Sunday, 27 October 2013

Reuben, Reuben (1983 film with Tom Conti)


Have just watched Reuben, Reuben for the second time - with a gap of about thirty years in between. The first time was, if memory serves, at the former Glasgow Odeon, now gone or translated, the second time was last night, with the film shrunk to the dimensions of my fairly small telly screen.

Is it a good film? Not sure, although I didn't stop watching it last night, which must mean something. Mind you, I'd mislaid the remote, so maybe I just couldn't be *rsed with all the kerfuffle of stopping and starting.  The ending is quite something, and I'd retained that from the first viewing; avoid the w*kipedia page as it gives everything away - and I mean everything.

Although I momentarily fancied myself as a critic in those days - I did a few pieces for the student paper - I think I saw films as purely entertainment. I was studying Drama, and it was quite nice to feel free  not even to shape critical thoughts in my head if I wasn't sitting watching a play. The Glasgow Film Theatre, or GFT, would give out a closely printed A4 for most of its films as you filed in; I would read these but I think I made a conscious decision not to join the game.

Anyway, that's by the by. What it means is I don't have a handy set of notes to compare my reactions then and now. All I really remember is that the ending made an impression. And that I was in two minds about the film as a whole, while accepting that the central performance was a piece of bravura acting.


Which is roughly how I feel today, except that I can see the theatrical origins more clearly, perhaps, than I did then. Based (or so I've read) on Dylan Thomas, Gowan McGland, played by Tom Conti, is a larger than life creation, and perhaps better suited to the theatre: there's a sense of his, meaning McGland's, performing for an imaginary audience. He's not unlike another male monologue machine, Simon Gray's Butley, as played by Alan Bates. This was a play, though I saw the cinema version (at the GFT, as it happens), and it made a big impact on me. My first rudimentary attempt to write a play as part of a university course featured a kind of Butley transferred from the university where Gray's creation strutted to a secondary school.

Reuben, Reuben was a novel which was adapted into a play before becoming a film, and I can well imagine that one of the devices - he reminisces or reflects into a miniature tape recorder for the benefit of his ex-wife, now his biographer -  originated in the stage version, or was seized upon for it. There's a moment near the end, crucial for an understanding of a certain relationship, where we are shown and then told as well, as though the director didn't have the confidence to let the audience take it in for themselves. It feels like this might have been a monologuey bit in theatre and at some point the scriptwriter forgot to snip off the section now made redundant, or else this was a bit of narrative in the original novel which someone couldn't bear to lose even though it was no longer needed.

The link with the novels of JP Donleavy is made explicit when characters pass a restaurant or pub called The Ginger Man, and it does seem to be that kind of world, which perhaps fits better in a novel or in a monologue (I'd love to know whether the stage version was a proper play). The focus is almost wholly on Conti's character, and you have to  buy into his charm to enjoy the film. The mask rarely slips and, as I say, I suspect it would be less of a problem in the theatre, where our laughter makes us complicit.

Obviously that can happen in the cinema as well, though I can't remember now how the rest of that long-ago Glasgow audience felt. Given that he was a beloved son of Glasgow, it would almost certainly have been indulgent, but I still think there may have been something about the medium of film which might have provoked a colder stare at his escapades.

I once saw Tom Conti perform - well, more than once, but dodgy late period Arthur Millers don't count. An actor friend was appearing with Conti in a Neil Simon play and I went to a matinee late in the run. There was a certain amount of corpsing from the star, and it made me angry: as a colleague  in the business says, you need to remember that they've paid their twenty quid or whatever. But then I wasn't a particular Conti fan, had come to see my friend doing sterling service as a feed, in effect. Also in the cast was a woman who had been a major TV star, and the hoped-for big bucks accompanying a West End transfer were diverted to paying her, so my friend was playing a thankless role with not much in the way of concrete gratitude from his employer.

None of that is Conti's fault, apart from the corpsing, and the suggestion that he is deserving of some special dispensation, that the prize of seeing him perform, however badly, is quite enough for his fans.

But that does suggest why he fits the role of McGland so well - even if film may not be the best medium. In later years he has played famous drinker Jeffrey Bernard in Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell - not a monologue, but a man likewise trading on charm. The same could be said of his role in Slade in Flame.

Anyway, I am running out of steam here, so what am I saying? Is Reuben, Reuben a film worth seeking out?

I'd say yes, even if you are not wholly captivated by Mr Conti as a rule. Maybe it would have been better in one of its earlier incarnations (I haven't read the novel or the play so I can only speculate), and maybe you won't (as I didn't) completely surrender, but there are rewards if you stick to the end.

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