Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hooray for True Grit!

I don't do movie reviews and I don't consider myself anything of a movie critic. I don't know movies, but I know what I like and I don't even know what I like. I know what I hate, though, which often turns out to be historical fiction. They never get it right, never resemble anything but modern day folks in outdated clothing. How often do you see someone spend millions of dollars researching and recreating, say, a ship from a century ago, but fail to create a single character who seems to belong in that era. Or present me with Roman senators pining for democracy.* Or not even try that hard, ending up with a Western that does ... ugh, this.

The dialogue is usually the worst offender. Inevitably, 'historic' characters will speak in modern colloquialisms, as grating to me as if a crew member walked in front of the camera and no one yelled "Cut".** Producers spend millions researching costumes, but almost never pay a historian to review the script and say, "No, stop, they just didn't talk like this in the 19th Century. Read some books and speeches from the time period and get an idea of how people spoke then."

Generally, the best way to capture a previous time period is to use a contemporary book. It's why adaptations of Jane Austen always conjure up their period better than anything written by a modern screenwriter. Modern writers just don't realize that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

However, I thoroughly enjoyed the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. Not a modern coinage to be heard! The early scenes in Fort Smith are really one of the best representation of 19th Century westerners that I've ever seen. The actors all delivered their lines with an admirable naturalism that had me thinking, I'm really in Arkansas in the 1880's. The only fault is the impression that English speakers used no contractions a hundred years ago; they did. But if the dialogue sometimes seems slightly forced, it's never laid on so thick as the North Dakota dialect in Fargo.

The character actors populating Fort Smith actually outshine the big money stars in this regard. Jeff Bridges performs well, but gets some assistance from his character's gruff mannerisms; it works for him to sound a little stiff and self-aware. Matt Damon, unfortunately, never does manage to sound like he's doing aught but reading lines, and Josh Brolin does only slightly better. Hailee Steinfeld is amazing. Like Bridges, she gains an advantage from Mattie Ross's cold determination, so that it's appropriate if she never sounds entirely at ease. Nonetheless, I could easily believe she grew up speaking the way her character does. This film was a treat for the ears.

* I saw Gladiator for entertainment relief after driving 2 hours to Bozeman for a dental appointment on my only day off during a two-week stretch. One of the worst days of my life.

** One of the all time worst: a 14th Century bishop saying, "I believe in miracles. It's part of my job."

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