Tag Archives: London Film Festival

Last Night in Soho – London Film Festival

Last Night in Soho - London Film Festival

The allure of Soho may have dimmed in recent decades as chain coffee shops, pubs and restaurants have taken over the tiny patch of land between Shaftesbury Avenue and north Oxford Street. But the tiny cobbled streets are filled with an exciting social and cultural history, particularly from the immediate post-war era until really the 1980s that drew countless men and women eager to drink and dance, a place they could be themselves or even someone better. The exciting revelry and alternative culture found in its subterranean bars, members clubs and residential housing is endlessly attractive to dramatists looking to tell stories of wide-eyed youngsters finding new lifestyles in those heady days of abandon and happy oblivion.

But this vision of Soho was never real, it is a backwards projection, an attempt to recapture the nostalgia of times that felt free and unencumbered before everything decisively changed. And whether that was the economic depression and anti-corruption work of the 1970s or the terrible toll of AIDs in the 1980s, cultural projections of Soho are trying to bottle a single spark, a moment not dissimilar to that last Edwardian summer before the start of the First World War, as we try to retrospectively impose order on the chaos of the past, as though somehow the people there should always have know their time was running out.

Soho was a very dangerous place in the 1960s and Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, released later this month and previewed at the London Film Festival, has an astonishing craft and seems designed to specifically jolt the audience out of its romanticised image of the era. Filled with people who had nowhere else to go, Wright’s historic Soho is alive with dangerous men who exploit women, preying on their fantasies of being someone special, luring them along darker paths to a kind of soulful and bodily destruction. A place of lurking shadows and lurid faces, Wright’s Soho is a grubby abyss, and, strangely, far easier to believe in than its glamorous alternatives.

The Duality of Women

It is a strange concept for a movie, using a young fashion student, Eloise, arriving from Cornwall to train as a designer at the University of the Arts, arriving in present-day London for the first time filled with hopes and the inevitable dreams of escape from the solitude of her country life. The film uses those sleeping visions as a means to awaken her to her own innocence. And Wright’s method for doing that is not just an aggressive welcome from the, somewhat underwritten and distinctly high school movie, bullies in her fashion class, or by giving her a terrible love affair with a suave but underserving rake, but by utterly terrorising Eloise with the timeslip biography of a fallen women whose body the young student unwillingly inhabits each night.

1960s Sandie is everything Eloise is not, confident, driven and certain that she will make it big from the moment she first steps into Soho. Seeking out a spot as a singer and dancer, Sandie is assured with men, dresses with flair and refuses to be second best. She wants everything right now and she is determined to get it. Eloise, by contrast, is initially rather homely, calmed by the easy rhythms of the 60s music she listens to endlessly, and isolated by her shyness from those around her, feeling out of place and particularly ‘uncool’ next to her more worldy course colleagues.

Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do something quite interesting in merging these characters together and, while played by separate actors, in the early part of the film, they share a personality with Eloise subsumed into the body and image of Sandie, allowing her to see and experience those Soho nights as though they are really happening to her. We see the two traditionally assigned sides of female personality in these characters, the vamp and the virgin or, as Mad Men referred to it, the Marilyn and the Jackie.

Yet, the writing doesn’t linger too long here and as the film heads in some darker directions, we see personality development in both characters that frees them from the stereotypes being projected onto them, largely by others in the story. There is vulnerability within Sandie, a deep wound that grows as circumstances play out, and we see her become almost greyer as the continual round of suffering wears down that bubbling confidence. Similarly, Eloise becomes increasingly frightened but in doing so, reaches a greater degree of independence and resilience than she did before, finding her way in the present day and, quite quickly, developing her own distinctive look to reflect the growth of her character.

Ultimately, Wright and Wilson-Cairns do much here to reinstate the more negative and seedier side of 1960s Soho and its less appetising consequences for young women threatened and coerced into performing for men. Those wistful Soho memories of drinking and carousing in this garish light now become male-only stories while the history for women at this time was quite different. And, despite what is so often recounted as a positive era of sexual liberation, for the waitresses, nightclub singers and hostesses of Soho, their bodies were not their own.

