Claire Foy

First Man

24/10/18

Q: Who was Neil Armstrong?

A: The first man to walk on the moon.

Q: Yes, but who was Neil Armstrong?

This is the question that informs Damien Chazelle’s intriguing and surprisingly intimate biopic of the astronaut who took ‘a giant step for mankind.’ It’s an attempt to reveal the true nature of one of the most famous men in history. It’s also a curiously thankless task because, as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is an enigma, a man so tightly buttoned-up that he is unable to reveal his true self, even to his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).

We first encounter him in 1961, when he is a test pilot for the infamous X-15 rocket-powered plane, putting himself in danger on an almost daily basis without complaint or, indeed, comment. It is the same year that his infant daughter Karen dies as a result of a brain tumour, something that affects him deeply for the rest of his life and that prompts him to enlist in the fledgling space programme – as though, in order to hide from his own grief, he needs to get as far away from his home planet as possible. Gosling is terrific in the central role, expertly conveying a taciturn hero, whose inner turmoil rages like an inferno behind a perpetually blank expression.

First Man also offers us alarming glimpses into early space missions, which seem to consist of men strapping themselves into oversized biscuit tins, crossing their fingers and blasting off into the stratosphere. It demonstrates how arduous it was, how downright dangerous. As Janet observes at one point, the team of ‘experts’ behind the space missions have no real idea of what they’re doing, they are just ‘boys building balsa wood models.’ But the all-pervading desire to beat the Russians to the moon leads them to cast caution to the wind. This is amply conveyed by the tragedy of the 1967 Apollo Mission test that results in the deaths of three astronauts. It’s brilliantly underplayed, a single thread of smoke escaping from a sealed hatch demonstrating how the awful details of such incidents are always kept securely locked away from the public gaze.

This is a nuts and bolts depiction of the events leading up to one of mankind’s most memorable achievements and it tells me more about those events than I’ve ever heard before. It’s only in the climactic sequence – the moon landing itself – where the film is finally allowed to slip into the realms of grandeur, the endless grey vistas of the lunar landscape brilliantly recreated. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that the mission is successful – but, once back on earth and with Neil in quarantine, he and his wife are  still on opposite sides of a glass wall – this time literally.

So no change there.

Chazelle’s film is certainly on the long side, weighing in at two hours and twenty one minutes (ironically, exactly the same length as the last film we saw, Bad Times at the El Royale) and it might have benefited from a tighter pace, but it manages to keep me hooked throughout. And the next time somebody asks me the question, ‘Who was Neil Armstrong?’ I’ll be able to give a much more detailed reply.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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Unsane

21/03/18

Continuing what must be the most unconvincing retirement in cinematic history, Steven Soderbergh is back once again with this energetic little exploitation movie. Allegedly shot on iPhones, it’s the story of a young woman’s struggle with an obsessive stalker. It’s fast-paced and occasionally gripping, even if the plot line sometimes causes the involuntary raising of eyebrows.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, a long way from Buckingham Palace), has relocated to Pennsylvania after suffering two years of being terrorised by David Strine (Joshua Leonard), a man who first became infatuated with her when she nursed his dying father. But when she starts spotting a familiar bearded face around the office in which she now works, she starts to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her. She decides to visit a psychiatrist and, during an apparently informal one-to-one,  confesses that she  sometimes has thoughts of suicide. She is asked to sign some papers, which she does. Before she quite knows what’s happening, she realises she has just committed herself to be an inmate of the Highland Creek Behavioural Centre, a place that specialises in admitting ordinary people and exploiting them until their medical insurance runs out.  Foy handles the slow realisation of her predicament brilliantly and Soderbergh maintains a steadily mounting sense of paranoia throughout, even though the  concept does seem decidedly far-fetched. We are reminded several times that Highland Creek isn’t averse to bending the rules, but really? It’s that easy to find yourself locked up? Gosh, I hope not.

Things rapidly get worse for Sawyer, with the arrival of a hospital orderly who looks and acts exactly like her old adversary, Strines. But is he real… or just a product of Sawyer’s disturbed mind? As the tension racks up, she has only two people she can turn to for help – her estranged mother, Angela (Amy Irving), and fellow inmate, Nate (Jay Pharaoh), a man who may not be exactly what he seems. Everyone else she speaks to treats her like somebody who has, well, lost touch with reality.

To fully enjoy this, you’ll need to be able to suspend your disbelief – and it’s not always easy. It’s well acted and queasily credible at times, but scenes that show Foy running around an apparently deserted building do make me smile at inappropriate moments. What’s happened to all the staff? And how can a hospital orderly exercise such total control over the place in which he works?

Still, it’s nice to have Soderbergh back, even if this doesn’t quite measure up to his finest work. And if this is an example of what can be achieved using an iPhone, then surely we really have entered an age where becoming a film director is as easy as pulling out your mobile – although most of us won’t be able to call on old pal, Matt Damon, to put in a virtually uncredited cameo role as a security expert.

Still, no worries. Pass me that phone. Now… quiet on set, please! And, action!

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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