To Write Love on Her Arms

Kat Dennings in To Write Love on Her Arms



Is there anything more life-sapping than listening to a druggie talking about drugs? Yes, a film about one, and it’s not less boring but more if it also offers a redemptive ta-daa. To Write Love on Her Arms is a film about one such, a young woman, played twixt K-Stewart sulk and ScarJo pout by Kat Dennings, an actor with a face straight from Babylonian antiquity and a career trajectory which surely guarantees she won’t be paddling in these waters again too soon.


And, having had these thoughts, and affronted by what felt like an assault by the god squad for the long 118 minutes of this melodrama, I felt such a heel when the real Jamie Tworkowski popped up at the end, with a personal advertisement for the TWLOHA Foundation, which “still responds to every message” from young addicts and self-harmers and which, through the story of Renee Yohe (Dennings), this film is about.


Yohe is a real person too, a young woman who is introduced clumsily in opening scenes by a mother figure encouraging her to take her bipolar meds. A couple of standard-issue plot jumps later and Yohe is out of high school, well into the sex and drugs and given to waking dreams, if not visions. A signifier of how low she has sunk is that she is living with a Native American, who treats her roughly.


She has become a crack fiend, and is self-harming as she goes until a crisis throws her into the orbit of David McKenna, a former addict and music producer who encourages her into rehab. But thanks to its puritanical Catch 22 modus operandi, the local rehab centre won’t take her in until she’s clean. So she heads off to stay with… you’re ahead of me.


The fact that McKenna is played by Rupert Friend, after Starred Up another Mother Teresa role (I say “after” though this film was made before Starred Up, in 2011), and that he’s a good-looking young man, suggests we’re heading for romance. But to this film’s credit it sticks with the facts, and introduces Chad Michael Murray as Jamie Tworkowski, the roommate of McKenna who will eventually write up Yohe’s obscene-to-clean story and launch a foundation (and YA phenomenon) off the back of it.


Here the film simultaneously becomes unbearable and interesting. Unbearably right is Murray’s playing of Tworkowski as the sort of do-gooder who wears slackerish clothes and whose facial hair and dude-ish hat betoken a man who is clearly protesting too much. He also stays up really late! He uses slang!


Interesting, yet dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up, is the notion that Yohe might not be entirely happy with Tworkowski’s use of her as the poster girl for abuse and recovery. For a brief moment the film becomes a critique of glib self-help rehab dramas and of the Tworkowskis of the world, dairymen specialising in the milk of human kindness.


And then, interesting wobble over, it goes back to the usual rehab shtick, the arc completing when Yohe is able to heal someone close to her who has fallen off the wagon. No spoilers.


Too much of the film is platitudinous (“wherever you go, you’re always there” kind of thing), too much of it relies on tired visual clichés (Yohe and friends lying on the bonnet of a car parked at the end of an airport runway and woo-hooing as planes scream overhead – the exhilaration of the simple stuff, huh) and it really hasn’t the faintest idea how to incorporate into its story Yohe’s old high school friends (played by Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy) with her new rehab companions. Yet there is a touching sincerity to the entire enterprise, its lumpiness coming from a desire not to make things up, and if you can put away your cynicism, which I clearly am struggling with, the acting might win you over too.


Just don’t include me on any mailing list.





To Write Love on Her Arms – Buy it/watch it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2015






Marie Antoinette

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette



It’s tempting to look at writer/director Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Marie Antoinette as a coded self-portrait – young woman born into immense privilege, continuing in the family business, expected to have an understanding of the hoi polloi though with no experience thereof, allowed to indulge her whims, and so on.


Perhaps it’s a better film seen that way, because as a straightforward biopic it’s full of problems, chief of those being the inertia at the centre, where Kirsten Dunst’s Marie – the Austrian princess bought in by the French to produce an heir – and her spouse the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) sit like a pair of bland puddings while around them wheel a menagerie of exotic creatures. Rip Torn’s baritone adds fruitcake richness to his portrayal of King Louis XV, old but still full of priapic desire for his mistress, Mme Du Barry, played by Asia Argento with a look on her face like she’s got a boiler-room of naughtiness going on between her legs. There’s also Danny Huston, as Marie’s worldly wily older brother, drafted in to help the Dauphin work out what to do in the bedroom – the Dauphin might be gay, terminally inbred or just bored, who knows? And around them a court of looks and whispers. These exotics and intriguers apart, it’s a languid portrait of inert, disconnected people that at every turn threatens to become inert and disconnected itself. Coppola knows this, hence the ripeness of the supporting characters, hence the use of modern pop music (Aphex Twin, New Order, The Cure) on the soundtrack, the largely 1980s choices being another hint that this is really more about Ms C, who became a teenager in the middle of that decade.


