Andy Nyman

Judy

03/10/19

The ‘Judy’ of the title is, of course, Judy Garland, and this rather downbeat film, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, concentrates not on the gloss and glitter of Hollywood, but on a less-celebrated period of her life: her five-week residency at London’s Talk of the Town, which proved to be – quite literally – the end of her career.

It’s 1969, long after her super-stardom and more than a decade after her cinematic comeback with A Star is Born. Judy (Renée Zellweger) is struggling to make ends meet. Addicted to barbiturates and hopelessly in debt to the IRS, she is virtually unemployable in her homeland, reduced to dragging her children, Lorna and Joey, onstage with her to perform song and dance routines for a hundred dollars a night. Judy’s ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) is understandably concerned for the welfare of his kids, but Judy is determined to prove herself a good mother, despite never having had the luxury of a decent role model in her own childhood.

But then the offer from Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) rears its head and, sensing a way out of the corner she’s painted herself into, Judy heads off to England, reluctantly leaving her children in the care of their father. There are problems from the moment she arrives: she refuses to rehearse for the show and keeps complaining of ‘headaches’- but her no-nonsense PA, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), does at least manage to get her onstage for the opening night. Judy goes down a storm and things look promising… but of course, as history attests, from there, it’s anything but plain sailing.

The first thing to say about Judy is that Zellweger is totally convincing in the lead role, nailing Garland’s tragic self-doubt and vulnerability with aplomb and somehow even managing to look and sound uncannily like the real person. But a great performance doesn’t automatically make a great film. That, I’m afraid, is more of a mixed bag.

I like the flashbacks to the Hollywood years, where young Judy (Darci Shaw) does battle with the odious Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a man who thinks nothing of working a twelve year old relentlessly around the clock, knowing full well that she has to exist on a diet of ‘pep pills’ in order to keep going. Later on, there’s also a charming plot strand where Garland befriends a couple of gay fans (Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerquira) and ends up back at their flat, cooking them an omelette, which makes them, I suppose, the original ‘friends of Dorothy.’

But unfortunately, so much of the narrative is devoted to Garland, the other characters barely get a look-in. The super-talented Jessie Buckley, for instance, is second-billed here, but we learn virtually nothing about Rosalyn; and why bother to employ the mighty Michael Gambon if all he gets to do is sit in the audience and look disgruntled? Finn Whittrock also struggles to make anything of his role as ‘unsuitable husband number five,’ Micky Deans. Was this man a cruel opportunist looking for his own personal rake-off? Was he just lousy at doing business? Did he have genuine affection for Judy? There’s not enough information here to let me make a judgement on any of those questions and that’s a shame.

Still, if, like me, you have a soft spot for the divine Ms Garland, this is worth catching for that sublime central performance. Zellweger does rousing versions of some of Judy’s best-remembered songs and manages to capture her distinctive vocal inflexions perfectly. And, unless you’re made of stone, you’ll probably have a tear in your eye at the film’s unexpectedly redemptive conclusion.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Ghost Stories

01/04/18

Anyone who was lucky enough to see the original theatre production of Ghost Stories will know that it was an accomplished exercise in rapidly mounting dread, with a brilliant conclusion that cleverly pulled the rug from under the audience’s collective feet. We saw it in 2011 and came away raving about it. The news that it was to be turned into a movie was obviously of interest, but as the release date approached, we did wonder if they could ever hope to replicate the unique look and feel of the original.

Well, since it’s both adapted and directed by its creators, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, it’s made a credible transition to the big screen and manages to generate almost unbearable levels of tension throughout, largely because the duo have taken heed of a universal truth – that what you only glimpse is far more unsettling than what the camera actually lingers on. In this deliciously old-fashioned British fright movie, Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a man who has devoted his life to exposing fake mediums and debunking claims of supernatural experiences. But when he is contacted out-of-the-blue by one of his old heroes, Charles Cameron – another paranormal investigator and a man who seemingly disappeared without trace many years ago – he is intrigued enough to go along and meet him.

Cameron gives Goodman three unsolved cases to look into and challenges him to find a rational explanation for each of them. Using a classic portmanteau format, Goodman meets with the three men and hears their stories – they are Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a former nightwatchman, who experiences a terrifying evening at work; Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther, for me, the stand out performance of the film) as a nervous youngster who has a run-in with something inexplicable on a quiet country road; and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a successful businessman who discovers that the path to parenthood isn’t quite the joyful romp he anticipated. The film exploits its dark and dreary locations to great effect, largely thanks to the work of cinematographer Ole Brett Birkeland and effects palpable reactions to seemingly innocuous things – a cup of tea left in an open doorway, two people standing motionless at a kitchen sink, a pile of nappies that suddenly leaps from a table onto the floor…

The original ending has made it through intact and it’s here that I almost find myself wishing that I hadn’t seen the stage production, because, inevitably, I miss out on the chills that I experienced first time around. But perhaps that’s just silly, because I’m quite sure I’d be even more disappointed if they changed the ending.

Overall, this is a very strong and affecting slice of the supernatural. If there’s a criticism to be made (and there usually is), it’s simply that Ghost Stories is an overpoweringly white male production. The only female or POC roles on offer here are ‘blink and you’ll miss ’em’ jump scares – and in 2018, surely at least one of the main characters could have been reinterpreted?

This is not to detract from the film itself, which manages to hold me in a chilly embrace from start to finish. I also love the very clever marketing posters they are using to promote the film, currently adorning the sides of buses around the UK. Look more closely at them.

And don’t forget. The brain sees what it it wants to see.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney