Darkest Hour – a dogged Churchill despite his “black dog”.

This is my review of the film  Darkest Hour

In this film which has attracted attention for Gary Oldman’s remarkable transformation into what many regard as an uncanny replica of Churchill, the focus is on a fraught period in May 1940 when European states were falling like ninepins as German troops scythed through them, Italy was collaborating with the Third Reich, France about to capitulate and the entire British land army trapped at Calais and Dunkerque.  In what seems a hopeless situation, and anxious not to repeat the carnage of young men in World War 1, a wily Lord Halifax manoeuvres to force Churchill to agree to peace negotiations with Hitler, with Mussolini acting as intermediary. We know that ultimately, Churchill will not give in, so the interest lies in seeing how, with the entire War Cabinet and the King against him, scant help from an America sworn to neutrality, and such a dire military position in mainland Europe, he can possibly survive as Prime Minister, if he persists In taking what looks like an increasingly forlorn stand.

No punches have been pulled over the portrayal of Churchill as, frankly, a physical mess – a large cigar perpetually in one hand and tumbler of whisky in the other, or close by, with a bottle in view for a top up.  He has clearly made major mistakes in the past, is at the best of times irascible, capricious, inconsiderate, over-emotional yet inexplicably adored by his long-suffering wife  played by Kristen Scott-Thomas –  who has perhaps worn better through being less self-indulgent.

“How does he manage to drink so much during the day,” enquires a disapproving King George V1 – “Practice” comes the quick-fire reply. Yet as depression due to lack of sleep born of anxiety  combines with his perpetual state of being not quite – or not at all sober –  to take their toll, he appears increasingly shambling and pathetic.

I will have to read another biography or two to establish whether this is a just portrait of “the great man”, but the film almost manages to redress the balance with the  flashes of self-deprecating humour, charm, and gift for delivering a thundering speech to mobilise his audience when required, enabling us to glimpse what his appeal must have been. Nowadays, a less deferential public than the one we see during his improbable trip on the Underground might be much more critical, except that our weakness for mavericks and celebrities can still  sway us to rally to a challenging course of action on emotional grounds.

It is in many ways a typical wartime period drama, with London crowds in 1940s style but unduly well-fitting and brand new clothing with sleek hairstyles. Even the London dustmen look too clean and tidy. Most of the interiors, a House of Commons chamber very different from Westminster, rooms in Buckingham Palace and Churchill’s residence seem very dark – perhaps to indicate the black-out.  Yet there is some excellent camerawork, sweeping down from the  London rooftops into grand inner courtyards of government buildings.

Our continual harking back to past glories and acts of bravado sometimes seems like a kind of ostrich-like escapism from our current problems – a kind of self-delusion, of which Churchill himself  was of course accused when he refused to negotiate with Hitler. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that Churchill was right, although his moral justification only won through with the military  support of the Soviet Union and America.  The film glosses over the rejection of Churchill once the war was over. No longer needed to boost morale  and stubbornly battle on, his approach seemed not only outworn, but a barrier to the new drive for social change which the war had released.

This is a well-made film without being great which has inspired me to start  reading the biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins which has lain on a shelf for years.

Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri – A brew of comedy and violence too dark to see the depth

This is my review of: Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri.

Furious over the lack of progress in tracking down her daughter’s brutal murderer, Mildred Hayes spends money she can ill afford to install three huge billboards on the outskirts of the well-named, typical Southern states small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The stark wording reads: “Raped while Dying”;  “And still no arrest”; “How come Chief Willoughby?”  The conservative, gobsmacked townsfolk are understandably appalled and disapproving; not least because Willoughby seems to be a decent man , although lamentably ineffectual in failing to fire his incompetent, racist side-kick Dixon, who is shown at one point torturing black suspects.  Some critics have deplored writer-director Martin McDonagh’s failure to treat race relations more sensitively, but that is not the main point of this film, focused as it is on Mildred’s desire to avenge her daughter’s death. When Mildred’s provocative action arouses an obsessive hostility in Dixon the stage is set for a one-woman feud with the police.

Mildred is a deeply flawed character, almost as bad as Dixon. Aggressive and foul-mouthed, she overacts when her wishes are obstructed. Perhaps she is driven by a sense of guilt over having parted with her daughter on bad terms, but she shows remarkably little concern for her long-suffering and surprisingly pleasant (in view of what he has had to put up with) son – it is the minor characters who are likeable in this film.  Just as Dixon may have been “driven to the bad” by a ghastly, smothering mother for whom he cares, Mildred may have been damaged in ways which are not made clear, apart from the inference that her ex-husband has left her for a teenage bimbo. It is perhaps “out of character” that such a tough, independent-minded woman should have tolerated a partner’s violence, and appear resentful over his departure. In a typical juxtaposition of violence and humour, we see  him one moment with his hands round Mildred’s  neck, the left  colluding with her in a sheepish, eye-rolling glance over his girl-friends inanity.

This film has won many awards and plaudits, audiences may be excited by the violent drama and be entertained by the “no holds barred” interplay of comedy and sociopathic brutality.  Compared to “run-of-the-mill” thrillers and action films, the film has an original take on the theme of victimhood, does not flinch at breaking taboos, and gives a talented and well-cast female actor the chance for a lead part. However, Frances Mc Dormand has the ability to rise to greater challenges than offered here. The film lacks the subtlety and depth to succeed at a deeper level.

In a recent interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh has deflected some critics with the explanation that, “the film isn’t about good or bad, left or right. It’s just about trying to find the spark of humanity in people – all people”. But this is not enough to make a film outstanding or even good. For that, it must enable one to see the world – people or situations – in a different way, which does not happen in this case. The arch-baddie is too exaggerated in his stupidity, bigotry and gratuitous violence to be credible, his dramatic change of heart is implausible. Some characters may indeed  display sparks of humanity, but that does not stop them from planning vicious acts of revenge likely to prove counterproductive, self-destructive or even unjust in being directed against the wrong targets.

Although writer-director Martin McDonagh may simply have run out of steam at the end, at least the ambiguous ending seems well-judged. Defenders of the film may argue that in taking an amoral stance, McDonagh leaves it to us to reflect on the issues involved.

Happy End – Heartless in Calais

This is my review of Happy End [DVD].

One often hears of the minutes if not hours of film discarded on the cutting room floor to extract the essence of what the director aims to convey. In this case, it is as if Michael Haneke has perversely challenged us to make sense of a film largely constructed from the shots which would normally be edited out. We hear about a character taking an overdose, crashing a car, even dying, but rarely witness these dramatic incidents. Often we do not realise that we have seen a significant event until its effect becomes apparent later. The scenes of glacial slowness, require great concentration, not only because they are mostly in French with subtitles, but also because one is continually trying not to miss the vital piece of action which may in fact not occur in a situation where basically not much is happening.

Despite its bleak theme, which appears to be the director’s stock in trade, the ironically-titled “Happy Ending” is leavened by moments of dark humour and has the ingredients for a gripping and moving psychological study of how we may damage each other. It involves the Calais–based Laurent family, their wealth made from the construction industry and other businesses, who all follow the bourgeois conventions of polite society in public, but seem incapable of real warmth, natural affection and normal emotion in private. They live out their dysfunctional relationships against the background of the impoverished black migrants who haunt the port town.

We initially experience their formal bourgeois life from the viewpoint of the approaching teen-age Eve Laurent who receives a somewhat reluctant welcome when she comes to stay in the extended family home with her father Edward, after her mother, his ex-wife, takes a lethal overdose of antidepressants. Eve appears outwardly to be an innocent, sensitive young girl, but from the outset there are signs of a troubling darker side to her character, leading one to speculate to what extent she may have been damaged by her self-absorbed parents’ neglect, or possibly inherited some of the family’s less appealing personality traits.

There is a cast to raise expectations high, with Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of patriarch sinking into senility, from which he seeks to escape through suicide – unless he can find someone prepared to put him out of his misery– and Isabelle Huppert as his ambitious daughter Anne who is romantically involved with her British lawyer, played by Toby Jones. Anne’s important business deals are undermined by a serious accident on a building site for which her son Pierre may be to blame. Rejecting his mother’s love and her plans for him to take over the business, are his drunken outbursts due more to his sense of inadequacy than to a genuine anger over his family’s lack of concern for the poor as anything other than a source of cheap domestic labour?

For me the film does not work partly because it is like a single-phrase tune. As indicated already, the work is so fragmented, with long shots and overlong, disjointed, initially incomprehensible scenes and sociopathic characters, that I rarely felt engaged, was often frankly bored, only continuing to watch in the forlorn hope of an effective denouement which I never expected to occur.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

The Florida Project (DVD) – The joy of childhood against the odds

This is my review of The Florida Project [DVD].

Lively, precocious Moonee runs wild with her small group of friends around the cheap motels where they all live encircled by fast roads, wasteland, the garish colours of grotesque orange- and witch-shaped cafes, not to mention a noisy helicopter pad, all on the fringes of the Florida Walt Disney fantasy land. It is an ugly, urbanised, artificial but sun-drenched world, with occasional flashes of natural beauty in a sunset, or a group of birds.

As the children’s freewheeling mischief leads to more risky escapades, one fears for their safety. Moonee’s immature young mother Halley, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, often high on drugs, more than a little crazy as she swings between uninhibited self-expression and violent outbursts when thwarted, also arouses concerns for Moonee’s future. As Hailey resorts to petty crime to pay her rent, it is clear that the little girl’s carefree world cannot last much longer.

This film conveys a child’s sense of joy in living, curiosity over every new experience, the ability to be happy with very little. One can see that Moonee risks being ruined by a lack of boundaries, frequently insufferable, noisy, mouthy, defiant and destructive, yet also with a strong sense of justice, loyal and generous to friends, acutely aware of the world around her although often unable to make sense of it. The moments of bonding with the free-spirited Halley who is more like a big sister than a mother are quite moving. Although clearly “unfit” to be a parent, Halley loves her daughter – too immature and self-absorbed to see how she is neglecting Moonee, she does not appear to consider giving the child up as a solution to ease her penniless state, but rather, being a child at heart herself, she knows how to create on a shoestring (or by stolen means) the magical experiences Moonee will never forget like making wishes outdoors at midnight as fireworks explode over Disney World.

The acting is generally excellent, from the children, Halley’s long-suffering friend and some of the real-life police and social workers in the cast, to William Dafoe in the role of the harassed caretaker who develops a soft spot for the appealing child and feckless young mother. The performance in this role by Bria Vinaite, the much-tatooed free-spirited first-time actress,who certainly looks the part, is a little too frenetic and exaggerated at times, which began to grate on me. Although it is sometimes hard to grasp the American drawl, some amusing one-liners come through clearly and it is generally pretty clear what is going on, except I did not understand that the gaudy wristbands Hallee was trying to sell were valuable passes to Disney World. The pace drags somewhat with repetitive scenes in the middle, although this may be intentional to reflect the reality of a child’s life. Despite building up in the end to a dramatic climax with a director who knows when to stop – if a little fancifully -, the film would have benefitted from sharper editing.

Recommended overall for its mix of humour and pathos in a realistic portrayal of children’s resilience, ability to survive and live joyfully against the odds.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Loving Vincent” [DVD] -Mesmerising

This is my review of Loving Vincent [DVD].

Unlike any film I have seen before, this hundred minute dramatisation of the differing explanation of Van Gogh’s death consists entirely of a remarkable animation of nearly sixty-seven thousand oil-paintings, skilful copies of ninety-four of his pictures, into which the characters have been painted in new poses as required.

The continual movement applied to Van Gogh’s broad strokes and swirls of colour are fascinating, as is the brilliant way actors who have been chosen for their likeness to real people whom he painted such as his physician Doctor Gachet, latter’s daughter Marguerite or the paint supplier and art dealer Père Tanguy, are given such life-like expressions and mannerisms recognisable as typical of the actors used. Although every effort has been made to use Van Gogh’s paintings, where it has been necessary to create new settings, these are shown in black-and-white, again painted, as in the scenes of his brother Theo, himself dying and mentally tortured soon after Vincent’s demise.

The theme may sound sombre, but is touched with moments of humour as the hard-drinking Armand Roulin, son of Vincent’s postman, always wearing his distinctive canary yellow jacket which apparently drove the film’s artists mad as they constantly cleared canvases to repaint it at another angle, fulfils his father’s instruction to deliver by hand to a suitable person Vincent’s last letter. Initially reluctant to do this, Armand becomes obsessed with the desire to obtain the truth and justice for the artist who may have been the victim of manslaughter rather than fallen prey to suicide in a psychotic moment.

Although there is something to be gained from coming to this film, as I did, with no prior knowledge of how it was made, there are some informative short videos about this on Youtube.

I also think it is helpful to be aware of the essential facts of Van Gogh’s life: he was a difficult man subject to great enthusiasms and mood swings, probably bi-polar. Taking up painting in his late twenties, he was supported entirely by his long-suffering brother Theo, never or barely selling a single picture in his lifetime. Captivated by the brilliant colours in the sunshine of Provence, he hoped to establish an artist’s colony there, only succeeding in falling out with Gauguin in a failed attempt to get this started. He was astonishingly prolific in his production of both paintings and letters decorated with drawings in the margins.

This film needs to be seen more than once, requiring intense concentration in the attempt to take in every clever or beautiful visual effect, as when the tossing of some object like an apple core prompts a flock of cawing crows to flap up out of a cornfield.

