Friday, September 11, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield: A Review


THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD

It would have been too simple to call the film plain David Copperfield. No, director/co-writer Armando Iannucci had to go with the more flamboyant The Personal History of David Copperfield. That should signal how cutesy this Charles Dickens adaptation is meant to be seen. Meant being the operative word, for while David Copperfield has some strong qualities, it simply is too self-aware and rapid to be what it aims at.

Our titled hero David Copperfield (Dev Patel) rushes through life with a cheerful optimism as the narrator of his own adventures. We steamroll through all the major events of his life up to the time of his writing. There is his birth, followed by his mother's remarriage to the abusive Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), his exile to a bottling factory, his mother's death, and salvation with his Aunt Betsy (Tilda Swinton) and her bonkers cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). 

There's his school days where he encounters the seemingly subservient Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) and re-encounters the kind but perpetually broke Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) masquerading as a schoolteacher. David also makes friends with young and wealthy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), whom David introduces to the family of his former nanny. More wild romances for Steerforth and David come but not without David's fortunes rising and falling and rising again until all is well.

This is the second Iannucci film I've seen, and now I find that his style is simply not to my liking. I was one of the few dissenting voices on The Death of Stalin, my major issue being the same that I have with The Personal History of David Copperfield: it is simply too aware that it is a "comedy". I'm not averse to a little winking at the audience, but both The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield simply held that they were funny by default and everyone behaved as such. I'm of the belief that comedy should flow naturally from the situations, which I did not find in David Copperfield.

The real problem for David Copperfield is that everything was far too frenetic and frantic, going so fast through what I imagine is a massive novel that more than once I wondered "who are these people and why should we care?" Take for example when Mr. Micawber appears in David's classroom much to his horror. 

He had already told his friends all about his adventures with Mr. Micawber when he appears, and in what appears to be the fastest hiring and firing in school history our hapless but endearing miscreant is let go within maybe ten minutes of entering the school when Steerforth exposes him to the whole class. The audience gets a series of whiplashes as David Copperfield races from scene to scene to where at times you become, not lost but more puzzled at to who is who and what is what.

In his time at the bottling company we are introduced to two characters whom I called "Whisperer" and "Repeater" because I don't think we ever got their names and these were their only defining characteristics. I figure the fact that one whispered and the other repeated what was said was meant to be funny. It wasn't at least to me.

It was however, the major issue with David Copperfield: we had to rush past so much that there wasn't time to develop anything close to interest, let alone a grounding as to the characters. A major element of David's persona is that his eyesight goes blurry whenever he's asked to read something in public. Perhaps in the novel this is important, but in the film version it seems so much filler.

David Copperfield's big claim to fame is its color-blind casting, and I'm of two minds of it. To its credit you do forget that David is an Indian or that the very white Steerforth's mother is black (Nikki Amuka-Bird). It's an interesting experiment that doesn't work completely: I did wonder why not cast an Far East Asian actress to play Agnes, the daughter to Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) versus casting a black actress (Rosalind Eliazar) for the role. 

It's a simultaneously good and bad step: good in that allows a wider variety of actors to play roles, bad in that the casting at times seems haphazard with no real rhyme or reason other than to have a diverse casting. It also doesn't help that because everything is so rushed we can't appreciate the skills of much of the minority actors save for Wong, who was quite delightful as our inebriated Wickfield. Amuka-Bird appears at most in three scenes, and she appeared so overtly broad in the snobbish "comedy" that it gave the viewer no insight into her skills.

As a side note, I am puzzled as to why when we, I think correctly, celebrate color-blind casting in film we are simultaneously told that there can be no color-blind casting in animation. Perhaps wiser people can explain why only black actors can voice black cartoon characters at the same time black actors can play non-black live-action characters (as I figure Dickens did not picture Agnes Wickfield as black). 

