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Life Forces

All the King's Men (Columbia)

49 Up (First Run)

Robert Penn Warren was a poet who also wrote novels. His poetry, much of which is lovely, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and he was the first U.S. poet laureate. But today he is probably best remembered for his novels, particularly All the King's Men, which was published in 1946, won a Pulitzer in 1947, was filmed in 1949, and has now been filmed again. To approach this second film with regard for Warren's poetry, which I certainly have, is to sit for two hours in moderate discomfort. The film isn't dreadful: it is just generally disappointing.

The story follows the career of a Louisiana politician, Willie Stark (a character suggested by the once-irrepressible Huey Long), who rhetorically swashbuckles his way into the governor's chair and is assassinated by a physician whose sister and father have suffered at the governor's hand. All of this is followed by a young newspaperman, Jack Burden, who narrates and partakes and supplies an ethical ledge from which the greasy goings-on are observed. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian strives to transmute the observed drama of the novel into an observed drama on screen. This mode is much less congenial to film, but at least Zaillian knew the difficulty and tried to heat as many scenes as possible to immediacy.

Zaillian, who also directed, is not as deft in that job. He leans on intense close-ups in big scenes; such close-ups of course can help, but when overused, they print the film in italics and deprive the actors of body language. He also overdoes "symbolic" frames: as cars move ominously along a road, we see roadside crosses; an obese pol at a carnival is caught with a Ferris wheel behind him that mimics both his shape and his frivolity. And Zaillian lapses into the hoariest of tricks--a camera between railway tracks as a train roars toward it and over it.

He probably was not responsible--not solely, anyway--for the casting, but whoever was responsible blundered by giving the role of Willie to Sean Penn. Penn is an introverted actor who depends largely on contained fire, with outbursts. He has a tough time here with this extrovert whose loud love of everyone he meets is his stock-in-trade. Penn on the platform (complete with southern accent, of course), trying to communicate heart-to-heart and fortissimo, gesturing weakly and incompletely, is simply not the force he is meant to be. It is hard to believe that this man could, in five years, have charmed his way to the political peak; and it is hard to believe that a possible presidential jewel is shattered when he is killed.

Kate Winslet, talented though she is, can find no real role to play as a young woman who is involved with both Willie and Jack. Mark Ruffalo, as her physician brother, tries seriously to create a complex character out of a few shards. James Gandolfini, better known as Tony Soprano, here plays Willie's heavyset sidekick and sweats obligingly. The only interesting performance-- admittedly in the biggest and best role--is Jude Law's as Jack Burden. Constantly he conveys that he is feeling and thinking things that he is either too shocked or too amused to voice. Social class still pertains in the South-- in the 1930s, anyway (see Stanley and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire). Law creates a Jack who, because the world is as it is, is slumming.

When the novel was published and the first film appeared, the memory of Huey Long was still vivid enough to give the work some sting, and the notion of a quasi-dictator rising above the people by pretending to be 500 percent one of them still seemed awesomely possible. Neither of those matters exists any more.

Once I took Warren to an avant-garde Moliere production at Yale. During the first intermission he was taciturn. During the second intermission he smiled broadly. "I see," he said. "It's all a spoof." Would he have thought the same of this new film? I don't think so: it's just not bad enough.

For the last forty-two years, many filmgoers have counted the passage of time in seven-year clumps. Beginning in 1964, the English director Michael Apted has been involved in documentaries that follow the lives of a group of English children who have of course become different people as the series has progressed. Seven Up was the first, followed by 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, and so forth. Now we have, believe it or not, 49 Up, with twelve of the people whom we first saw as youngsters now on the brink of half a century.

Ever since the very first still photograph in 1822, people have known that time could be trapped, like a butterfly pinned. All of us have photos of ourselves and others in past years, and the pictures make us all feel the same melancholy or amusement or glow. By now many people have home movies that provide the same feelings aggrandized. But Apted's films do much more. The segments are so cleverly arranged--he includes past pictorial references for each of the people we revisit--that now there is something almost mystical involved. It is as if a wizard were giving us an overview of forty-two years that mortals were possibly not meant to see.

Apted, off-screen, questions his subjects evocatively. Lives become as open as is possible in these brief chapters. Some of the time-collapses are easily ironic. A woman is seen with her family, followed by a clip of her at fourteen saying that she doesn't want children. All of the stories are interesting because of the time tegument, but especially striking are Tony and Neil. Tony was a scruffy, mischievous East End kid who, as we see, became a jockey, a cab driver, a father, and an occasional bit-part television actor; now, as a grandfather, he is becoming a man of business. Neil, at one point, was homeless. Deliberately, more or less, he was wandering up and down the west coast of Scotland. Now he is on a town council.

Apted is a busy director in between these documentaries, the maker of Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorky Park and one of the James Bond pictures. But these "Up" films are his unique contribution. On to 56 Up.

This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.