Friday, 5 August 2011

Friday Night Film: The Ceremony

I’ve already kicked the shit out of Laurence Harvey the man, but let’s zero in on his failings as an actor, producer and director. ‘The Ceremony’ (1963) was his pet project, a sombre and hugely pretentious film adapted from a book that caught Harvey’s beady eye and stayed in his head as something he could append numerous credits to... 

Set in Tangier, Harvey plays Sean McKenna, a criminal on death row for a murder he tried to prevent (he has to be a martyr). The main character is, of course, one of those beatific, stoic type characters that vain actors are drawn to. He suffers but his spirit cannot be broken and, in the end, he is delivered from bondage, kind of like Jesus but better, because he doesn’t die and he gets to make everyone that treated him so badly feel rotten. The too long tale tells of the too long morning before his scheduled execution, cutting between the parties who wish him dead, those who want him free, and those who are just there because they were told to be. In the middle of it all is Harvey – a man who would rather die than break his moral code – a man who talks softly and a whole prison listens and nods sagely.

Pretentious? Moi?

Harvey falls into the novice director trap of making the little things too elaborate and the big things boring. His style for transitions is to shoot from above or below or through something or in extreme close up – but when it gets to the bits that actually matter (the interminable speeches; action important to the plot) he just lets it happen – at length. The results are extremely unsatisfactory as the film alternately jars or bores, and never settles into a rhythm. The viewer is always aware that they are watching a film, and the florid and, ugh, allegorical script reinforces this: it’s all artifice, no art.   

Unusual camera angle.

Abstract landscape.

Artful tableau.

Peep Show.

Harvey is, of course, awful, although naturally he gives himself plenty of acting to do.

Is he laughing? Crying? Acting? Who knows?

The final shot of him bathed in light in cruciform as a priest kneels at his feet and the prison population softly coo his name is one of the most excruciating in cinema.    

Jesus Christ Almighty.

He didn't direct another film under his own name until 'Welcome To Arrow Beach', in which he played a Korean War veteran with a taste for human flesh. It's not great, and finally crept out for a very limited release the year after he died.

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