It’s been a mixed bag this week. One perfect film. One good film. And one perfectly dreadful play.
The perfect film is the Coen Brothers’ latest: Inside Llewyn Davis, and unless you’ve been in hibernation for the season, you’ve had to have seen the critics’ rave reviews of this beautiful film.
The film is especially nostalgic if you can remember that wonderful time of folk songs played in coffee houses….and the melancholy voices that sang them. And it’s the Coen Brothers’ special emotional genius to focus on the music: each song is sung in full, and the action stops to give it room.
The hero with attitude, Llewyn Davis, is a lost wanderer living from gig to gig, scrounging bits of money, a meal, or an empty couch from anyone who will provide them, and then biting the hand that feeds him. His insulated world, Greenwich Village in mid-century, is filled with the quirky characters that habitually populate the Coen films, and Davis drifts among them, a sad and moody loner. But as played by brilliant newcomer Oscar Isaac, you can’t help loving him and wishing he would get a life.
The “good” film is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Released just before Nelson Mandela’s death, it is slightly hampered by its timing, since every aspect of Mandela’s life was concurrently being reviewed 24/7 on television.
The film, however, presents him as an extraordinary human being: first as a warts-and-all warrior and womanizer, and then, after 27 years in prison, as a virtual saint. Idris Elba plays him with dignity, gravitas, and humor. And the woman who plays his wife Winnie, Naomie Harris, is not only a fine actress, but as beautiful as Halle Berry.
I lived in Johannesburg for five years, beginning just after the massacre at Sharpeville, at a time when any white who had a place to go was fleeing South Africa. But in a year or two most of them came back. As Mandela said, “If they kill us, who will take care of their children? Who will wash their clothes?”
In retrospect, it’s amazing to remember how relatively oblivious we were to the political confrontations of the day. South Africa did not have television—it was not allowed into the country until 1976—and so the struggle, as it was reported sporadically, always felt like it was “somewhere else.”
The “perfectly dreadful” play is The Steward of Christendom, which opened this past Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.
Brian Dennehy, considered one of the finest stage actors of his generation (he’s won two Tony Awards), plays Thomas Dunne, a
real historical character who served as Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923.
In this play, written by Dunne’s great-grandson, Sebastian Barry, the old man is retired and locked away in a mental asylum, reliving delusively the events of his life.
It apparently was an interesting life, according to the notes in the Playbill, but you certainly wouldn’t learn that from Dennehy’s performance. His delivery was so mushy and his acting so histrionic that I didn’t understand a word he said, and I left at intermission.
So did much of the rest of the audience, but I was told by a friend who stayed that it picked up a bit in the second act. After the first act, which dragged on for an hour and a half, however, I was finished. So this commentary is definitely not a review; it’s just the report of my experience and you’re not obliged to take my word for it. After all, you might like it!
Photo: Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis