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Posts Tagged ‘Dominic Cooke’

Dominic Cooke’s The Courier doesn’t have a fridge title, just an uninspired one (it played at the  Sundance Festival under its original title of Ironbark, which is at least a little more distinctive). This is a movie which came out in the Land of Uncle US of Stateside nearly six months ago but is only just getting a domestic British release. Quite what the reason for the big lag is, I’m not sure; possibly the makers think this movie has a better chance of succeeding theatrically in the UK, given its subject matter and star – they may even have a point.

This starts off looking like a very traditional, drab and naturalistic espionage thriller, although an opening caption establishes that we are in that even more tenuous and shadowy world of movies theoretically based on true events. It is 1960 and tensions between the superpowers are mounting, reaching the point where senior military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides that the only way to save his country is to betray it, by sharing classified information with the western powers.

Penkovsky’s initial contact is with the CIA, but they are having difficulties in mounting operations in Moscow and request help from MI6 in handling the Penkovsky case (his codename is Ironbark). To allay suspicions they decide to use a civilian as a go-between, and settle upon middle-aged businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne is an unexceptional chap, mainly notable for his great emollience and clubbability, and when he eventually figures out he’s being recruited by a couple of spooks his response is one of alarm more than anything else. Somehow they manage to talk him into it nevertheless.

Initially unsure of himself, Wynne nevertheless warms to his work, not least because of the growing warmth developing between him and Penkovsky. This is despite the lack of enthusiasm of his wife (Jessie Buckley), who is unaware of what’s really going on and starts to suspect Wynne has personal (and rather ignoble) reasons for all these foreign trips. But the KGB soon begin to suspect that there may be a leak somewhere in Moscow, and the question becomes one of whether the agencies can extract Penkovsky before he is rumbled…

As I say, theoretically based on true events – although even while you’re watching The Courier you find yourself noticing just how slickly the story told by the film hits the well-established beats of classic story structure: inciting incident, character arc moments, midpoint turn, stakes-raising, and so on. Normally I would suggest this is just another case of creative caution blanding out a movie, but perhaps not on this occasion – for the film departs quite radically from the traditional structure in its closing section (spoilers concerning the Wynne-Penkovsky affair are widely available, not least in history books). Maybe the conventionality of most of the movie is an attempt to wrong-foot the audience, but I’m not entirely convinced about this – it doesn’t feel as if the makers of The Courier are interested in operating on such a sophisticated, self-conscious level.

Instead, the film is much more of a meat-and-potatoes hats-and-fags period drama for most of its duration, the kind of film which the British film industry is simply very good at (they get a lot of practice, after all). All the costuming, set design, and direction is competent and familiar-feeling, and the performances are, in general, decent or better (some of them are very good indeed). The only thing that really distinguishes it is the strikingly bleak and powerful final act. Cumberbatch is good throughout, but here he really gets to shine, while Buckley – saddled with the less than plum stock part of The Wife for most of the movie – also gets to show more of what she’s actually capable of. (Angus Wright plays the stuffy old chief MI6 handler and Rachel Brosnahan his younger and more human American opposite number – needless to say the script favours the Americans.)

The climax is by far the most memorable part of the film, and probably the most accomplished too, but it’s understandable that it and the material leading up to it makes up only a relatively small part of the film – powerful it may be, but it’s also probably downbeat to the point of being profoundly uncommercial.

I’m assuming that the makers of The Courier think the movie has a reasonable chance of commercial success – with someone like Cumberbatch on board, on this kind of form, this would normally be a fair assumption. (They would hardly have made the film otherwise.) And yet I wonder about its chances of cutting through and making an impression – the publicity for it doesn’t do a great job of making it distinctive from many other hats-and-fags period thrillers of the last decade or so, and it’s not as if the story of Wynne and Penkovsky is likely to be all that familiar to anyone under the age of seventy. It’s not a bad movie at all, but nor is it really a big one or one which is likely to make a huge impression.

I suppose this is a shame, because if nothing else the film is a decent reminder of events of the past. But is this enough? What I mean is that the objective of the film (beyond making its budget back) is somewhat obscure: maybe it is just a tribute to Wynne and Penkovsky, if only because its implicit criticisms of the authoritarian Soviet system, though clearly sincere, hardly relate to a live issue (making parallels between the current Russian regime, compromised and brutal though it is, and the horrors of the USSR seems to me to be rather facile). I expect one could argue that the film is really a reminder of the forgotten human cost of historical events. There’s a shot in the film which rather put me in mind of one from Hitchcock’s Frenzy – an ordinary door closes, and the camera quietly retreats from it as everyday life quietly encroaches from both sides of the screen. What’s going on behind the door is left unrevealed and unelaborated upon – but it is the long tail of history, the people involved trying to come to terms with what they have been mixed up in, not the stuff of newspapers or history books but unrecorded life. It’s a striking moment, but most of the film is less contemplative. The Courier tells an important story and just about does it justice, but doesn’t find a way of operating on a high enough level to do more than be a competent and not especially memorable movie.

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In my line of work, you may occasionally find yourself having to teach opposites, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. The opposite of ‘long’ is easy; it’s ‘short’. The opposite of ‘difficult’ – well, that’s easy, too. But what about ‘light’? Is it ‘dark’ or ‘heavy’? Or is it both? What about ‘strong’?

Long-term readers may recall my occasional amusement at some of the prefatory guidance provided by the British censor on their certifications, and it seems I am not alone in this. ‘Contains strong sex and sexual content’ ran the blurb ahead of Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, which I saw a matinee showing of at Oxford’s best-mannered cinema. The audience there looked so respectable and well-brought-up I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of them had actually read Ian McEwan’s novella, upon which it is based. Nevertheless, someone at the back said, just a bit too loudly, ‘Strong sex? As opposed to what, weak sex?’

Well, many a true word spoken in attempted jest, for weak sex is in a sense what On Chesil Beach is about, not that it initially shows much sign of this. Perhaps this is really the point. The film opens in 1962, with the arrival on the eponymous UNESCO world heritage site of a young couple, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). They are newlyweds, and both clearly nervous, aware of the significance of their first night together as a married couple, and – outwardly at least – keen to discharge their responsibilities to each other.

Through an extended series of flashbacks, the film sketches in their backgrounds and history – Florence is a musician, from quite a posh background: her mother and father are ferociously Tory and perhaps incline somewhat towards a tough parenting style. Edward, a historian, is from a slightly more humble background, his life somewhat defined by the fact his mother has been prone to rather eccentric behaviour since she was hit in the head by a train. They are clearly utterly in love with one another.

However, this being 1962, with the permissive society still to really get going, Edward and Florence really don’t have much idea about what comes next. From the beginning one is instantly struck by the sense that these are two people playing roles, going through the motions simply because they believe it is what expected of them. It is sort of funny, sort of sad; you really do feel for them. But then it becomes simply rather excruciating to watch two people, at considerable length and in considerable detail, fail to have sex, especially because you can tell this is all they really want to do, and this failure is clearly going to have consequences.

On Chesil Beach starts off by looking like the kind of well-heeled period literary adaptation which we produce on a fairly regular basis here in the UK – the cinematography is beautiful, the recreation of Oxford around 1960 is superbly done. This is initially presented as a kind of halcyon era – there is warm beer and cricket matches, people wandering about on Christchurch Meadow, catching steam trains (when not being hit in the head by them), and so on. And there is the kind of very strong cast you would expect for this kind of film. Saoirse Ronan is the big draw, obviously, but she is matched step for step by Billy Howle, and there is an excellent supporting cast – principally, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West.

It initially seems like this is to be a forensic, not unsympathetic depiction of the mores of the period, which seems like an unimaginably distant and different one: Florence has no idea who Chuck Berry is, but upon hearing one of his songs on the radio decides it sounds ‘merry’. The class tension between Edward and Florence’s parents, in particular, is also sharply drawn. There are moments of comedy as well as drama, with the two subtly shading into one another – West’s performance as Florence’s absurdly driven father would certainly qualify as a brilliant comic miniature, were it not for the fact that there are definite hints of genuine darkness in his history.

And then – well, it is difficult to say much without spoiling what seems to me to be one of the best films of the year so far. Things do not go according to plan, someone quite possibly overreacts, decisions are made that cannot be unmade. There is a sense in which the film is obviously suggesting that this is all the result of the kind of repressed society where young people are forced to educate themselves in matters amatory, but it never feels like it is pointing a finger or apportioning blame. Everyone is shaped by their background, after all, whether they decide to adopt the role expected of them or rebel against it; no-one is really wholly self-made. And yet the film’s sense of sadness is overwhelming as it progresses; what looks like it may simply be another one of those somewhat bleak films about British people being bad in bed ultimately turns into a crushingly tragic story, made all the more so because there is so little to suggest this as the film begins.

This is a product of the BBC’s film division, and many people might say that one of the distinguishing features of a BBC movie is the fact that it seems very much at home on the small screen – that BBC Films productions are frequently just a bit too genteel and not really cinematic enough to fully satisfy. Well, I would say this one is a bit different – most obviously, it has two marvellous performances from Ronan and Howle, both of whom appear to be carved from solid star quality, but Cooke’s direction has a style and ambition about it which is very much at home on the big screen. The creation of a nostalgic picture-postcard world is finely achieved, as is the moment where our departure from it is signalled by the sudden intrusion into the soundtrack of the growling opening riff from T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy, signalling a jump forward in time of many years. There is also something beautifully simple and symbolic about the closing shot of the film, the camera constantly pulling back to keep the two characters involved at the edges of the screen as they move inexorably away from each other.

As I say, On Chesil Beach is hardly a cheery film, but it is one of the highest quality on pretty much every level. I had heard good things about it, but I did not expect it to move me so profoundly in the way it did. Not the kind of entertainment you walk home from whistling, but there’s a reason why people listen to sad songs, too – this is a deeply humane and beautifully-made film, well worth watching.

 

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