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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Everyone has their blind spots and I’m afraid that one of mine is the work of David Lynch, pretty much: now that I think about it, it may not so much be the case that I don’t like his films as much as my just not feeling any desire to watch them. Until recently the only ones I’d actually seen were The Elephant Man and Dune; the former is – it seems to me – a classy but essentially conflicted movie, while the latter is a watchable train-wreck of a film. I should say that I started watching Twin Peaks when it first came on in 1990, but I bailed out very early on – a few minutes into the first episode, in fact. I can’t quite remember why – there was a kind of measured intensity to scenes in which virtually nothing seemed to be happening which I found quite uncomfortable to watch.

However, my co-spousal unit is a) very interested in senior citizens and films dealing with them and b) always glad of a break from horror and exploitation movies, so when Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story came on the telly not long ago I made a point of recording it for her. This is famously the ‘nice’ David Lynch film – apparently many industry figures were shocked and mystified by the fact that the film was not shocking or mystifying. (This little bit of paradoxy alone is enough to make me well-disposed towards the film.)

Lynch sets out his stall very early on in the film with various sweeping aerial shots of the agricultural heartlands of the United States, golden fields of corn waving in the sun, etc. We are in for some max strength Americana in this movie, clearly, although it takes an unusual form: the form of Iowa-dwelling retired labourer Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). Straight is, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit as the film begins, and probably qualifies as a decrepit physical wreck (you know, I say that lovingly, of course, and with a due sense of measured objectivity). After being found sprawled on his kitchen floor he is whisked off to the doctor, who diagnoses joint problems, failing eyesight, and incipient lung disease – and things are likely to get even worse unless Alvin Straight makes some different lifestyle choices.

However, being a rugged American individualist, Alvin is not the kind of man to meekly take advice from a medical professional and goes home to smoke a cigar. Not long after, however, the news arrives that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton, who doesn’t actually appear in the movie until the very end) has suffered a stroke. Alvin resolves to visit him, over 200 miles away in Wisconsin, which seems entirely reasonable.

However, as Alvin can’t drive due to his bad eyesight and doesn’t have the money for a bus ticket, he chooses to make the trip on a riding lawnmower, which is perhaps a less reasonable choice. Certainly his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) reacts with concern as her old pa starts building a trailer to carry all the essentials he will take with him on this epic road trip. You might actually expect any dutiful daughter to say ‘Dad, no, this idea is nuts’ – but Rose is a slightly odd bird herself (the film doesn’t really dig into this, but she has some sort of atypical neurology) and lets him set off. After a false start and a change of mower, the great journey begins in earnest…

Forrest Gump on a tractor’ was the apparently-devastating verdict on The Straight Story, whispered into the ear of the renowned British film critic Mark Kermode by his colleague David Cox. It’s a very good line, and there is an element of truth to it, but I’m not sure it’s the beginning and the end of critical commentary on this film. (It’s also possibly worth noting that Cox made this observation just as the film was starting, making this an example of pre-reviewing a film for comic effect, something I try hard to avoid myself.)

Forrest Gump is another of those films I’ve never really sat down and got to grips with, but at the very least it’s a lavish and earnest attempt to make an insightful journey through the American experience of the latter part of the 20th century. The Straight Story is about a man travelling across country on a lawn mower, filmed in a very straightforward, no-frills sort of way. I suppose, if we accept the proposition that both films are essentially pieces of Americana, and as such primarily concerned with the nature of that great but somewhat fractured nation, then Forrest Gump is loudly and verbosely shouting about what it thinks that nature is. The Straight Story doesn’t shout or gesticulate, it just presents its answer in a slightly oblique and very understated way and leaves it for the viewer to figure out what that answer is.

And what is that answer? Well, if Alvin Straight is some kind of paragon or American folk-hero, we’re back to the archetype of rugged individualism, a man determined to make this trip on his own terms, without asking for help or charity from anyone. But he’s also a decent man, thoughtful (if not especially demonstrative) when it comes to his family and friends and the other people who meets on his journey. They are also routinely kind and considerate people. This is one of those rare films where all the characters are nice people who spend their time being pleasant to one another: the only crises driving the plot are the result of medical problems or lawn mowers breaking down. If nothing else this is a refreshing change of pace.

Nevertheless, at nearly two hours, you do find yourself wishing the lawn mower could go a bit faster well before the end. Saying the film has longeurs may not be entirely accurate or fair, as it seems like it’s deliberately paced the way it is (an alternate view might be that the whole film constitutes a single extended longeur); perhaps this is Lynch’s way of challenging the audience on this occasion. It seems like most of the film’s other quirks happened behind the camera – the film was shot in chronological order, according to the director, who said it was his most experimental film. Nevertheless, he handles the actors and the various scenes well and – once you get into the film’s groove – it’s actually very soothing and involving to watch. The story may be – perhaps inevitably – linear, but the acting is excellent and the cinematography and direction also good. I wouldn’t rush to watch it again, but it’s – how can I avoid the word ‘nice’ again? – a pleasant and worthwhile watch.

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It’s that time of year when everyone is gearing up for the start of gong season, and after the various upheavals inflicted by the pandemic there are hopeful signs that normal service is being resumed (always assuming you were a fan of normal service in the first place). Amongst the films which have acquired a bit of awards-season momentum are representatives of most of the classic types – biographies and semi-autobiographies (Elvis and The Fabelmans), more challenging and dark borderline-arty fare (The Banshees of Inisherin and Tar) and – of course – a big film about Hollywood itself (Babylon). And there’s also a plucky little British film, eschewing a big budget and expansive story – mainly because the former wasn’t available to pay for the latter – in favour of quality and authenticity. Living falls into this category, and so does Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light.

British films always seem more at ease when they’re actually set some time in the past, and the great thing about the past is that they keep adding new bits to it: Empire of Light is set in 1980 and 1981, which I can actually remember not being the past at all. And yet here those years are, the period backdrop to movie which – at least in part – trades on nostalgia. (Short version: this film made me feel quite old.)

The film is set in Margate on the south coast of England and concerns the lives of the staff of the old-fashioned cinema there, the Empire. The central character is Hilary (Olivia Colman), the duty manager; she is quietly having… how to put it? ‘An affair’ would be overstating things a bit… non-work-adjacent relations with the actual manager, Ellis (Colin Firth, doing one of those studies in petty corruption he’s actually rather good at). There are various other ushers and minions about the place, and also Norman the projectionist (Toby Jones, also thoroughly in his comfort zone). It turns out to be central to the film’s thesis that Norman proves to be something of a sage and a font of wisdom before the story ends, for his job makes him a High Priest of Cinema. It takes a while for us to reach that point, though.

The plot proper gets underway with someone new starting at the cinema – Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is, to coin a phrase, young, gifted and Black. His presence causes a stir amongst the female members of staff at the cinema, but it is the older Hilary who he seems to make the strongest connection with, especially after they explore the disused upper floors of the old building together. But a sour note is entering the national culture and there are all kinds of obstacles to a relationship like theirs…

The critical consensus on Empire of Light seems to be something along the lines of ‘great performances, pity the script isn’t better’, which I think gets it about fifty percent right. The acting is universally excellent – but then we’re at the point where you really expect that from people like Olivia Colman and Toby Jones, they seem genetically incapable of ever giving a bad performance. I’m not entirely sure that dismissing the script of the film (written by Mendes) is really justified.

Here’s the thing: this is clearly intended to be a life-affirming drama about ordinary people, with moments of sadness and poignancy but also joy and hope. So in a very general way it’s shooting at the same targets as A Man Called Otto, which we talked about last time. Empire of Light isn’t as funny as the Tom Hanks film, nor is it as moving, so there’s a sense in which you could say it was less successful. On the other hand – you can watch Otto and within about ten minutes get a strong and accurate sense of which way the film is going to go. That isn’t the case with Empire of Light – there’s essentially a kind of plot twist halfway through which turns it into a slightly different film than it initially seems to be. The twist is carefully set up and doesn’t seem arbitrary or unrealistic, so narratively it works, and it does leave you guessing as to how the rest of the film is going to play out.

I am not going to say that it’s a bad thing for a film to be predictable, as this is sort of one of the joys of genre and often a sign of capable storytelling. But on the other hand, Empire of Light somehow feels more authentic than A Man Called Otto – in real life, things don’t always resolve neatly and happily in the way you might expect them to. It’s also worth pointing out that Mendes’ film never feels sentimental – it’s not emotionally cold, it just doesn’t feel like it’s laying it on with a trowel; perhaps this is a sign of the film’s essential Englishness.

If I have a brick to sling at Empire of Light, it’s that… well, I suppose it’s the fault of the trailer I saw, which features all the big scenes, an epic soundtrack, and narration from Toby Jones that implies that the film is, in some way, about how going to the cinema is somehow a metaphor for life itself. I was quite looking forward to seeing that film – what I ended up seeing was a very well-done drama about recognisable human beings in a particular time and place, but not much more than that. The whole issue of cinema-as-life does make an appearance, quite late on, but it feels like an afterthought – Toby Jones is easily a good enough actor to sell Norman’s various pronouncements of wisdom, but it still stretches credulity a tiny bit that it turns out that one character, despite having worked at the cinema for ages, has never actually watched a film there. (Mendes’ choice of the film they eventually watch, resulting in a transcendent, revelatory moment for them, is an intriguing one.)

I did enjoy Empire of Light quite a lot in the end, simply because it’s very well-acted, well-made, and quite well-written. After his various successes with Bond and 1917, Sam Mendes is probably at the point where one of his films just being a reasonable success, commercially or critically, probably counts as a disappointment. This is a shame. There is surely always a place for a good film, which is what Empire of Light is.

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There’s a popular current thesis which suggests that the era of the movie star is coming to an end – ‘movie star’ meaning someone who can ‘open’ a movie, and ‘open’ meaning ‘someone whose mere presence in a film will make people want to go and see it’. No-one like that is coming up through the ranks, the theory goes: good actors and popular performers, maybe, but no-one who is bigger than the film they’re in. We’ve discussed previously the odd case of someone like Chris Hemsworth, whose films are massively popular… as long as he always plays the same character. The character here is the star, not the actor.

With all this going on there is, inevitably, a parallel discussion about who the last great film star standing is. You can make pretty decent cases for people like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford, but it frequently boils down to one of the two Toms – Hanks or Cruise. It looks very much like Tom Cruise is in the dominant spot at the moment, following the massive (if slightly bewildering) success of Top Gun 2 last year, and the publicity machine already gearing up for the next episode of Mission Impossible. Tom Hanks hasn’t done himself any favours, either, I might suggest, by lending his talents to streamers (Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and others) – Cruise has remained absolutely faithful to the primacy of the theatrical experience. I’ll admit to being one of those people who in the past has occasionally suggested the Cruiser might be a bit nuts, but you have to admire him for taking a stand like that.

Still, Tom Hanks is still a contender to be reckoned with, in his own field at least. (There seems to be a definite demarcation between the two Toms – Cruise only really does action thrillers these days, while Hanks is rarely to be found outside a good-natured comedy-drama.) He is back on screens in Marc Forster’s A Man Called Otto, which is based on a Swedish movie (and novel) called A Man Called Ove. This isn’t the first Anglophone remake on Hanks’ CV, of course, while Forster’s filmgraphy is sufficiently eclectic (gritty drama, literary adaptations, family-friendly comedy drama, and the profoundly unpopular Bond film Quantum of Solace) for nothing he does to really be much of a surprise any more.

The premise is fairly simple: Hanks plays a man called Otto Anderson, a recently-widowed engineer living in (I guess) Pennsylvania. ‘Prickly’ doesn’t begin to do justice to Otto; he comes across as an inflexible, unfriendly pain-in-the-neck to anyone who meets him. He castigates the young manager of a hardware store for only selling rope by the yard rather than the foot. His retirement party descends into acrimony when he complaints he feels pushed out of his job by new management. Long-standing feuds with neighbours and the local property development company rumble on.

Otto retires to his home, arranges to have his electricity and telephone disconnected, affixes a hook to his living room ceiling, and prepares to hang himself using the five feet of rope he was attempting to buy earlier, all in a very businesslike manner. However, it is a measure of the man that a display of substandard parallel-parking taking place across the street is enough to make him put this plan on hold and go out to complain. It turns out the offenders are his new neighbours Marisol and Tommy (Mariana Trevino and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and at this point the trajectory of the film becomes very clear indeed: Marisol’s relentless cheery friendliness will somehow find a way through Otto’s crusty carapace (the winsome cuteness of her daughters will also be a factor) and this will prove to be the story of How A Spiky Old Git Rediscovers The Joy Of Living.

It’s the kind of film, aspiring to be heart-warming and life-affirming, which it’s very easy to be cynical about – in fact, when not done well, it’s the sort of thing that often inclines me towards slipping off somewhere and quietly opening a vein. On paper it sort of resembles the TV show One Foot in the Grave, albeit with a substantial dollop of the earnestness and sentimentality you occasionally find in some of Hanks’ less successful projects.

However, Tom Hanks hasn’t managed to maintain his position at the top of the Hollywood system for nearly forty years simply through good fortune – he’s technically a very skilled actor in addition to being a hugely likeable screen presence, and he does have an edge over the other Tom in his willingness to stretch himself – these days, it’s impossible to imagine Cruise appearing in a bonkers ensemble film like Cloud Atlas, or being so prepared to be grotesque and unlikeable as Hanks was in Elvis last year (I tried to think of the previous film I’d seen Hanks in before this one and completely forgot about his turn as the Colonel, eventually settling on A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood from 2020).

