Colin Firth

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

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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

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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