Saturday, December 31, 2005

Critical Consensus: The Films Of 2005 (MCN)

1 Brokeback Mountain 992.5
2 History of Violence 820
3 Capote 675
4 Good Night and Good Luck 455
5 Squid & The Whale, The 451.5
6 Crash 449.5
7 King Kong 442.5
8 Munich 411.5
9 Grizzly Man 365
10 2046 300

11 Constant Gardener 261.5
12 Cache 251
13 Match Point (Woody Allen) 232
14 Syriana 219.5
15 Kings & Queens 202.5
16 New World, The (Terrence Malick) 195.5
17 Pride & Prejudice 164
18 Batman Begins 162
19 Last Days 154
19 Walk The Line 154

21 Sin City 153
22 Mysterious Skin 152
23 Nobody Knows 148
24 Cinderella Man 147
25 Me & You & Everyone We Know 146.5
26 Wallace & Gromit 145
27 Best Of Youth 141.5
28 Hustle & Flow 137.5
29 World, The 137
30 Murderball 134

31 Head On 130
32 Oldboy 120.5
33 Tropical Malady 120
34 Saraband 119
35 Broken Flowers 117
36 Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 102
37 Paradise Now 101.5
38 March of the Penguins 99
39 Junebug 95
40 40 Year Old Virgin 94

41 Holy Girl 92
42 Kung Fu Hustle 90
43 Downfall 86
44 Look at Me 81
45 Café Lumiere 79
46 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 68.5
47 Keane 64
48 My Summer Of Love 63
49 Serenity 62
50 War of the Worlds 61

Friday, October 14, 2005


EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005, USA, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Safran Foer novel)
Maybe sometimes I'm afraid I'll forget.

Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel had a ton of fans among readers and critics alike, telling the curiously self-referential story of a young man who travels to Ukraine in search of a woman in a photograph who helped his grandfather escape Eastern Europe just ahead of the Nazis. There was an audaciity about the author's combination of wildly inventive verbal humour, bold imaginative strokes and dark Holocaust subject matter that somehow, improbably, worked brilliantly. The film (also a debut, Liev Schreiber's first turn behind the camera) aims for the same brash blend, and if it doesn't achieve the artistic "perfect storm" of the novel, it does tell an important story in a fresh way that may perfectly fit a generation. (The GARDEN STATE of genocide flicks?)

I know a playwright whose holocaust-themed play was recently rejected by a major American theatre: they celebrated the writing, but felt the "holocaust genre" to be "supersaturated." As if this is something we should put behind us. God forbid. Jonathan's wild and crazy Ukranian tour guide, infatuated with all things new, tacky and American, begins the film with just such an attitude: "The past is past." At least that's what he always believed until he encountered The Collector, this young Jewish American (not alone in his inexplicable obsession, it turns out) who's "a compulsive rememberer," gathering the flotsam and jetsam of his life and his family's lives in the plastic bags he carries everywhere.

There is something sacramental in this reverent oblation of mundane objects that's reminiscent of the central moment in American Beauty. Ricky Fitts has filmed a plastic bag caught in a whirlwind in an urban alleyway, a sight whose strange beauty communicated to him the benevolent presence of God: "Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember."

Everything Is Illuminated is a film that doesn't want us to forget. Or perhaps it is a film that wants a new generation to remember – to re-member, if you will, to re-assemble – a past beyond its own personal memory, which nevertheless profoundly shapes its present. Whatever its possible short-comings, this may be a very important film indeed, a story for and about a generation half a century removed from the Holocaust who must come to terms with the horrors of their not-so-distant and not-so-different past – horrors which befell young men and young women not so different than themselves.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published in longer form at Christianity Today Movies

Friday, October 07, 2005


DEAR WENDY (2005, Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier screenplay)
It's the time of the season for loving

Dick loves Wendy. Helplessly, obsessively, tragically. It's a star-crossed-lovers story that's as ancient as it is familiar. With one crucial variation: Wendy is a gun. Specifically, a 6.35mm six shooter, a sweet little double action pearl handle revolver with internal hammer who makes a new man of Dick, turns a weak and sensitive loner into a man with confidence and authority. A good woman or the right gun can do that.

Dick refuses to follow in the footsteps of the town's real men and work in the mine. He stocks shelves in the corner grocery and carts around a toy gun he found in a second-hand shop, comforting himself with smug judgements of the town's other inhabitants (as much an echo of DOGVILLE as the story's stylized small-town setting). Until he learns the true power of what he carries in his pocket, and his life begins to change. He's a natural shooter who he can plant six shots in the centre of a target without aiming or even thinking. Wendy and Dick are made for each other.

Problem is, one of Dick's strategies for moral superiority has been to call himself a pacifist. But hey, that's no problem: his firearm will be carried but not brandished. Why bother? Just packing heat makes him walk taller – of course he's never going to use his weapon. If you grew up in the MAD shadow DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, you're already sceptical: it's a naive rationalization that contains the seed of eventual tragedy.

Dick and a gun-loving "Hey, I'm a pacifist too!" pal from the grocery store form The Dandies, complete with secret passwords and symbols, rituals and pledges, even dress-up clothes and a secret clubhouse they fix up in an abandoned part of the mine. It's everything kids could want in a secret club. Big kids. Kids with guns.

Of course, as Ibsen taught us, a gun on the mantle in Act One must be used before the end of Act Three. Complications arise, as complications are wont to do, and sudden violence escalates into a bloody BUTCH CASSIDY / WILD BUNCH showdown in the town square, triggered by a tragic misunderstanding.

Well, not exactly tragic. This sad-fated tale doesn't actually aim for the emotional catharsis of tragedy. Its tongue is mostly in its cheek, and it's plenty cheeky. DEAR WENDY is to DOGVILLE as DOCTOR STRANGELOVE is to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – indeed, the "I can walk" climax is a direct nod to that other over-the-top satire of the American weapons fetish: WENDY could easily be subtitled "How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Gun." Everything is played with a brash style and ironic tone that signals satire more than sentiment: Lars and Thomas don't want to break our heart, they want to poke us in the eye or slap us upside the head.

Judging by the critics, they succeed at that if nothing else. This movie makes Americans mad – which no doubt makes Vinterberg and von Trier perfectly happy. The not-so-melancholy Danes are in mischief-maker mode, court jesters whose cinematic smackdown chooses provocation over subtlety. Antagonistic reviewers find the movie glib, its characters, situations and plot developments absurd: I'm guessing the film-makers simply find America's love affair with guns equally absurd, and are quite content to match style and subject.

Whether you love or hate this bratty little movie may depend on whether you feel it's your nose that's being tweaked by the town fools. If you're pretty convinced that guns don't kill people, etc, that your country's more right than wrong and that America's latest war "is really about peace" (aren't they all?), you'll likely find this movie by a couple of Europeans facile, as condescending and self-righteous as its misguided central character. On the other hand, if you consider all this GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL stuff a poor way to run a country, DEAR WENDY may seem a perfectly appropriate response, gleefully deconstructing our love of power and the dreadful gravitational pull of violence.

I don't go looking for a gospel message in every film I see. But I do have this habit of taking everything life brings my way – film included – and holding it up against the Bible, to see what light might be refracted. And when I wonder what sort of letter Jesus might write to Wendy and her lover, I think of his words to Peter; "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Maybe he said that because, if nothing else, weapons are power. Intoxicating power. DEAR WENDY charts the corruption wrought by that kind of power, observing the way young ideals fall by the way once easier, quicker, more decisive strategies present themselves.

Maybe what we've got here isn't exactly a love story or a tragedy, or even a satire. Maybe Dear Wendy is film noir in disguise, sans tough detectives or moody black and white cinematography. Naive, corruptible, lonely young man meets femme fatale, and it all leads, inevitably, absurdly, to destruction.

Some dames you just can't trust. Dames like Wendy.

Available at Videomatica
Originally published at Christianity Today Movies
P.S. DEAR WENDY has the best website in the world. The one for DOGVILLE was equally cool, but it has disappeared from the web.

Friday, September 16, 2005

MOST WANTED: Videos I Need For My Book

Updated Sep 17 2006: New or newly updated entries in purple

Here's a list (followed by some details) of movies I'm trying to track down for my book – to rent or borrow, or maybe even to buy for under twenty bucks Canadian. VHS, DVD, whatever. Anybody got any leads? Email me:

Angels Of The Streets (Bresson)
Bless You Prison
Blue In Green
Le Chambon
La Colline Aux Mille Enfants
The Confession (1920, USA, Bertram Bracken)
Diary Of A City Priest
The Displaced Person (1976, Glenn Jordan, TV)
Dog Nail Clipper
Elina: As If I Wasn’t Here (Finland, Klaus Haro)
Europa 51
The Eyes Of Asia (Portugal)
Faustina (Poland, 1995)
Forgiving Dr. Mengele
He Who Must Die / The Greek Passion (1957, Jules Dassin)
Heaven Over The Marshes
Hiding And Seeking
The Idiot (Kurosawa)
In Your Hands
Inside Out
Investigation Of A Flame
Jesus Christ Movie Star
The Jesus Trip
Lake Of Fire
Love In The Ruins
Man Dancin’
The Man Who Planted Trees
Mister Moses
The Navigator
Not Of This World
A Question Of Faith (Timothy J. Disney)
Resurrection (2001, Taviani)
The Seventh Room
Sister Helen
Son Of Man
Spiral Road
Tales From The Madhouse
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine


BLESS YOU PRISON (2002, Romania, Nicolae Mãrgineanu)
"Based on the memoir of Nicole Valéry-Grossu, this film is a convincing testimony of how she is overcome by faith in an extremely painful and hopeless situation."

LA COLLINE AUX MILLE ENFANTS (The Hill of the Thousand Children, AKA LE CHAMBON?, 1994, France, Jean-Louis Lorenzi)
"French TV dramatization of the story of Le Chambon—the French village that saved 5,000 Jewish children by hiding them from the Nazis. Le Chambon was inhabited by Huguenots, a people who knew about religious persecution from personal experience. Their pastor, Pastor Andre Trocine, led his people to do what was morally right. He wrote, “The duty of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear upon their conscience through the weapons of the spirit.” This drama focuses on the pastor and the choices made by the people of Le Chambon during this difficult time—a time which tested their courage and morality." (see also the documentary Weapons of the Spirit, which includes interviews with the citizens and survivors of Le Chambon.)

THE CONFESSION (1920, USA, Bertram Bracken)
A priest hears a killer's confession and must protect the oath of confidentiality, even as his own brother is being convicted of the murder.

Set in one of Philadelphia's toughest neighbourhoods, Father John MacNamee is faced with gangs, poverty, drugs, and an often pervasive feeling of hopelessness. "David Morse conveys Father Mac's weary yet resolute faith, creating a moving, inspiring portrait of a spiritual man who struggles with translating his faith into action every day." From the book. Sundance Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival.

THE DISPLACED PERSON (1976, Glenn Jordan, TV, 58 min)
Horton Foote screenplay, Flannery O'Connor short story about a conscientious but driven Polish refugee who disrupts the heirarchy of power on a Georgia farm in the 1940s. John Houseman plays "an otherworldly priest."

ELINA: AS IF I WASN'T HERE (Finland, Klaus Härö)
"The film's 9-year-old protagonist, Elina, lives with her mother and sister in the countryside, withdrawn into her own private world. She only shares her emotions with her dead father, whom she believes still lives in a misty marshland. At school, Elina rebels against a taciturn teacher who tries to force the children to speak Swedish. Härö makes no "adult” distinctions between the spiritual and the secular in this visually rich film. Children's film of the year: Berlin 2003 Crystal Bear, Young People's Jury; Montreal film festival. (ET)

"Rossellini's major statement on postwar materialism and the sort of Christianity that is so radically called to social justice and renewal that it becomes a threat to middle class notions of the status quo and even sanity. Another major work, starring Ingrid Bergman." (*DC)

THE EYES OF ASIA (Portugal, Joao Mario Grilo)
"17th century Japan. The story of Julian of Nakaura, a Japanese Jesuit priest who was tortured to death for refusing to renounce his faith. Grilo mixes the historical narrative with a modern "story" in which a European (Geraldine Chaplin) visits Nagasaki and learns the story of Julian's martyrdom from the priests who keep his memory alive." PTC

FAUSTINA (Poland, 1995)
"Gorgeously photographed, hauntingly scored, beautifully directed and acted, that offers a deeply spiritual portrait of Sr. Faustina.... On first viewing, my impression is that Faustina belongs on a very short list of deeply spiritual portraits of faith and religion, alongside such films as Alain Cavalier's Therese, Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, and Cloche's Monsieur Vincent." SDG

HE WHO MUST DIE (1957, Jules Dassin)
From Nikos Kazantzakis' novel The Greek Passion.

"Several times in THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS Rémy thinks back and obsesses over an actress that he lusted after in one of his favorite films, Augusto Genina’s Heaven Over the Marshes.... a film in which the main character is a fourteen year-old girl who instead of enjoying "the pleasures of sin for a season" resists the sexual advances of a desirous farmhand. It's a film Bazin called "a rarity; a good Catholic film." Yet Rémy obsesses over and reflects on this spiritual film and seems to miss any of the noble themes in it, only concentrating on what he has focused on for the duration of his entire life -- hedonism." stef


INSIDE OUT (South Africa, 1998)
"South African comedian Gilda Blacher stars as Hazel Levin, a young Jewish actress from Johannesburg stranded in a small Karoo town when her car breaks down. Recognized from a TV commercial, Hazel finds herself invited to direct the town's nativity play. She must deal with some openly antagonistic townsfolk - not only because she's Jewish, but also because of her attempts to involve the black community in the production. Inside Out is a gentle, romantic tale of love, tolerance, tragedy and triumph that explores, often with hilarious results, the changing face of South Africa."
(Not the one that goes "Jimmy Morgan is a middle-aged man with expensive tastes, a fondness for call girls, an addiction to gambling... and agoraphobia." Also definitely not the porn series.)

Doc about Jesus movies.

Scott Derrickson short (35 min) from Walker Percy novel. Student film, undistributed.

Fairly recent Norman Stone feature about an ex-con who gets involved in a Passion Play

Robert Mitchum

A nun and a laundromat owner find this baby... (to buy)

A QUESTION OF FAITH (Timothy J. Disney)
"In the heart of California wine country lies a monastery where centuries-old traditions of ritual, discipline and solitude create a timeless serenity--until a member of the order experiences a miraculous encounter with implications that are both stunning and uplifting. As the community struggles with the ramifications, long-buried conflicts begin to surface and the Brothers are forced to grapple with the fundamental tension between faith and reason."

RESURRECTION (Italy/France/Germany, 2001, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani)
From Tolstoy's novel. "Made for the small screen, this three-hour version is just long enough to faithfully cover the book’s events and probe its moral and spiritual dimensions, which have been constant themes of the director-brothers’ work” (Deborah Young, Variety)

Edith Stein movie

Crazy-revolutionary Jesus. Script by Dennis Potter.

Missionaries, lepers, Rock Hudson.

Got myself a PAL copy. Now I just need to find a way to play the thing: or even better, to dub it onto dvd without spending $30 for the service. Anybody?...
Eight 15-minute monologues inside a crumbling Victorian sanatorium, characters who met and missed Jesus. One script by Murray Watts, one directed by Norman Stone, one starring Clair Bloom, one Jonaythan Pryce, etc.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


SHADOWLANDS (1985, UK, Norman Stone, William Nicholson)
SHADOWLANDS (1993, UK, Richard Attenborough, William Nicholson from his own stageplay)

The pain now is part of the happiness then.

In 1993, Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger starred in Shadowlands, the heartbreakingly personal story of C.S. Lewis's fascinating relationship with Joy Gresham. It gave many North American viewers their first glimpse of a little-known chapter in the life of this revered Christian writer, but the episode was not new to British audiences: it had been dramatized for BBC television a decade earlier, then made into a highly successful London stage play.

North American film buffs and Lewis fans alike have had to put up with a certain level of frustration ever since. You'd no sooner start to praise the Oscar-nominated film version of the story than somebody would pipe up to tell you how much better "the original" was. Which, of course, was impossible to get hold of, so you'd just have to take their word.

What you could get hold of, though, was the playscript, and when a buddy brought me a copy fresh from the West End I saw right away this was a masterful piece of writing: indeed, it gripped me even more than the film I loved so much, and I resolved that I would play that role one day. (You see, writing about movies is just my obsession: there's no money in it, so – being practical by nature – I I realized right away I'd need to support my habit with a more lucrative day job. I picked acting.)

This spring I finally got my chance not only to put William Nicholson's amazing script onstage but also (finally) to view the original BBC production, which was released on DVD as we prepared for rehearsal. It's amazing to see how substantially different the three versions are – all written by the same man, William Nicholson. To compare them is a fascinating study in the evolution of a script.

Just as thrilling is the opportunity to watch veteran British actor Joss Ackland (his IMDb entry lists 139 movie credits!) create an interpretation of "Jack" Lewis that's profoundly different from better-known, widely-acclaimed Anthony Hopkins performance which followed. We'll never get a chance to meet this man we feel we know so well through his writings – at least not this side of the wardrobe – so it's a great privilege to have two such fully-realized portrayals provide a truly three-dimensional perspective of C.S. Lewis.

The 1985 teleplay begins with an extreme close-up of an eye, blinking. Eerie underscoring distances us from the laughter and conversation we hear as the camera pulls back to show High Table at Magdalen College. Forkfuls of food are thrust into mouths, fish heads are cut off, blotchy-faced Oxford dons cough and chew. We rise from the table and flee outdoors: "Why am I so afraid? I never knew that love could hurt so much, and I love you, and all I want is to love you. Beyond every door I hear your voice saying to me, 'This is only the land of shadows. Real life hasn't begun yet.'" Walking into a darkened doorway, we find ourselves traveling down the long, empty corridor of a house, into an abandoned spare room. The doors of a wardrobe swing open, we push through coats and furs until we come to a lantern, shining in the middle of a snowy wood.

In the first a minute and a half of this made-for-TV teleplay, we already know how close we'll be to the essence of C.S. Lewis – and we know where the coming love story will be headed. We see the world through Jack's eyes, but it's a world he's alienated from. And when he turns away, with Joy preoccupying his thoughts, it's his own childhood and the world beyond the wardrobe he goes back to. The story that's to come has been framed by childhood and bereavement, and we've glimpsed its two worlds – the clubby male environs of British academic life, and the crisp, cool magical world beyond.

We also sense how much this cinematic creation will be informed by the literary creations of the central character – not only in the Narnia reference and the image of the childhood home described in his spiritual memoir Surprised By Joy, but in the voice-over which is so close to the opening of A Grief Observed; "No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear..."

Then the title credits roll and we're immersed in the day-to-day bachelor's life of Lewis in the early 1950's – but already our ears are being tuned to what's coming. We hear Lewis give a radio talk on marriage, we see him chided by his university peers for his "plain Jack" talks on thing he knows nothing about. Ackland is wonderful here: he's got the intelligence, a willingness to engage in the argument at hand, but there's a tremendous humility as well. "Shouldn't I have said that I haven't been married?" is played with a winning sincerity: for all the public attention, this is a man who isn't always sure of himself. It's a warmth and humanity that permeates the entire performance, and seems so close to the heart of the Lewis we meet, for example, in the preface to The Problem of Pain, where he acknowledges not being a "real theologian," and openly admits not living up to his own principles on the subject of pain, admitting to a personal aversion to any sort of real suffering.

Essentially, Shadowlands maps Lewis's own journey from the intellectually impressive but not-lived-through and not-quite-convincing arguments of The Problem of Pain (1940) to the agonized heart's cry that is A Grief Observed (1961), which he began writing the very hour he returned home after Joy's funeral. The earlier book strives to construct answers and explanations, the later offers few. But it's the second of the books that Christians turn to in times of bereavement, and this film takes the viewer through the experiences that bring Lewis to his deeper humanity and wisdom. (The play makes this structure even clearer, opening not with a radio talk on marriage, but with an intellectually dazzling public address on God's responsibility for suffering in the world which plays like a distillation of his 1940 book – just as it ends with a monologue very close to the spirit of the 1961 volume.)

BBC director Norman Stone identifies himself as a Christian – a recent project, Man Dancin', is about a criminal released from prison who gets involved in a parish Passion play – and Stone's affection and affinity for Lewis is palpable, not only in the winsome performance he draws out of Joss Ackland and the warmth he finds in the romance with Joy, but in his honouring of all the literary and theological elements in Nicholson's original script. This script draws on a wide range of Lewis's works, and it's willing to give tremendous screen time to Joy and Jack as they get to know each other, in a literate conversation that ranges from conversion stories to theology and politics. Most significantly, while the teleplay takes Lewis in his grief to a point where God has slammed the door in his face, with "the sound of bolting and double bolting, and after that, silence," we also see him wake in the night and wander back out into those Narnian woods, where he finally can remember Joy and sense again something of God's presence.

And what a splendid Joy Claire Bloom gives us! As Jack and Warnie plod along a path by the River Chartwell, Joy darts in and out like an excited child on a day trip, peppering the stolid brothers with a barrage of opinions and questions, all inhibition and intelligence and enthusiasm. And if her American accent never gets any closer to New York than someplace in the mid-Atlantic, there's spunk and savvy and sass enough in this performance to provide all the Yankee brashness the role calls for. This dame is smart!

If anything, the subsequent stage version even more richly explores the world of words and ideas (naturally enough, since plays tell their stories in words, movies in pictures) while sharpening the moment-to-moment dramatic thrust of the story. Where the BBC film can feel talky at times, the play shows considerable dramaturgical development: the dramatic momentum is much stronger, the story is always moving forward. The argument at the Christmas party, for example, is much more developed, and there's real crowd-pleasing energy in the back-and-forth argument between Joy and Christopher. (That's another great strength of the stage play: Christopher Riley is a far more significant character, and far more nuanced, not merely Jack's snide adversary, but also a loyal and insightful friend, a wonderfully drawn "secular priest.") The play is also less bound by the movies' need to be "realistic," and incorporates a magical and deeply moving series of images drawn from The Magician's Nephew where Douglas enters the wardrobe and ultimately brings back a magic apple which he presents to his mother just after her marriage to Jack, just before her recovery, deftly suggesting the possibility that her remission is as much miracle as it is medicine, brought about by a child's faith.

The Attenborough version benefits from the stronger narrative craftsmanship of the stage play, and it also looks a lot better. Stone's Oxford is dreary as hell – specifically, that peculiarly British vision of hell Lewis describes in The Great Divorce – dismal, dingy, and always raining. (I guess if you think of that as a choice, it's a plus: I think it's mostly just a small budget and a shoddy DVD transfer.) But the bigger-budget version goes too far in the name of narrative drive, stripping out too much conversation, too much theology, too many ideas, almost all the literature – does Hollywood really believe people only know The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? More seriously, it also truncates the ending of the story in a way that almost suggests Lewis abandoned his faith by the end of his life. (I've long believed the Lewis estate has fallen into the hands of Screwtape himself – maybe this was their doing?)

Hopkins' portrayal of Lewis also raises qualms. This actor, one of the greatest of our time, was at the top of his game – think Silence Of The Lambs (1991) and Remains Of The Day (1993). His Lewis is a brilliant portrayal of a brilliant mind, but there is also a brittle unconcern that seems at odds with the Jack of history – or of the preceding two versions. Which is not just Hopkins' doing: the 1993 screenplay adds a sub-plot about a personality clash between Jack and an inattentive student, and focuses Joy's relationship to Jack on some pretty abrasive conflict over Jack's insistence on winning every argument, surrounding himself with people who are either worshipful or weak. How do these elements strengthen the essential thrust of the story? They feel more like the knee-jerk iconoclasm of the times, when it's assumed audiences won't believe characters who are too "good," too nice. A shame.

Maybe it sounds like I want hagiography, and maybe I do. But to miss Jack's warmth and generosity is to miss something essential in the man: biography after biography shows us a man who, while he certainly loved a no-hold-barred debate and may have alienated some, was also much beloved. Indeed, if there is a missing element in these two cinematic interpretations of C.S. Lewis, it may be his largeness of spirit. As Douglas Gresham himself writes, "even within the first hours of meeting him, the enormous vibrancy and vitality and charm and humor of his personality completely expunged any physical deficiencies that I might have seen in him. He was a very humorous man... If Jack was in a room, there was laughter. If he was sitting by the bedside of someone dying of cancer, there was laughter. If he was talking to his colleagues, his peers, there was laughter.”

I suppose these performances may have been crafted the way they were to leave room for dramatic contrast and character development: if Joy was to be the spark that lit Jack's world ablaze, perhaps they felt she ought to be the one that brought the laughter and life. But I'm convinced that Jack's vitality and heart can be shown right from the outset without losing a bit of the story's shape: the contrast is between Jack and the world around him, and when Joy comes into his life, we recognize two people who are profoundly right for each other. There's still plenty of emotional terrain to be covered as the bachelor becomes a friend then a lover and a husband, as the two of them ride the waves of hope and despair that marked their years together. But a bigger Jack is a truer Jack, and makes for a greater and truer story.

That said, each film is in its own way a gift, and I wouldn't do with out either of them. I suspect that the real Jack Lewis was somewhere between the warm and self-effacing man Joss Ackland brings to the screen – much preferred by Christians and Inkling-o-philes – and the brittle, brilliant mind Anthony Hopkins has etched in our memory. And if the latter Lewis is too disconnected, too detached, too domineering in the early going, it certainly sets us up for a powerful reversal when his world falls to the ground late in the film. Who will ever forget the raw vulnerability of that attic scene with Douglas? That one moment places this film, and this performance, very close to my heart indeed.

And without Shadowlands – in any of its incarnations – how many of us would ever have met Joy Davidman? What a gift she is! Films rarely present us with such characters, yet we all have them in our lives and count ourselves blessed – these opinionated, forceful, courageous woman who don't give a damn about being ladylike, whose breathtaking femininity is all in their wit and their passion and their uncompromising authenticity. No guile, no quarter, just heart and mind and fiery commitment. When I first saw Debra Winger in the role, I had my qualms: she seemed too young for Lewis, too brashly American, a shade too cantankerous. Now I realize how perfectly this actress fulfilled the role: mine were exactly the reactions of Lewis's crusty and protective friends when the real Joy showed up in his life! (Winger and Hopkins couldn't have been more suitably cast with respect to age. During shooting, he was 54 and she 37, precisely the ages Jack and Joy would have been when they met in the fall of 1952.)

And whatever with think about the nuances of these interpretations, the fact is both films offer the magnificent gift of making Lewis and his time real to us. We journey to Oxford – the Attenborough film in particular makes this place into a central character in its story, which is as it should be – we get to know Warnie and Douglas and Joy, we experience the difficulties all of us face eventually when our faith in a loving God comes up against the reality of suffering in our world. And if we don't come away with answers, we come away larger, having passed through some very dark shadows indeed, but reminded that even the brightest things in our pale world are nothing but a shadow of the life to come.


The 1993 version is available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Friday, January 07, 2005


THE SEA INSIDE (MAR ADENTRO, 2004, Spain/France/Italy, Alejandro Amenabar, wr Amenabar & Mateo Gil)
When you depend on others for everything, you learn to cry with a smile.

If you've got your mind made up about euthanasia, you'll find this film either galling or grand, depending which side you come down on. But if you don't already agree with the film's viewpoint, it's one-sided polemic will mostly just aggravate you. The film is so resolved to make its point, so unwilling to lend credibility to any other side of the argument, I found myself constantly assessing (and ultimately reacting against) the film's arguments – even though I don't have a position on the issue at hand. It got me into my head when it wanted to be in my heart: it made me stubborn when it wanted to win me over.

Simply regarded as a film, though, THE SEA INSIDE is memorable: it's propaganda, sure, but not mere propaganda. There's genuine artistry here, and humanity. It relates the true story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic man who's been confined to his bed for three decades, following a diving accident. In spite of his condition, he is resolutely cheerful: because of his condition, he wants to die.

THE SEA INSIDE shows us the glory of common things, the sensual delight of a swim in the ocean, an embrace or a bicycle ride, serving ultimately to emphasize Sampedro's unbearable circumstances, where most of these glorious and common pleasures are out of reach if not out of sight. Following from this, we are expected to support his conclusion – that death is a reasonable exit from this unbearable tension.

As you might expect from a film with a euthanasia axe to grind, religious characters are not treated with respect. As in the matter of abortion, the folks who position themselves as "pro choice" have little patience or respect with those who claim the label "pro life" (unfortunately the opposite is just as often true, but that's not the focus of this particular tract— er, movie), and in this highly politicized story any character with qualms about Sampedro's "mercy killing" is likely to be both Catholic and unlikeable.

A quadriplegic Catholic priest visits, to persuade Sampedro of the value of his life. The priest is portrayed from first to last as a self-righteous and pushy man, a dominating, opinonated and ill-informed fool with a weak and brittle argument. The movie works hard to get laughs out of his inability to get up the stairs to Sampedro's room in his wheel-chair: the gag is condescending and mean-spirited, and smug in its treatment of the conversation that follows. Frankly, Sampedro's arguments are flawed, his rhetoric glib and unconvincing. He is proclaimed the victor not because he makes better arguments, but on the grounds that he's not a jerk like those Catholics. In case we miss the point, his salt-of-the-earth sister-in-law ends the argument by saying to the priest: "I don't know which one of you is right, but I do know one thing: you have a big mouth." The film lacks her humility: it's perfectly sure that it's right, and proclaims that to us at every possible opportunity.

Best thing about the film? The visceral power of two of its most potent visual sequences. When we flash thirty years back to the ocean dive which led to his life-long paralysis, the leap is rendered with a point-of-view camera shot that gives the dive a sudden and visceral exhilaration followed by a sudden and terrible impact that we almost feel in our bodies, then a prolonged hovering silence as he floats face down in the water. This moment is echoed later in the film in the film's most memorable and effective sequence. The camera scans along the man's arm and stops at his hand, which we regard for some time, unsettled by its complete immobility. Then, just as we become uncomfortable with the motionless image, we are startled to see the hand move, ever so subtly. Slowly, painstakingly, the hand moves the covers aside, rises from his bed, sizes up the bedroom window, turns away from it to walk down the hallway. He stops, turns back toward the window, then runs headlong and flings himself out. Once again the camera has shifted to his perspective, and the all-too-familiar sense of plummeting downward is transformed at the last instant from an apparent suicide attempt – a dream? a nightmarish re-imagining of his terrible and fateful ocean dive? – into a thrilling fantasy of flight: just before the dreaded jarring impact we pull up and soar triumphant across the fields and vineyards, through valleys and over ridges to the sea where that terrible accident occurred. In the context of a film which confines itself fairly rigorously to the mundane and tangible realities of day-to-day life in a single room, such fantasy sequences – always introduced with a wonderfully sly subtlety – extraordinary. We feel these sequences almost physically in our bodies, a potent evocation of all that Sampedro was doomed not to experience in his.

In matters of religion, Sampedro is no theist, disdaining the metaphysical foundations of the legal argument against his intended suicide. In matters of eternity and the human soul, he is at most an agnostic: "After we die, there's nothing, just like before we were born.... It's just a hunch." If there is a hint of transcendence in his life, it is to be found in the image of the his "eternal lover, the sea": in an evocation of Job 1:21, he says of the sea that "It gave me life, and it took it away." And truly, if the sea is his capricious god, perhaps it can be said that his is ultimately a self-centred religion, dwelling on "the sea inside" rather than the larger one outside, which transcends him.


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Originally published at Christianity Today Movies