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Posts Tagged ‘Rory Kinnear’

A new horror film from Alex Garland certainly deserves the attention of anyone interested in the genre: it was Garland, after all, who wrote 28 Days Later, arguably the most influential horror movie of the century so far. Since then Garland has established himself as a writer and director of stylish, usually unnerving and intellectually dense genre movies and TV series, all of which I have admired even if they have sometimes seemed hard to love.

This continues with his new movie, Men, which at first seems like the director exploring territory he hasn’t visited before. Jessie Buckley plays Harper Marlowe, a young woman from London who has decided to take a short break in the depths of the English countryside, to help her recover from a traumatic personal event. Already, perhaps you can discern that we are surrounded by a virtual thicket of genre conventions – variations on this same set up form the premise of Midsommar, Arachnophobia, The Stepford Wives, and too many other films to mention. The drive from the city to the village where most of the film is set is likewise the same symbolic journey that happens at the start of Dracula: a departure from the ‘ordinary’ world, and an entering into a place of Horror.

It soon becomes clear that Garland is very comfortable with laying it on thick, both with his use of genre tropes and when it comes to some rather obvious symbolism – virtually the first thing Harper does when she arrives at her rented country house (it’s a bit too grand to be a cottage) is pick an apple off the tree in the garden and tuck in; within minutes this is explicitly described as ‘forbidden fruit’, just to drive the allusion home. This comes from the gentleman renting her the house – Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a posh and hearty country-squire type, who manages to massively patronise her while still seeming outwardly quite genial.

Once she has got rid of Geoffrey, Harper settles down to enjoying her break – flashbacks to what preceded it make it very clear just how badly she needs some respite – which includes a long walk in the nearby woods. Here she comes across a disused railway tunnel, which she has some fun making echoes in (the sound design in this scene, and indeed most of the movie, is terrific). However, this seems to awaken,  or stir up, something inside – a shadowy figure appears, and Harper finds herself fleeing home, catching sight of a naked man apparently following her out of the woods.

She ends up calling the police; a female constable is helpful and supportive, her male colleague rather less comforting. The local vicar proves to be unexpectedly handsy and likewise not much help: all the men in the village suggest that, whatever she thinks she’s been the victim of (and this extends to other events in her life), she’s either imagining it all, or is in fact actually to blame herself. Although this display of toxic male solidarity may be a bit less mysterious considering that all of them – Geoffrey, the vicar, the policeman, a young boy, the naked man, everyone in the local pub – are played by Rory Kinnear, using various wigs and prosthetics and bits of digital wizardry. Harper doesn’t seem to notice this, but soon comes to the conclusion that the men of the village seem to be conspiring together and that this is not the safe retreat she thought it would be…

It would be a brave person who attempted to suggest that Men is not, in fact, a genuine horror movie – there are some lavishly gory moments, not to mention a climactic sequence of such extravagant, semi-gynaecological grotesqueness that it’s bound to be known as ‘that film where Rory Kinnear [spoilers redacted] himself’ for years to come. Certainly Garland sprinkles it liberally with motifs and imagery redolent of the British folk-horror tradition. The verdancy and vibrancy of the countryside is almost palpable, and much use is made of the imagery of the Green Man, a folkloric figure symbolising fertility and rebirth, not to mention that of the sheela na gig, a cryptic figure appearing in carvings on older British churches.

However, while Men does a good job of looking and sounding like a folk horror movie, I think this is really camouflage for a quite different and rather more contemporary film. The conceit with Kinnear in multiple roles is almost played for laughs – ‘The League of Gentlemen directed by David Cronenberg’ is one critic’s slightly reductive take on the film, while others have compared it to Kind Hearts and Coronets – but it’s there to express a straightforward (and perhaps even slightly simplistic) idea, that all men are the same.

Certainly Harper has to deal with the same manipulative nonsense from every male character in the film – the only one not played by Kinnear is her former husband (Paapa Essiedu). She is consistently patronised and gaslit, and of course the question is whether this is a conscious conspiracy or whether it is the instinctive behaviour all men engage in. The casting conceit does essentially reduce the entire male gender to an amorphous, oppressive gestalt intent on causing her misery, usually while claiming the opposite. Needless to say this is very on-message for some elements of modern culture, and the notion is convincingly put across by the film, helped by effective direction from Garland and some very strong performances.

However, the problem with Men (the film, not the gender) is that this is the kind of piece of work where it makes perfect sense in terms of its subtext and moral premise: some of the symbolism may be a little obscure, but the message that Garland is trying to put across is absolutely clear. The problem is that what’s happening in terms of the narrative, the actual story, is not. The movie only works as a rather obvious allegory or fable; as a piece of fiction it is badly wanting.

Nevertheless that central metaphor is viscerally brought to life and Garland handles the surrounding trappings of a more traditional horror film with deftness and skill: parts of the film are repellent, others are genuinely suspenseful and creepy. It is a polished and memorable package – but even if you agree with the message at the centre of the film, there remains the sense that this is a film where the subtext was the main, possibly only consideration; certainly a satisfying narrative seems to have been very much a secondary concern. As a result I can imagine it infuriating and annoying as many people as it entertains.

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I spent a brief interlude a few years ago travelling around the world, frequently to places slightly off the beaten track. This was in pre-Kindle days and I found myself becoming quite reliant on the local bookcases of anywhere I ended up for reading matter. I ended up reading all sorts of weird things – a book about Israeli nuclear weapons entitled The Samson Option, for instance – as well as a lot of what I would previously have described as ‘improving literature’. I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote, Middlemarch, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mansfield Park, amongst others, and what I discovered is that these books have endured not just because they will help you pass your exams, but because they are actually really good books.

Is there a movie equivalent to the ‘improving book’? If there is, then I would say that most of the Mike Leigh films I have seen would qualify. I am aware that Leigh makes his serious films and his not-quite-so-serious films, but I must confess that I find all the ones that I’ve seen to be pretty hard work, despite the fact that they are clearly made with conviction and with many of the most impressive actors currently working in the UK. Maybe it’s the Mike Leigh Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method that I just can’t get on with. And yet I persevere, because everyone else agrees that he is a major British director whose films deserve to be looked at.

Leigh has recently turned up with his second costume-drama film in a row, the latest one being Peterloo. Now, for a long time I thought that Peterloo was the name of a medium-sized railway station somewhere in the midlands, but of course it is not: it is the name given to a defining moment in British political history, the bicentennial of which will be on us next summer (I would have thought releasing Peterloo for the actual anniversary would have been the smart move, but then again this is hardly what you’d call a summer movie).

The film itself opens in 1815, with a cleverly economical depiction of the battle of Waterloo, followed by various tableaux of the red-coated survivors, damaged but victorious, limping back to Britain. This is intercut with scenes of Parliament acting very self-congratulatory, giving huge amounts of cash to the Duke of Wellington but totally ignoring his troops, and one of Wellington’s generals being put in charge of the army in the north of England, where an insidious ideology threatening insurrection and sedition has apparently established itself…

What’s all that about, then? Well, the film settles down to focus on a group of reformers, hoping to do something about the (to modern eyes) incredibly unfair and corrupt political system of the period. (A huge new industrial city like Manchester had no representation in parliament, while the vote itself was limited only to landowners. This basically allowed the toiling workers in the mills to be royally screwed over and worked halfway to death without their having much in the way of recourse.) The reformers are working to introduce a greater degree of democracy and to reduce the level of inequality between rich and poor. One of their ideas is to hold a huge public meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, to be addressed by the gentleman and radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear).

The leading magistrates of the region (who are introduced in scenes where they are shown having old women flogged for having a sneaky drink from her employer’s stash, and men hanged for stealing coats) are less than delighted by this idea, seeing it as the potential beginning of a republican uprising and the overthrow of British society (this was less than thirty years after the French revolution, after all). Tension grows when someone throws a potato at the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny). Leaders of the movement are arrested and the militia is placed on standby…

Caught up in all of this, and in many ways the chief point of audience identification, is a typical family of workers from Manchester, one of whose members returns from France at the start of the film. Led by matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake), they go along with the reformist movement and decide to attend the huge meeting that takes place at the climax of the film. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, it’s the bit you’ve been waiting for: the Peterloo massacre!

Hmmm, I don’t often say this, but this is a really odd one. As ever with Mike Leigh, every frame of the film seems to sweat conviction and authenticity, and it almost goes without saying that the costume drama is one type of film that the British film industry does exceedingly well almost without trying particularly hard. And yet this is, inevitably, more than just another simple bonnet opera: the film isn’t quite the undiluted agitprop it could have been if, say, Ken Loach had been in charge of it, but it is certainly not uncoloured by political ideas about democracy and the representation of the will of the people. At times it almost resembles what Barry Lyndon would have been like, if that film had been written by Jeremy Corbyn.

Even I would normally shy away from a film with a description like that (and I should mention that the main critic of one right-wing newspaper has declared it to be ‘unwatchable’), but I should say that Peterloo remains engaging and curiously accessible throughout – although possibly not for reasons that Leigh and the other film-makers would be delighted about. This is clearly a very earnest, completely seriously-intentioned film, with many early scenes consisting almost entirely of characters making long-winded speeches to groups of other characters (this does become slightly hard work). But at the same time, it contains a large number of performances that are comically, almost self-parodically broad. It’s the fact that the film doesn’t seem to have much sense of humour that pushes some scenes towards comedy: the dialogue amongst the working-class characters kicks off with people saying things like ‘Ey, ah’ll sithee’ to each other and proceeds to include gems such as ‘I shall take my leave now, for I intend to go home and partake of a hot potato pie’. But is this a sign something weirdly deadpan is going on here after all? Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method or not, I refuse to believe you would put that line in your film without your tongue being at least partly in your cheek.

Once you start noticing these sort of moments it’s very hard to stop: there’s a hilarious, Monty Python-like scene in which the family of barely-literate factory labourers pause to discuss the history, nature, and consequence of the Corn Laws, all for the benefit of the audience. The wicked magistrates are a set of grotesques straight from Royston Vasey. Rory Kinnear is wearing a wig which makes him look rather like Terry Scott’s character in Carry On Up the Jungle. Perhaps they should have gone the whole hog and cast Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, again – the choice of McInnerny just means everyone is going to be thinking of Blackadder anyway.

Oh, I suppose that I am just being silly and that Peterloo is meant to be the very serious film that it initially looks and sounds like. But someone has made some very odd creative choices along the way. The final third is difficult not to take seriously, anyway, even if subtlety has long since left the theatre – decent, progressive, generous working-class protestors turn up to the mass protest, while the forces of elitism and privilege gathered against them cackle and plot in top hats while they help themselves to claret.

The film’s big set piece is, obviously, the Peterloo massacre itself, and while Leigh is a great composer of a shot, in addition to being a talented director of actors, it initially looks like he’s fluffed the climax of the film – the camera is way up in the air away from the action as the cavalry and the soldiers advance into the panicking crowd. It’s competent but not cinematic. Later on, though, he does put the camera on the ground, in the middle of it all, and you do get a sense of the blood and panic and chaos of it all. Even so, the obvious anger of the film doesn’t necessarily translate into great cinema, and for a piece which is presumably at least partly meant to be educational, Leigh arguably fumbles the conclusion: I was expecting the traditional caption detailing the historical details of the massacre (a death toll is not provided), its consequences and political significance. None of this is given.

So in the end this is a rather odd film that sort of works, in that it does tell the story of the Peterloo massacre and provides some historical context for it – but on the other hand, it really doesn’t do quite enough in this respect, and too often the film seems to be on the verge of toppling over into some sort of gonzo comedy, just one without any actual jokes. Certainly a worthy and interesting piece of work, but largely devoid of subtlety and afflicted by a real inconsistency when it comes to its tone.

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Frequent visitors may have noticed that I routinely refer to romantic comedy films as belonging to ‘the world’s most predictable genre’, and I occasionally wonder if I’m not doing them a disservice there. Sure, the outcome is never in doubt, but the same is true of virtually every other genre: in fact, you could probably argue that the very notion of genre carries with it a certain degree of predictability.

