Friday, 24 October 2014


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

Thursday, 23 October 2014


There have been more films than one might expect about the Troubles. Most have been terrible. The Devil’s Own saw Brad Pitt hiding his tortured Northern Ireland brogue behind a pout and a whisper; Five Minutes of Heaven (a film not without local flavour given the presence in its cast of Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt) offered a fairly preposterous portrayal of the foulness tearing through the country during the 1970s. Even those Belfast scenes in the ostensibly superb Patriot Games — slums, ‘IRA’ graffiti and football-playing urchins — were cringe-inducing in their simplicity. 

Only Steve McQueen’s visceral Hunger and Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday have, arguably, captured the complicated essence of a landscape multiple filmmakers fail to traverse with success. 

For director Yann Demange, the decision to tackle Belfast’s former self in ’71 might have proved a disastrous one. Yet, like McQueen before him, he brings an original touch to a subject often plagued by cliché and free of nuance. Demange was born in Paris and raised in London. He made his bones in the latter, directing gritty television drama Top Boy and thus he is no stranger to the milieu at the core of this brilliant, coiled, pulsating thriller. Nevertheless, in bottling the spirit of something so concentrated, so specific, Demange — making his feature debut — has marked himself out, remarkably, as a cinematic talent of near boundless horizons. 

As the title suggests the year is 1971. Somewhere in England, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) and his fellow squaddies are put through their exercises in anticipation of a deployment to Germany: eager and clear-eyed, ready for army life, well-suited to their coldly regimented existence. Awoken in the middle of the night they are informed, however, that the plans have changed. The security situation in Belfast is deteriorating, that is where they are headed now. ‘Do any of you know where Belfast is?’ barks the gruff sergeant. ‘Northern Ireland? The United Kingdom? Here?’ 

In truth, none of them can begin to imagine the hornet’s nest into which they are casually dropped. Almost immediately, Demange conveys the blind confusion which defined countless soldiers’ searing baptisms in the ways of Northern Ireland’s turmoil. That crucial tipping point occurs early on as Hook and his squad are set upon during a riot. In an instant he becomes isolated, cut off from the unit, scrambling to outwit the band of murderous paramilitaries (including Belfast’s own Martin McCann) intent on claiming his scalp. 

From that point on, Demange is keen to push hard on the throttle. This is a film hurtling toward its own breathless conclusion, easing the pace at times, though rarely releasing any building pressure and that sense of urgent paranoia nipping at Hook’s heels.

Such an approach proves successful. Sticky politics are avoided; there is no agenda to push, nor time to bother with tiresome sectarian issues. It is a merciful sleight of hand for which screenwriter Gregory Burke — the playwright behind warts-and-all military drama Black Watch — must receive substantial credit. 

Survival is the priority here, not education and if Demange occasionally opts for a dollop of 'Northern Ireland 101', the authenticity stays intact thanks to Hook, the chronicler of this harrowing ground-level warfare. A resourceful warrior he may be but Hook is not a man steeped in the complexities of modern Irish history. While a knowledgeable audience might not require spoon-fed information, he certainly does. 

In the lead role, a towering O’Connell oozes believability, imbuing his character with a desperate will to endure and no little humanity — one early scene sees him returning to his hardscrabble Derby neighbourhood to bond with the kid brother condemned to state care. Later, as the fires rage, O’Connell understandably wears the expression of a stunned animal, unsure in these surroundings, ignorant of why his notional safety depends on him stumbling into the right street.

One of the finest young British actors working today, he has tried his hand at more than one genre (300: Rise of an Empire, Angelina Jolie’s upcoming directorial epic Unbroken), excelling when asked to personify wiry symbols of working-class youth disaffection in grimier domestic fare, from Eden Lake to Starred Up.

Quieter moments involving Richard Dormer’s good Samaritan are elegantly done — he tentatively bonds with Dormer’s teenage daughter over contemporary pop music and the Derby-Nottingham divide — yet remain laced with a sense of foreboding that Hook, for all his innocence, is right to discern. 

This atmosphere is ably captured by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s visual palette. His surprisingly rich, earthy tones and frigid nightscapes are painted onto the canvas provided by Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield, each standing in for a scarred version of Belfast that peace money has now scrubbed away. 

Indeed, the steel city’s iconic Park Hill estate, a brutalist urban edifice currently undergoing its own regeneration, does a nice turn passing for the long disappeared Divis flats, that iconic hinterland of normality and chaos. David Holmes’s coolly disengaged score, too, colours the action, providing the soundtrack to a depiction of his home town that will seem alien to many.

Considering the speed at which the action moves, bumps are inevitable. The always sinister, multi-accented Sean Harris leads a cartoonishly villainous covert military unit which colludes with loyalists, recruits republicans and plots mayhem as a matter of daily routine. The strand is not entirely out of place in this context, of course, but it is underwritten, an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise gripping period tale. 

This is, however, an arc with ominous implications for the spartan finale. The late David Ervine regularly lamented that ‘dirty stinking war’, a conflict fuelled as much by corruption and injustice as by politico-religious fervour. It is not a view with which Gary Hook is likely to disagree. 

A version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Dracula Untold

The recent cinematic adventures of Dracula have been a rather mixed bag. Decades have passed since the big-collared glory days, when both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, under the Universal and Hammer banners respectively, inhabited his arch villainy to an iconic degree. 

More recently, in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola churned out an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, a bloated erotica, as unashamedly indulgent as it was good fun. Keanu Reeves was cast as a blank-faced Jonathan Harker, unfortunately, and Coppola’s once masterful touch abandoned him in when faced with the camply rendered material. Similarly, Universal’s 2004 monster-revival effort Van Helsing included a preposterous Richard Roxborough as the cartoonish count in a film otherwise hobbled by the presence of Stephen Sommers in the director’s chair and the (not unconnected) fact that it was utterly dreadful.  

Not to be put off, however, Universal has persisted. With a new generation of moviegoers unversed in the vintage franchise that few were clamouring to see recharged, Dracula Untold is the latest iteration of an age-old vampire yarn. It is a challenge that the studio meets with decidedly ambiguous results. 

Dublin native Gary Shore helms this $100 million behemoth, overseeing an often visually dazzling piece of blockbuster popcorn cinema that falters, in spite of an enthusiastic cast’s nobly straight-faced efforts, due to risible dialogue, predictable plotting and a conclusion which will, of course, offer few surprises. 

Humanising origin tales remain a well-trodden path at present, Dracula’s roots existing in a strand of Romanian folklore centred on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. It is from this source that Shore draws his inspiration, blending high fantasy with historical record. A late nod to Stoker’s take on the legend acknowledges its broader impact but for Shore the genesis of this mythology holds the most allure.

In the lead role, a smouldering Luke Evans is Prince Vlad, the beneficent ruler of his Transylvanian heartland, whose love for a wilful spouse, Mirena (Sarah Gadon: exquisite, doomed) and spritely son, Ingeras (Game of Thrones alumnus Art Parkinson, working in a familiar genre) is bound for a tragic climax from the moment they are witnessed cavorting around their grand homestead in familial bliss. 

Trying to purge from his mind a past spent impaling innocents for the Ottoman army, Vlad is a devout Christian, a peaceful man whose plans to avoid conflict with the imperial overlords are inevitably undermined by a demand from Dominic Cooper’s preening sultan — gilding his scumbag bona fides with eyeliner and a bad eastern accent — for 1000 child soldiers and a royal hostage in the form of Ingeras. 

Predictably enough, Vlad, having little regard for the scheme, resists these Turkish advances. He instantly seeks salvation from arts more dark than martial and, from this point on, a finely balanced opening gives way to bombastic CGI and a contrived, poorly paced, surprisingly bloodless, 12A depiction of one man’s descent into the blackness.

Many of Dracula Untold’s weaknesses stem from a truncated running time which squeezes major events into a series of narrative pit stops. From the moment that Vlad resolves to sell his soul to a cave-dwelling demon (Charles Dance) he knows next to nothing about — save for the conveniently accurate exposition provided by Paul Kaye’s watchful monk — one cannot shake the notion that Shore is scrambling to cram a crowded tableau into a very tight space. 

As he surrenders himself to three days of demonic prowess, a curse with which he will be laboured for eternity if he drinks human blood, Vlad’s embrace of these new powers, at once interesting and chilling, is jettisoned to make way for a series of shiny, hollow battle scenes. 

Acutely aware of studio pressure to feed the masses with Universal’s expensive fare, Shore occasionally steps outside bland multiplex drudgery — the relationship between Gadon, so affecting in this year’s Belle, and the serviceable Evans is never less than touching — but such moves are clearly ancillary to the spectacle. 

Inconvenient tensions are overcome as swiftly as they arise. In one scene, Vlad chides the small band of superstitious compatriots he has chosen to protect (all of whom seem to reside in his castle) for attempting to burn him alive. He dismisses their concerns about his alarming new ability to transform into a cloud of bats; they forgive him his possession.

If there is a genuinely redeeming quality, it rests in the aesthetic. Tellingly, Shore finds more success within the frame than he does beneath it and, given his background in commercials, it should come as no surprise that he brings significant style to his debut featured. Northern Ireland granted Universal a bespoke production base and the region’s rugged beauty forms an especially stunning backdrop. This is a Transylvania of verdant glens and towering mountains, its vastness accentuated and lingered upon by Shore’s admiring lens. 

Indeed, his considerable technical skills intermittently light up the mostly dull drama: a stunning opening 3D montage, all swooping cameras and brooding shadows, tells of Vlad’s early years in service to the Ottomans; later, as Evans lays waste to a field of foes, his omnipotence plays out in the reflection of a dying soldier’s falling sword. Taken as individual components, these achievements impress on a deeper level than one might expect from a film of largely rote ambitions. 

Whatever their superficial effect, however, such flourishes are, in truth, little more than a mere shimmer, garnishes to a story requiring a truly gothic treatment.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Given the enormous budgets and associated stratospheric expectations, it appears more than likely that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, parts 1 and 2, will serve as the more bombastic episodes in the staggered swan song of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those concluding chapters of the ridiculously good Hunger Games series will undoubtedly reap huge rewards at the box office, assuring the actor of an appropriately large canvas on which to be memorialised. 

Whatever the scale of those adventures, it is unlikely that such blockbuster fare will provide for as fascinating a display of Hoffman’s onscreen omnipotence as the rumpled, cigarette-caressing Teutonic spymaster Günther Bachmann. A secondary presence in John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, Bachmann’s importance is enhanced and brought to life here by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn along with Hoffman. The latter's death in February robbed cinema of, arguably, its greatest contemporary talent. 

As befits the famous writer’s back catalogue, A Most Wanted Man, is a masterfully constructed Euro thriller, dripping with the cold paranoia of a post-9/11 reality. That seminal event is the prism through which all actions are judged and in Hamburg — its oily waters provide the backdrop to an ominous opening title card — these considerations are especially relevant. For it was in Germany’s great port city that the landscape-altering attacks of 2001 were conceived, then planned; their genesis was hidden, goes the implication, by a proud tradition of multiculturalism. 

German intelligence is determined to cripple the ‘offcuts of a nation called Islam’ in any way that it can. Its point man in this endeavour is Hoffman’s rotund Bachmann, the hard-drinking patriarch of a small unit operating on the peripheries of its nation’s laws by sniffing out extremist cells, recruiting assets and generally engaging in the kind of high-stakes espionage with which Le Carré is so familiar. 

A wonderfully complex character, Bachmann is every inch the jaded spook. His modus operandi relies on intuition and an innate understanding of his foes, yet regardless of his ethereal tendencies he is a true believer, the tip of the spear in a war against horrifying, demonstrably destructive ideologies. 

Hoffman is simply fascinating then, deftly imbuing Bachmann’s shuffling frame with a wheezing, open-collared inelegance and a cutting turn of phrase. Early on, a petty securicrat pompously advises him that terrorists ‘hide among us.’ ‘Do they?’ say Bachmann, wryly, disgust long ago replaced by wearied acceptance of the minimal appreciation for his craft. Stalking from scene to scene, like sage warrior, Bachmann mistrusts the American partners and his own government’s hulking bureaucracy, wary of its inability to get out of his way, to let him do his job.

His intricate plans revolve around a callow Chechen immigrant, Issa Karpov (a superb Grigoriy Dobrygin), and the fortune Karpov’s father laundered through the bank of Willem Dafoe’s quietly amoral financier, Tommy Brue, whose obsession with lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) forms the thrust of the literary source material. Employing all of the means at his disposal, Bachmann intends to use the money to hook, and turn, ostensibly moderate Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). 

That is the basic thrust of Corbijn’s picture but, in truth, the complexities of international diplomacy and simple human nature jostle to spoil Bachmann’s design. Even the subject of the title is unclear. Is he the man in question, with his deceptively sharp mind and the information others desire? Perhaps our focus should be on the devout Issa, haunted by a monstrous past and unaware of his place in the tangled web. Abdullah seems the most obvious candidate: urbane, safe, undeniably suspicious. 

Whoever sits at the centre of its myriad strands, A Most Wanted Man is a surprisingly straightforward thriller, lacking the coolly vacillating narrative conjured by Le Carré in the excellent, restrained Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Corbijn’s confident direction allows a dense story to breath and as the extent of Bachmann’s closely guarded scheme shifts into view, he keeps a tight reign on the action. The tension is not especially palpable by the conclusion but there is sincerity beneath that icy tone, its refined vibe never compromised by anything approaching hysteria.

This is a step up for Corbijn whose last cinematic offering, The American, was little more than a vacuous star vehicle for a game George Clooney. It ably captured the subtle beauty of an Italian winter, of course, and, as expected, the visual work here is outstanding. His Hamburg is a blue-collar cosmopolis, at once brutal and exquisite, the default location for a gritty tale of such unashamedly European stylings. The sturdiness of the storytelling, however, is a pleasant surprise considering the director — a telling waypoint in Corbijn’s progression from artist to auteur. 

Indeed, as the crucial final piece slots into place, that which could have been played for the pleasures of the multiplex stays rooted in a world forged not by Bachmann’s thoughtful precision but by the political pragmatism of unyielding CIA officer Martha Sullivan (an incredibly menacing Robin Wright). Her ever-smiling exterior is clearly an act, a tool in a game only she fully comprehends.

If this is her game, then Hoffman is surely the star player and there exists an element of genuine tragedy in the fact that we will never again see him in a film so suited to his singular brilliance. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

No Liam Neeson film appears to be complete these days without its solo-billed crusader growling down a phone line to the overconfident criminal who has made the mistake of crossing him. Taken (entertaining) Taken 2 (dreadful) and Non-Stop (silly) have all featured Neeson’s gravelly telephone manner and the upcoming Taken 3 will surely plough a similar furrow, for old time’s sake if nothing else.

In that respect, at least, his latest grim-faced escapade, A Walk Amongst the Tombstones, is no different. As this terrific mystery-cum-thriller hurtles towards it blood-soaked conclusion, Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, a weathered gumshoe of the old school, reaches for the handset once again. Fortunately, given the quality surrounding it, this familiar trope feels like nothing more than a simple plot device in The Lookout director Scott Frank’s muscular screenplay.

