Shakespeare in Love, The Devil’s Bride, and The Woman in Gold

The Devil’s Bride (a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out): adapted by Richard Matheson from the Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Christopher Lee (Duc de Richleau), Charles Gray (Mocata), Nike Arrighi (Tanith), Leon Greene (Rex), and Patrick Mower (Simon) (1968): Fun, tightly plotted period piece (it’s set in England in the 1920’s) pits Christopher Lee in a rare heroic turn against the forces of Satan himself as conjured up by Aleister Crowley-esque black magician Mocata.

The great Richard Matheson does solid work turning a novel by the often clunky Dennis Wheatley into a crisply executed occult thriller that clocks in at barely 100 minutes. Lee commands the screen as a reluctant, learning-on-the-fly white magician who must battle the powerful Mocata (a terrifically oily, ingratiating Charles Gray) for the souls of two people who have been pulled into Satanic worship. 

The rites and spells sometimes sound so odd that you’d swear they were lifted from H.P. Lovecraft or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder series and not from actual occult sources. This Hammer film has a fairly low budget, as Hammer films always did, but the cinematography, direction, and set design mostly make up for it. There are a couple of goofy moments involving visual effects, but a couple of things also work quite well.

The film is at its creepiest when it keeps its demons off-stage, but that’s true of virtually all horror movies. Wait for the moment in which a crucifix operates pretty much like the Holy Hand-grenade of Antioch. Reportedly this was Christopher Lee’s favourite of his many Hammer Horror Films, partially because he himself suggested they make it and partially, I assume, because he got to be a commanding good guy for once. Recommended.

Woman in Gold: adapted by Alexi Kaye Campbell from the life stories of E. Randal Schoenberg and Maria Altmann; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Helen Mirren (Maria Altmann), Ryan Reynolds (Randy Schoenberg), Tatiana Maslany (Young Maria), and Max Irons (Fritz Altmann) (2015): Fascinating true-life story of the 1990’s quest of an Austrian-American Jewish woman who strives to get her family paintings back from the Austrian government more than 50 years after they were stolen after the Nazi occupation of Austria. The kicker is that these aren’t just any paintings — five of them are by Gustav Klimt, and one of those is Portrait of Adele, aka Woman in Gold, Klimt’s most famous painting and one valued in the 1990’s at over $100 million.

Apparently I found the narrative and the legal manueverings more interesting than 45% of all reviewers. So it goes. Helen Mirren is wonderful as usual, as are the actors playing her character and others in flashback. Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly sturdy as the young Jewish-American lawyer who reluctantly takes on Mirren’s case. Perfunctory scenes between Reynolds and Katie Holmes as his initially doubting wife could have been cut from the film. 

As judges, Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce steal their only scenes. And I think the film does a laudable job of showing some of the moral horror of the Holocaust, and of anti-Semitism, still hanging on in the modern world: Austria’s attitude towards attempts to get stolen art back show a government and a group of people who still regard certain types of people as objects to be eliminated. But there are also “good” Austrians, as the film shows, both past and present. Recommended.

Shakespeare in Love: written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare; directed by John Madden; starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare), Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola de Lesseps), Colin Firth (Wessex), Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth), Ben Affleck (Alleyn), Rupert Everett (Christopher Marlowe), Geoffrey Rush (Henslowe), and Tom Wilkinson (Fennyman) (1998): 

Hollywood insiders generally consider Shakespeare in Love to be a masterpiece — specifically, producer/studio head Harvey Weinstein’s masterpiece of lobbying for awards. It took down the heavily favoured Saving Private Ryan for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1998, and garnered six other Oscars besides, including Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow and Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench.

It’s a very tight movie, wittily written and ably performed by pretty much everyone. The greatest weakness on the acting side isn’t Ben Affleck but Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare — he makes for a lovable romantic lead, sort of like a puppy dog, but there really isn’t a moment where one believes that he has much of an intellect or any artistic ability. Dench’s Oscar win now looks like the Academy voting for a showy piece of work in heavy make-up and costume: as Queen Elizabeth, Dench is a prickly, sarcastic lawn ornament.

The movie’s bathed for the most part in golden light for the romantic scenes; the rest of the time, it’s realistically lighted for the dirty streets and alleys of Elizabethan London. The wit of the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard can get a bit twee, and there’s a self-congratulatory air in the movie’s view of the Greatness of Theatre that can get a bit wearing at times. 

Nonetheless, it’s funny and at times quite moving, never moreso than in its final few minutes. I don’t know that its Oscar win was that much of an upset — it’s certainly better written than Saving Private Ryan, and unlike that film, Shakespeare in Love doesn’t have major third-act plot problems. Recommended.

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