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Miles Ahead

Jennifer Harrison reviews Miles Ahead for Australian Book Review’s Arts Update

Beautiful film. How accurate? Don’t know, don’t care, just glad I saw it.

Source: Miles Ahead

“To make people feel dread, you have to put darkness in the frame.”


In the middle of The Empty Hearse, the first episode of season 3 of Sherlock, after a couple of trivial clients pass before our eyes, Sherlock bundles an elderly couple out of the door. He admits that they are his parents. In fact they are his parents. That is, they are Benedict Cumberbatch’s parents, Timothy Carlton and the gorgeous Wanda Ventham, who I have lusted after since 1972 when I saw her in The Lotus Eaters. After a lead role like that I would have expected her to have had a more glorious career than she did. Maybe she was a bit too overwhelming. As it is she looks to have been consistently busy until 2014, with Sherlock and an episode of Holby City. Maybe at the age of 80 she has decided to slow down and watch from the sidelines.

Back in 1897 when Henry James published his novel What Maisie Knew shared parenting was a hot topic, at least in New York. Today it may be a commonplace, but the impact it has on so many lives makes this new film from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel as contemporary as its modern setting.
The convoluted prose of the original has been replaced by clear modern dialogue and expressive acting to show just what happened when Julianne Moore’s fading rock singer Susanna and Steve Coogan’s inconstant art dealer Beale split up.
Caught up in a sequence of almost inevitable cause and effect are Maisie’s nanny Margo, played by Joanna Vanderham, and Alexander Skarsgård’s hapless Lincoln, Susanna’s new toy boy.
What is so fascinating about this drama is that the four principals act only according to their natures, nobody seems to stop to think about what they ought to do, the path of least resistance is always the one taken. Only Maisie, delightfully portrayed by Onata Aprile, is concerned about consequences, but there is little she can do to help.
Julianne Moore’s Susanna is the stand-out performance, utterly convincing as a talented musician, still vigorous if a bit frayed around the edges, keen to keep touring. The faded tattoos are a nice piece of observation. Lighting and low camera angles add to the impression of someone larger than life and not really on the same planet as anyone else. I can’t help feeling that the directors had a soft spot for her, when it would have been so easy to caricature her as egocentric and uncaring. Susanna means well, but is just not cut out for child rearing.
Beale is a slippery and plausible chameleon, with his eye on the main chance. Steve Coogan convinces in the role, ever optimistic, bluffing and smarming his way through life, careless or ignorant of the damage he leaves behind. It is curious how often Hollywood likes to make unsavoury characters English.
Joanna Vanderham uses her native Scots accent for cheerful, trusting, unsophisticated Margo. She is everything that Susanna is not, and very attached to Maisie. Lincoln is likewise quite unlike Beale, he distrusts ambition, and puts no value on wealth. He works in bar and seems to be a musician. Although Swedish by birth, Alexander Skarsgård has perfected his American accent and fits in perfectly here as a young man caught up in a whirlwind, and keeping his head.
The story is rather like a pinball machine, with Maisie the ball. Eventually things work out, everyone finds some kind of release as the conflicts fade, and Maisie, we hope, will grow up in happiness.

