The Strange, Sick, Sad Career of Ioan Gruffudd

This is my third Strange Sick Sad Career essay, and in this case the title seems kind of unfair. There's nothing strange or sick or sad about Gruffudd's career at the moment - in fact, his star is on the rise, thank you very much. I was sort of feeling guilty about lumping him in under the SSSC umbrella with people like Jonny Lee Miller and Michael Rosenbaum... and then I remembered 102 Dalmatians. He might live that one down someday, but today is not that day.

Some general observations about Gruffudd: he's cornering the market on earnest and adorable. Broad comedy is not his forte: he should avoid any projects described as zany or whimsical. He's brilliant at playing characters with names like Horatio Hornblower or William Wilberforce, less so at playing guys named Freddy or Dan. He looks particularly fetching in waistcoats and breeches. He has a beautiful speaking voice and freakishly long eyelashes.

A bit of background: A native of Cardiff, the lovely and talented Mr. Gruffudd got an early professional start as a child actor on the long-running Welsh-language soap opera Pobol y Cwm. Various clips are available for your viewing pleasure over at YouTube; may I just say, first and foremost, how happy I am to live in a world with long-running Welsh-language soap operas? He's kept himself busy ever since.


Poldark (1996)
Shortly after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Gruffudd was cast in Poldark. The series was based upon Winston Graham's much-loved novels, which had also been the basis of a much-loved BBC miniseries of the same name. The updated version failed to earn much love either from critics or viewers and was vilified by fans of the original; it was canceled after only a few episodes. While the rest of the series is lost to obscurity, the pilot was released on DVD as a stand-alone movie, regardless of the fact that it does not stand on its own - it ends in media res with any number of never-resolved plotlines. The release was presumably a marketing ploy to make a few dollars off of Gruffudd's rising popularity. Fair enough; this strategy worked on me.

Poldark concerns itself with the affairs of the titular clan, an 18th century Cornwall mining family which has fallen upon hard times. Gruffudd plays the family scion, Jeremy, who, in the course of the first episode, accidentally gets mixed up in a half-assed smuggling operation, is pursued by gun-toting authorities, and embarks upon a hapless romance with his rescuer, a well-heeled and thoroughly loopy young lady who's perfectly willing to smooch him in the bushes yet won't consider him seriously as a suitor because of his family's poverty. All of this makes Poldark sound more rousing than it plays out on screen; in actuality, it's messy and tedious. It's not unwatchable, but it's not an especially good time, either. If you've got a yen for Gruffudd in period costume - as well you should, because no one works ruffled shirts and heeled pointy shoes half as well as he does - you'd be far better off settling in with Hornblower, or Great Expectations, or Amazing Grace, or, if you must, The Forsyte Saga.

Here, fresh out of school, Gruffudd hasn't yet grown into his adult skin: he's gangly and awkward, his features are the wrong size for his face, and his glorious mane of hair is a chaotic mess. While it all conspires to make him seem rather dorkily attractive, it's a far cry from the exuberant prettiness of his looming adulthood. Still, his performance is solid, and he makes a positive impression. He has nothing to be ashamed about, which some days is all you can ask for.

Titanic (1997)
There's no point in reviewing Titanic, is there?

It's been ten years now, and pretty much everyone who's going to see the film has seen it and formed an opinion about it, and out of the millions of words that have been written about it whatever I write here will have no impact whatsoever.

As for me, I'd lasted a decade without seeing it, and my life was none the dimmer for this; I'm a little disappointed in myself, actually, for renting it at last for the sake of a cute boy. No, not you, Leo. Go sit down.

Yes, Gruffudd is in Titanic. He's the young Welsh - very Welsh - officer who rescues Kate off the ice floe at the end (that'd be Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, as all you Titanic completionists out there already know). Is that his entire part? Of course not. He also, at one exciting juncture, fetches a cup of hot tea for Captain King Theoden (Bernard Hill). And he wanders wordlessly through the background at strategic intervals with all the other mostly anonymous officers in their identical caps and snazzy uniforms, distinguishable only by virtue of his magnificent nose.

I'm okay with Titanic. It's not my kind of film, but it's well done. I can see why people enjoy it. This is not to be confused with me enjoying it, but that's fine. I'm just not sure why it needed to be so long. A special edition came out on DVD recently with close to thirty deleted scenes; apparently this new version contains about 85% more Gruffudd. Exciting news, I'm sure, but if we're just talking about 85% more fetching of cups of tea, it hardly seems worth it. The film is plenty long enough as it is.

Wilde (1997)
Brian Gilbert's Wilde stars the indomitable and brilliant Stephen Fry as the indomitable and brilliant playwright Oscar Wilde. At the start of the film, Wilde is entrenched in a satisfying lifestyle with his loving wife (Jennifer Ehle) and children - until he encounters Orlando Bloom, in his screen debut as a fetching Victorian-era prostitute who, with a single line and a well-placed come-hither glance, makes Oscar suddenly recognize the truth about his own sexual proclivities; it's possible Oscar isn't the only heretofore heterosexual man to have that reaction after gazing upon the luminous Bloom.

Soon, Oscar embarks upon an affair with a close friend (Michael Sheen, best known for: a) being Kate Beckinsale's baby daddy, and b) playing Tony Blair in The Queen) before he trades up for Gruffudd's John Gray, the real-life inspiration for Wilde's classic story The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde and John Gray have a sexually-charged initial encounter in which they discuss paintings or aging or footwear or something - I've seen this film a handful of times and I've never been able to pay full attention to the dialogue, because I've been too busy trying to figure out what the hell is happening with Gruffudd's hair. He's wearing some kind of exceedingly odd little circular velvet hat - less than a fez, more than a pillbox - which is jauntily perched upon his hair, which is huge and wavy and, most inexplicably, styled like Jaclyn Smith's, circa Charlie's Angels. It's a relief when, in the very next scene, he loses the damn hat - and, indeed, the rest of his clothes - and tumbles into bed with Oscar.

Sadly, Oscar is not finished trading up: Gruffudd soon gets jilted for, of all people, Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas: Bosie to his friends, boyfriend from hell to Oscar. It's become fashionable of late to deride Law's acting ability, but he's never been better than he is here, playing Bosie as a preening, self-absorbed, temperamental brat. Wilde's relationship with Bosie is destructive and disastrous; it ends about as poorly as possible when Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson), brings charges against Wilde that ultimately end in his imprisonment for "gross indecency."

It's not a feel-good film by any means: there's a depressing sense of inevitability to watching someone as brilliant and vibrant as Wilde systematically destroying his life over such a wholly unworthy object of his affections. The downer of an ending aside, Wilde, for the most part, is great fun. As one would expect, Fry is a big slab of awesomeness in this, the role he was born to play. Quite frankly, more dusty old historical biopics could take a page from Wilde's book by including judicious doses of hot boy-on-boy action. (For the record: while Gruffudd takes refuge behind strategically placed knees and champagne bottles during his love scene, Law's boy-parts are on full display during his. Advantage: Law).

Hornblower (1999)
I'm up to Hornblower in Gruffudd's filmography, but I'm going to give myself a bit of a break here. I've already dealt with Hornblower in lavish, not to say excessive, detail elsewhere on this site, so I'm going to limit my comments to this: Hornblower rocks. Even if you have no interest in Age of Sail-ish stuff, even if the whole idea of a high seas romp sounds dull and tedious, you owe it to yourself to investigate Hornblower. Liked Pirates of the Caribbean? You'll like Hornblower. An aficionado of tremendous Brit actors? Hornblower's for you. Have a weakness for fine-boned young men with extra-long eyelashes scampering about in open-necked shirts and breeches? Hornblower is going to be right up your alley. Your kids will like it. Your parents will dig it. Hornblower is the great unifier.

Oh, and Gruffudd? Totally adorable. It's one of the more blindingly brilliant bits of casting in recent years; it must have been a happy day for the producers when he wandered into the auditions, bright-eyed and lovely and earnest and so very, very charming. If, after this, Gruffudd decided never to act again and instead opted to be, I don't know, a sheep farmer in a small village north of Swansea, the television world would still be all the richer for his contribution here .

Great Expectations (1999)
It must be deceptively easy to make a poor adaptation of Dickens, because so many productions misfire. The trouble doesn't seem to lie where you'd think, with compressing the labyrinthine plots down to an audience-friendly length or decreasing the vast cast of characters to a select few. No, the difficulty seems to fall in avoiding the temptation to make it all so damn insipid.

For every good Dickens adaptation (such as the Keeley Hawes/Paul McGann Our Mutual Friend, or the Denis Lawson/Gillian Anderson Bleak House), there's a clunker. Just look at the creaky BBC production of David Copperfield with Daniel Radcliffe, Sir Ian McKellan, and Maggie Smith, which, despite the star power in that cast, manages to take one of the most entertaining and enjoyable novels of all times and make it trite and stagnant. Or, worse, the ludicrous theatrical version of Nicholas Nickleby with Charlie Hunnan. Or even Roman Polanski's recent Oliver Twist, which was twee enough to make one start to hate orphans.

The BBC version of Great Expectations starring Gruffudd isn't good. It's awesome.

Great Expectations is an immensely satisfying book. The plot is nothing short of rip-roaring: in the course of the novel, young Pip is plagued by escaped convicts, is beset by murderers, gains and loses a fortune, gets his heart smashed to bits, and is the victim of cruel head games by a vengeful elderly spinster. This is great stuff. Remarkably, watching this production is almost as fulfilling as curling up with the book.

The plot is whittled down to a lean three hours. Copious chunks of plot are missing by necessity, but the loss isn't easily detectable. It's beautifully filmed: the marshes around Pip's childhood home are grim and forbidding, whereas London is a chaotic ruin, with rainy streets stained bright red with the blood of fresh-slaughtered pigs.

The cast is excellent: There's Charlotte Rampling, brittle and lovely, as an uncharacteristically hot-to-trot (yet still completely batty) Miss Havisham. Estella is played with frosty brilliance by Justine Waddell, whose career sadly derailed after Dracula 2000. This is a shame: it seems like there would always be a call for icy, petite, classically-trained brunette actresses, and Kate Beckinsale can't possibly be expected to be everywhere at once. Pip's ambitious and endearing London flatmate, Herbert Pocket, is well played by yet another cute Welsh boy, Daniel Evans (last seen getting obliterated by a Sycorax on an episode of Doctor Who). Naturally, there are a couple of true titans in the cast: the lawyer Jaggers is played by Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), while King Theoden (Bernard Hill) stars as Pip's mysterious benefactor Magwitch.

And then there's Pip, who, in Gruffudd's deft hands, is engaging and likeable, despite all his screwups. He's often arrogant and occasionally clueless, but always, always sympathetic. Gruffudd is earnest and vulnerable, with his emotions printed all over his pretty, pretty face. I'm not convinced his Victorian-appropriate muttonchops and stovepipe hat are all that flattering of a look on him, but that's beside the point.

The downside: Great Expectations aired in the US on Masterpiece Theatre, which means, yes, PBS. PBS has many wonderful qualities, but a comprehensive knowledge of adequate DVD standards is not among them. I can say without fear of hyperbole that this is the most inept DVD release ever. Look, the PBS station identification logo flashes in and out of the bottom corner of the screen throughout the entire course of the miniseries. Also, there's a screen at the end which provides information on ordering a VHS copy - which is totally useless if you're already watching the DVD. Rookie mistakes. I suppose we should be thankful they resisted the urge to include a pledge break. And, PBS, for future reference: closed captions do not count as a special feature.

Warriors (1999)
Did you wake up this morning in a surprisingly good mood? Did you think to yourself that maybe this crazy mixed-up world we live in really isn't so bad after all, if you just give it a chance? Did you find yourself filled with bonhomie toward humanity?

Set yourself down in front of Warriors. That'll take care of all that.

Warriors is a wrenching BAFTA-winning BBC miniseries about a British Army squadron sent to Bosnia to act as UN Peacekeepers in 1992. No matter what you know about Bosnia in 1992, you already know this isn't going to be a feel-good romp. The soldiers are placed in an impossible situation with impossible constraints: they're supposed to monitor - but, by the explicit decree of the United Nations, not interfere with - the civil strife and ethnic cleansing ravaging the area.

It's a bleak three hours. Every time a child, or a dog, or a happy Bosnian family appears on the screen, they'll soon die horribly, while our heroes stand helpless to intervene; every effort they make to improve the situation inevitably makes things much worse.

Gruffudd stars as Lieutenant Feeley, the very young commanding officer (his men include such notables as Pride and Prejudice's Matthew MacFadyen, Damian Lewis, and Ifan Meredith, who was seen briefly as Pip's schoolmate Startop in Great Expectations). On paper, Gruffudd is playing a character very much like Hornblower - an earnest and noble young officer - but he creates a strikingly different performance. Feeley is at once quieter, grimmer, and more contained than Horatio; he's so quiet in fact that at first he doesn't register much as a character when compared to the larger personalities surrounding him. Throughout the course of events, as the situation moves from sad to desperate to hellish, Gruffudd slowly takes over, until by the end it becomes clear it was always all about him from the beginning.

(There's nothing lighthearted to mention about Warriors, except perhaps for this: As you might expect, Ioan Gruffudd's name gets misspelled on the odd occasion: Gruffydd, Gruffud, Gruffold, Iaon, Iona, Loan, and, in some especially confused cases, Joan. Warriors is not available yet on DVD in the US; my copy came from the Netherlands, and on the box for the official DVD release, he's billed as, ahem, "Juan Gruffud." Okay, Ioan, now they're just messing with you.)

Solomon and Gaenor (1999)
Paul Morrison's Solomon and Gaenor stars Gruffudd and Nia Roberts as the titular lovebirds, who, as the most ravishingly gorgeous creatures in rural Wales, are destined to fall desperately in love, or at least in fairly determined lust. Alas, this is an impoverished mining town in 1911. A strike looms, tensions are rising, and rampant anti-Semitism is brewing. He's Jewish, she's not. Also, neither one is very bright. Tragedy ensues.

Solomon, who has a rather lackadaisical approach to his heritage, glumly works as a door-to-door fabric salesman to help support his family. He assumes a fake name and hides his background to court devout chapel-going Gaenor (he wins her heart by sewing her a dress, which evidently was a legitimate early 20th century courtship technique). The crazy kids fall in love and promptly have sex. Plenty of sex. Well-shot, well-lit, jubilant, naked, hayloft sex.

This is the very best part of the movie.

Birth control not being all it could be in rural Wales, circa 1911, Gaenor soon gets pregnant. Unfortunately, this happens right around the time Solomon loses interest in her (Solomon, like many desperately horny teenagers, is a selfish young idiot, but because he's played by Gruffudd, he's an immensely likeable selfish young idiot. With outstanding bone structure and mile-long eyelashes. So it all sort of evens out). Expelled from the church and in disgrace with her family, Gaenor soon figures out the truth about Solomon and tracks him down. They squabble, they make up, and before you know it, they're having well-shot, well-lit, jubilant, third-trimester sex.

Plotwise, nothing here breaks daring new ground. We know from the onset this is not going to end well; the only suspense lies in finding out whether just one or both of the lovebirds will meet a tragic fate. Gorgeous and grim, if not terribly iconoclastic, Solomon and Gaenor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. Two versions were shot simultaneously: a Welsh-language version, and one made in a mixture of Welsh, English, and Yiddish. Yes, Gruffudd does his role largely in Yiddish. Show-off.

102 Dalmatians (2000)
Oh, honey, why'd you do it?

You were doing so well. First Hornblower and Great Expectations duked it out at the Emmys, with the gold going to Hornblower, then Warriors took home a BAFTA award, then Solomon and Gaenor went and trumped them all by getting an Academy Award nomination. Clearly, you were making your name as a talent to be reckoned with.

And then... and then... 102 Dalmatians, Ioan? Really? That's what you decided to do next?

I know it doesn't pay to be too snobby about prospective employment. Sometimes you have to pay the bills. But I'm still finding it hard to believe this was the best you were offered.

I'm not judging it unfairly, either. Come on, be honest. It's a terrible, terrible movie. Not terrible in a "well, it's silly, but harmless enough" kind of way, or an "I hate to admit it, but I giggled a couple of times" way, either. No, it's vile.

What was going through your head when you read the script? Granted, at that point you couldn't possibly know the finished product would include Gerard Depardieu wandering around in a fur jockstrap. But I'm betting the running gag about how he pronounces "puppy" as "poopy" in his French accent was in the script, right? What about the part where Glenn Close gets baked into the cake? Or how about that littlest puppy, whose barks get subtitled in baby talk?

You probably have warm fuzzy memories of this film, because you started dating your co-star Alice Evans afterward. She's a total knockout, so congratulations on your upcoming nuptials, but... jeez, this film is really, really bad. You know what's the worst part? I don't even like you in it. I know your character is supposed to be naïve and trusting, but honestly, you come across as, well, kind of brain-damaged. That's unkind, I know, and I'm a terrible person for saying it, but it's true. I gave up on you around the time you got on all fours and played tug-of-war with a piece of knotted rope against a bulldog. Using your teeth. And we were barely past the opening credits!

On behalf of the entertainment industry, I'd like to extend a formal apology that you were so ill-used and abused in your Hollywood debut. And honestly, I still don't think we've quite figured out what to do with you. We keep making you do fake American accents and doing horrible things to your hair.

Which reminds me of the one thing that I do genuinely like about 102 Dalmatians: Your hair. Those floppy bangs were a good look for you. Oh, and the shorts that you cheekily paired with knee socks and a parka. Yeah. Those were good, too.

The rest of the movie? Poopy.

Very Annie Mary (2001)
I could have sworn I liked Wales.

It sure is a gorgeous country, what with all those rain-soaked valleys. This, after all, is the land of druids and Welsh rarebit and Torchwood. The men look like Ioan Gruffudd; the women look like Catherine Zeta Jones. What's not to love?

Then I saw Very Annie Mary. I think I hate Wales.

Written and directed by Sara Sugarman, Very Annie Mary is set in the ever-so-whimsical rural village of Ogw. Annie Mary, played by Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths (an Australian, yes, but she knows her way around a Welsh accent) is a blighted young woman living under the thumb of a tyrannical father (Jonathan Pryce). Possessed of a great operatic voice - she won an Eisteddfod in her youth - Annie Mary hasn't sung a note since her mother's death. To earn money for a dying friend's Disneyland trip, she overcomes her phobia and enters a karaoke contest in Cardiff.

Very Annie Mary is impossibly twee, geared toward audiences who thought Amelie was a bit too gritty. My god, this movie is precious and whimsical. Annie Mary's father, a singer himself, is known as "The Voice of the Valleys"; he tools around the village in a van, dressed in an oversized novelty Pavarotti mask and singing arias over a loudspeaker.

And speaking of whimsy... look, here's Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys, playing flamboyant gay shopkeepers Hob and Nob (Gruffudd and Rhys, former schoolmates, flatmates, and real-life best friends, have been dubbed the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon of Wales by the British press, which, oddly, doesn't seem to be meant as a cutting insult). Whimsical, yes, but they're still the best part of the movie: they chain-smoke and sing show tunes and banter in rapid-fire unsubtitled Wenglish. I don't have the foggiest idea what they're saying most of the time, but they're awfully adorable.

Considerably less adorable is our heroine. Annie Mary is a withdrawn misfit: awkward, klutzy, and mentally and emotionally stunted. Fair enough - her father is domineering enough to muck up anyone's growth - but she's also monstrously unsympathetic. After she wins the prize money, then squanders it all in the stupidest way possible, it's up to Rhys to articulate the thoughts of the audience: "You stupid fucking twat of hell."

Word, Matthew.

Happy Now (2001)
Happy Now has renewed my faith in all things Welsh. Directed by Philippa Collie-Cousins and as emphatically Welsh as laverbread, Happy Now stars Phantom of the Opera ingénue Emmy Rossum as teenaged beauty queen Jenny, who is accidentally killed by ne'er-do-well local boys Joe (Richard Coyle) and Glen (Paddy Considine). In a panic, Glen and Joe hide the body and blame the crime on a local vagrant known as the Tin Man (Om Puri). Fourteen years later, a young girl named Nikki (also played by Rossum, this time with a sturdy American accent), who happens to be the spitting image of Jenny, moves into town from Alaska with her mother Tina (Susan Lynch), just as the Tin Man is released on parole.

Driven to recklessness by this apparition from their past, Glen and Joe scheme to kill Nikki. Fortunately for Nikki, also new in town is Max Bracchi (Gruffudd), a Bonanza-obsessed police sergeant from Cardiff with a mysterious past who sets about discovering the truth about Jenny's death. Max strikes up a protective friendship with Nikki and a quirky romance with Tina: after she bluntly propositions him, he shyly reciprocates by giving her his favorite episode of Bonanza ("the one where Hoss falls in love").

Happy Now is a refreshing rain-soaked breeze that blows through and gets rid of the lingering stench of Very Annie Mary. There's no shortage of whimsy here - Jenny, in fact, died after she hit her head on a rock after, ahem, tripping over a sheep (about which Max sagely notes, "That could happen to anyone"). Tina and Nikki's chain-smoking landlady is encased in an iron lung equipped with a cigarette holder. Max is almost overloaded with character tics: not only is he saddled with this Bonanza nonsense (he strides about in cowboy boots and a duster and, in one unfortunate scene, a bolo tie), he also makes investigative decisions based upon the toss of a coin and carries an egg-shaped timer around to aid in his queries. Already that's about forty-seven eccentricities too many, but it doesn't really matter: Max, by the end, is greater than the sum of his tics.

The film is grounded in human characters, which is its saving grace. Fourteen years on, Jenny's father is still in deep grief for his daughter; his pain at the sudden appearance of a stranger who bears her face rings true. Performances are strong across the board: Rossum capably handles her dual role, Coyle and Considine make appropriately dastardly villains, and Gruffudd infuses Max with a gentle gravitas that helps balance the multiple quirks. Added bonus: Jonathan Rhys Myers makes a brief appearance as a porn-loving Satanist.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
I'm pretty much going to give Black Hawk Down a lick and a promise, as Gruffudd appears in it only fleetingly: he's the officer who has the epileptic fit right at the beginning. Just going by the cast list, Black Hawk Down should be ideal fodder for settling in for an evening of boy-watching. In addition to Gruffudd, the cast includes such lovely (and non-American) young things as Orlando Bloom, Hugh Dancy, Ewan McGregor, and Eric Bana. Viewers looking for nothing more than a quick hormone fix will be gravely disappointed: with their shaved heads, identical fatigues, battle-lean bodies, and strange American accents, it's hard to tell McGregor from Gruffudd, Bloom from Dancy. Who would've thought this could ever be a problem?

Black Hawk Down is Ridley Scott's dramatized account of a 1993 attempt by the US Army to apprehend associates of a local warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia. The raid falls apart - two Black Hawk helicopters are downed - and it turns into a desperate rescue mission. The film is claustrophobic, loud, and brutal, a nonstop assault on the senses. Strategic military operations have seldom looked more grueling onscreen - a scene featuring an impromptu anesthesia-free battlefield surgery is particularly unsettling. It's tremendously effective at provoking a very specific emotional state -- agitated helplessness -- in the viewer. A cheery good time this is not, nor is it particularly thought-provoking, unless that thought is, "Wow, it would really, really suck to be there."

The Gathering (2002)
I've entered the slow, wet, sloggy part of Gruffudd's career, haven't I?

Made in 2002 and never released in theaters, The Gathering finally saw the light of day on DVD in the US in January of 2007. Yep, that sounds about right.

The Gathering should be better than it is. It's directed by Brian Gilbert, who did such a nice job with Wilde. It's got a good cast. It was beautifully filmed on the Isle of Man, which looks equal parts gorgeous and creepy.

It's also got a solid premise: Christina Ricci stars as Cassie, an American backpacker who ends up with amnesia after getting hit by a car. Meanwhile, an ancient church has been unearthed nearby, with a downright creepy statue of staring human figures inside. These are the Gathering - onlookers at Christ's crucifixion, who are now damned for all eternity to wander the earth, coming together at places where cataclysmic events are slated to occur. The human counterparts to the statues have begun assembling in the town; it's up to Cassie to try to prevent whatever imminent tragedy is destined to take place.

You know what? This is a good plot. It's evocative and spooky, with an interesting religious/historical bent. There's a lot that can happen here, right?

Alas, nothing happens. The plot meanders and explores a few tangents, none of which make particular sense or hold much interest. Ricci is fairly terrible, set adrift with banal dialogue and unfathomable motivations; Cassie ends up as one of the most ineffectual and unlikable movie heroines of recent memory.

Gruffudd plays Dan, an enigmatic local who wears a nice array of attractive cable-knit sweaters and strikes up a friendship or a romance or some such thing with Ricci. He doesn't have much to do, though evidently there's a Ricci/Gruffudd sex scene that didn't make it into the US release. Why on earth would this be cut out? Granted, it wouldn't make much sense plotwise, and there's no chemistry between the two - Dan looks like he'd rather have a hot bath and a good night's sleep than cavort about with Cassie - but it sure would have given us something pretty to look at.

It's slow going. At some point while watching this, I turned to my sister and said, "Maybe this will perk up if Ioan's character turns out to be evil."

He did. It didn't.

Shooters (2002)
Oh, Shooters. Ever since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, this has been a mainstay of cinema: the Cruddy Brit Gangster Film. You know the kind, where a bunch of the UK's brightest young talents band together and pose with guns and run around killing each other? Yeah, Shooters is one such film. It's got Adrian Dunbar. It's got Jason Hughes. It's got Matthew Rhys. It's got Gerard Butler, known both for his bland heroes (Reign of Fire and the Tomb Raider sequel) and his campy villains (Phantom of the Opera, Dracula 2000), having far too much fun here as a psychotic yet gregarious crime lord who runs around in a precariously-draped shortie robe. 


And yes, Shooters has Gruffudd, who's in one brief scene as an arms dealer with slurred speech, yellow teeth, and long, scraggly hair. Did you get that out of your system, Ioan? Good. We can now return to your regularly scheduled career.

The Forsyte Saga (2002)
The Forsyte Saga is a seven-hour miniseries based upon John Galsworthy's novels about the sprawling, wealthy, squabbling Victorian-era Forsyte clan, which also served as the subject of a popular BBC series in the late sixties. You'd think Gruffudd would be shy about approaching remakes of beloved shows after the dismal failure of Poldark; luckily for him, this one turned out much better.

Some of the Forsytes are greedy, some are corrupt, some are unhinged, all are bitterly unsatisfied with their lives. There's a lot of genteel bad behavior flying about as the Forsytes get rocked by a series of scandals: Young Jolyon (Rupert Graves) deserts his wife and runs off with his daughter's governess, then spends years trying to win back the strained affections of the Forsyte family patriarch (that'd be Old Jolyon, well played by Corin Redgrave). Beautiful yet discontented Irene (Gina McKee) enters into an unpleasant marriage of convenience with Soames Forsyte (Gruffudd's Warriors costar Damian Lewis). Soames is desperately in love with her, and, despite a mutual understanding that she is not expected to reciprocate his affections, soon becomes possessive and violent toward her.

Gruffudd enters the picture at this point as Philip Bossiney, a Frank Lloyd Wrightish architect who embarks upon a reckless affair with Irene. Complicating matters tremendously, Philip: a) is engaged to young June, herself a member of the Forsyte clan, and b) has accepted a commission to build a dream home for Soames and Irene, which Soames hopes will at last secure him the love of his desperately unhappy wife.

Gruffudd does a nice job, though he's saddled with a regrettable wig and a character with zero self-preservation instincts (Philip makes an abrupt, violent exit midway through the miniseries; honestly, it's surprising he manages to survive as long as he does). Lewis is fantastic, managing to imbue the brutish Soames with depth and even sympathy, though between this and Warriors, he probably should stop playing guys who hit their wives. Just a suggestion. McKee is gorgeous and appealing in a frosty sort of way, but her Irene is sullen and self-involved; it's difficult to see why Philip and Soames are so willing to destroy their lives in pursuit of her affections.

It's a wee bit frustrating, the way the Forsytes set about complicating their own lives. It is, after all, simpler (and more socially palatable) not to marry someone you find repulsive for his money, or to desert your wife and child to run off with the nanny, or to screw around on your cute fiancée with your employer's wife. But this is the last gasp of Victorian repression and the first stirrings of a grand old turn-of-the-century culture clash: the Forsytes don't quite have the hang of happiness yet, but they're perfectly willing to muck up their status quo in pursuit of it.

This Girl's Life (2003)
Around 2003, Gruffudd picked up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, poor kid. He starred in a short-lived CBS series about futuristic lawyers called Century City which nobody watched, most likely because it was about futuristic lawyers. I'm sure it's possible to track down episodes somewhere, but I just don't care enough, because, really: futuristic lawyers. His first film role after his L.A. move was a small part in the low-budget feature This Girl's Life.

This Girl's Life stars Ukrainian-born actress Juliette Marquis as Moon, an intelligent and savvy young woman who happens to be a very successful porn star. Moon is the sole caregiver for her Parkinsons-afflicted father (a eerily convincing James Woods), whose condition is steadily declining. Marquis, in her film debut, is reason enough to watch this movie: she's both talented and beautiful, though I hope whatever she's done to her eyebrows isn't permanent. Gruffudd appears in one scene, as the fiancé of one of Moon's friends; she asks Moon to test his fidelity by attempting to seduce him.

The short version: he fails.

In detail: Moon strikes up a casual conversation with Gruffudd at a newsstand. They banter for a while, and just as their meet-cute is starting to drag, Moon asks him for a ride home and propositions him in the parking lot. He responds in the affirmative by whisking off her underwear and, ahem, going lap-snorkeling on her in the front seat of his car. That's the extent of his part; somewhere in Cardiff, Mr. and Mrs. Gruffudd must be very proud of their boy, moving to America and appearing in a film where his entire role consists of orally satiating a porn star. Anyway, buoyed by her smashing success with Gruffudd, Moon starts a business testing the faithfulness of romantic partners; her targets include Isaiah Washington and a creepy, violent Michael Rapaport.

Written and directed by Ash (yes, that's his whole name, and if he hadn't done such a swell job with this film, I'd mock him for it), This Girl's Life is rough around the edges but strangely refreshing. It's sexually explicit, naturally; nudity of all kinds, male and female, is on display. It's notable for its straightforward view of the porn industry, which is neither glamorized nor demonized. At its core, the film suggests, porn is a business, albeit a rough one: it eventually takes a toll even on someone as smart and self-assured as Moon.

King Arthur (2004)
Due to King Arthur‘s strong Celtic overtones, I figure this is as good a time as any to mention one fascinating tidbit about Gruffudd: He's a druid. No, seriously. I gather druids today are more of a social order (like, say, the Elk's Club), and thus don't involve themselves much with human sacrifice or dancing naked in the light of the full moon anymore, but still, that's pretty damn cool. If I were a druid, I'd work that fact into casual conversation whenever possible, or at the very least, put it on my résumé. Sadly, he hasn't - here's a glance at his theatrical CV on the website for his UK agent, which looks very slick and professional and impressive, though it does disturb me just a teensy little bit that they've misspelled "Horatio." And there's nary a mention of druids.

King Arthur could have gone either way. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it was released in theaters the summer of 2004 and was expected to replicate the success of Bruckheimer's 2003 box office juggernaut, Pirates of the Caribbean. That didn't happen - it was a critical and commercial bomb - but it could have taken off. It's a flawed movie, sometimes deeply, but let's face facts: so is Pirates.

King Arthur has many appealing elements. It's got a solid lead performance from Clive Owen, playing a laconic, bloke-y Arthur. It has, memorably, Keira Knightley's feral warrior Guinevere, who scurries about killing people while smeared in blue paint and clad in a leather bikini. It's got the Knights of the Round Table, who are an endearing and entertaining lot in a multi-culti boy-band kind of way: first and foremost, there's Gruffudd's Lancelot, who's the sexy, dangerous one. Hugh Dancy's Galahad is the cute one, Joel Edgerton's Gawain is the easygoing (i.e. Australian) one, Ray Winstone's Bors is the funny one, Ray Stevenson's Dagonet is the quiet one, and Mads "The Sexiest Man in Denmark" Mikkelsen, last seen flogging Daniel Craig's genitals in Casino Royale, is Tristan, the weird one.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriter David Franzoni make a lot of good decisions here, notably to avoid all the Camelot gooeyness by moving the setting back to the Dark Ages. Granted, they're not the first to try this - Mary Stewart's classic novel The Crystal Cave did the same thing almost thirty years ago - but it helps give the movie a grittier, less civilized feel. What will later become Britain is still mostly under Rome's occupation, while the lands north of Hadrian's Wall are a wild country, overrun by a warlike, Pict-ish people known as Woads. This is a land without magic; Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is no more than a Woad shaman. Arthur is a Roman military leader with strong ties to Britain; his knights are soldiers from the occupied lands around the Black Sea, pressed unwillingly into the service of Rome. The knights have been promised their freedom if they accompany Arthur on one final quest: to go north of the Wall to rescue a Roman family from Woad territory.

Complicating matters are the Saxons, who are pouring into Britain and laying waste to all they see. The Saxons are led, awesomely, by Stellan Skarsgard and Til Schweiger; in the middle of everything else going on, the movie kicks back and explores their weirdly enthralling father/son dynamic.

After Arthur and his knights rescue Guinevere, a Woad herself, from the Romans, she accompanies them on their mission. Fuqua and Franzoni depart further from the Arthurian legend here by eliminating any romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. It's a good move - there's something deeply unsatisfying about Britain's most legendary hero also being its most famous cuckold - but it's also a shame, because Gruffudd and Knightley have terrific, riotous, outrageously combustible chemistry together (by comparison, Knightley's sex scene with the much-older Owen is vaguely creepy; it's like watching Arthur getting it on with his feisty kid sister).

There's a lot to like here. Guinevere is both adorable and coldly competent, and if the leather bikini is a bit of overkill, Knightley makes it work. The Saxons, who are shown to be evil, evil, evil, are given layers of characterization. The ties between Arthur and his knights are believably strong; Lancelot and Arthur, in particular, have a deep, almost romantic, bond (and while I'm not sold on Gruffudd's facial hair, his head-to-toe black leather duds are a good look for him).

Unfortunately, the battle scenes, of which there are many, are a drag: frenetic and choppy and overlong. It all culminates in a monstrously tedious final battle that sucks the film into a black hole from which it never emerges. Significant characters meet a grim fate, but by that time it's almost a relief -- it's a sign the film is almost over.

Fantastic Four (2005)
I have a confession to make.

I love Fantastic Four.

But wait, you say. Fantastic Four is a terrible movie!

Why yes, indeed it is. And I love it anyway.

See, Fantastic Four embraces its terribleness (yes, I realize "terribleness" is a sorry excuse for a noun, but if Reed Richards, Smartest Human Alive, can say "smallness" - in his opening line of dialogue, no less - I can say "terribleness"), and therein lies the charm. It's big and cheesy and gaudy and delightful. Director Tim Story knew what movie he wanted to make, and he went in and made it.

This is not one of those socially relevant, genre-reinventing superhero films you hear so much about these days. No, this is one of those old-school cornball superhero films, like the ones made before comic book movies started putting on airs (yes, Spider-Man, I'm looking at you) and worrying about things like relevance. The movie-universe X-Men might wear sleek black leather uniforms and make snarky in-jokes about the bright spandex costumes of their comic book counterparts, but not the Fantastic Four: They wear spandex. Lots of spandex. Bright blue, head-to-toe spandex.

Do you really need to know the plot? Brilliant scientists and erstwhile lovers Reed Richards (Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), plus their super-evil corporate sponsor Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) and some dead weight in the form of Sue's younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans, who is never going to be this good in anything ever again) and Reed's buddy Ben (Michael Chiklis) go into space and hang out at Victor's space station. I defy anyone to figure out what they're supposed to be doing - Reed babbles some nonsense about solar clouds and genomes and curing diseases, but as near as I can tell, they're irradiating houseplants. You know, in space. A sudden violent cosmic storm strikes and gives them each wildly diverse superpowers: Reed can stretch (which Johnny proclaims to be "gross." Well said, Johnny), Sue can turn invisible, Johnny can burst into flames, and Ben turns into a grumpy pile of rocks. For his part, Victor can control electricity and starts turning into metal. Financially ruined by the failed expedition, Victor swears revenge on our heroes and begins wreaking havoc. Plot established.

There are many things to love about this movie. I love that it's a film about dumb, pretty astronauts. I love that we're expected to believe Gruffudd, Alba, and McMahon all matriculated together at MIT. I love that Victor's space station has flattering mood lighting and appropriate gravitational levels. I love how they throw in a music montage whenever things start to drag. I love how Victor turns Ben against his nearest and dearest friends by buying him a stack of pancakes. I love, love, love Reed's super-scientific diagrams, which appear to be drawn on posterboard with Crayola Markers. (Oh, Reed. Not the brightest super-genius ever, is he? At one point, Von Doom gloats that at last he's "outsmarted the great Reed Richards." That's not much to crow about -- the great Reed Richards probably gets outsmarted by his toaster every morning).

My largesse extends to the bit players: I love Hamish Linklater as Victor's sulky, sultry henchman, who wrinkles his eyes in jealous distaste whenever Victor moons over Sue. I even love entertainment reporter Maria Menounos, here playing a character billed only as "Sexy Nurse."

This is not to imply there's nothing I wouldn't change about the movie. Even my love-dazzled brain has to admit there are things that could have been done better. The fight scenes - there are only two - are unimpressive. I'm not too keen on Gruffudd's hairstyle (think: Junior Congressman from West Virginia) or his odd American accent. Gruffudd sometimes looks ill at ease in the role: he's not at his best with goofy material (Exhibit A: 102 Dalmatians), and too often Fantastic Four heads straight for the goofy. Alba's Sue Storm, as scripted, is a piece of work: she snipes at Reed constantly and goads him into changing to better suit her needs without taking any responsibility for their relationship upon herself. Why Reed doesn't run screaming in the other direction is a mystery, though it might have something to do with Sue being totally hot.

The sequel comes out this summer. Can't wait.

(The film's mix of brilliant idiocy carries over into the special features on the DVD, in which the cast members collectively seem like a bunch of amiable knuckleheads. There's an audio commentary where Alba and Chiklis natter on like overcaffeinated monkeys, while super-polite Gruffudd never manages to get out anything much past "If I might interrupt..." before they yammer right over him. It's good stuff.)

The Little Things (2005)
Not much needs to be said about The Little Things, a short film Gruffudd made during a weekend break while filming Fantastic Four. It was written and directed by Gary Hawes, a Canadian filmmaker who's been an assistant director on a number of Vancouver-based productions, including the last two X-Men films and, yes, Fantastic Four. The Little Things stars Gruffudd and Alisen Down, a versatile Canadian actress who pops up all over the place (including a memorable turn on Smallville as Lex's baby-killing mother) as suicidal coworkers who forge a tentative bond and find a new lease on life. It's short, concise, and well done; it'd be interesting to see what Hawes could do with feature-length material.

