Tag Archives: Film

Film Preview: Dunkirk – BFI Southbank

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

The miracle of Dunkirk is one of Britain’s most memorable war stories, and is one that combines all the key characteristics that ensure its place in history; it’s a display of ordinary heroism and stoic endurance, the triumph of the survival instinct, the combination of different groups working together, of individual and collective bravery, and most importantly, it is the story of victory against overwhelming odds – with ‘victory’ meaning the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men cornered by the advancing German army. It is this more than anything else that inflames the popular imagination.

The way Britain records and memorialises its military history is almost unique, not in outright wins and numbers of enemy forces crushed, but in specific acts of bravery against apparently insurmountable obstacles. From the precision of Henry V’s paltry archers against a French army reportedly 4-6 times the size of the English at Agincourt, to the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the defence of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War and the Battle of Britain, whatever the outcome, the courage of men fighting for King and Country is celebrated and revered. And it’s no coincidence that major war films have been made of each these incidents.

It is somewhat surprising then that the events of Dunkirk have rarely troubled filmmakers in the 77 years since a combined force of Royal Navy, RAF and “little boats” ensured Britain’s soldiers got home from the beaches of Northern France. In 1958 Leslie Norman produced a respected movie of the same name for which he is still best remembered, while the one-shot beach scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement remains one of the most technically impressive and cinematic depictions of war to date, but it was just one scene.

Dunkirk has, perhaps, been overshadowed by other later events in World War Two that capture another idea of heroism – D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and the African campaign – which have given filmmakers a more straight-forwardly heroic model and clear victory set-up to warm the nation in the years immediately after the conflict ended. Dunkirk may be a popular landmark but a retreat, even a noble one, is not necessarily the basis for a great film. That is until Christopher Nolan decided to direct it.

At this point it’s best to warn you that what follows will assume you know the history and the outcome of this story, but won’t reveal what happens to individual characters. Nolan’s approach is in many ways atypical of war films, and during a brief introduction at the BFI Southbank screening (having come directly from the premiere), Nolan explained that he wanted to create a semi-immersive experience that felt more like a thriller than a gung-ho tale of derring-do, a template that traditional war films tend to follow. If you imagine that most people seeing this film will know the outcome then the only way to create tension is to ask the audience to invest in the individual fates of a set of characters, and make the action as realistic as possible to create and prolong the suspense, which is something Nolan does masterfully.

Unusually, there is relatively little exposition at the start, the film begins with a one of the protagonists the aptly-named soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escaping snipers on the streets of Dunkirk where he emerges onto a beach full of men in lines waiting for the Navy to come for them. From this point, Nolan’s film is a full-on experience as tensions escalate, the clock ticks as the German Army approaches and four core narratives overlap. In the 105-minute run time, at least 95-minutes of this are unmissably tense so try not to take any breaks because you will miss something.

As we’ve seen from his previous work, Nolan is so accomplished at managing the multinarrative perspective, especially in Inception where the characters were situated in several layers of dream state, and he utilises this approach to considerable effect in Dunkirk. First, we follow Tommy who spends the film trying to jump the queue of men waiting for rescue, forced into short-term alliances with those prepared to push others aside to guarantee their own survival, including a role for Harry Styles that led to much conjecture. This perspective on muddied heroism is really fascinating, and while the audience is repelled by the greed of the men he meets, at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the desperation and fear that drove them to it.

The second strand is on “the mole”, a stretch of pier or jetty that extended far enough into the English Channel that the Navy’s ships could dock one at a time to take men home. Here we meet Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who represent the wider war strategy, trying to save the men, but well aware that a harder war is on its way if Germany attempts invasion for which their ships must be protected.

Flying above them is a single RAF formation with three spitfires led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter ace colleague Collins (Jack Lowden) who must keep the Luftwaffe from bombing the ships and men on the beach, engaging in dogfights and ensuring they don’t run out of fuel before they too can get home. Finally, we follow Mark Rylance’s “little boat” sent to help with the evacuation but picking up a stray soldier en route (Cillian Murphy) who survived an earlier sinking, but is so shell-shocked he tries to prevent them heading to Dunkirk.

Nolan’s approach feels more like real conflict than almost any war film you’ve ever seen, not just in the technical brilliance of the effects, but in the way the story is managed to show both the unremitting pace of combat, and importantly how the conduct of war is essentially a large system of interconnected elements, the removal of any one part of which would entirely change what happens to the rest of it. Aspects of these four stories do overlap in various ways as entirely separate characters come together momentarily, but what comes across most clearly is the sense that these men were all an important part of the same event, each contributing to the success of the rescue from different angles and with different outcomes.

