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Film review: Cats

23 December 2019

Stephen Brown finds that the key to Cats lies in Eliot’s theology

© universal pictures. all rights reserved

Judi Dench in Cats

Judi Dench in Cats

NO PUSSYFOOTING around, I enjoyed Cats (Cert. U), Tom Hooper’s film version — unlike many critics. Didn’t they clock its theological subtext? Coming from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, a High Anglican, should make it obvious. It’s what gives the storyline real backbone.

The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, someone with similar Christian credentials, will set many souls afire. And the film has enough spectacular dancing and magic to elicit straight tens on Strictly Come Dancing.

Cats is a story of salvation from the sins of the whole world. Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) represents Lust, potentially seducing any female he sees. James Corden’s suitably obese Bustopher Jones is Gluttony personified. Sloth comes in the form of Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots. This feline universe is temporarily in the grip of the demonic Macavity (Idris Elba), “a monster of depravity”. The biblically named Old Deuteronomy (unlike the stage show, a she, i.e. Judi Dench) is a Moses-like figure leading the faithful to a promised land.

The Jellicle Ball constitutes the annual meeting of cats reminiscent of those who gather for repentance as on the Day of Atonement. In particular, the outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), who now “lives on The Waste Land” (get it?), recalls her memory of a sinful, painful past, yearning for forgiveness. Her cry “Touch me” is a plea for redemption.

Grizabella’s humility results in being elevated to the Heavyside (sounds like Heavenly) Layer and reborn to a jellical (angelical?) life. Eternity beckons, courtesy of Magical Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), who breaks Macavity’s spell, restoring spiritual opportunities via Old Deuteronomy’s return. Thus Grizabella ascends a Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28.12) into the jellical-angelical world. “Look! A new day has begun.”

© universal pictures. all rights reservedA still from Cats

Eliot, whose previous work lamented the disintegration of our moral and social fibre, has not suddenly distracted himself with light verse. His motley ensemble of thieves, hoodlums, and layabouts — Ray Winstone’s turn as Growltiger, “the Terror of the Thames”, a case in point — inhabit a desperate world in need of deliverance. Characters who do display signs of goodness are guilty of sanctified inertia. Mistoffelees has ceased believing his own potential. Gus (Ian McKellen) is trapped in nostalgia. Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) hardly pursues all that makes for peace and builds up the common life.

That task belongs to Victoria, an innocent abroad. As portrayed by Francesca Hayward, a Royal Ballet dancer, she helps others to realise their calling to glory.

The film’s greatest difficulty lies in not entirely moulding its stellar cast into something more than one variety act following another. The parts are, therefore, rather more than the whole — unless, that is, one acknowledges the religious dimension undertowing the entire tale.

Early on, we are told that every cat’s mind is “engaged in a rapt contemplation” of his own ineffable name, the one known only to God. Dench’s straight-to-camera “Cats are very much like you” finale reminds us that this is our story. There will come a time when we shall know even as we are known — let us hope, with a bit of Cats’ joyous song and dance thrown in.

Faith resources are available at www.cpo.org.uk.

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