Ben Mendelsohn

Cyrano

25/02/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is a rather unlikely one; nonetheless, over the years it has fired the imaginations of film and theatre directors alike, sometimes with spectacular results. In 1990, it brought director Jean-Paul Rappeneau and his lead actor, Gerard Depardieu, much acclaim in a movie adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s source play. And, a few years earlier than that, Steve Martin had already turned it into the much-admired contemporary comedy, Roxanne.

In both films, of course, Cyrano was a character with a comically oversized nose – something that his adversaries mentioned at their peril.

In Cyrano, director Joe Wright adopts a different approach. The hero of his story, though a brave and valiant soldier, is small of stature; and, as portrayed by Peter Dinklage, this simple premise turns out to be a masterstroke, the character’s inner turmoil told mainly through the cleverly nuanced expressions on his face. Everything else about the story stays pretty much the same – though I should probably add that this is a musical version, with songs by Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

Cyrano is desperately in love with Roxanne (Hayley Bennett), a poor and (it must be said) somewhat shallow young woman, who is considered a great beauty in her home town. She is pursued by many men, among them the rich but odious De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). When Roxanne summons Cyrano to meet her in private, he dares to hope that she might have reciprocal feelings for him; instead she confesses that she has fallen in love with Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a handsome new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment. Could Cyrano keep an eye on Christian and protect him from any harm?

Cyrano is so enamoured of Roxanne that he reluctantly agrees to help – and, when it turns out that Christian isn’t very good with words, Cyrano becomes the man who writes the many love letters that ‘Christian’ regularly sends to Roxanne. As Cyrano unfurls the deluge of longing he has nurtured for so long, the task nearly unhinges him.

Filmed on location in Southern Italy, Cyrano makes few concessions to realism. Instead, Wright’s film plays out through a series of highly stylised backgrounds with garish costumes, masks and makeup used to create a vibrant world that seems to virtually pulse with colour. Soldiers practising with swords move gracefully into dance routines, while large stretches of the dialogue are spoken in rhyme. It’s only when the film reaches its later stretches (and the location switches to the snow-covered heights of Mount Etna) that the brutal reality of war seems to bleach all colour from the screen and the story descends headlong into tragedy.

The songs are distinctive, plaintive and affecting, particularly in the scene where three soldiers, about to go out to their deaths in battle, leave letters to their loved ones, singing the words as they hand the pages to a messenger. It would already have been the film’s most moving sequence, but thoughts of the current conflict in Ukraine seem to lend it extra poignancy, and my eyes fill as it unfolds. If you’re already familiar with the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, you’ll know that there’s also a coda to this tale that isn’t exactly the happy ending you might have wished for.

This is undoubtedly Dinklage’s film, revealing impressive new depths to his acting, but Bennett is good too and her final scenes with Dinklage will probably send you out into the night with tears running down your face. If I’m making it sound like something of an ordeal, it really isn’t. Wright is adept at making every scene look ravishing, as he did in his under-appreciated adaptation of Anna Karenina. It’s the very theatricality of the telling that makes this film so powerful – and, in its own way, unique

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Babyteeth

02/09/20

Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is sixteen years old and going through a rough time. Already alienated from her schoolmates, struggling to co-exist with her concert-pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis) and her psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), she’s also trying to keep things together as a terminal illness exerts an increasingly powerful grip upon her.

So when she falls head-over-heels for local tearaway, Moses (Toby Wallace), a free-living, drug-abusing twenty-something, her parents are far from delighted at his unexpected appearance in their suburban home – particularly when his urgent need for drug money prompts him to try and rob the place. But Moses is Milla’s first romantic crush and he’s almost certain to be her last… so Anna and Henry realise they are going to have to let her take the lead on this.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Babyteeth is its steadfast refusal to allow any of the usual ‘brave victim’ clichés to step into the mix. Indeed, for quite some time, Milla’s cancer is barely mentioned, so when it finally does step into the frame, it delivers something of a gut punch.

Scanlen, last seen as the least interesting character in Little Women, is a revelation here, quietly dominating the screen with her sparky presence. Wallace too does a fabulous job of making the initially deeply unlikable Moses into a fully formed character, redeemed both by Milla’s love for him and by her parents’ touching decision to allow him into the family fold. This could have been extremely mawkish, but is so adeptly handled that it really isn’t. Davis and Mendelsohn too submit nuanced performances that make them so much more than just supporting players. We share their anxieties, their frustrations and their unswerving devotion to the daughter they love.

Babyteeth marks the assured directorial debut of actor Shannon Murphy, and she’s aided and abetted by Rita Kalnejais’s inventive screenplay, the story punctuated by a series of quirky chapter headings, giving this the feel of a superior teen novel.

The only tragedy is one of timing. There are only a handful of people at the afternoon screening we attend and that’s a shame. In safer times, I have no doubt, this would be pulling in decent crowds and deservedly so. It’s an affecting story – and expertly told.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Ready Player One

31/03/18

If ever there was a man to qualify as ‘World’s Greatest Living Film Director,’ Steven Spielberg would surely be a strong contender for the title. Few movie makers have his longevity – his first cinematic release, Duel, was released in 1971. Even fewer can boast his extensive range. Here is a man who is happy to film pure popcorn crowd pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, but who is equally at home helming powerful dramas of the ilk of Munich or Schindler’s List. Recently the recipient of Empire Magazine’s ‘Legend of Our Lifetime’ Award, it’s hardly surprising that few people have bothered to put up voices of dissent. He really is that accomplished. With his latest release, he takes on the world of virtual reality gaming and it would have been so easy to come a cropper here, an older man desperately trying to be ‘down with the kids.’ But, as ever, Spielberg passes his self-appointed test with flying colours.

Set in the year 2045, the story is set in a dystopian vision of America (has there ever been an optimistic cinematic view of its future, I wonder?). Most of the population is addicted to virtual gaming and, like our hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), spend nearly all of their leisure hours in a pixellated environment called The Oasis. Wade competes there using his more handsome avatar, Parzival, and he’s not just playing to escape from the drudgery of his life, oh no. He’s in search of three special keys, hidden there by the Oasis’s late creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance). The finder of those keys will inherit his world and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue.

Whilst in the Oasis, Wade regularly interacts with the avatars of gamer friends who he has never actually met in real life. Then he meets a new one, Art3emis (Olivia Cooke), who, he soon realises, is somebody he really would like to know better. Their introduction – during a riotous vehicle chase – sets the tone for the story that follows and makes The Fast and the Furious look like a Sunday drive in the suburbs. In the midst of all the excitement, Wade is blissfully unaware that he has a major adversary in the real world. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is a ruthless businessman, intent on securing the Oasis for himself and ready to go to any lengths to eliminate his competitors.

In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Suffice to say that Spielberg and his team have concocted a dazzling, fast-paced riot of sound and fury, with visual references to so many of Spielberg’s movie influences (plus several images from his own films) that you will be constantly trying to spot them all. Some are obvious, and actually contribute to the story, while others are onscreen for the briefest of glimpses. If ever a film demanded repeat viewings, this is the one – if only to allow the geeks in the audience to tick the various references off their list. If I may be allowed to single out one particular  sequence for praise, it’s the extended homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Okay, so this is definitely one to go on the ‘popcorn’ side of Spielberg’s resumé, but oh my goodness, what succulent popcorn it is! After the relatively lacklustre BFG, and the rather straight laced The Post, this puts him back where he belongs, as the foremost purveyor of cinematic wonder. Where will he go next? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, but I would venture to suggest that, close to fifty years since his low budget debut, Spielberg’s well seems a long way from running dry.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

17/12/16

There are prequels and there are sequels – and then there are ‘inbetweenquals’ like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, helmed by brit director Gareth Edwards and starring Felicity Jones, making a surprisingly confident transition to action hero territory. But the ultimate question that must inevitably hang over this production is this: as a standalone, does its justify its place in the already extensive Star Wars canon? And the answer is… just about.

After JJ Abrams crowd-pleasing revamp (a film that even those who didn’t much care for Star Wars could easily enjoy), Rogue One is clearly aimed much more at the obsessive fans of the series – and it must be said that the must successful parts of this film really are the ones that recall classic moments from the original movies.

The events of this film take place sometime after the end of the clone wars and before those outlined in Episode IV – A New Hope. Young Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of Death Star designer, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), now estranged from him because of his apparent return to the Empire after the murder of his wife at the hands of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Captured by stormtroopers and on her way to prison, Jyn is rescued by members of the Rebel Alliance and made to accompany handsome young rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on a mission to find her father, in order to try to discover a way to defeat the terrifying weapon before it makes mincemeat of all who oppose it. We already know, of course, that the Death Star was destroyed at the end of Episode IV – this film, then,  seeks to explain how the information about a fatal flaw, planted in the Death Star’s workings gets into Princess Leia’s hands in the first place.

Edwards makes a reasonable attempt at this – there’s some convincing world-building going on and enough references to later films to keep all the fan boys and girls happy. However, there’s a seemingly endless series of battles and the film only really hits its stride in the final third. There’s also one gasp-out-loud moment when a character turns around to reveal the face of deceased actor Peter Cushing – or rather a walking, talking CGI recreation of him, testament to just how adept these special effects have become – but sadly there’s not an awful lot here in terms of character development and it says a lot when some of the strongest aspects of the script are the droll quips of the film’s main android character, K2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), which lends some much-needed humour to what is a parade of rather po-faced antics.

Star Wars diehards will doubtless approve of this. It ticks enough boxes to earn its place in the pantheon, and there’s a cameo by classic character Darth Vader. Those like me, who enjoyed the first two films, hated the next four, but loved the relaunch, may simply find this a bit of a Star Bore. Choose wisely my young apprentices- and may the force be with you!

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney