Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Gary Oldman

John Hurt again, or ‘Don’t trust Men in suits!’


After last week’s rant I decided that maybe I should do something for this week’s blog that didn’t drive me close to the brink of insanity. I need something that is calmer…more sedate and emotionally stable. A film adaptation that is just more…British. You see, there are a few things that the British do well, namely things like grey skies, subtle betrayal, soul crushing bureaucracy and passive aggressive mistrust. With that in mind, this week’s blog is on one of the best films from last year, ‘Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,’ based on the 1974 novel of the same name by John Le Carre.

As per usual I’m going to give a quick outline of the plot without any major spoilers but unlike some of the films that have been discussed here the plot really won’t take all that long. The film follows the semi-retired spy George Smiley who is brought back into the world of British espionage by the head of the British intelligence ‘Control’ played by John Hurt, (him again) to track down a spy from the KGB who has managed to worm their way to the top of the intelligence service, aka the circus. And that really, is about that in terms of plot. But for all that apparent simplicity, the plot is a complex and richly detailed populated by strong and well developed characters. The atmosphere is rigid with paranoia and mistrust as people who have spent their lives lying for a living are rendered incapable of trusting anyone.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first of all – this film is simply brilliant and to pick up on a few things as highlights feels unfair but for the sake of space I’m going to have to be a little selective rather than spend hours gushing over the whole thing – don’t want to be accused of being a fanboy now do I?

So, consider this next section a selection of the film’s good points rather than detailing them all and if you haven’t seen the film yet – go! Watch! You’ll thank me for it, and you’ll get to see Gary Oldman give the performance that landed him the lifetime achievement BAFTA award. He is probably the best thing performance wise in the film perfectly capturing George Smiley – a dour, taciturn man abandoned by his wife, losing his health and drawn back into the murky world of sabotage because he simply doesn’t have anywhere else to go. His performance is captivating, even though for much of the film Smiley doesn’t have anything to say. He’s man obsessed with watching and observing and Gary Oldman is just brilliant to watch – forget James Bond, the best British spy is a late middle aged man with big glasses who doesn’t say a great deal. The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who in British acting and to pull a quote from this outstanding review, ‘anyone who doesn’t have multiple Oscar wins and nominations, should have. Actors watch this the way that regular people watch porn.’

Even the smaller parts are great; Cathy Burke and Roger Lloyd-Pack make an impression in smaller roles and the ensemble cast all click. My personal favorites are Mark Strong as a spy who is injured and starts teaching, instantly becoming the coolest teacher ever, and John Hurt is simply magnificent as the head of the service, ‘Control.’

There is not just a great cast either; Tomas Alfredson the director does a great job of re-creating the world of Cold War Era Britain, with costuming and design expertly done. The whole film looks old fashioned and sepia toned, rooms full of curling smoke from cigarettes and pipes adorned with seventies decor. The look of the film is wonderful with imaginative cinematography and camera work that manages to make what is basically men in suits talk to each other in rooms for two and a half hours, incredibly fascinating to watch.

Well I think I’ve been pretty clear that I think this may be a very good movie, rather understanding things given how much I’ve raved about it. So how does this match up as an adaptation? Well, really very well indeed actually, and for that a lot of the credit has to go with the script and the people who wrote it.

To be honest I think it’s only right to give kudos where it’s due and the script manages to keep large swathes of dialogue from the book, staying true to the integrity of the novel. However the film manages the often missed trick of translating words into images. Too often literary adaptations tend to feel unwieldy and laden down with too much exposition and dialogue as a way of preserving the source material and as a way of keeping the film as close to the world of the novel as possible. Austen adaptations spring to mind, with the voice overs and many other adaptations have to use techniques like pre-action scrolling exposition, or omniscient narrators. Whilst these techniques are good they always seemed like a way of replicating the literary on film using the techniques of the writer rather than of a film maker. Here, however, the writers have managed to keep true to the story by using the techniques and language of film rather than things that seem more overtly ‘literary.’ I also like that it’s a film that understands the power of silence, leaving quiet moments that force the audience to pay attention to more of the film’s elements than just what the actors are saying, so things like shot composition, body language, gesture and even glances take on more significance.

