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Canada 2011
Directed by
Erik Canuel
80 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Emma Flanagan
4.5 stars


Synopsis: In 1942, faded screen and stage idol John Barrymore (Christopher Plummer) hires an old theatre and a line prompter (John Plumpis) for one evening as he aims to find out if he still has what it takes to perform at the dizzy heights of his past successes. As he struggles desperately to remember lines from once-lauded Richard III performances he drifts from his current reality to the vivid memories of his glory days but as he does so, he must face his past excesses and the ravages wrought on him physically and emotionally.

This Canadian production is based on a Tony Award-winning play by William Luce, originally staged in 1996 with Christopher Plummer in the lead role. Unsurprisingly, the veteran actor excels as the washed-up thespian trying to work out where he went wrong. He knows he was good at acting, so was it the women, the whisky, or just laziness that led him from the path of success? Did he make the right choice by being an actor, when his first job was in the visual arts, a field in which he also excelled? Indeed did he choose at all or was he doomed to be sucked into “the family business,” a kind of bird in a golden cage of achievement and fame? Was he fated to be like his bad-tempered father, a famed stage actor who ended up alcoholic and insane at forty?

Plummer conveys all this not only with a glorious, flowing script, but also with various props – old swords, coats, a bottle of grog – with great ease and effect. One minute he delivers Shakespearian iambic pentameters with a sword; the next he tosses out a vaudevillian double entendre with a rude gesture. Then there is a small, intimate moment, where he is childlike and desperately in need of the voice he knows he will never hear respond to his plaintive cry.

There is an absolute feast of theatrical drama entwined into this tragic tale of one man’s decline. The play has not only been polished to a fine edge, it has been splendidly adapted for the screen by director Erik Canuel who smoothly meshes 1942 with earlier years for greater visual and aural interest.

The production design is also based on the Broadway play, with the play’s original set designer being involved. Clever use of long shots and close-ups, along with subtle changes in lighting colour, also helps set the mood for Barrymore’s tale.

Shot mostly indoors, there are parts which feel “stagy,” particularly when the off-screen narrator interrupts Barrymore during his reveries. However, these are minor quibbles in an outstanding production, which should surely earn Christopher Plummer another Academy Award nomination. Perhaps the greatest irony is that Barrymore was sixty when he died; here is Plummer, in rude good health and aged over eighty, playing this role with gusto.




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