Category Archives: Cinema

Film Review: Una

Una -with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendlesohn

The transfer of a hit play to film can be a tricky process and those that have attempted it enjoyed varying degrees of success. It can add further layers to a well-constructed plot or by contrast stifle the immediacy of emotional engagement that works better in the theatre – and this is one of the problems that frequently dog Shakespeare on screen. But when the topic under discussion is particularly troubling, then these difficulties can be magnified and Benedict Andrews’s new film Una suffers in exactly this way.

David Harrower’s play Blackbird deals with the volatile issue of child abuse and dramatizes a confrontation years later between a woman in her late 20s who tracks down the man she had a relationship with 15 years earlier when she was 13. Although this is clearly abusive, the film hinges on whether Ray was genuinely in love with Una, as he claims and she continues to believe, or whether he was serial predator of which she was one of many.

The original play, devised entirely as a two-hander between then accuser and the accused was written in 2005 and won several theatre awards, including recent ‘Best Revival’, ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’ Tony nominations for the acclaimed Broadway version starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in mid 2016. Much of its tension lies in the conflicting emotions the confrontation triggers as the characters fight it out in the break-room of Ray’s office, unable to leave until their shared past is resolved.

Andrews’s film takes a slightly different approach, playing down its theatrical roots and adding extra layers by personifying additional characters including Ray’s colleagues and wife, as well as looking at the context around the pair, with scenes set at Ray’s house during a party, with Una’s frantic mother and recreating some of the events of the past. This greater exposition is both its strength and weakness as a film because in ‘colouring-in’ the wider lives of the characters to add meaning and depth for the audience, it simultaneously drains the scenes between them of the raw power and degree of unease that they had on stage.

We first meet Una during a sordid nightclub encounter with a random man before she makes her way back home at dawn to her fragile, fussy mother. Clearly in her late 20s, she then dresses carefully, paying particular attention to her clothes and make-up – a telling statement of the confusion to come – and drives to Ray’s warehouse workplace where the two meet for the first time. And the past comes hurtling back with startling force as the two relive not just the long-term effects of the abuse but the mutual attraction that still exists between them.

The complex and difficult subject matter is handled with sensitivity by the cast, ensuring the many shades of grey in Harrower’s affecting text are given their due on screen. In a particularly intriguing performance, Ben Mendlesohn gives us a man who is ashamed of what he did but struggling to maintain the fiction that it was a single-incident based on a specific attraction to the young Una. He tells her over and over that he’s not ‘one of them’, i.e. not the men who do this regularly, but Mendlesohn offers just enough doubt in his voice to keep you wondering whether he believes it.

On the surface, Ray is a man who has shaken off his past, created a new identity, remarried, moved on, and supposedly not been tempted since, yet he is clearly alarmed by the ferocity with which his old feelings re-emerge when he sees Una again, forcing him to confront an idea of himself that’s he’s not comfortable with. And Mendlesohn’s performance is remarkably sympathetic given that it treads a dangerous line, openly acknowledging his actions 15 years before. He fully admits to doing the things he’s accused of but it’s interesting to see that this doesn’t make him a blanket monster, and both the script and Mendelsohn’s interpretations show us the complexity of feeling Una’s reappearance creates – from fear to attraction, confusion to self-disgust – as Ray tries to reassess himself.

More problematic in this version is the character of Una, played with some detachment by Rooney Mara and given the wider setting of the film is slightly in danger of altering the perspective on her character. When Una arrives at the office she clearly wants answers, she wants to know if Ray ever loved her and what the last 15 years have meant. In a really insightful interview with Michelle Williams who played the role on Broadway this year, she argues that Una wants revenge too; making Ray pay for abandoning her but in the course of their conversation the whole things becomes much bigger than she expected and she loses control of the situation. But, there’s no question that she is a fragile woman, damaged by the abuse and, unlike Ray, trapped forever – as Williams says ‘she never leaves that room’.

