Saturday 16 December 2017

Men from U.N.C.L.E. bring heat to Cold War

We meet Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer who bring talent and glamour to Guy Ritchie's latest movie.

Sixties revisited: Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki
Sixties revisited: Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki

Anne Marie Scanlon

Despite her alleged relationship with Kerryman Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander has yet to visit Ireland. "I've booked two Ryanair tickets that have not been used because I've been away working but I've really tried and I hope to get there soon."

Alicia is talking to me alongside her co-stars in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Armie Hammer, who plays Illya Kuryakin (nominated for several awards for his memorable performance as the Winklevoss Twins in The Social Network), lovely Aussie actress Elizabeth Debicki who plays arch-villain Victoria, and Henry Cavill who cinema goers know better as Superman Man of Steel.

Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a role made famous on 1960s television by Robert Vaughn and created by Ian Fleming. In the original TV series the organisation U.N.C.L.E already existed, and sworn Cold War enemies KGB Kuryakin and CIA Solo were secretly working together. Guy Ritchie's film is the story of how the two meet and their first mission together.

Tom Cruise was originally meant to play Solo but after seeing the film it's hard to imagine anyone but Cavill doing it.

One thing you quickly find out about Cavill is that he doesn't like the expression 'Bromance' and seeing as he basically is Superman (the guy is built) I'm not going to argue the toss with him.

The English actor is charming, funny, and affable, but I get the sense that underneath the veneer he's a true 'Man of Steel'. As Debicki recalls, "I worked most of my scenes with Henry and he's an uber-professional, he comes to set and knows exactly what he's doing with the scene. I mean, the scene where he rips the tablecloth out (she's referring to the trick of removing a tablecloth while leaving the table settings intact), he actually did that! I mean who does that? Who learns to do that?" she asks laughing.

"I thought people were joking about that," Vikander says.

"He pulled it out once," Debicki continues, "and I thought it was an amazing fluke. They never used the [stunt] guy on call because Henry did it every time."

"I just learned magic," Cavill says casually, and then adds, "I'm the next Harry Potter!"

Armie Hammer turns to me and says "he's already got your nose," referring to a particularly American joke which makes me laugh out loud. (Would it be unprofessional of me to admit at this point that I'm completely smitten with all 6 foot 5 inches of Armie Hammer? It's not just that he looks like he's never been within five miles of a trans-fat, but he seems genuinely lovely.)

Both Hammer and Cavill are very specific about the relationship between their characters. There is no 'Bromance' Cavill explains. "It's like two boxers who hate each other and they're always fighting each other. It's never going to be 'Hey buddy, let's go out for a drink'."

The pivotal moment in the relationship between Solo and Kuryakin, and indeed in the story, comes when Solo saves Kuryakin's life. The scene, where Solo enjoys a snack, while henchmen on a boat use machine guns on Illya, who is trapped in the water, is typical of a Guy Ritchie film, being highly comic, full of irony, big on small details and underneath very serious.

"It's more than just a funny scene," Cavill explains, "there are funny moments but it's actually quite a powerful scene - there's a man about to die and another man watching him, who doesn't like him and thinks, I should probably do the right thing here as much as it pains me. If you ignore the humour it's really quite a serious moment."

You could say the same about the rest of the film. When we're in comic book violence-mode, Ritchie suddenly thrusts genuine images of torture into the audience's face, reminding us that the Nazis weren't really comedy villians at all.

All four actors are too young to remember the original 1960s television series, but each is equally enthusiastic about writer and director Guy Ritchie. "We knew what the story was, we knew what we were trying to make (and) the end product was so different," Debicki tells me, "it had been touched by the hand of Guy, he's got a unique way of storytelling. I enjoyed watching the film; I found it incredibly entertaining and funny."

Vikander agrees, "I really enjoyed watching it. Guy is very collaborative with his actors, but to see the final product. As an actor I felt extremely secure because it was always so obvious that Guy knew what film he wanted to make".

Cavill and Hammer both reiterate these sentiments. "What's special about Guy is the environment he creates on set, the collaboration, from the very beginning we were all putting our input into everything, and it just felt like we were creating something together," Cavill says. "As an actor that makes you trust your director, because you know you're all on the same page."

Ritchie's devotion to detail is obvious in the way the 1960s are so carefully rendered - the era is almost a character in itself. One of the reasons for this is Joanna Johnston's amazing costumes.

While Vikander's Gaby gets to wear some stunningly beautiful outfits as well as fun, Carnaby Street-style Mod gear, its Victoria's uber-glam, ultra-60s hair, make-up and clothes that steal the sartorial show. Her signature outfit is an optical black and white column dress which immediately reminded me of Cruella Deville. Debicki tells me I'm not the first person to make that connection but the reference was not a deliberate one.

"We have too few female villains," Vikander says, "so she's just the one people have in their heads."

All of the costumes were meticulously researched. "We took direct patterns from Vogue magazines and recreated a lot," Debicki explains. "They seem outrageous in a way. I don't think people were walking down the street looking like Victoria".

"Are you sure?" Vikander responds. "I was surprised a few times in Italy, I saw some amazing women with amazing outfits It's probably just you and I," she says, addressing her co-star, "who think 'five extra minutes to put some cream on, I'd rather sleep'. So I'm impressed seeing [people making an effort with hair, clothes and makeup.]"

Of course, when you look like Alicia Vikander you can well afford to take the extra five minutes in bed. Given the film is partly set in Rome in the 1960s, and Vikander gets to run down the Spanish Steps, comparisons to Audrey Hepburn become inevitable. Both are small, dark, and beautiful with distinctive voices and a background in ballet. Hepburn has long been a style icon and Alicia has just been made the new face and 'muse' of Louis Vuitton. Vikander looks both embarrassed and flattered by the comparison with Hepburn.

Although Vikander and Debicki are happy to talk about the costumes, they are both quick to emphasise that their characters are more than mere fashion plates. "Guy and Lionel [Wigram] wrote these great women," Vikander says. She adds that in spy films "women are often a sidekick or a lot of the focus is just about how beautiful they are and they're an accessory, but these are two sentient women."

I wouldn't call The Man from U.N.C.L.E a spy film; yes, the plot revolves around spying during the Cold War, but the film covers plenty of other genres too, comic caper, buddy movie, there's even a bit of romance, as well as Ritchie's signature action sequences. It's not one specific genre but, as Alicia Vikander, calls it a "wonderful cocktail."

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens nationwide August 14.

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