Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Fionn O’Shea, Alexander Scheer
In the winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) comes to Hamburg to be with her husband, Lewis (Clarke), who is a colonel in the British Forces. They are to live in a requisitioned house on the outskirts of the city, the home of an architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Thiemann). Though Lewis has a great deal of respect for Lubert – and for the ordinary German people – Rachael is less than friendly. She has a reason: their son, Michael, was killed in a bombing raid when he was eleven. But as Lewis spends more and more time trying to track down the members of a group of fanatical Nazis called the 88’s, Rachael becomes more and more reliant on Lubert’s company, and while Lewis is away for a few days, she and Lubert become much closer. The pair make plans to leave Hamburg together, and when Lewis returns Rachael determines to tell him their marriage is over. But danger lurks in the wings: Freda has unwittingly aided a member of the 88’s, Albert (Schümann), in targeting Lewis for assassination…
Put Keira Knightley in a period costume, and she shines. It’s as much a cinematic given as Tom Cruise doing a dangerous stunt (though without the broken ankle). With a gift for interpreting closeted emotions and their eventual impassioned expression, Knightley is always the best thing about the movies she makes, and The Aftermath is no exception. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie takes full advantage of Knightley’s skills as an actress, and provides viewers with a central character whose sense of morality, and her sense of loyalty, is challenged by the (somewhat staid) attentions of a man she sets out to hate, but who, in time honoured romantic fashion, she later falls in love with. That this happens at all is predictable enough, and there are many clues to tick off along the way, from the less than convincing reunion between Rachael and Lewis at the train station, to Lewis’s inability to talk about the death of their son, to the meaningful stares Rachael and Lubert exchange whenever anyone isn’t looking. With Lewis playing the absent, work-focused husband, it’s left to Rachael to occupy her time by having an affair and hoping for a better life. It’s the crux of a movie that feels as familiar, and therefore as empty, as many before it.
And so, it’s left to Knightley to rescue the movie from its self-imposed doldrums and minor soap opera theatrics. In many ways the movie doesn’t deserve her, because she seems to be the only one who’s trying. There’s a scene where Rachael breaks down and talks about her son that is truly heartbreaking for the depth of the despair and the grief that Knightley expresses. And that scene sticks out like a sore thumb because there’s no other scene to match it for its emotion, and its power, and its impact. Likewise, Skarsgård and Clarke are left in her wake, playing monotone versions of characters we’ve seen a hundred times over, and unable to make them look or sound like anything other than broad stereotypes. With the narrative offering nothing new, and Kent maintaining a steady but too respectful pace, the movie fails to excite, and remains a placid affair about a – well, placid affair. The wintry locations at least add some visual flair to proceedings, and the recreation of bomb-ravaged Hamburg is effectively realised, but these aspects aren’t enough when the main storyline should be passionate and convincing, instead of moderate and benign. Thank heaven then for Knightley, and a performance that elevates the material whenever she’s on screen.
Rating: 6/10 – a movie that means well, but which starts off slowly and stays that way (and despite an attempt at adding thriller elements towards the end), The Aftermath is rescued from terminal dullness by the force and intensity of Keira Knightley’s performance; a period romantic drama that at least gets the “period” right, this is a cautious, overly restrained tale that allows the odd flourish to shine through from time to time, but which in the end, doesn’t offer enough in the way of rewards to make it more than occasionally memorable.
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Hadley Fraser, Ian McKellen, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Sam Ellis, Gerard Horan
In 1613, following the destruction of the Globe theatre by fire, William Shakespeare (Branagh), having been away from his family for most of the last thirty years, decides to return to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and there live out the rest of his life. His arrival isn’t as well received as he would like: his wife, Anne (Dench), treats him as a guest, while his daughter, Judith (Wilder), is angry at his presumption that he can just come home and nothing should be said about it. Shakespeare finds himself finally mourning the death of his son Hamnet seventeen years before, but this brings out an unexpected animosity from Judith (who was Hamnet’s twin). Meanwhile, his eldest daughter, Susanna (Wilson), is trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan doctor John Hall (Fraser). She has an affair that nearly leads to public ruin, while after several disagreements with her father over what a woman is for, Judith pursues a relationship with local wine merchant, Tom Quiney (Hirst). There is scandal in their relationship as well, but before it can threaten to ruin Judith’s standing in the local community, a revelation about Hamnet causes Shakespeare’s memory of his son to be changed forever…
In using the alternative title for The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth, All Is True opens itself up for close inspection of its claim, and inevitably, is found wanting. As much as any historical biography can be “true”, Branagh’s take on Shakespeare’s final years (from a script by Ben Elton), labours under the necessity of finding enough material to fill in the blanks of what we know already – which isn’t that much. And so, we have a movie that makes a handful of educated guesses as to the events surrounding Shakespeare’s self-imposed retirement, but can’t quite come up with a reason for it. For the most part, the script is more concerned with the problems affecting his daughters, while the great man himself is reduced to being a secondary character, one seen creating a garden to honour his son’s memory, or indulging in melancholy conversations with the likes of visiting guests the Earl of Southampton (McKellen), and Ben Jonson (Horan). They’re odd scenes to have, as both see Shakespeare downplaying his genius while his visitors do their best to boost him up. And the scene with Southampton is there simply to support the theory that his sonnets were the product of a homosexual infatuation; all very possible but at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.
Indeed, the overall tone is one of overwhelming grief and sadness as Shakespeare attempts to deal with the loss of Hamnet. Whether seen in moments of contemplation, or through the verses he wrote before his death, Hamnet is the ghost that haunts everyone, and Shakespeare’s grief is tainted by the false recollections he has of him. This allows Branagh the director plenty of opportunities to let Branagh the actor look sad and distant, though mostly it makes him look as if he’s spotted something far off in the distance but can’t quite work out what it is. Still, it’s a good performance from Branagh, and he’s given able support from Dench and the rest of the cast, but in the end, Elton’s script rambles too often from subplot to subplot without ever connecting them in a cohesive, organic fashion. And Shakespeare himself, as a character, is only saved from being a complete dullard by virtue of Branagh’s efforts in front of the camera; there’s more fire and intensity from Wilder’s defiant Judith. A curious mix then of the effective and the banal, and tinged with soap opera moments that are out of place, it’s bolstered by Zac Nicholson’s naturalistic cinematography (all the night-time interiors used candlelight only), and James Merifield’s expressive production design.
Rating: 6/10 – not as definitive as it might have wanted to be, nor as engrossing as the subject matter should have merited, All Is True stumbles too often in its efforts to be intriguing, and features a seemingly endless array of establishing shots that seem designed to pad out the running time for no other reason than that they look pretty; anyone looking for an introduction to Shakespeare the man should look elsewhere, while those who are curious about his later years would do well to treat the movie as an interpretation of events rather than a retelling of them.
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, J. Smith-Cameron, Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd, John Leguizamo
Nancy Freeman (Riseborough) is a thirty-something woman who lives at home with her domineering mother, Betty (Dowd), and does agency work in various dental practices. She writes in her spare time but her work is continually rejected by publishers, and to compensate she also writes a blog offering support to people who have lost children in tragic circumstances. When her mother dies suddenly, Nancy finds herself a little adrift, but when she sees a news report about a couple whose daughter, Brooke, went missing thirty years before, and a picture of what the girl might look like today, Nancy comes to believe that she might be the missing girl. She has the barest of evidence to support any claim – a missing birth certificate is pretty much it – but it doesn’t stop her from contacting the couple, Ellen (Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Buscem i). Despite some initial misgivings, the couple invite Nancy to visit them. It’s an awkward first encounter, with Ellen clearly hoping that Nancy is her missing daughter, while Leo is more reserved and doubtful. Agreeing to a DNA test, Nancy finds herself staying longer than she planned, but as the time passes, whether or not she is the couple’s missing daughter becomes less and less important…
The debut feature of its writer/director, Nancy is a curious movie that has a clear central idea that is confidently established, but which unfortunately peters out the longer the movie continues. From the beginning it’s also clear that Nancy inhabits her own world, one in which she’s a good samaritan, kind and supportive in a way that her mother isn’t, and through her blog, someone with the best of intentions but the worst of motivations. She agrees to meet Jeb (Leguizamo), a man whose daughter died just hours after being born; Nancy meets him and pretends to be pregnant. Watching her do this, and hearing later how she justifies her behaviour adds a frisson of tension when she hears about the Lynches missing daughter. What lies will she tell? How much will she deliberately mislead them? And how will she justify her actions if the DNA test proves what the viewer – and Nancy – has known all along: that she isn’t the Lynches child? All these questions are answered by Choe as the movie progresses, but it’s still slightly chilling knowing the level of deception that this still grieivng couple are being exposed to.
And therein lies the movie’s central problem: the deception itself and the couple’s reactions to it. Ellen is understandably keen for Nancy to be the real thing, while Leo’s reluctance to believe implicitly in Nancy’s claim is the more rational, and self-protective approach. But this difference in belief never causes any anatagonism between them, and Choe sweeps away any chance that they’ll confront Nancy with their suspicions, preferring instead to present the narrative as a kind of reverse cuckoo-in-the-nest tale where the cuckoo is made completely welcome. This makes the scenes at the Lynches home feel under-developed, as if once Choe had got her characters together she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Instead of upping the drama, Choe allows the plot and storyline to move pedantically forward, and the muted energy of the first half an hour gives way to a more stilted, less fluid approach that robs the movie of any impact in the final stretch. Smith-Cameron and Buscemi are entirely credible as the couple who keep finding new hope to alleviate their grief, while Riseborough is astounding as a woman who is unable to reconcile a strong desire to help others with a disturbing lack of empathy. But good though the performances are, they can’t stop the movie from becoming more and more dramatically moribund as time goes on.
Rating: 7/10 – a melancholy look at what can happen when someone who doesn’t understand affection finds herself finally receiving it, Nancy features a mesmerising performance from Riseborough (despite a very unconvincing wig), and impressive visuals courtesy of DoP Zoe White; in wanting to be a haunting tale of unconditional acceptance, the movie continually stumbles, but it finds firmer footing when Nancy is by herself, and the extent of her inability to connect appropriately with others can be fully gauged and understood.
Cast: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Henning Peker, Johannes Krisch, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Numan Acar, Hanna Hilsdorf, Ulrich Brandhoff, Ulrich Tukur, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana
Katja (Kruger) is married to reformed Kurdish drug dealer Nuri (Acar), and they have a precocious six year old son, Rocco (Santana). Having put his criminal past behind him, Nuri runs a small travel agency in Hamburg. One day, Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office and heads off to meet her best friend, Birgit (Chancrin). When she returns later to meet them, she finds that a nail bomb has gone off outside the office and Nuri and Rocco have both been killed. She identifies a woman (Hilsdorf) she saw earlier who left a bike outside the office, and eventually the woman is identified as a Neo-Nazi, and with her husband (Brandhoff), is arrested and charged with the bombing. A trial ensues, but despite the best efforts of Katja’s lawyer, Danilo (Moschitto), enough doubt is raised about the couple’s guilt that the court is forced to acquit them. Distraught by this unexpected decision, Katja retreats into despair, until an idea presents itself as to how she can avenge the deaths of her son and husband…
Taking the 2004 Cologne bombing as its inspiration, which also saw Neo-Nazis detonating a nail bomb in a busy commercial street, In the Fade is a stylish and fascinating thriller that is also a tough, uncompromising examination of one woman’s grief in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. Featuring a superb performance from Kruger, the movie paints an uncomfortable picture of both the emotional despair that Katja feels and the physical impact it has on her as well. Katja’s bright, confident manner in the movie’s opening scenes is soon replaced by a withdrawn, cynical veneer that (barely) hides the pain that she’s feeling. Even the drugs she takes to help her cope (a decision that has dire consequences later on) aren’t enough to numb the sadness that she’s feeling. As the trial steers ever closer to its unhappy conclusion, Katja’s anger at the injustice that’s taking place builds and builds, and remains in waiting as she recovers from the court’s decision, until it can be refocused into a steely determination to take matters into her own hands. All of this is portrayed by Kruger in a career-best performance, as she plumbs the depths of Katja’s misery in a way that is both urgent and persuasive.
However, without Kruger’s passionate and powerful performance, In the Fade isn’t quite as well constructed or purposeful as it might seem. Akin is a fiercely political movie maker, and his movies are often full of political statements, but here the message isn’t as clear cut or as concisely made as they would be normally. True, he takes potshots at the perceived indolence of the German authorities in reining in the activities of Neo-Nazi groups in modern day Deutschland, and the endemic racism of a police force that would rather focus on the criminal past of a bombing victim than catching the actual bombers, but these don’t have the impact that would make viewers become as outraged as Katja does. The movie is at its best in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, when the only point it wants to make is about the unbearable weight that grief can impose on a person, and then during the courtroom scenes, the inexorable turning of the tide of guilt is played out with a grim fascination that is horrifying, albeit in a different way. But the post-trial scenes – set in Greece, and providing a beautiful contrast to the constantly overcast, rainy environs of Hamburg – prove to be something of a let-down, and the momentum the movie has built up until then is squandered by poor narrative choices and giving Katja unconvincing motivations for her actions. It’s another movie whose ending undermines the good work that’s gone before, and for some viewers, being denied their own catharsis may prove a deal breaker all by itself.
Rating: 7/10 – with an unsettling score courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, and good supporting turns from Krisch and Tukur (as the father of one of the bombers), In the Fade is an urgent, often uncompromising thriller that’s let down by some flaccid plotting and a final section that is more frustrating than rewarding; Kruger is excellent in only her first German-speaking lead role, and there’s a sparseness to the production design that plays well with the rigour of Kruger’s tightly wound presence, but all in all this doesn’t succeed as a whole but is instead an exercise in (unfulfilled) anticipation.
Cast: Melissa George, Ewen Leslie, Ed Oxenbould, Sophie Lowe, Ella Jaz Macrokanis, Lauren Dillon, Paula Nazarski, Steve Nation
In a small Australian town, widowed father Al (Leslie) and his son, Fin (Oxenbould), are both struggling to deal with the recent death of Fin’s mother, Rose (Dillon). Al is a teacher at the local college who has sought comfort in a string of short-term physical relationships, and who is currently sleeping with one of his students, Shelley (Lowe). Fin has retreated into a fantasy world populated by butterflies and happy memories of his mother. Both in their own way are looking for a love to replace the one they’ve lost, and when retired burlesque dancer, Evelyn (George), opens a flower shop nearby, they soon fall under her spell. Fin becomes possessive of her, while Al believes a new, more long-lasting relationship is possible – once he can extricate himself from the persistent attentions of Shelley. But father and son soon find themselves at loggerheads over their attraction for Evelyn, and their antagonism towards each other escalates, bringing up painful memories of Rose’s passing, and at a time when Evelyn has her own problems to deal with, problems that she has kept from both of them…
Movies that deal with grief and longing are often melancholic and hard to watch. Seeing other people’s misery acted out in front of us isn’t something that’s likely to attract large audiences or much in the way of mainstream appeal. But there’s definitely a niche market for such movies, and any feature that tries to examine how we deal with the pain and grief of losing a close relative is to be applauded for venturing into territory that most people want to avoid. But though The Butterfly Tree is one of those less fearful movies, it’s also one that struggles to find a consistent identity as it tells its oh-so-sad story. It has an uneven mix of styles, from its poignant magical realist opening as Fin imagines himself surrounded and then transported by thousands of butterflies, to the arch comedy of Shelley’s blinkered pursuit of an unwilling Al, to the romantic possibilities created by both Al and Fin’s super-fast infatuations with Evelyn, and to the wistful, philosophical mood it aims for when Evelyn wittingly or unwittingly (you decide) helps with Fin’s infatuation. And that’s without the drama of Al and Fin going to war against each other, a war that’s sparked by teenage jealousy and cinema’s usual approach of ensuring that two characters avoid talking to each other.
With all these elements vying for our attention, writer/director Priscilla Cameron (making her feature debut) has trouble keeping them all in line, and it’s not long before you begin to wonder if perhaps this is a movie that has been improvised from start to finish, and not least with the dialogue, which often sounds awkward, and awkwardly phrased. The movie is at least often luminous to look at, thanks to Jason Hargreaves’ careful use of colour saturated photography, and Charlie Shelley’s evocative production design, which makes Evelyn’s heady, over-stylised home, itself a riot of competing colours and textures and sights, a visual delight. But all in all, this is a movie that seems content to flirt with many of the heavy-hitting themes it seeks to explore, and which signposts many of the twists and turns in its narrative, making it not just predictable, but laboured as well. There are good performances from George and Oxenbould, though Leslie is hampered by the script’s insistence that Al should not be able to confront Fin over his behaviour at any point (until it’s dramatically too late). And by the time Evelyn’s main problem comes to the fore and adds further gravitas to everything else, it’s a diversion that, like much else in the movie, fails to have any appreciable impact.
Rating: 5/10 – though clearly made with the best of intentions, The Butterfly Tree falls short of achieving its goals thanks to Cameron’s lack of focus, and a script that doesn’t want its characters to suffer too much; shot through with a hazy, quirky sensibility that hints at any meaning being up for grabs, it’s a movie that unfortunately frustrates more often than it impresses.
There’s a saying that death comes to us all, and for some of us it means the end of life altogether, while for others it means the beginning of a new journey into an afterlife that may or may not prove to be better than the life we’ve lived. David Lowery’s latest movie takes that idea, but then adds a twist to it, and asks the question, what if there is an afterlife, but we were delayed in taking that journey onward? What if we found ourselves trapped between our old life and the next one? What would that be like? How would it feel? And how would someone cope in such a situation? Could someone cope in that situation? These are all intriguing ideas, and Lowery does his best to answer all of those questions, including what could sustain us through such an experience, and how much would it change us?
The ghost of the title is at first just a man, a musician called C (Affleck) who is married to M (Mara). They live in a small tract house, and seem to get along okay, but there are shifts and challenges in their relationship that show themselves from time to time. But their time together is coming to an end. C is killed in a car crash outside their home. M is asked to identify his body at a hospital mortuary. He lies on a table covered by a large white sheet, and after she has seen him and left, he sits up. He walks slowly through the hospital, unseen by staff, patients and visitors, until he comes to a wall. The wall opens to reveal a portal full of swirling light. The invitation is clear, but C doesn’t take it. Instead he makes his way back to his home, where a grieving M has no idea of his presence. He watches her as she begins to rebuild her life, and then one day he sees her write something down on a slip of paper, and then put the slip of paper in a small gap in the wall. She paints over the gap, sealing it. C decides to retrieve the slip of paper but the sheet makes it awkward to remove the paint. As he picks away at the paint, time appears to race on and he finds an Hispanic single mother (Acevedo) and her two children have moved into the house.
Having established a secondary reason for C’s remaining at the property, Lowery soon shows how this affects C and increases the sense of separation that he’s experiencing. As with everyone else, this new family go about their days oblivious to his presence, just as M did, but now it’s more pronounced. This family is living in his home, and M isn’t among them; she isn’t coming back and now he’s stranded there, amongst strangers. He learns how to move things, how to have a corporeal effect despite being a non-corporeal form. Eventually they leave, frightened by the violent behaviour he’s able to display. But it proves to be a transient victory. Soon he’s surrounded by people, as the next owners of the house throw a party. And then time passes more quickly, folding over and into itself, forging ahead in great leaps, and leaving the house behind as a distant memory, much as C has become a distant memory in the minds of those who knew him.
It’s at this point in the movie that Lowery effectively makes C’s existence the stuff of existential horror. As if things haven’t been bad enough, events transpire that keep C even more isolated and becalmed by his death. He’s forced to bear witness to changes and developments that he couldn’t have foreseen and Time becomes an implacable foe, thoughtless and cruel. He becomes even more stranded despite his never moving from the site of his home, and soon he’s nothing more than a shell, just existing in a vague approximation of Life. Lowery and Affleck find the sadness and the intense loneliness in this, and C becomes an even more tragic figure, the black eye holes of the sheet expressing longing, regret, anguish, melancholy, and the overwhelming grief that C is feeling. Affleck uses slow, measured movements to show just how C’s emotions are ebbing and flowing, and despite the sheet (or maybe because of it), there’s not one moment in the movie where C’s sensitivity to his situation isn’t easy to grasp. It’s a performance that is so detailed and so subtle that it makes the movie much more emotional and affecting than it looks.
Of course, what’s really clever and exceptional about A Ghost Story, is that Lowery has taken such an iconic image – perhaps the most simple ghost “costume” – and used it as a metaphor for the pain that grief can cause us, and its potentially unyielding nature. The enormity of C’s situation is horrifying, to remain trapped in a place that offers less and less reason to be there, and which only serves to highlight and increase the amount of pain C is experiencing as each and every day passes by. How crushing must that be? That Lowery is able to get this message across so effectively – and so chillingly – is a tribute to the clarity of his artistic vision, and the work of Affleck and Mara, and a very talented crew. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, and production designers Jade Healy and Tom Walker, Lowery has put together a movie whose distinct visual look includes a high number of static shots where the camera remains resolutely fixed in position, to careful framing of C as he watches and waits in the same location even as it changes all around him. This is as much about the space that he exists in, as it is his own existence within it.
What all this gives us is a movie that is by turns poetic, sad, poignant, humorous (yes), engrossing, and endlessly thought-provoking. It seeks to address and confront aspects of our existence that we don’t give regular consideration to, such as what it is to be truly alone, and our very reason for being, both physically and spiritually. But it’s not a “heavy” movie, and nor is it one to avoid because of the challenging ideas it explores. Rather it’s a movie that celebrates life and many of the complexities that make it worth living, and which we might continue to explore after death (if an afterlife is what awaits us). C has the opportunity to “move on” but he chooses to remain, to be with his wife and in his home, because – and as corny as it sounds – he loves them both and doesn’t want to lose them. What better reason could there be for spending an eternity covered in a sheet?
Rating: 9/10 – not for all tastes, but nevertheless one of the most audacious and moving movies of recent years, A Ghost Story is a powerful meditation on the forces of grief and love, and what they can make us do – and endure; a superb, necessarily understated performance by Affleck provides much of the movie’s emotional depth, but this is also intelligent and shrewd in its approach to what could have been a much weightier, and less focused story.
Cast: Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Robin Williams, Jess Weixler, Amy Brenneman
What if you had the chance to relive the love you once had but lost? What if Fate afforded you the opportunity to continue living the romantic life you’d taken for granted? And what if that romantic life, or a newer version of it at least, wasn’t intrinsically healthy, but you had to embrace it, or lose more of yourself than you could ever realise? What would you do? Would you still try for happiness under those circumstances, or would you take a step back, avoid committing yourself, let Life take you in another direction? Or would the mere contemplation of taking a different, more appropriate path, persuade you to try for that renewed happiness? And if you did commit yourself to revisiting a once treasured relationship, how would that decision make you feel, and what would be the emotional toll of such a decision?
These are all questions asked by The Face of Love, a romantic drama that centres around the grief experienced by Nikki Lostrom (Bening) after the death of her husband, Garret (Harris), after thirty years of marriage. Five years on from his unexpected death from drowning while on holiday in Mexico, Nikki is still grieving, still devoted to his memory, still living in the house he built for her, and still wishing he was alive. She has become resigned to being on her own; the only “man” in her life is an old friend of Garret’s called Roger (Williams) who uses her pool (Garret used to swim, and Roger’s using their pool is another way of retaining a connection with her late husband). A random trip to an art gallery she and Garret used to visit leads to a fateful discovery: a man (Harris) who looks exactly like Garret, sitting on a bench. Nikki is shocked, but mostly energised by the possibility that he might serve as a replacement for Garret, a döppelganger she can pretend is her dead husband come back to life.
She discovers the man’s name is Tom Young, and that he’s an art professor at a local college. An attempt to enrol in one of his classes backfires, partly because it’s already halfway through the semester, and partly because she becomes overwhelmed. But she engineers another “chance” meeting, and she hires Tom as a private art tutor. From there they begin a relationship, one that becomes more and more serious, and one that she hides from Roger, and her daughter, Summer (Weixler). She also hides the truth about Tom’s uncanny resemblance to Garret, knowing instinctively that no one else will understand the need she has to keep him in her life. As time goes on, Tom falls in love with Nikki, while her obsession with Garret threatens to undermine the love she feels for Tom. As she strives – and fails – to keep her relationship with Tom from developing into a full-blown obsession, Summer meets Tom accidentally and doesn’t react well to his presence, while a trip to Mexico doesn’t go as Nikki planned either…
When it comes to depicting grief, the movies tend to go for big, emotionally devastating scenes that are constructed with the express desire of wringing out the audience and leaving them feeling hollow inside – in a good way, of course. Pixar took this idea to the nth degree with the opening montage in Up (2009), a sequence so perfectly judged and executed that it can instil tears no matter how many times you see it. But Arie Posin’s second feature after the quirky, indie-flavoured The Chumscrubber (2005), isn’t interested in grand emotional gestures but quietly devastating ones instead. Nikki’s grief is compounded by her inability to deal with being a widow, and the gloomy knowledge that she is on her own again after thirty years. She works, she potters around at home, she does her best to support her daughter who has her own relationship issues, but still she lacks purpose. She trades on her memories to keep her going, and every day is the same: another day where she misses Garret fiercely.
Posin and co-screenwriter Matthew McDuffie are keen to show the dilemma that Nikki faces when she sees Tom for the first time. Her initial shock soon gives way to desire, a physical craving to have Garret’s double in her life, to give her back the purpose she lacks, and to allow herself to feel whole once more. Nikki experiences a number of complex, emotional reactions to the possibility of spending more time with “Garret”, and as her desire descends slowly into obsession (at one point it becomes clear she’d rather have Tom in her life than her own daughter), the viewer is forced to watch Nikki deny her own grief and clutch at the hope of a relationship she knows in her heart can’t last. She’s both aware of, and in denial of, the feelings that are trapping her in an ever increasing spiral of deceit. With all this emotional upheaval going on it’s a good job that Bening was chosen for the role, as she is nothing short of incredible, making Nikki both horrifying and sympathetic at the same time, a monstrous figure borne of overwhelming selfishness and unseemly desire.
It’s not too far off to say that Nikki is psychologically abusive, to herself and to Tom, and the script effectively explores the nature of that abuse and its effect on everyone concerned. Harris is solid and dependable as Tom, and more ebullient as the Garret we see in flashbacks. As he becomes more and more suspicious of Nikki’s need for him, we witness Tom’s own vulnerability from being alone, and the personal importance his romance with Nikki takes on. But while the central relationship builds on an achingly effective sense of co-dependency, elsewhere the narrative isn’t as confident or compelling. Secondary characters such as Williams’ romantically hopeful friend, and Weixler’s bright but narratively redundant daughter are given short shrift by the script and pop up only when said script remembers to include them (though not always in a way that advances the story or plot). Posin the director concentrates on Nikki almost to the exclusion of everything else, and while this does allow Bening to give another of her exemplary performances, it doesn’t help that many scenes look and feel contrived, and the narrative suffers any time Nikki avoids telling Tom the truth about why she’s seeing him. Posin never really finds a solution for these problems, and they end up harming the movie, making it seem unnecessarily superficial in places, and yet far more successful as a study in the mechanics of obsessive need. A detailed, somewhat complex movie then, but undermined by its clumsy structure and random attempts to broaden the narrative.
Rating: 7/10 – Bening is the main attraction here, riveting and plausible in equal measure, and giving The Face of Love such a boost it’s hard to envision the movie without her; narrative problems aside, this is still a movie that packs an emotional wallop in places, and which shows that romantic dramas aren’t exclusively the domain of twentysomethings or disaffected teenagers. (23/31)
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace, Judah Nelson, Hannah Ware, Glenn Morshower, Mariana Klaveno, Martin Donovan, Jason McCune, Christopher Darga, Larry Sullivan, Kevin Zegers, Danielle Sherrick, Lewis Pullman
Based on a true story, that of the Überlingen mid-air collision which occurred on 1 July 2002, Aftermath examines the lives of two men affected by the tragedy. One is Roman Melnik (Schwarzenegger), a construction worker whose wife and pregnant teenage daughter (Sherrick) are aboard Flight AX112, and the other is Jacob “Jake” Bonanos (McNairy), the air traffic controller on duty when the collision happened. When Flight AX 112 and Flight DH616 collide, causing the deaths of two hundred and seventy-one people, both men’s lives are changed forever.
Roman is consumed by shock and anger and disbelief. He can’t understand how it happened, and some part of him still clings to the idea that his wife and daughter somehow survived the collision. He poses as a volunteer at the crash site, but in a cruel trick of fate, he finds the body of his daughter. Further subsumed by grief he waits for an apology from someone – anyone – from the airline companies involved, but is treated dismissively, and the compensation he’s offered is insulting. Of all the relatives of the victims, only Roman refuses to sign an agreement that effectively lets the airlines off the hook. Following his family’s funerals, he retreats from the world and remains at home.
While Roman is consumed by grief, Jake is consumed by guilt. Even though the circumstances of the crash were beyond his control, Jake hides away with his family – wife Christina (Grace) and young son Samuel (Nelson) – but even though they are supportive, his inability to deal with his feelings and the knowledge that so many people died “on his watch” causes his marriage to falter. When his bosses advise him to start afresh with a new identity somewhere else – for his own good – Jake takes the deal and begins a new life as a travel agent, Pat Dealbert. Meanwhile, Roman receives a visit from a journalist, Tessa Gorbett (Ware), who intends to write a book about the collision. She leaves copies of articles she’s written on previous plane crashes as evidence of her sincerity, and it leads Roman to become aware of Jake’s existence and his role in the tragedy. Soon, Roman blames Jake for everything.
A year passes, a year during which Roman gets by doing odd jobs as a carpenter, and Jake has settled into his new life. One day, Roman is contacted by Tessa who tells him her book is ready to be published. He asks her if she can find out Jake’s whereabouts; initially she refuses but eventually she agrees to tell him Jake’s new name and job, but not his address. Nevertheless, Roman manages to find out where he lives, and travels there to confront him. Unbeknownst to Roman, Jake is spending the evening with his wife and son, a situation that leads to further tragedy…
From the outset, Elliott Lester’s approach to the script by Javier Gullón is to provide audiences with the gloomiest, bleakest movie he can manage. Even before the crash, where Schwarzenegger’s gruff but friendly Roman is over the moon at being reunited with his wife and daughter, the visuals are uniformly subdued. Colours are muted, the lighting makes indoor scenes look as if a thunderstorm is coming, and even the costumes have the air of having been chosen deliberately for their nondescript appearance. And of course, Mark D. Todd’s original score is appropriately cheerless and troubling. But while this is a movie about grief and guilt and the way both emotions can eat away at a person, Lester has made a parlous mistake in terms of the way the movie looks. Grief and guilt are sombre topics, and can contribute to some seriously affecting drama, but do we really need everything to look and sound so dreary?
Because everything about Aftermath is dreary. It’s as if the movie is afraid that audiences will abandon it for want of trying, as if its focus on the mental anguish of two men connected by a terrible tragedy can’t be presented in any other way. But that’s not true, and Lester and his cast and crew have opted for the dour, oppressive leanings that are on show in the finished product. It’s as if someone, somewhere decreed that movies about negative emotions or tragedies or bad luck stories didn’t deserve to be produced in any other fashion. So, where does this leave Aftermath? The answer is simple: it makes it a proficient movie with two good central performances that never overcomes the style in which it was made.
Which is a shame as those two central performances – from Schwarzenegger and McNairy – are pretty much all that stand between Aftermath and a shorter shelf life. Since his retirement from politics, the former Governor of California has made a number of action movies (as expected), but in amongst them are a couple of low budget dramas that have required him to considerably up his game acting-wise and concentrate on character instead of fitting in amidst all the spectacle. Maggie (2015) showed he was more than up to the task, and now Aftermath shows that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. There are still the occasional verbal mishaps – thanks to his accent more than anything else – but otherwise this is a quietly authoritative performance from Schwarzenegger that showcases an emotional range that’s improved since his appearance in Maggie and which makes him (now) the go-to guy for grieving father roles.
He’s ably supported by McNairy, an actor whose career keeps him popping up in all kinds of features and always to the movie’s advantage. Here he’s nervous, afraid, despairing and contrite – sometimes in the same scene – and on such good form that you’re never sure what he’s going to do next. The storyline plays out in much the same way that the real life story did, but what doesn’t work so well on screen is the antipathy toward Jake that Gullón’s script prompts the audience to feel. He’s not a bad man, but between the script, and Lester’s decision to present Jake as weak-willed where Roman is strong-minded, what should have been an even-handed look at how two men badly affected by a terrible tragedy regain the meaning in their lives, pivots more toward the real life outcome of their meeting, and seeing Roman getting “justice” for his family. Sadly, this isn’t the movie’s best scene, thanks to some very clumsy framing and editing, and the final coda – while not exactly unexpected – doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the movie. It’s a safe choice with which to end the movie, but, like a lot of other scenes, it’s not as effective as Lester probably hoped.
Rating: 6/10 – a real life tragedy given a visual drubbing, Aftermath takes a spartan approach to its subject matter, and only does it the barest of favours; away from its real life source material, the movie offers fine work from its two leads, a never say cut-and-dried stance that’s abandoned fifteen minutes from the end to the detriment of the movie as a whole, and the sense that a bit more time with both characters would have benefitted the movie greatly.
Cast: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore
Clover Catto (Kendrick) is a trainee veterinarian who hasn’t been back to her home since she was eighteen. Home is the Somerset cattle farm she grew up on, but a falling out with her father, Aubrey (Troughton), has kept her away. When she receives news that her brother, Harry (Blakemore), has died – by committing suicide – she returns home against her better judgment for the funeral. There she finds her father in denial over the way Harry died: he keeps saying it was an accident, but as Harry put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, Aubrey’s assertion is obviously his way of dealing with it all.
Clover is shocked to see how much the farm has deteriorated since floods hit the area some months before. The main house is in a state of disrepair since part of the roof fell in, and Aubrey is living in a mobile home. Also, Aubrey transferred ownership of the farm to Harry just before he died, but some of his recent actions are hard to understand. Aubrey had arranged for some of the livestock to be sold, only for Harry to cancel the sale. And the discovery of a number of dead badgers, all of them shot (something that’s illegal in the UK), further adds to the mystery of Harry’s mindset in the days before he committed suicide.
In the wake of all this, Clover and her father find themselves at odds over Harry’s death and the reopening of old wounds, their fractured relationship hanging on by a thread as they try to be civil with each other, and not let the past influence their present day actions. But as the truth surrounding Harry’s death comes to light, and Ellie understands both her own role in the tragedy, and her father’s, what has appeared to be a senseless tragedy becomes something that hits much closer to home, but which also has the potential to reunite Ellie and Aubrey after so many years of blaming each other for the distance between them.
The first feature from British moviemaker Hope Dickson Leach, The Levelling is a largely subdued, bitterly poignant movie about the different ways that grief can affect people, and the different ways that people deal with it. Clover tries to deal with her grief by questioning everything she sees and hears going on around her, from her father’s apparent emotional absenteeism, to her own physical absence from the farm at a time when her brother needed her. Clover has questions for her father, for her brother’s best friend, James (Holden), and in time, she has some for herself. As she gathers the various answers she receives, and begins to put them all together, Ellie discovers that her brother’s death isn’t as straightforward as it looks, and that her father isn’t as culpable as she believes.
Essentially a two-hander, the movie makes it clear that there are underlying tensions between Aubrey and Clover, and that these stem from her childhood. The issue of whether or not Aubrey was a good father is cemented early on, but as with Clover’s proprietary notions of innocence in her brother’s death, things aren’t as cut and dried as they may appear. There are faults on both sides, and perceived memories play a significant part in the way the two treat each other. As a result, Clover views her father with suspicion and mistrust, while Aubrey views his daughter with disappointment and enmity. Neither is entirely right or wrong in their assumptions and beliefs about each other, and the movie shows just how these unresolved feelings have driven a wedge between them, and how difficult it will be for them to reconcile their beliefs.
Harry’s role in everything though, is the reason for the distance between them. The movie tells us little about him at the beginning, but as the story unfolds, and we learn more and more about him, his death takes on the nature of an unavoidable – and possibly predictable – tragedy. In time, we discover that Harry – and despite all initial evidence to the contrary – would have been a responsible farmer, and probably much better in his way than either his father, or indeed his sister, who harbours a further resentment toward Aubrey because he didn’t transfer ownership of the farm to her. The movie explores this beleaguered family dynamic with a deft awareness of the way in which a combination of resentment and grief can cause further alienation between already distant individuals.
Although not a movie that is likely to appeal to mainstream audiences, The Levelling is nevertheless a powerful examination of grief and its debilitating effects that is effectively realised, and presented with a great deal of insight. Though this might seem a “difficult” subject, Leach ensures that her treatment is accessible (if a little too morose at times), and thanks to two excellent performances from Kendrick and Troughton, doesn’t deal in platitudes or trivialities. As the prodigal daughter not wanting to return, Kendrick’s sobering features and tensed up body language make for a convincing portrayal of a woman whose family role has never been clear to her, while Troughton’s quietly anguished performance as Aubrey more than adequately displays the character’s refusal to see beyond the surface of the problems that surround him.
Leach makes full use of the beautiful, autumnal Somerset locations, and in partnership with DoP Nanu Segal, uses the surrounding countryside to provide the movie with another character, and one that’s integral to the story being told. Leach also creates a strong sense of atmosphere (though again, it’s a little too morose at times), and gives the material a moving, impassioned quality that belies its somewhat dour compositions and decluttered narrative approach. It’s a movie to admire perhaps, more than to enjoy, but with a strong emotional core and moments of devastating incisiveness, it’s also a movie that remains constantly surprising and constantly rewarding.
Rating: 8/10 – an intelligent and (yes) thought provoking tale of the agony that comes with bereavement, The Levelling is formal and yet audacious, and a penetrating look at the pain that grief can cause; with Leach proving to be a writer/director to look out for in the future, this is a first feature that shows how grief can be used as a way of expressing deep-seated regret, and as a cleansing means of reconciliation.
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Rachael Deering, Eileen Davies, Ozzy Myers, Alice Lowe, Edward Hogg
Following the death of her twin brother, twenty-nine year old Anna (Whittaker) has moved into the shed at the bottom of her mother’s garden. It’s been eighteen months since he died, but although Anna works at a local outdoor pursuits centre, she doesn’t socialise or spend any of her free time away from the shed. Instead she stays inside it making videos that depict her two thumbs as astronauts in a space capsule. She uses this as a way of maintaining a connection with her brother, as they both made similar videos when they were younger. A lot of the stuff that’s in the shed is items and objects that she and her brother either played with or created. But while Anna is apparently content to remain living there, her mother, Marion (Ashbourne), isn’t as keen. She wants Anna to move out of the shed and start to rebuild her life. With Anna’s thirtieth birthday fast approaching, Marion gives her daughter an ultimatum: Anna has to be out of there before her birthday.
Anna has no intention of agreeing to this, and avoids or ignores all her mother’s attempts to get her to change. At the outdoor pursuits centre, Anna is given the task of monitoring the number of molehills that pop up each night, as well as ridding the site of any graffiti. It’s boring, mundane work, but she doesn’t mind, as it at least takes her mind off her brother. The reappearance of an old friend, Fiona (Deering), after she’s been away for some time, sees Anna begin to get out more (much to her mother’s delight), but she’s still adamant about remaining in the shed. Even the clumsy attentions of Brendan (Goldstein), a local estate agent who’s known Anna since childhood, aren’t enough to get her to rethink her future.
But when an eight year old boy, Clint (Myers), ends up in her family’s care temporarily following the death of his mother, his presence in Anna’s life begins to chip away at the carefully built-up walls she’s erected since her brother’s death. A night out with Fiona doesn’t go as planned, and puts a strain on their friendship, and when Clint goes missing overnight, Anna realises that she can care about someone else. But there’s still the issue of the shed, and the deadline of Anna’s birthday. Will Anna hold on to her need to be there, or will recent events show her a different way forward?
Expanded from the short, Emotional Fusebox (2014) (a lot of which is included or recycled here), Adult Life Skills is writer/director Rachel Tunnard’s feature debut. It’s a terrific little movie that’s emotionally astute and, in places, effortlessly poignant. The central conceit, that Anna feels bereft from everything following her brother’s death, is handled with sympathy and compassion for the character’s feelings, and the sadness that overwhelms her so much is often expressed in beautifully understated fashion by Whittaker. Even after eighteen months (or maybe because of that amount of time), Anna’s retreat from the world can still be regarded as understandable, but there’s still the sense that she’s using her grief as a way of avoiding any potential further heartbreak in her life.
But while Anna’s self-imposed predicament is viewed sympathetically, and the toll of her bereavement is presented with a great deal of care and sincerity, Tunnard is wise enough to know that the travails of a near-thirty something living in a shed isn’t going to be enough for a full-length movie. And so we’re introduced to the people around Anna, the people who care about her. Her mother – played with unrepressed yet entirely credible frustration by Ashbourne – is trying her best to get Anna to move on with her life, and it’s a tribute to the quality of Tunnard’s writing that Marion isn’t just the movie’s token “bad guy” but a parent trying to avoid losing both her children. No matter how acerbic or demanding she may be, she still cares. The same goes for Jean (Davies), Anna’s grandmother. Jean is supportive of Anna’s “lifestye choice”, and recognises that it’s a way for Anna to deal with her grief, that in time she’ll find her way back to everyone and everything. And though she too behaves in an acerbic manner towards Marion, there’s still the same love there as Marion feels for Anna.
The introduction of Clint, a small boy with a big attitude, acts as a catalyst for Anna’s eventual coming to terms with her pain and sadness at no longer officially being a twin. He’s challenging, acts like he doesn’t care, and sports a cowboy hat, gun and holster. He gets Anna to talk about her brother, something it’s clear she hasn’t done since his death, and as she trusts him more and more, you can see the weight lift from her shoulders. Unsurprisingly it’s Myers’ first movie, and though some of his lines don’t have the clarity needed for the viewer to understand them fully, he’s a child with wonderfully expressive features, and for his age, an equally wonderful insouciance about him.
As the emotionally tongue-tied Brendan, Goldstein provides much of the movie’s good-natured comedy (“How… is your… period?”), and Deering offers solid support as Anna’s best friend. Hogg pops up as a snorkeler Anna encounters at odd moments, while Lowe is her no-nonsense, lower-case angry work colleague, Alice. All the cast give good performances, but it’s Whittaker who holds the attention throughout, channelling Anna’s grief, confusion, and anger with an honesty and a warmth that can’t help but make the character likeable and someone to root for.
Aside from the performances, there’s much else to enjoy in Adult Life Skills, from the absurdist conversations Anna comes up with for her thumb videos (and those are Tunnard’s thumbs, not Whittaker’s), to the mangled version of Morning Has Broken courtesy of a recorder-playing barman, and its affecting sense of childhood nostalgia. Tunnard, who originally tried to pass on directing this, proves an adept, instinctive director, and her script isn’t too shoddy either. Unlike a lot of first-time moviemakers, Tunnard gets the pace just right (she is first and foremost an editor), and though she does overdo it on the quirky, shed-based activity that Anna involves herself in, she makes up for it by making Anna’s re-emergence into the outside world truthful and in keeping with the emotional journey the character is embarked upon. There’s fine cinematography courtesy of Bet Rourich, and the West Yorkshire locations provide an attractive backdrop to the action, all of which adds up to a hugely enjoyable movie about grief and loss – no, honestly.
Rating: 8/10 – sweet and sincere, and with the ability to pack an emotional wallop from time to time, Adult Life Skills is a blend of quirky characterisations, even quirkier confrontations and encounters, and sometimes, a potent examination of how grief can paralyse a person beyond their ability to deal with it; with a generosity of heart and spirit that adds further resonance to a movie with bags of sincerity already, this is a movie that doesn’t short change its characters or its cast or its viewers, and is also one of the funniest and most enjoyable British movies of the last five years.
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Tate Donovan, Heather Burns, Josh Hamilton, Matthew Broderick
Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as a janitor in the Boston suburb of Quincy. He lives alone, he can be rude to some of the residents he comes into contact with (which causes problems with his supervisor), and he picks fights in bars. He’s withdrawn, melancholy, and difficult to get to know. Then, one day, he receives news that his brother, Joe (Chandler), who still lives in their hometown of Manchester by the Sea, has had a massive heart attack. He rushes to the hospital, but by the time he gets there, Joe has died. Lee doesn’t really know how to react, but an old friend, George (Wilson), helps him out and between the two of them, family and friends are contacted, and the funeral is arranged.
Joe has a sixteen year old son, Patrick (Hedges). Lee’s plan is to stay with him until the funeral takes place and then head back to Quincy, but circumstances conspire to keep him in Manchester for longer: the ground is too hard for Joe to be buried, so his body has to go into cold storage until the spring, and Joe’s lawyer (Hamilton) informs Lee that under the terms of Joe’s will, Lee is to be Patrick’s legal guardian until he’s eighteen. Accepting the role of Patrick’s guardian means Lee moving to Manchester permanently, something that he doesn’t want to do; the reason he left Manchester in the first place, was in the wake of a personal tragedy, one that he has no wish to revisit by being in the one place that is a constant reminder.
While Lee tries to find an alternative solution to being Patrick’s guardian, including Patrick living with him in Quincy, his nephew continues with his life, and appears to be dealing with it all quite well. He has two girlfriends (neither knows about the other), and he spends time with them both, while one of them tries to set Lee up with their mother (Burns). At the same time, Patrick is secretly in touch with his mother, Elise (Mol). She and Joe divorced years before due to her being an alcoholic, and while Lee doesn’t trust Elise because of her past behaviour, when Patrick asks to visit her, Lee agrees to take him. When they arrive they find that Elise has remarried, to Jeffrey (Broderick), and is now a devout Christian. Patrick has hopes of living with her, but the visit goes badly, and later Jeffrey advises against further direct contact between them.
When the funeral can finally go ahead, Lee is reunited with his ex-wife, Randi (Williams). She is pleased to see him, but their past keeps him at a distance, and sometime later, when they run into each other in the street, Randi reveals how she truly feels about him after everything that happened. It’s an uncomfortable moment for Lee, but it is his last encounter with her, as a resolution is arrived at as to the question of whether or not Lee will be Patrick’s guardian.
There is a moment in Manchester by the Sea that takes place at Joe’s funeral. Lee and George are standing off to one side and greeting people as they arrive. Randi arrives with her new husband, Josh. While Randi embraces George, Lee looks at Josh as if he can’t understand why this man is there, at his brother’s funeral. And then it’s his turn to be embraced by Randi. We see his face over her shoulder, and his eyes are looking away from her, as if by looking away he could actually be away, anywhere else in fact. It’s a small moment, tiny even, but so indicative of Lee’s state of mind: he cannot connect with anyone, complete stranger or onetime intimate. If any viewer is in any doubt about what afflicts Lee Chandler, it’s way beyond everyday ennui; this is almost debilitating emotional sadness, and so profound that you can’t help but wonder how he gets out of bed each day, how he manages to motivate himself to do anything. He’s given up on life, on his future, and worst of all, he’s given up on himself.
With that in mind, you’d expect his return to Manchester to be all about personal redemption, that his relationship with Patrick (already well established thanks to a series of flashbacks) would enable Lee to begin to rebuild his life, and to put the terrible tragedy that happened to him and Randi firmly in the past. But this isn’t that kind of movie. By the movie’s end, Lee isn’t transformed, he isn’t “saved”, in fact he’s still very much the same man we see at the beginning, shovelling snow off of the path outside his home. Lee’s journey isn’t one of renewal or acceptance, and it’s not one where his return home provides him with a restorative environment. What’s important to remember is that Lee is living the life he believes is right for him. Is he happy? Clearly not. Is he contented? Probably not that, either. But is he settled? Well, perhaps not even that, but living and working in Quincy – for Lee – may be the best answer he has to what ails him.
That said, Lonergan’s hugely impressive script does allow Lee opportunities for rehabilitation, but it also recognises that Lee is someone who doesn’t want them. And as the movie unfolds, and we meet the other characters, we learn that moving on isn’t something that anyone else is able to do with any conviction either. Randi has residual feelings for Lee that she hasn’t been able to deal with; Elise has supposedly conquered her demons thanks to her relationship with Jeffrey but it’s clear her newfound faith doesn’t bear up under scrutiny; and Patrick, who has inherited his father’s rundown boat, won’t sell it because it holds too many memories. Too many times we see instances where regret has taken hold of someone and they’ve not been able to shake it off. And too many times, that regret has settled like a heavy mantle across people’s shoulders.
Despite the apparent doom and gloom surrounding Lee’s return home, and despite the themes of guilt, loss and emotional trauma that the movie explores in some depth, Manchester by the Sea is leavened by a tremendously dry sense of humour (at one point, when asked if it’s okay for Patrick to have one of his girlfriends stay the night, Lee replies, “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?”). Here, the humour arises from the characters themselves rather than any situational approach, and Lonergan is able to insert these much-needed moments of levity when they’ll have the most effect, making the movie a little less predictable, and a whole lot more enjoyable than expected. Sometimes it requires a delicate balancing act, but Lonergan is as confident a director as he is an intelligent screenwriter, and he handles each comic moment with ease.
As the emotionally disabled Lee, Affleck gives the finest performance of his career and of 2016. He was in two other movies in 2016 – The Finest Hours and Triple 9 – and in both he wasn’t allowed to match his talent to the material. But here he gets to provide us with a multi-layered portrayal that makes those movies look like poorly set up practice runs. It’s a largely internal performance, with Affleck using his eyes to powerful effect to display just how disengaged he is from everything around him. He’s equally effective at communicating his grief at what happened in the past, and he achieves this by physically withdrawing into himself at moments when that grief is too near the surface, almost as if he’s trying to squeeze it back inside, or push it down. And there’s a fragility to Lee that’s exposed from time to time, leaving the character with an anguished, wounded expression that Affleck conveys so convincingly you can easily forget he’s an actor playing a role. As Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, Williams is on equally fine form, although she has much less to do and is off screen for two thirds of the movie. However, the scene where she reveals her feelings for Lee is one of the most searing and compelling moments not just of the movie itself, but of any other movie you care to mention.
Credit is due to Hedges as well, putting in a mature, richly textured performance as Patrick that highlights the character’s teenage naïvete while also showing signs of the emerging adult that he’ll become. It’s a fearless portrayal in places, brave and audacious, particularly in a scene involving a freezer compartment and a stack of frozen meat that comes out of left field but which perfectly expresses the feelings and concerns that Patrick is experiencing. Elsewhere, Chandler is good in what is very much a secondary role as Joe, while Mol excels as both incarnations of Elise.
In the end, Manchester by the Sea is a triumph for all concerned, a multi-faceted, engrossing, and surprisingly sweet in places movie that doesn’t offer its characters any easy answers to their dilemmas, and which provides an incredible amount of food for thought for its viewers. It’s a defiantly mature piece of movie making, with a raft of standout performances, a perfectly assembled, nuanced script, and direction from Lonergan that subtly orchestrates and highlights each emotional downbeat and upturn, and which also draws out the varied strands of dismay and bitter experience that keep Lee and everyone else trapped in their own versions of Manchester by the Sea. If it sounds like a tough movie to watch, rest assured it isn’t. Put simply, it’s one of the finest movies out there at the moment, and completely deserving of its six Oscar nominations.
Rating: 9/10 – one of the best movies of 2016 – if not the best – Manchester by the Sea is a movie about real people living real lives, and dealing with real and difficult emotions in the best way that they can – and it doesn’t short change them or the audience at any point along the way; funny, sad, poignant, challenging, uplifting, painful, engrossing, bittersweet, and absorbing, this is a movie experience well worth taking up, and which rewards on so many levels it’ll take you by surprise.
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Geraldine Chaplin
Thirteen year old Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) is experiencing nightmares. In them, the church near his home collapses when the ground around it splits open, and Conor has to try and save his mother (Jones) who is in danger of disappearing into one of the fissures this devastation has wrought. When he wakes from these nightmares each night it is always 12:06. But the nightmares aren’t the only problem Conor has to deal with. His mother is suffering from cancer, and she’s not responding well to her treatment. His grandmother (Weaver) keeps mentioning that at some point, Conor will have to come and stay with her, but he doesn’t want to leave his mother; he still clings to the hope that she’ll get better. His father (Kebbell) lives in the US and is generally unsupportive, using the physical distance between them as an excuse. And at school, he’s the victim of bullying by one of the other boys in his class, Harry (Melville).
One night, at 12:07, Conor is drawing a picture of the view from his bedroom window when the large yew tree that is situated in the nearby graveyard transforms into a monster (Neeson) made from the tree’s trunk and branches. It approaches the house and after grabbing Conor from his bedroom, tells him that he’ll receive further visits from the monster, and that the monster will tell him three stories, after which Conor will then tell a fourth story, the truth behind his nightmares, which only he can tell. The monster is true to his word. On the first visit, he tells Conor the story of an old king who marries a young woman who many regard as a witch. When he dies she rules as regent until his grandson comes of age. She rules fairly but doesn’t want to relinquish her position, intending to marry the grandson instead. But the murder of the grandson’s true love leads to her being convicted of the crime, and she is only saved by the monster at the last moment.
The second story concerns an apothecary whose livelihood is condemned by the local parson. When a terrible sickness breaks out, the parson’s two daughters fall ill, and he begs for the apothecary”s help, and swears he will do anything in order for his daughters to live, but the apothecary refuses, and the girls die. The monster appears and demolishes the parson’s house as a further punishment for his lack of faith. The third story concerns a man who feels himself to be invisible because no one ever takes notice of him, but when the monster aids him in this, it doesn’t solve things, merely adds further problems for him to deal with. These stories help Conor to deal with the various emotions he’s struggling with, and to make sense of them, leading inevitably, as the monster predicted, to his telling the fourth story, the truth about his nightmares…
At its heart, A Monster Calls is about impending loss and the grief that comes with it, both before and after. Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, the movie is a dark, compelling, visually innovative tale of personal redemption in the face of overwhelming emotional distress. It’s a children’s tale about adult themes and how they can affect someone who is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”. By making Conor and his struggle to manage the full implications of his mother’s illness – her terminal illness – the focus of the story, Ness and director J.A. Bayona allow the movie to express the kind of feelings and emotions that we forget children can and do experience in these kinds of circumstances. It’s an obvious lesson, but presented in such a clear, immediate manner that Conor’s plight is readily acceptable, and convincingly played out.
There may be some who will query why Conor’s road to the acceptance of his mother’s impending demise needs the presence of a fantasy giant made out of a yew tree. But allegory has always been a pertinent and effective way of dealing with, and expressing, the kinds of emotions that we keep buried inside us because of how painful they are. Conor’s emotions spill out through his nightmares, and in his search for an answer he calls on the monster, albeit unwittingly. When they first meet, Conor makes it clear he’s not scared, and nor should he be; after all, the monster is a creation formed from Conor’s own subconscious. But the stories the monster tells are far more than stories – they’re explanations of the various emotions and feelings that Conor is struggling with. And they pave the way for the truth, the real hurdle he must overcome in order to move forward. All this is relayed in such a plausible, non-sensationalist, and poignant fashion that any doubts as to the efficacy of such an approach is dismissed moments after the movie has begun.
The look of the movie is very important too, and here Bayona mixes a variety of styles to potent effect. There’s an almost documentary feel to the scenes where Conor is at school, as if the camera is eavesdropping on him. Then there are the scenes at home, the modest environment that looks like an inviting update on homes from the Seventies, what with Eugenio Caballero’s production design making everything look that just a little bit lived in, and Pilar Revuelta’s sterling set decoration as well. And then there are the animated interludes, the stories themselves, rendered in a mixture of styles, and each one enhancing the story it portrays. The movie is at its most confident in these sequences, taking the viewer away from the grim real world, and painting portraits of worlds where life is even harsher and less likely to offer the kind of solace Conor needs – at first glance, that is. It’s a brave decision, but one that pays off handsomely, as each sequence is captivating in its own right.
The look of the monster is endlessly fascinating as well, with Neeson’s mo-capped features and physique a perfect fit for such an iconic creature. Despite not being “real”, the monster’s presence in the movie serves as a reminder that fantasy doesn’t have to mean an absence of credibility, and thanks to Ness’s tightly developed screenplay, this isn’t an issue the movie has to deal with at all. As the monster, Neeson delivers a perfectly modulated vocal performance, one replete with emotional nuances and textures that support the drama and justify his role in the production. As the two mothers connected by their shared love for each other, Weaver and Jones both give heartfelt performances that avoid unnecessary sentimentality, while Kebbell’s role calls for him to be affectionate yet callow, sympathetic yet distant, and emotionally obtuse. But it’s MacDougall’s performance that stands out, a complex, yet honest portrayal of a young boy’s struggle to acknowledge his own deep-rooted and frightening feelings about his mother, and what those feelings might do to him if he faces up to them. It’s a quietly bravura performance, generously encouraged by Bayona and the rest of the cast, and is as good as any performance by an adult actor in 2016.
There will be accusations that A Monster Calls is unremittingly bleak, and that its subject matter is not best suited to the so-called Young Adult market that many people will believe this is aimed at. Though Ness wrote the novel with that particular audience in mind, this version transcends notions of age and worldly experience by making Conor’s feelings universal, and for children and adults alike. Yes, it is bleak at times, and yes, it’s not an openly optimistic movie, but it is an uplifting, inspiring movie that celebrates maternal love, the sacrifices adults sometimes have to make to ensure that children remain children for just that little bit longer, and the resilience that we often forget children have when it comes to dealing with the darker aspects of growing up. This is a movie that does something completely unexpected: it challenges us to look at ourselves and ask, if we were in Conor’s shoes, would we beahve any differently? We might not call upon a monster to help us, but then, would it be such a bad idea?
Rating: 9/10 – an impressively mounted exploration of identity, hidden grief, and growing emotional despair, A Monster Calls is a crushingly honest look at how it feels to be losing someone you’re incredibly close to, and how those feelings can affect everything else around you; brilliantly realised, and with a tremendous performance from MacDougall, this is exceptional stuff indeed, and proof that intelligent, thought-provoking movies can also be beautiful and moving at the same time.
The Disappointments Room (2016) / D: D.J. Caruso / 85m
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Duncan Joiner, Lucas Till, Gerald McRaney, Celia Weston, Jennifer Leigh Mann, Ella Jones, Marcia DeRousse
After the tragic death of their baby daughter, Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido), and their son, Lucas (Joiner), relocate to a rundown, rural dream home. Haunted by their daughter’s death, Dana soon begins to hear the sounds of a baby crying, and also the sound of dripping water. She traces the dripping water sounds to a leak from the roof, but still hears a baby crying and other noises; she also sees a strange dog outside. David is oblivious to all this, and doesn’t think it’s at all mysterious when Dana discovers a hidden room in the attic that isn’t on the plans. Investigating it further the next day, she finds herself locked in and threatened by a malevolent force. Hours pass, but when she finally manages to get out of the room, she learns that only minutes have passed, and not hours; and that David is worried she’s not taking her medication (to help her deal with her grief).
With the help of a local historian (DeRousse), Dana discovers that the house has a disappointments room, a room that would have been used to hide away a child born with a deformity or some such, and which would have been highly embarrassing to its (usually) upper class family. Dana’s research uncovers a previous owner, Judge Blacker (McRaney), whose daughter, Laura, was believed to have died in childbirth. But Dana suspects Laura was the inhabitant of the disappointments room, and that it’s her spirit that is haunting the house. With a local workman (Till) helping restore the house, and Dana becoming increasingly disturbed by the things she’s seeing, the truth behind the disappointments room slowly begins to unfold, and Dana begins to understand that there’s a far more malevolent force at work…
For a horror movie to have the word “disappointment” anywhere in its title is asking for trouble (or it’s being incredibly reckless). And The Disappointments Room, ah, doesn’t let us, or itself, down in that respect. It’s yet another haunted house movie where things happen for no reason at all, and scenes take place that are by-and-large independent of each other and only fit together if the viewer is lucky. The script – by director Caruso and Wentworth Miller – likes to play with visual motifs, like a child’s kite seen in historical photos floating above the house, even though it would have been proof of a child’s existence when there shouldn’t have been any; and it likes to have things happen outside the house when it’s clear that the ghost responsible for all the shenanigans doesn’t stray outside at all (so shouldn’t have that much influence).
