Red Sparrow


There’s no doubt that Red Sparrow is a problematic film. The controversy over its apparent misogyny (with graphic depictions of rape and sexual violence) has been loud, and I have to admit I’m not predisposed to like it.

Still, I try to keep an open mind and, actually, I don’t find it particularly anti-feminist. There’s no denying the sexism of the culture portrayed, nor of many of the characters, but this feels more like a comment on what women have to do to succeed within a system that denies them any power than an endorsement of the patriarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a Russian ballerina, who – after a horrific dancing ‘accident’ – is coerced by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) into attending “whore school,” where the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) teaches her recruits to respond to the sexual desires of targeted others in the name of patriotism. Once graduated, Dominika is given her first mission – to seduce American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), and the double-dealing shenanigans  begin.

It starts well. There’s a great sequence where Dominika’s fateful ballet performance is cross cut with Nate’s skirmish in Gorki Park, the pace of both segments growing ever faster and more frantic as the tension builds. And the ending is decent too, with a satisfying pay-off that I won’t reveal.

But there are problems with the lumpen stuff  that’s in-between. Firstly, the Red Sparrow Academy, the concept of which is – quite frankly – risible. I find myself stifling giggles as Matron impassively tweaks the cadets’ nipples, or orders  them to perform lewd acts on each other. And the stuff that follows – the actual spying – is, dare I say it, deadly dull. It’s probably a more accurate depiction of the life of a secret agent than the high-octane thrills we get from, say, a Jason Bourne movie, but it’s a lot more boring too. And then there’s the violence, which is extreme and often feels gratuitous. One lengthy torture scene in particular is very hard to watch, and the detail doesn’t add much to my understanding of the film.

The performances are as excellent as you’d expect; her recent tabloid fall-from-grace notwithstanding, Lawrence is, I think, a fine actor and she has total command of this role. Edgerton and Schoenaerts provide efficient support and the cinematography is more than just decent.

But still. It’s not enough to make this particular bird fly.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield


Grave of the Fireflies


I like to think that I have a fairly broad knowledge of most things cinematic but if there’s a weak spot in my armoury, it’s definitely animation – and in particular, the large body of work created by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. This is not intentional, merely the fact that such work is hard to find on the big screen, which I feel is the best place to view it. But The Red Turtle, Ghibli’s co-production with Michael Dudok de Wit featured in our ‘best of 2017’ selection, so I was definitely in the market to see more of it – and then I heard that Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema were planning a Ghibli retrospective. Perfect.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is set in Japan towards the end of World War 2 as Allied bombers move in to decimate any last traces of opposition. (Yes, Walt Disney this most emphatically is not). A teenage boy, Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) is faced with the tricky task of looking after his little sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), when their mother dies after a devastating bombing raid. Their father, a battleship commander, is nowhere to be seen and they have no way of contacting him. In the aftermath of the war, even finding food is a major problem. At first, the two youngsters move in with their aunt and uncle, who are ready to fulfil their familial obligations, but resentment soon begins to smoulder and Seita and Setsuko eventually decide that they will be much happier looking after themselves…

As an introduction to Studio Ghibli, this is an inspired choice. The film is curiously bleak, shot through with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy, yet for all that, there are moments of genuine enchantment here. The characterisation of  Setsuko is particularly engaging, effortlessly capturing the bewilderment of a little girl cruelly torn from her parents, yet still capable of finding wonder in the simplest of things. And of course, every frame looks absolutely sumptuous. I also loved the circular narrative of the story. When we first encounter the two youngsters, they are vintage ghosts, haunting the streets of modern city – and there’s the clever device of a sweet tin containing marbles that only begins to fully make sense as the story builds. The film’s overpoweringly sad conclusion will wring tears from all but the most stoic of viewers, but that’s no bad thing – and it’s easy to appreciate the love and care that has gone in to every frame of this lovely and haunting film.

