Category Archives: Cinema

Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


The King – London Film Festival

Timothee Chalamet in The King, Netflix

It’s Shakespeare but not as we know it; in recent years film adaptions of the Bard’s best-known plays have parted from a more-traditional focus on language to explore the psychological experience of the principle character, as well as giving exciting new life to the battles that define the action. Particularly notable, in 2015 Justin Kurzel redefined the Shakespeare adaptation with a powerful and purposeful two-hour Macbeth with some of the most visually beautiful battle scenes seen on film, and brought a dark, massing intensity to the unfolding narrative that is as close to live performance as you can get with a camera. Now, another Australian and his American co-writer have taken an entirely modern approach to Henry V that doesn’t use a single word of Shakespeare’s text.

Sacrilegious is may be, even “blasphemous” as director David Michôd apologetically described it at the opening of The King at the London Film Festival, but it works. The Henriad Trilogy has been tackled many times on screen with looming version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, plus a respectable BBC version of all three plays with Tom Hiddleston as part of The Hollow Crown series. And on stage the list gets even longer with celebrated performances from Jamie Parker at the The Globe, Alex Hassell for the RSC and a well reviewed Michael Grandage production with Jude Law, all in recent years – the one thing we’re never short of is Henrys.

But these were all distinctly British in their outlook – regardless of the media, this has always been a British story told by British actors within the British theatre, film and television industry. Fascinating then to see a version of this most English (and Welsh) of medieval heroes translated and reflected back to us by our Antipodean and Atlantic cousins. The result is an entirely new screenplay by Michôd and Joel Edgerton that respectfully uses the architecture of Shakespeare’s play but refocuses the overarching narrative to consider the delicate political balance of a new ruler and the weight of shoring-up a new crown in a precarious international environment of betrayal, manipulation and intrigue.

There is both a sense of freedom in Michôd and Edgerton’s film that allows the characters to breath away from the wonderful but nonetheless precise confinement of Shakespeare’s language, and a rare opportunity to delve deeper into the play as well as adding a new spin to some of the characters and scenarios that allow the actors to build their roles more conclusively without the shadow of all those stage Falstaffs, Dauphins and Henrys. There is an energy in the film that suggests a sense of thoughts unfolding naturally and spontaneously before us, and of cause and effect in a movie where all actions and decisions have visible consequences for everyone else.

The departures from and elaborations on Shakespeare’s story are some of The King’s most engaging and memorable aspects; the treachery subplot given only one angry revelation scene in Henry V is expanded, drawing attention to the close council of men around the new king to explore the depth of the betrayal. And, interestingly, this is depicted as part of a longer campaign by the French Dauphin to goad the fledgling English monarch into a costly war that he cannot win.

In this way, Michôd and Edgerton also suggest a far stronger sense of the political machinations at work in the new court as the older counsellors – who served his father – seek to shape the reign of Henry V with their own anti-French, pro-war agenda. These are additions that later set the monarch on a post-war collision course with those who shaped his mind and is a welcome and well-considered opening-out of Shakespeare’s story that shifts the central narrative on its axis to offer a new and intriguing perspective.

Similar adjustments also provide an alternative view of Henry’s approach to monarchy and diplomatic relations that add depth to the characterisation; the famous tennis balls scene which stokes Henry’s ire and shows his underlying belligerence is here reframed so he dismisses the gesture, refusing to summon-up the uncontained response the Dauphin requires, and nor is this Henry convinced by the complex Salic Law discussion that should place him on the French throne, amusingly calling-out its confusion and actively rejecting his own claim.

Alongside a more purposeful concept of the Dauphin’s attempts to provoke Henry into a war he never wanted-  rather than the dynastic quest to feed his own ambition which Shakespeare implies – there is an idea of events being outside Henry’s control, almost of a pacifist forced into fighting against his better judgement. We see this particularly in the early civil war scene as the then Prince Hal stops his younger brother’s army taking on Hotspur’s rebellion by challenging Percy to single combat in lieu of a fuller fight. War to this character is a last resort and not a light undertaking. Watching Henry navigate his reluctant kingship is one of the film’s most enjoyable and inventive aspects.

The other major alteration which may ruffle Shakespearean purists is the inclusion of Sir John Falstaff in England’s warring party, in fact the portly and drunken companion of the Henriad Trilogy and beyond is entirely revised to instead become a war hero and chief strategist during the invasion of France, encouraging the king to practice restraint where other counsellors want rash action. With Edgerton playing the role himself, naturally Falstaff becomes far more heroic than previously seen, dispensing sage and fatherly advice. During these sections of the film the creators momentarily forget that it was Henry’s perspective the audience was following and put Falstaff centre stage instead, but it is an interpretation that works pretty well in the context of the story they are telling, and pleasingly makes us look afresh at this vital relationship between the two men.

As Prince Hal / Henry V Timothée Chalamet pitches his performance pretty well, right down to the really very good English accent. He may not be an obvious choice for the warrior king among the more strapping Henrys of the stage but his slight frame and very youthful look fit extremely well into an adaptation that emphasises inexperience and naivety. And Chalamet offers plenty of both, along with a disdain for his father and the duplicity of the courts that provides valuable context for Henry’s different approach to kingship that becomes a key motivational driver throughout.

He is less convincing as the drunken wastrel Prince Hal in the early part of the movie – although the paternal resentment and familial strife are credible enough – but as Henry grows in stature as a king so too does Chalamet’s performance, eliciting the maturing of his mind as Henry finds the statesmanship and inner mettle needed to inspire his soldiers while keeping his advisers in check. The most wonderful aspect of Henry V are those in which the man weighs-up the conflicted concepts of individual and state, and here Chalamet garners all that psychological complexity in an affecting performance that stands-up well against all those who have come before.

Joel Edgerton adopts a variable northern accent as Falstaff but grounds the character with a more restrained interpretation than often seen. Good and loyal friend to Prince Hal, Falstaff’s considerable war experience and tactical expertise prove decisive, and Edgerton clearly enjoys the the strategic scenes in which his character bests the well-born men around the king. But Falstaff is also Henry’s constant reminder of reality, that war is costly and unpleasant for those who have to fight it and not an enterprise to be treated lightly – one of the film’s major themes. There may be some who dislike this approach to Falstaff, but if Shakespeare can create fictional characters from real people, then his own fictitious creations can also find new life and rescued reputation in a different kind of story.

Robert Pattinson stands out in a skilled supporting cast, providing the film’s relatively few laughs as the ego maniacal Dauphin whose arrogance precipitates his own downfall but not before some entertaining exchanges with Chalamet. Sean Harris is also notable as chief adviser William who quickly becomes a pragmatic guide for the young king whose subtle actions belie the mighty power that William ultimately wields – a presence that becomes increasingly important as events take their course.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michôd make us wait as Shakespeare does for Agincourt and The King is primarily a film about preparation, but it well conjures the messy reality of medieval fighting, of masses of grey armored knights with visors obscuring their faces becoming increasingly embroiled in the mud as they fight in unpleasant conditions. There is a small nod here to the rain-soaked battlegrounds of the First World War, a hint about the universal awfulness of combat for those left to fight wars not of their making. This isn’t quite the version of Henry V that we know but Michôd and Edgerton’s film is a fresh and psychologically compelling retelling. Theatre purists might not approve but The King has a life of its own, one that honours Shakespeare’s text while creating something entirely new.

The King is released on Netflix on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


Film Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner - Hugh Jackman

It seems an age ago that politics was anything other than entirely bizarre. In the last couple of years, the quagmire of Brexit and the personality politics of Trump-era America has made us yearn for a time when governments were elected to tackle multiple issues, balancing domestic requirements in health, education and welfare with a multifaceted role on the world stage. And, as our leaders snipe across the Chamber with miscalculated grabs for power that serve a personal rather than the general interest, it may also make us nostalgic for a time when our now Teflon-like MPs seemed more accountable, when a personal scandal was all it took to end a career.

The sex scandal was the bread and butter of tabloid newspapers in the 1980s and 90s, and every weekend the now defunct The News of the World would splash an exposé about a footballer, celebrity or politician caught with their trousers down across the front page, a supposed defence of morality that usually resulted in resignation and shame, particularly for Parliamentarians. The names of politicians and the scandals associated with them live-on far beyond their political influence, including allegations that Jeffrey Archer used prostitutes and then perjured himself in court , David Mellor’s toe-sucking liaison and even the affair between John Major and Edwina Currie, while in the US the editorial gift of the Bill Clinton years resulted in an attempted impeachment that 20-years on the office has still not entirely shaken off.

It really all began of course with Profumo, the 1961 affair that permanently altered the relationship between the press and Parliament, one that drew a direct line between an individual’s personal life and their ability to serve in an office of state, where private lapses in judgement and moral fibre were seen to be endemic of their whole approach. It took much longer for American journalists to make the same link, and while the Watergate corruption was politically and legally damaging, it wasn’t until the 1980s when revelations of adultery sunk Senator Gary Hart’s bid for the Presidency in just three weeks, which a new film argues permanently changed the electoral relationship with the press.

But how do we decide what is genuinely in the public interest and do we really have a right to know what goes on behind closed doors? Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October and arrives in UK cinemas this week, has a huge moral complexity at its heart, asking questions about the level of privacy any celebrity or public official should expect, and whether the media has become over-mighty or too officious in its self-appointed role as guardians of morality? Is democracy aided by knowing the sexual history of an MP or have journalists become too influential in shaping the careers of those we elect?

This relatively even-handed debate rages through The Front Runner, slowly revealing both the unyielding figure beneath Gary Hart’s charming exterior and the unreasonable pursuit of a story by those desperate to earn a scoop and sell newspapers. For both sides, politics becomes a cut-throat business and, compressed into just three weeks in 1987, Reitman along with co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson create an engaging tension that reflects the growing pressure on Hart and his team, as well as an almost thriller-like pace to drive the story. At the conclusion, no group emerges with their reputation intact, but by taking a multi-angled approach Reitman’s movie argues that this was a turning point in US media history, one which would have significant consequences for Bill Clinton only a few years later.

The biopic has undergone a significant transformation in the last few years, moving away from the cradle to grave approach which uses a narrative framework to show how an individual was propelled to greatness, and instead the biopic has become more focused, usually recounting in detail a single event or series of key moments in which the protagonist’s life was determined, and through which their inner world explained. Danny Boyle’s modern classic Steve Jobs was among the first to take this more psychological approach, soon followed by Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and more recently even Second World War movies The Darkest Hour and Churchill respectively honed-in on his rise to power in 1940 and his feelings of marginalisation by D-Day in 1944.

The Front Runner continues this tradition in showing only those few weeks that cost Gary Hart the Presidency – despite a now debated expectation that he would succeed Ronald Regan – and how his own personality, beliefs and values explain his demise when an indiscreet phone call to an alleged mistress is overhead by a journalist pushing Hart’s private life into the spotlight. Hart’s stubborn refusal to accept the relevance of this to his campaign creates a war with a group of journalists at the Miami Herald who are determined to prove their allegations, certain that Hart’s personal affairs are in the public interest and have considerable bearing on the campaign he vows to continue.

American Presidential politics, even at this time, was far more personality-driven than our own and Hugh Jackman in the title role brings all the twinkly charisma needed to charm a nation. But Hart has to charm the press first, and from the outside he appears to be exactly the breath of fresh air the country needs, clean-cut, attractive and refreshing in his appeal while retaining a down-to-earth homeliness as he holds a series of promotional photo shoots and interviews at his home in the Colorado mountains – a strategic move given the outgoing President was an actor famous for Westerns.

Crucially, Hart is at ease with the press, speaking openly with reporters on and off camera, never allowing the dignity of the office he pursues to separate him from the people he hopes to govern, and initially they love him for it until a chance moment of weakness offers them an even better story. In the second half of the film the tone changes rapidly and Reitman, Bai and Carson show us another side entirely, not just to Hart as the mutual and easy respect with the press pack starts to sour. As the story explodes, Hart’s halo slips, revealing his arrogance, and repeated failure to judge and respond to the escalating drama appropriately.