Patel was pleasant enough as the wide-eyed David, though he ended up being a bit boring to where one wonders why anyone would care about his life story. Capaldi, Laurie and Swinton were standouts in their varied whacked-out characters even if at times they were a bit broad for my tastes. Whishaw was somewhat comically creepy as Uriah Heep (and yes, the band was the first thing that came to mind) but I wasn't overwhelmed by him, again most likely due to the rushed nature of the film. I was never sure if I should take him seriously or not as the villain, especially as he became the villain quickly versus gradually.

The Personal History of David Copperfield certainly thinks it's clever as it speeds through its story, but despite never having read the novel I imagine the book is much deeper and richer than this adaptation. The film is too fast to be a good adaptation, rushing through things and at times almost forgetting where it is. It is also too broad and self-aware for my tastes...but the costumes were nice.   

DECISION: D- 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pretty Maids All In A Row: A Review (Review #1420)


PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW

I figure that Pretty Maids All in a Row was meant as either a sex farce or a murder mystery. Maybe the people behind it thought they could blend the two into something witty, risque and silly. Sadly, they failed by a long shot.

Ocean Front High School is in the middle of various crises. There's randy guidance counselor/football coach Mike "Tiger" McGrew (Rock Hudson) who is schtupping every pretty maid he can lay his hands on. Then there's the murder of pretty little cheerleader Jill, whose body is found in the boy's room by Ponce (John David Carson). Carson not only has the unfortunate luck of finding Jill's body, but he is going through severe sexual tension, the parade of pretty young things that cause his uncontrollable erections.

McGrew takes Ponce under his wing and arranges for sexy substitute Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson) to help Ponce overcome his sexual issues. The body count keeps going up, frustrating Captain Surcher (Telly Savalas). He knows what we already know: Tiger is the serial killer, but he just can't prove it. Ponce can, but will he live to boink Miss Smith again?

Pretty Maids All in a Row is the only film Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wrote specifically for the screen, and whether many a Trekker/Trekkie can relate to Ponce is something I will leave up to individuals. I do wonder whether Roddenberry in adapting Francis Pollini's novel failed to get whatever he saw in it. Granted, I have never even heard of the novel but Pretty Maids All in a Row is incapable of balancing the sex farce and murder mystery stories.

The imbalance is due because Roddenberry's script and Roger Vadim's directing shift wildly from one to the other. You have the sexual hijinks of Miss Smith and then what is supposed to be a series of shocking murders. Some of the actors attempt to play up the farce aspect: Roddy McDowell (!) as the addled Principal, Keenan Wynn as the idiot Police Chief.

Others, however, appear to think they are in a serious drama: Savalas plays things thoroughly straight. This makes Pretty Maids All in a Row muddled and confused, not to mention nowhere near as funny or witty as it thinks it is. 

Dickinson I think did her best but sometimes it is far too obvious that she is playing up the comic temptress far too much. No one could knock her knockers on a boy's face without noticing, but she does it at least twice. You can't utter the line "You don't think I'm going to eat you?" to a kid she knows has erection issues without seeing the double entendre.

Rock Hudson, middle aged spread and all, is rather creepy when he's bedding teenage girls, the porn mustache adding an extra layer of oddity to the proceedings. He plays it as though he knows all this is garbage or he somehow lost his way after Doris Day. 

Curiously, at the end when he is found out as the killer by Ponce we see that he can be surprisingly menacing, and it's a shame that Pretty Maids All in a Row tried to play a lot of this for laughs when a more straightforward murder mystery might have allowed Hudson a greater performance.

Carson, I thought, was effective as the bumbling virgin and about the only person who seemed to get that murder is a serious business. It wasn't a great performance but on the whole serviceable.

Perhaps the oddest curiosity in Pretty Maids All in a Row is that the theme Chilly Winds is sung by of all people The Osmonds. It's a strange blending: the squeaky-clean Mormons singing to a tale of wanton sex and murder. 

Pretty Maids All in a Row is tawdry and tacky, like a B-level porn film where all the sex is taken out, something that might have popped up on USA Up All Night. It's not funny when it thinks it is, it's not interesting when it thinks it is. It's just there.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The New Mutants: A Review (Review #1419)

THE NEW MUTANTS

I don't think I would have imagined that a film that had been held back for three years would be the film to almost essentially reopen cinemas after the COVID-19 pandemic/panic. However, if 2020 has shown us anything, it is that this year things are completely bonkers. The New Mutants is not a good movie, but tales of it being a horror or a disaster are grossly exaggerated. 

After her reservation is wiped out, Native American teen Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finds herself in a hospital that specializes in mutants, people with specialized physical powers. Under the watchful but benevolent eyes of Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), Danni slowly starts accepting her situation. There are four other teens in the hospital: an enemy in the Russian Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy) but a friend in Irish Catholic Rahne (Maisie Williams). There's also Kentucky hick Sam (Charlie Heaton) and hot Brazilian Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga).

As we keep flashing back to their pasts, we find that there is an evil force chasing after each of them. We also see that things may not be what they appear to be, that perhaps these new mutants are not being prepared for a future as X-Men, but instead part of a secret sinister corporation bent on using them for their own nefarious plans. Danielle herself may be unwittingly the source of the danger, putting her in danger herself. The kids now join forces against their enemies to save themselves and find their true purpose.

The New Mutants is almost delightfully misguided because it does not play as a feature film. Instead, it plays like the opening to the planned/hoped-for trilogy the film was meant to create. We get not a real story but introduction to the characters who are thrown into a situation close to a surprisingly short running time.

With perhaps one exception these are not characters but types. Roberto's main characteristic is his hotness (literal and figurative). Sam's main characteristic is his hick accent. Apart from that we kind of forget to give them personalities or anything close to interesting roles.

It may be a positive that The New Mutants sidelines the men to focus slightly more on the women, but even then the actresses are given so little to work with apart from one-note characters (Rahne: guilt-ridden, Illyana: angry, Danielle: frightened, Dr. Reyes: stern) that they become dull. 

A lot of The New Mutants is surprisingly cheap-looking, probably because the film is dominated by grays and the very small cast. The climatic battle is not great but serviceable, nothing exceptional but nothing horrible. I can see the actors really doing their best but sometimes it felt as if they did fend for themselves.

In a lot of ways, The New Mutants felt like The Breakfast Club blended with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and threw in a superhero veneer on it. There's really little here: a little teen drama, a little superhero world building, hints and bits of things to come that will never come.

Out of the cast Maisie Williams is the best, her conflicted emotions of guilt about her powers colliding with deep Catholic faith a well-acted role. It's curious that while Rahne feels guilty about causing a death, her lesbianism mixing with her Catholicism does not, or at least appears to. The Rahne-Danielle romance seems a trifle tentative but it gives Williams and Blu their best moments.

Apart from that though I think the actors did their best with what they had. The men fared worse: Heaton's Southern accent a bit comical and Zaga all but disappearing for long stretches, with his only real sequence being an obligatory shirtless scene. Braga I think tried to be serious but she all but signals "I'M DANGEROUS!".

I am mercifully too unaware of these characters to offer views on the controversies over Roberto being "whitewashed" (I understand in the comics he's Afro-Brazilian vs the lighter-skin but still Brazilian Zaga), Danielle also being "lighter" in skin tone or the Rahne-Danielle romance not being more prominent. All this I figure would bother those who know the characters, but those of us unaware would not give it any thought.

The New Mutants feels more like a television pilot than a film, let alone the opening of a new franchise. The actors really tried their best but director/co-writer Josh Boone (writing with Knate Lee) did not give them or the audience much to work with. Whether people want to risk going to theaters in-person to see The New Mutants is up to individuals. I took the risk and hope to be with you in two weeks time. 

It's worth a rental if there is nothing else to see, but don't expect much. 

DECISION: C- 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Breaking Fast: A Review (Review #1418)

BREAKING FAST

Breaking Fast is a little film that takes a lot of the conventions of a romantic comedy, puts them through unorthodox routes but still comes across as what it is: a sweet little tale of love.

Devout gay Muslim doctor Mohammed or Mo (Haaz Sleiman) has lost his closeted fellow Muslim boyfriend a year ago, and while he is now openly gay he is unwilling to find romance. His family has gone away for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month where observant Muslims who are physically able abstain from all pleasures of the flesh (food, sex) until sunset. Once night comes, Mo can break fast in the Iftar dinner.

Mo quietly accepts he will have to observe Iftar alone, until his flamboyant best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal) cajoles him to his birthday party, which falls on the first day of Ramadan. There, Mo meets Kal (Michael Cassidy), an up and coming actor. They are attracted to each other but Mo won't give in to the temptations. He does, however, agree to break fast with the Arabic-speaking Kal, bonding over their shared love of Superman.

As the romance blossoms, both Mo and Kal face their individual family issues as the holy month and their shared dinners go on. Their separate issues and individual situations sometimes land them in curious situations: Mo's carnal struggles at one point cause him major embarrassment when he accidentally drops his towel while hugging Kal, the potential for impure thoughts or deeds frightening him as he holds the object of desire while nude. However, their private issues also threaten to end their relationship; on the last night of Ramadan, with Mo's family back, Kal and Mo finally break their own romantic fast.

The curious thing about Breaking Fast is that the film does not make any of the unique issues the characters live with into anything extraordinary. Neither Mo's homosexuality or Islamic faith are treated as quirks or more importantly as contradictions. Breaking Fast could have made this into a serious to dour drama, but writer/director Mike Mosallam made a wise decision to make this into a straight romance (no pun intended).   

With one exception all the characters are treated as human, complex figures who are fully formed. To Mo, his sexuality does not exclude his deep faith or vice versa. If I understand it, Mo may still be a virgin, his faith so strong that he would save himself for marriage (albeit marriage to a man, which to him is perfectly natural). Kal is not treated as the atheist/agnostic figure who threatens to disrupt Mo's belief system but as a decent but secretly troubled who finds himself falling in love, openly flirtatious but respectful of Mo's beliefs.

The script does the actors and situations right, with Mosallam's direction resisting the temptation to make what in other films be big or overt moments into simple ones. After Mo does a spit take that causes him to wet himself again, he remarks, "I can't seem to stay dry around you". In other films, this would be built up to some big double entendre, but the only thing you see is Kal raise his eyebrows and respond somewhat flirtatiously "Really?", but then quickly move on, the comment not in an over-the-top wink-wink manner. Instead, it's subtle enough to be noticed but not dwelt on.

The performances are all top-notch. Sleiman makes Mo into an endearing figure: slightly awkward and bumbling, hesitant but also one who has a set of principles he lives by and works to adhere to. He can play it serious, such as when he attempts to comfort Kal when learning of his own issues. However, Sleiman is adept at playing almost innocent, like when he gives a standing ovation to Superman and is the only one to do so.

Cassidy too does great as Kal (which we quickly find is short for Kal-El). Cassidy makes Kal into a generally casual, happy-go-lucky figure but he too can play things dramatic.

El Gamal is probably the weak link, though I would argue through no fault of his own. He is the stereotypical flamboyant best friend, and to be honest Sam annoyed me in his manner. He didn't strike me as real but as cartoonish. Granted, perhaps that is how Sam was meant to be, but every time he came out he aggravated me (again, no pun intended). His character is meant, I think, to be the counterpoint to Mo's upbeat view of Islam, never wanting to deal with or accept that many Muslims or Muslim families would not be welcoming about gays as his mosque and family were. The conflict comes from what Kal calls Mo's "bright-siding", refusing to accept things are not always pleasant. 

As Sam is so outlandishly flamboyant, his dramatic turn late in the film doesn't quite hold true

It's good to see a more complex and complete view of gay men, Muslims, and gay Muslim men, one that treats each as unique with their own acceptances of their apparent contradictions. 

Despite the homosexual angle, in certain ways Breaking Fast is quite conservative in its romance: there is no kissing until the end and apart from that comic towel-dropping scene no suggestion of any erotic moments. 


Breaking Fast works as a sweet little romantic comedy and genuine romance. The issues of being true to oneself, the burden of family and forgiveness internal and external make this a very unique picture. We go beyond stereotypes (save for Sam and his boy toy Jack), and see individuals with all their flaws and virtues. Some things are a bit unclear (is Mohammed actually a virgin? did Kal fall off the wagon?) and Mo's karaoke accompaniment by a gospel choir a bit too unrealistic but that's being picky.

On the whole, Breaking Fast is a nice little love story where a gay Muslim man can be himself free of prejudices internal and external. 

DECISION: B+

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Review



THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Charlton Heston.

Who would have imagined that the struggle between a temperamental artist and a tyrannical art patron over a commission would make for cinematic drama? Then again in The Agony and The Ecstasy, the artist is Michelangelo, the art patron is Pope Julius II and the commission is the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While The Agony and the Ecstasy suffers from a certain dryness, it makes for acceptable entertainment.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charlton Heston) keeps working on sculptures for the tomb of the very much alive warrior Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). Michelangelo has an enemy in the Pope's architect Bramante (Harry Andrews) but a friend and champion in Cardinal Giovanni de Medici (Adolfo Celi). He also has the affection of the Cardinal's sister Antonia (Diane Cilento), who still carries a candle for our conflicted artist.

His Holiness continues his military campaigns but still has time to torment our tortured artist with a painting commission despite Michelangelo's objections that he is not a painter. He wants frescoes of the Apostles in the Sistine Chapel, but the project does not interest Michelangelo. His Holiness, however, will not be denied. Despite his best efforts Michelangelo finds the project a disaster set to ruin his reputation and he flees. It is only upon seeing nature that he finds inspiration to create the Book of Genesis upon the ceiling.

The project goes on and on, with Julius forever asking "When will it be done with?" and Michelangelo replying "When I am finished". Despite wars internal and external for both men, their pas de deux goes on until it reaches fruition with one of the greatest artworks in human history.


There is a drama buried within director Carol Reed's adaptation of Irving Stone's historical novel. It's unfortunate that somewhere along the line The Agony and The Ecstasy became almost an art history lesson versus a vivid drama. The film opens with a twelve minute overview of Michelangelo's artistic output for suitable for a documentary than a feature film. The ponderous narration that guides us through Michelangelo's works does not help.

It should be noted the film is two hours and nineteen minutes long, so by the time we get to the opening credits we've been either treated or tortured with a lengthy essay on Michelangelo's genius.

As a side note, the 1989 documentary Michelangelo: Self-Portrait did a much better job in covering both his life and artwork and worth seeking out.

There are certain elements that lift The Agony and The Ecstasy. At the top of the list is Rex Harrison, who was a master at being imperious without being dislikable. Despite being a tyrant, bossy and a literal holy terror you get through Harrison's performance a respect for Julius, a man who always seems to have a hidden motive for what he does, hidden even to himself.


Heston has an ability to portray men of history, and The Agony and The Ecstasy gives him a chance to once again play a titan of another era. I think this is a good, strong performance: the artistic temperament bursting out against Julius' tyranny.

Though her role is small, I think Cilentro is the best in the film as The Countess de Medici, the woman to coax Michelangelo out of his funk and foolishness. Shrewd and loving, Cilentro dominates when she is on the screen. 

As for Michelangelo's love life, while it is made clear in the film that Michelangelo and the Countess have something of a romance, you can see perhaps a sly suggestion of Michelangelo's potential homosexuality peering out. At one point, Michelangelo points out that he does not have a passion for women. As the Countess stares at a sketch of a male figure, Michelangelo says "It's not that either," but whether he was referring to his art or the subject is left to the imagination. If we believe Philip Dunne's screenplay, one would describe Michelangelo as asexual. 

The film also has the benefit of Alex North's Oscar-nominated score and the excellent recreation of the Sistine Chapel which was also Oscar-nominated. The visuals in The Agony and The Ecstasy will I think hold viewers attention more than the lumbering pace.

