Author: Bouquets & Brickbats

The Lost Daughter

02/02/22

Netflix

I really want to like The Lost Daughter. After all, it’s directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and stars two of my favourite actors, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. The reviews I’ve read have all been glowing, so I’m expecting great things. And yet, in the end, it just doesn’t seem to have enough heft: it’s all build up, with weak foundations and no catharsis.

Colman and Buckley both play Leda Caruso. Buckley, of course, plays the younger iteration, a twenty-something post-grad student, struggling to balance her burgeoning academic career with the demands of her marriage and two young children. Time has rendered such issues less pressing for Colman’s Leda, who – approaching fifty – is now a professor, free to spend the summer alone on a Greek island, her adult daughters busy leading their own lives.

The movie opens with Colman’s Leda collapsing on the beach, so we know from the start that something isn’t right. In a series of flashbacks, we are shown what has brought Leda here, from the working-holiday immediately preceding her fall to the ‘crushing responsibility’ of motherhood that overwhelmed her younger self.

At first, the holiday seems idyllic. The island is undoubtedly beautiful; Leda’s apartment is charming; the sun is shining; the beach is quiet. There are hints that something is amiss: the mouldy fruit in the bowl; an insect buzzing on her pillow. But all seems well until a large, brash American family arrives, rudely interrupting Leda’s peace. When their matriarch, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), pregnant for the first time at forty-two, asks Leda to move her lounger so that the family can sit together, Leda stubbornly refuses. And an animosity is born that overshadows her whole stay…

Despite her instinctive dislike of the family, Leda finds herself drawn to Callie’s glamorous sister-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose relationship with her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), reminds Leda of her own past. When Elena goes missing, Leda helps to find her, and the two women form an uneasy bond.

So far, so good. As a character study, this film is wonderful. Leda is a complex and interesting woman, whose conflicting desires and ambivalence towards parenthood make her an all-too-rare sight on our screens. But, though it pains me to say it, the casting doesn’t quite work. No one can reasonably argue that Colman and Buckley aren’t terrific actors, and they both deliver here, offering detailed and nuanced performances. But they don’t cohere: their Ledas are two different people. It’s not just the way they look; audiences are used to suspending their disbelief on that account. They sound so very different though – Buckley’s sonorous tones at odds with Colman’s girlish, higher-pitched voice – and their movement doesn’t match either.

Gyllenhaal’s direction isn’t bad. She utilises close-ups to excellent effect, and really ramps up the tension: a sense of all-pervading menace is cleverly evinced. But what’s the point, I wonder, if it never amounts to anything? I’m left frustrated by the damp squib of an ending, with nothing calamitous ever revealed or resolved.

A little internet searching shows me the missing piece: in Elena Ferrante’s source novel, Leda is from Naples (instead of ‘Shipley, near Leeds’) and the invading family is also Neapolitan. The sense of dread Leda feels when she encounters them isn’t just snobbery, it’s actual fear, based on her own past, and her own experience of a Mafia-style clan. Perhaps it’s this change that makes Leda’s sense of foreboding harder to understand – and weakens the story in the process.

It feels like a squandered opportunity.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The King’s Man

02/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s two Kingsman movies. A refreshing take on the spy genre, written with a nod and a cheeky grin, they provided easy, if undemanding, entertainment. After long delays caused by the pandemic, we finally get to see The King’s Man, a sort of origins tale, which explains how the Kingsman Agency came into being.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a very different kettle of fish – some of which is well past its sell-by date. It isn’t that Vaughn’s screenplay (written this time without Jane Goldman) is short on ideas. There are just too many of them, fighting with each other for breathing space and frankly as risible as the proverbial box of frogs.

After the violent death of his wife in South Africa, Lord Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a rich pacifist do-gooder swears to shield his young son from any possibility of warfare. Twelve years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) has grown to be a young man and, with the world hurtling headlong towards the conflict of the First World War, he decides he wants to be involved. He’s blissfully unaware that, over the intervening years, his father has created a special network of spies, working alongside two of his trusted servants, Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). Working with other ‘domestics’ across the world, all with access to centres of government, the trio are able to gather evidence of any approaching catastrophe and take steps to avoid unnecessary lives being lost… yes, that really is the premise!

Cue a series of unlikely adventures, with Oxford and son working alongside Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance), being present at the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand and even taking on Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) in a martial-arts infused punch-up (actually one of the films better sequences). Meanwhile Tom Hollander struggles with a triple role as three of history’s most famous cousins – King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas – and ultimately, we learn that the entire war has been engineered by… No, I can’t tell you. Not without being embarrassed by the sheer absurdity of it. Put it this way. I seriously doubt you’ll see it coming.

While it’s true there are a couple of excellent action set-pieces in the later stretches of the film, there’s a long grim wait before we get to them, during which we are treated to a parade of caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On film. There are also some conspiracy theories that frankly beggar belief. The final straw is the use of Dulce et Decorum est to pass comment on the senseless slaughter of the First World War. While Fiennes reads it beautifully, it’s hard not to imagine Wilfred Owen spinning in his grave as Vaughan makes a desperate attempt to have his Bakewell Tart and eat it.

The overall message here seems to be that humanity always depends on rich toffs to step in and bail them out of trouble when, once again, the rest of us make a mess of things. Fiennes, a superb actor, is worthy of better material than he’s given here and I’m not referring to the tailoring.

It’s a great shame, because clearly a lot of time, effort and money has been expended on this production. Released on Boxing Day in an apparent attempt to hoover up the Christmas market, I seriously doubt this will recoup what must have been a considerable investment.

Even during the festive season, there’s only so much cheese an audience can swallow.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Tragedy of Macbeth

01/01/22

Filmhouse, Edinburgh

I’m not sure what to make of the writing credit for this latest adaptation of Macbeth. The wording – ‘written for the screen by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare’ – seems a tad… hubristic. Because this is mostly Shakespeare’s work, albeit deftly sprinkled with some movie dust. Coen’s direction here is sublime, and his pared back adaptation works really well. It’s just, y’know. ‘Play by William Shakespeare; adapted for the screen by Joel Coen’ would sit better.

But it’s my only real gripe (if I overlook the absence of a single Scottish accent in the, ahem, Scottish play). This is the best movie version I’ve seen – and I have seen a lot. Although Shakespeare never specifies the Macbeths’ ages, I’ve tended towards the view that they ought to be young: all that swagger and ambition and impatience. When they’re portrayed as middle-aged, something seems to be lost. Here, both lord and lady are actually old: they’re in their sixties; nigh on retirement age. And it all starts to make sense again: this is a last-ditch attempt to fulfil their dreams. Time and place “have made themselves” and the Macbeths can’t resist the temptation to finally realise their desires.

Shot in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth is a claustrophobic affair, with none of the epic battle scenes I’ve grown used to seeing in big-screen adaptations. Indeed, it feels very theatrical, the castle walls as contained and constraining as any stage could be. We rarely venture out of Macbeth’s castle; when we do, it’s into countryside so swathed in mist that very little is visible. This is a stripped back version of the play, shining a spotlight on the key elements and emotions.

Denzel Washington is magnificent as the flawed hero: this is a towering performance, at once imposing and accessible. We can believe in him as a good man corrupted by greed, unable to live with his own actions. Likewise, Frances McDormand gives us a Lady Macbeth we can understand: she’s not presented here as a temptress, leading Macbeth to his doom, but as his partner, his equal, persuading him to indulge in a shared fantasy. The consequences are as devastating to her as they are to him.

Kathryn Hunter – playing all three witches – is perhaps my favourite thing about this production. She’s a gifted physical performer, and lends the shape-shifting ‘weird sisters’ a wonderful unearthly quality. Again, Coen’s judicious employment of theatrical devices (it can’t be incidental that Hunter has worked extensively with Complicité) makes for a compelling and unusual movie; this is a successful hybrid.

Coen only deviates from Shakespeare when it comes to Ross (Alex Hassell). A minor character in the original play, he appears here as a Machiavellian schemer, sidling up to where the power is, with one eye always on what might happen next. He’s Iago; he’s Tony Soprano; he’s Dominic Cummings. The additional layer really works.

In short, this is a triumph. It lays bare the heart of Shakespeare’s play. So, proceed further in this business; be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire, and get yourself to the cinema. This is too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Don’t Look Up

24/12/21

Netflix

It’s Christmas Eve, so of course we all want something cheery and cuddly to watch… right?