The technical approach to this film is one its most impressive aspects, and with very little dialogue, it is the action that is the focus. Using real 35mm film was important Nolan explained for creating the right effect. Some of the most startling moments are in the aerial shots, with an Imax camera strapped to various parts of the substitute Spitfire, the actors were taken into the air to film Nolan explained, rather than compromise with imperfect green screening. The result is astounding, giving a kind of first-person perspective across the film that means the audience feels as though they’re sitting right next to Tom Hardy as he spirals through the clouds in pursuit of the dangerous enemy machines, standing should-to-shoulder with Kenneth Branagh on the pier or cowering during a snipper attack with Fionn Whitehead.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Sam Mendes conducted rather than directed The Ferryman, and Nolan achieves the same effect here controlling the various elements, allowing them their moment but creating a sense of harmony across the film. It is compelling stuff right from the start, and even when you finally realise Nolan is playing with the timeline as well as the perspectives, it’s done in such an understated way that you’re instantly drawn back into the action. This is so redolent of the way men describe real warfare, with no time to linger on what happened and what it means, but having to just carry on. And Nolan’s approach to death and destruction is exactly the same, it happens but during the main thrust of the film it’s portrayal it unsentimental and unfussy, part of what’s happening but so much else is occurring simultaneously that, as with real warfare, there is only time to reflect much later when it’s all over.

And much of this down to Nolan’s faith in his cast, who, with very little dialogue, must carry much of the impact of events merely in expression. Kenneth Branagh is actually sensational as the weary naval officer carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders, feeling every bit of his powerlessness. Yet the moment the little boats appear, Nolan focuses entirely on Branagh’s face as the joy, pride and incalculable relief pass across it. When the tears fill his eyes, don’t be surprised if they also fill yours.

For much of the film Tom Hardy has only experienced determination in his eyes to rely on while his face is covered by the mask of a fighter pilot but he still manages to convey the fear, concern, relief and almost total self-reliance that are the mark of aerial warfare. Mark Rylance meanwhile as civilian boatman Mr Dawson does that humble determined thing he does so well while nursing his own private heartache, and Cillian Murphy is excellent as a broken soldier who brings the tragedy of war to Dawson’s boat, unable to contain his trauma – arguably the consequences of this subplot is one of the few missteps in the film but doesn’t detract from Murphy’s performance.   

There are also a host of rising stars who add to this solid work from more established actors. First Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is the audience’s way into the film. With less dialogue than some of the supporting cast, Whitehead carries most of the soldier-journey conveying both the youth of the men fighting with the jaded weariness of the experienced fighter, seeing death and barely responding to it.

Harry Styles doesn’t disgrace himself or pull focus as a soldier prepared to clamber over anyone to be first in line for rescue, and the film frequently plays with the hero-villain divide, letting individual actions repel you while still appreciating the wider fighting hell they’ve gone through – it’s not all plucky good natured-heroism but something much more complex and human. There’s also excellent work from Jack Lowden as Tom Hardy’s fellow fighter pilot who finds himself frustratedly watching the action from another story while dealing with accusations of abandonment from the army.

The much-anticipated Dunkirk absolutely lives up to the hype and is a film that subverts the established war-movie model and makes it a thrilling but unsentimental experience until the very end, where it’s gets a little cheesy for 5 minutes. But Nolan’s skill is in reminding us that Dunkirk may have been a ‘victory of survival’ but it was far from the end of the war, and in a way, the fate of all the characters is a reminder that there was so much more to do. Dunkirk is an extraordinary war film that aptly celebrates an extraordinary moment in British military history where systematised war and the courage of fighting men met with the bravery of civilian little boats – there is certainly some kind of miracle in that.

Dunkirk is on general release from Friday 21 July in cinemas nationwide. For more information on BFI previews, visit their website. 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


The Treatment – The Almeida

The Treatment, The Almeida

Life is almost always the basis for art, be it theatre, film or painting, but the finished product often bears little resemblance to the original deed. What happens between the act and the representation of it is a transformation in which reality becomes heightened, frozen and removed from its wider context to give an audience a snapshot of events, a moment in time. The Almeida’s superb revival of The Treatment examines the process of transforming one woman’s story into art – or as one character sees it a “corruption” of truth.

As the play opens, Annie is telling her story to two film ‘facilitators’ Jennifer and Andrew who listen intently, apparently sympathising but occasionally interrupting with their expectations of how the story unfolds – expectations based on their movie-led ideas of drama and plot. Sweet, innocent Anne soon learns that her narrative is no longer her own as she is bombarded with improvements and the unsought attentions of Andrew who claims to have fallen for her instantly. Running in parallel the producers also meet playwright Clifford still trading on a late 60s fame that has long since faded. The story he proposes to them becomes mixed in with Anne’s truth, and as the boundary of art and life begins to fray, both storytellers encounter the bizarre world of the producers, the New York streets and the arrival of Anne’s husband.

First produced at the Royal Court in the 1990s, this assured and fascinating revival feels as relevant now as it must have done 25 years ago as the individual need to be heard has been given fresh life via social media while the unstoppable advance of reality TV imposes a glossy narrative order on the chaotic events of daily life. What is most interesting is the way in which the design creates an unnerving world in which the drab grey-panelled offices of the producers where fantasies are created feels more like real-life than the colour saturated and bizarre external locations around New York. And as Anne becomes more embroiled that distinction is increasingly important, so by the second act, designer Giles Cadle and lighting director Neil Austin have created an increasingly false and unreal visual aesthetic, like a Miles Aldridge photo come to life.

