Backdraft (1991)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 March (11.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

At some point in the 2000s, Ron Howard became a darling of the awards industry. Beforehand, he’d directed a string of unpretentious, successful entertainments, the sort of films with one word titles that equally needed a single word to describe exactly what they were about e.g. Splash concerns MERMAIDS!, Cocoon = ALIENS!, Ransom = er, RANSOM! I’m not even being sniffy; they were perfectly fine, diverting efforts, a couple of hours where you could sink into your seat and enjoy what was happening on the screen – nothing wrong with that. It was only with the worthy and rather fine Apollo 13 that Howard starting tackling meatier subjects, and then he came up with A Beautiful Mind, which scooped four Academy Awards, including one for the director. Based on its entertainment value, I didn’t mind the film; as a biopic I loathed it, especially for the way it treated its central subject, the mathematician John Nash, transforming him into a romantic, tortured genius just for the sake of creating a sympathetic hero.

But that’s one for another time. Today’s entry is Backdraft, which is about fire (FIRE!), and indeed fire is the star of the film. Despite assembling a cast that would be the envy of any picture from the early 1990s, the strongest memories come from those scenes that show the inferno in all its forms. Beautifully shot and moving almost seductively across the screen, fire steals the show. At one point, Robert De Niro’s character tells us we have to see fire as something that’s living and that’s exactly what the film tries to do, even adding sound effects to suggest an angry god at work in the background, possibly one with the demanding intonation of Arthur Brown.

Elsewhere, Backdraft is a bit of a mess, somehow running over two hours long thanks to confused plotting and the attempt to wrong-foot viewers. There’s a point when watching it is a spotter’s reference guide to other movies (Top Gun and The Silence of the Lambs spring immediately to mind), and you could almost invent a drinking game around the number of clichés that mount up, starting with the opening scene in which a fireman is killed in an explosion and a charred helmet drops to the feet of his watching son.

One plot strand follows the relationship between fire fighter brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin). It’s their father who died and they’ve followed in his footsteps. The older Stephen has turned into a macho hero, working for the toughest fire fighting unit and being committed enough to the service to alienate his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) into separation. Brian has just entered the service and joins Stephen’s team, much to his chagrin. From the start, he’s belittled by his brother, made to stay by his side and wear protective gear whilst Stephen doesn’t even bother to don his mask. Ultimately, he leaves to join Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale (De Niro), who investigates the causes of fires breaking out and is currently looking into a series of similar deaths caused by ‘backdraft’ explosions.

That’s the second strand. Rimgale and Brian’s sleuthing leads them into the orbit of Alderman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh), a Chicago mayoral candidate, along with his glamorous assistant and Brian’s old flame, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The backdraft killings appear awful and planned carefully, victims opening a door to find themselves facing an unstoppable torrent of fire heading in their direction. Who’s responsible? Finding out lands the pair into the company of Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), an insane, convicted arsonist who knows enough about fire to deliver an important clue.

Getting to this stage takes a long time, a long and unnecessary amount of time as Bartel points out the obvious to Brian – connect the victims and work out who benefits. Sutherland is one of many talents in the film that is wasted, forced to channel the spirit of Hannibal Lecter in terms of only giving up what he knows in exchange for details of Brian’s personal life. Similarly, Leigh has little to do apart from have a sex scene with Brian (on top of a fire engine, which of course sets off on a job halfway through their business!) and then deliver some important information to him at a key point. De Niro practically plays himself.

At least Kurt Russell is good value. He’s perfectly cast, effortless in fact as the hero fireman who puts his life on the line with every mission for no better reason than to experience the rush. Few did this kind of thing better, and playing it completely straight so that his character becomes almost fascistic in his dedication, not to mention blinkered to the feelings of his co-workers, led by Scott Glenn’s world weary veteran of the force. Baldwin, who’s kind of slipped off the radar following some major roles in the nineties, isn’t bad either, and there’s some nice interplay between the pair. They’re ideally cast even physically, Baldwin lanky and a little awkward besides Russell’s beefier classic leading man.

