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At the Movies

Film theatrics


Year’s end brings more new movies than a reviewer can keep up with, so one has to make a choice. A big, warm-hearted Dickens film seemed a good place to start. Director Douglas McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleby is charmingly expert in its sets, music and photography. The British countryside has never looked more attractive, nor has newly industrial London looked seedier or more dangerous.

There are threatening moments for poor, fatherless Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his lovely sister Kate (Romola Garai), but hints of eventual comfort can also be detected. The 5-year-old boy on my left may have had to leave during the beatings administered by the vicious headmaster Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) at Dotheboys Hall; but the young adult male on my right cried with obvious satisfaction through the sentimental scenes that proclaimed the triumph of good hearts and generosity over the selfishness of the mean and powerful.

McGrath’s achievement is to compress 900 pages of Dickens into a two-hour movie, but this is at some cost. Focusing so much on the fairy-tale structure of the whole, however, the film is almost too tidy. Despite the bravura performances of Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Squeers, Christopher Plummer as the evil uncle Ralph Nickleby, Nathan Lane as the exuberant head of the traveling Crummles players, and Dame Edna Everage as his expansive wife, the movie seems to have lost some of the exuberant humor of the original. Even the audience-pleasing conclusion of the Crummles version of “Romeo and Juliet,” in which the lovers leap into each other’s arms, was sacrificed for the sake of establishing a deeper emotional tie between Nicholas and Smike (Jamie Bell), the crippled boy he rescues from Dotheboys Hall.

The young innocents are shiningly good, the bad uncle and his shadowy world of investors incredibly nasty. Charlie Hunnam isn’t up to the difficult task of making Nicholas very interesting.

In emphasizing the sentimentality of the plot, the movie loses a chance to show us credible glimpses of the real London that Dickens himself inhabited.

But there is no excuse to imitate Scrooge. Unashamedly championing love and goodness, “Nicholas Nickleby” preserves enough of the pleasures of Dickens that adults as well as children can easily enjoy it.

The most awaited film of the year, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is also the most ambitious. The distinguished director is aiming at epic narrative, presenting the history of the immigrant New York working class from 1846 to 1863 with great attention to the authenticity of period detail, though the movie was shot in Rome’s Cinecittà. Scorsese has always been fascinated by violence, but “Gangs” is his grisliest yet, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill Cutting, “the Butcher,” the leader of Nativist (Protestant) resistance to the mostly Irish (Catholic) newcomers. Day-Lewis gives a performance that deliberately calls attention to itself; he is delighted with his own theatricality. Unfortunately, there is no one with whom he can truly share a scene.

The movie opens with a brutal battle, fought with clubs and knives, hatchets and razors, between the Irish gangs under the leadership of Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and their native-born antagonists under Cutting. The snow in Paradise Square is streaked with blood before the conclusion of this ritualistically conceived struggle, which ends only after the Butcher cuts down Vallon, while the latter’s little boy looks on with horror. Sixteen years later a muscular, intense young man who calls himself Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) emerges from Hell Gate Reformatory and returns to his old Five Points neighborhood, which is under the firm control of his father’s killer. It’s an excellent recipe for Jacobean revenge tragedy, but the movie never makes the personal drama as interesting as the street scenes, its glimpses of the assorted low-life of the time, and examples of Tammany corruption under Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who has made an alliance of convenience with the Butcher. Amsterdam manages to become part of the Butcher’s inner circle, and the latter becomes fond of the young man, beginning to think of him as the son he never had. Although we inevitably wonder when Amsterdam will strike out against the Butcher, DiCaprio never makes the situation compelling; he’s merely a solid, handsome presence.

The movie’s love interest is even more perfunctory. Amsterdam wakes up sufficiently to pursue Jenny (Cameron Diaz), the Butcher’s old girlfriend, the prettiest pickpocket in old New York, but nothing much is made of this plot strand, and the relationship never develops. Scorsese prefers to concentrate on images of corruption and horror: Buildings burn while rival fire companies squabble, creating opportunities for looting; there is a public hanging; and the Butcher even stoops to an exhibition of his knife-throwing ability -- with Jenny as target.

The movie is never boring, and leaves us with memorable images, but we are compelled to ask: Where are the women of old New York? There are plenty of bawds in background shots, but where are the women who lived with these underpaid workers and brought up their children? Scorsese’s film is so fixated on knives that it ignores the ordinary life that managed to go on, even under these brutal conditions.

“Gangs” ends with the murderous draft riot of 1863, emphasizing another major omission: blacks. The movie rightly emphasizes the fact that for $300 -- a huge sum at the time -- one could buy one’s way out of the draft, making the burden fall unjustly on the impoverished new immigrants, but it neglects to show us how blacks were the primary victims of Irish rage. It’s hard to understand the movie’s final suggestion that the greatness of New York was born out of the history that has been shown us: We’ve been reminded of real horror, and it has yet to be atoned for.

Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, Talk to Her, is less flamboyant than his earlier “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” but as powerful as his recent “All About My Mother.” From its stunning credits -- all flexible color -- and its opening scene of two impressionable young men watching a Tina Bausch ballet in which two women struggle in anguish until they collapse, we are absorbed in its visual and emotional complexities. Only afterwards is it possible to see the mastery with which the director has unified the cinematic devices at his disposal to suggest its inner meaning. At the ballet one young man watches the sympathetic tears of the other, who does not notice him. They meet again at the hospital where the former, Benigno (Javier Cámara), is a nurse, caring for Alicia (Leonor Watling), a beautiful ballet dancer who has been in a coma for four years. Marco (Darío Grandinetti), a free-lance journalist, has come there because the woman with whom he has fallen in love, Lydia (Rosario Flores), a spectacular bullfighter, has been gored in the ring and is also in a coma. Seeing Benigno in a similar situation, the confused Marco asks what he can do for his patient. “Talk to her,” advises the shy, somewhat strange, but devoted nurse.

The men become friends, though their relationship is severely tested by the revelation of Benigno’s total obsession with Alicia. Almodóvar inserts a silent film he has created, ostensibly from an earlier period, which is both bizarre and funny, symbolizing the extreme nature of Benigno’s relationship with his patient. Although this sequence is not for children, the mature Almodóvar is more interested in tenderness than shock; the relationship between the two damaged, different men becomes the center of the movie. Despite Benigno’s actions, which lead to tragedy, the effects of that relationship offer hope beyond the events of the film.

The plot is set in a deeply Spanish world. Beginning with music and dance, it is accompanied throughout by a varied score that includes songs from classical Spanish guitar to popular music. The film moves from Madrid streets and a bullfight through the arid beautiful countryside to smaller towns and intimate settings. Above all, it exhibits the fierce passion and ultimate loyalty that seem to characterize the Spanish soul.

But none of this is presented for its own sake. The film is hard to describe, yet satisfying to experience. Almodóvar’s mastery of style and the superb performances of the actors meld its diverse materials into a dense portrait of the difficulty of human love. The pains its different characters undergo convey a sense of the commonness of life as well as the joy and hope that can outlast its sadness.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003