The Cat's Meow

The Cat's Meow

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In 1924, somewhere in the region of 24 guests set out along the California coast on a yacht owned and captained by the aging press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the intention being to party in celebration of film producer Tom Ince's birthday. They included actors and writers, gossip columnists, directors and studio magnates. At some point during the voyage, a man was shot dead. Though the death was reported, the matter was never fully investigated, and no-one was ever arrested for his murder. This film takes what it can from the evidence and popular rumour, and tells a story about what might have befallen him. Along the way, it has just as much to say about celebrity, wealth, and California: "a land just off the coast of the planet Earth".

This is a film which centres on character, more than on mystery or even drama, though there's plenty of that. Joanna Lumley is a superb choice as the narrator, distant and cynical yet believably concerned about the fate of those around her as she recounts her experiences and theories about the voyage. Edward Herrman turns in a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of Hearst which the real man would undoubtedly have hated. Here he is as his empire begins to fade, a man increasingly aware of his vulnerabilities, and, despite all the glamour, a man who has come to value some things more than money.

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Kirsten Dunst demonstrates her versatility as the gorgeous, provocative, but very human Marion Davis, silent movie starlet and mistress of Hearst, a woman who loves him but can't seem to convince him of that. And Eddie Izzard is remarkably convincing as Charlie Chaplin, despite his physical dissimilarity; he does a fine job of capturing Chaplin's personality as described by many of his contemporaries. Taking little time to recover from the scandal surrounding the pregnancy of his 16-year-old leading lady, Chaplin has his heart set on seducing Marion. What begins as a rebellious gesture, justified by his struggle to escape from poverty in contrast to Hearst's riches, becomes an increasingly emotional obsession. But Marion is no flimsy, giddy Daisy Fae. The film's strength is that it portrays her throughout as a real, complicated person, a person who is determined that her fate will not be set out for her by the passions she arouses in others. This is an adult, sophisticated love story, examining her passions for two very capable and sometimes ruthless men.

The supporting cast, especially Claudia Harrison as Tom's mistress and Jennifer Tilly as the columnist Lolly Parsons (at last, a role well suited to her particular talents) are all excellent. As the troubled Tom, Cary Elwes finally gets a part he can really make something of. The script, also, is first class, full of dry wit yet never resorting to cynicism at the expense of emotional development. Beautifully paced and choreographed, the action is complemented by superb lighting work, making the most of the stunning sets and costumes. Throughout, this is a fascinating piece of work.

Reviewed on: 11 Jul 2007
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An interpretation of events aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht when a mysterious death occurred.
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Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Writer: Steven Peros

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly

Year: 2001

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Canada, Germany, UK

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