Adam McKay’s Don’t look Up may just qualify as the least likely candidate for a fun Christmas movie in the history of such things, and yet this whip-smart, prescient and funny satire somehow hits all the right buttons to provide an evening of entertaining viewing.

Scientist Doctor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is initially excited when one of his students, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discovers a new comet in the solar system, but he’s rather less pleased when their projections suggest that said comet – a massive heavenly projectile – is due to collide with planet earth in something less than six months’ time. This will be an extinction event.

Understandably spooked, they contact an expert, Professor Teddy Oglethorpe (Ron Morgan), with their findings and the three of them alert the White House. Initially, they are treated like a trio of cranks. President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is much more interested in her mid-term prospects, currently on the skids since she’s been found emailing pictures of her ahem… lady parts… to a her boyfriend. Orlean’s son, the Trumpian Jason (Jonah Hill), appears to have the intellect of a sandwich toaster and is more interested on what’s trending on social media than any upcoming real-life calamity.

But the reality slowly dawns. This is actually going to happen…

So who is going to save the world? Could it be the powerful mobile phone entrepreneur, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a cross between Elon Musk and Tim Cook? Or maybe the vacuous (but influential) pop star, Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), who can at least compose a saccharine song abut what’s happening? And what about the callous, self-regarding chat show host, Brie Eventree (Cate Blanchett), or her smug co-presenter, Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry)?

Then President Orlean realises that she might be able to manipulate the approaching catastrophe in order to improve her own ratings. As the comet inexorably approaches, nobody seems able to agree on a sensible course of action…

Don’t look Up is played for laughs, but it’s ridiculously easy to spot the real life targets McKay has in his sights and, wild as this all is, it’s scarily believable. Substitute the word ‘comet’ for say, ‘pandemic’ or ‘global warming,’ and you’ll see the same cast of characters strutting their stuff: the scientists, the non-believers, the conspiracy-theorists and the tech billionaires, all determined to turn any disaster to their advantage.

McKay walks a perilous tightrope to a suspenseful conclusion that is both devastating – and, at the same time, devastatingly funny. Okay, like I said, not everybody will want to stomach this Netflix Original production quite so close to Christmas. All that turkey and mincemeat might be enough to swallow right now. But as you head into the New Year, be sure to tune in. It’s simply too good to miss.

And make sure you watch till the very end…

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: No Way Home

17/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I’ve seen most of the superhero movies and the one franchise I consistently enjoy is Spider-Man. I suppose it makes perfect sense. I was a big fan of the comic books back in the day and the films – all three of the major strands – have always had that lightness of touch that somehow steps aside from the pomposity of so many Marvel projects. Played mostly for laughs, the ‘Spidys’ have a levity about them, as their young protagonist goes about his heroic duties, whilst trying to woo his girlfriend and ensure that he gets a proper education.

I was somewhat apprehensive when I picked up on the various rumblings about the Multiverse (inevitable, I suppose, after the success of Lord and Miller’s wonderful Into the Spider-Verse) and also, the heavily-trumpeted presence of a certain Doctor Strange, but, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. While this is undoubtedly the most complex Spider-Film to date, the sparky script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers manages to keep things moving briskly along. Every time a scene threatens to become too portentous, they throw in a snarky comment or a bit of tomfoolery and everything blurs back into motion. The two hour running time is never allowed to drag.

No Way Home picks up at the cliff-hanging moment where Far From Home left off – with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) being publicly outed. The ensuing fallout from that event kickstarts the new film straight into action and it barely stops to take a breath. It all feels horribly real as Peter, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) are trolled, mocked and despised by the right-wing buffoons who have been listening to shock-jock, J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons). It’s weirdly prescient.

Feeling cornered and understandably worried about those he loves, Peter has what he thinks is a brilliant idea. He approaches his old pal Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to reverse time (as you do) so everyone will forget that he’s actually our favourite neighbourhood web-slinger.

Needless to say it’s a very bad idea.

Strange’s celestial tinkering accidentally opens a breach in the Multiverse and, almost before Peter knows what happening, he’s being pursued by adversaries from across time – they include Doc Octopus (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and many, many others, most of whom are astonished to find that Peter doesn’t look anything like the man they remember, but are perfectly happy to try and kill him anyway. Luckily, he doesn’t have to fight them off single-handedly, because he’s offered help from an unexpected quarter…

As is so often the case with these movies, there’s an extended super-powered punch-up at the conclusion, but even this is saved from becoming tedious by liberal deployment of the aforementioned witty dialogue – and there’s a surprisingly poignant coda to the film, which ties all the multifarious strands neatly together. Holland has hinted that this may be as far as his involvement will go and I have to say, if he does choose to step away, he’ll be leaving a very accomplished trilogy to remember him by.

Mind you, it’s clear that this won’t be the end. A post-credits teaser dangles the dubious prospect of a Spawn/Spider-Man mash up, which really isn’t something I relish, but Sony are bound to want to involve their other big-selling franchise at some point, so we’ll see what happens on that score.

Those who are willing to stay in their seats till the credits stop rolling will be rewarded with a trailer for the upcoming Dr Strange movie, which looks… strange, to say the very least.

But meanwhile, No Way Home is well worth your attention. Even unapologetic spandex-haters should give this one the benefit of the doubt. Because, you know what? It rocks.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

West Side Story

16/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Though an admitted fan of musicals, Steven Spielberg has never attempted one: until now, that is.

It’s perhaps typical of the man that he’s taken on one of the most acclaimed musicals in history and he’s quick to point out that this reboot isn’t based on Robert Wise and Jerome Robin’s 1961 motion picture, but on the original stage version, created by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. In essence, the great director hasn’t changed so very much. The setting is still New York, some time in the 1950s, but here, we’re made aware from the opening sequence that the neighbourhood is undergoing major demolition in order to accommodate the building of the swishy new Lincoln Centre. The place is already doomed.

Spielberg has also settled some worries from the original film version, where white actors wore brown makeup in order to look ‘authentically’ Puerto Rican. He’s also added a non-binary character called Anybodys (Iris Menas) and has left some stretches of Spanish dialogue un-subtitled, relying on non-Spanish-speaking audiences being able to work out what’s actually being said. But mostly he’s left it to the sweeping cinematography of Hanusz Kaminsky and of course that series of solid gold songs to carry us through a world of finger-clicking dance routines and declarations of eternal love.

There’s part of me that wishes he’d tinkered a bit more than he has. But still…

I won’t waste time on needless plot details. If you’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet, you pretty much know what to expect.

The Romeo figure here is Tony (Ansel Elgort), recently released from prison after one punchup too many and literally towering over his diminutive love interest, Maria (Rachel Zegler). But of course, Tony is a former member of The Jets gang, while Maria’s brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is the leader of their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks, who hate all Jets as a matter of principle – and the feeling is mutual.

It can only end in bloodshed.

West Side Story 2021 is handsomely mounted and uniformly well acted – Ariana DeBose as Anita is a particular standout – and it’s also lovely to see Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film) cast here as Valentina, the owner of the local drug store, from where she delivers her own haunting version of Tonight. But the film is at its best during the big ensemble numbers – a rousing rendition of America, played out on the busy streets of New York is fabulous and the climactic rumble between the two gangs, in a deserted salt warehouse is also visually striking.

What’s more, Spielberg even manages to make the cheesy I Feel Pretty – a song that has previously brought me out in hives – much more palatable, by the simple expedient of setting it in the flashy department store where Maria and her girl friends work – as cleaners.

So why does the film fail to thrill me? It could be, I suppose, that there are simply too few surprises. Perhaps if I were seeing the story for the very first time, I’d be more excited, but apart from some judicious airbrushing and those magnificent production values, I’m suffering from a bad case of ‘seen it all before.’ Viewers who weren’t even born in 1961 will doubtless have an entirely different view of it.

In the end, I admire it… but I don’t love it.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Lamb

15/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Hear that rustling noise?

It’s the sound of many tourists frantically crossing ‘a visit to Iceland’ off their bucket lists. It’s not that the place isn’t geographically stunning. In Lamb, Eli Arenson’s cinematography shows it in all its misty splendour. But in Valdemar Jóhannsson’s debut feature it seems a dark and menacing place, particularly in the remote part of the countryside where a married couple ply a lonely trade as sheep farmers.

It’s lambing season and Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guõnason) are literally working around the clock, assisting pregnant sheep with the messy process of giving birth, something which is shown in considerable detail. And then one particular lamb is born and there is something about this one – something that spurs the couple to take it into their house, to feed it bottled milk and even to give it a name – Ada. It would be criminal to reveal any more than that, but suffice to say that Jóhannsson cunningly holds back on any explanation for quite some time. When the truth is finally revealed, it hits me like a sucker-punch to the gut and I find myself intrigued.

The sheep farmers’ idyll is rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ingvar’s younger brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haradldsson), a former pop star turned full time wastrel. It’s clear from his first appearance that he and Maria have some history together, which makes things awkward. But what is Pétur going to make of the new addition to the family, particularly when he learns of the lengths that Maria has gone to in order to ensure she has no rivals for Ada’s affection?

Lamb lets the central couple’s backstory emerge at a leisurely pace and, though it skimps on detail, there’s enough for me to fill in the gaps. It’s rather like having just enough pieces of a jigsaw to reveal the outline of something distinctly unsettling.

This is a very unusual film to say the least. It plays rather like a contemporary fairy tale, full of forbidding imagery and, at times, almost unbearable suspense. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before . As the story unfolds, I find myself formulating various possible resolutions, but there’s no way I could guess at the direction in which Jóhannsson and co-writer, Sjón are ultimately heading.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Wilf

10/12/21

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

James Ley’s latest offering is about as far away from a ‘Christmas play’ as it could be. In fact, there’s only one nod towards the festive season: a decorated tree in the corner of the stage. Tree aside, this is more of an antidote to Yuletide than an evocation of it. And that’s fine, because there’s plenty of the traditional stuff on offer at other venues in the city. Wilf is a December play for those who want something… else.

And it really is something else. Where to start? Calvin (Michael Dylan) is struggling. He’s bipolar – in the midst of a manic episode – and everything is going wrong. He knows he needs to leave his abusive boyfriend, Seth, but there’s no one who can help. Not his mum: she’s left for a new life in the American bible belt, and has cut him out of her life. Not his driving instructor, Thelma (Irene Allan), because – after a mere 104 lessons – Calvin has passed his test, and the ex-psychotherapist is pleased to be rid of him. So where can he turn?

The answer soon presents itself: Wilf. Wilf is an unlikely saviour, not least because he is a car. Specifically, Wilf is a beaten up old Volkswagen, so there’s more than a hint of Herbie about him – although Wilf’s antics are more colourful than his predecessor’s. And by colourful, I mean sexual. Calvin and Wilf’s relationship is intense.

To be fair, Calvin’s pretty intense all round. With his shiny new driving license and his battered old car, he finally finds the courage to break away from Seth, but he’s a long way from feeling okay. A road trip around Scotland, staying in Airbnbs and cruising graveyards for anonymous sex, seems appropriate. And, with Wilf’s help, Calvin might just make it.

This tight three-hander, directed by Gareth Nicholls, is equal parts quirky and charming. Dylan is immensely likeable as Calvin, and treads the line between comedy and tragedy with absolute precision. The soundtrack is banging – who doesn’t love a bit of Bonnie Tyler? – and the simple set (by Becky Minto) makes us feel like we’re with Calvin all the way: inside the car; inside his head.

Allan brings a powerful energy to the role of Thelma, while Neil John Gibson, as everyone else, represents a gentler, more nurturing humanity, especially in the form of Frank.

All in all, Wilf is a gloriously weird concoction, and a most welcome addition to the winter theatre scene.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Encanto

Cineworld, Edinburgh

06/12/21

As Disney celebrates its 60th anniversary, it’s interesting to observe how far it’s come in its efforts to celebrate diversity and in its depictions of the world’s different cultures. Encanto is a slice of magical realism, set in a fictional settlement hidden somewhere deep in the Colombian jungle. Gifted to its original settlers by unknown powers via a magical candle, and presided over by the stern Alma Madrigal (voiced by Maria Cecilia Botero), this is a place where the very walls and floors are sentient, moving to accommodate and assist all who pass through its doors. (Note to self: I need a place like this.)

Alma’s children and her extended family are blessed with bizarre magical ‘gifts,’ which range from super-strength to the ability to create exotic flowers at will. Only one of the Madrigals has missed out on these abilities and that’s Mirabel (Stepanie Beatriz), who tries not to feel left out as everyone around her performs eye-popping wonders at the drop of a proverbial hat.

Then one day, Mirabel sees something strange: the Madrigal’s beloved home breaking asunder as, for some unknown reason, it begins to lose its magic. She tries telling the others what she seen, but Alma instructs her, in no uncertain terms, to keep her mouth shut. Could it be that Mirabel is like her mysterious Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who also had dark visions, always got blamed when things went wrong – and eventually went missing?

As you’d expect from the House of Mouse, the animation here is dazzling and the many different characterisations are beautifully realised. Throw in some original Latinx-flavoured songs by man of the moment, Lin Manuel Miranda, and you have a rich and vibrant feast that seems tailor-made for festive viewing, even though there isn’t a snowflake or a sprig of holly in sight.

If Encanto has a weakness, it’s in its storyline.

While the film concentrates on the importance of family and how being ordinary should never be seen as a failing, the story’s narrative arc features no sense of threat, no real danger. The worst that can happen to the Madrigals is they might lose their fancy house and their super-powers and will have to content themselves with being just like the other people in their community. Which really doesn’t generate enough suspense to make me care enough about the outcome.

Perhaps I’m being churlish – and I’m hardly in this film’s demographic. As I said, the animation here is state-of-the-art and the music will have you dancing in your seat. If you have youngsters who need entertaining and you’re looking for a feel-good festive treat than Encanto could be exactly what you’re looking for.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Power of the Dog

04/11/21

Netflix

It’s been twelve years since Jane Campion directed a movie and now here’s The Power of the Dog, a ‘western,’ filmed in her native New Zealand, masquerading as Montana in 1925. It’s an interesting period in which to set a story. On the one hand we have cattle drives, carrying on pretty much as they have since the mid 1800s and, on the other, the streets are full of Ford automobiles, the new era clashing headlong with the old. Ari Wegner’s majestic cinematography recalls the best of John Ford, the machinations of mankind constantly in battle with the awesome wonders of the landscape.

It’s in this world that Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), struggle to perpetuate the traditions of their family business, but they are dinosaurs, doomed to yield to the changing times. This is the first film in which writer/director Campion has chosen to feature a male lead and Phil is, perhaps inevitably, the consummate toxic male: cantankerous, vindictive and quick to demolish anybody who offers an alternative to his established way of life. Phil refers to his brother as ‘Fatso’ – to his face – and is not slow to heap disdain on anyone who stands in his path.

When George unexpectedly marries widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), Phil is brutally critical of her, particularly when George encourages her to play the piano, something that she protests she’s actually not very good at. (She’s right, she’s not.) To rub salt into the wounds, Phil is an accomplished banjo player.

Rose has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a predilection for making paper flowers and who is quietly studying to be a surgeon. Phil initially takes every opportunity to belittle him, encouraging the other ranch hands to mock him, because of his supposedly effeminate mannerisms.

But Phil has a secret. He is openly in thrall to the late cowboy Bronco Henry, the man who taught him to ride a horse, a man who he still keeps a shrine to in the stables. But as the story progresses, it’s clear that there was something more between the two of them, something that Phil hides from the eyes of the world. When Phil appears to soften and takes Peter under his wing, the scene is set for a psychological drama with a conclusion that you probably won’t see coming. I certainly don’t. It’s only after the credits have rolled that I’m able to piece the clues together.

Cumberbatch went ‘method’ for this and he inhabits the sweary, sweaty, alpha-male world of Phil Burbank with absolute authority. You’ll almost certainly despise him, which is, I think, Campion’s aim. Smitt-McPhee creates an enigmatic persona as Peter, a boy who keeps his cards close to his chest.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that Dunst’s character feels somewhat overshadowed in this male-dominated world, a woman who will allow herself to be driven to alcoholism rather than stand up for herself. What’s more, Thomasin McKenzie, a rising star after Last Night in Soho, has a thankless role as a housemaid with hardly a line of dialogue. I guess that’s simply a reflection of the era.

Plemons, as the monosyllabic George, is nicely drawn, though he’s mostly absent from the film’s second half and I miss the silent confrontation between the two brothers, where I think the story’s true power lies. Jonny Greenwood – who seems to be popping up all over the place at the moment – submits one of his quirky soundtracks.

Once again, Netflix has backed a winner. The Power of the Dog is a handsome film, expertly created and a genuine pleasure to watch. Cumberbatch has been hotly tipped for an Oscar and it won’t be a huge surprise if it comes to fruition.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney