Out The Week
Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox, cert 12)
A remake of the 1967 film, rather than another version of the novel. Well that’s what it looks like, and considering how closely so many of the scenes mirror – in length, composition, camera angles even – scenes from John Schlesinger’s original film, the temptation has to be to compare like with like. It’s a fairly fruitless endeavour – is Carey Mulligan more beautiful than Julie Christie? Is Tom Sturridge more dashing than Terence Stamp in his prime? Can Michael Sheen outshine the first film’s finest performance, Peter Finch as landowning nob Mr Boldwood? The answer is no on every count. However, however. The Hardy story remains a robust one, a series of powerplays of men over women, high status over low, decent over rotten, convention over rebellion and duty over licence, with Bathsheba Everdene (a Katniss in petticoats – close to the same surname, of course) able to cross boundary after boundary thanks to her beauty (she thinks it’s iron in the soul, or fate, or being a natural leader – the conceit of the ruling class, nailed by Hardy). As the three men in her life, Matthias Schoenaerts is a fine Gabriel Oak, believable as both a man of the soil and as someone a fine lady might fancy; Sturridge is charmless as the rotter Sergeant Troy; and Michael Sheen struggles as Mr Boldwood, the landowning neighbour suddenly gifted this young, fine beauty – and she’s rich! It all hangs on Carey Mulligan, who shakes off the shadow of Julie Christie and welds the entire thing together, aided by David Nicholls’s tinkering adaptation, which positions Bathsheba as a romantic traveller across the Freudian superego/ego/id boundaries, and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography, deliberately less elemental than Nicolas Roeg’s in 67, though no less beautiful. In short, the whole thing works.
Fast & Furious 7 (Universal, cert 12)
Another film that invites comparison with others. This time it’s new director James Wan with the director of Fast and Furious numbers three to six, Justin Lin. Lin somehow, by an effort of sheer will, it seemed, turned himself into one of the best action directors on the planet, and also showed himself a dab hand at holding together a large cast (just about, often). Wan is a horror director, and a new boy, and doesn’t get control of the F&F beast. Let’s take Jason Statham. No, hang on, the plot: the F&F team are pulled back together after it turns out someone is going round picking them off. That one. So, back to Statham – who feels bolted on and simply appears once per act like a baddie from a horror movie – only the chainsaw, big blade and mask missing – to monster the cast. It’s a nice big showcase for the Stath, but not so good for the film. Dwayne Johnson is pretty much written out completely, and shows up only at the beginning and end. Possibly this is less a slight against Johnson, more an attempt to re-integrate Paul Walker into the story. Walker died while this film was in production, though the story of the F&F franchise has been a painful one of watching his character have less and less reason to be in it – once he stopped being the antagonist cop and became part of the team (end of F&F1) what was he there for? Vin Diesel was always top dog, and once he returned (F&F4), Walker was entirely superfluous. And once Johnson turned up… game over. This meta mess to one side, the mystery of why Jordana Brewster is even in the films, since she’s not got into a car for three films now continues to be almost intriguing. Then there’s Michelle Rodriguez’s “I have amnesia” storyline, which is less than fascinating. And the fact that the use of Tyrese/Ludacris as comedy stooges is beginning to look like racism, in a franchise that more than any other has been colour blind (and the more successful for it, Hollywood being generations behind its audience). And so on. But never mind all those concerns, or the lack of Sang Kang or Gal Gadot or Gina Carano, who really contributed flavour and chutzpah in earlier outings. What about the stunts? Well, they are awesome in conception, but enjoyable though they are, they never entirely escape the CG stockade of various “tool” effects – airbrush here, shadow there and so on (clearly, I’m no expert, but I have eyes). Cars freefalling out of a plane is what I mean. The daredevil jump out of one high rise block and then across a huge void into another. And then the same thing again into the next. I’d watch it again for those bits. They would account for why this film’s imdb page has a list of credits that scrolls on and on and on. Yes, this is a bit of a bitty review, but then it’s a bitty film. F&F6 was better. You could skip this one entirely and just watch the trailer – it’s all there.
Eyes without a Face (BFI, cert 15)
1960 was a big year for horror – Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and this French classic by Georges Franju, about a surgeon cutting the face off various young women, hoping one of them will not be rejected by the blasted raw skull on which his daughter’s face used to sit. Not too bothered about the clanks of establishing scenes early on, Franju puts all his effort into driving the story forward, and in short order we are introduced to the professor (Pierre Brasseur) and his skillset, his assistant (a creepy Alida Valli), and the strange big house where the prof seems to do a bit of specialised private work. Swift though Franju is, he’s withholding the entire time. And once we do understand what’s going on in the big house, he delays with a provocative tease before introducing the benighted daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). And once we’ve met Christiane, he plays with us some more, denying us a view of her flayed face – when Christiane flips towards the camera, the camera flops the other way. Franju’s brazen theatrics are on a par here with Clouzot, another master of theatrical suspense. Meanwhile, in the bowels of the mysterious Professor Génessier’s building a cavernous cellar is filled with dogs howling in cages, a faint echo of the wolves in a vampire movie. The whole thing drips with foreboding, and I’m going to say no more about it, except that Franju’s skill is to lead one way and then the other. So just when you think this is a masterpiece of symbolism and classical allusion – that mask that Christiane wears – Franju ducks left. Just when you think he’s aiming for horror at a psychological level, he ducks left again, into something more visceral. As for the restoration of this intense exercise, it’s a beautiful job, lush blacks, bright whites and all the greys in between. They’re necessary.
The Falling (Metrodome, cert 15)
Writer/director Carol Morley last film, Dreams of a Life, was a fabulous documentary work of social excavation, the everyday story of a city (London in this case) and how it robbed an attractive, gregarious girl of her social network and then her life. The Falling is similarly ambitious, a drama this time, taking the most derided of cultural forms – the picture story for teenage girls – and restyling it as a kitchen sink drama, with a few nutty twists of magic realism, for those allergic to grit. It’s set in the sort of girls school Morley herself might have attended in the early 1970s, and follows a group of girls as they are affected by a strange falling sickness, an outbreak of hysteria that is soon sweeping the school. Where Morley goes with this is interesting, because I’d expected her to be on the side of the girls. She is… but not entirely. At one point senior teacher Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) refers to hysteria as “the wandering womb”, echoing the diagnosis of tutting Victorian male doctors. Not for nothing, they would have pointed out, do the words “hysteria” and “uterus” have the same origin. It’s an unlikely, unfashionable position, which makes the film all the more welcome, though Miss Mantel’s “silly girls” diagnosis seems deliberately provocative, rather than a consequence of the drama. I wondered if Morley had seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s remarkable girls school film Innocence and fancied a bit of something similar. As for the acting, well it’s astonishingly good – Florence Pugh as the sex minx covered in love bites is a find, but Greta Scacchi as Miss Mantel, a world of disappointment and closeted sexuality reflected in her face, is leagues ahead. And Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams does the most extraordinary things too – when she is required to tell her mother that something terrible has happened to her best friend, for example, she giggles, as the nervous often do. The mother is played by Maxine Peake, and it’s a rare film that has her in it and she isn’t the best thing on show. But here is that film. But much as I enjoyed it, I wondered if a less-is-more approach mightn’t have yielded more real drama – the shading into melodrama towards the end as the otherwise sidelined Peake came into the spotlight felt like Morley had set off on the making of her next film. Which probably will be a belter.
Still (Verve, cert 15)
As with The Good Man and Mister John, another small film made better by a big Aidan Gillen performance. Here he’s a grieving London dad who can’t get over the death of his son in a car accident a year before. Wobbling towards a crisis, he befriends a local kid whose brother has just been murdered – grief being the link. It looks like that’s what the film is going to be about – Gillen and the kid, plus a bit of Gillen and his estranged wife, whose relationship seems to have fallen apart as a consequence of their child’s death. But then the local feral youth – straight out of a 1950s “dangerous teenagers” movie arrive. And while they do spice things up, the question does start to form in the air – as they push shit through Gillen’s letterbox, deliver a mutilated cat, before getting really ugly – what, dramatically, does this gang have to do with Gillen? And while it’s forming, Gillen and his journalist mate (old school – the sort who prowls the streets and isn’t paid by the square metre, the way modern journalists are) are variously getting drunk and doing drugs and having a brain-frying nice time. You’ll probably have worked out the shocking reveal before the film gets round to telling you it, but you probably won’t have worked out how it’s going to make Gillen react. It’s big, man, big. Though the film never quite shakes off the 1970s British TV drama aura. Gillen probably needs to go and do a Pirates of the Caribbean. He’d make a great pirate.
Futuro Beach (Peccadillo, cert 15)
A tale of a couple of gay guys who meet under tragic circumstance – one’s Brazilian, the other’s German. First they meet on Futuro Beach in Brazil. They form an intimate relationship after visitor Konrad’s friend gets into trouble in the sea, and local lifeguard Donato tries to save him. In the second act the action shifts to Berlin, where Donato has travelled to be with Konrad. Then shifts focus again for the third, when Ayrton, Donato’s younger brother, arrives some years later to find out what’s happened to Donato. Not much, is the answer. Donato is alive, but he’s a fish out of water in this foreign country, and the loss of all his affiliations of family and friendship has diminished him. As for Konrad, we’re not sure what he’s about, since the film isn’t about him. What a mournful film this is, like the opposite of a can-do 1960s drama full of youthful optimism, liberation and adaptability. Writer/director Karim Aïnouz does most of it in lock-shot, the camera as static as its chief character, who does move, but at tectonic speed. Composing on the thirds, like a stills photographer, Aïnouz has an eye for beauty. And if his story is never quite gripping, it’s not dull either. Like the scene towards the end, where Doni and Konrad dance together in a club, and while it’s clearly a Hi-NRG beat they’re dancing to, Aïnouz has replaced the live sound with sad, slow music on the soundtrack. Things can die fast, in a riptide, or they can die slowly… in a faraway foreign city, of neglect. Save this one for a day when you’re feeling perky.
Cinderella (Disney, cert U)
It’s traditional, it’s lavish, it’s rubbish – this is by far the worst Cinderella I’ve ever seen, its strict adherence to the original story planting the seed of suspicion within my dark heart that what Disney are really up to is a copyright grab. So Cinders does go to the ball, gets a glass slipper, mice become footmen and pumpkins turn into coaches, there’s a wicked stepmother and a fairy godmother, a handsome prince and so on. But like an enchanting story that’s been turned bad by impure impulses, this Cinderella stinks from head to tail. Kenneth Branagh, for it is he directing, manages (with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos) a couple of moments of Girl with a Pearl Earring Vermeer-style image-making, but for the most part this is a string of missed dramatic opportunities – the entrance to the ball (muffed), the dance with the prince (badly choreographed), the prince himself (charmless, and named Kit to indicate his flatpack character), the “whomsoever this shall fit” resolution (again, bodged), Cinderella herself (thin-lipped), the wicked stepmother (a backstory explaining her badness – madness!), the ugly stepsisters (wasted, unfunny), the prince’s refusal to marry for realpolitik (come on). And on it goes. Yuk yuk yuk. When it’s not boring, it’s sickening, when it’s not sickening it’s mendacious. Only the CG work on Lily James’s waist is impressive. And I know that makes me sound like a bitch, so I’d better stop. No, hang on, Stellan Skarsgård emerges unscathed, as the essentially decent grand duke, though he’s only got a handful of lines. And Helena Bonham Carter manages to be a dotty, charming Fairy Godmother. No, I will stop.
© Steve Morrissey 2015