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Posts Tagged ‘Jamie Bell’

‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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A moment’s investigation and thought would reveal that James Bond films, like white Christmases, are not as common as they once were. Back in the sixties and very early seventies, when Sean Connery (and, briefly, George Lazenby) held the post, your average wait for a new Bond movie was 1.3 years. This drifted up to 2 years throughout the time that Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were making the films. Since then, however, with Pierce Brosnan and most recently Daniel Craig, this has shot up to an average gap between films of 3.7 years.

What this means for the quality and standing of the franchise I am not entirely sure, but what it means for the folks at Eon Productions, makers of the official Bond series for 55 years now, is that they have a lot more time on their hands than has sometimes been the case in the past. So what are they going to do with themselves while not arguing with Daniel Craig’s agent over the size of his fee and coming up with damn silly ideas about Bond and Blofeld being long-lost brothers? Well, apparently they have decided to branch out and do other things, with the first fruits of this diversification being Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. (Eon’s last non-Bond film starred Bob Hope and was entitled Call Me Bwana – a poster for it appears in From Russia With Love – which should tell you how long they’ve been ploughing their very particular furrow.)

The vaguely Drop The Dead Donkey-esque title probably suggests something more offbeat and spiky than is actually the case, for this is one of those supposedly true stories based on a memoir of the same name by an actor named Peter Turner, detailing his relationship with Gloria Grahame, a noted actress of the 1940s and 50s. Jamie Bell plays Peter, and Annette Bening plays the star.

The film opens in 1981, with Grahame being taken ill while preparing to appear on stage in the north of England. Rather to their surprise, the various members of the Turner family (Peter’s parents are played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) find themselves caring for the clearly ailing star, who has fond memories of them from her prior romance with Peter. But how did the two of them even get together, given the difference in their status and age (she is, not to be indelicate about it, rather older than he is)?

Well, the movie jumps back and forth between 1979 and 1981 to fill in the details of the story: Peter and Gloria meet while staying in the same lodgings, bond through a shared love of disco dancing, go and see Alien together on its first release, and so on. She takes him to Los Angeles to meet her family (who are all surprisingly British – Vanessa Redgrave and especially Frances Barber make the most of their single scene), and so on. (However, and this is rather odd given that Gloria’s affection for Julie Walters’ character is crucial to the plot, we don’t see their first meeting.) But then her suddenly-erratic behaviour leads to a breakup. Can her time with the Turners at least bring about some kind of reconciliation between them?

On paper this looks a little like one of those films about ostensibly ordinary people coming face to face with the magic and artifice of the movie business – I’ve heard it compared to My Week with Marilyn – filtered through the lens of it being a somewhat nostalgic period piece, looking back to the late 70s and early 80s (there is the predictably banging soundtrack of songs from the time, and some utterly horrid wallpaper). However, it never quite works this way, not least because Gloria Grahame is not really that well remembered as an actress nowadays – I couldn’t have identified her from a picture, nor named any of her films, even the one she won an Oscar for (The Bad and the Beautiful, apparently), and my knowledge of old movies is not bad.

As a result, she almost becomes the stock figure of the Fading Movie Star rather than a recognisable person. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because the story works just as well as a simple relationship drama – it’s pushing it to call this a conventional romance – between two characters who are well-drawn and exceedingly well-played. Most of the attention seems to be going to Annette Bening, who is indeed very good (it’s the kind of role which gets called ‘unflattering’ and wins the actress involved plaudits for ‘bravery’), but Jamie Bell is equally effective in what’s arguably a slightly more challenging role. As mentioned, the supporting cast is impressive, too.

It probably goes without saying that this is a very atypical Eon movie, with no exploding crocodiles or satellite death rays to be seen, and you do gradually realise that despite the cleverness of the production in working around and disguising the fact, this appears to be quite a low-budget movie. Could they have a future in this sort of thing? Well, maybe. (One suspects Eon may have used some of their clout to secure the use of footage from Alien, amongst a few other bits and pieces, which I’m guessing wouldn’t usually come cheap.)

However, the question remains of what this film is actually, really, truly about. Gloria Grahame’s former status as a movie star is rather peripheral to the plot, and it doesn’t really seem to be making any specific point about this kind of age-gap relationship. The emphasis is always on the personal and the particular, rather than anything with universal resonance and applicability, with the result that the film always feels quite low-key and introspective. The fact that the arc of the movie is essentially predictable from very early on isn’t really a positive, either.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a cleverly-made and well-constructed movie, driven by a gaggle of extremely good performances which may well attract attention during awards season next year. However, for all of its quality – and there are certainly some extremely moving moments in the course of the film – given the calibre of the stars involved, not to mention the pedigree of the Eon marque, it can’t help feeling just a little bit small-time. Still, perhaps the start of a productive new direction for one of the great British movie companies, so you have to wish it well.

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Where, oh where, is one to start when it comes to Josh Trank’s new adaptation of Marvel’s venerable Fantastic Four? The first and perhaps most obvious thing to say is that this movie is currently experiencing the doomsday scenario when it comes to media coverage; the story is not the fact that the film has been made, the story is the fact that the film has been made and is a creative disaster. There is a definite note of gleefulness in the recounting of the various travails of the production, now it is officially awful, and critics of all stripes seem to be competing to put the boot into it in the most extravagant way possible.

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As ever, when this happens, you might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that this is a film without any redeeming features whatsoever. Of course, that isn’t the case, but it would be a real stretch (no pun intended) to describe this film as being actually entertaining to watch.

The comic origins of the Four date back to 1961 and are so tied up with then-contemporary concerns like the Cold War and the Space Race that they are virtually impossible to plausibly update (as the makers of the 2005 film discovered), and so the new film draws more on the retooled story from Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. So we get to meet brilliant but dweeby science prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his rough-diamond best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who together manage to invent a dimensional teleporter for their school science project.

This gets them into the Baxter Institute, a hothouse for young genii, where Reed is put to work on a full-size version of the same device, working alongside fellow young scientist Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and her brother Johnny (Michael B Jordan) – somewhat to the chagrin of the project’s initiator, older student Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

Needless to say they all get the thing built, and needless to say their first trip in it does not go according to plan – their visit to ‘Planet Zero’, as the place in the other dimension is christened, sees them bombarded with strange energies. Doom gets left behind and the others return to Earth mutated in a variety of horrible ways. Luckily the caring folks of the US Army are there to look after them, weaponise them, and restart work on the dimensional travel project, because there’s no possible way Doom could have survived and been transformed into a genocidal supervillain…

The new Fantastic Four movie does one absolutely astonishing thing, something I would’ve said was virtually impossible – it manages to make the 2005 and 2007 films about the quartet look like masterpieces of authenticity and faithfulness when it comes to this particular comic. There is a case to be made that Fantastic Four #1 marks the point at which modern superhero comic-books came into existence, its success paving the way for all Stan Lee’s subsequent riffs on the idea of troubled superhumans: the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, all of them followed the Fantastic Four.

And yet the book has been singularly ill-served in its cinematic adaptations – there was the 1994 version, produced as the movie equivalent of an ashcan copy and never intended for release, and the 2005 and 2007 films, which were hamstrung by a number of problems, not least a fatal uncertainty of tone. I have a feeling that following this latest fantastic farrago, it will be declared that the Fantastic Four is inherently unadaptable for the big screen. Personally I don’t think so – ten years ago you could have said the same thing about Captain America, considering the lousy films based on that character up to that point – but, for good or ill, I don’t run a major studio.

Unfortunately, in this case the tail seems to be wagging the dog as there is a suggestion that the troubles of the film may be partly responsible for the FF’s comic being cancelled earlier this year. Putting it very simply, this is again to do with the complicated legal status of many of Marvel’s best-known characters when it comes to screen adaptations: Marvel Studios has the film rights to the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and so on, but the rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and a few others were sold off long ago, which is why these movies don’t cross over with the others (and why there was great excitement in fannish circles when it was announced that Sony were effectively leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, following the underperformance of Amazing Spider-Man 2).

There was a suggestion that Marvel actually wanted Fantastic Four to fail, in order to leverage their buying back the rights here as well, and that the comic’s cancellation was part of this. Personally I doubt this was the only cause, as – for whatever reason – the book was selling very low numbers anyway. But, if Marvel wanted a failure, they certainly seem to have got one, as this movie is apparently bombing.

