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Films that fight the power

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night, Australian actor Geoffrey Rush plays one of the world's first power brokers: Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's closest adviser, a man who sees value in torturing his enemies for information.

"He set up the template for the CIA," said Rush, looking posh in a grey pinstriped suit and purple shirt, in his hotel suite Sunday afternoon. "He was the first person to create a kind of secret service behind a monarch. A lot of the principles he created are still practised. Alarmingly so. We think that the Elizabethan era was a particularly violent time, but you've only got to look at the last couple of years to realize torture's still not out of the question."

The corrupting influence of power is a subject on everyone's mind at TIFF this year. The film Michael Clayton, for example, stars George Clooney as a shadowy fixer at a New York corporate law firm. At a press conference on Saturday, writer/director Tony Gilroy said that, based on the questions he kept hearing from international reporters at the just-concluded Venice Film Festival, "the world is trying to figure out what America has become."

"We do suspect corporate America, and with good reason," Clooney chimed in. "R.J. Reynolds [Tobacco Co.] and others have done some shady things. Decisions are made based on self-interest. We keep moving the line of morality. Tony showed me actual documents from law firms, comparing the cost of product recalls versus the cost of potential class-action suits. They certainly informed how I played the part."

"A fixer isn't a job description you read in want ads," Gilroy said. "But wherever you have money and power, you need someone who can clean up messes. I interviewed lawyers at big firms, and they'd say things like, 'We don't have anybody like that, but I know of a guy in another firm.' "

"They had to convince me that this world wasn't a huge joke," said Tilda Swinton, who plays the lead counsel for a pesticide company, a woman corrupted enough to have one of her enemies murdered for threatening her profits. "Apparently there are people who talk like this and understand each other. I went to their offices and peered through their glass doors at them in their suits, as if I were at a zoo."

The twinning of power and violence came up again at the press conference for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. "I don't think human beings have changed in 2,000 years," writer/director Andrew Dominik said. "I don't think James was some historical psychopathic serial killer. Violence comes from us - it doesn't come from aliens who intrude upon our world, who we don't have to own up to being."

The issue also came up at the Ryerson Theatre on Sunday during the discussion between Bill Maher and Larry Charles (the bearded and be-hatted writer and/or director of Borat, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage). They came to town with clips of their documentary-in-progress Religulous, which details the absurdities they see in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

"Americans are now one of the leading torturers in the world," Maher said. "And the government is run almost exclusively by 'people of faith.' It's amazing to me how many evangelical Christians are okay with torture, considering how their boy got tortured so bad. But their Christianity isn't about morals or ethics, it's about saving their ass. They pray to Christ so that they can do whatever they want in this world, and he'll forgive and protect them in the next. That's ass-backward."

"All these religions believe in end times, so there's no need to believe in peace or working things out," Charles said.

"We don't need a person of faith in the U.S. presidency; we need a person of doubt," Maher said. "We need a person who says, 'I don't know what will happen if we invade Iraq, let's think about that.' We have a person of faith, and it's a mess."

The subject of power and violence even came up during Monday's press conference for Across the Universe, the 1960s-era musical set to Beatles songs, directed by Julie Taymor (Frida, Titus) and starring It Girl Evan Rachel Wood, who has four films at TIFF. (One of them, the whimsical drama King of California, co-starring Michael Douglas, premieres tonight.) In Across the Universe, Wood plays Lucy, an all-American sweetheart whose boyfriend is killed in Vietnam. "I knew his funeral scene would be emotional for my character, and it's set to Let It Be, which already moves me," she said, smoothing and smoothing the hem of her green chiffon dress. "But as I was watching them [the actors playing soldiers] fold that American flag and present it to his mother, something snapped. I broke down. I could not hold it in, take after take. I kept thinking, 'This is happening every day now, it's probably happening somewhere as we're shooting this.' It killed me."

Added Taymor, "We started shooting two years ago, and for the protest scene [in New York's Washington Square Park], we hung up all these anti-war signs. The people who live on Fifth Avenue asked us, 'Can you leave the signs up?' The fact that we're still there [in Iraq] two years later is horrific. The protest speech in our movie is a real speech that a student delivered in the 1960s. He says, 'Even America's friends become our enemies.' That's the way it was, and that's the way it is."

Geoffrey Rush and his director, Shekhar Kapur (who also directed 1998's Elizabeth), agree - they feel strongly that their film is absolutely relevant to what's happening in the world now. "Shekhar would always say, 'I want this film to constantly ask the audience questions. And leave them thinking, That's a question that needs to be asked,' " Rush said. "We wanted to explore what happens when Walsingham, someone so philosophically and spiritually assured, confronts doubt. When he thinks, 'What am I doing? What's the cost?' "Obviously, for the last seven years, one has not been able to open the newspaper in the English-speaking world without questioning our whole involvement in the Middle East," Rush continued. "Now, people are questioning even more what was shaky to begin with. It's palpable and immediate to me that people are really beginning to ask, 'What's the 21st century going to be like?' The pipe work is seriously happening now. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's creating bonds with Indonesia, things are shifting. It's not the world picture of late last century at all."

Rush believes art can influence popular thought - that if one asks the right questions enough, they may effect change. "I think it can," he said. "We've been through a lazy period where the populist cinema has tried to avoid talking about those issues. All the popcorn movies, the backbone of the mainstream, had gone into fantasy. It feels more excitable and lively now that other areas of debate are being foregrounded."

Wood, too, wishes the balance of power would shift. "The 1960s were such an inspired time," she said. "People felt they had a voice and could make a difference. It made me long for it. Now, we accept that we're so powerless, no one even bothers."

"There's a quote from H.L. Menken that Julie and I referenced a lot when we were working up the idea for the film," said Across the Universe composer Elliot Goldenthal, who is also Taymor's off-screen partner. "Menken said, 'When our society behaves like sheep, surely they will sire wolves.' " The talents at TIFF are fighting those wolves with film.

jschneller@globeandmail.com

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