Thursday, January 12, 2012

From Stage to Screen: "Albert Nobbs" and "War Horse"

My next two viewings from the still-warm body of 2011 both have origins on the stage, yet in terms of style and focus, they couldn't be any more different. One is a character study, the other a sweeping WWI tale. Both have ridden into theaters as possible Oscar contenders, though having seen both, the only thought I can come up with is that both should have stayed stage-bound.

Albert Nobbs:

For a movie about a woman disguised as a man in 19th century Ireland, Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs feels remarkably free of tension. In a story where, arguably, one of the major points of anxiety should be the protagonist's struggle to maintain her identity, everything from the writing to the approach to the makeup fails to create any sense of societal oppression when it comes to the gender roles under examination. Part of the problem is that waiter-in-disguise Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close, begging so damn hard for that Oscar) finds her cover blown within the film's first half another woman disguised as a man (Janet McTeer). Worse, it's rather obvious that McTeer's Hubert is a woman, and so the moment when she (quite literally) reveals herself comes as anything but surprising (it is, oddly, somewhat funny). But because there's no sense of tension, the film's entire premise fails to generate much interest. Garcia keeps the plot moving at a solid enough pace, but the whole affair has a vaguely sleepy feel to it. When I saw a scene of Nobbs and his/her co-workers eating together, I was immediately reminded of Downton Abbey, and how I wish I was watching that instead. Close is perfectly fine in the role, but the screenplay (which she co-wrote) doesn't do enough with the premise to create a real arc. By the time it rolls into its conclusion, nothing feels surprising or meaningful, and the last minute attempt to turn Nobbs' employer into a passive villain feels unbearably lazy. McTeer is also solid, the film's highlight, although that's not saying much. Less successful is Mia Wasikowska, who is competent throughout, only to completely crash and burn in what should have been her big moment. Worse than any individual, however, is a ludicrous scene at a beach that is almost worth seeing for the unintentional laughs it provokes. In some ways, though, the scene's massive misfire is almost the best part of Albert Nobbs, because it inspires the strongest emotional reaction. Unfortunately, it's completely the wrong one.

Grade: C

War Horse:

They don't make 'em like they used to, although in the case of War Horse, that's probably a good thing. Spielberg's latest, an adaptation of the Tony-winning play of the same name, feels outdated before it can properly get the story moving, and it never recovers. The driving reason to see the stage version of the show was the incredible puppetry. Here, obviously, no such puppets exist, and the crushing banality of the text only becomes more obvious. There's not a shred of character development in any sense, leaving us with an ensemble of empty shells and clich├ęs. The drunken dad! The evil landlord! The brave soldier! The initially discouraging mother! The sick French girl! The old guy! None of it registers, because it's all so paper thin and so obvious in its attempts at sentimentality. So even though the film opens with sweeping landscape shots and features several WWI battles, it never once earns the overwrought strains of John Williams' score. And by the time it arrives at its ending, which I have a hard time describing, War Horse cements itself as a parody of a Spielberg movie, even though it's directed by the man himself.

Grade: C-

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