Charlotte Rampling

The Little Stranger

22/09/18

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a curiously enigmatic and unsettling tale, and its transition from page to screen is profoundly satisfying. It’s a ghost story without ghosts, a horror film without real scares. And yet an uneasy sense of impending doom pervades the piece, and the tension in the cinema is almost palpable.

It’s 1948, and Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has returned from years of study and army-medic work to his Warwickshire hometown. He’s ill at ease here though, all too aware of his humble origins, and still obsessed with Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a maid.

Called to the Hall to minister to an ailing servant, Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres family: the ailing matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), who’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter, Susan; Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s struggling to cope with both the physical injuries and the mental stress he’s brought with him from the war; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who – tasked with looking after them both – is bored and isolated in her idyllic country prison. But the relationships they forge are as unhealthy and demanding as the mouldering ancestral home, and it soon becomes clear that things are not going to end well.

This is a fascinating film, directed with the precision we expect from Lenny Abrahamson, following the award-winning Room. I like the careful slowness of it all, the repressed emotions that reverberate and shimmer. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is wonderfully understated, the clenched jaw and tense body language testimony to just how much this man has to conceal: his past, his class, his raging desire.

Ruth Wilson is utterly convincing as the gauche Caroline Ayres, an unhappy blend of self-doubt and entitlement, both poor and rich, privileged and trapped. Of course, the whole film is a kind of commentary on class, on what it makes us and how we respond to it. And it’s as illuminating and disturbing as the shadows haunting Hundreds Hall.

The muted, misty colours of the post-war landscape mirror the shadowy ambiguities of the story, where we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is supernatural or not. It’s frustrating, all this teasing, but that’s no bad thing: it only adds to the film’s potency. Truly, this is an enthralling film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

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Red Sparrow

05/03/18

There’s no doubt that Red Sparrow is a problematic film. The controversy over its apparent misogyny (with graphic depictions of rape and sexual violence) has been loud, and I have to admit I’m not predisposed to like it.

Still, I try to keep an open mind and, actually, I don’t find it particularly anti-feminist. There’s no denying the sexism of the culture portrayed, nor of many of the characters, but this feels more like a comment on what women have to do to succeed within a system that denies them any power than an endorsement of the patriarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a Russian ballerina, who – after a horrific dancing ‘accident’ – is coerced by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) into attending “whore school,” where the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) teaches her recruits to respond to the sexual desires of targeted others in the name of patriotism. Once graduated, Dominika is given her first mission – to seduce American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), and the double-dealing shenanigans  begin.

It starts well. There’s a great sequence where Dominika’s fateful ballet performance is cross cut with Nate’s skirmish in Gorki Park, the pace of both segments growing ever faster and more frantic as the tension builds. And the ending is decent too, with a satisfying pay-off that I won’t reveal.

But there are problems with the lumpen stuff  that’s in-between. Firstly, the Red Sparrow Academy, the concept of which is – quite frankly – risible. I find myself stifling giggles as Matron impassively tweaks the cadets’ nipples, or orders  them to perform lewd acts on each other. And the stuff that follows – the actual spying – is, dare I say it, deadly dull. It’s probably a more accurate depiction of the life of a secret agent than the high-octane thrills we get from, say, a Jason Bourne movie, but it’s a lot more boring too. And then there’s the violence, which is extreme and often feels gratuitous. One lengthy torture scene in particular is very hard to watch, and the detail doesn’t add much to my understanding of the film.

The performances are as excellent as you’d expect; her recent tabloid fall-from-grace notwithstanding, Lawrence is, I think, a fine actor and she has total command of this role. Edgerton and Schoenaerts provide efficient support and the cinematography is more than just decent.

But still. It’s not enough to make this particular bird fly.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield