Month: March 2019

The Kindergarten Teacher

20/03/19

The Kindergarten Teacher is an enigmatic film. A remake of Navid Lapid’s Haganenet, this is a quietly unnerving, genre-defying drama, with a devastatingly understated performance at its heart.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lisa Spinelli, a kindergarten teacher longing for a more culturally enriching life. She loves art and poetry, but feels trapped by the mundanity of her suburban existence. There’s nothing wrong, exactly: she’s good at her job; she has a supportive husband; her teenage kids are decent, and doing okay. But there’s a spark missing. Her children seem happy to just pootle along, and she can’t hide her disappointment that they don’t aspire to anything great. “I noticed you’re good at photography,” she tells her daughter, Lainie (Daisy Tahan), “Why don’t you take dad’s old camera and set up the dark room?” But Lainie is dismissive: “I post lots of cool stuff on Instagram,” and Lisa is adrift, with only her weekly poetry class to fulfil her need for erudition. But she’s all drive and no substance: her poems are, it seems, derivative, clichéd. Her heart aches for creativity, but it’s out of reach.

So, when five-year-old Jimmy starts reciting oddly esoteric poetry, Lisa pounces on his potential. Habitually a quiet, undemanding little boy, he regularly enters a trance-like state, declaiming lines extraordinary for one so young. They seem to speak of experiences beyond his years, and Lisa gleefully transcribes them. He’s a child prodigy, she thinks, a Mozart of verse. And she’s determined to let neither the school curriculum nor his benignly neglectful family stifle the boy’s genius.

And, in order to protect it, she crosses a line.

It’s to writer/director Sara Colangelo’s credit that we never discover the root of Jimmy’s precocity: there’s a hint of the supernatural about the way the poems come to him, but it’s never really explained. This ambiguity serves the film well, complementing the moral uncertainty surrounding Lisa’s response to the gifted child; there are no easy answers here. It’s a deceptively simple piece, the very banality of Lisa’s decision-making process somehow highlighting the grotesque nature of her behaviour.

Parker Sevak’s delivery is remarkable for one so young; he shows us a Jimmy who is convincingly doubtful, yet easily manipulated. But Gyllenhaal is the beguiling core of this movie, demonstrating once again an astonishing level of complexity in her performance. There are so many layers to Lisa’s character, and we’re aware of them all: from her craven seeking of validation from hot young lecturer, Simon (Gael García Bernal) to her instinctive reluctance to allow her son to join the armed forces. We know that what she’s doing is wrong, but we can understand her, all the time.

This is a quietly powerful piece that will provoke discussion after the credits have rolled.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

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Wild Rose

19/03/19

After her confident showing in Beast, it only seemed a matter of time before we saw Jessie Buckley in a star-making role – and Wild Rose might just be the film to do it for her. As Glaswegian wannabe country star, Rose-Lynn Harlen, she positively owns the screen, even when starring opposite professional scene-stealer, Julie Walters.

Rose-Lynn has long held an ambition: to go to Nashville and become a star of country music (not country and western, mind; that’s a whole different kettle of corn!). But when we first meet her, she’s in the process of being released from a year’s spell in prison, where she’s been sent for throwing a bag of heroin over the wall to one of the inmates. Issued with an ankle tag, which means she has to be home by seven o’clock every evening, she heads off to her mother, Marion (Walters), who has been looking after Rose-Lynn’s two young children in her absence. The children barely know Rose and it’s clear she needs to spend time learning to be their mother again – but those long-held ambitions don’t leave much room for anything so mundane as parenthood.

Rose-Lynn soon discovers that while she’s been away, her regular gig at a Glasgow country music venue has been taken over by someone far less talented than her, and she can’t perform in the evenings anyway. So, at Marion’s urging, she takes a day-job as a cleaner for the wealthy and influential Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who, once appraised of Rose’s singing skills, decides to use her considerable clout to give her cleaner’s stalled career a boost – but it eventually becomes apparent that the only person who can really help Rose-Lynn achieve her ambitions is… Rose-Lynn herself.

The film is directed by Tom Harper and cannily scripted by Nicole Taylor, and is astonishingly sure-footed throughout. Every time the story threatens to edge too close to cliché, Taylor cannily subverts it and steers things in a much more interesting direction. Here are well-drawn working-class characters, who are never allowed to be the butt of cheap jokes, but emerge as fully drawn, sympathetic people with real lives to live. Okenedo’s character is also a delight, someone who’s prepared to give everything she’s got to help someone better their situation.

Of course, the icing on the cake is that Buckley has an absolutely amazing voice, delivering every song with real passion and vigour, whether she’s standing mournfully on the stage of the Grand Ole’ Opry or belting out a humdinger in a hometown nightclub.  Oh, and look out for a cameo from ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, playing himself with absolute conviction.

Wild Rose is a genuine treat, a country music spectacular that never slows down long enough to drag its cowgirl heels. Miss this one and weep!

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

17/03/219

This Netflix Original marks actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by William Kankwamba, the ‘boy’ himself. It’s a charming, assured production, even if the ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-can’ title rather robs the film of any possibility of suspense.

It’s the mid-noughties and the Kankwamba family live in Malawi in the little farming village of Wimbe. Trywell (Ejiofor) is struggling to make ends meet because the land he works on, after years of irresponsible tobacco farming by Western companies, is alternately flooded or drought-ridden. Since the failure of the last crop of grain, the inhabitants of Wimbe are slowly starving to death. Trywell’s son, William (Maxwell Simba), is desperate to receive a proper education but here admission to a school has to be purchased with hard cash and Trywell has his work cut out just keeping his family fed, so school fees are an unaffordable luxury.

William has long had a sideline in fixing people’s transistor radios, something he seems to have a natural flair for – and, when he manages to salvage an old turbine from a local scrapyard, an idea begins to form in the back of his mind, something which he believes could make his family’s life a whole lot easier. But in order to realise that ambition, he will first have to persuade Trywell to part with one of his most treasured possessions…

It’s a gentle, heartwarming story, made all the more resonant for being based on real events. Ejiofor is terrific as Trywell and Aissa Maiga impresses as his long-suffering wife, Agnes, determined to head off the burgeoning conflict between father and son. But it’s young Maxwell Simba, making his acting debut here, who is the beating heart of the film. He does a good job of conveying his character’s hopes and ambitions, his stubborn refusal to give in when all the odds are stacked against him.

As I said, the outcome of the story is never really in doubt and, ultimately, it takes too long to arrive at its inevitable conclusion. But this is the tale of a remarkable and resilient young man; it’s well worth seeking out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Spotty Bag Shop

17/02/19

Old Market Place, Banff

We’re in Aberdeenshire for the weekend because Philip’s visiting a school here tomorrow. We’re staying in a beautiful converted barn in Fordyce: it’s luxuriously appointed and has a stunning view of the coast. But although Fordyce is undoubtedly a lovely place – all winding streets and historic buildings, it’s tiny, and we saw it all yesterday. So today, we decide, we’ll head into Banff, and investigate what the seaside town has to offer.

A quick Google search informs us that there’s an aquarium in nearby Macduff, so we go there first and, after we’ve enjoyed the sea life, the helpful young receptionist answers our request for ‘somewhere good for lunch’ with four words we’re really not expecting to hear. “The Spotty Bag Shop,” he says.

“The…?” I trail off. “For lunch?”

He smiles. “Yes, the Spotty Bag Shop.”

This oddly named restaurant turns out to be based in a large, if unprepossessing building, tucked away behind the Co-op. Downstairs it’s all logs and pet food and outdoor pursuits equipment. If you want a Regatta fleece or a dog bed, this is certainly the place to come. But lunch? But then, we spot a staircase and when we follow it up, we find ourselves in a large dining area. It’s packed, and there’s quite a queue too. We’re handed a pager and advised to ‘have a look around the shop’ while we wait. This oddly named venue is certainly popular!

The service is brisk and friendly, and the menu pleasing – if a little predictable. There’s a Sunday roast on offer, but neither of us is in the mood for that. Instead, Philip opts for haddock and chips, and I have a quiche with salad and baked potato.

Look, this isn’t fancy food. The chips are frozen, and the sauce comes in sachets. But the fish is perfectly cooked – all soft flakes of flesh encased in hot, crispy batter, while the homemade quiche is also very flavoursome. The portions are large: perhaps too large, because not even I can face a pudding after this. Which is a shame, because the sweet treats in the display cabinet look really good, especially the scones and the millionaire’s brownie. I suspect that pastry may be this cafe’s real strength.

If you’re in Banff and you fancy a bite to eat, the Spotty Bag Shop will fulfil your needs. It’s a friendly, pleasant place, with a bustling atmosphere.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The Taming of the Shrew

 

13/03/19

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew. I know the play, of course (I’ve even written essays about it), and I’ve been entertained by a number of intriguing reinterpretations in various forms: Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl. But I’ve never seen it staged. Maybe because it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most contentious play – although The Merchant of Venice certainly has its issues too – and difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

For those readers who need a quick reminder, the ‘shrew’ of the title is Kate, a wayward young woman, whose volatility deters any would-be beaux. Her father – based on some labyrinthine reasoning – imposes a bizarre rule: her sweet-natured sister, Bianca, cannot marry before Kate. But Bianca is a popular girl, and her suitors do not want to wait. Enter Petruchio, with a plan to break the older girl’s spirit. He bullies, half starves, gaslights and manipulates her into submission. In a modern play, this would be the midway point; we’d see Kate regain her equilibrium and Petruchio punished. But here, this is the denouement. It’s most uncomfortable.

And it’s not just the gender politics that make TTOTS problematic. The plot is convoluted and over-contrived, the humour weirdly at odds with the central relationship. It’s a tough call for any theatre company, let alone one so young as the EUSC.

But, under Tilly Botsford’s direction, this is a marked success. We’re never in any doubt that Petruchio (played with chilling self-righteousness by Michael Hajiantonis) is an awful man: he treats his servants with the same foul aggression as his wife. I applaud the decision to cast women as the servants too, emphasising the power of the patriarchal structure, and underscoring the theme of domestic violence.

Sally MacAlister is marvellous as Grumio. She clearly relishes the role, and imbues the much put-upon servant with humour and brio. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller also stands out as Vincentio: he inhabits this small role with a natural ease that is very impressive.

Of course, Anna Swinton has the hardest job: she’s Kate, and it’s a tough part to play. Perhaps, in some earlier scenes, her body language could be less languid and more combative, but this is a small point. Because her often mute response to Pertuchio’s bullying is nuanced as well as unequivocal, and – in that final moment – when she delivers her speech about why a wife should submit to her husband – the desperation of this broken woman is heartbreaking to witness.

This EUSC production shows then that it is perfectly possible to deliver this controversial play exactly as it stands, without compromising our changed values. A difficult undertaking, but most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Aftermath

11/03/19

There have been plenty of movies that concentrate on torrid wartime romances but, as you might guess from its title, The Aftermath is based in that uncertain period just after the end of World War II, when the victorious allied forces were trying to manage their defeated enemy and get them back into some semblance of order – after all but destroying them.

Based amidst the devastated ruins of Hamburg, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is one of the luckless officers charged with heading up those efforts and, to ensure that his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightly), can live comfortably alongside him, he commandeers the palatial home of German architect, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann).

Stephen claims he has never been a Nazi sympathiser and he is grieving the loss of his wife, who was killed during the allied bombing of Hamburg. Obliged to live up in the attic, Stephen and Freda can only watch in silent dismay as the British couple attempt to make themselves at home in the main part of their house.

But Rachel is mourning a loss of her own – and it’s quickly apparent that she and her husband are not exactly your average happily married couple. There’s a yawning chasm between them, one that they seem totally unable to cross – and it doesn’t help that Stephen is an attractive young man, who soon begins to cast alluring looks in Rachel’s direction – ones that she cannot help responding to.

The Aftermath is, ultimately,  a somewhat slight melodrama. It’s beautifully acted by the three leads – particularly Knightly, who once again effortlessly disproves the legions of critics who claim her career is based entirely on her looks  – and its evocations of post war Hamburg are convincingly mounted. But the film is lacking in any real depth beyond the tortured love triangle at the core of the story. We are never shown enough of the lives of the other characters who occasionally inhabit the screen. There’s a brief subplot that sees Freda becoming involved with young Hitler supporter, Albert (Jannik Schümann), but that feels underdeveloped – while Martin Compston has a fairly thankless role as Burnham, one of Lewis’s colleagues, a man who clearly thinks that all Germans should be treated as harshly as possible. He’s simply not given enough to do.

There are three credible outcomes for the situation and it’s probably true to say that the scriptwriters have opted for the least daring of them. Ultimately, The Aftermath is perfectly watchable film with a couple of genuinely tear-jerking moments, but I cannot help feeling that, properly handled, it could be so much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney