Burden

Judy and Mike sitting on a log

Burden? As in “white man’s burden”? Ironically, no. There’s a white saviour theme running right the way through Andrew Heckler’s film but it actually takes its name from its key character, Mike Burden, a lifelong member of the Klan who saw the error of his ways.

With the flying of Confederate flags in the US an ongoing point of contention when this movie was released in 2018, Burden has timeliness on its side, and a core cast so accomplished most first-time directors would auction their mothers to get hold of them – Garrett Hedlund as Mike, Andrea Riseborough as the woman whose love makes him see the light, Tom Wilkinson as the local racist-in-chief and Forest Whitaker as the reverend fighting the good fight.

The action centres on a movie theatre, once upon a time a strictly “Coloreds Only” kind of place, which is now being turned into a Ku Klux Klan museum, complete with Confederate flag fluttering outside, by good ol’ boy Tom Griffin (Wilkinson), much to the disgust of the local black citizenry, vocally led by Reverend Kennedy (Whitaker). Burden is a repo guy who spends his days visiting poor people who haven’t been keeping up the payments on their TVs, but away from the day job is widely seen as the anointed successor of Griffin. Which is why the deeds to the building housing the theatre have been vested in Burden, so as to keep this South Carolina town’s cultural goad in white hands should anything happen to Griffin.

Hedlund plays Burden as so congenitally dumb and inbred that you can almost forgive his kneejerk racism as the actions of someone who knows no better. Judy (Riseborough) is Nobel laureate material compared to Mike, a thoughtful soul whose kid hangs out with the black kid of local man Clarence (Usher Raymond). It’s this relationship – Judy and Clarence – that is the pin on which this film turns, or it would be if Clarence weren’t just a cipher, as many of this film’s black characters are.

Reverend Kennedy outside the KKK Museum
Rev Kennedy outside the KKK Museum



Whitaker’s Rev Kennedy being the exception, a man of integrity, vigour and compassion who takes in Mike and Judy when they’re at a particularly low ebb and feeds them, thus eventually leading to a damascene conversion by Mike.

The film is set in the 1990s but Heckler deliberately makes the era a little hazy. It could be any time from the 1950s to the 2020s, and when a crowd gathers outside the KKK Museum at one point to protest, and chants “no justice, no peace” in an echo of Black Lives Matter the effect is only mildly anachronistic.

It’s a good looking film and well acted, with the cast all delivering more than was there on the page, but Heckler seems so concerned that we might sympathise with the wrong aspects of Mike and Judy’s characters that he leaves them under-developed – there’s just not very much to get hold of, particularly with Judy, who does little more than mope about when she’s not declaring her hot love for Mike.

Really this is all about Mike, who’s the only person to get an emotional arc, and even his is slow to get into gear. It’s only in the final act when Mike has to start fighting his way out of his corner that we start to get a real handle on his personality.

If drama is all about friction – between and within characters – it’s the element this undoubtedly heartfelt film could do with more of. Sanctimony hangs heavily on Burden, a two hour movie that would be vastly better with half an hour of running time removed. Which is something of a pity, since it’s a true story and one worth telling. The real Mike, Judy and the Reverend all appear over the end credits as a seal of authenticity.



Burden – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Possessor

Andrea Riseborough

 

Stab a human being in a vital area of the body and what happens? In most movies, after one clean thrust a modicum of blood seeps decorously into an item of clothing and the victim promptly drops dead. But this is a Brandon Cronenberg movie and Brandon is the heir to David Cronenberg, king of the body horrror.

So when someone is stabbed in the neck in the pre-credits sequence to Possessor, the blood-letting is spumungous, nasty, frenzied and inconclusive – this victim isn’t going down without a fight. Even as he dies he’s summoning all his forces to keep the only show he has on the road. That’s what happens.

Remarkably, this is Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature – there have been a handful of shorts – since Antiviral, his 2012 feature debut, a cerebral incursion into dad David’s body-horror territory but with a critique of celebrity culture whose subtext made Antiviral all Brandon’s own.

Possessor is a touch of same/same and borrows not just a bit of dad’s 1999 wild ride eXistenZ, but also one of its stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the control sending assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) on missions into other people bodies, using “them” to perform some murderous deed before Tasya is ported back into her own world, where her body has been waiting Matrix-style, plugged into life support while her mind was gambolling murderously.

eXistenZ, quick recap, is about Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh lost inside a computer game. Possessor sends Riseborough Tasya off on “one last job” – to assassinate a tech squillionaire (Sean Bean), and his heir-presumptive daughter (Tuppence Middleton), in the guise of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend (Christopher Abbott), leaving him to take the rap so the client, a mysterious stepson, can instead inherit.

