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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Life… is full of surprises,’ declaims the sideshow owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) as part of his spiel, near the beginning of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s a darkly funny, knowing moment, very much of a piece with the strange conspiracy that the movie enters into. The whole point of the film is that the title character is a hideously deformed man, from whose presence ladies and those of a nervous disposition flee, distraught. This is what it’s about, and that’s a rather high-stakes proposition for a film to be based around.

Because, initially at least, the film is in the same position as the sideshow barker, promising to show us something truly exceptional in return for a few pennies, while we are in the same position as the people queuing up in the film, wondering if it can really be as bad as all that. Quite properly, we have to pay to get in (or we would have done, back in 1980): while the title character, John Merrick (John Hurt), does appear on the poster, he has a bag over his head that merely suggests the extremity of his condition.

I think this is essential to understanding The Elephant Man as a film. It opens with a dream sequence in which Merrick’s mother (Phoebe Nicholls or Lydia Lisle, depending on whether she’s a photo or live action) is mugged by a herd of elephants. This is about as stylish and weird as one would expect from a Lynch movie, and – along with Freddie Francis’ luminous black and white cinematography – it goes a long way to establishing the fairy tale ambience which permeates much of the movie.

Following this, we find ourselves in the company of ambitious young surgeon Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, not quite a bright young thing, but not the substantial figure he has since become, either), who is prowling the backstreets of London, seemingly in search of Bytes’ show. When the police shut Bytes down and move him on, on the grounds that the Elephant Man is an affront to public decency, Treves pays one of your actual Victorian urchins to track the show down again. Eventually he manages to arrange a private viewing for himself – but one to which the viewer is not privy, as the camera cuts away to Treves’ dumbstruck, wide-eyed face: tears run from his eyes at the mere sight of Merrick.

It’s a neat way of communicating the extent of Merrick’s condition while still preserving the mystery of what he looks like, but you do get a sense of the film milking it a bit:  Treves arranges to display Merrick to his colleagues, and we are still not allowed a good look at him; even after he is severely beaten by Bytes and is taken to Treves’ hospital for treatment, we are still waiting for the money shot. And then a young nurse (Lesley Dunlop) is required to go up to Merrick’s top-floor room, alone, and take him his dinner…

It plays out, in short, like a horror or monster movie: you can’t show the beast too early, there is a certain grammar and pacing involved that you ignore at your peril. And while The Elephant Man handles this convention as well as one would expect, given Lynch’s facility with genre movie tropes, it is strikingly at odds with the tone that the rest of the film works hard to achieve.

Central to the film, from this point on at least, is the idea that beneath the truly horrible deformities, Merrick is a gentle, decent, almost saintly man, infinitely more sinned against than sinning. Virtually everyone who meets him is moved to tears by just what a nice guy he is. Who is the real monster here? is the somewhat trite question the film is asking, although there is also a slightly sharper subplot about whether Treves is truly any less of an exploiter of Merrick than Bytes was.

I mean, this is a very good looking film with fine performances from an array of terrific English actors: apart from Hopkins, Hurt and Jones, it features John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick and Anne Bancroft. (There are a couple of oddities in the cast list, too: Dexter Fletcher, who these days is a rather successful director of bio-pics himself, appears as an urchin, while in a small role is the actor Frederick Treves, the great-nephew of the character Hopkins is actually playing.) As noted, it looks good, too. But I do find it to be terribly sentimental and manipulative, especially considering the abrupt switch from the horror mode it executes.

And it’s not just sentimental, it’s a bit slow, too – or at least, there’s not much of a plot to the film, once Merrick is installed in the hospital. In order to provide anything approaching a conventional dramatic structure, they have to contrive a subplot where Bytes reappears and drags Merrick off to Belgium, from where he has to escape and make his way back to London. From here we are off into a particularly sickly-sweet climax, accompanied by soaring classical music and the quoting of poetry.

As a piece of entertainment I suppose it passes the time very decently, the first time or two at least, but the more you become familiar with the reality of this story, the more questionable much of this film becomes: it’s largely based on Treves’ book about Merrick. The two men were supposedly close friends, but the weird thing is that Treves got Merrick’s name wrong: in reality his first name was Joseph, not John. And yet John Merrick is the name by which Merrick is now widely known. The rest of the film is up to the same standard of biographical fidelity, omitting all kinds of facts that don’t suit the film’s simplistic thesis. Merrick was not born deformed – his condition grew progressively worse throughout his life (exactly what his condition was remains a contentious issue). Perhaps most importantly, it’s not as if he was effectively sold into slavery, as the film suggests – joining the sideshow was Merrick’s own idea.

Well, as we have had cause to note in the past, it’s not at all unusual for historically-based movies to take the odd liberties in the interests of a good story. The question here is whether the story is good enough to justify departing quite so radically from the facts. For all the skill which has gone into the making of The Elephant Man, I’m not sure it is – as noted, it is trite and simplistic, and the keenness with which it adopts horror movie tropes in its opening act makes one really doubt its sincerity, too. An interesting movie, and worth seeing for the cinematography and acting, but not as substantial as its reputation would suggest.

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Cultural hegemony can take many forms, not all of them obviously malevolent: it’s there in singers affecting the accent of the hegemon rather than their own, in the hope of getting more air-play on hegemonic radio; it’s there in TV series casting foreign actors, again to improve their chances of sales in lucrative markets abroad. It’s there in the language that we use: I’m sure many British people talk casually of ‘taking the Fifth’ or ‘stepping up to the plate’ even though they have virtually no idea what these expressions originally referred to.

Doesn’t work the other way, of course: if I talked about being on a sticky wicket in Lowman, Idaho, I imagine I would just get stared at, and if I had the presumption to try and release a film about the life of John Noakes or Johnny Morris in the USA I would probably be referred for psychiatric examination. But hegemony is hegemony, which is why UK cinemas are currently screening Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (The analogy in the middle of this paragraph almost breaks down when you consider that many stalwart British children’s TV presenters from years ago are now disgraced to the point of being outright pariahs. But I digress.)

The movie is set in 1998 and concerns Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a brilliant investigative journalist working for Esquire magazine, whose talents are increasingly failing to the mask the fact that he is contending with his own bitterness and cynicism – almost to the point of misanthropy. Lloyd doesn’t really see the problem, but his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) certainly does, especially after a trip to a family wedding goes very badly – this is probably an understatement, considering the occasion concludes with Vogel getting into a fistfight with his own father (Chris Cooper) and being thrown out.

Lloyd is less than thrilled, all things considered, to be given the assignment of writing for an issue on contemporary American heroes – especially given that he is told to go and interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), a children’s TV presenter based in Pittsburgh.

(Here, of course, we come across one of those cultural and national faultlines which almost seem invisible until they become important. Fred Rogers is virtually unknown outside of the United States: his programme, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, was never shown over here, and prior to this movie I was only dimly aware of him, mainly because the show did a set visit to The Incredible Hulk in 1979 and that segment is up on YouTube. In short, Fred Rogers is a beloved icon to generations of Americans who remember him fondly from childhood; there isn’t really a comparable figure in British culture – only adult entertainers like Ronnie Barker or Eric Morecambe come close, I would imagine.)

Well, Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh to interview Fred, and finds himself nonplussed by the sheer sweetness, gentle kindness, and utter decency of his subject. Can this guy really be genuine? Every instinct tells him that it can’t be the case, and his mission becomes to uncover the truth about Fred Rogers. But what if the truth is what it seems to be? All this time, as well, Lloyd is still contending with his fraught relationship with his father and his feelings of resentment towards him after he walked out on the family. But the benign influence of Fred Rogers seems to be having an effect on him…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has only secured a relatively minor release in the UK, probably because it will prove somewhat baffling to the average British viewer: the film is initially staged as an episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Hanks comes on, delivers the opening routine, and then introduces Lloyd and his situation as if it’s an item on the programme (one made for very young children, I should mention). If you or your children grew up watching Fred Rogers, I imagine this is terribly resonant, funny and charming; the same can be said for the way that some of the transitions in the movie are executed using models in the style of those on the show. For anyone else it is just a bit weird and slightly Charlie Kaufman-esque: like a joke you’re not quite in on. This never quite stops being an issue with the movie.

