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Posts Tagged ‘Andrea Riseborough’

There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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If you want to get on in your career, it doesn’t hurt to have a memorable name, and on this point at least Armando Iannucci has got nothing to worry about. I suppose that being a key collaborator in the careers of Steve Coogan, Christopher Morris, and Lee and Herring can’t help, either, nor can being variously the creator, producer and director of TV and radio shows and films like The Mary Whitehouse Experience, The Saturday Night Armistice, The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep. Apart from the Alan Partridge movie a couple of years ago, most of Iannucci’s work over the last decade or so has been mainly in the area of political satire, of both the British and American systems. You would have thought that the unravelling disasters taking place in both countries at the moment would give him plenty of raw material to work with. Perhaps it’s a little curious, then, that Iannucci’s new film is a historical piece about Russia. It’s still a comedy, although the title might suggest otherwise: his new film is entitled The Death of Stalin.

The year is 1953 and Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) has been the unquestioned ruler of the Soviet Union for decades, a figure whose very name provokes panic and alarm amongst everyone else in the country. Stalin rules through fear, as is made clear when he requests a recording of a concert at the start of the film – Andreyev (Paddy Considine), the organiser, is horrified to discover the recording was not made, and is forced to re-stage the event under farcical conditions – people are dragged in off the street to bulk up the audience, the soloist has to be bribed, a new conductor brought in in his pyjamas, and so on. It’s hilarious, but the vein of terror running through it all is genuine, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

However, Stalin then suffers a massive stroke, throwing the status quo in the USSR into question, and provoking frenetic jockeying for position amongst his various courtiers. First off the blocks is security chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who has the advantage of being in charge of the secret police and the death lists, but close behind him are several others, including deputy leader and supposed heir apparent Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), minister for Labour Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), and Communist party chief Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – I don’t know about you, but as long as I’ve been aware of Steve Buscemi as an actor, I’ve been thinking ‘There’s a guy whose career will not be complete until he’s played Nikita Khrushchev.’). The presence on the scene of Stalin’s troublesome children (Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough) does not help matters much, either. As Stalin passes away and the funeral arrangements are made, who will manage to establish their grip on the levers of power in the USSR?

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that The Death of Stalin is unlikely to get a release in Russia itself, with Russian commentators announcing it is a ‘nasty send-up’ and a ‘planned provocation’ – Stalin himself was recently voted the greatest person in history in a Russian poll (Vladimir Putin came second, by the way). Even some British viewers have been critical of the film’s very flexible approach to historical fact – Beria was not head of the NKVD in 1953 (not least because the NKVD itself ceased to exist in 1946), nor was Molotov (Michael Palin) the foreign minister at the time.

That said, I doubt anyone watching The Death of Stalin will long be under the impression that this is intended to be a rigorously accurate historical reconstruction. Everyone involved is using their ‘normal’ voice, which for Buscemi means a Brooklyn accent, for Tambor one from California, and for Palin the sounds of Sheffield – the only real exception is Jason Isaacs, who comes on halfway through as a medal-festooned Marshal Zhukov, with a broad Yorkshire accent. It’s not as if the actual dialogue is any more plausible – ‘Phew, it’s been a busy old week,’ observes Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), having just participated in the execution and then incineration of a colleague. Obviously, much of this is done for comic effect – ‘All of you can kiss my Russian ass!’ cries Malenkov at one point – but it’s surely also sending a signal that we are not supposed to take it too seriously as a piece of history.

That said, of course, one wonders what the point of the film is, and what point Iannucci and his co-writers are trying to make. Is it really just a film about dysfunctional politics, as he has suggested? As previously noted, the world isn’t exactly short of real-life examples of that at the moment. If the film is making specific points about the Trump regime or the Brexit fiasco they are very heavily veiled, and one has to say that comparing Donald Trump to Stalin would be a little harsh (although given Stalin’s reputed degree of political skill, it might not be entirely fair on the Soviet leader, either).

Perhaps it’s just the case that this scenario offers plenty of opportunity for satire and a selection of characters whom many people sort-of know – I’m no expert on Soviet history, but I still know a bit about people like Molotov, Zhukov and Beria (even if only because a fictional version of Molotov is a major character in WorldWar and Beria is mentioned a lot in From Russia with Love). On the other hand, it’s not as if the film-makers aren’t aware of some of the horrors perpetrated under the Soviet regime, because they are crucial to the atmosphere (and occasionally, plot) of the film. Mostly these are handled ‘straight’ – we see a purge under way, with the terror and blood involved shown unflinchingly – but on the other hand, the potential for jet-black comedy is often fully exploited: for example, one of the problems involved in finding medical attention for the ailing Stalin is the fact that all the qualified doctors have been sent to Siberia.

I don’t know. This is a very funny film, the blackest of black farces, filled with great lines and cherishable comic performances from a terrific ensemble cast. But it’s still slightly uncomfortable and rather unsettling to watch, simply because it takes a situation which arguably wasn’t funny at all, and reworks it as a source of humour. This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year. It has absolutely no right to be. Perhaps that’s the point. Doing The Death of Stalin as a straight drama would probably have resulted in something so bleak and depressing it would be almost unwatchable; reworking the story as a knockabout, profane comedy at least makes it accessible, while not quite losing track of the fact that this is a film making some very serious points in the most roundabout way imaginable.

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You would expect the coming together of a group as disparate as Ridley Scott, Steve Coogan, the BBC, and the Isle of Man film board to result in a fairly peculiar film – and sometimes things work out in an entirely predictable manner, for the fruit of their collective effort is Sean Foley’s Mindhorn, which is indeed fairly peculiar. This is a comedy, which is also as you might expect given the involvement of Coogan and co-writer and star Julian Barratt. Barratt is possibly best known for his role in the TV series The Mighty Boosh, which is another one of those things I must confess to having hardly ever seen. In some ways the new movie seems very familiar anyway, though.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a TV actor who was briefly famous in the 1980s as the star of Mindhorn, a (seemingly dreadful) show about a bionic detective set on the Isle of Man. (Yes, there may well be an implied dig at Bergerac, as there is a running gag about John Nettles in this movie too.) Now, however, Thorncroft’s star has faded, and he is now an overweight, balding unemployed-going-on-unemployable actor reduced to advertising support hosiery.

Things change, however, when a murderer strikes on the Isle of Man. The prime suspect is a mentally unstable youth (Russell Tovey) who’s obsessed with Mindhorn and wants to speak to his hero about the crime. Somewhat reluctantly, the Manx police decide to recruit Thorncroft to recreate his most famous role in the hope of catching the killer.

Once back on the island, however, Thorncroft gets a bit distracted, seeing this more as a chance to relaunch himself than an act of civic duty. So, rather to the annoyance of his police handler (Andrea Riseborough), he sets about trying to woo back his ex-partner (Essie Davis) and hopefully bring about the launch of Mindhorn on DVD, provided he can win the support of a much more successful ex-colleague (Coogan)…

As I said, there is a sense in which Mindhorn feels very familiar – this film is certainly not outside the mainstream of British comedy cinema in recent years. Films about delusional middle-aged men becoming caught up in slightly absurd adventures have actually been pretty common – Mindhorn is especially reminiscent of the Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa (though this was perhaps inevitable given it was made by the same company), but it also has a strong whiff of the David Brent film, too. Perhaps as a result, the genuinely odd thing about Mindhorn is that it feels like a big-screen adaptation of a sitcom, even though it’s a wholly original story. There’s been a notable tradition of metatextuality in British comedy for a while now, and Mindhorn’s lovingly-detailed if rather OTT realisation of the show-within-the-movie is part of it – viewers who stay to the very end of the film are rewarded, if that’s the right word, with a fake music video from the fictional Thorncroft’s non-existent music career. I was particularly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another project built around an absurd 80s genre pastiche, and not surprised to learn that Barratt was involved in that show too.

I suppose the other distinctive thing about this film is that most of it is set in the Isle of Man. Now it’s not that the Isle of Man doesn’t show up in movies occasionally, it’s just that when it does it’s usually pretending to be somewhere else (for example, Waking Ned, where it’s supposed to be Ireland). In Mindhorn, the Isle of Man is on screen as itself (various local tourist spots are worked into the plot), but the odd thing is that this is largely bathetic. The idea of a TV show about a bionic detective isn’t as necessarily funny as that of a TV show about a bionic detective set in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man’s role in the story is to be a provincial, underwhelming backdrop (much fun is had with the supposed awfulness of the Manx Day parade), which strikes me as a rather brave move on the part of the Isle of Man film board, who were involved in making this movie, after all.

Still, none of this matters very much given that the film is genuinely funny all the way through, for all of its vague familiarity. The film is, as mentioned, lovingly detailed, with a very strong cast inhabiting its array of comic grotesques – there are a couple of celebrity cameos early on which raise a smile. As regular readers may know, I’m not a particular fan of most modern comedies – they generally don’t make me laugh, plain and simple – but there are many extremely funny bits in Mindhorn: Julian Barratt carries the film with impressive aplomb, and the script is solidly structured and cleverly plotted. On the other hand, this is clearly a film which has been made on an extremely low budget – what, the Isle of Man film board doesn’t have bottomless coffers at its disposal?! – and this does occasionally result in an unintentional sense of cheesiness.

Then again, it just adds to the charm, probably, for this is a movie which was almost certainly never intended to set the world on fire – or even the Isle of Man, probably. It’s not terribly innovative or spectacular, but it takes the business of being very knowingly stupid extremely seriously, and I did laugh a lot. And that’s ultimately what you want from a comedy film.

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All right, as you probably know, I try to avoid proper spoilers hereabouts – if I can, anyway. Every now and then, however, a film comes along which it is very difficult to talk about in any detail without risking giving the game away about its story. This is particularly the case with movies which help themselves to story ideas and concepts from other (usually low-budget) films willy-nilly, presumably in the belief that no-one will notice the steal – or nobody who matters, anyway. Joe Kosinski’s Oblivion is one such movie.

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Oblivion (the meaning of the title remains somewhat obscure in the context of the film) is not a sequel or a remake of a big-name property, nor is it a superhero or TV show adaptation. This may explain why it has slipped out ahead of the pack of big summer genre movies (summer movie season now starts in late April, apparently, which is frankly absurd), even though it stars a performer of the magnitude of Tom Cruise.

Cruise has shown an interest in science-fictional undertakings on and off for over a decade now (insert Scientology joke here if you wish) and this is his latest excursion into the genre. He plays Jack Harper, a repairman and one of the very last people on Earth. A catastrophic war with invading aliens has left virtually the entire planet a desolate ruin, and the task of Cruise and his partner Andrea Riseborough is to maintain the security drones protecting a network of power rigs generating energy for a colony of survivors on Titan.

The rigs are threatened by shadowy creatures nicknamed Scavs, with whom Cruise has various run-ins when not waxing lyrical about the good old days, being troubled by enigmatic dreams of a pre-war Earth featuring a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), or hanging about the remains of famous buildings – the Big Book of Sci Fi Cliches axiom that the more iconic a building is, the more disaster-resistant it will prove is fully in force. But then a Scav signal appears to trigger the re-entry of an ancient spacecraft, and despite being warned off by his own mission control, Cruise discovers within the hibernating form of the woman from his dreams – and she appears to recognise him…

If you are partial to SF movies, and have yourself been in stasis for the last four years, then you will probably quite like Oblivion. It looks impressive, the performances of the four leads (Morgan Freeman turns up to give proceedings some gravitas, but the nature of the plot precludes me from saying in what circumstances) are all at least solid, and for a while it seems to be riffing on ideas and images from SF movies of the early 70s with skill and insight.

That said, it’s not nearly as subtle or clever as it needs to be – a clodhopping early reference to Cruise having had his memory wiped signposts very early on that the audience is being set up for a major plot twist, and so it proves. The twist in question is effective enough, and, to be fair, it’s followed by a few more which are also decent. Oblivion is not short on cleverness – the problem is that it does have a serious shortfall of new ideas, genuine thrills, and soul, and some of the plot does strain credibility just a bit (the ending in particular is an outrageous attempt at having cake and eating it).

I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking Oblivion more than I do, because for all of this there are some genuinely great things about this film – the production design is great, the soundtrack is interesting, and Andrea Riseborough blasts everyone else off the screen, as usual. The problem is that I liked this film even more the first time I saw it, when it starred Sam Rockwell and was called Moon.

I don’t think I’m overstating things if I describe Oblivion as a gargantuanly-budgeted remake of Moon which has had various action sequences, an alien invasion, and a love story grafted onto it without a great deal of elegance. The premise, atmosphere, and even a couple of specific scenes all seem uncannily familiar. If you haven’t seen Moon, then this probably doesn’t illuminate you much – but at least I haven’t spoiled Duncan Jones’ exceedingly fine film for you. If you have, then you now have a very good idea of the direction in which Oblivion ends up going (sorry).

For me the similarities were so numerous and so glaring that they really got in the way of my enjoyment of Kosinski’s film (which, for the record, purports to be an adaptation of an unpublished graphic novel – hmmm). Others may well have a different experience, which is fair enough – there are good things going on here. But I still think that if you don’t like SF, you’re not going to warm to Oblivion simply due to the film’s premise, and if you do, its derivativeness and arguable lack of real substance isn’t going to endear it to you, either. Judging it on its own terms, this is quite possibly a better film than I’m giving it credit for – but to do so seems to me to require wilfully ignoring just what a blatant knock-off it is.

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Yes, wait no longer – it’s the news you’ve been holding your breath for: have they or have they not improved the rake in the smaller screen at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho? Well – er, no. But I have managed to find the cupholders, they’re now fixed to the back of the row in front in what, it must be said, is not a terrifically convenient position. Ah, life.

A few years ago I saw the well-received documentary Man on Wire and very much enjoyed it, and in the last few days I have been catching up with what the folk responsible have been doing. The producer’s latest offering is The Imposter, currently doing storming business in the UK (by documentary standards, anyway), while director James Marsh also has a new film out: he has returned to the world of narrative with the drama Shadow Dancer, adapted from the novel of the same name by its writer, Prince William’s Mate.

Prince William’s Mate was for some years a journalist in Northern Ireland and the film returns to the closing years of the armed conflict there to find its setting. Andrea Riseborough plays Colette McVeigh, an IRA member (though her dedication to the cause is not absolute). Sent to London to plant a bomb on the underground, she is taken by British security forces and brought to the presence of down-at-heel Five officer Mac, who’s played by the always-watchable Clive Owen. This is quite a small movie and Owen is still quite a big star, and so he qualifies to have his name at the end of the castlist, preceded by ‘and’. A similar thing happens with Gillian Anderson, who plays his boss, except she gets ‘with’.

Owen’s character has been planning this for some time and has the information and leverage he needs to persuade Colette to turn informer on her brothers and their associates, who are also all active in the IRA – this means running a deadly risk, for the Republicans are ruthless with traitors to the cause.

And, of course, if the British do anything with the information McVeigh provides, there’s always the chance she will be identified as the source – they know this, and so Mac is mystified when his superiors appear to be unforgiveably reckless with her safety. Is there a deeper game in progress? And all the time, Colette must do her best to nullify the suspicions of the IRA’s internal security…

Well, I suppose Shadow Dancer is open to the criticism that its story is a period piece – it’s startling to realise that 1993 is nearly two decades ago – and I’m not sure how universally applicable most of its themes and emotions are. This is a film rooted in a very particular time and place, after all. But it has a certain technical polish and achievement which is worthwhile in and of itself.

Chief amongst the film’s qualities is the strength of its performances – Owen is always good, Domhnall Gleeson is typically impressive in a small roll, David Wilmot plays another scary psycho and Aidan Gillen doesn’t quite get enough to do (he’s still in this more than The Dark Knight Rises, though). Ahead of all these, however, must come Andrea Riseborough, who’s rapidly acquiring a reputation to conjure with. I’ve seen Riseborough in a few films now but I still don’t have very much idea what she looks like or how she behaves or speaks: she has an extraordinary chameleonic quality and usually manages to vanish utterly into her characters. Even in a very bad film she is effortlessly impressive, in a very competent one like this she absolutely shines.

The film manages some moments of genuine tension and suspense, and is filled with nasty, telling details – cars endlessly having their undersides checked for bombs, plastic being rolled out to cover the floor prior to interrogations – but the focus on performances is significant. You could probably argue that any story coming out of Ulster in the seventies, eighties or early nineties is ultimately a horror story, but beyond this, Shadow Dancer is much more of a character-based drama than a true thriller. The tone is consistently low-key and naturalistic, and the film carefully portions out its moments of action: these are few and far between. The pace is also not what one would expect from what’s being advertised as a spy movie.

But, having said that, the film is mostly successful: I found the dubious shenanigans going on within MI5 rather familiar, in atmosphere if not specifics, and certainly less engrossing than the depiction of life within the Republican community. This has a rather oppressively claustrophobic quality, but is nonetheless convincing all the same. Despite this, the film never really comes to life as an actual thriller, but its need to obey thriller conventions means that the drama feels like it’s being led around by the nose towards the end. I found the actual conclusion vaguely dissatisfying, in that the characters who genuinely appear to suffer in the denouement are the ones who least deserve to, but then again this is hardly unrealistic, especially in this situation. A more concerted attempt to genuinely give the audience some excitement might have resulted in a much more memorable movie – but as it stands, Shadow Dancer‘s insistence on being first and foremost a naturalistic character drama does not necessarily work to its best advantage.

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‘I directed [my first film] to teach myself about filmmaking… And now, with this self-punishing process of being a producer and a writer and a director, I’m taking the next step.’ – Madonna

And if only the punishment had stopped there. But I am getting ahead of myself. Yes, every once in a while a film sneaks past me on its cinema release, usually due to quirks of scheduling or there simply not being enough hours in the day. Even though I have a probably-unhealthy interest in Bad Movies, I do try to exercise common sense in choosing what to see, which is why I skipped seeing Her Madgesty’s movie W.E. on its opening weekend in favour of – I suspect – either Coriolanus or The Descendants. Had it had a second weekend, I would probably have gone to see it then. But it didn’t: this movie only lasted a week in UK cinemas. Lawks!

Directed, co-written, and co-produced by Madonna, W.E. reveals that the singer and arch-provocateur is capable of stunning work with the instruments of cinema. I should put that in context by adding that this is in the same sense that being cracked round the head by Madonna with a frying pan would reveal she is capable of stunning work with the instruments of short-order cooking, i.e. this film is stunning in the sense of being ‘liable to cause confusion, bewilderment, or loss of consciousness’.

The very easy-on-the-eye Abbie Cornish plays Wally Winthrop, an unhappily married young woman living in New York in 1998. She comes from a long line of women fascinated with the life of Wallis Simpson, the divorced American woman who was instrumental in causing both the Abdication Crisis of 1936 and The Great King’s Speech Awards Hoovering of 2011. Wally’s interest in Wallis starts to become obsessive and the film cuts back and forth between Wallis’s relationship with Prince Edward (played by James D’Arcy) and a somewhat less momentous coming together of Wally with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac).

Madonna is clearly not a woman much troubled with self-doubt and perhaps it makes a certain kind of sense for her to be responsible for a film about a woman who was simultaneously widely reviled and yet somewhat iconic – an iconoclast, a threat to the establishment, passionate and yet – the film proposes – deeply vulnerable. But I also got a strange sense that what Madonna perhaps really wanted to do was make a movie about Princess Di, an arguably-similar figure – for instance, Mohammed al-Fayed  appears in this film as a character – but nobody would give her the backing.

At least a Princess Di movie wouldn’t have a central character with such a public image problem. The movie does accept that Wallis Simpson is one of the most disdained figures in recent history, but it seems to quite seriously argue that both she and the Duke of Windsor were actually dashing, romantic figures, politically engaged, and that they were rejected by a fearful and reactionary British Establishment. Not content with having Wallis as a sympathetic protagonist, the movie really goes for broke by presenting the Queen Mum – the dear old, lovely old, gawd-bless-yer-ma’am Queen Mum – as a vicious, passive-aggressive, imperialist harpy and George VI as an ineffectual weakling (Helena Bonham-Carter and Colin Firth, you may not be surprised to learn, do not reprise these roles).

Now I suppose it may be the case that Wallis and Edward have been on the wrong end of decades of systematic, institutionalised libel on the part of the British Establishment, and that there may indeed be a good film to be made, telling the story from their point of view (though beating the ‘Nazi sympathiser’ rap will always be a big ask). However, this is not that film. This film is a mess.

This movie does not look cheap and contains a number of impressive performances, particularly Riseborough’s. And it is by no means technically inept in terms of the actual sound, visuals, or editing (that said, to describe the script as somewhat artless is perhaps being rather charitable).

I’ve been racking my brains trying to find a way to describe Madonna’s directorial style. Here goes: it’s like having a conversation with someone whose English is not particularly advanced, but who has mastered at least the basics. However, this person has spent ages reading books on advanced idioms and slang and committed many of them to memory, and insists on wheeling them out regardless of whether or not they’re appropriate to the tone or real meaning of what they’re trying to say. In other words, Madonna is always doing something complicated and eyecatching with the camera or editing, without apparently giving any thought to how well it serves her story. She’s very fond of sweeping montages driven along by the soundtrack, almost like – and who’d have guessed it – a pop video. Sometimes she steals quirky touches from elsewhere – one of the more startling sequences, in which the Duke and Duchess get their party guests high on benzedrine before dancing the Charleston to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’, struck me as suspiciously similar to a scene in the equally-dubious biopic Marie Antoinette.

She is perhaps a bit more restrained in the 1990s section of the film, but the combination of the plot, the bland affluence of the main characters’ lifestyle, and many scenes of Cornish making use of her extensive and varied collection of expensive lingerie just put me in mind of highbrow soft-core pornography with all the actual rumpy-pumpy edited out. But then again, soft-core porno doesn’t usually have W.E.‘s solemn fascination with the depiction of domestic violence in rather a lot of detail. It’s never really clear what purpose this whole strand of the film serves – as it stands, it just makes the whole enterprise rather more absurd.

And, more than anything else, this is a film which is actively dull to watch. Neither of the romances ever ignites, none of the characters is engaging, and the script’s revisionist view of Simpson as a tragic, misunderstood proto-feminist icon is never remotely convincing. Everything just staggers along, with moments and scenes only memorable for all the wrong reasons. Seldom does a film set such an overt agenda for itself and then so comprehensively fail to meet any of its targets. I never thought I would say this, but I would encourage Madonna to stick to acting in future.

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Head for the hills! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, yet another movie bearing the ghastly imprimatur of the UK Film Council (of ‘utter crap’ and ‘makes you want to gouge your own eyes out’ fame) hits the screen. Come to think of it, now The King’s Speech (also a UKFC job) has been nominated for about 400 awards I may have to stop being snippy about it. Bother. And Ben Affleck’s credible again nowadays, too. What the hell am I going to make cheap gibes about from now on?

Oh well. The film in question is another period drama, Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Brighton Rock. This, as you must surely know, is a classic novel about good and evil and guilt and innocence, written by Graham Greene and originally published in 1938.

Joffe’s film updates the story to 1964, when the south coast was being terrorised by roving gangs of mods and rockers. The basic plot remains the same, however, as teenage headcase Pinkie (Sam Riley, in the role that made Richard Attenborough’s name) seizes control of an adult criminal gang following the killing of its leader. He murders Hale, the man responsible for the first death, but teenage waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough) can potentially link him to the crime – and so Pinkie sets about manipulating the girl’s emotions and the infatuation she feels for him in order to secure his own survival. Meanwhile, a friend of Hale’s, Ida (Helen Mirren) has set about bringing his killer to justice in her own way…

Well, first things first, and this isn’t actually what you’d call a bad film. It looks very convincing in a dreadful, crumbling sort of way, and there are great performances from the cast. Sam Riley is magnetic – kudos to the guy for even daring to follow in Lord Dickie’s footsteps – and Andrea Riseborough is also very good in a tough role – Rose is so weak and delusional and gullible, and, well, just plain wet, that it would have been very easy for her to become actively annoying. To Riseborough’s credit, she never does. The more senior members of the cast – including Phil Davis, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis – are also fine, and Joffe’s direction also has moments of inspiration.

That said, the reasons behind the decision to bring the story forward to 1964 seem a little obscure to me. It can’t be solely a budgetary thing, nor can it be to make the story more accessible to a modern audience – it’s still set 47 years ago. The inclusion of the mods and rockers material doesn’t seem to inform the story much – this is too personal and internal a story for that. It doesn’t actually harm the film, but it doesn’t help it in any way. The same could be said for the rather large amounts of blood and what my uncle likes to refer to as effing and jeffing – this must be rather close to the top end of the 15-band, not that it makes much difference.

At this point I’m going to be a little more specific about the story of Brighton Rock, both this film version, the famous 1948 one, and the novel, so, you know – look away if you don’t want to get spoiled. As you might expect, a number of changes have been made – John Hurt’s character is rather more prominent than in the book, for instance. Rather more fundamental than this are the changes affecting Ida Arnold. In the book, Hale isn’t a gangster himself, and not directly responsible for killing Pinkie’s mentor – he’s a loser, but sympathetic in a way that the new film’s version of the character isn’t (he may only stick a knife in someone’s throat by accident, but he was still actively looking to carve the guy up). As a result Ida arguably seems to set out on a crusade for justice for a man who may not really deserve it.

The book is also about the contrast between Pinkie, who’s a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a vicious murderer, and Ida, who doesn’t have any particular belief system but an overpowering sense of right and wrong: she is a woman who fully enjoys pleasures of all kinds, a woman of easy virtue. Greene seems to depict her as an almost pagan, Earth-mother character (his initial description of her repeatedly refers to the size and apparent amiability of her breasts, which has sort of coloured my view of the character ever since). In the film she’s a rather more establishment, conventional figure (so to speak), less distinctive and memorable as a result, and there are almost shades of Miss Marple in the way Helen Mirren plays her. She only begins to resemble the book’s version of Ida in the closing scenes, by which time it seems oddly out-of-character.

You can’t really do a Graham Greene adaptation without keeping the Roman Catholicism in, of course, but it isn’t much more than colour here. Taking its place is… um, not a huge amount of anything, to be honest. The story rolls along in its own rather grim fashion – this is the kind of film where people have awkward, unsatisfying sex in grotty rooms heated only by three-bar electric fires – and it’s never actually boring. Some of the alterations made for the 1948 version are retained here, most obviously the final moments. (On the other hand, the role played by William Hartnell in the first film has been given to Nonso Anozie – given some of Hartnell’s well-documented issues with some ethnic groups, anyone living near the actor’s grave may be able to pop round and use him as a lathe.)

As I said, Brighton Rock isn’t what you’d actually call a bad film, and there are some good things within it. But the strong performances and powerful atmosphere can’t quite make up for a script which never gets into the heart of Greene’s story to bring it to life. This is by no means the worst thing the UKFC ever produced (thank God), but neither is it especially memorable.

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