Yet More Films To Look Out For!
This is the time of the year when I have to see 100+ films to vote in the British Academy. These mini-reviews are merely pointers for viewing purposes and don’t necessarily represent my choices.
A Lot of Lustre
At the end of the last film column I suggested we have better stories to tell than Tammy Faye’s. Well, here’s one; a tale of lust, greed and betrayal. It’s been four years since Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful fantasy ‘The Shape of Water’, and now here he is with his remake of the 1940s’ ‘Nightmare Alley’, with Bradley Cooper taking the place of Tyrone Power.
Stanton gets work in a carnival no questions asked, where he’s horrified by the carnie geek who bites the heads off live chickens for a living. Stanton has no scruples about performing his mentalism act on trusting rubes until an encounter with Cate Blanchett’s dazzling femme fatale sets him on a route to riches, which in turn lead to higher stakes, bad people and a nightmarish fate.
Even if you don’t know the original you’ll guess what that fate entails, but what matters here – largely at the expense of tension – is the sheer gorgeous fetishism of the neon-noir filmmaking. Del Toro knows how to create the perfect period atmosphere, and if it’s a film of surfaces what a lustrous sheen those surfaces have.
Does the beautiful photography get in the way of the drama? While I was studying the patina on an inlaid wall safe I missed some crucial dialogue from Cate Blanchett, so yes. And it’s only in the final few minutes that we get any sense of real danger.
This would have been all the more real to viewers of the original. The threat of poverty had not long retreated and the memory of the Great Depression was still vivid. Today it becomes a period drama but still an enjoyable one, even though the mid-section should have been truncated. Twenty minutes out and it would be perfect.
The Backroom Boys Move to the Front
Another good story arrives in ‘Operation Mincemeat’, the true tale of the undercover operation that changed the future of the Second World War. I first read my father’s copy of this book as a child. Although well-known, it had never reached the scale of say, the beloved ‘The Dam Busters’ because it’s a backroom story, not an action film.
Churchill’s boffins handcuffed a briefcase of misleading secret documents to a corpse and sent him off to be washed up on the coast of Spain.Â The assorted papers (complete with love letter and carefully planted eyelash) were convincing enoughÂ for HitlerÂ to send enormous numbers of soldiers to Sardinia and Greece, allowing the Allies to swoop in and take Sicily. The story of the backroom boys and girls of Whitehall have been the subject of at least two books and a brilliant musical (back this January at the Southwark Playhouse!).
How did Churchillâ€™s saboteurs get the Germans to believe? The answer, eccentric and fantastical, plays out like a mad farce on stage, but here it’s played straight and adapted from Ben Macintyre’s excellent book. Colin Firth, never the most forthcoming of actors, here adopts a single facial expression that suggests melancholia or possibly trapped wind, while Matthew McFadyen (both former Darcys, funnily enough) plays his by-the-book co-conspirator beautifully, and Kelly Macdonald and Penelope Wilton add female smarts to the team.
The result is data-dense, fascinating stuff, not least for showing where the young Ian Fleming got his inspiration from, because M and Q are already working in his world of espionage. John Madden’s direction can best be described as solid – I’d opt for ‘plodding’ – but he’s a safe enough pair of hands delivering a great tale of deception that many in the Admiralty considered to be ‘not cricket’.
Not Going Silently
When the UK makes films for Christmas they often have a bleak edge (cf. Anna and the Apocalypse) as if to counteract ghastly Richard Curtis sobfests, so here comes the bleakest one yet. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode are hosting a Christmas gathering for their bestest friends and children – what could go wrong in this lovely middle-class household?
Well, the end of the world for a start. Poisonous gases this time (the cause is a bit fudged) but it’s real enough for the government to issue everyone with suicide pills. One lad doesn’t buy it, but as the others go full Jonestown, drinking, dancing and arguing their way to eternity, he’s overlooked. The wit is poisonous, the children are fantastically sweary and as the moment arrives some home truths come out.
It’s a very odd idea, marrying the rom-com to apocalypse films, but it works, somehow managing to be very dark without sex or violence, and has a healthy unsentimentality about children. ‘Will I die, Mummy?’ asks a little boy after cutting his finger. ‘Yes, probably,’ says Keira absently. Great stuff.
Making Short Work of Cyrano
‘Cyrano’ takes MoliÃ¨re’s much-told tale and gives it the twist it always needed; Instead of a silly rubber nose, a very real challenge is provided by the casting of Peter Dinklage in the role. This time love cannot be overcome with a few witty remarks between a dwarf and a very tall lady. It makes sense that this is a musical, although far from a traditional one. The songs are by The National and defy all showbiz traditions by avoiding chorus and refrain, opting for a rolling Nymanesque repetition that enhances the dram, even though the clunky lyrics would have Stephen Sondheim turning in his grave.
A cast of relatively unknown faces brings real freshness, and colour is provided by the spectacular backdrops of Sicily. On stage after the screening, Dinklage said how sick he was of green screen and how refreshing it had been to film in a real place – the difference is there to see. Director Joe Wright has opted for a fantasy version of Southern Europe, French in dress, Italian in scenery, English in wit. Wright’s background in theatre informs all of his films, and this is up there with the best of them.