Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Invisible Woman


After the critical success of his directorial debut, Coriolanus, The Invisible Woman seems an apt choice as Ralph Fiennes’s follow-up project. Fiennes has made a career out of playing morally ambiguous men and the adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s book affords him the opportunity to mould and steer this depiction of Charles Dickens.   

Widely regarded as the central pillar of Victorian literature, Dickens is a personality burned into the national consciousness. To many he is a kindly old chap responsible for classic tomes that most can reel off without thinking; Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations. Tomalin’s book, on the other hand, portrayed an individual quite at odds with that stuffy caricature. 

She theorised about the heartache and scandal stemming from an affair with the teenage Nelly Turnen, a pretty actress who fell into his artistic social circle. It was a relationship never once directly acknowledged by Dickens and his refusal to address the matter publicly was as unmoving as the cruelty he directed towards his own family because of it.

Fiennes, along with screenwriter Abi Morgan, excels then in creating a picture of intense emotional discord, one in which the strictures of Victorian protocol are uncomfortably subverted by those with the wealth, influence and desire to do so. Wonderfully acted, and often fascinating, this possesses the rare distinction of being a thoroughly modern period piece. 


As Turnen, Jones offers up a stunningly layered portrayal of a woman caught between her morals and feelings of genuine awe at Dickens’s genius. Her ability to communicate a varied emotional range — fear, discomfort, affection — with the subtlest of expressions is central to the complexity of her character. 

First glimpsed as a somewhat austere black-clad school mistress, Turnen appears grim-faced and broken-hearted. She is prone to taking ponderous walks on a nearby secluded beach, a lone dark form with only demons for company. Indeed, there is a quiet freneticism in these opening minutes. The hints of her past travails become less obscure, however, as the narrative shifts to her days as a young thespian of middling ability. Cast in a Manchester production of Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep, with her actress mother (the dazzling Kristin Scott-Thomas), she would enter into the orbit of the play’s towering co-author, and lead performer, Charles Dickens.

By turns charming, kind and lively, Fiennes conveys an energetic generosity quite unlike any previous representation of the great novelist. His first meeting with Nelly is politely cordial, though her youth and his weighty presence establish little common ground. While Nelly is clearly taken with his genuine celebrity, this is no tale of instantaneous infatuation. Their connection builds slowly as she comes to appreciate his writing on a spiritual level. Such admiration only appeals to Dickens’s considerable ego. He is steadily enchanted rather than bewitched. 

From the moment he commits to pursuing Nelly, Dickens is transformed into a man of cold spite and occasional caprice. In distancing himself, in print, from a dull, loveless marriage he publicly humiliates his wife Catherine, played by a terrifically knowing Joanna Scanlan. By compelling her, with equal chilliness, to deliver opulent gifts to his youthful mistress he effectively destroys what little feeling is left between them. The crime for which she, the mother of his impressive brood, is to be so arbitrarily punished: a failure to exhibit profound enough an understanding of him and his work. 

Dickens, like his friend Collins — Tom Hollander on fine form — is unbound by the threats to conscience and reputation that plague Nelly. When she is introduced to Collins’s charming mistress, Ms Graves (Game of the Thrones’s Michelle Fairley), Jones displays barely concealed disgust for that domestic arrangement. Yet, she must surrender to the reality that Dickens will never marry her. Nelly is to be his tortured soulmate or nothing at all.

It is not without significance that their time together as a couple occurs in relative anonymity. Relocated to the secluded pastoral beauty of rural France, the sequence is characterised by sumptuous photography, visual cues and, perhaps tellingly, minimal dialogue. One important, essentially unspoken event is left to hang. It is a single reminder of another life as their dalliance meanders to an ambivalent conclusion.

Along with its substance, this is a fantastically beautiful film. Cinematographer Rob Hardy captures the clear lines, and elegant, straight-backed gentility of the era. A trip to the Doncaster races is particularly notable. Painted in delicate pastel shades, the initial stillness of its staging evokes some great portrait of the age. 

