In 1983 Albert Finney (Skyfall) and Tom Courtenay (Gambit) put to film one of the classics. Yates directed one of the best of his varied career in this original ; a pas de duex of power and love between people in their twilight. Yates’ broad background helped him make the wry humor and mental switchbacks both believable and poignant.
This year, Ian McKellan (Mr. Holmes) and Anthony Hopkins (RED 2), formidable in their own right, don the roles of Sir and Nathan anew. Helped by Sarah Lancashire (Last Tango in Halifax), Emily Watson (Book Thief), Edward Fox (Stage Beauty), and Vanessa Kirby (Jupiter Ascending), we get a view of the last day back-stage for a theatre troupe during the Blitz in London.
Directing them, Eyre (Hollow Crown, Notes on a Scandal, Stage Beauty) took Harwood’s original play and re-adapted it for the small screen. In the process the focus of the story changed as well, in part due to casting and, in part, due to the constraints of the smaller scale of the production. Eyre’s production has a much less formidable Sir. He is a shadow of himself, quite literally the Lear he portrays in the play within the film. Likewise, McKellan’s Norman is less complex and a tad more petty than Courtenay’s highly complex portrayal.
The result is interesting, if nothing else for the great cast, but not nearly as lasting as the 1983, larger-format production. I admit to never having seen the original play, so I cannot compare which is closer to the intent, but I suspect it is still the first movie, even if the second is likely closer to the theatrical script.
What it comes down to is that Hopkins just doesn’t fill the room the way Finney did. You can see he may have once commanded great loyalty, but anything left is pure habit by the time chronicled in this film. It makes it a lot harder to understand and feel compassionate for him and everyone in his circle. For McKellan’s part, his Norman doesn’t seem to have given up as much as Courtenay’s. The love and resentment that grows, as well as the fear of the times, has nothing to latch onto. There is no chemistry between the two men, despite some good moments. You feel more a voyeur at an old-age home, where residents with Alzheimer’s are being calmed by the one nurse that can connect with them, but there is very little affection, just duty.
I don’t mean to imply the overall result of this production isn’t good. Eyre is trying to do something very different than Yates. Fox’s Touchstone is the key into his intent, and it borders on the Bergman-esque. It certainly has impact. It is just different. In this case, I’m not sure it is better, and it definitely won’t be living in my memory the way the first movie has. However, the story is cleverly constructed around the night and the individual performances are quite good.