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Posts Tagged ‘Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’

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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