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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Flynn’

As you may have noticed, I like dodgy old horror films and Japanese monster movies. You may not. This doesn’t mean either of us is weird: it just means we are different people. However, what it does mean is that I am more likely to say kind things about a dodgy old horror film or Japanese monster movie than you are, and you should probably bear that in mind when thinking about asking me for film recommendations.

I mention this because every now and then a film comes along which gets favourable reviews and a bit of a buzz about it, and which a lot of people seem to really like – and when I eventually get around to seeing it, it really doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s moments like these which lead one to have a sort of nano-existential crisis about the whole reason for and value of writing about films on the internet: is this supposed to be some kind of useful semi-objective assessment of whether something is worth watching? Or just a string of feeble jokes and clever-sounding observations meant primarily to divert and entertain, with an acquaintance with the actual film strictly optional?

Bearing all this in mind, you can probably have a fair guess at which way this is going to go, but so be it: under discussion today is Simon Stone’s The Dig. (I’ve been trying to avoid reviewing too many Netflix movies hereabouts, but what the hell: one every now and then isn’t going to do too much harm.) The title is very much from the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin school of nomenclature, but perhaps there are hidden depths to be (ahem) excavated.

The movie opens with Ralph Fiennes making a journey by rowing boat, carrying a bicycle: this is at least easier than doing it the other way round. It turns out Fiennes is playing auto-didact archaeologist Basil Brown (not much like Indiana Jones, but they do have vaguely similar hats). The year is 1939 and Brown is off to see a potential new employer.

This person is Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner in a damp part of Sussex. Pretty is played by Carey Mulligan. There has been a lot of fuss about what constitutes fair criticism of a Carey Mulligan performance recently, so I fear that if I suggest that her main role in this film is basically to be rather like Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley, but (one would assume) for less money, I may be taking my life in my hands. It’s probably too late to worry about this now, though.

Mrs Pretty is keen for Basil Brown to examine her mounds. (Don’t tut: the film itself uses almost exactly the same gag.) She has several of these on her land, and she, and the local archaeological establishment, think they may possibly date back to the Viking period. Basil thinks they may be even older, and once they have come to terms (the princely sum of £2 a week changes hands) he gets busy with his spade.

Well, at the risk of spoiling the history of British archaeology for you, one of the mounds turns out to have the Sutton Hoo National Trust site hidden inside it. This is big news, and gets the top boys from the British Museum in rather a lather. But can they conclude the excavation of the site and its treasures before war breaks out and this turns into yet another war movie about Plucky Britain Standing Alone?

My own excavations of the history of The Dig have revealed that, for a while during its development (this is another film which has been over a decade in the works) it was going to be a BBC Films production. This did not greatly surprise me, because it’s the kind of thing that BBC Films considers a good fit for them: period setting, true-story angle, reasonably meaty parts for respectable actors, and so on. It’s what I tend to refer to as a hats-and-fags movies, by which I mean that the historical setting is primarily evoked by the fact that everyone wears some sort of titfer and tends to have a ciggie on the go at all times.

And, obviously, it achieves all the minimal competencies in this area. Beyond that, however – well, at the risk of descending into cliché, it really seemed to me to be a film of two halves, one of which was rather more interesting and original than the other.

The first part of the film is – how can I put this? – quiet and still, more about atmosphere and figures in a landscape than anything else. Music plays gently as the characters contemplate the land and its history: the reassuring certainties of the past are implicitly contrasted with an unknown but turbulent-looking future (perhaps it’s no surprise that this film has struck a chord with audiences in Britain, at least). Mulligan and Fiennes are basically front and centre throughout, and the film is as much about what they don’t say to each other as what they do – in parts it almost resembles a big-budget gender-tweaked version of Ted and Ralph, with Mulligan playing Charlie Higson’s part.

Then, rather earlier than I expected, the secret of the mounds is revealed and the film undergoes an abrupt mid-point change-of-gear: a lot of new characters descend, played by the likes of Lily James, Johnny Flynn and Ken Stott, and all that lovely stillness and thoughtfulness is largely dispelled. Those old standbys of the British costume drama, class and repressed emotion, take up major roles in driving the plot: the brilliant but working class Basil Brown is disparaged and patronised as the authorities try to take the site off him, someone else turns out to have a photogenic chronic medical condition, an unappreciated young wife (her husband is possibly implied to be gay) engages in a destined-not-to-be romance with a character with no historical basis, and so on.

I mean, it’s not awfully done, but at the same time it is very generic stuff, no matter how well-played it is. It’s almost as though the film-makers struggled along for as long as they could, trying to make something distinctive and atmospheric, touching on genuine ideas, but then they cracked under the strain and resorted to a lot of bits and pieces of plot which don’t seem to have any particular focus, and honestly feel a bit soap-opera-ish.

And yet, on the other hand, lots of people like this kind of thing, which is why British period drama films are such a fixture of the schedule (and the Downton Abbey movie made £200 million). So perhaps I shouldn’t gripe too loudly: this is, in a sense, a genre movie, and it’s silly to complain about a genre movie featuring the tropes of its own genre. If you like this kind of thing, you will probably enjoy The Dig – it looks nice, the story hangs together, and the acting is good. But it did seem to me that, by the end, history and archaeology in general, and Sutton Hoo in particular, had largely been forgotten about, and I thought that was a shame.

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Every now and then I do like to go to the cinema with my parents, partly because I think it’s nice to share one’s interests, also because I imagine it’s a bracing experience for them to watch the latest Fast and Furious or whatever. Of course, we also go to see things that they are genuinely looking forward to: last autumn we went to see the Downton Abbey movie, and just recently we saw Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (This movie has been slightly irksomely styled as Emma. in some places, with the final . apparently indicating that this is a – wait for it – period piece. I think we should put a stop to this sort of thing.)

I don’t want to engage in lazy generalisations any more than is absolutely necessary, but watching the new Emma I found myself sort of flashing back to the last time I was out with them. Maybe films aimed at – how can I put this delicately? – a more seasoned audience have this much in common, by which I mean that both Downton and Emma seemed to me to have a definite ‘comfort viewing’ quality to them. It is almost obligatory for the makers of new films based on famous, well-loved books to announce they have found a bold, exciting new approach to the material resulting in a movie the like of which has never been seen before. Not only does this generally turn out to be palpably untrue, but it would be a bad idea even if they could somehow manage it: the kind of person who goes to see a movie based on a Jane Austen novel is not, I would suggest, looking to have a startling, world-upending experience. They want to see something with pleasant-looking people attending balls, riding around in carriages, and swanking about in top hats and Empire-line frocks, a wedding at the end and no bad language.

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is unlikely to outrage the sensibilities of its target audience, regardless of what the marketing department has come up with. Anya Taylor-Joy, who up to now has mainly distinguished herself by appearing in horror movies, plays Austen’s heroine on this occasion. Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy, comely, and brainy daughter of an eccentric country gentleman (Bill Nighy), who – finding herself spared most of the usual imperatives compelling young women to seek an advantageous marriage – is quite content to stay single and amuse herself. This usually takes the form of trying to organise suitable matches and otherwise orchestrate the lives of her friends and neighbours. Most of them, such as her new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), are sufficiently dazzled by Emma’s beauty and wit to go along with this, even when it causes them some personal inconvenience. The only person who seems to be less than entirely thrilled by Emma is her neighbour and close acquaintance Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn).

However, the social scene in the area becomes rather more complicated, with the arrival of a startling number of eligible young bachelors and nubile young ladies, and Emma begins to find herself on the verge of actually doubting her own cleverness and understanding of everything that’s going on around her. Could an opportunity for learning and personal growth, and maybe even romance, be on the cards?

Well, whatever else you might want to say about Emma, it is certainly a very agreeable film to look upon: the compositions are lovely, and the costumes and sets are also of a very high standard. Given all this and the period setting, I found myself thinking ‘There’s almost something of Barry Lyndon about this’ – the crucial difference being that there is no sense of the film’s visual style being part of a thought-through creative vision.

My understanding is that Autumn de Wilde has come to film directing quite late in life, and that prior to this (her debut film) she has paid the bills by working as a photographer. She certainly does seem to have that facility with the visual image that I mentioned earlier, but hasn’t quite yet acquired an accompanying sense of how to establish character and tell a story. There is a fair deal of plot to contend with here, and various Messrs. Knightley, Elton, Churchill and Martin to keep track of: I would suggest it is sometimes not always as easy to follow the story as it ideally could be. Nor does the story really to spring to life: it just sort of ambles along, not disagreeably, for a couple of hours.

That said, it should still probably do quite well for itself, as it does contain the appropriate quotients of top hats, Empire-line dresses, balls, carriages, etc. It is absolutely ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a standard-issue Jane Austen movie, and whether or not that is a problem is really up to the individual viewer to decide. The only surprising creative choice I could discern is the use of traditional folk music on the soundtrack – I liked this a lot, but it has an earthy, genuine quality entirely at odds with the carefully-managed visual style of the rest of the movie. If nothing else it does present Johnny Flynn, a brilliant musician in addition to being an able actor, with an opportunity to sing as well as play the lead. (Flynn gives a very decent performance, along with most of the rest of the cast, but if you ask me he would be a slightly more obvious choice to play Heathcliff than a polished Austen love interest. Still, I suppose this is a bit of a step up for him.)

I found it very hard to warm up to Emma – it’s an agreeable film, obviously, and decently made, and no doubt it should do very well with the audience it has been made for. But it feels strangely inert and unengaging; it’s not particularly funny, nor is it lushly and sweepingly romantic – it honestly does feel like the story was very secondary to the look of the thing. It does look good, but a satisfying movie needs more.

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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.

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