Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

On the long list of things in which I have little to no interest, there are – well, lots of things, obviously, possibly more than on most people’s lists. There’s a whole sport and sports-adjacent area, for one thing – basketball is there, and also athletic footwear. I was forced to play basketball at school for at least a year and the only thing I can remember is breaking a finger, probably, in a botched catch. I do wear athletic shoes, but I’m not dogmatic about brands or anything.

So I am really not the target consumer for Ben Affleck’s Air, which is a film about basketball shoes. I suppose it is a testament to the power of cinema, or possibly my strange and long-standing fixation with Ben Affleck, that I went along anyway, despite the very unpromising subject matter. I suppose the presence of Matt Damon, who has grown into one of the more reliable leading men of the current era, may have had something to do with it too.

Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball guru working for the Nike corporation, who make athletic shoes. The film is set in 1984 (cue a great soundtrack of eighties standards), when Nike were selling an awful lot of shoes for running in, but not many shoes for playing basketball in (I wasn’t even aware these were different things, but this is threatening to turn into a litany of ignorance, so I shall just stick to the facts going forward). The whole basketball shoe division is in danger of being wound up unless they can turn things around somehow.

Standard business practice dictates that Nike finds three or four reasonably prominent players to endorse, the problem being that all the superstars – hang on – someone called Magical Johnson, someone else called Larry Birdy, and so on – are signed to other companies that make athletic shoes: Adidas is the name of one of them, Converse is the name of another. And so, despite the misgivings of his line manager (Jason Bateman) and the founder of the company (Affleck), Vaccaro hits upon a new approach – sign only a single player, but ensure that this is someone who will go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. (This sounds like one of those ‘easier said than done’ business plans to me.)

The player that Vaccaro sets his sights upon is named Michael Jordan. I was a bit confused by this as I thought Michael Jordan was a boxer – or, more accurately, he plays a boxer in the Creed films, when he isn’t playing a supervillain for Marvel Studios. But it turns out there are two Michael Jordans and the film is about the other one. The problem is that this other Michael Jordan is not a fan of Nike and is dead set on signing up with Adidas or Nike. So Vaccaro, in defiance of all normal propriety, goes ahead and visits the Jordan family in person, trying to persuade his steely mother (Viola Davis) that the company has something to offer her son. And it does! By one of those remarkable coincidences you sometimes hear about, Nike’s new shoe is actually called the Air Jordan. It’s like a match made in heaven. (Do you have basketball matches or games? ‘A game made in heaven’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

So, yes, another example of the benevolent face of cultural hegemony: you try getting a film about Eric Bristow or Steve Davis released in America. Oh well. At least the good news is that Ben Affleck has long been a very capable film director – I might even suggest he’s become a better director than an actor, but that might sound a bit like faint praise considering how horrible I was about him in films like Jersey Girl – and this is a jolly tale of people taking big risks in pursuit of their dream (which is, of course, a very American thing to do) and becoming quite extraordinarily rich as a result (which is a very, very American thing to do). Affleck turns it into such an engaging story you almost forget it’s just about people trying to advertise an athletics shoe company (the film itself, of course, comprises a fairly substantial advertisement).

He is helped by a snappy script with some very funny lines and good performances from all the leading players. Matt Damon’s thing now is that he’s a sort of charismatic everyman, if that makes sense – his performance here isn’t a million miles away from the one he gave in Ford Vs Ferrari, or whatever we’re going to call it, and indeed this is a broadly quite similar story: how a big and successful company became so big and successful. There’s also a nicely underplayed comic turn from Bateman. Affleck himself – well, films with him and Damon both acting in them seem to have adopted a pattern where Damon plays the lead and gives a fairly earnest, naturalistic performance, allowing Affleck to go rather bigger in a supporting role – in this film he has a rather peculiar demi-perm and turns up for several scenes in purple leggings, quoting Buddhist aphorisms as he does so.

Lest you be wondering, the other Michael Jordan does appear as a character, played by Damian Delano Young. But the piece is artfully directed so that most of the time he is just off-screen, or has his back to the camera: presumably because he is just so very famous, apparently, it would be distracting to see him with someone else’s face. The film focuses much more on his mum, whom Davis portrays with her usual skill and presence. (I should also note the appearance of Gustaf Skarsgard as an Adidas executive – it’s getting so new Skarsgards are coming out of the woodwork at a surprising rate, though on the whole they seem a good-natured bunch.)

Being a British person, managed decline is much more my sort of thing than brilliant and sustained success, especially when it comes to the arena of sport. Air is never particularly deep and does seem to presume that the audience a) knows and b) cares who the other Michael Jordan is; the film-makers probably even expect the viewer to share the view that he is possibly one of the greatest people of all time (yes, even greater than Maurice Flitcroft), not just a tall man who was very good at basketball. (But there you go, our civilisation treats sport like war and war like sport.) It’s still a pacy and engaging and above all else enjoyable film, despite the fact it essentially treats the launch of a new athletic shoe as some kind of epoch-making historical event. If much of that is down to the presence of reliable stars like Affleck and Damon – well, all I can say is that they don’t talk about the magic of the movies for nothing.

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There is perhaps something to be explored in the fact that the decline of the British Empire coincided with the contraction and dwindling of the British film industry – the sun was setting, finally, on the former over the same period of time that Britain went from making films like The Third Man and A Matter of Life and Death to Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Carry On Dick. Declaring the death of the British film industry became a bit of a cottage industry itself in the 1980s and 1990s, although these days it does seem to be ticking along, sustained by bonnet operas, true-life hats-and-fags comedy-dramas and the occasional rom-com. We seem to have given up on the idea of the ‘new dawn’, the rebirth of British films as a major force to rival Hollywood – although given the number of British actors and directors routinely employed by the big American studios, perhaps that’s an outdated notion anyway.

Nevertheless, the scriptwriter Colin Welland was moved to shout ‘The British are coming!’ at the 1982 Oscar ceremony as an expression of just that sentiment, and for a couple of years it looked like it might actually be the case – the following year saw Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (a film specifically about the beginning of the end of the British Empire) do rather well, while Welland was there to pick up a statue for Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire.

I was really quite young when Chariots of Fire came out, but I still remember it being a cultural sensation at the time – you could hear the theme tune everywhere, and the opening sequence was endlessly parodied too (the familiarity of this bit of the film is probably why it’s the sequence that was recreated in a recent episode of The Crown in which the production of the film is a minor plot element). Not that there’s anything too radical about it – it’s exactly the kind of film you can imagine being made nowadays, a true story set in the early part of the 20th century, with a cast of familiar faces.

The plot itself is essentially a container for a number of different storylines, all linked by the fact they concern members of the British Olympic team at the Paris Games in 1924. This results in a slightly unusual structure where the two main strands of the film occasionally interact  but are basically quite separate. The first of these concerns Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Cambridge student for whom success at running is a weapon against the establishment prejudice he faces (he is Jewish). He is a driven man, unconcerned by matters of tradition or politeness, running primarily for himself.

In stark contrast to this, the other story starts in working-class Scotland and concerns Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a gifted athlete who is also a devout Christian. Liddell’s long-term plan is to go back to China (where he was born to a missionary couple) and become a missionary himself, but in the meantime he is shrewd enough to realise that his fame and success in athletics will do his spiritual cause no harm either. In an early meeting between Liddell and Abrahams, it is the Scot who is victorious.

Both men, along with a few minor characters, eventually end up going to Paris. Here the major crisis of the plot is revealed – the incident which initially inspired producer David Putnam to make the film. Liddell discovers that the heats for the 100m sprint, the event he is down to compete in, are taking place on a Sunday, a day which his religious faith precludes him from running on. Considerable pressure to change his mind is brought to bear on him by various establishment members of the British Olympic Committee (which includes the then-Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII) – will his faith prove equal to this challenge? Has he in fact gone all the way to Paris for nothing?

Well, of course not, and his eventual decision to (spoiler alert for the 1924 Olympics) switch to the 400m sprint means that both of the film’s heroes can enjoy a medal-winning moment of triumph – the film is a little bit selective as to which elements of history it actually includes: both Abrahams and Liddell competed in the 200m final in Paris, where Liddell won a bronze, but this isn’t mentioned in the film, while Liddell knew well in advance of going to Paris that the problematic heats took place on a Sunday, rather than only discovering it while on the boat to France.

It is in no respects a particularly bold or innovative piece of film-making – no envelopes are pushed, nor horses frightened, it’s another expression of the English love affair with costume dramas that saw the same year’s TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. There are a lot of decent posh chaps in the background both there and here (not to mention appearances by John Gielgud), even if both Abrahams and Liddell are ultimately slightly iconoclastic figures. And perhaps that love affair is not so very surprising given that the British are afflicted with a faint conviction that, perhaps, our best days lie somewhere in our past. What does it say about us that we still hanker after days of repression and deference? (Vide Downton Abbey, amongst many other things.)

One shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Chariots of Fire simply because it is another expression of nostalgia and the myth of British exceptionalism. The acting and script are very solid, and Vangelis’ score is justly famous, and a sign of something new. The phenomenon of the historical movie with an electronic soundtrack seldom had very agreeable results – I remember having particular problems with Ladyhawke, a medieval fantasy film struggling with rather intrusive synth music – but here it somehow works.

The Fayeds’ involvement in the production of Chariots of Fire is, naturally, somewhat ironic: as noted, this is a sports drama about two men who – for different reasons – both stood up to the British establishment, but made – in Mohammed al-Fayed’s case at least – by a man desperate for acceptance in the highest circles of British society. That world still casts a spell, or at least the idea of it does. Chariots of Fire is, if nothing else, one of the more agreeable films which makes use of that strange enchantment.

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Has the musical bio-pic really spiked in popularity since the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, nearly five years ago, or does it just feel that way? Certainly the form seems to offer a number of built-in advantages: instant brand recognition, for one thing, and a guarantee that the soundtrack will contain a lot of songs that people already know and like. It seems like a safe bet – perhaps too safe, given how samey many of these films feel: named after a big hit for the subject, clunky exposition about just why they’re not just popular but also important, and concluding with a moment of significant popular and critical success. It does seem to me that the more a movie diverges from this pattern, the more likely it is to be interesting and successful: Rocketman and Elvis both followed their own paths, and were significantly more interesting than, say, the Aretha Franklin film.

The early signs for Kasi Lemmons’ Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody are therefore not great. This is, of course, the bio-pic I was grumbling about a couple of weeks ago, mainly on the grounds that it is unreasonably long. Certainly the film, which covers about thirty years in the life of its subject, occasionally feels as if it is occurring in real time. Houston is a significant enough figure to warrant a screen treatment of her life, but two and a half hours worth? Perhaps I should say that I was never really a fan of the singer’s attention-all-shipping vocal style, and – while we’re on the subject – Houston was never quite as popular in the UK as she was in the States, where (by some metrics) she was more successful than the Beatles.

Anyway. Central to the film (and Houston’s career), but strangely not appearing until the very end of it, is her apparently-iconic performance at the American Music Awards in 1994. We are briefly teased about this, then the film gets going properly in 1983 with a teenaged Houston (Naomi Ackie) being schooled (and a tough school it is too) by her inappropriately-named mum Cissy (Tamara Tunie). Fact #1 I learned about Houston was that her mum was a noteworthy singer too. Young Whitters (or ‘Nippy’ as her family know her; Fact #2) chafes under the maternal discipline, but it all comes good when she is spotted at a performance by legendary music business exec Clive Davis, played by Stanley Tucci. Tucci is a good enough actor to ground the entire movie and give it some heft, even if this is not the most demanding of roles – Davis is presented as benevolent mentor, a bottomless well of decency, warmth, and wisdom. (These days he has branched out into producing movies, specifically this one. Some of these facts may not be unconnected.)

Well, success beckons for Nippy H, even if this spells trouble for her close relationship with her… friend?… Robyn (Nafessa Williams). There is a degree of dancing around a potentially tricky topic here, but the film is still surprisingly clear in the way it presents Whitney Houston as bisexual (needless to say, this was Fact #3). Houston goes on to have a string of hit records, even as she is criticised by some people for her music’s perceived lack of ‘Blackness’. At this point the chronology starts to get a bit vague, but she hooks up with bad-boy rapper Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), makes a film with Kevin Costner (who only appears in archive footage), and generally goes from strength to strength.

Until, of course, she doesn’t. I suppose one of the challenges of this particular story is that the fall, in real terms, lasted considerably longer than the rise or the zenith, and is a familiar cautionary tale anyway – grimly reminiscent of the very similar story of Amy Winehouse, in that we are speaking of an immense talent possessed by a fragile individual who was arguably callously exploited by those one would have expected to be most invested in her safety.

One of the criticisms I would make of I Wanna Dance With Somebody is that it does almost feel a bit salacious and prurient in some of its details. There does seem to be an assumption that anyone watching the film is already broadly familiar with most of what happens and has just come along to see dramatic reconstructions of key moments in the singer’s life. The chronology does get quite vague for long stretches, despite some clumsy attempts to counter this – ‘You haven’t released a pop record for eight years,’ says Davis helpfully at one point. I saw the movie with my co-spousal unit, who – despite being more of a Houston fan – liked it significantly less than I did, wondering about the choice of material included: little about Houston’s disintegrating relationship with her family and quite a few lengthy scenes showing her at work with her musical director Rickey Minor. Given that Houston’s people were closely involved with the making of the film, it’s not entirely surprising that some elements of the story are either downplayed or highlighted.

That said, of course, you come away from the film with the sense of having watching not so much a tragedy as a story about victimhood, which is somewhat at odds with the film’s near-as declaration that Houston was The Voice and The Greatest Singer of Her Generation (someone hold Mariah Carey’s pint for her). One of the positive things about the film is that it does make it very clear what a remarkable instrument Houston was blessed with – even if the emotional range of the songs she sang was generally much less impressive than her own vocal range.

But apart from that it is essentially quite an undistinguished piece of work. Despite not really looking much like Houston, Ackie is perfectly okay, although one wonders just exactly what proportion of her performance is made up of lip-synching, and most of the other performances are never less than competent. In the end though, it feels like a very safe and commercial movie, which never really hits the emotional beats it’s probably aiming for. The climax of the movie is essentially a cheat, as it jumps back in time nearly two decades for the ‘iconic’ 1994 performance, simply because concluding with Houston about to take her terminal bath would be an enormous downer. As it is, the moment of triumph feels as flat as most of the rest of the film. This is by-the-numbers biography, and it feels like there are quite a few more numbers than necessary.

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It can be a strange and winding path from the job of documentarian to narrative film-maker, and of course back again – back and forth quite frequently, in the case of some people. That said, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer is, on the face of it, one of the more straightforward instances of someone making their first supposedly fictional film – I say ‘supposedly’, for we are practically back in the realm of the film a clef here.

Kayije Kagame plays Rama, a woman of Senegalese ancestry working as a writer and academic in present-day France (it may be worth mentioning that Diop is also a woman with Senegalese roots). She is in a relationship with an older, Caucasian man, and has a slightly strained relationship with her mother and sisters. All this is established in the low-key, naturalistic manner which is the film’s primary mode of expression.

Then Rama travels to Saint-Omer in the north of France, on what is technically a business trip – she is planning on writing about the imminent trial of a woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), seeing in it echoes of the classical tale of Medea. Coly is another Senegalese immigrant, who eventually found herself in a relationship with a much older Caucasian man, as a result of which she became pregnant and had a baby. Fifteen months later, Coly travelled to the coast and left her child on the beach at night, while the tide was rising. Now she is to stand trial for infanticide.

The bulk of the film is comprised of what happens in the courtroom, as Coly and those around her are interrogated as to the truth of what actually happened. Coly has pleaded not guilty, claiming to be suffering from hallucinations and other unsettling phenomena, and insisting that she is the victim of sorcery, not the perpetrator of a crime. French law, unsurprisingly, does not recognise the existence of black magic, and so it becomes a question of whether Coly really is psychologically disturbed, or just pretending to be so in order to avoid culpability for her crime.

Or is there indeed a third option? Certainly Rama, looking on from the public benches, finds there to be something disturbingly relevant and personal to the testimony that she hears. There is a disturbing degree of similarity between Coly and her, after all, and the case threatens to summon up personal demons of her own.

In 2016 a woman called Fabienne Kabou stood trial in Saint-Omer for infanticide, having left her young daughter on the beach to drown. Alice Diop attended the proceedings and, by her own account, became obsessed by them. I mention this because it obviously has a bearing on Saint Omer: what kind of film it is, and how the story is told. This is a film which has received numerous glowing reviews, and yet there is a sense in which it is profoundly uncinematic – mostly made up of long, talky scenes, shot with a static camera, primarily in the same not especially interesting room. If the intention is to create the impression of the viewer actually being at the trial, then it is quite successful (although, thankfully, Diop doesn’t leave the camera lodged amongst the public benches). I must confess that my heart sank a bit as I realised that this was the form the film was mostly going to take.

Coly is clearly based on Kabou, with Rama taking Diop’s own role of not-entirely-impartial observer. There is barely any attempt at obfuscation of this point and I initially suspected the film presents its story in this fictionalised manner to provide the scantiest of fig-leaves against any accusation of exploitation or misrepresentation – although the script is apparently based on transcripts of the original trial.

Then again, Alice Diop herself has said that the film is in this form because she wasn’t allowed to film the actual trial, and out of a desire to present her own personal and subjective experience of listening to Kabou’s story, given the great deal they had in common. On the surface this looks like a simple case, the main question under discussion whether Coly should go to a prison or a secure hospital – either way, she probably shouldn’t be allowed to be out and about around people any more.

But there is a deeper narrative here, one the viewer has to look for and recognise – one deeply concerned with the nature of society, certainly in France, probably in other places too. Everything that happens to Coly is bound up with her status as a woman and an immigrant from Africa, and the assumptions of everyone around her. One character comments that she is surprisingly articulate; her university supervisor snidely expresses surprise at her decision to study the philosopher Wittgenstein rather than someone ‘closer to her own culture’. Her partner and the other people around her all seem more than happy to abnegate any responsibility for her or her baby – even the father of the child is reluctant to claim paternity. The people who find the body of the child are said to have assumed it was that of another immigrant, washed ashore after a failed channel crossing (a particularly resonant topic for viewers here in the UK currently, given the quantity of bullshit spoken on this topic recently). The judge and the officers of the court only seem willing to engage with Coly within certain terms of reference, none of her own choosing.

Of course, you could argue that the role of a courtroom is to deal in matters of objective fact, and it would be absurd for them to treat accusations of sorcery seriously. It’s a complicated topic, certainly, but the impression you come away with is of someone who was never likely to get a fair deal, or indeed any kind of justice. How this intersects with the rest of the film, concerning Rama’s own life experience and her personal fears for the future, is somewhat oblique, but watching the trial is clearly a powerful and moving experience. Coly is not alone in the way she is treated, not the horrible outlier that people might like to think. This is another film dealing in difficult questions and not offering easy answers. It’s a tough watch in some ways, steadily paced and slow on action, but still a significant film and a well-made one.

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Normally I stick fairly closely to the idea that films should be able to stand on their own two feet, as it were, and you should be able to enjoy them with a minimum of background knowledge. I might even argue that a film which doesn’t meet this criterion has somehow failed, always provided we could grant a waiver to franchise films which continue a narrative.

Then again, it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic. The BAFTAs earned a few merit stars from me when this year’s nominees were announced, mainly because they apparently ‘snubbed’ the Avatar sequel by hardly nominating it for anything. (By this metric, those BAFTA people snub hundreds of films every year – how are they even still employed?) Now I find myself having to contemplate taking those stars off them again, as they similarly managed to avoid shortlisting Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans for most of the awards (in contrast, it’s up for seven Oscars).

This is a strange example of a film which only acquires its full power and resonance if you’re aware of the circumstances of its making. On the face of it, it is a humane and warm family drama set in the middle years of the 20th century, primarily focussing on Sammy Fabelman (mostly Gabriel LaBelle). The film opens with his first ever trip to a movie theatre in December 1952, to see The Greatest Show on Earth, which results in a rather traumatic experience due to a sequence depicting a train crash. His father Burt (Paul Dano) is sympathetic but simply thinks the lad is too sensitive; his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), perhaps understanding him a little better, helps him to get to grips with his anxiety by recreating the crash with toy trains and – crucially – filming it. Very soon Sammy is disrupting the household making DIY horror movies with his sisters.

Time passes and Burt’s success as a computer engineer leads to a move to Phoenix, Arizona, for the family – also coming along is Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend and colleague. Sammy keeps making his films, despite his father’s doubts about whether this is a worthwhile way for the boy to pass his time. But a brief visit from the family’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) sees the question of Sammy’s future laid out in no uncertain terms: Sammy dearly loves his family, but he loves making films even more, even if the tension between these two things will cause him no end of personal trauma…

And then, fifteen years later, Sammy Fabelman makes a film about a shark and cinema is changed forever.

Well, no he doesn’t, at least not in the film, but in real life he did – I’d be very interested to show this film to someone with no particular advance knowledge of it or what it’s about, and perhaps very little interest in modern culture at all (I’m tempted to say my parents might be very good guinea pigs), and see if they were able to figure out what the film is really about. Which is, of course, the formative years and family life of Steven Spielberg. The Fabelmans is essentially a film à clef about Spielberg’s own life, with some of the character names not even changed (there really was an Uncle Boris, for example).

Why is Spielberg making the film now? Well, apparently, he was concerned that his parents might interpret his depiction of their marriage as being in some way critical of them, and didn’t want to make the film while they were still around (despite them nagging him to). Spielberg’s father Arnold passed away (at 103!) in 2020, which coincided with that period of time when we were all perhaps assessing what was really important in our lives. And so here we are.

‘Is it very sentimental?’ was Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager’s question when I mentioned I’d seen the film, referring of course to the received wisdom that all of Spielberg’s films are oppressively schmaltzy. Personally I’d say there’s a thin line between being sincerely emotional and actually sentimental, which Spielberg generally manages to negotiate with considerable skill. What I will say about The Fabelmans is that it does feel born of love, and a sincere recollection of youth (which is not the same thing as simple nostalgia).

Life is complicated; the relationship between Burt, Mitzi and Bennie especially so. Spielberg was famously close to his mother in later life, bringing her along to the premieres of his movies and so on, but he is admirably even-handed here: the fictionalised version of his father is a decent, kind, dedicated, devoted man – just not one with art in his soul. The tragedy presented by the film is that of two very good people who just aren’t quite capable of being happy together. In the film, Sammy realises this while making a home movie about his family – a powerful representation of how art can be a path to truth, as well as escape.

The two themes of the movie – Sammy’s love of film-making deepens even as his parents’ relationship runs aground – are deftly interwoven, and Spielberg’s Jewish identity is also explored, in scenes which range from comic to being quite difficult to watch. This is, to coin a phrase, another one of those films which will make you feel every emotion, thanks to performances, direction and script – it is uniformly well-played, and Spielberg works his usual invisible magic.

Spielberg himself apparently doesn’t like being too self-referential – this is supposedly due to the bad notices received by 1941, which opens with a Jaws in-joke – which may explain why most of the film is played fairly straight, without allusions to his body of work. (There’s much more riffing on Spielberg’s back catalogue in Stranger Things and the 2011 movie Super 8, which includes its own homage to The Greatest Show on Earth‘s train wreck.) Nevertheless, little things do start to creep in as the movie goes on – after an awkward moment with a peer, Sammy promises he will never use it as material for a future film project, while after an encounter with ‘the greatest film-maker in the world’ (a somewhat unexpected appearance by David Lynch, of all people, though not playing himself), Spielberg’s own direction abruptly changes to incorporate some of the secrets of good technique imparted to him.

The issue with any film of this type is when to stop the story, and the end point Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner settle on does seem to have been chosen mainly because it’s a great scene rather than because it adds much to the themes of the film. Certainly Spielberg’s debt to Rod Serling, who approved him for his first directorial job in TV, isn’t really touched upon – but you have to stop somewhere. The Fabelmans finishes on an appropriately upbeat note, as befits what’s ultimately a joyful coming-of-age story. Perhaps it is a bit self-indulgent, but as we’re talking about Steven Spielberg, one of the architects of modern popular cinema and one of its greatest exponents, we probably owe him that indulgence. At any rate, this is a very well-made and moving film which I really enjoyed.

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The lazy way to describe Maria Schrader’s She Said is as The Harvey Weinstein Movie (something which has a very different connotation to the one it would have possessed even only six years ago). But then again, you could surely argue that a huge number of major studio releases over the last four years or so have, on some level, been Harvey Weinstein movies, or perhaps post-Harvey Weinstein movies – The Wife was a post-Weinstein movie, the Charlie’s Angels remake was a post-Weinstein movie, Marvel finally doing the Black Widow movie was arguably a post-Weinstein thing. Never mind winning all those Oscars (and being thanked in more Oscar acceptance speeches than anyone else except for Steven Spielberg and God), Weinstein seems to have inadvertently ended up changing the face of the culture.

Of course, this is looking for a silver lining to a particularly dark and repugnant cloud, as the film makes absolutely clear: this is not a film to go and see if you’re looking for simple entertainment – maybe not if you’re looking for entertainment of any kind, to be honest. The story gets underway with a plunge-bath of awfulness as we find ourselves back in 2016, when allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct on the part of Donald Trump are coming to light – investigating them is New York Times journalist Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). Naturally, the revelation of this repulsive behaviour results in Trump being elected president, which means the women accusing him end up facing death threats and other sickening abuse for no reason.

A few months later, fellow journalist Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) is doing a piece about sexual harassment in Hollywood, when she receives a tip that actress Rose McGowan (to be honest, all I can remember about her without using Wikipedia is that she was the replacement sister in Charmed – sorry) is claiming to have been raped by big-name producer Harvey Weinstein. Other allegations are floating around Weinstein, but he is an immensely wealthy and powerful man, and no-one seems prepared to be the first to speak up about him. Twohey and Kantor interview several people who have indicated problems with Weinstein’s behaviour in the past, including Ashley Judd (two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation – again, sorry) and Gwyneth Paltrow (various Marvel movies and Shakespeare in Love – hey, it’s better than nothing), as well as various former members of staff at the Weinstein company Miramax.

They come across clear evidence of a pattern of behaviour focused on the exploitation and abuse of young women in Weinstein’s power – but part of this pattern is the regular use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to ensure the silence of anyone making a complaint against the producer. Aware that Weinstein and his people are monitoring what they’re doing, Kantor and Twohey proceed with their investigation, trying to find someone prepared to take the chance and be the first person to go on the record against the producer…

There is a long and noble tradition of the true-life journalistic scoop movie, which basically depicts dogged and principled journalists putting in very long hours as they pester sources, look for evidence, follow-up leads and basically overcome establishment resistance to get the truth out to the waiting public. I suppose it dates back at least as far as All The President’s Men; more recent examples would be films like Spotlight and The Post. The movie business likes to see itself as a virtuous undertaking, and making movies like this is a chance for it to align itself with laudable efforts in a different media.

Of course, the downside to this is that it is arguably a bit suspect for any film studio to claim the moral high ground on this particular topic, given the clear implication that Weinstein was not an isolated offender. This film itself has drawn fire for similar reasons, given it is executive produced by Brad Pitt – Pitt was allegedly made aware of Weinstein’s behaviour by his then-girlfriend Paltrow decades before this story broke, but continued to work with him.

Nevertheless, this is a solidly-made and arguably significant film, even if it doesn’t do anything particularly new with this particular genre. That’s not the point – if this film is a piece of art then this is only a secondary concern, its main focus is to inform audiences as to how Weinstein was brought to justice, and in the process remind people of just what it was that Weinstein was and is guilty of.

The tone of the thing is admirably restrained, given the subject matter: the details of what Weinstein did are reported calmly, almost clinically, often above static tableaux of hotel rooms in disarray and other indicative images. It’s the performances that sell th story – Kazan and Mulligan carry the film well, supported by Patricia Clarkson as their editor, and Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton (amongst others) as some of their sources. (This is definitely a female-inclining movie, but Andre Braugher and Zach Grenier are also good.) Judd plays herself in the flesh, and Paltrow lends her voice, but McGowan is played by an actress (Trump is likewise played by someone else).

And it’s a very effective and powerful movie, very moving in places. And – how can I put this? – incredibly depressing to watch. This probably wasn’t the intent – this was probably meant to be a serious but inspirational film about a real-life wrong being righted. And this is correct in every respect but the one about it being inspirational. I didn’t come out feeling inspired; I came out feeling a profound sense of shame and despair, simply based on my demographic profile.

This was not something I had expected – I was rather dismissive of Alex Garland’s Men earlier this year for attempting a very similar ‘all men are worthless and pathetic monsters’ thesis. Perhaps it’s the fact-based nature of She Said, or – like any good journalist – its forensic precision and thoroughness. It’s also careful to make the point that Weinstein was not the beginning and end of this problem, just an extreme demonstration of what men will do, given power and influence. All men? Well, maybe not, but enough of them. It’s in the nature of the sex, something deeply embedded by evolution. I’ve done crass and stupid and deeply regrettable things in the past, and I suspect most men would say the same if they were being honest. The fact that a few exceptional individuals may have a clean conscience should be a source of pride to them, but it doesn’t change the fact that the male sex is – as civilised society would judge things – just not up to scratch, any more than a man’s doing the washing-up and being kind to animals would excuse him being a burglar or mugger. That’s the message I came away from She Said with: men are irredeemably nasty, and – excepting a miracle – will continue to do terrible things, more likely than not to women. It’s a hard truth to accept. But, looking on the bright side, when we eventually torch the planet, half the victims will be men. You’ve got to take your upside where you can find it sometimes.

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Stephen Frears’ The Lost King appears to have an opening title sequence and score which is a homage to Psycho: this is by no means an untouched well when it comes to people making reference and paying tribute, of course, but it does seem a bit unusual given what we are supposedly dealing with here is a true-story comedy-drama about events in fairly recent history (although the whole question of what actually constitutes recent history is one of the issues raised in passing by the film itself). The film is, in some ways, a follow-up to the very well-received and accomplished Philomena from 2013 – Frears directed that one too, and it likewise had a script and lead performance from Steve Coogan (whose production company is behind it). One might be forgiven for having reasonably high expectations, especially given the appearance in the lead role of Sally Hawkins, a very able and accomplished actress.

Hawkins plays Phillippa Langley, who as the film opens is an unfulfilled office worker in Edinburgh – the fact that wherever she goes she passes some feature or other of outstanding natural or architectural beauty doesn’t seem to cheer her up much, which only goes to suggest that a) familiarity breeds content and b) Screen Scotland’s support for the production was not entirely string-free. She is separated from her husband (Coogan), though their relationship is amicable, and suffers occasionally with ME – which her boss seems to use as a pretext to promote younger and blonder co-workers over her.

Things change when she is obliged to take one of her sons to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Being (it is not-very-subtly suggested) something of a put-upon figure, she finds herself empathising with Richard himself rather more than she expected, and she gets quite vocal about the fallacy in the automatic assumption that anybody with a physical deformity must also somehow be morally lacking too (a perfectly sound and reasonable position, but presented here in a very on-point and slightly hectoring way which feels extremely 2022).

Anyway, she ends up joining the local branch of the Richard the Third Society and, after expressing a desire to visit his grave and pay her respects, is surprised to learn that no-one knows where it is. She sets out to rectify this, doing her own research into everything involved, even at the expense of some of her other obligations. If this seems to you like a sudden and rather niche interest for a character to develop – I’m struggling not to use the word obsession – then I entirely agree with you; the script does its best to sell the idea, not least by having an apparition of Richard (played by Harry Lloyd) occasionally appear to Langley for chats and moral support.

The quest eventually involves a trip down to Leicester, which looks like the likely area. Langley’s investigations eventually lead her to a car park, where (it is suggested) she is seized by an almost clairvoyant sense that this is where the king is buried. Would it be appropriate in the circumstances to suggest she has a sudden hunch? Maybe not. (Perhaps you are already getting a sense of some of the reasons why I had issues with the script of this film.) Of course, persuading others of this is not that easy (and understandably so, you might say), and the rest of the film deals with her struggles with the archaeological and academic establishment, leading up to the tense moment where the car park is finally excavated, and…

Well, spoilers, obviously, unless you were watching TV a few years ago when the re-burial of King Richard III’s remains was extensively covered (it wasn’t quite as grand an affair as the more recent royal funeral, but on the other hand the queues were a lot less punishing). There’s no doubt that the story of the discovery of Richard III’s grave more than five hundred years after his death is a remarkable one and worthy of the big-screen treatment. Worthy of this kind of treatment? Well, this I am not so sure of.

There is of course a profound irony at work here. The Ricardians, to give them their proper title, have long been of the opinion that Richard III wasn’t the monster of popular repute: Shakespeare’s persuasive characterisation of him as a machiavellian supervillain was done at the behest of the ruling Tudors, the theory goes, who had a vested interest in denigrating the man the founder of their dynasty had overthrown. Fair enough. If you’re going to do a story based on actual events, especially quite recent ones, then you have an obligation to get your facts straight.

Quite how this squares with a film which may yet be the subject of legal action on the grounds of its own historical inaccuracy is a little unclear, but there’s obviously scope here for schadenfreude (if you’re anything like me, at least). You can see how it suits the film’s narrative thrust and moral premise for Phillippa Langley to be presented as a determined underdog-like figure, battling a dismissive establishment in the name of something she truly believes in – but it’s also entirely understandable that the representative of Leicester University depicted here as a slimy self-serving politician who’s prejudiced against the disabled should feel the need to explore the possibility of suing the film-makers for defamation of character.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, though I will say that I lived in Leicester for three months last year and the bus service is excellent. I am inclined to doubt the version of events as presented in the film, though, and not just the scene in which Steve Coogan goes to watch Skyfall at the cinema several months before the film was actually released. The film would have you believe that Phillippa Langley went to watch a production of Richard III and a couple of weeks later was solving a historical mystery which had baffled the world for centuries. Even if it were true, it would have to be presented a lot more convincingly than it is here.

There’s also a kind of anti-intellectualism implicit in the film; Langley’s attraction to the Richard case is presented in largely sentimental terms, and at several points her intuition comes into conflict with the more rational approach of the archaeologists and academics (mostly men) she is regularly locking horns with. Naturally she is proved right, of course. To be fair, Langley herself has spoken of having a strange feeling upon visiting the car park for the first time, but, you know, we’re getting a bit anecdotal at this point. The film notably fails to mention that the car park in question had been identified as a possible site of Richard’s grave as far back as the mid-1970s: once again, historical fact comes off worst in any conflict with the story they actually want to tell.

The actors, who apart from Hawkins and Coogan are mostly people you will recognise from other low-budget British movies and telly programmes (James Fleet, Amanda Abbington, Mark Addy), do the best they can with the material, though Coogan the script-writer fails to find much for Coogan the actor to get his teeth into – perhaps he’s there on screen just as a face to guarantee funding for the film? He gets the odd funny line – ‘Boys! Your mum’s found Richard the Third!’ he cries to his children at one point – but this isn’t nearly as good a vehicle for him as Philomena was. You equally get a strong sense of Hawkins repeatedly bashing into the limitations of a rather thinly characterised protagonist.

I suspect the movie of the court case provoked by The Lost King (should there ever be one) may well turn out to be rather more interesting than The Lost King itself, which is fairly undistinguished in every department despite the talent involved. There is certainly a fascinating story to be told here, but not like this. Its own lack of self-awareness is probably the most interesting thing about it.

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Here in the UK, for a while recently you couldn’t move for people going on about queens. Queen this, queen that, it was getting ridiculous. (The only serious competition was from people talking about queues and queueing, which only leads me to suspect that for a period of about a fortnight the news was being sponsored by the letter Q.) Possibly in response to this, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new movie is called The Woman King – less chance of it getting lost in the crowd, I suppose.

Viola Davis, with an arresting Afrohawk hairdo, plays Nanisca, commander of an elite group of warrior women in the service of the king of Dahomey – a west African kingdom in present-day Benin. The setting is the 1820s and tensions are building between Dahomey and its larger neighbour, the Oyo Empire. Despite this the two countries have a lot in common – not least a shared interest in the extremely profitable Atlantic slave trade, which has made both rulers immensely wealthy.

When the Oyo start raiding Dahomey and enslaving its people, war seems inevitable, but Nanisca has a further ambition: the end of the slave trade in west Africa. Her monarch, the king (or, who knows, possibly the Man Queen) of Dahomey (John Boyega), seems less than fully convinced, but is inclined to honour an ancient tradition and appoint her co-ruler alongside him. Though at least one of his wives may have something to say about that…

While all this is going on, the film is also following the story of a headstrong young orphan girl named Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu), whose exasperated adoptive father eventually loses patience and gives her away to the king’s palace. Here she begins training in an attempt to join the Agojie, the royal guard led by Nanisca. Will she be able to prove herself to the older members of the regiment and distinguish herself in the looming conflict?

If nothing else, you can’t deny that The Woman King has been shrewdly scheduled – the publicity for the Black Panther sequel is just getting underway, and the similarities in themes and imagery are too obvious to really need pointing out – except, perhaps, to mention that the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces group in the Marvel franchise, was inspired by the historical Agojie. I suspect that Woman King is gunning quite hard for Black Panther‘s target audience, but I doubt it can realistically hope for the same kind of success or acclaim.

We may want to talk a bit more about the whole question of the historicity of The Woman King, to be honest. Dahomey was a real place, the Agojie were real, and Boyega’s character, King Ghezo, was also an actual person. On the other hand, this is about as far as the film goes in terms of reflecting actual events and attitudes of the period. British accounts of their dealings with the kingdom in the 1840s report that the Dahomeans were still selling 9,000 slaves a year at this point (Ghezo was selling 3,000 annually himself), and the king suggested he would be willing to do anything the British required in order to secure their friendship – with the exception of abolishing the slave trade. It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that early accounts of Dahomey reveal an enduring fascination, from a European perspective, with the ‘Dahomey amazons’ as the Agojie were dubbed. Perhaps the appearance of this movie suggests that this fascination is still with us.

Or perhaps not – the Agojie are presented here not as exotically outlandish objects of curiosity, but thoroughly admirable and ass-kicking exemplars of… well, there’s the question, really. Probably something much more contemporary than was actually the case. I like to think of myself as a fairly bien-pensant individual (all those Guardian articles suggesting some of my views are shared by crypto-fascists and thunderous misogynists notwithstanding), but I am also aware that there are many people around who pense rather more bien than me. I imagine that a large (or at least vocal) constituency will be of the opinion that an action movie about African warrior-women kicking it to the patriarchy is an unqualified positive thing, regardless of the factual basis of this idea. I’m not so sure – I’m reminded of Hidden Figures, which likewise took vast liberties with historical fact in order to facilitate the message of the film. When you’re trying to make a film suggesting How The World Should Be, this surely sits awkwardly with making stuff up or misrepresenting historical events.

The historical setting of The Woman King certainly gives it some novelty value – it goes without saying that historical action movies where all the protagonists are black women are thin on the ground, to say the least – and the positive elements of the film aren’t limited just to the fact that it’s doing something new. Prince-Bythewood’s last film was the similarly progressive-themed Highlander knock-off The Old Guard, and the various action sequences and battles here are just as good as the ones in that film, if not better. The film is also buttressed by some really strong performances – John Boyega kind of vanishes into the background a bit (his character is presented as somewhat lacking in spine, which may have something to do with this), but Davis and Mbedu are both very watchable as the veteran and the new recruit, while Sheila Atim and Lashana Lynch make up the numbers as equally imposing members of the troop.

In the end, though… well, novelty value will take you some distance, and then good performances and direction a considerable way further on. But in the end, as usual, it all comes down to the script, which is to a very significant degree just a load of the usual Hollywood corn. It’s not so much a problem of the film being over-busy, though there are certainly a lot of things going on, as much as the story never doing anything particularly interesting or thought-provoking beyond retooling boot-camp cliches. It’s not completely simplistic when it comes to the historical angle of slavery and Dahomey’s involvement in it, and there is more nuance here than I would have anticipated, but it’s never as eye-opening or inspiring as it probably thinks it is, and there are some eye-rollingly implausible plot devices along the way.

The best things in The Woman King are Viola Davis, the cinematography, and the fight direction; too much of the rest of it never completely convinced me, either as a drama or a piece of history. There are certainly interesting stories to be told about the Atlantic slave trade and the various factions involved in it – but they are probably not the stuff of up-beat and positive mainstream Hollywood movies. The film passes the time engagingly enough, but it ultimately feels rather shallow and contrived.

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Making an unexpectedly early appearance this year is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a bold attempt to explore some of the more obscure crevices of American popular culture (I jest). Why unexpectedly early? Well, the subject matter (one of the great American icons), the presence of a usually-reliable awards-bait performer like Tom Hanks, and the whopping running-time (the far side of two and a half hours) might reasonably lead one to conclude this is a film destined for a run at the Oscars. But prestige awards-bait movies usually appear no earlier than the Autumn; positioning Elvis as a summer blockbuster is a slightly odd choice.

Not that it isn’t a good time to be releasing a movie about Elvis, an undeniably colossal figure in the history of music, but one who tends to get forgotten about by most people for long stretches of time. As far as the UK goes, I remember there being a bit of a fuss about the tenth anniversary of his passing, a spate of sightings of the King in off-licences and supermarkets a couple of years later, more attention on the twentieth anniversary, and then an unexpected spike in interest when a TV commercial directed by Terry Gilliam powered a remix of A Little Less Conversation to the number one spot a couple of years later.

This is not to say we are not still living in a musical landscape influenced and to some extent defined by Presley’s work, but Elvis’ actual music too often gets absorbed into the greater mass of Elvis the cultural icon – the movies, the jumpsuits, hundreds of impersonators of rather varying quality. Perhaps one of the ideas behind the movie was to chip away at some of the impedimenta and acquaint people with something of Elvis Presley the man.

The central tension in the film comes from the relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler getting his big break) and his long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks). The popular consensus about this is that Parker was mainly interested in simply exploiting Elvis for his own financial gain, a grasping parasite who effectively sabotaged Presley’s career and contributed to his premature death. However, the movie opens with an elderly Parker – addressing the audience, in one of those extravagant conceits you tend to get in Baz Luhrmann films – declaring that he has been misrepresented and that he is about to set the story straight.

And so we learn of how Parker, a protean and shady character, a citizen of no country whose name and title are both assumed, chances upon a youthful Presley while looking for a new carnival attraction. Parker sees this ‘wiggling boy’, who blends the music of different cultures so strikingly and has such a profound effect on his audiences, as just the sort of thing he is looking for. Elvis indeed proves to be a sensational success, but this also courts controversy in the segregated and conservative USA of the late 1950s (Luhrmann successfully manages to align Elvis with the progressive politics of the period).

Outrage is averted when Elvis is persuaded to spend two years serving in the US army in Germany, returning as a more clean-cut, less outrageous performer whom Parker succeeds in inserting into a string of profitable but nondescript musicals. These are followed by an attempt to relaunch him – rather against his will – as a family entertainer, which transmogrifies into his famous 1968 comeback special. This, however, merely sets the stage for an extended series of residencies in Las Vegas, with the singer chafing to leave and extend himself but compelled to remain, in no small part due to the personal terms Parker has reached with the casino owners (the line ‘We’re caught in a trap’ echoes plaintively on the soundtrack). The seventies continue… and we all know how this story ends.

Longstanding watchers of Baz Luhrmann films will probably not be surprised to hear of the slight feeling of sensory overload I experienced during the opening sequence of the movie (it was exactly the same during Moulin Rouge, over twenty years ago), but – just as on that occasion – the film eventually settles down, becoming a somewhat more conventional musical bio-pic. (I say somewhat more conventional, as Parker continues to be an abrasive, unreliable narrator – the reason Elvis made all those lousy musicals, he insists, is simply because the audience didn’t want to see anything else.)

Luhrmann is clearly intent on presenting Elvis as a tragic hero, ill-used throughout his adult life, and a performer of real significance – which is presumably why the musicals are zipped through in a matter of moments, while the 1968 comeback special is dwelt on at considerable length. There are moments recalling lots of other films of this ilk, particularly once Elvis’ final, miserable decline sets in.

In many ways the most interesting section of the film comes much earlier, exploring just who Elvis was, what made him so special, and why audiences responded to him in the way they did. It’s hard to quantify a talent as magical as the one Presley had, but the film leans heavily into the idea of him as someone capable of provoking an extraordinary, almost dionysiacal response in a crowd. In one sequence Luhrmann shows the young Elvis running from a brothel where the blues are being played to a marquee hosting a religious revival with a gospel choir in residence: the two kinds of music blend together, with a hint of country, and suddenly the Elvis sound is there, accompanied by images of people in the midst of transcendental moments, both sacred and profane. It’s an almost irresistible and hugely impressive moment.

Austin Butler is really up against it having to play one of the most famous people in history, but acquits himself well in both the musical and the dramatic sequences. Whether Tom Hanks is authentically recreating a very outlandish figure or simply wildly over the top seems to be up for debate, but his performance is big, it’s also consistent, and gives the film a strong centre which it probably needs. I knew the broad strokes of Elvis’ life going into the movie, and found it to be an interesting, entertaining and occasionally moving story; I expect that people less familiar with the singer may emerge with more of a sense of why he was and remains such a huge figure. If the film never quite succeeds in explaining what made Elvis so special, that’s because some things are simply beyond solely rational explanation – but it does a great job of reminding the audience of just how special he was.

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Given the sheer volume of films celebrating the achievements of plucky little Britain during the years of the Second World War, you might be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that the cupboard of history is bare, the well is dry, everything has been done – Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Enigma, The Imitation Game, The Gathering Storm, Into the Storm, Atonement, and that’s just from this century alone. Surely the British war movie industry is on the verge of finally running out of steam?

Well, maybe not: for here comes John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, which has managed to identify one of the few incidents from the war not yet brought to the screen: a feat of misdirection brought about in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion of Sicily in Summer 1943. Quite apart from allowing the Allies to open a new front in the European war, the assault on Sicily is of significance as essentially being a test-run for the Normandy landings planned for the following year.

Of paramount importance is the need to keep the Nazis guessing as to what the Allies are up to – which leads to the involvement of a top-secret committee made up of members of the different armed services, with the objective of misdirecting German intelligence. Recently seconded to the group is lawyer-turned-intelligence-officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth); also present is RAF officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen). Overseeing proceedings, and basically providing an authority figure for the protagonists to kick against heroically, is Jason Isaacs as the stuffy chairman of the committee; Johnny Flynn occasionally pops up as a junior naval intelligence bod named Ian Fleming.

The idea is to get the Germans looking at Greece as the main prospective target of the Allied attack, rather than Sicily, and the scheme that Montagu and Cholmondeley cook up is to sell this idea by putting fake plans for the Greek attack on an actual corpse, which they then dump at sea somewhere it will be washed up and found by someone sympathetic to the Nazi cause. For this they need to find an appropriate corpse, then all the relevant details must be attended to, and their superiors convinced that this gambit is going to work – get it wrong, and the Germans will know exactly where the Allied taskforce is heading…

Also on the team are doughty office manager Hester (Penelope Wilton) and office worker Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), and together they begin putting the deception together. The film makes it clear that this was one of the most spectacularly successful pieces of misdirection in military history, and it has already been the subject of one movie (1956’s The Man Who Never Was, in which Ewen Montagu himself made a cameo appearance) – but I can see how a film looking in detail at how the trick was pulled would seem like a good idea and have a decent chance of finding an audience.

The problem with Operation Mincemeat is that John Madden and scriptwriter Michelle Ashford seem to have set their sights on a more ambitious target than simply detailing one particular intelligence operation. Instead of just making a true-life spy thriller, they also have a go at making a doomed wartime romance, a drama about the personal relationships and conflicts between a group of Admiralty spies, a slightly tongue-in-cheek romp playing with some of the conventions of British espionage fiction, and… you get the idea.

Madden is probably still best remembered for Shakespeare in Love, a rich, discursive, sprawling tapestry of a movie which worked on many different levels. In a sense it was about the whole cultural impact of Shakespeare, and naturally carried with it the opportunity for many different tones. This is, in theory at least, a somewhat more serious movie about one particular Second World War intelligence operation, and so it doesn’t naturally lend itself to the same kind of approach.

Perhaps this explains the distinct sense of the movie being almost a patchwork quilt made up of fragments of different script drafts, which sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit just to get up to an appropriately ‘epic’ running time. It’s not as if the central spine of the narrative isn’t filled with fascinating and occasionally macabre detail: the first thing the team have to do is lay their hands on a corpse who could conceivably have drowned, and then ensure he is – for want of a better word – deployed before the natural processes of decay become too far advanced. Later on there is a desperate attempt to ensure the faked battle plans actually do cross the path of a German agent in Spain (the natural inclination of the principled Spanish is to give the papers straight back, unread). There could be a good, taut, interesting movie here.

Splicing onto this extended scenes in which Montagu and Leslie effectively carry on a relationship-by-proxy while working out the details of the love life of their nonexistent dead officer and his equally ontologically-challenged girlfriend changes the film’s whole centre of balance, especially when it becomes clear that Cholmondeley’s objection to this kind of office fraternisation is not entirely disinterested. Suddenly the whole issue of the deception operation feels like it’s been pushed into the background of a film which is actually about the complicated personal lives of some work colleages, and each new subplot and character only contributes to this further – there’s a subplot about Montagu’s slightly feckless brother (Mark Gatiss) possibly being a Russian spy, some quite high-level political intrigue about the possible existence of an anti-Hitler movement within the upper echelons of the Nazi administration, and even some in-jokey wink-wink stuff that felt a bit tired to me – there’s a lot of knowing material about Ian Fleming trotting down to Q Branch and playing with a watch that’s secretly a buzzsaw, while Matthew Macfadyen (veteran of a 19-episode run in TV’s Spooks) gets some equally arch dialogue about the ‘spooks’ he’s working with and the nature of their activities.

Little of this is flat-out bad, but the cumulative effect of it all is to slow the film down and make it seem bloated – what feels like it should be a 100-minute movie at most eventually clocks in at over two hours. Operation Mincemeat isn’t focused or innovative enough to really stand out in what is, as noted, a rather crowded marketplace (they seem to have run out of new actors to play Churchill and so Simon Russell Beale reprises a role he’s previously played on TV). The story at the heart of this project is an undeniably fascinating one, but the problem is that Operation Mincemeat too often feels preoccupied with other matters. Predictably solid performances from a quality cast, but this feels several drafts away from a script which would be worthy of their talents.

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