The rich detail of Dickens’s plush, affluent lifestyle is as real as the Turnens’ cosy, if slightly more humble existence. From the warm glow of numerous oil lamps to the august decorations of Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, the camera absorbs every part of Fiennes’s vision. It even strays, occasionally, into unexpectedly intimate territory.

By its finale there may be a measure of catharsis, though it is possible that Nelly’s tearful smile is merely one of brief respite. An impromptu confession brings her relief, undoubtedly, but she remains as shimmering a figure as the title suggests.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Friday, 14 February 2014

Her


At some point in the near future, technology has become so intuitive that it may exceed the emotional responses of an average person. In Her, Spike Jonze’s delicately meditative drama, this premise forms its essential question: if you can purchase software designed to fulfil you, why bother with the complex minefield of human discourse?

Jonze has strayed into these quirky waters before of course. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were idiosyncratic takes on scripts by the equally distinctive Charlie Kaufman and his 2009 imagining of a classic children’s picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, was as whimsical as one would expect. Her, however, is a very different beast. The gently heartbreaking central message of fated disappointment is a brave one. This, along with its stunning photography and nuanced performances, will likely resonate long after the credits have rolled. 

As Theodore Twombley, the always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix turns in a beautifully layered performance. He is a man stuck in place, terrified of the heartache that life, inevitably, brings with it. Possessed of a deep well of sensitivity, Theodore makes his living composing elegant love letters for those without the time or skill to articulate their sentiments. Away from work he is less certain and bears the scars of divorce from an icily beautiful Rooney Mara, glimpsed mostly in wordless, dream-tinged flashbacks. 

His quietly antiseptic world has been constructed to keep him sealed off; safe and aloof. He is free of unnecessary complications. In this environment Theodore finds solace in the sultry tones of Scarlett Johansson’s operating system (OS), Samantha. A single voice she may be but, based on a few brief questions, she offers Theodore a presence moulded for his own desires and needs. 

Their subsequent affair is marked by sensual, almost organic, interdependence; friendship and love grow from an unlikely pairing. Johansson, whose face is never seen, excels in creating a believable, undeniably desirable, digital persona. For Theodore, who is at once fiercely reserved yet in stark need of meaningful stimulation, Samantha is the perfect foil; a soothing, engaged voice burrowing deep into his mind. She represents an antidote to his crippling loneliness. 


It is not impossible to forget the artificiality of their partnership, such is the joy that one derives from the other. As Theodore and his wife experienced the world together, so too can he relive those halcyon days with his new OS, a product designed to soak in all that she sees. These moments enhance and develop the intuition which so defines Samantha. In her only meaningful appearance, however, Mara’s Catherine — checking in for a bucolic lunch date laced with bitterness and subtext — suggests that Theodore’s deeply rooted neuroses are not so easily overcome. Her confused reaction to his relationship with a computer is notably human.

It is these synthetic emotions, on Samantha’s part at least, which serve to deliberately undermine the otherwise hopeful tone of Jonze’s distinctive and strangely dark film. Indeed the director, working from his own screenplay, never quite surrenders to the notion that adopting one’s operating system as a partner is entirely normal. Within the confines of Theodore’s universe it may be unremarkable — one straight-faced conversation centres on the parameters of acceptable OS interaction — but Jonze knows how this is likely to jar with an audience. Regardless of mankind’s reliance on machines, he asks, is it really worth cutting the ties that bind us? 

As a backdrop to such existentialism, the pulsing cosmopolis of postmodern Los Angeles is sleek and artistic. It is a place where science and citizenry intermingle, where smart phones have evolved into companions and keyboards are of the past. Shanghai’s urban sprawl steps in as the City of Angels for a utopian age. The effect is dazzling. Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s cityscapes are wide and lusciously coloured. Even the adjoining, high-waisted fashion is comforting, coming in somewhere between Mumford & Sons and suppressed hipster-lite. It is an attractive, though vacuous vision. 

Theodore is not the only Angeleno lost in a second life. His sensible best friend Amy (Amy Adams) can barely communicate with a dull husband but the close platonic bond with her own artificially intelligent OS is just as meaningful as the love Theodore draws from his. Ironically, it is Samantha’s evolution which proves crucial. The thirst for knowledge and a profound understanding of her own existence determines the direction of Theodore’s path. The final scenes suggest that personal connections are the lifeblood of humanity, the means to its ongoing awakening. Technology is merely a tool. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Unfit and improper

My new article over on backpagefootball.com.

'That he should now be ‘subject to Football League approval’ suggests an exposure to assiduous levels of scrutiny in line with the grave undertaking that is the stewardship of a professional club. In actuality, the League’s weak Owners’ and Directors’ test is a mere formality. Significant concerns relating to Cellino’s suitability notwithstanding, his efforts will almost certainly end in success.'

Check it out here.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club


There was a time when Matthew McConaughey was considered the next big thing. His golden boy looks and louche southern charm stood out in the excellent 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, propelling him onto the Hollywood A-list. Further lead roles appeared with the likes of Contact, U-571 and EDtv. These were solid if unspectacular films, relying more on his charismatic presence than anything else, but all signs pointed upwards. 

Unfortunately for McConaughey, however, he would spend much of the next decade, either out of necessity or indifference, populating drab, generic rom-coms, each one indistinguishable from the next. Before long his career had taken an underwhelming turn for the worse. 

Mercifully, those days now seem long behind him, such is the upswing in a résumé which once seemed close to collapsing under the weight of its own mediocrity. 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer saw the return of his edgy grin and magnetic screen presence — aided no doubt by Michael Connelly’s muscular source material — and his appearance in last year’s Mud, an epic Southern coming-of-age tale, was simply astonishing. 

His character, a mysterious outlaw of rigid faith and homely philosophy, was one worthy of McConaughey’s obvious abilities and thus it should be no surprise that his equally towering presence in Dallas Buyers Club has attracted the kind of plaudits likely to render an Oscar win a mere formality. 

This latest entry in his renaissance is a superlative one; an extraordinarily nuanced drama placed firmly within the AIDS panic of the mid-Eighties. It is a story about life and the average man’s eagerness to hold on to it. As that average man, the one-time matinée idol has undergone a stunning rebirth. In an industry of constantly shifting certainties, McConaughey is arguably the most exciting actor presently working in high-end American cinema. 

His Ron Woodroof is a minor gambler and rodeo rider who spends his weekends at the bullring, happily enjoying the company of countless women through a haze of cheap drink and cheaper drugs. An accident at his day job sees him wind up in hospital where, much to his outraged surprise, he is discovered to be HIV positive. Before settling on the chilling truth, he runs the full gamut of homophobic denials; unsurprising perhaps given the Texas rodeo circuit’s less than progressive views on, well, anything in 1985. 

It is interesting to note that Woodroof’s orientation is not an issue beyond the illness his sexual proclivities have brought down upon him. As a straight man with a reckless attitude to contraception, it his demographic which dominates the AIDS statistic tables. The moment when he realises the likelihood of contraction, summed up in a few brief shots, is symbolic of the naivety at the time.


Forced from his job and shunned by an ignorant social circle, Woodroof’s luck is running out. With typical Texan fortitude, he resists the 30-day timer placed upon him by his doctors, including Jennifer Garner’s quietly brilliant Eve, and resolves to beat the clock. 

What plays out is both amusing and deeply moving, driven from beginning to end by McConaughey’s virtuoso dedication to the role. With his Lone Star drawl, he is very much at home here and his weight loss (hinted at in his kinetic Wolf of Wall Street cameo) is the kind of method acting to which awards ceremonies are usually sympathetic. 