Initially we see this in Andrews’s film and the first hour or so when it’s largely Una and Ray in the break-room their relationship is compelling and unnerving. Generally Mara is an actor whose characters are hard for me to get to grips with; she has a remoteness in her performances that take away from the emotional impact of her roles – as happened with Carol previously. But here, for the most part, that coolness is put to good use as Una faces her abuser head on and continues to struggle with her emotional responses thereafter. That sense of trying to contain her feelings under a semi-icy exterior seems right and the power-shift between her and Ray is believable and engaging.

Less successful is the last section of the film set outside the office at the homes of Ray and another colleague during a party scene. Here Andrews allows Una’s revenge to take place, but in doing so marks a significant shift in her character that doesn’t serve her well. One critic wrote that Una here becomes a stereotypical crazy female who has lost her mind and is out for vengeance, which is unfortunately how this plays out on screen. Having understood the consequences of the relationship with Ray, outlined in the earlier conversation and told in flashback, Una seemed vulnerable and pitiable, but in pursing him to his house (deliberately not something that happens in the play, she chooses his workplace for the meeting) the sympathy shifts, wrongly, to Ray who is now being pursued in a way that seems almost sensationalist and undermines the mental and emotional impact on him of their earlier meeting. The wrong message to send an audience home with is that Ray can be excused because Una is a lunatic, but the final section of this film can be read in that way.

Another failure of widening out the exposition is the additional characters this version adds into the mix. In theory this could work well but none of them is given enough substance to make their presence necessary or even insightful, not to mention is a shocking waste of a very good supporting cast. Most unfortunate is Ray’s boss Mark played by Tobias Menzies who has next to nothing to do except stalk the corridors like a hungry velociraptor after Ray fumbles an important presentation. Menzies is fantastic at it, but you want to see more of him and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for him to have played Ray given the usual intensity he brings to his work. Equally wasted though are Natasha Little as Ray’s unknowing wife and Tara Fitzgerald as Una’s equally brittle mother neither of whom add much to the plot. It seems a shame for Andrews to have created these additional layers but not given them enough substance to really come alive.

The stage to film translation is not always an easy one, and the two necessarily require different approaches. Given its subject matter and the two-handed nature of the play Blackbird is a particularly difficult thing to bring to the screen without somehow lessening the impact of the original. Andrews navigates some of these issues quite cleverly including the subtle use of flashbacks to tell 13-year-old Una’s story, but some of the present-day expansions are not quite as successful. A film that’s worth seeing, but if a West End revival of the play were likely then maybe that’s the place to start.

Una was premiered at the 2016 London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 1 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Film Preview: Churchill – BFI Southbank

Churchill Film

It might be hard to believe that we don’t already know everything about Churchill, so often have we heard various interpretations of his story. But his apparent reluctance to commit troops to the D-Day landings in the days before they sailed is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new film that examines the price of leadership. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, Shakespeare told us, and that filters through a film that examines the war from the perspective of the people who ran it.

The First World War gave us the stereotype of the bloodthirsty General sending millions of men to die while living in comfort far behind the lines. In this image, war is something that happens to other people, the cannon fodder or collateral damage that vindicates (or not) the strategies of great men. And while that image persists in the public mind, it has been challenged somewhat among history scholars. This film in some ways adds to this debate as it examines the role of leaders in times of crisis and the difficult choices they are forced to make under the exigencies of war.

And surprisingly for a film set in 1944, this is really all about the long-lasting effects of the First World War on military strategy, politics and society. The plot is relatively straightforward, at the start of the film the US and British military forces led by General Eisenhower and General Montgomery agree that the moment is right to launch a retaliatory strike to drive the German army out of Northern France; Churchill alone decries the plan, worried about the loss of life and haunted by the disastrous campaign he led in the Dardanelles nearly 30 years earlier – frequently referenced in shots of the sea. As the moment draws near, Churchill does all he can to prevent the landings and when he can’t, sinks into a depression that leaves him questioning his role and purpose.

As historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann explained at the Q&A that followed the film, this is quite a different picture of Churchill than the one we imagine in World War Two, an image largely taken from his defiant speeches during the Blitz three years earlier. By 1944 however, he is shown to be more fearful and considerably more fragile, both physically and emotionally, as the strain of war and the need to balance social and military control take their toll. For some this will be a frustrating film to watch because of that, and the conflation of events presses months and even years of decision-making into a few days leading up to the landings.

This is a very quiet film in many respects focusing tightly on the emotional build-up to the last big push amongst a small group of senior figures, a theatrical staging with debate at its heart. And we never see any of the consequences – no shots of boats sailing into action, no soldiers on the beaches – this is not an action film but a tightly focused study of leadership. Is it accurate history, well there are plenty of reviews that will tell you it’s not, but it does have something to tell us about the psychology of leadership in times of crisis, a subject too rarely covered by history scholarship.

Many actors have played Churchill – Richard Burton, John Lithgow, Robert Hardy and Albert Finney among them – and there will be more to come including Gary Oldman’s interpretation in Atonement director Joe Wright’s forthcoming The Darkest Hour. At the BFI event accompanying this preview, Brian Cox likened his Churchill to King Lear, who at this point in his premiership is far from the strong leader he once was. Now, Churchill is a man who’s lost his way, actively standing in the way of war strategy in his attempts to delay the D-Day operation. And so the film sets up two distinct versions of leadership, that represented by Churchill – emotional, sulky and blinkered – and a more recognisable style exemplified by Eisenhower and Montgomery, men who knew what had to be done, arranged their facts and decided it was a risk worth taking for the greater good.

In scene after scene we see Churchill behave irascibly, taking his frustration out on the secretaries and isolating himself from the support around him including his wife, played with headmistressy charm by Miranda Richardson. And as events escalate we see him develop crazy ideas about leading the men into battle as a way to soothe his conscience. But while many scenes are told from this perspective, it’s far from a one note performance as Cox invests his interpretation of Churchill with a deep conscience and torment about the consequences of strategic decisions on the men who have to carry them out on the ground. It may not be the historical truth, but it gives Cox a chance to explore the madness of leadership that links to Lear and how the pressure of it can become infantilising when the once-influential leader is side-lined by more powerful voices.

The structure of the film also gives us a chance to see leadership in other ways, as Montgomery gets to give his version of an inspirational “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech to his men before they set sail, to which they respond enthusiastically. Julian Wadham’s approach here is less jingoistic and more sensitive, recognising their fear but using the experience of a war leader to call on the courage of his troops and their reliance on each other for support in the fight. Camaraderie is one of the motivators for men in combat, and in this brief scene the audience is shown the human side of a leader inspiring and calming his army all the while knowing what lies ahead for them. Montgomery is a realist about war, he sees what it will be, but has the ability to look them in the eye and ask them to be brave.

Equally interesting is the figure of Eisenhower, played by John Slattery whose wry style seems an unlikely choice. The parallels with Churchill are writ large throughout and Eisenhower is shot in several lonely poses as he bears the burden of responsibility; while Churchill walks the beaches, Eisenhower stares out to sea on the hill. For much of the film he seems a cold and distant figure, calculating the right time to strike and, despite Churchill’s pleas, refusing to countenance the impact on fighting men. But this version of Eisenhower is just another type of leader, a step beyond Montgomery who shuts down all emotion in order to make the most difficult decisions of the war. It’s not that he is unaffected by them, he just refuses to display those doubts in public, and in a well depicted moment as the decision to proceed with D-Day is given, Slattery allows dread to cross his face for an instant and has a tear in his eye for what’s to come, before he continues his lonely vigil on the hill as battle commences. By the end of the film, Eisenhower is no longer the heartless monster we saw 98 minutes earlier, but man alone making an impossible choice for the greater good.

In what is by far the best scene of the film, Churchill also has an interview with the King who has a word or two on a different kind of duty to impart to his Prime Minister. Here James Purefoy plays against his usual type as the gentle monarch with subtle touches of the speech impediment that continued to affect him. It’s a powerful scene driven by the idea of public duty in which the King convinces Churchill that he can best serve his people, not by being on the boats in battle, but as a figurehead, a focus for hope and inspiration, a role the King acknowledges is the only useful purpose that either of them can have during the conflict. It’s a surprisingly touching speech about the sacrifice of personal ambition and desire for a life of public service which Purefoy delivers superbly and, despite no more than 5 minutes of screen time, he anchors the film’s multi-perspective examination of the different kinds of responsibilities that come with leadership.

Churchill may not be an accurate representation of the hours before D-Day, it is a little repetitive at times, and without any battle scenes it does make all these discussions look quite divorced from the experience of war that divests them of their narrative drama, but in considering the difficult strategic choices being made at the heart of government, it does begin to unpick the stereotype of unfeeling Generals having a high time behind the lines. With more movies to come, the nature of Churchill himself and the characteristics that fashioned his leadership of the Second World War will continue to fascinate us as we strive to understand the man often cited as the greatest Briton.

Churchill is in cinemas nationwide from 16 June and visit the BFI website for more preview events. Follow this blog on Twitter @cuturalcap1


BFI & Radio Times Television Festival – BFI Southbank

Radio Times Festival - Tom Hiddleston

Television is still (rather unfairly) seen as the poor cousin of most other creative arts. If you say you go to the theatre all the time or spend every weekend in art galleries it’s seen as a respectable past-time, but admitting to watching a lot of TV – regardless of what you’re actually viewing – is still met with derision, especially from those who claim they don’t own a TV at all. Yet, the last few years has felt like a golden age for drama in particular, and despite radical changes in the way we view and consume programmes, appointment-to-view television still exists building communities of people all sharing the same experience at once.

The Radio Times has long celebrated the art of television and the skills of the actors, writers, producers, directors and technical teams that make the programmes listed in its pages. In its articles, features and interviews, The Radio Times champions the intellectual and cultural value of television, making a strong case each week for its acceptance as a recognised and dignified art form. Yes the schedules are awash with repeats and mindless content but for every reality show there’s a Broadchurch, for every soap or tired sporting event, there’s a Night Manager, Planet Earth or Inside Number 9. All art forms have their churned-out nonsense, but like theatre and art there’s also bold new writing and innovative approaches.

After a very talks-based inaugural Festival in 2015 in various marquees in a field near Hampton Court, it makes sense that The Radio Times’s second weekend outing should decamp to the more suitable surroundings of the BFI – itself no stranger to holding exceptional festivals. And as you would expect from a magazine that loves telly, the schedule was packed over three days with something for pretty much everyone – from Call the Midwife, Dr Who and Line of Duty to interviews with Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, from Strictly Come Dancing to Sherlock, Poldark, Victoria and becoming a Youtube star there was much to see and learn. But I restricted myself to four key events.

One of the headline sessions, announced long before the rest of the programme, was a 90-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who died last year, comprising a panel interview with some of the people that knew her well, clips from her many shows and songs, as well as an opportunity for the audience to share favourite lines and memories. Piers Wenger from BBC Drama sat on the panel alongside Maxine Peake and Julie Walters with a slightly too abrupt Paddy O’Connell as compere who cut people off and interrupted as though he were interviewing lying politicians instead of much loved actors discussing a missed national treasure.

Although slightly marred by the rather haphazard questioning, the warmth and affection for Wood, as well as her genuinely unique observational comedy shone through. Again and again the same words associated with her writing were repeated – “authentic”, “real”, “truthful” and “genuine” – as her friends and colleagues discussed her generosity in sharing great lines, as well as a style of writing that Peake and Walters described as musical, with each sentence honed and word carefully chosen to create the proper effect. Mixed with clips that bare endless re-watching, it was a celebratory as well as an emotional event as Peake wanted to give thanks for a role that launched her career while Walters poignantly remarked that she is constantly surprised at her loss, frequently wondering “where are you”. But it was an event, they all agreed, Wood would have been delighted to be part of having loved telly so much.

With programme-making now so diverse, the RT Festival also made time for one of the biggest success-stories of the past year broadcast entirely online – The Crown produced by Netflix. The astonishing series which covers the accession and early reign of Elizabeth II was discussed by Director Philip Martin, producer Suzanne Mackie and lead actor Claire Foy, in an excellent and insightful panel discussion overseen by ITN’s Tom Bradby who spent a brief period as royal correspondent.

While there was some talk about the mechanics of filming and the role of platforms like Netflix, much of the discussion actually took on a more philosophical consideration of our engagement with the monarchy, as Foy considered the way in which we project a picture of what they ought to be, that they then respond to as times change. The sense of responsibility to create something human and true to itself was clear, which, Martin explained would have been muddied by appropriateness of broadcast slots and their particular expectation had it been aired on terrestrial TV, while Foy spoke with real insight on the process and wider impact of playing such a well-known figure. And for audience members looking for series gossip, they did find out that the current cast will be replaced after Season 2 as the characters age, writer Peter Morgan has mapped out as far as Season 4, but intends six and we will meet Camilla Parker-Bowles in Season 3.

Returning on Sunday, the first session was an interview with Mark Gatiss discussing his career from The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock as well as his engagement with TV growing up.  Interviewed by the marvellous Alison Graham, TV Editor for Radio Times, Gatiss explained that meeting Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson was “love at first sight” and it was a shared discovery that in entirely different locations they’d all missed bonfire night to watch Carry On Screaming that drew them together. Graham was unaware that the League are to reform next year for an already commissioned show to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Royston Vase, and while nothing has yet been written, Gatiss hopes it will revisit old favourites as well as introduce new material, before shocking everyone with the idea that Pauline would now be almost 70.

Much of the Sherlock discussion hinged around the idea of a ‘backlash’ with criticism of more recent episodes, but Gatiss neatly battered this away, suggesting instead that the British like to have a lull so they can then describe things as being “back on form”. He also confirmed that Sherlock’s future is open but scheduling Series 3 was so difficult given the success it brought to everyone that there are no immediate plans to write another.

Finally, thoughts turned to TV influences, and like Victoria Wood in the previous day’s discussion, Gatiss admitted to having watched huge amounts of television as a child being particularly influenced by horror writers like MR James and EF Benson. It was clear from Gatiss’s stories that well-made TV can leave a life-long impression, which led nicely into a final session on arguably the finest drama the BBC has made this century – The Night Manager.

Not many actors would have the power to necessitate a change of venue at a TV Festival but the late announcement that Tom Hiddleston would join a panel on adapting John le Carre for the screen meant swapping the 100 seater NFT2 for the 450 seat Imax which promptly sold out – and such is the appeal of Hiddleston that even a BFI mouse scampered down the stairs mid-session to get a closer view.

Last year The Night Manager proved that TV could be every bit as lavish, beautifully crafted and artistic as film, while keeping the nation home every Sunday night for 6 weeks. Led by journalist Samira Ahmed, this fascinating panel emphasised how completely the visual style and the raft of complex and troubled characters came largely from le Carre’s pages, and although it was modernised and relocated, it was the original novel to which they turned again and again for inspiration and insight.

Hiddleston quoted from memory a passage that described the character of Jonathan Pine with all the personas and contradictions that formed the basis of his interpretation, and le Carre’s exact words were something he returned to several times in discussion, giving an insight into his process as an actor and his ability to recall it in such detail a couple of years later. And Hiddleston spoke with energy about the “malleability of character” which attracted him to the role, particularly the soldiery in Jonathan’s past that is broken open and tested by the events of the story.

As expected some secrets were revealed – particularly by Alistair Petrie who played Sandy –  including the numerous work-arounds that the technical crew accomplished to make things look considerably more expensive than they were by moving lightbulbs to mimic the sun and fashioning a private jet from cardboard, while le Carre himself who appeared as a disgruntled diner enjoyed improvising his annoyance so fervently that Hiddleston wasn’t sure he could placate him. Although a joke about Tom Hollander unexpectedly “manhandling” him during that scene got the biggest laugh and clearly made it into the final edit. And on the rumoured Series Two, Executive Producer Simon Cornwall wasn’t giving much away – it is being discussed but nothing has been decided and it will only happen if the proposed idea can live up to the extraordinary quality of the first he insisted.

Teaming-up with the BFI meant this second Radio Times event felt considerably more at home on the Southbank. What was clear from all the sessions is that the people who make TV really love it and have spent a lifetime watching it, are able to chart the influence of particular shows and genres on the type of performer or creator they became. This event celebrated the dedication, enthusiasm and pure craft that goes into making programmes, and made a strong case for recognising television as a proper art form. More than anything, the Radio Times is there to reassure you that if you watch 5 hours a day or one a week, there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.

The Radio Times Festival was at the BFI Southbank from 7-9 April. Look out for other TV-related events at BFI including episode previews and Q&As throughout the year.


Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

jackie-film

The biopic remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres. Fitted with expected ideas of heroism and triumph over adversity, the chance to play one of history’s most important figures is often irresistible for an actor and whether dressed-up in period costume or shedding light on more recent times the biopic reinforces the centrality of individuals in shaping particular events. In the last few years, however, several directors have sought a fresh approach, moving away from the traditional biopic model of birth > hardship > greatness > death > immortality, to something considerably more complex and time-limited, exploring the fallibility of their subject and the cost of their determination.

In Jackie Pablo Larrain joins this new wave of biopic directors with his multi-Oscar nominated tale of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy which examines the week following the assassination of her husband. Cutting back and forth between various days, we’re shown the fractured and uncertain period that led to President Kennedy’s funeral, watching as Jackie sees her husband murdered next to her – an act that in a second took her from most important woman in America to powerless private citizen – making plans to leave the White House with her children and taking control of the Kennedy legacy with an elaborate funeral procession and an interview with a leading journalist, though none of this takes place in order.

Watching Jackie as a concept, there are striking similarities with Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs which, although not a major hit at the box office, was highly critically acclaimed and will come to be regarded as something of a modern masterpiece so adept was its shake-up of the genre. Biopics have long been about the lead actor having an opportunity to bid for award glory, and while the setting can be period-perfect, there’s not always that much meat on the secondary characters or exciting directorial elements to distract from the leading role.

But Steve Jobs was very different, not just in limiting its focus to three product launches but utilising a more theatrical approach to character and inserting the lead into a series of semi-recurring duologues with the fully-fleshed out people he had been close to. Character flaws were writ large, not swept under the carpet, as he bombarded and bulldozed his way through people’s objections and needs, and at no point do you think the character of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) presented in this film was any kind of hero as a traditional biopic would try to paint him. But what you do understand is that unpleasant though that was these particular traits were a fundamental precursor to his business success that came with a personal cost. You could hate him, most of the people he interacts with in the film don’t like him very much, but they admired him nonetheless.

Larrain has achieved a similar dynamic with Jackie as Natalie Portman’s character strives to create and defend a mythology in the hours and days after the assassination. It’s a film that also has much in common with Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland which used a number of similar techniques to cover exactly the same period but followed the doctors, Secret Service agents and ordinary people of Dallas, including the man that captured the famous footage of the shooting, in the week after the assassination. A companion piece to Parkland then, we first see Jackie as the nervous but sweet Mrs Kennedy hosting a documentary tour around the White House on television, introducing the American people to the furnishings and historic artefacts she has taken some trouble, and great expense, to restore. Beneath the sugary resolve there is steel however and Portman excels at portraying a woman shocked and overcome by grief but still able to take the necessary steps to preserve their three year image as fairy-tale leaders. This is not the sweet fashion horse we’ve come to know but someone who is aware she has a tiny window of opportunity to create the Camelot myth and preserve her husband’s legacy amidst the White House treasures, before she and her family are unceremoniously turfed out.

As with the presentation of Steve Jobs, Jackie herself is highly imperfect and while there are tender moments as she breaks the news to her children, washes blood from her hair, is comforted by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) or discusses her two lost children with her priest (a brilliant John Hurt in one of his final performances), she is also capable of incredible calculation at the most surprising moments. In one key scene, arriving back in Washington, her attendees offer to help her change but Jackie insists on stepping off the plane to meet the journalists and crowds, as well as walking back into the White House still wearing the splattered Chanel suit from Dallas, with her husband’s blood thickly smeared across the skirt from holding his dying head in her lap.

In her scenes with The Journalist, an excellent Billy Crudup, a week later she is the epitome of rehearsed calm and poise, but still slightly deadened from the shock. Yet she’s still playing-the-game, giving him morsels of juicy gossip and then refusing to let him use them; she wants him to know she knows the truth about her husband’s adultery and dodgy friends, but she chose to be somebody important and his philandering was just the cost of that. Portman and Larrain have cleverly detached Jackie from the years and layers of JFK’s own personality, death and conspiracy theories, to give her life and purpose of her own, not just the politician’s wife, but a woman who eventually breaks down in private, drinking, smoking (which The Journalist is not allowed to report) and saying goodbye to all the dresses and occasions she’d known as First Lady. Like Steve Jobs, Jackie was creating something that would exist beyond herself and the way character is revealed to the audience in both these movies is an important new direction for the biopic genre.

Central performances aside, what also separates these films from the pack is the way in which Boyle and Larrain avoid twee period-drama to give their characters a dynamic and richly detailed thematic setting. One of the joys of Steve Jobs as a film was the integration of visual elements of theatre and design that give insight into Jobs’s aesthetic concerns with beauty and simplicity, alongside the technological images that made aspects of the film seems as though they were taking place inside a computer. For example, backstage at the Opera House in the second launch, Jobs talks to his daughter on a gantry above a sea of cables and coloured lights, while at other times Boyle shows light reflecting from acoustic diffusors and through screens which feel like an operating system. Every image, every single detail has been carefully crafted to shape our perceptions of character, to see a fusion of art, culture and technology that was important to Jobs and his success. This attempt to couch the themes of the film in something other than the central character’s dialogue, allowing us to see the hand of the director, is an important shift in biopic production.

Larrain achieves the same effect in Jackie creating a visual world around her that aptly reflects and reinforces the semi-fictional image of her marriage she wants to present. In the vast maze-like grandeur of the White House, historic and beautifully appointed, Jackie must be worthy of it and make herself part of its history. But it’s a rather austere home, almost clinically clean and preserved, yet it reflects who Jackie becomes by the end, beautiful and perfect on the surface but home to a collection of painful experiences, of deaths and constant endings. Here, as with the borrowed home she meets The Journalist in, everything is remote, not quite relaxed. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” Jackie explains at one point, and you see that in the house too, no one ever stays for long, there’s always someone else to come, and Larrain gives that same sense of transitory ownership, of the White House dwarfing Jackie as she wanders around its corridors alone. For the new biopic then, setting is carefully created as character study, not just a factually accurate creation, but intrinsically part of what the film has to say and how it reflects the personalities and themes under discussion.

The new biopic is then all about scrutiny, not allowing its complicatedly human subjects to escape the critical glare of the viewer. Heroism isn’t the point anymore and while we may still appreciate an individual’s value and importance at the end of the movie, it is balanced by ideas of their frailty, darkness and blindness as well. These dynamically-directed, time-limited complex character-studies are far more than blanket tributes to the achievements of the famous, instead their newly fractured form, tells us that people are difficult, that they achieve great things but they lie or behave badly to cement their place in history. Steve Jobs and Jackie are important markers of a new wave of biopic production that not only examines the power of the individual life, but in the combination of various artistic and story-telling techniques, become a skilled and insightful piece of film-making as well.

Jackie is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1      


Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

Grief is a difficult subject to tackle in films, and it can often become histrionic or mawkish. Yet it’s something that everyone experiences at some point, usually multiple times, and the ways in which people respond to the loss of a loved one is incredibly varied. Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival considers the impact of a sudden death and how difficult it is for individuals to hide from their past.

Lee Chandler works as a handyman / caretaker in a residential block in the city. He fixes showers and replaces light bulbs, makes small talk with residents but lives a life of bleak isolation, an existence he seems to accept uncomplainingly. Out of the blue Lee’s brother, Joe, dies and Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester – a cheerlessly bleak seaside town – to take care of Joe’s teenage son Patrick and settle his brother’s affairs. While here, he encounters his ex-wife Randi and the reason why Lee left Manchester begin to emerge.

Lonergan’s story is an unusually compassionate one, and offers a variety of more restrained perspectives on grief than often portrayed on screen. Rather than expansive emotional breakdown, we see a group of family and friends in small town America struggling to come to terms with a tragedy but having to maintain a front for each other, supressing their emotions in order to transact the various funereal and administrative procedures that necessarily accompany death. And while that may all sound rather bland, Lonergan adds depth with the slowly unfolding story of Lee’s life and an even earlier tragedy that set him on his current path.

Lonergan approaches the story in three distinct sections; we see Lee’s life in Boston at the beginning, the man he has become and the colourless existence he accepts; we also see his return to Manchester in the present day and the reluctant but growing not-quite-but-almost fatherly relationship Lee develops with Patrick after Joe appoints him guardian; and finally all of this is interspersed with memories of Lee’s earlier life in Manchester as a happy married man with two children. Much of the tension and emotional resonance comes from knowing that somehow, somewhere Lee’s life changed irrevocably, losing everything he had, becoming a shadow of the man he was both emotionally and in terms of his social interaction.

Much of the success of the film lays in Casey Affleck’s taut and matter-of-fact performance that effectively shows Lee as a man who has withdrawn from life, defeated by bad luck and bad judgement. But actually this is a film about relationships and it starts by reflecting on the happy, supportive interaction between two siblings as we see Lee and Joe fishing with Patrick on the surrounding sea, drinking together in a group of friends at Lee’s house and eventually Joe helping Lee when he moves to the city. This warm brotherly affection is a brutal contrast with Lee’s withdrawn and isolated state at the start of the film.

Golden Globe winner Affleck is particularly effective at displaying the contained grief that follows, no histrionics or lengthy shots of him gazing longingly into the middle distance, but instead we see a man just quietly and conscientiously accepting the latest in a long-line of blows life has aimed at him. There are practical matters to attend to – arranging the funeral, buying food for his nephew, meeting with lawyers – which Lee just gets on with. There’s no time for breakdowns or recriminations, and while he is certain he is in no state to support his nephew long term (despite his brother’s will), he just gets on with the domestic tasks ahead of him. Affleck’s performance is already attracting attention and is sure to appear on the Oscar list later in the year.

Likewise Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi seen briefly in the modern and flashback sections of the film. She’s not on screen for very long but her short appearances are significant and powerfully portrayed. Williams has long been a favourite with awards panels, and here she, like Affleck, has a dual role to play as the once largely contented mother, frustrated by her husband’s thoughtlessness when he has boozy nights with his friends, but in a stable happy home.  Again in the modern sections we see the results of a tragedy that separated, as Williams brings an affection for her former husband marred by a slightly embarrassment at the obvious presence of her new life. It’s a pivotal role, demonstrating how people who were once so close have become permanently divided, and set on different paths, without any lasting ill-feeling between them.

Lee’s relationship with his nephew is also central to the film, and from the flashbacks we see that they’ve long had a close connection. After a lengthy absence, returning home at the start, the now teenage Patrick is a little more awkward than the sweet child Lee used to fish with, and although they make some progress in re-establishing a closer bond it’s a continual trial for both of them which forms much of the drama in the central section of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s initially quite hard to grasp that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t as affected by the death of his father as you would expect and wants to spend time with his girlfriend, see his friends and avoid awkward conversations – fairly typical teenage behaviour – but Patrick’s detachment is more surprising and less explicable than Lee’s seeing as the boy had a seemingly good relationship with his dad, who cared for him when his mum walked out. Additional nuance is added by a burgeoning relationship with his now reformed alcoholic mother who tries to reach out and integrate her son into her new family which leads to some incredibly awkward dinners that feel real and familiar.

As well as the controlled performances from the leads, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is suitably bleak, capturing beautiful but almost colourless images of the cold Manchester seascape, which reflect the emotional desolation of the film. Lonergan takes his time with the plot, allowing events to unfold slowly and building a sense of the community. Despite its critical praise and award-hopes, it will be a divisive movie for some, largely because grief is so often portrayed hysterically that it may be difficult for audiences to warm to Lee’s restraint and root for him when he deliberately shuts out the world, and our sympathies.  And while we uncover Lee’s secret this is not a film that sets any of its characters on new paths, leaving them almost entirely where we met them – again something viewers will either love or find impossibly slow. Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the weeks ahead and with Oscar and Bafta nominations round the corner, Lonergan’s subtle story is sure to feature.

Manchester by the Sea was premiered at the London Film Festival in October and opens in UK cinemas on 13th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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