Film review – The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)

At first, The Trip seems like a terrible proposition. It can be summed up as follows: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, visit six Michelin-starred restaurants in Northern England to review them for an Observer article, spending most of their time together bickering over who can do better impressions of a number of famous people. Well, about seven famous people.

Somehow, over the course of six episodes in the first series, they make it a success so consistently I was left wondering how such a simple idea could fail to work when the two central characters have so much chemistry together. The whole thing is clearly full of improvisations and no matter how many times we hear Michael Caine, Hugh Grant and Ronnie Corbett, they never fail to disappoint.

 

Yet at the heart of the show we find that it isn’t just a whimsical improvised comedy that borders on self-indulgence, but rather a dissection of one man’s inner struggle to come to terms with the level and manner of his past successes. Coogan’s desire is to alter his legacy and change the public perception of him as a character comedian to something of more substance by taking on more serious roles. He doesn’t see himself as a comedian but as a character actor. His biggest frustrations come from interchanges with Brydon who discusses their similarities, which is hard to receive from a man who Coogan sees as simply an impressionist.
In many ways, parallels can be drawn with Michael Keaton’s recent performance in Birdman, a role that won Keaton an Oscar. In that film, Keaton pushes himself to the cusp of a breakdown as he ploughs all his remaining money and efforts into a theatrical production that he thinks will completely overhaul the public perception of him. It was ironic that Keaton, in this film, established himself as an actor of serious depth in a role that exaggerated the public’s perception of his own life. Similarly here, Coogan manages to come out of the series with a huge level of credibility for his portrayal of a man striving for more, finishing the six-part series almost completely emotionally broken. It is an excellent performance from Coogan and one I’m sure he’d rather be remembered for than Pauline Calf and Alan Partridge.

On the back of this, Coogan went on to star in the Oscar-nominated Philomena, and duly received critical acclaim for another role of real substance. Perhaps The Trip was the stepping stone onto this, but the fact a follow-up was commissioned in 2014 suggests both Brydon and Coogan know that they hit on something special in the first series.

The Trip is available to watch on Netflix UK and can be purchased on Blu-ray or DVD.

[Note] I can only apologise to the creator of the lovely alternative poster at the top of the page. I can’t give credit as the website from which it was sourced (movieweb) has lost the page. It is lovely though.

Esio Trot (Dearbhla Walsh, 2015)

There have been many adaptations of Roald Dahl’s many novels and short stories. Some were great: Matilda, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and, surprisingly, Gremlins (yes, I know*) were all brilliant. Others were just awful (I may just be thinking about Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is frankly beyond creepy and really is an abomination to the source). It was quite a surprise to realise that Esio Trot has never been made into any kind of feature film, though based on the cast and the time slot this aired (6:30pm, New Year’s Day, BBC1), I was expecting a soft and faithful take on what was always a whimsical story. This is exactly what I got.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/002/60589995/files/2015/01/img_0116.jpg

This television adaptation stars Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy, an older man who lives alone in a flat in London with nothing much to keep his interest except his love of traditional jazz and a meticulously maintained flower garden terrace. This is all turned upside down when Mrs Silver (Dame Judi Dench) moves into the flat below and he is immediately overcome with feelings of love and excitement. He hatches an elaborate plan involving the growth of her beloved pet tortoise Alfie knowing it will bring her happiness, in the belief that she will fall in love with him as a result.

The supporting cast, including James Corden as narrator and Richard Cordery as the annoying neighbour Mr Pringle (a new character created especially for this adaptation), worked their parts well, though this really was a tale of two hearts.

It was a faithful take on the classic Dahl book, one of the last of the seventeen children’s novels he wrote. By this I don’t mean just in the details (and there were one or two deviations made by the writers Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew Archer, mainly because the original book was so short), but also in the tone.

It isn’t an easy book to tackle in comparison to the likes of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl’s books are always firmly aimed at children, and many of his most enduring successes are stories that prominently feature relatable young characters. In Esio Trot, however, we are presented with two much older individuals, and thus a conundrum for the filmmakers. I am pleased to say they were able to maintain the quintessential Dahlness we have grown to love over the years. It would have been far easier to adapt the story to one aimed at the older generation, those the same age as Hoppy and Silver.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/002/60589995/files/2015/01/img_0117.jpg

Looking back, I’m not sure why I loved this story so much as a child. It is essentially a love story between two lonely and wrinkled septuagenarians. Perhaps it was the ridiculous mischief of the plan Hoppy executed. I’m not entirely sure. In many ways, Esio Trot is the biggest vindication of Roald Dahl’s status as one of the greatest children’s authors that ever lived. How else could he have made this one work?

Esio Trot is available for purchase on DVD now.

* The 1984 film Gremlins is loosely based on the characters developed by Dahl for his 1943 book The Gremlins, which were to be the basis of a Walt Disney Studios animated film until plans were shelved. The gremlins in his book derived from the mythical creatures that British Air Forces pilots blamed unknown faults with their aircrafts on.

The 7:39 (John Alexander, 2014)

Sometimes you watch a show on TV with no prior knowledge of the content, with no preconception of what is coming. Usually when you do this, you’re left disappointed and quickly switch over or find yourself checking your phone at decreasing intervals. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a gem, a diamond in the rough. So it was with the gripping BBC two-part romantic drama The 7:39.

Starring David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) and Sheradin Smith (Legally Blonde), with supporting roles from Sean Maguire (Eastenders) and Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), the story tells the chance development of an affair between Carl (Morrissey) and Sally (Smith), who catch the same eponymous commuter train. Both unknowingly in a rut in their life at home and at work, they quickly find an unlikely spark between each other and grow closer through the increasingly precious time they spend together en route to work.

Carl has a lot more to lose. He is married with two teenage children and has an exceptionally supportive wife (Colman), but yet he is the driving course behind the forbidden relationship. Sally is engaged to her overprotective fiancé Ryan – brilliantly portrayed by Maguire – who is hellbent on arranging the perfect wedding and seemingly attempting to smother every aspect of Sally’s life, though only out of love and devotion.

It is a sign of excellent writing by David Nicholls (One Day, Starter For 10), matched by perfect performances by the highly talented cast, that we quickly find ourselves rooting for Carl and Sally. Seeing them play out this despicable action, knowing they’re on a collision course to devastate everything they know and love, I was surprised that when the chance arose I was on the edge of my seat willing them on to go for it. It is a deed we hope we would never be subjected to by a loved on – or even worse commit ourselves – yet the reasoning is portrayed fully without ever needing to be spelled out. Of course, the subject matter has divided audiences, but that is the sign of a powerful work of art.

It is wonderful that there is such high quality drama being produced in the UK and that there is an outlet for the all-British cast to excel on prime-time television. It could easily have had a successful cinematic release and wouldn’t have looked out of place on the big screen. Hopefully it is the first of many more of its ilk.

The 7:39 is available to watch for free on iPlayer and Sky On Demand until 14th January 2014 and is released on DVD on 10th February 2014.

20140111-212411.jpg