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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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Battle of the Sexes – London Film Festival

In a year in which women’s sport has received more television coverage than ever before, it seems appropriate to revisit one of the occasions that made that possible. 44 years ago, tennis ace Billie Jean King took part in an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs, a match he was sure he would win, that changed the view of women’s sport and the dedicated athleticism of its players. Battle of the Sexes is an insightful look at a core moment of change not just in sport but one that marked a shift in societal perceptions of female strength and ability.

Unusually, this film crosses two established genres and Battle of the Sexes is essentially a biopic meets sports movie. While the latter tend to unpick the particular personal characteristics that create individual success in a chosen sport examining their intensity, stamina and personal drive to be the best, the new wave of biopics have eschewed the cradle to grave approach to consider crucial periods in the lives of their protagonists. At the forefront of this redrawing of the biopic boundaries was Danny Boyle, the director of Steve Jobs, a film that will only grow in stature as it ages, and it is no surprise to hear that Boyle, who has long explored the boundaries between art, technology and popular culture, was one of the originators and producer of this new film.

In 1973 Billie Jean King led a significant revolt against the United States Lawn Tennis Association when they refused to make the tournament prize money equal for male and female winners. Establishing the Women’s Tennis Association with membership fee of $1, King and her fellow outcasts quickly set-up their own tournament and it is here that Battle of the Sexes begins as King butts heads with USLT President Jack Kramer. This is significant in the context of the exhibition match because the film argues that while the televised battle with the sexist Riggs may have been all anyone wanted to talk about, the true battle of the title refers to the one she had with Kramer.

But this is more biopic that sports movie and the film’s driving force in the first two thirds is Billie Jean King’s relationship with hairdresser Marilyn, a sensitively managed and engaging story that sees the two women drawn together by an instant chemistry and the consequent effect on King’s marriage and her ability to perform on the courts. The narrative drive comes from the various pressures on King to conform in her personal life and in the management of her tennis, which are pitted against her struggles to forge a new kind of sporting equality.

And this is very much King’s story, and while the character of Bobby Riggs is given plenty of screen time and his own crumbling marriage backstory to give context to his desire for shock-value attention, he’s really a sideshow to the various dramas and events of King’s experience at this time. The famed match itself, which takes up about 20 minutes at the end of the movie, the audience comes to realise is not the point of this film (as it would be in a pure sports movie), only that the circus it created was a platform for King to be taken more seriously in her call for change at an equally pivotal point in her personal life.

Appropriately co-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the film revels in its 70s period detail but keeps the approach subtle and unshowy. Hollywood has been in love with this decade for some time and while films like the excellent American Hustle flaunted its 70s credentials, Battle of the Sexes is more restrained, sticking to a realistic look and feel without the self-consciousness of similar movies.

Emma Stone has become quite an accomplished character actor, unafraid to play less glamorous or quirky individuals, and earning an Oscar this year for the superlative La La Land (previewed at the 2016 London Film Festival). It’s always fascinating to see what an Academy Award winner does next and playing Billie Jean King allows her to throw off the rom-com heroine with ease and tackle a role that requires considerable sensitivity and the complexity of a person driven almost entirely by sport.

It’s rare that an actor makes films in the order that they’re released, but it is useful that the next big movie Stone is seen in is entirely different to her last. And the dual impact of the personal and professional collision explored in the film is one Stone manages with considerable aplomb. Her Billie Jean is by no means a timid creature, happy to go out on a limb against the Establishment to achieve her aims, and it’s clear that this determined energy and inner steel are part of the make-up of any high-ranking sporting star. Her refusal to be drawn into a war of words with Riggs, wanting her tennis skill to speak for her, signal King’s professional demeanour.

But, it is in the softer moments that Stone makes this film more than a by-numbers tale of triumph over adversity. Inwardly, she is timid, afraid of the emotions that frequently threaten to derail her and for a time affect her game. Every step forward with her sexuality is followed by guilt and self-flagellation which add to the confusion of feeling. Stone develops a believable connection with Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn, but also a genuine care for her husband Larry and the root of her struggle is in trying not to hurt him without entirely negating her own feelings.

Steve Carell is given less to do as the self-styled ‘male chauvinist pig’ Bobby Riggs whose clown-like presence in the film adds much of the humour. With the focus on King, the relatively less time given to Bobby feels deliberate and Carell is clearly having a great time spouting his sexist nonsense and playing-up to Riggs’s cultivated public persona. But the film could have delivered more in terms of understanding his character and his constant need to prove that he is superior to the women he challenges. He’s given a crumbling marriage a love of the spotlight and a gambling problem that add some light and shade to the buffoonery, but it’s all relatively light-touch in comparison to the exploration of King’s character, so by the end of the film it’s still not really clear what his purpose was and what this added to his own sense of self-worth.

There’s an interesting supporting cast led by Bill Pullman in darkly unpleasant form as Jack Kramer who not only supports Riggs, but you feel he genuinely believes every word of his attacks on women’s tennis, so every appearance on screen induces a little shiver. Andrea Riseborough is likeable as hairdresser Marilyn and a convincing love interest while learning about the sacrifices of being a sports wife. Alan Cumming has a small but humorous role as the openly gay designer who dresses King, suggesting the double standard in this era that a man can be gay in certain professions, but as a woman and a sports star King was advised repeatedly to hide herself to protect her career.

Despite its subject there is relatively little actual tennis in Battle of the Sexes and while the famous exhibition match is proposed very early on, it does take a little too long to occur. But, by the time it does, Faris and Dayton clearly show what a circus it really was, delighting in the over-the-top details including both players being carried on in exuberantly decorated sedan chairs. And while the idea of it may be ridiculous – a 55-year old who refuses to train, playing a 29-year old at the top of her game – the real battle for recognition and acceptance was happening off the court with the men running American tennis.

The parallels with women’s experience today are strong and ones which many other reviewers have commented upon. Equal pay is still far from a right, and recent tides in UK and US politics have revealed deep-rooted division and bigotry with even the current White House incumbent known for his derisive views about women. Battle of the Sexes is not a perfect film and one that occasionally struggles with its duel biopic-sports movie approach which in focusing on Billie Jean, waters down the context and some of the surrounding characters. But only a decade on since Wimbledon awarded equal prize money for champions regardless of gender, and 44 years after Billie Jean King’s stand, Battle of the Sexes is a reminder that there’s still plenty more equality to fight for.

Battle of the Sexes received its European premiere at the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on 24 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Journey’s End – London Film Festival

RC Sherriff’s 90-year old play remains one of the most striking and poignant representation of war, despite the familiarity created by its permanent place on the school curriculum and regular staging. Journey’s End has also spawned several film versions, but few as stark and compassionate as Saul Dibb’s new version, commissioned to commemorate 100 years since the ultimately futile German advance in the Spring of 1918 that proved to be their last attempt to win the war.

Journey’s End was written at the height of post-war disillusionment with the outcomes of the war, and in 1928 was one of the most enduring literary pieces in a wave of memoirs, novels and treatises that flowed from disappointed veterans between 1925 and 1933. And, Sherriff’s play is one of the most emotional and influential depictions of war, with stage productions often romanticising the characters, and emphasising the inevitable disillusionment of men under fire. But, Sherriff’s text, and the co-written novel which accompanies it, are actually far more nuanced than these readings often suggest, getting right to the heart of the fear and frustration of the men living in horrendous conditions while maintaining a will to continue, unpicking the small bonds of duty and affection that kept them motivated.

Saul Dibb’s new film shows these nuances with an interesting lack of sentimentality, and while there is a growing sense of inevitability, this is a study of the subtle ties of comradeship in the full glare of war, exposing the almost paternal care between junior officers and their men, and the love it fostered, as well as the deep rooted but fragile friendships that existed between individuals sharing a confined space for long periods of inactivity. And this is crucial, while there are some action sequences later in the film, men were not in battle for the entirety of the war, these were brief engagements in seemingly endless periods of waiting and watching, which Dibb’s film accurately recognises and acknowledges.

In March 1918 the Company led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is moved into the Front Line for its 6-day rotation, and as the men prepare their temporary home, the officers set-up in a dugout beneath the trenches. This is also the day that Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a fresh-faced and newly qualified Officer, joins Stanhope’s team eager to be close to the school-boy hero who is engaged to his sister. But Stanhope is no longer the man he was, alcoholic and broken by three years of war, held together by the love of his men, the gentle ministrations of his closet friend Osborne (Paul Bettany) and the knowledge that fighting-on is the right thing to do. Resenting Raleigh’s presence, Stanhope must command the men knowing an imminent attack will test their already tattered endurance, and try to keep them safe for 6 more days.

Journey’s End is a film about the various bonds of loyalty that men form with one another under extreme conditions, and, as Stanhope’s Company move into their new section of trench, Dibb takes the opportunity to show the audience that this dedication is based around personal knowledge of the men you’re fighting alongside. Cleverly, we see the previous Company vacating the area taking everything with them, even the light bulbs, which forces Stanhope’s dugout into a gloomy candle-lit darkness instead. Similarly, as Stanhope inspects the trench structure he comments on the poor-quality workmanship, despairing of his predecessor’s lack of rigour, and later in the film, in an almost throw-away line, Stanhope insists his men build barricades to their left and right because he doesn’t trust his neighbours to hold the line when the attack comes and possibly endangering his own men trapped in the middle.

Instantly, and subtly, Dibb is creating a picture of how trust and devotion were formed in the trenches, not based on reputation or achieved automatically because you’re all on the same side, but by hard-won personal knowledge and interaction with the men under your command. Stanhope doesn’t rely on the nearby Companies because the long experience of war has taught him that the limited power he has is with the men he sees daily, everyone else is unknown and untested. He uses the condemnation of other soldiers to help unite his men, to show them that others are slovenly and less skilled, so his own men will feel superior. And they love him for it.

Sam Claflin’s Raleigh is a beautiful portrait of young man damaged by war and using every ounce of strength to drag himself through each day. Sidestepping the usual caricatured portrayals of snobbish privately educated officers with nasal voices, Claflin is well-spoken but not obscured by his background, a true living breathing man in the most complicated position possible, desperately holding his own nerves and fears in check while motivating his men who rely on him entirely for sustenance.

In his hard-drinking Captain, Claflin performance is a study in the damaging effects of war, a man clinging on by his fingertips in private but putting on a brave and paternal face for the soldiers who rely on his stability in the trenches. But down in the dugout, Claflin’s Stanhope has an interesting self-awareness that is not only open about his weakness and dependence on whiskey, but is conscious enough to be embarrassed by it in front of someone from his past. Throughout the film, Claflin must walk a difficult line between repulsion and sympathy, aware the audience will dislike his harsh treatment of Raleigh, but knowing it comes from his own inability to cope with the duality of his position. And Claflin is excellent at keeping the viewer onside, he’s softened by gently and comfortingly patting the legs of his men going over the top with an affectionate father’s care, while bringing real pathos to the later scenes as events overwhelm him in what becomes an increasingly moving struggle for self-control.

Paul Bettany is very well-cast as the gentle Osborne, a calming and steadfast presence who welcomes the new recruit while providing sage advice to the longstanding officers. He is a gentle soul, and Bettany’s restrained performance implies a Regular whose soldierly experience pre-dates the war he’s currently fighting, and so is outwardly able to cope more quietly than the other men. Yet Bettany takes the chance to reveal his silent fear when asked to lead a raiding party in an intimate private moment that unveils the charged human emotion under the deliberately placid surface.

Surrounding them are a believable group of Officers and men who feel like a close and trusted unit. Asa Butterfield’s Raleigh is suitably wide-eyed and excitable, in what now seems the most cliched role (a cliché Sherriff helped to invent of course), and although he has less to do than the senior soldiers in terms of his inner struggle, charts the rapid disillusionment with the war and his hero well. The ever-excellent Toby Jones adds texture as the cook, grasping much of the film’s bewildered humour, while Tom Sturridge does what he does well playing a young officer who’s reached the limit of what he can bear.

In fractionally opening-up the film to include the trenches, it adds necessary context to Sherriff’s original play, and Dibb manages the transition between cast interaction and the spare war scenes extremely effectively. Spurious comparisons have been made with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but Journey’s End is a different kind of film, character-led rather than action-based like Dunkirk, which lends the two fighting sequences greater tension having invested in the people first.

Designer Kristian Milsted has avoided an obviously distressed setting which often makes First World War trench systems look a little artificial on stage and screen, and instead with Laurie Rose’s stark cinematography, has created something that looks genuinely worn, full of damp wood, years of disrepair and the kind of realistic mud that makes you think the actors might genuinely get trench foot.

This version of Journey’s End is ultimately about comradely love, about true bravery and the process of disillusionment not just with the experience of war but with the unreal heroes of youth. Dibb’s key accomplishment is to show that the romanticised version of valorous men being sacrificed for an inch of land is less than half the story; instead the First World War was full of flawed and complex humanity, suffering physically and emotionally, struggling to get through each day. With wonderful central performances from Sam Claflin and Paul Bettany the true experience of the Great War soldiers is writ large on the screen, and finally bringing the full meaning of Sherriff’s seminal text to life.

Journey’s End was premiered at the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on the 2 February 2017. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Preview: Churchill – BFI Southbank

Churchill Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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