The “storyline” sometimes seems a little disjointed, the black-and-white scenes are the least satisfactory, often appearing blurred and weird, and the overall dreamlike quality may distance viewers from the characters. Yet the film still creates a sense of poignancy, and its technical achievement outweighs any minor criticism. ( A subjective view, but the choice of an inferior new recording in preference to Don Maclean’s original version of “Starry, starry night” in the final moments seems ill-judged.)

The visionary genius of conceiving this film in the first place, and the teamwork involved in producing it over a period of years seem to justify a string of awards.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

“Their Finest” [Blu-ray] [2017] – Morale under fire

This is my review of Their Finest [Blu-ray] [2017].

Although you may think that every possible angle on World War Two has been covered on screen, “Their Finest” builds an entertaining, humorous yet at times poignant drama round the to modern eyes corny but evocative propaganda films produced to raise morale.

Gemma Arterton plays “Mrs Cole”, the irrepressible young woman hired to churn out “slop”, or women’s parts in film scripts. She is soon involved in the major project of an “authentic and optimistic” film extolling the bravery of two Cornish sisters who use their father’s fishing boat to help evacuate soldiers from Dunkerque. There is a topical note in what proves to be the “fake news” which Catrin Cole artfully conceals, in an initial example of the steely determination beneath her demur demeanour. The job is made harder by continual government interference, such as the requirement for the film to include a major part for a real-life, highly decorated American serviceman, in a ploy to help lure the US into the war.

The film continually reminds us how much progress has been made in equality for women, as Catrin meets blatant chauvinism at every turn, not least the angry response of her husband, a struggling artist who feels humiliated at the thought of her paying the rent. In addition to the injustice of earning less because she is female, Catrin has to endure the dismissive contempt of Buckley, the arrogant young scriptwriter in residence, who grins maliciously as he watches her squeeze round furniture to reach her desk in a dark corner.

Bill Nighy steals the show as the impossibly vain, ageing actor, querulous over the lack of good parts after the past glory of his leading role in a popular detective series. Although it seems a little too slick at first, the dialogue sustains a witty pace. As Catrin wins the men over, this film could have descended into a bland, sentimental treatment of the last war, but some dark incidents, even if a little too coincidental, give the drama more depth.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“The Sense of An Ending” [DVD] [2017] -When capturing a book on screen may prove harder than it seems

This is my review of The Sense of An Ending [DVD] [2017].

Amicably divorced, running a small camera shop as a retirement hobby, Tony Webster is jolted out of his superficially pleasant existence by an unexpected bequest from Sarah, mother of Veronica, the girlfriend from his student days. Memories come flooding back of his elitist secondary school where, in a clique of pretentious, precocious yet immature boys, he looked up to and befriended Adrian, the new boy who dared to spar intellectually with the teachers. He also has vivid recollections of Veronica, provocative but always holding back, and the excruciating visit to her wealthy but decidedly odd, perhaps emotionally warped family, not least her flirtatious mother.

What has become of Veronica over the decades? Why, as executor, has she destroyed Adrian’s diary, which is what the bequest proves to be? Why did Adrian commit suicide in his youth, and how did Sarah come by the diary anyway? What part did Tony play in all this, and to what extent is he to blame for any tragedy? Has a sense of unfinished business and his own culpability, real or imagined, for past events stunted his own emotions over the years, undermining his marriage and turning him into what his ex-wife and daughter describe as an old “curmudgeon”?

To the horror of his barrister ex-wife, who may even be a little jealous, Tony virtually stalks Veronica in his attempt to discover the truth, Even when he thinks he has found it, there is a further poignant twist.

Although true to the original plot, the Director felt the need to flesh out the details of Tony’s family life far more than in the original book. So, the birth of his daughter’s first child becomes one of the most moving points in the story, whereas it does not occur at all in the book. Similarly, the spiky but affectionate relations with his ex-wife are an entertaining aspect of the film but not the book. This may be because, without these embellishments, the book has a kind of detached, emotionally cool quality which may not make for “good box office”. What the book does possess, of course, is the distinctive, highly articulate, insightful, at times philosophical style which is what won it the Man Booker. Although the film tries to retain some of this by using Tony as a voice-over narrator at times, it obviously cannot capture all Julian Barnes’s wry wisdom.

I remember that the book was a page turner as regards finding out what happened, creating the sense of the need to reread it to get the full meaning, although this did not happen in my case because I felt “let down” over the denouement, which seems somewhat contrived. So, it is perhaps unsurprising if the film has the same flaw.

This film is essentially about the need for closure, which may become more urgent towards the end of our lives. It is well-acted, with Jim Broadbent as a sound anchor, but the storyline seems too undeveloped and fragmented in places, with some scenes, such as the classroom teaching, or encounters with Veronica’s family cringe-making in their falsity – although perhaps that is part of the point.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars