Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sturges and Wilberforce

A week or so ago I re-viewed Hail the Conquering Hero, a Preston Sturges comedy that I've got a copy of and which I'd seen about a year ago and really enjoyed. And then this week, I picked up Sullivan's Travels from the library. It was a different kettle of fish. It starts off in the same comedy fashion as HTCH, but then about halfway through changes tack altogether, and becomes the social issues movie that the hero is talking about from the beginning. Consequently, the last stages are quite dark.
I'm not sure that it works as well as HTCH; the very different high comedy tone of the first half takes quite a bit of shifting into the realist stuff of the second, and while the actors work well at it, and achieve the shift, the script just seems to be a game of two very different halves. For which only Sturges himself can be to blame. It's not as if he doesn't warn us: the opening scene has Sullivan, the Hollywood director, trying to sell his recent social issues movie to two producers, without success. In a way it's a commentary on what's going to happen later. I'm just not sure that it all holds together.
I also watched Amazing Grace, the movie about the slave abolitionist, William Wilberforce - I'd heard it was pretty good (although my old friend, James Berardinelli didn't think much of it); certainly the production values are top quality. However, the script is straight out of the same historic period as Sullivan's Travels.
It's similar in tone to those biopics that Hollywood made by the score back in the forties, films that were always well done because they had big name stars in them, and plenty of money thrown at them, but which usually suffered from showing only the high points of a person's life and seldom had any forward-moving dramatic structure.
The only difference between those biopics and the new movie is that this one mucks about with the chronology, perhaps in order to show that it's more modern. All this does is keep the viewer at a distance, partly because it's hard to figure out where we are in terms of the progress of Wilberforce's career, and partly because it becomes difficult to get involved emotionally with his desire to see slavery come to an end.
I'm not sure why it's so uninvolving. Partly Ionn Grufford in in the lead role is inconsistent in tone: sometimes he carries us with him, other times you sense too strongly the 'performing' that's going on. But more than this, there's only one scene in which we are shown the horrors of what it was like to be a slave captured by the traders. And that's when Rufus Sewell (who mostly appears in the film as just slightly off his rocker) demonstrates the chains which bound the slaves. A later scene, with a narration about the way in which slaves were often burnt to death in the midst of the sugar fields, and another where a boatload of upper class people are told by Wilberforce to smell the smell of death, just don't work - not for me, at least. The first is a blurred visual approach to the horrors; the second is so predictable the film has lost you before it arrives.
And virtually the only African to appear in the movie - Equiano - is treated so well that it undercuts just how difficult it must have been for him to try and live amongst English people of the time.
Albert Finney and Michael Gambon rescue their scenes as best they can, along with a bunch of other well-known English character actors, CiarĂ¡n Hinds and Benedict Cumberbatch, to name just a couple. But there's very little pace, very little suspense, very little sense of the urgency of the task. And absolutely no mention at the end of the movie that the slave trade around the world is back with a vengeance, and that there are probably more people in slavery of one sort or another now than there ever were in the 18th century.
And, as a footnote, not one person looking as though they're in need of the best acne treatment available at the time.
Post a Comment