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Posts Tagged ‘Rowan Joffe’

Summer is officially over. How do I know? Easy: they are starting to release Colin Firth movies again. Fine actor though he is, Mr Firth’s essential Englishness takes an idiosyncratic form, in that he never seems to come out in the sun (not unlike myself, I suppose). In one of those quirks of production and release, a veritable flock of Firth movies is on the horizon: he’s in this year’s Woody Allen, due out in a few weeks, and slightly further off he turns up in Matthew Vaughn’s new comic-book adaptation, too. Right now, however, he is appearing in Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go To Sleep, based on the book by SJ Watson.

before

It would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is a full-on Colin Firth vehicle like The King’s Speech, however, as once again he is essentially giving support to the leading lady (though a chick-flick this probably isn’t). On this occasion the top-billed star is Nicole Kidman, deploying a fairly solid English accent to match the movie’s greater London setting.

Kidman (adopting vaguely unflattering hair for the occasion) plays Christine, a youngish woman with a peculiar problem. (I say youngish because the film, for no very necessary reason, repeatedly states she is 40, a fair few years younger than the actress herself. Hmmm.) Following a traumatic incident in her past, she is afflicted with one of those rare and discriminating forms of amnesia most often to be found in movies: every night her memory resets, erasing the previous day’s recollections and leaving her with no idea of who or where she is.

Luckily the first person she meets every day (Firth, who has very good hair for his age now I think about it) is able to fill her in on minor details such as her name, who he is (Ben, her husband), what exactly is going on, and so on.

However, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has embarked on a new course of therapy – or so it seems, anyway. A man (Mark Strong, who… well, you can’t have everything, can you) calls her up every morning claiming to be Dr Nasch, her neuropsychologist, and reminding her of the existence of a digital camera she is using as a sort of external back-up memory.

Naturally all this is very confusing to Christine, whose Movie Amnesia means that she has to take a lot of what she hears on trust. It just makes things worse when the things that Ben tell her seem not to tally with those she hears from Dr Nasch – Ben claims she was injured in a car accident, but according to the doctor she was the victim of a savage beating from an unknown assailant. Is everyone being completely straight with her? And can she possibly uncover the truth about her past?

Well, long-term moviewatchers will already know that the answers to these questions are ‘Almost certainly not’ and ‘Very probably’, for this wouldn’t be much of a thriller otherwise. And a thriller is ultimately what this is – the kind of mid-budget genre movie I seem to remember watching rather a lot when I first started reviewing movies on the internet (so watching Before I Go To Sleep was an oddly nostalgic experience for me). That said, the presence of a quality cast like this one means that the dramatic and emotional elements of the story have obviously been beefed up, possibly to the point where they could be accused of milking it a bit.

Overall, though, we’re in a vaguely Hitchcockian territory, even if I can’t help thinking Hitch would have made the movie a bit more intense a bit earlier. Everything starts off fairly low-key and naturalistic, which gives you plenty of time to mull over what you’re being presented with. I have to say that well within the first ten minutes I was thinking ‘this is utterly preposterous, no way would normal people possibly be capable of behaving this way’, but – very much to the film’s credit – by the time the closing credits roll, everything that had occurred seemed a lot more credible.

The nature of the film requires that Firth and Strong engage in a sort of contest to see who can be the most understatedly sinister, which is a lot of fun (hard to pick a winner, by the way) but the focus is very much on Kidman for most of the film. In keeping with the wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, Kidman gives a performance based pretty much on a single note of fraught, brittle anxiety. Christine spends most of the movie as a passive victim, which put together with some male-on-female violence might make this film problematic for some viewers – naturally she gets her own back, to a degree, before proceedings are concluded.

It took me a while to warm up to Before I Go To Sleep, mainly due to the mismatch between the film’s rather contrived and unlikely premise and its downbeat and serious style, but the strong performances of the three leads, coupled to a bravura twist at the end of the second act, eventually won me over. I think an actual winter release would have suited it better, simply because I’m not sure people are in quite the right mood for such an intense, intimate movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a solidly entertaining piece of film-making.

 

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Head for the hills! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, yet another movie bearing the ghastly imprimatur of the UK Film Council (of ‘utter crap’ and ‘makes you want to gouge your own eyes out’ fame) hits the screen. Come to think of it, now The King’s Speech (also a UKFC job) has been nominated for about 400 awards I may have to stop being snippy about it. Bother. And Ben Affleck’s credible again nowadays, too. What the hell am I going to make cheap gibes about from now on?

Oh well. The film in question is another period drama, Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Brighton Rock. This, as you must surely know, is a classic novel about good and evil and guilt and innocence, written by Graham Greene and originally published in 1938.

Joffe’s film updates the story to 1964, when the south coast was being terrorised by roving gangs of mods and rockers. The basic plot remains the same, however, as teenage headcase Pinkie (Sam Riley, in the role that made Richard Attenborough’s name) seizes control of an adult criminal gang following the killing of its leader. He murders Hale, the man responsible for the first death, but teenage waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough) can potentially link him to the crime – and so Pinkie sets about manipulating the girl’s emotions and the infatuation she feels for him in order to secure his own survival. Meanwhile, a friend of Hale’s, Ida (Helen Mirren) has set about bringing his killer to justice in her own way…

Well, first things first, and this isn’t actually what you’d call a bad film. It looks very convincing in a dreadful, crumbling sort of way, and there are great performances from the cast. Sam Riley is magnetic – kudos to the guy for even daring to follow in Lord Dickie’s footsteps – and Andrea Riseborough is also very good in a tough role – Rose is so weak and delusional and gullible, and, well, just plain wet, that it would have been very easy for her to become actively annoying. To Riseborough’s credit, she never does. The more senior members of the cast – including Phil Davis, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis – are also fine, and Joffe’s direction also has moments of inspiration.

That said, the reasons behind the decision to bring the story forward to 1964 seem a little obscure to me. It can’t be solely a budgetary thing, nor can it be to make the story more accessible to a modern audience – it’s still set 47 years ago. The inclusion of the mods and rockers material doesn’t seem to inform the story much – this is too personal and internal a story for that. It doesn’t actually harm the film, but it doesn’t help it in any way. The same could be said for the rather large amounts of blood and what my uncle likes to refer to as effing and jeffing – this must be rather close to the top end of the 15-band, not that it makes much difference.

At this point I’m going to be a little more specific about the story of Brighton Rock, both this film version, the famous 1948 one, and the novel, so, you know – look away if you don’t want to get spoiled. As you might expect, a number of changes have been made – John Hurt’s character is rather more prominent than in the book, for instance. Rather more fundamental than this are the changes affecting Ida Arnold. In the book, Hale isn’t a gangster himself, and not directly responsible for killing Pinkie’s mentor – he’s a loser, but sympathetic in a way that the new film’s version of the character isn’t (he may only stick a knife in someone’s throat by accident, but he was still actively looking to carve the guy up). As a result Ida arguably seems to set out on a crusade for justice for a man who may not really deserve it.

The book is also about the contrast between Pinkie, who’s a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a vicious murderer, and Ida, who doesn’t have any particular belief system but an overpowering sense of right and wrong: she is a woman who fully enjoys pleasures of all kinds, a woman of easy virtue. Greene seems to depict her as an almost pagan, Earth-mother character (his initial description of her repeatedly refers to the size and apparent amiability of her breasts, which has sort of coloured my view of the character ever since). In the film she’s a rather more establishment, conventional figure (so to speak), less distinctive and memorable as a result, and there are almost shades of Miss Marple in the way Helen Mirren plays her. She only begins to resemble the book’s version of Ida in the closing scenes, by which time it seems oddly out-of-character.

You can’t really do a Graham Greene adaptation without keeping the Roman Catholicism in, of course, but it isn’t much more than colour here. Taking its place is… um, not a huge amount of anything, to be honest. The story rolls along in its own rather grim fashion – this is the kind of film where people have awkward, unsatisfying sex in grotty rooms heated only by three-bar electric fires – and it’s never actually boring. Some of the alterations made for the 1948 version are retained here, most obviously the final moments. (On the other hand, the role played by William Hartnell in the first film has been given to Nonso Anozie – given some of Hartnell’s well-documented issues with some ethnic groups, anyone living near the actor’s grave may be able to pop round and use him as a lathe.)

As I said, Brighton Rock isn’t what you’d actually call a bad film, and there are some good things within it. But the strong performances and powerful atmosphere can’t quite make up for a script which never gets into the heart of Greene’s story to bring it to life. This is by no means the worst thing the UKFC ever produced (thank God), but neither is it especially memorable.

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