Richard Curtis’s movies have become so violent that you begin to wonder whether somewhere in his youth or childhood he didn’t suffer some deep psychological wound. By “violent” I don’t mean that anybody kills each other or even shouts (nobody so much as receives a paper cut while reading Dickens). But if there was a face-clawingly oppressive, maniacal quality to the “love is the answer” positivism of Love Actually, then About Time absolutely seethes with the sheer aggression of Curtis’s commitment to happy endings, family values and principles.
A caring young man (Domhnall Gleeson) can travel back in time to repair moments in his and others’ recent past. He marries at 21 (to Rachel McAdams) but adores his family, and with his special secret talent for time travel learns to find contentment in his resolutely upper-middle-class and “ordinary” life. The message of the film – fully articulated in voiceover – is that we must all live each day as though for the second time, more careful not to miss any opportunities to be nice. Kiss your wife! Tell your father you will miss him!
It is hard to reconcile the likeable, thoughtful man (was there ever a face as kind or reasonable as Richard Curtis’s?) who pops up on the TV now and again talking with profound accuracy about comedy (particularly in relation to the globally adored Blackadder, which he co-wrote) with the person peddling About Time. It’s not that it is fatuous, it’s that it is cultishly, pugnaciously fatuous, never leaving room for anything approaching meaningful reality or honest emotion. It’s as though Curtis is waging a one-man to-the-death war on cynicism, having forgotten an essential rule both of comedy and of life: that cynicism can sometimes be not just the correct but also the only response to things, and to deny it looks like a grown man’s con.
And there is always a sense – just as there was in Love Actually – that all this is not really about love. It’s about the white-stuccoed houses west of Bayswater and buying one’s first Aga and coir matting, and it’s all going to end in vicious rows somewhere down the line when the mortgage for the basement extension is denied. There is, however, one very nice joke. “Would you like to walk me back to my car?” says McAdams to Gleeson after their first date, and he nods eagerly. Several miles on foot later a polite but flummoxed Gleeson comments that she must have had one hell of a nightmare finding a parking space. Oh no, McAdams says, the car was always parked in front of her flat – precisely where she wants him to be. Gleeson flushes and bows his head with a hilarious lightness of movement. In a moment like this you cross your fingers that Curtis might one day write another Four Weddings and a Funeral – no less than a concerto for 11 instruments.
Museum Hours, set in and around Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Museum in a January gloom, has a richly formal and austere visual style and transmits a gorgeously unsappy melancholy. It’s been on my mind so much since seeing it: the perfection of the first half-hour, the fact that a mere seven people were involved in its making, and that it (incredibly) uses no artificial lights and largely unprofessional actors.
When fifty-something Canadian Anne visits the gallery between attending her mortally sick cousin in hospital, her growing acquaintance with museum guard Johann provides some respite from her days of silence and anxiety. An ex-roadie with a wild past, who has sat for years looking at art and at people looking at art, Johann has arrived at his own understanding of certain paintings and objects and tells Anne about them, just as she casts a fresh eye and does the same. Sometimes we are not even shown the painting or thing they are talking about, and learn more about both characters instead, little by little, via the things they have noticed.
It’s both quiet and talky, sad and exalting. I loved its scrupulousness. Anne is a smart, cultured, poor woman. She stays in the kind of hotel you stay in when you have no money and eats in the sort of cafés you eat in when you can only afford an egg bap for the rest of the day and visits the museum because it is free and she needs to distract herself and feel less lonely. Museum Hours is that rare thing: a movie about high art that’s not only nice if you can afford it.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Sundance Institute product set in 1970s Texas hill country about a con on the run (Casey Affleck) trying to get back to his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara), has been touted as a kind of lost Terrence Malick – one of those movies where each scene of mysteriously lush significance moves quietly and portentously into the next with an emphasis on meaningful implication.
We love this kind of stuff, don’t we? And Affleck is as usual very good in as much as we completely buy that he is in love not just on the surface but deep down too and you care what happens to him. So why doesn’t the film work? Why do we find ourselves not entirely present all the way through? There is a completely numbing sense that this really is a lost Terrence Malick – that this was done a long time ago, and that cinema’s cupboards are empty and there is no new stuff to make in a new way.
The Great Beauty arrives with the kind of knock-your-eye-out posters crammed with so many accolades that taking a seat in front of it makes a person quite self-conscious. Even its title has a scale that implies that all human life (or at least all adult life) is here.
It’s set in modern Rome, where ageing journalist and party animal Jep (Toni Servillo – Sid James meets Gary Cooper) gets his bellyful of decadence on a nightly basis but wonders if life will ever feel more than a trick, more than “blah blah blah”. Still, he’s sexy and witty and his apartment (overlooking the Coliseum – if nothing else this movie comes on like destination porn) is always full of clever people talking harshly and piggy ex-beauties snorting cocaine and people on tables looking a bit like transvestites thrusting to euro-house in an overtly grotesque way that suggests Fellini’s Casanova or City of Women but feels a lot more like Baz Luhrmann.
Paolo Sorrentino sure enjoys his clichés – the cardinal more interested in food than doctrine, the wise stripper, the feted performance artist with zero ideas, the first love eternally swimming in Jep’s memory in the soul-blue sea off the coast of Naples, the whole business of man allowing his soul to be destroyed while eternally diverted via debauchery ... all filmed with a “wonder of cinema” voluptuousness that tastes after more than two hours like cherry liqueurs left on the radiator. It’s Fellini in Vegas.
Nigel Andrews is away