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Posts Tagged ‘Judi Dench’

Normally the Easter weekend, long and relaxed as it is, is an opportunity for a major studio to put out one of their big blockbusters and hoover up a lot of the audience’s money. Last year it was Ready Player One, the year before that it was Fast and Furious 8. But this year? Nothing of that ilk, really: the odd promising genre movie, perhaps, but the looming juggernaut of Avengers: Endgame has everyone running scared: nobody wants their film to have an effective window of only about six days before the majority of audiences are lured elsewhere. As I often observe, this does provide possibilities for inventive counter-programming, which may be why the highest profile release in the UK at the moment is probably Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan.

As I say, this film arguably qualifies as counter-programming, as it has all the hallmarks of being primarily aimed at, shall we say, an audience of a somewhat more seasoned vintage. Your older cinemagoer, as a rule, is not that fussed about the doings of Captain America or Thanos, but they do like gently-paced films hearkening back to the days of yore, with reassuringly solid British production values when it comes to things like sets and costumes, good looking young people, and ideally a Genuine British National Treasure they are comfortably familiar with. No-one meets a violent on-camera death, if there are any amatory goings-on they are handled tastefully, for the most part, and everything wraps up in more or less the manner you would expect. I tend to refer to this subgenre of the British costume drama as hats-and-fags movies, as the setting of the mid-20th century is betokened by virtually no-one going bareheaded and always having a cigarette or two on the go.

Despite all of that, Red Joan opens in the present day – or something roughly akin to it, assuming we can agree that things haven’t changed too much since 2000, which is when the frame story of this movie opens. Harmless old granny Joan (Judi Dench) is getting on with her innocuous life, occasionally sighing over an old friend’s obituary in the papers, when Special Branch come round and arrest her. Judi Dench under arrest? Outrageous! What can this all be about?

Well, Dench is slapped into an interrogation suite and told she has been implicated in an espionage case in which atom bomb secrets were given to the KGB. The police demand that she tell them everything, which is probably a regrettable choice of words: without going into too much detail, Joan doesn’t start leaking to the Russkies until 1945, but the flashbacks comprising most of the film commence a good seven years before that. I suppose this is an acceptable convention allowing some context to be established for everything going on. Basically, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) arrives in Cambridge to study science, falls into the orbit of a pair of glamorous mittel-European refugees (Tom Hughes and Tereza Skrbova), goes to screenings of Battleship Potemkin, and is generally swayed to the ways of socialism. One of the Europeans becomes her best friend, the other becomes her first real boyfriend and tastefully defoliates her just before scooting off to Russia to join the Comintern.

Then the Second World War starts and Joan is recruited into the British end of the project to develop a working atom bomb. As this is still the 1940s, she is only allowed to be quietly brilliant, and has to spend most of her time typing, filing, and making the tea, but her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) is still much taken with her. Her old friends are well aware of her role in the project, of course, and soon begin to press her to help them: the western Allies are not sharing their research on the new weapon with the USSR, which is surely horribly unfair. For the good of everyone, is it not her duty to help maintain equality by giving the Russians the secret of the Bomb?

When you have a film which centres on the protagonist – a generally sympathetic character – doing something apparently unconscionable like betraying Blighty to Stalin, the thing you really have to do – your number one priority, no exceptions – is to take the viewer on a journey to the point where they understand just why the character behaves the way that they do. Red Joan is a movie which is not short on flaws, but one of the main ones is that it’s never really clear exactly what motivates Joan to make the key choices that she does. Is it a desire to preserve the balance of power? Is it out of a deep-seated attachment to justice? Is she so engaged with the cause of socialism, or is it just that she has a bit of a pash for the fellow who asks her? Is she even sure herself? Obfuscation reigns.

This may well be because, having been handed a lot of little-known and potentially fascinating material – the race to develop the atomic bomb, the Cambridge spy rings, the whole issue of links between left-leaning British intellectuals and Stalinist Russia – the film instead decides to concentrate primarily on Joan’s love life. There is the mysterious and enigmatic young foreigner, who is passionately drawn to her! There is her unhappily-married boss, who is also passionately drawn to her! It’s remarkable how alluring a young woman in a selection of berets and sensible knitwear can be (although, to be fair to her, Cookson is more than averagely pretty).

