Andrew Garfield

Breathe

28/10/17

Breathe is the true story of a man’s quest to manage a cruel and debilitating illness with the help and devotion of his friends and family. It’s the kind of thing that used to be dubbed ‘Oscar bait’ and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it nominated for a gong or two somewhere down the road. It’s also an unusual choice for actor Andy Serkis’s directorial debut (okay, so it’s not really his debut. There’s an animated version of Jungle Book waiting in the wings, its release date pushed back a year because Jon Favreau got there first – but that, as they say, is another story). Breathe is compelling stuff, sensitively directed and beautifully acted by the cast.

The story begins in England in the 1950s, where Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) at a village cricket match and promptly falls head over heels in love with her. Almost within minutes, it seems, the two of them are inseparable and Robin has whisked Diana off to Kenya, where he works as a ‘tea broker.’ (Don’t ask.) It’s all terribly romantic and terribly British and, when Diana announces that she is pregnant, it looks as though their future together is assured. But then, without warning, Robin is struck down by polio and overnight finds himself paralysed, able only to move his facial muscles and unable to breathe without the use of a ventilator. Diana manages to get him back to a hospital in England but Robin quickly sinks into depression. In the 1950s, polio sufferers were expected to live out the rest of their days in hospital, but Diana knows that what Robin wants more than anything else is a chance to escape…

There’s no denying that it’s a remarkable story. Serkis first came to it when he worked with the couple’s son, Jonathan, who is these days a film producer (he’s produced this film, in fact). Garfield does an incredible job, reduced as he is for the most part, to acting only with his face, and Foy is also impressive as the resourceful Diana (though curiously, despite the fact that Robin ages convincingly throughout the film, she seems to look exactly the same in every scene). There’s splendid support from Tom Hollander, in a dual role as Diana’s twin brothers, and from Stephen Mangan as the Doctor who takes up Robin’s cause to help free hundreds of disabled patients from their hospital incarceration. It would take a stern soul indeed not to feel moved to tears at various points in the story and I doubt there’s anyone who won’t experience a genuine thrill of satisfaction when Robin is finally allowed to go home to his wife and child.

If I have a problem with the film, it’s largely due to the trailer. There’s a tendency these days for trailers to show far too much and I feel this is the case with Breathe, where it is essentially a potted version of the entire movie. As a result – accomplished though the film is – there are no real surprises, because I pretty much know exactly what is going to happen. Now, Serkis can hardly be blamed for this… but I really wish that film companies would rein themselves in and leave us a little more to discover for ourselves.

Rant over. Breathe is a charming and affecting film, one that’s well worth seeking out. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, so much the better!) It’s been accused of glossing over some of the more unpleasant details of the illness it deals with, but the scene where the Cavendishes visit a hospital in Germany to see how polio sufferers are treated there doesn’t pull any punches. Sometimes things really do change for the better and Robin Cavendish, who helped affect that change, really does deserve to be recognised for his achievements.

4 stars

Philip Caveney 

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Angels in America

 

 

09/09/17 and 14/09/17

Thank heavens for NT Live. The National Theatre’s 2017 revival of Angels in America sold out within a few short hours. Of course it did! And, although there’s always the tempting possibility of day tickets (available for same-day performances from 9.30am in person from the box office), they’re only really practical if you’re based in London. We are certainly never going to travel from Scotland on the off-chance we might procure a couple of seats. But NT Live means we can experience this landmark production anyway – even though we’re too busy to see the actual live screening in July, the fact that it’s been committed to film bypasses the ephemeral nature of theatre, and gives us the opportunity to catch up with an encore showing at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, a short walk from our apartment.

Okay, it’s not as good as actually being there, sharing a space with the actors in real time. There’s none of the intimacy or jeopardy of live theatre, but it’s a pretty decent second best and we’re very grateful for it. The Festival Theatre is an excellent venue for such a venture: I’ve only seen these screenings in cinemas before, but being in a theatre adds a level of authenticity, and the screen is huge, the sound quality excellent.

It’s a bit of a marathon, this play, even spread over two evenings. But, my word, it’s worth it. In just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s script offers us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic.

The protagonist is Prior Walter, played here by Andrew Garfield in an eye-opening performance: he is, we discover, an actor with real range. Prior is dying and he’s afraid; his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), can’t cope and so he leaves. While Louis weeps and beats his breast with useless, futile public expressions of guilt, Prior begins hallucinating, having visions. He’s visited by an angel and by his long-dead ancestors. And, in his dreams, he collides with another tortured soul, Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), the mentally ill Morman whose husband, Joseph (Russell Tovey), is secretly gay. It’s a convoluted, complex plot, difficult to summarise, but eminently watchable: it all makes perfect sense when it unfolds before our eyes.

I’ve read the play, of course (I’m a theatre studies graduate), and I’ve seen the 2003 mini-series starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino. But this production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is something else: it’s genuinely stupendous. Susan Brown’s performance, for example, is impeccable; she plays six roles with utter conviction. And I find myself especially delighted by Amanda Lawrence’s Angel; she’s mesmerising, and beautifully supported by the Angel Shadows, six black-clad actors, who control her wings as well as performing the lifts and balances that make her seem airborne.

The set is a thing of wonder too, although I’d like to see more long shots in the filming, to help me envisage what the piece looks like as a whole; instead, there are a lot of mid shots and close-ups, which allow me to see the actors clearly but don’t give me a true sense of the space. Still, it’s obviously spectacular, all rotating cogs and zooming rooms, a whole world contained within the confines of the stage.

