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Posts Tagged ‘Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’

Somewhere in the infinite possibilities of creation there is a world which is not experiencing a sudden spike in the number of TV shows and movies about parallel worlds. But it’s clearly not this one. Currently filling up cinemas across the land is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (the clue is in the title), while arriving here soon (maybe even before this thing gets published) is Everything Everywhere All At Once, which has enjoyed an (apparently) unexpectedly healthy run at the American box office.

Sneaking up under the radar, however, has been another treatment of a very similar idea, this one from the BBC: the drama serial Life After Life (based on a novel by Kate Atkinson), which has recently concluded its network broadcast. I would say this qualifies as what some people call slipstream SF: something which deals with the themes and material of speculative fiction, but does so using the style and techniques of conventional or literary fiction. In short, it’s an SF or fantasy novel disguised (for the most part) as a costume drama. The BBC does costume dramas very well; it used to do SF and fantasy rather well too, so perhaps one should not be quite so surprised that this is as impressive as it is.

The story proper opens on a snowy night in 1910, with a small domestic tragedy unfolding: Sylvie Todd (Sian Clifford) gives birth to her third child, a daughter, but there are complications, the doctor has been held up by the weather, and the infant dies at birth. The screen fades to black.

And then we are back at the start of the scene, with the same events unfolding. But this time there is a different outcome: the doctor has managed to battle through the drifts and the baby survives. She is christened Ursula and goes on to enjoy a fairly happy childhood with her brothers and sisters. Until a trip to the seaside, when she and her sister unwisely go too far our while paddling, are swept away, and drown. The screen fades to black.

And we are back in the snow on that night in 1910 once more. It gradually becomes apparent that Ursula is gifted, or possibly afflicted, by some kind of dim, subconscious memory of her ‘previous’ (parallel?) existences, which means she can sometimes influence her path through life – sometimes, random chance plays a much more significant role. Many people have made the connection between Life After Life’s premise and that of Groundhog Day – the main character repeating variations on the same set of events over and over again – but for me the first episode in particular put me rather in mind of one of those government safety films like Apaches where a small child meets a horrific death every few minutes – Ursula drowns, falls out of a window, and so on, with traumatic regularity.

However, the story also serves as something of a cultural history of England in the first half of the last century, and by the end of the first episode Ursula is having to contend with the arrival of Spanish Flu: which one of the servants brings into the house. Ursula cops it from the flu at least three times before figuring out a way of avoiding this untimely death: her solution is surprisingly ruthless, given she’s still a nine-year-old girl.

Once Ursula manages to reach adulthood (from the age of sixteen she is played almost exclusively, and just as well as you might expect, by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) you feel like you’ve got a sense of the way the story works (to the extent that this actually works as a unified story). It starts to feel like a computer game or one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, where each grisly demise brings you a little bit closer to figuring out what the ‘correct’ route is. Some of the iterations of Ursula end up on wildly variant paths, meeting very grim fates indeed: the fact that the main character’s repeated demise is a core element of the story means that there is a constant tension even when things seem to be going well for her. Certainly there are some profoundly moving moments – in one of her darkest moments, Ursula seems to be desperately inviting death, so she can have another go, but for once it stubbornly refuses to claim her: she is trapped, for the time being, in the life that fate has contrived for her.

Modern TV conventions – indeed, modern storytelling conventions – lead one to expect some kind of revelation, or resolution, as the story enters its third and fourth episode. There has to be an end point, surely – some goal, which once achieved will free Ursula from this endless loop. I was actively speculating as to what this might turn out to be (part of me was probably dimly remembering the final episode of the Nicholas Lyndhurst time-travel sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, in which it is revealed that the main character’s ability to visit the 1940s only existed so he could save Churchill’s life) and thought it might turn out to be managing to die of natural causes at a relatively happy old age.

However, in another dazzling transition where the show’s costume-drama mask momentarily slips, a scene set in the middle of the Second World War is upended by the sudden appearance of the bassline from Blondie’s Heart of Glass on the soundtrack. Abruptly the setting jumps forward to the late 1970s or early 1980s – the only scene set after the war – and an elderly Ursula reflecting on the regrets of her life. She expires, peacefully. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910, yet again.

The final episode focuses on Ursula’s experiences of the Second World War – dying in the London Blitz more than once, almost starving to death in a terrified Berlin awaiting the arrival of the Red Army – and almost qualifies as a sneaky piece of misdirection. If this was a more conventional piece of fiction, you could again probably guess which way the narrative was heading – something akin to Stephen King’s 22.11.63, with the protagonist intent on a bit of hands-on historical re-engineering. Something along these lines certainly happens along, but while Ursula indeed seems to be successful in creating a radically different new timeline, neither she nor the audience get to see it. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910.

Nothing she does really makes any difference: in the end, she is always back being born (or stillborn) in 1910. She always dies; her friends and family are likewise always distressingly mortal. For a while it does seem like Ursula’s strange gift really is just a curse, as she can never achieve anything permanent. But then I suppose the same could be said for any of us. The series eventually achieves a degree of existential profundity which is very rare in a modern TV drama – something reflected in the script by the appearance of many references to Nietzsche and his philosophy, especially the concept of amor fati: the acceptance of destiny as a necessary fact of existence (to simplify the concept, probably egregiously). In the end, living an infinity of parallel lives is not more or less meaningful than living a single life, and by the end of the story (to the extent that a story like this can even have an end) Ursula seems to have achieved a degree of acceptance of her strange perspective on the world.

It’s a challenging, unexpected conclusion, and one which feels like it has come much more from the world of literary fiction than much of the rest of the story. But then the whole thing benefits from the synergy and genuine sense of creative excitement that often comes when you mash the BBC’s costume-drama expertise with less traditional styles of storytelling. The acting is uniformly excellent, but it’s McKenzie who carries the whole thing, giving a string of subtle modulations to what is basically the same performance, as Ursula’s experiences impact on her character over the course of the narrative. It’s not overstating things to suggest that she breaks your heart over and over again throughout the series; her eventual attainment of something approaching acceptance also gains its power from the actress’ ability.

I don’t often write about current TV, partly because I think things usually need time and perspective in order to be properly assessed, but Life After Life contains two or three of the most powerful and exciting moments I’ve seen in the medium this year, more than any other show. It is in the nature of the one-off serial not to leave the same kind of footprint as a continuing drama, but this is so good it deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

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Any film featuring the final performance of a talent as singular as that of someone like Diana Rigg instantly acquires a significance – and, perhaps, a set of expectations – it wouldn’t otherwise have. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho doesn’t really do itself any favours by reminding everyone of this fact at the very beginning, featuring the dedication to the legendary actress and icon as virtually the first element of the film. It’s a brave step, but also a laudable one, and the film does not feel swamped by this unexpected (and unwanted) new element.

Wright is one of those directors who can be rather tricky to read: he bounces around across all kinds of genres, usually managing to make each his own in a rather quirky way – so far his CV includes a zombie rom com, a buddy action movie set in rural England, an offbeat comic book adaptation, an alien invasion movie, a diegetic musical car chase thriller, and a documentary about one of the world’s weirdest bands. (For a long time he was also attached to direct Ant-Man, but the whole ‘making it his own in a rather quirky way’ thing fell foul of the Marvel Studios method.)

The new movie is certainly creative, but largely tones down the overt oddness and games with genre. Thomasin McKenzie, who for a while has looked like one of those actresses one really good film away from significant stardom, plays Ellie, a young girl who has grown up in Cornwall with a head full of the sights and sounds of the swinging sixties. She is determined to go to London and make it as a fashion designer – what also rapidly becomes clear is that a suitcase full of old LPs is by no means the only baggage she is carrying with her: her mother took her own life, which has not stopped Ellie from seeing her about the place sometimes.

Despite some misgivings from her gran (Rita Tushingham), Ellie heads off to fashion designer university in the smoke anyway, and almost at once begins to find the reality does not match up to her dreams. Problem number one is the self-absorbed and callous room-mate she’s been assigned (Synnove Karlsen), which she manages to solve by renting a bedsit from a local resident (Rigg).

The fact that, after moving into the flat, Ellie starts to have some rather strange dreams does not initially appear to be a problem. She finds herself transported back to the half-mythical London of the swinging sixties (Thunderball is showing at the cinema, along with The Plague of the Zombies and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, from which we can conclude that it is supposed to be early 1966 – even though the Amicus film came out six months earlier), experiencing the life of another hopeful young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) – though in Sandie’s case, her disillusionment comes faster and harder and altogether darker. Ellie sees Sandie fall under the sway of Jack (Matt Smith), a shady and controlling character, and begins to fear for what eventually happened to her. But isn’t she just making it all up? As the boundary between her increasingly nightmarish visions and the waking world begins to splinter, it becomes difficult to tell…

Last Night in Soho might not be quite the genre-bender that some of Edgar Wright’s films have been, but it’s still a slightly tough film to pin down. Is it a psychological thriller, or a full-on horror movie? (I was amused to hear two very earnest patrons at the showing I attended intently persuading each other, as the final credits rolled, that – despite its legions of genuine alarming spectres and some rather gory revelations in the third act – this couldn’t possibly be a horror film as it dealt with some serious issues. Hey, money from genre snobs is as welcome as anyone else’s, I suppose.

I’m pretty sure this is a horror movie – it’s genuinely unsettling for long periods, deals with proper horror material, and Wright deploys a few classic horror gags along the way – but it is also a very modern piece dealing with the topics of mental health and misogynistic violence. The sense being alone in a new place, feeling isolated, and never quite fitting in no matter how hard you want to, is superbly created, as is the sickly reality of being a vulnerable single woman constantly having to deal with the calculating male gaze.

And that’s just some of the present day sequences: the stuff set in the late sixties is arguably much worse. It initially looks like this is going to be a love letter to the glamour of that period, the London of Carnaby Street and the Beatles and their peers – a young Cilla Black appears as a character – something only emphasised by the appearance in the cast of such iconic sixties faces as Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, and Rita Tushingham. But the film is also a ruthless deconstruction of the notion of that kind of glamour and the reality it was built on, which was one of ruthless exploitation and abuse.

It’s a powerful thesis and one the film puts across highly persuasively – I was even slightly surprised that Wright was making a film which was quite so on-the-nose with its moral premise, although I should say the film also works exceptionally well as a piece of dark, hard-edged entertainment, with the director showing off his usual casual mastery of the craft.

However, what definitely came as a real surprise was the conclusion of the film, in which Wright and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns opt for something rather more unexpected and nuanced. To be honest, it does feel like the film is reaching a bit, mainly because some kind of twist ending is what the form calls for, and while the ending is still strong and effective it is a little bit contrived.

Nevertheless, this is up there with the very best of Wright’s other films, taking you on a journey into another world (more than one, in this case). It does a good job of suggesting how foundational the pop culture of the sixties remain in the modern world, making full use of the music of that period (along with a few interlopers: the most recent song I recognised was Happy House, released in 1980 by Siouxsie and the Banshees), but is more than just a casual piece of nostalgia. That said, Stamp, Tushingham and Rigg all get meaty roles that allow them to show their quality, and there is something rather marvellous and touching about seeing Diana Rigg command the screen so effortlessly one final time, far removed though she is from her iconic persona of so many decades ago. But nearly everyone involved in this production emerges with credit. Last Night in Soho is a terrific film, one of the best of the year so far, and a worthy valediction for a great star and a great actress.

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Never let it be said that you can’t do a family-friendly, acclaimed, popular movie about Nazism: the bloomin’ Sound of Music was on again the other night, sending the usual dubious message that the best way of dealing with a fascist takeover of your government is to start singing at it. But the danger of doing funny stuff about the Nazis is that the joke will end up being on you. To paraphrase the late Clive James, if Nazism was a joke, then it was a cruel joke played by history on the world, and one that we should be careful of laughing at too freely.

Quite reasonably, this sentiment seems to be fairly widespread in civilised society, which may be why the publicity material for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has been stressing the fact that this isn’t just a black comedy about life in Nazi Germany, but a film with important things to say about understanding, tolerance, etc, etc. That doesn’t change the fact that the trailer seems designed to provoke that old Kipling line about the sheer audacity of the thing. (I should mention that this is a rare example of one of those films enjoying a staggered international release: which is to say it has only just come out in the UK, a couple of months after many other countries.)

Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. His father and sister are both gone, due to the war, and he is living alone with his mother – or so he thinks, anyway. (Johannes’ mother is played by Scarlett Johansson: it feels like there should be some sort of joke in there, but I just can’t find it.) Like many young lads, he has an imaginary friend, but what is slightly unusual in this case is that his pal is Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or at least his own slightly warped idea of what Hitler is like. As the film starts, Jojo (for so is he known) leads a fairly happy, carefree life, heedless of the advancing Allies: he and his friends go off on Hitler Youth activity weekends, have fun burning books, learn to recognise Jews, and so on.

However, things get a bit more complicated when Jojo discovers an interloper in the family home: a teenage girl who is living in the wainscotting. Her name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and she is a Jewish refugee given refuge by Jojo’s mother. What is a dedicated young Nazi supposed to do in a situation like this one? Things are not made any easier when it turns out that Elsa is not the vile, horned cannibal he has been led to expect, but actually seems to be quite a pleasant young woman…

Now, of course, the idea of using Nazism as the source of jokes in a bad-taste comedy is hardly a new one: Mel Brooks won an Oscar for The Producers over fifty years ago, and there’s a lot of the same provocative spirit here too – ‘It’s time to burn some books!’ cries Rebel Wilson as one of the Hitler Youth instructors (her charges cheer with delight), while Sam Rockwell initially appears to be turning in one of his more uninhibited performances as the wounded army veteran put in charge of the group. But, on the other hand, there is that storyline about Elsa hiding in Jojo’s house and their developing friendship. So which is this to be? A wild comedy of excess, made acceptable by a more thoughtful, human-interest subplot? Or an attempt at a film with genuine heart and emotion, perked up now and then by some jokes about Swastikas and comedy Gestapo agents?

I think, in the end, that Jojo Rabbit is a bit less bold and outrageous than its publicity suggests it to be – or perhaps I should say that it is not consistently provocative. There are lengthy semi-serious segments, mostly concerning Jojo’s relationships with his mother and with Elsa, which do function on a more naturalistic level and are obviously attempting to engage with the audience’s emotions – not without success, I should add. Only occasionally do Rockwell, Wilson, and the others turn up for another sketch-like interlude.

In the end I suppose we should be grateful for this, but on the other hand there is the awkward problem that the comic scenes are much more successful than the more serious ones – by which I mean they mostly get the laughs they’re aiming for, mainly due to a decent script and full-blooded performances from a cast who know what they’re doing. The more measured scenes are not actually bad, with Johansson in particular clearly working hard, but the more serious the film tries to be, the more awkward it feels – as if it’s playing a role out of obligation, rather than any real conviction. At one point there’s a sequence where stirring music plays as Jojo watches the civilian population of his home town squandering their lives in a futile attempt to hold off the advancing Allies – but it’s hard to think of any message this is supposed to be putting across that isn’t trite or facile.

Perhaps it would work better if there was more of a sense of the film being grounded in an actual historical setting, but the film is vague at best about the actual period in which it takes place. You could argue that all films set in recent history look identical, and this is an attempt to avoid that cliche (the cinematography and art directon are much brighter and less textured than you might expect) – but something about that kind of look does give a sense of verisimilitude, which is lacking here. I’m not saying the costumes or sets are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel like the 1940s, and odd details like Jojo’s home town being invaded by both Americans and Russians on the same day just add to the sense of this essentially being a cartoon even when it’s attempting to be serious.

This is by no means a terrible film with which to start the year – there are some good performances, it is frequently very funny, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But it seems to me that the comedic elements of the film just work to make it feel superficial, detracting from the more serious story which is really at its heart. Not the worst film a bunch of comedians have made about the Nazis – that honour still probably goes to The Day the Clown Cried, or at least it would if anyone was allowed to watch it – but it is rather uneven, even in its better moments.

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You know you’re getting old, when those ‘You know you’re getting old, when…’ lists suddenly start to resonate with you. And to these let me add a new exponent – you know you’re getting old when actors who you think of as promising bright young newcomers suddenly start rocking up in roles where they’re playing the fathers of a new set of promising bright young newcomers. A case in point being Ben Foster, who I still think of as a juvenile character performer, pretty much, doing intensely committed things in indie films and prestige TV. (Though, of course, like everyone else these days he has done his time in dodgy mainstream entertainment too – he was rather underused as Angel in the third X-Men film, had a supporting role in the 2004 Punisher movie, and struggled through Warcraft just like the rest of the cast.)

Now here he is in Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, who is best known for Winter’s Bone, the film which brought Jennifer Lawrence to the attention of the world. This being the case, all eyes are really on Foster’s co-star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who (once again) is a talented young actress whose first big role this is. Could it be that in eight or nine years time, it will be Harcourt McKenzie who will be appearing in sleazy sex-thrillers and being off with Joanna Lumley at awards ceremonies? On the strength of this film, I’m not sure I would bet against it.

Foster plays Will, an ex-US Marine and single parent to his daughter Tom (Harcourt McKenzie). As the film opens the pair have been living in a national park not far outside Portland, Oregon, under conditions of extreme circumspection – they routinely hide from anyone visiting the park and Will runs regular drills testing his daughter’s ability to evade anyone searching for them. Raised under this discipline, it seems entirely normal to Tom; the film makes their genuine affection and commitment to each other clear.

But then they are found by the authorities and all the usual machinery swings into action, to ensure Tom’s welfare in particular. Told it is not right for her to be homeless, Tom is confused; she has a home – in the park, with her father. They are told this cannot continue – they must live in a more conventional fashion. This is anathema to Will, and Tom initially follows his lead automatically – but slowly she begins to realise that her needs may not be the same as her father’s…

The first and most obvious point of reference for Leave No Trace, for me at least, is Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, for both films do concern themselves with the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, specifically when it comes to what we should probably call non-standard lifestyle choices. Both films make a point of establishing that the children involved are thriving, both physically and mentally, despite (or possibly due to) being raised outside of conventional society, but the deeper question persists – to what extent do they have an informed choice in this? Is this really responsible parenting?

Of course, there are differences: Ross’ film was in some ways a slightly off-beat comedy, as well as a drama, whereas this is much more sober and thoughtful in its tone. There is also the character point that while Viggo Mortensen’s character in the Cash film was making a philosophical choice in taking his children out of society, Will is driven more by a pathological need for personal privacy – to live unseen, in a state of true independence. He is not a bad person, but he does have severe issues, and it is to the great credit of Foster that he can communicate this while still being utterly convincing as an almost completely guarded, barely expressive individual.

And this does inform the film, for it mainly concerns the rising tensions between Will and Tom as she slowly begins to perceive that, no matter how much she and her father love each other, they may have very different needs. ‘Whatever’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me,’ she says, in one of the film’s key moments – a moment of self-discovery and self-actualisation for Tom. These are what the film is really about, in terms of becoming an adult, taking responsibility for your own life, recognising that moment when you look after your parents at least as much as they look after you.

This is not a complex story, but it is engrossing throughout and beautifully told in its understated way. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is, as I have indicated, every bit as good as Foster in a really challenging role. Expect her to be appearing in a major superhero blockbuster within the next couple of years. That said, it is well-performed throughout; Foster is the closest thing to a well-known face in it, but it is filled with small, well-judged character turns. One of the most striking things about it is the fact that, for all that it is at heart a very personal story, it takes place in a vivid and completely convincing world on the fringes of American society. And it is an entirely compassionate and non-judgmental vision – no-one in it is perfect, but then who is, and everyone Will and Tom encounter is presented sympathetically. Homeless people, service veterans, long-distance truckers and trailer park residents normally appear in mainstream films only as figures of pity, or scorn, or fun, or menace, but here they are just shown as individuals, as capable of kindness and compassion as anyone else. It is a strikingly humane and predominantly positive film, given the times we are living through.

I must confess to watching Winter’s Bone a few years ago and finding it rather tough going, simply because of its thorough-going bleakness. Leave No Trace is a much more accessible film, made so by the general tone of the story and the strength of the two lead performances. This is the kind of film you wish had got a much higher-profile release than is the case, for it is extremely strong in every area. I doubt we will see many better dramas this year.

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