The TV Set (2007)
Gruffudd's first feature shot post-Fantastic Four, The TV Set, will be released in spring 2007; I caught a screening of it last summer at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Writer/director Jake Kasdan's satiric look at the process of getting a television pilot made, The TV Set stars David Duchovny as Mike, a screenwriter whose highly personal series about a young man coming to grips with his brother's suicide gets dumbed down and mangled at every turn as it gets fed into the meat grinder of television production.

The primary instrument of destruction comes in the form of Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the brainless yet relentlessly cheery head of programming for the network. Lenny's word is law; her uninformed whims and haphazard decisions wreak vast damage upon Mike's work. Gruffudd plays Richard, a sophisticated (read: British) producer imported by the network, which is currently drowning under a tide of bottom-scraping reality shows (Slut Wars is an especially delightful example), to class up their act. Richard hasn't been in Los Angeles long enough to have lost all his good judgment - he genuinely likes Mike's original script and is willing to stand up for it - but, up against a steamroller like Lenny, it's disappearing fast. Gruffudd is sympathetic and endearing in his small role, though he's saddled with a lifeless subplot: his attempts to balance his all-consuming, soul-destroying job with the needs of his neglected, resentful wife (The Office's Lucy Davis) and young son.

The supporting players give the proceedings some kick: Judy Greer steals the show away from Weaver with her turn as Mike's agent, who disguises bad news under a million layers of extra-perky spin. Lindsay Sloane (Big Red in Bring It On, here neither big nor red) does a nice job as the sitcom's ingénue, who's forced to put up with an unstable and deeply untalented leading man (Fran Kranz).

There's a problem with The TV Set, though: Mike's proposed series, The Wexler Chronicles, eventually mutates into a monstrosity called Call Me Crazy, and while Call Me Crazy looks no damn good, I wouldn't watch The Wexler Chronicles, either; from the glimpses we get of Mike's unadulterated vision, it seems fairly middle-of-the-road, and not worth the battle Mike wages to preserve its integrity.

Ultimately, though, The TV Set is an amusing diversion, featuring an entertaining parade of frustrations and absurdities. It's not a scathing indictment of the industry by a long shot; Kasdan has genuine affection for his flawed characters, none of whom are evil so much as really, really dumb. If the worst that can be said about a film is that maybe Sigourney Weaver plays it a little too broad, you're in good hands.

Amazing Grace (2007)
Oh, thank you, Michael Apted.

Thank you for your new film, Amazing Grace, which is intelligent and uplifting and deeply satisfying all at once.

Thank you for introducing American audiences to William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament who spent his life fighting to pass legislation to end Britain's involvement in the slave trade. My Wilberforcean knowledge is wholly limited to your fine film, but I've learned he was history's most adorable religious nut, not to mention the prettiest abolitionist ever. Your film ably illustrates how his passionate efforts to abolish slavery destroyed his health, though colitis and an opium addiction probably didn't help matters, either.

Thank you for making 18th century Parliamentary procedures look witty and lively. I loved the bit of legislative sleight-of-hand Wilberforce and his misfit gang of abolitionists (a entertainingly weird and oddly bewigged Rufus Sewell among them) resort to in the end to ultimately accomplish what years of tireless campaigning and earnest speeches could not. Who knew politics could be such sneaky good fun?

Thanks for not banging us over the head with how awful the slave trade was, also. In this day and age, we all know it was a grievous, monstrous, wretched thing, and there's nothing worse than sitting through a lecture about something you already believe. Smart idea, focusing on the political maneuvering instead. Nice handling of the religious angle, too: Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian, of the delightfully loopy "let me lie on my back in the wet grass and marvel at the beauty of spider webs" variety, and the film doesn't dodge that point, but far more important than his faith is that he was a genuinely good person. I admit I was concerned to discover that Amazing Grace's financial backers include Philip Anschutz's Bristol Bay Films - the religious right makes me very, very nervous, and Anshutz is about as far right as it gets - but if Anshutz and company wanted to make religious propaganda, they probably shouldn't have hired an agnostic to direct it. (As it is, I think it's a mistake Amazing Grace has been promoted so heavily toward churchgoers, almost to the exclusion of a non-Christian audience: religion plays so small a role in the proceedings as to be almost irrelevant, and anyone expecting a morality play is going to be grievously disappointed).

Thank you for dressing Gruffudd in ruffled white shirts and tight waistcoats, and letting his curls tumble attractively across his forehead, and shooting him in the world's most flattering lighting (if the logistics weren't so impractical, I'd swear the entire film was lit by candlelight). Thanks as well for surrounding Gruffudd with an exceptional supporting cast. Albert Finney as Wilberforce's mentor, repentant slave-ship captain John Newton? Outstanding. Michael Gambon? A performance even droller than his Dumbledore. Benedict Cumberbatch? For starters: a) that's one heck of a name, and b) he's surprisingly handsome for someone best-known for playing Stephen Hawking. In a sea of heavy-hitters, Cumberbatch holds his own as Wilberforce's best chum, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.

If I haven't made it clear, I liked this film a lot. So much so that I'm planning on seeing it again. And then, perhaps, again. And then, like Wilberforce, I'm going to buy a sprawling old mansion in the English countryside and fill it with dogs and birds and rabbits (among his other fine qualities, Wilberforce was also a co-founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and then I'm going to roll around in the wet grass and reflect upon spider webs. It looks like a pretty good life to me.

Popular posts from this blog

Delays!

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Napoleon’s Tomb Affair”

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Tigers Are Coming Affair”