Bill Nighy

The Limehouse Golem

11/09/17

This Ripper-esque murder mystery, adapted from the novel by Peter Ackroyd and written for the screen by Jane Goldman, has plenty of things to commend it, even if the story seems a little over-familiar. Bill Nighy (in a role originally intended for the late Alan Rickman) plays Inspector John Kildare, brought in by his superiors to investigate a series of grisly murders in the East End of London. Kildare, we quickly learn, has been passed over for promotion because he is a homosexual. The baffling nature of the crimes suggest he’s being offered as some kind of sacrificial lamb, somebody to take the inevitable hit when he fails to get a conviction.

Kildare is also drawn into the trial of former music hall star, Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), who stands accused of poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). The problem is that the dead man is one of the chief suspects for the Golem murders. The others are famous music hall star, Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Karl Marx (Henry Goodman): yes, that Karl Marx! Assisted by Constable George Flood (Daniel Mays), Kildare starts his investigation – and quickly discovers that he is wandering into a very tangled web indeed…

So yes, plenty to enjoy here – superlative performances from most of the cast (especially Booth), an intriguing look at the kind of entertainment laid on in the music halls of the period (I have to say, people must have been easily pleased in those days – it’s not exactly comedy gold) and some convincing recreations of Victorian London in all its grubby glory.  And yet, something doesn’t quite gel. The story unfolds slowly and fitfully, feeling longer than it’s one hour and forty nine minute running time. It only generates a full head of steam as it moves towards the final half hour or so. Nighy is always a pleasure to watch, but I couldn’t help feeling he wasn’t really given enough to do here, required mostly to stand around and look perplexed.

It would be criminal to give away the ending, so I won’t – but suffice to say, that I thought it was one of the stronger elements of the film. Rookie director Juan Carlos Medina may not have the lightness of touch needed to make this work perfectly, but it’s nonetheless a decent effort.

Be warned, though, the visceral murder scenes are not for the squeamish.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Their Finest

16/04/17

Ah,the British movie – still out there and still fitfully showing occasional signs of life, thank goodness. And trust me, films do not come much more British than Their Finest. (Terrible title, by the way, but based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which frankly isn’t very good either). However, the resulting film is much better than either title might lead you to expect.

It’s the early 1940s and London is suffering the worst excesses of the Blitz. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) arrives for an interview at the Ministry of Information (Film Division) thinking that she’s applied for nothing more than a secretarial post, but she soon learns that she will be expected to write the ‘slop’ for the informational films the unit is currently producing. Slop, by the way, is the far from sympathetic term for anything uttered by the female actors in the films. Furthermore, Catrin is told, she obviously can’t be paid the same money as ‘the chaps in the unit’, but £2 a week sounds attractive to her, because she’s currently paying the rent on the flat she shares with her partner.

Ellis (Jack Huston), is a struggling artist who was badly injured in the Spanish Civil War and who moonlights as an (unpaid) ARP warden. The problem is he doesn’t much like the fact that Catrin is the money earner.  She finds herself seated at a desk next to opinionated young writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and she’s soon caught up in the struggle to get across a woman’s point of view into the scripts they are producing. It’s clear too that Catrin and Sam are probably made for each other, if they would only realise it. Then, the unit’s boss, Roger Swaine (Richard E Grant), announces that a more ambitious project is in the pipeline – a true life story set against the turmoil of the evacuation of Dunkirk…

OK, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about this film, though it does have some decent ammunition in its armoury, not least the presence of Bill Nighy as over-the-hill actor, Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy’s scenes are probably worth the price of admission alone. He is fast approaching the role of National Treasure, an actor for whom the term ‘louche’ seems to have been specially created. His outrage at being asked to play the role of alcoholic old timer, Uncle Frank, is a joy to behold.

There are other pleasures too. The recreations of London during the blitz are nicely done, Arterton is as charming as ever and the film excels at demonstrating the arbitrary nature of life during wartime. A scene where Catrin chances on the aftermath of the bombing of a department store is very affecting. To lighten the mood, there are hilarious clips from the feature film that the unit is making, complete with dodgy miniature boats, unconvincing glass paintings of the evacuated troops and even the terrible acting of American war hero, Wyndham Best (Hubert Burton), drafted in to the movie to try and encourage the Yanks to engage with the war, raised a chuckle to two. And, just in case I’m in danger of painting this as a total laughter fest, the film also manages to lob in an unexpectedly heartbreaking emotional grenade that consequently had me in floods of tears.

All in all, this is a delightful film, well worth seeking out.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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05/03/15

In 2011, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made the cinema industry sit up and take notice. Here was a modestly budgeted film that raked in a hefty profit, but more significantly, it took it from the kind of mature audience that cinema usually fails to attract (i.e. not just 12 year old boys). So it was inevitable that sooner, rather than later, there’d be a sequel. And here it is, complete with a title that sounds worryingly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It should be remembered that the original film was based on a rather good source novel by Deborah Moggach. This one appears to be an original screenplay, if by original, you mean borrowing an idea that famously appeared in an episode of Fawlty Towers. The kindest thing you can say about it, is that it’s a curate’s egg of a film, good in parts but those parts are few and far between.

Sonny (Dev Patel) is soon to marry his fiancé, Sunaina (Tina Desai), but first he plans to expand his operation by opening a second hotel and at the film’s inception, has gone to America to seek finance. In this enterprise he’s aided by the caustic Mrs Donnelly (Maggie Smith) her character slightly diluted from her original bitchy incarnation, but nonetheless still awarded most of the funniest lines. Meanwhile the usual suspects from Marigold 1 parade around having affairs with each other (Celia Imrie’s character, Madge, appears to have turned into a borderline good time girl,) while Evelyn (Judy Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighi) are still failing to connect, even when it’s perfectly clear that the two of them are simply made for each other. Into this hotbed of geriatric passion wanders Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) who might or might not, be the hotel inspector who can grant Sonny’s expansion plan. Before you can say, ‘Basil Fawlty,’ Guy has the hots for Sonny’s widowed mother and much (alleged) hilarity ensues. The problem is, that this is all so obvious, it might as well have been performed as a series of semaphore manoeuvres. A last minute ‘twist’ fails to offer any surprises whatsoever. And what’s happened to Sonny’s character? In Marigold 1, he was charming in a bumbling, hapless sort of way, but here he’s a car crash of a person who can’t open his mouth without offending everybody in the vicinity.

On one hand, TSBEMH deserves respect for daring to portray senior citizens as genuine characters with real lives and real concerns; on the other hand, points must be deducted for its outdated portrayal of India as a country that has somehow never escaped the bonds of colonialism. The first film managed to skirt skilfully around these issues, but this time it just wades on in, seemingly without thinking. The climactic wedding features lots of dancing and larking about, but also comes with a large dollop of sentimentality, which once again, the first film was careful to avoid.

So, second best by name and certainly second best by nature. Ideally, the film makers should have gratefully accepted their groundbreaking hit and moved on to another idea, but of course, the movie business will always respond to a hit by throwing more money in it’s general direction. Can we ‘look forward’ to The Third and Final Exotic Marigold Hotel? God, I hope not.

3 stars

Philip Caveney