Monday, December 12, 2005

One Weekend, Two Movies

In 2004, the media, especially Frank Rich of The New York Times, made a big deal out of the way America's cultural and political divisions were represented by the audience demographics of two major films, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. I wonder if they will make the same comparisons about two films that opened this past weekend, Brokeback Mountain and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Both movies had a lot of advance press, but I think in the case of the former it did the film a disservice. It is a very, very fine effort, but I'm not sure it quite lives up to the advance reputation that was built up for it. Beautifully filmed, Brokeback Mountain the movie is as much a love affair with the landscapes and lifestyles of the American West as it is about one particular human love affair. It is a quiet, spacious film that speaks loudest when no one is talking.

A supreme challenge for any actor is to portray a character who is fundamentally unable to express himself, and Heath Ledger is astounding as the quiet, restrained Ennis del Mar, a rather volcanic man who forces his burning, conflicted and angry emotions deep down but finds himself occasionally subject to brief, uncontrollable outbursts of passion. Jake Gyllenhaal is charming as the goofier, more laid-back, more emotionally in touch character. There was a comfortable ease between the actors, but I wasn't really convinced of a deep connection. "Love is a force of nature" is the film's tagline, but it lacked the uncontrollable bound-by-fate attraction of the Tristan and Isolde legend on which this story so clearly is modeled.

In supporting roles, Michelle Williams as Ennis' long-suffering wife took up her martyrdom heroically, chewing scenery in the grand tradition. Jack's disinterested wife Lureen was handled affably by Anne Hathaway, who unfortunately appeared to look younger with each successive change of hairstyle over the decades.

I think the gay community was so delighted by the prospect of seeing gay characters on screen doing something other than comic relief that we built up an expectation of cultural watershed status for this movie, but I don't see that in the cards. The hullaballoo had me waiting expectantly for a big emotional release that just doesn't come. That's not a criticism; Brokeback is the cinematic equivalent of blue-balls, but intentionally so. It's a very good movie, and several times I couldn't help thinking that if it weren't for the man-on-man assfucking, it's the kind of thing my dad would really like.

I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last month, in preparation for the movie version. I'd owned the books as a child, but never touched them, for whatever reason. Recently I've been reading the theological works of C.S. Lewis, including The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, so I was curious to see how his Christian ideas played out in a story aimed at children. I was also worried that the film would take simple allegorical literary devices and turn them into propagandistic cudgels.

I have much to say on the subject of the story itself, but for now I wanted to just report that I was completely delighted with the movie. As Meghan O'Rourke pointed out in her wonderful defense in Slate, Lewis wasn't concerned so much with plot as with mood, which is captured perfectly. The movie is only heavy-handed in places where Lewis himself let his imagination be hogtied by a desire to dogmatize, or, as O'Rourke put it, "where he let his didactic, expository, Anglican self get the better of the spell-caster within."

But make no mistake, a spell is cast through much of the movie. The four child actors portraying the Pevensie siblings are all superior, most especially the adorably sweet Georgie Henley as Lucy. Tilda Swinton is fabulously malevolent as Jadis, the White Witch, the kind of villain you love to hate. The biggest conceptual error was playing the professor as a kooky old man. When the children tell him about Lucy's tale of a kingdom within the wardrobe, you chalk up his defense of Lucy to his eccentricity. In the novel, however, the effect is much more jarring to have a rational man accept the possibility.

Though aimed at children, the messages resonate clearly for adults who are open to hearing them. The film does not flinch from depicting the violence of the book, though it does spare us unnecessary gore. For kicks, I checked out the review over at the American Family Association, which warns viewers that the movie "includes brief scenes of the Witch's cleavage and of the Professor smoking a pipe as well as what sounded like one use of the Lord's name in vain."

Where Brokeback examines the complex issues of sexual attraction and adult relationships and responsibilities, Chronicles of Narnia sticks to simpler, universal truths, but is perhaps the more powerful for it.


Anthony said...

I've seen neither film (though both are on the cards) but if you want an alternative to the AFA, try ChildCare Action Project for analyses - they don't claim to review films, just evaluate them - which, depending on your mood, with either make you laugh or despair.

little-cicero said...

Brokeback last a Western that would NOT be better were it starring John Wayne. This is a sad day for the Western genre.

I'd like to say I'm going to be open minded and see this movie, but I'm not. I hate romance in Westerns anyway, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual. I don't think we're into the same sort of gunslinging Andy!

biscuit said...

Oh my, can I just tell you that I am absolutely getting married to Mr. Tumnus? I'm totally in love.

Esther said...

You are aware that the professor was in Narnia at one time right? I don't know if you have read that book yet (The Magician's Nephew). I always thought that he took the children seriously because he had been there himself. He seemed fairly rational in the movie to me, but maybe I just interpreted it different.

Excellent review of an excellent movie, by the way.

Andy said...

Actually, this is the only book in the series that I've read, so I didn't realize that, but I did sort of guess. I would like to read the rest when I get a chance. Glad you approved!