Andrew Collins: Ooh, no, don’t laugh

Trying to laugh in all the right places during an otherwise serious film

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The film’s not out here until January, but I’m not breaking any embargo by telling you that Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, a modern staging of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in which he also stars, finds a small part for Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow. (This was reported when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.)

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The well-liked, psychedelic-necktie-favouring Snow plays a news anchor, which you might say he was born to do. He delivers lines Shakespeare wrote, with a straight face, naturally. After all, the play’s the thing. However, at the screening I attended this week, many people laughed when Snow turned up on screen. Not at him, you understand, but at the very idea of a Shakespearean Jon Snow. I wonder if Fiennes expected this reaction when casting him? It was not cruel laughter, but it did rather break the spell of this very serious-minded film.

You can’t dictate to an audience how it should react. You can hope to elicit the correct response, but you’d better not bank on it. I saw a press screening of the epic Pearl Harbor back in 2001, and some of its cheesier dialogue caused gales of laughter among the assembled critics. (Remember the sweep of Kate Beckinsale’s hand in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on American soil as she said, “And then…all this happened”?) For what was, at heart, an old-fashioned wartime love story, sniggering was not the intended reaction.

I risked being thrown out of my subsequent interview with Pearl Harbor producer Jerry Bruckheimer by telling him that people had laughed out loud at some of the dialogue, and he parried expertly. Without getting riled, he asked, “Did the people you saw the movie with pay to see it?” No, I replied. He smiled, smugly. Meaning: who cares what non-paying punters think? (Far worse than a misplaced laugh at a press screening is the snort, let me tell you. Some male critics love to play the snort card.)

I guess the multimillionaire Bruckheimer was within his rights to dismiss the agenda-led smirking of media scumbags. Although as a teenager I paid good money to see a film I adored, Blade Runner – fortunately for the second time – and a man somewhere in the dark of Northampton’s Lings Cinema laughed all the way through it. I was too young to challenge him. And anyway, if he found it funny, he was entitled to express that, right?

A confession: when I first saw Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu – at the local film society, I might add – my friend Dave and I laughed when a pig went to the toilet in the background of a scene in the plague-stricken German town of Wismar. Pathetic, I know, but we were 16.

The first couple of times I saw films at cinemas in America, I was taken aback by the way the locals would not only whoop and cheer at the screen, but shout things at it, like “You go, girlfriend!” This indicated that they were enjoying it, by the way.

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As, we must hope, did the laughter that greeted Jon Snow in Coriolanus, reading the news in iambic pentameter.