Jackman is an interesting and clever choice as Hart, utilising his charismatic screen presence to convey the long-forgotten Hart’s own allure while also reminding the audience of his diversity as a performer. Jackman is one of the few actors to escape the pigeon-holing of Hollywood, simultaneously working across genres and able to land parts in serious political films such as this one, while commanding respect for his work in big comic-book blockbusters such as X-Men as well as capitalising on his musical theatre background as the star of Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman.

Jackman is a fascinating Hart, oozing a Kennedy-like goodness in the early scenes that reveals so much about the perfect image we so readily respond to in our politicians. He has an easy ride to the White House and he knows it. But as the tide turns, we learn much more about the ruthlessness needed to become a political leader and how easily we are fooled by rhetoric. Insisting that the state of his marriage is a private affair, Jackman shows the hypocritical coldness beneath the surface, a resolution not to comment on matters he believes to have no relevance even after he realises the damage it is causing his reputation. This becomes a fatal flaw that will cost him the respect of the nation and his leadership dreams which Jackman plays with a blinkered tenacity. From our over-exposed modern perspective, we may argue that Hart had a point about the privacy of public figures, yet his decision to embark on an affair mid-campaign and determination to conceal it mark out his essential dubiety

But The Front Runner is more than a simple biopic and the audience is also asked to consider how the events depicted in the film affect our views on the role of the press in modern democracy. A number of recent films have lionised the integrity, bravery and determination of journalists including Spotlight and the forthcoming Private War, but Reitman takes an opposing view suggesting a tabloid sleaziness to Tom Fiedler’s (Steve Zissis) approach that broke an unofficial reporters code on what should make the news.

The feeding frenzy that follows the revelations of Hart’s affair (one of many that were subsequently revealed) escalates quickly affecting not just the Presidential candidate but hounding his wife and daughter who must visibly stand-by him while enduring a very public humiliation. It also hints at the consequences for the numerous people working for Hart and invested in his success including J.K. Simmons as the acerbic Bill Dixon, losing not just years of work but also their jobs, an effect that neither the press nor Hart can be entirely absolved of.

At a little under two hours, events move quickly with a narrative approach that evidently glosses over some of the complexities – even for a non-US audience – while leaving the moral conclusions to the viewer. The Front Runner argues that these three weeks were a turning point in American political history and the accuracy of that assessment as well as the importance of the people and events it depicts has been debated by other critics. Yet Reitman’s movie still asks important questions about the untempered and unelected freedom of the press to decide who should have power in society, as well as the nature of a political system that facilitates the rise of a certain kind of dubious morality and an undeserved entitlement in those we elect to lead us.

With Adam McKay’s biopic of Dick Cheney (Vice) also opening this month with a transformed Golden Globe-winning Christian Bale in the lead role and Amy Adams as his wife, The Front Runner may struggle to be noticed, but it is a film that gives us plenty to think about – perhaps more so for a British audience unfamiliar with the events it depicts and thus a stage removed from the veracity of the story. At a time when voters seem no longer to care about the personal life of the man in the White House, when outrageous allegations after shocking scandal barely make a dent, we have to wonder whether Gary Hart was right all along, do voters really care if you’re selling them the right dream?

The Front Runner opens in the UK on 11 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Film Review: Widows

Widows - Steve McQueen

It is hard to believe that director Steve McQueen has only made four full-length films, a process that has taken 10 years. The former Turner-prize winning artist is now so renowned as a filmmaker that his latest release, Widows, opened this year’s London Film Festival and arrives in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow. Hunger in 2008 announced McQueen’s arrival as an exciting new director with an almost forensic appreciation of character psychology and an eye for cinematography that directly reflects that insight. A decade on and McQueen has flourished, evolving from his early indie roots to tell stories on a much broader canvas, earning him critical acclaim and a sack-full of awards. His skill has always been to retain the personal world view of his characters and although Widows has blockbuster scale and a gorgeous ensemble cast, it is always the intimate story of three desperate but resourceful women.

In one way or another McQueen’s films are always about desperation, people trapped in their lives either for political, social or character reasons and unable to make the changes they so clearly need. There is always a considerable jeopardy for the individual, a life or death battle as principle, justice and duty are challenged by often quite brutal external forces. Sometimes, that jeopardy is more contained, one person trying to overcome compulsions that come to define their entire life, trying to break unchecked patterns of behaviour that could precipitate a complete breakdown or collapse of the individual’s balance.

Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are examples of the first kind of desperation where the protagonists have a particular cause to follow and, whatever the rights and wrongs of their situation, contextually McQueen showcases the unrelenting waves of prejudice, inhumanity and injustice that prevent their escape, while focusing tightly on the enduring belief that sustains their resolve to the end. For Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison, a belief that a sacrificial act, a hunger strike, was the only form of protest open to him, while for Solomon Northup that his freedom from wrongful enslavement was his right by law. By taking us into the minds of these characters, it gives purpose and agency to McQueen’s political context.

He takes this in a very different direction in Shame examining the addictive nature of sexual compulsion, and while not overtly political in the same way, his character lives in a cold, emotionless New York, full of consumerism, immediacy of gratification but removal of intimacy, creating a context in which lifestyle and appearance are more important than the unravelling human life beneath. Widows feels like the culmination of this work combining as it does a well-realised and restrictive political and economic context with the emotional and psychological consequences of grief, fear and the daily burden of the female leads.

Based on the 1980s mini-series of the same name by revered crime-writer Lynda La Plante and co-adapted with Gillian Flynn famous for her own galling novel Gone Girl for which she penned the screenplay, McQueen has spoken enthusiastically about the effect of this show on his view of female-led narratives. The transposition to modern-day Chicago is perfect and after a high-stakes opener full of violence, danger and energy, McQueen carefully unveils a small but corrupt suburb of Chicago and how it continues to shape the options available to the women who live there.

What makes Widows so interesting is how these two elements run together throughout the film, interconnected and increasingly intrinsic to the ways in which the story unfolds. As we get to know the characters better we understand more about the world in which they live, which in turn reveals more to us about the characters. It is a wonderful balancing act that combines Gillian Flynn’s screenplay and McQueen’s visual approach with not a scene wasted, every moment feels carefully designed to tell us about someone or to reveal key information that drives the plot.

Of course, this is a heist movie so the planning, execution and aftermath of the crime are the basis for the story, along with all the elements the genre demands – big set pieces moments, plans going wrong mid-job and shadowy meetings in remote locations. All of this McQueen handles with aplomb, utilising the frenetic energy of the two heists to bookend the plot, the kind of coordinated chaos and sense of power that he elicited from the riot scenes in Hunger. But where this departs from – and arguably improves on – the genre is in the creation of time and place that situates the second heist in the grimy underbelly of Chicago organised crime and its all too real link to political office.

This approach is also notable for how it alters the purpose of the heist film, changing the casual lark for personal gain into something far more dangerous and driven by external forces. A million miles from the recent Oceans 8, Widows is not a flamboyant jaunt undertaken by a bunch of super-cool criminals, but a forced endeavour by people with no idea what they are doing, held to ransom by the failures of their now dead husbands to protect them, suddenly thrust into a criminal world they never knew existed with serious life or death consequences if they fail to act

Because the women don’t know each other, it gives Flynn and McQueen the chance to explore their quite different lives in more details. First, Veronica (Viola Davies) as the wife of male heist leader played by Liam Neeson, in which we see the couple’s relatively comfortable lifestyle in a beautiful, stylish apartment with stunning views across the city. But as with Brandon’s flat in Shame, these uncluttered interiors belie an emotional emptiness that makes it a cold and unforgiving place. Cleverly, not all of that is about Neeson’s early death and although we see plenty of intensely romantic flashbacks of the couple as Veronica remembers what appears to be an intense intimacy and connection she shared with her husband, a pre-existing grief was always between them, making their surroundings elegant but remote.

And that is exactly how Davies plays the role, her Veronica is beautifully, and expensively, tailored at all times in rich fabrics designed to set her apart from the women she eventually leads. But her desperation and dissatisfaction with her life strongly emerges as Davies shows us Veronica’s painful realisation of the truth, first about the need to repay the debt owed to the crime boss left by her husband’s failure to complete the original heist, and second as the truth of her former life comes into focus through her grief.

