Category Archives: Cinema

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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Film Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach

Most romantic films end with a marriage, but in reality, marriage is just the beginning of a more complex story. Usually months of planning and excitement go in to creating a memorable wedding day and all the couple’s energy is focused on the perfect venue, dress or cake. But when it’s finally over, the newly conjoined couple are left alone and the actual business of being marriage stretches before them, a series of hurdles which the unprepared could find insurmountable. How much trickier this would have been in the more innocent middle years of the last century when propriety barely allowed a couple to see each other unchaperoned before they said “I do.”

Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach set in 1962 is the uncomfortable story of the first few hours in Florence and Edward’s married life as they awkwardly attempt to consummate their union. Circling each other nervously in their worn seaside hotel room, the couple recall aspects of their earlier lives including the shaping influence of their family on their current attitudes and personalities, as well as the chance encounter that brought them happily together. These interspersed memories tell of a romantic love story between two people who seemed destined for one another and certain to be happy, but their physical inexperience hangs heavy between them which leads to recrimination and unexpected truths.

Adapting novels for the screen is never easy and McEwan’s stories are particularly problematic because so much of his writing involves characters’ internalized monologues which can be difficult to replicate on screen without the use of clunky narration or too much expositionary dialogue. Unlike his previous hit Atonement in which director Joe Wright created an emotive portrait of love and war, giving life to one of the author’s finer novels, McEwan has written the screenplay for On Chesil Beach himself, ensuring the protagonists and sentiments remain exactly as he originally wrote them. If not always spritely, it makes for a faithful and sensitive transfer to the screen.

Happily, the project is also a movie debut for director Dominic Cooke, who, fresh from his sensational production of Follies at the National Theatre – which was nothing short of a theatrical triumph, earning its own reprise next year as well as multiple awards. Cooke certainly knows a thing or two about commanding stories of uneven love and the emotive power of long-held infatuations. In fact, watching On Chesil Beach at the London Film Festival last year, the parallels with Follies were striking; both stories are about couples who enter into marriage to escape some aspect of their surroundings and undergo a painful process of self-discovery that pulls them to pieces. But, more importantly, the effect of that decision, made on one particular day, can last a lifetime.

What Cooke brings to the project is the ability to infer so much meaning from a series of tiny signals that illuminate the screen, most notably the frequent focus on hands and mirrors as characters are seen holding linking fingers in moments of distress and need, or squeezing a shoulder to comfort and reassure – we know from Brief Encounter that such a seemingly insignificant gesture can be loaded with meaning, as Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder painfully explicates their final ever moment together. Cooke, fully aware of the power of such gestures, uses these small movements again and again to both emphasise the repressed physicality between Florence and Edward, as well as the more straightened expectations of the period. And in turn, this bodily restraint between them only seems to heighten the shock of their attempts at sex.

Production designer Suzie Davies creates a stiff 1960s world in the Dorset hotel room in which the couple plan to spend their first night. It’s clearly a respectable place, not quite high-end but not cheap either which suitably reflects the relative wealth of the couple, fancying itself as a place that offers silver service in the rooms while employing a couple of jack-the-lad waiters who find it hilarious. It manages to be fussy yet stale at the same time and you wouldn’t be surprised to see antimacassars on the chairs in the day room, a place that seems stuck in the past at a time when the nation was on the brink of a youthful revolution that seems a world away from the physical and emotional confines of this young couple. It’s spacious yet is a place of suffocating restriction for Florence in particular.

Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive central performance conveys a weight of expectation on Florence Ponting that has followed her through a bluestocking childhood, and later in the crushing atmosphere of the hotel room, forces her to accept the role of willing wife while being anything but. Working across two-time periods, Ronan neatly treads the line between a warmly confident young woman, raised in a staid environment and certain of the violinist talent that will ensure the success of her quartet, while the flush of seemingly easy romance with Edward Mayhew offers her a freedom and emotional connection that will release her from her family.

But, when the film returns to the hotel room, Ronan also shows the degree to which their earlier relationship had been a chaste fantasy, and once faced with the requirement for physical intimacy, she becomes afraid. In the growing awkwardness between the couple, Ronan carefully depicts the evaporation of Florence’s confidence as fear, confusion and revulsion take their place. And while the film is quite democratic in its attempt to create sympathy for both sides, Ronan’s performance of a virginal young woman, very much of her time and lacking in experience, cast into the unknown is an affecting one.

As her new husband, Billy Howle is an equal mix of contradictions, and he, along with Director Cooke, work hard to prevent him seeming callous. To facilitate this Edward’s story focuses around the easy bohemianism of his family, a clear class divide with the Pontings who beneath a veer of politeness imply he is an unsuitable match for their daughter. Howle in the flashback sections is a charming and affectionate boyfriend who has earned an academic future beyond his expectations and sees the world in rather uncomplicated terms.

In addition, his close family deals elegantly with his mother’s condition, and the audience admires how eagerly Edward welcomes Florence into his more relaxed and supportive home. His love for her seems real, not just a physical abstention, and even in the hotel room, as an eager groom his desire to consummate the relationship is never brusque or progressed without her consent. In the aftermath of their evening Howle reveals Edward’s depth of feeling, particularly in recognition of their quite different perspective on the same events, as well as his stinging feelings of betrayal that make their ultimate moment on the beach crucial to the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach has a wonderful supporting cast including Sam West and Emily Watson as Florence’s cold and snobbish parents exuding disapproval at every turn, and whose behaviour explains Florence’s own marital reticence. There have only ever been rules and silence in their home, without any attempt at physical affection or to equip Florence for the experiences to ahead. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are equally excellent as Edward’s loving parents, with Duff in particularly giving a small but powerful performance as a woman damaged by a collision with a train door, keeping her “episodes” just the right side of credible. And while they are a more successful family, Cooke suggests the Mayhews too have failed Edward, giving him a sense of romance but, despite the hardship of their lives, he’s guiless when confronted with people whose surface expression conceal their true emotions.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is one of the film’s highlights, and whether it be the stormy vision of the strange pebble beach that so fittingly reflects the turmoil of the newlywed’s relationship, or the sun-drenched nostalgia of countryside picnics and cricket matches during their courtship, Bobbit’s work reflects the emotional tenor of the scene. It is a very British film which comes with everything that tag implies including occasional cosiness and lots of repression. There is a deliberate artfulness to the way in which the film has been constructed, that departs from the book somewhat to create a purposeful impression on the audience which at times feels heavy-handed, as though manipulating the audience to change their response to the characters.

While its quietness may divide viewers, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a very different kind of love story depicted on screen, and one that questions the emotional honesty of couples and their preparedness for marriage. On Chesil Beach wonders how a single moment can change and affect the rest of your life, how a rash decision alters who and what you became, extinguishing something that can never be replaced.

On Chesil Beach opens in the UK on the 18th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Best of James Bond – Royal Festival Hall

The Best of James Bond - Southbank Centre

Another Bond film is slowly approaching; first speculation over the next actor to play the role merely resulted in confirmation that Daniel Craig would assume the mantle for the fifth time; now rumours – seemingly confirmed by the man himself – are rife that Danny Boyle will direct and is working on a script. The only other aspect of Bond preparation that garners so much attention is the song, which as well as being an early indication of the film’s tone, also has to live up to an illustrious history of incredible music that has represented Bond since 1963 – get it wrong and it could colour the reputation of the film.

And we love to rank them, type “Bond theme songs” into Google and most of the hits are for websites rating the songs from best to worst. Our favourite tunes may depend on the decade you were born and the incumbent Bond, in fact it may be easier to find a consensus on the least impressive songs – here’s looking at you Sam Smith (despite the Oscar), Madonna Jack White and Alicia Keyes – but the Bond song is indivisible from the film itself.

In the Daniel Craig era it seems that a poorly received Bond theme indicates a disappointing film, as the rather forgettable tunes that accompanied Quantum of Solace and Spectre attest. But that hasn’t always been the case and the Southbank Centre’s evening dedicated to the Bond theme performed by the London Concert Orchestra is a wonderful reminder of an unstoppable film franchise that has produced hit after hit for some of the most well-known artists of their day.

With the still fairly recent death of Roger Moore, sadly preventing any chance of every Bond actor being seen together, as well as the deaths of Chris Cornell in May last year and three-time Bond director Lewis Gilbert last month, plus the release of collectable 10p coins containing the gun barrel celebrating the Best of British, this concert is a timely reminder of how deeply the character and love of Bond is woven into our psyche. Whether born of endless Bank Holiday repeats, his Olympics special with the Queen or the sheer persistence of his reincarnations, a new Bond film is still a major event, getting it right is a matter of national pride.

Presented in chronological order, The Best of James Bond is a both a history of changing music tastes in the last 55 years and a tribute to the most talented songwriters, musicians and performers in (predominantly) British music. It begins, of course, with the instrumental Bond signature that has appeared in every movie since Dr No. Written by Monty Norman, arguably one of the most well-known pieces of cinematic music ever composed, instantly recognisable and brilliantly performed here by the London Concert Orchestra led by John Rigby.

Throughout the evening Rigby also acts as a warm and welcoming master of ceremonies, filling the spaces between songs with plenty of Bond music facts and introducing the two established musical theatre performers – Oliver Tompsett and Louise Dearman – who take on the unenviable role of doubling for singers including Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Lulu and Tina Turner. The structure is simple but effective, taking each film in turn, with the occasional digression into the wider cultural context, which makes for an entertaining and satisfying tribute to the continuing influence of the franchise.

As Rigby explains, it wasn’t until the second film, From Russia with Love, that the idea of the Bond theme was established and, with scores composed by John Barry for the remaining Connery years, this was a period of memorable music. The themes associated with the first Bond, played in full in the first half of The Best of James Bond, have much in common, and while those now familiar big brass sounds were becoming a core feature of the Bond soundtrack, heard together here, each lone voice has a haunting quality, a warning to Bond or his companions of the trials to come.

While Tompsett captures the smooth tones of wistful crooner Matt Monroe in the title track to From Russia with Love which was sung over the movie’s closing credits, he also brings the more dramatic passages of Tom Jones classic Thunderball, a particular favourite, to life – a feature of Tompsett’s performances throughout the evening – and gives a genuinely beautiful rendition of Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World from the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which Tompsett evokes all the sadness of that particular movie moment.

The first half entirely belongs to Dearman however who is introduced to the audience performing probably the most famous Bond song of all time, and the blueprint for every film and theme to come, Goldfinger. Entirely unintimidated by having to represent the inimitable Shirley Bassey, Dearman is superb and the power of her voice produces chills as she belts out this most memorable of songs. The artists don’t exactly impersonate the original musicians but, with fans in mind, equally they don’t often depart from the way each song was originally performed, so Dearman demonstrates her range as she perfectly recreates every trill and change of tone with ease in both Goldfinger and, later, Diamonds are Forever. You Only Live Twice between them just lacks the reflective softness of Nancy Sinatra’s tone, but there’s no denying the power of Dearman’s voice, and the accompaniment by the London Concert Orchestra is faultless, even as they tackle the instrumental theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The second half of The Best of James Bond which moves into the 1970s and the Roger Moore era, surprisingly omits Paul McCartney’s superb rockier tune for Live and Let Die, but the Orchestra is saving that for the encore. So, Dearman opens the second half with Lulu’s Man with the Golden Gun and then a medley of Nobody Does it Better, Carly Simon’s stunning theme to The Spy Who Loved Me and Sheena Easton’s For Your Eyes Only. The cheekier Moore era loved a romantic ballad, focusing on women in love with Britain’s irresistible spy and the Orchestra take centre stage with instrumental performances of Moonraker and All Time High from Octopussy, that brings in the saxophone as the 80s dawned.

While women have never enjoyed much agency in Bond films, often little more than lovers to be cast-aside between movies or unconvincing nuclear physicists, in the music, solo female performers have far outnumbered men, and this was particularly true in the Moore years where most of the themes were performed by female artists. It’s some time, therefore, before Tompsett reappears in the second half, signalling the brief moment in the 1980s, linking Moore with his successor Timothy Dalton, where two bands provided the title music – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill  and A-ha’s The Living Daylights (also favourites which stand well in the canon). Both suit Tompsett’s voice extremely well and offer the Orchestra more interesting challenges to recreate their distinctive synthesised sounds.

The evening concludes with a quick race through the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig eras, as Dearman sings a medley of Gladys Knight’s Licence to Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and Sheryl Crow’s Tomorrow Never Dies (one of the few instances where the song is probably better than the film). In the only gender-swapped performance of the evening, Tompsett offers an excellent rendition of Garbage’s accompaniment to The World is Not Enough, brilliantly supported by the orchestra, before the artists tackle Skyfall and The Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre. Of course, ending on one of the most divisive themes isn’t ideal, so Live and Let Die anachronistically becomes the rousing encore, showcasing the incredible skill of this most accomplished orchestra.

Carefully arranged to give due precedence to the most high-profile or complex Bond themes, the show is far more than a quick succession of performances. To add further texture, the London Concert Orchestra also perform a collection of well-known melodies from crime series down the ages to reflect Bond’s centrality to our wider interest in crime and detective fiction. Arranged into three ‘guess the theme tune’ sections, which create a bit of audience interaction, the first comprises some well-known British programmes including The Sweeney, Poirot, Sherlock, Morse and The Bill (the composer of which is part of the Orchestra), while an American compilation links the music to Hawaii-Five-O, Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues. And, as those are all rather male-dominated, there is also a section devoted to a mere seven female crime fighters, including Miss Marple, Murder She Wrote and The Gentle Touch, that tells you all you need to know about the relatively poor representation of female-hero figures in the last six decades of television.

55 years, 6 Bonds and 24 films, the music of Bond has been the soundtrack to most of our lives. Monty Norman’s original ‘James Bond Theme’ is a by-word for a character recognised the world over, and although he may still be a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’, he’s part of the fabric of British society, managing to look backwards and forwards at the same time. Danny Boyle is promising a Bond for the #MeToo era, a much-needed tonic to the victim Bond girls of recent years, and it will surely be reflected in the choice of music. Whether it’s another soloist or, perhaps, the return of the band remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, on the basis of The Best of James Bond, they have an illustrious musical history to live up to. Let the speculation begin…

The Best of James Bond was performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 March. Visit their website for future events. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Downsizing

In recent months, climate change has been at the top of the international political agenda; with America controversially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last August, extreme weather bringing plenty of devastation and the BBC’s monster hit Blue Planet warning of its oceanic effects on primetime television, momentum to understand and act to reduce the effects of global warming is growing. Of the many novel solutions addressing the damaging impact of humanity on the natural world,  and perhaps the most unusual, is the one put forward by Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing which premiered at the London Film Festival last October – if we want to reduce our impact on the world we simply need to reduce the size of humans.

This is not the first time that writers and movie-makers have used this idea for surreal or comic effect resulting in work as divergent as Alice in Wonderland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace that unite science fiction, fantasy and sometimes farce as the characters overcome numerous challenges to be restored to their true size. The difference with Downsizing is that the reduction is permanent, and so the film looks elsewhere for its dramatic drivers, with the scientific process for physically shrinking people used as a frame for a wider examination of inequality, deprivation and the empty pursuit of the American dream.

If all that sounds rather serious then don’t despair because Downsizing begins on a much lighter note. When a Scandinavian scientist stuns the world with his community of tiny humans who produce considerably less waste in miniature form than their fully sized counterparts, the ability to transform rapidly becomes a widescale commercial success. Several years later, humanity is divided into two, those who retain their full size and those who have become only 5 inches tall, with the latter living in specially designed communities.

The real story begins when Paul and Audrey Safranek’s (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to give up the drabness of their current life of making ends meet to undergo the ‘downsizing’ process. But something goes wrong and Paul is left alone in his new community where he is unwillingly dragged into the colourful world of his exuberant international neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). While at his lowest point, Paul discovers that this perfect mini-world is not all it seems, and beyond the boundaries of the rich community poverty and overcrowding exist. As Paul is introduced to the underclass by Dusan’s no-nonsense cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau) he realises life could have more meaning than he ever imagined.

Downsizing is only a partially successful film and its best moments are in the first 75 minutes where the focus on the shrinking process is convincingly plotted and well-conceived. Watching the Safranek’s evaluated their lives, meet friends who have been shrunk and even attend a cleverly-staged trade fair where companies attempt to sell them miniature houses to live in and to “buy” the lifestyle they want upfront. There is lots of nicely considered detail including the relative transfer of wealth that makes money worth more in the smaller world, so that if the struggling Safraneks transform they could live in relative luxury, in a mansion without having to work again – a key reason for many to take the plunge rather than reducing their environmental impact.

Science-fiction fans will also enjoy the focus on the physical procedure as the audience follows Paul through his preparation for reduction including the removal of all his hair and marks, being wheeled, along with the other men, into the shrinking machine before removal to recovery by tiny nurses at the other end. Payne also injects a childlike glee in visually establishing the different scale of items within the story representing its shrunken humans against now giant everyday objects including biscuit packets, bottles and a single rose head.

Payne, who wrote the film along with Jim Taylor, also manages Paul’s disillusionment well as he adjusts to his newer lonely life. Much humour is wrung from Dunsan’s elaborate parties and from Christoph Waltz’s characterisation which draws a useful contrast between the carefree sun-seeking approach to his new life and Paul’s much lonelier journey of displacement. Even the discovery of the high-rise slums beyond the Stepford-like community seems to have something interesting to say about the cost of elaborate dreams and the almost inevitable division between rich and poor that will exist regardless of socially engineered attempts to iron them out. Living your dream life will always be at someone else’s expense. If only this was presented more subtly, but it is in this section of the film that the fun dissipates rapidly, leaving a serious and rather po-faced story in its place.

In the final part of the film, Downsizing’s plotting and purpose become over-elaborate and confused, departing considerably from what seemed to be the original purpose of the film. With a misfit group of unlikely friends now established, the action sees the group leave America on a spurious premise to track down the original tiny community and link back into the original scientific purpose of shrinking people. Even though this dominates the final hour of the film, it feels rather tacked on, and by geographically opening the story out it loses the focus it had established.

The two communities are not sufficiently connected to warrant this journey, and while the film has primarily been concerned with Paul’s growing understanding and adaptation to his new world, the sudden focus on a new hippy community, climate change and the madness that ensues from cutting yourself off with the world is too jarring and cartoon-like to be convincing. Had Downsizing remained in its original community-setting, tackling the inequality it presents in living conditions while allowing Paul to find some sense of contentment, it would have felt more dramatically satisfying than what is a mish mash of silly ideas that are neither amusing or really very meaningful.

Matt Damon is decent everyman Paul whose comedy partnership with Kristen Wiig’s Audrey works very nicely in the film’s early scenes and they make for a convincing couple. Damon, though never given the opportunity to do very much, navigates the film’s changing tones quite well, conveying all of Paul’s excitement to start a new life, disappointment and depression at being left alone, frustration with his neighbour and growing admiration for the people he meets in the deprived tower blocks. Yet, there’s never a chance to get inside his head, although much of that is down to the film’s inconsistent tone – if it’s a light comedy then characterisation is less important, while something more serious needs proper character motivation.

With a broadly comic performance, Christoph Waltz as Dunsan is an unexpected highlight as the sociable but socially unaware European neighbour who rescues Paul from his malaise. Used to seeing Waltz as psychopaths and megalomaniacs, he creates a surprisingly camp and eccentric character that steals most of the film’s more amusing moments, and while in any other movie this would feel hugely exaggerated, Waltz brings some much-needed light relief in the later parts of the film.

Hong Chau is an actor to watch and her performance as former Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc is full of promise with sharp comic timing and the ability to bring out the emotional undertones of any scene. Yet, there is something slightly amiss in the way the character is written and despite Chau’s performance, it’s difficult not to feel slightly uncomfortable with way Ngoc is positioned as the butt of stereotypical jokes about her stilted English and blunt demeanour, it’s really not the 1980s any more. And as for other female characters, apart from Wiig’s all to brief appearance in the early part of the film, this ultimately boils down to yet another story about a man saving the world when, what amounts to his own greed for a more luxurious life, made him to see things differently.

What starts as a social satire that revels in the visual humour of differently scaled objects unfortunately descends into a heavy-handed message-film that takes itself a bit too seriously and ultimately has very little to do with the consequences of shrinking people. With an ending that is entirely out of kilter with the original set-up and a meandering plot that becomes too elaborate for the writers to successfully conclude, Downsizing leaves the audience both disappointed and slightly uneasy. There is about an hour’s worth of good comedy in here and if it had continued to satirise the preoccupation with individual wealth over community then it would have been a much more successful film, but with its muddied and half-hearted environmental credentials, Downsizing falls a little short.

Downsizing was previewed at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 24th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Killing of a Sacred Deer – London Film Festival

Yorgos Lanthimos makes undeniably odd films and his latest movie The Killing of a Sacred Deer, premiered at the London Film Festival is no exception. At its heart is a tale of sacrifice and the need for justice wrapped in a family drama meets sci-fi meets horror shell. So many genres echo around this film that it should be a mess, but in fact this deeply weird story is a fantastic piece of abstract cinema that references everything from the thrillers of Hitchcock, particularly the music, to the psychological terror of Kubrick’s rolling camera, and does it with flair.

At the 2015 Film Festival Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster also staring Colin Farrell was warmly received and although its premise was equally odd and well executed, the film’s narrative tailed off in the second half as it moved beyond the satirical confines of the hotel and into the woods where it’s purpose became somewhat muddied. The Killing of a Sacred Deer has no such problems, and beneath its bonkers veneer, maintains a searing purpose from start to shockingly dark finish.

And this is because the central concept is an alarmingly simple one, a straightforward revenge-based dilemma with the fear of dire consequences the longer the characters prevaricate. It’s a clever choice to make this a movie about the most universal emotion, love, and one which everyone can related to in some way, but it is the way Lanthimos frames the story, flattens the emotional responses of the characters and contrasts this by employing a range of tension-building techniques that create a genuine sense of jeopardy throughout, leaving the audience questioning what you would do in the same situation.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven has the perfect life; a successful career, a beautiful and loving wife of 16 years and two children who are popular and settled at school. But Steven has a secret friendship with misfit teenager Martin, the son of a man who died during an operation some months before, who sees Steven as a replacement father and starts to become too dependent. Keen to step back, Steven begins to understand the full extent of Martin’s power when his son Bob suddenly becomes sick. With his family under threat Steven trust that science will cure everything, until the increasingly menacing Martin gives him a terrible ultimatum.

Right from the start as the camera pans out from the beating heart of someone undergoing surgery, Lanthimos’s film, co-written with Efthymis Filippou has a striking visual style that seems entirely sinister. Much of this film’s success is down to Jade Healy’s production design and the shrewd use of Johnnie Burn’s music that create a strange world of clinical perfection and hidden agendas. All of the sets seem oddly unreal, particularly Steven’s hospital where he strides down endless squeaky-clean corridors with apparently no patients or other staff loitering about. It’s vast emptiness and eerie silences, only broken by the perfect swooshing of automatic doors, is reminiscent of the kind of “facility” beloved of science fiction where dubious human experimentation is being carried out or murderous robots are manufactured, and gives what should be a safe place of health and healing a much more uncertain purpose. This is amplified by the rapidly retreating camera that moves with the actors making these corridors seem longer and unforgiving, like a shot taken from The Shining.

Even the tastefully decorated Murphy family home that is the basis for most of the other scenes has its dark recesses, mixing the cosy luxury of the couple’s light-filled bedroom and sleek kitchen with the concrete desolation of the basement, a place that features more and more as the assumed perfection of their lives begin to unravel. Frequently too, Lanthimos adopts the Hitchcock technique of filming characters through windows, both distancing the viewer from the individuals to blunt our sympathies, while simultaneously distorting our impression of them. And there’s a shot of Steven and Martin with a bridge in the background that’s pure Vertigo.

The music is a swirl of heavy strings and drum beats that’s also right out of Hitchcock, and because the delivery of the lines is purposefully unemotional, it signals the highest moments of tension and some of the crucial twists, as though it rather than the actors is portraying pain, fear and disgusted comprehension. The music is also deliberately overbearing, it’s not there to gently underscore a scene but to act as an integral part, an additional character in the unfolding drama that does as much to affect the audience’s perception of time, place and tone as any other part of the film.

It can be difficult for Hollywood actors to shake off industry expectation and the easy typecasting that sees them make the same film repeatedly, but Colin Farrell, who also starred in Lobster, has successfully moved away from the generic action roles of his 20s and 30s to take on a more varied selection of projects in recent years, and a willingness to embrace a different physique and appearance to suit the smug middle-class existence of this role. His Steven is a fascinating depiction of misdirection, delivered in the entirely deadpan tone that makes Lanthimos’s work so strangely watchable.

Farrell plays with our preconceptions about the arrogance of surgeons and God-complexes and through his predicament the idea of having life and death in his hands becomes something else entirely. He’s also extremely hard to read, and while initially we sympathise with his insistence on fact and procedure, the effect of his evasiveness raises plenty of questions about his character, his ethics and even his skills as a doctor. Farrell slowly unveils these layers as the story twists and turns, leaving the viewer with no sense of what he’s going to do, yet maintaining a consistent idea of Steven as a person, as though these traits were always there, just hidden and distorted.

Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s Anna evolves past the role of dutiful wife, devoted mother and apparently successful career woman – she has a clinic we never see. Cast initially like a Hitchcock blonde, a hostage to fate, awaiting rescue, her own motives become increasingly difficult to discern. On learning of the ultimatum, she is as guilty as Steven for prolonging events, fearing as much for herself as for her family, and she becomes more of an accomplice in the eventual outcome. Like her husband, Anna has a cool demeanour that seemed like contentment but has murkier depths as the tension heightens, which Kidman delivers with a degree of ambiguity that nicely compliments the film’s disturbing tone.

There are few things more alarming in a horror film than creepy children and the three young actors successfully pitch their performances to leave open severely interpretations of the script. Barry Keoghan as Martin is a shy damaged boy who on the surface takes a paternal shine to the man who last saw his father. But Martin has a more complex psychological role in the drama which Keoghan plays with an understatement that maintains credibility in the most bizarre moments. Likewise, Raffey Cassidy as daughter Kim and Sunny Suljic as Bob also tread an interesting line between manipulator and victim that take the film into some extremely black territory as they play with audience sympathies.

The purposefully restrained, emotionless and stilted delivery of the lines takes a while to get used to and is often at odds with what’s being said, but is a core ingredient of the uneasy world of compromised morals and impossible choices. The Killing of a Scared Deer is a film that has to be watched without too much knowledge of the plot to truly enjoy its many twists and surprises. Lanthimos’s skill as a director and co-writer is to deliberately subvert your expectations of what the end should be and how you expect characters to behave given the issues they face, and it is this that heightens your investment, wanting to find out who they really are and how far they will go. Sinister, weird and with the blackest heart, The Killing of a Scared Deer is a sacrifice worth making.

The Killing of a Scared Deer was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 3 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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