Creating the Whirl of Soho

Working with Art Directors Victoria Allwood, Tim Blake, Emily Norris and Oli van der Vijver, Production Designer Marcus Rowland and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, Soho is beautifully rendered and warped on screen, asking the audience to consider which version of the area is the true distortion. As Eloise and Sandie experience 60s Soho for the first time at the Cafe de Paris, it is a vision of colour as Sandie’s striking coral dress stands out against the rich scarlet drapes and plush seating in the club, filled with mirrors and light in which the women can see one another. It’s exactly what we have been told these spaces looked liked, elegant and charismatic, filled with energy and life.

But as the film unfolds, those visual choices and Wright’s camerawork becomes increasingly erratic, imposing on and disorientating our perspective as events blur. The past and present shatter and fragment, bleeding into one another, while the growing sense of foreboding, of something sinister building, strips away the gloss of those early scenes. That much of this reflects a kind of madness in Eloise, a manifestation of the disintegration between her daily life and the night terrors that grip her is interestingly achieved and, while likely to be divisive, Wright’s approach is unashamedly bold, all the more so for hitting the mark more often than it misses.

Modern Soho has a more pedestrian feel in the daytime but looks increasingly appealing in the night shoots as Eloise comes to appreciate some aspects of her present day life. The use of neon signs and interior light here makes Soho look more welcoming than in the earlier decade while some of the rain-based shots that create colourful reflections are lovely. The parties may be less stylish to look at, but Wright still creates that consistent sense of crowds drawn to small rooms in this part of town to drink, dance and forget, adding energy to the present day that retains Soho’s liveliness.

Staging London Past and Present

Taking place, then, in two versions of Soho, the very recognisable present day and, grafted on top, the initially more beguiling 1960s version, Wright’s time-bending film pays tribute to the exact geography of the place. With street names unchanged, we see both Eloise and her earlier counterpart Sandie tripping down the same roads on their way to adventure-filled encounters, both nervous but open to the possibility of what lies ahead. Wright heightens the late 1960s era just a touch, creating different shop fronts and street furniture that brings a keen eye to the changing physicality of the district but purposefully draws geographical consistencies between the decades in the warren of streets.

For the keen-eyed Londoner there is much to delight-in and those familiar with Soho and the surrounding areas will note a true rarity in film, that characters are seen to walk through genuinely connected streets, turning corners and arriving at exactly the right place. A minor distraction in many films and television shows set in familiar places and the cause of much post-viewing debate when, for example, Parliament is ludicrously visible from Tower Bridge. So this wonderful precision about Wright’s decision-making here enhances the story, adding an awareness that the filmmakers want their version of Soho to be as credible as possible for those who will notice.

However, Fitzrovia does pop into the film on occasion with Goodge Place as the lodging house for both women and Eloise’s student halls, while one notable scene tracks Sandie through a little known alleyway leading from Rathbone Street, which are technically beyond Soho. Yet, some suspension of disbelief is permissible in a film that is otherwise remarkably faithful to the area it depicts.

The End of the Night

Wright’s film is on far shakier ground as it draws to its horror-infused conclusion in which Eloise is first tormented by the ghosts of the past and then confronts a possibly predictably reality, one that feels a little too cartoonish in execution to fully shock. The film has built the premise that the past and the present are entwined and there are many precedents for the kind of haunting we see here, but the approach tips almost into parody in the hunt for a conclusion that goes slightly too far, becomes too melodramatic to satisfy the greater nuance and multi-layered storytelling that has gone before.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s star continues to rise and she is stunning as Sandie, a character we only see snippets of but who feels rounded and alive. Taylor-Joy is especially good at showing the wear in Sandie, almost as though she’s turned off the lights from the inside which affectingly captures the lot of many Soho women in one short scene. Her counterpart Thomasin McKenzie is a very likeable heroine, emitting a palpable outsider status and growing discomposure as the truth emerges. Matt Smith is charmingly vicious as 1960s manager Jack and Diana Rigg gives landlady Miss Collins some interesting edges. Synnove Karlsen could be better used as Jocasta, a rather one dimensional character for an actor capable of carrying a TV series, while a very unexpected and unnecessarily brief cameo from Sam Clafin seems a waste of another talented performer in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, some of which must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Last Night in Soho celebrates the craft of filmmaking; it is vibrant, ambitious and in marrying together a stylistic approach, storytelling and the physical layout of a beloved part of London, feels like something really new. The ending and the slightly overblown effect of the horror tropes may be forgivable given the interesting things the film has to say about our cultural memories of Soho and the experience of the forgotten women who suffered for it.

Last Night in Soho opens in UK cinemas on 29 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Ammonite and the Period Drama Heroine

Ammonite Film Poster

In a tricky year for cinema, the London Film Festival has been a positive force in the last ten days and while the BFI have taken a scaled-back approach, reducing the usually 300 films to just 50-odd full length features, combining a handful of well-managed in-person screenings with a vast digital output has ensured the event has remained a cultural highlight. And while the stars and creatives have been prevented from attending, supplying pre-recorded Zoom discussions in their stead, the variety of the programme, its topicality in presenting diverse voices and the BFI’s commitment to creating a truly international and thoughtful selection has made this a different but nonetheless engaging event.

Combining the desire to showcase new perspectives, hidden stories and innovative film-making approaches, this year’s Closing Gala was Francis Lee’s second feature Ammonite, the dual story of scientist Mary Anning whose fossilised discoveries in Lyme Regis is revealed alongside an intimate relationship with Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a collector and archaeologist who approaches Mary as a pupil and leaves his spouse in her care.

Lee’s film picks up on some of the key features of his beloved debut movie God’s Own Country in its presentation of the craggy brutality of the landscape against which individual reticence is tested, while the dominance of nature is shown to exert itself against the inability of the protagonists to resist. This displays both in enduring the unforgiving elements and in their own irresistible personal inclinations neither of which can be dominated or overcome.

Relocating to the past, Ammonite attempts to do several things in recasting the nineteenth-century costume drama – usually adapted from the era’s novels – to include a narrative built around a same-sex relationship that is treated with the same degree of tenderness and passion as any other, while also rethinking the hidden history of female achievement in our understanding of the process and progress of scientific achievement.

The Inspiring Period Drama Heroine

Classic novels are filled with admirable, inspiring heroines proving a characterful and intellectual match for their soon-to-be husbands or the story’s other male protagonist who they often outwit. Marion Halcombe, for example, in The Woman in White proves every bit as resourceful, determined and courageous as a man, an attribute the scheming Count Fosco pays tribute to. Likewise, her simpering tendencies aside, Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters becomes a true partner for Roger Hamley, sharing his love of natural history in which they work side-by-side. And across nineteenth-century writing in particular we see spirited female leads from the mischievous Becky Sharp in Vanity Fare living by her wits, the more muted feminism of governess Jane Eyre and even the gaggle of lively Austen creations of which Elizabeth Bennett is most beloved. But none of these women who in every other respect can boast agency, psychological depth and rounded personalities can claim to have truly independent means, able to exist alone in a man’s world.

And women do work or live apart from men in classic novels, so alongside the governesses and maids dependent on their master’s whims, there are female thieves and barmaids in Dickens, gentlewomen with modest incomes but ridiculous personalities like Mrs Bates in Emma, women who have fallen on hard times and turned to prostitution like Fantine in Les Miserables and women who work in factories or as farmhands as Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy portray. But entrepreneurial spirit is far less likely, perhaps seen only in Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall who sets herself up as a ‘beggarly painter’ as her husband sneers.

What we see so rarely in literature – and thereby in period drama adaptations – is the independent woman earning a living in a role equivalent to a man’s where scientific endeavor is the only means of putting food on the table, so this depiction of Mary Anning as the sole breadwinner is a valuable one. And while Francis Lee has based his film on a real person, through this semi-fictionalised and heavily augmented account of Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison, Ammonite offers a rare and real life example of a female period drama protagonist not ultimately heading for marriage (or helping someone else find it) or being ‘rescued’ in the tradition sense from her otherwise impecunious existence. She instead exists purely on her own economic terms as an expert paleontologist and while she wants not part of the society her work offers, that male characters seek-out her exhibits and expertise is important.

The Scientific Woman

Yet, in a wider look at cultural representations of real-life scientific women, they are often portrayed as serious, often difficult sometimes awkward personalities battling as much against the stymieing effect of male colleagues as the various research challenges they undertake. Take Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 a woman whose contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure plays out against her fractious relationship with Maurice Wilkins whose work she is expected to support rather than surpass. And while the play gave hints of the warmth Franklin’s personality may have contained, its stage presentation was framed within male repression and studious dedication to her work.

The same may be said of Anning in Ammonite who has a shop and workspace where she sells her beach finds to tourists eager for shell-bordered mirrors and equivalent tat. But she remains a figure in self-imposed exile, though still encumbered by the masculine-defined limits of society, making most of her income selling more substantial fossil discoveries to private collectors and museums who hastily erase her name from any record of the object and replace it with their own. Repeatedly we see Mary scraping dutifully away at the remains of sea creatures lodged in the rocks and pebbles discovered during her beach combing exercises, and in a throwaway moment we learn the skill was inherited from her father, long since deceased – a man shaped her and men hold her back.

These representations of Franklin and Anning are not necessarily incorrect, but they are consistent with one another and the wider individualistic studiousness that is always attached to depictions of women in science. Unusually, however, Lee focuses on the intimacy of Mary’s effortful process, the precision and concentration of a skilled craftsman slowly and painstakingly exposing her archaeological finds, drawing useful parallels with both Charlotte’s more typical period drama accomplishments as she sews flowers onto a handkerchief that emphasis how limited the presentation of women has been within the genre. There are also comparisons to be inferred with the growing romantic connection between the two women; where once Mary only felt a passion for her work she soon redirects some of that intensity and energy into Charlotte. But while the film perhaps wants us to see the presentation of a same-sex relationship as its most subversive assault on the period drama cliches, it is Mary’s independent and self-sustaining career that feels most progressive here.

The Natural World Metaphor

Aligning the wildness of nature and the intensity of human relationships is becoming one of Lee’s trademarks and like some of the great novelists of the nineteenth-century the windswept vigour of the English countryside and coast becomes an allegory for the raging emotions that emerge from his characters. But, like the Brontes, Hardy and Eliot to a degree the hardness of the landscape and the buffeting elements is reflected in the often unreachable hardness of the characters, at least as his films begin.

Here a weather-beaten Mary stalks the rugged beach at Lyme Regis that is difficult for her to traverse. Its beautiful but merciless in its way, muddy and cold as the scientist is battered by high winds, drizzle and sea spray in dogged pursuit of her work. The flinty Mary is no happier at home in the few simply furnished rooms behind the shop where she lives with her grief-filled mother Molly (Gemma Jones). It is a lodging with little personality and several times we see Mary shivering in multiple layers in a spartan bedroom. Even the shop with its frosted windows and haphazard, dusty display barely looks like a retail environment.

The association between the rocks that Mary excavates and her own buried humanity is an obvious one but the exterior provides further associations with the interior experience of the characters. Framed against the uneven cliffs and jagged edges, Mary is downright unfriendly to both Roderick Murchison in his first combing visit and later to the near-silent Charlotte who is unceremoniously dismissed. But the latter’s failed attempt at seabathing which batters against her releases a recklessness in both women that Lee portrays as an inevitable and irrefutable outcome of their proximity.

Lyme Regis is quite the literary catalyst. Famously enraging the smoldering embers of Captain Wentworth’s love for Anne Elliot in Persuasion as well as the admiration of Mr Elliot, it was also location of secret assignations and yearning looks in the The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Here it serves much the same purpose in stoking the fervor between Mary and Charlotte. And Lee, as in God’s Own Country draws a direct line between the landscape and the sexual desire exhibited by his characters, their needs as much a part of the natural world as Mary openly urinating at the beach and the creatures she finds imprisoned in the rocks.

Conclusion

Both Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan give excellent performances as slightly damaged figures eventually emboldened by their relationship. Winslet is especially good as the consistently cool Mary, who appears to have lost enthusiasm for anything but her work, a misanthrope refusing to insert herself into the world. In an understated performance Winslet is credible as the expert paleontologist with both an intellectual and practical understanding of her subject that eludes most others in the film and the scenes in which Mary uncomplainingly scowers the beach or deals with her disapproving mother are full of the texture of a quiet but disillusioned life.

