Posts Tagged ‘Hugo Weaving’

As I believe I have said, it feels like we’re having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big studio movies at the moment – for the past three years, the other studios have clearly been running scared of the power of Disney’s fully armed and operational stellar conflict franchise, but with them having opted to take a break this December, everyone else seems to be crashing in – there’s a DC superhero movie, a Transformers movie, a sequel to a well-loved family favourite, various animated films for tinier audiences, and so on. Joining a crowded marketplace is Mortal Engines, not directed by Peter Jackson even though his name is all over the publicity. This film has nothing to do with Stanislaw Lem, by the way, but it’s an adaptation of a well-regarded YA novel by Philip Reeve.

I have to say the initial omens do not seem to be great for Mortal Engines, if only because this is a lavish fantasy film with a budget somewhere north of $100 million, and it’s ended up showing only twice a day in a very small auditorium in Oxford city centre’s most mainstream multiplex. I went to see it on the evening of the first day of release, and only eight people were there, including myself. These are not the kinds of numbers that bust blocks.

The film itself is a piece of big-budget steampunk actually directed by Christian Rivers, set many centuries after a brief but devastating war using quantum bombs toppled civilisation as we know it. In the aftermath, the various surviving towns and cities ‘mobilised’ themselves (according to the opening voice-over), which basically involved sticking caterpillar tracks, balloon tyres, and little scuttly legs under them. Now these ‘traction cities’ roam around all over the map, and a peculiar ecosystem of municipal Darwinism has evolved, with the larger cities acting as predators, hunting down, gobbling up and assimilating the smaller ones.

Much of the action is set in London, which is now a multi-tiered juggernaut topped by St Paul’s Cathedral, rumbling across mainland Europe devouring any civilised settlement in its path. Noteworthy citizens of the city include zealously visionary engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), non-threatening young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and Valentine’s daughter Kate (Leila George – to be honest, this character is a bit less crucial than the others in plot terms, but I feel obliged to mention her simply because George is such a remarkably pretty young woman – yes, my shallowness runs deep). As the film opens, London is pursuing a small German mining town, aboard which is the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a scarred young woman who is passionate and empathetic but also feisty and resourceful (so there’s a few more boxes ticked, if nothing else).

After a lengthy chase, the German town is dragged into the bowels of London to be disassembled and melted down, its population forced to join that of the larger city. Things take an unexpected turn when Hester, on coming face-to-face with Valentine, coldly tries to murder him: it seems she’s been trying to get onto London for months, for this sole purpose. When Tom stops her attempt at assassination, she lets slip a few facts about Valentine’s shady past before fleeing the city – and as Tom now knows too much, Valentine kicks him out as well. The duo, who initially hate each other in a way that only characters scheduled to end up together are capable of, are forced to wander the wasteland while Valentine proceeds with his evil plan (yes, of course he’s got an evil plan, as flagged up by some fairly clumsy exposition near the start of the film)…

The first thing I must say about Mortal Engines is that you are never in any doubt about exactly where all the money has gone: this is an extremely lavish-looking movie with some tremendous production designs and art direction. The only problem is that it often feels just a bit too obviously designed and directed – this is one of those movies that feels like it’s taking place in its own bubble world. Not that it’s necessarily completely original, of course – the idea of a city on wheels trundling inexorably across the landscape dates back at least to Christopher Priest’s brilliant 1974 novel Inverted World, while you could argue that the whole premise of this film owes something to that of James Blish’s Cities in Flight stories. Personally, I couldn’t help thinking of the Crimson Permanent Assurance from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – but then again, a lot of steampunk films get me thinking of Terry Gilliam and Brazil.

No disrespect to Christian Rivers, who oversees a big and complex film quite competently, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mortal Engines would have been a lot more interesting (not to mention better) if it had had someone like Terry Gilliam in charge of it. As I said, the film opens with a city pursuing a small town across the landscape, but the film seems to have no awareness of its own absurdity – it’s all played absolutely straight, with a kind of earnestness that will probably strike a chord with the teenage audience it seems to be aimed at, but which most of the rest of us will most likely find a bit wearisome. There’s obviously potential here for some kind of subtext about the nature of modern society and some low-key social satire, but it’s one that the film eschews almost entirely in favour of its tale of attractive young people on missions of great import.

The plot of the movie is very undistinguished, broadly speaking: for quite a long time it’s not really clear who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, what they all want, what the stakes are, and so on. When this does come into focus it turns out to be nothing particularly interesting or innovative – this is one of those films that feels like it was written in accordance with a spreadsheet or a tick-list. Here’s the strong-willed young heroine, here’s the love interest, here’s some exposition, here’s an unconvincing romance. Here comes someone from Asia in a significant supporting role (on this occasion it is the South Korean singer Jihae) so they can sell the film in that market, here comes a painstakingly diverse bunch of minor characters who it’s quite easy to dress up as, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat… the script hits all its marks (hardly ever with particular deftness), but it’s almost totally lacking in quirkiness, wit, or any kind of genuine humour. The most interesting part of the film concerns Hester’s back-story and relationship with a kind of clockwork zombie played by Stephen Lang – more of this would have been better, but as it is it just feels like an odd tangent the film briefly wanders off on.

In the end it resolves with a big action sequence and various scenes which anyone feeling the absence of a stellar conflict movie this Christmas will probably find quite reassuring. But even at this point, I was finding myself looking at my watch and wondering which bus home I was going to catch – Mortal Engines is a big, good-looking film, but as a narrative it just didn’t engage with me at all on any but the most superficial of levels. Great world-building, particularly aesthetically, but the actual story is a lot less interesting than I would have thought possible, given the premise of the movie. I think it will struggle to find an audience in a crowded marketplace.

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History is like spicy food: you always notice when it starts repeating on you. One of the very last films I saw in the summer of 2001 before starting to write regularly on the topic was Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston. Now I went to see that with rock-bottom expectations – it was a one-trick series, and the first sequel had seemed extremely tired and mechanical. To be perfectly honest, I only went to watch the tyrannosaurus fight the spinosaurus (yes, that’s how nerdy I can be).

And yet, I really enjoyed it, and it even made it into the Lassie Awards for 2001 as Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Johnstone’s focus on characters, atmosphere, and humour really made the film work much better than it had any right to on paper. As I mentioned, history appears to be repeating itself as I could say practically the same thing about his new movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (possibly trading only as The First Avenger, depending on which country you live in and their geopolitical affiliations).

You might well consider this movie a candidate for our Oh God, Not Another One department as it is the third Marvel super hero movie of the year (to say nothing of those derived from the comics of other companies). I have to confess I had grave reservations about the project, simply because Captain America is a fiercely dull character. It seems to me that his having to serve as the patriotic embodiment of their nation means that writers simply can’t give Cap any kind of personality worth mentioning. That’s not to say that interesting stories haven’t occasionally been told using the character, but they haven’t really been about him.

Captain America is, as you’d expect, a tremendously polished and technically sophisticated movie, but its greatest achievement is in making the title character someone you can actually believe in and even care about (a bit, at least). Chris Evans (note to British readers: no, not him – the other one) plays Steve Rogers, a young man desperate to do his bit for the USA at the height of the Second World War. Alas, he is a scrawny little shorthouse with a long list of medical problems and the army will not take him.

Luckily he is offered the chance to serve by a passing boffin (Stanley Tucci), who shoots him full of – er – blue stuff and then attaches him to the local power grid. As luck, and the magic of dubious 1940s superhero origins, would have it, this transforms Steve into a physically perfect adonis! The army brass breathe a sigh of relief (as do the special effects department, as they no longer have to keep digitally transforming Evans into a wimp). But tragedy strikes as a passing Nazi agent guns down Tucci’s character, who rather thoughtlessly has neglected to write down the recipe for the blue stuff anywhere. It seems that Steve will be unique as far as American super-soldiers go…

…but not quite unique worldwide. It turns out that a previous test subject of Tucci’s is still on the scene. He is the Red Skull (played, as only he can, by Hugo Weaving) and he appears to be in a permanent strop (possibly having no nose or hair and serious complexion issues will do this to a fellow). The Skull has parted company with the Nazis as they are just too moderate and embarked upon his own plan for global conquest. To this end he has got his hands on an ancient occult relic (to be fair, the movie acknowledges what a cliche this has become) and is all set to unleash his nefarious schemes…

Whatever success Captain America achieves – and to my mind it is a considerable amount – all derives from the opening section of the film, which takes its time to establish the characters, the plot, and the tone with great care. This makes for a slightly slow start, but still an involving and enjoyable one. The cast is unusually strong throughout – apart from the people I’ve mentioned, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper and Neal McDonough all make an impression – and the script neatly plays with various concepts of Captain America as a character. Originally created as a morale-boosting wartime icon, he literally becomes that here for a while, before transforming into a much grittier figure clearly based on the Ultimates version created by Mark Millar (Millar is thanked in the credits). For its first half, the movie is always just a little bit wittier, smarter, darker, more knowing, and more affecting than you really expect it to be, and constantly rewarding as a result. (I was a little baffled by Stan Lee’s cameo, obligatory though it is: this isn’t a character he originated!)

That said, the rest of the film does see it settle down to become not much more than an effects-intensive action picture: a fairly successful one, but not much more than that. And the conclusion is… well, odd. You can almost sense the writers scratching their heads about which point they should end the story at, and I’m not sure they made the right decision, to be perfectly honest. I’m not saying it’s a total failure, but the very last beat of the movie before the closing credits fell rather flat for me.

All of this is, of course, down to Captain America‘s status as the latest Marvel Studios picture and the last one before the release of The Avengers next summer. Despite its period setting, this film has quite a few little nods to others in the series – Dominic Cooper is playing Tony Stark’s dad, which may explain why Robert Downey Jr had a version of Cap’s shield in his lab in the last Iron Man, while anyone who saw Thor will have a good idea of where the central plot Maguffin originated from – and elsewhere. (I particularly enjoyed the fleeting appearance of the original Human Torch, which may well be a reference to Chris Evans’ own history playing a different version of that character.) That said, only at the very end did I get a sense of pieces being carefully shuffled around, and this film is quite capable of standing on its own merits.

For me, the Marvel Studios films, while uniformly slick and entertaining, haven’t quite hit the same heights as some of the Marvel movies made by different companies (and here I’m thinking mainly of the X-Men and Spider-Man films). I’d hesitate to say Captain America was the best one yet, but for me it was certainly more satisfying than Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk, and quite possibly edged it past Thor as well. It’s also one of the most satisfying popcorn movies I’ve seen this year: full of good-natured fun and interesting characters, and with a near-total absence of weary jingoism and moralising, this may not be the greatest superhero movie ever, but it’s possibly one of the best interpretations of Captain America in any medium. Highly enjoyable.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 23rd 2006: 

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that once knew someone wanted by the police for non-payment of poll tax. Yes indeed, we lived high and wild back in the old days! And there’s more civil disobedience of various kinds in this week’s movie: James McTeigue’s belated and controversial film adaptation of V for Vendetta, a legendary graphic novel created by artist David Lloyd and a writer of surpassing genius who has declined to be associated with the film in any capacity — a wish I feel obliged to honour. Set in a fascist London, not too many years hence, this is the story of V (voiced by Hugo Weaving), a man transformed into a living avatar of vengeance and anarchy by government-sanctioned drugs tests. Styling himself as a modern Guy Fawkes, with his true face hidden from the world, V is finally ready to set his masterplan in motion, but finds his path crossed by Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman working in TV. V saves Evey from the secret police after she’s caught out after the curfew and takes her along as he cheerfully blows up the Old Bailey, his calling card to the world. A strange bond begins to form between them even as V reveals his ultimate objective: to destroy the government, an act that will be symbolised by his blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Can he succeed where his predecessor failed?

This is a movie that’s had some rather mixed reviews — and that’s probably putting it a mite charitably. To be honest, V for Vendetta is a film that doesn’t easily fit into a neat category. Is it a political thriller? Is it a darkly comic satire? Is it a drama? Or is it just another knuckle-headed comic book adaptation? Well, it isn’t really any of them (and especially not the last one — but then, the original strip was never remotely knuckle-headed either). But I have to say I was impressed by it. It’s a bit difficult to say whether a familiarity with the source material is necessary to fully ‘get’ where the film is coming from, although I suspect many purists will be utterly horrified by some of the changes made to the story (and indeed, He Who Shall Not Be Named was loudly and publically scornful when the Wachowski brothers ran one version of their screenplay past him). That said, many right-thinking people will no doubt also be utterly horrified by a movie which openly aligns itself with a ruthless and deranged terrorist and deals with topics like Islamophobia, suicide bombings, blanket public surveillance and police shootings of innocents in a fairly no-holds-barred fashion.

One quietly impressive aspect to this movie is how much of the essential Britishness of the story remains, with a plot that revolves around the use of British landmarks and folklore (a brief primer on Guy Fawkes forms a prologue for those who don’t know the story), with the US barely mentioned. Admittedly, in parts this is an as-seen-by-Americans kind of British, where the definitively British swearyword is… er… an anagram of ‘sloblock’ and people eat exotic breakfasts like ‘eggy in a basket’ (no, me neither). The script’s faithfulness to the original text also leads it astray at one point – the story has been shifted into the future, resulting in one character talking about how they took their 11 Plus exam in 1996, which is obviously sloblock but an understandable goof [Or so I thought. Suffice to say, you would not believe the length of the debate this sentence provoked – A].

The Wachowskis’ script is generally quite good. Well, there’s an alarmingly arbitrary area of appalling alliteration near the start and a tendency towards rather pedestrian dialogue in the new sections, but most of the wit and the heart of the book survives, if not all of the brain – some of the subtleties and ambiguities are excised (V’s background is presented very straightforwardly, for example). They’ve done a good job in paring back a long and densely written work while keeping all the most memorable sequences more or less intact, if perhaps a little rearranged. It’s not quite perfect: moving the story from a post-nuclear 1998 to a post-viral 2026 requires a bit of creative stitching and the joins show (plus this involves a sequence where V appears to disguise himself as He Who Shall Not Be Named, a bizarrely obscure and no doubt unwanted little homage). More seriously, not only is the end quite a bit different, but it also includes a rather egregious sequence where V declares his love for Evey (yeah, a bit of a spoiler there, sorry). Thankfully, by this point it’s not quite enough to derail things.

As you would expect, Hugo Weaving gives a tremendous vocal performance as V (quite how much, if any, of James Purefoy’s original physical performance in the costume has survived I’ve no idea), coping with some dodgy dialogue with aplomb (apart from the stuff mentioned already, one monologue where V rants about how this twisted future came about is so hackneyed and overfamiliar in its politics that I almost expected V to rip off his mask and reveal a lipo-sucked Michael Moore underneath). Natalie Portman is also good, albeit with a slightly peculiar accent. The supporting roles are filled with very reliable British and Irish thesps, with Stephen Rea excellent as a world-weary copper. The real surprise package is the fourth-billed Stephen Fry, who — while admittedly nearly playing himself — is terrific, hopefully reminding everyone of what a classy and talented serious actor he can be when not holidaying at short notice in Bruge.

Those who know the team behind V for Vendetta solely from the Matrix trilogy will probably be a little disappointed by the lack of action in this movie, and to be fair it is a little simplistic in its advocacy of the politics of violent rebellion. One of the quirks of the original book was that — due to a delay in its original production — a story originally predicated on the impending defeat of Margaret Thatcher at the end of her first term in office (this really did look likely, prior to the Falklands War) eventually became an incensed polemic against Thatcher’s government during its late-1980s zenith. You can say what you like about the current lot but they’re not quite that bad (yet, at least) and so some of the anger seems targetless here. But there’s a real spirit of righteous fury in this film, even if it sometimes seems a little unsure as to who it’s furious with and why. The end result is often moving, thought-provoking and exhilarating, if never quite all three at the same time.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 6th 2003:

Deadlines are unforgiving beasts, and can occasionally force one to thrust an opinion out into the world without, perhaps, giving it the due consideration it deserves. Certainly I have experienced the odd qualm over the past five-and-a-bit months about my declaration that the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded was a contender for film of the year. [And that’s understating it a bit – A] But even so I will happily maintain that it’s a very solid, ambitious and thoughtful blockbuster, with far more substance to it than almost any of the summer’s other big movies.

And the tradition is maintained, in a way, by the concluding instalment of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, which has just hit cinemas. Things looked rough for our cassock-clad crusader and his cyber spatial chums when last we saw them: a machine armada was mere hours away from breaking into the human city of Zion, and Neo had just learned his power as the One was simply another element of the machines’ control systems – but also discovered a hitherto-unsuspected ability to influence the (so-called) real world…

Well, it turns out that while his body’s in a coma, Neo’s mind has been banished to a realm beyond the Matrix under the control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence, soon to be seen in Return of the King, and not-quite-so-soon to be seen in the final Star Wars movie – do you sense a pattern developing?), an employee of the Merovingian. After seeking help from a regenerated Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster – a piece of forced recasting the film just about accommodates), Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph (Collin Chou) set off to rescue him, with the twin threats of the machine strike force and the insane Agent Smiths still looming over them…

Fans of the series will – well, they’ll all have seen it already, so I’m wasting my breath – will have been glad to learn that this is a much pacier, grittier and more straightforward movie than its immediate predecessor, having a bit more in common with the original. Even so, the start of Revolutions suggests we’re in for another mixture of computer-enhanced kung fu and an NVQ in philosophy, the Big Theme this time around – notebooks out, everyone – being Love (Richard Curtis may well sue for demarcation). But after a while the film changes both gear and tone, becoming a much more straightforward SF action-adventure, with very few scenes actually set within the Matrix itself.

This is one of a number of laudably brave choices from the Wachowski’s and one which, for me at least, pays dividends. There are still many eye-popping moments and action sequences, the standouts being a gravity-warping sequel to the original’s lobby scene and a crunchingly unballetic real-world brawl to the death. But the film’s big set piece is the assault on Zion’s docking bay by hundreds of thousands of Sentinels, and the desperate defence by the city’s people. It’s a lengthy, dazzling, special-effects blow-out that bears comparison with similar sequences in both Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the original Star Wars trilogy – and those who know me will know I can think of no higher praise than that.

The cast work wonders in managing to be more than just cyphers standing in front of bluescreen with all this going on around them. The four leads are as solid as ever, even if there’s once again relatively little Hugo Weaving this time round (though we are treated to a sly impersonation by Ian Bliss, the actor playing his human host). Collin Chou gets a beefed-up part, but alas Lambert Wilson and especially Monica Belluci may as well have not turned up for all the material they get. Mary Alice, in a very tough role, performs rather creditably, recalling Gloria Foster without being an outright copy.

With all this good stuff going on, then, I’m sorry to have to say that the bottom line is that The Matrix Revolutions is actually quite disappointing. This is solely because the script skimps unforgivably when it comes to the final stages of the story, which seem underdeveloped and unclear. There are quite simply too many unanswered questions at the end, which rob the climax of much of the power it deserves. (And, depressingly, the door is subtly but clearly left ajar for another instalment should the principals’ finances dictate it at some point in the future). I’m loath to say more, because this is still a breathlessly enjoyable adventure and a conclusion, of sorts, to the story. But the fact remains that it’s only as a visual-effects spectacle that The Matrix Revolutions is truly satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 22nd 2003: 

It has become something of a cliché, but nevertheless a true one, that no-one saw the original Matrix coming. In the summer of 1999 the imagination of the cinema going world had been seduced with the promise of duelling Jedi, droid armies on the march, and the rebirth of the Star Wars legend – and so the impact of the Wachowski brothers’ vision was only accentuated, coming out of nowhere as it did.

This time round things are different. Only a select few films of recent years have been so keenly anticipated as the follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded. This time everyone is watching (the most dedicated through ray-bans). We’ve been here before, of course, and while sometimes our hopes have been transcended, more often we have known the taste of bitter disappointment. So, what’s it to be this time – another breathtaking Two Towers, or a grim revisitation of Attack of the Clones?

Well, readers, cutting to the chase, and adopting the Keanu Reeves idiom, the answer is this: Whoah. In every way, and in the best possible way, The Matrix Reloaded is a mind-boggling experience, and a near-total success.

Six months have passed since Neo (Reeves) discovered his powers as the One, in which time he and the other human warriors have freed many more minds from slavery in the Matrix. But all he, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have achieved is threatened when it is discovered that the machines have launched a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the free city of Zion, which will be destroyed in a matter of days if the assault is not stopped. Their quest takes them in search of the Keymaker, the only being who can give Neo access to the machine mainframe. Unfortunately, Neo’s old adversary Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has acquired unusual new abilities of his own and is determined to get his revenge…

The success of the original Matrix rested upon several things: its unique visual style and startling innovations in effects technology, its wholesale appropriation of the energy and grace of Hong Kong cinema, and its willingness to couple both these things to a script that wasn’t afraid to be cerebral and explore quite complex philosophical concepts.

Well, this potent mixture of pizzazz, pistols, and epistemology is once again at the heart of the film. But there are new elements, too – after a few appetising pieces of action, the Wachowski’s unexpectedly – and probably wisely – take some time to explore new areas of their story and add texture to the existing ones, while establishing’s Reloaded’s themes – control, destiny, choice, and belief. So we see Zion, and the effect Neo’s omnipotence has had both on him and on the people around him. (Several plot elements that will only really come to fruition in Revolutions are also established ). The true nature of the Oracle (the late Gloria Roberts) is also revealed, something which in itself opens up new possibilities.

With things thus set up, the film proceeds to let rip with a succession of the most dazzling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid. The Office Lobby scene from the original Matrix is already legendary – very soon it will be joined by an astonishing sequence in which Neo does battle with a hundred clones of Agent Smith, plus the freeway chase, the fight in the Chateau – the list goes on and on. The special effects throughout are immaculate, but your jaw will sag open only momentarily before you are caught up again in the action.

And when the adrenaline ceases to pump, your brow will furrow as the second part of Reloaded’s formidable one-two punch hits home. If the original was a crash-course in philosophy, this is the Master’s Degree. It doesn’t detract from the story, but the ideas and concepts inherent within it are, well, challenging. Is there such a thing as true freedom? Can we ever really have a choice? Are our lives ruled by fate? Reloaded steps up to tackle all these issues and does so pretty well (although the film can be obtuse and portentous in places). It all builds up to the truly startling revelation of the source of Neo’s powers and the true history of both the Matrix and the real world.

Just so things don’t get too heavy, though, there’s a lot more humour here than there was first time round. Of course, much of this comes from Hugo Weaving’s performance as the increasingly exasperated Smith and the interaction between his various clones (that said, he doesn’t have that much screen time this time round). But there’s also a crowd-pleasing turn from Harold Perrineau as the new Operator, Link, and a very ripe and arch performance by Lambert Wilson, playing a bizarre French computer program Neo and his friends must contend with.

If Reloaded has a flaw it’s that it suffers a little from middle-episode syndrome, plunging into an ongoing story so rapidly that it takes the viewer a short while to get up to speed on what’s happening. This may have something to do with the way the film links into the animated prequel Flight of the Osiris – but then again, even Lord of the Rings has had a touch of this complaint. The end is also not entirely satisfying, opting to conclude not with any sense of closure but a giant cliff-hanger for November’s The Matrix Revolutions (a trailer for which follows the film, and it’s well worth a look unless you have to dash off to catch a bus or something).

What The Matrix Reloaded lacks in novelty value and mystery it more than makes up for in depth, diversity, energy, and sheer gob smack value (both visually and intellectually). Whether this standard can be maintained for the concluding instalment is something we’ll have to wait and see, but for now one thing is certain: we have a strong contender here for film of the year.

[Is it worth mentioning I wrote this thing only a couple of hours after watching the movie? In any case I hope readers appreciate my resisting the temptation to judiciously rewrite this to make myself sound less stupid. Hey ho. – A]

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Even though I am only a pretend film critic (yes, that’s right, I pretend to watch them, then pretend to write about them, and if you’ve any sense you’ll only pretend to read the results) occasional issues approaching actual seriousness do occasionally occur to me. For instance: should all films be judged by the same standard? Well, regular readers may recall I’ve already said that one shouldn’t judge older movies by their production values, so in one sense I feel that would be a mistake. But what about the nature of the film? Should that make a difference?

Off down to the arthouse once again, this time to see the debut feature of Jim Loach, son of veteran lefty film-maker and national treasure Ken. It may well come as a surprise to learn that Loach’s movie is a 3D part-animated kung fu adventure set in post-apocalyptic Texas, starring Milla Jovovich… heh, heh. Just my little joke, readers. No, it’s exactly the kind of film you’d expect, given his heritage: a thoughtful, low-key and quietly angry film about the lives of real people: Oranges and Sunshine.

Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in the midlands in the mid 80s, part of whose job involves working with adoptees. One night she is approached out of the blue by a middle-aged woman, who wants her help in tracing her roots: she claims to have been sent to Australia as a young child, along with hundreds of other British infants. Margaret dismisses her story as impossible: unescorted children would not be sent abroad like this. Yet details of other cases reach her, and she is forced to accept that, unknown to the vast majority of the public in either country, the systematic deportation of British children to Australia went on for decades. Some of these children still had parents alive in the UK when they were sent abroad – in some cases they were told their parents were dead. The parents were told their children had been adopted.

Margaret’s full-time job now becomes trying to help the former child migrants piece together their UK roots and, where possible, put them back in touch with their birth families. But the nature of the work and the strong emotions it inevitably stirs up takes a gruelling toll on her and her family.

I probably need to stress again that this is a true story, and that the deportations involved only stopped in 1970 – less than twenty years before Margaret Humphreys uncovered the truth of the scheme. It sounds like the stuff of an absurd conspiracy thriller, and in its opening section Oranges and Sunshine indeed resembles something of the sort: the mysterious stranger stuffing a folder of notes into the lead’s hands, which will prove to be the start of a trail leading to the incredible truth, the painstaking research… and while it lasts this style is very effective.

However, just at the point when you expect Watson’s character to be warned off by her boss, and a cover-up to be attempted, the film takes an abrupt left turn: her employers fully support her in her work, and the film becomes much more about the stories of the Humphreys and a handful of individual migrants. This seems partly to be a matter of necessity – there’s less material in the political angle, and no-one seems to know who was entirely responsible for the perpetuation of this scheme – and partly a deliberate choice on the part of the film-makers. I must admit I found the film slightly less involving once it made this transition.

That’s not to say it isn’t still extremely watchable. More than anything else, this is an actor’s film – Watson is extremely solid at the centre of it, but also delivering remarkable performances are Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. I wonder what it says about modern cinema that these two very fine actors are best known for appearing in films about elves, vampires, rogue computer programs and talking pigs? I’m not sure, but they’re both superb here: I’m not ashamed to admit that Weaving’s performance as a man desperately seeking his birth parents virtually moved me to tears. Wenham is arguably even better in a rather more complex role, as a man who’s led an impossibly hard life but refuses to play the victim or indulge in self-pity: ‘I had to stop crying when I was eight. I wouldn’t know how to start, now,’ he says, matter-of-factly.

Good though the performances are, and however potent the film’s emotional core is, it’s still the case that… well, I can imagine my former writing tutor watching this film and complaining throughout that there’s no mid-point, no climax, no resolution… Oranges and Sunshine may be based on true stories but it somehow doesn’t quite hang together as a cinematic narrative. The different strands don’t really interconnect all that much. One of them eventually becomes central – the story of a group of boys sent to a religious orphanage with a particularly baleful reputation – but even then it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and it seems uncomfortably as if the film-makers (Loach and his script-writer, Rona ‘If we fight like animals, we die like animals’ Munro) have just fixed upon a case of church-related child abuse as something to give the end of the movie a little more oomph – and it almost overshadows the experiences of the other migrants, which is surely not what they intended.

And, as I say, there isn’t really a climax to speak of. The film makes it clear that the work of the Humphreys and their supporters continues to this day, and that in the years since the events of the film the two governments responsible have issued an apology – but there’s very little sense of closure at its conclusion. This is a very technically proficient movie, and intelligent enough to present its story in an understated fashion. It looks like a movie, as opposed to a TV drama, and no matter what the Australian government makes of it their tourist board will doubtless be delighted too.

However, to return to my opening question, should a fact-based drama like this be held to the same standards of storytelling as a piece of fiction? If so, then I would have to focus on the flaws in Oranges and Sunshine’s structure and narrative, and say that on several level this film is unsatisfying and disjointed. But the performances are so strong, the emotional content so powerful, and the story the film tells so important and shocking that there may be a case for arguing that in this instance the conventional standards should not fully apply. I’m not sure I know either way. But I would suggest that, should you be interested in deciding for yourself, you take a look at this movie: its possible flaws should not overshadow the definite quality of its performances and ambition.

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