The story goes that when Dr Strangelove was first conceived, it was conceived as a dramatic script. Somewhere during the writing process, a funny idea came to Kubrick’s mind. And then another, and another, until what emerged was one of the best political satires of the 20th century. Adam McKay, the writer-director of Vice is no Kubrick. He is by no means a bad director. He is probably an even better writer than a director.
However, the impression that Vice leaves with the viewer is that the idea of turning this political drama onto a satire seemed to have sprung up on him during post-production, leaving us confused as to what we were watching. He seems to have whipped up ideas as he went along while editing the picture and attempted to gloss over any inconsistencies through the use of fishing visual metaphors.
At times it felt like we were being privy to an avalanche of sensitive information regarding the way the free world is being run. This, I must confess, brought on a feeling of physical discomfort. It almost instinctively made me think that there are levels of corruption that we, as regular folk can only imagine. Either that or Adam McKay is very good at imagining and filling in the blanks left by the Bush administration by using private email servers.
While busying itself with painting a demonic picture of Dick Cheney, the film manages to dehumanise him, thus almost excusing him from all the machinations and Machiavellian dealings we see him carry out in the film. Christian Bale’s performance is an almost perfect representation of what Cheney looked like, spoke and acted in front of the cameras, but there is little depth to it. The monster is one-dimensional and thus less believable and less feared. At the beginning of the story we are told that it’s the quiet ones we should fear, the men in the shadow of those in power, thus giving Cheney an aura of insidiousness. However, there is nothing insidious about Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney. We get very little insight into what his driving force is, other than the all-encompassing American love for his family and his country. Protecting his family and his country gives Cheney carte-blanche to go off starting wars in the Middle-East. And yet, that motive isn’t as well defined as one might have hoped. There’s an indication at profit to be made from the oil in Irak, but that is also quickly swept under the carpet.
While the film is very rich in ideas as well as modes of execution, what it is lacking in is the consistency to present a story. It may even be accused of suffering from the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ syndrome, which makes the subject matter alone deserving of respect, regardless of the way it is presented to the public. After all, a biopic about a hated man and a crucial part in American history should have the same gravitas as a biopic about what is arguably considered the best frontman that has ever graced the music stage, and thus get as many accolades. While neither film manages to truly earn its Oscar worthiness, the saving grace for Bohemian Rhapsody was Rami Malek’s astonishing performance. In the case of Vice, Christian Bale’s central performance might have driven the film too far into caricature territory had it not been for the supporting performances of Amy Adams, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk and Sam Rockwell, the latter’s portrayal of a buffoon president being welcome with a knowing grin. After all, it’s hard to imagine G W Bush depicted in any other way. Amy Adam’s Lynne Cheney almost succeeds to be a well-rounded character, despite a few far-right outbursts that come off as a bit too much for a 2019 audience.
All in all, Vice is a passable film that raises as many questions about American politics as it answers, and which could have probably been even more enjoyable had it fully embraced the Brechtian aesthetic it merely toyed with.
Was Bergman’s vision as a filmmaker translated into his theatre work with the same passion, complexity and zest for life? I would not know, for I would need a time portal to place me in 1906s Stockholm. Wouldn’t that be the dream?
But Bergman’s immense legacy is a fluid totem, an endless tapestry of colour and shadows upon which we can still, if our hands are able enough, weave intricate stories of life, death love, lust and loss.
Was Bergman’s spark of brilliance spotted in London’s West End last night? Perhaps so.
Stephen Beresford, the playwright certainly understands the material he adapted, the exquisite cinematic tour de force Fanny and Alexander. The 1982 film, which lives in two formats, theatrical release and TV has now spawn a third: a 3-act stage rendition, which has had its premiere last night at the Old Vic.
As an adoring fan of Bergman’s cinematic work, I stepped into the theatre with certain expectations. Knowing the material and Bergman’s recurrent themes and visual motifs, I had already imagined how the play would be acted out.
It was not as heavy as I had expected. The sacrosanct sanctuary of grandmother Ekdahl was somewhat missing, along with elements of Alexander’s imagination, which stood at the heart of the film version. The playfulness was beautifully captured, but Alexander’s rebellion seemed to fall flat, through no fault of Misha Handley, who played Alexander with the passion of a tried Hamlet.
When asked about the film, Bergman was quoted as saying that he found inspiration in Charles Dickens’ work for the execution and I almost wished director Max Webster had done the same. I found myself thinking of the marvellous production of A Christmas Carol, which coincidentally was performed over the Christmas period on the same stage, as envisaged by the brilliant Matthew Warchus.
Max Webster’s direction isn’t lacking in bergmanesque beauty. However, the silent wonder of witnessing the human condition unfolding before our very eyes in all its splendour is upstaged by something else. The seemingly endless red velvet curtains and mahogany furniture do give us a taste of a day in the life of the Ekdahl family. We are even invited at their Christmas table to enjoy a kinglike feast (the three Ekdahl brothers are all named after Swedish kings, after all).
But the whole setting fails to make us as nervous as it should. There is no complex tension in the performances, only a flat anxiety, perfectly embodied by Catherine Walker’s Emily Ekdahl, who seems to be staggering timidly through, asking the important questions but failing to believe the urgency. The mystique is too often replaced by an exaggerated humour, which Penelope Wilton excels at, as matron extraordinaire Helena Ekdahl. Only Kevin Doyle manages to chill the blood, especially in the whipping scene, the only time where Bergman’s darkness is truly rendered on stage.
Whilst still appreciating the difficulty of taking such a close-to-perfect piece of cinema and transposing it onto the stage, as a spectator I was left wanting more.