Of course, the main reason this film isn’t just playing in art-houses is that it does feature one of Hollywood’s finest actors and biggest stars in a key role. Tom Hanks, if we’re honest, doesn’t look much like Fred Rogers, even with the wig and so on he’s been issued with, and obviously my own ability to judge how well he’s captured Rogers’ demeanour is very limited. However, given that one of the premises of the movie is that Fred Rogers was – and the word is used – a kind of saint, then he is hugely successful. There is obviously a thin line between radiating the kind of decency, sincerity and compassion which Rogers apparently did and just coming across as absurdly cheesy, but Hanks mostly stays on the right side of it. (The modern world being what it is, there have been complaints that while Rogers’ achievements as a host, educator, puppeteer, and author of books such as Going to the Potty are made clear, the fact he was also a minister and a man of deep religious faith is rather understated.)

I should also say that Matthew Rhys is very good in what’s a much less showy part. His character arc for the movie is not the most original, but Rhys’ performance and a charming script do make this a very satisfying and enjoyable drama, even if you disregard the fact it is largely framed in the context of a children’s TV show you may or may not have any awareness of. Hollywood’s fondness for doing stories about people contending with father issues has become a bit of a standing joke – one wonders what this says about the pathology of the place – but this is a superior one.

The only slightly disappointing thing is that this is billed at the start as being (all together now) ‘Inspired by true events’, but at the end it is revealed that the magazine article on Fred Rogers was written by Tom Junod: it would seem that Lloyd Vogel, his family, and his story are all essentially fictitious, created for the purposes of a film about what a great man Fred Rogers was. I’ve written about this kind of thing before recently: once you start mixing ‘real’ people and fictional characters together in this way, the question of what exactly it is you’re doing becomes a pressing one. You’re either telling a true story or you’re not. I’m sure Fred Rogers was every bit as inspirational a figure as he is presented here: but if so, why not just stick to the facts? If he wasn’t, then why fictionalise the story?

But this is a more general point about the whole genre of films to which this belongs. I thought this was a very warm, charming and satisfying drama, rather more to my taste than Heller’s last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? The performances and structure are more than good enough to make up for the fact that the film seems to be presuming a familiarity with Mr Rogers and his neighbourhood which simply won’t exist for many viewers. Certainly one of the better films of the year so far.

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There are times, particularly in the summer, when it seems like hardly any films of interest get released from one week to the next: this is mainly because studio tentpole movies take up residence on multiple screens for week after week, squeezing out smaller films – in the multiplexes at least. And then there are times, January normally being one of them, when half a dozen potentially interesting movies get released at the same time. It probably has something to do with awards eligibility, and the general sense that the start of the year is when serious, quality films make an appearance.

One consequence of this is that the cinema schedules can get very crowded, with some films forced into less-than-optimal slots. It’s a fair bet that a new Terrence Malick movie is never going to set the box office actually on fire, but even so, you would expect it to draw it some kind of an audience. Putting it on in the most prestigious screen in central Oxford hardly makes up for a start time before noon. But there we go.

There was a time when Terrence Malick seemed to have stopped actively making films entirely: his career is still to some extent defined by the long gap between Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line two decades later. Latterly, however, his output has become almost conventionally regular, and perhaps it is a consequence of this that some of the mystique surrounding him and his work has dissipated a little.

That said, Malick’s A Hidden Life is still a highly distinctive movie. I turned up knowing relatively little about it, just recalling a good-looking trailer about people up a mountain in central Europe, and so it was a little surprising when the first recognisable person on-screen was Adolf Hitler, appearing as himself courtesy of newsreel footage. The scene is thus set: we are in Austria, after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany, and a caption delivers the crucial bit of exposition that all men serving in the army at the time were required to swear an oath of personal loyalty to Hitler.

Much of the film is set in the small village of Sankt Radegund, which is principally of interest as the home of the protagonist. He is Franz Jagerstatter (played by August Diehl), an ordinary farmer, well-liked in the community and very happily married to his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner). It initially seems that the rustic idyll is well and truly in effect, for the impression Malick creates of the simple pleasures of village life is extremely persuasive.

Then, of course, things change, as Franz is ordered to report for military training. This he is prepared to do, returning home after the fall of France, with the war seeming to go well for the Reich. However, as time passes, he grows increasingly troubled by the actions of the Nazis, not least their persecution of the church (he is a devout Catholic). As the war begins to go against Hitler, the moment he and his family have been dreading finally arrives: he receives his call-up papers. He will be required to fight for Hitler, and take the oath of loyalty to him.

Needless to say, Jagerstatter has serious objections to this, but simply refusing to serve is not really an option. Quite apart from the personal consequences to him, there is also the question of what will happen to his family – most of the village, while not quite enthusiastic Nazis, are certainly supportive of Hitler’s regime, and if he does refuse to take the oath it will mean opprobrium and contempt for his wife and daughters from the rest of the village. But surely a man must obey his conscience…?

Part of me is perhaps a little uneasy about our continued fascination with the Second World War and particularly the Nazis, but films like this one do an important service by reminding us that there was resistance to Hitler and his ideology from the ordinary citizens of Germany and Austria. In this sense it resembles Alone in Berlin, from a couple of years ago, as both concern small acts of defiance, things that made very little difference to the course of the war or the fate of the regime, but came at immense personal cost for those who carried them out (I realise I have not already made it clear that this is yet another film based on a true story).

In most other respects, however, this is a very different movie, mainly because it has been directed by Terrence Malick in his own inimitable style. The thing about Malick’s films is that they are invariably incredibly beautiful to look upon, especially when the director gets a chance to engage with the wonders of nature. Here the high peaks and endless valleys of the Austrian mountains give him all the raw material he needs, and the results are breathtaking. It may not quite make you want to go and live in a breezy hillside village somewhere, far from the tawdry quotidian grind, but you end up certainly understanding why some people do.

On the other hand, people rarely emerge from a Terrence Malick movie going ‘Yes, that was okay, but I just wish it had been a bit longer and slower.’ A Hidden Life is knocking on the door of three hours in length, and while I enjoy a film that takes its time to get where it’s going as much as anyone (I am a La Flor veteran, after all), on this occasion I’m not at all sure the epic duration is justified by the actual story. Jagerstatter’s wrestling with his conscience is just a bit too laborious and protracted, as is the presentation of the persecution his family must endure… in fact, there’s not one element of the story which isn’t dwelt on at considerable length.

The result is a film that feels heavy and is (perhaps predictably) quite lacking in lighter moments. I’m all for films that deal with hefty moral and philosophical questions, but this one just seems to get bogged down in considering one issue at too great a length. Visually, it is beautiful to look upon, and the performances are also strong (there are supporting appearances from Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz and Franz Rogowski), and you can’t honestly question the importance of the story or the issues that it deals with. But it didn’t need to be quite so big or so slow.

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Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.  It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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When you give your movie a name like Chaplin or Ali, there is an implicit assumption involved that your subject is so famous and significant as to need no further introduction. There are multitudes of people in the world named Ali, and quite a few with the surname Chaplin, but it’s taken for granted that people are going to know who you’re on about. With both the films mentioned above, it’s a fairly safe bet, but there really are relatively few people with the same kind of mononymic recognition factor. It helps if you have a fairly distinctive name to begin with, of course.

Which brings us to Benedict Andrews’ Seberg. The name is certainly not a common one, but on the other hand its owner – the actress Jean Seberg – is a relatively forgotten figure these days, who stopped making movies in America nearly fifty years ago. I doubt many people could even name a Jean Seberg movie: I probably know a bit more about obscure old movies than the average person, and I would have really struggled. To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about Seberg (or Seberg) before going in to see the movie; I thought Jean Seberg was French, and that I would be in for something stylish and possibly a bit pretentious about French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.

Mais non. The film takes place about a decade later, in a milieu vaguely similar to that of Tarantino’s last movie (I would imagine; didn’t see it), primarily Hollywood in the late 1960s. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is flying back to the States from her home in France, ostensibly to make Paint Your Wagon – but, rather to the despair of her agent, she is tired of just being decorative in dumb commercial movies and wants to use her celebrity and wealth to achieve something more worthwhile. On the plane she encounters Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a radical civil rights activist and sometime associate of the Black Panthers.

Seberg is attracted to the cause – and, not to put too fine a point on it, Jamal himself – and becomes a donor to the various programmes and other good causes he oversees. The two also begin an affair. However, Seberg’s involvement with a political radical brings her into the crosshairs of the FBI, which is in the process of implementing J Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO programme of targetting and disrupting domestic political organisations deemed to be subversive. Seberg is initially surveilled, then later finds herself persecuted by the agency, even as the agent in charge of leading the surveillance against her (Jack O’Connell) finds himself doubting the morality of the orders he is given.

