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Of lions and martyrs

07 December 2010

Stephen Brown reviews the Narnia film, and his ‘Film of the Year’


EVEN if there weren’t a religious bone in my body, Of Gods and Men (Cert. 15) would have to be my Film of the Year. Its amazing complexity of elements ranging over suspense, politics, cultural convergences, and divergences all contribute to an over­whelmingly poignant meditation on suffering and violence. The kernel of Xavier Beauvois’s story is based on the actual abduction and death of seven Cistercians living in Algeria in 1996.

Amid mounting violence towards foreigners, Christian, the Abbot (Lam­bert Wilson), is faced with whether to return his brothers to their native France or remain in the Atlas Mountains. This performance emanates compassion, determina­tion, and holiness.

Army and police officers become increasingly frustrated by Christian’s refusal of protection. Several of the monks take him to task over the decision, resenting especially his lack of consultation. They remain faithful to their calling, a decision much ap­preciated by their Muslim neigh­bours — not without reason; for the monastery provides them with a doctor and clinic. There is a mutual respect for their faiths, without any inherent proselytising in evidence. Christian even has cause to remind an Islamic bandit who breaks into the monastery that the Qur’an perceives Christianity to be closest in love to his own faith.

The monks attend a village party, joining in the prayers as well as their celebrations. A model of interfaith dia­logue, you might say, but one doomed to be ruptured. For some, any post-colonial French continue to represent what one character de-scribes as “organised plunder”. The brothers debate and pray about the threatening situation. As is pointed out to them, they have the luxury of deciding whether to stay or go, un­like the native population every bit as scared as they are. It is to their credit that the Cistercians hold fast to their faithful commitment, not relishing likely martyrdom nor shy­ing away from it.

The Gethsemane parallels give way to a tableau suggestive of da Vinci’s Last Supper. The monks sit at table listening to a recording of Swan Lake’s main theme. Beauvois has the camera pan along the table, taking in the varying facial expressions of the brothers: a monk enraptured by the music, one quietly anxious, another shaking his head in a mixture of resignation to the impending fate and bold resolution. It is a scene that some viewers consider over-indulgent. My guess is most of us will not only be moved to tears, and left haunted by its impact. Then comes their enforced march, reminiscent of the martyrs’ path taken by so many over the centuries.

Christians and Muslims come out well in this film. Islamists certainly don’t, but, as one of the monks points out by way of Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheer­fully as when they do it from reli­gious convictions.”

Set alongside this danger is the touching witness of faithful people, never better conveyed in the film than through its soundtrack. Prayer­ful invocations and chants transcend their Muslim and Christian origins, as they place their ultimate trust in the one true God and Father of us all.

AND so to Narnia. The world has moved on quite a bit in the 60 years since C. S. Lewis’s third Narnia fan­tasy was published. The Hollywood version, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Cert. PG), makes the transition with hardly a backward glance. It launches boldly into the deep with the help of computer-generated imagery, 3D, and a great deal of loudness.

Half the Pevensie children, Lucy (Geogie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), are staying with cousin Eustace (an impressive Will Poulter), who is not quite as ob­noxious as in the British edition of the book, and more likeable, as in the US edition. A seascape picture featuring a ship hangs in one of the rooms. Coming to life, it drenches them before they clamber aboard the eponymous Dawn Treader, which belongs to Caspian, the prince of the previous Narnia film — which didn’t make much money and put future instalments in jeopardy.

Adam Adamson has switched to producer, and Michael Apted has taken over from him as director: a very accomplished pair of hands, having a Bond film as well as the 7-Up and subsequent documentaries to his credit. For the production company, Walden Media, which specialises in morally inspiring films, Apted has the right credentials, given his Wilberforce film Amazing Grace, and that he has a clergyman for a brother.

Taking on tones both Homeric and medieval, the film swiftly whisks the viewer off, in one adventure after another, in fulfilment of Caspian’s quest to find several missing princes of Narnia. The film didn’t really need to supplement the book with a story­line about a little girl’s search for her mother: there are plenty of lost noble­men to keep everyone busy. Each of the voyage’s stop-off points has its testing of the heroes, but not neces­sarily through trials of combat. Edmund gets rather frustrated. “So, if there are no wars to fight, then why are we here?” He doesn’t see that the real battle may be for their souls.

In one instance, Eustace steals the dragon’s treasure and becomes, in consequence, a dragon himself. Liam Neeson’s Aslan rescues him and gives him a preachy pep talk. Lewis prob­ably saw something of his former atheist self in Eustace; he claimed that he needed his layers of self-love and self-admiration to be peeled off before he could come to faith. Eustace becomes a new creation, thanks to Aslan, though the godly lion is more self-effacing than ever. Viewers will badly need Lucy’s eyes of faith to experience him as a divine presence.

But, overall, “poor little talkative Christianity” need not do much talking here. Breathtaking cinematic actions (the sea-serpent battle, for instance) speak louder than words. The three Rs (rescue, redemption, and return from the darkness within) are the stock-in-trade of Lewis’s novels, and the films follow suit.

Both hold firm to the need to be childlike to enter the Kingdom of heaven. The older Pevensie children are no longer privy to Narnia’s world; nor will Edmund and Lucy be next time around, if there is one. The transformed Eustace is heir to their thrones. Dawn Treader is an amiable success, and not without an emo­tional kick. The Queen shed a tear at the Royal Film Performance.

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