origin myth told on an epic scale. Propelled by Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary score, it’s a film of unstoppable momentum, from its first long silent sequence to its last, exhausted gasp; and it’s dominated by Daniel Day Lewis, whose performance comes as a reminder of a older, richer school of acting than today’s drab “realism”: you’re reminded of Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, even Gregory Peck, alongside of course John Huston and his role in Chinatown. I wouldn’t call it a date movie, and it’s certainly not an easy watch, but it’s a rare historical movie — The New World is another, even better — that feels absolutely rooted in its period, and changes how you view the time. 

I was talking to a friend the other evening who said, “I think that films are getting better”. And she’s right. Yes, there’s too much of the same old cynical product — is there anyone whose heart lifts at the poster for Bride Wars? — but there are creative people out there who are as good as any in the past. The movie business is simple: they make the movies they think will make money. So all we have to do as the audience is to turn up, pay for the good stuff — rather than downloading it for free — and send out a clear message: if you make them, we will come.

The craft of … Peter Morgan

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Great news from Variety this morning: Peter Morgan, writer of The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and his own favourite Longford, is to make his debut as a director with his third Tony Blair story. This installment, again starring Michael Sheen, will be about Blair’s relationship with Bill Clinton. Morgan spoke a little about the project at the London Film Festival (more about that from the brilliant SP here), where he described Blair as his Everyman: a “navigator” through whom the audience can experience Balmoral or the White House. He also hinted at a fourth story, about Blair, the Iraq War and the Pope.

Morgan is perhaps the only British screenwriter whose name helps sell a movie (any other suggestions?). So what can we learn from his work?

First, he has a rigorous sense of structure: as he told the New Yorker, he has “an almost autistic ability to see a shape in a story … So The Queen, right from the get-go, was ‘Audience scene — Monday — Tuesday — Wednesday — Thursday — Friday — Audience scene’. Blair-Brown was: ‘starts at the end, goes back, tells the story for two-thirds, then goes back’. I lock onto a structure like an infant looking at colours and shapes. Once I’ve got that I’ll never deviate from it.”

Second, although he has written a lot about real people, often living ones, he has a clear mission to be, as he said at LFF, “truthful rather than accurate”. What matters is to create characters that feel plausible, in a world that feels convincing. He told The Times, “My aim is to illustrate the truth underlying a character,” sometimes through the way they speak but often through small details. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Morgan explained how he’d imagined Frost: “The image I had of him was Frost on Concorde, at 55,000ft, living eight days a week and Nixon in some sort of cave of exile. It was the defining thing. This image of the one guy circumnavigating the globe in a ludicrous soundtrack of success. He’d have a glass of Cristal in his hand, a cigar cos you could smoke and drink yourself senseless at the time”. And while every real life story involves a great deal of research — how does the Prime Minister telephone the Queen? — the emotional heart of the film may be entirely fictitious, like the almost mystical communion between the Queen and the stag, or the drunken midnight phone call that Nixon makes to Frost. 

Third, he understands that everyone’s a hero to themselves — and that nobody is perfect. His heroes are flawed, his villains sympathetic, so the audience is continually engaged. As he wrote about The Queen, “My screenplay leaves you in no doubt that I think the Queen is a cold, bigoted, uncompromising, distant person you wouldn’t particularly want as a parent. However, the film is about her being hurt and because we are often hurt there’s a shared humanity.” You rarely know what Morgan thinks, but you always know what his characters feel. 

Fourth, he’s brilliant at tackling big ideas through intimate stories. The Queen is a story about the British people’s complex relationship with the monarchy. Longford is about, in Morgan’s words, “the compassion of judgement”. The Clinton/Blair movie is about Britain’s relationship with America. These are big, bold, complex subjects, but Morgan keeps them at a human level, so the movies always feel like drama, never like debate. Every scene is rigorously argued, but feels emotionally alive. 

Above all, he’s hugely entertaining. Morgan’s one of the funniest writers around, particularly in The Queen, but also in even more potentially perilous material, like his screenplay for The Last King of Scotland, written with Jeremy Brock. A lot of screenplays are emotionally monotonous, continually playing the same note. Morgan’s dart and sparkle, full of light and shade. And he treats every story as a thriller — you will always want to know what happens next.

Right now though, my big question is: who’s going to play Bill Clinton?