Sunday, August 18, 2013

Entertainment for the Mood

Entirely consciously, thanks to the offense I was nurturing earlier today, I finally gave a long-lurking film on my Netflix queue a chance this evening.  And so I'm watching The Trojan Women, with Genevieve Bujold, Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Blessed (I love Brian Blessed!) and Irene Papas ('71).

I'm just old enough that being able to simply pull up programming like this on my TV is almost like living in futuristic sci-fi, and I'm grateful that 'flix bothers with productions like this and many of the classic BBC series I grew up with on this side of the Pond in Masterpiece Theater.

This production is the best sort of cinema that came out of the 1970s - realistic looking by dint of being a bit bare-bones (the production design doesn't dominate nor overwhelm, and in some ways even evokes live theater), a little self-conscious in a way I don't really think we see anymore (slow, arty monologues), and both faithful to its source and innovative.  It can take some patience if arch readings and intentional theatricality aren't your bag (to use as seventies a term as I can think of), and Bujold's performance is exhausting precisely because it's good.  Hepburn is as stripped-down as she ever was, one of those rare actors who could shed stardom and still do justice to a role even as you never forget for a second who she is - which, in this case, does serve the story in the end.  What director could object to an oak tree for Hecuba?

Of course, the cast, even extras, though the production was filmed in Spain, tend pretty heavily toward a white-girl sort of homogeneity (Papas is a glittering exception - the personification of that legendary beauty, Helen - and it's a pleasure to get to watch her in a role of some substance).  Her introduction is astounding and compelling (one easily believes this woman launched a thousand ships - even with only a glimpse of her, part by part, starting with penetrating eyes).  This role is the introduced as the villainess, so perhaps it is a pity it's also the only one not cast pretty much lily-white, but Irene Papas is to powerful in herself to suffer much by being the token accent.  More to the point, Helen here is vulnerable, and even (... perhaps? ...) a rape victim.  Then again, Hepburn gives the villainess, as she sees Helen, a tongue lashing as only Hepburn could, and it is joyous viewing, her best moment among a lot of good ones.  And through it, Papas' confidence and irony are exquisite.  Her exit is just as fabulous as her entrance; if I were a man, I'd despair of ever finding a woman like Irene Papas - *or* her Helen.
As an aside, Papas and Bujold also both participated in "Anne of the Thousand Days" a few years later, as Katherine of Aragon and Ann Boleyn respectively.  From Helen to Aragon, an interesting pair of roles so close to each other.

There is a great deal of beauty on display, especially including the arty line-by-line speeches delivered straight to camera by many women - and it's nice to see as much beauty in real women as in luminous girls.  The seventies was a decade between the airbrushed and candy-coated prettiness of the Classic Screen Siren age and the mass-produced pneumatism and narrow confines of the 80s and into today.  Sure, directors still required having a pretty, pretty Regrave around, but at least her looks have the appearance of being her own.  She isn't the processed, vetted, and fully packaged focus-grouped image of beauty that's put paid to any hope of another Streisand making a movie career.

The film manages that wonderful balance of bringing an ancient play closer to accessibility by making it immediate and excruciating (in a "good" way, for a movie about the bitterness of war) and keeping it stylized and very much of its period.  As arch as the readings may seem, one never quite feels removed from the period we're meant to  be set in.  As howling an outrage as the statements of the film's, and play's, themes are, they never feel like modern sentiment applied to ancient Greeks inappropriately.

Some of the emotional conclusions, brutal to a contemporary mindset, are played as they should be - dramatically, yes, but with faith to the expectations of honor and sacrifice which would have prevailed in their time.  "You little thing" is a devastating moment, even as it is inevitable and tragic.

One of those things we don't seem to have in movies nor television currently is the dramatic cruelty of shame on honor.  This film lays it out pitilessly.  Redgrave cannot be faulted for failing in this scene.  Nor Blessed - who performs it deadly quietly.

The print is not bad, though it is cropped for pan-and-scan, and the sound quality is at times typically tricky.  Particularly with Blessed, the Loudest Actor in the World (G-d bless him, seriously), it's easy, at least for an old broad with much-abused hearing, to lose lines here and there.  That's a fairly major failing in a production like this - it is a wordy, talky play - but one imagines that with ever-improving accessibility and tech, they may iron out these issues at some point.

As historical fiction, of course it transcends the period of its setting without ever leaving it.  As legend - and starring modern celebrity legends - it satisfies and surprises.

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