Review: Tove (Dir. Zaida Bergroth, 2020)

It is hard not to picture Tove Jansson (1914-2001), as a shyly smiling, jumper-clad woman pushing 70, windswept or chain-smoking on her island of Klovharun. Zaida Bergroth’s charming new film seeks to expand upon that image and expose more about the woman, artist, writer and Moomins creator. What’s in a name? Tove [Too-veh]. Such a diminutive old Norse word meaning ‘beautiful thunder’ and so obviously close to the English spelling of love, and boy did she ever. It appears to have been the driving force of her whole life’s wonderful adventure.

Tove focusses on three specific time periods 1944, ’47 and ’52 as Jansson navigates her artistic struggles, successes, love and loss. Beginning during war-time – after a brief and lively opening vignette – 30-year-old Tove (Alma Pöysti) sketches as bombs sound around her. It immediately establishes place, time and general mood as life, in Helsinki, begins again. There’s more disagreement with her famous sculptor-father Viktor (Robert Enckell) in which he once again attempts to dismiss her work and instil his artistic merit upon her. Apparently, her drawings do not constitute as ‘art’ – and she even describes herself as a “a bleak shadow of his genius” when eyebrows raise at the sound of her surname.

She leaves the family home and rents a dilapidated space ravaged by the war, missing windows, heat and electricity in order to gain her independence and create. Living, loving, working and sleeping in one large room. While Tove’s frustrations are evident, she continually strives to push herself without ever fully realising her artistic success and as the years advance, how beloved she will become. From her solo art exhibitions, tenure as a visual artist on GARM magazine to her publications of Moomins stories and weekly comic strips in the Evening News, all are given some attention here. As are her love stories, for there are many. Affection surrounds her via her graphic designer mother Signe (Kajsa Ernst), brother Lars (Wilhelm Enckell), fellow artists Sam Vanni (Jakob Öhrman) and Maya Vanni (played by the film’s screenwriter Eeva Putro) – but none more impactful during this time than her lovers, journalist-cum-MP Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) and theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). It is their relationships which allow for personal and professional growth, and which sets her on the path to meeting the love of her life.

While Tove’s lifestyle trangressed the conventional, the film seeks to normalise it in the same vein as Carol (2015) and Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017). Depicting a time when society refused to accept the existence of the queer community. There was huge risk involved, Finland wasn’t always so advanced in relation to LGBTQIA+ rights. The decriminalisation of homosexuality did not occur until 1971 and then it, and lesbianism, (there was no word for pansexuality then either) was considered a diagnosed ‘illness’ for another decade after. Tove’s bravery to live authentically is the film’s main focus.

Whether you consider Jansson a pansexual radical or not remains to be seen – though when one thinks of the themes and amorphous gender identities embedded within the Moomin stories and the many satirical caricatures in print by her hand over the years, she was. Bona fide. Yet what we do get here is a fully-formed, credible version of her and that’s largely due to Alma Pöysti’s wonderful performance. No stranger to Jansson, she first portrayed her on stage in 2017.

Resemblance aside, her Tove is a joy: fierce, child-like, funny, wicked and supremely talented. People are drawn to her sunny disposition. Which is often literal as she is bathed in light, yellow and golds emitting a halo of warmth around her head and making her face glow. At times Tove is the burst of colour within a frame of muted dullness while at others, primary colours flood scenes, with the room décor matching Tove’s costumes -beautifully designed by Eugen Tamberg – the fabrics of which are often reminiscent of illustrations which are in and adorn the Moomin books.

This attention to detail and use of light and tone is gorgeous and make Catherine Nyquist Ehrnrooth’s production design and Linda Wassberg’s cinematography sing. All cherry-topped with Mattie Bye’s eclectic soundtrack which brings together the likes of Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Glenn Miller and the more contemporary Mambo noir trio amongst his own compositions. Dancing was incredibly important in Moominland and it seems only fitting that Tove has her own recurring motif when she goes to bust a move in the form of Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing which bookends the film rapturously.

Little has changed in regards to the discourse surrounding art and the preoccupation with dictating who can create and what (but that’s a patriarchy for you). Declaring one form as somehow superior to the other was just as ludicrous as it is now; art is art just as love is love, and thankfully while it clearly gave her pause, it never stopped her. Jansson began providing illustrations for GARM at fifteen and continued until 1953, her work found its way into publications of The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She authored five novels and seven short story collections which followed the seventeen works (including novels, short stories, picture books and comic strips) featuring her beloved Moomins.

It is heart-breaking in those moments when she considers herself a failed artist, and dismisses the stories and sketches as “just for children”. Especially when she worked so tirelessly on the drawings and placed herself and each and every person she loved within the pages, constantly using words and pictures to express her feelingswhether they were separated or not. Moomintroll became her alter-ego (“Love makes Moomintroll brave”), Atos became Snufkin, Vivica/Vifslan – Jansson was able to code their love in the symbiosis of Toflslan and Vifslan (known as Thingumy and Bob) – and her partner of 46 years Tuulikki Pietilä (Joanna Haartti) the inspiration for Too-Ticky. Staggeringly, on top of all of that, she still found the time to write some 92,000 letters (by hand) to her ‘darlings’. This connection between art and love is rendered beautifully in the film whether through the re-painting of a canvas in stifling white, the creation of a fresco mural, or new love triggering a portrait in oils.

Tove is a sumptuous celebration of an inspirational and adventurous life. It intimately re-creates just eight years in the life of an iconic artist and the genesis in the creation of a cultural legacy. A beautiful thunder clap that lived with courage, curiosity, and passion, and one who loved fiercely and honestly.

Tove is in cinemas 9 July from Blue Finch Film Releasing

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Miracle Worker (Dir. Arthur Penn, 1960)

Helen Keller lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak at 19 months old after contracting a mystery illness (although, Doctors now believe it was more than likely Scarlet Fever). Over 25 years, she learnt to communicate and learn. Her schooling took her from Alabama to Boston and New York before she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904 aged 24 and so – following the publishing of her memoir The Story of My Life – began her career of social and political activism (women’s suffrage, birth control, pacifism, socialism), and as an lifelong advocate for the blind and deaf before co-founding the ACLU.

By Keller’s side, during this time and until her own death in 1936 was Anne Sullivan. Sullivan became Keller’s teacher at just 20 years-old when she left The Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts for rural Alabama and the cotton plantation that the Kellers lived on.

It is this time period – well, that first month to be exact – that is the basis for The Miracle Worker. Keller’s story would have its genesis in TV before heading for the Broadway stage. It was adapted for the screen by William Gibson (who originally wrote the stage play) with Arthur Penn directing his own Broadway hit in 1962. Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke reprised their roles from the stage to screen to critical acclaim including two gold and shiny Academy Awards which they both received, respectively, following the film’s release.

While it opens rather histrionically, with a scene between Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) and the Captain (Victor Jory), thankfully the film quickly finds it dramatic feet with those early moments giving weight to the immediacy Helen’s hearing, speech and sight were lost as a baby. The first seven years pass in the blink of an eye and the young Helen is now wild, unruly, almost feral because no one understands her (or even really tries to). Instead, they allow her to get away with erratic behaviour and even violence, a concept far easier on their lives.

Our introduction to Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) is at the train station bidding her current students’ farewell as she leaves for Alabama. The slight Irish lilt is a little distracting given that the real Anne, although the daughter of Irish immigrants, was allegedly born in Boston, however, it serves as way of establishing the difference in background of the woman – whose own sight was damaged at aged five – and the Kellers who reside on the plantation property.

It is during this travelling montage that we see flashes of Anne’s memories and her humble beginnings. Images are out-of-focus and superimposed within the frame, almost like photographs that have not been properly developed. It’s an excellent touch and however fleeting immediately flag the aspects of life Anne is haunted by. Within moments of meeting each other, Helen learns the word ‘D-O-L-L’, however, with family members still around offering unnecessary commentary describing Helen as either a ‘monkey’ or ‘fencepost’, Anne’s job is never made any easier.

Bancroft’s Sullivan takes no prisoners. She is pushy, likes to challenge the rules with her quick temper, and as a result her relationship with the Captain comes across as a pre-cursor to that of George Banks and Mary Poppins. The two are continually at logger-heads not helped by his ‘Southern Gentleman’ ways, booming voice and dismissive, tyrannical nature. Anne attempting to teach Helen is a long, arduous task. Yet, at no point is the child pitied. Duke humanises her, makes Helen a fully formed character who happens to have a disability. One which her family seeks to define her by.

