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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Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.