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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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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.


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: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach

Most romantic films end with a marriage, but in reality, marriage is just the beginning of a more complex story. Usually months of planning and excitement go in to creating a memorable wedding day and all the couple’s energy is focused on the perfect venue, dress or cake. But when it’s finally over, the newly conjoined couple are left alone and the actual business of being marriage stretches before them, a series of hurdles which the unprepared could find insurmountable. How much trickier this would have been in the more innocent middle years of the last century when propriety barely allowed a couple to see each other unchaperoned before they said “I do.”

Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach set in 1962 is the uncomfortable story of the first few hours in Florence and Edward’s married life as they awkwardly attempt to consummate their union. Circling each other nervously in their worn seaside hotel room, the couple recall aspects of their earlier lives including the shaping influence of their family on their current attitudes and personalities, as well as the chance encounter that brought them happily together. These interspersed memories tell of a romantic love story between two people who seemed destined for one another and certain to be happy, but their physical inexperience hangs heavy between them which leads to recrimination and unexpected truths.

Adapting novels for the screen is never easy and McEwan’s stories are particularly problematic because so much of his writing involves characters’ internalized monologues which can be difficult to replicate on screen without the use of clunky narration or too much expositionary dialogue. Unlike his previous hit Atonement in which director Joe Wright created an emotive portrait of love and war, giving life to one of the author’s finer novels, McEwan has written the screenplay for On Chesil Beach himself, ensuring the protagonists and sentiments remain exactly as he originally wrote them. If not always spritely, it makes for a faithful and sensitive transfer to the screen.

Happily, the project is also a movie debut for director Dominic Cooke, who, fresh from his sensational production of Follies at the National Theatre – which was nothing short of a theatrical triumph, earning its own reprise next year as well as multiple awards. Cooke certainly knows a thing or two about commanding stories of uneven love and the emotive power of long-held infatuations. In fact, watching On Chesil Beach at the London Film Festival last year, the parallels with Follies were striking; both stories are about couples who enter into marriage to escape some aspect of their surroundings and undergo a painful process of self-discovery that pulls them to pieces. But, more importantly, the effect of that decision, made on one particular day, can last a lifetime.

What Cooke brings to the project is the ability to infer so much meaning from a series of tiny signals that illuminate the screen, most notably the frequent focus on hands and mirrors as characters are seen holding linking fingers in moments of distress and need, or squeezing a shoulder to comfort and reassure – we know from Brief Encounter that such a seemingly insignificant gesture can be loaded with meaning, as Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder painfully explicates their final ever moment together. Cooke, fully aware of the power of such gestures, uses these small movements again and again to both emphasise the repressed physicality between Florence and Edward, as well as the more straightened expectations of the period. And in turn, this bodily restraint between them only seems to heighten the shock of their attempts at sex.

Production designer Suzie Davies creates a stiff 1960s world in the Dorset hotel room in which the couple plan to spend their first night. It’s clearly a respectable place, not quite high-end but not cheap either which suitably reflects the relative wealth of the couple, fancying itself as a place that offers silver service in the rooms while employing a couple of jack-the-lad waiters who find it hilarious. It manages to be fussy yet stale at the same time and you wouldn’t be surprised to see antimacassars on the chairs in the day room, a place that seems stuck in the past at a time when the nation was on the brink of a youthful revolution that seems a world away from the physical and emotional confines of this young couple. It’s spacious yet is a place of suffocating restriction for Florence in particular.

Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive central performance conveys a weight of expectation on Florence Ponting that has followed her through a bluestocking childhood, and later in the crushing atmosphere of the hotel room, forces her to accept the role of willing wife while being anything but. Working across two-time periods, Ronan neatly treads the line between a warmly confident young woman, raised in a staid environment and certain of the violinist talent that will ensure the success of her quartet, while the flush of seemingly easy romance with Edward Mayhew offers her a freedom and emotional connection that will release her from her family.

But, when the film returns to the hotel room, Ronan also shows the degree to which their earlier relationship had been a chaste fantasy, and once faced with the requirement for physical intimacy, she becomes afraid. In the growing awkwardness between the couple, Ronan carefully depicts the evaporation of Florence’s confidence as fear, confusion and revulsion take their place. And while the film is quite democratic in its attempt to create sympathy for both sides, Ronan’s performance of a virginal young woman, very much of her time and lacking in experience, cast into the unknown is an affecting one.

As her new husband, Billy Howle is an equal mix of contradictions, and he, along with Director Cooke, work hard to prevent him seeming callous. To facilitate this Edward’s story focuses around the easy bohemianism of his family, a clear class divide with the Pontings who beneath a veer of politeness imply he is an unsuitable match for their daughter. Howle in the flashback sections is a charming and affectionate boyfriend who has earned an academic future beyond his expectations and sees the world in rather uncomplicated terms.

In addition, his close family deals elegantly with his mother’s condition, and the audience admires how eagerly Edward welcomes Florence into his more relaxed and supportive home. His love for her seems real, not just a physical abstention, and even in the hotel room, as an eager groom his desire to consummate the relationship is never brusque or progressed without her consent. In the aftermath of their evening Howle reveals Edward’s depth of feeling, particularly in recognition of their quite different perspective on the same events, as well as his stinging feelings of betrayal that make their ultimate moment on the beach crucial to the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach has a wonderful supporting cast including Sam West and Emily Watson as Florence’s cold and snobbish parents exuding disapproval at every turn, and whose behaviour explains Florence’s own marital reticence. There have only ever been rules and silence in their home, without any attempt at physical affection or to equip Florence for the experiences to ahead. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are equally excellent as Edward’s loving parents, with Duff in particularly giving a small but powerful performance as a woman damaged by a collision with a train door, keeping her “episodes” just the right side of credible. And while they are a more successful family, Cooke suggests the Mayhews too have failed Edward, giving him a sense of romance but, despite the hardship of their lives, he’s guiless when confronted with people whose surface expression conceal their true emotions.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is one of the film’s highlights, and whether it be the stormy vision of the strange pebble beach that so fittingly reflects the turmoil of the newlywed’s relationship, or the sun-drenched nostalgia of countryside picnics and cricket matches during their courtship, Bobbit’s work reflects the emotional tenor of the scene. It is a very British film which comes with everything that tag implies including occasional cosiness and lots of repression. There is a deliberate artfulness to the way in which the film has been constructed, that departs from the book somewhat to create a purposeful impression on the audience which at times feels heavy-handed, as though manipulating the audience to change their response to the characters.

While its quietness may divide viewers, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a very different kind of love story depicted on screen, and one that questions the emotional honesty of couples and their preparedness for marriage. On Chesil Beach wonders how a single moment can change and affect the rest of your life, how a rash decision alters who and what you became, extinguishing something that can never be replaced.

On Chesil Beach opens in the UK on the 18th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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


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