The Good Father

March 11, 2013

220px-GoodfatherposterIn the opening scene of The Good Father, we see the title character, played by Anthony Hopkins, pushing his young son on a swing. The camera stays on the father’s face and upper body, as the boy arcs in and out of the picture. The man is lost in thought; gradually his pushes become harder, unconsciously violent, until the son lets out a frightened squawk. The man recovers and eases up.

This is a brilliant way to begin the film, for it represents with perfect economy this man’s rage. And it also signals that we are going to see a major performance from Hopkins, the Welsh-born actor (lately in 84 Charing Cross Road) whom the English press has touted as “the next Olivier” for two decades.

Hopkins plays a recently separated Londoner who sees his son only for short spells and whose failed marriage has turned him against women and feminism. Throughout the film, Hopkins lets his rage fly out in red-hot bursts, full of self-hatred and bitterness.

His seething finds a coolly nasty outlet, which takes up the major part of the film. A friend (Jim Broadbent), an oafish and homely teacher who is also separated, tells Hopkins that his own wife has decided to take their children to Australia with her lesbian lover. This sets Hopkins in cruel motion.

Hopkins becomes obsessed with his friend’s case: He pressures Broadbent into legal action against the wife, offers to pay the expenses, and helps gather the dirt that can be used against the woman in a custody hearing at court. He’s working through his own problems with this similar case, but he disregards the damage he may be doing to these people.

Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, from the novel by Peter Prince, touches on a number of themes, including the post-feminist hangover. Most important, it suggests that Hopkins’ anger is not exactly evil. When Hopkins asks his new young girlfriend (Joanne Whalley) why she doesn’t get excited about anything, compared with his combative college days in the ’60s, Hampton hints that rage may be preferable to nothingness.

In some ways, the legal action may dominate the movie too much; I actually preferred some of the opening scenes of Hopkins’ unfocused diatribes. The director, Mike Newell (Dance with a Stranger), doesn’t do much to shape the material, and he turns the legal folk into caricatures, aided by Simon Callow’s gleefully hammy performance as a barrister. This provides someone to hiss, which is at odds with the script’s even-handed approach.

But Newell gets fascinating work from Hopkins. Hopkins has always seemed hemmed in by movies, as though his histrionic tendencies were best served by live theater, where actors may expand. Here, that harnassed quality is crucial to his performance. He plays a man who does bad things without himself being bad. That’s difficult enough to capture, but Hopkins even gives him a measure of sympathy. Under the circumstances, that’s amazing.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Some interesting people mixed into this, but not much recognition for it all these years later. Obviously, at this pre-Silence of the Lambs point Hopkins was still not established enough to presume the reader would know him.

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84 Charing Cross Road

September 22, 2011

The origins of the friendship were innocent enough: One day in 1949 a New Yorker, fed up with local bookstores that didn’t stock the English classics, wrote a London bookstore with a series of inquiries. After that, she did much business with the humble store, and the relationship that developed through the next two decades enriched the lives of everybody involved.

84 Charing Cross Road, the address of Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers, is a film based on this true story, and composed entirely of the long-ranging correspondence. Now, if that sounds like an impossible prospect for a movie, be assured that the filmmakers have found attractive ways of making it all work.

Much of the film consists of outright narration from the letters. Helen Hanff (Anne Bancroft), a script reader and struggling writer, writes primarily to Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), the bookish manager of the store, who quickly becomes intrigued by the feisty, knowledgeable American on the other end.

She soon breaks up the businesslike exchange with impromptu literary criticism, presumptuous personal questions and eventually a crate of meats and fruits (Britain was suffering through food rationing at the time). As the correspondence grows more personal, we watch glimpses of the lives of these people: Hanff’s sometimes lonely spinsterhood, Doel’s wife and daughters at home.

The director, David Jones (Betrayal), finds just the right visual scheme for this. Sometimes Hanff and Doel are seen writing and reading the letters, sometimes they are simply going about their lives while we listen to their words and sometimes they address the camera. This last culminates in a concurrent exchange, as though they were speaking directly to each other over thousands of miles. The technique becomes emotionally effective when we learn that Doel has died in the interim, and that this was their final dialogue. (They never did actually meet.)

84 Charing Cross Road is about a lot of things, like the sheer sensual pleasure of books—not literature, but books themselves—and the delicate fantasies that can spring up in lonely people who take to writing to strangers. Most of all, it’s about finding love in the oddest places.

This is beautifully captured when Helene must cancel a proposed trip to London, and Doel receives her letter of explanation. He stands awkwardly in the middle of the store, gazing wistfully as he murmurs, “She’s not coming.”

How does a movie like this get made? In this case credit probably goes to, of all people, Mel Brooks, whose production company made it (he’s Bancroft’s husband). It takes a lot of faith, or chutzpah, to believe that audiences will respond to such a singular storytelling method and subject matter—surely this is the first film in anybody’s memory that relies on jokes about John Donne and William Blake.

First published in the Herald, March 20, 1987

I haven’t seen this movie since, but reading this again, it sure sounds like something I’d like to watch. I guess somebody might put a spoiler arrest on me for this review, although the revelations seem logical with this subject matter. David Jones, the man who so ably guided this film and the tricky Betrayal, ended up doing a great amount of U.S. television, which doesn’t seem quite right.