Yet he never rests on his laurels. Woodroof comes in somewhere between rakish, opportunistic scoundrel and unlikeable idiot. His business venture — importing HIV and AIDS drugs from Mexico to be dispensed to the dues-paying members of his eponymous club — is amusingly sneaky in its conception and while he is undoubtedly helping people without access to mainstream treatment, he’s also making a lot of cash. As a fellow sufferer, however, he is not one to exploit the desperate numbers who turn up at the door of his sleazy motel headquarters. As much as Woodroof may wish to ignore it, he possesses a genuine devotion to a community excluded by the system. 

It is a system he seeks to undermine almost from the outset. Blunt and loud, he is, nevertheless, intelligent enough to sniff out a profitable angle and the arch hypocrisy at play in the American healthcare jungle. There is more than a whiff of corruption in the way doctors are handsomely remunerated by Big Pharma for pushing a questionable product on HIV patients. At the same time the federal government — recipients of such largesse also, goes the claim — pursue Woodroof’s importation of his ‘merely unapproved’ medicines with a vengeance. ‘You’re the drug dealer’ he screams at one stuffy nemesis. 

In an age of marriage equality, the film’s dark cloud of homophobia is especially topical and director Jean-Marc Vallée faces it with admirable maturity. His is not a work of redemption, of a central figure’s magical revelation. Instead Woodroof’s actions are allowed to speak for him. In many ways he could be nothing but a bigot, coming, as he does, from a world of minimal enlightened thinking. 

On the other hand, his diagnosis upends his priorities and shakes his beliefs to the point where he no longer cares for the pettiness of crass gay bashing. In this subtle transformation, as well as in his commercial operation, he is ably assisted by Jared Leto’s suave, wonderfully androgynous transexual Rayon. It is a performance of rare class and quite stunning bravery. Indeed based on this, Leto is nothing if not deserving of the acclaim swirling around him at present. From an affable hospital patient to the emaciated victim of a truly horrifying sickness, Leto’s charming interplay with the gruff Woodroof, and their eventual co-dependence, forms the picture’s unbending spine. 

It is almost refreshing to see a film avoiding the tired cliché of forbidden love between lonely men and this unusually platonic friendship makes everything about Dallas Buyers Club that much stronger. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Bottom Line

My new article on Michael Laudrup's departure from Swansea City on backpagefootball.com.

'It is the first time a Swansea manager has relieved of his duties since 2004 but the nature of the descent has surely alarmed the powers that be within an operation known for its rare combination of sense and class. The spectre of Championship football, however, can often have a bracing effect on an otherwise stable setup. As far as Jenkins is concerned, the slide is to be arrested, immediately, while a margin for error still exists.'

Check it out here

Monday, 3 February 2014

Out of the Furnace

My new review of Out of the Furnace over on pulpinterest.com.


'Harrelson’s character is a free-range scumbag of rather epic proportions, occasionally straying close to exaggerated villainy. Mercifully, the veteran star is taking it all too seriously for this to grate. Despite the talk of DeGroat’s rural habitat being an impenetrable fortress — impossible to police and hostile to outsiders — a final confrontation locates the action on Russell’s home territory of clanking, abandoned industrial decrepitude. It is the manifestation of iron versus earth.'

Check it out here

The Armstrong Lie


‘Le Mesonge Armstrong’, screamed the headline. It was 23rd August 2005 and the media was gleefully trumpeting the story it had long been craving. Lance Armstrong was a cheat claimed L’Equipe and it had the proof, at long last, to destroy him. 

He had just won his seventh successive Tour de France, a remarkable run which served as the basis of a legend; reinforced by his status as the survivor of a terrifyingly aggressive form of cancer. In spite of this, the American’s brash, relentless pursuit of a prize regarded by Europeans as their own made him deeply unpopular. The French press in particular despised him. 

Rumours swirled for years that Armstrong was availing of performance enhancing drugs and techniques. He, his proxies and his advocates countered these with characteristic fervour, dismissing them as the rantings of an embittered European media machine. By the end of 2005, and in the continued absence of any sound evidence to the contrary, he retired. 

The French didn’t care about these protestations. The French were right. 

Armstrong is indeed a fraud and his place at the head of an intricate enhancement operation — the most efficient doping system in the history of sport — is particularly distressing given the aura of hopeful invincibility that had built up around him. That personal tale was as compelling as anything else in sport and it is the collapse of this facade that sits so uncomfortably at the heart of Alex Gibney’s fascinating take on the arrogance of power. 

For Armstrong was powerful, within cycling and without. His awesome commercial appeal, built on the back of those apparently incredible accomplishments, afforded him a truly startling level of influence. The cancer — and its scorched-earth treatment —focused his mind and transformed his body. It created an athletic machine capable of jaw-dropping feats of aerobic endurance. Having faced his own mortality, the famous will to succeed would pay little heed to sporting fairness. ‘I like to win’ he says, ‘but more than anything I can’t stand to lose because, to me, losing equals death.’ The epic triumphs were nothing more than lies. On all this Gibney shines a light, picking apart the timeline of Armstrong’s increasingly complex methods for ensuring victory. 

That he finally came clean in an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey speaks to how deeply his celebrity is ingrained in the American psyche. Winfrey is not renowned for her hard-hitting journalism, but after years of untruths his conspiracy was laid bare by a series of simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions. 

The film is bookended by a brief interview in the hours following this confession. Subsequent to that exchange, he agreed to subject himself to a lengthier examination by Gibney. The frank, but slightly unapologetic tone of his discussion is a change at least from the vicious manner in which he enforced his great charade. 

In this respect, Gibney inserts himself into the narrative. The filmmaker was initially engaged by Armstrong to document his 2009 comeback — an event precipitating a renewed determination by his enemies (which may, or may not, include the governing bodies of world cycling) to find the smoking gun. Gibney readily admits to being caught up in the euphoria that accompanied his subject’s return. ‘I loved the beautiful lie over the bitter truth’ he says in narration. What was initially destined to be a puff piece faltered as the scandal broke. Feeling used and exploited, Gibney shelved the project. Four years later, he resurrected his footage to further detail the extent of the fallout. 


His one-on-one with the former champion, that mythical status a forgotten detail, is as important as the interviews with former teammates, some more loyal than others. The picture painted is both fascinating and occasionally terrifying. The scale of Armstrong’s deception, of its stunning egotism, was matched by the lengths to which he was prepared to go to protect the team’s omerta. Even in disgrace, his interaction with Gibney represents a continued attempt to control the message with disarming honesty. 

Corruption of goodness was central to Gibney’s previous films, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Yet this documentary also presents a truly spectacular illustration of the brutally competitive world that is professional cycling. These are the hardiest athletes on the planet, possessed of an almost boundless facility to push beyond the ceiling of human endurance. They do so in locations likely to make the rest of us wilt. From the searing heat of the Pyrenees to the sheer slopes of the Alps, Armstrong and his peers battle against the possible destruction of their own bodies. In such an arena, performance enhancement appears to be rife, if not wholly necessary. Thus, the overriding question which emerges is: if everyone is doping, is it really cheating? At worst, one senses, Armstrong believes himself guilty of extreme deviousness. The race to gain a medical edge was as hectic as anything on the road. 

Lance Armstrong, however, is not quite the monster that his myriad failings would suggest. The Livestrong Foundation, inspired by his own original battle against cancer, is a leading global charity dedicated to supporting sufferers and their families. Armstrong is its figurehead, a survivor who proudly bears the scars of his trauma. That much is genuine. So too is the obvious love of his craft. Retired and rich, his reputation essentially unsullied, Armstrong should have been enjoying life in 2009. Instead his deep desire to prove himself — to do so cleanly, perhaps — rendered his comeback inevitable. The sight of him throwing his ageing, spartan frame into the gruelling preparations for another Tour is nothing if not impressive. 

By its conclusion The Armstrong Lie remains cloaked in ambiguity. Did Armstrong deceive us all? Yes he did. Is he sorry? That answer is less clear. 

An edited version of this article was first published here