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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Regular readers would in theory be aware of my theories concerning the type of trailer that tends to show up in front of a movie: other than recipients of the ‘big push’ saturation technique, the trailers tend to be of a similar tenor to whatever film you’ve gone to see (for reasons which are hopefully obvious). Now, what happens if there are no other films of a similar tenor in the offing? They always seem to find something at least vaguely similar to advertise, but often there are fewer or even only one trailer. This happened the other day in front of Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim – all we got was what looked very much like the trailer for a horror movie called Antebellum, not even due out for a couple of months.

This is possibly only to be expected, given we are on the verge of the changing of the cinematic seasons – it’s Oscar night on Sunday, after all, and all the worthy, serious, sophisticated movies are about to go away in favour of (mostly) mid-range genre movies, at least until the proper blockbusters get going in April and May. Certainly Queen & Slim seems to be the last of the current run of serious social dramas about racial tensions in the United States – at least, that’s how it looks in the advertising, although there is a bit more nuance in the actual movie.

Queen & Slim opens in Ohio, where a young man (Daniel Kaluuya) and a young woman (Jodie Turner-Smith), both African-American, are having a first date, having encountered each other on a popular kindling-themed relationship website. It is not quite a disaster, but neither is it a brilliant success: he is generous, laid-back, perhaps not particularly bright; she is prickly, a career woman, demanding. He drives her home; they are pulled over by a white cop for a very minor traffic offence. For some reason the cop seems to have issues with them and is unreasonably harsh. She reaches for her phone, and the cop reaches for his gun.

A few seconds later, she has been shot and wounded, but the cop has been shot dead. Tellingly, neither of the couple entertains for a moment the idea of sticking around to explain they were only acting in self defence – they know, or at least firmly believe, the system is firmly stacked against them. The course of action they find themselves forced into is to head south (they talk of escaping to Cuba), trying to evade the authorities, all the while unaware of the wider events which their actions have set in motion…

Queen & Slim starts off feeling like a particular grim drama, or perhaps a thriller, with the kind of sense of being trapped in an unfolding nightmare that you also find in some horror movies. If this is a horror story, however, it is one drawn from life, for the story’s origins in any number of sickening real-life incidents should be self-evident. The subtext of the film initially seems to be very clear: such is the inherent bias in the system that young people are effectively criminalised simply because of their ethnicity, regardless of their actions. There is perhaps some truth here, and it is certainly a potentially powerful thesis for a film to express, but without a great deal of scope for subtlety.

There is a good deal of Queen & Slim which appears to favour power over subtlety: this is on some level a morality play about contemporary America, and as a result there is a degree of broad-strokes storytelling going on. However, the film does a good job of finding nuance and sophistication as well. On a basic level, this comes from the fact that there are shades of grey in the movie – not every white character is a bigot, not every black character is a victim or saint. The fact that we don’t learn the actual names of the two lead characters until the very end of the film is not dwelt upon, only gradually dawning on the viewer (quite why the film is called Queen & Slim is a bit obscure, as they aren’t referred to by these nicknames on screen either) – as a result, the sense that they are symbols, representing the African American experience in general, is considerably muted.

The adoption of the protagonists as symbols of injustice is another of the themes of the movie, but again this is made considerably more complex by the way it is handled. They don’t want to be symbols, nor do they endorse the violent uprising against a racist establishment which some of their supporters suggest. Neither of them is strictly speaking apolitical – the movie suggests this isn’t an option for African Americans at the moment – but nor are they committed activists, either. One of the film’s more provocative choices is to juxtapose scenes from a protest in support of the couple (this goes shockingly wrong) with what they’re actually up to at the same time: it’s safe to say that politics is not on their minds, as they are pre-occupied with having sex for the first time.

The developing romance between the two leads is one of the most successful elements of the film, and again it is underpinned by irony: it seems unlikely that they would even have seen each other again, had their first date not gone horribly, horribly wrong. You can see them slowly getting past each others’ defences, discovering chemistry: the journey from near-total strangers to a couple with a deep bond is up there on the screen, as it needs to be for the ending of the film to have the impact that it does. In a wider sense, the film seems to be suggesting that in a broken, compromised world, you have to take whatever joy you can find, and the heart of the story is about the protagonists falling in love at least as much as it is about racism and institutionalised injustice. The rush and excitement of falling in love is well-handled here, providing a strong counterpoint of colour and life to the bleakness of much of the story.