The Cameo will be screening a Studio Ghibli classic every Sunday afternoon for the next five weeks. Next up, My Neighbour Totorro. Can’t wait.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Finding Your Feet


It’s tempting to imagine the kind of think-tank meeting that might well have preceded this film.

‘OK, guys, we need to create a movie that appeals to the silver-haired brigade. You know, another Exotic Marigold Hotel. That made millions!’

‘Great. Well, first of all, we’ll need a few National Treasures in the cast. Imelda Staunton, perhaps? Check! Timothy Spall? Excellent! Of course, we’ll have to get Celia Imrie in there somewhere and… oh, yes, Joanna Lumley! And we’ll need to give them something to do. You know, something a bit naughty. Smoking pot, perhaps…. knocking back malt whisky and… dancing! Yes, let’s have them dancing…’

And so on. The inevitable effect, unfortunately, makes Finding Your Feet feel like a cynical exercise in box-ticking. Which is a shame, because there are some excellent actors in this, doing their level best to make it work.

Sandra (Staunton) is the well-to-do wife of Mike (John Sessions), a former chief constable. Hosting his retirement party at their palatial home, she discovers that he’s been cheating on her for the past five years with Pamela (Josie Lawrence) and, understandably miffed, she packs her bags and heads off to the council estate home of her estranged sister, Biff (Imrie), who is what might be described in these circles as ‘as a bit  of a character.’ Sandra is understandably in a foul mood when she arrives, which goes some way to explain her general unpleasantness towards everyone she encounters, but not the scene in a Chinese restaurant where her attitude borders on out-and-out racism. Quite why Biff doesn’t send her packing is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile, Biff’s close friend, Charlie (Spall), lives on a barge and is currently watching in helpless dismay as his wife, Lilly (Sian Thomas), who has been consigned the the tender mercies of a nursing home, slips further and further into the grip of senile dementia. His first encounters with Sandra are not exactly cordial but, when Biff manages to persuade her sister to come along to the weekly dance class that Charlie also attends, he and Sandra have a quick spin out on the dance floor and, against all the odds, they start to enjoy each other’s company.

What else do we need here? Oh yes, of course, let’s ship the whole cast off to an exotic location – in this case Rome – so they can participate in an international dance festival and where that new relationship can be allowed to blossom. Oh wait, there’s still one vital ingredient missing… oh yes, a terminal illness. Perfect!

All this manages to yield not one single surprise in the telling, and you have to feel a little sorry for the actors who work their socks off to sell this tosh, but even they can’t quite convince us to actually care. I think what’s been overlooked is that The Exotic Marigold Hotel was a more heartfelt affair, with the heft of a Deborah Moggach novel behind it, and – even so – its success as a film most probably came as a pleasant surprise to everyone involved. Indeed, the attempted sequel was a pretty woeful affair as the makers attempted to replicate its charms.

Viewers can easily tell the difference between a genuine story and a marketing exercise. With Finding Your Feet I simply cannot escape the feeling that behind all those light-hearted escapades lurks a mean-spirited attempt to part older viewers from their money – and try as I might, I can’t quite forgive it for that.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney



Dark River


There’s a lot to admire about Dark River, not least its cast list, with Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley and Sean Bean all demonstrating exactly why they’re such acclaimed actors. They deserve our respect. Because this bleak and brutal tale depends entirely on their ability to create empathetic characters, to convey their muted misery with nuance and subtlety. Perhaps inevitably, the film has drawn comparisons with God’s Own Country, with which it shares the stark landscape of rural Yorkshire, but – beyond the superficial, they have little in common: Francis Lee’s debut is essentially a love story, while this Clio Barnard film is a harrowing family drama.

We first meet Alice (Wilson) earning her crust as a migrant farm hand, seemingly happy in her work despite its rigours. She’s confident and competent, well-liked by her colleagues. ‘There’s always work for you here,’ her boss assures her, but she’s leaving anyway. Her father has died; she’s going home to the family farm – the one he promised would be hers one day. But of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Home is a complicated place, and Dad (a virtually silent Sean Bean) is still a looming presence, despite his recent demise. What’s more, Joe (Stanley), Alice’s brother, has other ideas. He’s been working this land for most of his life, and believes he has the greater claim on it, despite the fact that he’s let the place go to rack and ruin and spends much of his time  drinking away his dissatisfaction.

And besides, it’s almost a moot point. They don’t even own the farm; they’re just tenants. The best either of them can hope for is to be granted the tenancy, which seems unlikely as property developers are already sniffing around, sensing an opportunity to make some money.

The half-buried secrets and unspoken resentments eventually boil over into violent confrontation. Ultimately though, the story feels too slight (and perhaps a little too over- familiar) to entirely convince, and the shot of redemption we are offered at its conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory. As I said before, there’s plenty to admire here, but perhaps, not an awful lot to enjoy. One thing’s for sure. This isn’t going to figure highly on a list of feature films recommended by the Yorkshire tourist board.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield


Black Panther


For those viewers who, like me, are suffering from a bad case of spandex overload, help is at hand in the form of a Marvel superhero movie that doesn’t really feel like anything that’s gone before it. You thought Thor: Ragnarok pushed the envelope? Wait till you get a load of Black Panther!

In what is only his third film, director Ryan Coogler offers a powerful and confident take on the genre, an action film that gets so many things right it’s hard to resist its considerable charms. And I’m not just referring to the fact that the film is almost completely inhabited by black characters – that it’s a celebration of Africa and its culture – that there are so many strong, positive roles for women. This is an object lesson on how to reinvent and subvert a tired and over-familiar concept.

We first meet the hero of the film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), just after the death of his father, as he is about to become the King of Wakanda, a mythical African nation that, after a meteor strike back in its history, has blossomed into a technologically advanced wonderland, thanks to an abundance of vibranium, the precious metal that gives Wakanda’s leaders their superpowers and allows them to transform into the titular hero. But no sooner is T’Challa on the throne than he finds himself drawn into a dangerous mission. His old adversary, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, revelling in the chance to strut his stuff, for once, without having to wear a motion capture suit), has stolen an ancient artefact made from vibranium and is planning to sell it to the highest bidder. He is aided in the robbery by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who clearly has some personal axe to grind with T’Challa…

There’s some fabulous world-building going on here and I particularly love the performance of Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri, who plays a sort of Q figure, providing her big bother with a whole string of incredible hardware to enable him to complete his mission. A lengthy sequence in a Korean casino followed by a frenetic car chase could have wandered in from a Bond movie and, if the makers of that franchise are ever stuck for a director, Coogler would make an interesting choice  – but I digress.

The film soon ventures into more familiar superhero territory, but even the usual CGI-augmented punchup at the conclusion doesn’t go on interminably – a problem that mars the otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok – and better still, this one has rhinos! Best of all for me, Marvel finally has a more interesting and nuanced villain than the usual ‘bent-on-world-domination’ cliche that is habitually trotted out. Fans of the Marvel EU will want to stay in their seats through the (very long) end credits because there are two extra scenes on offer, one of which ties up a loose end from an earlier film.

Purists will inevitably complain that Black Panther doesn’t stick closely enough to the established conventions of the genre but, for me at least, this is a very welcome step in the right direction.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


Once again, NT Live offers us the chance to see a noteworthy production we’d otherwise be consigned to reading about. For David Lan, who has stepped down from his role as the Young Vic’s artistic director, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a triumphant swan song, elegantly directed by Benedict Andrews, and beautifully performed.

The audacious casting certainly pays off. Sienna Miller’s Maggie is a standout, all bravado and desperation: strong but vulnerable; gorgeous but unloved. She really is like the titular cat, prowling the room, unsure how to function in a world where everything has changed. Brick refuses to acknowledge her, whatever she says, whatever she does. She talks incessantly, needling and provoking, removing her clothes, painting her face. Nothing works. She’s lost him. It’s a bravura performance, a faultless incarnation of a classic role.

Jack O’Connell also gives an impressive turn as Brick, the handsome football-star-turned-alcoholic, traumatised by his best friend, Skipper’s suicide, unable to accept his own homosexuality. Brick is a complex character, at once the most honest and the most duplicitous in the play. He refuses to indulge the ‘happy family’ façade, makes no secret of his drinking, doesn’t care who hears him rejecting his wife. But he lies to himself about his feelings for Skipper, even when Big Daddy offers him absolution; his own prejudices too ingrained to allow him to face the truth. O’Connell imbues Brick with dignity, despite his obvious descent; it’s a clever, nuanced portrayal of a truly tortured soul.

Colm Meany is suitably awful as the tyrannical Big Daddy, a Trump-like figure whose only redeeming feature is his willingness to accept his favourite son’s sexuality. But it’s Lisa Palfrey as Big Momma who really intrigues me: she plays the matriarch as an infantalised neurotic, who has to be protected from realities she can’t stand. Big Daddy openly despises her, calls her fat and stupid; she responds in a high-pitched, lilting, little-girl voice, her ‘He doesn’t mean it’ lines imbued with the rhythm of a fingers-in-the-ear-la-la-la denial. It’s a very different interpretation of the character from any I’ve seen before, but it absolutely works.

There’s not much to criticise here, although I do think more could be done to create the sense of sweltering heat and claustrophobia inside the house. It’s all there in the dialogue, but I never really feel it. The modern setting means there are none of the traditional plantation shutters and whirring fans, and that’s okay – I like the set – but I think I’d like the ice to melt, to know that the water in the shower is cold, to understand why Maggie is wearing tights when it’s so hot. Still, these are mere quibbles.

If you haven’t seen this yet, there’s sure to be an encore screening soon. I urge you to catch it.

4.9 stars

Susan Singfield


The Belle’s Stratagem


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The chances are you may not have heard of playwright and poet, Hannah Cowley. I certainly hadn’t until I read the programme for the Lyceum’s latest offering. Back in the 1700s, however, her work was in great demand and, in 1780, her biggest success, The Belle’s Stratagem (a witty repost to George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem), was selling out the 2000 seater Drury Lane Theatre in London. Over the ensuing centuries, her name has passed into obscurity, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her work brought once more to the public attention in this sprightly adaptation, written and directed by Tony Cownie. The action has been relocated to Edinburgh, where the New Town is taking shape, and where the villainous Deacon Brodie is gleefully helping himself to the belongings of its inhabitants.

The belle of the title is Letitia (Angela Hardie), who is betrothed to the wealthy and handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), much to the delight of her father, Provost Hardy (Steven McNicholl), who welcomes the financial advancement this will bring. But though Letitia is head-over-heels in love with Doricourt, he seems quite indifferent to her charms, so she devises a devious stratagem that will make him fully appreciate her qualities. The first step, however, is to make him despise her…

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a single-strand narrative. There are subplots aplenty, not least the story of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’ Rourke), who has been deliberately keeping his naive wife, Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), away from the distractions of high society. There’s the newspaperman, Flutter (John Ramage), an unabashed gossip-monger, who loves nothing more than writing about the outrageous events of the well-to-do and who has no compunction in inventing much of his juicier material, and there’s Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), who is adept at arranging and organising the running of everyone’s lives from behind the scenes.

Cownie handles his material with a deft touch, consistently bringing his audience to gales of laughter as the various blunders, pratfalls and witty one-liners are unleashed. The production looks ravishing too, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Though many of the cast double up on their roles, there’s never any doubt about who is who at any given time and, as the events hurtle towards the delicious possibilities of a masked ball, the stage seems to virtually pulsate with energy. Fast, furious and frenetic, this is a real crowdpleaser. It’s also strangely prescient, as the women in the story refuse to conform to the conventions they’re constrained by, and forge their own paths towards happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t miss this – its a riotous and gleeful experience that will send you on your way with a great big smile on your face.

5 stars

Philip Caveney