PETER CATTANEO FOR THE FULL MONTY (1997)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
James Cameron for Titanic
Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter
Curtis Hanson for L.A. Confidential
Gus Van Sant for Good Will Hunting
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
From the early days of Capra to the heady runs of Little Miss Sunshine and Beasts of the Southern Wild, folk fables have quite a good track record with the Academy. The Full Monty sees all of those uplifting hands and raises them a few quid: Peter Cattaneo carried this £2 million populist fantasy about a plucky bunch of Sheffield steelworkers to £250 million worldwide and four Oscar nominations. Even with my propensity for films that find the optimism in bleak situations, I have a few reservations about this Pollyannaish tale of a crumbling industrial Britain—as did Danny Boyle, who passed on Simon Beaufoy’s script (a decade before they both won their Oscars for the similarly scrappy but slightly more assured Slumdog Millionaire). I often found myself wondering what this material might look like in the hands of Boyle, or Edgar Wright, or Mike Leigh, all British directors with strong visions who have proven their ability to catch the lightness in Britain’s often-bleak working class landscape. But the film belongs to feature film novice Peter Cattaneo’s mild, easygoing hand, yielding not a trenchant social commentary but a buoyant piece of entertainment.
It wouldn’t do to call this film an underdog story, in which the good guys are hopelessly outmatched in pursuit of their objective, or even a fairy tale, in which the world is divided into forces of good and evil that do battle before justice is restored. Instead, the world of post-industrial Sheffield exists on a plane of pure positivity, in which any bubbling of conflict soon sinks back into the happy momentum of Gaz’s crazy idea. A thwarted suicide amounts to another recruit for the merry band of would-be strippers, while their apprehension by the police turns into the setup for another choreography joke. While I can accept most of what happens in the film, I missed the serious conflict that the screenplay continually suggests but skips over in pursuit of the next amusing incident en route to the big payoff.
Not only would a little more attention to issues like bankruptcy, depression, and death add a little respect to the workers’ plight, but it would give the film’s cardinal asset—its stellar cast of gawky misfits—more to do. Mark Addy’s Dave is the only character who sees through a serious inner struggle, and even that one hastily wraps itself up in time for the big finish. After Tom Wilkinson’s painful confessional monologue, it would do his wounded ex-foreman a service to show him slowly coming to terms with his feelings of disgrace instead of snapping into the spirit of the enterprise. And for that matter, I’d like to see the outstanding Robert Carlyle muster Gaz’s herculean optimism against more formidable opponents, as Sally Hawkins’ Poppy did in Happy-Go-Lucky. Like Anne Dudley‘s cheerful (if surprisingly sparse) score, which borrows liberally from the cadence of the Rocky theme, this is a film that floats along on a mellow even keel.
If the film sticks to the easy road, I doubt it’s because much of the suppressed conflict was shot and then cut; the production had to go out and grab additional footage (bereft of the otherwise-engaged Carlyle) just to boost the film’s run time past 90 minutes. Cattaneo came out of a career in British TV, a field that started the careers of the likes of Stephen Frears and Ken Loach, and his directing shares a certain thrifty, episodic sensibility with working-class portraits like My Beautiful Laundrette and Riff-Raff. Despite his limited material, Cattaneo knows what he’s after in each scene and exercises a refreshing brevity even in the classic scenes a typical director would milk for all they’re worth. Gags like the expertly staged unemployment line scene conclude while the joke is still fresh, while key character moments like Guy and Lomper’s mutual discovery sink in because of what’s only hinted. If the slightness of the production shows in certain places (seemingly arbitrary intercutting, an incessant long take of Lomper playing the trumpet), the final scene makes up for it with both an inspired song choice and a brilliant sense of the different characters—right down to their careful arrangement in the final frame. This is hardly the birth of a brilliant new talent, but it’s a charming and all-too-rare comedic diversion in my march toward the end of the Best Director list.
For the second time in three years, the Best Director race welcomed five newcomers into the ring. The five couldn’t have come from more disparate directions, with Cattaneo’s plucky novice effort joining blockbuster king (of the world) James Cameron for the unstoppable Titanic, industry journeyman Curtis Hanson for the sleek intelligence of L.A. Confidential, indie darling Gus Van Sant for his mainstream crossover Good Will Hunting, and Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan for his shattering requiem The Sweet Hereafter. It can at least be said for Cattaneo and Van Sant that they didn’t’ get in the way of their stories, but it’s tough indeed for me to sort out the three remaining contenders. Egoyan’s unsparing look at the aftermath of a small-town tragedy and Hanson’s able handling of the spiritual successor to Chinatown deserve ample credit, but (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) it would seem like a crime to deny Cameron’s epic realization of an almost impossible project. In terms of writing, acting, and overall production, L.A. Confidential is the clear winner, but Titanic remains a directorial conquest for the ages.