Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day 139: Favourite Actresses: Kristin Scott-Thomas

In the recent film, Nowhere Boy, Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Auntie Mimi, the surrogate mother of one of Liverpool’s favourite son - John Lennon - a parent and guardian to a gifted youth. Three years ago I saw her play Arkadina, mother to the equally troubled Konstantin (McKenzie Crook [Gareth from ‘The Office’]) in an astonishing production of Chekhov’s 'The Seagull', at the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square.

An incredible production for many reasons, not least of which was the quality of the cast: aside from Crook, it boasted Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually), Art Malik (The Living Daylights, True Lies) and Carey Mulligan (An Education, Pride and Prejudice). But it was Kristin Scott-Thomas, anything but a tall and physically dominant person - who filled that stage and theatre with her presence; it’s very hard to describe and transmit here, just how she dominated, yet not overwhelmed, that play and production. She went on to win an Olivier ward for Best Actress for this role in 2008.

I think Kristin Scott-Thomas first came to 'real' attention in the cinema, playing opposite Ralph Fiennes, in The English Patient, portraying the married woman who his character has an affair with (her character was married to Colin Firth’s in the film). Prior to this outing in 1996, she was the luckless-in-love Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral but that was before we knew who Kristin Scott-Thomas was, if you know what I mean.

I’ve never seen The Horse Whisperer but marvelled at her revelling in her Lady Anne in Ian Mckellen’s adapted-for-the-screen version of Richard III and then savoured her fabulously aristocratic and ambivalent Lady Sylvia McCordle in Gosford Park; it seems that in this role she perfected that arch and austere thing that she does, whilst smouldering at the same time. I’ve never met the woman in question and yet something tells me that maybe she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly, but then perhaps that’s me buying into the characters that she is often asked to play.

For some reason, I feel that Kristin Scott-Thomas is best off playing women that smoke; maybe it’s the French ‘thing‘ that she has about her. Whilst her birth, background and upbringing are all very upper end of middle-class England (her father was a Lt. Commander and pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, her uncle the Black Rod in the House of Lords, she was educated at a private ladies college), she went off and au-paired in Paris at the age of 19 after being told that she wasn’t good enough to cut it as an actress. Learning to speak fluent French, she studied theatre there and has gone on to enjoy and equally successful career in that country as well as the UK and US, as evidenced by her Oscar-nominated performance in I’ve Loved You So Long.

I’ve Loved You So Long tells the story of Juliette Fontaine (Scott-Thomas), released after serving fifteen years in prison, who comes to stay with her younger sister and her family. We know not what the crime is that she served her time for but can guess that it must be something trés serieuse, as you don’t get fifteen years for getting your Citroen clamped on the Champs Elysées. From a plot point of view, I felt let down by this film and thought that the the writer/director Phillippe Claudel ripped me off.

As the film moves further along, enough evidence is passed out for us to guess that Juliette must have killed her son; arguably the most reprehensible of crimes, an act that surely goes against the grain of natural instincts - a mother killing her own child? As I’m learning this, I now lean forward in my seat, because I love a redemption story and have trod this same plot ground myself, wanting to know if redemption is indeed available to all, even those who murder their offspring? This, to me, is story matter really worth exploring and really worth me giving of my time. emotion and energy; this is why I watch movies. If you haven’t seen I’ve Loved You So Long, I’m sorry but I’m about to spoil it for you here by giving away the fact that we learn, right at the end that Juliette’s murder of her son was, indeed, a mercy killing; an act which not only kind of let’s the character off the moral hook but then demands all sorts of empathy from us for the time that she has served in prison and the suffering and pain that she has endured for both the act and the punishement.

The deal that I believe the writer sold me was this: “invest of yourself in me and my script and I’ll show you a story about the redemption of those you might think possibly irredeemable.” The film would have been stronger, tougher, more emotionally rugged and Juliette's redemption harder won had the writer NOT given her the mitigating circumstances card to play for why she killed her son. You know what...I felt emotionally cheated and by the French, of all people? They don’t normally shy away from this sort of terrain. That said, it did nothing to diminish Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance, buy maybe missed the chance to give her an even more unbelievable springboard from which to peform from.

Day #139 Tip: Don’t pull back
This is such a bug bear of mine - scripts and screenwriters who provide their protagonist’s with a get-out-of-jail-free card, what I refer to as “the Gran Torino” syndrome.

Without detailing the plot of that weak film of Clint Eastwood’s - Dirty Harry on a pension - I will just give out this one pointer. In that film, the protagonist makes a premeditated decision to sacrifice his own life for the greater good, but HEY CLINT, here’s the newsflash, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless it costs you something. We and the protagonist know that his character's probably dying from the moment that he starts coughing up blood into the bathroom sink earlier on in the film (haven’t seen that one before??!!); laying down your life when you’re already dying is nowhere near the sacrifice made by laying down your life when you’re NOT dying. And guess what.....if that character wasn’t dying, I bet you all the whatevers in wherever that the character WOULDN”T have done what he did.

That’s cheap, sentimental, on-the-nose, melodramatic writing. But hey, when you’re writer, producer, director and actor, guess it might be difficult for others to tell you when maybe your script isn’t all that it could be?

So if you’re writing a film - like Phillipe Claudel - about a woman wh killed her child and how everyone has to come to terms with that, don’t give her “justifiable” grounds because that just weakens everything.

Euripides’s version of 'Medea', as a dramatic character has endured for over two thousand years, because when his, mythologised mother, takes the lives of her own two infant sons it’s an act of revenge against their father, a lover who spurned her; now that’s a mother of a character that I’m really interested in...aren’t you?

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