God’s Own Country (2017)

God’s Own Country borrows so much from Ang Lee’s famous cowboy romance it should have been titled “Brokeback on the Moors”.

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

Two strapping young lads herding sheep by day and making love to each other one night out in the field? Check. Do we see spit being used instead of lube? Yes. Is there an awkward silence the next morning? Absolutely. Does the one deliberately look in front of him while the other changes his underwear in the background? That, too. And is there evident yearning when one of them smells a piece of clothing left behind by the one who is no longer there? Yes, even that.

God’s Own Country, an often assured feature-film début by British director Francis Lee, borrows whole-cloth from Brokeback Mountain without adding much of its own, although the story has been altered slightly for the sake of updating and transposing Ang Lee’s landmark 2005 film to the grittier moors of the English countryside.

The central character here is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a farm boy barely out of his teens, whom we first lay eyes on late one night when he is throwing up in the toilet bowl of his parents’ farmhouse in Yorkshire. The next morning, we learn this is a regular occurrence, and we soon realise why: In this small farming community, being gay is not yet entirely acceptable, and even though Johnny has frequent encounters (penetration, never kissing) with whoever locks eyes with him at the bar or an auction, the idea of a relationship with a man is a foreign concept to him.

His father has suffered a stroke and realises his son is not up to the job of taking on his role on the farm. Thus, a (presumably) low-paying position as a temporary farmhand opens up, and this is when a brooding young Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, who looks like he could be Oscar Isaac’s brother) arrives on the scene, not without his own baggage. Things develop more or less as we expect, although these two characters are much more secure in their sexuality than Jack and Ennis the cowboys, their famous fictional counterparts from the early 2000s, who were admittedly a product of their time.

Lee’s handling of the relationship is very sensitive at the outset, and the two characters complement each other in just the right way: the immature Johnny, whose idea of the world only extends as far as the closest pub, has had plenty of sexual encounters but no intimacy, while Gheorghe, who has travelled to the United Kingdom on his own and seems much wiser about the ways of the world, takes on the role of both lover and father to the slightly awkward Englishman. The scene in which the two finally kiss, after much reluctance from Johnny, is paced just right and a striking testament to Gheorghe’s patience and tenderness.

Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are an absolute travesty – the kind of fairytale development that lessens the film’s thoughtfulness and is wholly at odds with the rest of the plot. It feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought for the sake of greater viewer satisfaction and commercial success, but the resolution to the climax’s dramatic complication is a myopic idea of romance that one character is too callow to deserve and the other is too good to concede.

The ending is a big disappointment, but the rest of the film does a good job of making the rough contours of a relationship seem less sharp-edged.

All in all, while the meaning of its title remains an enigma, God’s Own Country is mostly a compelling reworking of a tale we have seen before, and the reason lies primarily with the small group of very committed actors. Besides O’Connor and Secăreanu, Ian Hart as Johnny’s stern but paternal father and Gemma Jones as the devoted grandmother both warm our hearts with their candid but caring interactions with Johnny.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

The Danish Girl (2014)

Tom Hooper’s Danish Girl, which tells an important story about a historic, groundbreaking gender transition, struggles to confront its own identity crisis.

UK
3*

Directed by:
Tom Hooper

Screenwriter:
Lucinda Coxon

Director of Photography:
Danny Cohen

Running time: 120 minutes

The Danish Girl, which was 2014’s much talked-about transgender movie, puts on a very strange face right at the outset, for no apparent reason. Given the title, one would expect the film to open in Denmark, and indeed it does, except the landscape is about as un-Danish as one can imagine. Instead of the ever so slightly rolling countryside, we see giant mountains rising up from the coast. In fact, despite the plot (and this scene!) being set in Denmark, these mountains are in western Norway’s Møre og Romsdal county. For a film that is supposed to be all about its main character’s true nature, this is an absolutely unforgivable and truly puzzling moment.

The sudden fame of Caitlyn Jenner over the year immediately preceding the release of the film had catapulted transgender individuals onto centre stage at about the same time as the rest of the LGBT family was finally granted the opportunity to marry, on an equal footing with all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage, in the United States. Jenner was praised in some quarters and reviled in others by both gay and straight people alike, but it is rather obvious that the central character in The Danish Girl, Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), was chosen because she was the first person ever to undergo sex reassignment surgery — nearly 90 years ago — and because she is much more likable than Jenner.

Even if the film stupidly deceives us with its opening (and closing) visuals, the story of Einar (played by the very suitably delicate-featured Eddie Redmayne) accepting his inner Lili has the advantage of being both true and topical. It is a story that will find a certain audience, but the reasons are unfortunate. For one, there is very little drama, both internal and external. The film contains only a single scene of violence committed against Einar because of his sexually ambiguous features and provides precious little insight into his moments of self-doubt or self-reflection. He writes a diary to make sense of his feelings, but we never discover what he writes.

Luckily for him, but unfortunately for the film, there is surprisingly little drama in his marriage, too. Einar, an artist, is married to a fellow painter, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who appears to care for him so deeply that she simply accepts her husband’s transition almost without blinking an eye. While her response is unquestionably loving and beautiful, it also removes any drama that might result in a better understanding of the situation from either side.

The major challenge here is to get the audience to fully appreciate the situation from Einar’s point of view. Despite his feminine features, he appears to be living a happy life with Gerda in the early 1920s, even though they have been trying without success to have a child of their own. Early in the film, Gerda asks Einar to pose for her in women’s clothing so that she can add a final touch to one of her paintings. Embarrassed, he acquiesces, and then he suddenly has a eureka moment with the fabric as he is stroking it across his skin.

Before long, he is wearing his wife’s clothes under his own, putting on makeup and dressing up to go out into the world as Lili. Gerda is a little surprised but not entirely shocked, until she discovers Lili has been seeing a young man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), for companionship. While the viewer can come up with reasons for this behavior, the film does not provide them and instead glosses over any discussion of them entirely.

We get small but very simplistic hints to fill in Einar’s back story — for example, Gerda relates how she propositioned him on their first date, how she kissed him, instead of the other way around, and how it felt like she was kissing herself. The writing here is utterly transparent and about as helpful as having a gay character say he once played with a doll when he was a boy.

The story starts to pick up once the couple relocates to Paris, where Einar gradually starts to mimic the gestures of the women around him in order to appear more feminine when he behaves as Lili. Here, Einar/Lili and Gerda also meet up with Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Hans’s, who brings some much-needed complexity to the story line.

The film’s desire to be accessible has watered down the emotional turmoil that one would expect from Einar/Lili and Gerda. Its depiction of the many doctors who fail to understand Einar’s condition, each of whom comes across as vile if not sadistic, is just as ridiculous. At other times, shocking revelations are not followed by the expected conversations but rather by ellipses that are incredibly frustrating because the director does not have the stomach to show us how the couple argues.

The Danish Girl brought the world the story of a groundbreaking icon of the movement for acceptance of (unconventional) sexual identity, but its reliance on suggestion rather than a rich narrative and sturdier characters undermines its own significance. While the film is far more capably directed than Hooper’s laughable Les Misérables, it never comes close to the sheer whirlwind of passion that so vividly brought his The King’s Speech to life.

The Angels’ Share (2012)

Ken Loach goes easy on the grit, promotes the inspirational side of this dramatic fairy tale in which Scottish whisky plays a central role. 

Angels’ ShareUK
3.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Ken Loach is not exactly known for the flippant nature of his films. He has, together with fellow British director Mike Leigh, carved out the gritty social realist niche of his country’s film industry and has done so methodically over more than four decades since one of his first films, Kes, burst onto the screen in 1969.

His primary focus on the working class and his obviously sincere attempts to capture their toil and struggles, and represent them by actors in a fictional film, has gained him a large following of filmgoers who perceive the cinema as a tool to bring such naturalism to people’s attention.

In The Angels’ Share, he still follows that line, though the territory he stakes out is a bit more obviously cinematic than one would have expected from him. Nonetheless, the film’s best bits are all firmly tied to the central, slightly contrived, thrust of the narrative, and oddly enough the bits of social drama we would have guessed to be Loach’s strong suit come across as little more than an afterthought.

Set in Glasgow, the film opens with a gorgeous introductory sequence in juvenile court, where many young boys and girls are mostly sentenced to community service for their various crimes. One of the boys is a young man called Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who has a scar across his face, which he got, we soon learn, one night when he was walking the streets while coked up and decided it would be a good idea to kick a random stranger to within an inch of his life.

We never see the rest of Robbie’s family, and he spends most of his evenings on a mattress at a friend’s apartment. He has just become a father, but his girlfriend’s family has no intention of allowing him to associate with his new-born son. There are other young men, too, who threaten to beat him up if they see him around, and the fear he has for his well-being is as warranted as it is constant.

These threats manifest themselves in a few small scenes of mild violence, but Robbie doesn’t seem to live in any fear and refuses to let the young hoodlums get to him. This storyline doesn’t always come across as coherently as it should, as Robbie’s girlfriend appears and disappears for the sake of a narrative that seems to pretend it has powerful domestic questions to resolve, but actually this is just padding for the other storyline.

This other part of the film is much more interesting, though it is by no means exceptional. It has to do with Robbie’s friendship with Harry (John Henshaw), the father-like guard on duty during the community service hours, from whom he learns all about whisky and discovers he has a natural talent for appreciating this malt spirit. He is noticed by a whisky collector, Thaddeus (Roger Allam), who is impressed by Robbie’s knowledge and feeling for the drink. And the time Robbie has spent in jail comes in handy enough when he recognises the potential money to be made from the whisky industry.

Like magic dust on the grim, directionless lives of the main characters, most of them involved in community service projects after run-ins with the law, the “angels’ share” in the title refers to the small fraction of whisky that disappears over time while it is kept in the oak barrels. It evaporates, and is therefore handed to the angels, as it were. The film’s intention is to make whisky a kind of golden elixir that gives Robbie a new lease on life, or perhaps a new life altogether, pulling him up into the ranks of honest work, and for this purpose the drink is well-chosen.

Like the work of fellow countryman Leigh, Loach draws very credible performances from his actors, many of whom, including lead actor Brannigan, had never starred in a film before. There is very little in the film that feels acted or staged, with the exception of Robbie’s girlfriend, who sometimes delivers her lines with visibly less poise than her fellow cast members.

The Angels’ Share is performed in a very strong Glaswegian accent that is not always easy to follow, though the actions and the general ambience of the film are put onscreen very well and allow viewers outside Glasgow to follow the storyline and easily empathise with these characters. While issues of drugs and poverty are touched on, the film has an optimistic approach to the representation of this working-class segment of the population and seeks to inspire the viewer.

This inspirational approach produces something a bit like a fairy tale that may not be credible to everyone, but it makes for a film well worth watching.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

While 12 Years a Slave has its share of problems moving from the page to the screen, it is a haunting film that raises the bar for all other depictions of the 19th-century South.

12-years-a-slaveUSA/UK
3.5*

Director:
Steve McQueen
Screenwriter:
John Ridley
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 135 minutes

The most famous shot in Gaspar Noë’s agonising Irréversible shows a woman in an underground passage in Paris being raped while the camera remains nearly static in front of her, and we helplessly watch her face as she endures relentless brutality. There is a similar shot near the beginning of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in which we see the formerly freeman Solomon Northup strapped in chains to the floor of a small cell, kneeling towards a barred opening in the wall and being beaten again and again – so hard, in fact, that the implements break upon his back – by a slave owner who bought him from money-hungry kidnappers.

While not without its minor faults, the film is a powerful portrayal of one man’s journey into slavery and is a much-needed improvement over other films in recent years that dealt with the unequal rights of African Americans in U.S. history, such as The Butler.

This adaptation of the real-life Northup’s autobiographical tale relates in great detail how he was a freeman but was likely drugged and sold into slavery, shipped to plantations in Louisiana and had to spend 12 gruelling years (most of them under the whip of a vicious plantation owner named Epps) as someone’s property in conditions that are equally inhuman.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, who has to take the name “Platt” during a slave auction and is stuck with the name for the rest of his time as a slave. Ejiofor’s portrayal of his character, very evidently guided by McQueen’s firm hand, is subtle but consistent, and the film’s ending is a magnificent display of the emotional power that is unleashed when anticipation meets catharsis – with Northup at the centre.

This being a McQueen film, the visuals are breathtaking and slightly unconventional. He is fond of shots that last longer than they would in most other films, and while the beating of Northup, described above, is the most evident example, another impressive shot is the static shot showing the aftermath of an attempted lynching. The horror of the scene is stunningly underscored by the daily activities on the farm continuing to take place as if the victim – straining his neck to free him from the noose – wasn’t even present and struggling for his life. Some viewers may be put off by the use of a few of these lingering shots, as they very often serve to pause rather than emphasise, with the striking exception of this excruciating post-lynching portrait.

The film opens halfway through the story, with Northup trying to fashion a writing implement to no avail and rebuffing the nocturnal advances of a girl who sleeps next to him in the tiny wooden slave cabin.

We then flash back to his life as a free citizen of the northern states, where he lives with his wife and two young children and makes his living as an accomplished violinist. He is called upon by two mysterious gentlemen who promise him great financial reward, and together they travel southward, where he is taken captive in the dark of night, having knocked back too many glasses of alcohol in celebration of his big journey to Washington, D.C. He wakes up in a slave pen, chained, naked and alone, and he has to deny his own status as a freeman.

In Northup’s memoir, he soon impresses with his skills as a violinist, but the film changes this detail in order to establish a bond between Northup and his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems like a man he can trust to set him free. However, Ford’s unwillingness or powerlessness is revealed in two wonderful interactions (between Northup and Ford; and Northup and fellow slave Eliza), neither of which features in the novel, that make clear Ford’s wilful blindness even while we still share Northup’s view of him as a man whom we can call noble in many other respects.

12 Years a Slave is a very faithful cinematic adaptation of the eponymous novel, although it has its share of modifications, two of which stand out: The first concerns the scene in which Northup is chased through the swamp and has to hide from the bloodhounds. It has been omitted from the film, which is a shame, as it was without a doubt the most riveting scene of the entire book.

The second regards the story’s point of view. As the novel was written in the first person, Northup always made it clear which events he experienced with his own body and which ones he learned about from someone else. We had complete faith in Northup when he told the story from his perspective, and we believed the other stories because he believed them. Northup is in almost every single scene of McQueen’s film, but the inclusion of a scene in which he is not present at all – the late-night rape of the young Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) by the plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) – make no sense beyond upping our indignation, which by that stage has already reached fever pitch. The terror, violence and disrespect inflicted on Northup are enough to get our empathy: We didn’t need McQueen deploying other characters to mine our souls for pity.

But while the focus could have been tighter and the scenes stitched together more smoothly (indications of the passage of time also would have been helpful, although perhaps this frustration with chronological orientation is exactly what the director intended), the direction is firm, and the effect on the audience is at times devastating. The storyline involving Patsy – particularly those scenes in which Northup is also present, and we can see his reaction to the injustice committed against this young woman whom Epps’s wife despises because of her beauty – is heartrending and produces a very successful depiction of what the book merely mentions in passing.

12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s third film as a director (following Hunger and Shame) and is his best attempt yet to fuse his artistic sensibility with more commercial narrative demands.

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Newcastle’s welfare office becomes a Kafkaesque setting of incompetence and callousness offering no substantive assistance to the desperate and the unemployed in Ken Loach’s searing I, Daniel Blake.

i-daniel-blakeUK
4.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Kafka is alive and well in Newcastle, and by extension, most of Western society. The black-and-white opening credits of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or–winning are accompanied by the sound of Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widower and former carpenter, trying to knock common sense into a “healthcare professional” who is assessing his case for state benefits. We never see said “professional”, and occasionally we also learn that an equally nameless “decision maker” will resolve Daniel’s case for better or worse.

Dave Johns stars as the recently-stricken-by-a-heart-attack Blake, whose doctor has stated that he should not be working. After he makes a fuss over the bureaucracy he encounters (he had to complete a 52-page form, which somehow still proved insufficient for the government), he is told that a decision has been made that he is fit to work and has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work in order to be eligible for benefits.

The welfare office is always abuzz with activity, but the place reeks of condescension, with middle-aged, lower-middle-class women barking orders at those slightly less fortunate than themselves, pretending that following the rules will somehow lead to a better life. Nobody is listened, everybody is talked down to, and there is no way for the welfare seekers to hang on to their dignity without the government stiffing them for talking back.

It is a desperate situation, and yet Dan has seen worse in his lifetime. His wife died not long ago, and his memories of her, in particular the song the liked, Ronald Binge’s “Shipping By”, which always precedes the BBC’s shipping forecast, appears to keep his spirits up. His pleasant demeanour inspires those around him, including his neighbour, China (the ever-smiling Kema Sikazwe), a resourceful young man who is importing trainers from – you guessed it! – China.

But it is his chance meeting with Katie Morgan (a mesmerisingly intense Hayley Squires), a woman in her mid-20s raising two children from two different fathers on her own, that carries the narrative. After defending her against the callousness of the employees at the welfare office, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her, her daughter, Daisy, and her son, Dylan, and helps them settle into their new but dilapidated home, where his skills as a carpenter and an all-round man of the house come in handy.

The scenes with Katie, who has not found work yet and is unlikely to receive anything from the government because she made a scene, according to the office manager, sustain the narrative and show us how these two characters lean on each other, finding strength and companionship despite their lonely fight against the state Goliath.

The film contains a few powerful scenes, but its power comes from the quiet bubbling desperation that we see in Katie’s life and that we fear might snatch the life from what remains of Daniel’s existence. There is nothing worse than seeing people do their best to care for themselves and for those close to them but having to take desperate measures when push comes to shove. In Katie’s case, she starts skipping meals so that her children have enough to eat, and when she is caught shoplifting, a security guard tells her her looks could help her bring in the money she needs.

As the title indicates, however, the film’s primary concern is identity, and in particular, the need to stand up against anyone – even the State – looking to tear us down. Daniel Blake is recovering from a heart attack, but even a healthy man or woman would blanch at the sight of the bureaucracy and emotional manipulation in which this government agency specialises. For example, Daniel knows nothing about computers and has never used a mouse, but because all the forms he needs are online, and the welfare office refuses to print him a paper copy, he goes hither and thither to complete the process. The final nail in the coffin is when we realise one woman at the office, Ann, wants to help him but is either told to follow the rules or advises him to do things according to the guidelines lest he find himself out on the street, something she has witnessed in the past.

This is a damning indictment of the heartlessness of the Conservative UK government in particular, but more generally of Western society as a whole, which is concerned about its unemployment rates but cares little for the unemployed, not the unemployable.

There will be few dry eyes in the house at the close of the film, and hopefully many a viewer’s heart will beat with rage at the injustice that good people suffer at the hands of those who follow often pointless rules to a fault and relish their power over the powerless.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Anthropoid (2016)

True-to-life account of the two heroes behind a stunning assassination in the heart of Nazi-occupied Bohemia is brilliantly staged but marred by peculiar editing decisions and mishmash of accents.

anthropoidUK/Czech Republic
3.5*

Director:
Sean Ellis

Screenwriters:
Sean Ellis

Anthony Frewin
Director of Photography:
Sean Ellis

Running time: 120 minutes

There are few people as unequivocally heroic yet as little known outside their home country as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. Czechoslovak soldiers born during the First World War, they would grow to see their proud nation in the heart of Europe betrayed by the Allied forces and handed over to Nazi Germany by the time they reached their mid-20s. Their supreme act of bravery – assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s cold-blooded emissary to the occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia – ultimately did little to change the tide against the Nazis, but the stand they took against the Third Reich is one of the most admirable acts of the 20th century.

UK director Sean Ellis spent many years developing the screenplay for Anthropoid (the title refers to the codename of the two soldiers’ top-secret mission), and the film’s plot closely resembles the events as they occurred at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942. However, accuracy and entertainment are by no means the same thing, and it is with this latter point that the director fails to make an adequate impression.

Anthropoid opens late on a cold December night when the two men, who had received their orders from the Czech government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, are dropped 30 kilometres from Prague. Anthropoid screenplay is boldly structured to eschew flashbacks and to limit itself to the Czech territory for exactly as long as the two men’s lifespan.

Very little happens over the course of the first hour, however. Although there is a sense of foreboding regarding the execution of the plan, Ellis does a poor job of showing us life under occupation. Czechs appear to go about their business, even as Germans in uniform show up at their cafés and bars, but there is no real feeling for the Czechs and their (presumably) terrified frame of mind. Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones, whose presence in the film is very steadying) expresses anger about the 1938 Munch Agreement, but that is as much as we get. The film also makes very little effort to show us the camaraderie between the two men who spend six months in very close proximity, most of the time hiding the real purpose of their presence in the Prague to everyone around them.

