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Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Weisz’

‘What -‘

‘It’s a thriller.’

‘Oh, good.’

In 2006, Lithuania entered the Eurovision Song Contest with a catchy, up-beat, rather tongue-in-cheek number entitled ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision‘ – in the end this proved to be rather optimistic as the song eventually came sixth. So it goes sometimes, but while ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision’ did not eventually win Eurovision, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has managed to become the buzzy film of the moment and, quite possibly, The Favourite for the awards season which is just about getting under way. Considering that most people know Lanthimos from The Lobster, likely only to win an award for ‘Weirdest Film to Feature a Crustacean’, this is a fairly noteworthy achievement.

The Favourite is not, in fact, a thriller (this was just a cunning ploy I used to get Olinka to come and see it), but is instead… hmmm, well. A very cursory glance at the trailer might lead one to assume this is a grand costume drama in the traditional style – certainly, the setting and characters are the stuff of many a lavish, perhaps slightly staid drama (the film concerns the royal court of England in the early 18th century). However, something much more peculiar is on the cards here.

Ostensibly on the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), but the monarch is temperamental, self-obsessed, stricken with gout and obsessed with her large collection of rabbits. Much of the de facto power rests with her confidante and the keeper of the Privy Purse, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is happy to manipulate the queen, supposedly in the national interest.

Into this situation comes the Duchess’ cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a young noblewoman fallen on hard times. The Duchess is not overly moved to help her and Abigail initially finds herself working in the kitchens. However, her knowledge of herbal medicine proves to be her ticket into the queen’s good books and she finds herself moving in more elevated circles, eventually winning the approval of Anne herself.

Needless to say the appearance of a rival is met with steely hostility from the Duchess, and a superficially well-mannered but actually deeply brutal struggle for ascendancy soon breaks out. Who will eventually become the queen’s favourite? And is the queen herself quite as oblivious to what is going on around her as it appears?

The Favourite is one of those films which has been made from a script which has being kicking around film companies for nearly twenty years, with the early response usually being something along the lines of ‘We like it, but…’ – the main problem usually having something to do with the fact that all three of the main characters are women, thus making the film difficult to market according to industry logic (Nicholas Hoult appears as the scheming politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as one of his dimmer lieutenants, but these are both relatively minor roles). However, as I suspect we are likely to see across the coming weeks, in the wake of the Unique Moment there are a number of high-quality female-dominated movies jostling for attention, and there are few films more female-dominated than this one.

As I say, it may look like a traditional costume drama, but this is something really much more idiosyncratic – we were treated to some surly chuntering from a prominent right-wing writer in the weekend’s Mail on Sunday, grumbling about the film’s wild divergence from historical fact and (supposed) obsession with lesbianism, and if you turn up to The Favourite actually expecting to see a conventional film about the court of Queen Anne then I expect you will be sorely disappointed. Certainly it all looks ravishing, with sumptuous costumes and wigs (all the men look like Brian May, the women are generally more restrained), and many scenes shot solely by candle-light. This inevitably puts one in mind of Barry Lyndon, 15-18 foot lamberts and all, and there is a certain resemblance, but only up to a point. I don’t do that invidious ‘this film is X meets Y’ thing, but if I were, then I would say that, feminine dominance notwithstanding, The Favourite is almost like a cross between Barry Lyndon and The League of Gentlemen TV show – indeed, Mark Gatiss appears in a supporting role, and seems to be very much at home.

By this I mean that The Favourite contains a great deal more (mostly implied) sex and (explicit) vomiting than is generally found in a costume drama, and the whole thing has a twisted, blackly comic sensibility. This is probably the source of all the grumbling about the film’s supposed departures from strict historicity – it is apparently ‘considered unlikely’ that Queen Anne was actually a lesbian, and in any case I doubt that casual conversation around the court was quite as profanity-laden as it is depicted here – but Lanthimos makes it fairly clear from very early on that the cabinet of grotesqueries he has assembled is not intended to be taken at face value. The film keeps wandering off and focusing on oddities – the Prime Minister is obsessed with his prize-winning pet duck, a formal court dance quickly develops into something that looks more like break-dancing, and so on. The choice to use distorting lenses in the camera to give a warped, fish-eye view of events at court at certain points is also something of a giveaway.

