There were few films from 2019 about which critics were in greater lockstep than Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the stage musical Cats. I can’t say that I was particularly surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for the film. The source material itself generates strong feelings (pro and con), and elements such as costumes that are weirdly exotic on stage come across on screen as just…weird.
But even a cursory survey of negative reviews reveals a notable trend among the litany of complaints — Tom Hooper’s direction is deemed by the film’s detractors as not only ineffective but bungling. Hooper was “just losing his mind” says Brandon Collins of Medium Popcorn. “Hooper is incompetent even in his incompetence” asserts Pablo Villaça of Cinema em Cena. Robert Horton of HeraldNet insists that “the blame goes to the clumsy style of director Tom Hooper, not people wearing digital fur. “
I was reminded in reviewing potential titles to receive my “10 Years Later” analysis that Hooper won an Academy Award for Directing in 2010. Did he simply forget how to direct between then and now? Was Cats so difficult a project that even an Academy Award winner could not handle it? Were critics too quick to praise Hooper’s direction in The King’s Speech because they liked the movie? I don’t labor under the illusion that skilled people can never make mistakes, but I do think the mistakes of skilled people look and feel different from those of incompetent ones. So I returned to The King’s Speech for the first time in a decade or so and resolved to watch it again, specifically paying attention to the direction.
What I Said Then
After screening the film at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (where it won a People’s Choice Award), I reviewed the film twice, once for AFI Fest and, upon wide release, for Christianity Today. In both reviews I focused primarily on public comments from Colin Firth, though I did note from the Q&A at Toronto that Hooper seemed to claim that his primary challenge in directing the film was to create an environment where the principal actors could replicate the chemistry between the characters they portray.
“Hooper told audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival (where the film won the Cadillac People’s Choice Award), for example, that filming began with three weeks of intensive meetings between himself and stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush to go over the script almost line by line, poring over their subject’s diary looking for clues as to his state of mind. He also took the unorthodox step of sharing most of the production dailies with the two stars, actively soliciting their input regarding editing choices. “From 2010 write up for AFI Fest
Directing, like just about every aspect of the modern, commercial movie, is subject to wildly disparate valuations in part because of the differing ways that critics (or even audiences) conceptualize the job of the director. Is he (or she) someone who has the whole film in his head (like Hitchcock) and tells the cinematographer where to shoot and the actors where to stand? Does he, like Peter Brook, send assistant directors to independently shoot other angles and then incorporate them in the editing room? Or is the director more like a coach who calls the plays and then stands back to watch his team execute them?
What I Say Now
What was most surprising about the film’s direction, when I concentrated on it, was how restless the camera was. The composition of every scene (and nearly every shot) was comprehensible to me, but the camera rarely stayed with any one shot long enough for its meaning to inform the action of the scene. Properly speaking, some might object that this is a fault of editing rather than direction, but whether the editor is taking cues from the editor or working under his more immediate supervision, I would assume the final decisions belong to the latter.
For example, in the first meeting between Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and Logue (Geoffrey Rush) we begin with a longer shot to establish location and move fairly quickly, as the conversation ensues, to a somewhat standard shot-reverse shot as the two actors exchange lines. But rather than the camera keeping an equal distance each time we cut to a different speaker, sometimes it retreats back to a medium shot, sometimes to a close up. If the camera proxemics are supposed to mirror some ebb or flow of the conversation, I missed that. In fact, I wondered if Hooper’s choice of soliciting input from the actors on the dailies resulted in his performers preferring different takes.
In the first encounter between Logue and Bertie (Firth), the speech therapist shares that he has been told not to sit “too close” to the (then) Prince. Hooper gives us a conventional but effective medium to long shot with the seated men on either side of the screen and the majority of the screen filled with the empty space between them. But whatever momentary tension is communicated through this staging is quickly undercut as the scene progresses and we move forward and back through cross cutting.
It is presumptuous to conjecture about an artist’s confidence, but the use of reaction shots seemed to me to betoken a lack of confidence in the audience to notice any visual element that is not emphatically accentuated. When Bertie finally listens to the initial recording of his reading of Hamlet, the camera is blissfully still for a few moments, and we are able to really focus on Firth’s expressions. We note Elizabeth entering the room in the background and understand that Bertie is not aware of her presence. Yet as the scene progresses, the camera pans across the room to Bonham Carter wearing an astonished expression. When Logue and Bertie walk in the park and Bertie dismisses him, the camera follows Bertie with a close-up on Firth, leaving a distraught Logue diminishing into the background. But even though Bertie does not turn, the camera does, returning us to a close up of Rush reacting.
These scenes foreshadowed the technique in the eight minute speech that concludes the film in which the tension in the room with Bertie and Logue is continually cut away from to show reaction shots of various characters listening to radio, smiling and nodding. It is as though the film does not trust us to trust our own ears and know that Bertie is succeeding, it must give us audience surrogates to illustrate for us what our reactions should be. And if the reaction shots were not enough, the second half of the film leans heavily on music and scoring. This is especially true of the climactic scene, where continuity and flow is achieved aurally rather than visually.
It is probably an indication of how much benefit of a doubt I wanted to give Hooper that I spent much of the middle portion of the film pondering whether this editing style was a deliberate attempt to visually symbolize Bertie’s stammer. If so, I expected the halting and less fluid visual style to change as Bertie’s stammer improved, but it really didn’t.
The Last Word
I enjoyed the film. While in retrospect I do not rate it as highly as I did ten years ago, I still find it moving, even if the writing is a tad on the nose. Essentially, I increasingly think of it as an actor’s movie, one in which Firth and Rush elevate some conventional material. I don’t find Hooper’s direction to be a material part of the film’s success, but I do think he was smart enough to create an environment that leaned heavily on his film’s best assets and thus gave it the best chance to succeed.
It’s probably worth pointing out that in between The King’s Speech‘s success and Cats‘s resounding failure, Hooper directed two films, Les Misérables and The Danish Girl. A role in the former earned Anne Hathaway an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress; the latter did the same for Alicia Vikander. Critics can sneer all they want, but — Cats be damned — if I were an actor, I’d want to work for this guy.