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Date: 06 October, 2006

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'And if you think that’s a bit sexist, don’t forget that this is the Dark Ages!'



Steve Couch reviews films recently released on DVD.

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Tristan + Isolde
The West Wing - Season 7

(Fox Searchlight Pictures, certificate 15)

‘Not everyone wants to have their wedding spoiled by a gimmick…but some people do’. From early on, Confetti sets out its stall as a deeply silly film, and it’s none the worse for that. Featuring the cream of young British comedy – with representatives from The Office, Spaced, Green Wing, Peep Show, and just about any other current BBC2/Channel 4 comedy you might care to mention, director Debbie Isitt bravely makes use of a largely improvisational process. There’s always the fear with projects like this that the end result will be sprawling, unfocused and self-indulgent, but as the running time of only an hour and a half suggests, sufficient discipline has been applied during editing to more than save the day.

The set up is that a wedding magazine is holding a competition to find the most original themed wedding of the year. We follow the trials and tribulations of the three finalist couples as they prepare for the big day, aided and abetted by a camp pair of wedding planners who are the real stars of the film. Add a penny pinching magazine editor, a glib, obnoxious proprietor (the latter played by Jimmy Carr) and weddings themed on tennis, naturism and the golden age of Hollywood musicals, and there is plenty of material for the improvisers to go to work with. Viewers of a sensitive disposition should be aware that the naturist theme does involve frequent full-frontal nudity. If that is likely to bother you, you have been warned.

If you are a fan of the majority of TV shows mentioned in my first paragraph, you will probably enjoy this enormously; if not, approach with caution. Despite the patchy reviews Confetti has received elsewhere, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and frequently found myself laughing out loud – much to the amusement/irritation (you’d have to ask them which) of the other people attempting to work in our office at the same time.

The extras are a little disappointing. Three alternative endings enable you to see each of the couples emerging triumphant from the big day, and an hour or so of deleted material drags sufficiently to confirm what a good job was done in pruning the final edit of the film.

(Lionsgate, certificate 15)

A moving, thoughtful biopic of Albert Pierrepoint, who had a 22 year career as the United Kingdom’s leading public executioner. Timothy Spall is magnificent in the title role, portraying the cool-headed detachment that Pierrepoint brought to his work and the gradual effect that conducting over 600 executions had on the hangman.

Unlike other movies on the subject of capital punishment (such as The Life of David Gale or Dead Man Walking, for example), Pierrepoint’s agenda in terms of the rights and wrongs of execution is far from straightforward. A quote from the real Albert, displayed just before the final credits gives the clearest clue to the filmmakers’ thoughts, but what has gone before has been even-handed enough to leave both sides of the debate with plenty to think about.

We see Albert’s scorn at others who take pleasure in the fate of the condemned, and also the vitriol of protesters aimed at Albert and branding him a murderer. Rather than aiming to score debating points the film focuses on Albert: his professional pride and the effect of his work on his inner life.

It’s a finely observed performance from Spall, and one that is matched by Juliet Stevenson as Pierrepoint’s wife Annie, full of repressed anxieties and reservations about her husband’s unusual occupation.

This is first and foremost a character study, and Spall’s Pierrepoint is a fascinating character. Mostly quiet and reserved (and not just when carrying out his duties), but also given to performing music-hall songs and larking about with his friends in the pub. Most striking is his sense of solemnity and professionalism, insisting on the right of the condemned to be treated with dignity as fellow human beings, both before and after their execution. Credit to all concerned, not least director Adrian Shergold and writers Jeff Pope and Bob ‘In Bed With Medinner’ Mills.

There are no DVD extras (shame), but this is a fine film which will reward thoughtful viewing.

Click here to see the Damaris study guide for Pierrepoint.

Tristan + IsoldeCover
(20th Century Fox, certificate 12)

Dark Ages Britain is the setting for this conventional retelling of the classic chivalric tale of ill-met lovers. It’s good old-fashioned story telling, with little by way of new twists or contemporary reinvention. Tristan + Isolde has more in common with director Kevin Reynolds’ excellent The Count of Monte Cristo than with his higher profile, but frothier Waterworld or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

For those who are a little rusty on their medieval literature, Tristan (James Franco – Harry Osborn from the Spider-Man films) is a young warrior left for dead and tended back to health by Isolde (Sophia Myles), the King of Ireland’s daughter. Unaware of his nurse and lover’s identity, Tristan subsequently enters a tournament and wins her hand in marriage for his master Lord Marke of Cornwall, and the couple begin a secret affair that threatens to rock Marke’s kingdom to its very foundations.

Sophia Myles takes the acting plaudits, instilling intelligence and feistiness in her Isolde. Her anguish at the prospect of either forsaking her true love or betraying her husband rings true throughout. While not matching Myles’ performance, Franco is convincingly adept in the combat scenes as well as broodingly tortured as the lovers’ dilemma comes to a head. Pick of the bunch from the able supporting cast are the impeccable Rufus Sewell, noble to the last as Marke, and Mark Strong whose Wictred could have degenerated into pantomime villainy, but grows through the film into – excuse the anachronism – a convincing Machiavellian schemer.

Despite the potential for a culture clash between the conventions of chivalric courtly romance and the expectations of the modern day audience, you don’t need a working knowledge of medieval literature to enjoy the film. The central theme is the relationship between love and duty. Though the prevailing message is that love triumphs over everything else, there is still plenty of room for honour, nobility and sacrifice to get a decent airing. To say any more would be to spoil a conclusion which will satisfy romantics and fans of heroic deeds of arms alike.

Of the DVDs reviewed here this month, this has the best set of extras (but none, including this, are really up to much). There’s an OK ‘Making Of’, a so-so music video, and two commentaries, neither of which features either director Reynolds or any of the cast.

Screenwriter Dean Georgaris flies solo for the first, and provides the most interest (not least if you play the game of counting how often he complains about something that was lost from his first draft, or which didn’t translate from page to screen as well as he had hoped). The other commentary features two of the film’s numerous producers, and is frankly a bit dull.

With frequent references to the film’s shoestring budget and Georgaris’ gripes, the overall impression is that someone somewhere doesn’t think the end result is all that good. That’s unfortunate, because Tristan and Isolde is a well-told version of a classic tale of romance and heroism and it deserves more confidence from its makers.

So, plenty of swords and skirmishing for the lads, and a meaty romance for the ladies: everybody’s happy. And if you think that’s a bit sexist, don’t forget that this is the Dark Ages!

Click here to see the Damaris study guide for Tristan + Isolde .

The West Wing - Season 7Cover
(Warner Brothers, certificate 12)

The finest show in the history of television bows out with all the class that we’ve come to expect of it. Despite original scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin jumping ship a few series ago, the show has retained its characteristic fast-talking intelligence. If nothing else, it has continued to prove that you can make great television and hold an audience without depending on action, violence and sex. Viewers will tune in for dialogue as long as the dialogue is this good and the characters are worth caring about. It’s a shame that channel 4 didn’t have the confidence of their American network counterparts, meaning that this release is the first chance non-digital viewers have had to find out how everything finishes.

The focus for the farewell season switches between the last weeks of the Bartlet Presidency and the battle to follow him into the White House. The campaign-based episodes arguably provide the most tension and excitement, but the writers deliver on their obligations by resolving the personal stories of many long-established characters as well as settling the big issues of elections and wars. There’s a cheeky flash forward at the beginning of the first episode, which hints at how some situations are resolved, but by no means spills the beans on everything.

If The West Wing has passed you by, this is well worth checking out (but do yourself a favour and start with season 1 – you won’t regret it). If you’ve been on board for the journey so far, all you need to know is that season 7 gives the show the send off it deserves. Sadly, this series also marks the final work of actor John Spencer, whose death enforced some plotline changes. It’s as fine an epitaph as he could have wished for.

Click here for the Damaris study guide to Season 7 of The West Wing .

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