Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

Look, if you really must know, my position on the whole royal family thing has modulated somewhat to the point where I feel that on some level they do an important service for our nation, and do it fairly well. (I think the best argument for abolishing the monarchy is that the existence of the institution is simply not fair on the poor sods trapped in it.) On the other hand, the boiler in my house also makes a decent fist of an important job, and I don’t expect to have that splashed all over the papers and 24 hour news channels, either. So the paroxysm of monarchist psychosis which afflicts the nation on days like today is somewhat gruelling. As with the last time all this nuptial absurdity kicked off back in 2011, I find the best way of escaping from it all is to engage with it on the level it deserves, i.e. in the form of a mind-bogglingly horrific American TV movie re-telling of the events in question. Last time around it was William & Kate: the Movie, this time it is Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, directed (if that’s not too strong a word for it) by Menhaj Huda.

Harry is the one on the right, if you were wondering.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the movie gets underway with a sequence set in Botswana in 1997, where Prince Charles (Steve Coulter, an uncanny lookalike, at least in the sense that he has the correct number of limbs) has brought his young sons to get over the recent death of their mother (who thankfully only appears in one brief flashback). ‘My darling boys, I have brought you here to the cradle of mankind,’ announces HRH, but before he can get any further Prince Wills expresses his doubts about the whole idea. ‘You’re not going to start quoting The Lion King again,’ he complains. Sadly, Prince Charles does not.

(At this point I thought, well, at least they’ve got the least credible dialogue out of the way in the first scene. Excitingly, I was wrong: later scenes feature such cherishable dialogue as (from Kate) ‘Meghan makes Wallis Simpson look like Judi Dench’, (from Camilla) ‘I love a dirty martini’, and (from Charles) ‘I suppose moving to Canada’s all right – Mother’s on the currency.’)

Well, anyway, soon it is established that Prince Harry (Murray Fraser) is growing up to be a troubled young loose-cannon of a royal, leading a wild life and desperately searching for someone to give meaning to his existence. Meanwhile, over in Uncle US of Stateside, Meghan Markle (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is growing up to be a feisty empowered modern woman with a mind of her own. (Rather to my surprise, it turned out I had actually seen Fitz-Henley somewhere else, as she plays Mrs Luke Cage  in the Netflix Marvel series.) When these two finally get together, it’s murder!

Not actually murder, though I was tempted to violence by some of what happens in the movie. I do wonder if the royals actually get together and watch the various movies and TV shows made about them – in this movie, there is actually a moment where the Queen complains about The Crown. (It’s a bit difficult to be sure – the people responsible may actually be hiding from MI6 – but it seems Her Maj is portrayed by someone named Maggie Sullivan. This is quite a noteworthy performance as it manages to be almost totally inaccurate to a breath-taking degree, reminiscent more of a particularly twinkly version of Mollie Sugden than our own dear head of state.) If the House of Windsor do get together and enjoy A Royal Romance – I use the word ‘enjoy’ in a sense so broad it is essentially meaningless – I think it may prove to be something a record-breaker in every department.

You can tell that all their Christmases came at once for the people who perpetrated this movie, as not only does it present the same kind of opportunities for royal-related soap opera as William & Kate, guaranteed to thrill the heart of a certain type of person with a limited grip on reality, but this time around not only is one of the principals American, thus increasing audience identification, but they are African-American, thus giving some real oomph to the subtext, which as before is about a brave young woman coming into the orbit of the Windsors and saving a previously-helpless young princeling from a crippling life in an outdated institution. The writers are so thrilled by this that Kate, who was the feisty, spunky heroine of the last movie, is initially a bit of a mumsy thicko in this one, although she is presented somewhat more flatteringly as it goes on.

Yes, of course Meghan Markle is the protagonist: this is a romance, after all. That’s understandable enough, but what I really found quite difficult to cope with is the sheer simple-mindedness of the film. Subtlety does not exist in the world of a Menhaj Huda movie, apparently – we just get an interminable succession of scenes where the same basic character points are laboriously stressed again and again – Harry is troubled, but has a good heart. Meghan is plucky and adorable, and Her Own Woman: the scene depicting their first date opens with her giving him a protracted hard time for turning up a bit late, beyond the point of credibility. All this is done via the miracle of dialogue which is basically a mixture of people stating facts about themselves and apparently-unfiltered interior dialogue, uttered out loud.

Of course, this is not to say that there are not many other things in Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance which are difficult to cope with. This is a based-on-true-events movie in the sense of most-of-it-is-entirely-made-up, but personally I would have drawn the line at the scene where Meghan finds herself essentially chasing Harry’s private jet down the runway on foot in order to win him back after an overly-precipitate chucking. Most eye-opening of all is a subplot about Harry being stalked by his mother’s spirit, which has apparently been reincarnated in the form of an African lion. I don’t remember seeing that mentioned on the Six O’Clock News.

Implicit throughout, of course, is a peculiar kind of double-think: the depredations of the horrid media come in for some stick, especially when the awful paps pitch up around Meghan’s house in a scene not unlike something from a George Romero zombie movie, only with more flashbulbs. Yes, this couple should not be pestered by the media but left to lead their lives without being intruded upon. How you square this with then going on to make a bloody awful TV movie speculating wildly about the intimate details of their relationship I am not sure (the rumoured scene depicting Harry and Meghan actually in the act does not appear – or at least not in the version Channel 5 showed mid-afternoon). In same way, there’s an odd cognitive dissonance between the film’s implication that the royal family is a hidebound, conservative anachronism, and the fact that if one of the people involved wasn’t a prince this movie would never have been made at all. Can’t beat a bit of doublethink, I guess.

So in the end it was all pretty much as I expected, a mixture of unintended comedy, brain-paralysing weirdness, and emetic schmaltz. I ended up watching it with my young niece, somewhat against my better judgement, and in the end her opinion was that it was ‘a good film’. I can only hope that her judgement improves as the years go by, but at least we have some evidence that the film should succeed with its target audience – not necessarily just the under-tens, but people who are comfortable thinking around that level.

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A couple of years ago we trundled off to see the movie Suffragette and had a reasonably good time. This is not a movie notable for its ability to cause mirth in an audience – at least, not before the closing credits, anyway. At this point a sort of roll of honour unfurls, giving the names of various nations and the year in which they finally granted women the right to participate in elections: The United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, and Poland – 1918. Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands – 1919. Ecuador, Spain, and Mongolia – 1924. Switzerland – 1971. At which point people generally fell about laughing in the aisles. (Look on the bright side, any Swiss citizens who may be reading this – there’s always Liechtenstein, which didn’t take the plunge until 1984.)

One of my current semi-regular movie-going companions and I sat down to review the listings the other day, in search of our next cinema trip. We’re at one of those slightly annoying points in the year where almost the only things in theatres are films which we’ve already seen at least once, or ones which frankly don’t interest us much. Having disposed of the multiplexes we moved on to the art house, at which point my companion’s eyes lit up a bit at the sight of Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order (Schweizerdeutscher Titel: Die göttliche Ordnung), a movie about the Swiss women’s suffrage movement which had arrived just in time to miss International Women’s Day. Despite apparently being a thundering misogynist, I have the greatest respect and admiration for the feminine world, as befits someone whose mother was a woman. So naturally I readily agreed to accompany my friend to one of the screenings.

Now, with the evening slots at the Phoenix all filled with Lynne Ramsay’s new thriller (expect a review at the end of the week), The Divine Order was only showing in the afternoons when we couldn’t both make it. So we decided to go to the Saturday morning show (going to the cinema before noon was an exciting new experience for my companion). Knowing what a right-on and progressive place Oxford is, I felt strongly that we should probably book our tickets in advance, suspecting that everyone who likewise couldn’t make the weekday matinees would turn up for this one show and it would be packed out, as sometimes happens at the Phoenix.

