Reviews — Jan. 25
My “to see” list of films for the year includes half a dozen or so that are based, in whole or part, on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Last week I watched the fantastically depressing “A Thousand Acres,” which is distinguished by one redeeming virtue: a dream cast headed by Jason Robards as a domineering farmer who divides his sprawling acreage among three daughters.
It is difficult sometimes to sort through one’s feelings about a film or any other work of art. As a “Lear” fan, I was fascinated — it even has a crazy storm scene. These actors are all worth watching; Robards is always mesmerizing. I did, in fact, enjoy it. I was moved by a heartbreaking deathbed scene. But while Shakespeare’s play features a long grind toward an explosively tragic finale, the inevitable and logical result of a flawed king’s actions, this film (based on Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) is a clumsy, meandering parade of personal problems that plays out in episodic fashion with little dramatic momentum.
Readers of this column know the point is not to recommend a masterpiece every week, but to highlight forgotten, unusual, interesting, road-less-traveled films. You can’t appreciate a masterpiece unless you’ve spent time with some duds, and the assembled dream cast (see below) and lofty literary origins make “A Thousand Acres” a dud worth watching. It’s one of the best bad movies I’ve seen in a long while.
“A Thousand Acres” (1997) Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Starring Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth (stumbling a bit with the American accent) and Keith Carradine. 105 minutes. Rated R for language, brief nudity, adult themes.
“Johnson’s Life of London” is a rollicking good read written in breezy British style by -- as advertised in the title -- Boris Johnson, the city’s mayor.
He’s surely a good mayor, since he obviously adores his city. As he cycles London’s streets on the way to work, he notices not only the present-day facade, but also the London of the 1940s, the late 19th century, the mid-1800s, etc., all the way back to the times of Hadrian’s Wall and early Roman settlers.
Johnson comes to the job of producing this humorous history with steller credentials. He has authored seven previous volumes, one of them a novel and another a book of poetry. And he has worked as a journalist, which shows in the snappy writing, thorough research and tendency to focus on the most interesting characters.
And there are many characters in London’s history — William the Conqueror and Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, W.T. Stead (whom he credits with inventing tabloid journalism), and Keith Richards.
Johnson brings them alive in a chatty, almost gossipy, manner, as if he were telling stories at the local pub. It makes his book both entertaining and informative.
For instance, he devotes one chapter (Only one chapter for the women! For shame.) to Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, whose nursing work in the Crimean War laid the foundations for England’s public health system.
Nightingale, an upperclass white woman, has always been lauded. Seacole, mixed-race and middle class, was largely forgotten until a few years ago.
Johnson points out that while she was celebrated by the masses in her day, Seacole never received Britain’s ultimate honor, an audience with Queen Victoria. This he blames on Nightingale, hypothesizing that her jealousy caused her to convince the queen to overlook her rival.
Amid the characters, Johnson also provides little glimpses into some of the things he claims were invented, created or popularized in London — the King James Bible, the flush toilet, the suit, the bicycle. These asides are especially fun to read.
Whether he’s talking about the inventions or the people, Johnson always ties the narrative back to the city. London shaped the people as much as the people shaped London, he implies, and it’s obvious he’s happy to be part of that long-standing tradition.
“Johnson’s Life of London,” by Boris Johnson, 2012, Riverhead Books.