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Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.

I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…

Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler’s Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?

There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.

The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn’t to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.

Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.

What’s slightly more unexpected is Churchill’s resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn’t look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he’s in the vast majority of scenes. He’s particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we’re less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.

Not that the support isn’t good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn’t a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill’s secretary – it does rather seem that James’ part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.

And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It’s not quite so well told that you completely forget how it’s all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.

The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.

And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it’s one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn’t remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.

In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.

I mean, it’s not what you’d call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you’re infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn’t have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn’t offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.

 

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‘Someone,’ whispered the minion behind the counter at Oxford’s most prestigious coffeeshop-stroke-cinema, his voice trembling with incredulity, ‘has used his free ticket card to see The Greatest Showman eight times.’ I’m not entirely sure why he felt the need to share this with me, although it is surely quite a noteworthy occurrence; personally I suspect I could quite happily get to the other end of my life without watching The Greatest Showman even once. But there you go, it’s a Holiday Season movie, and these are almost by definition undemanding fare unlikely to provoke any sort of strong reaction, unless of course you’re an adherent of Jediism.

Now, of course, we’re into January and the sudden switch to serious and challenging awards-season movies is almost enough to give a person whiplash. Seizing the New Year pole position for 2018, in the UK at least, is Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, which may well do very well when the shiny things are handed out. With the exception of Battle of the Sexes, it’s hard to think of a movie which is better positioned to benefit from the fact that Hollywood is currently in post-Weinstein mea culpa mode.

This is the true story (for the usual movie value of ‘true’, anyway) of Molly Bloom, a one-time top skiing prospect who found herself forced to a retire following a catastrophic wipe-out during qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Through the wonders of cinema, Jessica Chastain plays Bloom from her early twenties to her her mid-thirties.) Having endured pushy parenting from her father (Kevin Costner) all her life, Molly rebels a bit and goes off to Los Angeles for a year before law school.

Of course, she never makes it to law school (somewhat ironically, as things turn out) – in true over-achiever style, she ends up responsible for administering a celebrity poker game where she picks up thousands of dollars in tips every week. Underappreciated and mistreated by some of the men involved, she relocates to New York and sets up her own game, and is soon earning millions as an ‘events manager’. But how long can she hang onto her integrity and keep out of the clutches of organised criminals?

The answer to this may be suggested by the fact that the story of Molly’s party-planning career is intercut with her attempts to avoid going to jail a couple of years later, after she is arrested as part of an FBI swoop against the Russian mafia. Idris Elba plays her defence lawyer and gets to look exasperated a lot as she refuses to compromise on her principles by dishing the dirt on her players in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s first film as director, but there’s a good chance you will know him from his work as a scriptwriter over the last couple of decades: he wrote A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, amongst other films, as well as creating the TV series The West Wing. He writes and directs here in very much the way you might expect, which is to say no concessions are made to anyone who isn’t especially quick on the uptake: the movie opens with a sequence depicting a key moment from Molly Bloom’s life, in the course of which we are also bombarded with information about medical conditions of the spine, interesting trivia about skiing, the architecture of the Pyramids, and much else besides. Information overload does seem a distinct possibility for a while.

After a while, though, you get kind of habituated to it and Sorkin does his usual trick of giving you a bit of a lesson without it being very obvious – the chewy bits of actual new knowledge being obscured by his trademark razor-sharp dialogue, well put across by Chastain and Elba, who are both very good (so is Costner, in what’s not much more than a cameo). It’s undoubtedly a fascinating story, and Sorkin has deftly shaped it into a satisfying narrative: this movie is redolent of talent and class in every department – significant, but also very entertaining.

That said, I can’t help but suspect that Sorkin is trying to pull a little bit of a fast one, or at least being rather selective. No-one’s going to get criticised for making a film about a strong, confident woman, and especially not at the moment, but it seems to me that he perhaps overdoes it a very tiny bit in depicting Molly Bloom as such an aspirational figure of impeccable integrity – the fact she genuinely was a drug-addicted racketeer, at least towards the end of her time in poker, is gently but diligently finessed away. It seems to me that much of the appeal of this film comes from the insights it gives into a world of conspicuous opulence and luxury, to the point of actual decadence, and the lives of celebrities who can cheerfully gamble away hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening. The success of the LA game is largely derived from the presence of ‘Player X’, a famous movie star and apparently not a very nice person. Michael Cera is in the role of X, and publicity for the film stresses he is a composite of several other very well-known actors (all of whom were clearly uncharacteristically reticent about appearing in this high-profile movie), but you can’t help but wonder.

You also can’t help but notice that, for all that this is supposedly a film about a woman’s ability to fight her own corner and make her own way in the world, despite the attempts of various repellent men to control and belittle her, it still has no reservations about – what the hell, I’m going to use the word – exploiting the fact that Jessica Chastain is an extremely attractive woman. The only other place I have seen such systematic deployment of the image of a beautiful woman in horn-rimmed specs displaying eye-popping decolletage is on certain fairly specialist websites. No doubt the film-makers would say they are simply reflecting how Bloom was required to present herself in her milieu, but there’s presenting it and then there’s enjoying the view, and Molly’s Game seems to be doing the latter.

One could even take exception to the fact that – and I have to tread carefully here, for fear of revealing major spoilers – even though here we have a film with a powerful central female character, and a generally feminist outlook, the dramatic arc of the piece is resolved in terms of the lead’s relationship with one of the men in her life: it is he who has ultimately had the greatest influence upon her.

Or it may just be that I am focusing too much on the gender politics of a film which is primarily intended to be just a classy, slick, smart piece of entertainment. I doubt it, though, for Molly’s Game‘s array of repugnant men, by turns grasping, needy, and contemptible, and smart, competent, beautiful women seems just a bit too measured for this to be wholly accidental. It is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an extremely well-made and very entertaining film, and an impressive debut for Sorkin as a director, and in the current climate I expect it will do well when the awards are handed out. But if you view it as a serious film about important issues in the world today, then I think it rings just a little bit hollow.

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I’m hearing a lot at the moment that Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem and The Future Is Bound To Be Better, but even so, I can’t help feeling a bit startled by the optimisim of opening a vast new shopping centre just right now. And yet this is what someone has done: said edifice dominates Oxford city centre like a necropolis for branded goods. The sheer scale of the space seems intended to make one feel tiny, and psychologically bullied into going into a relay outlet to propitiate the trade gods with some kind of financial libation. JG Ballard would have written a novel about it; I went there to watch a movie, of course.

Said cinema is on the roof of the place and is definitely up towards the luxury end of the scale – very much more a winebar than a coffee shop or sweet seller. The staff all seem terribly keen, too, although the decor incorporates different-coloured seats randomly mixed up together (which did my head in) and the place is still so new it has an all-pervading smell of paint. I was left feeling rather nauseated by this, after finding myself unable to hold my breath for the 100 minutes or so I spent watching James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.

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Speaking of optimism and pessimism, success and failure, I am struck by the fact that, for all that Hollywood loves making films about the movie business, there are very few films about the making of genuine classic movies. No fictional accounts of how The Godfather came to be, or Lawrence of Arabia, or 2001 (yes, obviously there may be a mileage differential here). On the other hand, they did a movie about the origins of Plan Nine from Outer Space (this seminal production is covered in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood) and a film has been appeared about how Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero overcame the drawbacks of having no discernible talent or experience and made what’s generally considered one of the worst movies of the 21st century, The Room.

The Disaster Artist opens with a sort of ho-ho-ho-ironic-sensibility sequence in which various hip and cool folk come on and talk about their admiration for The Room – one of them is JJ Abrams, who is on very thin ice when it comes to mocking other people’s films, if you ask me. Hey ho. Suffice to say this initial sequence gives the impression that there’s a central joke here which you really have to be in on to fully appreciate the film.

This does not last, however, as the story gets underway and we meet Greg (Dave Franco), a keen wannabe actor unencumbered by talent or presence, and Tommy (James Franco), a bizarre and enigmatic figure who looks like a vampire saxophonist and talks like a Russian Star Trek alien. An unlikely friendship develops between the two, as they bond through playing football very badly and giving impromptu dramatic recitations in crowded restaurants.

Much to the concern of Greg’s family, the duo end up heading off to Los Angeles in an attempt to make it in the movie business. Greg is marginally successful, Tommy is not, and in the end Greg suggests they stop knocking on the door of an industry which seems (quite sensibly) determined to ignore them and make their own movie.

Tommy duly bashes out the script for The Room, a drama about human behaviour, to star and be directed by him, also starring Greg, and co-starring a bunch of other actors who frankly have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for. But as the stresses of movie production increase, can the friendship between the two men survive?

Full disclosure: I have managed to make it well into my fifth decade on this plane of existence without ever actually seeing The Room. What can I say, maybe I’m cursed. I was a little concerned that you actually do have to have seen this legendary yapper in order to really appreciate The Disaster Artist, but I don’t think this is quite the case – obviously there’s a degree of in-jokiness about the whole project, but I still found it to be a very funny and engaging movie.

It is, first and foremost, a story about friendship under pressure – it struck me that there were very faint echoes of Withnail and I in this tale of struggling creative types, and the corrosive effects of bubbling resentment when your friend is more popular and successful than you are. But you’re never in doubt of the genuine friendship and affection between the characters played by the two Francos (perhaps unsurprisingly) and you never completely lose sympathy for Tommy Wiseau, regardless of how outlandishly strange and arbitrary his behaviour becomes.

Normally I would suggest that James Franco goes howlingly, soaringly over the top as Wiseau, were it not for the fact that Tommy Wiseau himself turns up at a couple of points in the film to show just how spot-on Franco’s impersonation of him is. He comes across as not just heroically weird, but weirdly heroic too – if you want a career as a creative person, I suppose you do need the kind of indestructible confidence in your own talent that Tommy has here. But how can you be sure you’re not engaged in making your own version of The Room? It’s a thorny question.

The Disaster Artist doesn’t worry overly about that and instead gets most of its mileage and best moments from its depiction of the making of The Room, which is basically presented as one man’s journey into creative megalomania. There are some very, very funny scenes, and Seth Rogen is good value as the bemused script supervisor attempting to act as the voice of sanity on the production. (Such is The Room‘s notoriety that various big names like Bryan Cranston and Zac Efron turn up in small roles throughout The Disaster Artist.) I share no spoilers, of course, if I reveal that the film concludes with Tommy as outlandishly enigmatic as ever and The Room on its way to becoming a genuine cult movie.

I’ve been fairly unkind about James Franco’s acting at various times in the past (someone I know does not have many kind things to say about his novel-writing, either), but The Disaster Artist is a bit of a triumph for him as both an actor and a director. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that a film as good and entertaining as this owes its existence to one as bad (but still apparently entertaining) as The Room. But there you go. Obviously, the world often doesn’t make as much sense as it should. There’s a time to worry about that, and a time to go and see films, and going to see The Disaster Artist would be a pretty sensible choice.

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There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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A moment’s investigation and thought would reveal that James Bond films, like white Christmases, are not as common as they once were. Back in the sixties and very early seventies, when Sean Connery (and, briefly, George Lazenby) held the post, your average wait for a new Bond movie was 1.3 years. This drifted up to 2 years throughout the time that Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were making the films. Since then, however, with Pierce Brosnan and most recently Daniel Craig, this has shot up to an average gap between films of 3.7 years.

What this means for the quality and standing of the franchise I am not entirely sure, but what it means for the folks at Eon Productions, makers of the official Bond series for 55 years now, is that they have a lot more time on their hands than has sometimes been the case in the past. So what are they going to do with themselves while not arguing with Daniel Craig’s agent over the size of his fee and coming up with damn silly ideas about Bond and Blofeld being long-lost brothers? Well, apparently they have decided to branch out and do other things, with the first fruits of this diversification being Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. (Eon’s last non-Bond film starred Bob Hope and was entitled Call Me Bwana – a poster for it appears in From Russia With Love – which should tell you how long they’ve been ploughing their very particular furrow.)

The vaguely Drop The Dead Donkey-esque title probably suggests something more offbeat and spiky than is actually the case, for this is one of those supposedly true stories based on a memoir of the same name by an actor named Peter Turner, detailing his relationship with Gloria Grahame, a noted actress of the 1940s and 50s. Jamie Bell plays Peter, and Annette Bening plays the star.

The film opens in 1981, with Grahame being taken ill while preparing to appear on stage in the north of England. Rather to their surprise, the various members of the Turner family (Peter’s parents are played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) find themselves caring for the clearly ailing star, who has fond memories of them from her prior romance with Peter. But how did the two of them even get together, given the difference in their status and age (she is, not to be indelicate about it, rather older than he is)?

Well, the movie jumps back and forth between 1979 and 1981 to fill in the details of the story: Peter and Gloria meet while staying in the same lodgings, bond through a shared love of disco dancing, go and see Alien together on its first release, and so on. She takes him to Los Angeles to meet her family (who are all surprisingly British – Vanessa Redgrave and especially Frances Barber make the most of their single scene), and so on. (However, and this is rather odd given that Gloria’s affection for Julie Walters’ character is crucial to the plot, we don’t see their first meeting.) But then her suddenly-erratic behaviour leads to a breakup. Can her time with the Turners at least bring about some kind of reconciliation between them?

On paper this looks a little like one of those films about ostensibly ordinary people coming face to face with the magic and artifice of the movie business – I’ve heard it compared to My Week with Marilyn – filtered through the lens of it being a somewhat nostalgic period piece, looking back to the late 70s and early 80s (there is the predictably banging soundtrack of songs from the time, and some utterly horrid wallpaper). However, it never quite works this way, not least because Gloria Grahame is not really that well remembered as an actress nowadays – I couldn’t have identified her from a picture, nor named any of her films, even the one she won an Oscar for (The Bad and the Beautiful, apparently), and my knowledge of old movies is not bad.

As a result, she almost becomes the stock figure of the Fading Movie Star rather than a recognisable person. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because the story works just as well as a simple relationship drama – it’s pushing it to call this a conventional romance – between two characters who are well-drawn and exceedingly well-played. Most of the attention seems to be going to Annette Bening, who is indeed very good (it’s the kind of role which gets called ‘unflattering’ and wins the actress involved plaudits for ‘bravery’), but Jamie Bell is equally effective in what’s arguably a slightly more challenging role. As mentioned, the supporting cast is impressive, too.

It probably goes without saying that this is a very atypical Eon movie, with no exploding crocodiles or satellite death rays to be seen, and you do gradually realise that despite the cleverness of the production in working around and disguising the fact, this appears to be quite a low-budget movie. Could they have a future in this sort of thing? Well, maybe. (One suspects Eon may have used some of their clout to secure the use of footage from Alien, amongst a few other bits and pieces, which I’m guessing wouldn’t usually come cheap.)

However, the question remains of what this film is actually, really, truly about. Gloria Grahame’s former status as a movie star is rather peripheral to the plot, and it doesn’t really seem to be making any specific point about this kind of age-gap relationship. The emphasis is always on the personal and the particular, rather than anything with universal resonance and applicability, with the result that the film always feels quite low-key and introspective. The fact that the arc of the movie is essentially predictable from very early on isn’t really a positive, either.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a cleverly-made and well-constructed movie, driven by a gaggle of extremely good performances which may well attract attention during awards season next year. However, for all of its quality – and there are certainly some extremely moving moments in the course of the film – given the calibre of the stars involved, not to mention the pedigree of the Eon marque, it can’t help feeling just a little bit small-time. Still, perhaps the start of a productive new direction for one of the great British movie companies, so you have to wish it well.

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I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

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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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