Winslet’s approach to her character’s passion is equally muted, framed in hesitancy and fear of rejection that is sympathetically rendered especially in the hints of a previous relationship with Fiona Shaw’s Elizabeth that has left Mary hurt and wary of similar intimacy. The only time she allows Mary to abandon herself is during the sex scenes so even at the end the character has retained much of her desire for control of her own life, admirably and perhaps stubbornly refusing to define herself through the higher-class woman she attracts.

Ronan’s character (though a more recognisable period drama cipher) takes a far larger turn during the film developing from a near-silent young bride who, it is suggested, may have recently lost a baby with her bossy and insensitive husband Roderick (James McArdle), to a sprightly and contended presence. Ronan is very good in showing both extremes and while Charlotte’s character has relatively little depth or expansiveness in comparison to Mary, the development from tremulous and pale figure to society hostess is a convincing one.

The relationship between the two women has a coming-of-age dynamic as the older Mary engages with the far younger Charlotte – a notion reflected in the age gap between Mary and Elizabeth – but while the sex is naturalistic and graphic the day-to-day romance lacks the impulsive chemistry and tender intimacy that existed between Johnny and Gheorghe in God’s Own Country – although fans will be delighted to see Alex Secareanu in a cameo as a doctor.

Ammonite is in many ways a conventional period drama with bonnets, big skirts and dissatisfied women looking for love in a world of male prosperity. And while its central relationship intends to diversify the genre, it is the presence of a truly independent pioneering woman that sets this film apart, revealing one of the many female researchers who helped to advanced scientific study but have been all but written out of history.

Ammonite was previewed during the London Film Festival and opens for wider release on 13 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


The King – London Film Festival

Timothee Chalamet in The King, Netflix

It’s Shakespeare but not as we know it; in recent years film adaptions of the Bard’s best-known plays have parted from a more-traditional focus on language to explore the psychological experience of the principle character, as well as giving exciting new life to the battles that define the action. Particularly notable, in 2015 Justin Kurzel redefined the Shakespeare adaptation with a powerful and purposeful two-hour Macbeth with some of the most visually beautiful battle scenes seen on film, and brought a dark, massing intensity to the unfolding narrative that is as close to live performance as you can get with a camera. Now, another Australian and his American co-writer have taken an entirely modern approach to Henry V that doesn’t use a single word of Shakespeare’s text.

Sacrilegious is may be, even “blasphemous” as director David Michôd apologetically described it at the opening of The King at the London Film Festival, but it works. The Henriad Trilogy has been tackled many times on screen with looming version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, plus a respectable BBC version of all three plays with Tom Hiddleston as part of The Hollow Crown series. And on stage the list gets even longer with celebrated performances from Jamie Parker at the The Globe, Alex Hassell for the RSC and a well reviewed Michael Grandage production with Jude Law, all in recent years – the one thing we’re never short of is Henrys.

But these were all distinctly British in their outlook – regardless of the media, this has always been a British story told by British actors within the British theatre, film and television industry. Fascinating then to see a version of this most English (and Welsh) of medieval heroes translated and reflected back to us by our Antipodean and Atlantic cousins. The result is an entirely new screenplay by Michôd and Joel Edgerton that respectfully uses the architecture of Shakespeare’s play but refocuses the overarching narrative to consider the delicate political balance of a new ruler and the weight of shoring-up a new crown in a precarious international environment of betrayal, manipulation and intrigue.

There is both a sense of freedom in Michôd and Edgerton’s film that allows the characters to breath away from the wonderful but nonetheless precise confinement of Shakespeare’s language, and a rare opportunity to delve deeper into the play as well as adding a new spin to some of the characters and scenarios that allow the actors to build their roles more conclusively without the shadow of all those stage Falstaffs, Dauphins and Henrys. There is an energy in the film that suggests a sense of thoughts unfolding naturally and spontaneously before us, and of cause and effect in a movie where all actions and decisions have visible consequences for everyone else.

The departures from and elaborations on Shakespeare’s story are some of The King’s most engaging and memorable aspects; the treachery subplot given only one angry revelation scene in Henry V is expanded, drawing attention to the close council of men around the new king to explore the depth of the betrayal. And, interestingly, this is depicted as part of a longer campaign by the French Dauphin to goad the fledgling English monarch into a costly war that he cannot win.

In this way, Michôd and Edgerton also suggest a far stronger sense of the political machinations at work in the new court as the older counsellors – who served his father – seek to shape the reign of Henry V with their own anti-French, pro-war agenda. These are additions that later set the monarch on a post-war collision course with those who shaped his mind and is a welcome and well-considered opening-out of Shakespeare’s story that shifts the central narrative on its axis to offer a new and intriguing perspective.

Similar adjustments also provide an alternative view of Henry’s approach to monarchy and diplomatic relations that add depth to the characterisation; the famous tennis balls scene which stokes Henry’s ire and shows his underlying belligerence is here reframed so he dismisses the gesture, refusing to summon-up the uncontained response the Dauphin requires, and nor is this Henry convinced by the complex Salic Law discussion that should place him on the French throne, amusingly calling-out its confusion and actively rejecting his own claim.

Alongside a more purposeful concept of the Dauphin’s attempts to provoke Henry into a war he never wanted-  rather than the dynastic quest to feed his own ambition which Shakespeare implies – there is an idea of events being outside Henry’s control, almost of a pacifist forced into fighting against his better judgement. We see this particularly in the early civil war scene as the then Prince Hal stops his younger brother’s army taking on Hotspur’s rebellion by challenging Percy to single combat in lieu of a fuller fight. War to this character is a last resort and not a light undertaking. Watching Henry navigate his reluctant kingship is one of the film’s most enjoyable and inventive aspects.

The other major alteration which may ruffle Shakespearean purists is the inclusion of Sir John Falstaff in England’s warring party, in fact the portly and drunken companion of the Henriad Trilogy and beyond is entirely revised to instead become a war hero and chief strategist during the invasion of France, encouraging the king to practice restraint where other counsellors want rash action. With Edgerton playing the role himself, naturally Falstaff becomes far more heroic than previously seen, dispensing sage and fatherly advice. During these sections of the film the creators momentarily forget that it was Henry’s perspective the audience was following and put Falstaff centre stage instead, but it is an interpretation that works pretty well in the context of the story they are telling, and pleasingly makes us look afresh at this vital relationship between the two men.

As Prince Hal / Henry V Timothée Chalamet pitches his performance pretty well, right down to the really very good English accent. He may not be an obvious choice for the warrior king among the more strapping Henrys of the stage but his slight frame and very youthful look fit extremely well into an adaptation that emphasises inexperience and naivety. And Chalamet offers plenty of both, along with a disdain for his father and the duplicity of the courts that provides valuable context for Henry’s different approach to kingship that becomes a key motivational driver throughout.

He is less convincing as the drunken wastrel Prince Hal in the early part of the movie – although the paternal resentment and familial strife are credible enough – but as Henry grows in stature as a king so too does Chalamet’s performance, eliciting the maturing of his mind as Henry finds the statesmanship and inner mettle needed to inspire his soldiers while keeping his advisers in check. The most wonderful aspect of Henry V are those in which the man weighs-up the conflicted concepts of individual and state, and here Chalamet garners all that psychological complexity in an affecting performance that stands-up well against all those who have come before.

Joel Edgerton adopts a variable northern accent as Falstaff but grounds the character with a more restrained interpretation than often seen. Good and loyal friend to Prince Hal, Falstaff’s considerable war experience and tactical expertise prove decisive, and Edgerton clearly enjoys the the strategic scenes in which his character bests the well-born men around the king. But Falstaff is also Henry’s constant reminder of reality, that war is costly and unpleasant for those who have to fight it and not an enterprise to be treated lightly – one of the film’s major themes. There may be some who dislike this approach to Falstaff, but if Shakespeare can create fictional characters from real people, then his own fictitious creations can also find new life and rescued reputation in a different kind of story.

Robert Pattinson stands out in a skilled supporting cast, providing the film’s relatively few laughs as the ego maniacal Dauphin whose arrogance precipitates his own downfall but not before some entertaining exchanges with Chalamet. Sean Harris is also notable as chief adviser William who quickly becomes a pragmatic guide for the young king whose subtle actions belie the mighty power that William ultimately wields – a presence that becomes increasingly important as events take their course.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michôd make us wait as Shakespeare does for Agincourt and The King is primarily a film about preparation, but it well conjures the messy reality of medieval fighting, of masses of grey armored knights with visors obscuring their faces becoming increasingly embroiled in the mud as they fight in unpleasant conditions. There is a small nod here to the rain-soaked battlegrounds of the First World War, a hint about the universal awfulness of combat for those left to fight wars not of their making. This isn’t quite the version of Henry V that we know but Michôd and Edgerton’s film is a fresh and psychologically compelling retelling. Theatre purists might not approve but The King has a life of its own, one that honours Shakespeare’s text while creating something entirely new.

The King is released on Netflix on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


Film Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner - Hugh Jackman

It seems an age ago that politics was anything other than entirely bizarre. In the last couple of years, the quagmire of Brexit and the personality politics of Trump-era America has made us yearn for a time when governments were elected to tackle multiple issues, balancing domestic requirements in health, education and welfare with a multifaceted role on the world stage. And, as our leaders snipe across the Chamber with miscalculated grabs for power that serve a personal rather than the general interest, it may also make us nostalgic for a time when our now Teflon-like MPs seemed more accountable, when a personal scandal was all it took to end a career.

The sex scandal was the bread and butter of tabloid newspapers in the 1980s and 90s, and every weekend the now defunct The News of the World would splash an exposé about a footballer, celebrity or politician caught with their trousers down across the front page, a supposed defence of morality that usually resulted in resignation and shame, particularly for Parliamentarians. The names of politicians and the scandals associated with them live-on far beyond their political influence, including allegations that Jeffrey Archer used prostitutes and then perjured himself in court , David Mellor’s toe-sucking liaison and even the affair between John Major and Edwina Currie, while in the US the editorial gift of the Bill Clinton years resulted in an attempted impeachment that 20-years on the office has still not entirely shaken off.

It really all began of course with Profumo, the 1961 affair that permanently altered the relationship between the press and Parliament, one that drew a direct line between an individual’s personal life and their ability to serve in an office of state, where private lapses in judgement and moral fibre were seen to be endemic of their whole approach. It took much longer for American journalists to make the same link, and while the Watergate corruption was politically and legally damaging, it wasn’t until the 1980s when revelations of adultery sunk Senator Gary Hart’s bid for the Presidency in just three weeks, which a new film argues permanently changed the electoral relationship with the press.

But how do we decide what is genuinely in the public interest and do we really have a right to know what goes on behind closed doors? Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October and arrives in UK cinemas this week, has a huge moral complexity at its heart, asking questions about the level of privacy any celebrity or public official should expect, and whether the media has become over-mighty or too officious in its self-appointed role as guardians of morality? Is democracy aided by knowing the sexual history of an MP or have journalists become too influential in shaping the careers of those we elect?

This relatively even-handed debate rages through The Front Runner, slowly revealing both the unyielding figure beneath Gary Hart’s charming exterior and the unreasonable pursuit of a story by those desperate to earn a scoop and sell newspapers. For both sides, politics becomes a cut-throat business and, compressed into just three weeks in 1987, Reitman along with co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson create an engaging tension that reflects the growing pressure on Hart and his team, as well as an almost thriller-like pace to drive the story. At the conclusion, no group emerges with their reputation intact, but by taking a multi-angled approach Reitman’s movie argues that this was a turning point in US media history, one which would have significant consequences for Bill Clinton only a few years later.

The biopic has undergone a significant transformation in the last few years, moving away from the cradle to grave approach which uses a narrative framework to show how an individual was propelled to greatness, and instead the biopic has become more focused, usually recounting in detail a single event or series of key moments in which the protagonist’s life was determined, and through which their inner world explained. Danny Boyle’s modern classic Steve Jobs was among the first to take this more psychological approach, soon followed by Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and more recently even Second World War movies The Darkest Hour and Churchill respectively honed-in on his rise to power in 1940 and his feelings of marginalisation by D-Day in 1944.

The Front Runner continues this tradition in showing only those few weeks that cost Gary Hart the Presidency – despite a now debated expectation that he would succeed Ronald Regan – and how his own personality, beliefs and values explain his demise when an indiscreet phone call to an alleged mistress is overhead by a journalist pushing Hart’s private life into the spotlight. Hart’s stubborn refusal to accept the relevance of this to his campaign creates a war with a group of journalists at the Miami Herald who are determined to prove their allegations, certain that Hart’s personal affairs are in the public interest and have considerable bearing on the campaign he vows to continue.