I’m delighted to have had the chance to see this play; it’s a truly iconic piece, challenging and thought-provoking and entertaining to the end.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Spider-Man: Homecoming

09/07/17

Of all of Stan Lee’s famous superheroes, Spider-Man was always my favourite when I was growing up. While I dipped in and out of many of the other comics, this was the one I kept coming back to.

On the big screen, Spidey has had a somewhat chequered career. Sam Raimi managed to knock out a couple of decent films with Tobey McGuire in the red suit, but most people would agree that his third installment didn’t really work. Then of course there was the appropriately named Mark Webb’s attempt at a reboot with Andrew Garfield brooding in the title role. Webb gave us two movies, neither of which really brought anything fresh to the party, so the news that the team at Marvel were finally getting the opportunity to give their most celebrated creation a canter around the paddock didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. (The rights to the character belonged to Sony for those earlier pictures – here they’ve agreed to a co-production with Marvel.)

Happily I was wrong. This is easily the best Spiderman movie so far and, arguably, one of the best superhero movies ever, made doubly enjoyable largely by virtue of the fact that director Jon Watts has jettisoned the usual grim and grimy approach in favour of something lighter, fresher, and a lot funnier. And thankfully, he’s skipped the ‘Spiderman origin’ aspect completely, because by now we all know it by heart, right?

Fifteen year old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is working hard on his ‘internship’ with Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Junior), which pretty much means that he’s left to his own devices, patrolling his local neighbourhood in his spare time, taking care of petty criminals and the like, under the supposedly watchful gaze of Stark’s chauffeur, Happy (Jon Favreau). But when, as Spiderman, Peter comes up against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his gang, things become a lot more complicated. Toomes has made use of salvaged alien technology left over from the last Avengers dust-up and, utilising that, has restyled himself as super villain The Vulture. The trouble is, Peter’s attempts to alert Happy to this new threat largely fall on deaf ears… and meanwhile, he has to negotiate the kind of problems that every teenager goes through – passing his exams, fitting in with his peers and dealing with a powerful crush on a classmate – in this case, Liz (Laura Harrier).

What this new film gives us, finally, is a credible teenage hero. Neither McGuire nor Garfield managed to really convince as high schoolers. Holland, such a powerful presence in The Impossible a few years back, is incredibly appealing here, displaying an almost puppylike eagerness to please his mentor, Stark and also pulling off some expertly-timed slapstick pratfalls. And the credibility extends in other directions. At last, in Toomes, we have a believable villain, a man motivated not by some obscure desire to destroy the world, but simply to better himself and his family after being screwed over by the big corporations. Aunt May is not the white-haired elderly widow we’ve come to expect but, as played by Marisa Tomei, she’s a gutsy, interesting character, doing her very best to bring up her nephew.

Despite the involvement of six screenwriters, the sprightly script keeps us guessing and, at one point, even manages to throw a great big googly ball at us that I really didn’t see coming.

Homecoming has the kind of chutzpah that should keep everybody happy, from devoted comic book fans to parents simply looking to give their kids a fun ride at the cinema. Make sure you stay in your seats until the end credits have rolled – the film has one last, very funny scene, to send you out of the cinema with a great big smile on your face.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Hacksaw Ridge

15/01/17

Former megastar Mel Gibson has been persona non grata around Hollywood for quite some time, but Hacksaw Ridge looks like the film that will restore his reputation. Rightfully so, I think, because no matter what he’s done in his private life, he remains a gifted film maker. This assured war movie tells the true story of Private David Doss, a God-fearing young man from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, who after nearly killing his brother in a youthful fight takes an oath never to pick up a weapon ever again. Which is all fine and dandy until the days following Pearl Harbour, when his brother and most of the other young men around the town, join the army, and Doss decides that he really can’t stay at home and let them take all the punishment; so after much consideration, he too enlists – which, as you might imagine causes all manner of problems. His intention to be a medic but of course, things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned…

Having just given us a saintly Jesuit in Martin Scorcese’s Silence, Andrew Garfield offers us another take on the idea, this time as that rarest of creatures, the weaponless war hero. The conflict he is sent to is the American invasion of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest conflicts. We’re often told that war is hell and Gibson’s re-enactment of the events certainly look the part – indeed this must qualify as one of the most visceral movie battles ever. Much of the footage here makes Saving Private Ryan look like a pleasant day at the seaside and those who cannot relish bloodshed would be well advised to give this one a miss. Heads, limbs and brains are propelled around the screen with gusto and, if there’s a criticism of the film, it’s simply that there may be just a little too much of it. I’m not advocating more tasteful bloodshed, you understand, but the sheer volume of the slaughter eventually begins to inure you to the film’s message – that war is a terrible thing and we need to stop sending people off to fight them.

Garfield is terrific though and there’s a pleasing turn from Teresa Palmer as the young nurse he woos in earlier, gentler scenes. Hugo Weaving plays Doss’s alcoholic father, turned bitter by the loss of his best friends in the First World War and watch out for Vince Vaughan, taking a break from his usual slapstick comedy schizzle to give us  a nicely restrained variation on the ‘tough Sergeant with a heart of gold’ – a cinematic line that goes all the way back to John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima and which Gibson himself made a decent fist of in We Were Soldiers.

Towards the end, we start to suspect that Gibson is over-egging Doss’s sanctity a little too much; but a post credits interview with the (late) great man himself seems to confirm that he really was the quiet, unassuming hero that the film makes him out to be.

Harrowing stuff, not for the faint-hearted.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney