• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/2/2021)

(Reviews of 76 Days; Assassins; Persian Lessons; The Exception; and Blithe Spirit)


So, here we are in Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are closed until mid-February and all releases will be online. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck and stay safe!


76 DAYS.


With Britain still in the depths of its third lockdown, a documentary about the start of the pandemic in Wuhan might not seem ideal viewing. But there is something enlightening and reassuring about 76 Days, which was filmed at four hospitals in the Chinese city by Weixi Chen and a colleague who has chosen to remain anonymous to protect his status as a government-sanctioned reporter. Their footage has been edited by co-director Hao Wu, who co-ordinated the project from New York, and it speaks volumes for his acuity that this has an artistry to match its humanity.


As journalists with approved access to the medical facilities in Wuhan, Weixi and Anonymous were able to film staff treating patients in the most intimate, but unobtrusive manner after lockdown was imposed on 23 January 2020. Several doctors, nurses, orderlies and cleaners agreed to participate, but the only named pair are Li Yang, the head nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital, and Tian Dingyuan, a young male nurse who had been dispatched from Shanghai to help cope with the outbreak of coronavirus.


Plunging into an ongoing crisis, the opening scene hits hard, as a female nurse in full PPE rushes along a corridor to spend a last few moments with her dying father. She arrives too late, however, and has to be restrained, as well as consoled, as she tries to get a final glimpse of her `papa' before his body is driven to the morgue. A doctor pleads with the woman to calm down and set a good example because the pandemic is going to get worse and he needs everyone to be fit and focused.


As the streets empty, a crush develops outside the door leading on to the ward and the gatekeepers sound incredibly stressed as they ask those waiting to calm down and wait their turn. They are close to panic, but they do what they are told, as we see shots of equipment being readied and staff scurrying around in a bid to keep people distanced and prevent them from spreading rumours through their phones.


Their efforts are not helped by Patient No.40, a Hubei fisherman with dementia who is in his seventies and can't understand why he is being imprisoned when he wants to go home. Nurses try to explain to `grandpa' that his escape bids are making things difficult for everyone and he returns to his room muttering under his breath. As a volunteer driver picks up a patient needing hospital attention, a nurse calls a family to inform them of the death of their loved one. She explains that their belongings will be kept for collection and a disinfected phone in a sealed wrapper buzzes in a plastic container full of victim mobiles.


An old woman (who earns the nickname `Auntie Guan') is shown listening to her grandson imploring her by phone to trust the doctors. She holds Tian's hand, as he tries to give her a pill, but she's too weak to swallow. Meanwhile, a mother showing symptoms goes into labour and the baby girl is entrusted to her father in the corridor for a brief moment of tranquility. It's shattered, however, by Grandpa 40 trying to sneak out again and having his threats to call the police turned back on him by staff accusing him of endangering lives. In an effort to make him see sense, they call his son, who reminds him that members of the Communist Party should set a better example.


Elsewhere, a nurse washes another elderly fellow, who is suitably grateful in declaring the hospital staff to be soldiers fighting the most difficult of battles. He is later seen eating a steamed bun that has been softened in warm water and he thanks the nurse for such a delicious treat. Another man struggles with his food because he doesn't have his teeth and Zhou Kaiqiong is allowed to make phone call to husband Chen Jinrong in a room along the corridor so she can encourage him to eat because she is worried that he's not getting the right care.


While Tian frets Auntie Guan becoming too weak to hold his hand, Zhou insists on leaving her room to watch Chen go for a CAT scan. We have heard the doctors discussing the fact that his health is deteriorating, but the old man is still able to wave his wife away as he is wheeled away. She shuffles back to her room in anguish and the lingering shot of a closed door feels like an ill omen. Even in the depths, however, there's still room for hope, as one woman tells the nurse tending her that she has faith in Jesus that things will soon get back to normal.


Despite Grandpa 40 making progress, his son is reluctant to collect him until he is fully cured and the confused senior continues to wander along corridors in search of an exit. His antics amuse the staff, who try to raise spirits by drawing on each other's white suits and decorating them with positive messages. One nurse draws smiling faces on inflated surgical gloves, which they use to prop up the tubes of patients requiring oxygen. Outside, the population has become accustomed to queuing for supplies, but the streets are still deserted, as lockdown grinds through its second month.


March comes, but the newborn remains in an incubator, while her parents are quarantined in their apartment. She has been dubbed `Little Penguin' by the nurses and everyone is proud of the fact she has such a healthy appetite. While she clasps her bottle and the dumpling man tucks heartily into a large red grapefruit, Grandpa 40 makes a nostalgic bid for freedom amidst promises that he will soon be released. The prospectus looks less rosy for Auntie Guan, however, and Tian is concerned that she has developed a scab on her face from prolonged intubation.


At Red Cross, Nurse Li disinfects personal belongings and phones relatives to break bad news. She struggles with a call to Auntie Guan's family, as her husband and grandson have also recently died, and she goes in person to hand over the little bag of effects and ensure the young woman who collects them that they did everything they could to save her. Tian waves goodbye to some departing patients and Grandpa 40 also gets to go home, with the nurses assuring him that he will be missed. Little Penguin also leaves, with her mother gazing at her in the car home, as she hasn't seen her since the moment she was born. Her husband teases her that she is more concerned about whether her daughter is pretty than healthy.


Although things are quieter on the wards, the bureaucracy of death continues and Nurse Li looks exhausted, as she removes her protective clothing to go home. On 4 April, air raid sirens sound around Wuhan to commemorate the 3300 who had succumbed to Covid-19 across China. Four days later, the lockdown ends and life can slowly start getting back to normal - whatever that now is.


Wisely avoiding any political analysis in keeping the focus squarely on the victims of the pandemic and those trying to care for them, Hao Wu (who directed the online exhibitionist exposé, People's Republic of Desire, 2018) and his collaborators have produced a poignant memorial to those who lost their lives and the medics who did everything in their power to save them, while working scientifically blind and placing themselves at great personal risk. Through their sacrifice, Li Yang and Tian Dingyuan forge a kinship with Amani Ballour, the dutiful physician from Ghouta in The Cave (2019), Feras Fayyad's Direct Cinema study of a frontline hospital in the Syrian Civil War.


But they also remind us of the efforts being made by colleagues around the planet and viewers in the UK should be more grateful than ever for the National Health Service. They should also encourage reckless non-maskers to do the right thing to ensure the success of the vaccine rollout. Doubtless, dozens of documentaries will appear about the Covid crisis, with the more opportunistic outings being balanced by serious investigations into the sources of the outbreak, the global governmental response and the scientific response to conquering the virus. For the moment, in the absence of profound reflection, the daunting immediacy and remarkable candour of this intrepid and consciously unnuanced companion to Ai Weiwei's Coronation sets a high benchmark.


ASSASSINS.


On 13 February 2017, Kim Jong-nam was approached by two women at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. The CCTV footage showed them coming up behind the half-brother of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and vigorously rubbing his face with their palms. When Kim died within the hour from the deadly nerve agent VX, it was presumed that 25 year-old Siti Aisyah from Indonesia and 28 year-old Ðoàn Thi Huong from Vietnam were killers trained by Pyongyang, especially as airport security footage seemed to capture the women taking pains to keep their hands away from their bodies while rushing towards the washrooms.


As documentarist Ryan White reveals in Assassins, however, appearances can be deceptive. Far from being lethal agents, Siti and Ðoàn were actually innocent dupes who thought they were recording the latest in a series of prank videos on which they had been working for several months. Before delving deeper, White has Washington Post reporter Anne Fifield explain the Mount Paektu myth that Kim Il-sung had used to pass power to his son, Kim Jong-il. She also explains how it was accepted that the Dear Leader would pass power to Kim Jong-nam, his son with actress Song Hye-rim.


However, dancer rival Ko Yong-hui had great ambitions for her boy, Kim Jong-un, to take the reins and seemingly tipped off the Japanese police that Kim Jong-nam was heading to Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport. Having shamed the nation, the heir apparent agreed to renounce his claims and live quietly in Macau. But his half-sibling had discovered that he was passing secrets to the CIA and, consequently, plans were laid to eliminate him. Fate decreed that he should literally fall into the hands of Ðoàn and Siti while travelling through Malaysia under the name Kim Chol. But, as BenarNews reporter Hadi Azmi, avers, the evidence gathered by investigating officer Wan Azirul to hang the accused was nothing like as watertight as it had first appeared.


The story is taken up by Siti's lawyers, Gooi Soon Seng and Selvi Sandrasegaram, and Ðoàn's counsel, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, who use recorded testimony, phone records and CCTV footage to piece together how the young women were recruited. At 16, Siti had married the son of a sweatshop owner and had lost custody of her son when they divorced. On leaving her home village of Ranca Sumur for Kuala Lumpur in 2015, she resorted to working as a masseuse and escort to sustain her party lifestyle and pay for the braces on her teeth. She was still dicing with Skid Row when a taxi driver named John introduced her to James, a Japanese man who used Google Translate to convince Siti that she could make good money shooting Punk'd-style videos for the Internet.


Ðoàn had also been plucked from beneath the lower rung, having seen her hopes of stardom dashed by a 20-second appearance on Vietnam's version of Pop Idol. Her video assignments were supervised by Mr Y, who took Ðoàn to several countries in the region before landing her in Malaysia in early 2017. Just as James handed Siti over to a new handler, Chang, Ðoàn started filming scenarios that required her to rub baby oil in her target's faces. Mr Y even encouraged her to be rougher in her pranking and hotel CCTV shows her checking into a room with the giant teddy bear he had bought her to practice on.


Neither Siti nor Ðoàn knew of the other's existence before the day that Chang and Mr Y informed them that an actor had been hired for their latest stunt on the airport concourse and that he would pretend to put up a struggle. Keen to make a good impression, Siti applied more make-up than usual, while Ðoàn donned a white, long-sleeved shirt emblazoned with the initialism, `LOL'. They were taken aback by their victim's reaction to the prank, but thought nothing more of it after hurrying off to clean-up. Indeed, they seemingly knew nothing about Kim Jong-nam's death, with Ðoàn even returning to the airport two days later for another stunt. However, Mr Y's phone had been switched off and Ðoàn was astonished when she and Siti were arrested and charged with murder.


Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar was certain of securing a conviction when the trial opened before Judge Datuk Azmi Ariffin and his confidence increased when Ariffin ruled that Siti and Ðoàn would have to convince him that they had not been aware of the deadly nature of the substance on their hands on 13 February. By this time, however, Gooi and Hisyam had followed the clues that proved the women had been unwitting pawns in the hands of Ri Jae-nam, a North Korean spymaster who had co-ordinated the conspiracy under the alias Hanamori. Furthermore, the lawyers had discovered that James (O Jong-il), Chang (Hong Song-hac) and Mr Y (Rhi Ji-hyon) were also on Pyongyang's payroll and that the embassy had facilitated their exit from Malaysia while Kim Jong-nam was dying.


During their incarceration in adjoining cells, Siti and Ðoàn had grown close. The latter was devastated, therefore, when the Malaysian authorities withdrew the case against Siti in order to avoid a diplomatic breach with Indonesia. As Vietnam was a close ally of North Korea, its officials proved more reluctant to act and Ðoàn looked set to face the murder charge alone when the bench accepted a lesser plea of voluntarily causing hurt and sentenced her to 40 months. She was released in May 2019, however, and White shows the women chatting online, as they try to rebuild their lives.


None of this will be news to anyone who reads the papers, but White tells his tale with considerable aplomb, in drawing on Doug Bock Clark's 2017 GQ article, `The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam's Assassination'. Owing much to editor Helen Kearns, the thriller-like narrative slips sinuously through dynastic history and personal backstories before divulging the truth about what Siti and Ðoàn thought they were doing. The use of available archive material is exemplary, but White is fortunate in the fact that the women's lawyers are such accomplished raconteurs, as they leak details and critique procedures with a mix of begrudging admiration for the fiendishness of the North Korean plot and exasperation at the laziness of a prosecution in cahoots with higher powers.


Closer in tone to Bryan Fogel's The Dissident (2020), which peels away the layers from the Jamal Khashoggi case, than Vitaly Mansky's North Korea exposé, Under the Sun (2016), this is more in line with The Keepers (2017), White's Netflix investigation into the 1969 murder of nun Catherine Cesnik, than earlier outings like Good Ol' Freda (2013), Serena (2016) and Ask Dr Ruth (2019), which respectively profiled Beatles Fan Club secretary Freda Kelly, tennis ace Serena Williams and sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. But it confirms him as one of America's most astute actuality makers and it will be intriguing to see what he latches on to next after Visible: Out on Television (2020), a TV series about LGBTQ+ representation on the small screen that follows on from his same-sex marriage study, The Case Against 8 (2014), which White co-directed with Brian Cotner.


PERSIAN LESSONS.


Almost two decades ago, Ukraine-born Canada-based director Vadim Perelman made an impactful debut with The House of Sand and Fog (2003). He has struggled to build on such good first impressions, however, with The Life Before Her Eyes (2007), Yolki 5 (2016) and Buy Me (2018) hardly being seen in this country. Purportedly based on a true story, Persian Lessons returns him to the spotlight. But this Holocaust saga scripted by Ilja Zofin strains to convince and many viewers will baulk at this manipulative mix of mawkish sentiment and bleak absurdism.


Having traded a sandwich for a book of Persian legends while in transit following a round-up in France in 1942, Antwerp rabbi's son Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) survives a forest firing squad by persuading German soldier Paul (David Schütter) that he isn't Jewish. Disregarding the scepticism of his colleague, Max (Jonas Nay), Paul presents his find to Hauptsturmführer Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), who is in charge of both registration and the kitchen at the nearby concentration camp. He is keen to learn Farsi, as he dreams of opening a restaurant in Teheran after the Second World War ends. Taking the name Reza Joon from the title page inscription, Gilles accepts the task of teaching Koch the language, even though he admits he can't read or write Farsi and has to use the names in the camp ledgers to invent words for his protector to learn.


Max is convinced that Reza is lying and finds an ally in exposing him in Elsa (Leonie Benesch), whose poor handwriting had resulted in Reza replacing her as camp registrar. She is sleeping with the camp commandant (Alexander Bayer), but also flirting with Max, who had been eyeing up fellow Helferin, Lana (Luisa-Céline Gaffron). They attend a Sunday picnic catered by Koch, who flies off the handle when Reza uses the word `radz' for both `bread' and `tree'. Vindicated, Max delights in escorting Reza to the rock pile and vows to finish him off. But Paul hears him deliriously babbling `Farsi' words in the barracks and Koch sends him to the sanatorium to recover.


When the commandant (who suspects Koch's motives for learning an exotic tongue) informs him that rumours are spreading that he is having a gay relationship with Reza, he prevents him from being sent east by threatening to pass on Lana's gossip from Elsa that he has a tiny penis. To be on the safe side, however, Koch has Reza sent to a nearby farm until the camp has received its new intake. By the time he returns, the commandant has exacted his revenge on Elsa by sending her to the Russian Front. But this only infuriates Max, who promises Reza that he will kill him. However, Koch is pleased to see him and confides in `Farsi' that he comes from an impoverished background and learned to cook because food was so scarce when he was a boy. Reza is touched by his trust and also when Koch recites a `Farsi' poem and slips him supplies to help Italian newcomer Marco (Giuseppe Schillaci) and his mute brother, Jacob (Antonin Chalon).


When Max finds a British airman of Persian descent in the next intake of prisoners, he rushes to the kitchen to find Reza. However, Marco overhears the encounter and slits the pilot's throat before he can expose his friend. Hoping that Reza will continue to protect Jacob, Marco confesses to the crime and is gunned down by Max. Tired of being afraid, Reze swaps coats with Jacob so he can go on the next train transport, but Koch pulls him out of the line marching to the station and denies being a murderer when he asks Reza why he wants to join the nameless doomed.


Shortly afterwards, news comes of the Allied advance and the camp has to be evacuated. While the commandant burns documents, Koch hides cash and his textbook under his greatcoat and leads Reza out of the camp. Max tries to have him stopped, but his superiors ignore him. In the depths of the snowy forest, Koch reveals he is going to Teheran and hopes Reza has a long life. He is detained in the Persian capital, where he discovers the deception when trying to speak Farsi to the border guards. Gilles resumes his real identity and provides the Allies with the names he had used to remember the words he taught his captor. Everyone in the reception tent turns to listen in hushed reverence.


Notwithstanding an opening caption claiming that the film is based on true events, the scenario actually derives from a short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase. It would be intriguing to know whether `Erfindung Einer Sprache' considers the issues of syntax and grammar because Ilja Zofin makes no mention of them and, thus, risks tipping his conceit into risibility. The notion that a high-ranking German officer would be content merely to amass vocabulary is specious in the extreme, even if his sole reason for wanting to reach Persia is to reunite with the brother who had disowned him after Koch had joined the Nazi Party in 1932. But surely his fascination with the language would prompt him to invest in a dictionary and a primer?


It's very much to Lars Eidinger's credit that he manages to prevent his stereotypical Good(ish) German from becoming a mockable caricature. But he is well supported by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, whose watchful stillness enables him to avoid portraying Gilles as the equally stock Shoah figure of the resourceful Jew. The supporting players are less successful, however, as their roles are so much more sketchily delineated. Jonas Nay particularly struggles as the detestable fanatic and it's a shame that Zofin ddn't make more of the helferins capably played by Leonie Benesch and Luisa-Céline Gaffron.


On the craft side, Vladislav Opelyants's photography and Dmitri Tatarnikov and Vlad Ogaj's production design are effective without drawing attention to themselves. The same is true of Evgueni and Sacha Galperine's orchestral score, although it does swell in the latter stages to push this closer in tone towards items like Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008) and Amma Assante's Where Hands Touch (2018), if not exactly in the direction of Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winner, Life Is Beautiful (1997). This is largely Perelman's fault, as he can't decide how far he wants to question the conventions of the Holocaust picture that have always been subjected to more stringent appraisal in Eastern European features than those influenced by Hollywood. He has achieved the objective of producing a sincere memorial to the six million, but it remains a highly implausible one.


THE EXCEPTION.


Dane Jesper W. Nielsen has been directing since 1987 and has enjoyed considerable domestic success with features like Okay (2002), Through a Glass, Darkly (2008) and The Day Will Come (2016). He also has an impressive track record in television, including six episodes of Børgen (2011-13). But, while The Exception has the makings of a decent Nordic noir, screenwriter Christian Torpe's adaptation of a 2006 Christian Jungersen novel about the growing mutual mistrust between four female co-workers always feels as though it is approaching the subject from a male perspective.


Despite still being traumatised by a hostage situation in Kenya, Iben (Danica Curcic) has returned to Copenhagen to write a book on the psychology of evil with best friend, Malene (Amanda Collin), who is suffering from creeping arthritis. They work with Paul (Olaf Johannessen) at an NGO investigating genocide. alongside secretary Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen) and new librarian, Anne-Lise (Sidse Babett Knudsen). She feels like an outsider and a clear-the-air meeting only convinces Iben and Malene that Anne-Lise is responsible for the threatening e-mails that they had assumed had been sent by Serbian war criminal, Mirko Zigic (Veselko).


Paul is unimpressed when Iben and Malene accuse Anne-Lise of messaging Camilla, but is persuaded to raise the subject of Malene's pills being swapped when she has an excruciating flare-up at work. Meanwhile, the crisis causes Iben to have visions of Omoro (Likho Mango) - the child soldier who had held her at gunpoint - while Anne-Lise imagines herself bludgeoning Malene with a desk lamp and drowning Iben in her bath. Before announcing that he's leaving her for a younger woman, Malene's tekkie partner, Rasmus (Simon Sears) offers to run spyware on the computers and is pushed from their apartment window before he can reveal his findings.


Despite being dismissed by the police as an accident, the death convinces Malene that Anne-Lise is schizophrenic and she breaks into her house to find her diary for proof. However, Iben thinks she's gone too far and Malene feels betrayed when she defends Anne-Lise at work. Malene starts writing letters to Rasmus, as she feels no one is on her side, while Iben feels guilty because she has started seeing journalist Gunnar (Magnus Krepper) behind Malene's back after she had warned him he was a bounder. Anne-Lise also regrets posing as Camilla's school friend to glean information about her relationship with Zigic's sidekick, Dragan Jelisic (Sergej Trifunovic). But she confronts her with it and Iben is appalled that Camilla had been so reckless.


In her apartment, Iben recalls how she had attacked the child soldier with a knife and still keeps a blade taped to her shin. It comes in useful when Zigic abducts her and tries to find the files on Malene's laptop than Rasmus had hacked from his e-address book. However, while Iben gets away, Malene takes a bullet to protect her and Zigic is arrested. Paul informs Iben, Camilla and Anne-Lise that Malene had confessed to sending the threatening e-mails and killing Rasmus in the letters she wrote after his death. But cop Dorte Ingeman (Susan A. Olsen) isn't convinced and tries to pressurise Iben into confessing her own guilt. But she retains her composure and the film ends with her kissing Gunnar and hoping Malene would have approved of their romance.


From its opening revelation that the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trial exhibited manifestly different personalities, this treaties on the nature of evil keeps returning to historic atrocities in order to justify the implication that the staff at a Danish body devoted to investigating crimes against humanity have been contaminated by their work. In some ways, this angle makes Nielsen's psychological thriller a perversely appropriate film to watch in the middle of a pandemic that has coincided with the global rise of populism. But there's no such subtext to a screenplay that struggles to convince because it fails to take the time to establish the rationale of the group employing Iben, Malene, Camilla and Anne-Lise and how likely it would be for them to be stressed by the images and ideas they encounter on a daily basis.


Nielsen hardly helps with such unsubtle shots as the one of Iben looking long and hard at herself in a cracked mirror. But he also gives the game away by not assigning Malene reveries like Iben's imagining that Omoro is in her apartment, Anne-Lise's envisioning of the assaults on her workmates and Camilla's fantasising about being seduced by her Serbian lover while she is being quizzed about his whereabouts. In fairness to Danica Curcic, Amanda Collin, Lene Maria Christensen and Sidse Babett Knudsen, the characters are capably fleshed, in spite of the fact that they are largely chauvinist constructs rooted in outdated notions of female hysteria. Henrik Lindtstrand's invidious score reinforces this sense of Women's Picture classicism, although Erik Zappon's invasive camerawork has a more modish feel. Production designer Sabine Hviid creates an atmospheric office space, while the homes of the four women are deftly contrasted. It's all very diverting, but there's something rather rotten about this particular part of Denmark.


BLITHE SPIRIT.


A few weeks back, this column wondered why a director as accomplished as Ben Wheatley would sign up for what turned out to be an anaemic remake of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. Unfortunately, the same misgivings are writ even larger in the case of small-screen stalwart Edward Hall's reworking of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, another Netflix/Sky Cinema offering built around a Downton Abbey alumnus that pales as feebly beside David Lean's 1945 original as Wheatley's retool had done beside Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Best Picture winner.


Despite having written a string of bestselling detective novels, Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is struggling to adapt one for Hollywood producer Henry Macintosh (Simon Kunz). Unfortunately, Charles is married to Macintosh's daughter, Ruth (Isla Fisher), who has become accustomed to a life of Art Deco leisure in the Condomine country pile. Following a visit to the theatre to see a shambolic performance by clairvoyant Madame Cecily Arcati (Judi Dench), Charles is inspired to include a supernatural element in his screenplay.


The Condomines invite Dr George Bradman (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and his wife Violet (Emilia Fox) to the séance and all are amused when Madame Arcati and her assistant Mandeep Singh (Adil Ray) fail to redeem their ruined reputations. However, by some happenstance, Madame Arcati manages to summon the spirit of Charles's first wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), who perished in a car crash a few years earlier. At first, only Charles can see her. But his behaviour becomes so erratic that Ruth starts to smell a rat and she enlists Madame Arcati's help to send Elvira back from whence she came. The trouble is, there's a chasmic difference between reciting an incantation and making it work.


Scripting Chris Foggin's cornball comedy Fisherman's Friends (2019) proves to have been anything but the perfect preparation for the triumvirate of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth to put a 2020 spin on Noël Coward's 1941 stage confection, which provided choice screen roles four years later for Rex Harrison, Kay Hammond, Constance Cummings and Margaret Rutherford. Sadly, Hall's cast are simply not up to the task of keeping the ethereal conceit airborne. Indeed, the harder they try, the more deflating the viewing experience becomes, with even Judi Dench struggling to shake the ghost of an earlier thesping dame, as she pines for the beau who perished on the Western Front while facing the prospect of being disbarred from the medium's union by a wasted James Fleet.


They are not helped, however, by the tin-eared dialogue and the clumsy interpolation of a revenge plot that turns around the fact that Charles can't write a movie because Elvira had been much more than his muse. Despite his protest that adapting a work for the screen is trickier than it seems, Moorcroft, Leonard and Ashworth blunder on regardless and bring down the curtain with cameos for Greta Garbo (Stella Stocker) and Clark Gable (Jaymes Sygrove). Give us Robert Z. Leonard's 1931 melodrama, Susan Lenox (Her Rise and Fall), any day of the week.


There's much to commend about Ed Wild's photography, Charlotte Walter's costumes and John Paul Kelly's production design, although he could hardly fail to draw inspiration from Oliver Hill's modernist masterpiece, Joldwynds, near Holmbury St Mary in Surrey. But Simon Boswell's score is as off-key as the characterisation of the whining Charles, the scolding Ruth and the shrill Elvira that leaves the leads with no option but to resort to amdram mugging. Hall's nuance-free direction makes matters markedly worse. Yet what dooms this misguided enterprise is the cloddish repartee that seems bent on siphoning off all traces of Coward's patented wit. Tom Howard won an Academy Award for the Visual Effects that made Ronald Neame's Technicolor photography all the more beguiling. By contrast, this calamity should inspire someone to institute a British equivalent of the Golden Raspberries.


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