These scenes between are utterly compelling but hard to watch. They’re wrought, fraught with repetition and open-handed slaps and biting – not just on Helen’s part – it is at times amusing without necessarily meaning to be and can even be described as abusive but it is a means to an end. Anne is determined to teach the ‘problem child’, make her unlearn all those awful habits her family have ignored even encouraged, and submit to learning.

While there is the occasional diegetic sound – a pair of heavy boots smacking against the wooden floor as the girl thrashes about during a tantrum or the smashing of plates – scenes between the two leads are largely silent, only occasionally punctuated lovingly by Laurence Rosenthal’s melodic soundtrack and the instrumental leitmotif of the song ‘Mockingbird’. Aram Avakian’s editing is flawless and Ernesto Caparrós cinematography stunning under Penn’s directorial eye. Yes, it is staged and the camera tends to be static more often than not but it works.

Holding all of this together are two extraordinary performances, supported ably by Swenson, Jory and Andrew Prine (as Helen’s older half-brother James). Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke are superb together and it is more than easy to see why they both won the critic’s favour and countless awards for these roles – so ingrained in her career was The Miracle Worker that Duke would not only play the Sullivan role on TV in 1979 (opposite Melissa Gilbert) but would go onto direct a run of the play in Washington during 2011. You root for both teacher and pupil throughout and by the breath-taking and cathartic ending, you love them.

Fact has been blurred somewhat, and some truths left out altogether, however, it isn’t terribly important. There is the question of whether this film could be made in this day and age without severe backlash (one tends to think not in the wake of ‘woke’). Yet, even without knowing Helen and Anne’s real history; the grit, determination and sheer awe-inspiring narrative and gutsy performances on display here are more than enough for an audience to invest in.

Disc Extras

The film has now been restored in 1080p from a high definition digital transfer by Eureka Entertainment, as part of their Classics range and is released, available on Blu-ray for the first time, this week.

The disc restoration is evident especially when original footage is viewed via the theatrical trailer (2:21). The clean-up is very good, scratches are minimal, there is still some grain visible but extreme close-ups are crystal clear serving both women’s framing, Bancroft’s pores often visible and Duke’s child-like open face and vacant eyes transfixing (the resemblance between the 16-year-old actress and her eldest son Sean is striking).

Extras are kept to a minimum on this release when compared to some of Eureka’s other releases. However, in addition to the theatrical trailer there is an audio essay provided by critic and author Amy Simmons (11:14), who not only places the picture within historical context but also discusses the thematics of Arthur Penn’s oeuvre. It’s an interesting albeit short essay played over a slide show of stills (one can’t help but feel an extended version would have made an excellent commentary for the entire film). However, the film and its performances make up for any lack some may feel.

Accompanying the disc is a collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and film critic/author Richard Combs.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Man of a Thousand Faces (Dir. Joseph Pevney, 1957)

Man of a Thousand Faces begins with the following cue: “On August 27 1930, the entire Motion Picture industry suspended work to pay tribute to the memory of one of its great actors. This is his story.” Except, well, it’s not. It’s the ‘Hollywood’ version steeped in melodrama and all a little dull.

At the Universal studio lot, the flag flies at half-mast as Irving Thalberg (played by the late Robert Evans, sans perma-tan) makes his own tribute to “The phantom of the opera.” In actuality, work was not suspended but a two minute silence was conducted in the wake of Lon Chaney’s death – nor were his most successful films made at Universal… This film starts as it means to go on, dramatising and conflating the life of an extremely private man who, if history books are to be believed, would have shunned even this mediocre production.

The biopic begins with the obligatory flashback which will serve the overarching narrative and then loop back around; aligning childhood, trauma and tragedy which is seemingly how it wants to establish Chaney (James Cagney). It traces his career from the Vaudeville stage to the cinema screen and admirably attempts to squeeze 30 years into 122 minutes, perhaps had the film been cast differently it may just have worked.

As talented as Cagney arguably was, there’s no way he can pull off aged 22 at 56 convincingly. Not to mention the physical limitations; a tall sinewy figure with a distinctive growl never really translates to a chipper Irish-American barely reaching 5’7”. Star personas were prevalent during the studio system and it’s fair to say, Cagney was horribly miscast nor did he have the lithe grace Chaney exhibited or the creepy melancholy.

