Anthony Hopkins Takes On a New Role: That of Director

The movie 'August' establishes the Welsh actor as a renaissance man

'I want to direct!" Movie stars have said that for decades, wishing to take their talents behind the camera and shape the filmmaking process in ways that acting alone doesn't allow for.

Performers as different as Jodie Foster and Sean Penn have taken this step in recent years. And lest anyone think mere actors don't have the right stuff to create a picture from start to finish, Mel Gibson garnered Academy Awards for best director and best picture with "Braveheart," his second outing as a full-fledged filmmaker. Others are also lined up to try their hand as auteurs, including action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose directorial debut ("The Quest") is due in multiplexes later this month.

Anthony Hopkins has long been applauded for his versatility as an actor, winning multiple prizes for his stage and television work as well as Academy Award nominations for two recent movies - "Nixon" and "The Remains of the Day" - and an actual Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs" four years ago. Extending his range still further, he not only becomes a director in his latest film, "August," but plays one of the main roles and composed the music score, too.

While it's obviously a milestone in Hopkins's career, "August" doesn't have the excitement of a "Silence of the Lambs" or the depth of a "Remains of the Day," which are hard acts to follow.

But it shows a strong degree of all-round ability on Hopkins's part, and confirms his reputation as a thoughtful artist who wants to please a wide range of moviegoers while doing his bit to keep commercial cinema at a reasonably high aesthetic level.

Named after the month when its story takes place, "August" unfolds at a country home in which problems arise from the absentee landlord's return. He arrives from the big city with plans that could disrupt the lives of his aging brother-in-law (played by Hopkins) and others who've lived on the estate for years.

Adding to the highly charged atmosphere are the romantic yearnings of some menfolk on the estate, whose attentions are newly focused on the owner's attractive wife.

Other characters include a daughter who makes up in resilience what she lacks in beauty, a dissipated doctor with strong ties to the household, and a housekeeper well entrenched in her habits.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because "August" is the third movie in the past year to take its cue from Anton Chekhov's drama "Uncle Vanya," written in the late 19th century but clearly a timeless classic.

While the best of this crop is "Vanya on 42nd Street," directed by the late Louis Malle, there are also vivid moments in "Country Life," directed by Michael Blakemore, another actor turned filmmaker.

All three versions seem motivated by a wish to explore urgent and even passionate emotions in a manner that's at once candid about human nature and tactful in its depiction of human failings. In other words, all follow the pattern set by Chekhov in the nuanced dialogues and expressive behaviors of his greatest plays.

The main contribution of "August" to the "Uncle Vanya" sweepstakes is the well-constructed framework it provides for Hopkins's rich performance. Key elements of this framework are the film's physical backdrop - a Welsh estate that shares the drama's century-old lineage - and its literate screenplay by Julian Mitchell, a respected British television writer who has creatively adapted Chekhov's text.

Equally impressive is the acting ensemble that surrounds Hopkins, setting off his sensitive acting with portrayals that stand sturdily on their own while blending into an integrated whole.

Among the players are Leslie Phillips as the intrusive owner of the estate, Kate Burton as his American-born wife, Rhian Morgan as his unglamorous daughter, and Gawn Grainger as the discontented physician. Robin Vidgeon did the appealing cinematography, soaked in the ambience of late-summer Wales, and Hopkins's workmanlike music is capably conducted by George Fenton.

"August" is not an exciting addition to the current wave of Chekhov revivals, but it deserves high marks for its seriousness, its sensitivity, and its willingness to avoid even the momentary sensationalism that crept into Blakemore's version of the tale last year.

It also makes a good case for Hopkins as a capable filmmaker, if not yet an inspired one, and for the Screen Actors Guild as a productive bullpen for new movie-directing talent.

'August' has not been rated. It contains adult situations.

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