Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Black Sea


Kevin MacDonald is no stranger to high stakes. His documentaries Touching the Void and One Day in September both stared unblinkingly at the extremes of the human experience, the former a study of man against nature in the Peruvian Andes, the latter an Oscar-winning study of chaos at Munich’s Olympics. MacDonald's features, meanwhile, have been equally tense. State of Play and The Last King of Scotland, in particular, explored the fates of isolated and flawed crusaders battling for survival.

With his latest project, Black Sea, the filmmaker returns to that familiar well once more, installing his motley band of mercenary submariners in a clanking old boat and plunging them headlong into the abyss — a milieu described by morose helmsman Reynolds (Holywood actor and comic Michael Smiley) as analogous to ‘dark, cold death’. 

From the beginning of this excellent maritime thriller, there exists a populist air to the simple premise, one raging against degradation and indignity driven by the cruelties of our recessionary age. Jude Law plays Robinson, an inexplicably Scottish sub captain made redundant early on by the faceless suits at his marine salvage company. Dispatched, with a meagre handshake, to sign on and watch as his son is raised in the affluent surroundings provided by his ex-wife’s new husband, Robinson is filled with a bubbling bitterness towards wanton corporate greed. In the confines of his pokey, spartan flat Law’s glowering seaman appears close to despair. 

Redemption comes then in the form of an operation requiring his particular expertise. Given that Black Sea sits easily in a genre almost wholly defined by Wolfgang Petersen’s masterful Das Boot, the presence of a sunken U-boat at the bottom of the eponymous waterway holds obvious significance. For Robinson, the millions in otherwise forgotten Nazi bullion resting deep inside its belly are too much to resist. With a half-British, half-Russian crew in tow, and working on behalf of a shadowy financier, he hires a soiled, failing submarine before setting off to liberate the loot.


The result is a tense, superbly volatile adventure story, laced with a grimy claustrophobia — the leased vessel is an appalling totem of Soviet functionality — that morphs, steadily, from by-product of hard-edged expediency into something visceral and infinitely more frightening.

Piloting a rusted submersible to the depths of the Black Sea takes a certain degree of steely determination, of course. These men are not amateurs but this mission has not been undertaken for the sake of their own egos. Money, prospects, a decent life; such things are entirely absent, and so they dive onwards, trusting that bravery will reward them. 

Desperate men are prone to act desperately, however, and when Robinson makes the fatal mistake of informing this collection of bleak souls that they are to receive an equal share of a gilded stash, the twin spectres of avarice and mutiny quickly take hold. 

In the lead role, strange accent notwithstanding, Law is superb, registering a forceful reminder of how magnetic a personality he can be away from the tittle and tattle of the tabloid swamp. The notional hero, Robinson is merely an ordinary man with everyday concerns. Plainly motivated by financial gain, he places this interest above most other considerations, and is complicated enough to unnerve the reprobates under his command. 

Of these, none is more threatening than Ben Mendelsohn’s unhinged master diver, Fraser. The Australian again proves himself a rising talent and his is an instantly corrosive personality, a fascinating creation. On deck he seems little more than a petulant psychopath; in the treacherous sands of the sea bed he serves ably as a calm leader, responsible for the safety of his comrades. Ultimately, his destructive choices prove fatal, manipulated into place by the voyage’s snivelling white collar, Daniels (played with typical ease by Mendelsohn’s Killing Them Softly co-star Scoot McNairy).

When disaster descends — and descend it does — the mettle of these disparate characters is severely tested. Few reach the standard, though quiet hope forms in callow Tobin (Bobby Schofield) and gentle navigator Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin, seen most recently in Anton Corbijn’s terrific A Most Wanted Man). As the scheme comes close to crumbling, life is weighed against the promise of fortune; McDonald, ramping up the stress, pushes even his dependable men to the point of breaking.

As focused as the film is on those human dynamics, it does not scrimp on spectacle and the director introduces occasionally startling imagery to offset the drama. In one scene his camera pulls out to reveal a stricken U-boat, swastika on show, marooned on an underwater precipice. Later, as the expedition negotiates a narrow gorge, the murky green vastness of the sea almost consumes their tiny presence. 

By contrast, there is a soiled intimacy to the interior of Robinson’s submarine that promises only doom. The dank walls are, as the dependable Smiley perceptively suggests, the sole surroundings in which these hopeless individuals might properly function. 

An unamended version of this article was first published here

Friday, 5 December 2014

St. Vincent


Once upon a time, Bill Murray was an over-the-title star of zany comedies, money-making multiplex material that relied on his special brand of archly rumpled cynicism. Stripes, Groundhog Day and the Ghostbusters series were all infused with that unknowable menu of distinctive Bill Murrayisms, their sly, sniggering plots driven on by the sad-sack smirking of the former Saturday Night Live gag-peddler. Scrooged will be buried in the television listings this Christmas. Be sure not to miss it. 

Beneath his comic shell, however, Murray was hiding a significant talent for straighter content. In the latter years of a career no longer punctuated by the landmarks which defined it in the 1980s and early 1990s, the erstwhile Peter Venkman has carved out a comfortable niche as a wearied character actor of striking quality. With Lost in Translation, Murray confirmed his renaissance; the performance as faded performer Bob Harris — a light spin on his own shifting palette — in Sofia Coppola’s sumptuous Tokyo romance chimed with a refined understatement few would have imagined in the days when the actor was striding around our screens shooting lasers at flying green ghouls. 

Dabbling since then in most of Wes Anderson’s quirky ensemble fables, leading the way for the likes of indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) and vaunted newcomer Aaron Schneider (Get Low), Murray continues to follow the demands of his heart rather than his bank manager. He may wear the expression of someone who rarely concerns himself with the public’s foibles, but his recent career path seems especially wise when assessing an effortless, complex turn in debut writer-director Theodore Melfi’s occasionally charming St. Vincent

Murray excels as the eponymous Vincent MacKenna. Grizzled, rude and often less than sober, this ostensibly unlikeable curmudgeon spends his days at the track or in the pub, shooting mildly acidic barbs at its long-suffering proprietor. Avoiding his shifty bookie (a terribly underused Terrence Howard) and half intending to do right by a pregnant Russian prostitute-stripper girlfriend (the heavily accented Naomi Watts), Vincent is Brooklyn’s Jeff Lebowski, minus the charm and the robe. 


As the ornery centrepiece in this mellow, sweet, but often silly, comedy-drama, the weight of Melfi’s less polished ambitions rest on Murray’s shoulders and he delivers manfully. Vincent is not a bad guy, though he is not an especially nice one either, and when Melissa McCarthy’s vulnerable Maggie moves in next door with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), he is dragged, with no little grumbling or financial incentive, into their domestic turmoil. 

A friendship develops between Oliver and Vincent, both worldly in their own ways, the older man’s blunt guidance the mark of a surrogate father figure that the young boy unknowingly craves. As saccharine as this may sound, Melfi’s commitment to a delicate narrative conceit — neither is desperate for such a connection, yet each quietly embraces it — succeeds in most respects. 

Vincent’s life is an otherwise lonely ruin of debt and petty hustling; Oliver’s easy-going companionship proves an ample remedy. Where director and star score highest, mercifully, is in steering Murray away from any mawkish redemption story. Where he might have morphed into an agreeable old codger with the aid of Oliver’s innocent faith in their relationship, Vincent essentially remains unchanged. His stubborn inelegance is merely accepted by those around him. 

As one would expect, Murray is afforded the room to weave layers into his characterisation. He hints at gold beneath the surface, his unpleasant exterior and genuine humanity the unavoidable run-off of significant life experience. Unfortunately these meaty extras are woefully underwritten, replaced instead by an increasingly superficial tale which aims for charm but feels as rote and predictable as anything featured in Adam Sandler’s more puerile efforts.

The overall effect, therefore, is ultimately clumsy. Murray’s scene-stealing, so watchable throughout, grates against the distracting ancillary arc of Maggie’s custody battle with her ex-husband and a ham-fisted school project — overseen by Chris O’Dowd as a droll Catholic priest — which sees Vincent forced into a corner so cuddly that he appears embarrassed just to be near it. 

Next to Murray, the always brilliant McCarthy more than holds her own by battling against a dearth of depth. A fine comedienne, she, like the leading man, possesses an impressive dramatic range.  Personable and amusing in equal measures, hers is a presence deserving of better. Watts, on the other hand, looks rightly confused by an undefined and needlessly unpredictable role. Her pecking nag smells vaguely insulting for an actress of Watts’s gifts and suggests, perhaps, that 2013’s Diana debacle is not easily overcome. 

Lieberher, however, is a talent to watch. With an air of resigned acceptance and displaying not a hint of irritating precocity, his believable stoicism serves to ground the maudlin final chapter even while he is forced to engage with it. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Drop


When James Gandolfini passed away suddenly in June 2013, he did so possessed of an acting legacy more or less characterised by a hoodlum. It was no mere hoodlum, of course, for Tony Soprano defined a generation, as much a part of post-millennial pop culture as the now humble iPod. 

A wonderful actor, kind of countenance and refined of speech, Gandolfini was born to portray the brashly complex Jersey mob boss, relying on his skill, bulk and obvious Italian roots to drag television, almost single handedly, into its second golden age.

There is a faintly cruel irony then in the fact that Gandolfini’s final role should come playing low-level wannabe gangster Marvin Stipler, the grizzled anchor of Michaël R. Roskam’s potent, desolate crime drama, The Drop. Stipler is a tragic figure and failed hustler, the kind of guy who feeds at the end of the trough before kicking up most of his meagre earnings to Tony Soprano. Devious, yet utterly without good fortune, the man known throughout as Cousin Marv represents a fitting final entry in the Gandolfini canon. 

Based on Dennis Lehane’s newest novel, The Drop reeks of that author’s weighty Boston anthology, from Mystic River to Gone Baby Gone. Lehane has made a successful career from mining thrills out of his native city’s blue-collar Celtic underbelly — Red Sox games, funny accents, Irish-Americans — and whether they are contemporary or period (Shutter Island, The Given Day) each tells a gripping tale rich in character, ripe with atmosphere. 

The Drop is no different from its creator’s established pedigree and owing to Bullhead director Roskam, this cool urban noir is well served by a subtle infusion of Belgian elegance. Lehane’s muscular source material is a spare effort, an extension of his own short story, Animal Rescue, which inspired him to write the screenplay here before fleshing out the concept in literary form. Roskam seems inspired by his collaborator’s style. Choosing to leave the tone undisturbed, he delivers a brilliantly acted, terribly impressive English-language debut that is infinitely smarter than it initially appears. 


Tom Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, the unassuming barman at Cousin Marv’s grotty establishment. Transposed by Lehane, for no apparent reason, from Boston to Brooklyn, the bar is a front, owned by the sinister Chechen mob and used, on an irregular basis, as a storage waypoint for the gang’s dirty cash. With his own survival in mind, the gentle Bob is uninterested in little beyond pulling pints and labouring diligently for Marv, his actual cousin. 

After his demented turn in the recent series of Peaky Blinders, Hardy’s brooding visage is a welcome change. He paints Bob in a variety of unthreatening shades: loyal, devout, unworldly. The undertones of crackling tension with Marv, however, are especially fascinating. As former members of an insignificant crew, the pair occupy similar places in the local pecking order but Bob’s calm contentment — symbolised by the adorable boxer puppy he rescues from a trash can and a tentative romance with the flinty Nadia (Noomi Rapace) — is an irritant that Marv, an unfulfilled never-really-was, simply cannot shake. 

Hardy and Gandolfini convey a time-wearied sense of solidarity built on familiarity, not affection. When it is shaken by an armed robbery at the bar, along with the unwelcome arrival of unhinged extortionist Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), their lightly squabbling dynamic takes on a darker edge. Tellingly, Roskam establishes the Bob-Marv relationship as his focal point; money must be reclaimed and ties severed. The film, stripped of those few ancillary elements included in Lehane’s book, feels all the better for it. 

As the ensemble suggests, Roskam’s greatest asset is a stellar cast. Hardy, Rapace, John Ortiz; these are some of the finest performers currently working. Gandolfini’s presence speaks for itself but, for those familiar with his résumé, it is no surprise to see Schoenarts stand out. His physicality, so magnetic in Rust and Bone and the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, has been reigned in, replaced by a dangerous air of violent childlike neediness. Resting, unpredictably, between unsettling stalker and outright crook, Schoenarts is the director’s scruffy wild card, an unpleasant sadist whose Flemish inflection has been lost beneath a seriously impressive Brooklyn drawl.

Pared down to its most visceral components, The Drop ultimately succeeds in moving from wintry thriller to effective mystery. Personified by Ortiz’s watchful detective, the latter strand may fail to truly titillate, yet it is, nevertheless, slickly accomplished. Lehane is famously partial to a twisting finale and the instant conceit is genuinely clever, both revelatory and easily grasped. 

Do not believe everything you see.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Imitation Game

For many, the field of mathematics is likely to set pulses racing at an uncomfortable rate, stirring up memories of cold sweats brought on by algebraic confusion and a swamp of geometrical bewilderment. This is, in truth, a discipline holding little cinematic allure; maths just isn’t very sexy. 

That being said, it is rather important and this fact shapes the core of The Imitation Game, a sleek, genuinely superb English language debut from Headhunters director Morten Tyldum. In spite of some recent criticisms that churlishly focus on historical inaccuracies while ignoring unavoidable artistic licence, this is as captivating as it is factually flawed. 

Based on Andrew Hodges’s biography of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing, the Norwegian’s stylish thriller offers up an exquisitely tuned portrait of a remarkable man, a man who stole Nazi secrets by breaking into Enigma, the coded communications system by which all military instructions were relayed. He essentially defeated Hitler in the process. 

It would not save him. Turing was gay and, in 1952, he received his reward for that service to king and country: a homosexuality conviction and court-mandated chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later. 

Part arrogant savant, part lost child burdened with an intellect incapable of simplistic thought, Turing would, in the oak-panelled environs of Bletchley Park’s Code and Cypher School — the austere progenitor of communication overlords GCHQ — head up a unit of incredibly clever boffins, all committed to the apparently impossible task of getting inside Enigma. 

Thus, with that in mind, any filmmaker looking to engage an actor capable of playing maladjusted genius oddballs with significant personal baggage need look no further than Benedict Cumberbatch. An extraordinarily brilliant performer, he has easily cornered the market in maladjusted genius oddballs with significant personal baggage and his willful, charismatic but profoundly haunted Cambridge codebreaker constitutes a fascinating creation. 

Cumberbatch and Tyldum make immediate headway thanks to screenwriting debutant Graham Moore’s punchy script, ripe with the kind of crisp and snarkily playful dialogue Aaron Sorkin might produce if he anchored his narrative in the emotional wilderness of the British class system. Indeed, there is a great deal to chew on in the middle stages, where the ongoing war is merely part of a larger puzzle that Turing and his colleagues must tackle over the course of years. 

Working to come up with a solution before the enemy changes settings at midnight, rendering each day meaningless, this urgent premise is framed by a more sedate post-war setting: Turing recounting an incredible tale, via flashback, after his arrest on indecency charges. There are glimpses of one seminal period as the bullied prodigy at a public school, illuminating multiple plot points.


His ally in this endeavour is Christopher, the gargantuan and expensively assembled bombe device. A clunking tribute to the pre-analogue age, this super computer (operating, admittedly, at a level of sophistication which makes the humble Nokia 3210 seem like Star Trek’s warp drive) is Turing’s creation, his masterpiece and, ultimately, the means by which the Allies may endure. Christopher is the closest one might come to conceiving the scale of Turing’s genius, subtly beautiful in its plodding design.

His supporting cast excel in portraying a group of people largely confounded by the central player’s obtuse methods. Amongst this motley band of intellectuals the elegantly unreadable Matthew Goode plays British chess champion Hugh Alexander and, alongside him, Downtown Abbey regular Allen Leech (working with superior material) provides a good deal of humanity as Scottish linguist John Cairncross. Mark Strong’s slyly obscure spymaster, Stewart Menzies, meanwhile, is awarded the best lines. 

In an otherwise masculine ensemble, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the genteel mathematician who establishes a touching platonic connection with Turing, serves to add a dash of perky refinement to all the high-functioning testosterone. There is no small sense of triumphant fraternity, however, when the team, pouncing on the inevitability of human error, finally unlocks the mystery. The subsequent comedown is just as dramatic, an icy realisation that to act hastily is to induce the Germans into switching away from their compromised system.

Cerebral as it is — the solving of the problem will confuse even hardcore crossword enthusiasts — Tyldum’s grandest trick is to maintain a sense of pioneering spirit, exciting and accessible. This is an era when computer science was an edgy category on the academic spectrum and artificial intelligence little more than a zany concept; neither was of use in the real world, let alone conducive to the traditions of mass conflict. Turing must battle then against the relative philistines holding authority over him, as well as the endless combinations that the Third Reich may employ to conceal its plans. His obsession is almost an art form and when it blossoms, shaking the foundations of all scientific understanding in an instant, the true meaning of the breakthrough becomes clear. 

Unfortunately, with that moment at its zenith, the remainder of the story sags in places. The relationship between Alan and Joan feels worthy of deeper study, the meeting of kindred minds compensating for a lack of physical chemistry, but it is eventually beset by melodrama. When Turing vetoes the decision to warn an Atlantic convoy of an imminent U-boat attack, condemning a friend’s relative in the process, there is a gratuitous residual rancour which disappears as quickly as it arises. 

An underwritten subplot involving Soviet spies is technically relevant but adds little here beyond a measure of occasionally distracting intrigue and Turing’s sizzling rivalry with Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston (Tywin Lannister in a naval uniform) sits abandoned also, denying viewers the satisfaction of witnessing the latter fall foul of Christopher. 

Most disappointing is the strange manner in which Turing’s sexuality is handled throughout. Tyldum, Moore and the magnificent Cumberbatch have not shied away from the topic yet, for much of the picture’s duration, it lingers like an abstract equation, something Turing addresses in frank terms but barely bothers to explore. 

Maybe there is a reason for this evasiveness. His sexual proclivities, perhaps, were arguably less important than the machines and theories which comforted an unknowable figure in the miserable final years of his towering existence. Whatever made him tick, Alan Turing, responsible for the profound greatness was certainly deserving of more.

A version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Third Person


When Paul Haggis struck Oscar gold in 2006 with Crash, he did so thanks to a charged, multi-faceted LA fable, impressively constructed and wonderfully acted. It controversially nudged out Ang Lee’s beautiful Brokeback Mountain for best picture that year, yet with its themes of racism, poverty and the faded American dream, Haggis’s crackling passion piece was a predictable, if safe, bet to take home the big prize on the big night. 

Primarily a screenwriter, the Canadian’s directorial output, despite his latter success, has been sporadic in the eight years since he transitioned from being the guy behind Mountie comedy-drama Due South to an in-demand double Oscar winner (he also secured 2005’s screenplay award for Million Dollar Baby). Both In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days were perfectly accomplished for what they were — classy adult thrillers — but they were largely forgettable entries in the Haggis cinematic canon, probably just as safe in the hands of his more serviceable peers. 

A desire to regenerate those award-gaudy heights could represent one reason then for Haggis’s decision to make Third Person, an ostensibly high-functioning drama playing to his natural strengths. The regrettable reality, however, is much less fulfilling, for his is a film of imperfectly conceived pretensions, where multiple strands possess few fragments of a soul. Overlong, undercooked, wrapped up as a turbulent chronicle of love and loss, this rests upon its fleetingly interesting laurels to the detriment of a halfway sensible plot. Haggis’s glory days, sadly, seem a long time ago. 

At the centre of this muddle, grizzled author Michael (Liam Neeson) taps away at a laptop, reworking a weighty novel that his editor — with a possible sense of unintended irony — is secretly embarrassed to read. Around him swirls a disparate collection of competing and vaguely connected arcs, each one jostling for a measure of ultimately unobtainable relevance. 


In Rome, Adrien Brody’s Scott, a faintly obnoxious American wheeler dealer, flirts with the no doubt thrilling world of fashion industry espionage before beginning a very different flirtation with crisis-stricken gypsy Monika (Moran Atias). Across the Atlantic, New Yorkers Rick (James Franco) and Julia (Mila Kunis) duel in a toxic custody battle over the son that she may or may not have tried to kill. 

Meanwhile, Anna (Olivia Wilde) shows up at Michael’s Parisian hideaway seeking a mentor’s guidance, providing a lover’s solace. A scowling Kim Basinger appears intermittently as Elaine, his dreary wife, phone glued to her ear throughout.

That it is a mixed bag should be obvious from the beginning. The approach admittedly has its virtues but there exists no obvious common thread until the latter stages. Given Third Person’s ponderous length, the decision to wait so long before unspooling the central conceit is questionable in the extreme.

Haggis’s failure here is two-fold. None of the component storylines are especially engaging, peopled with barely likeable characters and cursed by a hazy delivery. Beyond that, in contrast to the shrewd, often elegant intersection of moments and faces in Crash — hardly the first film to employ the technique, of course — the mostly self-contained morality plays display only rare traces of shared DNA. Granted, elements occasionally brush lightly against each other, one bleeding into the next, but they serve as a distraction, faded signposts on the way to a mildly compelling destination. 

In truth, the consistent failure is one of interest. None of the meandering scenarios does enough to hold an audience’s sympathy; there is simply little to care about. The shifty Brody’s Roman holiday helps, initially, to distract from the drudgery around it, yet this soon becomes weighed down by its own uncertainties and a somewhat preposterous scam-cum-redemption tale. 

Haggis keeps his intentions shrouded on all fronts until the very end and, while the Manhattan-based familial strife between Kunis and Franco offers up nothing of note, Michael’s central, overarching narrative undergoes the most searching elucidation. In one respect his relationship with the other characters just about holds its shape, a pretty design on the wider canvas. On the other hand, however, the source of Wilde’s cruel volatility flies in, uncomfortably, from left field. The already straining melodrama is suddenly replaced by a grimier edge; it feels cheap and gratuitously shocking

Haggis might have overstretched himself in mounting an ambitious though flawed contemporary soap opera, but his latest feature is not devoid of redeeming traits.Third Person is a sumptuously captured effort, bursting with a rich visual style that paints each segment in its own distinct colours. The Italian vistas are postcard depictions of warm Mediterranean shades and sepia hues; Paris a more luscious affair replete with five-star luxury, its cool Euro exteriors forming the backdrop to Neeson’s glowering process. Framed by wintery tones to match its overall mood, the The New York setting bristles with apt misery. 

Visual flourishes, too, courtesy of cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, add some degree of class to the proceedings. From a hotel suite filled with a garden’s worth of delicate white roses to the azure swimming pool that fills the screen early on, a lone figure later fading beneath its surface, there are mournful hints of the film that Haggis perhaps intended to make, fine cast and clever concept in hand.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Friday, 7 November 2014

Interstellar


If there is a common thread in Christopher Nolan's varied filmic résumé — aside from the overarching quality — then realism is its name. Nolan has turned his hand to any number of genres and on every occasion has infused the final product with a scrubbed, earthy tone. His artistic leanings are evident, of course, and as his budgets have increased so, too, has the elegance of his framing, but, regardless of the content, this most unassuming of large-budget, high-functioning blockbuster architects is no stranger to dragging fiction back to ground level. 

Tellingly, DNA traces of Nolan’s newest project, Interstellar, are discernible throughout his back catalogue. It is rife with the restrained, yet thunderous, sense of scale that rendered his Batman trilogy so acutely brilliant; Bruce Wayne’s rebooted arc developed in a prism of relatively pared-down naturalism. Inception, a sci-fi tale of mind-bending proportions, appeared to possess some kernel of truth hidden, perhaps, between the strands of Dom Cobb’s tortured subconscious. Even The Prestige, a sumptuous period drama, ultimately plumped for (somewhat questionable) science over magic. With Memento Nolan tested intellects, in reverse narrative, to convey a fruitless battle against the crippling blight of encroaching amnesia. 

Now, by splicing together these disparate elements, the director comes close to eschewing his realistic bent. Nolan has reached out to touch the stars and, in so doing, delivers a film of quite startling magnificence, a benchmark that, for all his gifts, he may struggle to overcome. A story of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis, dressed in the garb of soaring space opera, Interstellar bristles with a sense of pioneering wonder. There are hiccups, obviously, but, by the time of its conclusion, they seem little more than faint stars in the dark grandeur of space. No, what is created here plays out as a latter-day existential fable on the continuation of a species, our species, and the lengths to which we will go to endure in the face of a self-induced destruction. 

It is not without significance that Matthew McConaughey sits proudly at the heart of this Odyssean epic. A man now on the crest of his own rebirth — a ‘McConaissance’ if you will — the Texan is fresh off his Oscar-winning star turn in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club and a critically acclaimed role in HBO’s terrific True Detective series. 

Keeping his famously louche persona firmly in check, he portrays Cooper a former test pilot now scraping through life as a farmer somewhere in the American west. The time period is never specified, nor dated by props and styles (John Lithgow’s grizzled grandfather makes reference to an era during his youth that sounds remarkably like our present) but this is a near future few will ever wish to see. It is a time of dystopian dust bowls, failing crops, stalled technological advancement and the eerily realistic steady decline of Mother Earth.  

Discerning a series of ghostly communications in her bedroom, Cooper’s preternaturally intelligent daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, putting Twilight behind her) convinces him that the spectral movements signify important geographical coordinates. His sense of adventure awakened, Cooper soon stumbles upon the secret location of what was once NASA and a small scientific unit led by his former mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

He is swiftly recruited — a narrative expedience just about escaping ridicule — to pilot an inter-dimensional expedition tasked with searching for a sustainable homeworld beyond this one. A decade earlier, twelve astronauts secretly did the same, traversing a spherical wormhole in the shadow of Saturn to explore the galaxy beyond. Essentially lost in their mission, that original team’s probing has signalled three possible destinations and it is the task of Cooper, Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and their twin robots, TARS and CASE — a pair of beautifully conceived, silver-plated sentinels who walk and spin like Ikea-designed disciples of minimalism — to investigate the leads. In the meantime, Brand will stay behind to solve the quandary of effecting a large-scale escape from this planet’s gravitational pull.

It is dense material which Nolan and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan, manage to distill for ease of understanding. In truth, however, his triumph stems more from the emotion driving the picture, something which represents a remarkably heartfelt departure from an auteur best known for his cool delivery. 

Mankind must escape lest it be swallowed up by the dying Earth, a reality which will ultimately strain the ties of love, and loyalty, that define us. Cooper embarks on his quest for the sake of his children, though it is not a decision taken lightly. The stress of his departure, the horrible unpicking of a profound father-daughter bond, carries as much weight as any visual treat conjured by Nolan’s imagination. 


The dissipating currency of days, months and years, so natural a pillar of our existence, quickly becomes the expedition’s enemy. It nips at their heels, constricting the window available to complete the mission, threatening a reunification with all they hold dear. In a single quiet but devastating scene, the value of time is reinforced with cold certainty, true and tangible; it is no longer a mere mathematical abstract.

Indeed, this unending march towards oblivion also eats away at those left behind. Adult Murph — played with steely sensitivity by Jessica Chastain — and her brother Tom deal with the effects of childhood abandonment. Casey Affleck's taciturn sibling finds solace in guarding his father’s legacy: farming and family. Meanwhile, Chastain’s heartbroken boffin directs her anger into the task of assisting Brand with his unending equation. 

At this stage, Interstellar is not so much a voyage of discovery as it is a desperate scramble to escape a burning skyscraper and the sudden emergence of a bleaker, less hopeful tone constitutes a sobering reminder that every part of humankind, including its frailties, its myriad deceptions, will continue if Cooper and the rest succeed in their search. 

The path travelled in the latter stages will surprise and bemuse in equal measures. Drifting into those incomprehensible complexities of the astral plane, Nolan’s plot charts previously unimagined territory. This embrace of something approaching high fantasy will irk those invested in grittier themes but should thrill anyone seeking a departure from the rote conventions of the genre. 

There is a point to this almost crazed exploration of, well, everything and Nolan has not opted to delve outside the edge of our understanding merely for the sake of it. It returns him, before the end, to that which started all of this: bloody-minded, indefatigable survival.


As one might expect, Interstellar is a colossal film awash with the richly striking imagery that its creator seems to prefer, whatever the context. Instead of the luscious, HD-ready palette usually employed by long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister, Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera captures, in tandem, the overpowering vastness of the cosmos and the fading cornfields of the world’s breadbasket. The former setting, however, provides the truest showcase for the breadth of Nolan’s vision. 

A tiny shuttle skirting the edge of Saturn; hundred-foot waves crashing across the surface of a water-bound planet; frozen clouds overhanging ice sheets that stretch to the horizon and beyond; only the most cynical will be unmoved by the appearance of these awe-inspiring starscapes and distant, unknowable worlds. They populate an otherwise spartan void on the far side of Gargantua, the increasingly crucial black hole, a roiling and terrible leviathan into which Cooper leads his crew, seeking answers as well as simple refuge. 

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” says Caine in voiceover, tying Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words to the hardiness of the human spirit. “Old age should burn and rage at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

To resist fate, to defy the certainty of our own demise, Nolan suggests, humanity must push onwards, furiously, as far as it may carry itself. Powerful, insistent, difficult to ignore, Interstellar reminds us that we might just do it when the time comes. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Serena


When it takes a director 18 months to finish a film, whispers of reshoots and tortured editing will inevitably begin to surface. In the case of Serena, Danish director Susanne Bier's Depression-era drama which wrapped in 2012, those fears proved to be unfounded. Bier, it seems, was simply being precise. 

An adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena feels less mainstream than its stellar names might otherwise indicate, its high-passioned frontier tumult at once coldly savage and, ultimately, wildly hot tempered. In her English language debut, Bier's construction is a tense, beautifully realised meditation on power and ambition. 