So it was that we settled happily into our seats in an almost totally empty 164-seat cinema, alone except for someone intent on doing the giant-sized general knowledge crossword in the weekend paper. I suppose I must have overestimated the appeal of a subtitled Swiss-German film about feminism in the 1970s (or maybe Oxford’s liberal credentials are in peril), but what’s the price of a booking fee between friends? In the end, we were actually a little sad that more people hadn’t come to see The Divine Order, because it’s certainly not a film that deserves to languish unwatched.

The movie opens with a reminder of the seismic social and cultural upheavals gripping much of the world in 1971, before making it quite clear that at the time Switzerland remained resolutely ungripped by anything of the sort: life is going on much as it has for decades, which basically means the men going out to work (farming, banking, and making cuckoo clocks, I guess) and the women staying at home, doing the housework, and taking care of the children. In just this situation as the story starts is Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a young housewife who is just beginning to recognise her dissatisfaction and frustration with her lot in life.

She’d quite like to go back to work, but her husband (Maximilian Simonischek) needs to give his permission, and he refuses on the grounds this will disrupt their home and make him look bad at his own workplace. This is bad, but others have it much worse: Nora’s niece is sent to a women’s prison, simply for being a bit wayward, mainly because her father has sole legal authority over the family. Another friend loses her home, a pub, due to her husband’s death and the fact that women are not allowed to run businesses (I think; the subtitles were not entirely clear on this). A vote on possibly allowing women the vote is coming up, and simply refusing to support those campaigning for the status quo marks Nora out as a dangerous iconoclast in her village.

Quite unexpectedly, she finds herself the focal point of activism in her area, even its leader, and other women join her in beginning to organise. Needless to say, this causes ructions in the deeply conservative village, where many inhabitants believe the subordinate role of women is the will of God (the divine order referred to in the title). Even members of her own family are violently opposed to the stand she is taking. As the stakes get higher, the pressure becomes immense – can Nora and the others find the strength to stand up for what they believe in?

It’s not that unusual for the Phoenix to be showing a certain type of socially-motivated movie depicting the struggle of women for self-determination in deeply traditionalist societies – back in January they showed In Between, for instance, and in recent years there have also been movies like Wadjda, Mustang, and Sonita. What does make The Divine Order somewhat distinctive is the fact that it is the same kind of story, but set in a recognisably modern European country. On paper it may look like a semi-remake of Suffragette with added fondue, but without that film’s period trappings, it has a bit more punch – even though the overall arc of the story is never in doubt, there are moments which are genuinely shocking.

As I say, you go into this kind of film knowing almost exactly what to expect, and there are no startling surprises in terms of the actual plot. That said, The Divine Order benefits from a very solid screenplay that takes care to work as a genuine piece of drama rather than fierce agitprop – the focus throughout is on Nora and the others as characters, rather than participants in a particular movement. There are some lighter moments, as well, and Volpe orchestrates proceedings with a subtle touch – at one point there’s a slightly odd moment when Nora seems to be equating oppressed women with the fish that live in deep ocean trenches (I’m not sure this metaphor really works, if you follow it through), but the rest of it is admirably understated. The male characters are not quite all caricatured brutes, and in a slightly unexpected choice, one of the main opponents of universal suffrage in the village is a woman herself – a well-judged performance from Therese Affolter.

This is a well-played movie throughout, with Leuenberger well-supported by Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, and Marta Zoffoli. Turning up for a scene-stealing cameo is the wonderful Swedish actress Sofia Helin, who has a whale of a time as a visiting advocate of ‘Yoni Power’ (and if you’re really curious what that is, you can google it for yourself, as no matter how sympathetic I am to the cause of equality, there are some places I’m just not going in a comedy film-review blog).

The Divine Order does a very good job of balancing its different imperatives as both a genuine piece of entertainment, and a film with a particular message to deliver. It’s engaging and ultimately very rewarding, and ultimately the only criticism we could make of the print we saw was that some of the subtitling was rather substandard – ‘I worked in this pub for 0 years’ is the rather unlikely claim made by one of the women at one point, while a later caption announces that following the limited suffrage introduced in 1971, full equality was ‘written into the Swiss constitution in 981’. Maybe the bit of the subtitler’s keyboard with the numbers on it was a bit sticky, or something. I suppose if nothing else this sort of thing only reminds us of what a good job subtitlers usually do.

I expect there are good commercial reasons why The Divine Order has received such a limited release in the UK, but even so, given the Unique Post-Weinstein Moment (not to mention International Women’s Day), I would have thought it was worth at least a little bit of a push. It’s not blazingly original or breathtakingly accomplished, but it tells its story sincerely and well, and we both felt we had benefited from watching it. Worth tracking down if you get the chance.

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One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

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As I write, the story of the Trump administration is one without a definite ending. It is therefore surely rather precipitate for anyone to be writing its history. And yet, at first glance, this is perhaps what Michael Wolff seems to be trying to do with his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy bits of which have been all over the news media for weeks and which I have finally got around to reading.

I find myself in a slightly odd position here, not least because I am viewing the ongoing Trumpclasm as (thank God) a foreigner, but also because anyone likely to be remotely interested in Fire and Fury will not only already know the key claims made within, but also the details of how the book came about. That said, of course, the extent to which we can all agree on anything about Fire and Fury is extremely limited, something to which we shall return.

Nevertheless, there is always the remote possibility that this small corner of t’Internet is all that remains to inform and illuminate future generations (in which case: hail, posterity! I bring you greetings from the past and can only imagine the strange world you must inhabit – for instance, did Star Trek ever recover? So much to wonder about), so I suppose a little background information would not go amiss.

The transition period following the rather unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the first few months of his administration were documented by the writer and journalist Michael Wolff, who (he claimed) had more or less free access to the incoming regime. Wolff’s many hours of interviews with key players, not to mention hanging about the White House taking notes, are the basis of Fire and Fury.

Like I say, all the really explosive stuff in Fire and Fury hit the media at the start of the year – suggestions that Donald Trump is mentally incapable, or at least not up to the standards required of the job; that he spends long evenings alone in his bedroom eating cheeseburgers and looking at an array of TV screens, before making rambling, self-pitying phone calls to casual acquaintances; that his wife was reduced to tears of despair by the news he had won the election in the first place.

Certainly, the first big revelation in the book is one which kind of got lost, compared to all the others: the suggestion is that Trump did not expect to win, and indeed never expected to win – his presidential run was essentially a massive exercise in self-aggrandisement, designed to make him the most famous man in the world, which fame he would later use in the launching of his own TV network. Actually becoming president was never part of the plan.

But, of course, become president he did, and with Trump installed in the White House Fire and Fury provides a whistle-stop recap of all the peculiar things that have happened since then – the ‘alternative facts’ squabble, the tweeting, the sacking of the director of the FBI, allegations of collusion with Russia, the strange, rambling speeches, the other sackings, the strange personnel choices, the legislative ineptitude – and, if Wolff is to be believed, an almost inconceivable level of political in-fighting within the administration itself.

It’s not so much The West Wing as a cross between I Claudius and The Addams Family, a bizarre narrative populated with a coterie of grotesques – right-wing guru Steve Bannon, who for some reason seems to think that being known as ‘the brains behind Donald Trump’ is somehow a positive thing; Trump’s androidal daughter and her husband, apparently referred to as Jarvanka; the hapless press secretary Sean Spicer; the alarming Kellyanne Conway; Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramuchi… it kind of makes sense that all of these people would congregate together, as you can’t really imagine any of them finding a role in a more conventional administration.

Not that they appear to have got on, of course: the Bannonites, the Jarvankans, and the few mainstream Republicans involved all battling for control of the legislative process, not to mention the ear of the president. Wolff returns again and again to Trump’s apparent flaws – his tiny attention span, his inability to recognise his own lack of expertise, his refusal to grasp the principle of cause and effect, his almost pitiable need to be liked, and the vulnerability to flattery that comes with it. The biggest problem of the Trump presidency, Wolff suggests, is that it has Donald Trump at its heart: ‘a moron’, in the alleged words of one senior cabinet member.

It should be an alarming, or at least deeply depressing account of an epic historic misfire in the democratic process, and I suppose it is to Wolff’s credit that the book reads more like an absurd black comedy than anything else. He is unstinting in his evisceration of many of the key players, and forensic in his analysis of Trump’s many media fumbles. It almost goes without saying that if even a small fraction of this book is factually accurate, then the USA is in very serious trouble: not just because Trump is president, but because he was able to get elected in the first place.

And yet it seems to me that Fire and Fury is symptomatic of a wider problem. There’s not a lot of wriggle room here: either the book is, broadly speaking, truthful, in which case the leader of the free world is an incompetent narcissist overseeing a compromised administration notable for its ineptness and nepotism, or it is an absurd hatchet-job of blatant untruths, executed by a member of a biased liberal media determined to destroy a threat to it. You’re either on one side of the fence or the other.

And this, I think, is the main problem with the United States today – it’s not a very united set of United States. While it is notable that even people who support Trump hardly do so in an unqualified manner – there’s always a hint of ‘Yes, but…’ when they defend the latest presidential fiasco, and the general tenor of Trump’s Twitter pronouncements is certainly in keeping with Wolff’s depiction of him, the fact remains that people seem very reluctant to agree on anything beyond the most basic facts. Either you believe what you see in the media or you believe in the Trumpian ‘fake news’ conspiracy theory; there’s not much in the way of middle ground.

By being quite so gleeful in its savaging and Trump and those around him, Fire and Fury makes it rather too easy for anyone disagreeing with its central thesis to dismiss it as just another crude hatchet job. Wolff certainly seems a bit too keen to deliver a zinging phrase, even if it comes at the expense of conventional journalistic style – ‘Trump found himself at the promised gala dinner seated on one side next to a guy who looked like he had never used a utensil and on the other side Jabba the Hutt in a golf shirt’. This near-tabloidese is largely the idiom in which the book is written, and is hardly likely to make anyone inclined to dismiss it as trash reconsider. No doubt Wolff would suggest that Trump supporters would dismiss the book no matter what, but that’s just another way of acknowledging the great divide.

The book arguably has other flaws – Wolff seems mesmerised by Bannon and all his works, and as a result arguably overlooks some other key figures – Mike Pence barely gets a mention – but this seems to me to be the key one. You have to ask yourself what this book is trying to achieve and just why it’s coming out now. One answer to the latter question is the distinct sense that the Trump presidency might implode at any moment, one way or the other, but another might be that it’s an attempt to sway how the administration is perceived and thus influence the 2020 election. As I say, the simple tone of the book makes this highly unlikely, which means that Fire and Fury is essentially just comfort reading for anyone distressed and appalled by Trump’s presence in the White House: don’t worry, Wolff often seems to be saying, he really is even more stupid and ridiculous than we all thought. Pretty cold comfort, I would say, even if it’s true, and I don’t see that mocking the darkness is much better than cursing it – though how one would go about lighting a candle right now, I’ve no idea. As I say, Fire and Fury is much more part of the problem than any solution to it.

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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the ‘unique moment’ which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year’s awards season, where being the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.

Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can’t seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it’s really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg’s The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it’s a topical movie.

And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.

And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon’s White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.

But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham’s lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump…?

Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers’ considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.

The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it’s about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it’s all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)

On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes celebre, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.

Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there’s an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.

There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian ‘It’s time we learned the TRUTH!’ ad campaign, to which my response was, ‘the truth about what, exactly?’ The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post is essentially the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it’s as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if it doesn’t wind up playing a role in bringing down Trump, it won’t be for want of trying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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