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Posts Tagged ‘Keira Knightley’

The world being in the state that it is, the temptation to sink into a state of stupefied despair is pretty much ever-present at the moment. One of the reasons I love the cinema is that it does provide the chance to escape into a different kind of headspace, a different way of thinking, and forget about the dismal facts of reality. Oddly enough, this still seems to apply even when the film in question brings one face-to-face with some dolorous truths from the recent past – at least, it does when the film is well-written, directed and played.

(Yes, yet another movie poster with Keira Knightley staring out against a black background while her co-stars peer over her shoulders. Knightley takes some stick for always doing the same kind of thing but the publicity people are at least as bad.)

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is set in the early 2000s, in a Britain where huge demonstrations fill the streets, only to be entirely disregarded by the government in power, where a smirking excrescence with no regard for the truth is Prime Minister, and where a comparatively lowly whistleblower has the ability to inflict severe embarrassment on the US administration. How very different things were only a few years ago. The whistleblower in question is Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and communications hub. A keen follower of current affairs, Gun is appalled and outraged by what she sees as the lies peddled by Tony Blair in his attempts to win support for an invasion of Iraq.

Then she receives an email, sent to all GCHQ personnel from somewhere within the American NSA – in an attempt to swing a United Nations Security Council vote, an effort is being made to acquire sensitive intelligence on council members in an attempt to acquire leverage – or, to put it more plainly, they are digging dirt on allies in order to blackmail them into supporting the invasion. (Should I stress that this is a true story?) After struggling with her conscience, Gun eventually decides to leak the top-secret email.

It ends up on the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who quickly realises just exactly what he’s come into possession of. The situation is complex, however – he doesn’t know the source of the document, and has no way of being certain it is genuine. There is also the fact that, prior to this moment, his paper has been in favour of the war. Can the leak be verified? Can the editors be persuaded of the value of the story? And what will the consequences be for Gun if they do decide to publish?

I’ve seen all of Gavin Hood’s last few films – from Wolverine: Origins onwards – and it does seem like his dalliance with superheroes was rather uncharacteristic: he generally seems to make serious films about significant real-world issues. All right, he did make the (possibly under-rated) YA sci-fi film Ender’s Game, which got tangled up in political issues of a different kind, but even there the film quietly explored the issue of using child soldiers (through an SF metaphor, of course). His last film, Eye in the Sky, was a very powerful thriller about the ethics of drone strikes as an instrument of foreign policy.

And, needless to say, Official Secrets is also concerned with international relations, the difference here being that the film is based on actual events. You might think the film already has two strikes against it as a result – firstly, does the world really want to see another film complaining about a war which is now a matter of historical record? And, secondly, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Gun and the Observer journalists ultimately failed in their objective, which was to stop an arguably illegal war. Wouldn’t it just be better to accept things and move on?

Well, maybe, but the film has a couple of powerful things in its favour. Firstly, it deals with what are still arguably very live issues: the opaque nature of dealings within and between governments, the issue of trust, the extent to which a government is constrained by the rule of law, and so on. For a long time I was always slightly dubious about many high-profile whistleblowing cases – there is a case to be made that governments have a responsibility to keep certain information from becoming general knowledge, which means there has to be a mechanism to ensure secrecy. But the film questions just what the limits of this can and should be – the British Official Secrets Act apparently operates on the principle that there are no circumstances in which the release of sensitive information can be justified, regardless of the legality of what is disclosed. From here it is just a short step to the assumption that the government is necessarily right in whatever it does, simply because it’s the government (one of the notions toyed with in Vice, earlier this year). It is surely worth exploring the consequences of this, even if only through a film.

And this is a very well-made and entertaining film: it may tackle some legal and political chewy bits, but it does so with the pace and excitement of a proper thriller, particular in the sequences where Bright and his colleagues try to verify the truth of the leak. Nor is it entirely sombre: there’s a great moment of black comedy when overzealous use of spellchecker threatens to discredit the Observer’s big scoop. There is a great ensemble performance from the actors playing the journalists – Matt Smith’s performance does a good job of reminding you what a charismatic actor he can be, but he is well-supported by Matthew Goode and (in what’s basically a cameo) Rhys Ifans. The film’s other major supporting performance comes from Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, and he likewise makes the most of a strong script. (Most of the characters in this film are real people, but – perhaps fortunately – none of them are especially familiar faces. The only possible exception is Shami Chakrabarti, who appears in the film played by Indira Varma, but as a relatively minor figure.)

This is, of course, a Keira Knightley film – it’s her face which is most prominent on that poster, after all. I think it is fair to say she is one of those performers I have never entirely warmed to, possibly because she seems to specialise in a certain type of tastefully inert costume drama, possibly to the extent where she seems vaguely out of place appearing in anything else (I can’t recall Knightley’s Kiwi accent from Everest without having an involuntary tremor). Here she is, well, good enough to carry most of the movie, although I think it is very possible she is slightly overcooking her performance. There are a lot of tics I seem to recall from other performances, anyway. But, as I say, good enough.

This is a film which may be hampered by a slightly boring title, the sense it is raking over yesterday’s issues, and the fact that it has a poster which is largely interchangeable with that of most other Keira Knightley movies. However, this doesn’t stop it being an intelligent, involving, and very well-made film that manages to deal with serious issues without becoming heavy or slow. Certainly one of the better films of recent months; it gets my recommendation.

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  1. British-occupied Germany, late 1945. Possibly a Thursday.

A train arrives in the ruins of Hamburg. Slim and beautiful RACHAEL MORGAN (Keira Knightley) disembarks. Waiting for her is stocky, troubled British army officer LEWIS MORGAN (Jason Clarke).

RACHAEL: Hello darling! It is I, your slim and beautiful wife Rachael Morgan, come to join you in post-war Germany. I am outwardly very happy to see you again.

LEWIS: Hello darling! Yes, I am your stolid, decent husband Lewis, a well-meaning but perhaps somewhat naïve English soldier (although I am played by an American), determined not to be beastly to the defeated German people, and somewhat disgusted by the crude prejudices of some of my colleagues. I am outwardly very happy to see you too.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

RACHAEL: Of course, although we are both outwardly delighted to be back together, we cannot help but reveal the coldness at the heart of our marriage and betray the existence of an issue which is slowly driving us apart.

LEWIS: Mmm, yes. Although we will only let hints and clues as to what this might be trickle out at dramatically appropriate moments.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

How was your trip?

RACHAEL: No sandwiches on the train.

She cannot meet his gaze.

LEWIS: Stiff upper lip, darling.

2. The grounds of a palatial house near Hamburg.

A car pulls up and LEWIS and RACHAEL get out. Waiting to meet them is tall, handsome, sensitive, decent German man STEFAN LUBERT (Alexander Skarsgard).

LEWIS: Herr Lubert! Please meet my wife Rachael.

STEFAN: Hello, Mrs Morgan. Please tell your husband to stop calling me a halibut.

RACHAEL: Hello, Herr Lubert. I am Rachael, the troubled Englishwoman with whom you immediately feel a deep, passionate connection despite yourself. And who might you be?

STEFAN: I am the sensitive, decent German widower (even though I am played by a Swedish actor) whose home has been commandeered by the British occupying forces for you and your husband to live in, while my daughter and I camp out in the attic.

LEWIS: Thus enabling a clumsy and not very subtle metaphor about the British occupation of Germany itself.

RACHAEL: Is this metaphor particularly resonant with the story we will enact?

LEWIS: Not really, no.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

STEFAN: Anyway, I am also the sensitive, decent German man with whom you immediately feel a deep, passionate connection despite yourself, thus allowing you to move beyond your initial prejudices about Germans.

LEWIS: I, of course, am completely oblivious to this. Shall we go inside?

RACHAEL: Yes, all right.

STEFAN: Please excuse me. I must go up to the attic, there is a subplot waiting for me about my difficult relationship with my teenage daughter, who has a crush on a Nazi loyalist.

3. The kitchen of the palatial house shared by the characters.

RACHAEL and STEFAN enter.

RACHAEL: Time has passed and we have both accepted the powerful sexual chemistry which exists between us.

STEFAN: Yes, I have accepted the powerful sexual chemistry between us, and also feel that by stealing the wife of an American –

RACHAEL: British.

STEFAN: – British colonel, I am striking a blow against the unjustness of the occupation of my country.

RACHAEL: Meanwhile, by yielding to the desire I feel for you, I feel I am punishing my husband for his neglect of me and his behaviour with regard to the dark secret which has killed our marriage. I have also come to value your sensitive decency and feel you are treated badly by the other Brits here, so this is a question of sympathy, not just me being over-sexed.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

STEFAN: Shall we tastefully consummate our illicit desire while your husband is out?

RACHAEL: Yes, why not? We’d better not go to the attic, there’s a subplot up there.

STEFAN: My kitchen table is of solid German construction.

RACHAEL: That should do.

The structural integrity of the kitchen table is put to the test, tastefully.

4. A military prison in Russian-occupied Germany.

LEWIS appears, ready to talk to an IMPRISONED NAZI.

LEWIS: You ought to know I have been sent here to hunt down Nazi hold-outs responsible for attacking the occupying American –

NAZI: British.

LEWIS: – British (thanks) forces, while my absence will conveniently also give my wife the opportunity to deepen her adulterous relationship with the man who lives in the attic. I, of course, am still oblivious to all of this.

NAZI: I am a Nazi, and therefore irredeemably evil. I am here to reinforce the distinction between the majority of decent, sensitive Germans, and the tiny minority who caused such suffering.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

LEWIS: You Nazis are so evil!

NAZI: Yes, we are!

LEWIS: I’m glad we were able to make that so clear.

5. A ball at regimental HQ.

LEWIS and RACHAEL appear in their glad rags.

LEWIS: I am a chastened man, for I am no longer oblivious to what is going on between you and that Swede.

RACHAEL: German.

LEWIS: Oh yes.

RACHAEL: However did you figure it out? Was it the kitchen table?

LEWIS: No. I may generally be characterised as being unaware of the interplay of emotions going on around me, and usually slow off the mark, but when the plot demands it I can be incredibly intuitive.

RACHAEL: Oh dear.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

LEWIS: We should probably have a heated argument in which our emotional reserve finally shatters and we get to the core of the dark secret which has been driving us apart since before the start of the film.

RACHAEL: That’s a good idea. Do you want to do that now?

LEWIS: Hang on a minute, there’s the culmination of that subplot about youthful Nazi resistance to the American –

RACHAEL: British.

LEWIS: – British (thanks) occupation and the tragedy of doomed youth due any moment, and we should probably wait for that.

The subplot passes them. LEWIS runs off after it waving his gun.

6. The palatial house.

RACHAEL, LEWIS and STEFAN stand around looking glum.

LEWIS: Well, we have managed to resolve our various problems in a tasteful and spoiler-free manner.

RACHAEL: Yes, everything has always been so blandly easy on the eye and unlikely to offend anyone, even my nude scene in the second act.

STEFAN: And yet it has all been so terribly inert and predictable and almost totally unengaging.

RACHAEL: I had no idea post-war occupied Germany was so dull.

STEFAN: Do we feel we have learned anything of value from all of this?

LEWIS: I am a good man and the war and its consequences have left me miserable.

STEFAN: I am a good man too, and the war and its consequences have also left me miserable.

RACHAEL: I’m not a man, but I’m also quite miserable because of the consequences of the war.

STEFAN: War is bad.

RACHAEL: War is bad.

LEWIS: War is bad. I’m glad we got that sorted out.

There is a long, meaningless silence.

The Aftermath (dir. James Kent) is in cinemas now, but hopefully not for much longer.

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Perspective can be a curious thing. My good friend and occasional cinema companion Bella wanted to go the cinema: she wanted to see an inspiring tale of a woman standing up for her rights and independence, striking a blow against the manipulative patriarchy, and generally not taking any nonsense from anyone. I, on the other hand, quite fancied watching a slightly saucy and scandalous tale of louche goings-on with some proper nudity and girl-on-girl action. Well, as luck would have it, we both managed to get more or less what we wanted from exactly the same movie, in the form of Wash Westmoreland’s Colette – a true-ish story based on the life on one of those very famous and popular writers whom no-one seems to have heard of or actually reads any more.

The film opens in rural France in the 1890s (they don’t quite go the full chickens-in-the-street, but it’s all very picturesque), where we meet simple country girl Gabrielle Colette, played by Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley (yes, I know, Keira Knightley doing a costume drama – whatever next?). Gabrielle has managed to ensnare the eye of sophisticated man-about-Paris Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), who goes by the nickname and nom de plume Willy.

Willy and Gabrielle are married and she moves to the big city, where she initially struggles to adapt to the superficiality of belle epoque society and cope with Willy’s various amorous indiscretions. More serious problems soon arise, however, as the couple are always short of money. Willy sees himself as a sort of literary entrepreneur, treating his name as a brand, and employs various struggling young ghost-writers to produce short stories and reviews. Soon enough Gabrielle has been pressed into service as one of these contributors, producing a short novel based on her life in the country entitled Claudine at School.

After a bit of a polish from Willy, the novel becomes a massive success, but Gabrielle (now calling herself Colette) receives no credit, as it’s published under her husband’s name. Further books follow, mainly because Willy insists on it, but Colette finds herself growing resentful and wanting to become more of her own person, regardless of the conventions and mores of respectable French society…

So, obviously, some very good hats on display in this one. What, you want more insight than that? Hmmm. Well, I have to say that this is one of those supposedly based-on-fact films where the achievement and prominence of the subject is probably less of a factor in it having been made than the fact that someone like Keira Knightley was prepared to turn up and play them. This is a star vehicle for Knightley more than anything else, and a pretty good one. Which is another way of saying that I know very little about French literature beyond some of the lyrics to Les Mis, but I’ll happily give this kind of movie a chance.

Bella was asking me whether I actually liked Knightley as a performer or not, and my honest answer was that I can take her or leave her, normally. I have always been immune to the obscure charms of the Pirates movies, and her appearance in the stellar conflict prequels was so brief it barely counts. The temptation is to say that she always plays the same kind of part in the same kind of film, but looking at her filmography I can see that this isn’t strictly true – it’s a little tricky to envisage her turning up in a Marvel Studios film any time soon (then again, who knows), but she has done good work in films like Never Let Me Go, which are not the kind of thing you would expect. Colette, however, looks exactly like the kind of thing you would expect, at least to begin with.

That said, this is a costume drama made following the Unique Moment (perhaps I need to find a different way of referring to the current situation), so there is an obvious theme of the self-realisation of women and the general self-serving uselessness of men. The main thrust of the plot – talented woman writer goes unrecognised while her husband steals all the credit and plaudits – is, as you may already have noticed, rather similar to that of another movie currently doing the rounds this awards season. I have to say that Colette isn’t quite as interestingly subtle or ambiguous as that other movie, nor is it as well-played, but it makes up for this with a pacy, interesting story and by generally being very pleasant to look at.

The film is on a bit of a tightrope when it comes to being a proper, respectable biographical drama for a serious audience on the one hand, and luring in some more marginal punters with the inclusion of some tasteful bisexuality and people with their clothes off. Well, it’s always been the case that possessing a veneer of high culture will let you get away with murder. Colette turns out not to be so salacious as to scare any but the most skittish of horses and handles its more provocative content quite delicately – although there is a peculiar, farcical interlude during which both Colette and Willy are having an affair with the same married woman, which the film practically plays for laughs. How close your true-life movie should stick to truth is always a slightly contentious point, and I would say that this one is probably being a bit too selective on a couple of points: much is made of Colette’s relationship with the Marquise de Belbeuf, a noted transvestite (played in the film by Denise Gough), and the fact that this did not in fact endure much beyond the end of the period depicted here is omitted from the final ‘what happened next’ captions; her two subsequent marriages are likewise not mentioned. The presentation of Colette as a wholly modern figure and some kind of feminist and LGBT icon is arguably overstated.

Still, this is a nicely made and consistently engaging film, and one that I enjoyed; the performances are good, if not great, and the whole production is impressively mounted. It doesn’t manage to solve the problem of how to turn writing novels into an activity that works cinematically (Knightley complaining that it’s really hard work and leaves her with sore fingers doesn’t quite get to the heart of the creative process, if you ask me), but then this is a perennial problem that has defeated considerably more gifted artists than the people making Colette. In all other respects this is a classy, handsome film, telling an interesting and (in many ways) timely story.

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In the early Autumn of 2008, a bunch of friends and I decided to spend our day hiking up to the Al-Archa glacier, at the top end of a valley in a national park just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The hike itself took several hours, through forests, across rock fields, and up hillsides. Pretty soon we were starting to feel the effects of the altitude and later on fatigue became an issue, too. Eventually we reached the bottom of the last slope before the ascent to the glacier itself. And I said no, I’d wait for the others here: maybe I could’ve made it up there, dignity intact, but getting back down? A different matter. I knew I was on the edge of my limitations, and sometimes wisdom is just knowing when to turn back, or at least stay where you are.

This is probably why a film has never been made of my life (something for which I suspect we should all be very grateful), especially not one like Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, which teaches us… well, a number of things, I suppose. That the tops of mountains are not places for idle mucking about, that once you make a plan you really ought to stick to it, and that it’s all very well trying to be a nice guy, but…

everest

Based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster (I don’t think that constitutes a spoiler), the film focuses on an expedition led by Kiwi mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced climber famous for getting paying clients up to the summit of the world’s highest mountain and bringing them back down safely – a hand holder, in the slightly dismissive estimation of his friend and business rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a more pragmatic view of the trade. Also on the expedition are various characters with their own reasons for wanting to make this most perilous climb, including tough Texan Beck (Josh Brolin).

The most climbing I usually do is walking up the stairs to the balcony seats at the cinema, so simply learning about what it takes to get up Everest would be an engrossing and enlightening experience for me, and to begin with that’s what Everest the movie is. Clarke gives a slightly ominous speech near the start, reminding everyone that the top of Everest is called the death zone for a reason, but for the most part there are only the slightest hints of what is to come: there may be quite a few competing teams looking to reach the summit at the same time, and the weather reports might look slightly iffy, but there’s nothing really to suggest the horrors that follow.

Everest is being advertised as an adventure film, while my landlady suggested it was a disaster film. I don’t really agree with either of those descriptions: for me this is a horror movie, plain and simple, with the mountain itself in the role of the monster, just as capable of killing and horribly mutilating unsuspecting victims as any less-abstract creation. Or suspecting victims, for that matter: the film takes pains to point out the wealth of experience the people on the mountain take with them, only to find themselves utterly at a loss as the blizzard closes in on them. Apart from the weather, the film suggests that a number of factors were to blame for the tragedy, most of them seemingly innocuous taken in isolation. But what emerges most powerfully is that, on Everest, the most basic human foibles – professional rivalry, administrative cock-ups, poor eyesight, one bad judgement call, even basic compassion and sympathy – these are things that can get you killed.

