DVD Review: Salting the Battlefield

“It’s not a question of how it is, it’s a question of how it appears”

Salting the Battlefield is the third and concluding part of the Johnny Worricker trilogy, following on from Page Eight and Turks and Caicos, and sees David Hare wrap up the dramas that he both wrote and directed. Worricker is an ex-MI5 analyst who is on the run from the British authorities after exposing a couple of massive secrets that threaten PM Alec Beasley, a marvelously slimy Ralph Fiennes. From the Caribbean he’s ended up in Germany with former lover and current conspirator Margot but the net is drawing ever closer for an endgame to settle all scores. 

It’s grand to see original players from Page Eight returning. Saskia Reeves’ ambitious Deputy Prime Minister still precarious as ever in her position but finding opportunity in the chaos of her personal and professional life; Judy Davis’ plain-speaking MI5 head still bemoaning the old boys’ club of an institution she appears to have firmly by the balls; and Felicity Jones as Worricker’s under-used daughter. And as stakes are raised in order for scores are settled, there’s a fantastic amount of Machiavellian manipulation by all parties, chillingly conversational confrontation the order of the day here. Continue reading “DVD Review: Salting the Battlefield”

DVD Review: Hanna

 “Hanna, what did your mum die of?
‘Three bullets'”

 I have a deal of affection for Joe Wright’s Hanna, a film I saw at the cinema as part of a birthday treat back in 2011 and so watching it again for the first time has that special layer of extra memory attached to it. Which it kind of needs as I’d forgotten how loopy the revenge thriller is. Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna has been raised as a crack assassin since birth by her ex-CIA father Eric Bana but hidden away in the isolated Arctic tundra as current CIA supremo, Cate Blanchett’s insanely fruity Marissa, wants them both dead to protect a secret they possess.

One day, Hanna declares that she’s ready to take on their nemesis and the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase takes our characters from Finland to Morocco, Spain to Germany, all to the beats of a thumping soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers. Wright folds in elements of The Brothers Grimm into the story too to evoke a very dark fairytale feel. And it’s one that works intermittently, the hyper-stylised violence hits hard and provides the energy that is sorely needed in some of the quieter sequences. Ronan is a mesmeric screen presence as this impossible girl and proves a dab hand at doing her own stunts.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Hanna”

DVD Review: The Ghost

“Well don’t tell me you’re going to read it now”

Roman Polanski’s The Ghost, retitled The Ghost Writer in the rest of the world, may have been released in 2010 but remains as powerfully pertinent and indeed politically relevant as ever. Based on the Robert Harris novel of the same name, Ewan McGregor’s nameless protagonist is employed by former British PM Adam Lang, a slippery Pierce Brosnan, to finish his memoirs at the Martha’s Vineyard residence where he’s staying with his wife Ruth, an excellent Olivia Williams.

The task in hand is made more complicated though when Lang is indicted for potential war crimes in collusion with the US administration and the writer is forced to live in-house, where his tentative investigations into Lang’s career uncover conspiracy after conspiracy. The parallels with Tony Blair are clear but not overworked and Polanski’s delivery of a tense thriller with a strong narrative is superlatively done here. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Ghost”

DVD Review: The Last Days on Mars

“Do you think any part of us survives after death?
‘I don’t know. It’s a little bit above my pay grade'”

I wanted to like Ruairí Robinson’s 2013 The Last Days on Mars, I really did, but despite attracting an (inter)stellar cast (Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Liev Schreiber) to its blend of science fiction and outright horror, it just didn’t work for me. It’s not quite intelligent enough to be a real chin scratcher but equally it isn’t schlocky enough to be trashy fun either, rather the film languishes in the rather dull terrain inbetween.

Set in the 2040s on a research base on the planet Mars, a research team is coming to the very end of their six month trip but a late discovery that they may have found some form of biological life throws a spanner in the works. Instead of preparing for the approaching spacecraft to take them home, one last mission goes out to get one last sample and naturally it goes wrong, with terrible consequences for all of the crew. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Last Days on Mars”

DVD Review: An Education

“Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous older men, but what about you two?”

Lone Scherfig’s film An Education was one of my top films back in 2009 and rightly saw Carey Mulligan nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Watching it again reminded me of how good it is, a great showcase for British film and one of my favourite depictions of 1960s Britain I think I’ve ever seen. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is based on Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her schoolgirl years, spent mainly pleasing her father’s desire for her to be an excellent student and get into Oxford. That is, until handsome stranger David offers her a lift one day. That he’s twice her age is no matter, the world of sophistication he inhabits seduces her entirely from her humdrum Twickenham existence and changes her life completely.

Mulligan is brilliantly cast as the 16 going on 17 Jenny Mellor, the combination of her youthful looks and soulful eyes captures much of the teenage precocity that leads her to think she’s more mature than she is, especially in the face of such rowdy schoolgirl friends like Ellie Kendrick’s Tina and as she rushes headlong into this adult world of jazz clubs, stolen nights in hotels and weekends away in Paris, she brilliantly shows how her self-assuredness is slowly stripped away as she comes to see what she has sacrificed in order to follow her heart. Olivia Williams’ brilliant Miss Stubbs is the perfect counterpoint, a spinster teacher who encourages Jenny’s academic dreams yet perversely epitomises the height of ambition for an educated woman. Continue reading “DVD Review: An Education”

DVD Review: Hyde Park in Hudson

“But, to answer your question, Elizabeth, I ‘am’ going to eat a hot dog”

Directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Nelson, Hyde Park in Hudson is a rather delightful little thing, a trifle of a film that nonetheless has an endearing emotional edge to it. Set on the eve of World War II, George VI and Queen Elizabeth become the first British monarchs to visit the US but rather than the pomp and circumstance of an official state visit, they’re taken to Franklin D Roosevelt’s country estate and introduced to the complex personal relationships he’s built around him.

Key among these is Margaret ‘Daisy’ Suckley, a distant cousin and childhood friend who has recently returned to his life and who narrates the film in Laura Linney’s delicate but determined tones. The Royals want to secure US support for the war they know is coming, the polio-ravaged FDR wants to be left alone to amuse himself with the collection of women he’s gathered around him and Daisy just wants to know where she is in the pecking order. Continue reading “DVD Review: Hyde Park in Hudson”

DVD Review: Miss Austen Regrets

“That’s what it says in all of your books”

In 2007, the cinemas got the Anne Hathaway-starring Becoming Jane but television got Miss Austen Regrets, featuring Olivia Williams in extraordinary form as the feted author in the final years of her life. Close to 40 and looking unlikely as ever to get married herself, Jane is the favourite of her beloved niece Fanny who is dipping her toes into the world of liaisons and engagements and can’t think of anything more fabulous than an aunt whose romantic novels ought to make her an expert able to give perfect advice. But as Jane reflects on her life lived, the opportunities missed and rejected, and the perilous state those choices have left her mother and sister in, she is forced to consider if insecurity is too great a price to pay for her ambition.

For though her success is bringing her much renown, financial security eludes her as an unwed woman. She can’t own the property in which she lives, she can’t negotiate a better deal with her publisher, the independence she craves is held frustratingly just at arm’s length. But for all that, this is an unashamedly romantic and sparkily humourous piece of film which holds huge delight. Olivia Williams is impeccable as Austen – the flirtatious glint in her eye as she cuts a swathe through the stuffiness of convention, the nervous hesitation as her status sweeps her up in society, the oceans of emotional intelligence in her eyes as she has to deal with the concerns of the family and the ramifications of her choices – she is endlessly watchable and perfectly cast. Continue reading “DVD Review: Miss Austen Regrets”

DVD Review: Agatha Christie – A Life In Pictures

“There was a motivation…” 

This is a curious thing – a drama-documentary of legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie which utilises a double flashback structure to form a kind of biopic of her life, but one with an additional focus on her mysterious disappearance over several days after a particularly traumatic, though unexplained, experience. Anna Massey plays Christie late in life, at a party celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Mousetrap’s West End run, where she fields questions from journalists about her life, the answers to which are played out in flashback. Olivia Williams takes on the younger role who is meeting with a psychiatrist to try and explain her experiences, which are also replayed to us, through the delicate probing of her psyche. 

It is all elegantly done in this BBC adaptation, written and directed by Richard Curson Smith, covering the key points of her life – a happy childhood devastated by the loss of her father, the freedom of becoming a volunteer nurse and then pharmacist during the Great War, the beginnings of her career as a writer – but with little real insight or inspiration in what it is saying. The scenes around her disappearance have more meat to them but again fail to really click as the build-up to the grand reveal of what caused it falls rather flat in the final analysis. The split narrative adds nothing and instead subtract substantially from the pace of the film, continually frustrating as we switch fruitlessly between the two.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Agatha Christie – A Life In Pictures”

DVD Review: To Kill A King

This is not war…”

As with many historical films, it is easy to get caught up in matters of accuracy with To Kill A King’s portrayal of Oliver Cromwell and the puritan movement he led with Thomas Fairfax which ultimately saw the trial and death of King Charles I. The casting of Tim Roth instantly points toward the direction Mike Barker’s film leans in and before even a word is spoken, we’re left in no uncertain terms about the psychopathic tendencies of this interpretation of Cromwell. But written by Jenny Mayhew, the film’s focus is actually on the relationship between the two friends and the strain it faces as they set about rebuilding a nation.

And in that respect I think it is quite a successful piece of work. Roth’s furious intensity as he fights for a republican ideal is tempered by Dougray Scott’s intelligent ambivalence as Fairfax, less inclined to shake up the societal order that is such a major part of his and his family’s life, not least his wife Lady Anne, played excellently by Olivia Williams. The way in which the two are slowly pulled apart as their political ideals are twisted by the realities of negotiating with a recalcitrant Parliament and a manipulative King, active even after his deposition, is compellingly told and engagingly performed. Continue reading “DVD Review: To Kill A King”

DVD Review: Lucky Break

“When everyone is taking their bows, you and me exit stage left”

Lucky Break is the type of slight and inoffensive film that makes you wonder how on earth it got made yet at the same time makes you glad for its lazy Sunday afternoon viewing potential. Director Peter Cattaneo also helmed The Full Monty (which might answer the first point) and though there are similarities between the two – putting a certain type of British masculinity under the microscope – Lucky Break pulls back quickly from any real emotional depth or societal analysis in favour of popcorn-led entertainment. And as long as you go in fully aware of this, you might find yourself enjoying it.

Jimmy is a repeat offender who finds himself in prison once again after a particularly botched bank job but soon spots an opportunity to make a break for it. Prison warden Mortimer is keen for the inmates to put on a production of his newly-penned musical and as it will be performed in the old chapel that offers the easiest route out of the clink, Jimmy persuades his buddies to join in the amateur dramatics fun of Nelson – The Musical and allow him to jump the wall. Nothing is ever quite as easy as all that though, not least his budding relationship with prison psychiatrist Annabel. Continue reading “DVD Review: Lucky Break”