Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Grand Central

Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central is a strange film. Its main thrust, a fraught adult drama, plays out in the ominous shadow of a hulking nuclear power plant, where the invasive klaxon pollutes the surrounding air as its core eats away at the health of the myriad low-level employees. In truth, however, it is the depiction of blue-collar life at the hazardous coalface, rather than anything else, that forms the most compelling part of an occasionally fascinating picture. 

Tahar Rahim plays unskilled drone Gary Manda, a willing worker who signs up for a place on the decontamination unit which spends its days deep in the perilous bowels of the reactors. They clean walls, carry out maintenance and try desperately to steer clear of the radiation levels that are likely to result in the sack. Exposure is unavoidable, goes the message, just don’t let it take your job away. 

Rahim, so impressive in Jacques Audiard’s exhilarating A Prophet, wields an unthreatening everyman quality which renders him likeable in spite of his character’s faintly needy edge and one is struck by the delight he displays in securing employment, in finding familial camaraderie with his workmates. As he conquers a mechanical rodeo bull on his boozy first night, there is a sense of genuine triumph in the way his peers carry him from the bar on their shoulders, an instant working-class hero. 

He even appears less than concerned that he might suffer contamination by ‘the dose’ which his more experienced colleagues talk about both with respect and casual disregard. Under the luckiest circumstances, a blast of ‘the dose’ might even result in a kiss from a beautiful woman, in this case Léa Seydoux’s sensual, watchful Karole, herself a plant employee and fiancée of flinty core-diver Toni (the ever magnetic Denis Ménochet). 

The blossoming romance between Gary and Karole, all bucolic strolls and riverside trysts, feels strained, marked by unspoken contradictions. Karole’s own complex relationship with Toni is potent and her feelings for the smitten Gary remain unclear until the end. Given the setting it is no surprise that the crackling chemistry between all three is tangible. Unfortunately for Zlotowski, this central love triangle grates, nibbling at elements of her narrative which are infinitely more interesting. 

The French dependence on nuclear energy — 58 reactors provide 75% of the nation’s power — drives a darker theme, one of stark socio-economic exploitation. Gary and his transient friends are more essential to keeping France ticking over than the almost invisible corporate snobs, yet all are entirely expendable. They keeps the lights on, enjoying no security along the way, and possess little beyond the community of their tranquil campsite existence. In all likelihood, of course, there are plenty to replace them. 

As one female character faces up to her own severe brush with radiation poisoning, the story barely lingers on her fate. This has happened before; it will happen again. That the wage slaves are essentially on their own in the depths of the facility is obvious, the higher-ups only appear to break bad news or dispense reprimands. Significantly, staff safety is dictated not by the pages of some human resources handbook but in direct, practical terms by plain speaking team leader Gilles (Olivier Gourmet).

In adapting Elisabeth Filhol’s 2010 novel, La Central, Zlotowski tries to keep a lid on the melodrama bubbling beneath an otherwise stoic surface. It leaks out occasionally at unpredictable, unwelcome moments and the director’s unfussy style counters this with varying degrees of success. In one respect her preference for gritty storytelling is welcome but in rushing to define her film by something other than its over-wrought emotional subplot, Zlotowski leaves strands dangling and angles unexplored. The ending itself is classic Euro-cinema: abrupt, opaque and utterly unfulfilling. 

Against this backdrop, Gary begins to cheat on his dose levels. He seems desperate to stick around, to maximise his earnings and remain in the orbit of the intoxicating Karole. As the sickly bleeps of the pervasive geiger counters become more pronounced Gary's fate appears sealed, though the reasons for his pre-finale distress are left unexplained. Maybe it is the radiation taking hold; perhaps it is down to Karole’s sullen embrace of married life. Neither explanation is favourable to him. 

‘DO NOT GIVE IN TO CURIOSITY’ warns a sign on the workplace wall. It is sound advice, swiftly ignored. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

So, the Scandinavians are good at drama, everybody knows that. Wallander, Borgen, The Bridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to name but a few, have impressed audiences on screens large and small, proving that a cool climate and a good story can amount to something seriously compelling.

If Felix Herngren’s (deep breath) The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is anything to go by, they are also quite funny.

Based on Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same title, Herngren’s film succeeds in conveying the book’s unmistakeable spirit while, at the same time, delivering an endearingly genre-free comedy-cum-road movie. 

Everything revolves around Allan Karlsson, who, on the day of his 100th birthday, casually abandons his bland retirement home, shrill nurse and crap party, heading out into the wide world for no apparent reason. As narrator, he proceeds to recall the days of his youth and the global adventures to which he was exposed.  

There is an obvious scale to the memories which might be seem silly if it were not for the eponymous centenarian himself, a man so vague, so uninterested in anything of consequence, that the events and figures sucked into his shuffling existence shrink around him. 

It is amusingly done, though accomplished with far less refinement than the similarly-themed Forrest Gump, the saccharine tendencies of which are eschewed from the moment Allan recalls the demise of his father, a bizarrely militant proponent of the humble condom — one particular condom, apparently — who made the mistake of establishing his own tiny contraceptive-conscious republic in the middle of Moscow only to find the Russians less forgiving of his ramblings than the Swedes. 

Indeed, Allan’s early years were a bit bleak altogether. Orphaned at nine, and obsessed with ‘blowing stuff up’, he would be packed off to an asylum during his childhood, not that he ever seems particularly perturbed by that fact. All of this is interspersed with the hardy old goat’s flight as he leaves absolutely no troubles behind him.

More grey than dark, less raucous than irreverent, Allan’s experiences, in both the past and the present, do not aim for side-splitting slapstick, employing a slyer take on his silly brushes with history, but the humour is broad and slightly populist, its protagonist unaware of the chaos he often induces.

He is an engaging character, likeable in spite of his preternatural capacity for destruction, and Gustafsson succeeds in portraying him as more than a mere savant. Whether it is detonating bridges with the International Brigades in Spain or saving the Manhattan Project thanks to a fondness for dynamite, Allan is mostly unmoved by all this because he simply does not care about any of it. 

A life spent dodging catastrophes by accident and crossing endless wires pays off as he winds up, on the day of his escape, with a suitcase full of cash belonging to scene-chewing, Bali-based scumbag, Pim. Played by Alan Ford, Pim is a somewhat more bronzed version of his psychotic Brick Top character from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, and while the purpose of the money remains unclear, in the end it matters little. If Allan’s unstoppable, wonderfully ponderous forward momentum indicates anything, it is that the gangsters — comprised, mostly, of an unspeakably moronic Swedish skinhead outfit — are never going to see the cash again. 

If The Hundred-Year-Old Man veers, occasionally, into high farce, that should come as no surprise. Jonasson’s creation is a fine one but any film aiming for laughs can only go so far on the lead’s inimitable indifference. It almost demands a scene where an elephant sits on a man’s face, or for somebody to drop a hammer off the top of a skyscraper. In the opening scene Allan explodes a fox for killing his cat, Molotov, a suitably bizarre opening, perhaps, but strangely apt given the archness of the often meandering plot. 

Overall there is not an awful lot to tie the disparate flashback strands together. For all the central player’s wild travails, they lend little to his development as a character — maybe that is the point —  and there exists a distinct lack of subtext. Allan’s career in international espionage is as clever as it gets. 

Herngren tackles his feature with enthusiasm, however, as he works from a script crafted alongside Jonasson, whose presence surely maintains the quietly anarchic essence of his literary original. The author should be pleased, if nothing else, that this enjoyable filmic realisation of his vision has turned out, most probably, as he saw it in his head. 

An edited version of this article was first published there.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Chinese Puzzle

In introducing the latest chapter of his ongoing romantic-comedy series, which debuted with L’Auberge Espagnole (2002), and continued in Russian Dolls (2005), French director Cédric Klapisch offers up a startling contrast to Richard Linklater’s stylish, though increasingly dense, Before trilogy.

As Linklater has focused on the evolving connection between his central pair — most recently in Before Midnight — so too does Klapisch rely upon a stable of characters from previous instalments to convey a tale of jaded lives and weighty responsibilities. Mercifully, the outcome is an infinitely more likeable affair than the beautifully shot navel-gazing of the American auteur’s European troika.

In 2002, Xavier, Wendy and Martine were relatively carefree twentysomethings, with careers and lives to look forward to, bound together by Xavier’s government-mandated gap year in Barcelona. Three years later, the same characters would meet the sticky challenges of adult life in St. Petersburg, themes of love and sex being handled with a slightly silly exuberance that more ponderous films would certainly have jettisoned in favour of serious drama. 

Now, in 2014, the action of Chinese Puzzle is transposed to New York, its protagonists soundly anchored by families and careers. As Xavier, Romain Duris is fantastic in portraying a successful Parisian writer forced to uproot himself and move across the Atlantic, in the wake of a sudden separation from Wendy (Kelly Reilly), to maintain contact with his children. She has relocated to the Big Apple with her new beau and Xavier, a devoted father, follows with barely a backwards glance. As luck would have it, Audrey Tatou’s charming Martine shows up on business, allowing them to rekindle the flame of an old romance. 

Once in New York, Xavier must bed down in the cool Brooklyn apartment of his lesbian best friend Isabelle (a terrifically confident Cécile de France) and her partner, a particularly significant arrangement given the fact that she is pregnant courtesy of his generous sperm donation. Besides that he must liaise with a budget lawyer, secure an apartment, marry a willing Chinese-American girl to obtain a green card and negotiate the cultural chasm between France and the US. In the background, his fussy editor chases him via the world’s finest Skype connection. 

If all of this sound mildly farcical, then that is merely a passing impression, for Klapisch has crafted something deeper: an assured, stylish urban comedy in which the concept of family and the profundity of human connections are treated with genuine deference. It may wield a nod and a wink on occasion  expedient, perhaps, rather than entirely gratuitous  but there is no little ruggedness here. Xavier, more grizzled now and pushing 40, rarely complains; he flourishes. He accepts his lot for the simple pleasure of seeing his adorable daughter and sensitive son. 

From a stylistic point of view, this is an endearing and intensely multicultural picture. Myriad languages pepper the narrative, each richer than the next, and the outsider’s wonder at the majesty of New York never quite dissipates. Indeed, Klapisch is keen to dive right in. His street-level camera is itself a New Yorker before long, drinking in the sights and sounds of a thriving, humming cosmopolis and an evocative, graffiti-marked landscape of the metropolitan experience, all crowded subway cars and asphalt horizons, balances the film’s goofier edges. Xavier takes it in stride, too, slotting seamlessly into his gritty, yet cosy, Chinatown neighbourhood. 

There are occasional freewheeling elements to capture the imagination, of course. More amusing than truly anarchic, each is unexpected and brief enough to dispel any charge of overindulgence. Moody opening credits have the knowing whiff of some iconic 1970s cop thriller — The French Connection maybe — and, from time to time, Xavier converses on the meaning of life, in French, with spectral German philosophers Schopenhauer and Hegel. In one hilarious sequence, Duris, in full period costume, dissects the American perception of foreigners, a slyly hilarious Gallic jab at his mostly welcoming hosts. Delicate animations, and a wickedly original twist on an otherwise grim trip to the fertility clinic, round out the arch humour. 

That Klapisch desires more than just laughs is plain before the end as he channels François Truffaut’s female-obsessed Antoine Doinel (the title sequence features footage from the previous two films, à la Truffaut). A hint of melancholy might even be discerned. 

