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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

I think most people would have been surprised, for the vast majority of the last quarter-century or so, to learn that Armando Ianucci would be directing an adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel. It’s only comparatively recently that Ianucci started directing films at all, with 2009’s In the Loop: before that he was best known as a writer, producer, and occasional performer of comedy and satire. The words ‘glittering career’ do not seem inappropriate, given he was involved in On the Hour and The Day Today, the early years of Alan Partridge, bringing Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to the BBC, and much else besides. Since becoming a film director, however, his philosophy seems to have been to pick the most surprising projects he can think of – the title of his last film, The Death of Stalin, didn’t exactly scream comic potential, but it turned out to be one of the best black comedies of recent years.

Now, the question is, can he find the funny in Charles Dickens to the same extent? Is he even going to try? The film in question is The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on the book of (roughly) the same name. Now, I’m going to own up to the fact that while in recent years I have come to appreciate and enjoy the very real merits of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Jane Austen and Wilkie Collins, I have never actually read a Dickens novel in my life. Yes, yes, I know. So when I tell you that David Copperfield was apparently Dickens’ favourite of his own works, probably because it was semi-autobiographical, you can just thank Wikipedia – pretty much the extent of my exposure to the story has come from watching dear old Barry and Terrance’s BBC TV adaptation over thirty years ago.

As the title perhaps suggests, the film concerns the life of David Copperfield, a young man growing up in the mid-Victorian period. He is played for most of the film by Dev Patel. His father dies before he is born, but his early years with his mother are happy ones; then she re-marries to a hard and stern man, and David is eventually sent to London to earn his keep working in a factory. Here he meets the impecunious but eternally optimistic Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his wife. Eventually he learns of his mother’s death and, rebelling against his treatment, seeks out his sole remaining relative, his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives near Dover with her own distant relative, the amiable but eccentric Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie).

The story goes on in a roughly similar vein for most of the film – it came as no surprise to me to learn that Dickens apparently had no particular structure planned out in advance for the story when he wrote it. This is a substantially trimmed-down version of the plot of the book, with various characters and plotlines wholly or partly excised, but it still feels discursive and picaresque. Characters appear and reappear, and everyone seems to know each other in the most suspiciously convenient way. To be honest, though, the pleasure of the film – which is considerable – does not come from the plot, but from the performances and direction.

The most instantly noticeable thing about The Personal History of David Copperfield is that – well, he is Asian (Dev Patel’s background is somewhat complex, but his family is Gujarati Hindu). Agnes Wickfield is played by Rosalind Eleazar, who is Black; her father is played by Benedict Wong, whose family is originally from Hong Kong. The world being as it is, I am picking my words with some care, but: I always find myself a little bemused, at best, by the current tendency towards ethnically-diverse casts even when it is inappropriate for the period being depicted. If you are doing a contemporary or futuristic drama, then obviously it is absolutely laudable and correct to include performers from a wide range of backgrounds. I am likewise aware that, historically, the UK at least was somewhat more diverse than it has traditionally been depicted as in films and TV.

Neither of these things changes the fact that when I’m watching a film like Mary, Queen of Scots and a character like Bess of Hardwick is unexpectedly Chinese, it kicks me out of the story. I’m not sure what this achieves beyond creating a false image of the past, where it is like an idealised version of the present. Are the casting choices in David Copperfield therefore a problem? (I have already been asked if the new film is ‘a send up’, because of Dev Patel’s involvement.) Well, definitely not if you’re not someone who worries about this sort of thing in the first place, and not for me, either, because it seems very much of a piece with the rest of the film either. There are bold and interesting creative choices going on throughout: the film starts with Copperfield about to deliver a reading of his life story to a theatre audience, and the painted backdrop falls away to allow him to walk into his own past, where he appears as narrator alongside the characters and his younger self. In addition to being clever and inventive, this makes it clear the film is not affecting to present a naturalistic version of Victorian England, but a staged, mediated one. In this context, the ethnicity of the characters doesn’t really matter.

In any case, you can hardly accuse Dickens of studied naturalism. His characters are big and memorable ones, which demand a more heroic style of performance – and Ianucci has certainly found performers capable of delivering what is required. There are big comic turns from Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie in particular; Ben Whishaw plays Uriah Heep, and if I have a criticism of Ianucci’s adaptation of the novel it’s that this character and his plotline seems a bit too marginalised – it seems to me that there is potential for depth and pathos here which goes untapped, as it is suggested that it’s Heep’s desperate desire to climb socially which is what turns him into such a sour individual.

One of the impressive things about the film is that despite the fact it is largely pitched as – and has been marketed as – a comedy film, you do come away from it with a strong sense of more serious themes having been addressed. Social mobility is one of them – ‘rags to riches’ being just another way of describing a change of position in society – with class also being a significant element, along with the issue of poverty. The salvation of all the characters proves to be the strength of the affection binding them together, and the film does have a wonderful warmth and feeling of camaraderie suffusing it.

I’m not sure this really qualifies as one of the great literary adaptations of recent years, for the plot does feel like a bit of an afterthought and the more serious elements of the story have arguably been a bit neglected in favour of the lighter scenes. But it is an immensely likeable film, filled with fine performances and made with ceaseless wit and invention, and containing just enough seriousness to give it proper heft. A funny and sincere movie.

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It’s not often that a film that I genuinely want to see gets past me, and when it does it’s a sign that it didn’t get a particularly extensive release in the first place. Such proved to be the case with Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch, which very briefly ran in the local arthouse at the beginning of December last year. The times just didn’t work out, which was irritating to say the least, and I was glad when the film resurfaced (equally briefly) at the Ultimate Picture Palace recently.

I saw the movie the day after hearing the news of the death of Terry Jones (a capable film director, in addition to his very considerable talents in other areas), and there is something very appropriately Pythonesque about it in parts – though this is a very distinctive film, and absolutely its own thing. Putting it into a category is really not very easy at all.

The film is set in the town of Seaside (which, the captions go out of their way to make clear, is not remotely near the sea), and presumably takes place at some point in the seventeenth century (the setting is a kind of generic Ye Olde England). Here we meet Punch (Damon Herriman), a talented puppeteer trying to make it to the big time, and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska). The theatres in the big towns are reopening after an outbreak of plague, and if they can just get noticed their show could be a great success.

However, a number of things soon become apparent: Punch is a touch too fond of the booze, and has a temper when he’s had a bit to drink. It’s also made clear that it is Judy who is the practical one who makes their performances as successful as they are. She also looks after the house and takes care of their baby; all that Punch seems to want to do is sit around drinking and eating sausages.

The film kind of assumes the viewer is familiar with the classic elements of the Punch and Judy shows which inspired it, for gradually they begin to manifest in the story of the film: a string of sausages, Toby the dog, an ineffectual police constable (Benedict Hardie), and so on. What initially looks like it might just be about a couple of characters with familiar names turns out to be a retelling of the traditional Punch and Judy story – the difference being, of course, that these are real, living characters rather than wooden puppets. (It must be said that they do struggle to work the crocodile into the movie, though.)

There aren’t many films which contain a moment reducing me to sheer gawping astonishment, uncertain of whether to laugh out loud or moan in horror, but there is one of those in Judy & Punch. There is black comedy here, but also genuine horror – but this isn’t really a traditional genre movie, mixing comedy and horror with elements of both drama and fantasy. It is, obviously, a film which is ultimately about misogynistic violence, particularly as it is presented in films and other pieces of entertainment. The central conceit here is to show parts of the traditional Punch & Judy story reenacted by actual people, and of course what is still somehow acceptable as a piece of time-honoured entertainment suddenly seems shockingly inappropriate in this context.

You could probably respond that Punch and Judy is no more meant to be taken seriously than Tom and Jerry cartoons (which are equally violent), but the film does a good job of at least encouraging the viewer to give the notion headspace. It’s an interesting idea, anyway, and one which the film initially plays with in a number of engaging ways. Early on, Judy wonders aloud to Punch if their show isn’t becoming just a bit too violent, and he responds with some weaselly nonsense about being an artist who has to go where his talent leads him – adding, also, that the audience likes the violent bits (exactly the same kind of self-justification some film directors are overly fond of). It also touches on the long historical history of violence committed against women by men, witch-trials and so forth. As it goes on, however, some of the wit evident in the opening part of the film falls away a little, and it becomes a rather less playful film and much more of a straightforward drama. I thought this was rather a shame, given how strongly it starts. It may just be that the film peaks too soon: certainly, there are some extremely uneven moments towards the end, with gory mutilations mixed up with a bizarre moment spoofing Gladiator (for no very obvious reason).

You may find your heart sinking at the thought of a movie which, whatever its trappings, basically exists to make feminist points about violence committed by men against women. And I can totally appreciate where you are coming from with that. However, what I should say about Judy & Punch is that this never feels like a very heavy or overly didactic film. It never quite loses that edge of black comedy and horror that makes it a little bit different to what you might expect. The sheer unexpectedness of the thing is very engaging, and there are two very strong performances from the leads. It looks good throughout, and there is a memorable soundtrack from Francois Tetaz as well.

In the end, this is a fable more than anything else, and I should say that whatever the film’s ideas are about violent and misogynistic entertainment, they are presented obliquely: the focus is always on the story of Punch and Judy as real people, rather than putting across an on-the-nose message. There may be slightly less going on here than meets the eye, but the film is quirky and unusual enough to retain the interest, and it concludes with a memorably grotesque sequence that may ensure you never look at a ‘real’ Punch and Judy show in the same light again. That’s probably the film’s whole raison d’etre: it sounds like a strange objective, but it will probably make you agree that it’s a worthwhile one.

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As I’m sure I’ve probably said, the films that get released around this time of year generally tend to fall into a few specific types. You know what I mean – prestigious literary adaptations, stirring true stories from history, omphaloskeptic celebrations of the movie industry itself, and so on. And then of course there is the serious contemporary drama category, which is frankly not short of material at the moment. We’ve recently discussed Bombshell, which deals with current issues surrounding gender politics, and also Just Mercy, which takes as its topic racial inequality in American society. As noted, my inclination was to rather cynically dismiss the latter film as an exercise in box-ticking.

Also out at the moment is Waves, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Shults was also in charge of the uncomfortable-to-watch post-horror movie It Comes at Night, which was probably very good (I was seeing it under less than optimal conditions); the new movie sees him raise his game to a whole new level, though.

Again, based on the advertising, I was inclined to dismiss Waves as another pretty calculated piece of work: another film about the Black experience in contemporary America. The trailer made it look very much as though this was a film following in the wake of Moonlight (which I thought was okay, but not as great as all that) – artily independent, where a film like Just Mercy is solid studio fare.

(You know, anything I say about the actual story of Waves is probably going to lessen the impact of the film; the sheer sense of dislocation produced by not knowing quite where it is going – but fearing the worst – was an essential part of my experience of seeing it. So I would almost suggest you skip the next couple of paragraphs and start reading again after the poster. Or even just skip the rest of this review and find a cinema showing this film: it’s well worth your time, and quite possibly one of the films of the year.)

The film begins by introducing us to the Williams family, affluent African-Americans living in Florida. They have a very nice house, with the parents (father and step-mother) running their own business; the son and daughter are successful both in school and socially. But Ronald, the father (Sterling K Brown), believes in tough love: he pushes his son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) particularly hard, believing that the nature of the world demands it. For his part, Tyler seems to accept this, to begin with at least.

But then gradually, and almost imperceptibly at first, pressures start to mount up on Tyler. A member of the school wrestling team, he ends up badly damaging his shoulder, and starts taking painkillers to cope with it. The habit grows. At the same time, his long-term girlfriend discovers that she is pregnant. Tyler is only eighteen; he does not cope well with this, he makes some very bad decisions. As a result the whole family is affected and almost torn apart. Can his parents and sister (Taylor Russell) come to terms with the aftermath of what happens?

The first part of the film builds up to a horrible incident, the kind of thing that gets briefly mentioned on the news as a one or two-line item. What Shults does is show us the people and emotions involved in it and how they ended up in that place, transforming it from an ugly example of what’s wrong with society today into a genuine human tragedy. This doesn’t make it any easier to watch, of course. As the story develops it has that slow-motion car-crash feel to it. You know that this is building up to something dreadful, but you can’t look away as the events of the film unfold.

However, not knowing quite how long a film is going to be can sometimes lead to interesting experiences, and I was a little startled when what I anticipated would be a brief coda to the film’s story of one person’s tragic fall from grace turned out to be the start of a whole new section of the movie. The tone and focus of this is quite different: it is less intense, much lighter and more gentle. The change of gear is a startling one, but Shults makes it work. I imagine it is the first half of Waves that audiences will find seared into their memories, but it is the second which gives the film its scope and depth.

Again, this is on some level a film about race in America – were Tyler’s father not such a hard taskmaster to him, the story might have a very different outcome, but Ronald sees himself as having no option given the extra challenges they face as African Americans – but only tangentially so. It works so well because it is about recognisable and believeable people, and as such it benefits greatly from a terrific set of performances, mainly from the family members (in addition to Harrison, Russell, and Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry plays the stepmother), but also Lucas Hedges and Alexa Demie.

However, for all the power of the story (which is considerable), what really gives the film its impact is a bravura directing job by Shults himself. The movie opens with a sequence which lights up the screen with colour and movement, the kind of thing that would surely count as showing off if it weren’t so clearly a considered piece of work. Throughout it is vibrant and colourful without ever seeming garish or lurid; choices which might seem affected – at a few key points, scene transitions take the form of swirls of colour filling the screen – are somehow absolutely of a piece with the rest of the movie.

In short, I liked Waves much more than Moonlight; I liked it much more than most films I have seen recently. ‘Liked’ is a funny word to use, for this is a serious and intense film, and not easy to watch in places – but its pace and vitality keep it very watchable, and the manner in which it resolves means it does not come across as something wholly downbeat and depressing. I am genuinely surprised this film has not received much greater acclaim and awards recognition, for it is a hugely impressive movie, and I am very curious to see what Trey Edward Shults does next.

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There are times, particularly in the summer, when it seems like hardly any films of interest get released from one week to the next: this is mainly because studio tentpole movies take up residence multiple screens for week after week, squeezing out smaller films – in the multiplexes at least. And then there are times, January normally being one of them, when half a dozen potentially interesting movies get released at the same time. It probably has something to do with awards eligibility, and the general sense that the start of the year is when serious, quality films make an appearance.

One consequence of this is that the cinema schedules can get very crowded, with some films forced into less-than-optimal slots. It’s a fair bet that a new Terrence Malick movie is never going to set the box office actually on fire, but even so, you would expect it to draw it some kind of an audience. Putting it on in the most prestigious screen in central Oxford hardly makes up for a start time before noon. But there we go.

There was a time when Terrence Malick seemed to have stopped actively making films entirely: his career is still to some extent defined by the long gap between Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line two decades later. Latterly, however, his output has become almost conventionally regular, and perhaps it is a consequence of this that some of the mystique surrounding him and his work has dissipated a little.

That said, Malick’s A Hidden Life is still a highly distinctive movie. I turned up knowing relatively little about it, just recalling a good-looking trailer about people up a mountain in central Europe, and so it was a little surprising when the first recognisable person on-screen was Adolf Hitler, appearing as himself courtesy of newsreel footage. The scene is thus set: we are in Austria, after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany, and a caption delivers the crucial bit of exposition that all men serving in the army at the time were required to swear an oath of personal loyalty to Hitler.

Much of the film is set in the small village of Sankt Radegund, which is principally of interest as the home of the protagonist. He is Franz Jagerstatter (played by August Diehl), an ordinary farmer, well-liked in the community and very happily married to his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner). It initially seems that the rustic idyll is well and truly in effect, for the impression Malick creates of the simple pleasures of village life is extremely persuasive.

Then, of course, things change, as Franz is ordered to report for military training. This he is prepared to do, returning home after the fall of France, with the war seeming to go well for the Reich. However, as time passes, he grows increasingly troubled by the actions of the Nazis, not least their persecution of the church (he is a devout Catholic). As the war begins to go against Hitler, the moment he and his family have been dreading finally arrives: he receives his call-up papers. He will be required to fight for Hitler, and take the oath of loyalty to him.

Needless to say, Jagerstatter has serious objections to this, but simply refusing to serve is not really an option. Quite apart from the personal consequences to him, there is also the question of what will happen to his family – most of the village, while not quite enthusiastic Nazis, are certainly supportive of Hitler’s regime, and if he does refuse to take the oath it will mean opprobrium and contempt for his wife and daughters from the rest of the village. But surely a man must obey his conscience…?

Part of me is perhaps a little uneasy about our continued fascination with the Second World War and particularly the Nazis, but films like this one do an important service by reminding us that there was resistance to Hitler and his ideology from the ordinary citizens of Germany and Austria. In this sense it resembles Alone in Berlin, from a couple of years ago, as both concern small acts of defiance, things that made very little difference to the course of the war or the fate of the regime, but came at immense personal cost for those who carried them out (I realise I have not already made it clear that this is yet another film based on a true story).

In most other respects, however, this is a very different movie, mainly because it has been directed by Terrence Malick in his own inimitable style. The thing about Malick’s films is that they are invariably incredibly beautiful to look upon, especially when the director gets a chance to engage with the wonders of nature. Here the high peaks and endless valleys of the Austrian mountains give him all the raw material he needs, and the results are breathtaking. It may not quite make you want to go and live in a breezy hillside village somewhere, far from the tawdry quotidian grind, but you end up certainly understanding why some people do.

On the other hand, people rarely emerge from a Terrence Malick movie going ‘Yes, that was okay, but I just wish it had been a bit longer and slower.’ A Hidden Life is knocking on the door of three hours in length, and while I enjoy a film that takes its time to get where it’s going as much as anyone (I am a La Flor veteran, after all), on this occasion I’m not at all sure the epic duration is justified by the actual story. Jagerstatter’s wrestling with his conscience is just a bit too laborious and protracted, as is the presentation of the persecution his family must endure… in fact, there’s not one element of the story which isn’t dwelt on at considerable length.

The result is a film that feels heavy and is (perhaps predictably) quite lacking in lighter moments. I’m all for films that deal with hefty moral and philosophical questions, but this one just seems to get bogged down in considering one issue at too great a length. Visually, it is beautiful to look upon, and the performances are also strong (there are supporting appearances from Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz and Franz Rogowski), and you can’t honestly question the importance of the story or the issues that it deals with. But it didn’t need to be quite so big or so slow.

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To begin at the end, just for a change:

‘Can I just mention,’ I said to the multiplex minions on the way out of the building, ‘that I saw a mouse this evening?’

‘A mouse? Where?’

‘Up in screen three.’

‘Where in screen three?’

‘Right there.’

This was turning into an old Ronnie Hilton song, and I attempted to head off this unwelcome development. ‘It was scurrying down the aisle in the middle of the movie. I don’t think it had a ticket.’ The last part probably wasn’t necessary, in hindsight.

Now, if I were running a cinema, the existence of rodents running amuck in the auditoria would be a cause of some concern for me, but the minons looked amused more than anything else, and not particularly inclined to do anything. They thanked me for raising the issue but did not look particularly inclined to break out the elephant gun, or indeed the butterfly nets.

Then again it seemed to be weird behaviour night at the Odeon, for quite apart from the staff being on the happy pills and our four-legged-friend acting like it owned the place, I distinctly saw one person sitting on top of another in the back row of the same screen we were in. God knows the seats at Odeon are not always great, but even so. It was almost enough to distract one from Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, which would have been a regrettable occurrence.

The movie is another of those based-on-a-true-story dramas which we tend to get a lot of at this time of year. In this case the story mostly takes place in Alabama, in the late eighties and early nineties. Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic young lawyer fresh out of Harvard, who – despite the understandable misgivings of certain family members – heads down to the state to set up an agency specialising in giving legal support to prisoners who have no other access to it. It almost goes without saying that this meets with a certain degree of resistance from some of the locals (they have trouble getting office space, and so on). Assisting him in this is a dedicated local woman, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).

One of the men who Stevenson encounters is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), on death row after being convicted of the murder of a young white woman. McMillian is a bitter man who has surrendered to despair after being very ill-served by his court-appointed lawyers, but Stevenson quickly becomes convinced that McMillian’s conviction is profoundly unsound – the case for the prosecution was founded on the evidence of a felon, offered in return for a deal, while the testimony of dozens of McMillian’s friends and family providing him with an alibi was not even considered in court. Proving his innocence would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter – but there is a deep-seated resistance to re-opening the case, and institutional prejudice in the D.A.’s office and the sheriff’s department. Does justice still mean anything in this part of America?

Truth be told, I turned up to Just Mercy quite prepared to be very glib and cynical about it – I believe I may even have referred to it a little dismissively in passing as ‘a quality drama in which a young lawyer confronts racial prejudice’ and as being part of a slew of ‘social justice movies about the Black experience in contemporary America’, the subtext being that this was a fairly calculated attempt to create something that feels timely, with the right kind of political stance. And to some extent it is exactly this kind of movie, which has certainly appeared in cinemas at just the right time to potentially draw awards attention.

You can certainly sense the film trying to position itself, not least as part of a feted tradition of American movies about racial issues in the southern states: Just Mercy repeatedly namechecks To Kill a Mockingbird, and there is certainly a touch of In the Heat of the Night to the various scenes in which Jordan clashes with the local establishment. Other elements of it do feel just a little too much like studio Hollywood – Tim Blake Nelson comes on and delivers an arguably slightly overcooked performance as an eccentric felon, and Rafe Spall is a touch too weaselly as the District Attorney opposing a review of the case. Brie Larson has been issued with a somewhat unflattering hairstyle and is doing a thick accent, which are basically signs this is the sort of ‘character’ performance with the potential to get a comely young actress nominated for things.

And yet, and yet. As mentioned, I turned up fully prepared to keep my distance, decode the movie’s political anglings, keep track of the boxes it was ticking, and so on – but rather to my surprise, I very quickly found myself being thoroughly drawn into the story and actually coming to care about the characters and their situation. I have very little explanation for this other than the fact that the film falls back on traditional film-making virtues like a well-written script, strong performances, and capable direction. It also treats the viewer with intelligence, which shouldn’t be worthy of a mention but sadly is. There is not one element of the film which is openly flashy or attention-grabbing or gimmicky, but as a whole it works highly effectively: the film is powerful and moving while remaining, for the most part, understated.

In the middle of it all is Michael B Jordan, who gives an excellent performance. Jordan has been turning up and doing good work in all manner of movies for the last few years, and here he gets to lead a big, serious film, and does so with impressive aplomb. He brings strength, dignity and nobility to the part, without overdoing any of these things; he also manages to project vulnerability and occasional naivety at the same time. As the film goes on there is a tendency for him just to be given a lot of speechifying to do, but he even handles this very well. He shows every sign of becoming a significant figure in mainstream American cinema.

In the end this is a film about racial tensions in contemporary America (although there is a convenient distancing effect provided by the fact it’s set over a quarter of a century ago), which also has things to say about the grotesqueness of capital punishment. But it works so well because it focuses on the characters as human beings, rather than openly being about a theme or having a particular message to give. By the time the film does put its cards on the table, at the very end, it has earned your attention and guaranteed you listen to what it has to say. This is still not the most original movie around on this theme at the moment, but it is still one of high quality and well worth your time.

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Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.  It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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When you give your movie a name like Chaplin or Ali, there is an implicit assumption involved that your subject is so famous and significant as to need no further introduction. There are multitudes of people in the world named Ali, and quite a few with the surname Chaplin, but it’s taken for granted that people are going to know who you’re on about. With both the films mentioned above, it’s a fairly safe bet, but there really are relatively few people with the same kind of mononymic recognition factor. It helps if you have a fairly distinctive name to begin with, of course.

Which brings us to Benedict Andrews’ Seberg. The name is certainly not a common one, but on the other hand its owner – the actress Jean Seberg – is a relatively forgotten figure these days, who stopped making movies in America nearly fifty years ago. I doubt many people could even name a Jean Seberg movie: I probably know a bit more about obscure old movies than the average person, and I would have really struggled. To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about Seberg (or Seberg) before going in to see the movie; I thought Jean Seberg was French, and that I would be in for something stylish and possibly a bit pretentious about French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.

Mais non. The film takes place about a decade later, in a milieu vaguely similar to that of Tarantino’s last movie (I would imagine; didn’t see it), primarily Hollywood in the late 1960s. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is flying back to the States from her home in France, ostensibly to make Paint Your Wagon – but, rather to the despair of her agent, she is tired of just being decorative in dumb commercial movies and wants to use her celebrity and wealth to achieve something more worthwhile. On the plane she encounters Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a radical civil rights activist and sometime associate of the Black Panthers.

Seberg is attracted to the cause – and, not to put too fine a point on it, Jamal himself – and becomes a donor to the various programmes and other good causes he oversees. The two also begin an affair. However, Seberg’s involvement with a political radical brings her into the crosshairs of the FBI, which is in the process of implementing J Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO programme of targetting and disrupting domestic political organisations deemed to be subversive. Seberg is initially surveilled, then later finds herself persecuted by the agency, even as the agent in charge of leading the surveillance against her (Jack O’Connell) finds himself doubting the morality of the orders he is given.

So, not so much a floaty art-house thing about the French New Vague and Jean-Luc Godard as something verging on being another movie about the Plight of Black America (I get the sense there are a few of these imminent). Some of the publicity for Seberg describes it as a ‘political thriller’, which strikes me as pushing it a bit, but there are political themes here, as well as story elements which are often to be found in thrillers. That said, it’s also about Jean Seberg as an individual, and key events of her life, handled very much in the time-honoured biopic fashion.

Whatever else we say about this movie, I think the time has come for the world to stop squabbling, take a moment, and agree that Kristen Stewart is a very capable and charismatic performer. Yes, she started her career in the Twilight movies, but everyone has to take the breaks they’re given: Steve McQueen was in The Blob, Sandra Bullock was in Bionic Showdown, and Scarlett Johansson was in Home Alone 3, after all. I have been as guilty as anyone of yielding to a little internal ‘uh-oh’ moment when Stewart’s name appears near the top of a movie’s cast list, but as often as not she has turned out to be one of the best things in it. The same is true here: this is a serious and committed performance. Stewart is perhaps lucky that Seberg has really slipped from the collective memory, so she doesn’t have to go all out and attempt an actual impersonation, but this is still good work.

Better, perhaps, than the movie deserves. This is a potentially very interesting story, still quite timely and yet (I would suspect) relatively obscure. The early sections of the movie, when it resembles a thriller much more strongly, are genuinely involving and well-paced, asking all kinds of questions – not least about Seberg herself and what motivates her. Is she really trying to use her fame to further the common good, or just a restless young woman making a rather oblique cry for help? (I have to say that if there is any irony in Kristen Stewart playing a photogenic movie star who eschews mainstream work in favour of more personal projects, the movie does not really seem aware of it.) To what degree is her fascination with Jamal political rather than simply physical? The movie leaves the question open.

However, as it goes on the film becomes much more internalised and also slower – definitely more of an autobiographical drama than anything else. It handles the shift in gears moderately well, but the film becomes a lot less engaging. Throughout all this there is also the subplot about O’Connell’s decent FBI agent and his wife (Margaret Qualley), and the strains his assignment – not to mention some of his colleagues – place on their relationship. It breaks up the narrative a bit but doesn’t feel like its contributing a huge amount. I should add that the performances here are never less than perfectly fine, and occasionally rather better than that: Vince Vaughn appears as a veteran FBI agent who is also a prejudiced thug, and is completely convincing in the role – his transformation into a reliable character heavy seems to be complete.

In the end, Seberg is a film with lots of potential that is never completely realised. Perhaps it just assumes a little too much interest in and familiarity with the main character on the part of the audience – there’s something a little odd about this, given that it’s the comparatively little-known nature of the story that provides much of the movie’s appeal. As it is, it’s well-played, but not especially well-written or directed, and ends up feeling a little tonally awkward as a result. But the first half is very watchable – it just runs out of steam as it goes on.

 

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