Colin Firth

Supernova

01/07/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Ah, timing. It’s unfortunate for Supernova that its release comes so hot on the heels of the infinitely superior The Father, and that – given their overlapping subject matter – comparison is inevitable. Harry Macqueen’s film isn’t bad by any means, but it’s polite to the point of missing the point, with so much unsaid – and unshown – that it’s difficult to accept the enormity of the endpoint.

Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a novelist with early-onset dementia; Sam (Colin Firth) is his partner. As an uncertain future looms, the couple take a camper van on a road trip, revisiting significant locations from early in their relationship and calling in on Sam’s sister (Pippa Haywood), until finally they reach a guest house with an out-of tune piano, which – it seems – is all the practice Sam is going to get before he gives his first recital in an unspecified ‘long time.’

Both Tucci and Firth give the sterling performances you’d expect: they’re believable long-term lovers, with all the tics and tender bickering that signify something solid. Neither actor is showy, and that’s good; this is a sombre story, and it deserves the gravitas they bring. Dick Pope’s cinematography is rather lovely too: all long, languorous shots, highlighting the simple beauty of the British countryside.

And yet. There’s not enough here. It’s all anticipation and no substance. There are some poignant moments: the blank pages in Tusker’s notebook giving lie to the fact that he’s still writing; Sam’s realisation that their dog, Ruby, has been bought specifically to keep him company when Tusker no longer can. But we never see any devastation, either clinical or emotional. The worst we see of the encroaching Alzheimer’s is a brief moment when Tusker wanders off and doesn’t know where he is; the most misery we witness is a muted discussion about suicide. Where are the sharp edges, the corners, the spikes? Where is the anguish? Of course, this film is all about not wanting to confront those truths: Tusker wants to die before grim reality kicks in, and Sam wants to pretend it’s never going to happen at all. But we, the audience, need to feel afraid and we don’t: it’s all too glossy, too glib, too bloodless, too bland.

In all, Supernova feels like a slightly wasted opportunity. It’s almost there, but it needs unbuttoning.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Secret Garden

28/02/21

Amazon Prime Video

It’s a hundred and ten years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was first published, but its appeal remains undiminished. I remember fondly the copy I had, part of a collection called ‘Children’s Classics for Girls’ (my brother had ‘Children’s Classics for Boys,’ but we both read all of them, of course, because gender boundaries are stupid, and no one knows that better than kids). I remember my grandad (who worked for MGM) enthusing about the 1949 film version too, because it was mostly shot in black and white, but changed to glorious technicolour in the titular garden. I didn’t actually see it until I was grown up, but I carried that image in my head for years.

Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is ten years old, and living in India. Her family is rich and British, but their enormous wealth and privilege can’t save them. This latest movie adaptation changes the context, so that it’s 1947, and we see the turmoil outside the Lennox mansion, caused by Partition. In the novel, Mary’s parents die of cholera. Here, it seems, they are victims of understandably violent protest. One by one, the servants leave, and Mary is left alone: orphaned, adrift.

In the novel, Mary is spoiled: a demanding, contrary madam, who needs to be brought down a peg or two. Here, director Marc Munden offers us a more sympathetic perspective: how can a child be held accountable for her bad manners? She has been parented in a distant, remote way; raised to expect others to obey her commands. What this Mary needs is love and attention – but that’s in short supply. Found, eventually, by British soldiers, Mary is shipped off to a cold, grey England she has never seen, to live with an uncle she doesn’t know. And she never gets to know him, really, because Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) is every bit as unreachable as her own parents were, willing to do his duty and provide for his niece, but completely uninterested in actually seeing her. The ancestral home, Misselthwaite Manor, is enormous, so it’s easy for them to live separate lives.

As in India, Mary spends most of her time in the company of servants. Here in Yorkshire, this means the formidable Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) and the down-to-earth Martha (Isis Davis). While befriending Mrs Medlock is out of the question, Martha proves more amiable, and her brother Dickon (Amir Wilson), whom Mary meets while exploring the estate, soon becomes Mary’s playmate. Together, they roam the vast grounds, take care of a lame dog and, one day, discover a way into a walled garden, which has been locked ever since Archibald’s wife – Mary’s aunt – died, many years ago. This secret, magical place becomes their sanctuary. The idea of transformation is integral to the book, so it’s a little odd that Jack Thorne’s script seems almost to toss this idea aside. Whereas Hodgson Burnett has the children working hard every day to restore the garden to its former glory, here they just play in it. This undermines the central tenet of the story: that gardens (and children) need tending if they’re to grow well.

Take cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is bedridden, and supposedly out of bounds. He’s another neglected child, trapped by his father’s fears. Archibald thinks Colin has inherited his hunch back, and keeps his son ‘safe’ by cutting him off from the world. Mary hears him crying in the night and decides that what he really needs is to play outside. Like Clara in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, it turns out that his disability can be ‘cured’ by a bit of fresh air and a positive attitude. (I don’t know if this is as deeply offensive as it seems on the face of things or if it’s a true reflection of poor medical practice at the turn of the last century. Even if the latter is true, does this still apply in 1947?) Still, it’s a transformative move: like the garden, both Colin and Mary become stronger, happier people once they’re shown a bit of love.

This is a good-looking film, and the children all perform well. I like the fact that Mary’s story is contextualised, both by the opening scenes in India and by the old equipment lying around the Manor, a reminder of its recently being requisitioned as a war hospital. But both Walters and Firth are criminally under-used (why cast such great actors if you’re not going to give them anything to do?) and it’s a shame that the garden itself never seems magical; in fact, it’s almost indistinguishable from the rest of the estate, and it’s not clear why this place in particular matters so much to the children. From black and white to technicolour might seem hack nowadays, but I think this movie needs an equivalent trick.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Mary Poppins Returns

 

23/12/18

Sporting a ‘what it says on the can’ title, Mary Poppins Returns is a thoroughly decent and handsomely mounted sequel to one of Disney’s most iconic films. I’ll ‘fess up right here and now and say that I don’t hold the original movie in the kind of esteem that some of my friends evidently do – but I entirely understand that, with its combination of whimsy and fantasy, it’s become a popular Christmas perennial.

The sequel takes place in depression-era London, some twenty years after the events of the first film, where the Banks children have grown up to a rather more depressing reality than they’ve been used to. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recently bereaved widower with three adorable young children to look after, while his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has devoted her life to working for worthy causes. Michael hasn’t been too diligent about paying the bills and is now in danger of losing the beloved family home to the very bank he works for, after failing to keep up the repayments on a loan. The bank’s dastardly new manager, Wilkins (Colin Firth), is taking every step to ensure that the family home will soon be subject to repossession.

Into this troubled scenario, floats Mary (Emily Blunt), hanging onto the tail of a passing kite. Blunt is perhaps the logical actor to fill those famous red shoes,  but her incarnation is sterner and, it has be said, a good deal more mischievous than her predecessor. She is clearly in cahoots with local lamplighter, Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda), and together the two of them lead the Banks children into a whole series of magical situations.

If this sounds familiar, it ought to. The sequel sticks pretty closely to the format of the first film, replete with song and dance numbers – one of which is rather more fruity than you’d ever have expected from Julie Andrews – cleverly animated sequences (an underwater spectacle is perhaps the standout) and brief appearances from high calibre guest stars like Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and a very spry Dick Van Dyke.

As I said, it’s all decently done, but perhaps, in the end, that over-familiarity works against it. Nothing here comes as a surprise and some of the plot strands are so needlessly over-complicated, they can only be solved by Mary – but she does have an infuriating habit of hanging back until the last possible moment. Also, sadly, none of the songs here are quite as memorable as the likes of Go Fly A Kite or A Spoonful of Sugar.

If you’re looking for a suitable Christmas film for all the family, this is probably the logical one to aim for, but be warned, you may not come out singing one of the songs.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

23/07/18

The reviews have been astonishing: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, we’re told, a glorious piece of feelgood fun; moreover, it has the emotional heft to make us cry. We’re surprised: we’re ABBA fans (because the music is undeniably good, right?) but we both found the first film a sort of okay-watchable-quite-good-nothing-special kind of thing. So what makes it so much better this time?

Sadly, the answer is… nothing. Nothing makes it better, because it isn’t better: it’s worse. It’s weirdly patchy: some genuinely awful sequences interspersed with lovely moments. All together, it’s a mess. Most of it (the prequel section) tells a back story we already know, fleshed out without revealing anything. There are no surprises here. The sequel section fares better, with the multi-talented Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) bringing a much-needed sincerity to proceedings, and wringing every ounce of emotion from the songs (One of Us, which she sings with her estranged husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is the highlight of the film for me).

The prequel takes us back to 1979, when Donna (Lily James), freshly graduated from Oxford, unsure of what she wants from life, decides to seek adventure and takes herself off travelling. In Paris, she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner); charmed by his geeky naïvety, she spends the night with him before heading off alone to Greece. En route to the unnamed island idyll that claims her, she meets Stellan Skarsgård’s younger incarnation (Josh Dylan), but he’s off to take part in a boat race, and – while he’s gone – she falls for Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the Pierce Brosnan-a-like, who is absolutely perfect – except for the fiancée he forgets to tell her about. James is a charismatic performer, and her vocal skills are more than up to the challenge (which is more than can be said for poor Hugh Skinner, who has definitely been cast because he resembles Colin Firth, and not because he has any discernible musical ability). Her character is flighty and foolish, making literally no use of that Oxford degree, but she’s engaging and entertaining, and she makes us care about her.

Not much happens in the sequel, which is a shame, because it has all the best songs and all the best actors. I mean, Sophie gets pregnant and feels close to her dead mother, and there’s a party that’s threatened by a storm, but that’s about it. True, Cher is a camp delight, appearing as Sophie’s errant grandmother and stealing the show, and Dancing Queen proves the perfect accompaniment to a lively, animated crowd scene. But honestly, that’s all there is.

There are huge missteps too. I hate the graduation scene where Donna and her friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) sing I Kissed the Teacher to a badly accented Celia Imrie (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish, but I can’t be sure). They’ve changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ in a bid to make the lyrics somehow more palatable, but I can’t see what difference it makes – it’s a good song, but the sentiment is undeniably creepy when filtered through a 2018 lens. It makes me most uncomfortable.

Ach, I don’t know. It’s just a load of mawkish nonsense, unpalatably sentimental and as silly as can be. Thank you for the music, ABBA – but can we stop filming this fluff?

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Happy Prince

 

25/06/18

Oscar Wilde has been portrayed on screen several times already, most notably by Peter Finch in 1960 and by Stephen Fry in 1997. Now it’s Rupert Everett’s turn to ‘step up if you think you’re Wilde enough.’ Here, he’s gone the full Orson Welles: writing, directing and starring in this rather doleful look at the author’s decline after his brutal imprisonment for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.

When we first meet Wilde in The Happy Prince, he’s a bloated, shambling vestige of his former self, living in squalid digs in Paris, dependent on handouts from near-strangers and a meagre monthly allowance from his long-suffering wife, Constance (Emily Watson). The story then cuts back in time to his release from prison, where he’s met in France by faithful friends, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), both of whom are keen to encourage him to rekindle his writing career. They urge him to stay away from Alfred Bosie Dougas (Colin Morgan), his former lover, but Oscar simply cannot help himself and, pretty soon, he and ‘Bosie’ are sharing a rat-infested apartment in Naples, living far beyond their means and squandering what little goodwill remains for them.

This is most emphatically a ‘warts and all’ story. Bosie comes across as insufferably unpleasant and, to be honest, Wilde isn’t particularly likeable either, demonstrating a callous tendency to exploit those who care about him. It would have been nice, perhaps,  to see a few more flashbacks to his heyday, in order to make us fully appreciate the charm he must once have possessed, a charm that in his latter years is wearing somewhat thin. As it stands, this is unremittingly sad stuff, as we are witness to his inexorable slide towards ignominious death. Still, there’s little doubting the power of Everett’s performance, which has the kind of grandstanding appeal that often attracts Oscars (think Gary Oldman as Churchill). The era is convincingly evoked and the use of Wilde’s popular fairy tale to frame the film is a nice conceit. There’s plenty to admire, but not really an awful lot to enjoy.

Harrowing and desperately bleak, The Happy Prince serves to remind us of one of history’s greatest injustices and the principal characters who played a part in it. It’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the cinema, but it’s nevertheless a story that needs telling.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Bridget Jones’s Baby

19/09/16

Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t like Bridget very much. Admittedly, in 1996, when Bridget Jones’s Diary was a newly-published book, I thought it was an entertaining read. Helen Fielding has a sprightly style, and the humour is easy and accessible. The narrative of noble goal-setting and ignoble failure works really well. And so I read the sequel and then I watched both films. And I don’t think any of them are bad: they’re funny, well-made, appealing tales. It’s just… Bridget. She’s so bloody passive. And I know she’s a character, not a role-model, and I don’t expect a protagonist without flaws, but there’s so much of Bridget, she’s so ubiquitous a figure – and she really, really drives me mad.

In this latest outing, nothing’s really changed. It’s still slick and competent, still laugh-out-loud funny, still complacent with its privileged world view (where Bridget, a successful TV producer living in at least half a million pounds’ worth of property, is somehow presented as a sort-of failure, poorer than all her friends, playing Cinderella to her rich suitors). She’s forty-three now, still single, still waiting for life to happen to her – and she’s bored; the old gang can’t be relied on for company, because they’re all too busy with their kids. She tries hanging out with the younger Miranda (Sarah Solemani) instead, but soon lands herself in trouble: after two one-night stands, she finds herself pregnant. But who’s the father? Is it Jack (Patrick Dempsey), the billionaire dating guru? Or Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), the love of her life?

What follows is a sort of comedy of manners, and it’s adroitly done. Of course it is: look at the cast and crew. Renée Zellweger imbues Bridget with an understated warmth and likability, and Emma Thompson (as Dr Rawlings) is as sardonic and witty as you’d expect – she’s the best thing about this film. It’s an engaging and engrossing tale, and the payoff – if predictable – is worth the wait.

My advice? Watch it. Enjoy it. Try not to get annoyed.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Kingsman: The Secret Service

MV5BMTkxMjgwMDM4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTk3NTIwNDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

31/1/15

Matthew Vaughan, creator of Kick Ass, has made no secret of the fact that he’s long held a desire to direct a Bond movie. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, he may just have gone one better, creating an irreverent spoof that’s surely strong enough to become a franchise of its very own. Actually, in tone, it’s probably closer to long running TV series, The Avengers, a surreal blend of action, espionage and dark humour, but whatever it’s inspiration this works brilliantly, setting off at a brisk canter and accelerating into a full gallop.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a teenager on a sink estate who’s life seems to be heading rapidly down the toilet. He’s surrounded by thugs (one of whom has got his grips on Eggy’s Mum (Samantha Janus) and his future looks decidedly bleak. But little does he suspect that he has an ally in Harry Hart (Colin Firth) a member of a secret organisation known as Kingsman. A pre credits sequence has revealed that Hart owes his life to the action of Eggsy’s late father, a member of the same organisation. Hart has vowed to take care of his son. So Eggsy finds himself invited to undergo the society’s ruthless initiation course, coached by Merlin (Mark Strong) a kind of Q figure, with access to all kinds of state-of-the-art weaponry. Along the way, the world faces destruction at the hands of Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) a communications billionaire with a fiendish plan to stamp out global warming and…

You know what? The ins and the outs of the plot hardly matter. Suffice it to say that Kingsman ventures into areas that the Bond franchise wouldn’t dare to tread. Based on a graphic novel by Dave Gibbons and scripted by Vaughan and Jane Goldman, the film is an inspired mix of action, comedy and cartoon violence that never falters and never loses it’s grasp on an audience’s attention. Firth convinces as an action hero with more than a passing nod to John Steed, a secret agent who is as concerned about the cut of his suit as he is about nailing the villains. Newcomer Egerton (looking eerily like a young Leonardo Di Caprio) clearly has a bright future ahead of him and should Vaughan decide to go this route a second time, I for one will be first in the queue to watch it. Superlative stuff.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney