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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

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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One of the pleasing cinematic developments over the last few years has been the rise to greater prominence on movie screens of Mark Rylance. Now, to be fair, Rylance has been appearing in films since 1987, but prior to Bridge of Spies in 2015 he was much more acclaimed as a theatre actor than a film star (although his game of hide-the-sausage in 2001’s Intimacy did attract some attention). Being friends with Spielberg really can give you a career boost, obviously.

After various supporting turns in fairly big films, Rylance is now starring in a slightly smaller British film, Craig Roberts’ The Phantom of the Open (‘a stupid name’, according to the people doing the marketing at my local independent cinema). There are a few British directors specialising in this sort of thing so it didn’t really surprise me that Roberts’ name was vaguely familiar – but it turns out this is because I’ve been seeing him act in films for over ten years; this is his directorial debut (and very nicely done it is too).

The film opens in the mid-seventies. Rylance plays Maurice Flitcroft, a forty-something crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness in the north of England. After a life spent providing for his wife (Sally Hawkins) and children, the looming prospect of redundancy leads Maurice to contemplate pursuing a dream of his own – namely, entering and winning the British Golf Open. Some would consider this to be a little overambitious, given that Maurice has never completed a round of golf before in his life (he has only just taken up the sport). But his irrepressible positivity will brook no doubts.

So, sporting history is made when Maurice Flitcroft participates in the opening round of qualifying for the Open and indeed makes an unprecedented score: 121, to be exact (Seve Ballesteros, who was one of the leaders and briefly appears in the film as a character, could only manage a 69). Flitcroft is catapulted to celebrity with rather more speed and accuracy than one of his own drives usually displays, and the golfing authorities promptly have him banned from every course in the country for bringing the sport into disrepute. But it takes more than this to keep a man like Flitcroft down…

Once you start digging into the Flitcroft story, the sheer proliferation of ridiculous details do lead you to doubt whether any of these events actually took place – Flitcroft’s identical twin sons were semi-professional disco dancers, while later in his career he took to secretly entering tournaments under pseudonyms like Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred von Hoffmanstel, occasionally making use of dark glasses and a false moustache. The film is at pains to stress that it is not inventing these things, but it certainly makes good use of them to produce a very funny comedy about snobbery, dreams, and slightly dysfunctional families.

If we’re going to be specific, it’s somewhere in the space between Eddie the Eagle (famous British sporting duffer loses everything but wins the hearts of the crowd) and The Duke (potentially irritating eccentric is vindicated, sort of, by his sheer human decency and quiet wisdom). Rylance’s performance certainly belongs in the same bracket as Jim Broadbent’s in the latter film.

On the other hand, the film walks a remarkable tightrope. Maurice Flitcroft may be the hero of the film, and you’re certainly on his side throughout proceedings, which is surely the intention of the script and director. But at the same time the film quite openly presents Flitcroft as a figure not entirely unlike Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener from Being There: he’s a droning halfwit with a fragile grasp of many key facts about the real world. Managing this trick is central to the film’s success and very smartly done. I suppose you could argue that Flitcroft, according to the film at least, is a kind of holy fool (the vision he has which inspires him to take up golf certainly feels like a moment of almost religious ecstasy) who may indeed be one of the world’s worst golfers but is filled with quiet wisdom which everyone around him eventually comes to appreciate.

As noted, most British comedies these days seem to bear a strong family resemblance to one another – they’re often based on a true story, either set in the past or in an archaic version of British society (thus facilitating a warm rush of nostalgia for the audience), usually feature one of those loveable everyman characters of the type we were discussing earlier, seldom feature much to frighten the figurative horses, content-wise, and – perhaps most notably, especially when you compare them to films of past eras – there’s invariably a strong moral premise which is carefully articulated in the course of the film. Again, this is seldom especially radical – be nice to other people, be part of a traditional community, get your work-life balance sorted out, and so on. The Phantom of the Open meets most of these criteria very comfortably.

This is not meant to sound superior and patronising. The British film industry seems to be in reasonably good health – much moreso than a few decades ago – and this is surely at least partly due to the fact it has hit upon a number of ‘banker’ genres like this one, which tend to bring in decent returns, certainly when they are well-produced. They may be a little on-the-nose and predictable, but this is equally true of many other popular genres. And The Phantom of the Open is certainly a superior example of the form, very well-played and scripted and directed with impressive skill.

So why does it feel like I am on the verge of qualifying all my praise for it? I’m honestly not entirely sure. In and of itself it is a very enjoyable film – but it feels like I have seen a huge number of very similar pieces over the last few decades. Perhaps it’s just that it does feel extremely familiar, a variation on a very common theme. I stress again that I thoroughly enjoyed it; less jaded watchers will probably enjoy it at least as much.

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There’s something tremendously familiar and comforting about The Duke (one of the last films directed by Roger Michell before his recent death) and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was part of the plan. It sits comfortably within the hats-and-fags period comedy drama genre which the British film industry is extremely adept at, it stars a couple of much-loved national treasures, and – based on the audience response at the screening I went to – it shows every sign of being a genuine crowd-pleaser.

The story is based on one of those odd little true stories which has largely slipped from public recollection, although a gag referencing it is still there at the root of British cinema’s most enduring franchise (which the movie duly references). The year is 1961 and the government has just stumped up £140,000 to save a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington ‘for the nation’, much to the annoyance of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), an aspiring playwright and genuine social justice warrior resident in Newcastle (‘that’s not a real name,’ someone complains, not unreasonably).

Bunton is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fully-paid-up member of the awkward squad. (In reality he was a disabled former bus driver, something the film opts not to explore.) His current campaign is to secure free television licenses for pensioners, which he pursues to the point of reconfiguring his set so it can only receive the commercially-funded channels and then doing a short stint of porridge for non-payment.

Bunton’s wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) has had enough of all this and orders him to pack it in. He agrees, after one last trip to London – which just happens to coincide with the Goya painting disappearing from the National Gallery one night. Soon enough Kempton and his son (Fionn Whitehead) are building a secret false back on the spare room wardrobe to hide the purloined portrait, making very sure that Dorothy never finds out about it. Kempton’s plan is to hang onto the picture until the government agrees to his demands to provide free TV licenses to the elderly – but his biggest problem may be persuading anyone to take him seriously in the first place…

There’s a big debt to many of the classic Ealing comedy films here, many of which concerned a plucky little everyman and his travails in dealing with the establishment – the setting is just after that of Ealing’s heyday, but the look of the film is still very familiar. (In a canny move, the producers have saved themselves a bit of cash by digitally inserting Jim Broadbent into archive footage of early-60s London.) Broadbent makes the most of some very funny lines, especially during the courtroom scenes towards the end of the film. But this is also a film with a contemporary sensibility, with the characters given pathos and emotional depth; there is a subplot about a family tragedy which it’s hard to imagine in a film of this kind from a previous generation.

Some critics have already begun suggesting this is a timely film – slightly ironic, this, given that it was presumably filmed pre-pandemic in order to receive its world premiere in late 2020. One would hope that this is because the film does raise questions about the degree to which we are dependent upon each other as a society, and the extent to which we should consider our collective requirements rather than remaining focused on individual success. On the other hand, Bunton’s determination to do something about elderly people being forced to pay for their TV license is potentially problematic: there is certainly a case to be made for certain specific groups being exempt. But on the other hand the issue of old people being criminalised for not paying for a license is the kind of fig-leaf pretext regularly adopted by those who would like to see the BBC completely abolished on ideological grounds. I strongly doubt most of the key players in this movie would be on board with that, and one could wish they’d handled that particular element of the story with a slightly lighter touch or different approach; as it is, one can imagine the film being adopted and championed in pursuit of an agenda it doesn’t honestly represent.

It’s not as if the film doesn’t do the usual thing of playing rather fast and loose with the actual historical events it depicts – events which actually played out over a number of years are portrayed here as occurring over a vague but shorter period, while the background to a key third-act plot twist appears to have been somewhat misrepresented, presumably at the request of the Bunton family (who were involved in the production).

Nevertheless, this is a solid production and a very likeable film – as I’ve already mentioned, this is simply the kind of film which the British film industry makes very well (often several times a year). You can sort of imagine something like it turning up on TV and being perfectly acceptable on the small screen, but it does have a cinematic polish and ambition, and some very strong performances. Helen Mirren is saddled with a slightly thankless role as, essentially, a scold with a comedy regional accent, but delivers this effectively; the film is really Jim Broadbent’s from beginning to end, balancing some quite broad comedy with moments of poignancy and sincere human decency: if it had received a wider release you would Broadbent to be in the running for at least a few gongs. (Matthew Goode works some kind of minor miracle by actually managing to make an impression opposite Broadbent as his barrister, in the courtroom sequences.)

There’s a lot to like about The Duke, not least its basic positivity and optimism about humanity in general; that it manages to put this across without being sentimental and actually working as a comedy as well as a drama is rather impressive. There is a sense in which it is, undoubtedly, the kind of film you’ve seen before, probably more than once, but on its own terms it is a superior and very effective production.

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The post-production periods of films can vary widely, even in normal times, which means that occasionally busy actors can go through periods where it feels like they have a lot of films out in quick succession: Michael Fassbender had ten films out between 2015 and 2017, while Colin Farrell was in five releases in 2003 alone. Nevertheless, we can thank the current unique situation for the fact that cinemas are currently showing the second Ridley Scott-Adam Driver collaboration in the space of three months.

The new one couldn’t be much more different to the last one, The Last Duel (which I thought deserved more success than it got). At least the new one, House of Gucci, seems to be doing rather better than anyone expected, presumably due to a combination of a well-liked star in the main role and simple brand recognition (though I have to admit that for a long time I thought ‘Gucci’ was most notable as the name of the computer technician in Quantum Leap). I speak not of Driver, though he has developed into a versatile and charismatic actor; front and centre on this occasion is Lady Gaga, who as usual is played by Stefani Germanotta.

The movie sees Scott return to the cartoon-awful 1970s Italy milieu he previously visited in All the Money in the World – everyone in Italy is constantly smoking, drinking coffee, riding around on scooters, fiddling their taxes, etc – although (despite the fact this is supposed to be a true story) events and dates have been jumbled around a bit. Germanotta plays Patrizia Reggiani, ambitious young daughter of a man with a large haulage company, who has a moderately cute-meet at a party with a spoddy, angular young trainee lawyer with very good hair (this is, of course, Driver). The film states this happened in 1978, quite a few years after the actual events; the rationale for the change is not obvious.

It turns out that the young lawyer-to-be is Maurizio Gucci, the disinterested scion of the extremely wealthy family behind the famous Gucci luxury goods empire. Not long after Patrizia discovers this, the young couple embark on a whirlwind romance (although it looks suspiciously like she is the one doing most of the whirling). When Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) learns of the affair, he quickly concludes that Patrizia is nothing but a gold-digger and disowns his son.

Still, their romance seems sincere and they build a seemingly happy life for themselves, until Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-owner with Rodolfo of the Gucci company, reaches out to them. Aldo’s own son Paolo (Jared Leto) has proved something of a disappointment, mainly because (the film suggests) he is a moron with no taste or imagination, and Aldo is beginning to think about the future of the company.

Needless to say Maurizio finds himself propelled back into the bosom of the family almost before he can draw breath, such is Patrizia’s desire to get better acquainted with her insanely rich in-laws and their highly-profitable business. Soon a somewhat ruthless changing of the guard is in progress at Gucci, but is Maurizio aware of just how ruthlessly ambitious his wife is…?

The closing credits of House of Gucci are accompanied by one of those pop-opera cover versions, in this instance Pavarotti giving us his take on Tracy Chapman’s ‘Baby Can I Hold You Tonight’. I’m never really convinced that these things work, as the material and its treatment don’t really go together. On the other hand, in this case it may be deliberate, as there’s a similar weird kind of cognitive dissonance going on with the whole of House of Gucci.

On paper this is a rather bleak and tragic story, a true-life combination of Macbeth and The Godfather, with perhaps a twist of I, Claudius added to the mixture: how it came to be that the Gucci empire went from being a family business to nothing more than a brand name in only a couple of decades. Scott’s approach is to present it as a grotesque, overblown farce – the performances and soundtrack invite us to treat everything as nothing but a delightful lark.

There are some big turns on display on display here, most notably Jared Leto’s extraordinary performance as Paolo Gucci (the mauve corduroy suit Leto wears in several scenes is probably worthy of note in and of itself). That said, I should say that Germanotta gives a terrific and wholly credible performance with no musical content whatsoever: that acting career of hers could have real legs to it. On the other hand, it does seem rather like the ghost of Chico Marx is exerting some extraordinary influence over all the leading cast, vocally at least, and there are some delightfully unexpected bits of dialogue as well (someone shouts ‘You big-a sack of potatoes!’ at a relative during one family row). This is before we even get to the eye-opening sex scene between Patrizia and Maurizio. I would have bet pretty good money that the bout of marital grappling between Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette, during which they burst into song, was bound to be the weirdest sex scene of the year, but I may well be wrong: the thrashing around and grunting on display here is… well, as you can perhaps imagine, taste and restraint aren’t necessarily House of Gucci’s thing.

All in all, it is not terribly surprising that the surviving members of the Gucci family are far from delighted about the depiction of their relatives in this movie, complaining that they are being portrayed as hideous, overblown caricatures bearing little resemblance to the actual people they are supposed to represent. (Patrizia Reggiani, on the other hand, is apparently most peeved that Lady Gaga never got in touch with her to discuss her performance.) It is true the various Guccis all come across as freaks to some degree, not entirely unlike a sort of Mediterranean version of the Addams family: Jeremy Irons is a walking cadaver, Adam Driver is a geeky and gullible putz (at least to begin with), Jared Leto is a man with no brain, and so on. (Al Pacino is relatively restrained, compared to the rest of them, but it’s still an opera performance.) Does it make any difference that it’s not just Reggiani and the Guccis who are lampooned this way? (Salma Hayek is also off-the-leash as Reggiani’s bonkers astrologer and underworld fixer.)

I don’t see the Gucci family’s reputation being especially damaged by the film, largely because it is almost impossible to take seriously for more than a few seconds at a time (and this is before we even consider just how one can honestly sully the reputation of people who already have such an interesting record of fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and conspiracy to murder).

More importantly, this is a very entertaining film, provided you like a certain flavour of black comedy – I have zero interest in fashion, as anyone who’s ever met me will confirm, but I still enjoyed it a lot. The substantial running time floated by and I did come out actually feeling like I’d learned something. Not something particularly useful, but the statement still stands. Scott’s usual deft direction and a committed set of performances come together with a good script, and the result is a very different film from The Last Duel, but just as accomplished and entertaining. House of Gucci is an overblown melodrama, but very intentionally so. Ridley Scott’s success rate in his eighties is putting many much younger directors to shame.

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One of the more peculiar distractions of 2021 has been an occasional background buzz of speculation about whether we will be seeing Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire back on screen, possibly together, before the year is out. Normally studios cleave very enthusiastically to the there-is-no-bad-publicity maxim, so when they refuse to comment on the presence (or not) of a star in one of their films it’s a bit out of the ordinary, to say the least.

Perhaps one of the reasons this has gathered so much traction, in Maguire’s case at least, is the fact that he seems almost to have dropped off the face of the earth in the last few years. His last major role was in Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby (to be honest I’d forgotten he was in that), since when it seems like he has mostly been concentrating on producing and exec-producing, the resulting films being variously very good (Nobody), fairly indifferent (Z for Zachariah), and distinctly rotten (The 5th Wave). Perhaps one of the reasons he knocked acting on the head, at least temporarily, was the relative failure of his last vehicle, the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, directed by Edward Zwick.