Away from the kind of plot holes that you could fit an entire haunted house through twice over, the movie aims very low in its attempts to be scary or frightening, and falls back too often on the kind of traditional haunted house set ups that now invoke yawns rather than tension. Against such a plain, derivative backdrop, Beckinsale has no option but to put in a generic genre performance and walk away with as much dignity as she can manage. The rest of the cast lack for things to do, especially Raido, and Caruso’s directorial style largely involves ignoring how tedious and pedestrian the script is, and that the whole thing – though no more preposterous than usual – lacks energy and any kind of visual panache. It’s a glum, uninvolving movie to watch, and it isn’t helped by Brian Tyler’s overbearing, cliché-driven score.
Rating: 3/10 – bad horror movies are ten a penny these days – in fact, they’re ten a penny on most days – but The Disappointments Room is a particularly bad horror movie, one that can’t be bothered to be better than it is; hackneyed, with poor/lazy performances, and a terrible sense of its own effectiveness, it outstays its welcome within the first five minutes, and never once feels as if it’s about to surprise the viewer or give them something/someone to care about.
In 1969, a reporter, Larry Redmon (Whannell), goes on a killing spree in the town of Madison, Wisconsin. Fast forward forty-seven years and three university students – couple Elliot (Smith) and Sasha (Bonas), and best friend John (Laviscount) – rent an old house on the outskirts of town, and soon they’re having more than their fair share of weird experiences. After a housewarming party, a friend of Sasha’s, Kim (Kanell), performs a cleansing ceremony, but it doesn’t work. Soon she’s telling them that “something” is coming. Later, Elliot finds a sheet of paper with the words “Don’t think it” and “Don’t say it” written on it over and over again. These words are a caution relating to a supernatural entity known as the Bye Bye Man. If you say or think his name, he will come for you and he will make you do terrible things – like Larry Redmon did.
Soon the trio are seeing things and their own inner fears are being exploited. Elliot digs into the origins of the Bye Bye Man, while at the same time becoming ever more certain that Sasha and John are sleeping together. Sasha becomes increasingly ill, while John becomes more and more paranoid. When Kim is killed, the police become involved. And when Elliot tracks down Larry Redmon’s widow (Dunaway), he discovers a way to defeat the Bye Bye Man. But when he returns to the house, circumstances dictate that he might never get the opportunity to use his newfound knowledge, as the Bye Bye Man is there already…
A better tagline for The Bye Bye Man would be “Don’t try it, don’t see it”, as this adaptation of The Bridge to Body Island, a chapter from Robert Damon Schneck’s non-fiction book The President’s Vampire, is one of the most poorly written, directed, and acted horror movies of recent years. Aside from the bravura pre-credits sequence where Larry Redmon goes on the rampage, The Bye Bye Man struggles at almost every turn in its attempts at telling a cohesive, halfway credible story, and fails to deliver any tension, any shocks, any drama, or any let-up from the crushing banality of Jonathan Penner’s screenplay. It’s as if Penner has watched a dozen or so recent horror movies featuring supernatural creatures, taken the worst aspects of those movies’ scripts, and put them all together to make this movie look and sound as atrocious as possible.
Things are further compounded by Title’s haphazard, scattershot approach to the material, directing most scenes as if she had no idea what was going to happen next (which would be odd, as Penner is her husband). She’s also unable to elicit one decent performance from anyone in the whole movie; even the likes of Dunaway and Moss have no chance when faced with such terrible dialogue and even worse character motivation. Bonas favours one facial expression throughout (sleepy), Laviscount does angry young man whatever the scene, and Smith is so bad you hope the Bye Bye Man gets him first. Things are further hampered by James Kniest’s unimaginative framing and cinematography, and worst of all, Ken Blackwell’s laissez-faire editing, which takes the movie to new depths of awfulness.
Rating: 3/10 – sometimes you wonder how some horror movies get a general release and don’t go straight to video, and The Bye Bye Man is one such horror movie; a real stinker, it insults its audience at every turn, can’t even rustle up an origin story for its title character, tries for franchise levels of integrity that are never achieved, and should be used as an object lesson in how not to make a supernatural creature feature.
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd
Sometimes, a movie arrives with very little fanfare or advance notice (in comparison to the supposed blockbusters of the day), and features a cast that makes the average viewer say to themselves, “Wow! What a cast! This movie’s got to be good!” Collateral Beauty is one of those movies, with its dream cast in service to a story that deals with unyielding grief, and which does so by employing magical realism as its main approach to telling the story. It’s meant to be an uplifting, emotionally dexterous movie – set at Xmas – that will leave viewers with a warm glow in their heart as they leave the cinema.
Alas, Collateral Beauty – and despite the best efforts of its dream cast – isn’t actually that movie. What it is, is a tragedy wrapped up in a comedy wrapped up in a magical realist fantasy wrapped up in an awkwardly staged feelbad movie. It’s a movie that revels in the pain and suffering of a group of individuals who are the very definition of stock characters. Some effort has been made with Smith’s character, a marketing executive whose six year old daughter has recently died from brain cancer. Unable to let go of his grief (and not really wanting to), Howard still shows up for work but spends his time creating elaborate domino structures and neglecting the business he built up with best friend, Whit (Norton). With the company on the brink of losing their biggest contract thanks to Howard having “zoned out”, Whit needs to prove to a prospective buyer that Howard, who has the controlling interest, is sufficiently non compos mentis for the sale to go ahead without his involvement.
But how to prove this? How, indeed. The answer arrives, like a gift from Heaven, in the form of budding actress Amy (Knightley). Through a process too unlikely to relate here, he hires Amy and her friends, Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (Latimore) to act as Love, Death and Time respectively, concepts that Howard has been writing to. Yes, Howard has been railing against Love, Death and Time for stealing his daughter away from him. Whit’s idea is for the trio to pop up at random and talk to Howard in various public places. These encounters will be filmed by a private investigator (Dowd), and the actors removed digitally before the footage is shown to the buyer, thus making Howard seem, at the very least, delusional, or at worst, completely bonkers.
Now, the thing to remember here is that Whit, along with his colleagues, Claire (Winslet) and Simon (Peña), is Howard’s friend. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. His friend. Who with Claire and Simon decides to play charades with a man whose grief is all-consuming and all in order to save the company where they all work. They want to do this not, in the first place, to help Howard deal with his grief, but so that they can save their jobs. And this is meant to be a good idea, both in practice and as the basis for a movie.
But not content with having them play mind games with their boss, the script also gives them their own problems to deal with. Whit has a young daughter who hates him because he had an affair that led to her parents’ divorce (as she puts it, he broke her heart). Claire has sacrificed her longing for a child in order to be successful at work. And Simon, who has fought off a serious illness twice before, is having to face up to the possibility that the third time might not be the charm. Throw in Naomie Harris’s grief counsellor, Madeleine (the only person Howard seems able to talk to about how he feels), who has also lost a daughter, and you have a group of people you’d cross the room to avoid at a feelgood seminar. They do glum with a capital G-L-U-M, and each time the script – by Allan Loeb, who has penned such classics as Here Comes the Boom (2012) and Just Go With It (2011) – indulges in their suffering it does so in a way that’s detrimental to the central storyline: Howard and his grief.
There’s also the problem of the movie’s tone. Collateral Beauty is about death, and the sorrow felt and experienced by the people left behind; it’s also about how grief can twist and contort feelings of pain and guilt into something much more violent and harmful. But Loeb’s script doesn’t want to address these issues head on, as quite rightly, this would make the movie a bit of a downer (and then some). So instead of making a straight-up drama about grief and loss, Frankel et al have made a middling comedy about grief and loss. While the themes in play remain serious, they’re all dusted with a light-hearted sheen that never feels right and never sounds right. The comedy elements distract from the drama of the piece, and in such an awkward, “oh no, they didn’t” way as to be confusing to the viewer. Is this a drama about grief, or a comedy about grief? But there’s no point in asking, as the movie doesn’t know any more than anyone else does.
With the whole premise undermined from the very beginning, Collateral Beauty becomes an exercise in perpetual wincing. When actors of the calibre of Norton and Winslet can’t make the material work then it’s time to head home and call it a day. Scenes come and go that make no sense dramatically, but seem intended to provide a level playing field for all the cast so they have enough moments to add to their showreels. As the actors with no background in psychotherapy but given carte blanche to say anything they can think of, Mirren, Knightley and Latimore are acceptable, but rarely do anything that takes them out of their thespian comfort zones (there’s also a suspicion that Mirren is playing a version of herself that fans have come to expect rather than an actual character).
Smith at least tries to inject some much needed dramatic energy into his role, but until the very end, when Howard is required to undergo an about face because the script needs him to, he’s held back by the script’s decision to make him appear either vague or angry (or sometimes, vaguely angry). Norton and Winslet coast along for long stretches, and a restrained Harris is the voice of wisdom that Howard desperately needs to hear. That leaves Peña, whose performance elicits some real sympathy late on in the movie, and who proves once again that he’s a talented actor who needs to be given better opportunities and roles than this one.
Overseeing it all is Frankel, whose previous movies include Marley & Me (2008) and Hope Springs (2012). You can understand why he got the job, but with the script unable to decide what approach it wants to take, Frankel is left stranded and unable to find an effective through-line with which to link everything together. It never feels as if he’s got a firm grasp on the narrative, or any of the underlying subtleties that Loeb’s script managed to sneak in when the writer wasn’t looking. In the end, he settles for a perfunctory directing style that keeps things moving along on an even keel but which doesn’t allow for anything out of the ordinary to happen. There’s no real dramatic ebb and flow here, and sadly, like so many other directors out there today, he’s not able to overcome something that is one of the movie’s biggest flaws.
Rating: 4/10 – near enough to “meh” as to be on close, personal speaking terms, Collateral Beauty is bogged down by its schizophrenic script, and an over-developed propensity for ridiculousness; rarely has magical realism felt so false or poorly staged, and rarely has a movie about grief instilled the same feeling in its audience for having seen it in the first place.
