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Posts Tagged ‘Florence Pugh’

It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-relatedĀ at allĀ – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.

Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.

Liam Neeson even makes running to catch the train look macho.

Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.

Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…

Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.

Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.

He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.

And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.

It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.

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I am old enough to remember when the word ‘prequel’ was new-minted and sounded vaguely exotic and exciting. The first film I heard it applied to was Raiders of the Forbidden City (as the movie in question was then known), which was a bit of a novelty at the time – these days, of course, you can’t move for prequels, parallelquels, preremaquels, preraquels (this is a term specifically applying to prequels to movies starring the beauty queen and pin-up Ms Welch, in case you were wondering), and all sorts of other things. Yet more Disney stellar conflict prequels are in the pipeline, numerous more visits to Harry Potter world are planned, and H.R. Giger’s little baby bursts back onto the screen in a matter of days (will the line stretch on to the crack of doom?).

You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is yet another egregious addition to the trend, filling us in on the early life of one of Shakespeare’s more memorable psychos. But no: this is actually a literary adaptation of another kind, a transplanting of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to northern England in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Front and centre throughout is Florence Pugh, delivering the kind of tremendous performance that in any sensible world should see her elevated to major stardom pretty sharpish. Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman whom we first meet on her wedding day. We learn nothing about her background or history except that she has effectively been bought as the bride for Alexander (Paul Hilton), the less than impressive son of wealthy landowner Boris Leicester (the magnificently-faced veteran character actor Christopher Fairbank at his most baleful). Katherine doesn’t seem to be initially overly concerned by her lot, but is rather surprised when, on their wedding night, her new husband instructs her to take off her nightdress only to immediately turn out the light and fall asleep.

Finding herself confined to the house and not receiving the attentions she was expecting, Katherine rapidly becomes deeply dissatisfied and actually rather frustrated by her lonely existence in the large and spartan country home of her new family. However, events conspire to see both her husband and father-in-law away on business for an extended period of time, leaving her as the lady of the house. This taste of freedom rather goes to her head, and she promptly starts drinking the wine cellar dry and launches herself into a liaison with one of the hired hands (Cosmo Jarvis) – though initially tentative, this rapidly becomes full-bloodedly enthusiastic.

Eventually, of course, her father-in-law returns and is far from delighted by what he discovers. But it transpires he has severely underestimated the girl he purchased solely to provide the family with an heir – rather than being just a decorative, mousy little thing, Katherine has hidden depths. And it seems there are none she won’t sink to in order to get what she wants…

As you might have gathered, this is obviously a costume drama based on a piece of period literature, but it has none of the cosiness or the delight in its historical trappings that routinely afflicts this type of movie. Lady Macbeth is from the bleaker and darker end of the genre (and that’s possibly putting it a touch gently). At showing I attended the BBFC certification was omitted (an unusual oversight), leading me to wonder exactly what I was in for – having seen it, I now suspect this film is either a very strong 15 or a low 18, and the accompanying disclaimer when it eventually turns up on BBC2 will run along the lines of ‘This film contains scenes of sex, violence, very strong language, and moments which viewers may find upsetting’. Mainstream it probably isn’t – or, to put it another way, it only goes to prove you can get away with no end of blood, horror, frequent nudity, and frantic rumpo provided you’re making something properly cultural.

The film starts off looking like a cross between Wuthering Heights and a fairly typical story about the oppression and repression of desire, and Florence Pugh is appropriately vulnerable, determined, and (dare one say it) sexy in the part. Her warmth and humanity puts you on her side almost at once, and of course she’s instantly sympathetic given the way she is used and abused by her in-laws virtually from the moment of her wedding. The question, of course, is to what extent she deserves to retain that sympathy, as what starts off as a completely understandable search for happiness spirals out of control and Katherine starts to display more sociopathic, and even homicidal qualities. One of the distinguishing things about Pugh’s performance is that she never completely loses your sympathy, even after committing the most appalling crimes. This is ultimately a bleak and very uncomfortable film to watch, given how the story develops – it’s a fair chunk of the way to being a psychological horror movie, and you can easily imagine Pugh leading a Nu-Hammer movie on the evidence here – and not one which offers easy certainties or conclusions to the audience.

Pretty much the only issue I can raise against a film of almost immaculate focus and precision is that… oh, dear, I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here… well, I know we are obliged to discuss the whitewashing of history these days, but it is surely possible to overcompensate in this department, and the decision to make virtually every working class character non-white or of mixed race is actually rather intrusive and a bit distracting. Maybe the film-makers are just trying to make a point about the universality of the story and that race shouldn’t be an issue at all, but given the studied naturalism of most of the film this kind of abstraction doesn’t really work. (Mobs of outraged diversity campaigners with blazing torches please assemble at the usual address.)

I am happy to report that Lady Macbeth, though primarily released as counter-programming to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a couple of weeks ago, is apparently doing really well for itself – by art house movie standards anyway. Nice to see that a very impressive movie can do the business financially, especially one as challenging as this. One to watch out for, I would say, and the same is definitely true for Florence Pugh, too.

 

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