Out This Week
Gemma Bovery (Soda, cert 15)
Gemma Arterton plays the English belle getting French baker Fabrice Luchini in a tizz in this adaptation of the Posy Simmonds graphic novel which first appeared in The Guardian as a weekly cartoon strip. And very cartoon-strippy it is too, Arterton all tippy-toes sex appeal as a modern-day version of Flaubert’s hot-gusseted Madame Bovary, Luchini pulling a series of faces that Benny Hill would be proud of as the “no fool like an old fool” looking on haplessly as the new arrival in the French idyll forsakes lovely, broke husband Jason Flemyng and sets her hat at local rotter Niels Schneider. If it all feels vaguely familiar, that’s either because you know your Flaubert, or because Arterton played a similar character in Tamara Drewe, another adaptation of Posy Simmonds (this time a reworking of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd) – hellishly sexy and not entirely aware of the effect she has on men. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re after a “whoops there go my pantalons” farce full of broad comic stereotypes, all overlaid with an image of sun-dappled, bucolically splendid Normandy that must have the estate agents rubbing their hands with glee. Watch it for Arterton, who seems to be good at whatever she does, and for Luchini, who is one of the great boulevardiers de nos jours. And the pretty pictures.
Crimson Peak (Universal, cert 15)
An exercise in high gothic by Guillermo Del Toro, who welds elements of his Pan’s Labyrinth to Hitchcock’s Rebecca plot – poor little waif far from home being monstered out of her mind, plus ghosts. Mia Wasikowska is the waif – of course she is – and Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston are the mad, obsessive and unnaturally close siblings who welcome her as the new mistress of Crimson Peak, a godforsaken ruin in an armpit of Victorian England. But don’t mind the plot. Instead gaze in awe at the production design – the sets, the clothes, the lighting. In fact everything is beyond exquisite, and Del Toro multiplies the effect with cameras that swoop and track and soar, as if he’s been watching Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty a fair bit. And then overlays all that with special effects – of moths swarming in their thousands, of the old building decaying visibly around this luckless trio. Objections to the film seem to be of the “it’s all a bit de trop, isn’t it?” variety. But that, surely, is the point of the thing, which takes the feverish plots and characters of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone or The Woman in White and pushes them into going-for-broke territory. I mean, this is the film in which, thanks to some geological quirk, the ground literally bleeds red. If Crimson Peak had been made back in the day, the Technicolor technicians would have been wetting themselves, and Del Toro does somehow manage to summon up the florid excesses of that stylised process in his colour grading, which should get some sort of an award all of its own. Every shot a freeze-frame. But it can’t be denied that in his determination to get things right, Del Toro has nailed too much down – that vital breath of inspiration that might have lifted this above an exercise in high style is missing. If you can park that objection – and I could – this is a mad, glorious indulgence.
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey (New Wave, cert 15)
Like Marion Cotillard, who she vaguely resembles, Ariane Labed has an ability to underact and yet be captivating – see Attenberg, Alps or The Lobster. Maybe it’s sheer talent or maybe the camera just loves her, which is a talent too, of course. In Fidelio she plays Alice, a ship’s engineer who plays as loose and free as the men she works with – a guy in every port, a fling with one of her colleagues, sex as a way of blowing off steam. The fact that the freighter she’s on is called Fidelio – fidelity – suggests that the film is all about sexual continence. And, I suppose it is, though the strength of this intimate drama is that it never bashes you over the head with its theme, or with the oblique examination of a woman’s right to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh like a man can. Instead, all is sublimated, and Fidelio comes across chiefly as a fascinating essay on life on board ship, in much the same way that the Icelandic drama Reykjavik-Rotterdam did – the hierarchies of gender and race (the real oily rags are all Filipinos), the little rituals that tie the ship’s company together, the hard partying on dry land and the tacit “what happens at sea stays at sea” compact between all involved, even the way that everyone is up on deck with their phones outstretched trying to catch a signal when they get within a whisker of dry land and a telecoms mast. Fascinating details in a wee but deceptively quiet drama.
A Walk in the Woods (E One, cert 15)
Nick Nolte and Robert Redford are the odd-couple mates walking the Appalachian Trail in an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s travelogue. It’s a gentle, amiable affair – reasonable Bob and irascible old Nick wearing their roles like shiny suede slippers, and it’s strongly reminiscent of one of those old Hollywood movies in which a hard-drinking sea dog and a nun end up in close proximity. No surprise that it’s Nolte as Humphrey Bogart and Redford as Katherine Hepburn. One of the handicaps of the film is Redford’s reluctance to actually play his age, but the main handicaps are a lack of plot and a lack of “stakes”. What happens if these guys don’t complete the trail? Well, nothing at all. They’re just doing it because they have time on their hands and the only other alternative is to accept approaching death, one of the film’s sotto voce themes. Ken Kwapis directs with little in the way of visual flair, though he gets good performances from his actors, who might easily have slid into parody. Inconsequential is one way of describing it. Pleasant enough might be another. The joy of Bryson’s books is in the way he expresses himself rather than what he says. That authorial voice is missing here. We get bracing views, vicarious exercise and the joys of antique friendship instead. Nice though it is, it’s not a patch on Reese Witherspoon’s trail-walking drama, Wild.
The Lobster (Spirit, cert 15)
Yorgos Lanthimos’s schtick is to make the familiar strange – see Dogtooth and, less successfully, Alps, both of which examine aspects of human behaviour with an eye so dispassionate it’s almost extra-terrestrial. In The Lobster he’s taking a look at the dating and mating game, his film set in an English country hotel where single guests check in, find someone who catches their fancy, and hook up. And if no one catches your eye… then you are turned into an animal. Oh. So, which animal do you want to be, hotel manager Olivia Colman surreally asks new arrival Colin Farrell. He chooses the lobster – blue of blood, long of life and fertile right into old age, he opines, like the somewhat nerdy smartass he’s playing. What then plays out is a kind of arthouse Hunger Games, of a society heavily policed, and astonishingly literal – Ben Whishaw (another guest) pairs off with a woman because both share a tendency to have nosebleeds – while out in the woods where the real action takes place a rebel group of Loners plot to overthrow this dictatorial regime that demands a relationship within 30 days or zoological reassignment. It’s a sign of Lanthimos’s standing that he can stack his English-language debut with actors of the quality of Farrell, Whishaw, Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Léa Seydoux (as leader of the Loners), Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly and Michael Smiley. But The Lobster’s satirical message is heavy handed and Lanthimos’s bourgeois-bashing is simplistic, like Lindsay Anderson’s less successful “message” films, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Even so The Lobster flashes into life almost in spite of itself – how we want Farrell and Weisz to get together, how physically remarkable Seydoux is, what fire-starting eyes Labed has – and there is some muted enjoyment to be had in Lanthimos’s deadpan visual style, which is aped in the Bresson-like flat performances by his cast. A barrel of laughs it is not.
Pan (Warner, cert PG)
Right, who’s for a Peter Pan origin story? No one? Yes, one of the least clamoured-for reboots ever arrives on screen, with unknown Levi Miller in the role of Peter, the dyslexic snot who is saved from the orphanage run by the Trunchbull-like Kathy Burke and whisked off to Neverland where he learns to fulfil his destiny. There, before discovering that he can fly, he meets Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard and strikes up an acquaintance with a young, not-yet-a-captain Hook (Garrett Hedlund) who, complete with rakish hat, a swagger and a tendency to use the word “kid”, seems to be auditioning for a new Indiana Jones movie. Hang on a second – Blackbeard, in a Peter Pan story? And a nice-guy Hook? The demands of the franchise (which will never come to pass) seem to dictate some of the unusual elements in a film that actually has a lot going for it. If Hedlund is doing a decent Harrison Ford, Jackman has decided to play Blackbeard as a fruity Ian McShane, while round the edges we have the likes of Adeel Akhtar and Nonso Anozie adding light relief to what is, essentially, a breathless collation of CG and greenscreen action set pieces, in an elaborately imagined world where fairy dust is mined, galleons fly and mermaids (Cara Delevingne in triplicate) gambol. Director Joe Wright seems to be aiming for the effect of the central, animated sequence in Mary Poppins – it’s a jolly holiday with Hooky. In spite of the fact that Miller’s shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry the full weight of the film, this is a lively and enjoyable adventure for kids that will probably be re-graded upwards in a couple of years’ time.
The Program (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Because Stephen Frears doesn’t have a signature visual style, he tends to be underestimated as a director. But his track record of thoughtful, explorative films – from My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons to The Queen and Philomena – is hellishly impressive. Sadly, The Program isn’t one of his hits, though it is heading in the same direction as his best work. It’s the investigative story of how Lance Armstrong won all those Tours de France, by cheating, and then got found out. Well that, ostensibly, is what the film is about. Because it’s based on the book by David Walsh, the investigative journalist who first blew the whistle, and found himself almost frozen out of the sport as a consequence. Ben Foster plays the robotic, petulant Armstrong with immense skill and pinched commitment, while Chris O’Dowd plays David Walsh with his usual intelligent blokiness (can I just digress to point out how good O’Dowd was in the almost entirely overlooked 2012 musical The Sapphires? – thank you). But who is the film about – the cyclist chasing trophies or the journalist chasing his story? It never seems to make up its mind, and so we don’t quite learn how Armstrong fooled the doping authorities, though it’s clear that lots of drugs and blood transfusions are involved and that many cyclists were at it to one degree or another. And we don’t quite get the sense of a pursuit as Walsh tracks down his man. Nor does it seem really credible that a grown-up cynical journalist with great experience of the sport he’s covering would be that incensed about doping. It would seem much more likely, wouldn’t it, that Walsh was driven by a lust for glory. Like Armstrong, in fact. If that is the case, this film doesn’t make it. But what does come across strongly is how in thrall to a story the media are, and that Armstrong got away with his deception for so long because his narrative – surviving cancer, founding a charity and using it for lots of undoubted good works – was simply too strong to buck. And for all the film’s missed opportunities, that really is worth saying.
The Program – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016