Lincoln

Lincoln is an understated film; for most of its duration it is essentially lots of middle-aged men arguing about politics. Yet it remains thoroughly engaging for its two and a half hour duration – largely due to the excellent performances of all involved, but in particular Daniel Day-Lewis

While Day-Lewis faces the challenge of playing an American icon (helped by an uncanny physical resemblance), he does at least benefit from the distance that time brings. Whereas Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady can be held up and judged against personal memories and recordings of Thatcher herself, Day-Lewis has the space in which to form his own portrayal of such an iconic figure (albeit preceded by countless other interpretations). Day-Lewis brings humanity to the role, inhabiting the man and avoiding being dwarfed by Lincoln’s legacy.

There’s long been a tradition of focussing on the big men in history, often at the expense of the wider picture. The leading protagonist in a movement is idolised, with historical change ascribed to their actions alone. This is especially true of those who are martyred to their cause – in the public imagination Martin Luther King is often seen as almost single-handedly responsible for and representative of the Civil Rights Movement. While the film’s focus on Lincoln subscribes to this convention, it doesn’t idolise him. He is an excellent politician but a Machiavellian one; lying, bullying and bribing his way to the success of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The film encapsulates the contemporary debate about emancipation – even among those supporting the bill there are conflicting viewpoints, over the nature of “equality” and the practical reality that would follow emancipation. Public opinion did not tend to favour abolition of slavery; Lincoln was forced to sell the Amendment as the final blow to defeat the Confederacy.

The film concludes with the Amendment being passed by the House of Representatives, but in reality abolition was only the first step to equality; there was and still is a long way to go, despite the great progress occurring in the following century. It would probably have been beyond the imagination of most contemporary Americans to consider that in less than 150 years there would be a black President of America. Today, Obama is hoping for a progressive second term with action on immigration, gay rights and gender equality, despite a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and issues such as race, abortion and homosexuality are a deep divide within American society. Spielberg’s film is an aptly timed comment on American political culture, as well as an intriguing portrait of one of America’s most loved and mythologised presidents.

Stage v. Screen

A while ago I got into a heated debate with a film buff about the respective merits of stage and screen. He claimed that there was nothing you could produce on stage that wouldn’t be better in a film. As an avid theatre fan, I couldn’t let that go… Don’t get me wrong, I think that TV and film are great and offer opportunities to portray things differently than in the theatre. But theatre, although not better than television or film, is a unique and relevant medium.

There are obvious constraints generated when locating a performance on stage, live and without the benefit of editing, but writing for the stage need not restrict what you can portray. Ghost the Musical demonstrates the amazing possibilities for stage effects, with ghost Sam walking through a wall on stage. Similarly, Danton’s Death at the National Theatre had a breathtakingly realistic guillotine scene which was so effective that it was almost distracting as I struggled to spot how it was done.

While there is plenty of inventive television and film, the unique conditions of the stage often require more imagination, from both audience and creators. I find it amazing how easy it is when watching a great production to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the narrative, often with minimal set or props. The ingenuity of theatre-makers is nowhere better exemplified than by the National Theatre production of War Horse. Although the Spielberg film had real horses, trenches, and spectacular views of the English countryside, it wasn’t able to capture the emotion or atmosphere of the play. The horse puppets are extraordinary and are operated so skilfully that you believe they are real, and the beautiful backdrop of illustrations creates an amazing atmosphere.

The Woman in Black is another film which I enjoyed, with Daniel Radcliffe giving an engaging performance which retained my interest despite the horror narrative being little more than a series of things that make you jump. But again, I feel that the stage production (as well as being more true to the book) has an atmosphere that can only be achieved in the theatre. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, as two actors narrate and act out the entire plot through a clever conceit involving Kipps enlisting a young actor to help him to recount his story.  Despite the lack of props and cast members, the play is scary in a way that the film wasn’t, with the proximity of the performance adding to the tension. The idea of a haunted theatre is much scarier when you’re sitting in the auditorium…

Aside from the practical considerations, theatrical performances create a unique shared experience between audience and performers. One of the joys of theatre is that a show is different each time, as actors play with their performance and react to the audience response.

Bearing all this is mind, I’m still looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation of Les Mis. I didn’t hold particularly high hopes for the film when they announced the array of famous actors (less famous for their singing) in the cast, although many of them have had experience in musical theatre. But it seems to have held its own with the critics – and certainly done rather better critically than the musical did when it first opened. As a fan of the stage version, and a big fan of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, I’ll be interested to see how the story and score transfer to the screen.