Everything Old Is New Again

So begins another year and what better way to celebrate than a retrospective hodge-podge review of my most favorite recent versions of famous British stage and screen mainstays?

These revitalized pieces of modern film-making prove the idiom that “everything old is new again,” and their combined histories – a modern television show/series of films based on a late-19th century series of novels, a futuristic film adaptation of a play more than 400 years old, and the latest film in a 25-year-old franchise – are enough to make you feel like a well-known time-and-dimension-hopping-Doctor who will remain nameless as I have not yet been convinced of his preeminence.

British pop culture has never been irrelevant, but in the wake of the Harry Potter books and films, the Lord of the Rings films, and rebooted version of Dr. Who (I guess I lied), it has recently experienced a kind of renaissance abroad (especially in the United States) and for me, the three properties below embody that “return to form.” Modern producers have re-forged and re-invented many of England’s most precious cultural icons, building on their eclectic histories to produce arguably the most effective iterations of those properties yet.

My over-analytical ramblings aside though, these are some of the coolest film or film-like entities of British origin that I’ve seen in some time.

Sherlock

01 Sherlock

It took me a while to catch on to the quality of this short series, which so far consists of only six film-like “episodes” ranging in length from 1.5 to 2 hours, but once I did, I was hooked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a favorite character of mine when I was younger, and I’ve since idolized not only him, but essentially every brilliant detective character of whom I’ve been made aware and who resembles Holmes in intellectual prowess and courage.

Like Doyle’s original stories, each episode of the show is a different “case file,” in which Holmes – the eccentric, borderline-sociopathic deductive genius – and Dr. John Watson – his infinitely patient, practically-minded companion – are tasked with the unraveling of a complex mystery. As the two confront each conundrum, they encounter a variety of allies and enemies and do their best to thwart nefarious plots. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but their efforts are invariably captivating.

A big part of what makes this adaptation so good in comparison to other recent versions (I’m thinking specifically of the Robert Downey Jr. films) is that the principal actors, Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) aren’t just playing roles that have been carried forward through time, cob webs and all. This version is purposefully founded in the modern age and both actors wholly inhabit the roles, making the characters and the plots in which they are caught up feel genuine.

Furthermore, the series is laser-focused on a goal that I think is imminently invaluable and too often ignored in most television: The main character and the show as a whole strive to get you thinking. Intelligence is engaging and fascinating, and though there are plenty of foot chases through the streets of London, the mind is the principal battlefield on which Holmes and his adversaries are engaged.

Doyle’s stories always dealt with a morally grey world, but the modern setting of this series allows the writers to address relevant ethical questions that touch on a variety of issues, including government oversight, the dehumanizing effects of technology, sexual politics, and more. None of the episodes strictly adheres to the original book or story on which it is based and this willingness to do something new with the material makes it feel fresh and exciting.

Simply put, I don’t think Sherlock is for everyone, but I cannot say enough good things about this show. My only complaint is that I want more. Immediately.

Coriolanus

01 Coriolanus 2

How do you address and criticize a corrupt military-industrial complex on which much of the world’s stability depends? Well, if you’re Ralph Fiennes, you film a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s prescient and uber-relevant play, Coriolanus.

In his directorial debut, Fiennes stars as the severe-yet-effective Caius Martius, the most prestigious and lauded military commander in a time-shifted, modernized version of ancient Rome. During an especially brutal and decisive battle with the armies of Rome’s rival city-state, Volsci, Caius engages his military rival and commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), in mortal combat and emerges the victor, cementing a temporary peace. To celebrate his success, Caius is awarded by the Senate the honorary title “Coriolanus” as an additional moniker in remembrance of the pitched battle. Caius Martius Coriolanus is loved for his courage and becomes the darling of the military state, encouraged by those around him to pursue the powerful leadership position of “Consul” within the Senate.

But Coriolanus has no taste for politics, and staunchly refuses to pay homage to the teeming, non-military masses he sees as dishonorable parasites unworthy of his love. His elitist attitude is rejected by the egalitarian people who see his beliefs as a betrayal and Coriolanus’s tragic downfall is set in motion. A multitude of ethical and thematic questions arise as a result of Coriolanus’s steadfastness, and it is this complexity of thoughtful reflection that is one of the most appealing aspects of the film.

