"Should I be grateful for the great Jewish characters I’ve played — or sad that in a 50-year career I’ve rarely played a “classic” role?"
A masterclass in understated narrative
The principal joy of being a Bafta member is not, as one might think, to sweep down a red carpet in a glorious creation which must be returned, unstained, by ten the following morning. Neither is it to lunch, attend screenings or wander round the bar trying insouciantly to catch the eye of a short-sighted casting director.
No, the great treat — and one needs a treat after the November-to-February Christmas chasm — is that DVDs plop through my letter-box on a daily basis, equipping me to vote for the best films from the full cinematic output of the year. Since my partner doesn’t enjoy any movie with blood, violence, swearing, mumbling, depression or graphic sex — let’s face it, he just likes Kind Hearts and Coronets — films like The Revenant and The Hateful Eight must be watched alone, and they were. With clenched knees.
I’m no film critic but I know what I like, and I liked Brooklyn, a beautiful, gentle adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s beautiful, gentle novel, with a gravely detailed performance from Saoirse Ronan. I’m also a sucker for bleak island sagas and Terence Davies’s Sunset Song haunted me for days. Peter Mullan terrified as the tyrant father, and the understated performance by Agyness Deyn, another beauty with an excess of consonants in her name, rang tingle-true.
Early in the viewing process, I watched two Westerns, enjoyed both and forgot them immediately. When you’re watching 30-odd films, one must take care — especially at my age — that it isn’t just the most recent that remains in the front of your brain.
Eventually I tore myself away from the TV to see a film that hadn’t even appeared on the Bafta long list. It was unsung and un-nominated. My daughter said, “I’ve booked three tickets for Radiator, it’s supposed to be brilliant.” “Radiator?” I asked, “what is it, a plumbing documentary?” We took our friend Karen, widow of the great writer Erich Segal, who turned to us at at the end and said: “I think that’s the best film I’ve ever seen.”
Radiator is a low-budget British film by actor-director Tom Browne, shot in his parents’ Cumbrian cottage and co-written with one of of its three stars, Daniel Cerqueira. This directorial debut, a masterclass in how to “show, not tell”, revolves around Daniel, a solitary London teacher recalled to the home of his ageing parents, where his father Leonard (Richard Johnson in the last great performance of his life) refuses to get up from the sofa.
Daniel’s mother Maria — played luminously by Gemma Jones, who should be knighted for this performance — and Leonard are living in a squalid state of crumbling disrepair. As his independence weakens, Leonard, a master of manipulation, behaves with increasing cruelty to his wife and son. The house itself, overrun by mice and mould, is the fourth star of the movie and the fifth is the glorious Cumbrian countryside. I couldn’t even wait to get home to find Gemma Jones’s telephone number; she was quite surprised to hear a fawning thespian blubbering down her line. I love talent.
I should probably have watched Carol in a cinema; then I might have seen what the fuss was about. It looks, like all Todd Haynes’s films, as elegantly enamelled as an Edward Hopper painting and concerns a love affair between a shop-girl and a married socialite who happens to be a woman. Had it been a man, I swear the film wouldn’t have been made. Consider the pitch. Bored rich man falls for shop-girl? Yes. Then what? They go on a road trip. Yes? After the electric sexuality of the female lovers in Blue is the Warmest Colour (the 2013 Cannes winner), Carol was like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s rose in The Little Prince, “beautiful but empty . . . one couldn’t die for you”.
Meanwhile, at Jewish Book Week, I attended a discussion on Howard Jacobson’s new novel Shylock Is My Name. Director Polly Findlay spoke about casting an Israeli Palestinian as Shylock in her production of The Merchant of Venice, feeling that an understanding of the outsider status is key to the role. Curious, I asked how it is that non-Jewish actors are often cast as Shylock, when rarely — since Olivier in 1965 — has Othello been played by someone white. Shylock and his daughter are clearly identified as Jewish, so why would Jewish actors not be the director’s first port of call?
An audience member was shocked by my question. “So you’d expect a gay character to be played by a gay actor?” I had to think. “Preferably, yes,” I said, causing further shockwaves. “But surely,” I was challenged, “don’t you just get the best actor for the role?”
Yes, of course, but if fine gay actors exist (and they do) why would you not cast them? Not that Michael Douglas and Matt Damon didn’t convince as Liberace and his lover in Behind the Candelabra, or Tom Hanks didn’t shine in Philadelphia, or Colin Firth in A Single Man — they are great actors all — but were I an openly gay actor whose name would green-light a film, I would probably feel discriminated against.
It’s an interesting question. Should a disabled actor play Stephen Hawking, should schizophrenic actors appear in A Beautiful Mind or Shine? Should I be grateful for the number of great Jewish characters I have played — or sad that in a 50-year career I’ve rarely played a “classic” role?
I’ll close my foray into film with a little light bragging. My cinematographer daughter-in-law Taina Galis (eight months pregnant at the time) shot Fyzal Boulifa’s Rate Me on a shoestring and it won the 2015 Illy Short Film Prize at Cannes. The Irishman Ben Cleary, two years out of film school, made Stutterer for five grand (the cost of a star’s limo for a week) and it won an Oscar. Don’t take my word for it, judge for yourselves. The forecast is rain, so retire to your long sofa with two shorts — three if you count the single malt — and while you’re at it, turn up the Radiator.