Andrea Riseborough

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

12/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

This eccentric biopic of Edwardian illustrator Louis Wain is a curious kettle of cat litter, a story so weird it can only be true. It’s centred around an impressive performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and features such a wealth of talent in the supporting roles that I can’t help feeling that the actor (also executive producer on this) must have called in some favours from his friends.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain at various points in his life, from bumbling, hyperactive youngster to grey and mentally frail in his final years. Cumberbatch manages to convince at just about every point of the journey. When we first meet Wain, he’s a freelance illustrator, who, at the age of twenty, is struggling to provide for the upkeep of his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and his five sisters, none of whom seem to have any prospect of marriage.

However, the family budget does stretch to paying for a governess to teach the younger girls and she’s Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), who, despite being ten years older than Louis, soon has him hanging on her every word in open-mouthed adoration, much to the disgust of his sour-faced older sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough).

It isn’t long before Louis and Emily have married and moved to a picturesque cottage in the countryside. But then Emily receives some devastating news about her health – and moments later, the couple discover an abandoned kitten wandering in their garden, whom they promptly christen Peter. The cat is to have a profound effect on Wain’s career…

The film’s early stretches have a charmingly ramshackle quality, and I’m initially prepared to put aside my reservations about the screenplay by Will Sharpe and Simon Stephenson, which fails to give actors of the quality of Riseborough enough to do. Other luminaries can be missed in the blink of an eye. Hayley Squires, Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett… they flit across the screen like phantoms with barely a line of dialogue between them.

When Wain’s patron, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), assigns him a double-page spread in The Illustrated London News to be filled with images of ‘comical cats,’ the artist’s career takes an unexpected leap skywards, but the film fails to soar in the same manner. It becomes bogged down in Wain’s inescapable problems, including his increasingly desperate struggles with schizophrenia and his inability to profit from his own artistic endeavours. (Message to all aspiring illustrators: ensure you copyright your work before you put it in the public domain. You’re welcome.)

From this point, the story fails to maintain a consistent tone and Wain’s bizarre ‘electrical’ theories are never explained clearly enough for us to understand either what they are or why they are considered important enough to include in the title. In its final stretches the film becomes more and more surreal, with landscapes turning into paintings and people turning into cats, while a theremin whines mournfully on the soundtrack. Having Nick Cave appear as the author H.G. Wells seems a step too bizarre and makes me wonder if this is supposed to be one of the hallucinations that Wain suffered towards the end of his life. Whatever it means, it feels like a misstep.

So, all plaudits to Cumberbatch for yet another in his dazzling collection of character studies. It’s quite an about-turn after the toxic masculinity of The Power of the Dog. Perhaps Charms of the Cat would have been a more appropriate title?

And, as for the film that contains said performance, it’s muddled and a bit of a disappointment.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Battle of the Sexes

 

20/11/17

It’s the early 1970s and rising tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is fighting to establish equal pay for female players. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that the men are being paid eight times as much as the women? American Lawn Tennis president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), tells her that it’s simply because the men are just ‘more interesting to watch.’ King’s answer is to pull all women players out of Kramer’s organisation and to help them to form their own, seeking sponsorship wherever they can find it. It’s mostly because of her unprecedented efforts that such appalling sexism in the sport was challenged and soundly defeated, even though it meant getting involved with some strange partners. A scene where Billie Jean’s agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman) urges the players to smoke cigarettes because they are being sponsored by Philip Morris is a particular delight.

This fascinating film, scripted by The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, is based around a real event in 1973, when King was goaded into playing a match against ex-champion player, Bobby Riggs (engagingly played here by Steve Carell), whose vociferous claim that no woman could ever beat a man at tennis, still resonates today – people are forever trying to push Andy Murray and Serena Williams into playing against each other. Beaufoy’s script cleverly displays the levels of inherent sexism that existed at the time – most of the remarks and attitudes of the commentators of the period now seem positively prehistoric. The film is aided by the fact that Stone and Carell look so convincing as their characters that genuine footage of the original match is used in long shot with the actors effortlessly spliced in for close-ups. Weirdly, although I already know the outcome of the game, the footage still somehow manages to generate considerable levels of suspense. For my money, this is perhaps the best attempt thus far to put my favourite sport up on the big screen.

