Friday, July 20, 2018

Acting Without Fear: First Reformed & A Very English Scandal

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. (Photo: IMDB)

The daring of Ethan Hawke’s recent movie performances – in Born to Be Blue, where he played the great, drug-addled jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker; in Maudie, where he played Everett, the difficult, armored fish vendor who employs the whimsical Nova Scotia artist Maudie Lewis as a housekeeper and winds up marrying her; and now in writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – is spellbinding. In his mid-forties, he’s become one of our greatest actors, consistently exploring territory beyond what he’s tried before. I voted for him as best actor in the Boston Society of Film Critics last year and the year before; every year brings its share of first-rate performances, but it seems to me that no one else is going as far or as deep as Hawke in inhabiting a set of utterly unalike personalities, and that his range expands each time out.

In First Reformed he plays Ernst Toller, the minister of a historic – but now sparsely attended – Dutch Reform church in a small town in upstate New York. In the nineteenth century, the church hid runaway slaves on their way to the Canadian border; in addition to his ministerial duties, Toller has to give tours and run the souvenir shop, and he’s really the employee of a larger institution, Abundant Life Fellowship, whose pastor, Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer), is his immediate supervisor. Toller is haunted by the death of his son in Iraq, a tragedy that tore apart his marriage; he drinks too much and he ignores what are clearly serious medical problems. He seems to be offering up these things, and his loneliness, as penance – not only for himself but, increasingly as the film goes on, for humanity. (He had a short-lived romance with the choirmaster at Abundant Life, Esther, played by Victoria Hill, but her efforts to reignite it meet with reluctance on his part and finally anger and mean-spiritedness.) When one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an eco-activist, and Michael, depressed over the state of the earth, shoots himself, Toller takes on his cause, refusing to hold his tongue about the environmental practices of the town’s leading citizen, a wealthy factory owner (Michael Gaston) who is the church’s most generous supporter – a stance that gets him in hot water with Abundant Life. Ernst’s actions become more radical and more frightening. (Schrader may have named the character as a nod to the German Expressionist playwright who hanged himself in 1939 in response to the fascist darkness that had descended over Europe.)

Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in First Reformed. (Photo: IMDB)

The film is related to Robert Bresson’s great 1951 Diary of a Country Priest, about a cleric whose faith is shaken, and (less obviously) to Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 Winter Light, on the same theme, and it quotes Taxi Driver, Schrader’s first and still most famous script, which is also a study of alienation and existential despair. The problem with First Reformed is that it lacks what Martin Scorsese’s direction brought to Taxi Driver – an extravagant and imaginative visual style to pull against Schrader’s spareness and almost self-devouring interiority. The screenplay for Taxi Driver was staggering, but Schrader’s Calvinist temperament needed Scorsese’s Catholic excessiveness, and he needs it here too. First Reformed, which was shot by Alexander Dynan, is monochromatic and underlit, except when the movie gets out into the woods; you get the point of the contrast, obviously, but all that sensory deprivation tries your patience. Considering how nutty the movie becomes, it needs to be visually overpowering, like – whatever you think of it – Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, with its dazzling, brink-of-surrealism cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Toller and Mary are drawn to each other, and in one scene, at her request, they enact a mystical exercise where she lies on top of him (fully clothed) and the energy generated by their physical closeness causes them to levitate. A sequence like this one demands a kind of visual inventiveness that Schrader, for all his intelligence and unconventionality, simply isn’t capable of.

Intellectually the possibility for salvation that Mary holds out to Ernst makes sense when you run through the movie in your mind after seeing it, and Seyfried is very good. (So are Kyles and Hill.) But the way you experience it as you watch it, the levitation scene and the equally mysterious ending, which also involves these two characters, feel like they come from some other movie altogether. First Reformed is not nothing, and I was fascinated by it, but it’s an odd, uncongenial thing – or it would be if Ethan Hawke weren’t at the center of it. He keeps pulling you in deeper into Toller’s disgust and horror and weird, neurotic radicalism. Schrader wants us to see that Toller’s mission is both as crazy and as inevitable as Travis Bickle’s in Taxi Driver, though it comes from a different set of conditions, and Hawke makes the parallel work. What separates his performance from Robert De Niro’s is mostly a matter of charisma; it’s a stunningly focused and layered piece of acting. The amazing performances Hawke has been giving lately have only one common element besides their out-there, unrestrained emotional commitment: they make no concessions to the viewer – Hawke isn’t concerned with making us like him. He’s after the truth about how these men operate; for him, it’s that or nothing. I’d compare these performances with the work Diane Keaton did in the eighties, and he’s taking the same risk: that viewers won’t want to sign up for the acting experience he’s offering. He’s a brave man, and it’s a risk worth taking.

Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw in A Very English Scandal. (Photo: IMDB)

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy watching Hugh Grant, but this year he’s attained a career peak. As the narcissistic actor villain of Paddington 2 he’s sublimely goofy, inspired, like Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot or Mickey Rooney in Operation Mad Ball; he’s in the stratosphere. In Stephen Frears’s Amazon three-parter A Very English Scandal, he does something entirely different, playing Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party chief whose career was undone when he was tried for the attempted murder of his one-time lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), in the mid-seventies. It’s a stupendous performance. Audiences have always loved Grant for his slightly knock-headed charm, his ability to embody a certain kind of well-heeled Englishman with a tendency to trip over his own feet and parody him at the same time; he’s like a sexy Bertie Wooster. In A Very English Scandal he plays against those qualities, suggesting a desperation inside them with the potential for turning sinister. Thorpe has a secret gay life in the sixties and seventies while presenting a straight face to the world and maintaining a pair of happy marriages (he remarries after the death of his first wife), but only his relationship with Scott, who is a twenty-year-old groom at a friend’s estate when they meet, is more than a passing fling. And eventually Norman becomes too much of a liability to Thorpe’s career so he sends the young man off to France. But Scott is a handful – sensitive, needy, self-righteous and a little loony. He keeps threatening to make trouble for Jeremy, who enlists the help of (reluctant) friends to have him killed. As it happens, the hit man they hire is a hopeless incompetent, and when he botches the job, Norman goes to the police, though without success. It’s only when Jeremy’s political adversaries get hold of the story that he goes to trial. 

Frears and the writers, Russell T. Davies and John Preston, highlight the farce elements of the material; particularly in the first episode but as late as the inept playing out of the murder scheme, A Very English Scandal feels like it’s in the tradition of the Ealing comedies from the fifties. The basis of their humor was always the ridiculous side of Englishness. Here the source of the joke is partly English repression and partly the inability of an English aristocrat (Patricia Hodge contributes a prize portrayal of Thorpe’s fearful, impossible stiff-necked mother) to loosen up completely even when he’s fucking a fey working-class kid ten years his junior. (The scene where Jeremy takes the inexperienced Norman to bed for the first time – in his mother’s house, indicating the need for quiet because she’s on the other side of the bedroom wall – is some kind of classic among awkward sexual episodes.) But Frears and the writers want to go farther: to mine the story not just for its comedy but for the emotional realism underneath it. So the tone keeps shifting, often abruptly, and it takes a while to get used to the unconventional rhythm of the piece. (I was completely on board by Part II.) Frears tried something similar in his 2016 movie Florence Foster Jenkins, also based on a true story, about a wealthy American, a classical music patron with a dreadful voice who deludes herself into thinking she can sing opera, but though both Meryl Streep, who played Florence, and Grant, as her devoted husband, were very good, the situation was so preposterous that I couldn’t get past it to what was meant to be poignant and meaningful. Frears pulls off the trick in A Very English Scandal.

Whishaw, who has a uniquely quirky theatrical style – it’s equal parts delicacy and bravado – and perhaps the most impressive set of resources for playing complicated innocents since Anthony Perkins, is perfectly cast as Scott. The excellent supporting cast includes Alex Jennings as Jeremy’s confidant Peter Bessell, Monica Dolan as his second wife, Marion, who turns out to be a tower of strength, and Michelle Fox as the woman Norman marries, over the objections of her incredulous father, and who abandons him when he’s unable to support her and their child. I particularly liked Dolan, whose impersonation of Marion’s unflappability suggests another side of very Englishness. When the truth about her husband starts to come out, all she demands is to that he stop lying to her; she convinces him that she’s perfectly capable of handling the truth, however shocking other people might find it. “For God’s sake, I practically grew up with Benjamin Britten,” she reminds him. A Very English Scandal contains an abundance of such pleasures. But the chief reason for tuning in is Hugh Grant, who holds nothing back. You have to have moved as far past vanity as an actor can to give a performance like this one, and to have achieved complete confidence in your technique and your instincts. No matter what the dramatic circumstances – and some of them are indeed outrĂ© – everywhere Grant lands is solid ground.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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