It may be I’m just letting my own personal prejudices show. Still, I try to keep an open mind, so I went to see Ben Palmer’s new film Man Up, mainly on the strength of a good trailer and the presence of the usually-reliable Simon Pegg. Despite being top-billed in a film which has, shall we say, an androcentric idiom as its title, Pegg is not playing the lead here: that duty goes to Lake Bell. Why is a film about a woman called Man Up? Join me on a strange journey where not all words mean what you might expect them to.

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Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething whose disastrous relationship history has left her on the verge of giving up on romance entirely. However, a chance encounter on a train and a misplaced self-help book result in her accidentally purloining a total stranger’s blind date. He is Jack (Pegg), and the two of them hit it off so well that Nancy can’t quite bring herself to own up to the misunderstanding, even though she is technically supposed to be going to her parents’ wedding anniversary party.

Needless to say, all does not go to plan, and unfortunate encounters with obsessive old school friends and embittered ex-spouses lead to more than a few ups and downs in the course of their evening together. It transpires that neither Nancy nor Jack is quite whom they are presenting themselves to be, but should they let that get in the way of the connection they so obviously share?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. On paper Man Up does look very much like yet another crack at the same rom-com formula which British production companies have been diligently hammering out variations on for over twenty years now: an appealing, largely metropolitan setting, imported American female lead, supporting cast of well-known faces, many of them off TV (Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walter do most of the heavy lifting here), a climactic dash to deliver an impassioned emotional declaration, and so on.

This is by no means a perfect movie, but it has more about it than just a tick-list of required components. For one thing, Lake Bell may be American, but not least of her achievements in Man Up is the way she employs an immaculate English accent. I must confess I’d never heard of Bell before this movie, but she seems to be one of those annoyingly talented people who’s good at everything. We are, of course, required to believe that a stunning ex-model should have severe self-doubt and finding-a-boyfriend issues, but this is practically a genre trope, and Bell puts across Nancy’s vulnerability well. I expect Bell has the kind of looks which are routinely described as ‘striking’ or ‘strong’: quite what this is code for I’m not entirely sure, but she is an extremely beautiful woman by any rational standard.

Bell also manages to share the screen with Simon Pegg for most of the movie without finding herself being acted off it, which is also no mean feat. I would say Pegg is part of an honourable tradition of British performers who aren’t just great comedians, but great actors too: all of Pegg’s best roles address the emotional frailty and humanity of his characters, an element he plays absolutely straight, and Man Up continues this. One of the appealing things about the film is that both lead characters are pretty messed up, spending as much time squabbling as they do being, you know, actually romantic. Like all the best films of this kind, it doesn’t operate solely in terms of chocolate-box romance, but explores darker territory as well. As a result, it genuinely earns its climactic emotional pay-off between the two leads. I would say that Pegg hasn’t has such an effective foil since Jessica Stevenson in Spaced, but that might just make Nick Frost annoyed with me (not to mention Tom Cruise).

On the other hand, if Man Up is honestly a ‘romance’, that’s another word the meaning of which seems to have shifted a bit of late. Again, I expect the producers would describe it as ‘frank’ or ‘authentically contemporary’, but what this actually means is that various characters spend a slightly surprising amount of time discussing oral sex in a reasonably detailed way. I couldn’t help thinking back to Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant’s saturation F-bombing in the opening sequence felt genuinely shocking – it now feels like the product of a different and much more innocent world.

But hey ho. Such is the world in which we live. As well as the above, Man Up also has an undeniable ingenious and sharp script with some genuinely witty dialogue, and it manages to juggle all the required genre elements with sufficient skill that they at least feel relatively fresh. Parts of the plot do strain credulity a bit – Rory Kinnear’s character in particular has an absurd, cartoonish quality –  and there is at least one over-laboured sight gag, but I laughed a lot all the way through and found myself genuinely wanting the two leads to get together. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a successful film, in this genre at least.

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