Cast: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Finn Elliot, Eleanor Stagg, Kit Connor, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Oliver Maltman
In the summer of 1968, and with his electronics business failing, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) hears about the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round the world yacht race with a prize of £5,000 to the yachtsman who completes the race in the fastest time. Determined to win the prize, Crowhurst gains financial backing from businessman Stanley Best (Stott), and sets about building a purpose-desogned trimaran for the voyage. He also hires a crime reporter for the Daily Express, Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis), to act as his publicist. Problems with the design of the trimaran and getting the right materials delay Crowhurst’s start in the race, and in order to maintain Best’s sponsorship, Crowhurst signs over his business and his home; now he has to succeed. Eventually, Crowhurst, in his boat Teignmouth Electron, sets sail on 31 October, the last day allowed. Leaving his wife, Clare (Weisz), and three children with promises of being back in nine months’ time, Crowhurst soon encounters problems early on in his voyage, problems that contribute to his making a number of rash decisions…
If you’ve never heard of Donald Crowhurst – and fifty years on, it’s unlikely given the circumstances – watching The Mercy may prove a singularly frustrating experience. It’s the true story (modified as ever for the movies) of a man pursuing a dream but lacking in the abilities and skills required to achieve that dream – and knowing it, deep down. On the eve of sailing, Crowhurst tells Hallworth and Best that he thinks it’s a good idea for him not to go, to abandon the idea. It’s a moment of desperate clarity for Crowhurst, and he wants the two men to agree with him and support him in his decision. But the opposite happens: Hallworth acknowledges Crowhurst’s fears as being a normal reaction to the enormity of what he’s about to do. And in that moment, Crowhurst’s last hope is crushed through good intentions. Firth’s performance says it all: Crowhurst is doomed; whatever happens, he won’t win the prize. It’s a terrible, disconsolate moment for the amateur sailor, and for the audience. Now we’re set up for a tale of tragedy. The only thing to do is to wait it out and see just how things go wrong, and why.
But Crowhurst’s story – and this is where the frustration comes in – requires a great deal of guesswork and supposition. What actually happened isn’t in doubt, but the why remains tantalisingly out of reach, which means that the movie has to fill in the gaps as best it can. As a result, Scott Z. Burns’ script becomes less and less gripping as Crowhurst’s voyage continues, and becomes a series of loosely connected scenes that leave the viewer as stranded as the movie’s central character. Marsh is a terrific director – Man on Wire (2008), The Theory of Everything (2014) – but somehow the tragedy of Crowhurst’s story isn’t conveyed as forcefully as it could have been. Firth is good in the role, showing Crowhurst slowly coming to terms with the futility of chasing a dream he can’t ever catch, but Weisz is stuck with a typical wife-at-home role where she’s required to look worried a lot and little else (proving there’s still plenty of “thankless female” roles around in this day and age of the #MeToo Movement). Thewlis is also good as Hallworth (another man whose ambitions weren’t realised), even if he’s more spiv than publicist, and the movie has a beautiful sheen to it thanks to Eric Gautier’s sparkling cinematography. But there’s still a sense, once the outcome is known, that the voyage getting there isn’t as affecting as it should be.
Rating: 6/10 – laced with a sympathetic streak that, given some of Crowhurst’s pre-sailing decisions, is debatable for its presence, The Mercy remains a hollow effort that keeps Crowhurst at a distance from the audience; still, there’s enough in terms of the non-seafaring narrative to semi-compensate for this, and there’s another fine score from Jóhann Jóhannsson to further ameliorate matters.
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell
On the hidden island of Themyscira live the Amazons, a fierce warrior tribe of women whose presence in the world has been kept from the rest of mankind by the wishes of Zeus. The only child on the island is Diana (Aspell), the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Nielsen). Diana is precocious, challenging, disobedient, and determined to become a warrior like the rest of the Amazons, but her mother forbids it. Hippolyta’s sister, Antiope (Wright), trains Diana in secret, though, and she grows into a young woman (Gadot) to be reckoned with: the quickest, most agile, most determined Amazon of them all. With her fighting skills honed under the stewardship of Antiope, Diana finds she lacks a clear purpose in life, until one day the shield keeping the island hidden is penetrated by a plane that crashes into the sea. Diana rescues the lone pilot, Steve Trevor (Pine), who tells the Amazons of “a war to end to all wars”, and who provides all the reason Diana needs to leave the island and seek her destiny (once she leaves she can never return).
The pair travel to London where Trevor alerts the British High Command – led by Sir Patrick Morgan (Thewlis) – to a plot by Germany’s General Ludendorff (Huston) to end the War by use of the most deadliest form of mustard gas yet created. Forced to go it alone, Trevor recruits three old friends – would-be actor Sameer (Taghmaoui), sharpshooter Charlie (Bremner), smuggler the Chief (Brave Rock) – and with Diana, travels to the Belgian Front, where Ludendorff and his chief scientist, Dr Maru (Anaya), are in the process of preparing their new weapon to be used for the first (and they hope, last) time in the War. But Diana has no intention of letting them succeed in their plan, and convinced that Ludendorff is the modern incarnation of Ares, the disgraced God of War, she takes the fight to the Germans, and in the process learns something about herself that has been hidden from her all her life…
The question everyone is asking is an easy one to answer. The question is, is Wonder Woman the best DC Extended Universe movie to date? And the easy answer is Yes, it is. But that’s like saying, if I have one leg shorter than the other, and I have an operation to correct this, will I be better able to walk? Again, the answer is Yes, of course. And so it goes with Wonder Woman, a movie that provides a sharp upturn in quality in relation to its predecessors – Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016) – but which still embraces many of the issues and problems that have plagued those same DCEU productions.
It’s yet another movie where the tone is so earnest and so po-faced that when the script does make an attempt at humour, it’s the same as when Garland Greene says of Billy Bedlam in Con Air (1997): “he’s so angry moments of levity actually cause him pain; gives him headaches. Happiness, for that gentleman, hurts.” The humour is there, tucked away in odd places, but it never feels like an integral part of the overall tone and feel of the movie. It’s as if Allan Heinberg’s script was accused of being too heavy, and was charged with including moments of levity as a direct consequence. What this means in practice is that the movie rarely feels comfortable when it’s tasked with being funny, and seems to breathe a sigh of relief when it can move on and concentrate on providing audiences with an industrious trek through the land of superhero clichés.
As an origin story, it’s akin to the first Thor movie, in that it introduces us to a realm built on myth and legend, and after a suitable period, hijacks the central character and thrusts them into the “real” world, with all its problems and rewards. Themyscira is a first for the DC Extended Universe, a beautifully realised paradise that features sun-dappled buildings, verdant fields, and the healthy glow of bronze and gold. Its relentlessly blue skies stretch as far as the eye can see, and the azure waters of the sea are dazzling. But once the island of Themyscira is left behind, the movie defaults to the muted colour palette and downplayed visual aesthetic that governs all the movies in the DC Extended Universe. Whether we’re in London or the battle-torn Belgian countryside, the movie does its best to be all gloomy backdrop and sombre foreground. It all fits in with the earnest, dramatic nature of the material, but as a visual statement it’s less than satisfying and helps to drain some of the life from the movie as a whole.
Where the movie does score more highly is in its attention to the horrors of life on the Western Front, and the effects of warfare on the local populace. But even that acknowledgment is over quickly so as to facilitate the next action sequence (which unfortunately features the kind of jerky CGI gymnastics from Wonder Woman that you’d be forgiven for thinking wouldn’t be attempted anymore in a movie costing $149 million and released in 2017). There are other nods to the horrors of war – Charlie’s PTSD, musings on the terrible things that man can inflict on his fellow man – but while it’s good to see them addressed – however briefly – it’s as near to depth as the movie gets, and they seem shoehorned into the main storyline rather than arising naturally from it. Diana’s obsession with hunting down Ares also gives rise to further arguments about the nature of war and man’s predilection towards it, but these are largely spurious and serve only to weigh down a final showdown between Diana and Ares that quickly descends into yet another dispiriting bout of disaster porn theatrics.
As the 5000 year old Amazon princess, Gadot builds on her appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and proves that the praise she received in that movie wasn’t just a result of her standing out against its poor structure, lacklustre script, and wayward direction. There are some roles that can only be played by certain actors or actresses, and Gadot owns the part in a way that the likes of Sandra Bullock, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Beyoncé Knowles – all considered for the role in the past – would find incredibly difficult to match or improve upon. Elsewhere, Gadot isn’t the most convincing of actresses, but here she gives a compelling, intuitive performance that stretches her skills as an actress but does so in a way that marks her out – in the DC Extended Universe at least – as the character to look out for. She’s ably supported by Pine who reins in his usual cocky charm; Huston as yet another less than memorable villain; Thewlis as the politician who may or may not be all that he seems; and Wright as Diana’s strong-willed aunt. However, if anyone in the supporting cast has to be picked out, it’s Bremner, who injects some much needed energy into his scenes and who makes Charlie possibly the most well rounded character in the whole movie.
Much has been made of Patty Jenkins being the first female director of a superhero movie featuring a female character as its lead, and Jenkins does do a decent enough job of pushing against the narrow confines of a DC superhero movie. But though she does manage to incorporate some elements of feminism into the story, there aren’t enough to make the movie into something more relevant than it is, and it’s curiously flimsy as an example of female empowerment. This is still, and despite the presence of Wonder Woman herself, a Boys’ Own adventure that could have featured any number of superheroes as its lead protagonist. It gets full marks for its period setting (something that was avoided for a long time before production finally began), but the movie takes too long in getting its audience from London to the Front, takes too much time in attempting to flesh out characters that don’t need fleshing out, and provides enough exposition to deaden the senses more effectively than Dr Maru’s poison gas. A small-scale triumph, then, and a definite improvement on the movies already mentioned above, but there’s still a long way to go before DC and Warner Bros. overcome the same problems they seem incapable – at present – of recognising and prevailing over.
Rating: 6/10 – a movie that starts out strongly (much in the way that Suicide Squad did), Wonder Woman seems set on delivering on the promise it showed in its trailers, and the advance word from preview screenings, but it soon falters and falls prey to the apparently carved-in-stone requirements of the DC Extended Universe; bold and confident in places, yet haphazard and stumbling in others, it’s a movie that surprises more than it dismays, but when it does dismay the effect is, unfortunately, far more noticeable, and has far more repercussions.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, Dale Dickey, David Dencik, Devon Bostick, Aaron Ashmore, Peter MacNeill
Minnesota, 1990. Farmer John Gray (Dencik) confesses to molesting his seventeen year old daughter, Angela (Watson) – but there’s a catch: even though Angela has made an accusation, Gray can’t remember doing anything of the sort, and is confessing purely because Angela has never lied to him, so in his mind it must be true. Detective Bruce Kenner (Hawke) is assigned to the case, and while Gray languishes in prison awaiting a trial date, he begins to look into the matter. It’s not long though before Kenner begins to find that the case isn’t as straightforward as his boss, Chief Cleveland (O”Neill), would like.
With the help of Professor Kenneth Raines (Thewlis), Kenner learns through Raines’ use of regression therapy techniques that Gray wasn’t alone when his abuse of Angela was supposed to have happened. When the other person present is revealed to be a fellow police officer, George Nesbitt (Ashmore), that revelation opens up another can of worms altogether: that Nesbitt, along with an unwitting Gray, are members of a satanic cult. With the rest of the police force treating the idea of a satanic cult as a joke, and Gray’s family proving resentful of Kenner’s investigation, it’s not until he gets to meet Angela that Kenner begins to believe that there might actually be something in what her father has remembered.
Kenner remains sceptical but insists on keeping an open mind, and begins looking into the possibility that a cult is operating in the local area. A second meeting with Angela has him believing more and more, and even more so when he begins to have strange dreams, some where he appears to be involved in the blood sacrifice of a newborn baby (and which echoes what Angela has told him of her own experiences). Kenner becomes paranoid, and his relationships with those around him begin to deteriorate. When Nesbitt is released for lack of evidence, Kenner believes he has to risk everything in order to keep Angela safe, but if the cult is for real, will he be able to?
The period setting of Regression is deliberate. In the US in 1980, a book was published called Michelle Remembers, and it was written by Michelle Smith and her future husband Lawrence Pazder (who was then her psychiatrist). In it, Smith recounted – through Pazder’s use of hypnotherapy – alleged memories of what became known as Ritual Satanic Abuse (RSA). These memories related to abuse supposed to have been perpetrated by Michelle’s mother in the mid-Fifties when Michelle was five. The book proved to be a starting point for allegations of widespread satanic activity within the US (and further afield), and although skepticism of Smith and Pazder’s book was equally widespread, as the Eighties progressed, the idea of satanic cults prospered, and the book, and Pazder’s “expertise” on the subject, were used as a guide for prosecutors preparing cases against individuals accused of satanic practices.
Set against the backdrop of this developing fear and paranoia, Regression touches on several attendant topics – the (mis)use of regressive therapy, the impact of such allegations on closed communities, individual feelings of guilt and/or responsibility, the ease with which unsubstantiated rumour becomes accepted fact – but it does so in such an awkward, hamfisted way that any dramatic emphasis is reduced by the way in which Amenábar’s script fails to follow through on these topics. The end result is a movie that has a lot going on but little of it that makes consistent sense.
Worrying aspects crop up almost from the start, with a very clumsily inserted “clue” that Nesbitt is more involved than is initially apparent, and this is followed by the way in which Detective Kenner commits himself so unreservedly, leaving the viewer to wonder just what it is that drives him (a question the movie avoids answering). Raines’ involvement so soon into the investigation, and the way in which he’s allowed to take the lead on so many interviews is concerning in terms of likelihood (it doesn’t help that Raines is often unnecessarily aggressive as well), and a sequence where Kenner “sees” the events described to him by Angela is another cause for concern, as it comes across as a stylistic exercise rather than a character trait.
Kenner is the viewer’s guide through the events of the movie but he proves an unreliable guide, prone to making schoolboy errors in terms of the investigation, and behaving unprofessionally with Angela. The movie doesn’t give any real reason for the waywardness of his behaviour, and as the mystery deepens his growing paranoia (and belief) that the satanic cult is real causes him to behave so irrationally that the extent of it becomes unconvincing. With Gray already acting strangely, and with most of the local community seemingly in thrall to the cult that no one can identify, Amenábar’s decision to have Kenner become a victim as well becomes exasperating rather than effective in terms of the drama.
Viewers should be able to determine the movie’s outcome without too much trouble, but once they do, and once the movie reaches that point, the whole thing collapses in on itself and the last fifteen minutes feel like a compromise instead of a conclusion decided on from the start. Amenábar does his best, but even with the support of Hawke and Watson, he doesn’t appear to be fully in control of his own narrative or where it’s going. Scenes feel divorced from each other, and too often, characters act oddly because the script needs them to.