Bradley Cooper plays George Pemberton, a charismatic Bostonian and the head of a budding timber empire. From his lumber yard in North Carolina, he works the land alongside his men, sleeps with his cook and espouses solid free-market beliefs that clash with the environmentalist proselytising of Toby Jones’s bumptious sheriff. 

As ever, Cooper is a terrific actor to behold, his matinee idol features almost adding to the shiftiness that he brings to each role. His budding magnate is not an especially likeable man but, in this capable A-list grip, Pemberton is layered rather than clichéd, neither especially villainous nor particularly noble. He has a conscience, no doubt, but his time in the wild breeds a sharp, and pivotal, sense of survival.

Occurring in the immediate wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the subsequent crisis is all but invisible in a landscape already scarred by poverty. Pemberton heads off to extend his bank loan in the privileged north: his poor credit, badly affected by the downturn, forces him to offer up cherished virgin land in Brazil as collateral. This Yankee sojourn takes an upturn when he encounters the exquisite Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), the flinty offspring of hard-edged Colorado logging barons whose demons are all to obvious, even as the bewitched Pemberton makes her his wife.

The subsequent domesticated middle section of Bier’s story is occasionally fascinating. Shaw, steely and glamorous in equal measures, strides into position, an equal player in Pemberton’s enterprise capable of issuing instructions on chopping technique and taming a snake-killing eagle (while her husband continues to obsess over the elusive mountain lion he wishes to kill). Lawrence is every inch the omnipotent title character, bent on consolidating her own position in surroundings with which she is more than familiar. ‘I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint, Mr Buchanan,’ she says, ominously, to her husband’s jealous business partner.


There is much to gorge on in this meaty middle: love, lust, betrayal, death. Cooper and Lawrence — dazzling in Silver Linings Playbook, confident in American Hustle — loom over the narrative like mighty twin oaks. Bier finds much to work with in their mutually destructive chemistry, where besotted affection slowly gives way to suspicion.

In the foreground, unfortunately, that central alliance wields a frame-consuming dominance, leaving little room for much else, plot or cast. Conleth Hill’s rumpled Dixie doctor (likely fleeing the reach of a professional conduct investigation based on his clinical abilities) and Sean Harris, as a whispery, though unusually upstanding, foreman, are forced to feed on scraps. Jones, too, must make do, veering from preachy irritant to keen investigator under the yoke of an lukewarm subplot concerning the Pembertons’ involvement in corruption and murder.

In truth, such difficulties are to be expected when this is so clearly Lawrence’s show. A fixture in two big budget franchises (X-Men and The Hunger Games), the actress’s reputation now matches her obvious talent. However, in her seminal breakthrough, Winter’s Bone, she was marooned in a hopeless Ozarkian wilderness and, fittingly, she excels once more in this distant back country, convincing as the hardy survivalist who happens to look like Jennifer Lawrence on a really good day. 

Beyond that, her descent into jealousy-induced psychosis, the certainty of a fate once avoided, is sadly inevitable, though effectively accomplished. As she nurses her broken womb in a blanched hospital ward, there are few words to describe the silent torment fired directly into the camera. Later on, she watches Cooper charge off in the wake of an argument, shivering in her night clothes on a dirty street. The frantic wave of farewell that she directs at his back — hopeful, childlike — sits on the crazed end of a terribly fevered spectrum. 

That standard fails to sustain and it is a pity then that the dark kinship developed with taciturn woodsman Galloway (an incredibly sinister Rhys Ifans) should support the picture’s weakest element. Dominating the final third, and choppy in its conception, her sudden fixation on the fate of Pemberton’s illegitimate son feels forced, horribly out of step with the otherwise smouldering atmosphere.

At her grim conclusion, Bier’s true success, perhaps, is in conjuring an ambience as palpable as the leads’ steamy dynamic. The gritty action is mostly hemmed in by the isolation of its rural valley base, with only torrid passions for company, and in the Czech Republic’s stunning landscapes (doubling for North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains) the director appears intoxicated. 

This mist-shrouded hinterland holds the subtle whiff of felled trees and wet mud, while cinematographer Morten Søborg soaks up the colours of Camp Pemberton: deep, damp greens and drab browns. Johan Söderqvist’s score, too, touches a nerve, its desolate Southern soundscapes dripping with menace, ripe with heartache. It peppers Bier’s sometimes flawed vision, evoking few hopes that everything will be alright in the end. 

An edited version of this article was first published here