Pain & Glory – Pride Month Retrospective

Written & Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s growth all around “Pain & Glory” (2019), personal, universal, and out with the film itself, and while there is an overarching narrative, Pedro Almodóvar’s film is as equally about his self journey as it is Salvador Mallo’s back and forth throughout life. A story of pleasure, it is Almodóvar after all, this film accounts for the lost opportunities, the rekindled friendships and plunges back into life, rebutting the dark stupors of depression, isolation and a rejection of the self – all in favour to produce a methodical, grim film which seeks as much enjoyment it can from the struggles of life.  

A movie director who has, for one cause of another, refrained from making a film for years, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) balances his chronic back pain, regrets, and stifles of creativity with a growing need to re-connect and fix estranged relationships. Seeking out a previous actor from his hit film, which is due for a re-release and Q&A, Salvador locates Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), and the two rekindle their “friendships”. Salvador is encouraged to take up heroin as a means to dull his pain, both mentally and physically. The drug abuse, visions of the past and regrets drive him to return to a theatrical play he has written but wishes to claim no credit for, as its subject material lacerates too deep on his mind, triggering thoughts of the lost love who has since moved on, choosing addiction over companionship.

As the ‘true’ narrative unfolds, ripples of memories stir in Salvador’s life, as the ties he attempted to cut return. Echoes of his mother, marvellously captured by Penélope Cruz, and in her later life by Julieta Serrano as a fiery woman, family-focused and proud, there’s a fragility to Cruz’s gorgeous performance which ripples throughout the film, and despite never sharing the screen with Banderas, influences the impact of his performance exponentially.

These interactions, often ending grimly, never pleasantly, through death, rejection or addiction are what forge this connection between Salvador and the audience’s experiences. None more so than with Eduardo, or Frederic, the man whom ‘Addiction’, Salvador’s play was written about, and is now happily married to a woman. The microcosm of suffering, betraying Banderas’ face as he steals these briefs glimpses of happiness, set against all the wealth his career has promised, but delivered none of the gratifications, ties together the split-second clues and shots of Salvador as a young boy, with a lingering eye towards the older painter Eduardo. Sexuality is an undercurrent in ‘Pain & Glory’, but masterfully handled by Almodóvar is no cheap tactic, but a personal infusion.

And while Almodóvar is the evident maestro of the film, it wouldn’t be quite so effective without Antonio Banderas. We see the world, as brutal and gut-wrenchingly awful as it can be, through his eyes, and what a sight to behold, like the dawning realisation of beauty, beneath all of the anguish, flourishes.

It cannot be stated enough, those unaware of Almodóvar’s work will potentially be put off by the artistic integrity of the experience – to be blunt, “Pain & Glory” is structurally a piece of artistic expression, wrapped in a cinematographic garb. It’s an astonishingly touching, poignant piece which lends itself to a staggeringly slow pace. This isn’t a film for everyone, but it is cinema made for and about everyone. We have perhaps come closer to Almodóvar than ever before, stripped of the emotional facades while sacrificing none of the visual or cinematic aesthetics.  

It is scenes set in the past, the carved home of Salvador and his mother which demonstrate José Luis Alcaine’s utterly exquisite manipulation of the light. The white-washed walls gradually cleansing the moods of his family, as they grow together, concealing the ‘ugliness’ beneath. His direction of cinematography completes the trifecta of the Almodóvar triangle with Banderas, revitalising a multiple of steady, or lengthy shots, offering a visual splendour to soften the scene, or starkly, cast the mood in shadows as ill-fated decisions and feelings surface.

And here is where ‘Pain & Glory’ suffers, in its valiant attempts to remain a film, to deconstruct much of the narrative to offer accessibility – in doing so, rips a little of the power behind the premise. A personal preference for some, but understandably lacking, is the conceptual ‘pay-off’ of the flood of emotion as the tears cannot be held back. ‘Pain & Glory’, instead, feels robustly human in this sense. Denying the audience this melodramatic moment, and instead harkening back to reality, to bleakness and necessity.

Naked, raw, and bare as possible, “Pain & Glory” refrains from pander and weaves itself into the fabric of reality. It’s difficult not to immediately become engrossed into the profoundly vivid colours, like a memory on steroids. Often harrowing, frequently humorous, there is little doubt to the bleakness of Almodóvar’s most ‘honest’ film to date, but quite often in this endless darkness of self-loathing, abuse and hate, there is the smallest glimmer of hope, and this light is what the focus of “Pain & Glory” magnifies.

Review originally published for In Their Own League:

Birdsong – King’s Theatre

Written by Sebastian Faulks, Adapted by Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Never again”; the imperative words uttered regarding the First World War. Yet, in the darkest moments of human history, we find an enticing light to the subject. Whether it be through respect, education or simply guilt, the lessons we garner from these times are urgent. Adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name, Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect and recover history.

Beneath the moaning earth, littered with the fallen, an entirely different war was waged. Tunnels, some 100ft below No Man’s Land, carved out by British, French and Germans attempting to lay explosives below the other. Dug by ‘sewer rats’, men who dug out the London undergrounds, men like Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) aching for news of his son in London. Still soldiers in their own right, risking their lives in multiple ways just as those above the surface did. Laced within this narrative are flashbacks to the rumbles of war, as Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) arrives in France. He finds a gleam of light in the shade, Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) a married French woman.

Differing from the novel, focusing more on the stories of Wraysford and Firebrace is a respectful turn as opposed to their descendants. It eases the narrative, driving our attention into the correct areas. The fuse takes time to smoulder, and you’ll certainly find it easier to connect with one character over the other. Yet in the grand scheme their fates are entwined to the audience’s receptiveness. Deeply moved by the outcome, even with characters we hadn’t entirely warmed to.

A touching thematic exploration of fatherhood is conducted through the larger role of Firebrace. Treloar embodies the spirit of a father, the centre of his garrison keeping the men jovial and the young brave. Balancing this are Knight and Kay whose passions betray otherwise icy exteriors. The fleeting moments of fondness one seeks in desperate times are deep, showing that there is more to the tale of war than death. Even through this, love still exists, however complicated. The chemistry, more so than between the romantic leads, but Treloar and Kay as comrades is touching, leading to gut dropping moments.

Transitions are complicated in the medium of the theatre stage, unable to rely on the usual tricks screen productions can call upon. Birdsong however manages a tremendous feat, we never need to question if we are in the ‘present’ or past. More than this, simple tricks of the light and swift flat moves manifest all forms of location. From the grim trenches, deep underground to the claustrophobic tunnels. Alex Wardle’s tweaked lighting design is simple, nothing over the top but manages to shift the tone from one of song to the dreaded ‘over the top’ moments of the Somme tastefully.

With war, comes pain. One cannot sugar-coat the atrocities of the past, nor should we ever re-write them. Even in fictional works, the subject matter needs to remain as truthful as possible to real events. Throughout the seclusion of the grimness, small sparks of humanity remain. Tiny touches which, just to those brave men, lift the audience out of the doldrums. Singing, music and those symbolic birdsongs help alleviate the bleakness, whilst also reinforcing the severity of the situation.

Recovering history is of paramount importance. As memories fade, they alter, they shift and warp. Productions such as Birdsong, as too the original novel, seek to maintain a narrative. Even if fictionalised. It would be a stretch to describe Birdsong as uplifting, though it is enjoyable. Its subject matter of trauma isn’t made to entertain, more so to reignite emotions. In truth, it is a fundamentally engaging piece of adaptation, with merit behind its messages. For lest we forget (again), that what is war but hell?

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Lauren Turner: Play On – Broadway Records

Rating: 2 out of 5.

For near-on over a decade, Texan vocalist Lauren Turner has been a crowd favourite across the Cabaret haunts of New York City. Featuring five of Turner’s memorable song choices from her childhood and cabaret career, Play On is a demonstration of which tunes led her down the path to the woman she is today. With a portion of proceeds going to charities benefiting doctors fighting the pandemic, Play On aims to showcase Turner as a performer and looking towards the next decade.

Immediately, there lies a particular issue with Play On, and while a couple of numbers change enough to offer Turner’s unique spin, I Have Nothing feels like an audition number – an exceeding well-performed one, but this isn’t Turner’s The Bodyguard. Iconic, it’s difficult to detach from Whitney Houston’s original as well as the context of the song in the musical, and Turner doesn’t bring enough to remove these from the equation. Though she has exceptional control, the emotion doesn’t come across. Not a good start for the album, but thankfully things take a turn.

Tracks two and three, Michael Jackson’s I’ll Be There and a belter of a classic from Sheryl Crow with If It Makes You Happy offer insight into Turner’s style. There’s a sense of self in the direction taken with these numbers, with decent harmonising with the instrumentals. Turner matches Crow’s ability to hold notes and reaches clear highs without allowing a break or having to build to the final tones – quite skilfully allowing for seamless routines. It’s a start, but there’s the suspicion there’s something more for Turner to offer – and then…

What at first seemed an out of place number, stepping away from the rock and power ballads, a gorgeous rendition of Fire and Rain, the emotional James Taylor classic, effortlessly communicates a sense of who Turner is. There’s an immediate difference, not only vocally, but in the direction and composition of the track – allowing for Michael Isaacs’s piano work to strikeout. Harmonising with the pianist, without detracting, Turner puts such intensity into a softer, yet still empowering cover of the song. It builds, echoing Taylor’s original sentiment with the number, without ruining the memory of his intention. The build-up at the end tops it all off with small scratches, vinyl-record etches we all have fond memories of resulting in a stand-out number for a compact album.

Closing the album, Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter is a let-down following Fire and Rain. It can’t match the emotional output of the previous track, even if it outweighs it in vocal capability. It’s an evident demonstration of Turner’s ability with ballads and adapting her range to the song, benefiting from Daniel Muniz on guitar and backing from Tara Martinez. Similarly to the album opener, the inclusion isn’t as clear to the listener, this feels like it was chosen and structured not from choice, but as a way to wrap-up the album. This doesn’t feel like a finale, it doesn’t belt with the weight it should do to leave a lasting impression.

Unquestionably personal in moments, Play On feels like a starting point, a direction of personal choice for Turner as she reflects on the songs which morphed her into the powerhouse beltress that she is today. A short album, containing a heft of voice and talent, Play On is a pleasant listen for a sombre evening, best accompanied with a glass of your tipple and a quiet room – just expect to find yourself waiting around for an encore which won’t arrive.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Lauren Turner: Play On is available from Broadway Records now