The performances are committed at least, with Hawke giving his all in yet another not-fully-realised horror thriller, and Watson putting Hermione Granger firmly behind her as the victim(?) whose safety becomes Kenner’s primary concern. Thewlis and his character are abandoned by Amenábar two thirds of the way through, while the rest of the supporting cast (save Dencik) do what they can in respect of filling in the blanks. In the end, Regression is a movie where the characters exist to service the plot, and at no point do any of them feel organic, leaving the cast to try and work out what’s the best approach for each one. It leads to a clash of acting styles in some scenes, and a lack of cohesion in others. Amenábar at least keeps things visually interesting, albeit in a dour, dark-hued way, and the sequences of satanic worship and sacrifice are well shot and edited together, but all in all this needed a tighter script and a better ending to be anywhere near successful.
Rating: 5/10 – though Regression is based around real events that occurred over a period of time, it never really offers a cohesive or credible story to match its general assumptions about what was happening at the time; not as scary or effective as it would like to be, the movie winds up playing it safe instead of giving the viewer any real food for thought.
Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
If you’re new to the work of Charlie Kaufman, and haven’t seen any of his earlier works such as Being John Malkovich (1999) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), then Anomalisa may not be the best place to start. Not because it’s a bad movie – very far from it – but because it requires a great deal of navigation to get to where Kaufman wants to take you. You can approach the story at face value: middle aged man suffering a mid-life crisis has a one-night stand while on a business trip, or you can see past the obvious and examine the bizarre psycho-sexual mindset of a man for whom everyone else in the world looks and sounds the same, and for whom personal relationships are a form of existential torture.
By having his lead character suffer from the Fregoli Delusion, a rare disorder where a person believes that different people are in fact the same person but in constantly changing disguises, Kaufman has found a new way to look at how we assess new relationships and how we assign emotional links to new relationships from old ones. It all sounds heavy going, and maybe not the best material for an animated movie, but in fact it’s the perfect approach and style for telling Kaufman’s tale.
Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a customer service guru. He’s written a well-known and highly regarded book on the subject and he’s arrived in Cincinnati to give a speech the next day. He’s married with a young son and on the ride from the airport establishes that there’s a toy store near his hotel where he can get a gift for his son. At the hotel, called The Fregoli, Stone checks in and goes to his room where he decides to call up an old girlfriend, Bella Amarossi, and see if she’ll meet him for a drink. She agrees and they meet up in the hotel bar. There are recriminations from Bella over the way Michael just upped and left her, and the reunion ends badly when he suggests they go up to his room to “talk more privately”; angered that he just wants to have sex with her, Bella leaves.
With nothing else to do, Michael visits the nearby toy store only to learn that it’s an adult toy store. But he sees a mechanical head and upper torso, with arms, of a Japanese woman behind the counter and he decides to buy it. Back in his room he’s just getting out of the shower when he hears a familiar woman’s voice from outside in the hallway. He dashes out but no one is there. Convinced she must be in one of the other rooms, he knocks on doors until one is opened by Emily. Emily is in town for his speech along with her colleague and best friend Lisa (Leigh). Michael is immediately smitten by Lisa and after the three of them have had cocktails in the hotel bar, he invites Lisa back to his room. Fascinated by her, and in particular by her voice, Michael flatters her into having sex with him.
Afterwards he has a dream where the hotel manager speaks to him in the basement and tells him that while assignations in the hotel rooms are to be expected, Michael can do so with anyone but Lisa. A team of secretaries all offer themselves to him and as he attempts to escape he wakes up. In the morning, Michael and Lisa have breakfast together, but he begins to criticise her behaviour, and soon her voice, which he finds so alluring, begins to pall, and she sounds like everyone else. Later, when he gives his speech, Michael rambles and goes off topic, and his previous confidence deserts him; he sounds alienated and confused. And when he returns home, he still finds no relief from the problems that plague him.
Part of the pleasure of watching Anomalisa is trying to fathom if Michael knows he suffers from Fregoli disorder or not. There are times when it seems as if he does but is choosing to ignore it (or deal with it), and there are times when he seems oblivious to it (you can guess when these moments occur). The movie’s perspective doesn’t help, with everyone except for Michael and Lisa looking the same – and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sonny from I, Robot (2004). Further disorientation is added by having Tom Noonan voice all the other characters, male or female. (It’s a great idea, and Noonan’s rich tones are used to very good effect.) If we’re seeing all this from Michael’s perspective, then he is aware of it and is choosing to deal with it. But if we’re seeing all this from the vantage point of an observer, then Michael’s awareness of his condition is open to question, and so are his motives.
There’s much that’s open to interpretation either way, but it’s his relationship with Lisa, however short-lived, that holds the key to Michael’s behaviour. His marriage is on the rocks because he’s unhappy with his life in general (because of his disorder?), he’s in town just overnight, alone, and seeking “company”; it’s a cliché waiting to happen. Kaufman relates the ensuing “courtship” with aplomb, embedding an early clue as to Lisa’s “place” in Michael’s mindset (the payoff comes when he gets home), and leading the viewer down the path called misdirection. It’s all cleverly done, and with more than a hint of mischief, and in terms of the narrative, is richly rewarding when all becomes clear at the end.
To explain more would be to ruin the fun of discovering how Michael overcomes his disorder and makes a connection with another person. The stop motion animation style employed appears clunky and hesitant but it’s a perfect fit for Michael’s confused mind and emotions, as well as his lumbering approach to other people. It’s charming too, with little details here and there that add depth to the narrative (the zoo sign that can be seen from Michael’s hotel window). And Kaufman adds sly, witty moments of his trademark humour: the plane that can be seen from Michael’s plane (you know exactly what’s going to happen), and the hotel clerk who taps away at a keyboard without taking his eyes off Michael at all.
So much animation is aimed at the younger market that it’s refreshing to see a completely adult-themed animated movie that doesn’t include talking animals or magical fairy kingdoms. Kaufman and Johnson have created a unique world for us to visit and spend time in, and aided by a beautifully melancholy score by Carter Burwell, have made a movie that resonates long after it’s ended.
Rating: 9/10 – a superb movie in its own right but elevated by its distinctive use of stop motion animation, Anomalisa is a sheer delight from start to finish; with much to say about how we view other people and relate to them in times of emotional crisis, and how insular we can be, it’s also at times unbearably poignant – and that’s a very good thing indeed.
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Paul Anderson, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Spruell, John Sessions, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Bettany, Kevin McNally, Shane Attwooll, Jane Wood
London, the 1960’s. The East End is home to two brothers, the confident, ambitious Reggie Kray (Hardy), and his psychotic twin Ronnie (Hardy). Together they run a criminal network based around providing protection to local businesses, while Reggie owns a club that attracts celebrities and politicians who like to mingle with London’s criminal element. The pair are well-liked in their local neighbourhood, and are both feared and respected. Reggie is continually followed by Detective Superintendent “Nipper” Read (Eccleston) who has been given the task of bringing the twins to justice. But they’re always one step ahead of him.
One morning, Reggie’s regular driver, Frankie Shea (Morgan) hasn’t shown up. Reggie goes to his house; the door is opened by Frankie’s sister, Frances (Browning). He’s immediately attracted to her and he asks her out. She agrees to go out with him, despite her mother’s misgivings, and despite Reggie’s reputation. Meanwhile, one of the Krays’ gang has been caught “working” on the south side of the river, an area run by the Richardson family. This infraction leads to a meeting between the Krays and the Richardsons on neutral ground, but the Richardsons send some of their men instead to get rid of Reggie and Ronnie once and for all. But the twins prove too much for the men, and are all viciously beaten up.
With no other serious rivals, the Krays’ criminal empire spreads further afield. With the aid and advice of their accountant, Leslie Payne (Thewlis) – whom Ronnie dislikes and is suspicious of – they take over a casino in an attempt to earn some legitimate money (while still maintaining their regular criminal activities). An old warrant sees Reggie spend six months in prison, during which time he and Frances grow closer, though she seeks reassurances that he’ll be more honest when he gets out. But it doesn’t happen, and even with her hopes dashed, Reggie and Frances get married. Ronnie is welcoming at first, but their marriage leads him to think that Reggie is trying to move on without him. At the same time, Read’s investigation is sidelined when he allows himself to be photographed with the Krays in their casino.
Frances finds herself isolated, and begins to rely more and more on medication to ease her growing sense of anguish. Reggie is oblivious, and has more urgent matters to attend to when Ronnie kills one of the Richardsons’ men, George Cornell (Attwooll) in a pub in front of witnesses. In order to protect his brother, Reggie must intimidate the witnesses, which he does, but when Ronnie hatches another plan to eliminate a perceived enemy, and hires Jack “The Hat” McVitie (Spruell) to do the job, it leads to the end of their criminal careers and the empire they’ve built up.
Adapted from the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson (who was once an assistant to Ian Fleming), Legend is a curious movie in that it takes the two most notorious criminals known in Britain in the last sixty years, and tells their story in such a way that, on the whole, they don’t seem that bad. Sure they use intimidation and violence as a way of getting what they want from people, but we don’t see any of this, so the viewer has to take it for granted that they were as nasty as their “legend” would have it. Instead, writer/director Helgeland shows us the Kray twins as entrepreneurs, buying into legitimate businesses and making inroads into so-called polite society, including the patronage of Lord Boothby (Sessions), a predatory homosexual whose relationship with Ronnie leads to the Krays being acquitted at trial for fear of a government scandal. What’s given scant attention is their youth and how they got to where they were in the mid-Sixties, and how they actually attained the powerful position they enjoyed.
Then there’s the relationship between Reggie and Frances, which at first follows an almost predictable girl-meets-bad-boy scenario before settling down into something much darker and terrible. It’s hard to pick out just why Frances stays with Reggie for so long, because Helgeland doesn’t provide very many clues to help explain it all, and it’s equally unclear why Reggie wants Frances. It’s all very superficial, and though it’s based on real events etc., it doesn’t quite gel on screen, leaving the viewer with the feeling that whatever the truth about their marriage – and the movie makes some strong claims – there’s more to it than meets the eye (or is included in Helgeland’s script).
The same is true of the movie as a whole, with the sense that Helgeland’s adaptation isn’t concerned with providing any depth or subtext, leaving the poor viewer (again) suspecting that they just have to go along with everything and accept it all for what it is. It makes for a frustrating viewing experience as the characters – and there are a lot of them – all appear to lack an inner life (with the possible exception of Ronnie, whose inner life seems entirely weird and deranged). The movie also lacks a sense of time, its events and occurrences sometimes feeling like they’re happening in the absence of any recognisable timescale, or have been cherry-picked from Pearson’s book at random (one example: Frances meets Reggie when she’s sixteen but doesn’t marry him until she’s twenty-two). And that’s without mentioning that as a retelling of the Krays’ activities and lives, it’s not very faithful or accurate.
The period of the Krays’ infamy is, however, extremely well-realised, with the East End of London looking as foreboding and shadowy as it did back in the Sixties, and with the period detail proving impressive. In terms of the time and the place, Tom Conroy’s incredibly detailed production design is enhanced by Dick Pope’s sharply focused cinematography, and further augmented by Carter Burwell’s appropriately Sixties-style score. The costumes are also a plus, with the fashions of the time recreated in fine style by Caroline Harris, an underrated costume designer who has provided equally fine work on movies as varied as An Ideal Husband (1999), A Knight’s Tale (2001), and And When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007).
As to the performances, it’s either a one-man or a two-man show, depending on how you look at it. Hardy is magnificent in roles that it would be difficult now to imagine any other actor attempting. As the charming, urbane-sounding Reggie, Hardy does more with a glance than some actors can manage with a long speech and an unwavering close up. He’s magnetic in most of his scenes, grabbing the attention as firmly as if he had the viewer in a headlock, and making it difficult to look away from him. And as Ronnie it’s like watching a human shark, his dark eyes staring out from behind the character’s glasses with vicious intent, just waiting for the chance to explode, and speaking with the delusional belief that his ideas are as sane as he thinks they sound (at one point he comes out with a plan to protect the homeless children of Nigeria). In both cases, Hardy is superb, even if he’s let down by the material, but he’s such a good actor that he overcomes Helgeland’s negligence and commands the audience’s attention throughout.
In support, Browning is captivating and sincere as Frances, and finds layers in the role that aren’t so evident from the script, while Thewlis gives one of his best recent performances as Payne, the accountant who earns Ronnie’s enmity. Anderson is quietly effective as Reggie’s right-hand man Alby, Fitzgerald is a scornful Mrs Shea (she wears black to her daughter’s wedding), Sessions is suitably slimy as Lord Boothby, and Palminteri, as the Mafia representative who wants the Krays to run London as part of a criminal franchise overseen by Meyer Lansky, exudes a rough Italian charm that hides a more dangerous persona. Alas, Eccleston is given little to do beyond looking exasperated, and Spruell’s McVitie is required to “grow a pair” just when the script needs him to; up ’til then he’s the very definition of compliant.
Ultimately, Helgeland the writer undermines Helgeland the director, focusing on Reggie to the detriment of Ronnie, and trying to make this about Reggie’s loyalty to his brother, rather than the exploits that made them infamous (which are almost incidental here). Some scenes lack the intensity they deserve, as if Helgeland didn’t have the nerve to show some things as they actually occurred (McVitie’s murder was much more vicious than what is shown in the movie), and though the emphasis is quite rightly on the Krays, more time with some of the other characters would have added some richness to the material and kept it from feeling (on occasion) somewhat uninspired. Perhaps there’s a longer cut waiting to be released on DVD/Blu ray, and it fills in a lot of the gaps, but at this length, Helgeland’s scattershot approach to the Krays’ lives is too much of a hindrance to make it anything more than just okay.
Rating: 6/10 – missing the vital spark that would have elevated it into the realm of the truly great gangster movies, Legend instead squanders its chance and remains a mostly pedestrian account of the lives of two men who meant to rule London’s criminal underworld with four iron fists; not as violent as you might expect, but with two standout performances from Hardy to help compensate, this is one “real life” movie that feels like it could have, and should have, been a whole lot better.
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Callum Turner, Pat Shortt, David Thewlis, Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Sinéad Cusack, David Hayman, John Standing, Brian F. O’Byrne, Julian Wadham
Nine years after the events depicted in Hope and Glory (1987), eighteen year old Bill Rohan (Turner) is nurturing a desire to get into movie making. But National Service comes along and Bill is conscripted into the Army, where his skills lead him – and his friend Percy (Jones) – to teaching other conscripts how to type. With the threat of being transferred to the front line in Korea hovering over them, Bill and Percy make the best of their lot, including continual run-ins with their immediate superior, the punctilious Sergeant-Major Bradley (Thewlis). They find a comrade in skiver Private Redmond (Shortt), and resolve to steal the regimental clock as a two-fingered salute to one of their senior officers, the pompous, overbearing RSM Digby.
While Bill and Percy circumvent the rules with seeming impunity, they also find love: Percy with nurse Sophie (Edwards), and Bill with emotionally distant Ophelia (Egerton). But the course of true love fails to run smoothly for either of them, with Ophelia proving complicit in an abusive relationship, and Percy showing no signs of committing to Sophie. Their run-ins with Sgt-Major Bradley escalate to the point where they turn the tables on him, a decision which has unforeseen consequences. The search for the regimental clock leads Private Redmond – suspected by Digby and Major Cross (Grant), the officer in charge – to ratting on Percy to avoid being sent to Korea. With his friend facing a court-martial, and his affair with Ophelia offering no comfort, Bill’s rite of passage to adulthood proves a rockier experience than he ever expected.
Widely reported as John Boorman’s swan song movie, Queen & Country is a largely disappointing end to a career that has had some tremendous highs – Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972), The General (1998) – and one incredible low – Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). What’s disappointing is that Boorman has failed to inject the same kind of nostalgic bonhomie that made Hope and Glory such a joy to watch. And though the movie is based on Boorman’s own experiences in the Fifties, there’s little here that resonates as effectively as his experiences of World War II. It’s a shame, as the movie will generate a lot of interest due to the warm regard held by its predecessor, but anyone persuaded to watch this as part of a Boorman double bill with Hope and Glory would do well to choose something else (the undervalued Leo the Last (1970) perhaps).
This isn’t to say that the movie is a complete disaster – Boorman is too good a director for that, and the material does have moments where it’s both affecting and heartfelt. Bill’s despair at the actions of Ophelia tugs at the heartstrings, while Bradley’s officious nature hides a man struggling to maintain his sanity. The performances range from the credulous (Jones, all sniggering, body-wracking obnoxiousness), to the pantomimic (Grant, operating at a level of high-strung anxiety that would look less out of place in a drawing-room farce), while Egerton strikes a chilling note as an upper-class object of desire who has no idea of her own self-worth. Turner is okay as the older Bill, but thanks to Boorman’s script, is hampered by being too likeable throughout, and isn’t allowed to show any other facets of the character. But the standout is Kirby as Bill’s rapacious sister, Dawn, a force of nature that the script – thankfully – fails to keep a lid on. References to Bill’s family living near to Shepperton Studios hint at his future endeavours and there’s a lovely final shot that is as succinct as it is emotive. If Boorman is persuaded to continue making movies, his take on starting out in the industry would be well worth waiting for.
Rating: 5/10 – awkwardly irreverent in its dealings with the Army, but on surer ground in its more emotional relationships, Queen & Country is a mix of drama and comedy that never quite gels; with some scenes that feel extraneous, and others that seem burdened by the need to harken back to Hope and Glory, this is a movie that – sadly – promises more than it actually delivers.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake, Harry Lloyd
Cambridge, 1963. Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is an astrophysics student with a brilliant mind and a bright future. At a party he meets Jane Wilde (Jones), who is studying Spanish Romantic poetry. As their romance blossoms so too does Stephen’s clumsiness and lack of coordination. A bad fall leads to a diagnosis of motor neurone disease and a prognosis that gives him only two more years to live. Stephen hides himself away, even from Jane, but she refuses to give up on him. Despite reservations from both their families, the pair marry and soon have their first child.
Stephen achieves his doctorate but his illness is progressing rapidly. He becomes reliant on a wheelchair for getting about and his speech deteriorates. He and Jane have a second child, and the burden on her becomes plain, but her sense of loyalty and commitment stop her from seeking help. At her mother’s suggestion she joins a local choir. Jane and the choir master, Jonathan (Cox) become friends and he begins to help her at home, looking after the children and Stephen as well. Their relationship becomes more serious; when Stephen and Jane have a third child, Jane’s mother asks if the baby is Jonathan’s. He overhears this and while he admits he has feelings for her – and she for him – he decides to stay away for a while. Stephen, however, persuades him to continue helping his family.
An invitation for Stephen to attend a concert in Bordeaux allows Jane and Jonathan to take the children camping there as well. While at the concert, Stephen becomes unwell and is taken to hospital. There a doctor advises Jane that Stephen will need a tracheotomy and that, as a result he’ll never speak again; she tells them to go ahead. Before they return to England, she and Jonathan agree not to see each other any more. Back home, Jane hires a helper, Elaine (Peake), who works with Stephen as a personal assistant. He also receives a computer which has a built-in voice synthesizer that allows him to communicate with people. It also spurs him to write a book, A Brief History of Time. When he’s invited to America to accept an award he tells Jane that he’ll be taking Elaine with him, and not her. Their marriage effectively over, Jane and Jonathan reconnect, while Stephen’s worldwide fame increases, culminating in his meeting the Queen.
Anyone preparing to see The Theory of Everything and expecting to be overwhelmed by long stretches involving discussions related to quantum physics and black hole information paradoxes will be both relieved and pleasantly surprised. For this isn’t a biography of Stephen Hawking the noted physicist, but Stephen Hawking the individual. Eschewing his work in favour of his home life, the movie shows how his illness proved unable to diminish his spirit. As the disease that threatens his life leaves him more and more cut off from the world around him, Stephen’s determination and will to survive rises to the fore. It’s gladdening to see his personality and character still able to shine through, the spark of his mental state undimmed. Once he’s overcome his initial bout of self-pity and he marries Jane, there’s not one moment where he even comes close to contemplating giving in. And when his relationship with Elaine leads to the dissolution of his marriage, the emotion and the regret are all there in his eyes.
Stephen’s courage by itself would make for an uplifting, inspirational story, but what makes the movie even more effective is its detailing of the struggles undertaken – willingly it must be said – by his wife, Jane. As Stephen becomes increasingly disabled, the strain she feels grows and grows, and while her devotion to him is admirable, it’s clear that her need for a normal life is becoming more and more important to her. She snatches brief moments of happiness with Jonathan, a widower looking for someone to ease his own sense of loss; they’re kindred spirits, but Jane’s sense of propriety keeps them apart. This is the other tragedy the movie portrays so well: the emotional despair that comes with realising you have no more left to give, and that it’s only a solemn commitment to someone you once loved that keeps you from leaving.
Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the movie is an emotional roller coaster ride, charting the rise and fall of their relationship over thirty years. It’s a movie that’s expertly crafted by Marsh and features an incisive, sharply defined script by Anthony McCarten. Together, they’ve created a movie that throws a spotlight onto one of the most poignant and touching of relationships and shows how mutual affection and reliance aren’t always enough. Using a surprising lightness of touch that complements the underlying humour displayed by Stephen throughout, Marsh directs with passion and perspicacity, getting to the heart of each scene with ease and coaxing tremendous performances from his two leads. It’s also a tremendous movie to look at, with Benoît Delhomme’s photography proving almost sumptuous at times, beautifully lit and offering compositions that are lush and redolent of the time in which they’re set.
But of course the main draw – or draws, if you prefer – are the performances by Redmayne and Jones. Redmayne is nothing short of excellent as Stephen, whether portraying the gauche young man with a bright future ahead of him, or the crippled, contorted genius his illness failed to stop him becoming. Redmayne’s performance is all the more impressive for having been shot out of sequence, challenging the actor to keep track of Stephen’s physical decline and adapt it to the production schedule. Even toward the end of the movie, when he’s unable to communicate except with his eyes, Redmayne ensures every feeling and every emotion is clearly written in his gaze. It’s a towering achievement, impressive both physically and for its humanity.
But in many ways, this is Jones’s movie, the actress proving mesmerising to watch, her performance one of such singular intensity and skill that it’s almost impossible to believe she’s acting, so completely does she inhabit Jane’s character and personality. Her scenes with Cox are a masterclass of understated longing and repressed emotion – when Jane declares she has feelings for Jonathan it’s such a heartbreaking moment and so powerfully realised that the viewer can only marvel at the depths being plumbed to realise such a moment in so compelling a fashion. But what Jones does best is to externalise each little instant where Jane’s love for Stephen is eroded just that little bit more, and just a little bit more, until she’s forced to admit that she did love him once. The audience can see that moment coming, and the inevitability of it, but when it does come, Jones makes it almost unbearable to watch.
There’s more than able support from the likes of Thewlis as Stephen’s college professor, McBurney as his father, and Watson as Jane’s mother, while Cox’s diffident manner as Jonathan is so appealing it’s no wonder Jane falls in love with him (they’re still together today). The Cambridge locations are well chosen and there’s a tremendously evocative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that is like a musical equation (if such a thing exists). And if anyone’s not sure, yes that is the real Stephen Hawking’s synthesised voice used in the final half hour, relied upon as the makers couldn’t reproduce its unique sound.
Rating: 9/10 – a superb biography of two people in a marriage where nothing is assured except the slow deterioration of their love for each other, The Theory of Everything is one of the most remarkable movies of 2014; with two justly lauded performances at its forefront, it’s a movie that dispenses its main protagonist’s passion for science in bite-size pieces and keeps the focus rightly on his successes and failures as “just another” fallible human being.
Cast: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton
Another dystopian fable from the mind of Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem bears a strong relation to Brazil, but lacks that movie’s charm and deft characterisation. Here, Waltz plays Qohen (not Quinn) Leth, a company man who is asked by Management (Damon) to solve the Zero Theorem, a mathematical formula which posits that everything amounts to nothing, or zero. With the help – or is it hindrance? – of Bainsley (Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Hedges), Leth does his best to solve the puzzle.
Made on a predictably small budget, the movie flirts more with ideas than it does engage with them, and there’s a delicate romance in there as well, but it’s all kept in check by the type of narrative ambiguities that make movies like this such a struggle to enjoy and connect with. Gilliam can do this kind of thing in his sleep now and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does seem to limit him as a filmmaker; ultimately it’s the visuals that strike home rather than any emotional heft the story may contribute (one visual conceit is the black hole that represents Leth’s inner turmoil…or is it his soul?…or his demons? Who knows?). It’s a shame then that The Zero Theorem zips along at a good pace, and the laughs, when they come, are very good indeed. Waltz plays the baffled, slightly obsessive Leth with a keen eye for the absurdities his character has to endure, while Thierry makes for an appealing heroine. It’s Thewlis though who steals the movie, mugging throughout but with all the best lines to excuse him. With an ending that reinforces the similarities to Brazil, the movie leaves one thinking that maybe for his next project Gilliam should tackle something that doesn’t depend on weird props and special effects to get itself noticed.
Rating: 6/10 – disappointing and hollow, The Zero Theorem shows Gilliam’s imagination running riot once again, but at the plot’s expense; scattered with flashes of brilliance but too few to elevate the material.