Posts Tagged ‘James Marsh’

You know, until I just looked it up, I would have said that Michael Caine had basically forsworn his once-notorious ‘I’ll do anything’ work ethic and had spent the last few years only doing cameo appearances in Christopher Nolan movies. But apparently not: twenty-one films in the last decade, more or less, which is not a bad average by anyone’s standards. Still, you don’t see the great man in really juicy leading roles very much any more, and the chance to see him in action in just this style was the main reason why I trundled along to see James Marsh’s King of Thieves.

Caine plays Brian Reader, a recently-widowed professional criminal (Francesca Annis, who plays his wife, manages to scrape a prominent billing despite carking it in the opening few minutes) who is feeling his age and perhaps looking for a purpose in life. Now, most people in his situation would probably think about taking up yoga or possibly bowls, but given his past and particular skill-set, Reader decides his last hurrah will be to knock off the vault underneath the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit building, stuffed with cash, gold, jewellry and diamonds.

He duly assembles a crack team, or – to be more strictly accurate – a crock team, consisting of Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse, in addition to the young security expert who is making the whole undertaking possible (a sop to the streaming generation in the form of Charlie Cox). Potentially employed as their fence is an incontinent fishmonger nicknamed named Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon).

Well, as you might expect, things do not go entirely to plan with a team of this calibre (and vintage) on the job, and the traditional heist-movie falling-out between the principals actually occurs before the robbery is even completed. Will the gang of crinkly crims get away with it? Will their clashing egos be their undoing? Or could the police prove to be rather more competent than anyone is giving them credit for?

You know you’ve made it as a British crook when they start making films about your exploits – this has been a flourishing subgenre of the Brit crime movie for many years now. And, before we consider King of Thieves as a piece of entertainment, we should remember that this is a film based on true events (and not even the first one purporting to retell this particular story – The Hatton Garden Job came out last year, and got rather unfavourable notices). All right, so it’s not quite on the same level as some of those jolly fantasies which seem to be just a bit too fascinated by Jack the Ripper and other serial killers, but still – stuff got nicked (most of which remains unrecovered as of the film’s being released). A company went bankrupt as a result. People lost their jobs. You know, just mentioning it.

The film really attempts to skate over this, and initially at least seems to be intent on making use of its cast’s undoubted credentials when it comes to comedy. It is a particularly black, deadpan kind of comedy, mostly revolving around the gang’s advanced ages and the inevitable impact on the execution of the robbery – the look-out keeps dozing off, they have to remember to pack enough of their various medicines and ointments for the duration of the job, and so on. It’s quite broad stuff, but with a cast of this quality it’s still very watchable and entertaining stuff. Even so, to begin with I found myself a little nonplussed: the plot seemed very linear and quite shallow. Would King of Thieves just prove to be another disposable piece of knockabout frivolity, elevated only by its performers?

Well, not quite, because as the film goes on it becomes rather more interesting. What starts off looking like a typical piece of romanticised nonsense glamorising loveable London gangsters actually acquires unexpected depth and grit, and has moments of genuine grit and drama. The gang fall out, in earnest – the cosy camaraderie which initially seems to exist between them is replaced by real tension, and the old saw about honour amongst thieves is shown to be a myth as they set about double-crossing each other with an enthusiasm that belies their years. And here the cast get a chance to show what they can really do: given some of his former roles, it’s hardly a surprise that Ray Winstone can be an effective heavy, but I find I am constantly surprised by Jim Broadbent’s range and ability as an actor. You always kind of expect him to be someone slightly vague and somewhat jolly, but here he turns out to be a genuinely menacing and nasty piece of work, quite capable of holding his own in a confrontation with Michael Caine.

Michael Caine is 85 and it is inevitably a little sad to see him somewhat diminished, physically, by the passage of time: he looks frailer, and it is noticeable that he doesn’t have quite the screen time one might expect; the film seems to have been sympathetically constructed to spread the burden amongst the whole ensemble. But he is still the indisputable guv’nor of this film, still one of the biggest names in British cinema, and he has lost none of his charisma or technical ability as an actor. This is a proper actor’s performance, finding the subtleties of the character and not afraid to be unsympathetic – as the film goes on there’s a suggestion that Reader isn’t just the loveable old burglar he’s initially presented as. This isn’t one of Caine’s best films, but this is still an excellent performance.

There’s nothing very original about King of Thieves, but it’s a pacy and engaging little film and a consistently entertaining one. The gear-change between droll black comedy and semi-serious crime drama is something it never quite manages to pull off as smoothly as it probably needs to, and as I say there is the whole true-crime-as-entertainment thing to consider. But it’s still worth seeing, if only for an excellent cast doing very good work, led by one of Britain’s greatest movie stars.

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Yes, wait no longer – it’s the news you’ve been holding your breath for: have they or have they not improved the rake in the smaller screen at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho? Well – er, no. But I have managed to find the cupholders, they’re now fixed to the back of the row in front in what, it must be said, is not a terrifically convenient position. Ah, life.

A few years ago I saw the well-received documentary Man on Wire and very much enjoyed it, and in the last few days I have been catching up with what the folk responsible have been doing. The producer’s latest offering is The Imposter, currently doing storming business in the UK (by documentary standards, anyway), while director James Marsh also has a new film out: he has returned to the world of narrative with the drama Shadow Dancer, adapted from the novel of the same name by its writer, Prince William’s Mate.

Prince William’s Mate was for some years a journalist in Northern Ireland and the film returns to the closing years of the armed conflict there to find its setting. Andrea Riseborough plays Colette McVeigh, an IRA member (though her dedication to the cause is not absolute). Sent to London to plant a bomb on the underground, she is taken by British security forces and brought to the presence of down-at-heel Five officer Mac, who’s played by the always-watchable Clive Owen. This is quite a small movie and Owen is still quite a big star, and so he qualifies to have his name at the end of the castlist, preceded by ‘and’. A similar thing happens with Gillian Anderson, who plays his boss, except she gets ‘with’.

Owen’s character has been planning this for some time and has the information and leverage he needs to persuade Colette to turn informer on her brothers and their associates, who are also all active in the IRA – this means running a deadly risk, for the Republicans are ruthless with traitors to the cause.

And, of course, if the British do anything with the information McVeigh provides, there’s always the chance she will be identified as the source – they know this, and so Mac is mystified when his superiors appear to be unforgiveably reckless with her safety. Is there a deeper game in progress? And all the time, Colette must do her best to nullify the suspicions of the IRA’s internal security…

Well, I suppose Shadow Dancer is open to the criticism that its story is a period piece – it’s startling to realise that 1993 is nearly two decades ago – and I’m not sure how universally applicable most of its themes and emotions are. This is a film rooted in a very particular time and place, after all. But it has a certain technical polish and achievement which is worthwhile in and of itself.

Chief amongst the film’s qualities is the strength of its performances – Owen is always good, Domhnall Gleeson is typically impressive in a small roll, David Wilmot plays another scary psycho and Aidan Gillen doesn’t quite get enough to do (he’s still in this more than The Dark Knight Rises, though). Ahead of all these, however, must come Andrea Riseborough, who’s rapidly acquiring a reputation to conjure with. I’ve seen Riseborough in a few films now but I still don’t have very much idea what she looks like or how she behaves or speaks: she has an extraordinary chameleonic quality and usually manages to vanish utterly into her characters. Even in a very bad film she is effortlessly impressive, in a very competent one like this she absolutely shines.

The film manages some moments of genuine tension and suspense, and is filled with nasty, telling details – cars endlessly having their undersides checked for bombs, plastic being rolled out to cover the floor prior to interrogations – but the focus on performances is significant. You could probably argue that any story coming out of Ulster in the seventies, eighties or early nineties is ultimately a horror story, but beyond this, Shadow Dancer is much more of a character-based drama than a true thriller. The tone is consistently low-key and naturalistic, and the film carefully portions out its moments of action: these are few and far between. The pace is also not what one would expect from what’s being advertised as a spy movie.

But, having said that, the film is mostly successful: I found the dubious shenanigans going on within MI5 rather familiar, in atmosphere if not specifics, and certainly less engrossing than the depiction of life within the Republican community. This has a rather oppressively claustrophobic quality, but is nonetheless convincing all the same. Despite this, the film never really comes to life as an actual thriller, but its need to obey thriller conventions means that the drama feels like it’s being led around by the nose towards the end. I found the actual conclusion vaguely dissatisfying, in that the characters who genuinely appear to suffer in the denouement are the ones who least deserve to, but then again this is hardly unrealistic, especially in this situation. A more concerted attempt to genuinely give the audience some excitement might have resulted in a much more memorable movie – but as it stands, Shadow Dancer‘s insistence on being first and foremost a naturalistic character drama does not necessarily work to its best advantage.

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Dearie me, you can wait what seems like an eternity for a movie about the troubled life of a chimpanzee raised in a human home and taught sign language as part of a scientific experiment, and then two come along on the same weekend. What are the chances of that happening?

Well, when you have fairly shrewd marketing people on the case, they’re actually pretty good, as James Marsh’s Project Nim certainly seems to be benefitting from riding in the slipstream of an, ahem, Certain Other Movie with which it shares very striking – if ultimately superficial – similarities.

The most obvious difference between Project Nim and the Other Movie is that Project Nim is a documentary, but one which definitely enters stranger-than-fiction territory. The Nim of the title is a chimpanzee, taken from his mother in early infancy to be brought up around humans as part of an experiment to test the language-acquisition capacity of higher primates. As Nim grows and the project develops, he is moved from place to place and forms relationships with a number of different teachers and handlers (many of whom are interviewed for the film – following his death in 2000, Nim himself was unavailable to participate). When the project concludes (mainly due to Nim’s increasing size and aggressiveness) Nim finds himself sent to a primate shelter and conditions far different to the ones he is used to.

Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but suffice to say that the Statue of Liberty remains intact and the dominion of man is unshaken. Nevertheless, this is an engrossing and rather moving film deeply concerned with what it means to blur the lines between human and animal (do great apes count as animals? Even here we raise deep questions).

The focus of the Nim project itself and its findings are not really explored in the movie, which was a slight disappointment to me (teaching a language is my job), but I suppose a disquisition on the nature of syntax and Nim’s inability to engage properly with it would doubtless have been a bit dry for what is, after all, a movie. (For what it’s worth, given that a typical pronouncement from Nim was ‘Tickle me Nim play’, suggestions he never quite mastered grammar seem well-founded.) But the movie is unstinting in its implicit criticism throughout of the procedure.

There’s something odd about the idea that raising an animal as a human being somehow constitutes cruelty – we do the same to our own children, after all – but that’s what the film returns to time after time. And for all their protestations otherwise, all the project participants seem unable to resist treating Nim as an actual person. ‘As Nim grew older he started to behave like a chimp,’ reveals the project leader, which would probably be more surprising if he wasn’t actually a chimp to begin with. It’s clear that this didn’t really benefit Nim at all (or indeed those associated with him: most of the trainers reel off lists of scars they received when Nim got tetchy and bit them).

One of the things that this movie reveals en passant is the deeply eccentric personalities of some of the people involved in scientific research in this period. Nim seems relatively well-adjusted compared to some of them. The project leader, in addition to being surprised to discover his test chimp is actually behaving like a chimp, appears to have slept with practically every other person involved (not Nim himself, I hasten to add) and to not consider this in any way peculiar. Most of Nim’s handlers were, basically, hippies, and this inevitably must have impacted on the ape. ‘I breastfed him for the first few months,’ reveals his initial foster-mother, casually. Later on other handlers introduced Nim to the joys of alcohol and dope – one of them fondly recalls that hanging out with Nim was the best time in his life, with the exception of going to see the Grateful Dead in concert. ‘What can I say, it was the Seventies!’ another interviewee exclaims by way of explanation.

Parts of this film are blackly comic and parts of it are quite harrowing, mostly in the latter stages of Nim’s life. Implicit again here is the fact that while the attempt to teach Nim human faculties may have been misconceived, it’s only this which saved him from a potentially much worse fate – and if Nim is fundamentally no different from any other chimp, why should he alone receive special treatment?

The film raises these kinds of questions but leaves it to the audience to find their own answers to them. It’s a well put-together picture without too many intrusive stylistic quirks, and without the forced surrealism that occasionally made Marsh’s last movie, Man on Wire, slightly irritating in places. The scheduling of its release has probably won it a little more attention than it would otherwise have received, but it’s still an intelligent and moving film that tells a fascinating story with great skill and compassion.

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