It is a bit unusual for a film reviewer to review a play, but when one is immortalized for the screen, doesn’t it become a film in its own right?
Red, the award-winning play by writer John Logan (“Gladiator”, “The Aviator”), portrays a slice of painter Mark Rothko’s life as he is working on a commission of murals by the Four Seasons restaurant (still in construction in 1958, when the play takes place) despite his rejection of everything the restaurant and this commission stands for – that is to say consumerism and the commercial aspect of art.
Originally produced in 2009 and 2010 from London to Broadway, the play was revived in 2018 with the same director at the helm, Michael Grandage, and only one casting change: Alfred Molina (“Frida”, “Spider-Man 2”) reprises the role of Rothko, but Alfred Enoch (the “Harry Potter” franchise, “How To Get Away With Murder”) brings a new life to Ken, Rothko’s assistant originally played by Eddie Redmayne (“Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them“, “Les Misérables”). It is this revival that was shot for the screen and is here reviewed.
The play focuses on the mentor/mentee relationship between Rothko and his assistant Ken (a fictional character created for the play), who vivaciously talk back and forth about art and consumerism, life and death. While the play focuses almost entirely on this verbiage between the two actors (they are the only characters, evolving in a single setting – Rothko’s art studio), the quick writing style full of snappy remarks never lets the spectator dowse off. Equally, none of the subject matters are pompously discussed, so that anyone with or without an art history degree can easily follow and take an interest in what is being debated.
There is an especially great moment where the two characters fight over the meaning of the titular red: because the word is too vague, both characters enumerate, in a fencing match with words instead of swords, objects, feelings and cultural concepts that all describe the color in its wondrous variety and significance’s. This scene that makes us think of red as the color of sunrise or of a rabbit’s nose just as well as of blood and Satan, passion and rage, is as close we could get of a Rothko painting made with words instead of brushes.
The performances of both actors also give vigour to the play: Alfred Molina especially infuses the stage (and screen) with a charismatic and powerful presence to which Alfred Enoch holds his own – especially as his character starts to grow and confront the painter.
Unfortunately, Red ends up being rather conventional by the end. The relationship at the heart of it all is just another reflection of the usual confrontation between the older and younger generations, and while the play truly has its shining moments, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the art versus capitalism debate besides offering a window into Rothko’s own perception of it.
When it comes to the filmed aspect, director Nick Morris (“The Phantom Of The Opera At The Royal Albert Hall”, “Les Misérables In Concert: The 25th Anniversary”) aptly prioritizes still shots or slow movements to let us take in what’s in frame the same way the live spectator would, although this time providing us with welcomed close-ups of set details or the actors’ performances. The only issue would be the two times in which the camera actually moves around the characters in a motion that puts too much attention on itself and distracts from the play. Apart from this mistake, while it is always a shame to experience a play on a screen rather than in the flesh, this version seems like the next best thing to it.