So if The Favourite isn’t actually about the rivalries at the court of Queen Anne, what is it about? Well, I suppose on one level it’s a character piece, especially with regard to Emma Stone’s character: the story of how a (relatively) innocent young woman learns to survive in the snake-pit of court politics, eventually becoming just as ruthless and deceitful as everyone around her. Stone is very good and manages to hold her own against Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, who are both operating on full power throughout – Colman gives the bigger performance, of course, but Weisz has the least obvious character arc and perhaps gets the most nuances to play with.

Beyond issues of gender and sex and history, though, the film is basically about power: what it means to have it, what it means to use it, what people will sacrifice for it, and the other effects it has on them. If the film ultimately has a particular message to impart, it is not immediately clear: it has an oblique, slightly cryptic ending (Olinka thought it was ‘very sad’) – it may be about the isolating effects of power and its tendency to kill anything resembling a genuine relationship.

In the end, though, The Favourite does a very good job of not resembling a particularly serious film, and it really does function as a quirky black comedy-drama powered along by some fine performances. It’s certainly a striking film, but I suspect it may be just a little too off-the-wall to become more than a critical darling. Fun and thought-provoking, though.

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There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

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There are timely films, and there are timely films, and then there is Denial, the latest from veteran (though irregular) director Mick Jackson. It seems strange that not too long ago everyone was talking relatively casually about the fact we were all living in a post-truth world: if all I see on the news is true, then suddenly the truth is back in fashion – the problem is that everyone seems to have their own ideas about what it is, and most of those versions are not exactly mutually compatible. Jackson’s film may be an account of events from nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn’t stop it feeling very relevant, for it concerns the historic (in more ways than one) court case brought by an eminent Holocaust denier against a Jewish female historian.

denial_movie_poster_p_2016

The late novelist Iain Banks came up with a characteristically witty and effective way of dealing with Holocaust deniers: you invite them to debate the topic on TV with you, then punch them in the mouth in front of the cameras. But it gets even better, for when they complain and call the police, you simply deny the attack ever took place. Ah, if it were only that simple (and satisfying) – taking these people on means stepping onto a hard road fraught with risks, as the film makes clear.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of a book about Holocaust denial. She has so far refused to debate with Holocaust deniers on the grounds that she does not want to give them the exposure and credibility that would result, but is nevertheless ambushed at a speaking engagement by the British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accuses her of lying about and defaming him.

Irving eventually brings a libel action against Lipstadt, in a British court where the burden of proof lies with the defendant rather than the ostensibly injured party. Naturally she feels compelled to take him on, rather than settle, and to this end employs hotshot young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and charismatic barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to lead her defence. But she is unprepared for some of the arcane details of the British legal system, and also the demands of the case: Irving proves an unexpectedly canny legal operator, and the apparent ruthlessness of the men on her own side is also disquieting. Will truth really be the victor here?

Well, if you don’t want to know how it all ends, don’t look on Wikipedia, that’s all I can say (or David Irving’s own more-than-slightly-appalling website, for that matter – for of course it still exists, offering unique insights into modern history, or possibly just its operator’s psyche). ‘Based on a true story’-movies are of course notorious for being just that – based on truth, nothing more than that, with events and characters being amalgamated and rearranged to suit the demands of the form. I wonder if this was a factor while Denial was in preparation, for it would be rather odd for a film which is so adamant in its insistence that truth should be held sacred and inviolable to depart too egregiously from reality itself.

And yet you could argue that’s just what has happened (and, sure enough, Irving has been claiming this himself), for Timothy Spall’s striking, mannered performance as David Irving, while as technically accomplished and memorable as we might expect from such a capable performer, does not seem to even attempt to be a representation of the man himself – one might even call it a theatrical grotesque. On the other hand, one of the themes the film returns to time after time is the need to deny credibility and plausibility to Holocaust deniers, whatever the source – a ‘balanced’ representation of the two sides of the argument would give the (entirely wrong) impression that both sides have merit. By presenting Irving as a comprehensively sinister and unpleasant individual, you could therefore probably argue that the film is similarly trying to avoid giving his views even the slightest credence. It’s just a bit odd for a film which is about the importance of historical honesty and objectivity to be quite so partial in its representation of a key figure in its story.

Still, Spall does give a very fine performance, in a film which is notably strong in this department – I was about to comment that Rachel Weisz does vanish somewhat behind the hairstyle and accent she adopts, but then again I suppose transforming yourself into another person is the essence of fine acting, and she is notably good in a challenging role. I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss is about where Andrew Scott is concerned – possibly I’ve just been put off by all the racket from the Sherlock crowd – but here he is extremely good, too. Best of all, however, is Tom Wilkinson, who more than anyone else brings the film to life and brings some genuine humanity and anger to many scenes. (Also in the cast are John Sessions, who almost appears to be turning into William Shatner as-he-is-today, and Mark Gatiss, giving an impressive and entirely, um, straight turn as a Dutch academic.)

You should never be short on drama if you do a courtroom-based story properly, and this film certainly delivers – one of the running themes is the slightly arcane nature of the British legal system, which is helpfully explained for foreign audiences. (Also, you would have thought it would be relatively easy to debunk the deniers, given the numbers of actual Holocaust survivors still around to give evidence, and yet no survivors, nor even Lipstadt herself, testified at the libel trial, and the film makes it very clear just why this was.) But while all this is certainly thrilling stuff, the film never loses track of the fact that it is primarily concerned with the most serious of issues, and there are a number of sequences and scenes which are not afraid to evoke the dreadful reality of what happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, without ever seeming sentimental or manipulative.

Rampton’s courtroom demolition of Irving and his prejudices was so comprehensive that the film struggles to find much in the way of tension for its closing section, as the verdict is awaited, but in a way, this is beside the point. The point it makes is surely not that truth triumphed over deceit on this one occasion, but that truth, justice, and other civilised values must be protected and fought for time and time again. Also, probably, that the existence of the principle of freedom of speech does not mean that truth itself is somehow up for grabs or subject to a popular vote. As I say, a very timely film, probably, and a well-made and very well-acted one.

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Every now and then a movie comes along which really makes you pause and scratch your head, not necessarily because it’s bad, but because it’s just so utterly unlike anything else on release. The same goes double when a movie of this kind manages to snag what looks very much like an A-list cast. Are they trying to show their credentials as serious artists? Is it perhaps some kind of situationist statement? Or does the director just have a fistful of incriminating photographs?

lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is exactly this kind of film. Apparently set in what looks very much like the real world, Colin Farrell plays David, a middle-aged architect whose wife has left him. Under the rules of the odd society which is in charge, he is required to check into a special hotel for single people, where he is given 45 days to find a partner and fall in love with them. Should he fail to do so, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: quite naturally, he wants to be turned into a lobster. (David is accompanied by a dog, who it transpires is his brother, following an unsuccessful previous stay at the hotel.)

David soon settles in and adapts to the kindly-yet-terrifying regime of the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), making friends with some of the other singles there (including John C Reilly and Ben Whishaw – this may not be the biggest hit Whishaw appears in this month). As well as being indoctrinated in all the various advantages that being in couple brings, on a regular basis all the inmates of the hotel are bussed down to the local woods, where they hunt and tranquilise ‘Loners’, people who have opted to defy the conventions of society.

However, life at the hotel does not really work out for David, and he eventually becomes a Loner himself, managing to win the confidence of their leader (Lea Seydoux – this may not be the biggest hit Seydoux appears in this month). Ironically, of course, no sooner has he won his place in this most antisocial of societies than he finds romance blossoming between himself and one of the others (Rachel Weisz – this may not be the biggest hit a member of her household appears in this month). Will true love conquer all?

