An on screen, a love letter to silent cinema tipping the hat to moving pictures before they learned to talk. In this era of factory size multi-screen theatres with computer generated sound systems assaulting the ears, and digital projections of flying fists, projectiles, explosion debris, etc. bombarding the eyes, “The Artist” is an irresistible treat. Hurry to your nearest Bijou and treat yourself to a glorious silent black and white spectacle with a rapturous musical soundtrack. Barefaced melodramatic acting ailded by sporadically appearing intertitles allow the viewer to easily follow the storyline.
The plot opens in 1929 and we’re witness to a film-within-a-film at its premiere screening. The star is matinee idol George Valentin, played with preening exquisiteness by French actor Jean Dujardin (best actor winner at this year’s Cannes Festival), a square-jawed, double-breasted Douglas Fairbanks type. We’re also aware that Dujardin’s Valentin projects qualities of other early flapper era film stars Rudolph Valentino and Errol Flynn. Following the premiere, Valentin shares the red carpet with a star-struck aspiring actress, Peppy Miller, played by Brazilian beauty Berenice Bejo (real life wife to “Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius). The two are attracted to one another, then suddenly disaster attacks Valentin, the advent of talkies. Despite warnings from the studio, Valentin decides to play it safe and stick to making silent films (“I’m the one people come to see. They never needed to hear me”), while the young, ambitious Peppy embraces the new technology of sound. Their careers then veer in opposite directions. Valentin has rejected the advice of his studio producer (a marvelously expressive John Goodman) that times and tastes are changing and audiences are looking to sound and new faces to be entertained. True to his naive and optimistic nature, Valentin believes the public adores only him and that talking pictures are a passing fad.
In a few years, Peppy becomes Hollywood’s new ‘It” girl, the face and voice of a new ear, Valentin becomes a washed up tinsel town sad sack, a silent star from yesteryear discarded by the public. We’re sympathetic to the well-meaning character’s tumble from the top. Valentin doesn’t see it coming. At first he doesn’t ask himself a lot of questions. He’s sure of himself, but not arrogant, confident in the charm that he assumes without difficulty. Valentin is showy, always acting. It’s as if he’s only an image, a face on a poster and then, little by little, step by step, this confidence, this lightness start cracking and he’s going to go go down until he reaches the bottom. Luckily, there’s an angel watching over Valentine, which is revealed at “the end” in a most unexpected way.
Valentin’s only companions during his harsh fall from the spotlight are his chauffeur Clifton (veteran character actor James Cromwell) and his faithful Jack Russell terrier Jack (real name, “Uggy”) a shameless scene stealer. Dujardin and Bejo make a stunning couple, he with his Rudolph Valentino handsome features and megawatt smile, she with large flashing eyes, pretty face and instant appeal. Filled with delectable moments, there is much to savor in this charming throwback to ancient movie making. The film has a cleverly constructed tone that moves between comedy, melodrama, pathos and light satire sprinkled with melancholy.
It’s 100 minutes of innocent entertainment highlighting the early glory years of Hollywood. The film won five Oscars (nominated in ten categories) for best picture, director, actor in a leading role, original score, and costume design.
REYNOLDS’ CURTAIN CALL
Horses, those magnificent creatures, are magnificently re-created on the stage in the drama which has captivated critics and audiences in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. There’s no doubt positive reaction and box office build up will be repeated in the just opened Mirivsh production in Toronto. Because of advance buzz everyone is aware of the puppetry involved bringing horses to life in the theatre. We’re awed by the skeletal bamboo frames and internal hinges that give a realistic appearance to the quadrupeds integral to the story. A team of three performer/piuppeteers (head, heart, hind) manipulate the life-size models so they move, whinny startle and nuzzle with life-like precision. As the plot progresses, our imaginations are tricked into believing we’re seeing actual horses on stage. The blending of bittersweet narrative and human/animal relationships shake up emotions. It is after all a compelling story of a boy and his horse.
Joey, the hero of “War Horse” is truly a miracle steed. He is been taken away from Albert, sold to the cavalry and sent to battle. Joey represents the million strong army of horses that served alongside British troops during World War I. Albert enlists (lying about his age) and begins a quest on the battlefield to find his beloved four-legged pal. The onstage battle scenes depicting casualties of men and horses are particularly unsettling, but vital in emphasizing the strong bond between Albert and Joey leaving audiences wrung out and weepy.
The Canadian War Museum is lending an authentic historical touch during the Toronto run of War Horse. Over 30 of the Museum’s First World War-era cavalry and veterinary artifacts are on display in a mini-exhibition at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Text panels explain how the evolution of machine guns, artillery and heavily defended trenches limited the role of cavalry on the Western Front for much of the war. Most horses pulled supply wagons or guns, although mounted units saw greater action during the more mobile fights of 1918. The exhibition illustrates the conditions and dangers to which horses were exposed. On display are surgical instruments and recovered shrapnel, including bullets and fragments from wounded horses. Canadian veterinary officers worked tirelessly to treat sick and injured animals, and to improve the atrocious working and living conditions suffered by horses. It’s estimated that as many as four in five horses lost by British and Commonwealth Forces were victims of disease, exposure or exhaustion rather than enemy fire.
“War Horse” is a thrilling theatrical experience, a monumental example of creative stage craft. The effects in Steven Spielberg’s excellent film are digitally created in a computer program, but it’s a daunting challenge to recreate in theatre. The Mirvish production is admirable and a triumph that stands up to the original mounting by The National Theatre of Great Britain. On stage, “War Horse” is a galloping triumph. an experience that will remain in memory.
Performances continue at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.