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Dance is an extraordinary medium. It is simultaneously mysterious in not being self-evidently understandable, and remarkably egalitarian because of its universal expression. A well-crafted dance communicates a great deal, even if the receiver is not sure what it all means.
Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp, the latest production from Arrows and Traps Theatre Company, is not a ballet or a musical but a straight play. It tells the story of Charles Chaplin from his childhood in Victorian London to a key point in his Hollywood career in the late 1920s. Yet it is also a dance, a dance of ideas that flow through movement and then flow further, further and further.
Writer-director Ross McGregor crafts a tale that is witty and amusing while also being tragic and desperately sad. McGregor’s sublime choreography is mixed with deeply human characters, artistic obsession competing with financial reality and layperson perspectives. The show features some incredible physical performances, which are appropriate given the subject matter of one of the world’s most famous physical actors. Yet Birth of a Tramp also depicts Chaplin’s background as a stage actor, his desires to play Hamlet and Tamburlaine conflicting with his talent for dumb show. Several sequences in the play could be out of music hall, a Chaplin film or a brilliantly orchestrated farce. Audience members will laugh at the uproarious comedy and also marvel at the dazzling choreography.
The conceit of choreography and dance runs throughout the play, as actors play multiple roles and often convey different characters predominantly through movement. Chaplin himself is played by two actors, Conor Moss as Charlie and Lucy Ioannou as the young Charlie and also as the Tramp. Moss provides vocals throughout but Ioannou is completely silent, conveying Charlie’s evolution of physical performance from childhood to global star. The two performers deliver an ongoing dance of pratfalls, tumbles and gymnastics, including a repeated but never overdone gag with a chair. There is also a heartbreaking moment involving a hat stand, where Ioannou imbues inanimate objects with tactile life, expressing incredible misery and isolation. For his own part, Moss later has the most compelling wrestling match with a bowler hat that you are ever likely to see.
The interplay between the two Charlies works both as flashback and as communication between different personae, as the Tramp grows into Charlie’s alter ego. Echoing Arrows and Traps’ previous production of The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, Birth of a Tramp explores issues of duality, knowing oneself and accepting past selves and mistakes. All the performances are laser etched, from Laurel Marks’ Virginia Cherrill fiddling nervously with her skirt (a gesture that opens and closes the play) to mock punches that progress through performers. Birth of a Tramp is an enveloping portrait of a famous but not necessarily understood artist, and it is a glorious dance of creativity, melancholia, family and the precious power of expression.
Loyal followers, I pray your forgiveness! I have been so terribly remiss in putting out my content. It’s like I had a new job that took up more time, preventing me from being the bonkers blogging bonanza that I had been. I am, most assuredly, ashamed.
However, better late than never and in decidedly non-seasonal but still musical form, my top 12 films of 2019:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve Brooklyn orphans
Eleven Doctors sleeping
Ten Midsommar tributes
Nine fighting families
Seven Little Women
Five Book smarts
Four Knives a-outing
Three Jokers joking
Two Games a-Ending
And the Favourite of Queen Anne!
In slightly clearer form:
An extraordinary, acerbic, acidic and at times absurdist comedy-drama of manners, manipulation and monarchy.
An enveloping, emotional, exhilarating, witty, tragic, astonishing and utterly triumphant superhero epic of extraordinary ambition and magnificent realisation.
A disturbing, grimy, gripping and grim portrait of anonymity, identity and psychosis both personal and social.
A gleefully twisty, deliciously self-aware and constantly surprising whodunnit of razor sharp interplay and social satire.
A gloriously funny, beautifully sweet, sometimes surreal, touching, delightful coming of age comedy of being more than you or anyone else expects.
A flamboyant, fabulous and frenetic bio-musical of a flamboyant, fabulous and frenetic talent and personality.
A gorgeously assured, fluidly told, moving and enchanting drama of family, identity, creativity, memory and social roles, devised and delivered with the greatest respect for its characters, subject and audience.
A malevolent, magnificent, Marxist, satirical nightmare of demographics, doppelgängers and dance.
A joyous, heartwarming, bittersweet delight of family, wrestling, dreams and the pride of being a freak from Norwich.
A deep focus, long take folk horror nightmare of loss, grief, mistrust, relationships, dark humour and creeping dread.
An enthralling, enveloping nightmare of trauma, evil and facing fears, with just the right balance of homage and innovation.
A quirky, jazzy, intricate and melancholy par-boiled detective thriller of urban and social threads, corruption and the dangers of demagogues.
As a bonus, here are the films I found most disappointing last year:
- The Drone (Turkey of the Year)
A monumentally stupid tech thriller with zero scares, some laughs and an admirably game cast.
A super-meta navel gaze of wit, send-up, profanity and all round what the fuckery?!
A visually breathtaking if dramatically disjunctive reimagining of a timeless classic.
The best parts of Avatar plus the worst parts of Ghost in the Shell equals a clunky narrative of cliched characters and underdeveloped themes, enervated by thrilling and visceral action.
An awe-inspiring and viscerally thrilling if sometimes jumbled and reiterative monster maelstrom of mayhem.
A disparate and somewhat hollow but still brooding and atmospheric superhero adventure, spiced with the most dramatic of dramatic scores.
An uneven horror thriller of memories, stories, friendship and fear, weak in its fragmented vignettes yet stronger in the sum of its united parts.
A languorous, meandering and overlong exploration of memory, disengagement and regret, balancing ponderousness with poignance but ultimately less than the sum of its parts.
Over the 125-year history of the cinematic medium, a pervasive idea is that of pure cinema. Pure cinema expresses its meaning through the unique elements of the moving image, not needing the components of literature, theater or photography from which it evolved. The commercial history of cinema has imbued the medium with narrative, films used to tell stories because audiences embrace and therefore pay for stories. Consequently, plot, character, dialogue and suchlike are tied into the expression of meaning, working in relation to cinematography, editing, production design and sound. But the conceit of pure cinema still informs narrative films, and can be found in Sam Mendes’ World War One masterpiece 1917.
1917’s distinct selling point is that it is captured in a single take. We open on two lance corporals in the British Army, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), resting under a tree in the French countryside. This peaceful image is interrupted non-jarringly by Sergeant Sanders (Daniel Mays), who orders the corporals to report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth). As Blake and Schofield follow Sanders, the camera pursues them past their comrades, into a trench and thus into a dugout. Within the dugout the continuous shot pans around them, zooms into important features, tracks alongside them out of the dugout and through further trenches, Over The Top and across No Man’s Land, around craters, through barbed wire barriers and onwards. Aside from a brief blackout, the shot is continuous and unbroken. In practical terms, it is not really one shot, and a sharp-eyed viewer can spot the joins and hidden cuts. But to do so is to miss the point and to deride the film for this cinematic sleight of hand churlish. Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins use the device of the long take to create an immersive experience, the continuous shot creating a restricted view even as the scope of the frame widens and contracts. As Blake and Schofield encounter the expanse of No Man’s Land, the shot expands to encompass the devastation ahead of them. As they fall into a shell hole, the frame narrows to present their restricted view. This restriction means that shocks hit the audience just as they do the characters, especially encounters with bodily horrors and dangerous traps. Jumping, ducking and exclaiming are all appropriate reactions to the film, but so is awe and wonder.
Much of the awe and wonder can be credited to the genius that is Roger Deakins. Deakins not only keeps faces in focus within the frame even when the surroundings are blurred, but also crafts beautiful images within fraught and threatening scenarios. The French countryside at times seems idyllic, the horrors of the battlefield far away even as our heroes’ progress highlights the close proximity of peaceful fields and destructive weaponry. In one extraordinary sequence, the camera moves through a town during a night bombardment. Deakins’ use of light captures nightmarish reds and deep, black shadows, presenting a mesmerizing journey that is both threatening and stunningly beautiful. At one point, action takes place both in the foreground and background, the deep focus of the shot doubling the tension as one threat is encountered while another approaches. Subsequent set pieces including fire, water, chases and shelling are just as startling, horrifying and exhausting, the film lending a new dimension to the oft-quoted description that war is hell. Yet there are additional moments of beauty, such as a battalion in the woods waiting for battle while one of their number sings, and also fantastical moments including a young French woman hiding in a ruin with a baby, as though we had stepped into a fairytale.
For all its stylistic grandeur, the film could be described as empty, offering purely surface thrills with little to say beyond that. In fairness, 1917 does lack in-depth characterisation, because while we follow Schofield and Blake throughout the film, there is little sense of development. We only learn their first names at the end of the film, and for the most part they are reactive, following orders, avoiding bombs, constantly moving with little opportunity for introspection. References to their families back in Blighty are clichéd, as the corporals look at photographs and reminisce. It is worth noting that all performances in the film are very fine, especially McKay whose luminous eyes convey fear, resolve, resentment, compassion and desperation, often simultaneously. Dialogue takes a backseat here to physical expression, both through eyes and expressions as well as body language, the exhaustion often as apparent an obstacle as the treacherous terrain ahead.
Deprived of long discussions and voiceover, 1917 will win no awards for profound ruminations on the meaning of existence like The Thin Red Line or Apocalypse Now. Nor does Mendes investigate simpler themes like loss of innocence or loyalty struggles as seen in Platoon or Saving Private Ryan. It is a frequently breathtaking technical exercise, but what does 1917 offer beyond that? The answer is yourself. 1917 is an experience that works as character projection rather than expression. It is a film you can put yourself into, a first-person shooter video game that you can enjoy without having any knowledge or experience of first-person shooters. It is, therefore, a primal cinematic event, reminiscent of the earliest cinema audiences who allegedly panicked at the sight of a train coming towards them. Here, a bi-plane comes hurtling towards our heroes and, crucially, us. A search for water is interrupted by cries of distress so we turn back towards the sound, and throughout the action other figures appear by literally stepping into frame, our awareness intimately tied to Schofield and Blake, just as our awareness is itself limited to our immediate surroundings. And in perhaps the film’s most bravura sequence (no mean feat considering that the film is effectively one extended bravura sequence), we run alongside our onscreen surrogate while bombs rain down and men rush past. “1917” may utilize a single technique to place the viewer in the combat situation, but it adheres to this technique with extraordinary invention, aplomb and power, delivering an immersive, visceral and often terrifying piece of pure cinema.