This is not really surprising, given that – in an impressive display of the belt-and-braces principle in action – Fantastic Four manages to be terrible in two completely different ways. First of all, the movie is sub-competent in terms of its basic film-making and story-telling: it’s poorly scripted, sluggishly paced, with some extremely variable special effects work. There seem to be three or four different stories fighting for supremacy, resulting in a distinctly odd narrative structure and some weird shifts in tone across the movie. It starts off, for instance, looking like the friendship between Reed and Ben is going to be one of the key elements of the story – but then Jamie Bell vanishes out of the film for quite a long time, and while later scenes make reference to the guys’ relationship, you never really feel it.

But what really kills the film is the seemingly-deliberate way it sets out to actively avoid providing anything you might expect from a Fantastic Four movie. The comic, at its best, is bright and funny and wildly imaginative – Stan Lee’s gift for knowing comedy and Jack Kirby’s penchant for cosmic grandeur never found a better outlet, but on the other hand ‘cool’, ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ are never words you could use to describe it. Trying to make it any of those things is doomed from the start. (A friend of mine casually said that he never cared for the Fantastic Four, but he was excited about the profane, cynical, and graphically-violent adaptation of Deadpool coming next year.)

And yet we end up with a film with a predominantly grey and metallic colour palette, and a mid-section which treats the Four’s powers as the stuff of Cronenbergian body-horror rather than superhero fantasy. Any sense of joy and fun is ruthlessly hunted down and crushed, and there’s barely any sense of the characters even liking each other, let alone being a team, or a family. And some of the creative decisions are virtually incomprehensible: the character set out on the journey that will give them their super powers for reasons which are entirely self-centred and rather petty (not to mention that they’re drunk at the time). The Invisible Woman doesn’t even get invited along for the trip. (It’s hard to think of a moment when Sue and Ben even talk to one another, to be honest.) Most jaw-dropping is the choice to reveal that Ben’s catch-phrase (‘It’s clobbering time!’) is what his abusive elder brother used to say before beating him as a small child.

And, of course, the film gets Dr Doom as spectacularly wrong as the previous version, once again crowbarring him into the team’s origin story and completely reinventing the character. (He’s only referred to as Dr Doom once, and that’s meant to be ironic.) I suppose that Dr Doom represents everything that makes the Fantastic Four ‘difficult’ to adapt for the cinema. Quite apart from the fact that he was the proto-Darth Vader, he’s an operatic, grandiose, OTT villain of the purest kind, perfectly at home in an operatic, grandiose, OTT book. Just as this film bears no meaningful connection to the book, so its version of Doom bears no meaningful resemblance to one of comics’ greatest bad guys.

You can kind of see why the studio wanted Josh Trank, director of the really-quite-good Chronicle, in charge of this project, but looking back on it now it’s easy to pick out the signs of things going horribly amiss: Trank telling the cast not to bother reading any of the comics, as this had nothing in common with them, being the one that immediately leaps to mind. As if his career wasn’t in enough trouble right now, Trank has probably not won many friends by taking to Twitter and blaming the studio for ruining his film. This does look like a film which has been badly messed about, but there’s very little evidence that there was ever much to get excited about going on here.

Never mind audiences, the source material deserved better. As it is, I suspect the only chance for the Four now is for the crashing flop of this movie to persuade Fox to cut their losses and sell the rights back to Marvel – and even then I suspect the toxic aura of the last three movies may dissuade even them from making another attempt for the foreseeable future. Looking at the big-screen versions of this comic, I’m reminded of what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: he said it would be a good idea. What do I think of the film adaptation of Fantastic Four? I think it would be terrific if somebody actually had a go at it, because this film doesn’t even make the attempt.

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I always think of this time of year as the doldrums, movie-wise: all the classy and thoughtful awards-bait has been and gone (though I note that The King’s Speech is still hanging on at the local Odeon), while the no-brainer pyrotechnic stuff that will be clogging the arteries of cinema all summer is still a few weeks off (summer seems to be starting earlier and earlier: maybe even late April, this year). In the meantime there’s a variety of mid-range releases on offer – not expected to make major money or win much acclaim. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, by any means.