 

Christopher Abbott
Taking over from the halfway mark, Christopher Abbott

In Tasya goes, at which point Andrea Riseborough more or less exits the movie (boo) and the acting torch is handed to Abbott, who struggles to match Riseborough for sheer magnetic oomph – but then who doesn’t?

In “one last job” movies, the assassin rarely has an easy time of it, and so it proves here – Tasya gets stuck inside her host’s body and he starts fighting back to establish who has the upper hand.

There’s no point going into the rest of the plot except to say that there is an awful lot more blood, gore and splatter before the end credits. People do not die easily in Possessor. Eyes are levered from sockets, teeth are bent out of reluctant jaws. Tons of fun.

It’s a little like Christopher Nolan’s Inception without the budget and relies an awful lot more on imagination rather than tech wows for its effects.

Cronenberg Jr wrote and directs and has the right stuff in spades, particularly the ideas, and an eye for a striking image, which is two pluses more than a lot of directors have.

Even so I couldn’t help feeling that for all its moments of mad excess and cool procedure, BC never quite found a register to fuly meld the “job” movie with the fugitive thriller.

On top of that there’s a lunge at profundity with a discussion about human identity and culpability – who is the author of the act if the person is possessed (or ill, for that matter)? – which is not only a step towards Christopher Nolan too far but also a resurrection of a trope that’s been done to death, revived and done to death again.

I see no upcoming details for BC on the IMDB and hoping it’s not going to be another eight years before his next film. Niggles apart, there’s an awful lot to like, admire even, in Possessor, particularly if severed body parts (still twitching) are your thing.

 

Possessor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Shadow Dancer

Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer

 

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

 

 

19 July

 

IRA declare ceasefire, 1997

On this day in 1997, the Provisional Irish Republican Army declared that hostilities with Britain were over. It had come into being, in its modern form, in 1969 after increasing unrest over campaigns for more civil rights for Catholics had resulted in the mass deployment of the British Army in Northern Ireland. There had been several ceasefires before, most recently in 1994 when secret talks between the IRA and the British government had led to negotiations about proper talks to secure a settlement. When the British government announced that it wouldn’t go into talks with Sinn Fein (seen as the political wing of the IRA, though becoming increasingly distant from it) until the IRA disarmed, the IRA responded by calling off the ceasefire. A new government in 1997, one that didn’t need the votes of Ulster Unionists (who were against any compromise in Northern Ireland) to sustain itself, changed the mood again and the ceasefire was reinstated on this day in 1997. The ceasefire remained in place until the IRA later declared that it had given up the armed struggle and would work for its political aim of a united Ireland “exclusively through peaceful means”.

 

 

 

Shadow Dancer (2012, dir: James Marsh)

Written by Tom Bradby, an ITN reporter who cut his teeth in Northern Ireland, Shadow Dancer is rich in detail and drenched in the ambience of the time, when an askance look, talking to the wrong person, not being enthusiastic enough about the cause could all get you killed. Bradby’s elegant script and James Marsh’s direction brilliantly set up in a few minutes what many films can’t do in 90 – showing us how the violence of one generation is passed on to the next in a simple scene of a young girl called Collette witnessing her brother being shot and killed in 1970s Northern Ireland. The action then cuts to London in 1993, where Collette, now all grown up and embodied by Andrea Riseborough, is picked up by police after trying to leave a bomb on the Tube in London. Enter Clive Owen in another of his slick “operative” roles, as the MI5 man using charm and naked threat to make Collette become an informer. It’s an offer she can’t refuse. The trap is set.
But when is it going to spring? That’s the coil of tension hanging over Shadow Dancer, which takes the spy thriller genre and does strange things with it. For one thing the mechanics that drive more Hollywood ventures – precise plotting and procedure – is replaced by sheer naked luck. In Shadow Dancer things work out quite often not because of the planning or derring-do but because fate somewhere flipped a coin and it came out heads. Victory also goes to the guy who can think on his or her feet. This insistence on the ad hoc nature of fate is matched by the look of the film – shabby, in a word, whether it is the MI5 offices full of hulking old computers, thick with cigarette smoke, or back in Northern Ireland, where prosperity always lagged way behind the rest of the UK. Nasty particulars also drum up an atmosphere: for instance the scene where hard men casually line a room with plastic sheeting before any questions have even been asked of the person they want to have “a chat” to – it’s going to get bloody.
And there’s the always excellent Riseborough as a very peculiar sort of spy, one who is working against her own people, an IRA woman whose had too much of the Troubles but still isn’t entirely ready to quit. And because Riseborough plays it absolutely straight – to her fellow actors rather than the audience – we’re unsure how far Collette is prepared to take her collaboration with MI5. This lack of a firm handle on the motivation of Collette’s character is possibly what made the film less of an instant sell to some people. Is Collette a good guy or a bad guy? Come to that, what draws a man like Mac (Owen) to a trade like this? And is his boss, tough nut Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) really the iron maiden she appears? Bradby’s script withholds, withholds, withholds, asking us to raise an “undecided” flag against nearly every character in the film, until finally as it deals out the final card, all becomes semi-clear, and we say “ahaa”. And then it all goes cloudy again – the fog of war swirls back in.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Andrea Riseborough’s performance
  • Tom Bradby’s great script
  • Real atmosphere of the place/time
  • Yves Angelo’s deliberately drab cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shadow Dancer – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Five Films about Margaret Thatcher