A shame that more wasn’t made of this and that some of the less important and jumbled plot contrivances didn’t have to be shoehorned in. There’s a very good ninety-minute movie somewhere in the mix, but amidst all the superfluousness it gets lost. Great fire effects though, and it was for these the film received several Oscar nominations.

Backdraft: **

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

When it’s on: Sunday, 1 February (11.05 pm)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

It’s difficult to even start this piece without using the classic words ‘It’s a truth universally acknowledged’ even though doing so has become such a cliché, and pops up in every other review of the film that I’ve read. Of course, Pride and Prejudice is about as institutional a novel as it’s possible to get; a number of years ago, the public vote on the BBC’s Big Read survey found it coming a close second to The Lord of the Rings as Britain’s best loved novel. Adapting it for the cinema must have been a daunting prospect, especially considering the BBC adaptation from 1995 covered all the bases and remains the most admired screen version. And yet, as a crowd pleaser it’s pretty much unimpeachable; providing first-time film director Joe Wright got it right, it couldn’t really fail. Fortunately he did, and it didn’t.

Wright made the wise choice of trying to put some distance between his version and the six-hour long television adaptation written by Andrew Davies. The wider canvas produced by the BBC allowed for a sumptuous and lavish production that focused heavily on the characters and gave them time to develop. The film, running little more than two hours, had to make its points more obliquely, so the emphasis is on the different social status of the Bennetts and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). The former, modest rather than poor, live on a working farm, the camera picking out the muck of the yard and the free roaming animals, and there’s little wonder that Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is absolutely gobsmacked by the opulence of Darcy’s Pemberley estate.

Given the time limitations, writer Deborah Moggach had to pick and choose from Austen’s text; the rest is filled in with visuals. Roman Osin’s cinematography was overlooked by the Academy, but he rightly picked up accolades from the Chicago Film Critics and European Film Awards for some ravishing photography, not just those beautiful shots of the landscape and neoclassical architecture but the clever way the camera has of teasing out the characters of the five Bennett girls. It’s a real treat that never lapses into the obvious potential for US market pleasing chocolate box scenes of Georgian England. It feels like a lived in world. Additionally, there’s some lovely editing to convey the passing of time, Lizzie turning around on a rope swing as the farmyard before her moves from summer to autumn with each twist.

If it does lose something, then it’s simply the lack of space to cover everything that happens in the novel; my wife, an avowed fan of the book, lamented crucial scenes that had been excised entirely. Instead, there’s a tighter importance placed on the growing love between Lizzie and Darcy. Knightley might now appear to be the obvious choice for the former, but she was cast partly for being such a different person from Jennifer Ehle in the BBC version. The heaving bosoms and knowing smiles are gone, replaced with an altogether more fragile and less confident character. Best known beforehand for being in slighter dramas that didn’t demand much in terms of acting skills, Knightley is an emotional tour de force here, everything she’s feeling crossing her pretty, flawless face as she delivers some powerful, sometimes stinging witty barbs. Macfadyen was relatively little known at the time, outside his starring role in Spooks, and perhaps he isn’t quite right as Darcy, relatively fine at delivering the character’s aloof superiority but less sure when the veneer cracks. However, the surge of emotions during the film’s closing moments, as the two characters declare their true feelings for each other, is strong and comes across as very honest.

The pair are backed by a brilliant cast, Judi Dench bitchy and patrician as Lady Catherine de Bourg, Caroline Bingley played as a jealous, austere-featured shrew by Kelly Reilly. The other Bennett sisters are all capably played, with Jena Malone standing out with a flawless English accent as the silly, free spirited Lydia. The real standouts are Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as Mr and Mrs Bennett. The former takes on a traditionally unsympathetic character and adds heart with a slightly desperate and almost unhinged overtone to her efforts at marrying off her daughters. Sutherland, given the gift of a role as Lizzie’s father and seeing himself in her, is funny, warm and a candidate for the Atticus Finch Award as Screen Dad of the Year.

Pride and Prejudice: ****