His plays are revered and re­vived, but it’s less well­known that Tom Stop­pard is a prolific screen­writer, writes Benji Wil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

I WAS ex­pect­ing be­daz­zle­ment. Tom Stop­pard, af­ter all, has a half-cen­tury of daz­zling be­hind him: daz­zling wit, daz­zling flu­ency, daz­zling scope, daz­zling hair. I re­call emerg­ing from Ar­ca­dia at Lon­don’s Na­tional The­atre in the early 1990s feel­ing in ur­gent need of a com­plete in­tel­lec­tual re­boot af­ter a three-hour brain glut. Stop­pard was the writer who wrote clev­erly about clever peo­ple.

Yet in per­son the most daz­zling thing about him is the lack of daz­zle. There is no pre­ten­sion, just an of­fer to pay for the tea af­ter­wards, and a phone num­ber should there be ‘‘ a quote-shaped hole’’. On the page, he is best known for writ­ing crisp di­a­logue for the ed­u­cated and the elo­quent; in the flesh he is, as no char­ac­ter in any of his plays would ever say, a very nice man.

I shouldn’t have been sur­prised — both sides of Stop­pard are there in the work, but you have to know which work to look at. While his plays are anatomised, revered and re­vived, it’s less well known that Stop­pard is a prolific screen­writer. There was the Os­car for Shake­speare in

Love, of course, but Stop­pard has also script-doc­tored count­less Hol­ly­wood movies uncredited, from In­di­ana Jones and the Last Cru­sade to (it is ru­moured) one of the Star Wars films. Stop­pard is — and this may be the true mea­sure of his tal­ent — a writer for ev­ery­one.

Next year will be some­thing of a lo­cal show­case for Stop­pard the screen­writer. His bigscreen adap­ta­tion of Anna Karen­ina opens in Jan­uary, with Joe Wright di­rect­ing; Pa­rade’s

End, his bravura BBC adap­ta­tion of Ford Ma­dox Ford’s World War I epic also will screen in Aus­tralia next year. Nei­ther of the two source nov­els (or five source nov­els; Pa­rade’s End is a tetral­ogy) is a dod­dle: the first is a lit­tle-read high mod­ernist work­out, the sec­ond a widely read, end­lessly adapted set text. Both needed ex­pert fil­let­ing and, in both cases, Stop­pard has de­liv­ered. He is the master crux-finder, able to vac­uum up de­tail, de­cide what the chase is, then cut to it. Hav­ing es­tab­lished nar­ra­tive clar­ity, he cos­sets his story in wit and gives ac­tors lines they rel­ish re­peat­ing. That is why film and TV love him so.

Wright’s Anna Karen­ina, with Keira Knight­ley play­ing the doomed hero­ine, is a self-con­scious, ex­per­i­men­tal af­fair that an­nounces it­self as Not Just An­other Pe­riod Drama by hav­ing most of the ac­tion take place in a di­lap­i­dated the­atre. Not just on the stage, ei­ther: scenes play out in the fly tower, the au­di­to­rium, the props room and the scene dock. The con­ceit is that the dramatis per­sonae have no idea their lives are a per­for­mance.

Stop­pard says his script con­tained none of this. It was ‘‘ an ortho­dox telling of the story’’,

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