DVD reviews

Shanghai Star. 2004-01-15

The Dawning

Director: Robert Knights

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Rebecca Pidgeon, Trevor Howard, Jean Simmons, Hugh Grant, Ronnie Masterson

The final credits of "The Dawning" (1988) include the line: "In grateful memory of the life of Trevor Howard". It was the great British actor's last movie, closing a career spanning more than 40 years.

He received an Oscar nomination in 1960 for his role as Walter Morel, the father in "Sons and Lovers" but a film critic, reviewing his life as an actor, once observed, rather unkindly, that Trevor Howard's success was due entirely to his trick of being able to make English "dullness" seem interesting. But there was much more to Howard than that. His physical presence, his restraint as an actor and his ability to convey unshakeable integrity set him apart from most of his peers.

His military bearing also allowed him to play soldier's roles in a score of films ranging from Major Calloway in Carol Reed's eternal classic, "The Third Man" (1949), to Lord Cardigan in Tony Richardson's, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968).

It was fitting that Howard's final role should have been as a retired army general and also that the film should have been set in Ireland and with a plot involving the Irish struggle for independence from England. This was the theme of David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter" (1970) set around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising and in which Howard played the village priest.

In one of his early movies - the comedy-drama, "I See a Dark Stranger" (1946) - he played a young British army officer who falls in love with a naive IRA volunteer (Deborah Kerr in her first major movie role). In "The Dawning", his retired British army general is confined to a wheelchair but he keeps a telescope to his eye and observes a little too much of the action going on about him.

The time is the 1920s and the IRA under Michael Collins is fighting the British Army's most infamous military formation, the "Black and Tans".

The general has a grand-daughter, Nancy (Rebecca Pidgeon in her first major role) who is being brought up by her Aunt Mary (the lovely Jean Simmons) and a feisty housekeeper, Bridie (Ronnie Masterson).

When Nancy's mother died shortly after she was born, her father disappeared from her life but Nancy goes on looking for him and trying to match what she thinks he may look like with the faces of the men she sees in the streets of Dublin.

She wonders whether her father really has come back when a stranger suddenly arrives and takes over her hut on a nearby lonely stretch of beach.

The stranger is played (or under-played) wonderfully by Anthony Hopkins and it turns out he is not her father but Major Angus Barry, a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry who used to live in the neighbourhood. He tells Nancy that for him the war is not yet over. He had joined the British Army to fight in World War I to protect "the liberty of small nations" but has now become thoroughly disillusioned with England over its ruthless treatment of Ireland.

He is also on the run from the "Black and Tans" who are searching for him as he plans another strike at them. He is obviously a dangerous man but his mood is elegiac and it is clear he has chosen the countryside of his youth as the place to fight what may be his last battle.

The two climaxes of the film - based on the novel "The Old Jest" by Jennifer Johnston - lead Nancy to a new "dawning" as she leaves her childhood behind and takes sides to help the "dawning" of the new Irish Republic. Barry Porter

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke

Directed with a pulpy panache worthy of Tarantino, but with even less inhibition, Rodriguez' "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is an undisciplined, almost plotless feast of bizarre ideas, wildly implausible violence, deliriously embraced stereotypes and perversely comic melodrama.

Johnny Depp, playing an out-of-control CIA agent, and Antonio Banderas, playing a guitar-strumming gunman mourning his dead wife (killed in hail of bullets, of course), compete with each other to deliver the most extravagant performance, in the midst of a stunning cast almost universally dedicated to the same ambition. Far from reining in the ensuing madness, Rodriguez' directing panders to it utterly, generating a movie whose indescribable anarchy seems to have bewildered but ultimately seduced the critics.

Relating the "plot" would be a daunting task. Thankfully, it would also be almost entirely pointless. It will probably suffice to say the movie is set in Mexico, entangling its stars in an elaborate criminal and political conspiracy to kill the president.

Since the collisions of soldiers, corrupt generals, drug cartels, secret agents and freelance outlaws serve mainly as a pretext for increasingly deranged shoot-outs and other acts of extreme violence, their consequences and motivations can safely be left shrouded in gunsmoke. Rodriguez seems far more concerned with the exact duration of a sneer or the glint from a pair of mirror-shades than with anything as tedious as narrative coherence.

From beginning to end, style triumphs unambiguously over substance, producing a kaleidoscope of perfectly crafted scenes, each with their own utterly compelling dramatic logic, yet woven together in a more-or-less arbitrary way. This is cinema in the fashion of superior advertising or MTV video, masterfully accomplished, decadent and characterized by a deliberate superficiality or devotion to surface effects.

None of the characters has any convincing interior dimension, but only attitude, combined with semi-parodic identities ("the spy," "the honest leader," "the avenging lover"). Yet despite the shamelessness of its aestheticized vacuity, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" succeeds both as a movie for movie fetishists and as popcorn entertainment, careering forward with demented energy and studded with moments of brash sublimity. Nick Land

My House in Umbria

Director: Richard Loncraine

Starring: Maggie Smith, Chris Cooper, Timothy Spall

Adapted from William Trevor's novella of the same name, "My House in Umbria" is set in the Italian countryside. A train travelling slowly through the beautiful countryside suddenly explodes. In one carriage, there are four survivors. One is English romantic novelist, Mrs Ella Delahunty (Maggie Smith), who invites everybody to her lavish Italian countryside home, where she has been living for quite a while.

She finds that her guests boost her morale and help her to recover from the disaster. She quits her usual excessive drinking and assumes responsibility for taking care of everybody.

The other three survivors - an American girl called Aimee (Emmy Clarke), a British general (Ronnie Barker), and a young German called Werner (Benno Furmann) - also struggle to come to terms with the disaster. Every one of them has lost someone very close.

The general finds great pleasure in taking care of the gardening. Werner heals his arm and hand, injured by the blast. Aimee draws paintings to finally get back to a normal life.

While the survivors seem gradually to enjoy their comfortable life as a happy new family, an inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) is trying to figure out exactly what happened to make the train explode. The movie uses flashbacks to recall the background of the young German.

Peace does not last long. The new "family's" life in the beautiful countryside has been mostly destroyed by the time the American girl's uncle, an American entomologist named Tom Riversmith (Chris Cooper), arrives. Riversmith has never seen his niece before and he is not fond of Mrs. Delahunty's carefree lifestyle.

This is a movie starting with violent scenes of terrorist bombing, a reminder of today's threat in the world. The beautiful vista in the Italian countryside provides great enjoyment for viewers. It is a great story about human feeling and how people can heal from their wounds, both physical and mental.

Xing Bao

Copyright by Shanghai Star.