Film Review: Crooked House (2017)

“The murderer is never the one you initially suspect”

 

A real treat here for fans of Agatha Christie as Crooked House is one of the few novels of hers that has yet to be adapted for the screen. With a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the latter of whom also directs, a curious release strategy sees it materialise on Channel 5 in the UK despite it being blessed with the kind of castings and high production values that you’d’ve thought would be destined for the cinema.

The story begins as so many of them do, with a murder. This time it is wealthy 80-some tycoon Aristide Leonides who kicks the bucket and the finger of suspicion doesn’t know where to point as it could any one of the disillusioned family members who also lived in the sumptuous family pile. His grand-daughter secures the services of a private investigator to look into the case discreetly and thus the mystery begins.

Is it Glenn Close’s mole-murdering Lady Edith, the sister of Leonides first wife? Christina Hendricks’ much younger second wife Brenda who stands to inherit everything? His hapless elder son or his hapless younger son or maybe one of their wives, a pair of crackingly vibrant performances from Gillian Anderson and Amanda Abbington respectively. And what secrets do Jenny Galloway’s nanny or Honor Kneafley’s 12 year old Josephine have up their sleeve?

Pleasingly, Max Irons’ investigator isn’t a Poirot or Marple-like savant and so the focus is allowed to rest on the unfurling of characters with murky motivations and a real sense of unease that percolates through the whole story. Sebastian Winterø’s cinematography plays into this with constantly interesting angles and Simon Bowles’ luscious production design is extraordinarily detailed in the way different rooms reflect their inhabitants.

Last but by no means least, there’s no denying the thrill that comes from a genuine shock of an ending that is brilliantly brutal, both in its reveal and its finality. Its darkness is possibly one of the reasons Crooked House hasn’t been filmed before but I love the fact that it is also one of Christie’s two favourites of her novels (the other being Ordeal By Innocence which was scheduled to be this year’s BBC/Sarah Phelps adaptation but which remains in limbo due to allegations made against one of its cast members).

 

 

 

Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”

 

What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Branagh is clearly invested in giving us an in-depth look into M Poirot’s psyche but by allowing him to dominate the narrative so, he neglects to pay the many other characters the attention they need for us to fully invest in the emotional stakes of each of their situations. For that’s a rather important aspect here and one that would keep the storytelling much more engaging, well before the finale finally grabs our attention. As it is, it all ends up rather dull, glamorous window-dressing in pointlessly ugly CGI settings, narrative clarity sacrificed for tricksy camera angles.

Photos: Allstar/20th Century Fox

 

 

Film Review: Their Finest

“He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you”

With Gemma Arterton doing a Welsh accent and some wistful crying, Rachael Stirling as a fearsome, elegant-trouser-wearing lesbian with a fabulous line in repartee, Bill Nighy being Bill Nighy, and the subject being women working in wartime, Their Finest is pretty much tailor-made for my interests, it even has bonus Helen McCrory in it for God’s sake! But even without all that box-ticking, it is a gently, most enjoyable film.
Adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, and directed by Lone Scherfig, the story follows a British Ministry of Information film team making a morale-boosting film about the Dunkirk evacuation during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. So it’s a film about making films, the romance and realities of the business, with the added spin of it being set in wartime.
So Arterton’s Catrin is co-opted into the war effort for the dismissive task of writing ‘slop’ aka women’s dialogue but finds the opportunity to prove herself when a new film commission comes in. And Nighy’s Ambrose Hilliard is an actor past his prime, finding unexpected chances to resurrect his career. And between them, in their vastly contrasting ways, they each deliver highly engaging performances.
Catrin is caught between her ne’erdowell artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston) and Tom (Sam Claflin) her new script-writing colleague with whom a love-hate relationship develops on location, Arterton’s instinctive restraint really deepening our understanding of the situations women found themselves in at this time. And Nighy finds pathos, as well as scene-stealing delight, in an actor struggling to come to terms with his shifting place in the industry, sharing some powerful scenes with Eddie Marsan’s agent and the glorious McCrory as his sister. 
It’s a British film so of course it is bittersweet, but in the best possible way, the emotional beats of the finale are earned and exemplary, and so I ‘m definitely recommending a trip to the cinema to see this.

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

“Tale as old as time”

 

It’s taken me a little time to get round to writing this review, which is rarely a good sign, as I was struggling for anything entirely constructive to say about this film. The 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast was Disney close to its best but these days, nothing is left alone if it has even the merest hint of cash cow about it. So it has previously hit the stage as a musical and following the success of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it now has a cinematic live-action remake.
Which is all fine and good but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And at no point does Bill Condon’s film ever convince us that the world needed this version of Beauty and the Beast, there’s rarely any sense of it bringing something new and insightful to the story. Plus the contortions it (and star Emma Watson) has had to make to try and convince of its feminist credentials scarcely seem worth it in the final analysis.
For though some effort has been made to make this Belle a more modern girl (it is her rather than her father who is the inventor in the family), Watson’s interpretation lacks the vibrancy to make her character really sing. And not being a singer by any stretch, she’s not able to sufficiently build on the characterisation through the music – ‘Belle’ is an altogether pleasant number but it could do with being more vivacious, especially when the green-screen hits and a blankness appears in Watson’s eyes.
Dan Stevens’ Beast isn’t allowed to be sufficiently violent or ugly to be a real antagonist but even if he really is beautiful on the inside, there’s no way to spin their relationship – which begins as captor/captive – in a convincingly positive light. He sounds lovely in ‘Evermore’ though. It’s all part of the problem of trying to make what was an animated world of imagination and possibility into something needlessly photo-realistic.
Lumière the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the pendulum clock (Ian McKellen), and Garderobe the wardrobe (Audra McDonald) are all amusingly done but in their CGI rendering, draw attention to their artificiality rather than their magic, which seems to me to miss the point. They do get a lovely moment in one of Alan Menken’s new songs – Days in the Sun – and musically as a whole, the film does sound great.
And in the only two performances that seem to be having any fun, Luke Evans and Josh Gad stand out as Gaston and his manservant Le Fou (such hoohah about a blink-and-miss-it ‘gay’ moment). Maybe that’s the key, just to disengage the brain and try to have fun with this. Though why you’d want to when you can just as easily pop on the animated flick is beyond me. And try as she might, Emma Thompson is no Angela Lansbury. (Listen to the soundtrack instead).

 

2017 Oscars – pre-ceremony thoughts

“For whatever reason, he spared a hamster”

When you see as much theatre as I do, it can be difficult to keep up to date with cinematic releases – if I have a night off, I rarely want to spend it in a dark room… – but I have tried my best this year to see at least some of the Oscar-nominated films, so that I can chip in once they’ve been distributed in a way that will doubtless cause some controversy or other.
Arrival – I absolutely adored this and am a little surprised it didn’t figure higher in some of the bigger prizes, Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent and restrained direction, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautifully elegiac score, Bradford Young’s cinematography evoking all the potential of worlds beyond our ken. And of course Amy Adams, deeply moving as the linguistics professor whose life is opened up by her encounters with alien beings who just want to talk. 
Elle – Huppert finally gets her first Academy Award nomination after a 40 year long career of extraordinary creative daring and depth (and making a mockery of the studio politics-spawned narratives that mark several successful campaigns #poorLeo,Viola Davis being long-overdue…). Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is undoubtedly a challenging watch but powerful with it, Huppert’s instinctively cerebral approach completely rethinking conventional rape survivor storytelling.
Fences – Denzel Washington’s recreation of his Tony-winning Broadway production of August Wilson’s classic play is, perhaps, predictably theatrical in a way which means it never really makes the most in the change of medium. It feels like a play being remounted on film, an excellent play which results in a very good film, but not quite adventurous enough. Washington is superb as Viola Davis who is deservedly the front-runner for gold, but one day soon we’re going to have to talk about category fraud as just like Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl last year, this ain’t a supporting role.
Jackie – clever but a little dry and not quite as gripping as I wanted. I was also very distracted by the faces that kept popping up (Deborah Findlay, Penny Downie, David Caves?!)

La La Land – we build them up, we tear them down. Had I seen La La Land pre-hype, I might have loved it. In the end, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about – it was an enjoyable film for me but not a particularly memorable one and in the context of the other films in the midst, one of the weaker entries. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are thoroughly charming but also feather-light.
Hidden Figures – some have critised the glossiness of Hidden Figures but for me, this is what is long overdue, these kind of stories getting this kind of Hollywood treatment. The frankly amazing story of African-American women’s contributions to NASA and the space race shines under director Theodore Melfi’s hands and in the understated performances of Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, gain real power and the exposure they most certainly deserve.
Lion – weepy but good.
Loving – a little bit disappointing if I’m truly honest. Ruth Negga is spectacular, achingly eloquent with a script that doesn’t give her the hugest amount to say as one half of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving whose struggle for recognition changed the law. But the film as a whole doesn’t quite have the emotional engagement that I wanted and un fact, the most powerful moment – and the one that actually made me cry – was the epilogue in which his fate was revealed.
Moonlight – the biggest threat to La La Land’s domination tonight is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the kind of film to inspire the worst outpourings of white prvilege you ever did see – a film about black gay sexuality? Whoever could want to see such a thing or think it award-worthy? Well a hell of a lot of people actually, especially when it is done as artfully and tenderly as this, split into three, this is fiercely proud film-making (from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) and full of sensational performances, not least Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (who shot her scenes in 3 days!)
Moana – one of Disney’s better recent efforts, pleasingly girl-positive storytelling and songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda – what more could you want?!

DVD Review: Suite Française (2015)

“Be careful… with your life”
Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française has one of those origin stories you’d scarcely believe if you read it in a novel itself. In 1942, Ukrainian-Jewish Némirovsky was deported from the France where she had lived more than half her life, having written two parts of an intended sequence of five novels in the previous couple of years. She spent time at Pithiviers and then Auschwitz where she was murdered, leaving notebooks with family members who could not bring themselves to look at them until they were to be donated to a museum whereupon they were amazed to find complete novels as opposed to mere scribblings – thus Suite Française was published in 2004 to considerable acclaim. 
And where such stories go, film must follow and so a movie adaptation made its way to cinemas in 2015, directed by Saul Dibb and co-written with Matt Charman. Suite Française follows life in a village outside of Paris in the first few months of occupation in 1940 and as with several of the films I’ve watched recently, concerns itself with the lack of moral clarity at that time, refusing to depict the world in black and white with choices made easy with hindsight, but rather investigating the realities of living through such a time of crisis and the lengths to which people will go to to survive.
Michelle Williams’ Lucille lives with Madame, her domineering mother-in-law played by a brilliantly caustic Kristin Scott Thomas, and they anxiously wait for news of her husband who has been taken as a prisoner of war. But as refugees from an invaded Paris flood into town, followed by a regiment of German soldiers who move into the villagers’ homes with them, life becomes infinitely more complex. Accusations of collaboration are thrown like mud by the French, the position of authority is variously abused by the Germans, and in the midst of it all, Lucille finds herself falling for the officer billeted with them, Matthias Schoenaerts’ achingly sensitive Commander Falk (he plays the piano so he can’t be too bad a Nazi…!)
The love story is well done though not quite consequential enough, Williams is superbly understated and Schoenaerts is good as ever. It’s just that the fracturing of community life is far more interesting, as class and status come into play in the conflicts that arise, the jealousies that are provoked, the fear that emanates from every pore and toxifies once-solid relationships. Ruth Wilson and Sam Riley’s farm labourers versus Harriet Walter and Lambert Wilson’s Viscountess and Viscount de Montmort typify this clash perfectly and provide some of Suite Française’s stronger moments.

DVD Review: Black Book (2006)

“One bottle of gin and the Resistance is ready to die”

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek, known internationally as Black Book, was the Dutch director’s first film made in his home country since establishing his Hollywood career with hits such as Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, as well as the immortal classic that is Showgirls. Peter Bradshaw detested it but the Dutch public voted it the best Dutch film ever made, so who knows…for my part, I really rather enjoyed it.
Starting in 1944, Black Book tells of life in the Netherlands under Occupation, following the Jewish Rachel Stein as her life in hiding is shattered, her subsequent escape plans with her family foiled by discovery by the Nazis, and her ensuing life as a resistance fighter dogged by ever-present danger. Under the alias Ellis de Vries, she goes undercover at the local Gestapo office but betrayal is a constant worry and threatens to undermine all she’s working for.
Moving from Hollywood to The Hague tempered Verhoeven only a little as the film – as Bradshaw points out – does lack subtlety but for me, it is an effective thriller, racing through a collection of impressively tense set-pieces. It also essays an interesting take of moral equivalency in occupied Dutch society – where some sympathetic Nazis turn a blind eye to Jews and where some Dutchmen betray them terribly, these shades of grey work very effectively in keeping the film unpredictable.
Carice van Houten (best known as Game of Thrones’ Melisandre) is a compelling central presence as Rachel/Ellis, a former singer who has to draw on all her resources to survive day to day; Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Halina Reijn is vibrant as Ronnie, another Dutch girl working for the Nazis, Sebastian Koch’s Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze is perfectly coflictingly appealing, and there’s strong work too from THom Hoffman as the Dutch Dr Akkermans. 

DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)

“The whole situation’s been really quite dreadful”

Based on Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir, Testament of Youth hit cinemas in late 2014, perfect timing to capitalise on the rising star of Alicia Vikander whose moment would culminate in winning an Academy Award for The Danish Girl. Her work here in this film is equally spectacular though, directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhidi, an elegiac beauty washes through the whole production as Vera’s determination first to study at Oxford and then to help with the war effort plays out.
We first meet Vera in the good company of three good-looking men and as the film progresses, it’s refreshing to see that her journey isn’t defined by them, merely informed. Kit Harington’s poet Roland, Colin Morgan’s shyly besotted Victor, Taron Egerton’s faithful brother (who shares his sister’s eye for a good-looking chap and when it’s Jonny Bailey, who wouldn’t!). And as war plucks each of them from their country idyll, her relationship with each has to bend and reshape.
The way in which love and friendship are intensified in times of crisis is beautifully done and naturally, achingly tragic as so many experienced during the course of this war. Notions of self-sacrifice come into play beautifully and the growth of Vera’s political conscience – Brittain would become one of Britain’s most noted pacifists – is writ large through Vikander’s sensitive performance and the lens of Rob Hardy’s elegant cinematography.
The cast of full of lusciously good British and Irish talent, with the women particularly shining. Miranda Richardson as no-nonsense Oxford tutor Miss Lorimer, Anna Chancellor as Roland’s mother, Niamh Cusack’s brusque sister and Hayley Atwell’s pragmatic nurse struggling on the front, all sharply defined cameos. And Dominic West and Emily Watson are all pitch-perfect upper-class repression as Vera’s parents, struggling to deal with a world – and a daughter – leaving them behind. A beautiful film.

DVD Review: Atonement (2007)

“I suppose we should start by reading it”

Atonement was only Joe Wright’s second film but crikey it’s a good’un. Following on from Pride and Prejudice with another literary adaptation was a bold move, especially in taking on such a modern classic as Ian McEwan’s 2001 Booker Prize nominee but with Christopher Hampton on script duties and Wright’s visionary eye at the helm, it’s a deliciously gorgeous piece of art.
From Kiera Knightley’s iconic green dress to that epic Dunkirk tracking shot, from a three-fold Briony (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave) to narrative daring that enriches the whole piece, Atonement is a sumptuous and assured film that has lost none of its charge nearly ten years on. Wright is blessed with a top-notch cast to be sure, but it is his flair that characterises the film’s brilliance.
The heart of the story lies in the trio of Briony Tallis, her older sister Cecilia and her paramour Robbie. We first meet Briony as a precocious 13 year old with a crush on her sister’s boyfriend and a child’s headstrong determination that she is always right. A misinterpreted sequence of events leads her to make a terrible mistake, one which impacts severely on all their lives and it is that legacy that carries us through the story.
I won’t say much more plotwise for it is a joy to experience unspoiled and I don’t think its leads have ever been better. You see exactly why Knightley is Wright’s muse in every languid movement, McAvoy carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and is particularly excellent in the wordless Dunkirk sequence and the 12 year old Ronan is outstanding as the vividly self-possessed younger Briony. I’d go so far as to say I consider Atonement a modern classic.