Weekend Film Recommendation: The Offence

Sean Connery’s gives perhaps his best performance in the powerful 1972 Sindey Lumet film The Offence

Howard ConneryThe James Bond films made Sean Connery an international superstar, but presented him few challenges as an actor. In the midst of Bondmania, desperate to avoid typecasting and to take on more substantial roles, Connery began collaborating with Director Sidney Lumet. This resulted in one financially successful and entertaining film (The Anderson Tapes), but more importantly led to Connery turning in two critically-praised, Oscar-worthy performances that hardly anyone saw. The first was in one of my prior film recommendations, The Hill. The second was in this week’s film recommendation: The Offence.

The back story of this far-too-rarely-seen 1972 movie reveals much of Connery’s psychology at the time, as well as his star power. He had walked away in disgust from the Bond enterprise, and his replacement (George Lazenby, not as bad an actor as reputed but also no Connery) had not had the same box office draw. United Artists was so desperate for their superstar’s return to Bondage that they offered him whatever he wanted. He could have insisted on the world’s biggest paycheck, but instead he demanded that United Artist support two low-budget art house films! One was to be a Connery-directed adaptation of Macbeth, which would have been a Scottish treat and was unfortunately never made. The other was The Offence, which everybody concerned made for art’s sake because they knew there was no way in the world this film would garner even 1% of the box office receipts of the Bond films. The modestly-paid cast and crew worked like dogs to complete the entire shoot in less than a month (Connery himself allegedly put in up to 20 hours a day). The resulting labor of love is a shattering cinematic experience.

The plot centers on disillusioned, angry and unstable Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery). In the visually distorted, almost dissociative opening sequence that reflects the tortured workings of his mind, the audience sees that Johnson has just beaten a suspected child molester. He snaps out of his rage and realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. The suspect is being taken to hospital and may well die. We then learn the background: A child molester has been victimizing girls and getting away with it time and again despite the efforts of the police. Another girl is kidnapped and raped, but ultimately found by Sergeant Johnson. But rather than regard him as a rescuer, she reacts in terror to him, leading something inside him to snap. The smug, posh suspect who is eventually brought in gets under Johnson’s skin even more, causing him to lose control, although we do not learn the reasons why until the film’s devastating final act.

After this opening, the movie then turns into a three-act play, with each act being a two-hander (This staginess is the film’s only flaw; given more time and money I suspect Lumet could have escaped the story’s playhouse origins as he did in other films adapted from the stage). First is Connery and his long-suffering wife (Vivien Merchant), then Connery and the investigating senior officer (Trevor Howard), and finally Connery with the suspect (Ian Bannen).

The acting in these three scenes is a revelation. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Offence”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Waking Ned Devine

Tullymore is a quiet, bucolic village in rural Ireland. The pub owner is also the banker and accountant; the grocery store doubles as the post office; whatever drama typically occupies the day is, by any other standards, decidedly mundane. It’s the perfect setting for a big event to disrupt the contented routines of its 52 residents in this week’s movie recommendation, Kirk Jones’ Waking Ned Devine (1998).

Jackie O’Shea and Michael O’Sullivan, played respectively by Ian Bannen (in one of his very last performances; see Keith’s review of The Hill for another of Bannen’s – much earlier and more solemn – creations) and David Kelly, are two of Tullymore’s septuagenarian mischief-makers. When they catch wind of the news that someone in the village has won last week’s lottery, they set about trying to learn the lucky beggar’s identity with the hopes of ingratiating themselves into the winner’s good graces and swelling purse.

In collaboration with Jackie’s wife Annie (played wonderfully by Fionnula Flanagan), they start spending money with the expectation of making money: they host dinner parties, they buy everyone’s round of stouts at the pub, and they disingenuously profess their lack of expectation of anything in return for their generosity. However, their efforts are to no avail, and the other villagers soon suspect Jackie and Michael of being the winners themselves.

Screen shot 2014-05-02 at 00.50.01

It’s not long before the duo learns that Ned Devine, a fisherman with a fragile constitution, is the winner. But Ned’s fortune carried with it a cruel misfortune: he suffered a heart attack and died upon learning of his win. To ensure that Ned’s ticket does not go to waste, Jackie convinces Michael to impersonate Ned to ‘the man from the city’ inquiring about the veracity of the claimant to the winning ticket.

The rest of the film deals with the duo’s efforts to convince the rest of the village to go along with the plan. But someone’s been reading Mancur Olson, and the plan might not be implemented as easily as anticipated…

This isn’t the first independent Irish film I’ve reviewed here at RBC, and while this shares many of the same features that made The Guard fantastic, there are also notable differences. Waking Ned Devine is a low-budget character-driven comedy directed by someone who knows when to take a back seat and let the actors do the work. The cast meets the task ably: Bannen and Kelly both seem to revel just as much in the joy of playing their characters as do Jackie and Michael in the adventure that Devine’s fortune presents. Something about their age makes it seem as though they are less interested in the opportunity to spend large amounts of money – what on Earth would they spend it on anyway?, the other villagers frequently ask – than they are in the chance to have a bit of fun telling a lie.

Waking is also capable of deeply moving and bittersweet moments. The final scene is a touching eulogy to friends present and absent, and is followed by a perfectly irreverent, mood-lightening scene that works all the better with that characteristic Irish lyricism.

Screen shot 2014-05-02 at 00.49.09

In Waking Ned Devine, you’ll find nudity, dream sequences, a whiffy and amorous pig farmer, folk music, an underdog story, beautiful scenery, and dammit a shred of justice. Aye, ‘tis a feel good film.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The BBC mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the perfect realisation of the John Le Carré novel.

BRITAIN-GUINNESS-007If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with this week’s film recommendation: 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.

The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.

I am no expert on Le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.

Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.

I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.

Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.

p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.