Cast: Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson, Julian Sands, Mandy Patinkin.
Direction : James Lapine.
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ON 18TH AUGUST, 2014.
Impromptu refers to a state of mind where the act of creation and sometimes the burden of imagination is sought in the moment, without the onus of prior practice or overt preparation. We let our thoughts go with the flow, as they come. What we seek then is a breakthrough where our faculties are able to make anew a narrative of improvisation and in the field of performing arts it’s particularly effective.
It’s not always easy but a curve of new found confidence definitely helps when we bring our ideas on the spur of the moment, in the instant ecosystem of artistic engagement and generally in any and every sphere. The thrill, the challenge of the impromptu, the extempore, the unrehearsed is something we must contend with every now and then to know exactly where we stand. Hence, the irrepressible charm of the film with this name that I discovered randomly on the MGM channel four years ago. Again I was not disappointed as my experience lived up to the title. It was impromptu, with me having no inkling of the work before viewing it.
Curiously enough it makes me wonder that given the roster of talent here, improvisation must have definitely been a huge form of performative give and take as the ease with which these performers handle the comic and romantic undercurrents here is rewarding for viewers.
Furthermore, it’s directed by theatre veteran James Lapine who has to his credit a stage version of INTO THE WOODS and the eye for detail remains as does the elegance characterising not just the screenplay but also a general fidelity to its settings and mannerisms wrought by the particular era in which it unfolds. Too many times period pieces may give the impression of an amateur school play or worse but here in the case of IMPROMPTU, Lapine and his crew absolutely rise to the occasion. Viewers and cinema buffs need to watch this, inspired as the plot is by real time figures of 19th century France.
James Lapine’s delectable IMPROMPTU unfolds as a breezy comedy of manners. Suffice to say, centered it may be on the lives and sometimes trivial pursuits of artists (some of great repute) but it takes their actions with a pinch of salt and accords earnestness when needed, especially when true love is professed. Actually, watching IMPROMPTU, I received the joy of these works from the nineties epoch where filmmakers didn’t try too hard to make a statement or paint their frames with broad strokes. These tales were rooted in a rank simplicity. So like the period of yore the film is set in, I feel the nineties was a gay old time to be living in and I trace the word ‘gay’ to its original, now archaic tone of spirited soccour as in gay abandon, to the gaiety of living in the world. Of course as in this script, that joie de vivre can often lead to tardy extravagance and self satisfaction, especially if the pursuit of art comes coupled with money’s worth. But Lapine mixes the essential comedy of privileged lives and limitations of personalities. Social standing governs them but an individuality guides them mostly and a sense of community too. Watch the film to know what I mean.
The essence of its Austenian 1830s setting, distinctive aristocratic and artistic temperaments that are universal anywhere and tendency for skewering status quo resides in its leads. A genuine gender flip emerges when tomboyish novelist George Sands ( fun, fierce Judy Davis) is struck by cupid. Now she’s unconventional in the sense that she’s divorced, a single mother and prefers to dress in essentially men’s clothing. I feel she is the flag bearer for gender non conformity / neutrality and it helps that she has the background to not make concessions to her choices. Plus, she’s a romantic on the page and off it. Coming back to her, she’s struck by cupid at the very first exposure to reticent and bashful pianist Frédéric Chopin’s ( Hugh Grant) musical dexterity. Chopin, as we all know, is the touchstone for musicians, especially pianists, worldwide and we get a glimpse here of a fiercely private man who it seems is made of glass, so delicate and inhibited he is. It’s in his classical melodies that the irony is upended. So artistic tastes collide here. He is also frail of health, another odd commonality with the greats.
Also, I watched it and for the first time was informed of George Sands, which was the pen name of the writer since the times called for male identification for publication or maybe it was her own call. I was reminded of the great English writer George Eliot, behind a work like Middlemarch, who too took on a male pseudonym. The romance between her and Chopin is said to be based on true facts. Both performers here are interestingly pegged beyond mere archetypes of not confirming to conventions of the era or their gender roles. They are endearing.
Tipping its hat to the Romantic epoch of the 19th century when an affinity for nature and undiluted imagination was in prime in arenas of literature and most of the mediums, Lapine’s script swaps marital exigency in favour of an unusual courtship then which opens up at the country estate of a French duchess ( a supreme comic turn by Emma Thompson) and involves the august company of George and her ilk. So the lush locations and artistic exchange is displayed by all of them to varying degrees. It is sometimes uneven and intermittent fun but always attuned to social mores and idiosyncrasies of inhabitants of the day and age. Bernadette Peters is here as a woman of privilege who finds complications of the heart amidst bumbling ways of the lot while Emma Thompson’s duchess and her on screen husband contend with the creative onslaught of the raucous group and get our laughs ( and sympathy) trying to adjust just as all those with good breeding have to even if they don’t want to. Both have quirks of their own. There’s Julian Sands too as piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, another huge name in the classical arts and Mandy Patinkin as the spoilt young man.
IMPROMPTU scores majorly as it’s a showcase for all these performers who have only grown in stature over the years. So if Mandy Patinkin has us arrested as intelligence expert Saul on HOMELAND, Emma Thompson continues to up the ante in films like SAVING MR. BANKS, AN EDUCATION, HARRY POTTER universe and is vowing us with this year’s THE CHILDREN ACT and KING LEAR. For me, her exquisite turn in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is a particular favourite. Hugh, well, he is a thorough gentleman and for the umpteenth time that NOTTING Hill plays on television, he redefines his aura. As for the lady of the hour that is JUDY DAVIS, she has exemplified the characteristics of Adela Quested in the movie adaptation of E. M Forster’s groundbreaking novel A PASSAGE TO INDIA for me over the years and in FEUD : BETTE AND JOAN last year, she was pure gold as HEDDA HOPPER . In IMPROMPTU, her expert craft does not hit one erroneous note and a gallery of fine supporting actors uphold its energy ‘ strongly, exclusively and steadfastly’, words George herself uses while with Chopin in a situation here.
From the scene of the play which is a riot of confusion to tender moments of bliss that Sands has with Chopin and back to the shooting sprees, the humour is aplenty with the profundity of love mingling with an artistic bent of mind. IMPROMPTU is sweet, supple and full of charm. Not just categorically a period dramedy and George Sands is a true blue firebrand while Chopin is a dream.