Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jessie Buckley’

When it comes to Rupert Goold’s Judy I find myself in grave danger of repeating things I’ve already said at least once this year. Within the wonderful world of cinema there is, of course, space for many weird and niche subgenres – I recall relatives boggling, many years ago, when I sat down one evening to watch a documentary focusing on Mexican luchador wrestling horror movies – but I never really thought of the ‘biopic focusing on the declining years of a Hollywood star, preferably set in the UK’ to be one of them. But it seems I could be mistaken: a couple of years ago we had Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, then earlier on this year there was Stan and Ollie, and now we have Goold’s Judy Garland movie.

The resemblance between Stan and Ollie and Judy is particularly pronounced – to the point where they both feature the impresario Bernard Delfont as a character – and one wonders why nobody on either production noticed this, especially when you consider that both have been made by the film wing of the BBC (hence all those UK settings). Oh well – I suppose that sometimes there’s just a natural, obvious way of telling a story, and you may as well stick to it. The potential downside to this is that you end up making exactly the film everyone is anticipating, which can be a problem.

The movie flashes back and forth between Judy Garland’s early career in the late 1930s and early 40s, where she is portrayed by Darci Shaw, and the late 1960s, by which point she has turned into Renee Zellweger. (It will probably come as no surprise if I say there is rather more Zellweger than Shaw in the film.) By this point Garland’s life has become dismayingly chaotic – she is hugely in debt, unable to get work, rootless, addicted to all kinds of substances, reduced to dragging her children on stage with her in small-time shows. One of her ex-husbands (Rufus Sewell) begins proceedings to take custody of them. The only bright spot seems to be her new friendship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a young entrepreneur.

Desperately needing money, Garland agrees to a stint appearing at the Talk of the Town in London, as this will provide funds for the custody battle if nothing else. But the ghosts of her past are hard to shake off, and her assistant/minder (Jessie Buckley) finds that she really has to earn her money getting Garland on stage, on time, in a fit state to perform every night. Is this residency in London the start of a new beginning for her, or just another stage in her decline and fall?

Well I think we all know the answer to that one, as part of Judy Garland’s still-potent allure is the heady mixture of Hollywood glamour and pervasive tragedy surrounding her: no matter what her talent as a singer – and the film does not equivocate in its presentation of her as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century – if she had turned her life around and retired into obscurity, she would not be the legend she remains today. But the film suggests this was never really an option, that the manipulation of her life by Hollywood studio bosses from a very young age, and the pressures of stardom, hollowed out Garland as a person – such was the focus on her image as a star that the real Frances Gumm disappeared somewhere along the way, and Garland was left only having any real sense of who she was while performing to an audience.

It’s a tragic story but it does rather lend itself to the style of performance that Renee Zellweger opts to give: she is playing Garland the icon, all sass and vulnerability, the brittle diva. It’s an impressive physical transformation, to say nothing of Zellweger’s recreation of Garland’s vocal style. All together, it’s very much one of those full-on I-want-an-Oscar-and-I-want-it-now turns, and I wouldn’t bet against Zellweger snagging a nomination at least. But I’m not sure she does any more than hit the marks you’d expect in a Garland impersonation; I don’t think she necessarily finds anything unexpected in the role.

Nevertheless, she does dominate the movie (as you would expect). This is almost a shame as the film does feature some very capable performers who are perhaps a bit underserved as a result – most obviously Jessie Buckley, a tremendously capable singer and actress herself, doesn’t get a huge amount to do as Garland’s handler. The brevity of Michael Gambon’s contribution as Delfont is also somewhat disappointing. A pleasant surprise is a brief but affecting appearance by the magician Andy Nyman (creator of the brilliant Ghost Stories) as a dedicated Garland fan, acknowledging her enduring popularity with a particular fanbase. I feel obliged to mention the faint oddity of John Dagliesh showing up as Britain’s King of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan, but manage your expectations: we don’t get to see Renee Zellweger giving us Judy Garland’s cover version of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (the film would have been a bit more interesting if it had).

On the whole the film sticks pretty closely to the template for this kind of thing, with the hugely talented icon given humanity by the insight into their human failings and frailties. The film plays this rather smartly – it doesn’t shy away from depicting Garland as being demanding, needy and often nearly impossible to work with, but at the same time ensures she retains audience sympathy by the inclusion of the flashbacks depicting her treatment by Louis B Meyer and others: treated as a commodity from a very young age, not allowed to eat or sleep properly, manipulated by the studios to the point where it virtually constitutes abuse. Cynical and desensitised though I obviously am, I still found these scenes to be affecting and I was surprised to find myself quite angry on Garland’s behalf; likewise, the climax of the film proved to be unexpectedly moving.

It’s not quite enough to lift the film to a higher level – it doesn’t provide the same insights as Stan and Ollie did, for example. It gives you the Judy Garland you’ve heard about and are expecting to see, but not much more than that. It is well-mounted, decently-scripted and the performances are generally well-pitched. It’s by no means a bad film, but whatever power and emotion it acquires are derived entirely from its subject.

Read Full Post »

There’s a sort of running gag in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn’t even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn’t usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don’t – I remember Billy Connolly’s joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be ‘My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)’; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from ‘dull normal to borderline moron’ (needless to say, Clint doesn’t stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the ‘whiskey on the cornflakes’ element of it.

