Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Venice Film Festival Diaries
Venice Diary - Day 7

by Daniele Heymann

It's Christmas week in England and a bunch of hams posing as a touring company play "Hamlet" in a hideous red-brick church where they also sleep because they can't afford a hotel. That's the beginning (and the end) of the possibly most modest (it's in black and white), but definitely liveliest, funniest, most delicious film the 52d Mostra has shown so far in competition. It is called "In the Bleak Midwinter"; it was written and directed, but--it's a first!--not performed, by Kenneth Branagh. It's "a romantic comedy" according to its subtitle, "a comic look at the actor's eternal despair", according to Branagh, who wonders why "American critics consider [him] a sort of thinking version of Kevin Costner." In "...Midwinter", Branagh has cast Joan Collins as a fumbling theatrical agent, charming, good-natured and completely lost, the antithesis of the social (and financial) Vampirella she played in "Dynasty". Her arrival at the Lido in a scrumptiously grand (read: anachronistic) style did not go unnoticed. She appeared in full "Joan Collins" regalia, perched on stiletto heels, squeezed into a shocking-pink-and-white suit by Versace, with makeup by Technicolor and a Barbie doll wig. She immediately asked for--and got--the addresses of the most interesting jewelers in town (just in case we want to go shopping, Joan?), then demanded--and obtained--two humongous karate-men to stand guard around the clock by her door at the Excelsior Hotel (just in case we do go shopping, Joan?)

"I made this small film to recover, as it were, from the travails of 'Frankenstein'", explained Branagh. "It's a little story I'd had in mind for five years, that I wanted to shoot in a Woody Allen-like atmosphere, 'en famille', with my family of actors: Richard Briers, Mark Hadfield, Michael Maloney, Julia Sawalha... We were shooting so fast that I thought the film needed a kind of shorthand which would allow us work very quickly. Like in "Peter's Friends", there is a sort of celebration of the fact that, in a tricky world, camaraderie or friendship is one of the few things that you can rely on or that makes anything worthwhile."

He also explained his choice of black-and-white: "I wanted to convey the feeling of what you might have encountered when you first saw a movie, and that seemed to require to be made in black and white. When you first saw people like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland on the television in your front room--people who were 35 playing 16--there was something about the black and white that legitimized it somehow, because it wasn't quite real."

Branagh then compared stage fright to its evil twin, "film fright", which, he says, he experienced on the production of Shakespeare's "Othello" that just wrapped nearby, in Bracciano (he plays Iago, of course, to Laurence Fishburne's Moor). "You feel it every time they said, 'Action!', and you find yourself alone, naked, in front of a camera that religiously records every single expression on your face, including the terror in your eyes." To "free" himself from his obsession with "Hamlet" and the Bard--"a magus, a poet, but also a man who knew about life; a philosopher, but also an entertainer"--Branagh is planning his own "Hamlet" which he will direct and play the lead in. "It's a very old dream," he said, "and I'd like it to be the sexiest, liveliest, most accessible screen Hamlet that ever was." And beside Laurence Olivier's in 1948, there were quite a few--no less than 13, according to statistics--of various nationalities: French (in 1910), Danish (in 1920), East-Indian (in 1954), Finnish (in 1987), Russian, German, Italian, and--the last to date--American. (Directed in 1990 by Franco Zeffirelli, it starred Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.)

Far less entertaining but powerful, "moral" and "hyper-colorful" (as one would say "hyper-realistic"), Spike Lee's new film, "Clockers", is defined by its director as "a murder mystery with a rap sound track. It's a true picture, realistic and upsetting, about life in the ghettoes of New York and the drug culture that, like an underground magma, pervades daily life in the 'projects', in the poorest districts in metropolitan America." (The film was scripted--for about two million dollars--by Richard Price, who also penned the novel it is based on; in ghetto-slang, a "clocker" is a small-time drug dealer who works around the clock.) The opening-title sequence is indeed a magma of black bodies covered with blood, the disfigured, distorted, mutilated corpses of black men, women and children that were brutally murdered. "Those are real photographs", Lee calmly explained, "of African-Americans killed by other African-Americans, because of drugs, and ordinary criminality. For the first time, the finger is not pointing at others; it's pointing at us."

The movie follows a handsome "negative" hero, played by stunning newcomer Mekhi Phifer. He may be a drug dealer, but he has a good heart and he's fond of electric trains. His brother is a decent, honest black man--he has two jobs, how's that for decency and honesty?--who takes the blame in his stead for a murder contracted by his boss. Fascinated by Strike (our anti-hero), a young boy will shoot the bad guy, but a nice white cop (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing) will pull him out of trouble, 'cause, you see, the kid's really a good kid. The white cop (Harvey Keitel) has the most absentee of assistants, although said assistant is very visibly listed in the credits as being played by John Turturro.

In Venice, Spike Lee appeared relaxed, his proverbial rage now smoothly cloaked in velvet, a change for which he credits his nine-month-old daughter. Having just finished editing "Girl 6", which stars John Turturro, Quentin Tarantino and Madonna playing the owner of a strip joint, Lee said he was surprised, every time he came to Europe, "to be asked questions as if I represented 33 million African-Americans--which I don't. I'm just a filmmaker, black, and I wish European journalists just tried to focus on my films and deal with my approach to filmmaking."

Previous Installment

Back to Venice Film Festival Diaries

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.