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Hail, Caesar – he is Risen

This week I saw two new films, each featuring a Fiennes brother, about a Roman tribune (senior soldier) who encounters Jesus at the end of his life.

I bet I’m one of few to have seen both, because Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes, hardly got any theatrical release. In my city, only one cinema had it, for one week, only twice a day at awkward times, pulling it before the Easter weekend it is all about. Thus its low audience numbers were self fulfilled. And it’s gone before, like the disciples at the tomb, I could go and tell anyone else to come and see it.

I am also one of the few drawing a comparison between these films, because the subtitle of the film within film, Hail Caesar, is not mentioned in any cinema brochure I’ve read. Along with other inaccuracies, it is called “a sword and sandal” epic. But there’s no sword fights and no George Clooney is not Caesar – he encounters a more paradoxical alien leader. There’s a scene where the religious leaders whom the studio is trying to placate discuss the nature of the incarnation (interesting for Jewish film makers), a beautiful closing speech at the foot of the cross (for which scene the crucified actors received “hardship pay”) and confusingly, a section featuring Saul of Tarsus with a title card “Divine Intervention to Be Inserted”.

Risen also consulted with Christians to avoid upsets, and likewise, found them happy – though I was not at the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. This is not in the Bible and even Catholics – who pretended she was – have officially un-tarted her now. Hasn’t the writers heard of even the Di Vinci Code and who Mary is believed to be by many? She’s Jesus’ no 2, covered up by Peter ‘I want the Keys just for Me’ and friends.

Both films had powerful and profound moments, but the tones were very different. Hail Caesar was often funny, though most of my laughs were at the points described above; the studio debacles often did little for me. I am not a proponent of the multiple storyline and so I wished we spent more time with Rome and Jerusalem, and less (or none) in aquariums, deserts, drawing rooms and bars filled with sailors who sang about the lack of dames at sea, by by their antics (some dance moves were suggestive of a number just before 70) they were not sorry. Not all the characters really fitted together, and I found were by some rather conspicuous sewing.

Risen had no humour and was for the first part often brutal, opening as a high budget and adrenaline thriller, just incase you thought this was for church halls. I think it is a film for church halls, though not for families or sensitive people of any age. The usually doe eyed, gentle and sensitive Joseph Fiennes is harsh, interrogative and even murderous as Tribune Clavius. I found it hard to watch him being so unjust and bullying. He is one of a few well known actors in the film, such as Peter Firth from Spooks as Pilate, who pushes Clavius to find Jesus’ missing body because Pilate fears the next tier of the chain – his emperor.

The brutality in the Coen’s film – some of which was verbal threat – was from film studio producer Eddie Mannix, fixer of any legal and publicity embarrassments. I hated Eddie (Josh Brolin) for hitting Baird (that’s Clooney) and silencing his communist sympathies. Eddie becomes the tribune, the old kind of God – telling people what to do, what to think, and what they can know; judging by narrow standards, being non-negotiable and using perceived virtue to guide those in his care; and of course, money.

Both tribunes alter at the experience of Jesus, yet Joseph’s conversion feels more like a Christian Union mission film. I am trying to work out why. Did I feel the disciples too spacey and squeaky good? Was I angry that they never fought back? Was it the snippets of their sermons on the beach? But wouldn’t frightened, crushed followers feel exonerated and empowered and impervious to threat if they thought their leader was truly alive again?

The Coen brothers leave us, as so many Jesus films and plays, with him on the cross – yet for George’s tribune, even then, it is enough to change him. The makers of Risen (and Waterworld) let us see Jesus to the end of his earthly life (I was going to say, off the premises), but the ascension is more of a disappearance into the sunset – ET had a more memorable and convincing take off. They obviously didn’t have the budget to show us what the guards at the tomb saw either – shame as modern film is wonderful for bringing such stories to us visually.

The Coen’s Jesus is a back of a rather strawberry blond head and a pair of feet on a maximum comfort cross. Risen features Cliff Curtis – is this the first Maori Christ? – whose face has have the expected unnerving quality, but his less conventional Messiah looks and Tears For Fears hairstyle also slightly beguile and unsettle. However, he behaved like we like to think of Jesus – in the imaginary last miracle where he truly saw and loved the person he healed.

What was hardest for me was reconciling the kind of Jesus we want to believe in – like this – to the one who actually appears to be in the gospel. I’ve been at a study group where we heard that one writer thinks that Jesus snorts in fury at his healees; a Jesus whose first line in John’s gospel is a snap at would-be followers; a Jesus who is incredibly rude to that Gentile lady seeking healing for her son… Commentators let him off by saying, he must have meant…ah, but really he knew…   Is this disciples and early church fathers scribbling in, or…? I’ve written an article on this before. I nearly entitled it “Going off Jesus.” It doesn’t affect my relationship with God, but this is the central person who makes Christians distinct. So where does that take me…?

It’s a search I continue. Meanwhile, I found these films as worthwhile as any church service and yet not exclusive of those not seeking a spiritual message this Easter.

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Kate Winslet 1 – repeating the same depressing roles?

I was irritated to read two rather ignorant posts about the woman that is probably my favourite actress, who has most epitomised for me that people we don’t know can be part of our lives. I was amused to read that Kate said she has a fantasy friendship with Scarlett Johansson – so famous people have these too! Kate Winslet is the only actor whose whole filmography I know and whose every film I have seen (even the obscure second offering A Kid In King Arthur’s Court, with Russian dubbing!) – many at the cinema within days of opening. I own and have watched most many times, as well as related novels and scripts.

The blogger who wrote “Is Kate Winslet overrated?” didn’t know all her films; he missed out several which would have undone his rather crudely put argument that she always plays a depressed housewife, in suburbia or another time. That’s a lazy description of the drama genre, and it puts the label ‘depressed’ as glibly as the NHS. About her latest role in Labor Day, Kate says she does not see Adele as agoraphobic, as viewers have been quick to call her. I liked Kate for not putting her characters in boxes or diagnosing them.

The other irritating peice – by a Guardian writer I won’t flatter by naming – coincided with the 2004 release of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That the journalist saw Kate’s role of Clem as someone ‘insecure enough to still dye their hair weird colours at 30’ was telltale of the writer’s general outlook. She made sweeping remarks not only about Kate’s roles but Ms Winslet’s life and career, without back up. I don’t wish to propound those remarks by quoting them, but just to add that when one reads an interview, we’re interested in the interviewee, not the interviewer, and in having that celebrity brought out by the journalist, not imposing their own views as a way of regaining their self importance and visibility. I don’t think either she nor the blogger above has really engaged with Kate’s films and their articles show a less than masterful grasp on life issues.

Now having set myself up for similar scrutiny, I’d like to deal with the issue of the blog post: the suggestion that Kate’s playing a similar person over and over. It recalls a magazine article which make me smile some years ago which said that Kate always goes mad or dies in all her films. Is it true?

PLOT SPOILERS AHOY… and I’ve got a 20 year career to comment on, so be prepared to scroll!

Heavenly Creatures: Insanity was rejected by the jury and I’d say it was unfair to diagnose Juliet or Pauline as mentally ill, but she does cause death and does somewhat unravel. And although Juliet lives, she was forever parted from her friend. Parting from lovers is another theme to watch in Kate’s films

A Kid in King Arthur’s Court: She’s disappointingly well and sane as Princess Sarah though she does suffer a bit of menace from a forceful suitor (though it’s more her sister who’s in danger of death than her)

Sense and Sensibility: Broken heart precipitates a few days in bed and near death, but Marianne does get over ‘blaggard’ Willoughby and find love with the Colonel. So yes – but with a happy ending

Hamlet: Most definitely fits the goes mad and dies thesis – full house as Ophelia

Jude: Sue unravels after her kids hang themselves “because we was too many” and parts from her cousin non husband: Yes

Titanic: Death is near and her lover dies before her, but Rose is set free by that brief romance and avoids the breakdown which nearly led her to suicide. So although near death and emotional disturbance is there, Rose leaves us aged 102 having had a long fulfilled life that the Titanic’s tragedy made possible

Hideous Kinky: No death here; and without some kind of melt down, there’s no plot or character journey. Only the mindset of the above journalist would see Julia’s decision to lurk round Morocco in search of adventure and enlightenment (both of which she gets) as anything akin to madness. And despite the randomness of the film, Julia does happily complete her story arc – and again, an absent lover (by his choice) sets her free to go on

Holy Smoke: Although her family and friend Prue sees Ruth’s spiritual conversion as madness, Ruth is full of something that they don’t understand. And though her she is broken down in the desert, she also does breakage of her own. But it’s a journey that ends well, again with the absent lover, but this time, it’s a mutual release. And no death.

Quills: She may work in a mad house, her beloved may descend into madness, and the Marquis might commit suicide, but Madeleine’s the most grounded character at Charenton. She’s funny, carnal, naughty, sneaky and strong, and survives an attempted rape and whipping. But yes, she does get killed and it sets no-one free – quite the reverse.

Enigma in no way fits this; Hester, despite knowing some fatally dangerous secrets, stays afloat and astute.

Iris: As with old Rose in Titanic, Kate only dies in that her older actress counterpart reaches the end of their long life. Iris’ Alzheimer’s is not part of Kate’s role and nor is there madness or death in her younger years.

The Life of David Gale: The titular death row campaigner dies, and Bitsey, Kate’s journalist, is affected by this, but I wouldn’t call this a mad and dying movie. But David Gale’s death does achieve something – for Bitsey and on a political scale.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: You might call wanting to erase your painful past madness – but the whole point is that you can’t and shouldn’t. There’s no death or threat and no parting for Clem and Joel: without being sunsetty about it, it’s a happy ending.

Finding Neverland: Yes, Ms Winslet (Sylvia) does quite beautifully leave the earthly world into a JM Barrie style heaven, but through physical illnesss, not madness

We’ll skip her Extras comic appearance as a nun (which doesn’t add to the thesis, though there’s the threat of death by Nazi soldiers).

All the King’s Men: A powerful death related ending, but it’s not to do with Kate’s character Anne, and nor’s there madness

Romance and Cigarettes: Tula has an underwear shop fight, but no death or lunacy here, although the tone of the piece is somewhat offbeat.

Little Children: The death and melt down isn’t about Kate’s character. Sarah is parted from her lover but she reconnects with her daughter and offers some compassion to Ronnie who is rescued by his worst tormenter.

The Holiday: A lighter, more upbeat film, where lovesick journalist Iris begins crumpling and ends stronger and with a nice new man

The Reader: Back to form – Hannah the tram conductor come SS prison guard takes her life after many years in prison

Four weeks later in Britain came:

Revolutionary Road: April unravels over being stuck in the titular suburb due to being pregnant, so she performs a fatal DIY miscarriage.

Mildred Pierce: Death comes to her youngest child, but another kind of death visits Mildred and much of her family. She gets her husband back with little ceremony, but loses her daughter and her business. It’s a cruel, cynical ending. Mildred might be called unbalanced for throttling her daughter whose monstrosity may be

Carnage: Nancy descends into frenzy in a row with another couple and with her own husband, throwing his forever bleeping phone into a vase, but no death

Contagion: Yup, pretty soon, Dr Erin’s in a body bag, having caught the lurgy epidemic she’s investigating, and the story is left for the rest of the ensemble cast to continue

Movie 43 is one we’ll skip as a minor silly part but not one adding to the thesis: suffice to say, with that and Extras, that Kate’s prepared for comedy and silliness, even laughing at herself, as she’s done on Comic Relief

Labor Day: A happy ending, a sort of reverse of what happens in The Reader. Some might say that being a literal stay at home mum means Adele has mental illness, and like Rose says of Jack in Titanic, she’s saved by the man that comes into her life in dramatic circumstances for a few days. There is no death, though you might argue that danger seems to lurk in the form of invite-yourself-guest Frank

Divergent: I suppose Jeanine does go off the wall as she’s trying to wipe out all who oppose her, and when she’s stabbed and thrown to the ground, you might presume her dead… but I know she’s signed on for another film in the trilogy

[Update – Insurgent does end with Kate’s character dying – could you call cold, deluded Janine mad?]

A Little Chaos – see upcoming piece

Steve Jobs Death is avoided and is like in Quills, Joanna is the person half running the delusional obsessive’s enterprise and the sanest person in the show

The Dressmaker Plenty of people die, including Tilly’s mum and lover. There’s general descent, but is Tilly mad, or pulling off her long planned revenge?

So, considering madness and death are two of not a large number of possibilities for characters, especially in drama, which Kate has preferred (but not done exclusively), I don’t think it’s fair to say all her endings are negative and that madness and death are unduly represented. If she’s done lots of one thing – eg period – she does two more modern films; if she’s been in mainly serious drama, she does a quirky musical and a rom com; and then she does a sci fi baddie, more of thriller, and some comedic roles to show she’s no one trick actor. But many actors (and people generally) find what works for them and realise that they’re at their best when doing it. I personally have preferred her dramatic roles.

As to here being always a housewife, we’ll come to her relationships to children and others in another post…

There’s going to be a spate of these about Kate

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