If there’s one word used to describe the tone of the film, it is tragedy, as it prefers to add weight to the man’s alleged suffering than his film career. Hammering home his deaf-mute parents, hitting child abandonment and the dissolution of his marriage along the way, to having to place son Creighton in an orphanage and then, well, death. It’s all rather dreary; at odds with the sweeping epic soundtrack and the man whose early career began in Vaudeville and making people laugh. Why his parents’ deafness defines him or them, for that matter, appears to be a sign of the times – as for when that is the film does little to quantify. Creighton (he who would become Lon Chaney Jr.) is the only real evidentiary passage of time as the part is split between four actors (Dennis Rush, Rickie Sorensen, Robert Lydon and Roger Smith) each older than the next. None of which is helped by the occasional fifties-looking costuming.

Before his ‘big break’ as a lead, Chaney worked tirelessly and took every job he could, often making himself over and disguising his natural attributes depending on what was required on the call sheet. His ground-breaking make-ups led the way for the likes of Jack Pierce. Bud Westmore, Dick Smith, and, of course, Rick Baker among many, many others. It was then that casting agents began to take notice and he was cast in The Miracle Man thanks to his ability to twist and coil his body into unnatural positions. This would lead to arguably his greatest roles: The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in which he gravitated, yet again, to the tortured and afflicted depicting the tormented empathy of Quasimodo. Cagney tries but it’s hard not to see Cagney playing ‘Cagney’ imitating Chaney, or ‘Chagney’ if you will.

Obviously, given the decades between meant different make-up processes and evolution of the prosthetic. The make-up recreations in Man of a Thousand Faces are pretty awful given that Westmore et al would have used more modern supplies and they are still nowhere as convincing as Chaney and his ‘crude’ materials. Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice that camera-angles vary in relation to the original films, they’re not quite as polished.

It’s not all terrible, there are some high points. The father-son relationship shines and the performances from the actors who played the young(er) Creighton are lovely. These moments highlight Chaney’s love of mime and character, donning wigs and a false nose to “show” his son a bedtime story. The use of sign language is refreshingly brilliant for a film as old as this, when communicating it’s all about the face which for Lon Chaney it was. His.

He worked in cinema from 1914-1930 with 100 of his 157 films either lost or destroyed. It’s a missed opportunity that the 2000 documentary, The Man of a Thousand Faces narrated by Sir Kenneth Branagh isn’t included in the extras here. However, if Chaney holds an interest for you, seek it out, it’s really informative and one gets to see the original performer rather than a shallow impersonation. While the film never quite reaches the heights expected, the transfer is stunning. It is clear and crisp with very little residing grain which serve the make-up replicas and those stark chiaroscuro shadows which ‘Chagney’ often lurks within.

Lon Chaney died from a throat haemorrhage brought on my complications from the cancer that he was diagnosed with years earlier. An almost karmic fate for a versatile entertainer who sought silence both on stage and screen – his last film (a remake of Browning’s The Unholy Three) was his only speaking role – and has been revered ever since.

Disc Extras

Commentary by Tim Lucas – this is highly informative and provides great education for those unfamiliar with Chaney and his work and those that are interested in their broadening their knowledge. Lucas provides lots of information and titbits, paying particular attention to historical context – something the film sorely lacks.

The Man Behind a Thousand Faces: Kim Newman on Lon Chaney (20:52) Filmed in a cluttered room full of DVDs and books, Kim in his signature red waistcoat and cravat discusses the silent stars of Hollywood’s heyday including Chaplin, Garbo, Valentino and of course Chaney. Newman’s brief foray into the topic is not overly focussed and feels more conversational in tone which is a great contrast to the slightly more scripted and academic commentary. He maintains that Chaney lingers long in the cultured memory “and without Chaney’s make up Karloff and Lugosi would have contrived to play gangsters, and never Universal monsters (though, I’m sure Jack Pierce would have argued with that). He also thinks Cyrano de Bergerac was the role Chaney was made for but never got the chance to play. The chat is intercut with clips from the films and sadly, ends rather abruptly.

Theatrical Trailer (1:33) – It’s always worth watching the film’s theatrical trailer if only to see the original footage prior to the restoration process, and the extent of the transfer and clean up.