As a case in point, let’s look at The Eagle, a new movie by Kevin Macdonald (also director of the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland). Based on a venerable and well-respected novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a gritty tale of blood and honour in the ancient past of Britain.

This is the kind of film where you know to expect two things: an opening caption filling in backstory, and wobbly historical accuracy. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, a second-century Roman officer posted to the edge of the empire: Britain. Aquila’s family has been in disgrace since his father disappeared while leading the Ninth Legion into the far north of Scotland, the disastrous loss of troops symbolised by the loss of the army’s standard – a gilded eagle. Aquila is obsessed with redeeming his family’s good name but his efforts seem doomed when he is invalided out of the army following a clash with native rebels.

Then a rumour reaches Aquila: the eagle of the Ninth has been sighted north of Hadrian’s Wall, used by a barbarian tribe in their ceremonies. He sets out into the lawless wasteland to retrieve it or die in the attempt, accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell). Here his life will depend on the loyalty of Esca, who has sworn to obey him – but how far can he rely on the word of a former enemy of the empire?

You might be forgiven for expecting The Eagle to be a fairly standard, blokey, sword-and-sandal romp, very much in the vein of Gladiator and films of that ilk. To some extent this is true – there is a gladiator fight at one point, and very frequent swinging-of-swords throughout – but I found this film reminding me much more of other things. The quest into unknown territory with an ally who’s an unknown quantity, motivated by family loyalty, made me think rather a lot of the recent True Grit – there are some strikingly similar images here – but I was also very much reminded of Shekhar Kapur’s 2002 version of The Four Feathers.

That was a movie with a big budget and fairly big-name stars, which failed – mainly due, I think, to misjudging the tone of the material and making a potentially rousing romp drearily earnest and political. The Eagle, I hasten to say, shows no sign of failure, creatively or at the box office, but it does contain rather more depth than you might expect from this kind of film.

The most obvious expression of this is in the casting of American and Canadian actors as most of the Roman characters, with the Brits played by locals. The decision to intentionally link ‘American’ with ‘occupying army’ is, well, an interesting one. It’s not dwelt upon, though it does produce one rather jarring moment: playing a veteran legionary, Mark Strong is thus required to put on an American accent, which does seem terribly odd. The film does refuse to take sides, too: the Romans and the British are both shown as being equally capable of what seem by today’s standards to be hideous atrocities.

To be perfectly honest, The Eagle – though not a tremendously long film – does take a little while to get going, in terms of the main plot if nothing else. This does actually work in the film’s favour as it uses this time to establish a very strong sense of atmosphere and tone. Ancient Britain is a convincingly savage and unsettling place, almost unrecognisable by modern standards. The wilderness north of the Wall is, quite frankly, horrible, and very, very wet. Horrible in a different way, and less appealing to look at, is the violence which punctuates this film, much of which seems to me to be very strong for its certificate: quite apart from the numerous scenes of burly men hewing at each other with gladii, there’s a scene where someone gets his… well, anyway… and another one where somebody… yes, umm, I think you get the picture.

I enjoyed it all rather a lot, though I wonder how much of it has any basis in actual history (the Seal People, most brutal of the native tribes and effectively the bad guys here, look utterly extraordinary, more like African tribesmen than Celts). That said, the general windswept misery and brooding tone of it all mean that it never quite takes wing as a pure adventure story (the lack of any female speaking parts didn’t bother me, though I did notice it: but it’s hard to imagine how any could have been contrived), while Macdonald quite wisely doesn’t allow the more thoughtful elements to swamp the story of the two main characters and their deepening relationship.

The Eagle isn’t quite up to the standard (no pun intended) of much of Macdonald’s past work, but it works well as an intelligent, gritty, and highly atmospheric action-drama. If most of the movies we got the rest of the year were only as satisfying as this one, I still think most people would tend to consider that a bit of a gain.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 12th December 2002:

Ah, another month, another low-budget British horror film. This time round it’s Michael J Bassett’s Deathwatch, yet another entry in the currently flourishing war-horror subgenera. Personally I put the current popularity of this down to the fact it comes with social commentary (the class system writ militarily) and guns already built in – plus you can do most of your costume buying down the local army surplus store, always a consideration for the cash-strapped auteur

Well, anyway. In Bassett’s film it’s 1917 and – I think I’m spoiling no-one’s illusions here – some British Tommies are having a rough time of it on the Western Front. Standard squad composition is being complied with, to wit: one jug-eared underage volunteer (Jamie Bell from Ballet Idiot – sorry, Billy Elliot), one grizzled fatherly non-com (Hugo Spear from The Full Monty), a few nondescript guys to be cannon-fodder (to continue the dancing theme, a chorus-line of vaguely familiar faces), one psychopathic nutter (Andy Serkis from a certain jewellery-related triptych), one bible-thumping zealot (Hugh O’Conor) and one posh and feckless officer (Lawrence Fox, who’s the spitting image of his dad Edward. Or James. One of the two, anyway). After an assault on the German lines goes somewhat awry, the squad find themselves in a fog-shrouded wilderness, but soon come across a German trench complex with only a few soldiers left garrisoning it. Our heroes gallantly seize control and decide to await reinforcements… but amidst the mud and desolation, something evil is stirring…

Well, sort of. I can’t really decide how many plot twists Deathwatch is supposed to have in it. The basic plot is similar to one of those short stories that occasionally appeared in comics like Battle or 2000AD or Weird War Tales. I can imagine Bassett reading one as a boy and thinking ‘Wow, that’d make a cool film!’ The main problem is, I suspect a large chunk of the target audience was reading the same sort of thing and will guess what’s going on inside the first ten minutes – it’s not exactly subtly presented. The film would probably play much better with the pre-credits sequence of the assault excised – ironic, as it’s the movie’s biggest set-piece. As it is, the film’s big idea – war is hell, literally – lacks the impact it probably deserves.

The other significant problem Deathwatch has is that what works fine in a ten page comic strip is a bit stretched as the story of a ninety-minute movie. Other than the cast slowly being whittled down, not a huge amount happens in plot terms for about an hour and a quarter. There’s no sense of rising tension or slow realisation, just a decreasing number of faces delivering the dialogue. Then we’re suddenly propelled into a fairly effective climax where the truth of what’s been happening is revealed, before it’s time for the credits. Actually, Bassett seems a bit undecided as to how to pitch the horror aspect of his story – the supernatural force at some points seems content to manipulate the characters into killing each other, while at others it wheels out all manner of nasty special effects so it can do the job itself. Coupled to some fairly vague religious and moral themes and the overriding impression is of a confused mess at the heart of the film.

But, looking on the bright side, it all looks very nice – for a low-budget horror, the production values can’t be faulted. Bassett has spent his budget wisely, mainly on the very convincing trench complex. There’s also subtle and plausible use of CGI effects in a few places, most impressively in the form of some alarmingly animated barbed wire. The squalid, soul-destroying nature of trench warfare is well-evoked by atmospheric direction and cinematography; although I suspect the blood and guts aspects have been toned down to get a softer certification. That said, there is lavish use of splattered brains whenever someone gets shot in the head (this happens quite a lot) and an operatically gruesome scene involving a paraplegic and some… no, I can’t spoil it.

Filmmaking dogma has it that one should get a star, any star, if one possibly can, so in employing the dancing duo of Spear and Bell the director was only obeying orders – for all that casting them in a film like this in an attempt to draw in the Billy/Monty crowd is a bit like casting Eminem in a costume drama to try and entice that important crossover rap audience. Hugo Spear is actually rather good, but like most of the rest of the cast Jamie Bell flounders a bit. This is mainly the fault of some uninspired (and quite possibly anachronistic) dialogue. Andy Serkis is, as usual, animated, and Hugh O’Conor is especially good, but this is despite, rather than because of the script.

Deathwatch isn’t actually a bad film. It looks good, it’s occasionally well-directed, the central idea is strong and the cast are all trying their hardest. But this really isn’t enough to make it fly – it needs more grit, more energy, more plot, or even just a better idea of what it’s actually supposed to be. Unsure as to what direction it really wants to follow, the result is a movie as stuck in No Man’s Land as any of its characters.

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