Well, the question presupposes that the words ‘true love’ actually mean something. I suspect the makers of The Lobster wouldn’t necessarily agree with this, for this film has one of the dourest, most cynical views of relationships I can remember seeing. There is hardly a hint of genuine affection between any of the couples at the hotel – their relationships are not romantic but simply transactional, a necessity which is more-or-less forced upon them. No-one questions the necessity for being part of a couple, it’s just accepted as an essential part of living.

The Lobster is widely being dubbed a comedy in reviews and promotional material, and it may be that this doesn’t sound to you like particularly fertile ground for big laughs. I would tend to agree, and in fact I suspect the whole ‘comedy’ label has come from the fact that it isn’t obviously anything else, and the central idea of people being turned into animals is quite a silly one. On the whole the film defies the concept of genre, or at least refuses to be bound by it – there are some blackly comic moments, all of them utterly deadpan (Farrell trying to take his trousers off with one hand cuffed behind his back, for instance), but also a fair amount of graphic material, and sections bordering on the horrific (this isn’t a film for animal lovers, either).

I can only presume that the big-name cast are doing this just to show that they are artists as well as stars. All of the performances are, well, game, with Farrell and Weisz in particular coming out with dialogue of the most affectless inanity with utter conviction (this is yet another of the film’s stylistic quirks). If they never quite manage to sell you on the idea that this film is set in a coherent other-world, well, that’s because it’s just too weird an idea to work in those terms.

It’s not as if the metaphor underpinning The Lobster is exactly difficult to decipher, either: the film is an ironic comment on the importance society places on being part of a couple (and anyone who tells you this doesn’t make a difference has clearly never had to contend with the dreaded single supplement on a package holiday). This extends to an implicit criticism of the lengths that people will go to in order to establish or maintain a connection with someone, although once again this is grotesquely exaggerated in the film.

Fair enough, there’s material for a film there, but The Lobster seems to run out of new ways of discussing it quite quickly. You get a strong sense of where the film is coming from quite quickly, but by the second half it’s starting to feel like they’ve run out of ideas and are just indulging themselves in arbitrary weirdness to pad out the film.

This is certainly an original movie, well-made, and with some serious talent involved – and it does contain some funny moments and interesting ideas. But in the end, it does feel a little bit self-indulgent, and it’s often not the easiest of films to watch. Nice to see something quite so weird getting a relatively big release, but I suspect that has more to do with the cast list than anything else.

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The first trailer for a new movie has a grave and very significant  responsibility, quite simply because – for people who are anything like me – it can be the main factor in deciding whether or not a film ends up on my ‘to see’ list. By this standard, the first trailer – or teaser –  for Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy did a supremely good job, managing to be atmospheric and memorable while playing on the audience’s memories of and fondness for the original three films. However, expectations in our house have seldom crashed quite so far or so fast as they did when the second trailer came out – because all that seemed to promise was a far-fetched and ferociously convoluted action runaround.

(Interesting to contrast the situation regarding Bourne Legacy with that of Dredd, another film I’m looking forward to seeing: despite a very positive buzz around this film coming from people who’ve seen previews, I can’t shake the impression I got from the trailer, which is that this is just going to be a grimy CGI-heavy SF twin of The Raid.)

Hey ho. I wonder what it says that, upon buying my ticket for this film, I found myself asking for one to see The Bourne Thingummy? Probably nothing very cheerful about me or it. The main thing about this film is kind of tipped off by the title, from which you might surmise that Bourne himself is no longer with us. You would be absolutely spot on in this, as Matt Damon has declined to return, along with director of the last two installments Paul Greengrass.