There’s a sense in which this is a road movie, and some of the diversions along the way as the leads travel down from Ohio to Florida stretch credibility just a little bit; in the same way, the film is perhaps a little overlong at over two and a quarter hours in length. For the most part, however, this is an excellent mix of drama, romance, and social commentary, with two very strong performances from the leads and good support from the rest of the cast. The foundation, however, is an intelligent script which has been very well directed. Whether movies have the power to actually change the world is debatable: but this is a dignified and passionate cry of rage.

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Pressure is being brought upon me to watch the new Jon Favreau version of The Lion King, but I find myself rather reluctant to give in to it. Mainly this is because we already have a perfectly good animated film along these lines, and I am dubious (to say the least) about this scheme of Disney’s to make even more money by doing all their films again. We could move on to consider the notion that cel-animated anthropomorphic animals talking and singing can be moderately charming, whereas photorealistic CGI ones doing the same thing is just weird, but I think you get the idea. (This is essentially a principled objection as I pay flat rate for most of my cinema tickets and thus the money that goes to the Mouse Corporation is only notionally mine, but let’s not worry about that too much.)

Anyway, said pressure takes two forms – firstly, friends proclaiming they would rather go and see the Favreau film than any of the alternatives I propose. Now, I suppose that actually the second form of pressure is linked to the first – the reason there aren’t many especially attractive films around at the moment is because the film about the regal cat is showing thirteen bloomin’ times a day just at the six-screen Odeon. As usual Disney are using their leverage to squeeze everyone else out.

You have to look further afield for counter-programming these days, but it is there if you search for it. One of the hopefuls currently is Annabel Jankel’s Tell It to the Bees, based on a novel by Fiona Shaw (not the actress). Jankel is perhaps best known for her role as one of the creators of the SF satire Max Headroom, many years ago, but this is an entirely by-the-numbers hats-and-ciggies period melodrama.

The novel is apparently set in Yorkshire, but the film has drifted a few hundred miles north, presumably because Creative Scotland helped out with the financing. Holliday Grainger plays Lydia, a young single mother having a tough time in the small town where she lives: her husband (Emun Elliott) has walked out on her and her son, and she is struggling to cover the rent with the money she makes working in the local factory. It is, as they say, grim up north, even in 1952.

New in town, sort of, is the doctor, Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) – she grew up here but has spent many years living away, possibly because of rumours that are still doing the rounds. Well, when Lydia’s son is slightly hurt, he is taken to the doctor by his cousin and shows an interest in the beehives in her garden. As well as setting up the bee motif which continues through the movie, it also enables a rather laborious cute-meet between Lydia and Jean.

From this point on the film takes an unusual twin-track approach when it comes to surprising the audience. Much of the time it seems to give up on this notion entirely, for in terms of the actual plot, not much happens which you will not see coming a very long way in advance. Lydia gets kicked out of her house and she and the lad end up moving in with the doctor, supposedly as her housekeeper. Cue many significant moments between the two of them, supposedly charged with a keen erotic frisson (your mileage may vary). Sure enough they eventually give in to the powerful feelings that have developed between them (and, to be fair, the girl-on-girl stuff is handled in a classy enough way). But how will the poorly-educated and small-minded inhabitants of a Scottish town in the Fifties react to this sort of romance? Can they find a way to be together?

All that saves the film from total predictability is the other strand, which happens to concern the bees themselves. As I said, there is clearly some sort of a bee motif going on here, and much money has been spent on footage of bees in and around their hive, doing all the stuff that bees do. But if there is some sort of bee metaphor going on here, it is not at all clear what it is supposed to represent – there’s a lot of slightly eggy dialogue about telling your secrets to the bees, and some references to dancing bees that ties in with dancing as a repeated idea in the main story, but it still doesn’t feel especially coherent. And then as the film nears its conclusion –

Well, I should provide a little bit of context and say that this is one of those period films which lays it on a bit thick when it comes to the dourness, grit and misery, particularly as it goes on. Part of this is general, part of seems to be a bit more purposeful – there are only two significant adult male characters, and one of them is blandly feckless, the other a brute of toxic masculinity; the rest of the writing employs a rather broad brush, if not actually a trowel, too. And yet into all this comes an utterly bizarre sequence involving the bees behaving in a strikingly un-beelike manner. To say more would be to spoil what’s essentially the climax of the film, but it is a proper ‘You what?!?’ moment when it arrives.

It goes without saying that the costume-drama element of the film is well done; it is very unusual to come across a British film where this sort of thing is fumbled. And I suppose the performances are creditable, if not exactly striking. (Financing comes with hidden strings attached, however, as moving the setting means that Anna Paquin has to spend the film attempting to do a Scottish accent. We do not quite end up in Dick Van Dyke territory (a possibly infelicitous allusion there), but neither does she exactly cover herself in glory.) In the end this is a film which attempts to use artfulness and metaphor to disguise the fact it is a deeply predictable and not especially engaging or credible melodrama, but just ends up feeling odd and slightly pretentious as a result. As far as this story goes, you can tell it to the bees if you like, but I’m not sure they’ll be more interested than anyone else.

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We have, in the past, occasionally discussed some of the more unusual and esoteric aspects of film production, not least what all the money actually gets spent on. One envisages a sort of pie chart, with various slices set aside for the actors, director, scriptwriters, costume department, and so on. Of course, occasionally a film comes along where one slice of pie is disproportionately large, compared to all the others – occasionally a small and unassuming film pays big bucks for a major star, for instance, or you get a big special effects-driven film where two-thirds of the budget goes on the CGI. Danny Boyle’s Yesterday must have a fairly unique sort of pie, as a good 40% of the budget went on negotiating music clearances. This sounds wildly extravagant until you learn what the film is about, at which point it becomes clear why they stumped up all the money – without the uncanny potency of cheap music (or not so cheap, in this case), this film wouldn’t be being made.

Himesh Patel plays Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who is slowly starting to realise that he just hasn’t got what it takes to become successful as an artist. Pretty much the only thing that keeps him gigging is the unconditional support and belief of his friend Ellie (Lily James), with whom he has a close but entirely platonic relationship (shush now, I know, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Then, cycling home one night after deciding to pack it all in, Jack falls off his bike during a brief global blackout. He awakes sans beard and a couple of teeth, but fairly soon discovers that something rather odd has happened: he seems to be the only person in the world with any memory of the Beatles or their music. He very rapidly realises that suddenly having unique and (apparently) exclusive access to a priceless stash of some of the most perfect pop songs ever written is a boon to a struggling musician like him, and is soon frantically trying to remember the lyrics to Let It Be and I Want to Hold Your Hand so he can pass them off as his own work.

Pretty soon the music industry comes calling, and he is summoned off to Los Angeles by his demonic new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), accompanied only by his idiot roadie Rocky (Joel Fry). It seems like his success is forcing him apart from Ellie and whatever deeper feelings they may secretly have for each other. But is it really ethical to keep ripping off the Beatles and taking all the credit? And shouldn’t he be taking a moment to consider The Important Things in Life?

Yesterday represents a coming together of two of the great powers of what passes for the British film industry: it is directed by Danny Boyle, whom even I will happily concede has made some really great films in the past, and written by Richard Curtis, who has been a huge figure in British cultural life for decades now. Given their involvement and the strength of the film’s premise (it is intriguing, to say the least), you could be forgiven for expecting this to be one of the more substantial films of the summer.

Folks, it ain’t. This is as lightweight and disposable as low-sugar candyfloss, to the point where the film’s refusal to engage with its own ideas becomes actively irritating. What it basically is, is another outing for that well-worn fable about a young man whose head is turned by the prospect of material success, but must make the choice between that and The Important Things in Life – in this case, true love and personal integrity. Bolted onto this are various scenes that feel like comedy sketches of rather variable quality.

It feels rather odd that they have spent $10 million on rights clearances for Beatles songs, when the Beatles themselves feel rather peripheral to the movie. There’s a sense, surely, in which the whole point of this kind of film is to make you realise just how massively significant and important the band were and remain; the hole left by their absence is a memorial to their contribution to society and culture. Except, not here: the Beatles vanish from history and yet the world spins on almost entirely unchanged. Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Coldplay are still there, unaffected; society has not been affected at all. The film almost seems to be suggesting that the Beatles have no substantive legacy whatsoever (I should still mention that one of Yesterday‘s best jokes is that the only other band who seem to have vanished in the Beatles-free universe is Oasis).

And what’s going on here, anyway? What has changed, and why? (It’s not just the Beatles that have disappeared.) How come the Beatles apparently never got together? Why is Jack (apparently) unique in remembering a world with all their songs in it? Would the Beatles’ songs still be successful if they were released today as ‘new’ music? There is potential here for a rather different and probably much more interesting film about the alt-hist of the new universe Jack seems to have tumbled into (he appears to have a weird form of reverse amnesia, remembering things that never actually happened), and there is one eerie sequence in particular with an uncredited Robert Carlyle which sort of touches on this without ever really properly exploring it. I was really left wanting more, for the film to explore its premise in a more systematic way, but it doesn’t come close to truly delivering on this. It’s just a facilitator for a hackneyed rom-com plot and some comedy sketches.

Still, it is at least played with gusto and sincerity by most of the cast, even if none of them looks set to get the kind of career boost from it that actors have enjoyed from previous Boyle or Curtis productions. Perhaps this is because neither man seems to have been willing or able to really set his stamp on it – it’s not as stylistically distinctive as the best Danny Boyle films, nor does it have the humour or heart of Curtis’ best scripts. That said, Kate McKinnon works her usual off-the-leash comic sorcery and the film lifts whenever she’s on screen – but I fear I must also report that the movie also features a James Corden cameo and a fairly extensive supporting role for Ed Sheeran (Sheeran seems to be one of those people who’s unconvincing as an actor even when he’s playing himself).

By far the best moments of Yesterday come when the film-makers relax and just let the songs speak for themselves without attempting to do anything too clever or iconoclastic with them. The whole point of the film should really be about what an awful place the world would be without great music and great art, and how we shouldn’t take these things for granted. It’s a point that it never properly manages to make, but the music itself is lovely enough to remind you of that fact. The music of the Beatles is timeless and beautiful; Yesterday never quite manages to do it justice, but it’s a pleasant enough film even if it’s inevitably a bit of a disappointment given its pedigree.

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The thing about a movie like A Star is Born is that, when it comes to doing a properly pithy review, all the best lines have probably been taken already. The new version (directed by Bradley Cooper) is, after all, the fourth iteration of this particular story, which has a strong claim to be the most remade film in history – I know there have been 27 versions of The Three Musketeers, or whatever, but here we are talking about something originated for the screen, not an adaptation of a novel or a play. I will be honest and admit I have not been able to come up with anything as good as the Village Voice‘s verdict on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand, ‘A bore is starred.’

The long gap between the most recent A Star is Borns does not preclude a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes continuity between the two – presumably for obscure contractual reasons, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters is credited for both despite having no career worth mentioning these days – but otherwise the new film is its own thing – or at least as much of its own thing as one can reasonably expect, given that it credits both the Streisand and Judy Garland versions as contributing to the story.

Cooper plays hard-living country rocker Jackson Maine, a successful musician who is beginning to have serious trouble with various personal demons. One night, after a gig in New York, he drops into a drag bar while desperately searching for something to drink (hey, we’ve all been there). His mind is taken off the booze when he sees a performance by an unknown singer named Ally (played by Lady Gaga, who is played by Stefani Germanotta as usual). He is much taken by her incredible vocal stylings, and soon after the rest of her, even the nose which she claims has been such a brake on her career: shallow and worthless music industry professionals are only interested in superficial appearance, not real talent.

Well, they have a lovely evening together and then part, and Ally assumes that’s the end of it. But what’s this? Jackson sends a car to whisk her off to his next gig, which she of course ends up going to. He drags her on stage for an unplanned duet, and the rest is, well, not quite history, but certainly very late-stage prehistory. (Well, this is one way of picking up girls, I suppose.) Stardom soon beckons for Ally (as you might have anticipated if you were paying attention to the title of the film) – but will Jackson be able to deal with his girlfriend’s fame and talent threatening to eclipse his own?

As I say, all the best lines about A Star is Born have already been taken, and it was Mark Kermode who observed with typical sagacity that the film has two main challenges as a piece of drama: it has to convince you that Bradley Cooper is a famous rock star and Lady Gaga isn’t. Well, I would say it manages to pull this off – Cooper has a decent voice (not sure if he’s doing his own guitar-playing though) and does the business when his character is on stage, while – and I didn’t know this – apparently Germanotta spent ten years taking method acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is really nothing much wrong with her performance at all.

That said, it’s when Cooper is acting and Germanotta is singing that the film feels like it’s operating at full power. Cooper as director seems fully aware that, as a musical (even a diegetic one, which is strictly speaking what this is), having a singer of her range and technical ability in the lead role is the film’s trump card. Where most trailers for forthcoming attractions build up to a big dramatic moment or special-effects money shot, the one for A Star is Born is based around the moment when Gaga lets rip with a (let me just check with a popular lyric-transcribing website) ‘Oooooaahaaaooouoooouooooohaaaa’ and practically lifts the roof off any cinema where it is showing. It is a properly spine-tingling moment and I expect the musical number it accompanies to be inescapably ubiquitous from now until next year’s awards season concludes.

It’s a bit which comes fairly early on in the film, which until this point has been skimming along almost irresistibly, with a very well-judged mixture of grit, warmth, and romance. The opening section is certainly the film’s best – not because the rest of it is actually bad as such, but it’s just not quite to the same standard.

There’s just a bit too much of it, for one thing – the movie feels like it could comfortably absorb ten or fifteen minutes of cuts from its middle section – as it is, it occasionally feels like it’s laying everything on a bit thick. Then again, this is a chunky, crowd-pleasing, manipulative musical melodrama, so maybe that’s kind of the point.

Even so, I did find myself wondering what this story is supposed to be about – is it trying to make a point about the brutal nature of the fame game, or is it really just about the stresses and strains on this particular relationship? The story is obviously trying to tick all the bases, by showing Ally’s rise to stardom while depicting Jackson’s decline and fall, but it almost feels as if these things are happening in isolation from each other – the film makes it clear from its opening moments that Maine is a man with serious issues, which only get worse as the story continues. It’s not difficult to imagine his story following a vaguely similar trajectory even had he never met Ally – as a result, they almost feel like ships passing one another, the ups and downs of their actual relationship incidental, and this inevitably impacts on how affecting and moving the drama of the film is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of big, sentimental movie that audiences often take to their hearts in a very big way, and I can imagine A Star is Born becoming a major success, both critically and commercially. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s awards? Possibly, but the Academy in particular has a distinct weakness for this kind of new-take-on-an-old-favourite offering. And while I don’t think this is a particularly great film, it’s a substantial one with some wonderful individual moments.

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The unwary might find it a bit of a coin-toss as to what kind of crowd they could reasonably expect when turning up to a foreign language preview screening at the Phoenix – sometimes you can have the place to yourself, at others it can be busting at the seams. But perhaps it’s not quite that random: it’s not really surprising that a Franco-Belgian film should struggle to attract a crowd on the night that France and Belgium are playing each other in the World Cup semi-final (the auditorium was at about 3% of capacity for Racer and the Jailbird) while the size of the potential Polish audience in the UK is so well-known that even the big multiplexes are routinely showing commercial films from that part of the world. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the advance screening of Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film, Cold War, should have been quite so popular. Honestly, I was lucky to get a seat – I hadn’t seen so many Poles in one place since the last time I watched the giant slalom on TV.

Pawlikowski is a film-maker whose parents moved with him to the UK when he was still a teenager. He rose to prominence in the early years of this century with English-language films like Last Resort and My Summer of Love, but his recent work has concerned itself with a more specifically Polish sensibility.

Filmed in pristine black and white, the film opens in the war-ravaged Poland of 1949, where a young people’s choir is being established to preserve and celebrate the traditional music of the peasantry. In charge of proceedings is distinguished musician Wiktor (Tomazs Kot), and one of the singers he selects for the project is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a girl whose slightly suspect personal background is more than made up for by her remarkable vocal talent.

The choir is initially successful, but things inevitably become more complicated: Wiktor and Zula begin a relationship, which one would have to describe as illicit on a number of levels, while the ethnographic idealism of the project gradually becomes tainted by the demands of its government sponsors – as well as performing the old folk tunes of the Polish mountains, they find themselves obliged to include a few numbers about the inevitable triumph of World Communism and zippy tunes about how wonderful Stalin is.

Becoming thoroughly disillusioned with it all, Wiktor sees a trip to Berlin as a great opportunity to make a bit of a change in both their lives and suggests to Zula that they escape to the west (this is still pre-Berlin Wall). But Zula is unsure about this, and the decisions that they both make will end up shaping the rest of their lives…

If you’re anything like me, the first thing you think when you hear about a film called Cold War is that it will be some kind of thriller with a mid-20th century setting. And it is true that the political situation across Europe inevitable casts a long shadow over the events of the story here. However, what Pawlikowski has created here mainly combines elements of drama and romance, in a film which is almost to some extent a diegetic musical.

I get told off for using big words on this blog sometimes, so permit me to explain what I’m on about: this isn’t one of those ‘invisible orchestra’ musicals where someone wandering down the street suddenly bursts into song with the accompaniment of a full string section. All of the songs in this film, and there are quite a few, arise naturally from the doings of the choirs, singers, and musicians it concerns. The music is strikingly beautiful and one of the things you remember most strongly from the film (I should point out that it’s all in either Polish or French, like the rest of the movie); the brief dance segments are also impressively choreographed and filmed.

Doing most of the heavy lifting in the vocal department is Joanna Kulig, for whom this film is an exceptional showcase. Not only does she get to show just what a fine pair of lungs she possesses, but the character arc of the film is also demanding and she executes it extremely well. I should also point out the almost uncanny way in which Kulig, an actor in her mid thirties, convincingly portrays someone who begins the film in (one presumes) her late teens and then proceeds to age a decade and a half in the course of the story. Kot has less singing to do, but also delivers an assured and convincing performance; the pair make for an authentic, affecting couple.

As you might expect, though, this is no chocolate box romance: Wiktor and Zula are apart for years at a time, and even when they are together things are turbulent, troubled, torrid, and possibly other adjectives also beginning with T. The narrative covers decades and takes place in many countries; this is possibly why some commentators are describing Cold War as an epic masterpiece of cinema. Well, maybe: it’s certainly a very fine film, but on the other hand it seems very odd to be describing a film as an epic when it is well shy of ninety minutes in length. It is an exceptional miniature more than anything else – in fact, I would say that it almost feels like a proof-of-concept for a much longer, more expansive and reflective film, where the characters are given more time to grow and there is more space to enjoy the settings and emotions that Pawlikoski is obliged to sketch in only quite briefly here.

This is particularly apparent as the film approaches its conclusion. It’s very difficult not to interpret this as the director’s admission that, when it really comes down to it, you can never completely sever your connection with your homeland: characters return to Poland and the Polish language in both a literal and metaphorical sense. But in strictly narrative terms, I found the conclusion of this film to be a little wanting – events and decisions taking place too abruptly to completely satisfy. The final line of the film, about the view from the other side being much more beautiful – no real spoiler out of context – is loaded with multiple meanings, and will stay with me. But I still wanted more. This is a very good film in every respect, but one which feels unnaturally curtailed in almost every respect. A more expansive and lavish treatment of this story, done with the same style and skill, could have produced something truly exceptional.

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You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

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