It drifts along, the Dauphin doing a bit of hunting, Marie getting back to nature in the model farm she set up at the Trianon palace – where she indulges in the sort of mock bucolic playing about with cows and sheep that well-to-do young women now ape with their organic foods and working holidays on farms. And then, waking up as if from a “what the hell was I doing?” reverie, Coppola gets a spurt on with a finale that packs in the “the peasants are revolting”, “let them eat cake”, “off with their heads” headlines in one urgent rush.


Coppola isn’t delivering a history lesson. And the way that she covers the well known events, merely acknowledging their existence, makes that abundantly clear. The clothes are splendid, the locations genuine (some of it was even shot at Versailles), the acting superb, and it’s a fabulously rich summoning of an atmosphere of suffocating protocol. Dramatic, though? Hardly.




Marie Antoinette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006




Sixty Six

Gregg Sulkin and Helena Bonham Carter in Sixty Six



Bernie, a London Jewish boy who sees his barmitzvah as the very peak of his young life, suddenly realises it’s taking place on the same day as the 1966 football (soccer) World Cup final. Will anyone come, especially once the home team start morphing from total no-hopers to potential giant-killers? Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Serafinowicz, Eddie Marsan and Catherine Tate are among the familiar British faces helping young Gregg Sulkin towards his big day in a likeable but small-scale comedy which pins its hopes on the footballing names Bobby Moore, Nobby Stiles et al to give it back-of-the-net appeal.

This of course makes for very parochial comedy indeed, but director Paul Weiland, apparently basing it on events in his own life, gives it emotional heft and packs it with the sort of homeliness that might be missing from a more production line affair – comedy uncles who answer questions with a shrug and an apologetic look, comedy aunts whose culinary concoctions are so appalling that no one can tell what ingredients went into them. If you can detect the hand of Richard Curtis in there (the funny speeches at family events, perhaps?), who apparently wrote the film’s first draft, that’s because he and Weiland are old buddies.

And while young Bernie, not particularly popular, can be seen as a metaphor for the entire England team, who were underdogs going into the 1966 World Cup, indeed were only invited to play because they were the host nation, is it too fanciful to see his family as stand-ins for Jews everywhere as the family sees their fortunes taking a major setback in one unlucky accident after another? Yes, that probably is a bit of a stretch, because the one thing that Sixty Six isn’t is overly ambitious. Indeed if you’re familiar with any of the work of Jack Rosenthal, his 1976 TV play Bar Mitzvah Boy most obviously, then this tucks right in to that niche Rosenthal has hewn, though he’s a more particular and detailed writer than Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, who have fleshed out Weiland’s own story.

This throws a lot of weight onto the shoulders of the actors, and for the most part they rise to the challenge, Helena Bonham Carter making a fine North London Jewish mother whose boy and his special day brings out the warrior queen in her, Eddie Marsan as Bernie’s dad, a nervous piece of wet timidity too interested in his own business dealings, Catherine Tate as the aunt whose canapés are fit only for laboratory testing.

It’s the sort of film that Britain seems to be able to make with its eyes closed – warm, periodically funny, gentle and well acted – the sort that isn’t likely to encourage a mass desertion of warm sofas and remote controls in favour of queuing outside a pricey cinema on a cool evening. Where are this country’s Luc Bessons?




Sixty Six – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006





Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Leonard Coen and U2



For decades Cohen’s music has been misrepresented as the soundtrack to suicide. In fact the old (now 73) groaner is something of a comedian, though his wit is so dry it’s taken non-aficionados decades to catch on. He’s also something of a master of self-mythology, the sort of performer who seems to back into the spotlight rather than seek it out. His albums have titles such as Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969) and Recent Songs (2001), this austerity matched in real life by his decision to become a Buddhist and the subsequent five years he spent in seclusion from 1994 to 1999. In fact Cohen’s recent higher profile and workrate seems to be more down to necessity – his manager ran off with his pension – than a desire for the spotlight.

So much for the mythology. Lian Lunson’s documentary doesn’t mention Cohen’s financial woes, and is to some extent a missed opportunity to get an inside glimpse at the man himself. What we get instead is a lot of cool cats – Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Beth Orton – singing Cohen songs and eulogising him, interspersed with an interview with the hipster’s hipster that again doesn’t want to go too far beyond fanboy idolatry. However, Mr Cohen is a an old hand, and gives good interview, even when it’s not asked of him. So he tells a series of stories that are as dry and impish as his songs. Of the real Suzanne, immortalised in his song of the same name, how she was the wife of a friend and how she did indeed feed him tea and oranges but no, he didn’t touch her perfect body with his mind.

Lunson keeps the camera discreet as various Wainwrights, Thompsons and McGarrigles line up to perform, and offers the visual equivalent of their interpretations. Nick Cave gets the lion’s share – his balladeering growl a good match for Cohen’s laments – while surprises include Rufus Wainwright and Antony (of the Johnsons fame), whose more operatic swoops you wouldn’t naturally expect to be a match at all.

It’s left to U2 to close the show, duetting Tower of Song with Mr C himself – who effortlessly outcools them – before he brings the curtain down with I’m Your Man.

All in all a respectful rather than revelatory tribute. Nothing wrong with that. Leonard Cohen wears it well.


I’m Your Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006





Ben Affleck and Diane Lane in Hollywoodland

Looking on paper like something better than it actually turns out, Hollywoodland is one of those films purporting to lift the lid on Hollywood, LA Confidential style. It tells the lightly fictionalised story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) the man who played Superman on 1950s US TV, and asks the simple question – who done him in?

The answer is, at least partly, he did it to himself, this being a tale of an actor who’d appeared in Gone with the Wind and yet by the mid-50s was in a TV serial aimed at kids. The ignominy. If you need a lesson in counting your blessings rather than dwelling on what might have been, Hollywoodland is it.

To unpick the story of Reeves, we have Adrien Brody doing Citizen Kane-digging, as Louis Simo, a private investigator trying to work out the who and the what and the why. Was it suicide, which was the conclusion at the time? Or did Reeves’s mistress (Diane Lane) accidentally shoot him? Or did a Mob-connected studio boss (Bob Hoskins) order a hit on him? More to the point, do we as an audience care?

Director Allen Coulter asks us not to engage with the man, his plight and his fate, but with his own command of pastiche, and it’s here that the film’s stabs towards The Maltese Falcon, with Brody’s side-of-mouth gumshoe, start to get wearisome.

Affleck – only ten minutes ago the star of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – is perfectly positioned to play a sad sack for whom things have not quite worked out, his hurt eyes telegraphing disappointment and a career that’s gone awry – could this be his attempt to hit the reset button after becoming better known for his private life than his screen work?

Brody’s detective Simo gets his own back story, which includes his own disappointments as a father and husband (several times over), and he’s a lively presence in a film that needs an injection of vitality, as is Lane as Reeves’s older-woman rich mistress, both shaking this often torpid essay in 1950s stylistics into something approaching life. Bob Hoskins does his usual quack/bark as the studio exec who is sharing his wife with Superman, though he doesn’t yet know it.

But they’re all distractions in what should be Affleck’s film, and the more lively they get, the further into the background the character of Reeves starts to slip. Something of a minor tragedy, because Affleck’s representation of flayed dignity, wounded ego, is well worth seeing.

Hollywoodland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2006

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of a version of the Stars and Stripes



Professional musician and amateur situationist John Lennon has always been an easy target for anyone wanting to level a charge of hypocrisy. “Imagine no possessions,” he sang, and the fingers started pointing at his lavish lifestyle – insert your own version of the story about the fur coats kept in a refrigerated room in the Dakota Building. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary will provide fuel for both the haters and the idolisers, it being the story of how the US authorities revoked the chippiest man in rock’s Green Card in the 1970s, in an attempt to get this dangerous dissident out of the country.

Well, that’s ostensibly what it’s about. In fact for a good while the film acts as a primer on Lennon’s pre- and post-Beatles life. Though gradually the pattern of political, media-focused “eventism” starts to take shape. More than most, Lennon understood how the media operated – that if they don’t get something they’ll just make it up. And so he gave them something. Often it was pranks, this being Lennon’s lifelong default – saying, while still in the Beatles, that the band was “more popular than Jesus” being one of the occasions when he couldn’t resist giving the dog a bone. So, in The US Vs John Lennon, we get the bed-ins, the bagism and the politically motivated concerts, notably the one for marijuana activist John Sinclair, who had been jailed for ten years for the possession of two joints. The concert was instantly successful in getting Sinclair’s conviction overturned but it made Lennon a target for FBI phone-taps and street surveillance, and encouraged the White House to ready plans to deport him. At this point Lennon did what all rich men do – he put a lawyer on the case and stonewalled until the political climate changed (which it did once Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon as President).

