August 20, 2018

Two Nifty Little Films for the end of summer – Le Weekend (2014, dir. Roger Michell) and The Scapegoat (2012, dir. Charles Sturridge)

Le Weekend Directed by Roger Michell Starring Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent

The evenhanded comments of some thoughtful film critics regarding Le Weekend were popularly reduced to a meme along the lines of “dispiritingly prickly” or “a bitter pill”.  For those of you who may yet be wondering if perhaps whatever rankled or seemed wanting about Roger Michell’s film might not be offset by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, wonder no more: you have the right idea.

It’s a small film, but its tight focus on a long-married British couple’s pivotal getaway to Paris has nuanced intelligence and wit. Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson, Notting Hill) uses a deft, unobtrusive hand in directing Hanef Kureishi’s quicksilver screenplay, and Duncan and Broadbent bring their characters to such idiosyncratic life that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Meg, a schoolteacher, and Nick, a philosophy professor at a provincial university, return on their thirtieth anniversary to the quaint hotel in Paris where they once enjoyed a romantic interlude. When they find that the hotel has not aged well and Meg books them into tony accommodations far beyond their means, grumpy discontents and deep veins of antagonism begin to seethe.

In the Montparnasse Cemetery Nick visits his heroes: “That was fun!” he says after paying his respects at Beckett’s grave. “Let’s go see Sartre!” Later, as they savor supper in a fine restaurant, he enthusiastically brings up a subject he feels is important to both of them—the new tiles for the bathroom back home. Meg wants to discuss the possibility of divorce.

The old fault lines crack open, new secrets emerge, and the world of a marriage hangs by a thread.

Whatever universal recognitions and connections may be forged will depend on the individual viewer’s experience. When it tries to generalize Le Weekend makes a few missteps, but they are mercifully brief. The film is on its surest, most emotionally valid, footing when it trusts these two superb actors with illuminating the delicacies and ellipses of a particular marriage—not all marriages—and when it succeeds, there is hard-earned humor and a wistful, wry authenticity.

Jeff Goldblum (who is very good) enters the scene as an old college friend of Nick’s—a smoothly self-aware economics pundit who now lives in Paris. He invites the couple to a celebratory soiree, and it is at the dinner table that the critical and defining moment occurs for them.

It’s a subtle epiphany, the kind that might take thirty years to distill and evoke.

– Hadley Hury

(Available on Blu-ray and Netflix)

 

The Scapegoat is not great cinema, but it is far more entertaining than the inert version of 1959 which, despite featuring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis, managed to be memorably torpid and sank like a stone even at art houses. This 2012 version, starring Matthew Rhys, with Eileen Atkins in the small but vital role of the mother, is adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel and directed by Charles Sturridge (A Handful of Dust, Where Angels Fear to Tread). It, too, has gained little notice, but it has a slow fuse of elegant edginess and proves to be a rather nifty and engagingly watchable suspense piece.

Set in 1952-53 during the coronation season of Elizabeth II, The Scapegoat opens with teacher John Standing (Rhys), who has just lost his job and is at loose ends, meeting his doppelganger Johnny Spence (also Rhys), a patrician roue and failed businessman, in a hotel. Standing is encouraged by Spence to get drunk and finds himself the next morning without his clothes and wallet and with Spence gone. Collected by George, the chauffeur to the Spence family, he has difficulty explaining himself and is taken to the family’s country house. He is quickly drawn into family and business affairs and is forced to deal with Spence’s business problems and the women in his life: his wife (Alice Orr-Ewing), mother (Atkins), sister (Jodhi May), young daughter, and two mistresses.

The premise is, of course, completely absurd. Is it really possible that any two unrelated strangers could look so much alike that not even a mistress, wife, or mother could spot the difference? Well, no. But the feeling here is not of absurdity, but rather whimsy. (Du Maurier’s 1957 novel mines a more tragic vein.) The story maintains a pose of realism even as it verges into the fantastic, but is ultimately a story about wish-fulfillment and the freedom of discovering in yourself a whole new set of possibilities. It’s also about thinking of your life as it might look from the outside.

Where Du Maurier left her story open-ended, Sturridge opts for a more sanguine tidying-up, ending with a vision of a restored happiness, as everyone settles down to watch the coronation on the telly. The Scapegoat is built on a fantasy that may have a grain of truth to it–that it’s easier to mend the messes other people make of their lives than the mess you make of your own.

Matthew Rhys’ graceful performance(s) strikes just the right tone to help bridge the gap between the story’s rather outlandish conceit and a kind of seductively engaging plausibility. Eileen Atkins does one of the things she does best—weary deprecation gleaming with mordant humor; she may not have much screen time but her performance is vivid and incisive.

– Hadley Hury

(Available on Amazon Prime and Acorn)

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