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ALFIE - AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK

Almost 40 years on, Alfie is back on the big screen. Eleanor Singer charts the progress of his modern-day embodiment, Jude Law, as he makes his amoral way through the ‘swinging Manhattan’ of 2004.

How do you remake a classic? Well, says Charles Shyer (director, producer and writer of Alfie), for one thing, it’s a good idea to move it to somewhere different. New York, for example.

“One of the ways to bring the film to a whole new audience is to bring Alfie to New York, making him a fish out of water,” says Eleanor Pope,” who co-wrote and co-produces the film with Shyer. “To quote Sting, he’s ‘an Englishman in New York.’ He’s living his dream. But, under it all, he’s a little lost in the big city. With very few friends and no family, he is without any deep emotional anchor.” The result of moving the film to New York is thus to shift the focus ever so slightly and, in so doing, bring it right up to date.

Back in 1966, Michael Caine’s Alfie - created in a screenplay by Bill Naughton which had had its origins in a stage play of the same name - was the epitome of ‘swinging London’: an amoral ladies man whose only interest was in ‘pulling the birds’ and moving on. But things have changed a little in the intervening 40 years. But the new film has as its star Jude Law, an actor who possesses the same brand of magnetism - the same easy charm that makes you go along with him even if you don’t entirely approve of what he is doing - that Michael Caine brought to the original Alfie. 

"of course women have changed"

“There’s no doubt that individuals with Alfie’s attitude existed back then and there’s no doubt they exist today,” says Law. “Some would even say that his attitude is actually more relevant to the way people currently think; that is, more freely with regard to sex and dating. It’s almost 40 years later, though, and of course women have changed. What they’ll put up with today and what they’ve learned since the sixties changes the entire tone of a film like this.”

To start with, Law’s Alfie Elkins - an English guy working as a limo chauffeur in Manhattan - has the same amoral charm as Caine’s original. And he addresses the camera in the same cheeky way, casually explaining his plans for conquest and making no bones at all about his motives. “I subscribe to the European philosophy, my priorities leaning toward wine, women and – well, actually that’s it, wine and women,” he tells us near the start, adding with a wink: “Although women and women is always a fun option”.

But there is a softer, more vulnerable side to the updated Alfie which makes him a hero better suited to the new millennium. “This kind of lothario, matinee idol, good-with-the-girls type of character is definitely a test for any actor to portray, but the script was so good I had to do it,” says Law. “Actually, Alfie is more multifaceted than one would think. He’s really quite a thoughtful fellow, and he is trying to change his wayward ways.”

At first, though, the part of Alfie that is doing the thinking isn’t between his ears. Charming and roguish, he makes out with Dorie (Jane Krakowski), the bored, rich housewife whose husband hasn’t made love to her in six months. And he does so in the back of his limo, borrowing a gesture from another sixties classic, Klute, when he checks the time on his watch over her shoulder.

From there, he drops in on Julie (Marisa Tomei), the single mother who is the closest he comes to a steady relationship, and of whose six-year-old son he is genuinely fond. And, all the while, he is confiding in us, the audience. Everyone knows, he says, that he comes with a health warning stamped on him: will not commit. Julie turns out not to accept this, however. And when she bars the door to him, it’s the first crack in Alfie’s facade.

"he’s completely honest"

His real nemesis, though, is the classic ‘older woman’, played with great relish by Susan Sarandon. “I love the way my character is described in the script,” says the Oscar-winning actress (who, for the record, is 58): “‘A voluptuous (some would say over-ripe, all would say sexy) woman decked out in Chanel’. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play a vixen like that? Actually, beyond the physical description, I like how tough this broad is. She finally dishes out to Alfie what he’s been dishing out to women for years.”

“What’s interesting about Alfie is he’s completely honest and up-front on one level, but oblivious to how he hurts people on another,” adds Krakowski, setting the tone for the second half of the movie - which, while lighter than that of the original, both puts the boot on the other foot and slightly shifts our sympathies, as Alfie slides slowly (but always charmingly) from grace.

