Hugo Weaving and the cast of Sydney Theatre Co’s Endgame are currently deep into rehearsals, with a scheduled first performance of the production March 31. (Official “Opening Night”, which will be when most reviewers start seeing the play, is 8 April; my experience is that the best time to catch a play with a run of a month ore more is either during previews or the final week. The actors are at their sharpest, either fresh out of rehearsals or getting that second wind that comes when the run is winding down. I’ve never seen a major mistake during previews from an actor of Hugo’s caliber (or, frankly, any actor at all in a major stage production. Occasionally the staging is still being tweaked, but, especially in the case of Beckett, the settings aren’t the reason you’re seeing the play.) 😉 Obviously mistakes or unforeseen incidents can happen at any time in a play’s run– I remember a major prop failure with one of Cate Blanchett’s guns during the NY run of Hedda Gabler, but she’s such a pro only people who’d seen earlier performances probably knew anything was amiss. And no, fortunately it wasn’t during the final scene. Just wanted to make the point that previews are a unsung bargain and often some of the best performances. AND you can form your own opinion without being swayed by the critics’ takes that come later. 😉
Sorry if I’m too chatty. I should probably get straight to the news. Limelight have more than delivered with their new Hugo Weaving interview on STC’s Endgame and Hugo’s love of Samuel Beckett in general. The interview is expansive and refreshingly on-topic, allowing Hugo time to discuss his interests and goals in theatrical acting (and, now, directing) with a depth most entertainment press features can’t achieve. There are also some lovely promo photos by James Green and photos from the 2013 production of Waiting For Godot by Lisa Tomasetti. The text and intriguing questions are by Clive Paget. Alas, there’s no online version available (at least not yet– I’ll post links if that changes) so here are the magazine scans. Limelight also mentioned Hugo flatteringly in this month’s Editor’s Letter and previewed the April issue in a brief video. You can buy print or digital copies of the April issue here.
Interesting to hear Hugo bring up Desert Island Discs again… the program was also referenced in 2003 promotion for Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (at STC) because it was a plot point in that play. Gotta say I find it fascinating and wonderfully counter-intuitive that Hugo would list Beckett as his Desert Island reading choice… most people opt for nostalgia or escapism of some sort. Of course, others (myself included) would find a desert island (or even a resort island) a somewhat hellish experience, so Beckett would be oddly comforting. 😉 I think the older one gets, the more Beckett becomes comedy rather than horror or tragedy, and the more human, relatable aspects shine through. Certainly I’d bring Beckett before Samuel Pepys… Pepys is interesting from a historical perspective but didn’t like Shakespeare, so there was clearly something wrong with him. 😉 *
The Key Man Finally Released On DVD
My review of The Key Man film and DVD (contains minor spoilers)
The Key Man, jokingly referred to by some longterm fans as Hugo’s “lost film”, has finally been released on North American DVD by Screen Media. The release is disappointingly stripped down, with no bonus features, deleted scenes or even subtitles, not even captions for the hearing impaired. The film is only about 80 minutes long and seems oddly incomplete (or poorly-edited), almost like someone took a hatchet to an intriguing 12-part series and cobbled together only the minimal part necessary to understand the plot. Well, sort of. As a result, the characters seem underdeveloped and there are several transitions that seem to come out of nowhere out of plot convenience, or possibly because most of the character moments that didn’t directly impact the plot were sheared away in post.
Hugo Weaving and Jack Davenport in the film’s first scene. All images: My screencaps from the first 20 minutes of the DVD
I’m going to assume anyone delving this deep into the three leads’ resumes already knows the basic plot: that the film is about a luckless insurance salesman named Bobby Scheinman (Jack Davenport) who’s lured into an insurance scam by an aging gangster (Brian Cox’s Irving) and a shady business heir with a sideline in acting (Hugo Weaving’s Vincent.) Bobby’s ostensible motive is to buy a house for his wife (Judy Greer) and young children, but his growing fascination with these criminal criminals and their opulent lifestyle causes him to ignore what should be obvious warnings that he’s putting himself and his family at great risk, and might become complicit in murder. I see I’ve gone out of my way to avoid certain spoiler content… I do hope to talk with other fans about this without needing to be so elliptical in the future, but I only received my DVD, and know others are still waiting, and I won’t play the spoiler-monkey. For those who like to know the absolute bare minimum about any film (and find even trailers spoilery)… you should wait until you see the film to read the rest of this. 😉
Brian Cox and Hugo Weaving in The Key Man
I’m giving a lot of benefit of doubt on the point of editing (ie missing scenes) because there’s a montage near the end that features a lot of footage that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the film, including what would appear to be establishing scenes between Jack Davenport and Hugo Weaving’s characters. If they existed, such scenes could give both characters– particularly Davenport’s protagonist, needed depth and complexity. As things are, Bobby seems like a more mannered, suburban variant on James Brolin’s character in No Country for old Men, ie a greed-driven empty vessel who puts others in dangers despite multiple warnings. The film’s unexpected post-script (which I won’t disclose) seems to belie this, suggesting there was a lot more going on in Bobby’s head, but this conflicted motivation should have bee woven throughout the plot. I have to believe a production this bare-bones must have started with a unique original script to draw actors of Weaving, Cox and davenport’s caliber. But it seems like the distributors didn’t know what to make of the finished film, and thus chopped it down to a rote thriller that follows a lot of the now-stale conventions of 70s film rather than jauntily reinventing them. Hugo and Brian Cox have some magnificent acting moments, but key connective tissue about their characters seems missing, which makes these great scenes seem to come out of nowhere. Vincent’s acting, for example, is barely mentioned before it suddenly becomes all-important, and Irving (Cox) goes from a murderous thug to a soulful, regretful pacifist with almost no transition.
The film is full of often-pretentious nods to 70s techniques like split-screen; often the directorial tricks seem more like showing off than devices in service of the plot and characters. Some scenes– mostly exteriors– appear grainy. At first I thought this was part of the film’s retro theme (a la Grindhouse), but other scenes are perfectly crisp, so I’m wondering if the grain is a side-effect of the low budget. The film is ostensibly set in the suburbs of Boston, but was obviously (to a New England resident) shot nowhere near there. I suppose I should be grateful there are clumsy Pick-up Shots Of Boston Landmarks crammed between scenes to distract us that the film was in fact shot in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The central scam of the film– that Vincent is buying a fraudulent insurance policy to help finance buying interest in the Boston Red Sox– would only seem plausible to someone who DIDN’T live in Boston in the 1970s… basically the proposal is akin to that of buying partial interest in the Brooklyn Bridge for pennies on the dollar. Bobby should instantly see such a ruse for what it is– or at least do some basic research. 😉 If more character-establishing scenes existed to explain why he doesn’t, and why he’s so easily drawn into Vincent’s scheme despite multiple warnings, the film might work. As it is, it seems like Bobby is naive in addition to henpecked into action to please his wife (Judy Greer) with a new house. Since Greer plays her underwritten character with her usual degree of understatement and charm (she has an amazing scene with Hugo late in the game), the latter motive doesn’t really wash.
I mentioned 70s tropes being reinforced rather than challenged or reinvented– the depiction of gay and female characters is another unfortunate side effect of possible editing or writing. The only two female characters– played by Greer and Carol Kane, who’s wasted in two minimal appearances as Bobby’s secretary– fall into types due to a lack of screentime. An early montage suggests the spark is going out of Bobby’s marriage, but this isn’t really explained or developed so much as played for uncomfortable laughter (a Johnny Carson clip from at least a decade after the film’s 1975 setting is thrown in as a punchline). And Greer’s portrayal is almost entirely sympathetic. It’s also suggested Bobby is falling behind in sales at work, which Vincent and Irving think will make him easy pickings for their scam. But this is also underwritten, particular when, late in the film, a colleague of Bobby’s reveals Vincent has unsuccessfully tried to lure others at the same insurance office. Wouldn’t that have become general knowledge at the firm, or at least gossip?
A major gay relationship between two characters is a major revelation, and seems played for shock value or prurient titillation, the way gay or cross-dressing characters (who were invariably villains) usually were in actual 70s film. One participant is the affair is barely sketched out, though he seems critically important to the proceedings and the insurance scam, so the audience is given nothing to work with regarding how to feel about him. The other participant– a main character– is depicted as flamboyant and even quasi-rapey at one point, but is also treated so fetishistically by the camera that one wonders if the creative team actually meant for the character to come across negatively. Again, here’s an area where additional scenes or greater nuance in existing scenes might add more complexity. The film’s ending, which ventures in a direction no rote 70s thriller would, suggests there was supposed to be more going on, and that there was a nascent love triangle somewhere in the film’s machinations. Maybe I’m reading too much into things. (I don’t usually try to add slashy plot elements where none were intended– or straight romantic elements for that matter. I don’t watch films primarily for the shipping potential.)
I’m going on so long because the film does have some great moments and intriguing subtexts amid the choppy editing and rote plot elements. So I have to think there was initially more to this. As it is, fans of Hugo Weaving and Brian Cox should see the film regardless, as these actors have some transcendent moments that hint these characters could each be spun into a very good series with the right creative team. (I can’t help but think of what Vince Gilligan has done with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, both stocked with miscreant characters given unexpected depth and relatability through the right alchemical mixture of acting, script and direction.) The Key Man’s writer/director, Peter Himmelstein, had never made a feature before this one. Reading Hugo’s thoughts on what an experienced actor can add to a newbie director’s work, I’d love to hear what he (or Brian Cox) initially saw in the script and what they might have though should be added. (Or, indeed, if some stuff was subtracted.) Hugo’s tendency to be both generous and unabashedly honest would make hearing his thoughts on this film very interesting.