And so instead we have a narrative dealing with the consequences of events in the previous film, with the action running in parallel for some of the time (I was wary of this trick until I recalled they did something vaguely similar with the ending of Bourne Supremacy turning up halfway through Bourne Ultimatum). The details will probably be utterly unintelligible and also quite dull to anyone not with a detailed recall of the previous trilogy. Basically, Bourne’s whistle-blowing activities against his former masters cause panic amongst elements of the defense establishment well above the CIA, resulting in ruthless puppetmaster Eric Byer (Edward Norton) ordering all associated programmes which could be linked back to them permanently shut down and all details obliterated.

This involves the cold-blooded slaughter of numerous American operatives throughout the world, and high on Byer’s target list is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent whose physical and mental abilities have been boosted through genetic modification (provided he keeps taking his agency-supplied medication). As luck would have it, Cross survives the initial attempt on his life, but in order to maintain his supply of drugs he is forced to go in search of one of the doctors who has handled his case, Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). However, her own connection to the project means she is on the government’s death list  too…

Even when Greengrass and Damon were still on board, I was a bit dismayed to learn that a fourth Bourne movie was in the works – simply because I couldn’t see how they could keep up the standard they had established for themselves, and also because Ultimatum concluded with such a strong sense of finality and closure. Legacy works hard to make the viewer believe that this is a valid continuation of the same story – it opens with a man’s body floating in water (a repeated image in the original films), Joan Allen, David Strathairn and others have tiny cameos, and ‘Extreme Ways’ plays over the closing credits – but nevertheless the sense that this is a film cobbled together simply because the Damon series made $945,000,000 is virtually inescapable.

Like Supremacy and Ultimatum, Legacy concludes with a barnstorming vehicular pursuit with many spectacular stunts. And when it came on, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a bit like the climaxes of the last two. Is this the climax of the story already? Gosh.’ Frankly, I was a bit surprised the story was reaching a climax because so far as I could tell the story hadn’t actually started yet.

Or, to put it another way, there’s an awful lot of plot in The Bourne Legacy – huge amounts of exposition have to be laid in introducing the new characters and their relationships, then Cross and Marta have to be guided into meeting each other and then go on the run, etc, etc – but very little story. I think The Bourne Identity is a fun thriller, but what makes the Paul Greengrass films so exceptional is how far they manage to blend being terrific action movies with other things – Supremacy has a remarkable emotional story at its centre, while Ultimatum is an astonishingly angry and political film. And they’ve both got very smart and engrossing stories, of course.

In this one we’ve got two people being chased by shadowy government forces and some business about genetic viruses, and not much more. There’s a lot of stuff about the use of drugs to condition and modify agents, but it just feels like it’s here as a hook to hang the plot on, not something the director really cares about. There’s some material suggesting Cross is effectively addicted to his medication, but this doesn’t really go anywhere – except, perhaps, to some plot developments which are weirdly reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon.

I should say that both Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz are very good in sadly undemanding parts – Renner is cooler, harder, and less obviously earnest than Damon, while Weisz… I have to confess I was just thinking ‘Wow, she’s so beautiful… how old must she be?!?’ Even here, though, the film seems to be playing it very safe: gorgeous boffin in peril is pretty much Rachel Weisz’s stock-in-trade, while Jeremy Renner – charismatic though he be – seems to do nothing else but play sharpshooting military specialists and/or spies. And, apart from Renner’s considerable charms, we’re given scant reason to engage with him as a hero. He’s a man who’s chosen to go into a vicious, brutal world, and – prior to his bosses deciding to have him killed – he appears to have been pretty sanguine about this. There’s a tiny fig-leaf of a scene suggesting he’s had some sort of moral qualms in the past, but that’s all. He’s not trying to find himself, or right a wrong, or avenge a death: he’s just trying to stay alive and intact, nothing more.

Come the end of The Bourne Legacy, despite some decently put-together action and acceptable work from the leads, I was still suffused with an overwhelming feeling which I could articulate only as ‘So what?’ It doesn’t come close to the quality of any of the previous films and tells me nothing about this world or these characters that I actually cared to learn. Further outings promise only to actively slime the memory of one of the best action franchises ever made: for pity’s sake, knock it on the head now.

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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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  September 4th 2003:

It’s usually a pretty good sign of a film’s success, both creatively and financially, if, within a year or two of its release knock-offs, pastiches and wannabes suddenly flood the multiplexes across the land. Most of the real mega-hits spawn their clouds of (usually) inferior clones, but one film I didn’t expect to trigger the same response was last year’s Ocean’s Eleven. A very slick, funny, stylish and entertaining film, to be sure, and one which I very much enjoyed, but not one I would’ve predicted as starting a trend.

Well, who’d’ve guessed it, but I was wrong again. Admittedly there haven’t been that many Ocean’s Eleven knock-offs, but they all indelibly bear the imprimatur of their inspiration, and James Foley’s Confidence is no exception, although one could equally well argue it owes debts to The Usual Suspects, Heat, and – inevitably – Tarantino.

Ed Burns plays Jake Vig, leader of a crack team of con-men working in Los Angeles. Their usual routine is polished and effective, until they unwittingly take the money of local nasty-piece-of-work the King, played by Dustin Hoffman. Dustin is understandably irked by this impudence and offs one of the team, prompting Jake to cut a deal: Jake and the gang will take Dustin’s rival Morgan Price (Robert Forster, woefully underused) for five million dollars and split the proceeds with him, thus settling their financial differences if nothing else. Supposedly to help with the job, but I suspect mainly because it’s a novel chat-up line, Jake also recruits raven-tressed pickpocket Lily (lovely lovely Rachel Weisz). And the stage is set for… well, dullness and confusion, actually.

This is mainly down to the writing, as you might expect. Writer Doug Jung apparently has some background in TV, but this is his first feature script and it kind of shows. Without wishing to be too unkind – some of the dialogue has a certain snap and crackle to it – I get the impression he really wished he’d written Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, etc, and decided to go ahead and kind of do so anyway. The tricky flashback structure, the multiple twists and use of cut-scenes, the occasional stylistic flourishes – we’ve really seen all of them before elsewhere.

Even so, lack of originality isn’t necessarily a sin. But this kind of caper movie should have a kind of swashbuckling flair to it, and be all about false moustaches and forged paintings and breaking into bank vaults by unlikely means. Confidence‘s big scam revolves around… wait for it… corporate law and procuring an iffy bank loan. That’s it, that’s the great challenge facing these characters. Jung tries to liven things up by stirring in subplots about Jake being chased by a vengeful federal agent (a grizzled-looking Andy Garcia) and Lily selling him out to his intended victim, but it really doesn’t help, because the script is fundamentally flawed. Some of the flashbacks actually happen, others are – in the context of the film – fictitious, but it’s not made clear which are which. The way the Garcia subplot is resolved basically reveals, if you think about it, that Jake is a really nasty piece of work. The obligatory twist ending is also actually sort of predictable.

However, a film isn’t just the work of the writer. Jake is clearly written as cool, commanding, charismatic, a combination of Clooney and de Niro. So it’s really a shame that Burns turns in a performance like Ben Affleck on valium, charmless and static. Paul Giamatti, as his neurotic sidekick, is really much more likeable and interesting. Rachel Weisz’s role is almost entirely decorative, not that I’m complaining too loudly (but they make her dye her hair red, for heaven’s sake!). The acting honours are undoubtedly stolen by Dustin Hoffman, playing a scabrous rodent of a man, capricious and weirdly menacing and possessed of a highly eccentric code of ethics (he gets to cop a feel of Weisz as well, as fine an incentive to take a part as any I can think of). As the film goes on he gets less and less to do, however.

As well as Hoffman, in its favour the film is reasonably well directed and the cinematography is excellent, grainy, vivid colours giving it a kind of neon-noir feel. The eclectic soundtrack is also something a plus, but on the whole this is very run-of-the-mill stuff, lacking originality and clarity. Confidence does not get my vote.

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