THE BLIND SIDE
IT’S certainly a remarkable story. “Big Mike” Oher, a poor black kid from the Tennessee projects abandoned by his junkie mother, became a major star in American football after being rescued by rich housewife, Leigh Anne Tuohy. She and her millionaire husband (Tim McGraw) adopted him as a teenager, paid for his studies, and ensured he made it into the college football system. It’s a true tale that takes in race, class, and the kind of overcoming-the-odds sentiment that Hollywood and Middle America love. On this side of the pond, however, The Blind Side seems just a little treacly and facile – if Sarah Palin made a movie, this would be it.
It’s Sandra Bullock as Tuohy who makes the film watchable at all, and she more or less earns her Oscar as the tell-it-like-it-is wealthy mom with a heart of gold. Her turn in Crash a few years ago proved she has more to offer than ditzy romantic leads, and she’s charming and believable as Tuohy.
But the film has no edge. Oher (Quinton Aaron) himself remains an enigmatic, saintly simpleton throughout, the filmmakers much more interested in the emotions and experience of the God-fearing, do-gooding altruists helping him than of this damaged but talented young man. It’d be interesting to know what the Oher’s fellow students and team-mates at the private Christian school he attends make of this huge, barely literate black kid suddenly among them, but we never learn. Instead, the biggest difficulty either Oher or his adoptive mom seems to face is the ignorant disapproval of Tuohy’s snobbish lunch buddies. In the end, this is patronising stuff, taking a complex story and smothering it to death in a cloud of smugness.
THE WHITE GUARD
National Theatre Lyttleton
DIRECTOR Howard Davies has scored major successes at the National with two previous Russian-set plays: last year’s Burnt by the Sun, an adaptation of Nikita Mikhalkov’s film about the Stalinist era, and before that with Gorky’s 1902 play Philistines, which was adapted by Andrew Upton. Davies and Upton have teamed up again with The White Guard, based upon a play by Master & Marguerita author Mikhail Bulgakov, set in the Ukraine in the wake of the Russian revolution, and they’ve once again struck theatrical gold.
The play is set in Kiev in 1918, when the city was being fought over by Moscow-backed Bolsheviks, Ukrainian nationalists, and forces of the Tsarist puppet the Hetman, supported by elements of the German army. On the latter side are the Turbin family, in whose middle class home much of the action takes place. In charge is Lena, wife of the Hetman’s war minister, and sister to Alexei and Nikolai, soldiers in Tsar-supporting White Guard. A number of their fellow officers tend to congregate in the house, drawn by Lena’s charms even as the Bolshevik gunfire grows nearer. As the city falls into total chaos, loyalties, honour, friendships and family ties are rent apart.
This being Russia, characters are given occasionally to bursting into passionate sermons about the state of things. However, the solemnity is outdone by an abundance of beautifully-executed humour that occasionally enters the world of pure farce. Conleth Hill’s Shervinsky, a slippery charmer with a chameleonic ability to adapt to any situation and prevalent political force, is an especially rich comic creation. Special mention also should go to Pip Carter as the Turbins’ awkward young cousin, a poet given to rhapsodizing about, among other things, the apartment’s blinds.
Special mention must also go to the magnificent sets, which make ingenious use of the Lyttleton’s vast stage. And while the production is at times uneven in tone, and not as moving as it might be, Davies marshals things with such aplomb that its easy to be absorbed and thrilled by an evening of very classy theatre.