Tag Archives: Crime drama

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.


Frozen – Theatre Royal Haymarket

Frozen, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Illness or evil, what causes people to commit genuinely horrific crimes and, for relatives or friends, is it ever possible to really forgive? Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen taps into our continual fascination with crime, particular with gruesome murder cases, and in writing this story about a grieving mother, criminal psychologist and a paedophilic serial killer, Lavery was the fore-runner for popular culture’s obsession with representing the darkest of human acts. The cosy murder mysteries cling on, but modern crime dramas can be a brutal experience; The Fall, Hard Sun, Luther, even the most recent Agatha Christie adaptations have been quite unforgiving. And it’s the villains that keep us watching.

Lavery’s play shuns physical brutality for a psychological examination of killer and relatives, but this is nonetheless an uncomfortable experience for an audience asked to understand both points of view without entirely, or exclusively, sympathising with either. Yet the play’s very existence also asks interesting questions about the way we view crime as a form of entertainment, seeing our professed shock and outrage at heinous acts as pantomimic reactions that are equal parts disbelief and enjoyment, a throw-back to the days of public execution, the filthier the crime and the more heavy-handed the punishment, the greater the frenzy to know every detail.

In understanding this insalubrious aspect of human behaviour, Lavery makes the audience awkwardly complicit in her story at the very moment they are rustling their sweet-papers and nursing interval drinks. And there is something unnerving, even warped, about the idea of people snacking away while watching an unfolding story of unrepentant, murderous paedophilia and the struggle of two very different women to understand how and why someone would kill a child. So, Frozen, perhaps unintentionally, also makes you wonder what’s wrong with all of us, that we can remain emotionally distant yet glued to cases like these, morally repulsed yet still able to finish our bag of Sherbet Lemons.

10-year-old Rhona is abducted on her way to her grandmother’s house, taken by creepy killer Ralph as a relief from the pain of his latest weird tattoo. As several other bodies are discovered Ralph is sent to prison where years later he meets academic psychiatrist Agnetha who holds regularly sessions with Ralph to contribute to her research, arguing that criminal behaviour stems from their own childhood mistreatment. Running alongside this, Rhona’s mother Nancy spends years hoping her daughter will return, and when she finally learns the truth she feels an emptiness that leads to activism.

Based on the title, it’s safe to say that anyone expecting Frozen to be about ice princesses and comedy snowmen would be in for a rude awakening.  Jonathan Mumby’s production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket manages to fight the size of the auditorium to offer an intimate and revealing portrait of three strangers forever connected by one crime. Mumby has taken Lavery’s not entirely satisfactory drama and, worked with the designer to create an innovatively-staged and free-flowing show that seamlessly overlays a series of fairly short scenes, as character perspectives start to overlap.

Using video images of water-shapes, a crackling image of Rhona and depictions of the brain’s internal wiring, these are projected in quick succession onto frosted plastic flies that come together to create a series of rooms and locations in moments, taking the audience from Rhona’s childhood bedroom, preserved for decades by her grieving mother, to Ralph’s simple jail cell and to the King’s College London lecture hall where Agnetha delivers a presentation on her findings.

This latter section is particularly well-staged as Mumby utilises the full-width of the stage so Agnetha can walk from the lectern directly into the room where she’s “treating” Ralph, peppering the key points of her lecture with dramatized examples of their conversations. The staging offers a sense of all characters being hemmed-in to an extent by the circumstances of the crime, while reinforcing Lavery’s multi-meaning interpretation of being frozen which is applied to each of the character’s slightly differently.

And while it is a play where emotions rise and fall over more than twenty years, this interpretation purposefully limits the histrionics, taking a more forensic approach to unveiling each of the characters motivation and arc during this time. It utilises a narrative structure in which each character directly addresses the audience, unveiling their point of view in a succession of quick scenes. Yet, as affecting drama, it is only partially successful, and while it has moments of intensity, the central section isn’t able to fully overcome the slightly undernourished aspects of Lavery’s characterisation and the rapidly passing years between scenes seem to take Nancy in particular to a surprisingly matter-of-fact acceptance of her daughter’s murder without giving the audience or the actor the chance to fully explore the immediate impact of the abduction, meaning what follows for that character is a little diluted.

The trouble is, everyone loves a villain and it is Ralph who feels the most tangible of the characters, given an unsavoury reality in Jason Watkins superb performance that dominates the production. Right from the start, Ralph’s true nature is offered up, unabashed and almost proud of his sickening tastes that will make you squirm in your seat. After an early fruitless search of his rented flat, Watkins is shudder-inducing as he reveals the contents of his treasured suitcase to the audience which he has recovered from his garage.

What is so important about Watkin’s performance, is the eerie normality he brings to the role, making Ralph all too imaginable. There are slight physical tics like a gentle limp on one leg but subtly done to suggest his own complex backstory, and the intensity of the performance, the fascination with his sense of order, offers meat to Agnetha’s argument about his psychological damage. Watkins presents a character who is largely without remorse, wishing his tastes were tolerated, a fairly bland man just slightly off-centre which makes him genuinely chilling.

The production’s big draw is a rare stage appearance for Suranne Jones as mother Nancy who is the emotional heart of the story. As we follow the aftermath of the tragedy, Jones takes us from continued hope that Rhona is still alive – a state that last for some years – to her growing activism, speaking at events that support women enduring similar ordeals. All of this is managed very credibly, while utilising the approachable warmth that Jones brings to her celebrated screen performances.

The emotional heft is there too, particularly in a tender moment with her daughter’s remains, and alongside her domestic activities, Jones’s Nancy tries to hold together the rest of her family, including a crucial relationship with her other unseen daughter, and the audience is given a clear sense of the texture of Nancy’s domestic life and the wider effect of the crime. The speed of the passing years between scenes means that the immediate aftermath of the abduction is suddenly 5 or even 20 years later so Jones presents a woman trying to get on with things but set on a permanently different course than the one she intended.

Lavery’s deliberately scientific characterisation and fascination with her villain does keep you a little more distant than her grieving mother and damaged psychologist deserve, and while Nina Sosanya does a fine job as American-Scandinavian criminologist Agnetha, the character isn’t fully developed on the page. Given her own backstory of sudden panic attacks and an emotional entanglement that affects her work, Agnetha’s is little more than Lavery’s academic mouthpiece, a chance to display the detailed research into the criminal brain.

Sosanya is a fine actress nonetheless and keeps you engaged, particularly in the direct confrontations with Ralph, as she attempts to lure him out. Its set-up replicates but lacks the danger of the Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter conversations in The Silence of the Lambs, but Sosanya clearly charts the developing human affection Agnetha develops, and, having treated him as little more than a specimen in the beginning, she starts to appreciate the contribution to her work, as well as pity for the damage inflicted on him in childhood.

Frozen is a complex play that asks the viewer to detest the actions of the paedophilic murderer while equally attempting to understand them. There is a conversation about illness versus evil that runs through the show, and, while it makes a case for the former it isn’t supported by any suggestion of what society should do about this other than forgive the perpetrators. The individual narrative structure doesn’t surprise you, and clearly builds to character cross-overs with Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph rather inevitably appearing in each other’s stories.

There are comparisons to be made with Jennifer Haley’s The Nether which opened at the Royal Court in 2014 before transferring to the Duke of York’s the next year. Dealing with a similar topic but updated to online predators, The Nether was a challenging watch that made you feel sullied as you left the theatre. Frozen doesn’t quite have the same overwhelming effect, and while it effectively grapples with dark themes, its more clinical approach wants the audience to think about the cause of these behaviours and the possibility of forgiveness. Well performed and interestingly staged, Frozen’s most important effect is in reflecting society’s unhealthy obsession with serious crime, making us complicit in its presentation as entertainment.

Frozen is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 April with tickets from £10 for restricted view seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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