We’re back in the realm of the true-life sports drama here – well, sort of. Maguire plays Bobby Fischer, who is one of those late-20th-century-figures of great significance in his own little sphere – in this case, the world of chess. After some framing material with Fischer clearly on the point of throwing a major wobbly in Iceland in 1972, the film jumps back twenty years to his youth, as the son of a Marxist Russian Jewish immigrant and… well, his father’s identity is left vague (apparently the favoured view currently is that the fluid dynamics expert Paul Nemenyi was Fischer’s biological father). Having taught himself to play chess, and gone on to play it obsessively, Fischer makes a splash at the local club and soon finds a mentor and trainer.

His prodigious abilities inevitably lead to celebrity and the international circuit, dominated at the time by Soviet players. With Communist chess dominance being seen as a sign of ideological dominance, the Soviets are ruthless when it comes to playing as a team against their lone American opponent. By this time Fischer is already showing signs of arrogance, volatility, and paranoia, and quits international play in disgust.

However, he is lured back to the game by lawyer (implied to be a front man for the state) Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), with chess-master-turned-priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) as his counsellor and second. The Americans see the possibility of opening a new front in the Cold War by deploying Fischer against the Russian world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), regardless of what effects the strain of such an undertaking may place on his fragile mental health…

I think Pawn Sacrifice is a pretty good movie (though not really a great one, for reasons we shall come to), but the problem it faces nowadays is that… well, look, it’s a story about an immensely talented American chess prodigy, growing up in the 1960s, struggling with their personal demons while attempting to make their mark in the Soviet-dominated sport. In other words, it’s the true-life version of The Queen’s Gambit (or perhaps we should just be clear as to how much the story of Bobby Fischer may have influenced Walter Tevis while writing the original novel of The Queen’s Gambit). Suffice to say the two works are very similar, but the Netflix show has the edge in most respects.

Why should this be? I think it is more than just a simple question of greater length (therefore depth) and budget (therefore scope). Pawn Sacrifice has well-mounted depictions of the period it is set and an effective script, plus the advantage of being able to incorporate real-life events so outrageous that no wholly fictional story would dare to include them – the 1972 world championship match may be remembered for including possibly the greatest single chess game in recorded history (the sixth of the series), but it will also go down in history for the circus surrounding it – Fischer insisting on playing in a tiny room with no audience or cameras, and Spassky demanding his chair be x-rayed to eliminate the possibility of sabotage being just two of the events involved. I know a bit about chess, but am not so well-versed in its history, so this was all fascinating to me.

The problem is really that – well, at various points Fischer is explicitly compared to Mozart and Leonardo, in terms of his sheer genius. How do you show Mozart’s genius to an audience? You play some of his music and let that speak for itself. How do you communicate the genius of Leonardo? You point the camera at La Gioconda or one of his other paintings and quietly step back for a while. The thing about chess is that while it may be one of the most remarkable products of human culture (a game with limited options, no random factors or hidden information, and yet there are still more possible games than there are grains of sand in the galaxy), it’s not exactly accessible in the same way as art or music. Two actors replaying one of Fischer’s greatest games is not that different from a couple of schlubs re-enacting one of my own quixotic deployments of the Grob opening, to the untrained eye at least. (And genuine chess masters have apparently complained that the chess on display in this movie is actually quite moronic, to the point where the board is not correctly oriented.)

Here Pawn Sacrifice comes unstuck just a tiny bit, as rather than showing what an extraordinary player Fischer is, the movie resorts to having other characters – principally Lombard, whom Sarsgaard underplays very nicely – telling each other how extraordinary he is. And that is, obviously, slightly suspect storytelling. I suppose it is also an issue that Fischer himself was, certainly towards the end of his life, a divisive, unsympathetic figure. The film addresses Fischer’s history of paranoia and his inclination towards anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (noting, en passant – yes, thanks, I’m here all week – that Fischer himself was of Russian Jewish stock), and Maguire is unafraid to come across as a deeply unpleasant and obnoxious individual.

The problem is therefore that, of the two sides of Fischer’s character, it’s the negative that comes across much more viscerally and affectingly in the film – communicating just what an extraordinary gift he had is too big a challenge for the script. The Queen’s Gambit, being fictional, is operating with a much looser leash, able to make Beth Harmon more sympathetic (and even here the show still struggles to really express the intricacies of chess).

Nevertheless, this is still a solid movie about some remarkable events, and if nothing else it reminds you of what a capable actor and engaging screen presence Tobey Maguire can be. Maybe we will see him again briefly before the end of the year. (Or maybe not, and we will have to wait until next Christmas for Babylon, which he is apparently in.)  Even if we don’t, this is still a good introduction to Fischer and the Reykjavik match of 1972.

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The musical biography has been around as a movie genre for ages: it’s one of those things that will likely never completely go away, as doing a film about someone famous and popular is at least as good a bet when it comes to luring in an audience as making an adaptation of a well-known book or TV show. Nevertheless, in recent years it does seem to have been enjoying a moment in the sun – the Queen biopic turned out to be quite astonishingly popular, while Rocketman also did rather well (in addition to arguably being a more interesting and creative film).

Actually, Rocketman was a bit of an outlier in a number of ways, not least because Elton John is still alive and well (some might say despite his own best efforts) – most music bios deal with someone who is dead, or at least extremely doddery, presumably because this cuts down on the number of awkward moments when the subject is first shown the movie. The other difference is formal: the key creative decision in what’s settled down as the classic music bio structure is when to start the thing in earnest, and when to finish it. These films usually conclude with the subject experiencing the zenith of their success – for example, the Live Aid moment making up the climax of Bohemian Rhapsody – but, the only comparable performance in Elton John’s career taking place at a royal funeral, they reasonably elected to skip it.

Liesl Tommy’s Respect doesn’t take any chances when sorting out its start and end points. The film, I should make clear, concerns the life – or a relatively brief period in the life – of Aretha Franklin, and opens with some scenes of a very young Franklin being made to sing at parties by her father Clarence (Forest Whitaker). Not much encouragement is needed, of course. The film zips through some other establishing material until it reaches the point at which the child actress can withdraw and Franklin can be played by Jennifer Hudson (I’m going to be a bit ungallant and point out that Hudson is considerably older than Franklin is at the end of the period covered by the movie, let alone the beginning, not that this is especially obvious).

Off she goes to New York as a teenage prodigy to launch her career, but experiences little success until a falling out with her domineering father leads to her taking up with her domineering manager and future spouse Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Given a modicum of control over her own career, Franklin suddenly breaks through with a string of hits, but must contend with various tumultuous personal relationships, not to mention her own demons. Can she bounce back when it matters?

One of the odd things about Respect, considered as an actual bio-pic, is that it almost completely skips the last 46 years of its subject’s life. Did Aretha Franklin really do nothing of particular interest after the age of 30? Even the film suggests not, but it nevertheless wraps up with the gospel concert at New Temple in Los Angeles in 1972 (already the subject of a feature documentary), filling in the rest with the usual slightly gushy captions about Franklin’s achievements (for the film she is always Ms Franklin, of course).

There’s not much actively wrong with Respect that I can actually put my finger on – it looks okay, the acting is fine (apart from those already mentioned, there’s a decent turn from Marc Maron as one of Aretha’s record company bosses), and of course there is a completely banging soundtrack, mostly courtesy of Hudson herself. Now, let’s be honest here: Jennifer Hudson is a very fine singer, especially when she eschews the attention-all-shipping vocal style she deployed in Cats, and which made me want to hide under the seat. But she’s not Aretha Franklin, who was an utterly unique and breath-taking talent. The film closes with footage of the real Aretha performing, close to the end of her career, and its inclusion is possibly a mistake – you suddenly realise just why the various Hudson covers filling the movie have been just a bit unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, while you may well learn something about Aretha Franklin’s life (or maybe a lot about Aretha Franklin’s life), the movie never quite takes flight and becomes as entertaining as one of her records. I think this is probably due to the stifling sense of reverent solemnity which permeates the film pretty much from beginning to end. It does that bit where the origins of a particular, well-known song are delved into at considerable length (Good Vibrations did this with the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, Love and Mercy did it with Good Vibrations, and Bohemian Rhapsody did it with – er – Bohemian Rhapsody), and when the title track is finally unleashed in full, it is as irresistibly funky and vibrant and sassy as ever.

But away from the performances, the rest of the film is staid and rather stolid stuff. The director herself comes on in a cameo as a fan who basically tells Aretha what an important and inspirational figure she is – which is fair enough, but we’re told more about Franklin’s importance than actually shown it. Of course, there’s a lot going on here which the film-makers clearly feel obligated to touch on in some way, but duck out of featuring in the film in any detail – the circumstances by which Franklin ended up the mother of two children by the age of fifteen almost feel like they’re skipped over, presumably because they would just send the film off into quite dark and uncomfortable territory. Her early relationship with Martin Luther King is likewise only really mentioned in passing.

So with these key elements of her actual biography kept to a minimum, what kind of portrait of Franklin emerges? I’m sorry to say it’s not a particularly distinctive one. All the texture and possible ambiguity in her life story seems to have been smoothed away so that she can fit the template of the musical biography subject – early years, struggles, breakthrough, success, wobble, bounce-back, triumphant return to even greater success. You may learn stuff about Aretha Franklin’s life, but I doubt there’s much sense of what she was actually like as a person in this movie. It’s not a bad film, and indeed parts of it are very entertaining, but I strongly doubt it does its subject justice.

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Dominic Cooke’s The Courier doesn’t have a fridge title, just an uninspired one (it played at the  Sundance Festival under its original title of Ironbark, which is at least a little more distinctive). This is a movie which came out in the Land of Uncle US of Stateside nearly six months ago but is only just getting a domestic British release. Quite what the reason for the big lag is, I’m not sure; possibly the makers think this movie has a better chance of succeeding theatrically in the UK, given its subject matter and star – they may even have a point.

This starts off looking like a very traditional, drab and naturalistic espionage thriller, although an opening caption establishes that we are in that even more tenuous and shadowy world of movies theoretically based on true events. It is 1960 and tensions between the superpowers are mounting, reaching the point where senior military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides that the only way to save his country is to betray it, by sharing classified information with the western powers.

Penkovsky’s initial contact is with the CIA, but they are having difficulties in mounting operations in Moscow and request help from MI6 in handling the Penkovsky case (his codename is Ironbark). To allay suspicions they decide to use a civilian as a go-between, and settle upon middle-aged businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne is an unexceptional chap, mainly notable for his great emollience and clubbability, and when he eventually figures out he’s being recruited by a couple of spooks his response is one of alarm more than anything else. Somehow they manage to talk him into it nevertheless.

