FILM REVIEW: REBECCA

So, what to say about the new film of Rebecca directed by Ben Wheatley now available on Netflix? There are going to be SPOILERS in here. First off, Lily James is much too pretty but this is always the case with film versions of Rebecca, so was Joan Fontaine (in Hitchcock’s 1940 black and white version). No one is going to cast her as she is in the book which is someone plain and gauche. Secondly – oh my God, the yellow suit! Maxim that is sooooooo damn yellow, an absolute custard marvel but you’re supposed to be classy … sack your tailor, man!

Rebecca (1940 film) - Wikipedia
This man would never have been seen dead in a yellow suit. Well, maybe in The Entertainer…

Enough rambling. The film was perfectly pleasant. It’ll while away a couple of hours especially if you don’t know the book and haven’t seen the Hitchcock film. I feel mean to be picky but here goes.

If you decide to adjust the characters to modern sensibilities watch out for what it does to the narrative as a whole. Something weird has happened to the character of Maxim in this version. For a start he’s too young. There’s supposed to be a substantial age gap between the two. Maxim is a ‘father figure’ to her. He should be moody, with a vicious temper, shut down and ‘wounded’. Armie Hammer’s version is way too amiable and lacks err wounds. Making him sleep walk adds nothing. He’s called de Winter for a reason. How can he be wintery in such a sunny suit?

There’s only one point where he shows any fire and that’s when his wife comes down the staircase dressed in the same costume that Rebecca had worn to the ball. Shove Maxim into the background and his wife comes to the fore. I understand why Wheatley wants to give her more agency. His fear, I imagine, was that she’s simply too passive, too insecure, too mousy and so too unsympathetic for modern sensibilities. But he obviously made a quick list. Let’s call it the Ben’s agency list:

  • have her drive. If she’s driving she has agency so there we are.
  • have her attempt to sack Mrs Danvers. I feel mean about this because in my previous blog I made rather a big thing of it but when the first attempt happened I burst out laughing. I also burst out laughing when she said later, ‘Pack your bags I want you gone by …’ I can’t remember when but it was probably the morning. It usually is isn’t it?
  • have her save Maxim all by herself. Oh yawn. By driving to London all by herself and finding the file that reveals Rebecca has cancer all by herself. 

In this version the neutered Maxim is locked up in prison when everything goes pear-shaped at the coroner’s inquest. Now this won’t do at all. One of the main themes of Rebecca is class division. In the book and the Hitchcock film the local magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is a friend and there is no doubt that he is  ON MAX’S SIDE. There is never any suggestion that he  thinks Max killed his wife because he is an aristo/massive landowner and as such is morally beyond reproach. He certainly wouldn’t lock him up because then he’d never get an invite to the Manderley Ball again and his wife would divorce him. In the book Favell, a man from the wrong side of the tracks, is clear about how this works when he says to Colonel Julyan, once Max is off the hook: ‘You can dine at Manderley once a week on the strength of this and feel proud of yourself. No doubt Max will ask you to be godfather to his first child.’ 

What of Mrs Danvers? Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t go for the full schlocky-campy version which was rather disappointing. I didn’t find her frightening enough and the exchanges between her and the new Mrs de Winter were rather stilted.

At least in this version Maxim says he’s shot Rebecca. In the Hitchcock one it’s an accident. I suppose because the morality of the time (of any time actually) was such that someone should not be seen to have got away with murdering their wife.

There’s a very silly scene when Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin and lover) teaches her to ride. Frankly, if you want to suggest sexual loucheness you don’t need to straddle a horse just have George Saunders (in Hitchcock’s film) jump back and forth through a window and say toodle oo. 

Manderley is also an important ‘character’ in the book, malign and unwelcoming to the second Mrs de Winter. I didn’t really get much of an impression of it, although at various points I expected a National Trust volunteer to spring forwards and tell us about the wall hangings.

So what did I like? I liked the murmuration, used to signify the evil presence of Rebecca about the place, and also some dark scenes in the ball. I liked Mrs Van Hopper played by Ann Dowd. And I suppose I quite liked the ending which is upbeat. In the book and Hitchcock’s film you know that they’ll never be free of Rebecca and Manderley even if one’s dead and the other is burnt to a crisp. But in these Covid days I could do with a bit of cheer and ending on an optimistic note albeit in Cairo (which, incidentally is where du Maurier wrote the book) was fine even if completely at odds with the sensibility of the Gothic genre.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

THE IMITATION GAME versus BREAKING THE CODE

Andrew Hodges brilliant book which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game

The brilliant book by Andrew Hodges which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game.

Every war has its invisible heroes. I’ve been thinking about that recently in the context of the novel I’ve been working on, Far Away, which is based on my father, Robert Blake’s, account of escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War. In some respects his account is a classic Boy’s Own account of derring-do. But what he never wrote about was that when he got back to England he was in MI6, albeit at a fairly junior level. So there is the visibility and drama of his escape story contrasted with the complete silence of what happened next. At least he could talk about some part of his war experience if he wanted to.

Alan Turing could not say a word.

He’s the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game and if ever there was an invisible hero it’s Turing. He was the British mathematician, who, at Bletchley Park, was responsible for creating the machine which broke the German Enigma code during the Second World War.  That act, the film tells us, is supposed to have been responsible for ending the war two years early and saving 14 million lives. Turing is also viewed as the inventor of the digital computer. So, an extraordinary thing to have done, and by any consideration an extraordinary individual.

However, he was a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In the 1950s he was prosecuted for gross indecency (i.e. sleeping with his boyfriend in his own home) and given the choice between chemical castration and two years in prison. He chose the drugs and then one year later committed suicide at the age of 41. His security clearance for GCHQ had been removed by the government because at that time homosexuals were viewed as a liability due to the risk of them being blackmailed. The way he was treated was eventually viewed as so shameful that Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009:

‘On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say we’re sorry, you deserved better. So much better.’

GORDON BROWN

In August 2009 a petition was started to get him pardoned, leading to the Queen signing a posthumous pardon for his conviction of gross indecency, on Christmas Day 2013. I had seen Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi playing Turing, in the late eighties (that was adapted for TV in 1996) and loved it, so I was interested to see what the film would be like. Click below if you want to see the 1996 TV drama and do your own compare and contrast.

Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful and I can see why he’s been tipped for an Oscar but the film he excels in is rather pedestrian and filled with the sort of fake obstacles that screenwriters use when they are not trusting the innate power of their story or the intelligence of their audience. The effect was to stretch my credulity to breaking point too many times and make me wonder what might have happened if Tomas Alfredson, who directed the film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had been in charge. Or indeed Mike Leigh.

There are some striking differences between the play and the film. In the film there are no scenes which depict Turing with his male lovers whereas in the play there are several. The film focuses instead on the relationship between Turing and a female code breaker, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. Obviously, I can see the commercial reasons for giving Knightley a prominent role but the absence of his male lovers still seems to me pretty baffling. We are supposed to live in more enlightened times, aren’t we? and yet this is a film that seems to have taken one step back into the closet. In the play we also see Turing with some kind of emotional hinterland; there are his lovers and also his mother. The depiction of him is of a less traumatized and more connected individual. Certainly he’s eccentric but he’s not as isolated. In the play it is also clear that Turing naively shops himself to the police by telling the truth about his relationship. There’s none of that in the film or the fact that he killed himself by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. So, no mother, no lovers, no apple and no cyanide.

So what does the film have going for it?

Well, it’s got Cumberbatch’s performance and it’s also got the machine (or Bombe as it was called) and that’s gripping, lots of red spaghetti-like wiring and whirring and clicking cogs. And it also has a stand out performance by Alex Lawther as the young Turing.

One other thing that I liked very much in the film was the phrase ‘blood-soaked calculus’. This was used to describe the calculation the secret services had to make about whether they could act on the information they got from deciphering German messages. This was because they did not want the Germans to know they had broken Enigma. So the decision with each piece of information was: Can we use this or will it give the game away? As a writer, I’d have been very proud of myself if I’d come up with that expression. As a human being I’m very glad I’ve never had to make those sorts of  decisions.

Both Jacobi and Cumberbatch are fantastic actors and where they both excel is in conveying in a compelling manner reams of barely comprehensible (to me anyway) mathematics in a way which means that you completely believe that they understand what they are saying, even if you haven’t got a clue. On the whole I think I preferred Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, which seemed to me  more sophisticated and more nuanced than the film.

One last point. As the film points out, 49,000 men were prosecuted under the same law as Turing. What about them? It makes no sense to pardon Turing and not them. No sense at all.

This is what Lord McNally, the Lord Chief Justice at the time Turing’s pardon was being considered, had to say on the matter:

‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence… It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence that now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However the law at the time required a prosecution and as such long standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than try and alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right ensure instead that we never return to those times.’

To paraphrase: Back then the law was an ass but it was the law. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m glad his view and ‘long standing policy’ didn’t prevail. The human heart requires a different response, doesn’t it?

Andrew Hodges’ brilliant book  Alan Turing: The Enigma published in 1983 was the source material for both Breaking the Code and The Imitation Game. Here’s the link to his website: http://www.turing.org.uk

What do you think of retrospective pardons and apologies? Too little too late? Or an important way in which society seeks to tell itself that it’s changed for the better. What did you think of the film?

A MOST WANTED MAN

I went to see the film A Most Wanted Man this week; I’d put it off because I couldn’t bear the sadness of seeing the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the draw of two greats, le Carré (who wrote the book the film is based on) and Seymour Hoffman, was always going to get me there eventually. Needless to say it’s a fantastic film and Seymour Hoffman is wonderful in it. I love le Carré and I’ve always had writer-envy for the magnificently tough way he ends his novels. They are so bleak; bracing doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Here’s a clip of le Carré talking about A Most Wanted Man.

In 2005 the Crime Writers Association marked its Golden Jubilee by presenting The Dagger of Daggers to him for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Spy). I voted for him.  Apparently he won by a country mile.  In the same year, I was in the audience when he appeared on stage to wild applause after a screening of The Constant Gardener at the London Film Festival. He seemed rather touchingly embarrassed by his reception which was pretty close, in levels of enthusiasm, to George Clooney’s when he appeared after the very well-received Good Night and Good Luck.

I first read Spy in my early teens, around the time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Oh, those happy teenage years! Spy is the only one I have re-read regularly. I’ve tried The Catcher in the Rye but never managed to get to the end again. I think I’d need to be on Prozac to go anywhere near Cancer Ward. But Spy is such a brilliant, bitter, bleak book.

William Boyd wrote an excellent article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the ending was even grimmer than I’d thought. Could that really be possible? Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read the book. Boyd writes that when Smiley calls to Leamas (astride the wall) from the western part of Berlin, ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ It’s not because he wants to check that she is alright, it’s because he wants to make sure that she’s dead because she knows too much. Smiley wants Leamas back but not her. Liz is actually  lying dead at the bottom of the wall. Leamas then drops back down on the eastern side of the wall to his own certain death. They turned it into a suitably gritty film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

I love this quotation from le Carré about spying and writing:

Graham Greene once referred to the chip of ice that has to be in the writer’s heart. And that is the strain: that you must abstain from relationships and yet at the same time engage in them.There you have I think the real metaphysical relationship between the writer and the spy. JOHN LE CARRÉ 

If ever there was a quote to launch a hundred PhDs surely that’s it. There’s a scene in A Most Wanted Man which reminded me of it.  A young man who’s spying for Günter Bachmann, the character played by Seymour Hoffman, says that he’s frightened, that he can’t do it anymore. Bachmann says, ‘Look, into my eyes,’ and then pulls the young man into his arms. He places his hand against the side of his face. It’s pure seduction; the only thing missing is the kiss.

And this is the other  thing about le Carré; he is a seductive writer. His characters are not simply chess pieces to be moved about. He has compassion for them. He draws you in and makes you care about them and then delivers those brilliantly bleak endings. My top three favourite le Carré books are The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy.  If having to make a ‘desert island’ choice I’d probably take  A Perfect Spy, a brilliant book on fathers and sons, on love and betrayal.

After the film, on the way home on the bus, we had one of those conversations about what makes Seymour Hoffman such a good actor. I know that analysing acting can lead one straight to hell via Pseud’s Corner but so what, it’s fun to do. We came to the conclusion it had to do with his lack of vanity, his vulnerability and of course his intelligence. What a great actor. It’s a mesmerizing film. Go see it.

Do you have a favourite le Carré book? Which one would you take to a desert island and why?

Here’s the link to the William Boyd article:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd