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Posts Tagged ‘Pete Postlethwaite’

Michael J Bassett’s Solomon Kane is pretty much a no-frills genre movie from 2009, that on the face of it resembles Van Helsing up to a point, only less comic-booky and garish. Its main point of interest for the discerning partaker of fantasy and horror is that it is supposedly based on a character created by Robert E Howard back in the 1920s. As the guy who also wrote the original Conan the Barbarian stories, Howard can justifiably stake a claim as an important figure in the development of 20th century genre fiction, but most of his non-Conan writing has fallen into obscurity, and the track record when it comes to movies based on his work is hardly stellar, either. How does this movie stand up?

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Things get underway somewhere exotic and vaguely Arabian in the early 17th century as titular adventurer Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) lays siege to a dubious foreign citadel, assisted by his gang of scurvy dogs and some very dubious CGI. Kane is, we are repeatedly shown, a right sod, cruel, vicious, and completely indifferent to the sight of his crew being set upon by demons. He is less sanguine, however, when confronted by an emissary of Satan who announces that his life of naughty deeds means that his soul is bound for Hell.

Kane is not pleased to hear this and, using the title card for cover, runs off back to a monastery in England to seek redemption. One year later he is still doing this, but the abbot receives either a vision from God or a note from the director telling him he has to turf Solomon out (it will be a fairly boring movie otherwise) so he can search for a way to save his soul elsewhere. Wandering the land, he is taken in by a family of travelling pilgrims led by Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige, but dark forces are also abroad. When the party come under attack and the innocent young daughter of the clan (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is dragged off by satanic cultists, it looks like Solomon Kane may have the opportunity to indulge his predilection for ass-kicking while still staying on the side of the angels…

Well, look: you know the sort of film this is, it’s the sort that comes out round about March or October, in the gap between awards season movies and summer blockbusters. It has a moderate budget, a moderately-sized star, and – one would presume – moderate ambitions as far as the box office is concerned. It’s pitching to a very specific genre audience, with the Howard connection being a bonus more than anything else. The bar here has not been set especially high, so you would expect the film-makers to be able to make a decent job of doing, you know, an acceptable movie.

Solomon Kane has got a lot going for it, particularly in terms of its cast: James Purefoy is a capable leading man, and any film including Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige has the basis of a solid supporting cast. (Jason Flemyng and Max von Sydow also appear, but only for about five minutes each.) The film is also strong on a bleak and doomy atmosphere.

And yet… I don’t know, perhaps I’m just getting too old for this sort of film, but I found getting through Solomon Kane to be nearly as much of an ordeal as anything undergone by the characters in the film. People gallop around on horseback in big hats, there’s a fight, there’s a doom-laden pronouncement from a supporting player, Purefoy glowers and broods a lot…

I suppose part of the problem is that on one level Solomon Kane is aware of the genre conventions and is working hard to meet them: so there are various garish CGI beasties, not to mention a reasonably competent three-act structure and a decent character arc for Purefoy. On the other hand, Bassett appears to be attempting to make something rather more subdued and atmospheric than the standard genre stomper, and the two don’t really fit together perfectly. If the film was slightly more cartoony and tongue-in-cheek (it has no appreciable sense of humour), or toned down the horror-action elements and tried to work more as a genuine drama, it might be rather more palatable. As it is, it just comes across as humourless and silly. There is no sense of historical or geographical realism, no sense of what 17th century England was actually like (though this doesn’t stop the west-country accents deployed by most of the cast from seeming rather snigger-worthy).

Actually, make that humourless, silly, and very predictable. You are never in any doubt as to what’s going to happen at any point in Solomon Kane, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but the real killer for the film is that you don’t really care either way. This is a competently filmed and acted movie, for the most part, but the script has none of the colour, energy, or innovation it desperately needs to make this film at all memorable or distinctive.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 9th 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that would just like to thank its agent, its mother, the guy who drove the catering van and thirty-seven other people before being dragged offstage by a big hook. Yessirree, it’s Oscar time again, and while the constraints of deadlines and whatnot mean that I’m writing this the day before the ceremony, I thought it would still be appropraite to have a look at a picture with a slim chance of Oscar gold. (Alas, the halcyon days when all the Best Picture nominees had already been reviewed here by this point are long since gone.)

Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is up for four statues of varying degrees of significance. Based on a novel by John le Carre, it is the story of British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes). While on a posting to Kenya, Quayle becomes increasingly concerned about what exactly his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is up to — supposedly helping out at the local medical station, she is in fact involved in rather more dangerous forms of activism. When she is killed on a trip up-country, Quayle is forced to reconsider how well he really knew her, and embarks on a relentless search for the truth about her death. It takes him into a shadowy world where life is cheap and the lines between national governments and big business become blurred.

Well, as you can probably tell, not a lot of jokes in this one. It certainly lacks the exuberance of Meirelles’ last film, City of God, but that’s hardly inappropriate. In its place there is a greater emotional depth. The almost palpable sense of outrage at the tribulations suffered by the deprived that permeated City is still here, though, and if anything it’s even stronger. Whole evenings of worthy telethon documentaries don’t pack the same kind of punch as this two-hour film.

The Constant Gardener works on a number of levels — as a thriller, as a romance, and as a polemic — and manages to combine these elements pretty flawlessly (it reminded me a bit of the 1980s classic Edge of Darkness, without the plutonium or the mysticism, but my mum said she thought it was like The English Patient, which just shows how two people can view the same film in a completely different way). The thriller plot is complex and twisty, and Jeffrey Caine’s script does a fine job of keeping it from completely obfuscating itself. The romance is more dependent on the performances of the actors, and both leads are very good. I am a little surprised that all the critical plaudits are heading in Weisz’s direction, however, as Fiennes seems to me to give a slightly better performance in a considerably trickier role. Quayle begins the film as a slightly awkward and insecure man, consumed by the demands of his career. His progression through shock and grief towards a new resolve rings absolutely true throughout, with Fiennes managing to avoid his usual faintly detached and robotic style of acting except where it serves the story. The supporting performances are impressive as well: Donald Sumpter commands the screen as a world-weary spook, Pete Postlethwaite plays a dodgy doctor (though thankfully better dressed than the one from AeonFlux) and Bill Nighy turns up as a shady grandee, giving a performance that’s very, er, Bill Nighy-ish.

Beyond all this is a rich and sweeping portrait of Africa that doesn’t stint in displaying either the sheer beauty of the place and the vibrancy of its people or the depths of its problems — catastrophes so immense they almost defy comprehension. The film makes it very clear that most aid activities in the continent are little more than than exercises in putting elastoplasts on bullet wounds and suggests that they are little more than token gestures born of post-colonial remorse. And it’s very clear in articulating that the civilised response to this situation is perhaps very different to the humane response. The film unashamedly comes down in favour of the latter.

So, given that this is supposedly the year of the political Oscars, with serious movies like Brokeback Mountain, Crash and Munich racking up the nominations, how good are The Constant Gardener‘s chances of bringing home the gold? Well, having considered this at some length, I can confidently say I haven’t a clue. I am not entirely surprised it hasn’t scored better in the ‘big’ categories, given that this is a film about Britain and Africa which kicks off with Weisz’s character giving Fiennes a comprehensive and clearly heartfelt (if slightly hackneyed) bulwarking over American foreign policy. There may also be the fact that it doesn’t offer easy answers or allow anyone the chance to feel smug about themselves at the conclusion. But in the end the awards are surely immaterial: this is a very fine, serious film about the world we live in today. Recommended.

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