Image Galleries – These include 82 slides of production stills which show the costumes and make-ups in greater detail (not always a pro) and give more opportunity to see Bud Westmore’s clunky recreations albeit all in black and white. In addition to the slides, there are 18 posters and lobby cards in both monochrome and colour from all over the world including France, Spain, Germany and Russia.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Colour of Pomegranates (Dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1968)

There are two versions of The Colour of Pomegranates to choose from on disc one of the Second Sight limited edition box set. The Armenian version (“Parajanov’s cut) was restored – explained in the introductory intertitles – from the original camera negative provided by Gosfilmofond in Russia, in addition to the 35mm dupe negative held by the National Cinema Centre of Armenia. The Russian version (“Yutkevich’s cut) is presented “for posterity” using the original camera negative. For the purposes of this review, the Armenian version will be the one referred to, it is after all Sergei Parajanov’s vision which deserves to be seen uncut.

Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, born Harutyun Sayatyan, (1712-1795) is the subject of The Colour of Pomegranates and although not a typical biopic, it does approach Sayatyan’s life in linear order from his birth into a wool-dyeing family, his education in literature by the Armenian Church; to his marriage, subsequent widowerhood and his monastic life in Haghpat before his death through a series of non-narrative visually poetic frames. The most significant aspects of the poet’s life are depicted through detailed tableaux, combining colour, costume and music within an extraordinary mise-en-scéne. Parajanov used a static camera so every scene resembles a painting with a theatricality to the performances – which renders the 4K scan and colour grading beautifully naturalistic despite the overt artifice within each frame. One could argue against the film’s accessibility but it is easy to follow, rich in metaphor, symbolism and allegory that its historical and biographical basis within Armenian culture means it is deeply resonant on a universal level.

“In this healthy and beautiful life only I have been made to suffer. Why is that so?”

Only when looking into Sergei Parajanov’s life does it also becomes apparent – and the disc extras help hugely in this – that TCOP isn’t just about Sayat Nova. The Georgian-born Armenian Parajanov was considered a controversial director of the Soviet era and yet is now regarded as one of the greatest masters of cinema. After seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), the inspired filmmaker changed his artistic method and, in 1964, made Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors in this new style to international acclaim, while at home its aesthetic and ideology was attacked and promptly banned. Even when Parajanov moved back to Armenia from Russia, it made little difference. Russian censors deemed …Pomegranates inappropriate, claiming it did not reflect Sayat Nova’s (who had been dead some 174 years at that point) life, renamed it and instigated a trial and imprisonment. Parajanov was jailed for five years with a whole host of vague charges levelled at him including suspected homosexuality, illegal antiques trading, incitement of suicide… he was forbidden from making films for the next 15 years.

The Colour of Pomegranates is a unique and fascinating achievement and it’s easy to see its inspiration in the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Tarsem Singh’s work. Some may call it obtuse but even with its limited use of language, it is glorious in content, colour and cinematography – one of those films you should see before you die. This luxurious box set is, aptly, as rich in content as the film itself. Second Sight have packed the limited edition with extras which enhances (and informs) the experience.


Parajanov’s Cut: The Armenian version of the film (80 mins) – complete with an annotated commentary by James Steffen, author of The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, and advisor of the new restoration.

Yutkevich’s Cut: The Russian version of the film (70 mins). This has an annotated commentary by Levon Abrahamyan.

Disc 2

Kyiv Frescoes (14:36) – new 2K restoration, accompanied by an annotated commentary by Daniel Bird. During 1965, Parajanov worked on these screen tests, when the film was cancelled and production halted indefinitely the filmmaker took his screen tests and made them into a short film which is a celebration of the great patriotic war.

Pomegranates Rediscovered (8:38) – a short film describing the restoration process, the presentation of negatives, colour grading and the 4K scan. Presented by Cecilia Cenciarelli of Cineteca Di Bologna, this is really interesting, particularly with the split screen comparison showing the amount of work it took to reproduce this gorgeous film.

Free Parajanov! (11:39) – An audio interview with Tony Rayns which plays over stills from the film. In it the critic discusses how he discovered Parajanov and the first screening he attended of The Colour of Pomegranates.

The World is a Window: The Making of The Colour of Pomegranates (75:58) – This in depth documentary is enlightening, if a little dry in places as four contributors; scholars James Steffen and Karla Oeler, photographer Yuri Mechitov and cultural anthropologist Levon Abrahamyan discuss the making of the film amid the political climate.

Memories of Sayat Nova (31:38) – Short subtitled film by Levon Grigoryan from 2006. The most interesting aspect is that the film states that it is “impossible to restore Sayat Nova” and contains grainy footage from the then finished film (which would then end up as a purple-hued negative as seen in a previous extra). That version was shorter, the full cut never destined to be restored.

Parajanov: A Requiem (59:06) – A short documentary from 1994 featuring the filmmaker – an extremely happy delight of a man – who recounts the casting process of the film, his thoughts on being a director (they can never be trained, “it is a gift from the womb”). He discusses his time in prison and presents footage from his earlier films, shows the exhibits which would become part of the Parajanov Museum. The last third holds footage from the Venice Film Festival (1988) and Istanbul Film Festival (1989) where the filmmaker introduces his film. At the latter, he rather poignantly declares he “would like to die after this.” He passed the following year.

120-page limited edition book – this features an introduction by Martin Scorsese, archive material, new writing, costume designs, storyboards and original literary script (unavailable for review).


Review: My Friend Dahmer (Dir. Marc Meyer, 2017)

There’s usually always one. The slightly awkward loner in school; the social outcast whose interests include tennis, band practice, binge-drinking and, you know, dissolving dead animal carcasses in acid. For Revere High in Ohio, during the seventies, that kid was Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch).

Based on fellow classmate, John ‘Derf’ Backderf’s bestselling graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer takes place during a very specific timeframe, the graduating year of 1977-78. The isolated teenage Dahmer makes friends (well, almost) with Derf (Alex Wolff), Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer) as they look forward to college and a life beyond the oppressive institution that is high school. For Dahmer, it was the year his warring parents (played respectively by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) finally divorced and abandoned him just prior to his first (human) kill.

Backderf’s comic – the original source material for Director Marc Meyer’s script – is a stark portrait, weirdly grotesque with a sweet and sinister edge. It depicts high school as a cruel and relatable experience, that yearning to fit in, the shelter it provides from the harsher outside world, and that’s just for every other kid who doesn’t grow up to be a killer. There’s a tenderness in Derf’s pages as he recounts his life as a teenager looking in on the kid that doesn’t belong. Sadly, by changing the narrative point-of-view, the film loses that originality and becomes yet another character study depicting the early years of a serial killer. The coming-of-age aspect and the odd pacing means, as a whole, it never quite coalesces.

That said, there are nice touches, little story kernels which hint at the future: the gifting of the dumbbells, the choice of roommate on the class trip, even his mother – not afforded much screentime but played brilliantly by Heche – declaring at the dinner table that they now “eat their mistakes”. The mise-en-scène tends to consist of yellows, greens, browns and blues and Dahmer’s costumes co-ordinate with the surroundings. He blends into the background, hiding in plain sight, repressing his hinted-at sexuality and more macabre predilections until that fateful day he chose to pick up Steven Hicks.

Ross Lynch’s performance is chilling – he has the vacant stare and distinctive gait down, second only to Jeremy Renner’s portrayal in the 2003 biopic Dahmer. Somewhat apt given that this film could act as a pre-cursor to that one. The first half of the serial killer’s life as it were. Given his tumultuous family life, it is easy to pity the strange and lonely boy depicted in this film, however, any sympathy is limited. Feigning meltdowns, ridiculing and mimicking palsy, reenacting his mother’s manic episodes AKA ‘spaz attacks’ as entertainment reveals the darker side of Jeff’s nature even before the murders, necrophilia and cannibalism.

My Friend Dahmer is a somewhat unremarkable and slight study of a psychopath in the suburban seventies. It lacks the nuance and honesty of the source material but manages to humanise the human before he became a monster and begs the question: where were all the adults?


Review: Behind the Candelabra (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2013)


Upon hearing the news regarding Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ I, like a lot of the movie-going public, flocked to see Side Effects (2013) and was left utterly disappointed. For me Haywire (2011), Magic Mike (2012) and the afore-mentioned have not been, well, particularly good. However, any reluctance I felt about Behind the Candelabra quickly dissipated upon reading reviews from Cannes and seeing the odd TV spot/trailer – also general curiosity is hard to ignore.

The film is based upon the memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson, which recounts the tempestuous six year relationship between the blonde, animal handler Thorson and the pianist extraordinaire and showman, Liberace. The candelabra referring to the sparklingly opulent piece of tableware Liberace always had placed upon his piano. The interesting thing about the candle tree is that, literally, you cannot actually hide behind it, but arguably be seen through it, part of your features hidden from view. Soderbergh attempts to show the viewer what is behind it, a glimpse of a man who insisted on hiding his sexuality from view. Unable to secure a major Hollywood studio to back the film, the director believed that studio rejection was down to it being ‘too gay’, thankfully, HBO stepped into the breach and produced this biopic. As a result, there will be no cinema release in the States and any accolades that Douglas could be nominated, or indeed deserve, for his portrayal of the flamboyant entertainer, are limited to Europe.


It is 1977 and the opening scene introduces the viewer to Thorson (Matt Damon) and his simple lifestyle working with animals and living with his Foster parents Rose and Joe Carracappa (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown) on a ranch in California. He is picked up in a bar by Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who, upon next meeting, flies the teenager to Vegas to meet ‘Lee’. Thorson quickly finds himself in a relationship with the much older, closeted, devout Catholic star. Spanning ten years, each year displayed upon an intertitle, Scott and Lee’s six-year relationship is very much a give-and-take kind of liaison; Liberace heaps wealth, in the form of gold and diamond jewellery, clothes, cars and a fixed abode in one of the most ostentatious surroundings, and Scott gives him what he needs in the bedroom. The pianist lived the life he chose, believing that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’. He, on countless occasions, denied his homosexuality and swiftly sued any tabloid/journalist who reported otherwise. The man purported on screen is one not completely removed from the lovable, warm, smiley entertainer the world seems to remember – perhaps a little darker. There is no denying the attraction to young men, however, the lonely star appeared to want a lover, friend, and son in Thorson and during one bizarre sequence ‘Lee’ and Scott meet with a lawyer to discuss the adoption process.


Their idyll becomes too comfortable with both surrendering to food during their extended ‘love-in’ and upon seeing himself on the Johnny Carson show, Liberace declares that he can no longer look so old. He enlists the surgical expertise of Dr Jack Startz (a ridiculous-looking Rob Lowe) and has a full face-lift, eye-lift…the whole shebang – the only side effect being that he cannot close his eyes, even when sleeping. Startz also sets out to recreate Scott too, into a young Liberace, complete with chin and cheek implants. The doctor then prescribes diet pills and Thorson’s spiralling unhappiness and claustrophobia from the reclusive living environment develops into an addiction with the ‘California Diet’ pills making way for cocaine. This then sees Scott sell off his possessions one by one, in order to support his increasing habit. Scott’s despondency, drug-induced mood swings and struggling with the concept of monogamy, Liberace begins to shut his lover out and they begin fighting amid jealous recriminations. It all comes to a head when Rose dies and Liberace insists on flying Scott home for his foster mother’s funeral. Upon return, Lee has already moved in Scott’s replacement and so begins a bitter battle when Scott attempts to sue for palimony – their life together, he insists, was a marriage.

In his first role since his cancer remission, Michael Douglas’ star has never shone quite so bright – not since Falling Down (1993, dir. Joel Schumacher) and Wonder Boys (2000, dir. Curtis Hanson) has he owned the screen in quite the same way – in fact, he is incandescent, sequins and glittering diamonds aside. It is hard to reconcile the virile, ladies man of the 80s and 90s, with this role; I would go as far as to say that this was the role he was born to play. Damon is, as ever, a strong presence as Thorson and the supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds as mother (Frances) Liberace, and Dan Aykroyd as Lee’s manager Seymour Heller is a joy, complete with a hairpiece to rival the showstopper himself. This feels like an HBO production and yet it still retains the richer, stylistic nuances which are associated with Soderbergh: lighting, colour washes, oblique camerawork and point-of-view. Whether his retirement or sabbatical from filmmaking is true, I am quite content for Behind the Candelabra (especially with that fabulously kitsch, blinging and camp dénouement) to be literally, albeit not technically, my last Soderbergh; at least for the time being.