What allegiance do leaders owe to those they lead and vice versa? How does one balance the demands of popular power and personal beliefs? Are codes of ethics and public office at their core incompatible? What kind of leader should we admire and aspire to emulate? What does it mean to be a “good” man? These questions and many more are raised throughout and though Fiennes does not definitively answer any, they are all so incredibly relevant to our modern world of war, political scandal, and moral despair that I was taken aback these were all issues that were also relevant more than 400 years ago, when Shakespeare’s play was written. To quote another cliche: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The plot and thematic elements of this tragedy aside, I should also mention a few of the more technical aspects. The imagery is often bleak, but this film is shot beautifully, with an eye for framing human frailty within unforgiving industrial environments. Though this may be a turn-off for some, the script is composed of reorganized and mildly retouched passages of verse from the original play, all delivered by an extremely capable and excellent cast, including Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave. Every event in this story’s plot is emotionally charged, and the principal cast perfectly elucidates the unforgiving pressures of tenuous power.

In all, if you want to watch a well-made film adaptation of a more-relevant-than-ever Shakespeare tragedy that touches on a multitude of issues facing the modern Western world, check out Coriolanus.

Skyfall

01 SkyfallSimilarly to Coriolanus, Skyfall – the most recent (and in my opinion most excellent) James Bond film – deals head-on with the decline of an empire’s founding ideals and those people working to pick up the pieces. I won’t go into the specific details of the plot because one of the pleasures of this film is watching the action set pieces unfold and morph into something different from moment to moment, but I do include below a brief review of the ideas and themes. There are no outright spoilers, but I touch on things that may influence a first-time viewer’s impressions.

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Bond myself, but I can assert with confidence one of the most appealing aspects of Skyfall is that, like any good movie, it is built of many varying and complex layers of plot, character, and theme. Each of three main characters constitutes a vital aspect of what the director Sam Mendes is trying to say with this entry in the series.

The most vital layer is of course focused on Bond. After a near-death experience, Bond (Daniel Craig) is forced to come to terms with his aging body’s limitations and his strained devotion to the country and organization that made him who he is. There is an overarching theme of “reflection across time” throughout the film and though Bond has been referred to as a “relic of the Cold War,” Skyfall attempts to make a legitimate case for the relevancy of old-school operatives like Bond and the role they must play in the security of contemporary society. As one character begrudgingly admits, no matter how many things you can do on a computer, “sometimes a trigger needs to be pulled.” The film lets you make of that moral indictment what you will, but it’s telling that many of Bond’s standard operating procedures in this film backfire. In response, he is forced to adapt; to evolve and become something more efficient.

Bond’s personal struggle for relevancy reflects the larger struggle of MI6’s leader, M (Judy Dench), to prove that an espionage organization and way of life is still relevant, despite the proliferation of technology, modern progress, and the decline of the greater British empire. She is under threat of replacement and is feeling the pressures of age and irrelevancy even more intensely than Bond. It’s important to note that though James Bond is a cultural icon for the country, this film is probably the only one in the series that is predominantly concerned with England itself. There are a few different exotic locales visited–Shanghai, Istanbul, a deserted island reminiscent of one in Japan–but the main action of the second half of the film all happens in London, and then in another part of Great Britain. It becomes clear that Mendes, a Londoner himself, is at his heart ambivalent about the history and future of the country he calls home.

To that point, there is security and danger in the past, and Bond and M are confronted by an antagonist who embodies this idea. Bent on revenge, Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 operative similar to Bond, utilizes the most cutting edge computer technology to wage war on the country, organization, and person (M) he feels left him for dead. Obsessed with the past, but employing modern methods to rectify it, Silva epitomizes the potential pitfalls of an individual’s misguided attempt at moving on without letting go. But Silva’s most important piece of the thematic puzzle is in proving that dangerous enemies still lurk in the shadows.

There are a ton more aspects of the film worth discussing–including the nature of home, one’s responsibility to legacy, the line between hero and villain, the loyalty of surrogate “sons” to their perceived “mother,” and more–but I think this “review” has gone on long enough.

If this sounds heavy, it definitely is at parts, and I would say this is perhaps the darkest of the Bond films. But luckily, the more serious tone is often balanced by fun quips, snappy exchanges of dialogue, and references and call-backs to elements of Bond’s days of yore. Moreover, the entire film is one of the most well-photographed in recent memory. Every single shot looks amazing and most importantly, often visually reflects the thematic elements of the film. It is easily the best-looking in the series, and this high quality also permeates the acting. Though the series is best known for silly camp, there is an earnest effort in Skyfall to make the world of Bond more real, and all of the actors turn in great performances to that end.

Sure, all of the above is wrapped up in an intense, action-packed franchise film, and some viewers may be skeptical of an action movie’s attempts at intelligence, but Skyfall proves that with the right script, emotional heart, and philosophical drive, an action film can have as much to say as a more austere drama. For that reason, I think Skyfall far exceeds the expectations of a genre too often dominated by mindless garbage to become something very special and definitely worth watching. Oh, and it has a pretty great theme song.

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