A few other random thoughts: I probably will watch this again to make sure I’m being fair to it. I’ve actually seen The Tender Hook three times (in total, Hugo’s scenes more often) and this is definitely a better period caper than that dreary pile of genre cliches. Hugo’s Vincent could be said to be a weird transitional character between Hook’s McHeath and The Mule’s Croft, though each character has some unique traits. (I’m pretty sure Croft would find Vincent and McHeath’s penchant for Shakespeare-quoting and other refinements a bit dodgy. Well, he’d probably put things in less politically correct terms.) 😉 The Mule movie is leagues above either The Key Man OR The Tender Hook, and shows how challenging it is to get period genre films right. It’s probably not right to call The Key Man a “caper”, really, as it’s almost entirely devoid of humor. If anything, it could use a bit of leavening, and a less draggy “lite-jazz” soundtrack. But the camera loves Hugo and he steals every scene he’s in effortlessly. None of he actors disappoints, though Davenport is stuck with a purely reactive character, and for someone with decidedly-above-Keanu-Reeves level chops, this is frustrating. 😉
Re fan service: Yes, there are sauna scenes for all three protagonists, though no full nudity. There’s a hint of sex treated very glancingly (no nudity), though some fans will go heavy on the pause, zoom, and rewind. I’m not spoiling any aspect of that. Nothing makes me quite as furious as people who post such scenes (or stills from them) out of context without spoiler warnings before most fans can see the film as a whole. Since a lot of these indie fans are somewhat obscure, new fans in any given year should have the opportunity to see them without having major plot points spoiled in advance in the name of “fan service”, so such images should be posted via links with spoiler warnings. Just my opinion. Yes, I do draw a certain amount of titillation from Hugo’s sexier roles, but treating his work primarily as softcore porn is a bit disrespectful and juvenile. Hugo always emphasizes script and “character illumination” as his primary motive in choosing roles, so we should at least try to watch the films with that in mind the first time or two through. Fan service can follow for those into that, with the proper content advisories. Because, in all honesty, there’s no reason to watch The Right Hand Man more than one or two times except for the Hugo Nudity. 😉 The sauna scene featuring Hugo and Brian Cox gets a pass because it was in the trailer, though I was annoyed that some fan in Eastern Europe posted giant caps out of context years before the film was widely released. It should be noted that that scene contains no sexual activity or hint of sex between those characters. No Viggo-Mortensen-style nude knife-fights (Eastern Promises) either, alas. 😉
Odd trivia: The film’s opening credits (and a dream sequence that follows) give away key plot points, though in a veiled manner. I’d have preferred starting from the beginning of the actual story and dispensing with the arty spoilers, which might’ve allowed time for possibly-deleted character building scenes. Also, the DVD cover art image of a bloodied, bullet-riddled car windshield and bag of money are a completely fabricated scene that doesn’t happen anywhere in the film. 😉 And I am going to have to re-read Troilus and Cressida again after this. In some ways I can relate to Vincent’s feelings about the play, as my one experience seeing it in performance was an unfortunate experimental production. My primary memory is of one particular cast member wearing leather bondage gear spitting all over us amid his over-enunciating… 😉
A Few More Sundance Pics
Some nice images of Hugo Weaving with Joseph Fiennes, taken 24 January 2015 at Sundance during Strangerland promotion. Both photos by Jay L Clendenin/LA Times/Contour/Getty Images
Finally, novel author Rosalie Ham has shared another production diary post recounting her experiences working as an extra on the set of The Dressmaker. this time Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth and Judy Davis are casually name-dropped (I would to if I wrote a novel these actors starred in the film adaptation…) but Hugo is still referred to as “Segreant Farrat”. Could it be she doesn’t know his real name, or is just just particularly besotted with that character (or Hugo’s deptction of him)? An interesting read either way. The film opens October 1 in Australian, with international distribution to be announced. Here’s a short excerpt from Ham’s piece, and a set photo of the day described.
“Kate Winslet, dressed in startling red couture, walks across the Jung footy oval, her complexion very British in the Dungatar glare and the Australian bush green. Behind her, Judy Davis, small and magnetic, watches. Before her, Sergeant Farrat waits… The actors and their attentive entourage return. We watch the tall, lovely, leading man (Liam Hemsworth) play skilled, choreographed footy, the stunties hovering… ”
Kate Winslet and Judy Davis filimg The Dressmaker