Monday, January 05, 2009

From Stage to Screen: "Frost/Nixon" Does What "Doubt" Can't


directed by Ron Howard
starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Matthew McFayden, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
adapted from the play by Peter Morgan


directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

There’s a particular, and peculiar, difficulty that accompanies the transfer of plays to film. Too often, what carried effectively from the stage to a live audience ends up feeling airless, artificial, and mannered on screen. (See Exhibit A: every movie ever based on anything by David Mamet.) By a quirk of scheduling coincidence, we have this winter two high-powered, high-prestige productions of two high-powered, high-prestige Broadway plays—Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt—that inadvertently illustrate How to Do It and How Not To Do It, respectively.

The success of the transfer has very little to do with the faithfulness of the adaptation: both Morgan and Shanley adapted their own plays and, from what I can tell (I didn’t see Frost/Nixon on stage), both stick pretty close to their originals. Yet while “Frost/Nixon” gives the impression that it could have been conceived as a film from the start, “Doubt” never escapes its stagebound feel. To be fair, the two plays are different beasts. Morgan’s has the weight of history to anchor it even if, as with “The Queen,” he slyly injects a good deal of his own imagination of the inner life of his characters and passes it off as the reality. Shanley’s, by contrast, is very much a play of Ideas with a capital “I,” and its power lies in letting those ideas unfold, conflict, and unravel with as little external distraction as possible. In a sense it’s almost impossible to imagine how “Doubt”—which I loved on stage—could ever be as compelling on film.

That said, the cinematic quality of “Frost/Nixon” may owe as much, if not more, to Ron Howard as it does to Peter Morgan, though not many may admit it. Howard frankly doesn’t garner much respect among cinephiles. Regarded as hopelessly pedestrian, hopelessly middlebrow, and hopelessly Hollywood, he’s totally lacking in the kind of hipster cachet that surrounds the likes of, oh, say, Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman. Personally, I think he deserves more credit than he gets, and here he hits his marks dead on. “Frost/Nixon” is shrewdly structured like a documentary, and a briskly paced one at that, cutting fluidly back and forth between David Frost’s famous 1977 television interviews of ex-President Nixon—in which Nixon ultimately admitted his culpability in Watergate—and clips of present-day interviews with all the supporting players who helped make those interviews happen.

Only occasionally do we feel the bones of the play poking through, most glaringly in one scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost the night before their last interview and unleashes all his psychological hang-ups and pent-up bitterness about Watergate. That telephone call is completely fictitious and quite stagey; it’s also an excellent showcase for Frank Langella, who reprises the role of Nixon that he played on Broadway. If there’s anything that even the most hostile critic can’t deny Howard, it’s that he does get good performances from his actors, and Langella’s star turn will most likely, and deservingly, be nominated for an Oscar (though he really should have gotten the nod for last year’s “Starting Out in the Evening”). He makes Nixon startlingly human, with flashes of unexpected charm, yet manages to bring out both the ruthless tactical brilliance that fueled his rise and the chafing insecurities that led to his fall. Michael Sheen is equally good as the elfish, elusive Frost, whom he also played on Broadway. Indeed, Sheen arguably has the more difficult job of the two in portraying the British television “personality” whom everyone initially assumed would be in over his head. Sheen imbues the character with subtle depths, suggesting without overplaying that underneath the glib facade, Frost hungered not only for success on network TV but also for respect from those who were so quick to underestimate him.

The rest of the cast is reduced very much to the sidelines of this boxing match, but do well enough with what they’re given. Kevin Bacon hovers at Langella’s elbow as Nixon’s intensely loyal and humorless aide, while in Frost’s corner, Rebecca Hall makes the most of a nothing role as Frost’s girlfriend, Matthew MacFayden continues to sheer away from heartthrob typecasting (though we do get a fleeting glimpse of his bare butt) as Frost’s supportive producer, and Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell play off each other as the Nixon experts Frost hires to research and prep him for the interviews. As always, Platt is a hoot, while Rockwell (whose part was apparently substantially downsized from the play) is all keyed-up nervous energy—to the point that you might be forgiven for wanting to smack him and force-feed him a sedative. Ultimately, “Frost/Nixon” doesn’t go much for in-depth historical analysis of Nixon’s wrongs or wrongdoing, but it does succeed in drawing you into the duel of personalities underlying his last real appearance in the court of public opinion.

“Doubt,” too, features a great duel of personalities, this one enhanced by even starrier casting. Here the face-off is between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, taking over for Cherry Jones), the redoubtable, doctrinally conservative headmistress of a Catholic school in the 1960’s, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the more liberal-minded parish priest whom she suspects, without proof, of molesting one of the students. Caught between these two formidable adversaries are young Sister James (Amy Adams), who doesn’t know what or whom to believe, and Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), the student’s mother, who doesn’t want to know.

The performances are strong across the board, but they feel trapped in amber. Shanley, directing his own play, never really figures out how to open it up, and though the backdrop is supposed to be the Catholic Church at a time of cultural change, both within and without,—even as the hierarchy of the church’s patriarchal structure remains distressingly rigid—those changes are confined largely (as they were in the play) to dialogic references. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; whenever Shanley attempts to translate his ideas and themes into visual motifs, the results are consistently, embarrassingly ham-handed. There’s a close-up of Father Flynn carving up a shank of rare meat, oozing blood, with relish, as he and his (male) peers of the Church roar with laughter, followed by a cut to the silent, austere table kept by the nuns; in another scene, a cat is dispatched to catch a mouse at the same time Sister Aloysius is laying out her campaign to ensnare the slippery Flynn; and throughout the film Streep ostentatiously wields a cross that's clearly meant to represent Sister Aloysius’s attachment to her faith, or what she calls her “certainty.”

Nevertheless, notwithstanding these creaky devices, it’s undeniably fun to watch two of our most accomplished actors circling and sparring with each other like seasoned gladiators. Some may be underwhelmed by Streep’s work here, but she’s actually very good as the bone-dry, coolly relentless, yet not inhuman Sister Aloysius. Hoffman, for his part, is solid as always as the priest, though I couldn’t help thinking the role would have been better served by someone more overtly charismatic and attractive and less, well, sketchy-looking. Still, his Father Flynn is forceful enough to sow the seeds of doubt that undercut the strength of his opponent’s convictions. And the structure and language of their conflict is so sharply etched it’s guaranteed to prompt lively discussion by audiences on leaving the theater, just as the play did. But that’s just it—the film doesn’t do anything that the play didn’t do and, come to that, do more compactly and incisively. The best argument to be made in favor of “Doubt” is that it may bring a smart, thought-provoking drama to a broader audience than the play would have achieved on its own. On its own aesthetic merits, however, there’s not much independent justification for its existence.

GRADES: "Frost/Nixon," B+; "Doubt," B-

Also saw:


directed by Philippe Claudel
starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, others

Kristin Scott Thomas is the main reason to see this film—and that’s reason enough. She stars as Juliette Fontaine, a woman who’s just finished serving a 15-year prison term for a crime that makes others shudder at the mere mention of it. Fortunately for her, she has a younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who takes her in, despite the concerns of Lea’s husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius). At first, Juliette is like the walking dead—pale, grim, and silent as a ghost. In time she begins to re-acclimate to free society, slowly bonding with her sister’s two adorable adopted baby girls, Luc’s equally adorable, mute father, and Lea’s and Luc’s kindly, sociable friends, who know nothing of Juliette’s secret. She starts to be beautiful again and to take a renewed interest in life. The secret nonetheless hovers like an unseen presence; and eventually the question Lea won’t ask—why did you do it?—breaks to the surface.

I’ve just made the film sound like a mystery or thriller, and it really isn’t. At bottom it’s about Juliette’s rehabilitation, though how you view the meaning of that rehabilitation may change by the end, after certain revelations are made. The structuring of those revelations is, at best, clumsy and at worst, unconvincing. But by any measure, KST, who seems to be better appreciated as an actress in France than in England (let alone the U.S.), sails above these flaws. In the shadings of her expression, in the tones of her voice, she can shift in an instant from brittle reserve to a glimmer of charm that evokes the spirit of a past self, or to a flash of despairing rage too long repressed. She plays a woman slowly coming back to life, yes, but one also confronting the emotional fallout she kept at bay when she was behind bars. It’s a remarkable performance that one hopes will lead to many more, equally plummy roles – in English as well as in French.



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