American Presidential politics, even at this time, was far more personality-driven than our own and Hugh Jackman in the title role brings all the twinkly charisma needed to charm a nation. But Hart has to charm the press first, and from the outside he appears to be exactly the breath of fresh air the country needs, clean-cut, attractive and refreshing in his appeal while retaining a down-to-earth homeliness as he holds a series of promotional photo shoots and interviews at his home in the Colorado mountains – a strategic move given the outgoing President was an actor famous for Westerns.

Crucially, Hart is at ease with the press, speaking openly with reporters on and off camera, never allowing the dignity of the office he pursues to separate him from the people he hopes to govern, and initially they love him for it until a chance moment of weakness offers them an even better story. In the second half of the film the tone changes rapidly and Reitman, Bai and Carson show us another side entirely, not just to Hart as the mutual and easy respect with the press pack starts to sour. As the story explodes, Hart’s halo slips, revealing his arrogance, and repeated failure to judge and respond to the escalating drama appropriately.

Jackman is an interesting and clever choice as Hart, utilising his charismatic screen presence to convey the long-forgotten Hart’s own allure while also reminding the audience of his diversity as a performer. Jackman is one of the few actors to escape the pigeon-holing of Hollywood, simultaneously working across genres and able to land parts in serious political films such as this one, while commanding respect for his work in big comic-book blockbusters such as X-Men as well as capitalising on his musical theatre background as the star of Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman.

Jackman is a fascinating Hart, oozing a Kennedy-like goodness in the early scenes that reveals so much about the perfect image we so readily respond to in our politicians. He has an easy ride to the White House and he knows it. But as the tide turns, we learn much more about the ruthlessness needed to become a political leader and how easily we are fooled by rhetoric. Insisting that the state of his marriage is a private affair, Jackman shows the hypocritical coldness beneath the surface, a resolution not to comment on matters he believes to have no relevance even after he realises the damage it is causing his reputation. This becomes a fatal flaw that will cost him the respect of the nation and his leadership dreams which Jackman plays with a blinkered tenacity. From our over-exposed modern perspective, we may argue that Hart had a point about the privacy of public figures, yet his decision to embark on an affair mid-campaign and determination to conceal it mark out his essential dubiety

But The Front Runner is more than a simple biopic and the audience is also asked to consider how the events depicted in the film affect our views on the role of the press in modern democracy. A number of recent films have lionised the integrity, bravery and determination of journalists including Spotlight and the forthcoming Private War, but Reitman takes an opposing view suggesting a tabloid sleaziness to Tom Fiedler’s (Steve Zissis) approach that broke an unofficial reporters code on what should make the news.

The feeding frenzy that follows the revelations of Hart’s affair (one of many that were subsequently revealed) escalates quickly affecting not just the Presidential candidate but hounding his wife and daughter who must visibly stand-by him while enduring a very public humiliation. It also hints at the consequences for the numerous people working for Hart and invested in his success including J.K. Simmons as the acerbic Bill Dixon, losing not just years of work but also their jobs, an effect that neither the press nor Hart can be entirely absolved of.

At a little under two hours, events move quickly with a narrative approach that evidently glosses over some of the complexities – even for a non-US audience – while leaving the moral conclusions to the viewer. The Front Runner argues that these three weeks were a turning point in American political history and the accuracy of that assessment as well as the importance of the people and events it depicts has been debated by other critics. Yet Reitman’s movie still asks important questions about the untempered and unelected freedom of the press to decide who should have power in society, as well as the nature of a political system that facilitates the rise of a certain kind of dubious morality and an undeserved entitlement in those we elect to lead us.

With Adam McKay’s biopic of Dick Cheney (Vice) also opening this month with a transformed Golden Globe-winning Christian Bale in the lead role and Amy Adams as his wife, The Front Runner may struggle to be noticed, but it is a film that gives us plenty to think about – perhaps more so for a British audience unfamiliar with the events it depicts and thus a stage removed from the veracity of the story. At a time when voters seem no longer to care about the personal life of the man in the White House, when outrageous allegations after shocking scandal barely make a dent, we have to wonder whether Gary Hart was right all along, do voters really care if you’re selling them the right dream?

The Front Runner opens in the UK on 11 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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