“I was very clear that the character should be outrageous, not just in the sense of his actions, but in his thoughts as well,” says Shyer. “By having Alfie speak to the audience, he’s able to offer insight into what he’s really thinking… this is the first of many steps he will take on his bumpy journey to discover what’s truly in his heart.” 
“Alfie is such an interesting character, damaged and self-destructive, but very up-front,” adds Pope. “Whether the audience agrees with his philosophies or not, they become his exclusive confidant. This gave us the chance to address certain - usually unspoken - truths about relationships that everyone can relate to.”

For Law - a major fan of the original film - these moments in which his character chats confidentially with the audience were quite a challenge, involving as they do breaking down the ‘fourth wall’. “It was very alien at first, but after a while I began to feel like the wall wasn’t there at all,” says Law. “It truly became second nature for me. And I think that, once people watching the movie get used to it, they’ll feel that Alfie is talking to each one of them as a friend.”

The friend bit, however, is where it all begins to fall apart; and Alfie’s journey to self-knowledge begins much earlier this time than it did in the original movie. His ‘best mate’ at the limo company is Marlon (Omar Epps), with whom he plans one day to set up a business instead of just working for someone else.

"draws us into Alfie’s world"

Marlon has none of Alfie’s all-conquering sexual ambitions. He has his woman - Lonette, played by Nia Long, who starred opposite Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House - and he wants to stay with her. Only problem is, he has been playing around a little and she has kicked him out. Alfie drops in on Lonette in the bar where she works late one night to talk to her about Marlon. When the last customer has gone, they have a few drinks, shoot a little pool, one thing leads to another… and an invisible line has been crossed.

Not that Alfie is a moral lesson dressed up as a movie. The film draws us into Alfie’s world, both through his remarks to the audience, and because he has that Sex-in-the-City style. Plus, as co-star Sienna Miller notes, because he’s gorgeous.The original film, of course, came out at the height of - indeed all but defined - the classic Carnaby Street/Kings Road era of swinging London. And, now that we have passed into an age when the only real fashion certainty is retro, the costume design of Shyer’s film - an element second in importance only to Law’s performance - inevitably reflects this.

“The idea was to blend in some design elements of the sixties, while still being stylish, contemporary and at all times real,” says costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. “Jude Law really knows clothes and he wears them very well. Still, we couldn’t exactly dress him in brand new designer suits, because his character doesn’t have a lot of money. To that end, we found a marvellous Belgian designer, Martin Margiela, whose clothes are simple but wonderful and just a touch retro.” 

Top of the range, though, is a suit by British designer Osward Boateng, which Alfie wears on New Year’s Eve when he begins his disastrous affair with Nikki (Miller). “We were looking for something single-breasted, very narrow cut, a suit that reflected the style of the sixties,” says Pasztor. “Then we added a pink shirt, which was sort of a bold statement in itself, and silver cube cufflinks from Yves Saint Laurent. Alfie always has a unique style to his clothing. That is to say, when he dresses down, he doesn’t wear your typical Levis jeans; he may only be able to afford one pair, but they would be designer Rogan jeans.”

In fact, while Caine’s cheeky charm was the touchstone of the original film, in the present fashion-obsessed era, it is likely to be Law’s wardrobe which will make him the audience identification figure here. This is because, as the director points out, we have to like Alfie without necessarily identifying with him. And we have to recognise him as in some ways typical.

"a cautionary tale"

“That’s why this story is so universal and so classic,” concludes Shyer. “It’s a cautionary tale, one that says ‘Wake up and see how your behaviour affects others’. Our modern Alfie experiences a true journey, from someone who is blind to his actions, to someone who begins to have a bit of insight into the error of his ways. It slowly dawns on Alfie that perhaps the person who is suffering the most is himself.”

Published January 20, 2005

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