Climbing calamities are good material for movies, especially the real-life kind, and Everest is up there with the best of the genre – for me the gold standard in this sort of thing is still Touching the Void, and initially I thought that Everest, though interestingly and very competently made, was not to the same standard. But the film executes a slow burn, creeping up on you as it introduces its large cast of characters, until things start going horribly wrong and you find yourself gripped and appalled and yet unable to look away.

Kormakur’s handling of a complex, multi-stranded narrative is the really outstanding thing here, but the visual effects are, needless to say, impeccable, and the director is well-served by what’s pretty much an all-star cast: as well as the people I’ve already mentioned, there is solid work by Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, and several other less-well-known names. Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall’s pregnant wife, back home in New Zealand, which to be honest is a fairly thankless role, but even so she makes a decent job of it. And the film also contains a number of moments and sequences that I think I’ll remember for a long time – there’s a moment where the moment, late on, when the Nepalese air force attempt to send a helicopter up to one of the higher camps on Everest in order to evacuate an injured climber, which initially fails simply because the climbers are higher than the vehicle is physically able to fly. Like nothing else, this brings home the sheer scale of the altitudes and dangers involved.

As well as Touching the Void, Everest is already starting to pick up comparisons with Gravity, another film about struggling to survive in an almost definitively hostile environment. To be honest, I’m not sure they have that much in common, and I don’t think Everest is quite up to the standard of that extraordinary film – but it is brilliantly made and assembled. Entertainment is probably not quite the word for it, but it’s still extremely worthwhile viewing.

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‘…It’s as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character homosexual… There’s a great film waiting to be made about the station’s contribution to the winning of the Second World War…’

some idiot on the internet in 2001

Well, thirteen years is an extremely long time in cinema, and you can’t keep a good idea down forever. The only question is, just how much credit should I be prepared to take for the eventual appearance of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game? I am prepared to be magnanimous about this, naturally.

turing

The Imitation Game is named after one of the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing’s landmark papers discussing the potential and nature of artificial intelligence (indeed, for many years Turing was probably best known as the creator of the Turing test, a thought-experiment designed to assess whether an artificial network was truly intelligent or not). Although The Imitation Game is itself only very tangentially about AI, it is still at least the third major release this year (after Her and Transcendence) to be concerned with the topic in some way. Is this indicative of the fact that we have reached some sort of cultural tipping point with respect to AI? Perhaps, perhaps not: as I say, this is fundamentally a film about something else.

On the surface it looks very much like the kind of period drama which the British film industry does so well, for all that this particular project was written by an American and directed by a Norwegian. It is, for one thing, primarily set during the Second World War, an era distant enough to be interesting yet close enough to still be accessible and nostalgic, a time of unambiguous values and comfortingly definite moral certainties.

As the film opens, Britain is struggling to contend with the Nazi war machine, its intelligence effort seriously hampered by the fact that the enemy is using a code system known as Enigma, which is widely held to be completely unbreakable, simply due to the sheer number of possible solutions. Amongst the people interviewing to join the Admiralty’s team working to break Enigma is maths and cryptology prodigy Alan Turing (Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Turing’s social awkwardness and lack of modesty about his considerable intellect do not win him many friends on the project, but he eventually rises to become team leader and sets about putting into operation his plan to break the Enigma system.

This involves building what he terms a Universal Machine – or, as we would call it nowadays, a computer – to run through the millions of possible Enigma solutions at immense speeds. To assist him with this he assembles a group of brilliant linguists, logicians, and crossword-puzzlers, amongst them Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and they set out to change the course of the war…

Running in parallel with this are two other narratives, much more about Turing the man: a boyhood relationship with a fellow pupil at his school, and the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of Turing in the early 1950s, in which the investigating detective (Rory Kinnear) initially believes he has uncovered a Soviet spy, only to realise he has in fact stumbled upon a different kind of secret: that of Turing’s sexuality. The consequences of this are to shape the final years of Turing’s life.

It has to be said that over the last few years, Benedict Cumberbatch has lent himself more to high-profile projects that increase his fanboy (and fangirl)-friendliness, rather than his stature as a serious actor. Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Khan Noonian Singh (and, it’s rumoured, Doctor Strange) – none of them are exactly the kind of thing you win Oscars for. (Perhaps I’m being unfair – he was, after all, in serious films like The Fifth Estate and Twelve Years a Slave, too.) However, while it initially looks like Turing is a part perilously close to the sort of thing Cumberbatch can do in his sleep (utterly brilliant, socially useless genius), it does allow him the opportunity to give a great movie actor performance. His Turing is believably prodigious when it comes to anything cerebral, but equally at a loss when dealing with people operating on a more everyday level.

However, while the movie is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s, its success is also due to the strength of the performances across the board. There’s a nice ensemble performance from the team of cryptographers which Turing finds himself in command of, with Matthew Goode the most prominent of these, while Charles Dance is on top form as the naval commander who initially employs Turing and rapidly grows to hate his most gifted underling. Doing typically excellent work, also, is Mark Strong, here playing the MI6 officer overseeing the Bletchley Park project. Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, struggles to make the same kind of impression in a part which is perhaps slightly underwritten, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

The script is complex and manages to tell an intricate story well, although it did seem to me that it could have gone a bit more into the detail of how Turing’s machine actually operated in breaking the Enigma cipher (sorry, should have said there would be spoilers): thoughtful and mature though the film is, it still feels as though it’s shying away from really delving into the mechanics of the codebreaking effort in favour of a more accessible human story. Perhaps this is understandable, given this is a drama rather than a historical documentary.

I also found myself feeling a little disappointed by the closing stages of the film: it peaks with Turing’s great triumph, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and the intelligence effort which followed – the decisions as to how much information the Allies could utilise without revealing to the Nazis that their system had been compromised – is somewhat passed over. There was the potential there for a very thought-provoking and serious drama, hardly any of which is utilised.

Then again, this is the story of Turing the man, not his machines or the projects which he oversaw. It is gratifying that someone of such singular gifts, who made such an unparalleled contribution to preserving our way of life, is finally receiving his due acknowledgement. You can perhaps criticise The Imitation Game for not going deeply enough into Turing’s codebreaking work, or his pioneering of computer science, or his invention of mathematical biology. You can criticise it for rewriting history or glossing over Turing’s sexuality (which is spoken of but never really depicted). But the fact remains that this, finally, is a film actually about Alan Turing, and a prestigious and very well-made one too. An important film in many ways, and well worth seeing.

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Probably due to my (ahem) international lifestyle over the last five or six years and the resulting bevy of friends scattered across continents, I am an inveterate user of a prominent social networking site. You know, the one invented by the guy who was in the thing a couple of years ago? The one that had the thing about the other thing when it thinged recently?

Well, as you can probably imagine, this means I am much accustomed to ridiculous and vaguely offensive adverts popping up in the fringes of my eyeline, mostly offering to sell me things I don’t feel I need, expand parts of my body the proportions of which I am currently quite happy with, or fix me up with people who are, quite obviously, not only way out of my league but probably playing a different sport entirely. Recently one of these appeared – or so I thought – announcing that ‘Keira is seeking a friend for the end of the world’, accompanied by a sombre headshot of Miss Knightley of that ilk. Was this another dodgy dating site or something to do with Mayan calendar 2012 nonsense? My bemusement only increased when the distaff version started popping up, featuring Steve Carell.

It turned out none of my ideas was remotely accurate as this was in fact a rather underwhelming advertising campaign in support of Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which stars Carell and Knightley. This is one of those self-consciously indie-ish movies which wanders across genre borders – mainly it’s a comedy-drama, or possibly a dramedy, but almost certainly not a coma.

The tone is set by the opening scene, in which a car radio announces that the last-ditch space mission to deflect an incoming asteroid has totally failed and that all human life and civilisation will be utterly annihilated in only three weeks, the announcer then seamlessly going on to introduce The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’.

The wife of middle-aged everyman Dodge (Carell) takes this opportunity to leave him, leaving him in something of a quandary as to what to do: as he’s a life insurance salesman, it’s all gone very quiet on the work front, and as he only actually got married in order to avoid dying alone, he’s understandably disgruntled at being dumped this way.

Unimpressed by the wild behaviour displayed by his friends as the end draws closer and society starts to break down, he becomes much closer to his neighbour, Penny (Knightley). Then Penny (who is a Kooky Free Spirit From England) reveals that she received a letter meant for Dodge some time earlier. The letter is from the love of Dodge’s life, who reveals she still has feelings for him. Dodge is appalled that he didn’t discover this sooner and the duo strike a deal – if Penny helps him find his true love, he will put her in touch with someone with a private plane who can get her back to England to be with her family at the end.

Well, it’s about an odd couple on a road trip, what do you think happens? It’s probably fair to say that Steve Carell and Keira Knightley would not be high on most peoples’ lists of sizzling screen couples – probably ranking about the same as a celluloid hook-up between Andy Serkis and Dame Judi Dench – but, to be fair to them, there are hardly any moments in this film which actually make you go ‘Ewww’.

However, this is really a rather strange film, not least because – and this does seem oddly absurd – completely blowing up the world and everyone on it is not that original an idea. It’s become a well-enough-established concept to have its own set of cinematic tropes and conventions, most notably the final flare to a completely white screen which signifies the arrival of the apocalypse. Seeking a Friend for the End  of the World adheres to these quite cheerfully, which inevitably invites comparisons with other films along similar lines.

The set-up and the presence of mainstream stars like Carell and Knightley leads one to expect a black-comedy alternate-ending version of Armageddon, but the movie is much quirkier than this, as well as being a lot less comic. It’s not that it fails to be funny, it just doesn’t try most of the time.

I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not. While the concept of the movie is an inherently serious one – the looming catastrophe naturally provokes a lot of introspection and breast-beating from characters about their lives and priorities up to this point – I think it might have been better to play the film against the natural tone one would expect. When the film tries to be comic, it’s usually very funny, and these points are not without a certain insight into human nature.

The more serious tone the film adopts as it progresses is reasonably well-handled, with a very good performance from Carell, and a typically brilliant cameo from Martin Sheen (I know, I know: you wait five years for a Martin Sheen movie to be reviewed and then two come along in consecutive weeks), but I got no real sense of the film having anything profound or surprising to say. It’s not boring to watch, nor is it completely unbelieveable, but at the same time I didn’t really care about the fact that all of the characters were shortly about to die.

Nor did I much care about the burgeoning central romance, which really didn’t ring true for me. Knightley’s performance is, if we’re totally honest, variable – she’s okay doing the light comedy and offhand stuff, but when she’s required to become deeply emotional – as she is at a couple of key points – she starts staring off into the distance, doing weird things with her nose and eyebrows, and generally gets caught acting just a bit too often. Maybe this contributed to the fact I felt no sense of sadness or loss that the main relationship was to be so rapidly terminated.

Hey ho. It’s a nicely made film with some good visuals and interesting ideas, but I couldn’t help thinking that all the best parts of this film were comprised of material I’d seen handled better and more intelligently elsewhere: not just the basic concept, but the strained social milieu, the breakdown of traditional morality, and the last-minute romance (even down to its fixation with old records) – all of these seemed to me to be terribly similar to Don McKellar’s 1998 movie Last Night, which I remember being more accomplished.

Still, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an interesting film, even if the tone and focus are a bit messed up, and I certainly didn’t find it objectionable on any level. Nevertheless, I have seen the complete and utter destruction of the world depicted better than this on several occasions in the past, and I suspect I will again in future.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

[Originally following reviews of The One, 24 Hour Party People, and Queen of the Damned.]

After two disappointing films and one absolute stinker, salvation finally arrives in the shape of Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham. (In light of recent events, perhaps Break It Like Beckham would be a better title.)

Jesminder (Parminder Nagra) is young British Asian girl whose main interest is football (soccer, if you’re a former-colonial), something which does not sit well with her traditionally-minded Sikh family. She befriends the like-minded Jules (Keira Knightley), who persuades her to try out for the local women’s side, coached by Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). But Jess’ family are firmly against her doing anything so outlandish and unladylike – will she submit to their wishes, or will she be able to pursue her dream of playing professionally?

Well, of course she will. I’m giving nothing away here as the plot of Bend It Like Beckham contains absolutely no surprises: you just know her parents won’t want her to play, but you’re also sure she’ll sneak off to play behind their backs… and so on, and so on. And so on, and so on, actually, because to be fair it’s about a quarter hour too long in reaching the requisite happy ending, especially given the lack of narrative invention. But the three young leads are refreshing and engaging up front, while Juliet Stevenson is a midfield powerhouse, getting most of the big laughs as Jules’ equally conservative (with a small c) mother. Anupam Kher is also good as Jesminder’s father, and Shaznay Lewis out of All Saints has chosen a rather better film than her bandmates to make her (admitted very low-key) feature debut in.

Claims that this is a Great British Comedy are perhaps a touch exaggerated, but it’s warm, feelgood, well-observed and deeply affectionate about its characters. I smiled all the way through and there are some very funny moments. Also impressive is the way it avoids the pitfall of coming across as a niche, ghetto picture (either as a women’s football movie or an Asian culture one). It’s simply a positive, un-preachy comedy-drama. It’s not going to outgross Attack of the Clones at the US box-office, but it’s still hugely likeable, for all that it’s cliched. A touching and upbeat portrait of modern Britain, this deserves to be a winner.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st August 2003:

Ah, the buccaneering life! Is there anything more likely to set the heart a-quivering and the bladder a-quaking? A life on the ocean wave, regular plunder, and such interesting hats. Is it any surprise that one of my favourite daydreams involves me mustering my seamen and grabbing some booty? Well, anyway, for all the charm of being a corsair, for the last twenty or thirty years making a movie on this theme has been a surefire way of giving away all your money. This depressing trend has finally been reversed by Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the Disney theme park ride of the same name. (Hopefully the success of this film means we can expect M Night Shymalan’s Little Dipper – based on the Blackpool Pleasure Beach ride – in the not too distant future.)

A reassuringly old-fashioned swashbuckler, Pirates kicks off by introducing the inhabitants of the Caribbean outpost of Port Royal, primarily the overlooked blacksmith’s apprentice Will (Elven poster-boy Orlando Bloom) and the girl he has a bit of a thing for, governor’s daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, whom you may recall as a striker in Bend It Like Beckham or one of the Amidalettes in Phantom Menace). Inevitably, Elizabeth’s father is not too keen on Will wooing her and is trying to set her up with a snooty English naval officer. Anyway, Elizabeth falls in the sea (quite why this happens isn’t really gone into), which has an odd effect on her stylish Goth medallion, nicked from Will some years earlier while rescuing him from a shipwreck. Fortunately she is rescued by passing pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (an almost indescribably bizarre performance from Johnny Depp), who’s in town trying to steal himself a ship. Unfortunately the medallion attracts the scurvy pirate swabs of Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who have their own quite unusual reasons for wanting to get their hands on the medallion and its owner…

Well, this is a big, lavish, undeniably spectacular blockbuster, and you’d have to be a tiny bit shrivelled up inside not to find it at least a little agreeable. It has people walking the plank, it has a full-on sea battle between two sets of pirates, it has some very distinguished sword-fighting, and the special effects aren’t bad either (although not up to the standard of the classic Ray Harryhausen sequences they’re clearly a homage to). But these are not what make the film such fun.

What brings the film to life is Johnny Depp’s extraordinary turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, a staggering, swaggering, addle-brained rogue who comes across as a strange hybrid of Gypsy fortune-teller and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones. He really, really earns his fee, investing every line and movement with a knowingly peculiar twist of some kind, and he’s by far the funniest lead character in a blockbuster for many years – big kudos to Depp for pulling it off, and much respect to the producers for letting him try in the first place. Best of all, it allows the rest of the film to engage in some very off-beat humour without it seeming out of place, and a supporting cast containing many familiar faces from British sitcoms (Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport) is ideally suited to this kind of material.

And to be honest this gives Pirates a mad energy and distinctiveness it sorely needs. This is a good script, and it’s handsomely mounted, but Verbinski’s direction is rather bland and uninspired (a few CGI shots notwithstanding). With a visionary like Terry Gilliam at the helm this could have been a hilarious, chilling classic – as it is, it’s just a fun night out, a bit overlong, with romantic leads most notable for their good looks and rarely any sense of darkness or danger. Still, a distinctly superior adventure, and you’re never in any doubt as to whom to thank for it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th July 2006:

Hello again everyone, and with the fifth anniversary of this column’s first appearance soon upon us, not to mention another (hopefully temporary) cessation of service not far behind, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly look at the state of cinemas today. Yes, that’s cinemas the buildings, not cinema the art form. I remember the rush of disbelief, verging on awe, when the first multiplex opened in my hometown back in 1989. Ten screens! Ten of them! Five times as many as the existing cinema! Imagine the surprise! Imagine the possibilities! No film would ever struggle to get shown again! In this giant temple to the art of film, there would surely be a place for all styles, all genres – something for everyone! All tastes could be catered to at once!

Well, sort of. Last week my local ten-screen cinema was, on a Saturday afternoon, showing a grand total of four different films. It was just that Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean were each on four screens simultaneously, with Over the Hedge and Just My Luck just about scraping a screen each. It’s almost as if the company was putting profit ahead of catering to varied tastes… oh, hush my cynical mouth!

I have actually been to see Superman and Pirates, cos they’re both my sort of film. The thing is that there are lots of other things which are my sort of film too, but they’re just not profitable enough to warrant multiplex-space these days. Anyway, less whinging and more reviewing: starting with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Oddly enough for a man these days best-known for superhero adaptations (this film and the first two X-pictures), Bryan Singer has cheerfully admitted he didn’t read comics as a boy and isn’t really that familiar with the characters. However he is a big fan of the classic Richard Donner Superman movie. This is very, very obvious to anyone who’s seen both Donner’s movie and Singer’s, because Superman Returns is much more interested in Superman the movie than Superman the character.

The plot is, to put it mildly, straightforward: Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five-year pilgrimage to the remains of his homeworld Krypton. But things have moved on in his absence. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancée (James Marsden) and a toddler. The world has learned to cope without him. It’s enough to give the Man of Steel insecurity issues. But he need not fear, for his baldy nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey enjoying himself) has somewhat implausibly got out of jail and has embarked upon another deranged and cataclysmic real estate scam, which is bound to keep him occupied.

Well, there are many good things that can be said about Superman Returns. It’s a classy production which has clearly been a labour of love for many of those involved in its creation. The new Superman is cleverly cast and likeable, the new Luthor gives a witty performance, the special effects are eyecatching and it has a wonderful score. Unfortunately all these things could just as accurately have been said about the 1978 movie (and most of them probably were). It’s not just that this film doesn’t escape from the shadow of its predecessor, it doesn’t even want to.

This is a shame for all sorts of reasons. Brandon Routh does well in a very, very tough job, but any possibility of his performance not being endlessly compared to that of the late Christopher Reeve is removed by a script which even goes so far as to reprise some of the dialogue of the original film. There’s barely a gag, a beat or a plot twist that isn’t revisited here in some form or other and the tone and style is slavishly reproduced. This is quite a slow film with a lot of special effects sequences but very little action. Back in the 70s, the technology simply wasn’t there to put some of Superman’s more spectacular opponents up on the screen, but the recent Marvel movies have proven this is no longer the case. Bryan Singer’s choice to make this a more mature and stately movie isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does drain the film of a lot of the energy and fun of the comic books.

What’s actually new about Superman Returns is a bit of a mixed bag. For most of its duration, this is a light and almost whimsical movie, which makes the inclusion of some quite brutal violence all the more jarring. James Marsden gets more to do here as the sidekick of a sidekick than he did as leader of the X-Men in three movies combined (but that’s not really much to do with this film). The only central performance that falls down is Kate Bosworth’s, who doesn’t make much impression at all (Jonathan Ross memorably described an appearance by her on his chat show as being like trying to interview a piece of furniture). There is a major and rather startling plot twist which if nothing else strongly implies that either this movie must be in continuity with Superman II or that the writers haven’t read Larry Niven’s classic article Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. There’s a brief bit near the end that seems inspired by one of the most famous Superman stories of the 1990s, but once again it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Superman has lasted nearly 70 years because the character can be reimagined and reinvented by every new generation of writers, artists and fans. Since the first Donner picture the mythos has effectively been reconstituted as a romantic comedy and a teenage rites-of-passage story, and that’s just on TV. A new Superman for the 21st century has a lot of potential themes to deal with, especially given the character’s status both as global policeman and American icon, and modern effects technology is capable of putting any comic panel up on screen. To make a movie so determinedly backwards-looking strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. This is well-made and entertaining, but it’s not a movie in its own right so much as the longest cover version in history.

Moving on, some good news: Captain Jack is back! But that’s enough about Torchwood. Sticking with the cinema, the unlikely alliance of Walt Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer brings us the appropriately bizarre spectacle of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski. The startlingly humungous box-office this little flick has already racked up makes my opinion of it rather surplus to requirements, but looking back I see that’s never stopped me in the past. So…

It must be said this movie presumes heavily upon the viewer either having recently seen the original or possessing a detailed knowledge of it from a large number of not-so-recent viewings (this is a roundabout way of saying there isn’t a recap at the start). The titular receptacle is the possession of mollusc-headed sea-demon Davy Jones (no, not the guy from The Monkees), portrayed by Bill Nighy and a bucketload of CGI effects, and the rather complicated plot revolves around everyone wanting to get their hands on it for various reasons. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, giving what we can probably now safely describe as an iconic performance) wants it because he’s sort of sold his soul to Davy Jones and needs it to bargain with. Will Turner (Landy Bloom) wants it for reasons involving his undead father, whose fate was never quite explained in the first movie. Disgraced toff Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants it to help him regain his station in life. Keira Knightly wanders about the movie as Elizabeth Swann (presumably so named because she’s a bird with a long neck), being almost (but not quite) entirely decorative.

Yeah, I’m not doing a very good job with the synopsis, but then it is terribly complex and takes a long time to get going. (It’s nearly two hours into the movie before the three leads meet up.) Do not let this put you off, should you not have seen this movie, because this is a movie that can definitely be described as a rollicking adventure, with copious amounts of entertainment value. As before, its success is due to a combination of outrageous stunts and effects sequences, eye-catching fantasy and horror, and unexpectedly offbeat humour. Johnny Depp acts Bloom and Knightly off the screen as you’d expect – that’s if ‘acts’ is quite the right word for it — but Nighy is also good value, as usual, and the junior members of the cast do justice to the jokes. Practically everyone from the first movie comes back and gets something interesting to do, which is neat trick, while there is good work from newcomers Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris, and Tom Hollander.

The success of the first film seems to have emboldened its creators because this one ups the ante in virtually every department. Bigger fights and effects! More grotesque fantasy-horror! Even zanier jokes! Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this is that the movie has bloated to a frankly unnecessary two-and-a-half hours in length. It’s never actually slow or dull throughout that time, but one gets a definite feeling that this is still too much of a good thing. It doesn’t help that this film doesn’t actually have a proper ending, stopping instead in mid-plot on a cliffhanger (okay, a pretty good one), setting up next year’s World’s End (which apparently has Chow Yun-Fat in it, Hong Kong fans). Also less than fully satisfying are the writers’ attempts to set the heroic trio at odds with each other — while they effectively underline what an unreliably amoral character Sparrow is, the attempt to create some emotional darkness and genuine character conflict feels a bit of an afterthought, surely to be resolved in the next movie. I would also have commented on how, for a franchise called Pirates of the Caribbean, very little in the way of actual piracy goes on — but very wisely, the writers have beaten me to it by putting a complaint to that effect in the mouth of bandana-loving thespian Kevin McNally. Hey ho…

Readers of long standing may recall that I wasn’t that impressed by Curse of the Black Pearl and I must confess that I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this latest installment. However, despite its faults, I thought this was a hugely entertaining movie, practically perfect popcorn fodder. Its obvious desire to match Lord of the Rings in scale and impact is a bit overambitious, but this is still a remarkably accomplished and witty movie, considering its origins as a theme park ride. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, but I am the next.

Well, this week both the man from Krypton and the buccaneers slumped back to a mere three screens apiece, allowing some lesser productions a look-in, and one of these was Geoffrey Sax’s Stormbreaker, a jolly romp of a kids’ film with an all-star cast of talented and much-loved actors and Jimmy Carr.

If James Bond and Harry Potter got together and had a baby… no, hang on, that’s just eurgh. If Ian Fleming and JK Rowling got together and… mmm, that’s nearly as bad. I suspect you’re getting the drift, anyway. Alex Pettyfer plays Alex Rider, an average London schoolboy (average if you’re willing to overlook the fact that he’s clearly about three years older than everyone else in his class). As an orphan, he lives with his uncle (Ewan MacGregor, briefly appearing) and au pair-stroke-housekeeper (Alicia Silverstone, not appearing briefly enough), but this fairly happy existence is shattered when his uncle dies. Alex learns the incredible truth – not only was his uncle a top British spy, but all those adventure holidays and other activities they did together were actually his uncle’s attempts to train him as his replacement!

(Since seeing this film I have wondered if all the things my uncle encouraged me to do when I was younger might have been for a similar reason. But as they mainly revolved around my drinking vast amounts of falling-down water and then lying to his girlfriend when she asked me where he was, I doubt it, unless he had me in mind for a job in the Royal household.)

This is actually quite good news for Alex, as previously he looked more likely to get an ASBO than a licence to kill. Anyway his new bosses (Sophie Okonedo and Bill Nighy, again) pack him off to Wales for survival training (insert your own joke here) and then send him to poke about in the business dealings of peculiar computer tycoon Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, who appears to have had himself varnished and actually wears eyeshadow in most of his scenes). Needless to say Sayle is up to no good and intends to commit a ghastly revenge upon the British people for… well, that’d be telling.

I had vague misgivings about Stormbreaker on the way in, as it’s based on a book by Anthony Horowitz (the brain behind wretched 90s TV sci-fi cock-up Crime Traveller), directed by Geoffrey Sax (who also helmed the shocking American Doctor Who telemovie) and part-funded by the UK Film Council (responsible for a roll-call of terrible movies too grim and lengthy to recount here). Remarkably, however, the collaboration here is a very fruitful and enjoyable one. Unlike the other two films also covered this week, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and zips along very cheerfully with some impressive stunts and action throughout — though while Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen gets a credit as fight choreographer, the actual martial arts stuff isn’t particularly special. (Alicia Silverstone gets a hugely entertaining kung fu fight with Missi Pyle though.)

This is quite cleverly pitched so that, while the kids are enjoying all the teenage wish-fulfillment stuff, the adults can play spot the star cameo (choose from the likes of Andy Serkis, Stephen Fry, and Robbie Coltrane) or, more challengingly, spot the rip-off from the Bond franchise. (Some of these are quite obscure.) The adult cast join in with this sort of thing and the British contingent largely give entertainingly tongue-in-cheek performances. Bill Nighy’s twitchingly neurotic spymaster is particularly good fun. The Americans, on the other hand, just go roaringly over-the-top at all times. The tone of the film is a bit uneven as a result — at first it looks like this is going to have a bit of emotional darkness and reality to it, but in the end it’s not that far removed from a Spy Kids movie. I suppose that’s what you get for including a sequence with an animatronic jellyfish…

All in all, though, this is good fun throughout, provided you don’t pause to consider how insanely implausible it all is. With the proper Bond franchise apparently making one of its regular detours into more gritty and naturalistic territory, there’s a definite gap in the market for this sort of thing and Stormbreaker deserves to find a place amongst the bigger beasts of the summer.

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If you watched Never Let Me Go without captions and with the sound turned down, you’d have no idea of the kind of film it is. (There’s no reason why you’d want to, but still.) The trailer was deliberately circumspect about the narrative territory this film inhabits, too. My parents were thinking about going to see it, assuming it was another very well-mannered romantic drama about young people coming of age and getting to grips with adult emotions.
 
 

Well, to some extent that’s true, but only marginally. Even my own oversensitive antennae only detected the barest of hints from the advertising as to what this film is, but the fact that the novel it’s based on (written by Kazuo Ishiguro) was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award as well as the Booker Prize will no doubt tip you off: Never Let Me Go is an SF movie, and quite possibly the best in years.

It’s understandable why the film-makers have done their best to bury this fact: the expectations of the standard SF blockbuster crowd would be grievously disappointed by a movie totally bereft of aliens, spacecraft, robots, laser guns, psychic powers and time machines, while the mainstream audience would stay away in droves because of exactly the same expectations. Nevertheless, no serious definition of the genre could exclude this film.

Having said that, the science in Never Let Me Go is extremely nebulous: the story occurs in an alternative history where medical science made an unspecified breakthrough in the 1950s, resulting in a massive increase in longevity. The ramifications of this are not immediately made apparent, but we are introduced to them through the lives of three children, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. At first they seem to be simply pupils at a rather odd private school in 1978 – they and all the other pupils have been conditioned to never, ever leave the grounds and to take great pains in looking after themselves. They wear odd bracelets that track their location. A delivery of second-hand toys is a great event.

The truth eventually emerges for us and them: the defeat of cancer and other diseases, and the increase in longevity, has created an enormous and ceaseless demand for donor organs. All the pupils at the school are clones, not legally human, being raised until the day comes when their own organs can be harvested for the benefit of people in the outside world.

This is not an especially new idea – something similar formed the basis of Michael Bay’s 2005 flop, The Island, while I myself prefer Michael Marshall Smith’s short story on this theme, To Receive is Better (last words: ‘I’m having a few things back.’). But what makes Never Let Me Go a compelling and powerful film is its treatment of it. This is not a loud or brash or openly manipulative film, nor do the characters respond in the ways we’d expect.

They have grown up in this world and become desensitised to the relentless (and to us, almost inconceivable) horror that underpins every moment of their existence. None of them ever considers trying to avoid the ghastly fate their entire lives have been leading towards. The most anyone hopes for is to defer the moment their donations begin, and to this end they take solace in rumours that such a thing is possible: that a couple who truly love each other will be granted a few extra years of life.

As you may be able to discern, this is a story rich in potential metaphor, which the film presents as understatedly as anything else. Its power – which is considerable – comes from the tension between the ordinariness of the images on the screen and the terrible nature of the film’s world. (The question inevitably arises: how desensitised have we ourselves become? What atrocities do we turn a blind eye to, for our own benefit?) As a result, the wider world of the movie stays out of focus, even though it must surely bear only the most superficial of resemblances to our own. I expect this is fruitful territory for anyone who would dismiss the film on the grounds of implausibility. I’m not sure. I think this film is worryingly plausible in many ways.

In any case, the focus is on the relationships between the trio as they make sense of what and who they are, and come to terms with the moment of ‘completion’. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley play the three leads as adults, and they are all superb. Mulligan has the toughest gig, as a character who’s naturally quite passive and accepting, but remains effortlessly watchable throughout. This may be one of our last chances to enjoy Andrew Garfield’s English accent for the next few years – in any case, he’s almost unrecognisable from The Social Network. Knightley manages to remain somewhat sympathetic, even though Ruth isn’t an especially nice person. No-one else in the cast really gets much to do, though Charlotte Rampling is good as the headmistress of the school: someone who, though sympathetic to the children’s situation, still only really thinks of them as ‘nearly human’. Mark Romanek’s direction is effectively invisible, which I mean as a very definite compliment.

The smoke and mirrors with the way this film has been pitched to audiences doesn’t seem to have quite paid off: it’s hanging in there in theatres, but it doesn’t have the buzz around it that certain other films seem to have acquired, nor indeed the critical plaudits. Never Let Me Go may be too understated, too restrained, for many people’s taste, but to me it seemed virtually perfect and deeply, deeply moving. I use the word unmissable very rarely, but I’m going to use it here: never mind what genre it belongs to, this is a brilliant, unmissable film.

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