The film is about more than just tennis, though. Riggs is struggling with personal demons – a powerful addiction to gambling is pushing his marriage to his socialite wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) onto the rocks – while King, married to the incredibly supportive Larry (Austin Stowells), finds herself irresistibly drawn to hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their burgeoning romance is sensitively handled by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who never fall into the trap of sensationalising it.

But perhaps what the film does best of all is to display the unbelievable levels of all-American razzmatazz that accompanied the contest, right down to Riggs being sponsored by a lollipop company called… wait for it… ‘Sugar Daddy.’ (And if you think the filmmakers have exaggerated for comic effect, you only need to glance at footage of the real event  to see that it has been reproduced with extraordinary attention to detail.)

It would be all too easy to paint Riggs as the villain of this piece, but he actually emerges as a likeable clown, whose outrageous comments are mostly done to generate interest (and large amounts of money) for the match. It’s the everyday, ingrained sexism of characters like Jack Kramer where the real problem lies – and it’s particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.

Do you need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this film? Well it certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s essential. Its powerful message about equal rights for everyone, regardless of their sexuality, rings out loud and clear. In tennis terms, this one serves an ace.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Death of Stalin

23/10/17

If there was a prize for ‘Most Unlikely Subject for a Comedy’, the death of Russian premier Joseph Stalin would probably figure on the list of prime contenders. I mean, how amusing can that actually be? But Armando Iannucci clearly isn’t interested in such preconceptions. Against all the odds, he’s fashioned a funny and subversive entertainment from this unpromising source, based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury.

It’s March, 1953, and Russia is cowering under the brutal regime of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. People can be rounded up and shot for the most spurious of reasons – perhaps they’re intellectuals. Perhaps they belong to the wrong organisation. Perhaps their faces just don’t quite fit. The atmosphere of paranoia is amply portrayed in the film’s opening sequence, where radio director Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), is forced to restage a live performance by a symphony orchestra, simply because Stalin has phoned up and asked for a recording of it – and unfortunately no such recording has actually been made. ‘Don’t worry,’ Andryev assures his bemused audience as he ushers them frantically back to their seats. ‘You won’t be killed. I promise.’

Armando Iannucci’s comedy of terrors is a brave and wonderfully assured undertaking, finding comic mileage in the absurdity of day-to-day existence under the jackboot of a tyrant – and from the unexpected possibilities that are unleashed when that tyranny finally comes to an end. When Stalin unexpectedly drops dead from a heart attack, the various members of his government begin the complex task of jockeying for position in the new order and the results are a joy to behold.

The film has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of authenticity, but to be fair, there’s no real attempt to make it feel authentic. Characters talk in a mix of accents from regional British to (in the case of Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Krushchev) broad American, and the script misses no opportunity to go for a well-timed belly laugh.  

The cast is stellar – I particularly like Simon Russell Beale as head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, a smiling assassin who hides his vile nature under a mask of cheerful bonhomie. Jeffrey Tambour is also excellent as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, who suddenly finds himself simultaneously having to lead the country in its collective grief and incapable of coming to a rational decision about anything. Rupert Friend has a lot of fun with the role of Vassily, Stalin’s loose-canon, vodka-swilling son. But the film’s undoubted comic highlight is Jason Isaacs as straight talking ‘Marshall of the Soviet Union’, Georgy Zhukov, the hilarity aided no end by the fact that he talks with a pronounced Yorkshire accent. I’ve no idea why that’s so funny, it just is.

Okay, so this isn’t quite the comic masterpiece that some have dubbed it. The film suffers somewhat from the age-old problem of having nobody in particular to root for, since they all appear to be lying, double-dealing creeps – unless of course, you count Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Yudina, a concert pianist who seems to be the only person in the film brave enough to speak her mind about Stalin’s cruelty; but hers is a cameo role, acted out on the sidelines. The only other character we remotely care about is Stalin’s hapless daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), who can only watch the carnage that unfolds in the wake of her father’s death and hope against hope that she’ll somehow make it out of there alive.