Unfortunately, because of the actors involved and a number of peculiar decisions made during the editing process, the final product is wildly uneven.

The actors are Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the Czech Kubiš and the Slovak Gabčík, respectively, and it was certainly a clever bit of casting, with Dornan being a native of Northern Ireland while Murphy hails from the Republic of Ireland. This cleverness, however, cannot make up for Dornan’s unshakable Irish lilt that hits us every time he opens his mouth, which has the effect of leaving the viewer wholly alienated from the story’s time and place.

Among the rest of the cast, the inconsistency in pronunciation is another nuisance. From a financial point of view, it is understandable that the film was made in English. But while the accents are already imperfect, the issue is compounded by the fact that some Czech cast members choose to pronounce uniquely Czech letters (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce “ř”) in their native tongue, while other players stick to the closest English equivalent.

The editing process is equally flawed, and perhaps the most egregious examples are the otherwise stunning set pieces that serve as pivotal moments in the narrative: the assassination of Heydrich, which takes place in public in broad daylight, and a six-hour shootout inside the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

Both of these events, while meticulously staged and deserving of admiration because of how they unfold, have their sound turned off at the most crucial moments. At times, they are only accompanied by the soft sounds of an extradiegetic piano, which imbues them with a cloak of artistry when they require a more gritty sense of immediacy.

The film’s opening minutes are similarly inelegant. After a few introductory bits of text that are misleading at best and historically inaccurate at worst (Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and its full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia less than six months later are seemingly lumped together), we get a handful of shots in close, slapdash succession that communicate precious little but point to a director more interested in telling his story through the editing suite than with the camera.

Visually, there is nothing particularly memorable about Anthropoid, at least not in a good way, as the film is tinged in a golden hue that is completely unnecessary, and Prague is always covered in a thick layer of fog, with only a church spire, a few rooftops and Prague Castle visible, most likely in order to save money.

And yet, despite all these problems, Ellis does draw on some genuinely moving material in subtle and very effective ways. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the entire film comes very early on when the two parachutists are questioned by the Prague Resistance: Kubiš’s response to a question about his hometown in Moravia shimmers with nostalgia and patriotism conveyed through words alone that conjure up a single image. In that moment, we understand Kubiš’s firm connection to his country and why he has come back to defend it against the ongoing Nazi aggression. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.

Dornan’s accent does not do him any favours, and in general he appears to be absent from the narrative, except for the numerous close-ups on his shivering hands (to make the point, in no uncertain terms, that he is also just a man and does not have nerves of steel). By contrast, Murphy excels as Gabčík, and so does Anna Geislerová, who plays his romantic interest, Lenka, a young woman who has already seen more than her share of violence and experienced more pain during the war than we could imagine.

It would have required a real genius to turn this story of bravery and success-despite-all-odds into anything but riveting, not unlike the entertaining hatchet job that Wolfgang Petersen did with Troy. The lead-up to the action-packed final act is rather dull and dreary, although Ellis has to be commended for minimising the visibility of swastikas – usually a hallmark of these kinds of films, but it is particularly disheartening that the two major set pieces fall short of perfection because of the sound choices. In addition, the climax contains a laughable hallucination that has no place in the film.

This is a story that everyone should be aware of, and this is the most poignant portrayal of the story to date, but the film itself would have benefited from a greater focus on realistic sound, particularly with regard to the accents of the cast.

Redemption (2013)

In Redemption, a former British soldier who endured a tragic episode during his tour of duty in Afghanistan tries to put his life back together and gets some unexpected help from a local crime lord and a Polish nun.

redemptionUK
2.5*

Director:
Steven Knight
Screenwriter:
Steven Knight

Director of Photography:
Chris Menges

Alternate title: Hummingbird

Running time: 100 minutes

Although his name points to potentially religious overtones that could dovetail with the film’s title, Joseph “Joey” Smith (Jason Statham), who shares his name with the founder of Mormonism, never projects any measure of spirituality. In fact, the closest he comes to addressing issues of faith is his occasional but very cursory reflections on whether his behaviour is good enough to redeem him from past mistakes.

Unfortunately, given their implicit significance for Joey, Redemption spends precious little time fleshing out these past mistakes. The opening scene, which is deliberately fragmentary but whose inadequacy and bad staging is revealed in later scenes that slightly elaborate on the action, is apparently the inflection point for Joey. In Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand Province, Western military men are shot to pieces; shortly afterwards, a Middle Eastern man is marched through a market towards certain death at the hands of his captor, a Western soldier. This seemingly random scene, the only one to take place in Afghanistan, is one of Joey’s mistakes.

But it is also one of the film’s mistakes because the parts are so disjointed that the director already loses us in the opening seconds. We tell ourselves that, “Obviously, the importance will be revealed later in the film”, but the only reason the shootout is memorable is because it looks so bad: There is no setup of place nor character, and we merely get a shot of six seated men in uniform suddenly starting to shake violently to the rhythm of gunfire on the soundtrack before they spit blood. This is gruesome, but we don’t see why we should care. When we realise much later that this was in fact a point-of-view shot, the setup (and the observer’s apparent ability to escape this bloodshed entirely) makes even less sense.

Following this prologue, the narrative quickly shifts gears to one year later on the streets of London, where we find the city’s homeless being preyed on by a small group of aggressive scoundrels. One of the vagrants hits back with some surprising skill and manages to flee the scene. He ends up breaking into a vacant apartment in the city centre, behind Soho and Temple, which he will occupy for the rest of the story as he puts the pieces of his life back in order. His real name is Joey Smith, but the time has come for him to reshape his identity – and with it, his destiny.

However, the story of the apartment is a little too ridiculous for words. It belongs to a well-known photographer who has conveniently left for six months in New York City without setting the alarm. Also, perhaps most preposterously, this man’s wardrobe fits Joey like a glove. In fact, it would not have been much of a stretch to expect a revelation that Joey is in fact the same photographer, a fellow called Damon, but with amnesia, as we never see what the real tenant looks like until the very end of the film. Such a turn of events would not have been much worse than what we get here.

Joey befriends a Polish nun who serves soup to the homeless, initially to ask about the whereabouts of Isabel, a girl with whom he used to share a cardboard box on the street. This relationship with Isabel is sorely underexplained, and it is impossible to imagine why he is so desperate to find her. On a parallel track, some people from his past turn up, but they serve as mere reminders of a life that is a world away, and aside from the vague contours of the war in Afghanistan there is no account of the twists and turns that led him to this point. 

The nun, Cristina, another character with a religion-inflected name, is another blank slate whom we know little about until late in the film when she abruptly becomes a major part of the storyline, even though Joey’s own development is shallow and has very few milestones.

Luckily, Benedict Wong brings some gravitas to the proceedings in his role as Mr. Choy, a senior figure in one of London’s triads. Word from Joey’s employer, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, reaches him that this is a man who knows how to fight back, and before long Joey works for Mr. Choy and drives around the City doing dirty work with a poker face and receiving wads of cash that he ends up stuffing in his (rather, Damon’s) freezer.

Redemption‘s visual style is as muddled as its content. At various points, there are unexplained inserts of grainy footage taken from the perspective of a surveillance camera or a drone, and while the latter refers back to Joey’s time in Afghanistan, the visuals are too infrequent, too inconsequential and too inconsistent for the film to utilise them in an effective manner, and the connection to the events onscreen is tenuous at best. By contrast, compare the masterful inclusion of surveillance and other unconventionally obtained footage in David Ayer’s End of Watch.

Although more restrained than most other films starring Jason Statham, the film does not have the talent behind it to make the most of its Afghanistan setting nor the intelligence to increase the relevance of the drone shots. Statham is a calming presence in the middle of much that is directionless, but director Steven Knight would have to wait until his subsequent film, Locke, to redeem himself.

Ex Machina (2015)

Scribe of The Beach turns director and produces a dazzling, thought-provoking science-fiction film about artificial intelligence.

Ex MachinaUK
4.5*

Director:
Alex Garland

Screenwriter:
Alex Garland

Director of Photography:
Rob Hardy

Running time: 110 minutes

Not since the one-two of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca in 1997 and Alex Proyas’s Dark City in 1998 has a big-budget, big-return film posited the kind of highly credible near future that obliges us to confront the philosophical dilemmas raised by technological advances that we find in Alex Garland’s stunning directorial début, Ex Machina.

The tale is set in a world in which the search engine “BlueBook” (the name is arguably the least creative aspect of the entire screenplay), the fictional equivalent of Google, collects and processes the data from everyone around the world with access to a communication device. The reason for this is that the head of the company – a reclusive 30-something named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is a prodigiously gifted programmer and wrote the base code for BlueBook at the age of 13 – wants to take human civilisation to the next level. His goal is to use all of this data to construct a creature with artificial intelligence (AI), the likes of which would be indistinguishable from an organically evolved human being.

To his credit, Garland, perhaps best-known for writing the novel The Beach, does not burden his story with theory or philosophical digressions. He uses a very small cast, centres the action in a single location for almost the entirety of the film and provides minimal but distinct signposts to track the development of the drama. His storytelling proficiency is most discernible in his use of small parables that distil the essence of the dynamics at play.

There is no big setup. The opening shots quickly convey a clinical office space full of glass – that alienating material that is both allows us to see through it but separates us from that which we see – and within a few seconds, the camera settles on a closeup of a pale, blond programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He receives a flickering message on his screen informing him he has won the first prize, and his colleagues flock to his desk to congratulate him. The prize is a visit to Nathan on his estate, which includes glaciers, mountains and a forest. The house itself is a curious mixture of the natural and the artificial, as it is built into rock but contains an immense array of technological devices that Nathan uses to protect himself from the outside world, and perhaps even from the others inside his house.

Caleb learns that he was selected to help Nathan perform a Turing test, which establishes whether someone can tell that a creature has AI and is not organic. The test subject looks half-machine, half-human and is called Ava. It might be a coincidence that the initials of the actress playing the part, Alicia Vikander, are AV, which also make up more than half the name of the character, but perhaps not. Of course, the first woman on earth, at least according to mythology, had a similar name: “Eve”.

But from the very first moment we meet him, we sense that there is something wrong with Nathan. He comes across as a guy who is comfortable in his own skin but trying a little too hard to be friends with Caleb, an employee in his company. He always walks around barefoot, makes flippant comments about his own role in the advancement of humanity and misquotes Caleb as saying he is a god. Something is not quite right, but we can’t put our finger on it, and Isaac is absolutely mesmerising in the role of a physically intimidating (at least, compared with Gleeson) individual who also has the dominant position in the power relationship and is a little unstable.

The controversial, highly topical issue of the mass collection of data by institutions ranging from governments around the world to search companies like Google is only obliquely addressed, but those who follow the news will not fail to notice it. In this case, the invasion of privacy is shocking but does not dominate the narrative in any way. Instead, it serves to underscore how embedded such actions have become in the information and communication industry.

Ex Machina develops at a gradual pace, with chapters marked out onscreen by title cards that merely display the number of the session between Caleb and Ava, which also correlates with the days he spends carrying out the test. Garland shows a remarkably firm hand with his narrative as he gently shifts the power dynamics, never deviates from his story and never loses our interest. It was a very clever move to have Ava remain a marginal character almost throughout, as her importance is deceptively minimised, and despite our concern for her well-being, we side with the men. Isaac (and Caleb, to a lesser extent) considers her to be little more than a machine, even though both of them are fully aware that she is in some way, primarily because of her exterior appearance, less than human.

Garland’s film is dazzling, and while this is a much more commercial approach to philosophical questions of existence than, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its chilling resolution will spark debate about the future of mankind and the possibility of peaceful existence with machines that are just like us. Hubris should not get the better of man when he has managed to be a creator like God. Man may have his reasons, but humanoid machines will, too, and that is essential to keep in mind.

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

True story of Irish hero James Grafton, who fought for independence from those colonising his land and thoughts, shows the sickening power of the Church in Depression-era Ireland.

jimmy's hallUK/Ireland
3*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 110 minutes

Although independence is usually cause for celebration, attaining it from a colonial power is often just one struggle waged and won among others, many of which still have to be achieved. To some extent this was also true of the nation of Ireland: Following the at times very bloody Irish War of Independence of 1919–21, the heavily religious population enabled the Catholic Church to play a significant role in the administration of the country, which at times resembled a theocratic fiefdom rather than a fully fledged democratic system.

The infamous case of James “Jimmy” Gralton dates to the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. Gralton had grown up in County Leitrim in the north of the country, just south of what would become the border with Northern Ireland after the War of Independence. He emigrated to the United States as a young man, returned to fight for his country’s freedom, and subsequently opened a dance hall in his small town, an event that the conservative church found reprehensible, and he eventually had to flee back to New York City when it seemed clear he would be thrown in jail.

After the boom and bust of the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression, Gralton (Barry Ward) returned to his homeland in 1932. He reconnects with many people from a decade earlier who encourage him to re-open the centre for music, entertainment, learning and art that once carried his name. He decides to listen and even introduces them to jazz, but the Church, in the form of Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), takes matters into its own hands, ultimately leading to unprecedented action against the man who just wanted his fellow villagers to forget their troubles and be happy.

For those unfamiliar with Gralton’s story, the context is provided in two ways at the outset, although there will surely be details, like the name of the hall (Pearse-Connolly, in reference to two of the most famous casualties of the war), that slip past unnoticed. Along with the serene opening scene, set on a horse with cart in the beautiful Irish countryside, the viewer gets numerous supertitles that sketch the political environment of the time and explain the simmering tensions between the loyalists and the Republicans, although a new, slightly less right-wing party came to power in the early 1930s and filled some with optimism.

In the first few scenes, there is also a smattering of flashbacks to the early 1920s, during the heyday of the dance hall that became the thing of legend to those who had reached their teens by the time of Gralton’s return. However, these flashbacks are elegantly preceded by just the right amount of sparse hints in the dialogue about Gralton’s history, and especially his feud with fellow townsman Commander O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne), to set the scene without filling in all the blanks.

“Scars on the heart … take a long time to heal”, says Father Sheridan, speaking as much about others as about himself, and this single phrase sufficiently illuminates the collision course on which he and Gralton find themselves, although the ever-present fear of communism, and of course of losing control, also animates him greatly. The fear is far from irrational, although his reaction to it paints him as a man out to be vengeful and even authoritarian. As is so often the case, in films from The Magdalene Sisters to Philomena, the Church’s callous pursuit of power is best demonstrated through its brutal disregard for the well-being of children, and some of the most powerful scenes in Jimmy’s Hall feature the adults of tomorrow.

Even to those who don’t know anything about this particular episode, or about this period in Irish history more generally, the story may seem slightly predictable at turns. However, it is to the credit of longtime filmmaker Ken Loach that he never dwells on sentimentality too long and provides us with dialogue scenes that are heavy with words but also compelling character development. The character of the priest has to be mentioned here, as his initial black-and-white view of the world becomes slightly more shaded towards the end, making him a far more complex character than we expect, even while his repulsively unsympathetic behaviour remains.

The major issue at the heart of the story, at least from the Church’s point of view, is whether Gralton is about to embark on a campaign of brainwashing that would turn people into crimson-red communists who will follow him, the Irish Pied Piper, away to the Hamelin of a Marxist dreamland. Father Sheridan phrases the alleged attacks on Irish tradition slightly differently, by talking about the “Los Angelisation of our culture”, and he tells his church-goers that they face a fundamental choice: “Is it Christ? Or is it Gralton?”

By demonising Gralton as the Antichrist, he succeeds not only in tarring him with the brush of evil but also in striking fear in the hearts of his congregants, many of whom may not know better than to put blind trust in the words of their all-too-human priest. The consequences are tragic, but Loach is also an inspirational filmmaker who shows us how Gralton’s stay in Ireland seemed to have changed people for the better.

Although this film was widely considered to be the last by the veteran filmmaker, who at the time of release was in his late 70s and had been making films for more than 45 years (his sophomore production, Kes, released in 1969, often ranks near the top of lists of the best British films ever made), his subsequent film, I, Daniel Blake, would go on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival just two years later, in 2016. 

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s prelude to his award-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives offers very little but looks exquisite and does hint at a deeper meaning.

letter-uncle-boonmeeThailand/UK
3*

Director:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Screenwriter:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 17 minutes

Original title: จดหมาย ถึงลุงบุญมี
Transliterated title: Cdh̄māy t̄hụng loong buỵ mī

For the sake of clarity, this review refers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the film’s “director” while using the term “filmmaker” to point to the anonymous diegetic individual/s who is/are allegedly making the film in front of our eyes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee – a trial run  for what would eventually become his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – eludes explanation to the uninitiated viewer and eschews plot in favour of feeling, which is always a gamble. However, while Weerasethakul does give us a bit more to chew on, it is only in the short film’s closing credits that we get a firm indication of the theme that we were witness to.

The images in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, all linked to the small town of Nabua, are without a main character. Except for what appears to be an ape-like apparition lurking in the forest, there is only a single individual whose face we clearly see, and he never speaks nor does anything of note – in fact, he barely moves at all, and we certainly don’t know his name nor function in the story. But the director does give a subtle hint, as the man, like all of the handful of other characters we see in the film, wears a military uniform, a feature that receives some weight from a voice-over recalling how “soldiers once occupied this place” and that they “killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle”. The many portraits we see on the walls inside the cottage presumably pictures of these villagers.

Furthermore, the closing credits are immediately preceded by a black screen carrying the following dedication, which briefly contextualises the action, albeit with extreme hesitation: “For Uncle Boonmee Srigulwong, who remained in northeastern Thailand for his past reincarnations, and for the residents of the village of Nabua who were forced to leave their homes.”

The film starts by repeating the words in the titular letter to the filmmaker’s uncle Boonmee. However, “filmmaker” is a very slippery term here, because neither of the two (different!) voices that speak the letter via voice-over belongs to Weerasethakul. The fact that the two voices audibly do not belong to the same individual is emblematic of the director’s approach to his story, which relishes the mixture of reality and fiction that is apparent at every turn.

In the short letter, reproduced below, the filmmaker talks about the film we are watching and how it likely fails to accurately depict the reality of his uncle’s living conditions. The making of the film is supported by off-screen dialogue later on about the wording of the letter itself, and we get a very modernist breaking of the fourth wall when we see someone swing the matte box away in order to change a lens and thus allow us to “see things more clearly”.

Uncle,
I have been here for a while. I want to see a movie about your life. So I proposed a project about your reincarnations. In my script, your house is in a longan farm surrounded by mountains. But here there are endless plains and rice fields.
Last week, I met a man I thought was your son. He works at the auto garage. But after talking to him, I thought he was your nephew because his father was a policeman who owned hundreds of cows. Judging from your book, I don’t think you owned a lot of cows. And you were a teacher, weren’t you? The man was old. He couldn’t remember his father’s name very well. Might have been Boonmee or Boonma. He said it was a long time ago.
Here in Nabua, there are several houses well-suited for this short film for which I got funding from England. I don’t know what your house looked like. I can’t use the one in my script since it is so different from the ones here. Maybe some parts of these houses would resemble yours.

These words play out on the soundtrack while we watch the camera gracefully track through the empty cottages, devoid of any life but vibrating with absence as we see room after room with bedding on the floor and portraits on the walls. There is a beautiful transition when the last tracking shot eventually opens onto a full-frame view of a golden sunset in the distance, beyond the lush greenery in the foreground. This moment is accompanied by a question as to whether Uncle Boonmee had a different view from his own home compared with the one we see in front of us.

The uncertainty, which extends to the identity of the subject himself, is clear as day in this letter. But it is interesting to note that even though the filmmaker, whoever he is, addresses this letter to someone who is likely already dead, and he is not sure that the final product will reflect his uncle’s reality, he is confident that his uncle has indeed had multiple lives thanks to reincarnation. Perhaps that explains the bizarre egg-shaped object in the garden, which puffs out thick plumes of smoke from inside itself throughout the film without any explanation.

The end of the film includes the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the hairy creature, which might also be the thing or person barely perceptible behind a thin pink curtain in the cottage on two occasions in the film. However, things move very quickly, and then, suddenly, the story is over, if it ever really started.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee feels disjointed, reaching for mostly uninformative bits of voice-over to compensate for – or perhaps to attempt to mask – the lack of substance. The visuals pique our interest, but the ending will leave most filmgoers (certainly those who haven’t seen the subsequent feature film) scratching their heads and ultimately sinks what comes before.