Mercifully, Tombstones is a different beast to the gratuitous action feasts so beloved by Neeson’s accountant. Intense rather than overbearing, spartan without feeling abstract, Frank directs a stylish, lean adaptation of crime writer Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, the tenth entry in a series which goes back as far as 1976. 

Block’s protagonist is Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective who quits the force after accidentally killing a child in a wantonly carefree street battle with a gang of thugs. Working around the date of Block’s book, the prologue here takes place in 1991, with Scudder snuffing out the scumbags who shoot up the bar in which he is consuming his morning fix. Eight years later he is an unlicensed private detective, and recovering alcoholic, who prefers to keep his head down and the gun in a closet.

His lonely existence is interrupted by the overtures of strangely monikered drug trafficker Kenny Kristo — a haunted Dan Stevens, jettisoning that awfully nice Downton Abbey persona for something much darker — who requires a discreet operator to find those behind the kidnap, ransom and murder of his wife.

Scudder obliges, trawling a dank world of snuff movies and narcotics in the process. From the beginning he is a step behind a series of horrifying deaths, the connecting tissue of a case with implications beyond pure psychopathy, though Neeson excels as the dogged sleuth, leaning his broad frame into the cold New York wind as winter and the Y2K scare approach. 

Considering the nature of the leading man’s recent output, it almost seems strange to witness him eschewing gung-ho activism for more sedate qualities. Indeed, the opening scene aside, Scudder is no adrenaline junkie. He prefers brains to brawn and preaches a roughly conciliatory attitude. In one scene, faced with a dagger-wielding suspect, a mix of Neeson’s imposing height and Scudder’s quiet physicality is enough to avert what would have been a gruesome confrontation in a less considered film. 

Frank is clearly aiming for a creepier tale and employs sporadic, startling violence to build tension, to support his bleak narrative. There is hard-boiled narration also, unobtrusive and effective, which helps to keep the audience abreast of the reluctant hero’s relentless snooping. 

Unfortunately the motivations of the murderous duo (Adam David Thompson and the always superb David Harbour) remain a mystery. Their place within a web of DEA scheming should be compelling but is poorly drawn out, leaving Scudder confused along with everyone else. That said, they are an undeniably menacing force. Thompson, in particular, displays an unsettling degree of passive aggression as the taciturn partner in a vile enterprise. 

Whatever the source of their urges, these are worthy adversaries for Scudder who is, in turn, unlike the tortured souls which tend to populate these occasionally clichéd genre pieces. The Ballymena native is a perfect fit for a practical man with neither the time, nor the inclination, to entertain demons and while his past deeds may constitute a particularly unpleasant learning experience, instead of a soul-consuming shadow, Scudder is no hardened automaton. His burgeoning mentorship of a precocious street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) offers some glimmer of normality and Neeson can, of course, do this kind of smart ruggedness in his sleep. His American accent is still a work in progress, mind.

In truth, such minor criticisms mean little once the rainy finale arrives: Scudder descends into the foulness that characterises so many modern noirs, his 12-step program punctuating the designed chaos of the concluding reel. With its slo-mo gunplay, sombre sense of prescience and a twist that never comes, Frank’s ultimate message is not entirely clear. Neeson’s journey to that point, however, is terribly interesting. 

An edited version of this article was was first published here

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

In Order of Disappearance

When Swedish film distributors were marketing The Life of Brian in 1979, they offered a sly dig at their morose Scandinavian cousins to sell their product. Monty Python’s opus was brilliant, they said. ‘The film so funny it was banned in Norway,’ screamed the self-satisfied quip.

Norwegians have often been at the back of the queue when it comes to the Nordic-cool accolades so popular at present: not as hip as the Swedes; less refined than the Danes; sullen squares next to the zany Finns. Oil wealth, snow and serviceable footballers are about the only things we lazily associate with our neighbours across the North Sea.

As with most stereotypes, of course, this is wildly inaccurate and nothing should undermine such silly notions more than Hans Petter Moland’s outstanding In Order of Disappearance. Bleak and chilly, this revenge thriller is a bloodthirsty, snowbound noir laced with a comic thread as black as pitch.

Stellan Skarsgård plays Nils Dickman, a resourceful Swedish immigrant who drives a snow-plough out on the vast tundra where he enjoys the respect of all in his small community. Unfortunately, that humble existence is cruelly interrupted when his son is murdered by a drug baron’s underlings and the useless police believe it to be nothing other than a tragic overdose.

Nils knows different of course and within the first 20 minutes he has already customised his hunting rifle, snuffed out two bad guys and thrown their bodies over a waterfall. As vaguely ludicrous as this sounds, there is never less than a knowing smirk lurking on the edges of Skarsgård’s watchful visage and one cannot help but feel righteous as this angel of vengeance – lacking any discernible history of violence, though he is far from a bumbling hick – unleashes himself, like a cruel Arctic wind, on a criminal empire lacking any notion of his existence.

Moland has tremendous fun with this unashamedly pulpy material, ranging the largely impassive Nils, bordering on psychotic in his own quiet way, against preening chrome-plated villain Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen). The first half may invoke the ghost of Charles Bronson rather than Leslie Nielsen but, by its finale, this is clearly a film refusing to take itself too seriously. Nils ignites a mob war; the body count racks up. Throughout this anarchy Moland cheekily sprinkles in sombre title cards bearing the departed’s name and a relevant religious symbol. 

Given its icy setting and that undeniably irreverent air, Kraftidioten (to use its native title: The Prize Idiot) displays more than a hint of shared DNA with the Coens’ Minnesotan crime epic, Fargo. In the scene where Nils and his wife view the corpse of their son, there is a spartan inelegance to the manner in which their child is levered up and down on a sterile tray. The Coens would be proud indeed of such a chillingly awkward subversion of human decency. 

That said, while the American masters tend to imbue their pictures with a degree of sweet innocence, Moland has no such intention here. The cast helpfully buys into this creeping chaos; Nils is the unmoving instigator, Grieven the petulant prey. The latter is a particular scene-chewing treat with Hagens murderous vegan overlord sporting sharp suits, good hair and a burning hatred of his ex-wife (Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). 

Beyond that, Bruno Ganz pops up as the equally ruthless boss of the local Serbian mafia. Ganz has become something of a parody in recent years, thanks to his much edited rant in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, but he remains an actor of true gravitas. 

Just as outstanding is Skarsgård, a man with little to lose. The Swede, who has long straddled the worlds of European cinema and Hollywood, enjoys himself immensely in the lead role, terrorising a murky underworld for which he has only disdain. The cost, however, is high. To realise his wrath he must sell his soul and no matter how arch the tone, there is nothing amusing about that.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

It should come as no surprise that Lasse Hallström’s latest cinematic offering, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is as replete with the Swede’s trademark visual richness and narrative saccharinity as anything else in his bulging filmography. 

Following the observant, and critically acclaimed, 1993 feature, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Hallström’s career has become increasingly defined by beautifully rendered, if overly emotive, tearjerkers. The Cider Rules was a wonderfully elegant period piece which earned Michael Caine a deserved Academy Award, but it is safe to judge that the director — a veteran of literary adaptations — has applied its formula with decreasing success in the years since. 

In some ways then, The Hundred-Foot Journey (based on Richard C Morais’s source novel) is an apogee of the modern Hallström: undemanding themes, flawless photography, flawed plotting. Enjoyable and visually gorgeous, this choppy effort is carried along on the shoulders of a capable cast and a palette as rich as its culinary treats. 

At its centre is prodigal chef Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal). Home schooled in his mother’s kitchen, Hassan and his family relocate to Europe from their native Mumbai — illustrated, just to be safe, by bustling markets and the obligatory lilting sitars — following a devastating fire at their rustic eatery. Led by the stubborn Papa (Om Puri), the Kadam clan winds up in the south of France, via Holland and Germany, where fate intervenes to anchor it in the heartland of haughty French cuisine. Both gruff and flighty, Papa spots a ramshackle restaurant for sale, buys it up and muscles in on the patch of aloof, Michelin-obsessed restauranteur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) in the process. 

In the early scenes, Hallström is in his element, the action cavorting around the outrageously picturesque surroundings of the nameless French locale, a place bathed, apparently, in an eternal golden hue. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera soaks up a charmingly vivacious kaleidoscope of colour and it is no overstatement to label this 2014’s most aesthetically pleasing release. 

Less certain is the story itself. Far from being complex, Steven Knight’s script is coming down with stale clichés and a cloying sense of fate much removed from his earlier, gritty screenplays for the likes of Eastern Promises — Russian mobsters, sexual violence, naked shower-based knife fights — and the brilliantly tense Locke.

Indeed, the clash of cultures forms the picture’s only thoughtful element. One hundred feet separates the rival premises of Puri’s proud patriarch and Mirren’s scheming siren, though, very broadly, it also represents a chasm between two worlds. That heavy-handed dichotomy is overplayed but remains an amusingly executed running gag. It even gives way, naturally, to friendship and respect.

Beyond that, however, many of this gentle drama’s failings rest in its superficiality. What conflict there is feels forced, swiftly brushed away to make room for yet more scenery or another dollop of warm-hearted cod philosophy. While Hassan’s evolution is actually quite interesting — he embraces classical French cooking without losing sight of his equally refined roots — it is marked by pleasantly meaningless dialogue which says absolutely nothing of consequence. ‘The sea urchins taste of life,’ intones one character. ‘Food is memory,’ opines another. Okay then. 

Ironically enough, for all its keen gastronomical sensibilities — and this is a film obsessed with the workings of the kitchen — actual table-ready fare is noticeable by its absence. Save for a few snatches of meanly portioned nouvelle cuisine and delicious looking curries, Hallström appears to reckon that audiences will be excited by the mundanity of how meals are prepared and considered. As Hassan’s talents take him to Paris and a hilariously pretentious neon establishment which would not be out of place in The Matrix, food, increasingly glimpsed, becomes a chore: overwrought and expensive. It is an incredibly strange approach given the subject at hand. 

The latter arc is situated at the end of a film that seems substantially longer than its 122 minutes, a sensation undoubtedly accentuated by the myriad strands invading the foreground right up to the rolling of the end credits. Whole new plots are conjured from nowhere, each cutting off the chance to explore those other raised questions that remain hanging and unanswered. 

What do the locals think of the Indian flavours that Papa was so determined to introduce? From where in these sparsely populated surroundings are all the customers coming? Why is everyone speaking English? Minor queries they may be, but basic authenticity depends on such detail.

In spite of such obvious weaknesses, there is much to admire in an uplifting tale of family unity, one steeped in the belief that we are, to use a topical phrase, better together. 

The cast in particular is up to the task of presenting the unchallenging material with wit and enthusiasm. Puri, who gets all the best lines (‘He looks like a bloody terrorist’), is especially watchable as a bullish man convinced of his own superiority and his crackling interplay with Mirren is perhaps the best thing on the menu. Dame Helen aims for pantomime matron, sliding, often illogically, between French and English, but she is a classy a performer, incapable of cheap or nasty.

Dayal, too, possesses a greater number of layers than is initially suggested and if his romance with Charlotte Le Bon’s incredibly adorable, bicycle-riding Marguerite is laced with predictability from the beginning, the eventual iciness of their professional rivalry is infinitely more interesting. 

Ultimately, almost inevitably, Hallström’s newest project is as accessible as a curry down the high street and about as hard-hitting as the house korma. There is no kick to this dish.

An edited version of this article was first published here