The Ghost Train 1941 ***

GHOST TRAIN (1941)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 2019 ***

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…in which JJ Abrams performs a sky-walk of shame, walking back all kinds of ideas that just didn’t work for the Star Wars universe. Abrams, of course, seemed to herald a new kind of film-making when he took to the big screen after the success of Lost. Where once George Lucas had struggled to create a consistent universe in his reviled prequel trilogy, Abrams was seen as the cure for the disease, a fan-boy who knew exactly what fans wanted and would give it to them. The Force Awakens was heralded as the beginning of a golden era for Star Wars, new characters, new worlds, a new on-message PC mind-set, and a blockbuster franchise to last a lifetime.

Fast forward to 2019, and fans can’t wait for the Abrams Star Wars era to end. Sure, there are some satisfied customers, but they’re few and far between; complaint is the main content of any Star Wars conversation. And fatigue is part of the issue; The Rise of Skywalker fights for advertising space alongside a glut of licenced products including the Fallen Order video game, the Galaxy’s Edge theme park, and a new TV show (The Mandalorian) which has ignited genuine interest. With characters like Finn and Rey failing to engage audiences, legions of fans are looking elsewhere rather than the flagship trilogy.

The third of the four trilogies originally mooted circa 1978, The Rise of Skywalker has continuity issues; Abrams has killed off too many of the key characters too early, and his faith in the new recruits seems misplaced. Does anyone care if Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes to the dark or light side of the force? Does Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his redemption hold much water after he killed his father in The Force Awakens? Will Poe (Oscar Isaac) ever find, erm, whatever he’s looking for? And as for Finn (John Boyega), who knows? He’s side-lined as effectively as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), discarded toys tossed asunder due to a lack of traction in key markets. Meanwhile Han and Luke are gone, but not forgotten, reduced to motivational-trainer ghosts shouting encouragement from the side-lines like soccer-moms, while poor Carrie Fisher has her grave comprehensively robbed as deleted scenes are artlessly repurposed to create the illusion that she’s still alive.

The Empire Strikes Back’s climactic plot twist has proved a mill-stone around the neck of Star Wars in terms of creating soap-opera rather than space-opera expectations; the revelation that Rey is, spoiler alert, the grand-daughter of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) doesn’t resonate at all, other than to throw up the series complete lack of interest in this villainous character as anything other than a get out clause. When did Palpatine have time to have kids, or even grand-kids? Abrams, as with Lost, is far better at asking questions than providing answers; when the solutions finally appear, the audience has lost interest.

Fan-service is a dirty word, and yet it’s the one thing, other than casting and packaging, which Abrams does so well; the call-backs to personnel, themes and scenes all create some genuine connection to a beloved universe, and for some, that will be enough. But in terms of plot and character, the third Star Wars trilogy has been a misbegotten, stuttering disaster. There’s no more films scheduled beyond this, and rightly so; the inverted pyramid of expectations that snuffed out George Lucas’s talent seems to have claimed further victims in the undoubted abilities of Rian Johnson and JJ Abrams. Until some new talent emerges, it’s probably best to keep the fourth and final trilogy on the shelf for now.

Ophelia 2019 ****

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Don’t Bet On The Prince might be just as good a title for Claire McCarthy’s feminist revision of Hamlet; taking a classical wronged woman and redressing the balance in her favour is very much in turn with 2019’s mores, and they don’t come much more wronged than Ophelia. Played by Daisy Ridley, she’s still Hamlet’s girl, Polonius’s daughter, Laertes’s sister, a suicide girl and more, but she’s also her own person. Adapting Lisa Klein’s YA bestseller, Semi Chellas has taken substantial liberties with Shakespeare’s classic text, but if you want you Hamlet old-fashioned, male-centred and boring, then there’s plenty of old-school texts kicking around. In the meantime, this 2019 Ophelia manages to pull off a considerable coup by not only giving her agency, but crafting an unexpectedly upbeat ending from the starkest tragedy.

There’s probably no spoilers required for the framework; Hamlet suspects that his uncle Claudius has poisoned his father and married his mother Gertrude (Naomi Watts), and sets out to take revenge. The antic disposition he puts on to deflect attention from gawping onlookers at the Elsinore Wimbledon alienates his loving girlfriend Ophelia, who ends up topping herself after Hamlet (George MacKay) accidentally kills her father. That’s not an easy story to invert to a feminist perspective, but McCarthy’s film manages the feat by doubling down on supernatural elements, with witches, potions, and an emphasis on righting wrongs, namely the behaviour of Claudius (Clive Owen, not holding back). With an ostracised local witch (Naomi Watts) supplying magic potions to all comers, this ain’t your dad’s Hamlet, but it might just be your mamma’s.

Not all of the changes work; having Ophelia secretly whispering information to Hamlet during a scene in which she’s been used as bait doesn’t so much inform the text as turn it upside down. But Ridley is a great Ophelia, and the look of the film is rich and lustrous, right down to the opening shot that lifts from Sir John Everett Millais’s famous painting. Young adults of all ages and sexes should dig the way Shakespeare’s text is reformed here, making Ophelia right up there with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in the key texts to serve as introduction to the great playwright herself.

https://www.amazon.com/Ophelia-Daisy-Ridley/dp/B07TN1DRLR/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=ophelia&qid=1565599719&s=gateway&sr=8-1