As a film, All About Eve is pretty close to perfect. Written and directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz in 1950, it’s one of the best films about theatre ever made.
So, on one level, it seems the perfect fit for the Ivo van Hove screen-to-stage treatment. But, though Van Hove’s adaptation sticks pretty closely to the original, it strips a lot of the joy and wit out of it. The result is stylish and glossy, but functional and superficial.
Gillian Anderson takes on the iconic role of Margo Channing, indelibly played by Bette Davis on screen. Channing is a huge Broadway star who is already starting to feel her age – she’s 40 on screen, 50 here – when her friend Karen (Monica Dolan) introduces her to Eve (Lily James), a star-struck young woman claiming to be Margo’s greatest fan.
Eve quickly ingratiates herself into Margo’s life and home, but she has her eyes on bigger things. She doesn’t just crave Margo’s fame and adoration, she wants to replace her.
The casting of Anderson as Margo is one of the production’s greatest strengths. She is simultaneously brittle and radiant, poised yet fragile, while Dolan, as a woman who inadvertently sabotages both her friend’s career and her own marriage, provides another reminder of what a great actor she is.
Lily James, though, is far less compelling in the role of the manipulative, ambitious, borderline sociopathic Eve. The production never lets us get under her skin. Eve should drive the narrative, instead she feels secondary.
It’s certainly a stylish production, with atmospheric music by PJ Harvey and a set by Van Hove’s regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld that consists of a theatrical dressing room, the walls of which lift at intervals to reveal a backdrop inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, all silver balloons and blown-up photographs.
Because this is a Van Hove production, camera operators roam the stage, filming sequences that take place in bathrooms and kitchens. These are projected above the stage. Close-ups of Anderson’s face are shown, magnifying every crease and stray hair. This is a recurring image. Far more so than in the film, the idea of a woman ageing is depicted as a source of horror.
This is encapsulated in a pre-recorded sequence in which Channing envisions her face ageing rapidly, her skin wrinkling and her hair thinning with the speed of someone who drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There’s also an arguably unnecessary scene in which we see her drunkenly vomiting in her toilet bowl. It makes Margo appear a far more vulnerable and pathetic figure than she is on screen.
The male characters are flimsy in comparison, with the exception of Stanley Townsend’s acidic critic Addison DeWitt. Yet the scene in which he uses his power and influence to claim ownership of Eve, a scene that could have felt appallingly resonant, is made to feel mechanical. Good as Anderson and Dolan are – and they’re very good – that’s true of the whole thing.