The Agony and The Ecstasy, if remade, could be about the struggle between artist and patron, between he who pays for a work and he who makes it, the conflict between the artistic vision and the desires of the owner. As it stands, while it is a bit slow and slightly pompous (the opening art lesson, the intermission, the stiffness of it all), The Agony and The Ecstasy does have qualities of good performances from Harrison, Heston and Cilentro and excellent recreations of one of humanity's greatest artistic achievements.

At least the Sistine Chapel was one of humanity's greatest cinematic achievements until the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along, and we all know Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is vastly superior to whatever rubbish the Renaissance spun out.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Sandpiper: A Review

THE SANDPIPER

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Eva Marie Saint.

If The Sandpiper is remembered at all, it is due to two reasons: it is the third film teaming of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and its love theme, the Oscar-winning The Shadow of Your Smile. Apart from that The Sandpiper is not particularly good but it is mildly entertaining.

Free spirited bohemian artist Lisa Reynolds (Taylor) is forced to place her illegitimate son Danny (Morgan Mason) in an Episcopalian boarding school near her Big Sur home. The school's director Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) is stern but not unkind. Despite Lisa's overwrought fears Danny does adjust well, thanks to both Dr. and Mrs. Claire Hewitt (Eva Marie Saint).

Dr. Hewitt is quickly drawn to the outspoken atheist Reynolds and soon a passionate affair begins, with each questioning their worldviews (his on his myriad of sins, hers on marriage and the possibility of true love). However, eventually the affair is found out by the community. Hewitt finds he has been compromising so long financially (such as letting poor students slide if their parents kept checks rolling in) that despite his wife's forgiveness for his liaison he knows he cannot stay. 

Lisa for her part sees that Danny is free himself to make his own choices, and he chooses to stay at the school. The lovers make a quiet farewell, each remembering "the shadow of your smile".

The Sandpiper, for better or worse, lays the symbolism of the actual sandpiper far too thick to where it almost slips into farce. Early in the film, Lisa finds an injured sandpiper and nurses it back to health. In keeping with her free spirited worldview, she tells the somewhat dour Episcopalian that he (the bird) has to be free to roam.

The subtext is anything but, and while one can roll with symbolism one thinks that The Sandpiper could have restrained itself just a touch.

In certain ways, The Sandpiper is almost a bit hilarious. The "bohemians" and "free spirits" that Lisa surrounds herself with now come across as either almost rather square or exaggerated figures. In any case, each of these avant-garde artistes look at least twenty years too old to be believable bohemians. 

Performance-wise, you don't watch The Sandpiper for them. Burton and Taylor are not "acting". They are "being", but that is not a compliment or insult. Taylor seems almost determined to be hysterical in every sense of the word, coming across as less an earthy, passionate woman and more an annoying scold. Burton has only his baritone to act with (and as a side note, I don't know why this was such an existentialist crisis as I find that Episcopalians are essentially churchgoing atheists, but there it is).

Still, it is always a treat to see them together. They have a quiet magnetism together, making it hard to look away from this most glamorous and conflicted pair.


Eva Marie Saint does not have a big enough role as the wronged wife, but she is effective, particularly with Mason in their scene together. A surprising turn in that of Charles Bronson as Cos, the overtly antagonistic sculptor who needles Hewitt to the point where even Lisa says he's out of line. It's nice to see Bronson do something unexpected even if it is a bit curious.

If anything really lifts The Sandpiper, it is two elements. First is the beautiful location, as the film showcases Big Sur, California in beautiful scenery. Second, it is Johnny Mandel's jazz-tinted score, including the closing theme The Shadow of Your Smile. Mandel and lyricist Paul Francis Webster would go on to win Best Original Song for The Shadow of Your Smile, which plays in an instrumental version throughout The Sandpiper

The scenery and music are both quite beautiful, and The Shadow of Your Smile is certainly worthy of its win. Apart from that though The Sandpiper is not a particularly great movie but it is something to watch on a quiet Sunday afternoon for the pairing of one of the great screen duos in the most lush of surroundings. The Sandpiper does not ask much from Burton and Taylor other than to be Burton and Taylor, but that is enough in this case. 