Geoffrey Rush adds another triumph to his list with a spell-binding performance as international art dealer Virgil Oldman in The Best Offer, a film about art and life, the true and the fake.
After a lifetime of buying and selling, Virgil Oldman has amassed, by underhand means and the assistance of Billy Whistler, played by Donald Sutherland with a big white beard, a huge collection of portraits of beautiful women. Such is Oldman’s love of beauty that he cannot bring himself touch it, wearing gloves most of the day, and remaining, at the age of around sixty, a virgin.
A potential client’s agent contacts Oldman’s company, insisting on dealing with him personally. The client is a woman who is reluctant to be seen, and keeps missing appointments. Oldman is at first irritated and then intrigued, and after he finds some antique clockwork that may be exceptionally rare, he becomes obsessed. Eventually he discovers her name, Claire, and gains her confidence.
Oldman is sailing in what are, for him, uncharted waters. The rest of the film is like the missing chart slowly being unfolded, giving hints as to what is around him, but it is only at the end that Oldman finally realises where he is.
Sylvia Hoeks, coming from a solid career in the Netherlands, is bewitching as Claire, and Jim Sturgess is perfect as Robert, Oldman’s universal repair man and advisor on matters romantic. Donald Sutherland’s role, Billy Whistler, does not take up much screen time, but he is a vital cog in the mechanism. A number of faces familiar from British TV play small but vital roles, this film has been made with the utmost care by director and writer Giuseppe Tornatore, best known for Cinema Paradiso. That this is not a mere mystery or romance is plainly flagged by the names of some of the characters; Virgil Oldman is a virginal old man, Claire is far from clear, and Billy (William) Whistler is the name of famous painter James McNeill Whistler’s brother. Is Robert a robber? See the film and make your own connections.
Music by Ennio Morricone blends beautifully with the visual, as with the best film music, after the opening credits it does not intrude, but becomes a part of the tapestry.
Critical reception to The Best Offer has been sharply divided. Several prominent critics consider it a failure, but it has won a number of awards, and most reviews range from the favourable to the ecstatic. It is the kind of film that you either relate to strongly, or simply can’t see the point of. If you like films that linger in the mind, you’ll like it. If you prefer cut and dried beginning, middle, end, problem solved dramas, don’t go.

Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

My wife, inspired by childhood memories of seeing Liberace on the TV, insisted on our seeing this film. I wasn’t keen, I knew very little about Liberace, my lingering impression being of a kind of Benny Hill without the gags, an Edna Everage without the wit. Plus a bit of ivory tinkling.

The cinema was quite full, entirely of hetero couples like ourselves old enough to remember Liberace, or at least to recall his fame. I suspect that most of them were there out of nostalgia for long ago television shows and were hoping for more detail about Liberace’s music and career, and less about his private life. I don’t think anyone walked out, though my wife says she nearly did in the early part, when most of the sex happens.

I must commend the scriptwriter for drawing a coherent and mostly engaging story out of lives that were lived from moment to moment with little consideration for the future, dramatic adaptations or otherwise. Like many successful artists, Liberace seems to have lived mainly for his art, if you will pardon the expression, sex, and conspicuous consumption.

This is not promising material, and if it were not for the Scott Thorson story element the film would have been little more than a documentary. As it is, much use is made of anecdotal events to pad out the rather thin drama. Watching these short grabs from Liberace’s professional career, and the recreations of his performances, one has glimpses of the other film, the one that the audience came for. It might have made for a more interesting film, but it would not have been the creative imagining of Liberace’s world that director Steven Soderbergh has given us.

Michael Douglas brings depth to a character who tended to appear two dimensional in the actual filmed performances that I have seen. It is a performance to be proud of, and deserving of an Oscar. Matt Damon is impressively convincing as Scott Thorson, a young man utterly swept away in a tide of glitz, away from the life he had hoped for as a veterinarian. These two actors do manage to let us care what happens to their characters, when it would have been so easy to slide into cliché. Or perhaps I should say even further into cliché, as Liberace comes across as something of a parody of himself, and his glamorous lifestyle as essentially derivative and unoriginal.

The direction is good, unostentatious craftsmanship, the atmosphere becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the tensions rise, and the wonky plot lines are neatly traversed. To me the end feels tacked on, but I don’t think there was much option if the story was to remain within bow-shot of fact.

The constant close-ups of men you wouldn’t buy a used car from gets a bit wearing, especially in the latter half, but this, I presume, is what Mr Soderbergh intended. As the film drew on I began to thirst for a female face, and towards the end when some girl dancers appeared, out of focus, behind Liberace, I drank them in like a camel after a week in the desert.

The net impression this film makes is of lives and talents squandered. The audiences in the recreated nightclub performances are next to invisible, and only now and then audible. Liberace was, maybe, his own audience.

Not a film I would have chosen to see, but not time entirely wasted.