There’s a scene early on in Demolition, the latest feature from the director of Wild (2014) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, an investment banker named Davis Mitchell, attempts to get some M&M’s from a hospital vending machine, but the M&M’s don’t drop down. He hits it a couple of times, then asks one of the hospital staff if they can open it; the answer is no, because it’s not owned by the hospital. This prompts Davis to write a letter of complaint to the Champion Vending Company, which begins, “Dear Champion Vending Company: I put five quarters in your machine and proceeded to push B2, which should have given me peanut M&M’s. Regrettably, it did not. I found this upsetting, as I was very hungry, and also my wife had died ten minutes earlier.”
Now, on the face of it, this is a great way in which to begin exploring the mindset of a recently bereaved husband, but Bryan Sipe’s unconvincing screenplay hasn’t told us enough about Davis so far for the audience to make a judgment as to whether or not this is funny, sad, poignant, or revealing. Instead, it invites the viewer into Davis’s world by getting him to expand on his relationship and marriage with his recently deceased wife, Julia (Lind), but through the medium of letters to the vending company. It’s an awkward plot device because we don’t know if this is a legitimate way for Davis to deal – initially – with his grief at losing his wife in a tragic car accident. It’s awkward because, outside of these letters, Davis acts like he’s okay and he’s dealing with it all pretty well.
At first, at least. Something his father-in-law, and boss, Phil (Cooper), says to him sends Davis off on another tack, that of dismantling things to see what they’re made of, and how they work. To this end he dismantles light fixtures and bathroom stalls at his place of work, along with his computer, and at home, a coffee machine. He takes these things apart, lines the various component parts in neat groups, and then leaves them where they are. At work it all leads to Davis being told to take some time off, while at home it leaves him restless and unfocused. When he receives a late night call from a woman called Karen Moreno (Watts), the vending company’s customer service manager and someone who has read and connected with his letters, Davis is intrigued enough by her call to want to learn more about her.
Again, though, Sipe’s screenplay – and Vallée’s direction – doesn’t make it clear just why Karen connects with Davis, and vice versa. It’s true that Davis is behaving oddly, and it’s true that Karen is a needy single mother who has the ability to behave in an equally odd manner (she stalks him until he talks to her on a train), but just why these two people find support and a degree of comfort in each other is left floating in the wind. You could argue that the script requires them to, and that would be a reasonable enough answer, but the script doesn’t legitimise their relationship, even as it develops, and especially with the introduction of Karen’s fifteen year old son, Chris (Lewis). Here, Davis is pared away from Karen and inxplicably, takes on the role of father figure to Chris.
It’s another decision made by the movie that takes Davis further and further away from the grief and (implied) despair he’s meant to be feeling following Julia’s death, and into an area where he becomes an unofficial member of Karen and Chris’s disjointed family. Meanwhile, Phil decides to use Julia’s memory to start a foundation and needs Davis to sign off on it. But Davis drags his heels, and again, the script doesn’t provide any ready answers as to why. By the two thirds mark, most viewers would be forgiven for wondering if any of Davis’s decisions have a point to them or are based on any recognisable emotions. This is because the movie is a frustrating exercise in character development and emotional withdrawal that coasts along with little regard for cause and effect, or the demands of a cohesive narrative.
It will come as no surprise that Demolition ends with everything wrapped up neatly (and with a pretty bow on top), and viewers who do manage to make it this far will be asking themselves what all the fuss was about in terms of the storyline and a handful of subplots that pop up every so often but don’t add anything to the overall narrative (a revelation regarding Julia comes out of nowhere and goes back there pretty quickly without having any real effect whatsoever). It’s hard to engage with any of the characters except on a superficial level, and the quality of the characterisations is such that even Gyllenhaal and Watts – two extremely capable actors – can only do so much with them before repetition sets in and their efforts fail to have any impact.
Vallée’s direction is also a problem. While there’s a kernel of a great idea here – widower tries to make sense of his own grief by rebuilding his life from the ground up – Vallée doesn’t have any answers to the problems that are inherent in the script. This leaves the movie plodding along for several stretches (particularly when Davis enlists Chris in the demolition of his home), and any emotional high points lacking punch or dramatic intensity. It’s a visually well-constructed movie, however, with Vallée proving once again that he has an eye for composition and filling a frame with relevant information in support of the story, and he’s ably supported by his regular DoP Yves Bélanger. But it’s not enough to hide the ways in which Sipe and his wayward screenplay fails to explore Davis’s grief and Karen’s lack of confidence.
Rating: 5/10 – given Vallée’s previous movies (and their success), his work on Demolition and partnership with Gyllenhaal seems like a guarantee of quality, but there are too many problems with the script for even this combination to improve things; the movie aims for a kind of heightened realism at times, and while this is an admirable ambition, the fact that it doesn’t even come near is a good indication of how difficult it’s been to translate Sipe’s undercooked screenplay for the screen.
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Tim Purcell
Six-year-old Samuel (Wiseman) has a deep-rooted fear of monsters. Each night he makes sure his mother, Amelia (Davis) checks under the bed and inside his wardrobe to ensure nothing lurks in his room. Most nights, though, Samuel’s fear leads to his sleeping with his mother; this in turn leads to Amelia being constantly tired. With his fear of monsters becoming obsessive – Samuel is convinced they’re real and constructs weapons to kill them – his behaviour begins to have an isolating effect. His school doesn’t know how to deal with him, and Amelia’s sister, Claire (McElhinney) is sufficiently worried to want to keep her daughter away from him.
One night, Samuel chooses a book for Amelia to read to him at bedtime. The book is called The Babadook, and shows a menacing creature trying to prey on a young child; strangely, the last few pages are blank. Amelia is disturbed by the book, but not as much as Samuel. His behaviour worsens as he refers to the Babadook as being real. Unable to cope at work, and struggling with Samuel’s “acting up”, Amelia rips the book into pieces and throws it into the trash. Soon after, there is a loud knocking at the front door. Amelia finds the book on the doorstep, its pages reassembled, and with the last few pages now depicting her murdering their dog, and then Samuel before taking her own life. Horrified, this time she burns the book.
Amelia also starts to receive phone calls where a voice chants “ba-BA-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!” Then one night she sees the creature in her room. Terrified, but unsure of what to do, Amelia attempts to carry on as usual but Samuel becomes increasingly wary of her. When he has a fit in the back of their car, she keeps him off school, but her attempts to look after him are hampered by sudden mood swings and angry outbursts. Samuel becomes convinced she’s been possessed by the Babadook, and tells her so. And soon, the book’s added illustrations start to come true…
Expanded from Kent’s debut short, Monster (2005), The Babadook is an occasionally chilling examination of childhood terror and adult paranoia. It opens with the accident that claims the life of Oskar (Winspear), Amelia’s husband. This pivotal moment is at the heart of Amelia’s troubles, her unresolved grief keeping her from moving on with her life and hindering her from properly dealing with Samuel’s fear of monsters. Of the two, she is the more susceptible to the attentions of the Babadook, and so it proves, the creature targeting the weaker inhabitant of the house. It’s a frightening scenario for any child: to see their parent turning into the very creature they’re most afraid of, and it’s this very real terror that the movie exploits so effectively.
However, the concept of the Babadook itself is less successful. As the latest boogeyman to hit our screens, its look a combination of German Expressionism and Freddy Krueger’s favourite manicure, the creature is kept hidden for the most part, Kent preferring to use Oskar as its more user-friendly incarnation. This decision is a wise one on the writer/director’s part, as when the Babadook does appear in the flesh, the nightmarish quality of the book’s rendering of it is undermined, and there’s just too much of a resemblance to Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). (There’s also a moment when the Babadook, hidden in the darkness of Amelia’s bedroom, extends its arms in a wing-like effect; it’s meant to be terrifying but instead is puzzling as there’s no follow up.) Used largely as a shock effect, the Babadook isn’t quite as scary as might be expected, and Kent doesn’t do full justice to the opportunities the creature could have afforded.
The Babadook is more effective, however, as a study of one woman’s extreme mental breakdown. Taking the death of her husband as a starting point, Amelia’s inability to cope is more understandable. There’s a scene with her sister where Amelia admits she doesn’t talk about Oskar’s death but it’s still a source of pain; it’s clear from this that she’s never properly dealt with the feelings and emotions that have developed over the years since he died (there is an added level of heartache to Oskar’s death: he was driving Amelia to the hospital so she could give birth to Samuel when the accident happened). With Samuel’s seventh birthday fast approaching, and his insistence on the reality of monsters – in particular the Babadook – Amelia’s descent into murderous psychosis is a credible alternative to the idea of a creature in the shadows. To back this up, Amelia is shown in various fugue states, and her mood swings revolve around items belonging to Oskar, or Samuel’s own need for reassurance and comfort. As she clings to the past and deflects the concerns of the present, her grip on reality loosens to the point where her mania is all-encompassing, and where any lucid moments are short-lived.
In this context, the Babadook is an obvious extension of Amelia’s mania, but the script calls for a more traditional showdown, though even here Kent can’t resist throwing a twist into the mix, and the movie ends by creating a fresh mystery (viewers can decide for themselves just what it all means in relation to what’s gone before). With its drab, murky interiors and deep shadows, Amelia and Samuel’s home is yet another movie location where the lighting is largely ineffectual (or never used), and there’s a conveniently placed kitchen window that allows Amelia to view the Babadook in their neighbour’s home (and which violates the creature’s own mythology for the sake of a cheap scare). Unable to resist the inclusion of some standard horror tropes – bumps in the night, the wardrobe door that was shut and is later mysteriously open – Kent’s script also offers up some very minor subplots that aren’t developed fully, and keeps its secondary characters firmly in the background. Away from the script, Kent directs with a confidence that stands her in good stead when the focus is on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, but less so when she’s trying to inject some terror into the proceedings.
If you’re someone who rarely watches horror movies, and really this is more of a domestic drama with horror themes attached, then it’s likely you’ll find The Babadook quite disturbing. However, fans of the genre will find less to celebrate, and may well feel let down by all the hype that’s surrounded the movie since its release. Kent has done a proficient job of expanding her original short film (which is well worth checking out), but the main problem in that version remains here: just what does the Babadook represent, and why?
Rating: 6/10 – uneven, and with too many longueurs holding up the action, The Babadook never quite lives up to its potential; only occasionally scary, and with performances from Davis and Wiseman that don’t resonate or impress as much as they should, this is yet another reminder of how difficult it is nowadays to create a truly terrifying horror movie.