The decision to go with the romantic tosh would be less objectionable if it was better written romantic tosh – but the script for Red Joan is turgid and poorly constructed, with too much to-ing and fro-ing between heated moments in the 1940s and Judi Dench sitting with her head in her hands in the sequences set in 2000. Obviously the film wants Dench on screen as much as possible, but she really doesn’t get material that’s worthy of her – lots of general purpose being-distraught and some painfully hackneyed stuff with her son, who spends much of the film complaining that she never told him she was a KGB spy.

The film even cops out of a proper sense of closure, ending instead with a set of captions revealing the film is based (seemingly rather loosely) on the story of Melita Norwood, a communist sympathiser who was a highly-valued KGB asset for 35 years, yet never prosecuted by the authorities on account of her advanced age when she was exposed. Presumably the decision was made to make a work of fiction rather than a biographical drama about Norwood herself, on the grounds it wouldn’t be shackled by the facts of the case and could be more exciting and engaging. Which is fine in theory, but this film squanders the potential of its real-world source material and also the potential of the fact it is primarily fictitious. The moral decisions at the centre of the story are never really brought to life, and the human relationships never convince either. The result is a film which is pleasant to look at but inescapably dull.

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Tommy Wiseau, perhaps infamously, paid for The Room to run in a Los Angeles cinema for two full weeks, simply (or so the story has it) so it would qualify as a potential nominee for the Academy Awards. Well, you can’t argue with optimism, can you; needless to say The Room did not overly trouble the Oscars that year. Other films also pitch their release with an eye on the awards season, perhaps with better reason, and yet still struggle to make an impact. This brings us to Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, starring – and this may not come as a surprise to you – Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh is known as one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare of our time (as well as the fellow in charge of the first Thor; the one with the crazy moustache in that film on the train; and the guy in charge of the giant mechanical tarantula in Wild Wild West – this is what you call an eclectic CV), but on this occasion he turns his attention to the man behind the plays. The film opens in 1613 with Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre just having burned down when the special effects turned out to be a bit too special. Now he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon and a wife (Judi Dench) and two daughters to whom he is essentially a stranger.

Shakespeare decides to create a garden in memory of the son who he still has such fond memories of, despite his dying of the plague nearly twenty years earlier. Elsewhere, scandal threatens to engulf the family on a couple of occasions, there is a brief visit from his former patron the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), and scenes depicting Shakespeare’s continuing concerns about his legacy, both financially and artistically.

Perhaps the key thing you need to understand about All is True (NB: title is almost certainly not accurate) is that it is the work of Ben Elton, not a man especially associated with the traditional style of costume drama. Elton’s own place in posterity has long been assured simply by his work on the various iterations of Blackadder (and some musicals, if you insist); most recently, though, his highest-profile offering in the UK has been the sitcom Upstart Crow, a comedic take on the life of… William Shakespeare.

I haven’t been able to find much out about the origins of All is True (the film was virtually made in secret) but it’s impossible to believe that Elton’s research for the comedy show hasn’t informed and possibly inspired elements of this film. However, one does get a sense of the writer being hyper-alert to people drawing comparisons between the two, or perhaps with Shakespeare in Love (is it twenty years already? Mercy), and this being the reason why All is True seems to go out of its way to not be remotely funny practically all the way through.

This is the main problem with the film: almost totally bereft of lightness and largely shot in drab, naturalistic colours, with Branagh making much use of long, static shots, it feels like very hard work. Maybe the director was going for a theatrical feel – but instead it just feels inert and mannered, lacking in vibrancy or interest. This is really compounded by the material that Elton has to work with. We still know relatively little about Shakespeare the man – this is one of the reasons why the debates about the authorship of his plays have creaked on into their third century – and what we do know is relatively quotidian. The film makes the point of the fact that Shakespeare led a very ordinary life considering his status as one of the greatest artists in history – here, he is obsessed by his social standing, worried about money and his reputation, and so on. There’s only one really interesting part to the whole of Shakespeare’s life, namely the death of his son Hamnet (five years or so before the writing of Hamlet), and virtually every piece of fiction concerning his later life includes this as a key point; All is True is no exception. As usual, the film smoothly obfuscates the difference between the generally-established historical facts concerning Hamnet Shakespeare and his relationship with his father, and the dramatically fictionalised version of the story Ben Elton has dreamed up.

Oh well. The least you can say about the film is that it looks good (it’s a British costume drama, so no real surprises there) and there are certainly some good performances. There’s nothing wrong at all with Branagh as Shakespeare, even though he is saddled with some slightly iffy prosthetics so he more resembles our image of the great man. Judi Dench is solid in support, while contributing a typically classy cameo is Ian McKellen, who I have to say slightly resembles Vincent Price in Witchfinder General on this occasion. It does seem to me that the film is stretching a bit to cast big names in these supporting roles – Mrs Shakespeare was a bit older than her husband, it is true, but not by the twenty-plus years that separate Branagh and Dench – was there not a slightly younger actress with a bit of gravitas they could have employed? (I’m tempted to suggest Anne Hathaway might have been a good choice.) When it comes to McKellen as the Earl… well, the movie adopts the theory that there was indeed something going on between Shakespeare and Southampton, and that the nobleman was indeed the ‘fair youth’ mentioned in the sonnets. Fair enough, but on what planet would Kenneth Branagh ever refer to Ian McKellen as a youth of any kind? He’s old enough to be his father, whereas the historical Earl was nearly a decade younger. The film awkwardly tries to negotiate its way around this by having McKellen declare ‘I grew old’ but it really doesn’t fix this problem.

Still, at least Branagh’s scenes with McKellen serve to lift the film a bit – much of the rest of it is genuinely quite dull, not helped by the turgid directorial style Branagh has chosen to adopt and the lack of any real incident for long stretches – there’s a lot of gardening, and a slander case, and a scandal about one of Shakespeare’s sons-in-law, and some tensions about the fact that the other is a Puritan in favour of closing all the theatres – but if it was about anyone else but Shakespeare, this story would never have been filmed. I am not really surprised this film has failed to make much impression, either critically or with the wider audience, despite all the talent involved. The problem is that the reason we remember Shakespeare is not because he led a fabulously interesting life and did many interesting things, but because he lived a fairly quiet life sitting in a room writing brilliant stories. The best way to do a movie about Shakespeare is to tell one of those brilliant stories, not make up a distinctly so-so new one about the man himself. I still don’t believe the title of All is True is accurate, but even if it is, it just goes to illustrate why writers are sometimes better off making things up.

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‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).

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Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

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As you may recall, about three years ago I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on its original cinema release. One slightly noteworthy thing about this was the speed with which the showings seemed to be selling out: my companion and I planned on seeing it at the Phoenix, but even several hours ahead of start time, every seat was full, and we were obliged to relocate to the coffeeshop instead. The movie went on to recoup its budget well over ten-fold, which is why a sequel is currently doing the rounds – with, it seems to me, equally formidable success (the weekend matinee I attended was well on the way to being sold out).

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Like the original, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is directed by John Madden, and concerns the doings of a group of predominantly crinkled people living in a residential hotel in Rajasthan. Muriel (Maggie Smith) has been redeemed from her former state as a comedy bigot, and is now a comedy curmudgeon who is helping to manage the hotel. Owner/co-manager Sonny (Dev Patel) is looking to expand, but his impending nuptials are a source of stress and distraction. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Evelyn (Judi Dench) are proceeding with an intense (and intensely British) non-romance. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup have come back as well, and have their own, rather less well-developed plotlines as well. The big new addition for the sequel is Richard Gere (looking not unlike Judi Dench himself these days, it must be said), as an American staying at the hotel whose agenda may or may not be mysterious and significant.

And… well, you know, I saw this one with my folks and they were of the quite sensible opinion that if you hadn’t seen the first movie, you might struggle a bit with this one. It’s not that the plot here is such a seamless continuation, although I suppose you could possibly make a case for that. It’s that the film trades so heavily on the affection established in the first instalment. It’s all the same lovely people again! the film seems to be shouting, delightedly. They’re all doing pretty much exactly the same things! How wonderful is this?

The plot is, to be generous to it, about as underpowered as a tuk-tuk and consists of… well, not very much happening, but it happens (or not) in a very warm and life-affirming way. In an attempt to provide a few new ideas and a bit of incident, the film draws on some interesting choices of inspiration: a subplot about Sonny believing a guest to be a hotel inspector and fawning on him outrageously inevitably recalls Fawlty Towers, while a Ronnie Barker comedy playlet appears to have donated a plotline about one of the guests accidentally putting out a contract on his partner.

Most of the comedy is broad, most of the more poignant and character-based stuff is a little predictable, India remains a good-looking theme park with no other apparent purpose than to provide well-off white people with moments of personal epiphany, with the main Indian character a comic goon: in short, it is all pretty much identical to the first one, with the difference that Tom Wilkinson isn’t in it (for fairly obvious reasons). As you may be gathering, this is a sequel which differs from the original by the minimum amount possible.

In fact, this almost feels like a film shying away from actually doing a story as much as possible. There are inevitably some wedding- and hotel inspector-related shenanigans, but in terms of the main characters, the script really seems to be digging its heels in. Perhaps the Nighy/Dench relationship gets resolved, but not to the point that we actually see them being meaningfully intimate with each other. In a similar way, every single flag the film sends up about one character telegraphs the fact that they are heading for a terminal exit. And yet this doesn’t come to pass. All the signs end up leading nowhere. Perhaps the film-makers decided it would just be too downbeat an ending – or it may just be that they want to preserve the status quo as far as possible, in case a third sequel proves viable.

I wouldn’t rule it out, because for all that I have been pretty lukewarm about this film – if not actually negative – it’s actually incredibly difficult to be actively nasty about it, simply because it is stuffed with charming, likeable actors doing their very best to give some rather trite dialogue and underpowered jokes genuine impact. For the most part, they actually manage it. Maggie Smith can steal scenes in her sleep; Judi Dench can do beautifully subtle nuance while anaesthetised; Bill Nighy could probably do a technically astonishing double-take from beyond the grave.

This is not a great film. I get the sense that if the film-makers could have got away with simply re-releasing the original film under a new title, they would, and that this was the next best option. But it’s not actually a bad one. It is totally innocuous, very easy on the eye, and doing a sterling job of keeping many of the UK’s finest actors gainfully employed. I just find it very difficult to get excited or enthusiastic about it. Hey ho.

 

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Well, look, there’s all sorts of ways I could launch into a review of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, but only one which I know will get every regular reader excited.

In other words – he’s back! I am, of course, referring to my trusty Comparison Wrangler, who in the past has shared with me his considered verdicts on Beasts of the South Wild (‘Waterworld meets City of God’), Silver Linings Playbook (‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’), Hitchcock (‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns’), and Lincoln (‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry’). Circumstances have meant that the Wrangler and I have not been able to go to the cinema together in a ridiculously long time, but finally the stars came right and off we went to see Philomena (Mrs Wrangler came along too).

To be honest, Philomena had not featured prominently on my list of films to see, even though it does feature Steve Coogan, whose praises I have been intermittently singing all this year, and Judi first-person-to-F-bomb-a-Bond-movie Dench, who’s one of those people who seems utterly incapable of giving a poor performance.

PHILOMENA

Based on a true story, in Frears’ movie Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist-turned-government-spin-doctor-turned-unemployed-person (such has been the career trajectory of many in recent years, but at least he managed to dodge jail time), looking to restart his career in some fashion. A chance encounter at a party leads him to Philomena (Dench), a little old lady from Ireland who fifty years earlier was compelled to give up her firstborn son for adoption.

Philomena, naturally, has never stopped thinking about her child, but all her efforts to track him down have come to nothing. Though Martin is dismissive of this kind of narrative from a journalistic point of view, on the most basic level it at least offers him the possibility of selling a story, so he agrees to use his contacts to assist her with her enquiries.

And what follows is the sort of story you would mockingly dismiss if it were presented to you purely as a piece of fiction. I knew very little about Philomena prior to going to see it, and the various twists and jumps in the narrative consistently engaged and surprised me.

The main reason I was indifferent to actually seeing this film was that, essentially, I thought it was a movie about various institutionalised horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church and parents cut off from their children by great distances and long periods of time. I’ve seen that film; I’ve seen that film a number of times, in fact (as The Magdalene Sisters and Oranges and Sunshine, to name but two), and I don’t particularly feel the need to go and see another version of it unless it brings something new and different to the table.

And Philomena does this, mainly because the horrible-Catholic-nun material is sparingly deployed (needless to say this also makes it more effective), and much of the film is instead played as an odd-couple comedy drama. Philomena is sweet, straightforward, uncultured, and decent; Martin is educated, refined, highly intelligent and deeply cynical. The film is fundamentally about how he gives her the answers she has been waiting most of her life for, and how she manages to instill in him a little more humanity and feeling.

The film is smart enough to anticipate the criticism that this type of narrative might not be  more than woman’s magazine sob-story fodder, and gives the film an unexpectedly sharp edge in places: Martin is initially only doing it for the cheque, privately very dismissive of Philomena, and indifferent as to whether the actual resolution to their search is a happy or sad one (both are equally good from a journalistic point of view). You know this won’t last, but it’s still a refreshing perspective to see on screen.

And of course it doesn’t hurt matters at all that the majority of the film is a two-hander played between performers both carved of solid Star. It isn’t even as if Coogan is there to deliver the smart, jaundiced comedy while Dench rolls out the tear-jerking stuff. Both of them get their moments both of comedy and real drama, and both are equally effective. It isn’t really a surprise to see a film in which Judi Dench gives a virtuoso display of acting – but it is, perhaps, where Steve Coogan is concerned. Nevertheless, he matches Dench here.

This is, I think, the fourth live-action movie starring Steve Coogan to be released this year (the third I’ve actually seen, after The Look of Love and Alan Partridge), which is an impressive work rate even before one considers the sheer range of material he appears in. Nevertheless, I think this may be a bit of a watershed moment for Coogan as a performer – it’s not a grotesque, not a comedy turn, he’s not playing an exaggeration of himself or delivering a sparkling cameo. This is a proper leading man performance from someone with serious chops as an actor, and as such this may just be his finest hour at the movies to date (the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film himself are also not to be overlooked).

This is an impressive, well-made, frequently very funny and equally quite moving film, which nevertheless has respect for its audience and doesn’t lay the sentimentality on with a trowel. It’s powered by two extremely good performances from two of the UK’s finest actors, and it’s a bit of a treat. I wasn’t planning to see this film, but I’m very glad I did.

And at the end I looked at my trusty Comparison Wrangler, not even needing to ask the question.

‘Harold and Maude,’ quoth he, ‘meets Finding Nemo.’

He’s still got it.

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It occurs to me that, perhaps, there’s rather more riding on the success of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall than is really ideal for what should be a wholly celebratory golden anniversary outing for the modern world’s greatest hetero-normative fantasy icon. The fact remains that the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is not well regarded, and I’ll admit to wondering whether the much-lauded rethink of the series under Daniel Craig was actually such a wise idea after all – perhaps Casino Royale just had novelty value to commend it after all.

Nevertheless, for the time being at least, a new Bond movie remains a big event and Skyfall has arrived, preceded by an enormous bow-wave of bespoke advertising and tie-in products. This is undoubtedly the biggest movie of the Autumn, possibly one of the four or five biggest movies of the year in terms of profile. It all adds up to a very high set of expectations.

So how does Skyfall measure up to them? I’ll happily confess to being such a big fan of the series that any Bond movie looks good to me the first time round, but – despite a few misgivings which we’ll come to presently – I’m pretty sure this is an outing which will find a place in the upper echelon of the franchise.  The script, from regular Bond screenwriters Purvis and Wade, with John Logan, is so packed with twists and turns and surprises that it would be a shame to describe it in any real detail. Suffice to say that it features an embattled Bond (Craig) in pursuit of a brilliant cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) – a man with, it would appear, a suspicious familiarity with both MI6 and its long-time director, M (Judi Dench)…

The first thing to be said in Skyfall‘s favour is that it’s such a relief to see a Bond film which obviously isn’t afraid to be a Bond film. For me Quantum of Solace came across as much too earnest and even a bit timid – Skyfall kicks off with a terrific, full-scale chase through Istanbul, which showcases immaculate action choreography while still managing to set up the themes of the film to follow. ‘Relax,’ the film seems to be saying to the audience, ‘you’re in the hands of professionals: we know exactly what you’ve come here for.’

What follows doesn’t quite count as Bond at its most outrageous, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the action quotient. Any shortfall in Skyfall on this front is more than made up for by a (relatively) thoughtful and subtle script. In some ways it revisits territory from several of the Brosnan Bonds – at one point Bond is accused of being a superannuated relic of bygone days, and he’s depicted as a much more vulnerable, self-doubting, battle-scarred (in every sense) figure than usual.

It’s a bit of a wrench to go from the relatively inexperienced Bond of Craig’s first two movies to the veteran he’s portrayed as here (the plotline left hanging concerning the Quantum syndicate is never mentioned), but this allows the film to develop a rich seam of ideas all related to the theme of age and regret and mortality. There’s an almost valedictory atmosphere to a lot of Skyfall – one senses the Bond legend being dissected, obliquely, before one’s eyes – which is finely sustained, even when such a tone is clearly not in earnest: Bond is ultimately infallible and indestructible.

This is by no means a heavy film, however, possessing a very dry sense of humour that suits Craig and Dench well, and issued with some very good jokes indeed. Albert Finney pops up as a crowd-pleasing comic relief character, while the revamp of Q is also winning: Ben Whishaw makes the boffin a mixture of spod and steeliness and his relationship with Craig also promises much for future installments. (This is a fairly gadget-light Bond film, with the major exception of a classic Bond item which gets a major role in the third act.)

While Skyfall gets the tone of a Bond movie pretty much bang on, I’m not sure about some of the substance: there isn’t exactly a proper Bond girl in it, for one thing, but funnily you don’t notice that much. More of an issue is the nature of the plot, which is uncharacteristically introspective – this is very much a personal drama, with little reference to the world beyond Bond and his colleagues.  On a related point, Javier Bardem’s performance as a particularly psycho Bond villain has a peculiarly reptilian campness to it – it’s by no means unnuanced, but at the same time it’s much bigger than anything else on display in the movie and occasionally seems to be going for laughs when they’re not completely appropriate.

Nevertheless, this is winning, blockbuster entertainment. And, strangely, my overriding impression of Skyfall is of a movie completing the process of reinventing Bond which began in Casino Royale. Every Bond film of the last two decades has had to try to find a way of living up to the legend established in the previous three, and while I’m not sure Skyfall is obviously more successful than any of the others, by its conclusion all the pieces – the tone, the wit, the regular characters – all of these are in place, as fresh and exciting as one could hope for. This looks like a series near the top of its game, getting ready to conquer the world (as if that would be enough).

(Now, if they’d only move the gun-barrel sequence back to the start of the film where it belongs…)

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When I was living in Asia, I spent a lot of time in the company of other ex-pats, and most of the time this was a very enjoyable experience. The only thing that sometimes angered me was the fact that some of my fellow visitors appeared to be treating the country in which we were living as some kind of vast theme park, existing more as a venue for them to have excitingly new and daring experiences than as a real place occupied by real people with real lives. To me this is about as bad as a blanket rejection of any kind of foreign experience, and it verges on the worst kind of poverty tourism.

I was reminded of all of this stuff by John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a Magnificent Seven of veteran British acting talent is assembled for an undertaking which is intent on warming our hearts or dying in the attempt. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup play a collection of ageing English types, who are forced by the generally crappiness of modern life to relocate to a retirement hotel in Rajasthan, run by ambitious but clueless entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel). They are all there for various different reasons – Dench has been widowed, Wilkinson is on a deeply personal quest, Nighy and Wilton are financially embarrassed following some bad decisions, Smith is there for a hip replacement, and Pickup and Imrie are there seeking to put it about a bit. Needless to say their exposure to Indian life leads all of them to reassess their lives, view the world in a different light, etc etc etc.

Well, the cast is the major draw of this movie, which seems to be doing rather well – I couldn’t get into a showing at the arthouse and had to go and see it at one of the local multiplexes (recently converted from proper cinema to coffee-shop-with-movies-showing-in-the-back), which also seemed to be doing jolly good business. That a movie with these big names involved should do well is not a surprise – what’s slightly bemusing is how they got them all in the first place.

This is just a very long-winded way (sorry) of saying that the script is nowhere near as good as actors this talented deserve. Most of the best bits are in the trailer, and practically all of the really funny bits. I didn’t laugh much at all through most of this movie, and, to be perfectly honest, was slightly disturbed that other people did. A lot of the mirth-provoking material early on comes from Maggie Smith’s character, who is basically just a nasty bigot. I am sure the film-makers’ defence would be that she’s a silly comedy nasty bigot and that people are actually laughing at her rather than with her. I’m not so sure, I sensed a degree of warmth towards her coming from around me. Needless to say she is rehabilitated by her subcontinental experiences, along with everyone else.

Once everyone pitches up in India the film does become rather episodic, with some of the cast members dropping out of sight for quite long periods. Some of these threads are rather insubstantial – to be honest, the whole film is really incredibly slight when you step back and look at it properly. So we get Judi Dench giving matronly (and not at all patronising) advice to the workers in the world’s least believeable call centre, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie on the prowl, Tom Wilkinson doing something I’d better not spoil, Maggie Smith becoming less of a nasty bigot, and so on, prior to a vaguely mechanical and definitely predictable conclusion.

A lot of this is broad and knockabout stuff, not especially engaging but not actually offensive either, on its own terms, but the problem with this material is that it gets in the way of genuinely interesting and thoughtful stuff about some of the other characters. As one might expect, Judi Dench is particularly good in a slightly heavier role. However, it’s Tom Wilkinson who is the best thing in the movie: there’s a moment where Wilkinson gently expresses his incomprehension at another character’s refusal to engage with India in any positive way that is simply terrific. On the other hand, Bill Nighy really gets very little to do compared to the others, which was a bit disappointing.

This sort of leads us to one of the issues with the film, which is that some of these actors simply don’t look old enough to be considering life in a retirement community – Celia Imrie is still in her 50s, for crying out loud. More important, however, is the fact that the film is supposedly set in India, but could just as easily be occurring in Narnia.

If we’re discussing modern British movies about India, then two words slouch implacably towards the conversation and those words are Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel is in both movies (though here he’s playing much more of a stereotype), which makes the comparison virtually obligatory. Slumdog Millionaire is set in India, but treats it as a real place, where complex people live complicated, difficult lives: it doesn’t indulge in spurious exoticism. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does exactly that – in this movie India is essentially a plot device, exposure to which allows the characters to indulge in a bit of cathartic self-realisation. Most of the Brits in this film are hardly rounded individuals, but they get a better deal than the Indians, who are virtually all ciphers.

And as a result, detached from reality and mostly bereft of any genuine sense of loss or pain, the film doesn’t earn the life-affirming pay-offs it’s clearly angling to achieve. The cast is very good, and mostly do the best they can with what they’re given: but what they’re given is rather ‘safe’ comedy and predictable, Richard Curtis-inflected emotional beats. One emerges with the overwhelming impression that, for these characters, India’s importance is solely as a catalyst for Emotional Growth – and in the modern world, as a basis for a movie, that’s surely every bit as blinkered and outdated as any of the attitudes we’re supposed to laugh at when they’re produced by Maggie Smith’s character. A slight movie, made worth seeing by the actors, Tom Wilkinson in particular. But only just.

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