AS the artistic directors of Cheek by Jowl, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are two of the most acclaimed figures in contemporary theatre. Over three decades, the English theatre company has staked its reputation on dynamic and daring interpretations of classical works ranging from Shakespeare to Chekhov, as well as on producing work in French and Russian.
Given the spirit of adventure that drives them, then, it’s not as surprising as it might seem that these two men, one in his 60s and the other on the cusp, have just recently directed their debut feature film. The film, Bel Ami, is a sweeping adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel of the same name, and it has an exquisite cast in the shape of Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, and, in the lead role, Robert Pattinson, star of the Twilight films and all-round pop culture heartthrob.
Character-driven, the film remains largely faithful to de Maupassant’s acerbic tale of a charming rogue who manipulates his way to the upper echelons of late 19th century Paris. Pattinson portrays Georges Duroy as a man with little learning or ability, but whose physical beauty overwhelms the influential women he encounters, a fact he is cunning enough to use to his advantage. In terms of casting, signing up Pattinson was a bit of a coup.
“Rob fell in love with the part,” says Donnellan, who sits in a Dublin hotel alongside Ormerod, his partner in life and in art. “He read the script and we met and had a long chat. He said, ‘The character is so venal — I love it. He hasn’t got a single redeeming feature’.”
Certainly, it was a risky role for the British actor. There is a chilling emptiness about Duroy, and Pattinson plays the part extremely well, conveying all the pent-up resentments and frustrations of a man far out of his depth but nevertheless hungry for wealth and status.
“That was very important to us,” says Donnellan. “Georges is very cut off inside and he has no talent. That’s very challenging, and it frightens us all. He learns in the first scene that he’s a businessman with one commodity to sell and, boy, does he sell it throughout the movie. And it’s interesting for a change to see the women undoing themselves because of Aphrodite.”
Donnellan is the sort of fellow who uses ‘Aphrodite’ in conversation, where ‘lust’ or ‘desire’ might do just as well. Garrulous and charming, he has a tremendous energy, something actors must feed off when working with him. Ormerod, by contrast, is more circumspect, although intermittently he interjects with what is invariably an incisive and measured remark. Ormerod’s creative role in the partnership has always been to look after the design elements while Donnellan attends to performance, and there is a studiousness in Ormerod’s eyes that reflects his attention to detail.
This is not to say that Ormerod is distant or reserved. Far from it. Indeed, he becomes animated when the conversation winds up with a mention of Donnellan’s Irish origins.
Before his parents moved to England in the 1950s, Donnellan lived in Roscommon until the age of three, and he returns frequently. Ormerod recently acquired his own Irish relations, and this triggers some brief, light-hearted banter between the two men.
“I have some Irish connections now,” Ormerod says enthusiastically. “My niece has married into a mad Irish family in the southeast. I have trumped Declan for mad relations.”
“Oh, don’t say that they’ve trumped them,” says Donnellan hastily, as if fearful that his relations might take offence.
And then they’re off to catch a flight home to London, where their latest theatrical production, a revival of John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, is running at the Barbican.
Like Bel Ami, it’s another revival of a classic. Why are the classics so important for them? “It’s a better way to talk about now,” says Donnellan. “The French have an expression: ‘il faut reculer pour mieux avancer’. You have to go back to go forward. A classic isn’t a classic because it’s about ‘them’. A classic is a classic because it’s about us.”
Bel Ami will be shown at the Cork French Film Festival on Saturday, March 10. www.corkfrenchfilmfestival.com