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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Hardy’

Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project – there has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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There is something odd in the English mentality that sometimes makes us more enthusiastic about celebrating our narrow squeaks and mitigated disasters than commemorating our genuine national triumphs. (I’m almost tempted to suggest this because genuine English national triumphs have been thin on the ground for some time now, but I feel besieged enough right now, thanks.) Perhaps it’s just our famous national sense of fair play that makes us want to stick up for the underdog. Especially when the underdog is us. At the moment there may be very particular reasons for this sort of thing – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The latest example of someone getting nostalgic about a pretty bad day is the new movie from Christopher Nolan. Having already treated us to Insomnia, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s new movie is entitled InDunkirk (in some territories – specifically the interior of my head, but I digress). Oh, all right, it may actually be called Dunkirk, but it’s set in and around the town of that name, at the back end of May 1940.

The story of Dunkirk has genuinely become a part of the British national myth, but I’m genuinely uncertain as to how well-known it is around the world. Nolan wisely takes no chances and opens the film with a set of captions filling in the story so far – with the Nazi war machine sweeping west across Europe, the British army and its allies find themselves surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk. With the enemy closing in, the need to get the men off the beaches and over the channel to England is becoming desperate. But how is the miracle to be accomplished?

Nolan’s movie focuses on a handful of different storylines, set on land, sea, and in the air. A young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the allied enclave, and desperately attempts to get onto one of the ships taking soldiers off the beach, as discipline begins to falter amongst the trapped men. The owner of one of the ‘little ships’ (Mark Rylance) sets off across the channel, determined to do his bit and save as many of his countrymen as he can. And a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect the ships taking off the army from the depredations of Luftwaffe dive-bombers.

As you can perhaps discern, this is not quite a traditionally epic war movie, built around a specific narrative. Instead it seems to be trying to offer up an almost impressionistic experience of what it felt like to go through the ordeal of the Dunkirk evacuation. The storyline of the movie is quite straightforward, and there is correspondingly little exposition, just a succession of set-pieces. Nolan is, characteristically, attempting to do something clever and tricksy with the film’s handling of space and time, but it takes quite a while for this to become completely clear.

It comes as no great surprise to find regular Nolan collaborators like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the movie (apparently Michael Caine also contributes a vocal cameo), nor, really, distinguished thespians like Ken Branagh or Mark Rylance. It has to be said that these gentlemen are occupying the somewhat-coveted ‘With’ and ‘And’ section of the cast list, with many of the main roles played by younger, less famous actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Also making a fairly substantial appearance is the quadro-mammaried popstrel Harry Styles, who apparently used to be in some boy band or other. Styles is actually perfectly acceptable in this movie, which I fear is only going to encourage him to keep acting. You can’t have everything, I suppose. It is notable, I think, that Christopher Nolan has managed to make a major film with a cast almost exclusively composed of white men, without anyone kicking off about it – maybe he really does have magic powers. (It’s enough to gladden the heart of a thundering misogynist.)

While doing my research for this piece (quiet at the back – of course I do research), I discovered that Dunkirk is based on a script which Nolan wrote donkey’s years ago, long before his rise to prominence as a director. Apparently he put it on ice while he gathered enough experience making large-scale Hollywood blockbusters (can’t argue with a confident man, I guess), and in some ways it feels like something written in a different mode – it has some of the audacity of Nolan’s most celebrated work, but not really the narrative density or thematic strength which you associate with those films. He appears to be trying to make the film work more on a visceral level, but it is a qualified success at best in this regard.

And I have to say that, while it still feels unlikely that Nolan will ever make a film which is less than accomplished and engaging, I left this one without the same joyous sense of having had the possibilities of cinema confirmed for me that I felt after all the other Nolan films I’ve seen. Naturally, I seem to be in a tiny minority on this one (just for a change), as many professional film-watchers are announcing this is Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, and a sign of him finally realising his promise as a film-maker. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I do think it’s a bit suspicious that it’s Nolan’s first film in fifteen years that isn’t on some level a fantasy or an SF movie that has been hailed as marking his admission to the grown-up’s club. It seems you just can’t get respect making certain kinds of genre movie, even if they’re as exceptional as Inception or The Dark Knight.

Then again it may just be that this is one of those films which it is just unacceptable to give a negative review to, not just because of the director and cast, but because of the subject matter itself – slightly absurd though it sounds, giving the thumbs down to Dunkirk could be interpreted as disparaging one of the defining moments in the modern British narrative, along with everyone involved in those events. We are in the middle of a bunch of movies about the Second World War at the moment – recently we’ve had Churchill and Their Finest Hour, with yet another Churchill bio-pic (Darkest Hour) being trailed before Dunkirk itself. Is it just a coincidence that all these films about Britain heroically going it alone should be making an appearance at the moment? I’m sure Nolan is not setting out to make particular political points with Dunkirk, but I note that the film’s parting shot – a reminder that this muddled withdrawal of Britain from Europe was not a triumph, and should not be treated as one – is not one of the elements being lionised by its supporters in the media.

As I say, Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad film, and watching Dunkirk should prove a memorable experience for virtually anyone: it is full of striking images, heart-felt performances, moments that stay with you. By almost anyone’s standards it is a good, if somewhat unconventional war movie and historical drama. But I have to say that of all the Nolan movies that I’ve seen, it’s the one I can least imagine myself sitting down to watch again and again, even if that says more about his exceptional track-record than anything else.

 

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It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.

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You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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It’s not normally a good sign when you go to see a movie with a friend and can’t decide afterwards exactly what sort of film it was supposed to be. I suppose you could have gone to watch one of those films which sets out to subvert the whole idea of genre, but then those are always a dicey proposition. Generally it just means you’ve spent a couple of hours watching a film with a bit of an identity crisis. This is not inappropriate, now I come to think of it, when we are talking about Brian Helgeland’s vaguely-monickered new movie Legend.

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Legend concerns the lives of the infamous Kray twins, London gangsters of the 1960s, who were notable for being celebrities as well as criminals. This is by no means the first film to be about them, either directly or obliquely, but it has carved out a bit of distinctiveness for itself by using the miracle of modern technology to enable Tom Hardy to play both twins, a challenge he tackles with considerable gusto (maybe a bit too much gusto, but we’ll come back to that).

The movie opens in the early 60s with the Krays rising figures on the London gangland scene, routinely watched by the police (when they’re not actually in prison). Reggie Kray is presented as the brains of the firm, a smooth, plausible-seeming businessman (though not averse to a spot of the old ultra-violence when necessary), while his brother Ronnie, according to the film, is a slightly thick criminally insane maniac. Fairly early on they dispose of their main rivals, the Richardsons, after a gruesomely violent bar brawl, and from then on the city is theirs.

The film is mostly framed by Reggie’s relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the woman he eventually marries, but covers all the stuff you’d expect a Kray biopic to handle – gang warfare, the Boothby scandal, their connection with the Mafia, the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie, and so on. This is, inevitably, the kind of film which concludes with mugshots of the principals and captions relating what happened to them in later life (at the risk of spoilers: an awful lot of porridge).

Helgeland has assembled an impressive, mostly British cast, including Christopher Eccleston, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Tara Fitzgerald, and so on, but the focus is almost always on Tom Hardy. Now, as Reggie, I would say Hardy gives a customarily good performance. The problem is with his turn as Ronnie – it seems to me that playing both characters perhaps allows Hardy to take each a bit further than he would if he were playing only one of them. Or perhaps a good deal further, because as Ronnie he arguably goes way over the top a lot of the time.

There’s rather more Dinsdale Piranha in Hardy’s glazed-eyed performance than is probably a good idea: he makes some rather curious choices, to say the least. ‘What accent is he doing?’ asked the friend of mine I saw Legend with, and I had to confess I had no idea. Is Tom Hardy genuinely playing a real-life convicted murderer for laughs? It’s difficult to say, and that itself is a little disconcerting.

Then again, the whole film is arguably softer on the Krays than it should be – probably more than Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic was. As the title suggests, this paints the twins as glamorous, almost romanticised figures – ‘gangster princes… the city was theirs to conquer,’ gushes the voice-over at one point, while within minutes the film is trotting out that old chestnut that the Krays were lovely boys who only ever hurt their own, and you could leave your front door unlocked in the East End back in the old days… and so on. It’s not until close to the end of a long film that you’re reminded that terrorising witnesses was part of the Krays’ standard procedure, by which point it’s a jarring realisation.

Even so, Legend has apparently been criticised by surviving members of the Kray clan for misrepresenting the twins – particularly the depiction of Reggie brutalising Frances Read, although the film doesn’t make reference to the allegation that Read was actually murdered by Ronnie. Whatever you think of the twins, it’s very difficult to shake the sense that their story has been stretched and twisted to fit Brian Helgeland’s agenda, which appears to be to incorporate some modishly savage gangland violence into an ain’t-those-Brits-quaint-style period piece. I’m not sure the intention justifies the changes – as ever, the morality of making an entertainment out of real life killers strikes me as questionable.

And an entertainment this certainly is. On the way out I asked my companion (who is not well acquainted with British culture or recent history) what kind of film she thought Legend was, and she said she thought it was a dark comedy. I couldn’t honestly disagree, but on the other hand it can’t really avoid being judged as a based-on-true-events crime drama, either. The technical skill and commitment that has gone into the entirety of the film is undeniable, for it is by no means badly made, but – just as with Tom Hardy’s central performances – some of the creative choices that have been made are, to say the least, deeply questionable.

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All things considered, it’s not a tremendous surprise to find adverts for new Jurassic Park and Terminator movies hanging around the trailer portion of the cinema-going experience – these series both have the feel of studio cash-cows about them, regardless of how they appear to have been mucked about in a dubious attempt to make them appear fresher and more original. Slightly more unexpected is the first Mad Max film in thirty years, directed – as before – by George Miller.

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For the purposes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Mel Gibson has – not surprisingly – been replaced by Tom Hardy. This appears to be another instance of that modern plague, the reboot, inasmuch as the events of the story seems to replace or overwrite those of Mad Max 2: Hardy starts the film in a costume clearly derived from Gibson’s, and is driving a very similar car, but things take a different turn when he falls into the clutches of a post-apocalyptic warlord known as Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who of course played the main villain in the first Mad Max in 1979).

Things look bleak for Max as he is pressed into service as, basically, a source of medical supplies, but all is not well in Immortan Joe’s kingdom, when his trusted lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a break for freedom in a heavily-armed battlewagon, taking with her the warlord’s harem of young brides (including Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley as the slimmest-ankled heavily-pregnant woman in history). Immortan Joe, following standard post-apocalyptic warlord procedure, mounts an energetic pursuit in a variety of peculiar vehicles. One of these is driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a young warrior whose need for regular medical fortification leads to his mounting Max on his car as a sort of hood ornament. Could this be Max’s chance to make a break for it? Can he find enough common ground with Furiosa and the others to form an alliance? And what are the chances of Miller doing another Babe sequel?

Just to reiterate, there is a complete absence of Mel Gibson as far as Fury Road is concerned, and as his replacement Tom Hardy is… hmmm, well, we’ll come back to that one. I can’t imagine that anyone will miss Gibson too much, however, as all the other elements of Mad Max movies of years gone by have been reconstituted, albeit in a larger, glossier, and louder form. The central through-line of the plot is the same as that of previous sequels – damaged loner Max reluctantly finds himself making common cause with a group of other survivors, and much vehicular carnage ensues – and while it would be overstating things to say that Fury Road is basically just the final chase from Mad Max 2 stretched out to two hours with some of the weirder and more grotesque elements of Beyond Thunderdome drizzled lightly over the top, neither is this a completely unfair description of the film.

Certainly there is not a great deal of plot taking place here beyond an extended pursuit across some extraordinary, devastated landscapes, and what gives the film its drive and identity is the sheer raw energy of the thing, along with some strikingly bizarre art direction. There’s a lot of inventive mutilation and mutation even before the bullets start flying, and the initial assault of the film – its first act – is almost oppressively relentless in the succession of over-the-top images and moments it delivers, never quite giving you time to assimilate them. It calms down eventually, though not by much, and you’re never very far from something exploding or a gory death of some description. Did I mention that George Miller is 70 years old? This film looks like the work of somebody many decades younger.

Still, it would all look very much like a hollow sort of retread of past glories, were it not for the core of the story, which is something new and quite different for a major studio action movie, namely some of the most uncompromising sexual politics I can recall seeing in a mainstream release of any kind. ‘Feminist’ doesn’t begin to do it justice: the plot is initiated and driven by the female characters and it’s the women in the film who are presented as competent, sympathetic, and sane throughout – the men are all crazed, unpleasant, acquisitive fools obsessed with ideas of theology and possession. You could even argue that the whole film is ultimately the weirdest statement in favour of womens’ reproductive freedom in world history (a prominent scene has the harem clipping off their chastity belts with bolt cutters). Even Max, the ostensible hero, doesn’t get very much to do in terms of actually shaping the plot: he’s an entirely passive figure for most of the first half hour, for example. It’s not really surprising that Theron, as Furiosa, shares top billing with him, as she is essentially the main protagonist of the film.

Perhaps my view of this film has been somewhat coloured by an early review I saw entitled something along the lines of ‘New Mad Max movie is so feminist it made my nuts drop off’, but I really don’t think so. Nevertheless, as usual I can’t shake my suspicion of any film which suggests that real feminism is about women acting so viciously and violently they are almost indistinguishable from men, and I do think the film is compromised by the fact that it is, even if only putatively, about a male hero. (Still, I’d be fascinated to learn more about Miller’s creative process – did he decide to insert the political angle into a pre-existing idea for another Max movie? (This one seems to have been in development hell for at least a decade.) Or was it just that he wanted to make a film about these ideas and concluded that he’d have the best chance of financing another SF action film, rather than something more overtly political?)

Maybe I am overstating things, because even if you’re oblivious to the ideas involved, the film has more than enough energy and grit and movement to be fully acceptable just as an action movie. After a slightly wobbly start, not helped by the fact he spends a fair portion of the film with some kind of gardening implement attached to his face, Hardy brings his customary charisma to bear and is an entirely satisfactory lead – even if he arguably doesn’t get the material he deserves. One could, perhaps, suggest that Hardy’s accent goes on a wild geographical odyssey of its own in the course of the film (he starts off apparently attempting an Aussie accent and by the end seems to be doing the Bane voice again), but this is not really a serious issue for him or Fury Road.

I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t turn up for Mad Max: Fury Road with especially high expectations, mainly because it did just look like a karaoke version of the earlier films, with a vast budget taking the place of any real invention. Well, this is not the film that I was expecting, but something with a much more twisted and subversive edge to it. I still wouldn’t say it was in the same league as either of the first two films, and it’s obviously not going to have anything like the same kind of cultural impact, but it’s still going to satisfy fans of both this series and action-oriented fantasy in general. The other SF revenants I mentioned at the top of the page look like being, at best, good Bad Movies. This is quite probably a Good Movie, full stop. Worth a look.

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A friend of mine who shall remain nameless once confessed to me that she would be well up for a torrid fling with Tom Hardy, ‘even though I’m practically certain he’s a [redacted] who would treat me like [redacted]’ (before Mr Hardy’s legal team get in touch, this is just one person’s opinion – I’m sure Tom is a lovely guy and a joy to be around, not to mention chivalry incarnate to any lady lucky enough to have the pleasure of his company). Certainly things have got to the point where Hardy’s reputation is beginning to precede him – a reputation for a certain kind of unchecked machismo and startling intensity – coupled to a facility for personal transformation that perhaps doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. If nothing else, his ability to steal scenes and movies from bigger stars is noteworthy.

It’s not a talent he gets the chance to use much in his new film, Steven Knight’s Locke, if only because he’s the only person whose face is seen at any point in the movie. This is very much a star vehicle for Hardy, but the emphasis there should be very much on the word ‘vehicle’ – the actor spends practically the entire film in a car.

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There is a breath-taking creative alchemy at work in Locke. This is a film about a man driving from Birmingham to London via the M40, and spending a significant portion of the journey talking about the mechanics of pouring concrete foundations. This is not promising material (the story, I mean, not the concrete). And yet Locke proves to be an utterly mesmerising drama as well as a character study of a man undergoing the crisis of his life.

Steven Knight was the writer and director of last year’s superior Jason Statham movie Hummingbird, and while I thought that was a solidly put-together film, Locke displays unexpected levels of economy and subtlety in its writing. In the course of only 85 minutes or so, in only a single cramped location, and through the mechanism of phone calls to a handful of people, Knight and Hardy together manage to create a fully rounded and entirely convincing portrait of a real human being.

Ivan Locke is a construction engineer, essentially a builder. His family background contains some demons, or so we are invited to surmise. Dozens of little details, not least the affection and respect he is treated with at the start of story, indicate that he is a man who has spent many years striving to be responsible, reliable, trustworthy, solid. He has a good job and a loving family. But he has made a mistake – just one mistake, and perhaps an excusable one. And now, as much due to savage bad luck as anything else, his entire life is collapsing around him.

Locke spends the film driving, but he also seems to be a driven man: the personal catastrophe overtaking him is at least partly self-inflicted. His stubbornness and honesty in taking responsibility for his actions and owning up to the truth borders on the masochistic, perhaps even unrealistically so, but it is the main hook of the film. This is a story about a man ferociously trying to do the right thing, no matter what the cost to himself, and story behind the story is why he is doing this at all. The film does just enough to suggest why.

Some of the advertising for Locke appears to suggest it is a high-octane thriller with Tom Hardy going nuts in a car for the entire running time. It seems very strange to me that this is being described as a thriller at all, as the storyline is – by the standards of most current films – almost absurdly small-time. Can Locke get the phone number of the councillor he needs to sign off on some road closures? Can his assistant track down some Polish labourers in time? And yet in a strange way it’s the very inconsequentiality of the story that gives the film its power, makes it so personal. Another brilliant Tom Hardy performance helps, of course: never mind bulking up and talking through a gas mask for two and half hours, there are times in this film where Hardy disappears into his performance more than ever before. Perhaps this is partly because Locke is a much less extravagant character than the ones he more commonly plays, or perhaps it’s the sheer attention to detail in his performance: the Welsh accent he puts on throughout is flawless, for example. But I think it’s also the fact that this is almost the polar opposite of the typical Hardy performance: you go along to see one of his films anticipating the moment when he really cuts loose, one way or another. But Locke is about a man battling to keep it together – the people he’s talking to are the ones who are losing it, by and large. The film even suggests that it’s this very measured, controlled quality of the man which may be the root source of his travails. Only at a few moments does the mask slip and some of the expected ferocity burst through.

Hardy dominates the film, but the people he’s talking to on the phone play important roles too. Olivia Colman is a woman in his life, Andrew Scott his assistant, Ben Daniels his boss. They are ultimately really just sounding boards for Hardy, I expect, but still essential for all of that. The need for exposition saddles a few of these people with some fairly awkward dialogue, but the end result is more than good enough to justify this.

Locke is one of the most distinctive British films of the year, and certainly one of the best. Director and star both work minor miracles in making such a small, deliberately limited film so compelling to watch. The end itself is perhaps a little inconclusive – I was left dying to know what the next day would hold for Locke – but then again this film is all about the journey anyway. It is a gripping, moving, occasionally darkly funny, very powerful piece of film-making, and a terrific showcase for both director and star. Recommended.

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There are keenly-anticipated films, and then there are films with a genuine buzz around them, and then there are films people are desperately excited to see. And then there’s The Dark Knight Rises.

The first breathlessly agitated articles about Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie started appearing nearly eighteen months ago – I should know, I wrote one of them myself. Even four months ago, respectable magazines were writing articles on the movie discussing the serious issue that some people were worried the antagonist’s dialogue might be completely unintelligible. Even in a perfect world, this film would still have received virtually blanket media coverage on its opening weekend.

This, of course, is usually a recipe for crushing disappointment, as many people who went to one of the midnight showings of Prometheus would happily tell you (and, judging from what I’ve seen, would do so at great length). Nevertheless, some kind of minor miracle has been achieved, because The Dark Knight Rises is… satisfying. I know that sounds like damnation by the faintest of praise, but it really isn’t. Thinking about this film the word I come back to time and time again is ‘satisfying’, and I think this is not something to be underestimated.

Ten years ago, a mysterious organisation calling itself the League of Shadows attempted to recruit vengeance-hungry orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to become one of its elite assassins. Wayne broke away from the League and transformed himself into the masked vigilante and defender of Gotham City, Batman, killing his former mentor.

Eight years ago, Batman’s attempts to save Gotham were critically imperilled when the city’s heroic DA was driven mad and went on a killing spree before ultimately dying. To protect the dead man’s reputation and his work, Batman framed himself for the man’s actions.

No one has seen Batman since that night, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled, embittered recluse. But Gotham is, it seems, a much more hopeful city. Dark forces are gathering, however – morally-ambiguous jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is amongst the least of them, but quick to catch Wayne’s attention. Much, much more of a threat is the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), another former member of the League of Shadows, who’s in town pursuing a machiavellian scheme of his own. Even if Batman returns to confront Bane, does he still have the ability to defeat him? And is Bane simply just following orders in expectation of getting a paycheck…?

One can understand the reluctance of Christopher Nolan and his team to make this final return to the world of Batman, given their massive achievements with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the less-than-stellar record of many third instalments in series. Just making a good movie would have been a significant success; making one as good as this is a stellar achievement.

The Dark Knight Rises has the same virtues as Nolan’s other movies: effortless technical grace and polish, a very intelligent script, strength in depth in the cast list, and the overall sense that while this may be a major studio production, that doesn’t mean the film has to assume the audience is composed entirely of morons. One has to commend DC for giving Nolan the latitude to make the film he wanted to make (completely free of the stereoscopic scourge, as well), even if this means letting him do some slightly surprising things to the characters and setting.

This is not to say that Nolan cuts loose entirely from the existing Batman mythology, as many characters from the previous movies return, and a number of iconic scenes from the most famous Batman comics are brought – here it comes again – very satisfyingly to the screen. Impressively, he even manages to largely rehabilitate Catwoman, following the number done upon her reputation by Pitof and Halle Berry – although Anne Hathaway doesn’t have quite the obvious intelligence or wit to completely nail the character.

The film’s powerhouse performance and most memorable creation is, however, Tom Hardy’s Bane. Following a possibly-dodgy start to his career playing the Picard clone in Nemesis, Hardy has been steadily popping up in recent films, always threatening to give a magnetic, movie-stealing performance. Here I would say that finally happens. Hardy’s physical presence is imposing, but his vocal performance is even more remarkable, giving the character an almost-Shakespearean delivery without making him feel corny or hammy. I’d say there’s quite a big difference between the comics Bane and Nolan and Hardy’s version, but if anything the film-makers have improved on the original this time.

(As to whether there are any surprise appearances in this film from other notable Batman villains, either from the earlier movies or new to this one – well, the film-makers have decided to keep quiet about this, which seems to me to be an eminently sensible plan and an example I will be following.)

I could spend quite a long time going through all the things which are great about this movie, even just the performances: Michael Caine as Alfred, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop, Tom Conti in a cameo role I’d better not spoil. Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing stuff, if perhaps a bit too fortissimo in places: some of the dialogue gets a little drowned out. Nolan also feels much more comfortable integrating comic relief into the story, something which occasionally felt a bit awkward in the past.

One of the most striking elements of this film which I do feel deserves a fuller mention is the level of its social commentary. All of the Nolan Batman films have had interesting things to say about the difference between law and justice and the real consequences of someone like Batman operating, but there’s a long sequence towards the end of this film which seems to me to be saying very sharp and unusual things about current politics and economics. Throughout the film the people in the firing line are stockbrokers and bankers and businessmen, who are nevertheless not presented tremendously sympathetically. (This is clearly a film fully aware of the economic realities of life in 2012 and how this has shaped people’s attitudes.) Bane’s organisation basically presents itself as the militant wing of the Occupy movement, intent on bringing about some degree of social justice and redistribution of wealth – but, as this is Bane’s organisation, we know that they are in the wrong. Even the ‘morally flexible’ Catwoman realises this. And yet the film refuses to offer easy answers or pat solutions: it’s mature enough to suggest, as these films always have, that the world is a complex place which does not lend itself to such things.

Lots of stuff blows up, too, of course, orchestrated with Nolan’s customary verve. Perhaps the great achievement of this series has been the way in which it has blended intelligent themes and characterisation with the demands of a blockbuster superhero movie (I notice a cliche developing: the hunt for a clean, renewable energy source is a crucial plot point here, as it was in The Avengers, and a couple of movies prior to that – and, while we’re on the subject, watching The Dark Knight Rises back to back with The World is Not Enough might prove an illuminating experience in some respects).

I imagine one of the pleasures to be had when returning to this film will be to admire Nolan’s legerdemain in setting up the conclusion. All the elements are there, in plain view (sometimes jarringly so), and yet come the end of the film he manages to arrange them in a manner which is both ingenious, quite moving, and – yet again – very satisfying as a genuine end to the story (suffice to say, Batman does something he’s never done before). The real trick is that the film presents something which is very definitely a proper ending, but still makes you want to revisit this world and see what happens next to the characters: but it would be brave of a director to attempt to follow in Nolan’s footsteps so closely, and brave of DC to let them try.

However, however, however. The Dark Knight Rises is cleverly written, strongly acted, flawlessly realised and directed with indisputable virtuosity – but for all of this it is still quite a difficult film to honestly connect with – for all of its many satisfactions, the overall impression I got was of a vast, intricate, high-powered, precision-tooled machine: a phenomenal piece of engineering but quite hard to engage with emotionally for an extended period of time.

I suppose this has been true to some degree of all the Christopher Nolan films that I’ve seen – perhaps the sheer scope of his imagination and ambition prevents them from having a genuine human centre. Even so, Christopher Nolan is still arguably the most exciting director working in the world today, and if he finds a way to invest his movies with authentic heart a place amongst the all-time greats is his to be had. The Dark Knight Rises is proof enough of that – Nolan has made a terrific film on so many levels, and one which deserves to be remembered as that and that alone.

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If the natural choice of reading of James Bond would be GQ magazine (immaculate tailoring, conspicuous consumption, tasteful objectification of women), and Jason Bourne much more likely to be a Lonely Planet fan, then what would be the preferred literature of John le Carre’s famous hero, George Smiley? Judging from Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I imagine it would either be The Bumper Book of Cryptic Crosswords or an office supply catalogue.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that this is not really a conventional thriller, highly accomplished though it is in every department. I did wonder whether it was a late-released summer movie or a movie angling for awards that had got itself released unusually early: the latter is definitely the case. No car chases or fisticuffs to speak of in this one, with the closest thing to an action sequence being when someone tries to pinch something from a library without being spotted (it still manages to be an incredibly tense scene).

The plot is ferociously convoluted, though not, I would say, impenetrably so. Set in the murky world of early Seventies espionage, the movie opens with a British mission to eastern Europe going bad, leading to the forced retirement of top man Control (John Hurt) and his lieutenant Smiley (Gary Oldman). But the following year, word reaches the government that Control’s suspicions of a traitor working for the Russians at the highest level may in fact be true. Smiley is recalled to service to undertake a clandestine operation against his former colleagues and uncover the mole, whoever it may be…

To go any further would be slightly futile and possibly require diagrams. That said, while I had to pay attention throughout, I never felt lost within what’s a fairly labyrinthine narrative. Alfredson keeps the story carefully under control and clearly signposts his flashbacks to avoid baffling the audience too much. As good as the storytelling in this film is, though, the atmosphere the director creates is equally impressive – a seedy, smoky, dingy world of musty offices and peeling wallpaper. Everything seems to be either grey or yellow-brown, including most of the main characters: an oppressive world.

Oldman’s performance sets much of the tone, being – given some of his past work – startlingly restrained. Smiley is a passive, inscrutable figure, hugely economical in both speech and action, worlds apart from most other fictional intelligence operatives (at one point he embarks upon a crucial stealth operation and his preparations consist of taking off his shoes and sucking a breath-mint). While ruthless and implacable in pursuit of his quarry, he’s also a very human and vulnerable figure, cuckolded by his wife and – it’s implied – haunted by past failures.

On one level this movie is really a study in masculine frustration and despair, brought to life by a very strong cast – Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong (the fifth film of his I’ve seen this year alone – does the man not sleep?), and many others. One gets the impression that all of these men have forgotten why they’re playing the spy game at all: the rules of the game have become all-important, and the paranoia and distrust they generate have created a corrosive atmosphere where no-one can really be happy. They are all, to some degree, defined by their foibles – Smiley has his troubles with his wife, another is secretly and miserably gay, while another character confesses to terrible deeds carried out simply to ensure he was remembered for something, and so on.

As you’d expect, the result is a film which is low on laughs (though a welcome reappearance by Kathy Burke as a female analyst provides a couple) but still subtly gripping. There aren’t really any big set pieces such as you’d find in a more conventional thriller, but there are plenty of memorable scenes (a few nasty moments, too, if you’re thinking of taking an elderly relative). To be perfectly honest, given the distinction of the cast, not everyone gets quite the material you might expect, but this is just about the only criticism I can make. It’s not the kind of film from which you emerge with a spring in your step and a big grin on your face, but it’s still of the highest standard. Talk of how it will perform in next year’s awards season is premature, but I would be very surprised if it didn’t make a strong showing on shortlists all over the world – and deservedly so.

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