5 Favorites #133: Vanessa Redgrave

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

There’s a very minor film releasing this week called The Lost Girls. Joely Richardson stars, but it’s her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who also appears in the film, that I want to highlight this week. Redgrave had her first big screen role in 1958’s Behind the Mask, but it was her trio of 1966 performances that launched her star into the cinematic stratosphere. Apart from Morgan!, her other two appearances make my list this week as well as two titles from earlier in her career and a fifth from later.

A couple of honorable mentions: In Julia, her Oscar-winning role, she was the title character, but she was a supporting performer in the film. That 1977 film starred Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, Maximilian Schell, Hal Holbrook, and some small time actor in her screen debut named Meryl Streep. Then there’s Howards End, and many others. The last title I want to mention is Coriolanus. It isn’t a very good film, but Redgrave is sensational in it. Now, let’s tackle the five titles that made my final list.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Fred Zinnemann’s historical depiction of the final years of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is a sensational period drama that explores a painful period of British sovereignty. Scofield’s Lord Chancellor of England refuses to apply pressure to the Catholic Church to grant Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) request to annual his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The film follows the machinations surrounding Henry’s attempts to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn (Redgrave) in hopes of producing a male heir.

Redgrave isn’t given a lot to do as this film is primarily set between Scofield, Shaw, Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell, and Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey. Susannah York co-stars. In terms of period dramas, the 1960s were rife with such films, many of which explored British history with several of them playing well with the Academy, including this film, which won Best Picture and five of its other seven nominations. Wendy Hiller as More’s wife, as well as Shaw and Scofield took home nominations for their performances with Scofield winning. This is a film that all Anglophiles should see simply for its fascinating exploration of the English politics of the period.

My Original Review

Blow-Up (1966)

Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni made his first English-language picture this mystery thriller about a discontented photographer (David Hemmings) who finds a challenging subject in a young woman (Redgrave) he initially believes is engaged in a simple romantic entanglement. Later, through review of his pictures, he suspects that he either successfully interrupted a crime or was witness to a murder. Subsequent encounters between he, the woman, and other figures lead him on a search through London trying to uncover the truth of the situation.

Antonioni’s film is more about urban malaise as Hemmings tries to find ways to escape his lavish and unchallenging lifestyle. The mystery at the center is just one focus of the film and while the audience is pulled along with the investigation, it’s the environs of London and Hemmings’ inability to come to terms with his growing dissatisfaction that drives his pursuit of this enigma rather than the challenge of unraveling the puzzle itself. With its amorphous conclusion and vivid framing and photography, Blow-Up can be an exceedingly challenging film for those who don’t view film as an artform and simply see it as a means of entertainment. There’s no satisfaction in the conclusion, but it’s only after years of contemplation or reading up on the film itself that helps one truly appreciate its content.

My Original Review

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Having written recently about this film, it feels strange to be tackling it so soon, but here we are. With her breakout Oscar-nominated performance in Morgan paired with her other two 1966 performances, Redgrave was in demand through much of the late 1960s, but she closed out the year with this Richard Attenborough anti-war musical. The events of World War I are brought into stark relief through a series of musical vignettes exploring the cynical and cyclical nature of war and its pointlessness. A strong slate of actors graces the film in what has to be one of the most unusual and compelling musicals of that era.

Redgrave has a pivotal scene mid-way through the film portraying suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst whose admonitions to an unfriendly crowd about the futility of war lead to harassment and hostility. It’s an important scene in a film that generally supports her thesis and the fiery conviction in her delivery is perfectly pitched to the scene and the film in which it fits. Redgrave embodied the Pankhurst character for many years, not just in protest of the Vietnam War, but in other left wing causes. The parallels between this character and her impassioned speech upon accepting the Academy Award for her supporting performance in Julia are fascinating.

My Original Review

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Apart from her Oscar-winning Julia in 1977, the more compelling of the 1970s performances I’ve seen is in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic Hercule Poirot novel. Redgrave plays governess Mary Debenham, arguably the second-most important female character in the film. She stars opposite luminaries like Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, and Albert Finney along with a number of other actors of prominence. Finney played the celebrated Belgian detective Poirot in possibly the finest rendition of the character outside of the PBS Mystery! series version by David Suchet.

In the film, a murder is committed on the famous pan-European luxury train the Orient Express. Poirot must unravel an overabundance of clues to try and figure out who of the dozen suspects committed the crime. Redgrave has a challenge ahead of her competing for dominance in a cast like this and were Mary not such a simple character, she might have stood out against the brashness of Bacall, the reservedness of Bergman, or the stoicism of Finney. Everyone in the cast is terrific and Sidney Lumet’s film remains the pinnacle of big screen Christie adaptations.

No original review available.

Atonement (2007)

Many actors who pass into their 60s, 70s, and 80s eventually slow down in their cinematic output. Redgrave hasn’t even thought about it, appearing in numerous films in the last three decades. Her most prominent and impressive work might well be in Joe Wright’s lavish 2007 wartime romance Atonement. The film stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as star-crossed lovers who stumble into a conspiracy by a jealous Saoirse Ronan who accuses McAvoy of raping her sister (Knightley).

This winding romance is gorgeously mounted, impeccably paced, and features a marvelous typewriter-themed orchestral score. The cast is superb with Redgrave, Ronan, and Romola Garai successfully playing the same character across three different time periods. Ronan is the discovery here, her performance richly detailed, incorporating experiences she can’t possibly have had, but projecting them with the skill of an actor two decades her senior. It’s a terrific film and it received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, though Ronan was surprisingly the only member of the cast nominated, but had she won it would have been supremely well deserved.

My Original Review

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