Friday, December 30, 2005

Being English in Two Movies

(an all-video post)

Lasse Hallström's
Casanova is very grand-looking - beautiful costuming, fabulous lighting, dazzling editing, strong performances-- but why, oh, why does everyone speak in London English of different kinds? I realize the intended conceit is that it somehow evokes Shakespeare to be English and inperiod costume in Italy, and Francesca Bruni channels Portia, etc., but it just sounds wierd and carries a few inexplicable, or, at best, out of date messages, viz., feminism and ballooning were brought to 18th Century Venice by an especially bright Englishwoman -- plus Sheridan keeps popping out from behind Shakespeare, although Casanova is hardly the stuff of English drawing-room comedy.

And the story of the 18th Century libertine is not right for a Shakespearian romp either. Now that it's fashionable in England to play Shakespeare in funky Elizabethan English, it's clear that Jeremy Irons' elegant drawl, and probably Oliver Platt's Cockney, would be completely unintelligible to Elizabethans. The Elizabethans, at least, had plenty of reasons/excuses to revel in the spectacle of their countrymen playing broadly at being Italian for a laugh. It's not working now. Still fine and fun to watch Shakespearean comedy, which is broad by nature, played any which way, of course. The plot and many lines in this screenplay, which is by Jefferey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, is great fun and deserves less ham-handed interpretation. Also, I think Sienna Miller looks gorgeous as a blonde airhead but pretty dull as a sort of auburn out-of-time suffragette.

No doubt people who don't examine this Casanova movie too closely will go around thinking 18th Century Venetians were actually Londoners. London English misused is the sonic equivalent of those 1960's movies with blonde Bris as Ancient Greeks and blonde Americans as Romans -- not so believable now, but very persuasive then.

J, who is highly educated and blonde, explained Classical blondeness to me, apparently without a clue that he'd picked it up at the movies.

"Oh, sure," he said," The Greeks, yes, they're dark now, but they used to be blonde."
I challenged him on this. "What about the vases, then? Nobody's blonde on the amphorae."
"Well, those are just pictures," he said.
"But they could have drawn blondes with outlines," I pointed out.
"Oh," he said, frowning slightly. "I guess they weren't always blonde then. How bizarre. Maybe you're right."

About the accents, it's been twenty-three years since Meryl Streep showed everyone how to maintain a credible Czech accent in Sophie's Choice, and twenty since she told Robert Redford, speaking bitterly as Karen Blixen/ Isaak Dinesen in Out of Africa, "You want to häv eet âll..!" It's only one year since Minnie Driver showed us in The Phantom of the Opera how well and hilariously the new Englishwoman can play an Italian diva in a foul mood. Plus, right now, here are THREE Redgrave women, speaking flawlessly thick and broken English as Russian emigrées in Shanghai. Yes, speaking English like an Englishwoman is definitely passé.

The White Countess: This last Merchant-Ivory not-quite-chick-flick is the best they've ever made. Kazuo Ishiguro's screenplay has finally released them from the demands of pinched and painful screenplays past, and they have outdone themselves. The acting is superb and, who knows, possibly flawless. Ralph Fiennes does an amazing job of looking blind with his eyes wide open. Each Redgrave is a study, with the elderly women's struggle to stay correct very finely drawn, and Natasha Richardson doing a lot of un-English things with her face that give substance to her accent. There is an astonishing amount of exquisite music dovetailed into the action, lots of clearly careful research into the look of things, and the cinematography and editing are nothing short of poetic.

I think I don't need to see any more movies for a while...

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