* * (out of five)
Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is a seriously heavyweight American literary novelist, the kind that lives in America’s North East, outside of New York – think a Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. One morning, in a call that he and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) were expecting with baited breath and bitten fingernails, he finds out that he has, indeed, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In a marvellous, truthful moment, Joe and Joan jump up and down on their bed, him squealing “I won the No-Bel! I won the No-Bel!”
It’s the best moment in the movie, which starts deteriorating as they head to Stockholm to collect the prize, and reaches a nadir at the prize-giving rehearsal, in a scene so atrociously directed that you’d be forgiven thinking director Björn Runge had shot his rehearsal and accidentally put it in the final cut.
Never mind that Scotland stands in for Sweden, and multiple British actors stand badly in for Americans and Swedes (Pryce’s Jewish Brooklyn – oy vey!) The film’s jarring artifice runs much deeper than such surface concerns. Ostensibly a realistic drama, the tone clangs and clashes against itself, juggling bad performances (Christian Slater, as a rapacious wannabe biographer) with terrible ones (Max Irons, as Joe and Joan’s son). The dialogue would suit a telenovela, the lighting a daytime soap, and the blocking… well, when something as basic as the blocking is this horrendous, what hope do you have for the story, characterisations, catharsis?
Everything is played as though we, the audience, were dummies. Subtle this film is not. The duality of Joe and Joan’s names – say them a couple times… geddit? – are indicative of both the film’s self-importance and its actual immaturity. It wants to swim in the waters of literary and intellectual greatness, but assumes we’ve come from the screening of Transformers next door and need our hands held. Nowhere is this more apparent than the aforementioned rehearsal scene, which is where the film not only lost me completely but began to truly bug me. Joe has been assigned an unbelievably beautiful young female photographer for the duration of his time in Stockholm, who proceeds to follow him everywhere. She stares at him like a lion at a gazelle, he hides his own carnivorous stolen glances at her, Joan sees it all – duh! – and we see Joan seeing it all, repeatedly, insultingly. This would all be only so much spoon-feeding were it not for the rehearsal, when the photographer obsessively snaps photos of Joe constantly, millimetres from his face, while none of the other prize recipients even have assigned photographers. Everything about the scene is off, wrong, unbelievable, stupendously idiotic. It’s the worst scene I’ve seen in years, and emblematic of the film’s slapdash laziness.
Somehow, Glenn Close – always a great screen actor – survives, and when big arguments between Joe and Joan come, they’re well played. To both their credits, Pryce and Close manage to portray something close to a real relationship in this most unreal film. To paraphrase what someone clever said about Trump: it’s the kind of movie a dumb person thinks is smart.