Weighing in at a relatively sprightly 106 minutes, The Death of Stalin is a clever and accomplished movie, well worth investigating. This is Iannucci playing to his strengths as a political satirist and mostly coming up with the goods. Interesting though, that despite a script peppered with crackling dialogue, the film’s funniest scene is an entirely visual one. Go figure.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mindhorn

05/05/17

Here’s a bit of an oddity – a movie shot on the Isle of Man, that isn’t pretending to be Scotland or Ireland or Monte Carlo, but actually is, of all things, the Isle of Man. That’s because the location was the regular haunt of fictional 80s cop, Mindhorn (think a cross between Bergerac and the Six Million Dollar Man and you’re pretty much there). But time has moved on and actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Baratt) has lost his hair, developed a beergut and is finding it increasingly difficult to land decent acting work, reduced now to advertising corsets and support stockings. This is doubly annoying considering his old co-star, Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan) has managed to string out his spin-off series, Windjammer for eight successful seasons and still lives on the island in unabashed luxury.

Thorncroft thinks he sees an opportunity to revitalise his own career, when a suspected serial killer, who calls himself ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey) announces to the police that he will talk to only one person – Mindhorn himself. Thorncroft heads back to his old stamping ground and begins to reconnect with people from his past – not least, his regular love interest on the series, Patricia Deville (Essie Davies) who now lives with Thorncroft’s old stunt stand in, Clive (Simon Farnaby). But as the events unfold, the former star is drawn into a bit of amateur sleuthing – and it becomes apparent that things may not be exactly what they seem…

Mindhorn may not be big on belly laughs, but it’s a decent comedy thriller with an appealing central premise and it’s shot through with a genuine sense of pathos. Thorncroft’s desperate need to rekindle his former star power verges on desperation only leads him, inevitably into deeper humiliation. The film boasts a starry cast, including Andrea Riseborough, Simon Callow, Harriet Walter and (in an uncredited cameo) Kenneth Branagh, who enjoys one of the film’s most outrageous scenes. Barrett makes a convincing transition to leading man and Essie Davies is also terrific as Mindhorn’s lost love. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have some unfinished business.

So yes, enjoyably silly stuff. Make sure you stay till the end of the credits for a showing of Mindhorn’s wonderfully naff power ballad, You Can’t Handcuff the Wind, the dreadful lyrics of which may just be worth the price of admission alone.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-trailer

05/11/16

Nocturnal Animals is a spiteful little film, full of bile and petty score-settling. Beautifully styled and well-acted throughout – with a stellar cast of cameos supporting the leads – this film feels like a tragic waste of talent, a plethora of artistic skill funnelled into a project with a vacuum for a heart. The worldview here is warped. The whole thing – not just the inner story of Sheffield’s novel – feels like a sterile revenge plot, the work of an embittered soul with sadistic tendencies.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but miserable art dealer, trapped in an unhappy marriage where her riches mean nothing; her life is a hollow shell. When she was young, in grad school, she was briefly married to a different man, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he was the true love of her life. But Susan was too greedy, too bourgeois, too much like her mother, to appreciate the creative sensitivity of a man like Edward: she wanted the trappings of a middle-class life, and didn’t support him in his artistic endeavours.

Nineteen years later, a manuscript arrives on her desk. It’s a proof copy of Edward’s novel, soon to be published. It’s dedicated to her, and it tells the tale of a couple just like them, brought to life for us on screen as Susan reads compulsively. The protagonist, Laura (Isla Fisher, styled to look exactly like Adams), is raped and murdered, along with her daughter. Clearly, Edward is still a long way from getting over Susan’s rejection of him.

It’s an ugly, mean-spirited story from start to finish, with a deep misogyny at its core. From the freak-show fat women of the opening credits to the gratuitous nastiness of Laura’s death, it’s lacking any sense of proportion – or of charm. Nor does it work as a study of the dark side of humanity; it’s all too petty and too personal for that. And it’s boring a lot of the time too, all ponderous shots of people in baths, and endless scenes where Adams gasps, startled by what she’s read, adjusts her glasses, then picks up the book again. The novel’s plot is pretty turgid too: after the initial excitement of the murders, it’s a rather dull procedural, where we know exactly whodunnit, and so do the police.

Seriously, this is a disappointing film. It looks fantastic and the cast is a dream-team by anyone’s standards (Adams and Gyllenhaal are joined by Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, among others) but, ultimately, this just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield