Friday, March 1

BRIAN VINER reviews The Mystery Of Marilyn Monroe – The Unheard Tapes


The Mystery Of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes (15, 101 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Some like it cheap

The Velvet Queen (12A, 92 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Silly words, amazing pictures 

Who is the most famous woman in the world, living or dead? The Queen? Beyonce? Princess Diana? Oprah Winfrey?

It won’t startle you to learn the choice of the man behind The Mystery Of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes.

He’s a former BBC journalist called Anthony Summers, and in 1982, when the Los Angeles District Attorney reopened the investigation into her death, he conducted hundreds of interviews, trying to make more headway than the DA.

He claims to have no fewer than 650 tape recordings with those who knew Monroe, snippets of which are played in this Netflix documentary with actors lip-syncing the words.

Understandably, perhaps, but very unhelpfully, Summers inflates the significance of his mission with a degree of earnestness, teetering on pomposity, that becomes increasingly counter-productive. ‘The truth and Marilyn, it’s like going into the lion’s den,’ he declares, self-importantly.

The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes is a documentary made up from more than 500 tape recordings looking into her death

The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes is a documentary made up from more than 500 tape recordings looking into her death

The documentary features lots of archive footage of Monroe and her second husband, Arthur Miller

The documentary features lots of archive footage of Monroe and her second husband, Arthur Miller

Maybe it was once. But is it still? When one of his 1982 interviewees politely explains that he doesn’t want to talk about Monroe’s 1962 death 20 whole years after the event, the thought arises that 60 years later, maybe it’s three times as unseemly to rake it all up again.

Classic movie on TV 

The Band Wagon (1953)

Among the greatest MGM musicals, with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire In glorious form. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who did Singin’ In The Rain).

Doubtless aware of that potential charge, director Emma Cooper does her level best to imbue her film with drama and suspense, hence all the lip-syncing, some of it shot in shadow, which cheapens what could be fascinating.

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On the credit side, there’s lots of fabulous archive footage of Monroe (and her second husband, Arthur Miller), both on screen and off, and when the film finally addresses her suspected suicide, aged 36, it at least illuminates what Summers describes as the lion’s den.

It’s now no secret that U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his brother, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were both involved with Monroe. Dean Martin’s wife, Jeanne, tells Summers that she saw the Kennedys’ brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford, effectively ‘pimping’ her out to both of them. But did the Kennedys order the FBI to murder her, as one well-known conspiracy theory avers?

Summers gives us his verdict, which is undoubtedly well-informed, but not entirely worth the wait.

A sighting of the snow leopard, on the other hand, very much is.

The Velvet Queen is another documentary, following the painstaking efforts of two Frenchmen, in the bleakly beautiful highlands of Tibet, to find what was already one of the world’s most elusive creatures even before it was officially classified on lists of endangered species as ‘vulnerable’. Marie Amiguet’s French-language film was made for television, but was considered so cinematic that it’s now getting a big-screen release.

The Velvet Queen is a documentary about snow leopards (stock image)

The Velvet Queen is a documentary about snow leopards (stock image)

I first saw it late one night at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was snapped out of end-of-day weariness by an incredibly powerful image: a lone snow leopard, sleek and elegant, standing on a mountain ledge, considering its options and looking anything but vulnerable.

In a way, that blows the ending. Sorry. But there’s never too much doubt that nature photographer Vincent Munier — so skilled that he won the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition three years in succession — and his companion, writer Sylvain Tesson, will eventually find what they are looking for.

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Their solemn and, it has to be said, rather Gallic philosophising along the way veers between the pretentiously Promethean (‘I’d stolen fire . . . I carried within me the embers’) and the insanely incomprehensible (‘the right-here-right-now of modern epilepsy ran into the most-likely-nothing-ever of the blind’).

Still, let’s be generous and ascribe the latter to bad subtitling. Either way, even if you’d much rather have Sir David Attenborough as a guide, some of the photography in this film is truly breathtaking.

Stately return for old favourites

Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG, 125 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Old era regurgitated

Lord and Lady Carnarvon sat just in front of me at Monday night’s world premiere of Downton Abbey: A New Era.

They are the owners of the real-life Downton, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, and I fancy I saw them shifting a little in their seats when Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) was persuaded by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to allow filming in the great house, on the basis that it would pay for some of the repairs. As in art, so in life. Maybe the storyline was their idea.

This film is the second big-screen spin-off after 2019’s Downton Abbey and, for all the talk of a new era, writer Julian Fellowes carefully evokes the old era, with the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) firing acid barbs through pursed lips, which is easier said than done. The ‘new era’ bit concerns the arrival of the movies. It is 1928 and a dishy director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), wants to hire the stately pile to make a silent film.

Lord Grantham more or less declares that such commercial vulgarity will happen only over his dead body and, among the more ruthless of us at Monday’s glitzy world premiere in London, this kindled the fleeting hope that his lordship might be about to expire in spectacular fashion, perhaps of an overdose of kedgeree. Downton has always done death rather well.

But no. A hefty cheque helps to change his mind, along with bossy Lady Mary, who realises the film money might ‘bring the house up to snuff’.

Below stairs, dopey Daisy (Sophie McShera) is quivering with excitement at the prospect of seeing matinee idol Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and screen siren Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock, having more fun than anyone) up close. As always with Downton, the suspicion mounts that Fellowes has found out from Wikipedia what was happening at the time and shaped his narrative accordingly.

So, with the South of France becoming increasingly popular with the British aristocracy in the late 1920s, off we duly pop to the Riviera, where old Lady G has controversially been left a handsome villa by a Frenchman with whom she enjoyed an idyllic week back in 1864.

But really it is back at Downton where the more entertaining stuff is going on. The silent film is in trouble, you see, because the talkies have just arrived.

All this unfolds in amiable Downton style, ably directed by Simon Curtis. There’s a birth, a death, a proposal, a spot of disputed paternity and the usual pot-pourri of fine and wooden acting, good and silly dialogue.

About a quarter of it rings true. But the sets and costumes are fabulous, which is all it takes to get back into the Abbey habit.

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