It’s a fascinating performance from Davies, brusque and remote with the other women, the skills of a leader but with a fragile side that she hides from the world. As the story unfolds and reality dawns, Veronica discovers an independent strength that Davies makes quite sympathetic, and you start to root for these women battered by the choices and consequences of the very male world in which they must operate.

Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is from another side of Chicago entirely, a working mother with a different kind of hardness that keeps people at a distance from her. After the death of the husband she never really needed, Linda comes in one day to find her dress shop being repossessed and no way to feed her family. Struggling to keep afloat, she accepts Veronica’s proposition as a last resort but remains aloof from the other women, sharing nothing about herself with them, only focusing on the work.

While Linda is a difficult character to warm to, and we never really see her grieve for her marriage, Rodriguez at least makes you respect her and understand the limitations for working-class single parents having to make the best of it.  She is also the avenue into another of the film’s themes about the small business-owning aspirations of women in the community, including her friend who runs a salon, and a confined ambition that improves their ability to sustain their family. Linda’s environment may be less flashy than Veronica’s, but it is also warmer, integrated into the wider society of this part of Chicago, a matriarchy of working women none of whom the politicians ever really help.

Finally, Elizabeth Debicki is the most innocent of the group, a beautiful but penniless young woman whose release from her marriage creates further problems that catapult her into the paths of other men. Forced into a high-class semi-prostitution within weeks of his death, Alice quickly becomes involved with a businessman who eventually proves useful but initially just takes advantage of her fear and nervousness.

But Alice’s development mirrors Veronica’s as she comes to terms with what her life must be, growing a form of independence as her confidence improves. There is much to like in Debicki’s performance, you feel for her as she falls back on the only thing she thinks she has, her beauty, while enjoying some of the film’s more comedic scenes as she successfully tracks down equipment for the heist. Balancing that humour with the deep tragedy of her circumstances is really well done and watching her emerge from within herself has considerable pathos.

Widows is still a man’s world, and there are some colourful supporting roles for a great male ensemble, including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s less than perfect husband. There is real depth in the way McQueen and Flynn create the circumstances of Chicago, including the crime boss Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning running for office to challenge the hegemony of the established political family who believe their seat should be hereditary. Nothing is black and white here, and while challenging the elite should be a good thing, Jamal hires Daniel Kaluuya’s sociopathic henchman to put the frighteners on the women and their associates, muddying his own campaign.

Equally fascinating is the relationship between former political leader Tom Mulligan, an imposing Robert Duvall, and his reluctant son Jack the sitting candidate aiming for re-election. They could easily have become the pantomime baddies, but instead we get a difficult and credible father-son relationship in a family that has played every move in public. Colin Farrell’s Jack may be a generic politician but, like the women, he has never really had the life he would have chosen, desperate to leave politics but sublimating his own needs to the Mulligan cause.

All of this context is so valuable in understanding why characters are hemmed in by other people’s choices, unable to act freely, and McQueen is so good at creating characters that you may not approve of but showing you their psychology. Widows is so successful because it manages to tell an entertaining story that rattles along extremely well using the characteristics of the heist film, while revealing the political, economic and social structures that have led to inequality, racism and deprivation in this part of Chicago. He may only have made four full-length films but what an astonishing body of a work they are.

Widows was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas nationwide on 6 November Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


From Stage to Screen: Allelujah! – Bridge Theatre

Allelujah - Bridge Theatre

70 years ago, the NHS came into being, and not too long after that the first medical dramas followed. The history of our free health service and the history of television almost go hand-in-hand. Medical soaps and dramas dominated the schedules for decades, until arguable crime replaced them as our favourite genre. A particular affinity with the screen, early examples like Doctor Kildare, General Hospital and Dr Finlay’s Case Book evolved into much-loved American dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the invincible long-running shows Casualty, Doctors and Doc Martin – the world of doctors, nurses and patients is ever ripe for dramatic interpretation.

But that’s only the tip of the medical iceberg; during the lifespan of the NHS, a plethora of documentary series from 24 hours in A&E to Embarrassing Bodies have given us plenty of fly-on-the-wall access and real-life insight. Meanwhile film has also used the hospital as its location many times, and long before more recent American examples including Extreme Measures and Parkland, British movie depictions started with the gentle humour of Doctor in the House and its ensuing sequels, and the cheeky naughtiness of numerous Carry Ons (Nurse, Doctor, Again Doctor and Matron). Popular culture has, then, long reflected the intensity, silliness and political deprivation that has blighted the development of our free health service in the last 70 years.

Theatre though has paid relatively little regard to the medical services, and despite Nina Raine’s Tiger Country, last revived at the Hampstead Theatre in 2014, and The Globe’s Doctor Scroggy’s War set during the 1914-1918 conflict, few plays have used the hospital or doctor’s surgery as their primary focus. The doctor as a character turns-up all over the place, from Agatha Christie suspects to Patrick Marber lovers (in Closer), but their own environment has been strangely neglected by playmakers. So the duel promise of a new NHS-based play written by Alan Bennett – his first in six years – is interesting for many reasons, not least that it will receive its very own cinema transfer on 1 November, a medium that given the screen history of the NHS, may change our perception of the production.

Bennett is easily the biggest name to premiere a play during the Bridge Theatre’s first year of operation. Set in a tradition “cradle to grave” hospital, Allelujah! has quite a broad remit, tackling issues of individual patient care, hospital management, the closure and integration of smaller facilities and the politically sensitive cuts advocated by central Government. Bennett’s writing touches on so many issues that, understandably, his narrative frame becomes rather over-stretched so the forces that compel the core story become a little contorted.

But to what extent is this the consequence of its theatrical form, a place where conventions of drama create certain structural preconceptions about story and character? Seeing Bennett’s medical story on a screen may lend it an entirely new face, where the broad episodic structure of the writing and its impassioned personal versus the political plot may seem more at home among the serialised medical dramas seen every week on screen. Our leading playwrights are just as likely to be seen penning screen-dramas and forthcoming attractions include Mike Bartlett’s 6-part series Press in September set in a news agency and James Graham’s Brexit drama next spring. With so much crossover between stage and screen, seeing Bennett’s latest play in a specifically-commissioned cinema presentation after the run has officially ended feels like a logic step.

Facing closure, The Beth hospital remains a haven for geriatric patients who form a choir to liven-up their stay. When the father of a political aide is admitted, he cycles to the hospital to visit him one last time despite their estrangement. Unbeknown to the staff, Colin is responsible for the policy that will lead to the merger, and when a documentary crew arrive to film a fly-on-the-wall series everyone tries to be on their best behaviour. But with the lives of vulnerable patients in their hands, not all of the hospital staff are quite what they seem.

The three strands of Bennett’s play attempt to shine a broad comic light on our current health provision while making a rallying cry for its future protection. First, it examines the mixed approach to healthcare for the elderly and the value we place on long life versus quality of life, which is one of the most successful themes Bennett explores in Allelujah! Although some critics found the musical sequences a little jarring and designated too much room in an otherwise packed 2.5 hours of theatre, there is merit in them, reflecting the community spirit that smaller hospitals can generate and serving as a timely reminder that mentally, if not physically, these characters have rich emotional lives connecting them directly, through song, to the memories and emotions of their youth.

It is hardly a coincidence that La La Land has reinvigorated the fantasy song and dance sequence on screen, so Bennett draws on this to take his characters away from the mundane and beleaguered into an alternate reality and happier times. And, by limiting the major set-pieces, like La La Land, Bennett actively juxtaposes the everyday with the grand romance of the musical. In between the showcase numbers, many of the film’s scenes show Mia and Sebastian’s relationship played out in ordinary locations by two ordinary people looking for a break. If it’s good enough for Damien Chazelle, it’s good enough for Alan Bennett, and Allelujah! puts its choir in a bubble that separates them briefly from the reality of ill health and old age. These sequences, choreographed by Arlene Phillips, should make even more of an impact in a cinema where audiences are more used to the stylistic movie techniques and allusions that Bennett employs.

The second strand is a political one in which the controversial march of progress is measured against its personal impact. The depersonalisation of NHS services, the drive for efficiency savings, targets and reduction of overheads affects debate about the success of our current healthcare structure, with Whitehall notably divorced from the reality of caring for the sick. Bennett uses political aide Colin (Samuel Barnett) as a cipher for London, modernity and centrist control that ranks statistical success above the people being cared for.

Joe – a former miner – easily becomes one of Allelujah!’s most sympathetic characters, a kind and engaging creation whose complex relationship with his son, and fond memories of dancing in his youth which he recreates with Sister Gilchrist are played with considerable pathos. There is a really interesting dynamic between Joe (Jeff Rawle) and his son (Samuel Barnett) as their bedside meetings result in loaded silences and strained conversation, belying the genuine affection that they have for one another, and speaking volumes about the conventions of masculinity and pride that prevent a reconciliation. Bennett offers small hints at their background, at the local versus metropolitan world view that has driven them apart, but it’s an area that is frustratingly under-explored as the core drama evolves away from their meaningful interaction.

Bennett’s writing has always been at its best when showing the intimate contradictions of human relationships and personalities that can come across so well in screen close-ups. Comic on the surface and desperately sad or lonely underneath, this complicated connection between father and son should have been the main thrust of the story, driving the dramatic narrative with Joe becoming slowly more unwell as Colin’s merger policy takes effect, uniting the personal and the political in the way Bennett intends. Both actors suggest much of this, but the space to develop is reduced by Allelujah!’s third, and theatrically least successful, strand.

To prevent spoilers its impossible to describe this section as its occurrence is sudden and deliberately surprising, but it drags the show away from its original purpose, muddies the narrative and sets-up a central inconsistency just before the interval that is never satisfactorily resolved. Yet, this section will almost certainly play better on screen where the melodrama and overly-contrived nature of the storyline will have more in common with the commonplace life and death-jeopardy scenarios of most televised medical drama. In the kind of theatre that Bennett creates this feels more out of place than any amount of nostalgic musical sequences can ever do, leaving you unsure whether Bennett is campaigning to save smaller hospitals or revealing the abuse of power they facilitate.

Allelujah! may not be Bennett’s finest play but it has a lot going for it, not least the creation of a suite of characters that you want to know more about – it’s just a shame you never really do. From Gwen Taylor’s bolshie Lucille to Simon Williams’s Ambrose as a former English teacher reduce by age to Patricia England as Mavis the eccentric showgirl still determined to be beautiful. So many potentially fascinating lives are offered-up but never given a proper chance to link their wonderful backstories to the modern day in the way that, say, Follies managed so extraordinarily this year.

The 1 November cinema screening, steeped in the history of medical dramas, will be kinder to Bennett’s set-up than perhaps the theatre space has been. Large cast, multi-strand narratives with pacey incident-based drama and short scenes are the bread and butter of screen depictions of healthcare, so Allelujah! fits more completely into this genre than perhaps the different demands of the stage. As theatre, although it has plenty of potential and all the elements we’ve come to expect from a Bennett play, this needed to be more streamlined. Despite a productive partnership with Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director hasn’t taken a firm enough line with the work – arguably true of all of Bennett’s plays since The History Boys. Sometimes, even a national treasure needs an edit.

The overly dramatic final act, driven by plot twists, just distract from the people at the heart of the play, the patients, visitors and staff of The Beth hospital, and serves to dampen Bennett’s scathing political comment on the failure of the NHS to serve its community. With such an incredible cast of famous faces including the wonderful Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist – a key role – Sasha Dhawan as a newly arrived immigrant doctor on a student visa and Peter Forbes (the Follies connection) as a slick hospital manager, it seems a shame to have underused them all so cruelly – there are lots of half-ideas that never quite make a whole.

Screening Allelujah! may well alter the viewer’s perspective, placing it within the tradition of television and film drama that lends itself to the cliffhanger-based six-part series that Bennett’s broad and episodic approach calls upon. Audiences love Bennett’s warm wit, comic parody and relatable characterisation, full of stoic people in difficult scenarios that can be incredibly moving. It may be diluted in the enormous Bridge auditorium but will the proximity of cameras offer cinema-goers a unique perspective? 1 November 2018 – make an appointment.

Allelujah! is at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September and will be screened as-live in cinemas on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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