The script was written by the husband and wife team Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Conner. Tragically, before filming was completed Bridget O’Conner passed away and never got to see the work of art she helped create. The film is dedicated to her, as is the BAFTA her partner emotionally collected when it won for best adapted screenplay last year.

In short this is just fantastic film making – taking a great novel and translating it into a cinematic experience that showcases the source material in an interesting and artistic method. And no, I won’t tell you who the mole is, but if you can work it out before the reveal give yourself a clap on the back. I could probably go on more about this and if I knew more about the techniques of film making I’m sure you could teach a class on all the ways this film is well structured but I’ll finish by saying this; as a film fan it’s an engrossing and intelligent movie, and as a book it is a top notch, taut and tense spy thriller by one of the best writers in Britain. It is simply a joy to see high grade and sophisticated source material handled by people who are clearly very good at what they do the writers, the actors and the director all get to show off their quality. So, really – what’s not to like?



“I vant to like this movie” or, ‘This really isn’t good for my blood pressure.’


So Marvel Month is over and done with and I decided I needed to make a clean break – establish some critical distance from the comics to the rest of the blog. So, thinking it over, I settled on doing a classic – something with a fine pedigree, something that is usually found in the classics section. As an English student I am a fan of the classics in the literature section and I have always had a fondness for the horror classics of Gothic literature. This was the thought process that lead me to the 1897 novel by an Irish writer by the name of Bram, one of my favourite novels and one of the first horror novels I ever read… Oh yes, this week is Dracula week.

Dracula is THE classic horror story and has been adapted multiple times, some of them now considered film classics. However I decided I would focus on a more recent adaptation by one of the best directors working in modern cinema. Francis Ford Coppola has been behind some of the best films of the 20th century; and for the twelve of you who don’t know, here’s a few highlights of things he’s been behind…

The Godfather. Yes, that one. widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. EVER. and Part II. And Part III. THE gangster movies of modern American cinema.

– Apocalypse Now.

Lost in Translation (executive producer)

Sleepy Hollow


And many, many, many more. As a writer, director and producer this man has been one of the heavy hitters of Western cinema for decades now and in 1992 he was responsible for an adaptation of Stoker’s classic novel.

I feel for the sake of my own integrity I need to declare my own feelings here. I really, REALLY dislike this film. As an adaptation I think it is possibly the worst application of a text into a new medium I have ever sat through. If you’re a fan of this film, maybe it is for the best you come back next time because you’re not going to enjoy this one. If there is anyone still reading who wants to know how I’m going to justify this extreme opinion please bear with me whilst I state my case.

Firstly, the positives. The film looks nice. The design of the whole thing is really quite well done. The cast all know how to act properly.

Good, that’s out of the way…Now, onto the problems.

This film has some of the worst casting choices possible. I would have loved to have sat in the meeting discussing the casting options for this film; I imagine a room full of healthy and tanned American executives discussing Coppela’s latest project.

“So, we’ve got Jonathan Harker, he’s an English guy, seems to have formed the trope of the English Gothic hero. Who should we get?’

” I know, what about Keanau Reeves?”

“Really Charlie?”

“Yeah! He’ll be great!”

“Charlie, how much coke are you on? Keanau Reeves!? He’s from California! He has the emotional range of a roll of carpet samples!”

“Yeah, he’ll rock it! And for his wife, the perfect English Gothic rose? You know who I’m thinking – Winona Ryder

“Charlie – she’s from California! She can’t do an English accent to save her life!”

“No no no, these are the people we need to carry this film…now who wants some more drugs?”

And those are the people they went for. It does not work. At all. The first time Jonathan Harker opened his mouth I had to pause the movie and laugh for a good minute, Reeves is woefully out of his depth and it cannot help but show. Ryder as Mina Harker is better, but not by much and her topless scene smacks of the gratuitous. The rest of the cast is solid but burdened with a script that hinders every single one of them.The reason for this is a script that forces the actors into a plot, that in places, reads more like a poor Harlequin romance than a horror.

It is in the plot that this films lets itself down so badly – the novel sets out to establish the vampire as something dangerous. Not just dangerous, but damning – an encounter with Dracula will not only cost you your life but also your spiritual salvation. Dracula isn’t sexy. Or fun. Rather an encounter with a Dracula, in the book, is portrayed as something so horrific that it will cost you your soul – Mina Harker’s reaction to discovering that she has been tainted by Dracula is nigh on hysterical with terror. On the other hand, the film takes a very different approach…

This starts with the establishing opening sequence, where we see the character of Dracula in the past as solider, who, thinking his wife dead, renounces his faith in God and swears to come back from the dead using the power of darkness. I will admit that the film does this very well, the scene where the chapel fills with blood shows off the production and design and Gary Oldman as Dracula gets to show off his acting chops with his dialogue in Romanian. From here, the film takes an entirely different tangent as to what a vampire is. Instead of being something dangerous, the film effectively sanitized the idea of a vampire – Oldman becomes a sympathetic figure seeking the love of his resurrected wife that will redeem him and enable him to get him into heaven.

Now, if you are still reading this as a fan of the film, I want you to re-read that last sentence and then compare it to the tone and character arc of Dracula in Stoker’s novel and then try and tell me with a staight face that this is a good way of adaptating the text. It isn’t even accurate. At all. The idea of a vampire ceases to be dangerous and no ammount of erotic seduction or lavish production will ever disguise the fact, that this is a horror film that just fails to be scary in the smallest degree.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. “Jon, you just don’t like anything that deviates from the book you’re a fan of..You hate someone who disagrees with you and can’t deal with the idea that someone might have a different take on a character!”

Well, no. I have no objection to the idea of someone making bold choices with a character but this is not what vampires ARE. If you want to make a movie about a supernatural creature looking for his reincarnated wife fine. No problem. No objection here. But there is a well established literaray tradition of what vampires are and how they behave. This tradition isn’t just the work of writers from the 1890’s but something based on the myths and legends of Eastern Eurpoe stretching back centuries. To ignore and neglect this part of the vampire mythos is not good adaptation, if anything it is ignoring the history of the genre and character and trying to make it into something new. In fact, the movie is an indulgence, it’s a fantasy puff piece designed to appeal to the people who grew up to write Twilight fanfiction. Yes, that’s right – I am going to blame this movie for spawning that horror of pop-culture mediocre waste of time that infatuated a generation of tweens. And for that, there will be no pit of hell deep enough… *sigh*

I started with saying that this was a biased review. I love this book, I read it as a teenager and I have constantly re-read it and it has never failed to inspire a little terror every time. I was initally excited about this film version but all that I was left with, when the credits rolled was an over-whelming sense of a missed opportunity . Someone wanted to make a vampire movie but didn’t get what a vampire was, didn’t get why a vampire was scary and had no idea how to make it work with this lavish and over-blown production.

I wanted to like this. I did and I swear I tried to, but as I mentioned with my review of X-Men how you feel about a film does colour the opinion you hold as a critic and enjoyment of a film does tend to cover the worst of filmic sins. But this…this is just terrible.

Don’t let me convince you. If you haven’t either read the book or seen the film then take a weekend and you tell me. Tell me why you think they got it right as an adaptation or tell me if you agree with me and get it off your chest. This is not just bad – this is not getting it, missing the point and producing something that doesn’t deserve to be called a vampire movie, it’s a romance movie for those with a fetish for biting. Classic literature deserves more than that.

But, hey – that’s just my two cents 🙂


The PageBoy

PS I promise that next week I’ll do something that makes me less grouchy…

PPS Oh, and the classic black and white Dracula is so so so so much better. Simply on the grounds that the actors all have English accents that sound like English accents puts it over and above this one in terms of quality.