Hanks’ performance is this film’s greatest asset, but this is not to say that the rest of it isn’t very capably put together too. It manages to negotiate a tricky path between being an actually quite morbid black comedy – there’s a running gag about Hanks’ various attempts to top himself being interrupted or otherwise going wrong – and something genuinely heart-warming. You’re never in any doubt as to how this is going to play out, but as ever it’s not necessarily the destination but the journey which really counts – the script rarely puts a foot wrong as it introduces the various characters, fills in Otto’s back-story (Rachel Keller plays his late wife, the young Hanks is played – in a remarkable coincidence – by someone named Truman Hanks), and basically charts the reappearance of Otto’s appetite for life.

Parts of it are very funny, while others are intensely moving and poignant (although the film benefits, as any film or TV show does, from the canny deployment of a Kate Bush song on the soundtrack). I saw it with the co-spousal unit and she described it later as ‘a film that will make you feel every emotion’. This is not far from the truth. Maybe there is a tendency towards sentimentality, but then this is part of A Man Called Otto‘s conception, and there is enough darkness, loneliness and grief to compensate for this. Not the biggest film of Hanks’ career, but a good one nevertheless.

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My default position when it comes to John Carpenter is that he is basically one of those people who did their careers backwards – most of us, when starting out in a new field, have results which are a bit hit and miss, until we figure out what we’re up to and (given sufficient time, dedication and natural talent) eventually master whatever it is we’re doing. Carpenter’s career isn’t like that. Even though his first film Dark Star is flawed, it’s still arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the last fifty years, while Assault on Precinct 13 is flat-out brilliant, and Halloween changed the face of the American horror movie. And then, at some point, he just went off the boil – by the late 1980s he was making schlocky films like Prince of Darkness, a decade later it was warmed-over rehashes like Escape from LA, and after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (a fairly dreadful film) he more or less gave up.

A sad decline. Most people point to the tipping point being the commercial failure of his version of The Thing, which was competing at the box office with E.T. and came off distinctly second-best. I disagree: I think the last genuinely really good Carpenter film came a couple of years later, in the form of Starman. It seems to be a film that slips easily from the mind when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s work, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristic of the films he’s known for.

The film opens with the slightly hackneyed plot device of the Voyager 2 probe being intercepted by an alien intelligence. The aliens give it a good checking out, paying special attention to the gold disc placed aboard, and return the favour by sending their own probe ship to Earth to see if it’s as nice as the LP suggests. You know those Earth people, they’re devils for sending mixed signals, and the probe is shot down by the US Air Force somewhere over Wisconsin. It crashes near the home of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the pilot – an immaterial being of pure energy – zips around the house curiously before settling on one of her mementoes of her late husband Scott; a lock of his hair. The alien uses this to grow itself a new body to inhabit, a body which is naturally the spitting image of Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Jenny herself takes this about as well as you might expect, but there is more bad news on the way – the alien Starman’s colleagues are coming to Earth to pick him up, but, for important reasons of plot, their agreed rendezvous will be in Arizona in a few days time. Road trip! The chances are it will take just long enough for Starman to learn to appreciate the beauties of life on Earth and for him and Jenny to fall in love. Meanwhile a scientist from SETI, on the government’s payroll (he is played, very capably, by Charles Martin Smith), is hunting for the visitor, but increasingly beginning to question the rightness of the uncompromising approach taken by the authorities.

As you can perhaps see, it’s a fairly straightforward story without big twists or deep complexities. It’s not an exploitation movie or an action movie, nor is it a western modulated into a different setting, and as such it’s a fairly atypical project for Carpenter to take on. Mostly it’s a romantic comedy drama about two people sitting in a car, with the qualifier that one of them happens to be an alien.

The history of Starman is fairly interesting if you’re a student of the genre: Columbia started developing it at the same time as a script called Night Skies, which eventually became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio eventually abandoned the latter project, which of course went on to be a massive hit for Universal – this in turn resulted in Starman, deemed a more adult-oriented take on similar material, being put into production. (Carpenter was hired ahead of Tony Scott and Peter Hyams, and was keen to change his image as a director.) The similarities are obvious enough; this is clearly a post-Spielberg science-fantasy film. But what struck me about the film, watching it again recently, was the extent to which it also feels like it’s parallelling The Terminator in some ways – not really in terms of the trajectory of the plot, but when it comes to the imagery of some sequences – the main character materialises naked, out of thin air, at the start of the story, and the central relationship ends up becoming an archetypal James Cameron-style romance – which is to say it concludes with a one-night stand in an unlikely setting.

Nevertheless the film has a kind of understated sweetness and authenticity to it which isn’t quite there in any of the films it resembles – the road movie element also helps to make it distinctive, Carpenter apparently keen to explore the Americana of the story. It only really has four significant characters (the other is Richard Jaeckel’s Air Force heavy) and most of it is about two of them sitting in a car or a diner together. Both Allen and Bridges are really excellent; you do wonder why Allen didn’t have a more significant career considering she’s so good here and in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone seems to accept now that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only person ever to be Oscar nominated for playing an alien. He’s not afraid to come across as initially weird and unsettling as the Starman, before gradually toning it down and creating a credible and sympathetic character. It is, I think, one of the best ‘playing an alien’ performances anywhere.

There are lots of good things about Starman, even if the story feels a bit low-octane and familiar in places. The real flaw that jumps out at me, however, is that the script is so keen on the character-building, phatic scenes between Jenny and the Starman that some of the connective tissue that allows the script to function is a bit skimped on. For example, one scene ends with Jenny getting a fright as she bumps into the Starman, who has only just appeared in her house. The next time we see them both, he is wearing her late husband’s clothes and she is preparing to drive him to Arizona. A whole lot of quite significant stuff seems to have happened between scenes, which one would quite like to have seen. How did he explain all this to her? How does she feel about it? Is she down with the alien turning himself into a clone of her husband? And so on.

Nevertheless, the scenes we do have retain a considerable charm, and you can usually figure out for yourself what happened off-screen in the bits we’re not privy to. It’s a well-made, entertaining film for a mainstream audience, and as such fairly unrecognisable as a John Carpenter project. As I say, for me it’s the last really good film he directed – but despite good reviews, it wasn’t particularly successful and within a couple of years the director was back to making more energetic and derivative schlock. A shame – on the strength of this road movie, the road not taken by Carpenter would surely have been at least as interesting as the way his career actually went.

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It seems like every big entertainment corporation is permanently on the look-out for the next big property to systematically exploit – not that it hasn’t always been thus, but these days it all seems a lot more premeditated in terms of the branding and forward-planning and so on. Next recipient of this treatment looks likely to be the writer Roald Dahl. To be fair, Dahl’s work has been the subject of numerous adaptations for decades – Walt Disney nearly made a film of his early novel The Gremlins (a word he apparently did a lot to popularise), since when there have been dozens of movies and TV shows. I get the sense the next wave will be a bit more organised and irresistible – or perhaps I’m just reading too much into the fact that The Roald Dahl Story company now has its own animated logo. (I look forward to seeing this at the start of a possible future adaptation of My Uncle Oswald, a quasi-pornographic Dahl novel from 1979 concerning an enterprising scheme to harvest the semen of famous men using an infallible aphrodisiac and some open-minded accomplices.)

This December will see the release of the surely infelicitiously-titled Wonka, a probably inevitable prequel to the films based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but still providing a cheerful and upbeat presence in UK cinemas is the new version of Matilda, directed by Matthew Warchus. (Strictly speaking, this film is trading under the title of Roald Dahl’s Matilda: the Musical, but, you know, who can be bothered? We all know what I’m talking about.)

This is the tale of Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir), whose arrival in the world happens during the opening number: in contrast to the joy experienced by most of the parents in the maternity ward, Matilda’s are filled with profound horror – her father (Stephen Graham) would prefer a boy, while her mother (Andrea Riseborough) would have preferred not have a child at all, the mere fact she is about to give birth being a profound shock to her. This utter disdain extends into Matilda’s childhood, when she is forced to sleep in the attic and generally neglected, her parents even forgetting to send her to school.

The local school board take a dim view of this sort of thing and Matilda ends up being sent to Crunchem Hall, a grim establishment overseen by the imposing figure of Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), a former champion hammer-thrower whose idea of encouragement is a slogan like ‘None of you are special’ and whose personal motto is ‘Children are maggots’. Matilda, however, has – from somewhere or other – acquired a passionate love of reading and sense of justice, and before long she finds herself heading for a collision with the headmistress. Perhaps the psychic powers she seems to be spontaneously manifesting will come in useful…?

‘It’s a bit like Carrie,’ was how I pitched Matilda to the co-spousal unit when we were thinking about going to see it, a description which I obviously still stand by: young girl from a troubled domestic situation has a hard time at school and takes her telekinetic revenge in the final act. There, of course, the similarities start to dry up, for Roald Dahl and Stephen King, despite their shared success, don’t really have that much in common as stylists. King is always grounding things in the mundane world, while Dahl is revelling gleefully in the grotesque details which have made his books so abidingly popular – it’s an over-the-top, cartoony sort of world his characters generally inhabit.

Of course, this has led to accusations of misogyny, anti-semitism and racism being levelled at his books, but the only one which has an outside chance of sticking to Matilda is the first – Trunchbull is a hideous monster rather than anything recognisable as an actual woman, while Mrs Wormwood is a shrill, parasitic shrew. It must be said that Emma Thompson and Andrea Riseborough nevertheless lean into the repulsive elements of their characters and clearly seem to be having a great time doing so. They’re so awful it’s impossible to think the film is trying to make a serious point, any more than an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White.

If the film does have a message it’s an entirely laudable one – not just about not being horrible to other people, but about standing up for fairness and justice (and, seeing as we’re mentioning these things, the joys of reading, telling stories, and being educated generally). The film manages this in a non-preachy, entirely persuasive way I found wholly admirable; the fact the film is consistently funny and  poignant in the right places doesn’t do it any harm either.

I suspect the main reason I went to see Matilda was because, as the lengthy full title suggests, it’s a musical, and I do like a musical even if it’s a kids’ film. The songs are by Tim Minchin, as I expect is quite well known, and they are uniformly both clever and witty. We went to a singalong showing of the film, something I’m usually wary of doing, but luckily no-one seemed inclined to join in at our screening. The subtitles were actually quite welcome as they helped us to appreciate the finer points of the jokes in the lyrics which might otherwise have got lost. Emma Thompson sings a song about how to be a champion hammer-thrower, which isn’t something you’re going to get in many films, while the terrific ‘Revolting Children’ number is as agreeable an incitement to riot as you’re likely to hear all year. Great singing performances all round, from Weir, Thompson, and Lashana Lynch (who plays a friendly schoolteacher).

I didn’t see the last Chocolate Factory adaptation and the prospect of Timothee Chalamet in a top hat practicing to become Johnny Depp fills me with inertia – in fact it’s probably fair to say I’ve enjoyed Dahl’s work for adults more than his children’s stories (too many Tales of the Unexpected at a tender age, I expect). Nevertheless I had a really good time watching Matilda – the sad bits are really sad, but this is part of the process of earning a proper happy ending, and the funny and uplifting bits do exactly what they need to do. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-made film that, I suspect, the whole family can sit down and have a good time with.

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Watching Our Friends in the North again in 2022 was… strange. I apologise, because you may need to pay close attention to this next part. The series – a landmark, classic drama serial if ever there was one – depicts the lives of four people over thirty years, starting in 1964 when they are twenty, and finishing in 1995 when they are in their early fifties. I watched it when it was first on, and was in my early twenties myself. 26 years later, I am obviously much closer in outlook to the charatcers-at-the-end than the characters-at-the beginning. But, as I say, it is an odd experience to realise just how much time has passed, how much has changed, and… how much hasn’t.

Writer Peter Flannery has modestly described it as ‘a soap opera, but a soap with something to say’, and while this hardly does it justice, it is almost like watching decades of a soap artfully cut down to nine hours or so of TV. The first thing that will probably strike anyone coming fresh to the programme is the astonishing cast that the BBC managed to assemble – or so it appears nowadays, anyway. Christopher Eccleston plays Nicky, who – to begin with at least – is a fiercely idealistic young man looking to change the world for the better. Playing his best friend is a then-almost-unknown Daniel Craig; his role is that of Geordie, a more relaxed and perhaps cynical youth, coming from a troubled family background. One of Geordie’s other friends is Tosker, played by Mark Strong: Tosker’s main interest is in getting on in the world, whether as an entertainer, an entrepreneur, or something else (he seems not to care as what). Rounding out the quartet is Gina McKee, a bright young woman who only really comes to realise who she is as the story continues. So there you go: one James Bond, one Dr Who (technically, two, as David Bradley also has a significant role in the series), one much-in-demand star of numerous Hollywood blockbusters, and… well, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Gina McKee possibly had a higher profile on British TV than some of the other lead actors, even if she hasn’t become quite as big a star as the others since (she was still in Notting Hill and Phantom Thread, amongst other things).

It’s a bit fatuous to attempt to summarise the plot, but here goes anyway: with the election of a Labour government in 1964, Nicky abandons his university career to get involved in the murky world of local politics and the provision of cheap housing. Mary, who has until now been Nicky’s girlfriend, is alienated by his lack of interest in her and ends up marrying Tosker instead. Geordie, meanwhile, flees the town after a whole series of family problems and ends up living in London.

Nicky realises the housing business is horribly corrupt, which is also what Geordie discovers about the London police: he ends up working for a ruthless pornography baron, and makes the mistake of having an affair with his mistress. Mary and Tosker’s marriage falls apart, while Nicky – disillusioned with the Labour party – drifts into fringe politics. The revelation of corruption in both the Met and Newcastle is a watershed moment for all of them, and it’s still only 1974.

Nicky runs for parliament in 1979 but is defeated by a ruthless and unprincipled Tory campaign; Mary becomes a solicitor, and then a local councillor, while Tosker remarries and becomes a successful, if morally flexible, businessman. Geordie, in a beautifully subtle bit of storytelling, simply drifts out of sight for years. When Nicky stumbles upon him again, in the late 1980s, he is just one of many homeless people living in the social wasteland produced by nearly a decade of Thatcherite government. Despite being clearly mentally ill, as a result of many hard years, he is eventually sentenced to life in prison for an act of arson.

Tosker is nearly bankrupted by the financial crash of 1987 but manages to recover; Nicky, having moved to Italy in the aftermath of a failed marriage to Mary, returns for the funeral of his mother. It is this event, more than any other, which brings the quartet back together, over thirty years after the start of the story. The country feels like it’s on the edge of another fundamental change (or perhaps this is only visible with the benefit of hindsight), and perhaps from the stories of its past, we can approach the future with something akin to wisdom.

It is, as you can see, a hugely ambitious undertaking, tackling events as diverse as corruption in Tyneside housing provision and the Scotland Yard vice squad, the rise of Thatcherism and the miners’ strike, the degeneration of British society, and much more. Layered in on top of this are the more soap-opera moments, concerning the various lives and loves of the main characters and those around them. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the supporting cast is also remarkable – I’ve already mentioned David Bradley, but also playing significant roles are Malcolm McDowell as a Soho gang boss, Freda Dowie and Peter Vaughan as Nicky’s parents, Donald Sumpter, Peter Jeffrey, and David Schofield as the Met establishment, Alun Armstrong as Nicky’s first mentor, a Blair-like figure who relinquishes his principles just a little too much, and even Julian Fellowes – nowadays famous for creating Downton Abbey (a more different TV drama it’s hard to imagine), but here playing a corrupt Tory minister.

One thing about this series which is especially striking nowadays is how politically uncompromising it is: the two most traditionally heroic characters, Nicky and Mary, are both heavily involved with the Labour movement, as are their mentors. The only main character who shows much sympathy for the other side is Tosker, who is often presented as a flawed, overconfident man and a bit of a clown. The rest of the Tory establishment is shown as almost entirely corrupt and self-serving, callous and morally bankrupt. Good luck getting something like that on the screen in 2023, regardless of how truthful or not it is.

The series’ thesis is persuasive, mainly because it is mixed in with and coloured by all the other elements of the story: there is romance, humour, tragedy, sex and violence. In the end it is the sheer scale and consistency and ambition of the story which is most impressive. Watching it now it’s almost irresistible to imagine a sequel following the characters over the intervening years, and catching up with them now as they approach their eighties. Apparently the series was adapted for radio in 2020, and a ‘new’ episode tagged onto the end doing just that, but this sounds like only the barest nod in the direction of what might be possible – then again, these days hiring Daniel Craig to do a nine-hour TV series would probably bankrupt the BBC.

I suppose in a way it has something of the same fascination as The Crown, another quasi-generational drama with many different tones to it, starting as an absolute period piece but slowly advancing towards the present. Both shows mix politics with soap opera, but Our Friends in the North is subtler, and – perhaps because it is freer in its storytelling – more satisfying and moving. Not only does it provide a convincing (if partial) social history of the UK in the final third of the twentieth century, the final episode, and particularly its closing scene, capture the zeitgeist of the time it was made with remarkable truthfulness. Geordie, of all four characters the one still furthest from finding real peace, walks stoically across the Tyne Bridge, out of shot and into an uncertain future, as Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger plays on the soundtrack. In real life the country was about to experience the first Labour government in nearly two decades, with the death of the Princess of Wales not much further away: September 11th, the second Iraq war, the financial crash, Brexit, and the pandemic were all beyond imagining back then. When the story of our own times is told, I only hope it is done with the same intelligence, skill and integrity as happened back in 1996.

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Early-to-mid-December for the five years or so prior to the pandemic was always a promising time for documentaries and other films that would usually struggle to get a cinema release: as we have discussed before, no one wants to release a mainstream commercial film around the same time as a colossus from one of the big studios, and so smaller distributors would swarm in and fill the resulting gap in the schedule: nature abhors a vacuum, and so do multiplex chains. These days it doesn’t seem to be happening, however, which may be another fact of the new world order.

Nevertheless, there are still people around who are happy to take advance of the lull in business-as-usual which is preceding the arrival of James Cameron’s watery sequel, although this is perhaps something of a mixed blessing. I’m a fairly easy-going person, but I still can’t stop myself from emitting a groaning snarl (or perhaps a snarling groan) from the very pit of my soul when I sit down in a movie theatre and discover that the film I have paid to see is preceded to the screen by a big red ‘N’. Not that I have anything against Netflix; quite the opposite, in many ways, but that’s kind of the point. Fond though I am of the theatrical experience, it annoys me just a bit to realise I’ve accidentally ended up paying to see a film which is going to be free on my TV a few weeks later. Yes, I know, I should do my research – but the line between due diligence in the research department and actually spoiling a movie for yourself can be a vanishingly thin one sometimes.

Netflix are quite happy to release films into cinemas for periods of time which make a mayfly’s life expectancy seem like a geological age, and presumably don’t care whether or not anyone actually turns out to watch them. This is what makes them unlike a traditional movie studio: they’re not releasing films in cinemas to make money, they’re releasing films in cinemas so that their films play in cinemas, usually just long enough for them to qualify for the major film awards. The money comes afterwards, once the films have won various trophies and hopefully spurred a few people into getting (or reviving) a Netflix account. I suppose it’s a valid enough business model, but it still seems to me like trying to game the system. Whatever you think about it, it’s a tactic that Netflix are obviously very good at, presumably in part because they seem to have that bottomless well of cash to attract big-name and acclaimed film-makers.

Newly on the big red N’s payroll is Noah Baumbach, who these days is as close to being the acceptable replacement for Woody Allen as anyone. His new movie is White Noise, based on an acclaimed (but supposedly unfilmable) 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. The change of sponsor doesn’t seem to have resulted in a very different product to Baumbach’s back catalogue, however – his partner Greta Gerwig appears, as does Adam Driver, and it’s not like he’s suddenly decided to do an action movie or a superhero franchise film.

The movie opens with a scene in which Don Cheadle comes on as an academic who proceeds to give a lecture on the place of the car crash sequence in American popular cinema, urging his audience to appreciate this for the optimistic, positive trope it has become. Contemplation of whether this is all very tongue in cheek, or if the film is just weird, is dispelled, as we are launched into the lives of fellow academic Jack Gladney (Driver) and his wife Babette (Gerwig, almost unrecognisable under a Gorgon-like perm), not to mention their various children. Gladney is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies at the local college – ‘I teach Advanced Nazism,’ he tells a new acquaintance, in one of quite a few lines that feels ripped from the pages of a Woody Allen script – while Babette amuses herself as an exercise instructor for local senior citizens. All should be well but for the insidious dread the couple share when it comes to their own creeping mortality. Virtually the only thing they don’t agree about is who should be allowed to die first: and we are clearly intended to appreciate exactly how facile this particular discussion is (it did put me rather in mind of something from a Miranda July film).

However, they finally get something concrete to worry about when a petrol tanker crashes into a train carrying chemical waste, producing a vast toxic cloud blanketing much of the state and rolling implacably in their direction. The various Gladneys pile into their station wagon and join the exodus along with the rest of the town. As you can perhaps surmise, there is something a bit tonally odd about White Noise, and this sequence in particular did remind me of a late-70s Spielberg movie, with the minutiae of family life juxtaposed with huge, potentially world-changing events (or maybe I was just thinking of the fake chemical spill which is part of the plot of Close Encounters).

It feels like the onset of the Airborne Toxic Event is the inciting incident for the rest of the film, but it only comprises a relatively small portion of the film: the disaster is resolved and everyone goes back to their business-as-usual, the only difference being that Jack has been exposed to toxic vapour and is told there is a high probability he will die at some indeterminate future time. This is a deliberately absurd and meaningless prognosis – the same could be said for literally any of us – but it doesn’t do Jack’s thanatophobia any good at all. The plot spirals off into an odd realm concerning drug trials and potential marital infidelity and the way in which the supermarket of the 1980s symbolises an intermediate realm between life and death…

I wanted to like it, honest, and some parts of it I really did – there are some very funny moments and sequences and some of the more absurd plot elements are almost Kafkaesque: it turns out the disaster of the toxic cloud is being used by the emergency services as an opportunity to practise their extreme disaster response techniques, in case something serious should happen in future. ‘But something serious is happening now,’ protests a character, when they learn about this. Yes, and it’s a great opportunity to practise, comes the response. But it still feels like a filmed piece of literature, if you know what I mean: it doesn’t have that driving sense of narrative nearly all mainstream films have – this feels much more interested in picking up ideas, playing with them for a bit, and then moving on to something else for a while, perhaps returning to an earlier point of interest later on. There are things which look like jokes, which are delivered as jokes, and meet every criteria for being a joke except for the fact they’re not funny in any intelligible way. (I know it sounds like I’m trying very hard to avoid saying this is essentially a failed comedy, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.)

Maybe this really is just a bad movie, but there are very successful moments scattered throughout it and Driver gives a fine performance – probably Gerwig too, though she seems a bit subdued, and possibly overwhelmed by her hair (and maybe the demands of doing the Barbie movie). Baumbach’s orchestration of such a diverse set of elements is probably deserving of much praise, too. But it didn’t quite click with me, or resolve itself into a film with a deeper thesis than ‘people often do weird things to distract themselves from the certainty of their own eventual deaths’.

This is a big, colourful film with some lavish set pieces – some might say extravagantly so, particularly with regard to the closing dance number (set in the supermarket, it is clearly a dance of dearth, given that consumerism is at least as much about not having material things as possessing them). And it may be that this is the kind of film which rewards multiple viewings and some cogitation. But on the basis of just the one watch, this is just an ambitious, oddball project which doesn’t quite come together in the way you’d hope.

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The lazy way to describe Maria Schrader’s She Said is as The Harvey Weinstein Movie (something which has a very different connotation to the one it would have possessed even only six years ago). But then again, you could surely argue that a huge number of major studio releases over the last four years or so have, on some level, been Harvey Weinstein movies, or perhaps post-Harvey Weinstein movies – The Wife was a post-Weinstein movie, the Charlie’s Angels remake was a post-Weinstein movie, Marvel finally doing the Black Widow movie was arguably a post-Weinstein thing. Never mind winning all those Oscars (and being thanked in more Oscar acceptance speeches than anyone else except for Steven Spielberg and God), Weinstein seems to have inadvertently ended up changing the face of the culture.

Of course, this is looking for a silver lining to a particularly dark and repugnant cloud, as the film makes absolutely clear: this is not a film to go and see if you’re looking for simple entertainment – maybe not if you’re looking for entertainment of any kind, to be honest. The story gets underway with a plunge-bath of awfulness as we find ourselves back in 2016, when allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct on the part of Donald Trump are coming to light – investigating them is New York Times journalist Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). Naturally, the revelation of this repulsive behaviour results in Trump being elected president, which means the women accusing him end up facing death threats and other sickening abuse for no reason.

A few months later, fellow journalist Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) is doing a piece about sexual harassment in Hollywood, when she receives a tip that actress Rose McGowan (to be honest, all I can remember about her without using Wikipedia is that she was the replacement sister in Charmed – sorry) is claiming to have been raped by big-name producer Harvey Weinstein. Other allegations are floating around Weinstein, but he is an immensely wealthy and powerful man, and no-one seems prepared to be the first to speak up about him. Twohey and Kantor interview several people who have indicated problems with Weinstein’s behaviour in the past, including Ashley Judd (two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation – again, sorry) and Gwyneth Paltrow (various Marvel movies and Shakespeare in Love – hey, it’s better than nothing), as well as various former members of staff at the Weinstein company Miramax.

They come across clear evidence of a pattern of behaviour focused on the exploitation and abuse of young women in Weinstein’s power – but part of this pattern is the regular use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to ensure the silence of anyone making a complaint against the producer. Aware that Weinstein and his people are monitoring what they’re doing, Kantor and Twohey proceed with their investigation, trying to find someone prepared to take the chance and be the first person to go on the record against the producer…

There is a long and noble tradition of the true-life journalistic scoop movie, which basically depicts dogged and principled journalists putting in very long hours as they pester sources, look for evidence, follow-up leads and basically overcome establishment resistance to get the truth out to the waiting public. I suppose it dates back at least as far as All The President’s Men; more recent examples would be films like Spotlight and The Post. The movie business likes to see itself as a virtuous undertaking, and making movies like this is a chance for it to align itself with laudable efforts in a different media.

Of course, the downside to this is that it is arguably a bit suspect for any film studio to claim the moral high ground on this particular topic, given the clear implication that Weinstein was not an isolated offender. This film itself has drawn fire for similar reasons, given it is executive produced by Brad Pitt – Pitt was allegedly made aware of Weinstein’s behaviour by his then-girlfriend Paltrow decades before this story broke, but continued to work with him.

Nevertheless, this is a solidly-made and arguably significant film, even if it doesn’t do anything particularly new with this particular genre. That’s not the point – if this film is a piece of art then this is only a secondary concern, its main focus is to inform audiences as to how Weinstein was brought to justice, and in the process remind people of just what it was that Weinstein was and is guilty of.

The tone of the thing is admirably restrained, given the subject matter: the details of what Weinstein did are reported calmly, almost clinically, often above static tableaux of hotel rooms in disarray and other indicative images. It’s the performances that sell th story – Kazan and Mulligan carry the film well, supported by Patricia Clarkson as their editor, and Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton (amongst others) as some of their sources. (This is definitely a female-inclining movie, but Andre Braugher and Zach Grenier are also good.) Judd plays herself in the flesh, and Paltrow lends her voice, but McGowan is played by an actress (Trump is likewise played by someone else).

And it’s a very effective and powerful movie, very moving in places. And – how can I put this? – incredibly depressing to watch. This probably wasn’t the intent – this was probably meant to be a serious but inspirational film about a real-life wrong being righted. And this is correct in every respect but the one about it being inspirational. I didn’t come out feeling inspired; I came out feeling a profound sense of shame and despair, simply based on my demographic profile.

This was not something I had expected – I was rather dismissive of Alex Garland’s Men earlier this year for attempting a very similar ‘all men are worthless and pathetic monsters’ thesis. Perhaps it’s the fact-based nature of She Said, or – like any good journalist – its forensic precision and thoroughness. It’s also careful to make the point that Weinstein was not the beginning and end of this problem, just an extreme demonstration of what men will do, given power and influence. All men? Well, maybe not, but enough of them. It’s in the nature of the sex, something deeply embedded by evolution. I’ve done crass and stupid and deeply regrettable things in the past, and I suspect most men would say the same if they were being honest. The fact that a few exceptional individuals may have a clean conscience should be a source of pride to them, but it doesn’t change the fact that the male sex is – as civilised society would judge things – just not up to scratch, any more than a man’s doing the washing-up and being kind to animals would excuse him being a burglar or mugger. That’s the message I came away from She Said with: men are irredeemably nasty, and – excepting a miracle – will continue to do terrible things, more likely than not to women. It’s a hard truth to accept. But, looking on the bright side, when we eventually torch the planet, half the victims will be men. You’ve got to take your upside where you can find it sometimes.

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Bearly Illegal

I come across movies which are fairly criminal on a depressingly regular basis, though that may have something to do with my having what’s virtually a blanket taping policy when it comes to the Cellar Club strand on Talking Pictures TV. If we’re talking genuinely criminal films – well, not so much, although there was an exception to this the other day when I checked out Jafar Panahi’s latest project, No Bears (Farsi title: Khers Nist), as this film is properly illegal.

Illegal in Iran, I should say, although looking at the news it’s easy to get the impression that virtually everything is illegal in Iran these days. People used to complain a lot about the way that the UK government supposedly didn’t support the UK film industry enough, especially back in the pre-Working Title and Film Four days, but the UK government didn’t go around banning film directors from trying to make films, or putting them under house arrest. I have alluded to the various travails of Iranian director Jafar Panahi before when the cinema of Iran has crossed our path – a longtime critic of the regime, Panahi ended up being slapped with just such a ban over a decade ago. Since then he has been the auteur pioneer of the new wave of back-of-a-moving-car Iranian cinema, a torch which his own son picked up for his own recent film Hit the Road.

The ban is still in place, by the way, but is probably not Panahi’s biggest problem at the moment: he was imprisoned by the Iranian government for persistently being a thorn in their side earlier this year, and – given what’s happening in the country at the moment – one can’t help but be a little concerned for the welbeing of such a prominent critic. Needless to say, No Bears was made before his arrest, but post-ban; the fact of the ban is intrinsic to the plot of the film.

The film is quite like the last Jafar Panahi film we discussed, 3 Faces, in that it features the director Jafar Panahi himself playing a film director called Jafar Panahi. (Strap in.) As the film opens, Panahi is hiding out in a small village not far from the Turkish border, attempting to direct his new film over Skype, or Zoom, or something similar: suffice to say the lack of a reliable broadband connection is a problem, and he keeps having to climb onto the roof of his guesthouse to get a signal (rather to the consternation of his host).

Everyone assumes that Panahi’s ultimate goal is to have himself smuggled over the border and out of Iran – why else would he have come here in the first place? His intentions remain ambiguous, however – but he does occasionally drive out close to the border of an evening, not least because the wifi is better out there.

The villagers are initially welcoming, but it slowly seems that Panahi has outstayed his welcome, especially when he takes some photos and footage of a village wedding. The village elders approach him, and reveal that there is trouble afoot – one of the main participants in a long-standing arranged marriage seems to be rather lukewarm about going through with it, and is suspected of being involved with another man. It seems that Panahi may have inadvertently taken a photo of one of these assignations. For the sake of peace and quiet in the village, could he possibly hand the incriminating picture over?

What ensues is a bit Kafkaesque, to say the least: Panahi insists that the photo in question doesn’t exist, but nobody believes him; village superstitions and traditions seem to be on the verge of engulfing him, there is the threat of violence hanging in the air. It seems like the villagers, who make a large chunk of their living by smuggling contraband over the border from Turkey, are worried about the scrutiny that will descend on their home if Panahi uses it as the launch-pad for his own break for freedom, and are using this as a pretext to drive him out of the village. Certainly it feels like there is an element of social tension in what’s going on – the villagers are happy to take Panahi’s money, but seem to be looking for an excuse to get chippy with him.

Happening in parallel with this are some equally convoluted events concerning the film that the fictional version of Panahi is attempting to direct. It, too, is a love story, about a couple who are seeking to flee to the heart of Europe using stolen tourist passports. The problem – and there’s a whiff of Casablanca here that Panahi doesn’t quite acknowledge – is that it’s very difficult to procure passports for both of them at the same time, and both refuse to leave the other one behind. The actors find themselves in the same situation as their characters – there’s a whole second front of metaness opening up here – and their loyalties to the film and each other likewise come under strain.

I went to see 3 Faces with my Anglo-Iranian affairs advisor, and it’s fair to say we were less impressed by it than the average film festival jury. ‘Nice to see a film where they didn’t worry too much about the plot,’ was his verdict, roughly speaking; my thought concerning No Bears was that it might prove to be more of the same sort of thing – some sort of metafictional social commentary with the actual story being so oblique and understated as to be almost imperceptible. Well, No Bears does have more of an obvious plot (as well as fewer scenes set in Panahi’s car); it is also quite an honest film, in that it definitely doesn’t have any bears in it.

Mind you, there are lots of other things that don’t appear in the film – bird-tables, electromagnets, karaoke machines – so why be particularly concerned about the absence (or otherwise) of our ursine friends? Well, there’s a scene in which Panahi – who has previously been warned not to stray too far at night, for fear of being eaten by a bear – is told that (you guessed it) there are in truth no bears in the area. The bears are just a myth, intended to frighten people and keep them under control. It’s a relatively on-the-nose moment in a film which is otherwise very subtle in its themes and storytelling. You’re never in doubt that this is a film about Panahi’s own situation – and by extension that of many other people in Iran today – but this is not a film of loud or obvious protests.

Looking back I see I was very cruel about 3 Faces, perhaps unforgiveably cruel. This is a better film – by conventional standards – in every way, although the careful pace and lack of obvious incident may be an issue for many viewers. The two plots weave around and reflect each other very pleasingly, and afford Panahi at least one moment which is a brilliant coup de theatre. The acting is also very creditable. Again, I’m by no means sure I picked up on every subtlety embedded in the film, but it’s clearly been made with intelligence and conviction. One can only hope that circumstances allow Panahi to get back behind a camera before too long.

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Stephen Frears’ The Lost King appears to have an opening title sequence and score which is a homage to Psycho: this is by no means an untouched well when it comes to people making reference and paying tribute, of course, but it does seem a bit unusual given what we are supposedly dealing with here is a true-story comedy-drama about events in fairly recent history (although the whole question of what actually constitutes recent history is one of the issues raised in passing by the film itself). The film is, in some ways, a follow-up to the very well-received and accomplished Philomena from 2013 – Frears directed that one too, and it likewise had a script and lead performance from Steve Coogan (whose production company is behind it). One might be forgiven for having reasonably high expectations, especially given the appearance in the lead role of Sally Hawkins, a very able and accomplished actress.

Hawkins plays Phillippa Langley, who as the film opens is an unfulfilled office worker in Edinburgh – the fact that wherever she goes she passes some feature or other of outstanding natural or architectural beauty doesn’t seem to cheer her up much, which only goes to suggest that a) familiarity breeds content and b) Screen Scotland’s support for the production was not entirely string-free. She is separated from her husband (Coogan), though their relationship is amicable, and suffers occasionally with ME – which her boss seems to use as a pretext to promote younger and blonder co-workers over her.

Things change when she is obliged to take one of her sons to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Being (it is not-very-subtly suggested) something of a put-upon figure, she finds herself empathising with Richard himself rather more than she expected, and she gets quite vocal about the fallacy in the automatic assumption that anybody with a physical deformity must also somehow be morally lacking too (a perfectly sound and reasonable position, but presented here in a very on-point and slightly hectoring way which feels extremely 2022).

Anyway, she ends up joining the local branch of the Richard the Third Society and, after expressing a desire to visit his grave and pay her respects, is surprised to learn that no-one knows where it is. She sets out to rectify this, doing her own research into everything involved, even at the expense of some of her other obligations. If this seems to you like a sudden and rather niche interest for a character to develop – I’m struggling not to use the word obsession – then I entirely agree with you; the script does its best to sell the idea, not least by having an apparition of Richard (played by Harry Lloyd) occasionally appear to Langley for chats and moral support.

The quest eventually involves a trip down to Leicester, which looks like the likely area. Langley’s investigations eventually lead her to a car park, where (it is suggested) she is seized by an almost clairvoyant sense that this is where the king is buried. Would it be appropriate in the circumstances to suggest she has a sudden hunch? Maybe not. (Perhaps you are already getting a sense of some of the reasons why I had issues with the script of this film.) Of course, persuading others of this is not that easy (and understandably so, you might say), and the rest of the film deals with her struggles with the archaeological and academic establishment, leading up to the tense moment where the car park is finally excavated, and…

Well, spoilers, obviously, unless you were watching TV a few years ago when the re-burial of King Richard III’s remains was extensively covered (it wasn’t quite as grand an affair as the more recent royal funeral, but on the other hand the queues were a lot less punishing). There’s no doubt that the story of the discovery of Richard III’s grave more than five hundred years after his death is a remarkable one and worthy of the big-screen treatment. Worthy of this kind of treatment? Well, this I am not so sure of.

There is of course a profound irony at work here. The Ricardians, to give them their proper title, have long been of the opinion that Richard III wasn’t the monster of popular repute: Shakespeare’s persuasive characterisation of him as a machiavellian supervillain was done at the behest of the ruling Tudors, the theory goes, who had a vested interest in denigrating the man the founder of their dynasty had overthrown. Fair enough. If you’re going to do a story based on actual events, especially quite recent ones, then you have an obligation to get your facts straight.

Quite how this squares with a film which may yet be the subject of legal action on the grounds of its own historical inaccuracy is a little unclear, but there’s obviously scope here for schadenfreude (if you’re anything like me, at least). You can see how it suits the film’s narrative thrust and moral premise for Phillippa Langley to be presented as a determined underdog-like figure, battling a dismissive establishment in the name of something she truly believes in – but it’s also entirely understandable that the representative of Leicester University depicted here as a slimy self-serving politician who’s prejudiced against the disabled should feel the need to explore the possibility of suing the film-makers for defamation of character.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, though I will say that I lived in Leicester for three months last year and the bus service is excellent. I am inclined to doubt the version of events as presented in the film, though, and not just the scene in which Steve Coogan goes to watch Skyfall at the cinema several months before the film was actually released. The film would have you believe that Phillippa Langley went to watch a production of Richard III and a couple of weeks later was solving a historical mystery which had baffled the world for centuries. Even if it were true, it would have to be presented a lot more convincingly than it is here.

There’s also a kind of anti-intellectualism implicit in the film; Langley’s attraction to the Richard case is presented in largely sentimental terms, and at several points her intuition comes into conflict with the more rational approach of the archaeologists and academics (mostly men) she is regularly locking horns with. Naturally she is proved right, of course. To be fair, Langley herself has spoken of having a strange feeling upon visiting the car park for the first time, but, you know, we’re getting a bit anecdotal at this point. The film notably fails to mention that the car park in question had been identified as a possible site of Richard’s grave as far back as the mid-1970s: once again, historical fact comes off worst in any conflict with the story they actually want to tell.

The actors, who apart from Hawkins and Coogan are mostly people you will recognise from other low-budget British movies and telly programmes (James Fleet, Amanda Abbington, Mark Addy), do the best they can with the material, though Coogan the script-writer fails to find much for Coogan the actor to get his teeth into – perhaps he’s there on screen just as a face to guarantee funding for the film? He gets the odd funny line – ‘Boys! Your mum’s found Richard the Third!’ he cries to his children at one point – but this isn’t nearly as good a vehicle for him as Philomena was. You equally get a strong sense of Hawkins repeatedly bashing into the limitations of a rather thinly characterised protagonist.

I suspect the movie of the court case provoked by The Lost King (should there ever be one) may well turn out to be rather more interesting than The Lost King itself, which is fairly undistinguished in every department despite the talent involved. There is certainly a fascinating story to be told here, but not like this. Its own lack of self-awareness is probably the most interesting thing about it.

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