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Film Review: Widows

Widows - Steve McQueen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film Review: Peterloo

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.

One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.

Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.

As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.

The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.

When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.

While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.

To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.

While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.

None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.

By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.

Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.

The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.

Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.

Peterloo was shown at the London Film Festival and is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 2 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Film Review: Downsizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Killing of a Sacred Deer – London Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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