Out in the UK This Week
The Imitation Game (StudioCanal, cert 12)
Benedict Cumberbatch plays code-breaking genius Alan Turing as an Asperger’s Kenneth More in this superior biopic set in the era of stiff upper lips and laws against homosexual deeds.
This drama returns to those laws several times, when it’s not busying itself with the actual big stuff – defeating the Germans. Of course, as everyone in the world knows but the UK’s cultural gatekeepers wilfully refuse to acknowledge, the Americans and the Russians won the Second World War, with Britain luckily on the winning side but making useful contributions. The cracking of the Enigma code, which allowed the Germans to communicate with each other without fear of the enemy eavesdropping, was more than useful, it was in some theatres of war decisive.
“We’re going to break an unbreakable Nazi code and win the war,” says Cumbo’s closeted gay Turing with a tiny smirk at one point, boiling the film down to a sentence. “Oh!” squeaks Keira Knightley, a bright spark in his team, somehow squeezing four vowel sounds into the exclamation, an ability thought lost since the passing of Celia Johnson.
Director Morten Tyldum showed a gift for the tiny gesture, the gorgeous texture in Headhunters and lavishes his visual style on The Imitation Game, which is otherwise all jolly hockey sticks and cracking wheezes, great fun while it’s in the Second World War, correspondingly bleak when it shifts to ten years later and Turing is being pursued for his wayward taste in men.
You could take issue with Cumbo’s on/off character tics, but maybe Turing was like that too, and used a “withdrawn personality” as a defence mechanism. In which case the actor’s nailed it.
In any case, who wants to pick a fight with Cumbo right now? You’d be better off trying to trash Richard Attenborough in the PoW dramas he featured in, which The Imitation Game snugly sits next to.
’71 (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Having been massively impressive in Starred Up, Jack O’Connell gets a “vehicle”, a thriller set in Belfast in 1971, when the Northern Ireland Troubles were just getting into gear.
Once upon a time a film made in the UK and set at this time would have arrived already laden with accusations of political partisanship; it might even have been targeted by the men in balaclavas. Now, with most of the dust settled, and doubtless partly because director Yann Demange is French, Northern Ireland can be used more as a backdrop for an old fashioned chase movie.
O’Connell plays the rookie dropped into this alien territory with other British Army squaddie volunteers, but he’s the only one who gets caught on the wrong side of an invisible fault line and is then pursued as if his life depends on it, because it does.
This is a concisely set up film – in a couple of strokes we’re introduced to this orphanage kid who has clearly joined the Army because it’s the next step in an institutional life; we’re entirely on his side. After that, elegance continues to be ’71‘s notable feature, the chase allowing us, through O’Connell, to visit all sides: old IRA and new, normal army and Special Branch provocateurs, Protestant loyalists of various stripes, each group comprised of good guys and bad guys, Demange having no particular axe to grind, everyone caught up in a situation which has developed its own momentum and which no one can now slow down.
But it’s only even handed to a point: its darkest characters are the Brits, the excellent Sean Harris as Captain Browning being the full Machiavellian deal, twirling moustache and all. Shot out on the streets, with lots of sodium orange, and a soundtrack of rhythmic ambience, this is an arthouse actioner that undermines any likely criticism of its political position by focusing so tightly on the poor squaddie at its centre that it appears to be about one lone man having an extremely bad night, rather than a region of the planet descending into an ugly civil war.
Say When aka Laggies (Icon, cert 15)
I came out of The Edge of Love, John Maybury’s 2008 film about the love triangle that the poet Dylan Thomas set up between himself, his wife and his mistress, understanding suddenly how much better an actress Sienna Miller was than Keira Knightley – the one so natural against the other’s self-consciousness.
Knightley evidently did too, because ever since then she’s actually worked at becoming better at what she does – and since when did multi-millionaire stars bothers with such a thing?
It is paying off in Say When, which will probably be a disappointment for lovers of Lynn Sheltons’s indie-ish relationship dramas but is highly welcome if you like left-field romantic (sort of) comedy (again, sort of). Knightley plays a slacker, whose refusal to grow up eventually sees the late-20something becoming friends with a high schooler (Chloe Grace Moretz) after being asked to buy hookey hooch from a liquor store for her.
Sam Rockwell plays Moretz’s dad, highly suspicious of the developing relationship, which is where the sort-of rom and com mostly come in.
As with Shelton’s other films, there’s a lovely loose, improvisatory feel, and Knightley rises to the challenge with a spiky intelligent performance. Moretz plays to her strengths as a darkly bright teenager whose life might go either way, while Rockwell is believable and effortless as a charming but jaded divorce lawyer whose life is also, if he’d only see it, slightly adrift.
It’s a film that divides people up into two groups – the laggies (the film’s original title), who are the good guys, people who busk their way through life without a script and so sometimes get a bit lost; and the other lot, among them Knightley’s boyfriend (Mark Webber), at bottom conservative and never off someone else’s message.
It’s neither as raucous as Shelton’s Hump Day nor as emotionally tough as her My Sister’s Sister, but it is a good film, in some ways the sort that Ernst Lubitsch used to make – people you like in situations you recognise doing things you understand. And entertaining. Very.
Eastern Boys (Peccadillo, cert 15)
Beefed up with a bit of softcore gay sex to sell into a target niche, Eastern Boys is in fact much more than just a cheap thrill for the ageing homosexual. It’s a “state of the European Union” French drama about a 40something man who picks up a Ukrainian rent boy and then has his home invaded by a motley gang of the boy’s miscreant friends, who burgle and trash the place, confident that our man is closeted and won’t do anything about it. Or that the lad is underage – I could never quite work out the motives of the middle aged Daniel. But it doesn’t matter – he is in any case meant to be a still bourgeois centre around which the mayhem orbits.
Strangely, the film drops this intensely dramatic opening scenario, moving through two others (no spoilers) before coming to a thrilling finale out on the edge of Paris in the sort of cheap migrant hotel that every capital city possesses by the score.
Eastern Boys has lots to recommend it – it casts an urgent spell with minimum of dialogue, works dramatic wonders with only a couple of interior locations, never shakes off the seedy, faintly psychotic atmosphere it sets up at the beginning.
And it’s got an excellent cast – Olivier Rabourdin as Daniel, who has something of Kevin Spacey about him (would Spacey take on the role in an English version? Probably wouldn’t dare), Kirill Emelyanov as the Ukrainian Daniel falls for, Daniil Vorobyov as the unhinged leader of the rent boy gang, and in a tiny role but announcing herself as a star, Edéa Darcque as a the duty manager in the flophouse hotel.
Marius (Film First, cert 12)
Daniel Auteuil is working his way through the Marcel Pagnol back catalogue, Marius being one third of the Marseille Trilogy also comprising Fanny (also out this week) and César (now in production). A couple of years back he also directed The Well Digger’s Daughter, another Pagnol original, and clearly buoyed by its success has decided to continue in the same vein: the full, old-school, quasi-theatrical, rose-tinted Pagnol shtick, in other words.
You are familiar with Manon des Sources and Jean de Florette (both of which featured Auteuil in a supporting role), also derived from Pagnol sources? This is same/same, but with not quite so much polish – Auteuil is pretty good but he’s no Claude Berri, director of 1986’s Manon and Florette (significantly, Auteuil waited until Berri died, in 2009, before he started on his Pagnol journey, in 2011).
The film, though, the film – ah yes, set in old Marseille down by the port, where Auteuil runs the bar, Raphaël Personnaz is his lusty son with dreams of going to sea, Victoire Bélézy is the lovely Fanny, whom Marius should marry because she’s not only the most beautiful girl in town but is spunky and bright. But Marius has got this thing for the sea and… hélas… and so on.
It’s a will they/won’t they, in other words, but it’s more about the time and the place than any of the people, and Auteuil adds another layer of nostalgie to the mix by deliberately echoing the acting style and camera movements of the 1930s (I’d suggest that this is a homage to the series of films made in the 1930s and directed by Pagnol himself, though I haven’t seen them).
It is entirely artificial, entirely lovely, one hundred per cent uncool and strangely affecting, especially Fanny’s heartbreak as her ice-queen carapace dissolves and she makes a sacrifice for the man she loves.
The Drop (Fox, cert 15)
A couple of years ago Michael R Roskam directed Bullhead, a particularly excellent and unusual drama which starred Matthias Schoenaerts as a rural gangster who injected himself with animal growth hormones.
It was an “actor on fire” performance and watching it I was convinced it would be remade for English-speakers and that Tom Hardy would take the Schoenaerts role.
We’re too pansy for meat that dark, it seems. But here, interestingly enough, is Tom Hardy in Roskam’s next film, with Schoenaerts slightly further down the billing, waiting like a depth charge for the last third of the film. Watch him and marvel.
I’m not sure the same can be said about the film as a whole, which feels like an achingly familiar walk down golden-era Scorsese streets, James Gandolfini starring as the putz “owner” of a Mob bar, Hardy as his bridling barkeep son, Noomi Rapace as the girl whose name might as well be Trouble, and Schoenaerts as her former boyfriend (and owner, as far as he’s concerned).
If we’re being kind, it’s a 1970s mood piece, brilliantly executed. If we’re not, it’s a reasonably pointless pastiche, with stock characters such as the Latino cop who reckons he knows what’s going on but can’t get through the wall of omerta, the Russian gangster loquacious one minute, vicious the next, and so on.
Gandolfini is great as the guy still standing on his vanished dignity, Hardy can do nothing with a role that probably worked better in Dennis Lehane’s original story, a fact made clear by Roskam’s use of voiceover to try and fill in the blanks in Hardy’s character. Rapace? Could be anyone, again a thin role.
It’s Schoenaerts who impresses. Watch him progressively increase the power of his performance, which is never less than weird and sinister and alone worth watching the film for.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (E One, cert PG)
The filmic equivalent of Sunday night TV – reassuring, soporific, something you can do the ironing to, The Hundred-Foot Journey is the story of cultures clashing, but nicely, in picture-postcard France, where Om Puri and his large family of Indian immigrants, but nice immigrants, open a curry house – not a beery, lime-pickle-poppadum-beef-madras one but a tasteful pistachio-tandoori-quail affair – opposite a Michelin-starred restaurant run by an in-theory-formidable French restaurateur in the shape of Helen Mirren.
They don’t get on. Then they do. The end.
There isn’t a genuine moment or a believable relationship in this latest coffee-table feelgood film by Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), who keeps the pretty pictures coming though never works them into a dramatic arc.
The whole thing can best be summed up by Mirren’s bogus French accent. Quite why she eez speeeking laike zees when genuine French members of the cast are not is a mystery. But someone higher up the food chain has decreed that this is what the half-asleep, possibly Marigold Hotel demographic will be expecting.
Mirren was nominated for a Golden Globe for her music-hall turn, and her face when the nominations were read out said it all – “What me? For that? You’ve got to be… well, OK, but really…?”
If you’ve got a lot of shirts to do, you will probably love it.
The Hundred-Foot Journey – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015