Made for VH1, and with the co-operation of Yoko Ono, the film goes no further than it has to in terms of revelation and analysis, though there is some interesting stuff in here for the Beatles completist. Not just the music. For instance, the footage from Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous bed-in (a jokey perversion of the hippie “be in”) at the Amsterdam Hilton is more complete than we’re used to, and includes Lennon’s defence of what the pair were doing as a protest against the Vietnam War. For once, seen in full and in their own words, the couple seem rational, earnest and politically engaged rather than sensation-seeking, dilettantish and rich to the point of foolishness. And it clearly details the moment when Lennon was later invited to put his money where his mouth was and take part in an anti-Nixon, anti-War concert outside the Republican convention in 1972. He declined. This marked the end of John Lennon’s political moment. Had his pranksterism burnt out, or self-preservation kicked in? Or was he just sick of being co-opted? The film has nothing to offer.




The US Vs John Lennon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006


The Grandmaster

Zhang Ziyi and brothel women in The Grandmaster


There are misgivings even during the opening scene of this decade-straddling epic about Ip Man, generally described as “the man who trained Bruce Lee”. There’s legendary martial artist Ip Man (the impassive Tony Leung) in a stylish straw hat taking on a phalanx of uglies in a torrential nighttime downpour. Slo-mo rain. It’s the sort of visual cliché you might expect from Uwe Boll rather than one of the most gifted film-makers in the world.

But, a bit of plot. The film kicks off in the 1930s when, Leung’s voiceover tells us, Ip Man is about 40, a content, wealthy resident of Foshen with a lovely wife and a rich cultural life. This is all kicked into the air after a bake-off between competing branches of kung fu called by the retiring Master Gong, who has in tow his beautiful, skilled and icy daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger fame) and wayward disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin). Over the intervening years the Japanese invade, the nationalists come and go, and the era of Mao begins, with Gong Er and Ma San both re-appearing in Ip Man’s life like punctuation marks.

Why is Wong Kar Wai making a biopic about Ip Man, whose story has already been told many times before (notably by Donnie Yen in two films)? I suspect it’s his attempt to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And maybe in the original four hour edit it does. But in this incomprehensible two hour ten minute edit (Wong says he will “never” release the original version) little makes sense, and Wong’s choices always tend towards the visual rather than the dramatic. In short, half the time it’s difficult to know who everyone is.

There are two distinct ways of shooting physical action in movies. When it’s people who know their stuff, say Donnie Yen or Fred Astaire, the camera stays back, letting the viewer take in the spectacle – real bodies doing really amazing things in real space and time. When the actors don’t know their stuff, say Bruce Willis or the cast of Chicago, then the smoke and mirrors of the edit suite takes over.

Leung trained for 18 months to do this movie, but even so is no grand master. Wong reciprocates with an ingenious shooting style that is a little bit Astaire, a little bit Willis. And he comes up with something that does actually work: impressionistic blurs of movement, fast edits and swivel pans pausing periodically to focus on a decisive tactical moment – often a “push” move of the hands or feet. It’s very effective and, now and again, breathtaking.

Wong stages these fights in locations that are chocolate boxy in the extreme – a lush high end brothel, a station wreathed with locomotive smoke, a snowy landscape.

But never mind all that, the martial arts fans will be saying, who did the fight choreography? The answer is Yuen Woo-Ping, of Kill Bill and The Matrix fame, and Yuen does put on some mighty fine shows, though I was often not sure who Ip Man, or Gong Er, was fighting, and why – except when the two leads fought each other and all was abundantly clear. This was chop-socky courtship.

With this romantic Ip Man/Gong Er strand Wong is aiming specifically for the withheld love vibe of In the Mood for Love, his most famous film, which he also tried to re-bottle in his Blueberry Nights. And it doesn’t work here either, this time because Wong has introduced Ip Man’s wife early on and then not clearly explained the nature of their relationship. Or maybe all was explained in the four hour version. And who is this guy Razor who pops up here and there, spoiling for a fight? Again the four hour edit might have the answer.

