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Bel Ami among friends

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Cheek by Jowl directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod hosted a screening of their new, and indeed first, movie in the Charlotte Street Hotel yesterday afternoon.

Bel Ami is a sumptuous transposition to the screen (by no means the first) of Guy de Maupassant's fin de siecle Parisian novel starring Robert Pattinson as Georges Duroy, the dissolute French soldier who rises to the top of society and journalism by the simple expedient of sleeping with the wives of his employers.

These three married lovers are played by Uma Thurman, sly, slinky and smouldering as the political editor's wife, who writes Georges' articles for him; Kristin Scott Thomas, giving a brilliant performance of vulnerability thawing into hysterical abandon as the editor's wife, whom he seduces in church and viciously rejects partly in order to marry her daughter; and Christina Ricci, foxy and flirtatious as the deeply attractive Clotilde, whom he loves above all the others, and whose pert little daughter dubs him "bel ami."

It's a deeply sour tale of having your cake and eating it, and it's beautifully played and sumptuously costumed. And you can't fail to notice in these rocky days for newspaper ethics, that Georges moves sideways from his diary of a cavalryman in the Algerian war to head of gossip on the broadsheet; he draws a line, though, at taking his share of the profits when war-mongering becomes a sort of insider trading.

Donnellan and Ormerod ran a five-week rehearsal period before they even got on the studio floor, and it shows. The music swells, but not all the time; you can hear the actors breathe, the long dresses rustle, the symbolic cockroach scuttle across Georges' attic before he pummels it to death.

As a debut movie, and made for the comparative pittance of nine million euros, it's almost indecently good and highly accomplished. And although Pattinson twitches his nostrils a little too often, he's spot on as the louche lothario.

The set-piece scenes, too, in low taverns and high society, are a vigorous swirl of colour and choreography, studded with sharp performances all round. Nice to see little nuggety vignettes from Timothy Walker (an early Cheek by Jowl stalwart) as a lawyer and Christopher Fulford as a police officer.  

There's a magnificent deathbed scene when Georges goes to comfort Uma Thurman's almost-widow as Philip Glenister coughs up his last on the coast at Cannes. And the interiors and location shots (Budapest stands in for Paris) are a continuous delight.

Who'd have thought it: the Jowlies go to the movies? There were Jowly nice tea and cakes in the Charlotte Street Hotel beforehand, too, and the room soon filled with the likes of Celia Imrie, Matthew Macfadyen (much bigger and burlier "off" than I expected), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (en route to Hay Fever at the Noel Coward), Adrian Lester, David Collings and Lydia Wilson (en route to the current Jowly blast of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Barbican Silk Street) and - at last I could declare my undying devotion and admiration - Martha Kearney of BBC Radio 4's The World at One.  

Bel Ami goes on release on Friday week, so I imagine the film critics have seeen it, though the Evening Standard's David Sexton was riffling the pages of his notebook with serious intent in the depths of the cosy screening theatre.

Oddly, there were two other Standard journos on hand, Nick Curtis and Liz Hoggard, while Kate Bassett kept the theatre critics' flag flying. I was sitting directly behind television newsreader and Beethoven wallah John Suchet, who has a very full head of hair, unfortunately; a lot thicker than his brother's, that's for sure. Gosh, I wonder how David is coming along on tour as bullyboy James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night?

Now they've made a film, Declan and Nick definitely have a taste for it. But they are adamant about sticking with their company, both in London and Russia. One new experience: they were phoned by the Hugo Boss people asking if they might dress them for the Berlin Film Festival.

When the red carpet pictures went up on the internet, they received some joshing remarks from their Russian actors, including one they refuse to take to heart: "No more big baggy jumpers at rehearsals, please."


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