My impression was that movie director Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympics would be an epic yet compact interpretative history of Great Britain. I misunderstood.
It began – horribly if appropriately – with Kenneth Branagh reciting Shakespeare with enough hammy gusto to bring down the Old Globe. But as the evening went along the event evolved into a weirdly psychedelic pop-culture fantasy, referencing everything from J.K. Rowling to Queen – I mean the band.
Perhaps this is because British history effectively came to an end with World War II, and there was nothing else for Boyle to say. Well, you might argue, what about Margaret Thatcher? Oh, you must mean that old woman who was played so well by Meryl Streep.
But more likely the show, titled “Isles of Wonder,” really was Boyle’s vision. In his movies he loves to jam together styles and images and effects, and so he did here.
This was Trainspotting minus heroin.
Up to a point, I liked the evening’s irreverence, unpredictability and lack of pomp. The arrival of the Queen – Elizabeth – was accomplished by a cheeky filmed segment: It started with Daniel Craig, as Bond, picking up Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace and ended with her (well, her stunt double) parachuting into the stadium from a helicopter.
The queen played along with her usual impassive majesty.
But then Boyle, in another filmed segment, took one of the most beloved images of Britain from the last half century – the beach run in Chariots of Fire – and tossed rubber-faced comedian Rowan Atkinson into it. Couldn’t Boyle have allowed viewers this one “There’ll always be an England” moment?
Actually, Boyle may have been toying with that sentiment in the night’s very first segment, a salute to agrarian England. Apparently agrarian England was a terraced green hill that looked exactly like the suburb where the Hobbits live.
Segue to the Industrial Revolution! Grimy members of the proletariat marched about with angry percussive instruments, while what I assume were industrialists danced and arrogantly pumped their fists.
Now we were pretty much done with history and off to Boyle’s hallucinatory grab bag of themes. In the craziest stretch, he paid tribute both to the National Health Service – the field was flooded with dancing nurses – and children’s literature: A giant Harry Potter Voldermort reared up on the field and was defeated by an army of Mary Poppins.
In other words, it took seven long novels for Harry to accomplish what a British nanny armed with an umbrella did in two minutes.
Then onto a long, muddled sequence about the Internet, movies and pop music.
By now I was exhausted, and welcomed the staid, handsome Parade of Nations, including the American team looking like French students in their Ralph Lauren uniforms. The only truly beautiful images of the night came after them: Bicyclists with illuminated wings representing doves of peace, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, fireworks.
For the finale, Paul McCartney sang Hey, Jude.” It’s nice, anyway, to imagine there’ll always be a Beatle.