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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Claflin’

The First World War shows no signs of losing its grip on our collective imagination, even as it inevitably recedes beyond the realm of living memory. Part of this may be due to the fact that we are currently living through the centenary of the war, with regular reminders in terms of the specific commemorations of individual battles and other events, but it may also be because the war in a way marked the death of a particular notion of how the world was, and the birth of another. And there is the fact that it is popularly remembered as the archetypal example of a futile, pointless war, whereas the Second World War is virtually celebrated as the proof that such a thing as a just war is possible. In other words, if you want to make an anti-war war movie, you’re probably going to set it in the trenches, and this is certainly the case with Saul Dibb’s new adaptation of R.C. Sheriff’s famous play Journey’s End.

The film is set in early 1918, with British soldiers on the western front living in anticipation of a major German offensive, intended to break the deadlock between the two sides. Each company of soldiers is required to spend five days a month on the actual front line, and scheduled to be there when the German attack is expected is the company of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope has been worn down almost to nothing by the stresses of command and the war, and is drinking heavily, relying on the counsel of his older second-in-command Osborne (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany). He is less than delighted when his fiancee’s young brother Jimmy (Asa Butterfield) has himself posted to his company as a second lieutenant.

Nevertheless, the company takes up its position in the front line trenches – squalid, dangerous, horrible – and is settling into a kind of routine when word comes down from the top: the German offensive will be coming in a couple of days, on their watch, and no help will be available. Adding to this, Stanhope is ordered to launch a dangerous raid on the German lines just a few yards away, in order to secure a prisoner for intelligence purposes. Being considered too valuable to risk himself, Stanhope is obliged to send Osborne and Raleigh on this insanely perilous and poorly-planned mission – but is there really any point to it…?

So, to coin a phrase, not a lot of laughs in this one – although there is a welcome touch of rather black humour courtesy of Toby Jones’ somewhat put-upon trench chef. The danger here, of course, is that any jokes about dubious cooking in this kind of context will invariably remind audiences of a certain ilk of Blackadder Goes Forth. Is it too much to say that this sitcom played a major role in reinforcing perceptions of the First World War for a whole generation of viewers in Britain and beyond? I’m not sure, but what this film really seems to suggest is that Blackadder Goes Forth is, at heart, a rather liberal adaptation of Journey’s End with a lot of jokes added to it.

The danger here is that the movie might appear to be simply dealing in the tropes of this kind of story, when the truth is that the original stage play (first put on in 1928) probably played a significant role in creating them in the first place. All the stereotypes are here – careworn protagonists, bright-eyed newcomers (a useful device for introducing the set-up to an audience), unfeeling top brass, and so on. This movie actually does a heroic job of keeping you invested in the characters and emotions of the piece, especially when so many of the actual moments are so firmly at odds with our more emotional times: the various characters restrict themselves to simply saying a stolid ‘cheerio’ as they prepare to await the enemy onslaught, for instance.

There are moments when the story and the manner of its telling can seem rather familiar – the callousness of senior officers is made clear when it is established the raid is to take place in daylight, when it is horrendously dangerous, simply because this is less likely to interfere with the dinner plans of the generals who will be considering the intelligence it provides – but on the whole this is a film which manages to feel contemporary and relevant rather than something too dry or retrospective. Mostly this is because of the quality of the performances, which are uniformly extremely good – none of the acting is particularly showy, but the characters come to life, and you are drawn into the story. The build-up to the crucial raid creates a queasy sense of dread which is genuinely uncomfortable, while the action itself is staccato, confusing; characters simply disappear in the chaos and are never seen again. If I have a criticism it’s that the film’s decision to go for a box office-friendly certification means the battle sequences are relatively anodyne – this is the kind of film where a touch more gruelling horror would not have felt out of place.

This is a highly impressive film, well-performed and written, and not showing obvious signs of what one assumes must have been a fairly modest budget. And I suspect the tendency will still be to dismiss it as another piece of heritage film-making, a period piece or a kind of heritage movie. Partly this is down to the subject matter, while the fact that virtually every speaking role is played by a white male means it might also feel a little out of step with the modern world. I’m not really sure what to say about this: it’s a film about British army officers in the First World War, so how diverse can it realistically be? Does its attempt to be authentic make it necessarily flawed?

It would be ironic if Journey’s End didn’t reach an audience solely because it is perceived to be about a vanished milieu that has little in common with the world today. This film does work on a personal level, and bravery, compassion, fear, and all the other human strengths and frailties with which it is concerned are still very much with us. Maybe anti-war films are old-fashioned and redundant today, even ones as well-made as this one. But there are things which I think we will always need to be reminded of, and this film discharges that duty in a highly commendable manner.

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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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I very rarely go and watch a modern horror movie. Virtually the only thing which will get me out of the house for one of these things, if we’re completely honest, is the involvement in the production of the current incarnation of Hammer Films, a studio I have been an enormous fan of for most of my life. Hammer’s current revival shows no signs of running out of steam, happily, which is why I trotted along the other day to see John Pogue’s The Quiet Ones.

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As usual, this is a Hammer horror with a period setting, though the period in this case in 1974 (the producers have missed the opportunity to show the characters going to watch Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires at the cinema, and instead establish the timeframe by simply playing Cum On Feel The Noize every time someone switches on the radio). The story concerns slightly louche academic Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) and his determination to put the study of poltergeist phenomena and associated mental problems on a properly rational footing. To this end, he and his students are intent upon encouraging a troubled young woman (Olivia Cooke) to manifest the psychokinetic forces she has long been a martyr to, so they can be properly studied and then safely vented. Or something. To be honest, the professor’s methodology struck me as a bit vague from the start, but then again you just know this sort of experiment isn’t going to go according to plan.

Along to document the proceedings is youthful cameraman Brian (Sam Claflin), who soon finds himself developing an emotional attachment to Jane, the test subject. This is an issue, but then so are developing tensions within the team, Coupland’s obsessive determination to prove his theories, and the fact that everyone is full of ideas on how to summon up a poltergeist, but hasn’t really thought about how to then get rid of the damn thing again…

It does sometimes occur to me that my devotion to the latterday incarnation of the Hammer marque is a little foolish, given it is little more than brand name with no material connection to the glory days of Michael Carreras or Terence Fisher. However, I feel justified in making a point of seeing each new Hammer release simply because they are generally pretty good movies (the rotten American-made The Resident being the sole dud to date this century). I have to say that The Quiet Ones is not up to the standard of The Woman in Black or Wake Wood, but then neither is it a waste of time.

Putting my thoughtful-analytical-cultural-historical hat on (it’s a big hat, obviously), The Quiet Ones is an interesting attempt to blend some of the classic tropes and themes of British horror (mostly TV horror, it must be said) with a modern transatlantic approach to the genre. The plot distinctly recalls things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch (claims that this is based on true events are spurious; particularly as the film-makers seem rather evasive as to which true events they’re talking about), while stylistically the film does make its obeisance to Hammer of the past – Jared Harris gives a proper old-school Hammer central performance as a rather untrustworthy scientist; you could easily imagine Peter Cushing or Andre Morell in the part. The younger actors are attractive but mostly bland, which I suppose is also a bit of a Hammer tradition (Cooke, I should say, is an exception: she is genuinely good in a part where the temptation to ham it up must have been considerable).

On the other hand, when it comes to generating scares The Quiet Ones adheres with great devotion to the formulae of many modern American horror films – especially the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD trope. The fact that the protagonist is a cameraman sets us up for a lot of quasi-found-footage, too, which I found a little bit tedious (especially as it’s established that none of the footage survives to get found in the first place). But I suppose you can’t blame the studio for following the market, and the mix between the classic Hammer motifs and the modern tropes is handled fairly deftly.

But is it scary? Well, there are plenty of jump scares, but these are mechanically achieved and not particularly noteworthy. The ideas of the film are not especially original – to be honest, some of them were well-worn back in the time when this film is set – and the plot really lacks the strong central hook of its most obvious sources. As a result, the film is technically competent but not really engaging or memorable. The climax is pleasingly overwrought, but there’s a definite sense of the denouement unravelling rather than unfolding.

Still, as I say, this is a competent modern horror movie that isn’t too hobbled by its obvious low budget and features some very accomplished performances. It should do okay for the studio. That said, most of the recent Hammer releases have been either spook stories, psycho-thrillers or folk horror – what chance a proper monster movie, guys? But in the meantime, a film like The Quiet Ones is no disgrace to the House of Horror.

 

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