Harper’s film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let’s press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she’s obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?

This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone’s critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year’s update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from – they’re both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they’re really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.

This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There’s a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.

However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It’s relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I’m not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they’re a bit of a character and can carry a tune.

The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn’t. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn’t feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn’t afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.

The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There’s a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob’s performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he’s playing himself), but it doesn’t really advance the story, while the film isn’t afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we’re left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).

Nevertheless, Wild Rose is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we’re at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it’s always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo’s ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley’s film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of them was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.

Read Full Post »

Oh, my stars and garters, there really is no escape at the moment – not content with having released a movie that has made $700 million at the box office in rather less than a week, it even seems like the people at Marvel are sneaking out other movies which sound kind of like they could be one of theirs. We went through a brief period of this sort of thing in 2014, with the release of Fury and Nightcrawler, and now it seems to be happening again with the appearance of Michael Pearce’s Beast.  Just to reiterate: this is not a Marvel Studios or X-Men-related film, but something rather more modest; in fact, as a low-budget British movie from a first-time director and featuring no-one with much of a track record when it comes to the big screen, it probably qualifies as a piece of counter-programming, aimed at people who honestly couldn’t give a stuff where the Soul Stone happens to be lurking. Nevertheless, this is a superior movie and a worthy recipient of your attention.

It’s never really made explicitly clear, but Beast is set on Jersey, one of the islands in the English channel. (One notes that the French release of this movie is under the title Jersey Affair, which is arguably misleading in quite a different manner, suggesting something flippantly romantic.)  The focus of the story is Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman from a well-off background who has, shall we say, a somewhat troubled history. Her situation is not helped by her demanding family, especially her domineering and manipulative mother (Geraldine James). After she finds herself upstaged by her sister-in-law at her own birthday party, it all gets a bit too much for Moll and she goes off on a bit of a bender. This shows every sign of going badly wrong for her until she is saved by a gun-toting stranger (Johnny Flynn). He is Pascal, a charismatic rogue and a bit of an outsider; if they had tracks in Jersey, he would be from the wrong side of them.

There is instant chemistry between Moll and Pascal, and her family’s attempts to keep them apart are counterproductive. Soon they are a couple. However, before long there is a cloud looming over the relationship – the island has been troubled by a string of abductions and murders, and a family friend – perhaps motivated by his own feelings where Moll is concerned – lets her know that Pascal has a dark past, and is in fact a suspect in the latest killing. All this seems to do, however, is force Moll to confront the darkness in her own personal history which she has tried to forget. Now she has questions to confront, though: is Pascal the killer? And, honestly, does she really care either way?

Well, as you may have gathered, the tone and substance of Beast has rather more in common with Cracker than Bergerac; indeed, I think it is fair to say that while the film starts off looking like a fairly bleak drama, it soon develops into a highly engrossing thriller, and by its conclusion has actually started to resemble a psychological horror movie. The closing sequences in particular feature some events and imagery which people turning up to enjoy a nicely overwrought romantic drama with a picturesque backdrop could well find a bit too much to cope with. My instinctive point of reference is to compare it to a Lynn Ramsay movie, but it is not quite so impressionistic in its assembly: nevertheless, the fusion of cinematic artistry and narrative strength is highly impressive for the most part.

This is not to say that the film ever completely loses the depth and strength of characterisation established in its early scenes. I was not at all aware of Jessie Buckley prior to this movie, and was startled to learn that much of her background is in musical theatre: this is a proper movie acting performance, naturalistic but compelling. For the film to function you really have to understand why Moll, basically, makes a succession of questionable – if not outright bad – choices, and thanks to Buckley you do, and it is completely plausible. The movie takes its time to get going, building the oppressive details of Moll’s life – taken for granted and disregarded, squashed by their middle-class respectability, you can see why she feels the need to go a little crazy sometimes, and why such a bold act of rebelliousness – which is what her relationship with Pascal starts out as – holds such appeal for her.

The drama is consistently impressive throughout but the thriller element is perhaps a little more mixed in its execution. The serial killer plotline is partly notable for the way in which the protagonist of the film essentially becomes that much-demonised figure, the girlfriend or wife of a suspected murderer. We have all seen how such people get treated by the media, and Moll remains sympathetic enough throughout the movie for the scenes of her harassment by the press and treatment by the police to be slightly uncomfortable viewing.

There’s also a terrifically tense and uneasy interrogation scene in which Moll is questioned by the senior detective on the case – a well-played cameo by Olwen Fouere. Once again, you know that wise choices are probably not going to be high on the agenda here, but you can’t help hoping otherwise.

Later on, though, the psycho-horror component of the story comes more to the fore, and the way in which the thriller element is resolved would probably be unsatisfactory if this was at the core of the film. The least you can say is that the film keeps you guessing as to how things are going to play out right until the final scenes. By this point the film has, to some extent, left conventional reality behind, but it has carried the audience with it all the way, and the conclusion, if not comfortable viewing, is both memorable and satisfying.

Fine cinematography and assured editing just add to the quality of Beast, which is one of the most impressive debuts I can remember seeing. One can only hope that it finds the audience it deserves and that everyone involved is likewise rewarded. Well worth seeking out.

Read Full Post »