History in the making-up;Film

17th April 1998 at 01:00




Robin Buss appraises some tales of the past that tell us more about our own times than those they portray

Alternative versions of history. According to Anastasia, an animated musical by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, the Russian Revolution was entirely the work of Rasputin, who is not "our friend" (as the Empress Alexandra used to call him), but an implacable enemy of the Romanovs. He will subsequently rise from the dead to haunt the one surviving member of the dynasty, the Princess Anastasia.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks (although neither is actually mentioned) would seem from this account to have been merely the instruments of the Mad Monk. The credits name three "Russian research consultants", but if savings could have been made in pre-production, this was where the accountants might have directed their attention.

Admittedly, the number of "Russian research consultants" and "St Petersburg photo researchers" is tiny next to the list of animators, in-betweeners, computer technicians and artists responsible for layout, background, special effects, digital checking, colour styling and the rest. This is a highly polished fairy tale, in the Disney tradition, about a Princess who is rescued by a servant boy, grows up unaware of her origins, is pursued by an evil demon and eventually falls in love. The only surprising part is that anyone should have considered setting it in modern Russia, let alone associate it with the historical figures of Rasputin and Anastasia.

Hardly less fanciful is the Ruritanian history of Alexandre Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask. The Three Musketeers come out of retirement to rescue the eponymous prisoner and install him in place of his twin, King Louis, whose bad government has brought France to the brink of revolution 100 years too early.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays both good and bad twins - it helps that one has his head stuck in a saucepan (which makes for easy identification), because the other, supposedly an autocratic tyrant, comes across as little more than a spoilt American teenager - a part DiCaprio manages without difficulty.

The interesting characters in the film are the musketeers, played in contrasting styles and accents by Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons, with Gabriel Byrne as d'Artagnan. All except Porthos (Depardieu) have been chastened by time, and there is wry humour as well as action in a film that resembles Richard Lester's Return of the Musketeers rather than earlier versions of this story.

The film has an underlying mistrust of the values of the old swashbucklers, with their theme of male violence and comradeship (although made less explicit than in another recent addition to the canon, the French film D'Artagnan's Daughter).

The crisis of masculinity is present in some form in all three films, but most obviously in Oscar and Lucinda, Laura Jones's adaptation of Peter Carey's novel, directed by Gillian Armstrong and set in mid 19th-century England and Australia.

Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) is brought up in a repressive household of Plymouth Brethren (Carey acknowledged the inspiration of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son for this part of the story), but runs away to become an Anglican, then on the toss of a coin sets off as a missionary to New South Wales (despite a terror of sea travel).

On the boat he meets Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), an Australian heiress who owns a glassworks in Sydney. This ill-matched pair discover a shared interest in gambling.

The love between them is never spoken - Lucinda is a "modern" woman, whose behaviour upsets Sydney society, while Oscar carries a full cargo of Victorian religious and sexual repressions. So they circle one another, trapped in their own spheres. As in a similar film, Jane Campion's The Piano, the heroine is a victim of an ideology she appears not to understand, let alone share - as though 19th-century social attitudes had been created and perpetuated by men, with no participation from the other half of the population.

Arriving in Sydney, Oscar conceives a plan to transport a prefabricated glass church to a remote village in the bush. As fragile as the glass structure itself, his character seems to disintegrate as the story proceeds, while Lucinda gains in strength.

They are likeable personalities, and you wish they could get together for a happy ending, but his inaptitude for life and her naivety make that increasingly improbable. This is an ambitious and touching film, although a little over-burdened with symbolic significance and a sense of its own strangeness.

There is not much more historical truth here than in Anastasia and The Man in the Iron Mask - the times they tell us about are our own.

Masculine values are in good shape in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting. Will (played by Matt Damon) is a cleaner at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and happens to be a mathematical genius. His talent comes to the attention of Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) when Will solves a problem left on the blackboard for the students to ponder. Intrigued, Lambeau stands bail for Will who, despite the title of the film, is in fact a bit of a bad boy and has been arrested on a charge of assault. The professor agrees to make him see a psychiatrist. Enter Robin Williams, adding another to his gallery of caring mentors.

Will's analysis eventually reveals that he has been a victim of childhood abuse, which has prevented him from exploiting his intellectual gifts and led him to take refuge in menial jobs while spending his free time hanging around in bars, drinking beer and swopping dirty joke with his friends.

On one of these occasions, putting down an arrogant student, he meets Skylar (Minnie Driver), who provides the film with some unneeded romantic interest. Otherwise, we are in an all-male world which (in a cracking script, by Damon and one of his co-stars, Ben Affleck) manages to affirm the traditional values of loyalty and aggression, and the less macho ones of tenderness and caring. Like many other "feelgood" movies, it does leave you with the suspicion that there could be some shaky mathematics underpinning the method it has used to resolve its characters' problems.

Film Education has produced a study guide to 'The Man in the Iron Mask', as part of its Cinema and History project. Contact: Film Education, Alhambra House, 27-31 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0AU. Tel: 0171 976 2291; Fax 0171 839 5052; http:www.filmeducation.org.

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