DECISION: C+

Next Burton and Taylor Film: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Friday, August 28, 2020

Now, Voyager: A Review (Review #1415)

Now, Voyager (1942) | The Criterion Collection

NOW, VOYAGER

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Paul Henreid.

Few films have the reputation for unabashed romance as Now, Voyager, and fewer films have more than rightly earned that reputation. With beautiful performances and a brilliant score, Now, Voyager is the weepiest but also among the most beautifully romantic of tales.

Plain spinster Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), psychologically tormented by her bitch of a mother (Gladys Cooper), is very reluctantly sent off to the Cascades sanitarium where under the caring and watchful eye of psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) she gains some confidence in herself and a sense of herself as a woman, one that may be worthy of love.

Travelling as "Miss Beauchamp", she meets the handsome and suave Jerry Durrence (Paul Henreid). He is an unhappy marriage but while he falls in love with her, he remains faithful. As they spend time in Rio, she too falls in love. When she returns to her Boston home, Charlotte's transformation astonishes all, but still her mother pushes her to be that frumpy old woman she was before her treatment. 

Charlotte, however, manages to stand up for herself, knowing she has worth. The push and pull of the mother-daughter relationship continues until Mrs. Vale's death; with Charlotte a wealthy woman, she goes to Cascades ostensibly for a rest but soon bonds with a young girl, Christine (Janis Wilson), who turns out is "Tina", Jerry's daughter. Charlotte, breaking off her engagement, knows that her heart belongs to Jerry. As they meet in her home, they come to an understanding: metaphorically sharing Tina. Asked if Charlotte will be happy, she tells Jerry, "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the Moon. We have the stars".
I admit that I got swept up in Now, Voyager's sweeping romance where I got a lot teary-eyed. On a certain level, the adaption of Olive Higgins Prouty's novel should not work: it seems rather oddball to believe Charlotte could go from old maid to elegant woman in the course of three months. However, the film is open about its intentions as a sweeping romance, so a little suspension of disbelief is not unexpected.

What makes Now, Voyager truly successful is twofold: the performances and the score. Bette Davis is a standout as she essentially has to play two roles: pre-and-post Cascades Charlotte. In the beginning, we see the tormented and much-abused "unwanted daughter", one who is beaten down and beaten up by her family save Lisa (Ilka Chase), the sister-in-law who is the only person who treats her with genuine love and affection.

In small bits, such as when she has a slight smirk in thinking how joining "tourists" would so displease her mother, we see Davis make Charlotte into someone coming into her own. When she looks longingly at Jerry's train as it leaves the station, we see someone finding "the woman within". You ache when she tearfully declares her astonishment and joy at being called "Darling" by anyone. Davis makes Charlotte a woman in full, and you cheer her growth.

Henreid has the suave and elegant leading man down pat, and he also gives Jerry a sense of dignity, even sacrifice. Now, Voyager makes clear that Jerry and Charlotte are in love with each other, but they never do more than kiss (at least on-screen). Jerry is at heart a good man, who loves his family but who finds in Charlotte true passion, even if he will not act on it. I can understand why any woman would melt at him offering her one of the two cigarettes he simultaneously lights.

Cooper elicits hatred for her vicious mother, which makes it an exceptional performance. In her almost deliberate cruelty you despise her, and to elicit that strong of an emotion in the audience is a mark of a strong actress. Rains, albeit in a smaller role, is gentle but firm as Dr. Jaquith, a wise man who knows how to push without being pushy.

In any examination of Now, Voyager, major credit has to be given to Max Steiner's Oscar-winning score. It's lush and beautiful, sweeping yet gentle in its musical portrait of true love internal and external. The music so moves the viewer that it really does underscore the Jerry and Charlotte romance, one where just by a glance we can see two people deeply in love but who also retain a proper distance.

Now, Voyager is a beautiful love story where the viewer can get swept up in it. It may be saccharine but it works, and I can't fault a film for moving me emotionally as it aimed to.

I don't approve of smoking, but when it comes to Now, Voyager, I make an exception.