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Dune: Coming of Age in the Period-Future

Dune by Denis Villeneuve

Released just weeks apart, two major movies have been tasked with the job of luring people back to the cinema after the pandemic delayed their original release dates. No Time to Die has done brisk business from its first weekend with fans arriving for midnight and early morning screenings that close the book on the Daniel Craig era in some style. Now, Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated adaptation of Dune is set to continue the cinema-going momentum with a film that speaks equally to the fan base who hold Frank Herbert’s original novel close to their hearts, and the casual viewer attracted by a stellar cast coming to the material for the first time.

On the surface, they may seem like entirely different propositions but Bond and Dune have a great deal in common; the growing appreciation for cinematography and the beautiful possibilities of light have been characteristic of the 007 movies since Sam Mendes took our breath away in Skyfall, while the insistence on real stunts and locations has been a calling card of the franchise over more than 60 years while other blockbusters have leaned in to CGI and backlot filming approaches. A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune adopts much the same approach, and while some CGI is required – it is a space film after all – the director situates his narrative style in the reality of locations and stunt-work that make this a very satisfying cinema experience.

At a small UK preview, screening at the BFI Southbank, Villeneuve described his setting as the “period-future,” a place that is recognisable in its visual aesthetic, with technologies in particular as well as costume design that reference medieval, Middle Ages and incongruously (but rather brilliantly) the 1980s, while simultaneously presenting a futuristic vision of inhospitable alien planets, sleek design and what is assumed to be cutting-edge assault weaponry. Together, this visual approach from Patrice Vermette creates instant familiarity for the viewer, easing us into a story that has just enough elements of identifiable human existence to introduce and frame the characters without needing to spend too much expositional time trying to get to grips with the context in which they are operating. Instead, with a bit of societal and political explanation, the story can hit the ground running.

Villeneuve’s masterstroke is to combine classic depictions of machinery but wrap them in futuristic packages, so many of the helicopter-like ships and guns are drawn from 1970s and 1980s references with buttons to press, monitors to track altitude, while the film also has an interest in the effect of knives, poisons and swords as well as the more explosive armoury that gives the film this depth. In fact, the influences from the big action movies and space films of these decades are clear, not only Star Wars of course, but, surprisingly, Top Gun which set a standard for the way in which the aerial attack and tracking sequences take place.

Villeneuve draws on Tony Scott’s prior work in showing both the high stakes perspective of the craft under attack, taking an internal and external cockpit perspective that shows the strain on the pilot – be it protagonist Paul or mentor Duncan (Jason Momoa) – as well as his view of enemy ships preparing to hone-in on their target. The quick cuts heighten the tension in these aerial battles, adding jeopardy in the same way that Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ experienced in simulator flights and MIG attacks which is an interesting reference point for a film set thousands of years beyond the action of Top Gun.

We see similar influences in Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s Medieval meets Middle East meets centuries from now dress design that also take-in a responsiveness to the desert elements so vital to the credible creation of place and character in Dune. To cope with heat and the often destructive sand-filled wind, fabrics are loose, blowsy or draped for both men and women when venturing beyond the Palace compound while drawing a determined class distinction between those growing up off-world (and in regal surroundings) and the Fremen desert community led by Javier Bardem’s Stilagar, seeking to protect themselves from the imposition of different colonialist communities.

The references to flexible and even fight-proof Medieval / Early Modern costume design are vast, most obviously Game of Thrones, The Witcher and films like Outlaw King, Macbeth and The King (also Timothee Chalamet), mixing with futurist and, even more notably, religious influences that favour high-necked, floor-length gowns for women at court. The famous stillsuit that protects fighters in battle, allowing them to breath in the spice-infused desert air, are built as grey exoskeletons, costumes that are given a uniform look and feel to strengthen the sense of conformity and military force – like the X-Men bodysuits from First Class but with added safety features in camouflage colours.

Villeneuve’s vision is complete and evocative, weaving these varied influences seamlessly together and then blending them with a sprawling dynastic story about the imposition of rulers, climate change and interplanetary political conflict that must display differences in class, culture, experience and belief while taking the hero on a coming-of-age journey that by the end of Part One leaves him ready to assume the responsibilities he has been born to, as well as those prophesised for him by believers seeking Messianic intervention and deliverance. That astute combination of visual spectacle, context creation and narrative development is achieved in a film that Villeneuve makes both epic and intimate, complex and driven specifically by Paul’s evolution and growing understanding that makes Dune an exciting and enthralling piece of cinema.

The family unit is an important construct in the first part of Dune, creating an interesting sense of inherited entitlement for a House given the opportunity to return to and rule their homeland, noting the generations before who, like Paul, have learned to fight, to participate in political counsels and to understand the culture of leadership. This coming-of-age trope is familiar, even in space movies where the hero is required to put those skills into practice before the end of the film to demonstrate his worthiness to inherit the mantles of his historic forebears.

Along the way, there must be trial and tribulation, suffering to shape the young protagonist, often with the sacrifice of a beloved item or companion, that gives personal depth to his quest. This, Dune manages particularly well as Paul adjusts not only to his new home but also to the budding responsibilities that his future requires of him. The sacrifices that inevitably accompany this before the end of Part One must leave him in a position to relinquish the past, knowing the his future is not only to apply his training but to forge a new path alone.

Chalamet is perfectly cast as Paul, carrying the film with considerable ease, and Villeneuve has been savvy in choosing an actor capable of great depth ad capacity. Action and Sci-fi movies have given gravitas to their subject matter by countering the CGI and action scenes with character development and, crucially, psychology. This has been best achieved with respected actors including McKellen and Stewart in the original X-Men series and then Fassbender and McAvoy (the more recent films suffering by moving away from their compelling chemistry). Likewise, Marvel has taken the once small role of Loki and, based largely on Hiddleston’s performance, created a beloved character with his own spin-off parallel world. Chalamet has those same qualities as an actor, able to express so much with few words while bringing a seriousness of purpose and grounding to the dialogue that helps to embed the film’s more fanciful tropes.

As he did with The King, Paul is also a creation feeling the burden of his father’s expectations and wanting to find a different, more responsive path. Sensitive and alive to the implication of conquest that his family’s presence represents, Chalamet’s Paul is initially dismissive of the various prophesies and predictions that accompany his arrival. Part of that coming-of-age journey is to recognise and understand the fallibility of his parents as he learns more about the religious background of his mother and the powers that his dual heritage brings.

Crucially, Chalamet has that double capacity to carry those weightier scenes involving family, politics and the future of an empire resting on his shoulders as well as credible action sequences as his character learns to fight, to escape and ultimately to lead as the events of Part One unfold. And charting Paul’s development across this film merges perfectly with the changing audience perspective so we, like the people of Arakkis see Paul evolve in Chalamet’s performance, absorbing the official lessons as well as the circumstantial changes that help his protagonist become a credible action hero by the end of the film, one who becomes an accepted and blooded fighter in a crucial test of mettle that leaves the story and the character on the cusp of significant change.

And part of this coming-of-age development is to live through and instigate the breakdown of pre-existing social structures, aided by those purposeful action sequences, discussed earlier, in which the life Paul has known and his support system are effectively curtailed. War in the later stages of Part One results in changes to the medieval hierarchy which had divided into three classifications, nobility, military services and established religious leaders, who held power within the court. In taking Paul through the story, a democratisation occurs both in his thinking and his position that leaves him closer to the forgotten native people of Arrakis, a point at which the character encounters the feared Fremen tribe and becomes synonymous with the natural world and the political emancipation and education that will seemingly determine his future path and the future stability of the planet.

Like Bond, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser create a beautiful and artistic visual style for the film, most obviously referencing the epic desert films Lawrence of Arabia in the sheer scale and intensity of the landscape as well as The English Patient, notable particularly for Antony Minghella’s aerial shots that captured the undulating sand dunes which Villeneuve nods to here. But Fraser creates a place that is both glossy and forbidding, a dreamscape almost, often obscured by the particles of sand in the wind that blend the unmistakable location footage with the fantasy world of Arakkis. Together, these visual choices and production decisions give the film its authentic feel that help to underpin and properly situate the Atreides family saga.

With plenty of political, social and scientific messages in Herbert’s original novel as well as meaningful performances from a fine cast including Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stelland Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and Golda Rosheuvel plus cinematic influences from a huge range of action movies, there is plenty of depth and scope to Dune. The thoughtfulness of Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of Dune and the wide-ranging directorial, historic and aesthetic influences that combine to create this two-part production are hugely appealing, providing enough familiarity to root the story in a recognisable period-future context that enhances the central coming-of-age narrative.

Dune is released in cinemas on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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


Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. 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.


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