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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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