And the tone is equally unsettling; it starts out as a comedy with Indira Varma’s hardnosed producer constantly interrupting Anne’s rather simple story of being held captive, by taking the tale off on elaborate tangents that will make it more sell-able to the film’s audience. We suppress a wry smile and roll our eyes as Jennifer tries to preempt Anne only to be rebuffed by a less glamorous truth, but it says much about us that while we recognise that what we see on screen is a heightened version of reality, Jennifer symbolises our own innate expectation that stories will play-out in a certain way. If a man holds a woman captive and tapes her mouth, it must be for a sexual purpose, and Anne’s insistence to the contrary shows us just how clearly our perceptions of truth have been blurred by film and TV representations of similar incidents, and how frighteningly easy it is to start thinking about these things as clichés.

This seems to be at the crux of Crimp’s play and something that is demonstrated with skillful clarity by The Almeida’s production. If we think of the influence of these fictions on real-life as the blind leading the blind, then the bizarrely wonderful scene in which a sightless taxi driver takes Anne on a journey round New York makes perfect contextual sense. It’s utterly surreal but also a metaphor for what’s happening in the rest of the play where what you think you see and what you really see are not necessarily the same thing.

So, when Anne’s husband Simon (Matthew Needham) comes to find her in the city and encounters writer Clifford (Ian Gelder), it leads him to disparage the arts as the corruption of life, to the point where he doesn’t want to sit in a dark room for two hours and be lied to.  And it’s interesting that this searing analysis comes from the most ordinary person in the play, a man with no link to the glossy world that calls to Anne, but someone able to cut through the pretence with a reasoned and damning condemnation of both the characters and all of us in the audience watching a made-up show about a fantasy world. It’s a light and strange play but one that under the surface has so many things to say about the way we distort reality and use the arts to tell stories.

The performances are uniformly excellent led by Aisling Loftus as Anne, a mouse of woman who despite a girlish reticence that seems her default personality, has a surprising determination to tell her story exactly as it happens, demanding truth in a world of fabrication. Both over-awed by the producers and refusing to be railroaded by them, Anne firmly corrects every attempt to deviate from her tale with a nervous certainty – Loftus showing us that Anne is a raft of contradictions, seduced and repelled by the Hollywood world she is trying to escape to. Her continual confusion is at its best in the growing connection with Andrew as the two a drawn together, but her reserve tethers her to the familiarity of her old life as she faces a choice between true past and fantasy future. Loftus, playing it perfectly straight, gets exactly the right wide-eyed feel that offers many comic and enjoyably bizarre moments.

Equally beguiled by the clash of fantasy and reality is Andrew who falls for Anne’s simple nature and his encounter with her, while initially a trick to win her story, seems to wake him up to the falsity of the life he’s been living. It’s always a treat to see Julian Ovenden on stage and his Andrew is barely readable at the beginning, leaning casually against the wall as Jennifer holds forth, watching and absorbing what’s happening without actively participating. And Ovenden feeds that ambiguity through the performance, never quite sure if Andrew is genuinely taken with Anne or using his allure to make the deal, which adds a touch of danger to proceedings. But whatever his real motive, he is troubled by her presence, and, in a life dominated by other people’s made-up stories, it’s as if he’s been living in a bubble that suddenly bursts, showing him the world as it really is for the first time in years, a confusion which Ovenden navigates superbly.

Equally skilful is Indira Varma’s semi-monstrous Jennifer, who treats her own staff like dirt while stroking the egos of possible clients. Jennifer feels entirely in control of everyone around her, she has a seemingly unassailable power in her office, while knowing how to cajole and manipulate storytellers to deliver the kind of film she knows will sell. There’s very little empathy in her, a brutal business woman thinking about profits and bagging the next big thing, prepared to publicly abuse her staff, but Varma also makes her unexpectedly funny, emphasising Jennifer’s ridiculousness, so lost in the creation of fiction that she has no self-awareness.

There’s also excellent support from several supporting cast members, not least Ian Gelder’s fabulously self-absorbed odd-ball writer who clings to his former grandeur while trying to conceal his desperation, that ends up costing him more than his reputation, and Matthew Needham’s deeply sinister interpretation of Anne’s husband Simon who finds the big city unnerving but thinks it’s perfectly normal to tie his wife to a chair while he’s at work.

It’s all directed with style by Lyndsey Turner, and while there are long scene changes as the audience is shown an increasingly distorted cab ride around New York, it adds to the deliberately disjointed and uncomfortable feel the production strives for. One of the most interesting aspects is the use of layered conversations and at various points two or more separate discussion happen simultaneously, forcing the audience to decide which one they want to tune into. Partly it adds to the confusion but also more accurately reflects the way real speech happens than most stage dialogue.

This revival of the The Treatment is a wonderfully bizarre piece of theatre that has lots to say about the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, and the creation of art. In these days of reality TV and fake news it may be increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and invention but Martin Crimp’s play remains a relevant and enjoyably odd show that reminds us that what we see on screen has been plucked, pulled and ‘treated’ until it barely resembles its original state. Perhaps Simon is right; life itself is fine, it is art that’s corrupt.

The Treatment is at The Almeida until 10 June and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

jackie-film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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