Jessica Chastain’s “Salomé”

Al Pacino’s Salomé efforts are really wonderful and  I want to rattle on about all three: the film of the play; the documentary about the filming of the play; and the Stephen Fry Q&A on Sunday 21 September at the BFI. My main point is that Jessica Chastain was the star of all of them.

Pacino’s film of Wilde’s play (it’s a film of a staging of the show) seems to stand up well to the inevitable comparison with the Medea we’d just seen. I mean that they both centre on a woman in extremes (and in extremes of species of jealousy, what’s more), and they are both exercises in exoticism (Wilde has a deliberate creative anachronism at the heart of the project; any modern producer of Greek Tragedy has to wrestle with the creative distance between himself and the classical – or mythical – original).

Pacino’s Salomé  is slightly more modernistic than was the Medea. There was, in Chastain’s performance, just a hint of a Clueless entitlement. And Pacino’s Herod was nudging toward the parodic: he made a little moue of disgust that was pure Clueless, and that’s not to dwell on his general air of vapourising.

But Pacino’s Herod loved Wilde’s words and all the conceits in the text. Chastain’s Salomé had all that quality as well, and added bewilderment, toughness, avarice, and cruelty in a wonderful way. Plus, she pulled-off an extraordinary dance.

It was natural enough that Pacino would pull off a rather fabulous documentary. Wilde Salomé was battier than Pacino’s earlier Richard III film-of-the-film, but it was funnier too. The last scene was masterly: Pacino wanders in the desert like a disarranged Valentino sheik looking for the catering tent or his analyst. It seemed to be saying that he well understands that he is demanding and wayward, and though it’s a case of the blind leading the blind, he quite often gets things really, really right and sometimes – not so much. So what, we his fans chorus: he does things no-one else does and our four-and-odd hours with him that Sunday seemed very well spent.

I expected to wallow in the pleasure of Pacino’s eccentricity and talent in the Q&A. Instead, he was quite quiet. He may even have been a little baffled, if admiring, as Stephen Fry – whose best excuse, if he felt he needed one, and he did need one even if he didn’t know it – was that showing-off is a nervous response with him. So we had Fry’s hyper-energetic, big-brained undergraduate pearls of wisdom spilling all over the floor, and Pacino seemed to have decided that there was little room or need to compete.

Enter, stage left, Jessica Chastain. She had already stolen the play. And she had all but stolen the documentary, with her intelligent actorly remarks on the way she could, should, might play Salomé. This was her first big movie outing, and she was confronting not one but two directors, and she did it with confidence and wisdom of such force that they didn’t need to shelter behind an ingénue tact.

And then on stage at the BFI, she modestly didn’t bother to interrupt the two old stagers who were the main event. But when her turn came (too seldom; too briefly), she was coolly sharp in a way neither of the two men had managed.

A post-script on the conventional wisdom that Wilde was a freedom-fighter or gay rights campaigner, or – which is perhaps a yet sillier proposition – that the English Establishment went for him because of some large threat he posed as a gay or an intellectual insurgent. It is of course true that the Victorians were in a way rather more hypocritical than we are. They did indeed believe that homosexuality was hard to square with their proclaimed family values and they squared the circle mostly by suggesting that the activity should be covert, for fear of frightening the horses.  The Establishment sent various strong signals that Wilde should do the decent thing and lie low, or – when he had made that impossible – at least respectably exile himself. Wilde’s desire to stand up and be counted (as Fry did to his credit say) is not easily explained: it is open to several fascinating explanations. One can’t complain that Pacino may have fallen for the idea of Wilde as campaigner, or as a precursor of modern liberalism. After all, I don’t suppose he would make many claims for himself as an intellectual. Besides, Pacino actually kept his powder dry anyway: we don’t know what he really thinks. Which is fine.

Still, it is worth saying that hearing Stephen Fry brought one back to that old conundrum about liberals: that their creed of open-mindedness and empathy is curiously at odds with the clam-tight certainties they hold, especially as to the rightness of the view that they have reached some better point, intellectually and emotionally, than has been managed by others. Liberals don’t seem able to think outside their comfort zone, nor to empathise with those who do (or ever have done). And Wilde, one imagines, at his best, was looking for the counter-intuitive.




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Publication date

22 September 2014


On movies; On theatre