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Stanley a Man of Variety ★★★

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Director: Stephen Cookson

Stars: Timothy Spall

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

Stanley – a Man of Variety, a film co-written by Stephen Cookson (My Angel), is a one-hander starring the much-beloved veteran actor Timothy Spall, who plays an array of characters.

Initially, Stanley a Man of Variety is a rather surreal, Kafkaesque production, held together by the loosest of storylines. Stanley is a mental patient, wasting away in a gloomy, secure psychiatric facility, after apparently having been found guilty of a terrible crime.

Stanley is seen alone in the institution, but he routinely mops and cleans the grim corridors and staircases in order to receive reward tokens, which can be used to power a television in his tiny cell.

On this TV screen he watches old black and white VCR cassettes featuring vintage comic characters from the days of British vaudeville and early cinema. These characters then intrude into his consciousness in visions, tormenting him with questions and participating in disjointed fantasises about his past.

Spall plays all the characters – doctors, judges, his own parents, and he also channels erstwhile comedic luminaries such as Tony Hancock, Noël Coward, Max Wall, Alistair Sim, Margaret Rutherford and others.

Stanley pleads with all to let him out, as he is desperate to visit his daughter’s grave – a daughter who died 15 years previously. Their refusal leads him to what might be an attempted suicide, but later he is seen to be leaving the institution with a large suitcase.

In its latter stages the action (if one can call this odd collection of vignettes that) transfers to a flat where Stanley is now living and seemingly coping with day to day tasks. He is seen on the phone, reassuring the doctor of his stability and confirming that he is meticulous in taking his medication.

However, the film continues to be punctuated by odd sound effects and faint snatches of voices or music which indicate that he is still being plagued by hallucinations that we cannot now see. He has mundane one-sided conversations with invisible persons and it’s questionable as to whether he has actually been taking his prescribed medication.

His language, which has been precise, pedantic, and erudite throughout, begins less to resemble the prosaic, voluble discourse of Alan Bennet and becomes more like the troubling monologues of Pinter or Beckett.

This is undoubtedly a tour-de-force performance from Spall, but the film itself is problematic – it’s a conundrum as what kind of audience it is hoping to attract. It is not a film the general public would flock to see, it is far too odd and obscure – but it may be one for the dedicated cinephile, the drama student or those with an academic interest in film.

It is one of those eccentric pieces of theatre which are opaque and surreal, yet oddly compelling. It’s always been an intriguing spectacle to watch an actor perform multiple roles, and the assurance of Spall’s performance is admirable. However, the multi-character gimmick here rests on his impressions of comic characters few people under the age of 60 would even recognise. The surrealism of the film (weird and wonderful imagery by Ismael Issa) is what keeps the viewer’s attention rather than the scenes which feature Spall as some now-obscure, former British comedian.

The main stumbling block of the film is a lack of coherence, as the script is mostly a collection of sketches. The vague storyline, co-written (and partly improvised one imagines) by Spall with director Stephen Cookson, is merely a loose framework: Stanley’s crime is never made entirely clear – did he kill his brother, or his daughter’s boyfriend, or who exactly? Does it even matter?

Much of Stanley’s enactments feel like nostalgic conversations with classic comedians. They serve the plot, but don’t succeed in transferring any of the enthusiasm felt for this era by the protagonist. This aspect of the film comes across rather like an in-joke between the writers, but a younger viewer is likely to feel excluded.

As an examination of mental health however, Stanley – a Man of Variety fares rather better, and conveys the disjointed perception and personality of someone who has almost completely lost touch with reality and to whom fantasy has become the usual mode of existence. The last few minutes of the film are particularly revelatory in this regard and will leave us also wondering just how much of what we have been watching was in any way real.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2018 All rights reserved.

Editor-in-Chief of Movie Marker. Likes: Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino Dislikes: The film 'Open Water' I mean, what was that all about?

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Beale Street Movie Marker

Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie Rating Movie Marker

Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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