So, not so much a floaty art-house thing about the French New Vague and Jean-Luc Godard as something verging on being another movie about the Plight of Black America (I get the sense there are a few of these imminent). Some of the publicity for Seberg describes it as a ‘political thriller’, which strikes me as pushing it a bit, but there are political themes here, as well as story elements which are often to be found in thrillers. That said, it’s also about Jean Seberg as an individual, and key events of her life, handled very much in the time-honoured biopic fashion.

Whatever else we say about this movie, I think the time has come for the world to stop squabbling, take a moment, and agree that Kristen Stewart is a very capable and charismatic performer. Yes, she started her career in the Twilight movies, but everyone has to take the breaks they’re given: Steve McQueen was in The Blob, Sandra Bullock was in Bionic Showdown, and Scarlett Johansson was in Home Alone 3, after all. I have been as guilty as anyone of yielding to a little internal ‘uh-oh’ moment when Stewart’s name appears near the top of a movie’s cast list, but as often as not she has turned out to be one of the best things in it. The same is true here: this is a serious and committed performance. Stewart is perhaps lucky that Seberg has really slipped from the collective memory, so she doesn’t have to go all out and attempt an actual impersonation, but this is still good work.

Better, perhaps, than the movie deserves. This is a potentially very interesting story, still quite timely and yet (I would suspect) relatively obscure. The early sections of the movie, when it resembles a thriller much more strongly, are genuinely involving and well-paced, asking all kinds of questions – not least about Seberg herself and what motivates her. Is she really trying to use her fame to further the common good, or just a restless young woman making a rather oblique cry for help? (I have to say that if there is any irony in Kristen Stewart playing a photogenic movie star who eschews mainstream work in favour of more personal projects, the movie does not really seem aware of it.) To what degree is her fascination with Jamal political rather than simply physical? The movie leaves the question open.

However, as it goes on the film becomes much more internalised and also slower – definitely more of an autobiographical drama than anything else. It handles the shift in gears moderately well, but the film becomes a lot less engaging. Throughout all this there is also the subplot about O’Connell’s decent FBI agent and his wife (Margaret Qualley), and the strains his assignment – not to mention some of his colleagues – place on their relationship. It breaks up the narrative a bit but doesn’t feel like its contributing a huge amount. I should add that the performances here are never less than perfectly fine, and occasionally rather better than that: Vince Vaughn appears as a veteran FBI agent who is also a prejudiced thug, and is completely convincing in the role – his transformation into a reliable character heavy seems to be complete.

In the end, Seberg is a film with lots of potential that is never completely realised. Perhaps it just assumes a little too much interest in and familiarity with the main character on the part of the audience – there’s something a little odd about this, given that it’s the comparatively little-known nature of the story that provides much of the movie’s appeal. As it is, it’s well-played, but not especially well-written or directed, and ends up feeling a little tonally awkward as a result. But the first half is very watchable – it just runs out of steam as it goes on.

 

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There’s a moment towards the end of Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes when Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) decides there is something he really has to get off his papal chest. ‘I’m going to retire,’ he announces.

His companion, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is slow on the uptake. ‘Retire? Retire from what?’ he asks, bemused.

(Look, if you think that counts as a spoiler… well, I don’t know what to say, except that I hope that being in the coma hasn’t left you with too many long-term health issues.)

It’s one of many funny moments in the film, which is consistently much lighter on its feet than you might expect. We’re getting to that time of year, after all, when the slower, heavier, and more respectable films start to show up. The Two Popes is a Netflix production, and presumably forms part of the company’s strategy of attracting viewers by being the only place where you can see prestigious, award-winning productions. Of course, in order to win the awards, the film has to get into actual cinemas, which is why it is currently enjoying a brief theatrical run before becoming exclusively available by streaming. I find it hard to find many positive things to say about this way of doing things, but this is an undeniably solid, classy movie.

As noted, the film presents itself as a dramatisation of various events which might very well have happened in recent years. The story proper gets underway in 2005, with the death of the incumbent pontiff, John Paul II. As usual, there is a good deal of politicking about who will take his place, with the hot favourite being the previous pope’s doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins – the thing with the papal names means that the two lead characters have multiple names across the course of the movie). Mounting an unexpectedly strong, if rather reluctant challenge, is Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man of an entirely different character.

Ratzinger is duly elected, and a somewhat disenchanted Bergoglio, anticipating the rigid conservatism of the incoming pope, returns home to Argentina to plan his retirement. Years pass, and relations between the two men do not improve. However, the problem is that Bergoglio can’t retire to a quiet life in a parish without the Pope’s permission, which Benedict is very reluctant to grant in case it is interpreted by vaticanologists as an implied criticism of his papacy. The Pope summons the cardinal to discuss the problem – and some other things he has on his mind.

What follows is essentially a two-hander between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the two men talk about theology, their upbringings, the role of the church, and many other issues. Mixed in with this are various flashbacks to the earlier life of Bergoglio, depicting his discovery of his vocation, and other key moments from his past (the young Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujin). It does sound like quite a dry and heavy film when you put it like that, which may be why Meirelles goes out of his way to keep things unexpectedly light: the film starts with a jokey scene with the Pope having trouble booking a plane ticket, and things begin to verge on the downright off-beat as the college of cardinals commence their ruminations on who is to be the new pope with Abba’s Dancing Queen playing majestically on the soundtrack. He manages to maintain this throughout: any film which depicts the two popes watching World Cup final together (Germany vs Argentina, of course) is clearly not likely to be accused of over-reverence towards its subjects.

That said, it’s not afraid to pause and reflect on some of the issues it raises. The difference between the two men is dramatically useful – Ratzinger is cold, inflexible, unworldly, not especially imaginative, while Bergoglio is warm, compassionate, engaged, charismatic. And, of course, they are being played by two extremely fine actors. I don’t think the film-makers need have been too concerned about the fact that this is quite a talky film – when you have performers of this calibre working with an interesting and intelligent script, long dialogue scenes become entirely engrossing.

Now, I’ve enjoyed watching Jonathan Pryce ever since his performance in Brazil, but even so I would admit that he is obviously not as feted an actor as Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins does indeed seem to be reining it in and rather underplaying things as Benedict, but then he has also to contend with the fact that the film is rather making him out to be the bad pope in this relationship: a much less appealing figure than Bergoglio, certainly. The film’s partiality isn’t just limited to the present day scenes, either – we do learn a lot about how Bergoglio came into the church, and his travails under the military junta that seized power there in 1976. You initially think the film is doing Benedict XVI no favours by not exploring his past and character in anything like the same way.

But then you think about it a bit and you realise that, actually, not exploring Benedict XVI’s past is possibly one of the kindest things you could do for him in a movie, because there are many big question marks here. I don’t refer to his time in the Hitlerjugend, but the topic which inevitably surfaces in any discussion of the modern Roman Catholic Church: the child abuse scandals and the suggestions of a systematic, institutionalised cover-up. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s involvement in this, and the damage its exposure could do to the Church, is the main reason for his retirement as pope.

Obviously the film has to address this, or at least touch on it – and it duly does so. I enjoyed this film a lot and found it to be mostly intelligent and well-made, but you could certainly argue it tries to dodge the issue here – or if not dodge, then certainly fudge. The resulting scene, where Benedict intimates to Bergoglio the extent of his knowledge of what’s been going on without going into too much detail, doesn’t just feel like a cop-out – it makes you suddenly realise the extent to which this film must be fictional, a what-if presentation of possible conversations between invented versions of the two men. Prior to this point the film has been plausible enough to win you over.

Well, it’s never a completely terrible idea to be reminded that a piece of fiction is a piece of fiction, and this at least is an interesting and often amusing one. And The Two Popes is well-enough written, played, and directed to give the impression that there may be a few grains of real truth sprinkled in amongst the invented sparkle, even if that impression may be completely unfounded. Worth seeing just for the performances, anyway.

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Time was, when the films that were made in expectation of their being possible awards contenders started to appear round about New Year. That hasn’t been the case for a while now (though there is still usually a glut of serious and improving films starting in January), but it still feels a bit odd to come across a film quite as staunchly… what’s the word? …worthy as Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet.

I know, I know, it’s one of those odd things, isn’t it? Call a film worthy and instantly you start thinking about making your excuses and finding something else to watch. It implies a sort of self-conscious seriousness, the cinematic equivalent of the kind of book you were forced to read at school, all the while having its importance and quality drummed into your head. Call something worthy and you’re basically implying it’s not going to be any fun.

It may be the case that I have just shot my bolt as far as this particular movie is concerned, for Harriet contains all the irreverent, high-spirited fun and subversiveness you would expect from a studio costume drama depicting the life of a revered black female folk hero of the Civil War period. I must confess that until the trailers for this film started rolling, I was vaguely aware of the name of Harriet Tubman (she’s the sort of person Lisa used to name-check back when I still watched The Simpsons) but I could not have told you anything specific about her life. So I suppose the film is educational as well. Worthy and educational – that’s not the kind of quote that ends up on a movie poster, more like the sort of thing that drives film producers to hire hitmen. Hey ho.

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, who doesn’t actually acquire that name until well into the movie. It opens in Maryland in 1849, where she – under her original name of Araminta Ross – is a slave owned by the Brodess family. It soon becomes apparent that she and her family should have been manumitted some years earlier, but her owner refuses to recognise the will stipulating this, and it seems she is unlikely to ever be granted her freedom. With the threat of being sold to a buyer somewhere in the Deep South looming – something no-one ever returns from – she decides to make a run for it, and with the assistance of a few sympathetic allies makes her way to the border with Pennsylvania, over a hundred miles away. The people she encounters there are, perhaps understandably, sceptical when they hear the tale of an illiterate woman making this journey without any supplies and very little guidance.

Nevertheless, she takes a new name to mark her freedom and initially settles down there, but finds she is unable to entirely put aside thoughts of friends and family who are still enslaved in Maryland. And so she embarks on a series of hazardous journeys back into the slave states, made all the more hazardous by the fact that her former owner’s son (Joe Alwyn) has refused to relinquish his legal hold on her and is still looking to reclaim his property…

The last high-profile film to deal with this sort of material and milieu was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave five or six years ago. I was quite lukewarm about that one, not least because its relentless, unmodulated bleakness and horror eventually became desensitising and alienating rather than genuinely affecting. You need a bit of light and shade, or you just end up grinding an axe – even if that does happen to be a worthwhile axe that deserves to be ground. One of the achievements of Harriet, in the first act at least, is that it doesn’t go pedal-to-the-metal on the grimness, while still managing to evoke the reality of life in slavery.  As a result the film does produce a genuine sense of anger and outrage, at least as great as in the McQueen film (your mileage may differ, of course). The film’s other strong point is its depiction of life in the slave states, which is slightly more nuanced and complex than you might expect from a studio movie: for instance, Tubman was born into slavery, but her first husband was a free man; while later in the film, one of the main antagonists is a black slave-catcher played by Omar Dorsey.

So far, so good, but the problem is that once Tubman completes her initial journey to freedom and re-invents herself as a staunch and fearless abolitionist, the film kind of loses the plot a bit. I mean this in a literal sense: the story becomes disjointed and rather repetitive as Tubman rattles up and down the Underground Railroad, eventually bringing dozens of others to freedom as well. You kind of start looking at your watch, waiting for the Civil War to start, but it really makes up only a small part of the film.

In the end it’s not so much a story as much as a selection of scenes from the life of someone effectively regarded as a secular saint of American history – and indeed, Tubman is explicitly likened to Joan of Arc at one point (albeit by one of her enemies). As a result, the tone of the thing is about as dry and reverential as you might expect – Harriet Tubman emerges as an icon rather than anything approaching an actual human being, and the rest of the characters are equally sketchily drawn. I expect this won’t trouble some viewers, for whom the mere existence of the film will be an unqualified positive, and things could possibly have been much worse (there was a possibly-apocryphal story floating around last week alleging that at one point in the early 90s a studio executive wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Tubman). The Progressive Agenda Committee should find little to gripe about here, and neither should viewers of a strongly religious disposition, either: the film takes the stories that Tubman was prone to receiving prophetic visions from God at face value (the closest it gets to scepticism on this topic is the suggestion these are the result of abuse by her master leaving her with possible brain damage).

Erivo’s performance is good, though, even if it eventually just boils down to her making inspirational speeches while the music swells around her, and for those of us not especially well-versed in American history the film has some points of interest. However, the life of a great and important person doesn’t automatically result in a great and important film – regardless of the subject matter, you don’t get a pass when it comes to things like structure and script. This starts well but by the final act it has turned into a clumsy historical melodrama. Not unwatchable, by any means, and not without some successful moments and sequences, but it’s often rather hard work.

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