Salute Your Shorts is
a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any
other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Since the late '90s, one of the main ways for a young filmmaker to get noticed and, with any luck, make his or her way into feature films, was to direct music videos and commercials. This route has allowed directors to get paid while gaining experience, with the added benefit of no small amount of creative input for works being made. That it’s worked out that way is fortunate, but all things considered, sort of random. There’s also another way that directors can transition smoothly from smaller projects to larger, which is the move from television to film. For whatever reason, though, it’s not particularly common, especially these days. But David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter movies, came through this alternate path, working his way through the television ranks until being tapped for the blockbuster series with only a single feature under his belt (one which never even made it to America).
Despite his relative anonymity, Yates has had a rather lengthy
career, working primarily as a director for British television since
1991. While this was primarily a matter of Yates taking over episodes
of already ongoing series, his breakthrough came with a four-part
television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now.
Admittedly the actual episodes aren’t short, per se, but British
miniseries aren't frankly the kind of things that get a lot of coverage. As far as motion-picture genres that
go neglected by everyone other than a devoted cult audience, they’re
pretty high up on the list.
The reason for this is that an awful lot of British miniseries
are period dramas and to a lot of people (your correspondent, for instance), period
dramas tend to be almost profoundly boring experiences. Yates’ later
mini-series, State of Play (which the movie was loosely [i.e.
poorly] adapted from), is one of those that bucks that claim by being
contemporary, fast-paced and compulsively hard to break away from. The Way We Live Now
is a period drama in the fullest sense of the term, chock full of silly
wigs, even sillier accents and near-impossibly silly facial hair.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who excelled at these things was
chosen to take over for an entire half of the Potter franchise.
Here's a theory, albeit not a very good one, about period-drama
plots... First, you make up a bunch of character-types, like fop, virgin,
whore, mother, butler, Jewish stereotype, etc. Then, you take all of
these characters and decide, completely at random, who’s in love with
who. Finally, you just let each of these play out within close
proximity and soon you have generic intrigue about whether the noble
will marry the rich woman he hates or the poor woman he loves. Insert
some funny mustaches, and bam! Instant 1860s best-seller.
The Way We Live Now follows most of these tropes with
its story, weaving in and out of more than 10 characters’ lives (how
many more it’s hard to really say) in Victorian England. The inciting
incident is August Melmotte (David Suchett) moving into town, which is
a scandal both because he’s rich and because he’s Jewish. As he becomes
the center of a 19th century ponzi scheme based on North American
railroad investments, he also becomes a scandal because he’s, you know,
a crook. Everyone wants a part of his big, continental wallet, and also
to be married with someone of the opposite sex. It’s like being at
Bernie Madoff’s mansion on Valentine’s Day, if Madoff decided he’d look
good with mutton chops.
Yates can’t be faulted for his source material failing to rise
above this writer's facile, overly reductive plot observations. Trollope and
British super-screenwriter Andrew Davies, who is seemingly responsible
for more period dramas than anyone else
alive, are to blame for that. No, Yates’ job is to balance the many
threads of the story and form them into one cohesive and interesting
story, something he nearly manages to pull off.
The difficulty with something as long and complicated as The Way We Live Now
is balancing the many storylines, never letting any of them drop from
the audience’s concern since that may unravel the entire series.
Davies’ screenplay frequently leaves major characters out for 30
minutes at a time, leaving it up to Yates and the cast to make each
character unique and each situation compelling. Yates struggles against
the rampant cliché of Trollope’s plots to add dramatic tension and
remove the typical sense of inevitability. Yates’ adaptation isn’t 100%
smooth, but moves surprisingly quickly for a five-hour series so that
almost every scene feels surprisingly necessary for the film’s pieces
to come together.
The other challenge for Yates is dropping into a very codified
genre and trying to bring something new into it while still following
all the rules and not making a noir or musical The Way We Live Now
adaptation. His experience dipping into others’ TV shows here is
illustrated, as he takes on the form aptly but without completely
losing his individuality—something that must’ve been a selling point
for the Potter franchise. Framing and lighting are superb, but not in a
showy, MTV sort of way. Yates follows the classic-Hollywood rule of never calling attention to the filmmaking, but finds
ways to be expressive with it nonetheless. Suchet is shot from below and
with wider lenses, distorting his figure to emphasize his corruption
while Cillian Murphy is given eye-height framing and classical
three-point lighting. These are never taken to the extremes, but it’s a
deft touch and gives the series a gradient of subtlety.
Unfortunately, the worst of the series’ traits also creeps its
way into Yates’ Potter movies, which is to say bad acting. For someone
who’s almost exclusively a screen director, it’s surprising how stagey
he directs characters. Their emotions are ramped up, where the stern
characters are always 100% stern, the happy ones nearly manic and
Suchet’s Melmotte is beyond-Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining over the top angry/crazy.
Potter and his friends also strike these one-note chords with Yates,
which is particularly pronounced given the contrast offered by its
A-list ringers playing the faculty.
The Way We Live Now doesn’t appeal to the same audience
as Harry Potter, and so likely only a few obsessives will seek out
Yates’ lesser-known series. But it does offer some hints of his later
work, even if it’s only filmmaking that’s echoed rather than any sort
of thematic unity.