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Posts Tagged ‘Carey Mulligan’

As you may have noticed, I like dodgy old horror films and Japanese monster movies. You may not. This doesn’t mean either of us is weird: it just means we are different people. However, what it does mean is that I am more likely to say kind things about a dodgy old horror film or Japanese monster movie than you are, and you should probably bear that in mind when thinking about asking me for film recommendations.

I mention this because every now and then a film comes along which gets favourable reviews and a bit of a buzz about it, and which a lot of people seem to really like – and when I eventually get around to seeing it, it really doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s moments like these which lead one to have a sort of nano-existential crisis about the whole reason for and value of writing about films on the internet: is this supposed to be some kind of useful semi-objective assessment of whether something is worth watching? Or just a string of feeble jokes and clever-sounding observations meant primarily to divert and entertain, with an acquaintance with the actual film strictly optional?

Bearing all this in mind, you can probably have a fair guess at which way this is going to go, but so be it: under discussion today is Simon Stone’s The Dig. (I’ve been trying to avoid reviewing too many Netflix movies hereabouts, but what the hell: one every now and then isn’t going to do too much harm.) The title is very much from the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin school of nomenclature, but perhaps there are hidden depths to be (ahem) excavated.

The movie opens with Ralph Fiennes making a journey by rowing boat, carrying a bicycle: this is at least easier than doing it the other way round. It turns out Fiennes is playing auto-didact archaeologist Basil Brown (not much like Indiana Jones, but they do have vaguely similar hats). The year is 1939 and Brown is off to see a potential new employer.

This person is Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner in a damp part of Sussex. Pretty is played by Carey Mulligan. There has been a lot of fuss about what constitutes fair criticism of a Carey Mulligan performance recently, so I fear that if I suggest that her main role in this film is basically to be rather like Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley, but (one would assume) for less money, I may be taking my life in my hands. It’s probably too late to worry about this now, though.

Mrs Pretty is keen for Basil Brown to examine her mounds. (Don’t tut: the film itself uses almost exactly the same gag.) She has several of these on her land, and she, and the local archaeological establishment, think they may possibly date back to the Viking period. Basil thinks they may be even older, and once they have come to terms (the princely sum of £2 a week changes hands) he gets busy with his spade.

Well, at the risk of spoiling the history of British archaeology for you, one of the mounds turns out to have the Sutton Hoo National Trust site hidden inside it. This is big news, and gets the top boys from the British Museum in rather a lather. But can they conclude the excavation of the site and its treasures before war breaks out and this turns into yet another war movie about Plucky Britain Standing Alone?

My own excavations of the history of The Dig have revealed that, for a while during its development (this is another film which has been over a decade in the works) it was going to be a BBC Films production. This did not greatly surprise me, because it’s the kind of thing that BBC Films considers a good fit for them: period setting, true-story angle, reasonably meaty parts for respectable actors, and so on. It’s what I tend to refer to as a hats-and-fags movies, by which I mean that the historical setting is primarily evoked by the fact that everyone wears some sort of titfer and tends to have a ciggie on the go at all times.

And, obviously, it achieves all the minimal competencies in this area. Beyond that, however – well, at the risk of descending into cliché, it really seemed to me to be a film of two halves, one of which was rather more interesting and original than the other.

The first part of the film is – how can I put this? – quiet and still, more about atmosphere and figures in a landscape than anything else. Music plays gently as the characters contemplate the land and its history: the reassuring certainties of the past are implicitly contrasted with an unknown but turbulent-looking future (perhaps it’s no surprise that this film has struck a chord with audiences in Britain, at least). Mulligan and Fiennes are basically front and centre throughout, and the film is as much about what they don’t say to each other as what they do – in parts it almost resembles a big-budget gender-tweaked version of Ted and Ralph, with Mulligan playing Charlie Higson’s part.

Then, rather earlier than I expected, the secret of the mounds is revealed and the film undergoes an abrupt mid-point change-of-gear: a lot of new characters descend, played by the likes of Lily James, Johnny Flynn and Ken Stott, and all that lovely stillness and thoughtfulness is largely dispelled. Those old standbys of the British costume drama, class and repressed emotion, take up major roles in driving the plot: the brilliant but working class Basil Brown is disparaged and patronised as the authorities try to take the site off him, someone else turns out to have a photogenic chronic medical condition, an unappreciated young wife (her husband is possibly implied to be gay) engages in a destined-not-to-be romance with a character with no historical basis, and so on.

I mean, it’s not awfully done, but at the same time it is very generic stuff, no matter how well-played it is. It’s almost as though the film-makers struggled along for as long as they could, trying to make something distinctive and atmospheric, touching on genuine ideas, but then they cracked under the strain and resorted to a lot of bits and pieces of plot which don’t seem to have any particular focus, and honestly feel a bit soap-opera-ish.

And yet, on the other hand, lots of people like this kind of thing, which is why British period drama films are such a fixture of the schedule (and the Downton Abbey movie made £200 million). So perhaps I shouldn’t gripe too loudly: this is, in a sense, a genre movie, and it’s silly to complain about a genre movie featuring the tropes of its own genre. If you like this kind of thing, you will probably enjoy The Dig – it looks nice, the story hangs together, and the acting is good. But it did seem to me that, by the end, history and archaeology in general, and Sutton Hoo in particular, had largely been forgotten about, and I thought that was a shame.

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And now, a franchise movie with a difference. I have an unfortunate tendency to be cynical and were I to give this part of myself free rein, I would probably end up saying things like ‘the first whiff of awards season is in the air, for they have started to release classy and serious films about how horrible everything was in the past’. There’s nothing like misery in painstakingly researched frocks to grab the attention of the average gong panel.

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Occasioning this sort of disreputable thinking is Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which concerns itself with the various travails of the members of the women’s suffrage movement in the Edwardian era. While various historical figures make an appearance in the course of the film, the audience’s point of identification is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife, mother, and factory worker who finds herself drawn into the orbit of the suffragettes almost by accident. When the government is perceived to have reneged on a promise to extend voting rights to women, the struggle turns both vicious and violent, and – inevitably – Maud has to decide whether she’s serious about her commitment to the cause. Needless to say, this comes at no small cost to her, but it seems that sacrifice is part of the process…

Now, as a regular UK cinemagoer it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when people start applauding at the end of a film – it’s usually a sign that we’ve just watched something fairly exceptional. Suffragette got a round of applause at the (very busy) screening I attended, and I have to say I was slightly surprised. It may just be that this particular cinema is very popular with politically-engaged types and they were just showing support for the film’s theme and message, which is unexceptionable, rather than its execution, which is not, if we’re honest, particularly distinctive.

Make no mistake, this is a movie which has all the usual British costume drama virtues in spades – Edwardian London is beautifully staged, and there is a fine cast, mostly made up of the usual suspects for this kind of film – Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Romola Garai, and so on. It kind of goes against the grain of the film to say this, but I thought the most impressive performance was from Brendan Gleeson, playing the tough cop assigned to shutting down the suffragettes. Gleeson manages to take this character and make him, if not actually sympathetic, then at least a recognisable human being, unlike every other male character (even Ben Whishaw – at the start of a busy month for him – comes across as rather contemptible by the time the film ends). But then I am always partial to a bit of Brendan Gleeson.

Prominent though she is in the publicity material (presumably to assist with marketing this movie in the States), Meryl Streep is not actually in the movie that much, contributing little more than a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst herself. It’s by no means a bad performance, but Streep doesn’t get a lot to work with, and it is a little disconcerting that the magic of cinema means that Emmeline Pankhurst looks uncannily like Margaret Thatcher.

So, fans of a certain flavour of British cinema will find themselves more or less in their comfort zone, although personally I found Gavron’s fondness for shaky-cam distracting rather than involving (the nausea-inducing effect of this may have been exacerbated by the fact I was watching the film on a huge screen from practically the front row of the cinema, of course). There are signs of the film-makers attempting to make something a bit more edgy and committed, however, of which the wobbly camerawork is just one sign. Certainly the BBFC advisory warning ‘contains scenes of force feeding’ is not one usually found on your typical Jane Austen adaptation.

This is just one example of the unremittingly horrible time that Mulligan’s character has in the course of the movie – she is patronised, belittled, clobbered, arrested, imprisoned, forcibly stripped (calm down gents, there’s nothing to see), thrown out by her husband, blackmailed, has her son taken from her, arrested again, force fed… the list goes ever on and on. I suppose it is just about possible that all this stuff happened to one person, but in the context of the film it all seems a bit manipulative and contrived, as though the struggle for the vote wasn’t a worthy enough cause in and of itself, and this has to be the story of someone who really and properly goes through the mill.

It’s not even as if the film concludes with everyone happily trooping off to the ballot box – the film climaxes shortly after Derby Day 1913 (you will either know the historical significance of this or you won’t), with the actual vote not going to women until 1918 (but hey, it was still over half a century before Switzerland). What’s missing is recognition of the important impact that the First World War had on British society and culture, part of which was the empowerment of women. But that would perhaps have made for too big and complex a story. (I suppose the same reasoning explains why the film is arguably conflating the suffragette cause with the socialist movement, as someone I saw the film with suggested was the case: the core of the suffragette movement was made up of women much more middle-class than Mulligan’s character.)

This is by no means a bad film and it does shed light on an important moment in our modern history, doing so with sincerity and no small degree of skill. But it’s almost as though the film-makers don’t trust the audience to be interested in the story on its own merits, which is why this film is arguably more simplistic and manipulative than it really needed to be. Still very watchable if you like this sort of thing, though.

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Would it be a truism or merely trite to suggest that one of the worst ways possible to make someone appreciate a book is to force them to study it? I suspect many people would agree; many friends of mine were undoubtedly put off To Kill A Mockingbird for life after studying it at GCSE. In my own case, though, I don’t know – while it took me over a decade to go back to Pride and Prejudice after being obliged to read it at A level, I’ve always enjoyed Chaucer and was always able to appreciate the remarkable quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To this day I can still bang on at tedious length about the themes and imagery of this novel, and the prospect of seeing what Baz Luhrmann could do with (or possibly to) the story was an intriguing one.

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Set in New York in the early 20s, this is a tale of obsession, excess, and corruption amongst the monied folk of the city. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is new to the area, and really the only people he knows socially are his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). One other person he is aware of, however, is the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the immensely wealthy host of lavish parties at the mansion next door to Nick’s house. When Gatsby becomes aware of Nick, things change for everyone: Gatsby and Daisy have what is delicately known as a Past, and he is desperate to resume their relationship…

Baz Luhrmann isn’t exactly what you’d call a prolific film-maker – this is only his second project since 2001’s Moulin Rouge (one of the very first films I ever rambled on about on t’Internet). However, while Luhrmann may not make many films, the ones he does turn out are super-concentrated stuff: visuals, sound, editing and performances are all usually cranked up to startling levels of intensity. For this reason I find his films to be a bit of a change of pace, and occasionally an indigestible one: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more work making music videos and commercials, because his style is perfect for this sort of short form. Two hours plus of crash zooms, colour saturation, musical iconoclasm and restless camera pans, on the other hand, just leave me feeling somewhat embattled.

Possibly out of a sense of responsibility to Fitzgerald’s thoughtful text, Luhrmann manages to restrain himself at least some of the time on this occasion, but one is still left with an almost irresistible sense that in the making of this film, the interplay of sound and visuals was always the prime consideration, with the actual script being of only secondary importance. This is not to say that there aren’t some startlingly effective moments scattered throughout the film, but they feel like they’ve been inserted into the story from outside rather than naturally arising from within it. The Great Gatsby is a restrained, mostly internalised story, and Luhrmann has had to work quite hard to find ways to insert his idiosyncratic visual energy into it.

Which is not to say he’s taken particularly great liberties with the story: in fact, his additions to it seem atypically restrained. There’s a framing device in which Nick, now morbidly alcoholic, is recounting the events of the story as a form of therapy, but this is really it so far as I can remember. More conspicuous is the way in which the story has been subtly trimmed and reshaped so it now focuses almost entirely on the Gatsby-Daisy romance. DiCaprio, admittedly, does not make an appearance for quite a long while, but the mystery of his character is at the centre of the story nevertheless. And once he departs from the plot, Luhrmann wraps up the film with almost indecent haste, jettisoning some of the book’s most poignant moments in the process. The main consequence of this is that the character of Jordan is much reduced in significance, and her relationship with Nick almost totally excised. As a result Nick seems even more of a passive onlooker, and Maguire struggles to make the character particularly endearing.

This is not to say that the acting in this film is sub-par: Joel Edgerton is very good, as is DiCaprio – most of the time at least. Certainly, nobody is what you’d call actively bad. The problem is that at least some of the time, everyone is being obliterated by the art direction and sound design, which swamp the subtleties and paradoxes of the story and reduce it to a succession of lavish, frenetic tableaux. The human story and emotions just aren’t there when you need them to be, and the result is a film which is polished and intricate, but ultimately hollow. Given that two of the key themes of The Great Gatsby are the contrast between appearance and reality, and the perils of superficiality, for Luhrmann to have made such a superficial adaptation of it is actually quite ironic: whether this is the sort of irony F Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated is another matter.

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If you watched Never Let Me Go without captions and with the sound turned down, you’d have no idea of the kind of film it is. (There’s no reason why you’d want to, but still.) The trailer was deliberately circumspect about the narrative territory this film inhabits, too. My parents were thinking about going to see it, assuming it was another very well-mannered romantic drama about young people coming of age and getting to grips with adult emotions.
 
 

Well, to some extent that’s true, but only marginally. Even my own oversensitive antennae only detected the barest of hints from the advertising as to what this film is, but the fact that the novel it’s based on (written by Kazuo Ishiguro) was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award as well as the Booker Prize will no doubt tip you off: Never Let Me Go is an SF movie, and quite possibly the best in years.

It’s understandable why the film-makers have done their best to bury this fact: the expectations of the standard SF blockbuster crowd would be grievously disappointed by a movie totally bereft of aliens, spacecraft, robots, laser guns, psychic powers and time machines, while the mainstream audience would stay away in droves because of exactly the same expectations. Nevertheless, no serious definition of the genre could exclude this film.

Having said that, the science in Never Let Me Go is extremely nebulous: the story occurs in an alternative history where medical science made an unspecified breakthrough in the 1950s, resulting in a massive increase in longevity. The ramifications of this are not immediately made apparent, but we are introduced to them through the lives of three children, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. At first they seem to be simply pupils at a rather odd private school in 1978 – they and all the other pupils have been conditioned to never, ever leave the grounds and to take great pains in looking after themselves. They wear odd bracelets that track their location. A delivery of second-hand toys is a great event.

The truth eventually emerges for us and them: the defeat of cancer and other diseases, and the increase in longevity, has created an enormous and ceaseless demand for donor organs. All the pupils at the school are clones, not legally human, being raised until the day comes when their own organs can be harvested for the benefit of people in the outside world.

This is not an especially new idea – something similar formed the basis of Michael Bay’s 2005 flop, The Island, while I myself prefer Michael Marshall Smith’s short story on this theme, To Receive is Better (last words: ‘I’m having a few things back.’). But what makes Never Let Me Go a compelling and powerful film is its treatment of it. This is not a loud or brash or openly manipulative film, nor do the characters respond in the ways we’d expect.

They have grown up in this world and become desensitised to the relentless (and to us, almost inconceivable) horror that underpins every moment of their existence. None of them ever considers trying to avoid the ghastly fate their entire lives have been leading towards. The most anyone hopes for is to defer the moment their donations begin, and to this end they take solace in rumours that such a thing is possible: that a couple who truly love each other will be granted a few extra years of life.

As you may be able to discern, this is a story rich in potential metaphor, which the film presents as understatedly as anything else. Its power – which is considerable – comes from the tension between the ordinariness of the images on the screen and the terrible nature of the film’s world. (The question inevitably arises: how desensitised have we ourselves become? What atrocities do we turn a blind eye to, for our own benefit?) As a result, the wider world of the movie stays out of focus, even though it must surely bear only the most superficial of resemblances to our own. I expect this is fruitful territory for anyone who would dismiss the film on the grounds of implausibility. I’m not sure. I think this film is worryingly plausible in many ways.

In any case, the focus is on the relationships between the trio as they make sense of what and who they are, and come to terms with the moment of ‘completion’. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley play the three leads as adults, and they are all superb. Mulligan has the toughest gig, as a character who’s naturally quite passive and accepting, but remains effortlessly watchable throughout. This may be one of our last chances to enjoy Andrew Garfield’s English accent for the next few years – in any case, he’s almost unrecognisable from The Social Network. Knightley manages to remain somewhat sympathetic, even though Ruth isn’t an especially nice person. No-one else in the cast really gets much to do, though Charlotte Rampling is good as the headmistress of the school: someone who, though sympathetic to the children’s situation, still only really thinks of them as ‘nearly human’. Mark Romanek’s direction is effectively invisible, which I mean as a very definite compliment.

The smoke and mirrors with the way this film has been pitched to audiences doesn’t seem to have quite paid off: it’s hanging in there in theatres, but it doesn’t have the buzz around it that certain other films seem to have acquired, nor indeed the critical plaudits. Never Let Me Go may be too understated, too restrained, for many people’s taste, but to me it seemed virtually perfect and deeply, deeply moving. I use the word unmissable very rarely, but I’m going to use it here: never mind what genre it belongs to, this is a brilliant, unmissable film.

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