But never mind all that, Wong appears to be saying in his editing decisions, look at all the pretty pictures. In this he’s directly in the tradition of David Lean after his work jumped the shark (about halfway through Lawrence of Arabia) when his visual eye started to get the better of his storytelling brain.

This is a heroically beautiful film but a godawful mess in all other respects. I followed it up with Lav Diaz’s epic Filipino masterpiece Norte, the End of History – a four hour epic I sat through with my eyes glued to the screen. Did Wong Kar Wai not trust audiences with the full banquet? Perhaps he should think again.


The Grandmaster – Watch it now at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2014



Miss Potter

Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellwegger


The dramatised story of Beatrix Potter, creator of children’s character such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck, with Renee Zellweger as the Edwardian miss who’s 32 years old and still not married. It’s about a woman struggling against the odds, against familial indifference, social expectation and industry hostility to get her books into print. And the fact that the publisher (played by Ewan McGregor) who eventually helps Potter also becomes the great love of her life, well that’s just double bubble for an actress who is as adept at portraying grown women who still have fluffy toys in their bedroom (see Bridget Jones) as she is those with a core of steel (see Cold Mountain). Both apply here.

This is that most unfashionable of genres – the sort of film that you could imagine Bette Davis making about 70 years ago. A woman’s picture, in other words. And like a lot of women’s pictures, it is extremely well made, gets to the point and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It has had slightly sniffy reviews, on the whole by reviewers who will bend over backwards to accommodate any masked man but who feel uncomfortable with stories about real people. Or maybe they were hostile to Zellweger’s English accent, though she fits in effortlessly alongside British stalwarts such as Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Anton Lesser and Bill Paterson. Or could it be the occasional use of animated Potter characters? Actually, I’m with the sniffers on this one, finding them unnecessary and slightly too cute, though what are you to do with Squirrel Nutkin, Little Pig Robinson, Tom Kitten et al?

Ultimately, it’s a film that is damned by association, with women. Or, going one jump down in the prestige stakes, with children. The fact that Chris Noonan directs and his previous film was Babe has got to be a mark against, if you’re feeling anti in the first place. Though Babe was and still is an utter charmer unafraid to explore dark places. As does Miss Potter when Beatrix hits a romantic speed bump and decamps to the Lake District, where she buys a farm and shifts into an altogether more Cold Mountain life of self-sufficiency.

There’s no sex to speak of, the clothes are all most elegant, and Noonan takes monstrous liberties with the weather in the Lakes where, in this film, it never seems to rain (travel tip, if you’re going: take waterproofs). It’s true that there’s a chocolate box element to this film. But it is a film, let’s not forget, about a woman who invented a character called Mrs Tiggywinkle. What, honestly, do you expect?


Miss Potter – Watch it now at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006






Jimi: All Is by My Side

André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in All Is by My Side


Here’s a problem for anyone about to make a film about Jimi Hendrix, genius guitarist, 1960s icon, member of the 27 Club of rock’s premature expirers – how do you get inside a character who was private, taciturn, shy and elliptically cool? With a voiceover? A confidant? Newsreel footage? It’s a question that writer/director John Ridley answers with a shrug in this inert biopic which fails to locate Hendrix in his time.

There’s another problem too. Hendrix died a long time ago now. Hell, even Kurt Cobain died a long time ago now, so Ridley needs to make a film that tells an audience who might know next to nothing about Hendrix why and how he was the world’s greatest guitarist.

I say “the world’s greatest guitarist” because I’m of an age to know almost all of his music note for note. Growing up, we even had records in our house made by Hendrix before he was famous, when he was a jobbing musician with Curtis Knight and the Squires (I think – it was a while ago).

And that’s where the film picks up Hendrix (André Benjamin of Outkast), in 1966, in a backing band playing tasty guitar licks of a fairly unambitious sort in a New York club. In the scant crowd was Linda Keith (played by Imogen Poots), a former girlfriend of Keith Richards with a rich daddy, an eye for talent and a fair bit of time on her hands. Ridley’s film then follows Hendrix for the next year, as Linda Keith introduces Hendrix to the world of rock she knew, connects him up with Chas Chandler (an outstanding Andrew Buckley), the Animals’ bassist who became Hendrix’s manger. And it leaves him just as Jimi is about to play the 1967 Monterey Festival, where Jimi (and his Ronsonol-doused guitar) caught fire.

This is your “Star Is Born” story, in other words, though here it’s Hendrix’s enormous luck in meeting Linda Keith rather than his enormous talent that gets him the shot at stardom.

If Ridley doesn’t get his man, he does get his music and the film’s standout moments all occur on stage. First when Keith sees Hendrix in New York, then when Hendrix almost forces himself on stage to jam with the Cream, and so frightens guitarist Eric Clapton (known at the time simply as God) with his prowess that Clapton dashes from the stage. And finally when his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience plays at the Saville Theatre, where the Beatles are in the audience, and cheekily opens with the first track off their new Sergeant Pepper album, released only a couple of days before.

Much has been made of the fact that no actual Hendrix music – ie songs written by Hendrix – was used in the film. But it doesn’t matter a bit. For a start Hendrix did plenty of covers – Hey Joe, All Along the Watchtower, Red House, Johnny B Goode among them – and the backroom team (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Kenny Aronoff) have enough talent and confidence not to make this a note-for-note recreation of the records. But never mind who or how or why, the music satisfies the ultimate arbiter – the hairs on the back of the neck.

As for the rest of it, it’s a competent and routine rock biopic – getting the band together, the girlfriend, backstage, frontstage, with Ridley occasionally remembering it was the 1960s and throwing in a couple of seconds of psychedelic montage.

Probably the third question you’d ask going into the film, if you knew it was Ridley in the driving seat, is how is the writer of 12 Years a Slave going to handle the race thing? In two eminently cuttable scenes he answers it – first as Hendrix is hectored and belittled by a trio of loutish coppers, who are ostensibly angry that he’s wearing a British military jacket in a disrespectful fashion. Second in a scene between Hendrix and Michael X, Britain’s embarrassing counterpart of the US’s Malcolm X, in which the revolutionary mini-me encourages Hendrix to be, in short, more black. Hendrix responds with something about the power of love beating the love of power, in that maddening drawl beloved of rockers to this day, but which marks Hendrix out as being in the vanguard of post-racial politics, and music.

As for the dolly birds, they really do get the rough end of the pineapple. Poots as the well heeled Linda Keith getting almost reverential treatment as the girl who made it all possible but was absolutely definitely and quite categorically not a groupie. Hayley Atwell plays a blinder as the girl who steals Hendrix off Linda Keith – a heart of gold, a body of honey, talons of dripping venom (see Coronation Street’s 1960s siren Elsie Tanner for where at least 75% of her remarkable performance comes from). As for the rest of the women, they gabble and caw at the edge of the frame like a ravening mob of low-rent courtesans. Adherents of the “class, race, gender” school of film criticism, sharpen your tools.

Which brings us to André Benjamin as Hendrix, who is as good as Jimi as Jamie Foxx was as Ray Charles in Ray, convincing entirely from the first second he appears that he’s the real thing. I certainly never doubted, never saw the performance, from the way Hendrix dipped his head while he talked, to the skinny-cool aura he gave off, Benjamin has it all down. But Benjamin can’t give us something that’s not in the writing and Ridley seems uninterested in filling out who this man is – and isn’t that the point of a biopic? This leads to the film’s potentially most upsetting moment – an outbreak of violence by Hendrix – leading to head scratching rather than shock.

The brilliant character actor Burn Gorman turns up for a couple of minutes, as Hendrix’s co-manager Michael Jeffery, one of those spivvy wheeler-dealers who actually made the 1960s happen, and the screen crackles into life with mendacity, greed and lust. And suddenly there’s a hint of the film that this might have been, a glimpse of a moment when talented young people were ushered into stardom by managerial geniuses who generally stole their money and didn’t give a stuff about the counter culture. Instead we have a disappointing almost-biography which goes only album-cover deep in its explanation of what the 1960s were about and how its brightest star, Jimi Hendrix, fitted into it all.



© Steve Morrissey 2014


 Jimi: All Is by My Side – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



26 August


Mother Teresa born, 1910

On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now in the Republic of Macedonia). Raised a Catholic, from an early age she was interested in the work of missionaries and by the age of 12 had decided to devote herself to the religious life. At 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto, became a missionary and never saw her mother or sister again. After a stint in Loreto Abbey, Ireland, where she learnt English, she went to India, arriving there in 1929, aged 19. Twenty five years later she became headmistress of the school she taught at in Calcutta. Increasing poverty, a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence in 1946 led her to believe that it was the alleviation of poverty, not the delivery of education, that was her true calling. In 1948 she moved into the slums of Calcutta, tending the sick, destitute and hungry. A small group of similarly minded women gathered around her and by 1950 she had received permission from the Vatican to start a mission to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” As the years went by, Mother Teresa (as she had become known) opened a hospice for the poor to die with dignity, a centre for the treatment of leprosy and a home for lost and abandoned children. Her Missionaries of Charity started to spread through India in the 1950s and internationally in the 1960s. Mother Teresa became internationally famous, travelling to war-torn Beirut in 1982 to rescue trapped children, to Chernobyl to visit radiation victims, to Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. After suffering a heart attack in 1983, contracting pneumonia in 1989, breaking her collar bone and picking up malaria in 1996, she died in 1997 of heart disease.




Philomena (2013, dir: Stephen Frears)

Philomena tells the story of two very different people. It’s a true story too. On the one hand we have a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who became a spin doctor for the Labour government before being bum-rushed out of that position (essentially by fellow journalists in one of the UK media’s regular moments of breathtaking hypocrisy). On the other is a retired Irish woman whose son, born out of wedlock, was taken off her by nuns when she was a slip of a girl. Sixsmith’s book on which this film is based tells the story of how the cynical hack first took on Philomena’s story, reluctantly (“human interest story is a euphemism for weak-minded human interest story,” says Martin to Philomena’s daughter, who he’s met at a party). Then it goes into the detail of the uneasy confessor/penitent relationship of biographer and subject, before finally describing their journey together to the US to find the by-now middle aged man. It’s a real mismatched buddies road movie of a story and would remain as generic as that sounds if it weren’t for the fact that Sixsmith wrote a poignant, self-deprecating book, and it’s been so well adapted to a screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Martin. And given Coogan’s well publicised battles with the British press, having him play one of its representatives would seem to guarantee an interesting portrait at the least. In fact Coogan plays Sixsmith as a nobber, the sort of guy who’s full of petty triumphs and little moments of self-aggrandisement. Opposite him is Judi Dench as Philomena, the dithery but inwardly independent Irish woman who’s familiar to anyone who has an Irish mother. So when Martin hires a car for them to do their preliminary scouting excursions, he gets a BMW, and is proud of its swankiness; to this party she brings some custard creams and a packet of Tunes cough sweets for the journey. When they check into a nice hotel, he’s all blasé; she’s phoning him from her room to ask “Martin, do you have a little chocolate on your pillow.” The film could survive perfectly well on the funny double act that these two do – and doesn’t it say so much about Dench that she can be 007’s boss one moment, and is wringing a laugh out of simple lines like “it’s fruit bread, Martin” the next?
“I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin…” she says later, as the film actually gets down to business and Philomena reveals the naiveté that led her to become pregnant as a young teenager, and then led her to accept the idea that her child should be taken from her. After a “fucking Catholics” by Martin, we’re off into darker territory and the destination of this film’s journey – the son, where he is now, the possible reunion, the explanations, tears and so on. I’m not going to reveal what actually happens, though plenty of reviews will, for reasons which are actually fairly understandable. Because though there is an emotional pay off at the end of the road this duo travel, first in Ireland and then in the USA, it’s the journey not the destination that is the joy of the film. Chalk and cheese (he wants to go to the Lincoln Memorial; she’d rather stay in the hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), with the obligatory “lessons learned on both sides” – but done properly.
Dench’s Irish accent drifts a touch, but it is an otherwise exquisite portrait of a resolutely fair, honest and optimistic woman, a perfect counter-balance to Coogan’s, his usual finger of Alan Partridge entirely appropriate here. I’d be happier without the pantomime evil nun Sister Hildegarde right at the end, but she does at least make the point that feelings run high on this issue, and that the nuns had a cogent worldview too, one in which “carnal incontinence” was something to be battled against. As for Stephen Frears’s direction, it’s a master class in old Hollywood storytelling – of Howard Hawks economy and lightness of touch. Invisible to the eye, all the hard work concealed.



Why Watch?


  • A great Steve Coogan script
  • A great Judi Dench performance
  • Manages to be funny and yet serious
  • Artful direction by Stephen Frears


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Philomena – Watch it now at Amazon