Initially unsure of himself, Wynne nevertheless warms to his work, not least because of the growing warmth developing between him and Penkovsky. This is despite the lack of enthusiasm of his wife (Jessie Buckley), who is unaware of what’s really going on and starts to suspect Wynne has personal (and rather ignoble) reasons for all these foreign trips. But the KGB soon begin to suspect that there may be a leak somewhere in Moscow, and the question becomes one of whether the agencies can extract Penkovsky before he is rumbled…

As I say, theoretically based on true events – although even while you’re watching The Courier you find yourself noticing just how slickly the story told by the film hits the well-established beats of classic story structure: inciting incident, character arc moments, midpoint turn, stakes-raising, and so on. Normally I would suggest this is just another case of creative caution blanding out a movie, but perhaps not on this occasion – for the film departs quite radically from the traditional structure in its closing section (spoilers concerning the Wynne-Penkovsky affair are widely available, not least in history books). Maybe the conventionality of most of the movie is an attempt to wrong-foot the audience, but I’m not entirely convinced about this – it doesn’t feel as if the makers of The Courier are interested in operating on such a sophisticated, self-conscious level.

Instead, the film is much more of a meat-and-potatoes hats-and-fags period drama for most of its duration, the kind of film which the British film industry is simply very good at (they get a lot of practice, after all). All the costuming, set design, and direction is competent and familiar-feeling, and the performances are, in general, decent or better (some of them are very good indeed). The only thing that really distinguishes it is the strikingly bleak and powerful final act. Cumberbatch is good throughout, but here he really gets to shine, while Buckley – saddled with the less than plum stock part of The Wife for most of the movie – also gets to show more of what she’s actually capable of. (Angus Wright plays the stuffy old chief MI6 handler and Rachel Brosnahan his younger and more human American opposite number – needless to say the script favours the Americans.)

The climax is by far the most memorable part of the film, and probably the most accomplished too, but it’s understandable that it and the material leading up to it makes up only a relatively small part of the film – powerful it may be, but it’s also probably downbeat to the point of being profoundly uncommercial.

I’m assuming that the makers of The Courier think the movie has a reasonable chance of commercial success – with someone like Cumberbatch on board, on this kind of form, this would normally be a fair assumption. (They would hardly have made the film otherwise.) And yet I wonder about its chances of cutting through and making an impression – the publicity for it doesn’t do a great job of making it distinctive from many other hats-and-fags period thrillers of the last decade or so, and it’s not as if the story of Wynne and Penkovsky is likely to be all that familiar to anyone under the age of seventy. It’s not a bad movie at all, but nor is it really a big one or one which is likely to make a huge impression.

I suppose this is a shame, because if nothing else the film is a decent reminder of events of the past. But is this enough? What I mean is that the objective of the film (beyond making its budget back) is somewhat obscure: maybe it is just a tribute to Wynne and Penkovsky, if only because its implicit criticisms of the authoritarian Soviet system, though clearly sincere, hardly relate to a live issue (making parallels between the current Russian regime, compromised and brutal though it is, and the horrors of the USSR seems to me to be rather facile). I expect one could argue that the film is really a reminder of the forgotten human cost of historical events. There’s a shot in the film which rather put me in mind of one from Hitchcock’s Frenzy – an ordinary door closes, and the camera quietly retreats from it as everyday life quietly encroaches from both sides of the screen. What’s going on behind the door is left unrevealed and unelaborated upon – but it is the long tail of history, the people involved trying to come to terms with what they have been mixed up in, not the stuff of newspapers or history books but unrecorded life. It’s a striking moment, but most of the film is less contemplative. The Courier tells an important story and just about does it justice, but doesn’t find a way of operating on a high enough level to do more than be a competent and not especially memorable movie.

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They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news).  Perhaps it’s just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I’ve been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn’t release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year’s Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz’s personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst’s by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film’s thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles’ film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz’s motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix’s motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked.  One of the best bets is the box marked ‘Make Film About Hollywood Itself’ (the ‘Shoot In Black And White For Added Artsy Gravitas’ box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film’s favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what’s still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane’s greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What’s particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst’s palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane’s retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz’s name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn’t really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It’s not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz’s legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn’t brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the ‘history’ presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn’t made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It’s a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex and occasionally fraught issue.

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As you may have noticed, I like dodgy old horror films and Japanese monster movies. You may not. This doesn’t mean either of us is weird: it just means we are different people. However, what it does mean is that I am more likely to say kind things about a dodgy old horror film or Japanese monster movie than you are, and you should probably bear that in mind when thinking about asking me for film recommendations.

I mention this because every now and then a film comes along which gets favourable reviews and a bit of a buzz about it, and which a lot of people seem to really like – and when I eventually get around to seeing it, it really doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s moments like these which lead one to have a sort of nano-existential crisis about the whole reason for and value of writing about films on the internet: is this supposed to be some kind of useful semi-objective assessment of whether something is worth watching? Or just a string of feeble jokes and clever-sounding observations meant primarily to divert and entertain, with an acquaintance with the actual film strictly optional?

Bearing all this in mind, you can probably have a fair guess at which way this is going to go, but so be it: under discussion today is Simon Stone’s The Dig. (I’ve been trying to avoid reviewing too many Netflix movies hereabouts, but what the hell: one every now and then isn’t going to do too much harm.) The title is very much from the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin school of nomenclature, but perhaps there are hidden depths to be (ahem) excavated.

The movie opens with Ralph Fiennes making a journey by rowing boat, carrying a bicycle: this is at least easier than doing it the other way round. It turns out Fiennes is playing auto-didact archaeologist Basil Brown (not much like Indiana Jones, but they do have vaguely similar hats). The year is 1939 and Brown is off to see a potential new employer.

This person is Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner in a damp part of Sussex. Pretty is played by Carey Mulligan. There has been a lot of fuss about what constitutes fair criticism of a Carey Mulligan performance recently, so I fear that if I suggest that her main role in this film is basically to be rather like Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley, but (one would assume) for less money, I may be taking my life in my hands. It’s probably too late to worry about this now, though.

Mrs Pretty is keen for Basil Brown to examine her mounds. (Don’t tut: the film itself uses almost exactly the same gag.) She has several of these on her land, and she, and the local archaeological establishment, think they may possibly date back to the Viking period. Basil thinks they may be even older, and once they have come to terms (the princely sum of £2 a week changes hands) he gets busy with his spade.

Well, at the risk of spoiling the history of British archaeology for you, one of the mounds turns out to have the Sutton Hoo National Trust site hidden inside it. This is big news, and gets the top boys from the British Museum in rather a lather. But can they conclude the excavation of the site and its treasures before war breaks out and this turns into yet another war movie about Plucky Britain Standing Alone?

My own excavations of the history of The Dig have revealed that, for a while during its development (this is another film which has been over a decade in the works) it was going to be a BBC Films production. This did not greatly surprise me, because it’s the kind of thing that BBC Films considers a good fit for them: period setting, true-story angle, reasonably meaty parts for respectable actors, and so on. It’s what I tend to refer to as a hats-and-fags movies, by which I mean that the historical setting is primarily evoked by the fact that everyone wears some sort of titfer and tends to have a ciggie on the go at all times.

And, obviously, it achieves all the minimal competencies in this area. Beyond that, however – well, at the risk of descending into cliché, it really seemed to me to be a film of two halves, one of which was rather more interesting and original than the other.

The first part of the film is – how can I put this? – quiet and still, more about atmosphere and figures in a landscape than anything else. Music plays gently as the characters contemplate the land and its history: the reassuring certainties of the past are implicitly contrasted with an unknown but turbulent-looking future (perhaps it’s no surprise that this film has struck a chord with audiences in Britain, at least). Mulligan and Fiennes are basically front and centre throughout, and the film is as much about what they don’t say to each other as what they do – in parts it almost resembles a big-budget gender-tweaked version of Ted and Ralph, with Mulligan playing Charlie Higson’s part.

Then, rather earlier than I expected, the secret of the mounds is revealed and the film undergoes an abrupt mid-point change-of-gear: a lot of new characters descend, played by the likes of Lily James, Johnny Flynn and Ken Stott, and all that lovely stillness and thoughtfulness is largely dispelled. Those old standbys of the British costume drama, class and repressed emotion, take up major roles in driving the plot: the brilliant but working class Basil Brown is disparaged and patronised as the authorities try to take the site off him, someone else turns out to have a photogenic chronic medical condition, an unappreciated young wife (her husband is possibly implied to be gay) engages in a destined-not-to-be romance with a character with no historical basis, and so on.

I mean, it’s not awfully done, but at the same time it is very generic stuff, no matter how well-played it is. It’s almost as though the film-makers struggled along for as long as they could, trying to make something distinctive and atmospheric, touching on genuine ideas, but then they cracked under the strain and resorted to a lot of bits and pieces of plot which don’t seem to have any particular focus, and honestly feel a bit soap-opera-ish.

And yet, on the other hand, lots of people like this kind of thing, which is why British period drama films are such a fixture of the schedule (and the Downton Abbey movie made £200 million). So perhaps I shouldn’t gripe too loudly: this is, in a sense, a genre movie, and it’s silly to complain about a genre movie featuring the tropes of its own genre. If you like this kind of thing, you will probably enjoy The Dig – it looks nice, the story hangs together, and the acting is good. But it did seem to me that, by the end, history and archaeology in general, and Sutton Hoo in particular, had largely been forgotten about, and I thought that was a shame.

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Anyone taking an interest in the future health of British cinemagoing may be pleased to hear that attendance at the film I ventured out to see this week was double that of the week before: which is to say, there were two of us here. At least I think there were only two: the other person was clearly deeply unsettled by the fact that my allocated seat was potentially within viral-transmission distance of theirs, and withdrew to the darkest corner of the theatre. As I say, I think that’s what happened. Word has reached me that the big mainstream cinemas will be reopening in Oxford in a couple of weeks too (it seems like a line in the sand has been drawn to protect the cinematic release of Tenet), so we shall see how things pan out then.

For now, though, it’s still mostly art-house movies, a few old favourites (no sign of our own dear Queen’s supposedly favourite film, ah-ahh, though apparently that is showing in some places too) and a few films which had their initial release clobbered by the lockdown which have crept back into cinemas for a day or two. I was here to see one of these: Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, which had been out for less than a week in March when all the cinemas closed. (No sign of Military Wives, which I saw the first thirty minutes of before the power failed in the cinema. Oh well: some things are clearly not meant to be, and it wasn’t as if I was enjoying it that much anyway.)

The movie opens with variations on the theme of a wall of men: hundreds of US soldiers serving in Vietnam (it is 1970) express their admiration for the reigning Miss World, who has been brought to see them by legendary comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), while aspiring university student Sally Alexander (Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley) faces a not entirely sympathetic interview panel. As exercises in setting a tone go, this is not the most understated in history, but the film does improve.

Sally ends up joining a Women’s Liberation group led by a – hippy anarchist? anarcho-syndicalist? drop-out? – named Jo (Jessie Buckley) – the far-left politics of the group are sort of danced around delicately, as they are supposed to be our heroes and thus not too off-putting for the traditionally more middle-of-the-road viewer of feelgood British based-on-fact social entertainment. The Libbers are not pleased that Miss World 1970 will be happening in London itself, and hit upon a scheme of doing more than just picketing the event – they will get inside and disrupt it.

This is one whole strand of the movie. Happening in tandem with it is the story of Miss World 1970, told from the inside: the event is the brainchild of Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), a businessman and promoter still remembered on British screens courtesy of a perpetual credit on the grammatically-suspect celebrity hoofathon juggernaut Strictly Come Dancing (Morley created the original Come Dancing format). He and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are contending with all manner of criticism, on grounds of both sexism and racism (the anti-apartheid movement have the contest in their sights).

The thing which elevates this strand of the movie far above the level of that with the protestors is that everyone involved seems to have twigged that all you need to do to make it absolutely clear what an indefensibly sexist anachronism Miss World was (and possibly remains: I wouldn’t know, as it’s kind of slipped off the cultural radar in the UK) is to just present the facts in a relatively straightforward way: I say ‘relatively straightforward’ because there is always the possibility of the scriptwriters slipping something in on the sly. But I am assuming it is a matter of historical record that, in order to fend off allegations of racism, the competition included both a Miss South Africa (paler complexion) and a Miss Africa South (not so much), that the contestants were measured and checked for padding ahead of the actual event, that the choreography of the television coverage was quite so reprehensible, and so on. It is ghastly, but you feel you’re being allowed to make your mind up about this for yourself, rather than having someone shout editorial commentary in your ear (which is the case with many of the scenes with the protestors and their encounters with the patriarchy).

The scenes with Sally Alexander, Jo Robinson and the others feel like they’re from a slightly different movie, in that they are clompingly nuance-free and rather simplistic: it’s clear there were political differences amongst the protestors, but these are essentially ignored in the name of an I-expect-it’s-supposed-to-be-life-affirming-and-empowering tale of sisters coming together to stick it to The Man. It feels like lowest-common-denominator film-making, and the strangest thing is that almost seems to be at odds with the other strand of the movie.

This is because, rather than operating in terms of duotone absolutes (beauty contests – BAD! lipstick – BAD! and so on), the behind-the-scenes part of the film does the contestants the great service of not treating them as victims or drones or idiots, but allows them the opportunity to make it clear why they have chosen to take part. Some of them are simply in it for the money, but for others the issues involved are more complex. Here the film starts to deal with the issue of race, and does so with more sophistication than I would have expected – although I detect a certain tentativeness on the part of the script to get into anything too complex and challenging. The best thing in the movie is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance as Jennifer Hosten, the Grenadan entrant, as she provides the sort of depth the film is largely missing.

Of course, what you’re hoping for is the scene where Sally (who thinks the contest is an exploitative outrage and an affront to all women) and Jennifer (who sees it as a chance to raise the profile of and create opportunities for women who aren’t Caucasian) talk the issue over. For a long time it looks like this isn’t going to happen, but the scriptwriters eventually contrive one – however, they basically just skim over the surface of the topic in a couple of minutes, so you’re ultimately left feeling a bit unsatisfied.

It’s a shame, because the film could easily have lost a bunch of other scenes and used the time more effectively. There’s another subplot about Bob Hope flying in to appear at the contest, and to say this is unflattering is to put it rather mildly: he comes across as pompous and sleazy, much more so than Eric Morley himself. Why have they even bothered to make such a fuss about Hope’s fairly small part in this incident? Well, I guess that putting Greg Kinnear and (Academy Award Nominee) Lesley Manville in the publicity will help them flog a film about feminism in the States (Manville plays Hope’s long-suffering wife). Also, the one thing about this incident that everyone remembers is Bob Hope getting flour-bombed on-stage during the protest itself, so it would be odd not to include Hope in the movie in some way.

As you may recall, when the theatrical run of Misbehaviour was originally curtailed or delayed or suspended, I passed a quiet evening by watching Carry On Girls, another British movie inspired by the same events. That turned out to be a much grislier experience than I recalled, so the bar for Misbehaviour was lowered a bit. In the end – well, I turned up to the movie expecting to be preached at, and for some of the time I was. However, the behind-the-scenes bits of the film are interesting and occasionally thought-provoking, with an impressive performance from Mbathu-Raw and a fun comic turn from Rhys Ifans (in places it’s almost as if he’s trying to do Sid James, only in the wrong movie). There is enough of a glimmer of recognition that some of the issues involved here are not as simple as they first appear for the film to ultimately be fairly satisfying, even though it’s still very patchy.

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