He places his leading man at the heart of a complicated Chinese puzzle, with its shifting relationships and tricky circumstances. Crucially, however, Xavier is a slave to the very existence of the women in his life: Wendy, Martine and Isabelle. They are a trio whose distinct qualities he may enjoy but never wholly possess; he will not find a woman to trump all three. Once he realises this, the riddle should seem less daunting. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Cold in July

As fiction genres go, there are few more popular at present than Southern Gothic. The success of HBO’s astonishing True Detective series has championed the clinging heat of the American South, with its good ole boys, murky secrets and underbelly as black as pitch. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Cold in July should feel so familiar. Its genetic code and that of Nic Pizzolatto’s acclaimed police procedural are, after all, similar in nature, if not execution. 

Maybe it’s the heat. As with True Detective, Cold in July is far from frigid. While the HBO action plays out in the sweltering climes of rural Louisiana, this perspires in the stifling humidity of an East Texas summer. That backdrop is not the arid expanse of desolate Texan oilfields but a verdant Americana, a place rich with good soil, solid values and lots of air conditioning. 

It all colours a sticky adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s 1989 novel bearing the same title. With a twisting, restless plot that invigorates rather than confuses, indie director Jim Mickle — best known for low-key Zombie apocalypse movie Stake Land — channels his inner auteur, producing a picture of significant style to herald his arrival as a genuine talent to watch. 

Michael C. Hall portrays Richard Dane, a respectable small-town businessman who fatally shoots a home invader in the middle of the night. There are immediately clear echoes of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in this unassuming-family-man-kills-unwelcome-visitor theme, though Mickle is less committed to that film’s sense of rampant paranoia. Instead, he restricts the central event to the virtual beginning and focuses his remaining time on the fraught period thereafter.

Hall, who sweated through seven years of Miami-based psychopathy in Dexter, is a wonderfully elusive actor and in the lead role his discomfited exterior, both brooding and fussy, is heightened by sincere remorse for what he has done. His is an attitude somewhat at odds with the police who dismiss the incident like loyal second amendment disciples. Dane is a good man, however, and his mood is not lightened by the arrival of the departed intruder’s taciturn father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard, on typically restrained form), a newly released convict with vengeance in mind. 

Cold in July moves swiftly through the gears at this stage, vaulting first from human drama to revenge saga and then, as the spectre of police corruption creeps into view, Mickle once more tacks in a new direction. Retuning the narrative, he subverts expectations at these crucial junctures; priorities are upturned. It is enough to keep everyone on their toes. 

Suddenly allies, Dane and Russell burrow to the core of a conspiracy best personified by urbane police detective Ray — played by Mickle’s quasi-muse and screenwriting partner Nick Damici. In doing so they are aided by the quite fantastic Don Johnson, whose unpredictable, stetson-toting gumshoe, Jim Bob Luke, is as adept at sniffing out the truth as he is rearing pigs. 

This swirl of activity never feels crowded, mercifully, and Johnson’s especially anarchic presence remains relatively grounded. What is perhaps most notable is the feeling that a transformative journey has occurred, for this is a very different beast by its finale. 

Mickle straddles genres in pursuit of absolution and proves that such an episodic approach is eminently watchable if the distinct elements knit together properly. Accordingly, he strikes out for his slippery conclusion with kinetic purpose, moving from section to section without looking back, the tone ranging from slyly playful — the jaunty cleaning of a crime scene is both strange and compelling — to downright bleak. If the goal is to maximise each moment, then the ultimate result is triumphant. 

There is violence here also and it is in the closing minutes that the rage nibbling at the edges throughout, chooses to explode so spectacularly. Mickle’s final gambit, his last statement, is to paint it as an action and a consequence: violence does, of course, beget violence. There may have been a faintly ethereal quality to the cajun occultism depicted with skill by Pizzolatto but Lansdale’s tale is occupied by something much grubbier, a foul blot which renders a bloody intervention necessary and wholly inevitable. 

That said, the true ambivalence exists in Dane’s experience. Is he committed to correcting this chaos because it is the right path to follow? Or is he simply in search of a thrill, a break from his normally cosseted life? The answer likely rests somewhere in between. That Dane ends up, literally, where he started is certainly symbolic but the intervening period has induced an unpredictable awakening, a possible rebirth. 

Stylistically, Cold in July is no less impressive. Taking place at the fading end of the 1980s, Mickle has sprinkled his movie with playful era-specific clues, a cassette player here, a video rental store there. Even Hall’s mullet, just the right side of obscene, plays to the gallery. In addition, the archly retro score — a synth-heavy soundboard given renewed relevance by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive — appears, initially at least, out of sync with the overall mood yet, as the tension builds, so too does the power of Jeff Grace’s knowing composition. 

Indeed, speaking of Refn, the scene in which one character’s blood, artfully sprayed upon a ceiling light, fills the screen with a delicate scarlet glow should worry the Danish filmmaker for the simple reason that it is infinitely more visceral and stylish than anything in his studied, wildly indulgent Only God Forgives.

Taken as the sum of its parts, this is an undeniably impressive project but the expert manner in which the director attends to the distinct components, with enthusiasm and no little panache, stands out above all else. As muscular as its pulpy source material, Mickle’s thriller suggests that the South might still rise again. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014


Considering the era in which it was created the portrait now hanging in Scone Palace, Perthshire, ancestral seat of the Earls Mansfield, illustrates a remarkable scene. In it, two women of the Mansfield lineage are displayed standing proudly together, on the right Lady Elizabeth Murray, on the left her cousin, Miss Dido Belle Lindsay. Miss Lindsay, holding a quietly vivacious look in her eyes, seems, almost, to be moving, leaning forward slightly, body turned away from the anonymous artist. She is also black. 

The painting, dating from 1779, would be a fascinating one even in the absence of Belle, Amma Asante’s handsome sophomore feature, but with its release, the inspiring likeness invokes a near mystical power. In truth, little is known about this exotic young woman and Asante’s film — bearing all the hallmarks of a luscious, beautifully-scored period drama — attempts to fill in the considerable gaps. Stumbling on occasion, it retains a gentile shape thanks to predictably strong performances and a compelling glimpse at the subversion of the British class, and caste, system at the height of its 18th-century imperial pomp. 

As the title suggests, Dido Belle Lindsay is at the heart of it all. An illegitimate “mulatto" child born in the West Indies to an African slave and an English sailor, she is rescued from poverty at a young age, in the wake of her mother’s death, by her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). With a crucial naval voyage pending, he entrusts her into the care of his uncle, Tom Wilkinson’s upright William Murray, Lord Chief Justice and 1st Earl of Mansfield. 

Entitled to an upbringing in keeping with her bloodline, Dido is installed in Murray’s loving household as a high-ranking family member and companion to his other great-niece, Elizabeth. Refined and educated, Dido, nevertheless, occupies a strangely anomalous position within the otherwise tightly controlled hierarchy, her low birth and colour render certain things impossible — dining with guests being one notable taboo. At the same time, her heritage dictates that aristocratic surroundings are far from inappropriate. 

In the title role, Gugu Mbatha-Raw handles her tricky character with accomplished confidence, drawing on the tensions inherent to the social mores of the age and conveying profound charm in what could be an otherwise bland role. She ably holds up under the weightier issues at hand as her awakening coincides with the seminal Zong case, an insurance fraud appeal on which Wilkinson’s enlightened jurist is set to rule. Centered around the deliberate drowning of human cargo by a slave ship’s crew, the court action is at the vanguard of the battle against slavery.

Granted, such abstract legalities are fairly mild in the context of similarly horrific events brazenly depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it is fitting that they remain mere stories here. Dido’s world, regardless of her background, is a delicate one, unspoiled by vulgar realities though she becomes enchanted, nevertheless, by the noble ideals of the abolitionist movement.

Whatever the historical accuracy of the portrayal, it is through the intertwining themes of race and patriarchy that Asante’s film excels to an intriguing degree. That Dido should feel burdened by the shade of her skin is sadly inevitable given the fact that racial sensitivities were minimal at best and multiculturalism non-existent. Her subtle struggles with an identity few understand or accept — whether it is properly brushing her wild hair or tearfully clawing at herself in a moment of despair — are affecting, finely observed flashes of intimacy in a film prone to exploring broader issues. 

She recognises, too, the significance of the famous portrait, commissioned by Murray, in which she is to stand as an equal with her white relative. Early on, Asante notes the young Dido’s fascination with those august paintings in the gallery of her new home. Figures who look very much like she does are featured therein, each peripheral and supplicant. Asked to pose, Mbatha-Raw captures the confused gratitude of gaining prominence, of being awarded her birthright. 

Indeed, Asante finds interesting parallels between the slave trade, a mighty edifice propping up the wealth of an empire, and a society in which cousin Elizabeth, played with brio by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, requires a marriage for advancement and male-dominated financial security. “We are their property,” she whispers mournfully. It is with comparable insight that Dido realises the enviable position her own unusual circumstances, and an unexpected inheritance, have afforded her: "I have been blessed with freedom twice over.” These twists of fate grant empowering autonomy beyond most peers of her sex. 

Nuance does not, unfortunately, run throughout. Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton form a faintly cartoonish double act as a mother and son seeking to shore up their family’s legacy. Richardson is a wonderful actress yet is allowed to do little more than scheme and offer casual prejudice, while Felton appears determined to carve out an archly villainous post-Hogwarts niche. This preening brute wastes more effort scowling at Dido than entertaining the misplaced affections of the exquisite Elizabeth and his sneering racism is both gratuitous and completely without discernible cause. 

In Sam Reid’s John Davinier, the film has its crusading lawyer and Dido her immediately obvious love interest. Their relationship is overly fraught, however, and potentially irritating, every tremulous conversation, from the first to the last, laced with wholesome respect and admiration, each exchange conducted on the verge of tears. In the eagerness to underscore Davinier’s supreme worthiness, his humble purity, Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay have omitted to make him particularly interesting. 

Thankfully, Wilkinson’s presence is as steady as ever. Cinema’s go-to man for layered upper-class elders, one might imagine him to be phoning it in at this stage. Not so. The veteran thesp delivers, once again, a steely turn as a great figure with hard-grafting roots to serve him well in remaking the unjust laws of men, someone who cannot fail to be influenced by the sense of doing the right thing. At his side, Emily Watson’s graceful, flinty wife is truly brilliant and Penelope Wilton constitutes an added bonus as his forthright spinster-sister. 

Melodrama it may possess but Asante undoubtedly succeeds in grasping the tenderness of the tale. There is genuine subtext also, a confirmation that we would be best defined by our characters before anything else and the direction is assured enough to suggest that Asante has more to offer. By turns confident and grandly realised, Belle’s elegance hides a forceful spirit. 

This is a slightly edited version of an article which first appeared here

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Fruitvale Station

That race remains an awkward fixture in America’s collective consciousness should come as a surprise to few. In the era of Barack Obama, its role in the continental melting pot has become even more pointed and antagonistic, the idiotic right-wing proclamations that the United States now exists without racism being undermined every time another black male youth dies for reasons stemming from the hue of his skin.

In her seminal 2010 study of the modern American prison-industrial complex, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s contention is that public consciousness of prejudice is shaped only by the most ‘extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly… when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.’ Fascinatingly, Fruitvale Station, talent-to-watch Ryan Coogler’s searing directorial debut, captures that essential contention with a maturity many veteran filmmakers often fail to display.

Offering no judgement and little commentary, Coogler, nevertheless, produces something of rare power; neither obscene nor violent, its message burrows to the core of Western society’s ongoing struggle with diversity and the residue of deep-seated maladies. Indeed, as recent local events continue to suggest, such problems do not reside solely on the far side of the Atlantic.

A darling of last year’s festival circuit — it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance — the film, based on real-life events, depicts the shooting of a 22-year-old black man at Oakland’s Fruitvale metro stop on 1st January 2009. Returning from the new year celebrations in San Francisco, Oscar Grant was involved in a fracas on the train. Dragged from the carriage by a team of hyper-aggressive transit police, Grant and his friends were manhandled and detained for no specific reason. In the ensuing struggle Grant would be fatally wounded by an officer who claimed to have mistaken his firearm for a tazer. 

Being 2009, this was, of course, captured on video and the confused, chilling, pre-HD images flicker across the screen before the titles roll. The remaining time is spent with Grant, living out 24 hours in the company of this anonymous and struggling ex-con, a statistic on paper, perhaps, but a beloved son, father and partner. 

From the beginning, the central player is captured in handheld close-up, coloured with intimately human shades. There is an admirable lack of shyness around addressing his personal infidelities and history as a luckless former low-level dealer — caught up in the ever questionable war on drugs — but, equally, Coogler is keen to highlight Grant as neither unusual nor especially remarkable. He is no different from countless other people and, in Michael B. Jordan, the director allows a fine actor to carry this narrative forward.

The Wire and Friday Night Lights were two of the past decade’s finest television dramas and ardent fans of both will be familiar with Jordan’s confident, hugely watchable presence. In each series the young performer portrayed misguided, yet sensitive, products of the streets. He invites empathy once again, casting Grant as an individual caught up in something much bigger than himself. 

There is a quiet tragedy in the various unexceptional occurrences that come and go for much of the film’s duration: Grant drops his girlfriend to work and his little girl to school; he fills his car with petrol; he witnesses a dog being run over, cradling the animal in his arms as it slips away; he begs his old boss for a job, then threatens the man when it is not forthcoming; he is assiduous in attending to a family birthday party. 

Drugs and hustling are as much part of his life in the notoriously hardscrabble surroundings of Oakland, California, as family and dignity. A potential cannabis deal is set against a flashback to Grant's last stint in prison, where the desperate need to embrace his mother (the always superb Octavia Spencer) is juxtaposed with the kind of jailhouse threats that will surely come back to haunt the issuer on the outside. Peppering his dialogue with authentic, localised slang and vocal tics, Jordan imbues his character with an endearingly honest humanity.

Whatever the setting, it all represents the small, ordinary canvas onto which Coogler paints his larger themes of race, crime and inequality before the law. 

In many ways Obama’s historic success underscores much of what goes on here, for in the abstract, his accession to the White House was a boon for the African-American community. With a hispanic girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and their adorable daughter, Grant’s existence represents the humble post-racial aspirations of the country’s better nature. On the other hand, however, the Obama experience is a remarkable one, rarefied even. It shares few parallels with the life of a kid from Oakland and there is no small measure of symbolism in the fact that Grant should be slain in that halcyon period between the president’s election and his inauguration. 

The key incident, inevitable from the opening seconds, delivers the requisite visceral horror when it eventually arrives. Grant’s demise, in particular, is utterly heartbreaking, his mere profile inducing mass psychosis in those sworn to uphold, rather than trample, his rights. At the crucial point Jordan manages to convey an affecting mix of physical pain and a tearful sense of betrayal; the realisation of how this moment will impact those around him dawns long before he closes his eyes forever. 

If there is anything to take away, it is the fact that Coogler has managed, remarkably, to make a film about racism that features very little recognisable racism. In truth, Fruitvale Station is infinitely more profound, a compelling meditation on the destructive corrosiveness of Alexander’s invisible and ‘embedded’ structures. For the Oscar Grants of the world, the deck may already be stacked.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Monday, 9 June 2014

Venus in Fur

There are few current film directors who can boast as cinematic a resumé as Roman Polanski. The timeless likes of Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist sit proudly upon it but, throughout his controversial career, the exiled filmmaker has occasionally been attracted to the sheer theatricalism of the humble stage. 1994’s Death and the Maiden would be followed, eventually, by the quite brilliant Carnage in 2010, both being filmic adaptations of original plays. 

It is to this source then that Polanski returns once more with Venus in Fur, his newest exploration of theatre’s unique power. Taking place entirely within the confines of some faceless, crumbling auditorium, his film about a play — based, in turn, on David Ives’s play about a play — might, for all its arch storytelling, shudder under the weight of its own intensity but it is, nevertheless, a wickedly clever exploration of sexual domination. 

A two-hander, and Polanski’s first completely French language production, Venus in Fur features Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, the frustrated director-adapter of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s S&M opus, Venus in Furs. Uninspired by the actresses seeking the lead female role, Thomas is about to depart his somewhat ramshackle Parisian playhouse when, like a warped Mary Poppins, the disorganised, gum-chewing, curse-throwing Vanda (Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) tumbles through the door, late, rain-soaked and desperate to read for him. 

While ignorant of the material’s significance and possessing only a rudimentary knowledge of Thomas’s highbrow stylings, Vanda is a charming aspirant. With the aid of her enthusiasm and a treasure trove of strangely appropriate costumes, she convinces the onscreen director not just to hear her out but to participate in her instantly fantastic audition. From that point on, the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred, if not rubbed out altogether as Vanda, her true motivations unclear, uses the very words that Thomas has written to drive him down a forbidden path. To wit, the sense that he is deeply connected to Sacher-Masoch’s outlook is never far away.

The piquancy between the two actors might otherwise dissolve if French were not the means by which they were communicating. In their sultry mother tongue, however, Amalric and Seigner luxuriate in the skewed eroticism of the interplay. The former, a wonderfully chameleonic actor, tones down his better-known, preening Bond-villain sensibilities in favour of something infinitely more repressed and his resemblance to a young Polanski will not go unnoticed. Indeed, the charged reference to modern society’s focus on child sex abuse represents more than a simple throwaway line when spoken by a man bearing such physical similarities. 

Next to him, Seigner is an undeniably vibrant presence. Curvaceous and oozing sensuality, she is a long way from her ethereal, waif-like breakout role in Frantic, her husband’s coolly paranoid 1988 Euro-thriller. Here the actress is reassuringly confident and, in keeping with the encroaching influence of the play’s obvious themes, increasingly tyrannical. 

From the beginning, Seigner strides around the set, creating more conducive lighting, groping the faintly obscene cut-outs of the naff Belgian Western with which the production is sharing a space and manipulating the malleable Thomas with stunning ease. She flits from the script to her own thoughts, conveying a nuanced distinction in character traits between these two versions of herself, one grounded, the other a scheming dominatrix. It is masterful stuff.

At his roots, of course, Polanski is a cinephile and he has added subtle flourishes here and there to heighten the immersive experience, from little sound effects accompanying the miming of actions by Thomas and Vanda to the clever italicising of subtitles when the dialogue shifts from spontaneous conversation to scripted verse. Tellingly, the latter comes to hold sway as the drama rolls on, Thomas’s thoughts and those of his inner submissive conflating on a profound level. 

Vanda, too, appears caught up in the facade. That said, her behaviour is more knowing, more cynical; she even manages, in one subversive exchange, to deconstruct the playwright’s safely unexciting existence, a lingerie-clad devil on the shoulder. Whatever this unpredictable starlet’s intentions, humiliation of her partner seems a priority and she seizes her chance with aplomb before the end, retaining the power while reversing the rehearsed roles with visceral consequences. 

That there is an element of farce to it all is unsurprising given the ludicrous premise yet, darker still, the inevitability of a Greek tragedy hangs over the bizarre finale. Vanda, enraged and cavorting in the nude, invokes Dionysus, the God of ecstasy and the great punisher of apostates in The Bacchae, an inspiration to the now stricken, subjugated Thomas in the crafting of his perverse work. 

Such is the tone. Dense and often stifling, Polanski’s latest foray onto the trodden board is a witty and ambitious entry from which it is almost impossible to escape. Taken at face value, and with an aspirin, one cannot fail to be amused. 

An edited version of this article was first published here