Andrea Riseborough as young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley

 

 

Margaret Thatcher, Mrs T, The Iron Lady, is dead. 31 years ago she was the most unpopular UK Prime Minister in history. Then, after winning the Falklands War she was re-elected in 1983. She was elected again in 1987 before being defenestrated by her party in 1990, a defeat she never quite came to terms with. Politically she was deeply divisive but on one point everyone is agreed – she recast British politics, and to a certain extent global politics, with her doctrine of open markets, privatisation, financial deregulation and tax cuts. Thatcher made the world we live in now. To some she was the greatest prime minister who ever lived, to others a devil in a blue dress. Here are five films either about her or in which she featured prominently.

 

 

Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (2008, dir: Niall MacCormick)

The breakthrough for the astonishingly versatile Andrea Riseborough who plays young Margaret Thatcher, a woman determined to make it in a man’s world. The decision to show Mrs T (even before she was Mrs T, in fact) as a plucky striver – is a brilliant one. Regardless of politics we’re on Thatcher’s side as a grim cavalcade of awful chauvinists, misogynists and old duffers spend ten years knocking our heroine back as a prospective parliamentary candidate. For those who think Meryl Streep is great as Mrs T, watch Riseborough do something similarly brilliant.

The Long Walk to Finchley – at Amazon

 

The Iron Lady (2011, dir: Phyllida Lloyd)

The amazing Meryl Streep plays Baroness Thatcher in old age, looking back through a haze of dementia at the handbagging Mrs T in her prime. It’s a tender portrait of a human being that has little to say about Mrs Thatcher as a political beast, or of the era she lived through. Best scene: Mrs T is haranguing Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, for trying to talk her out of the invasion of the Falklands. Having torn him off a strip, she jumps up and says, “Now, shall I be mother?” Bewilderment from Al Haig. “… Tea, Al, how do you like it, black or white?” Beautiful observed, and Meryl Streep’s comic timing is exquisite.

The Iron Lady – at Amazon

 

The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011, dir: Peter Richardson)

Stephen Mangan plays fugitive prime minister Tony Blair in a cod 1950s detective thriller from UK jokesters The Comic Strip. Dropped by all his political allies because of his increasingly unhinged behaviour and now a murderer on the run, Blair takes refuge with Baroness Thatcher (Jennifer Saunders), who now lives in Norma Desmond delusional obscurity with her manservant, Tebbit (John Sessions). Between them Sessions and Saunders manage to squeeze some of the better laughs out of a script that is as stop-go as the UK economy.

Not available at Amazon – not yet

 

Elizabeth (1998, dir: Shekhar Kapur)

The film is about Queen Elizabeth I of England, but Cate Blanchett plays her very much as an iron lady of four centuries later, the voice swooping low, the eyes blazing with fire, all intransigence and feminine wile (when it suits her). It says something about Margaret Thatcher that she’s become a resource, an archive reference for actresses to go to when reaching out for something tough, possibly something unholy. Imelda Staunton did something similar in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, playing Ministry of Magic apparatchik Dolores Umbridge as at least 50 per cent Mrs T. How that would have made the former prime minister’s blood boil – being presented as a bureaucrat, I mean.

Elizabeth – at Amazon

 

Margaret (2009, dir: James Kent)

A “last days of Thatcher” drama starring Lindsay Duncan as the prime minister hemmed in on all sides, not quite grasping that it is the party that made her leader, not the electorate, and that those who live by the sword are expected, when the time comes, to fall on it. And it is this failure to self-immolate that Richard Cottan’s screenplay is about. Duncan presents what is probably the iciest and most furious of the many portrayals of Thatcher, but then it was widely believed, by friend and foe alike, that by 1990 the country’s first female prime minister had slightly lost the plot. Incidentally, John Sessions turns up as Cabinet minister Geoffrey Howe. He played former Conservative party leader Edward Heath in The Iron Lady and minister Norman Tebbit in The Hunt for Tony Blair.

Margaret – at Amazon

 

 

Noble mentions: Lesley Manville in The Queen (2009), Anna Massey in Pinochet in Suburbia (2006), Patricia Hodge in The Falklands Play (2002), Steve Nallon as Thatcher’s voice in the Spitting Image TV series, Angela Thorne in Anyone for Denis? (1982). Highly effective Thatchers one and all.