David Bradley

Allelujah

17/03/23

Cineworld, Edinburgh

This film boasts a starry cast. Indeed, with comedy queen Jennifer Saunders in the lead role, alongside British acting legends such as Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley – not to mention the brightly-hued, smiling posters – it promises to be a clever-but-gentle affair, something pleasant for a Sunday afternoon.

It’s not.

Adapted (and updated) by Heidi Thomas from Alan Bennett’s 2018 stage play, Allelujah is an ode to the NHS, as gnarly and wonderful, inspiring and infuriating as the institution itself. I feel like I’ve been lured in by the publicity, before being punched in the gut by a polemic – but I’m not complaining. This is the movie equivalent of a protest song; it’s timely and vital.

Sister Gilpin (Saunders) and Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) work at ‘the Beth’ – a small, crumbling, Yorkshire hospital, specialising in geriatric care. They’re fighting a losing battle against closure, despite the fundraising efforts of local volunteers, but they forge on anyway, doing their best for the elderly patients who need them, offering them compassion and dignity in the last stages of their lives.

Joe (David Bradley) likes it in the Beth. He doesn’t want to go back to the Rowans, the care home where he’s miserable. But his son, Colin (Russell Tovey), is the film’s antagonist, the malevolent Tory hatchet man, who views the hospital dispassionately, from a purely numbers perspective. His relationship with his dad is thorny, but – as they soften towards one another – will he change his mind about the NHS?

Actually, it’s not as clear cut as that. Nothing here is. Under Richard Eyre’s directorship, Allelujah‘s narrative arc is awkward and jarring; it never leads where I anticipate. Instead, it keeps confounding my expectations, pulling me one way and then another, wrong-footing me. Some of the political grandstanding is a little clunky – there are speeches occasionally, in lieu of dialogue – but all of this adds up to something really impactful.

If Sister Gilpin is a microcosm of the Beth, embodying its best and worst, then the Beth is a microcosm of the NHS, encompassing its triumphs and its disasters, its shortcomings and its accomplishments. The final scenes, depicting the heroic work our doctors and nurses did during the pandemic, provide a stark reminder of why we have to fight to keep our health service. It might be troubled, but it’s glorious and it’s ours. “You dismantle it at your peril.”

As the credits roll, there’s a stunned silence in the cinema. Then someone begins to applaud. And we all join in.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

19/12/22

Netflix

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favourite film directors – and Disney’s Pinocchio one of the formative films of my childhood. So when I first hear the news that the Mexican director is planning to deliver his own version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale, it’s naturally something I eagerly look forward to – for a very long time. Indeed, it turns out that del Toro has actually been working on this astonishing stop-frame animation for something like fifteen years.

As the release date finally approaches, I look everywhere for a cinema in Edinburgh that’s planning to show del Toro’s film on the big screen, but alas, with the Filmhouse out of action, it cannot be found. So Netflix it must be. As it turns out, some visions are so powerful, so perfect, that they can blaze out of a small screen like meteors. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an astonishing film, that has the audacity to take everything we know about the story and give it a thorough makeover. What’s more, the changes that he makes (he co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick McHale) all seem to enrich the original, making it more logical, more explicable.

Revelation number one: when we first encounter woodcarver, Geppetto (David Bradley), he has a real son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann). But Carlo dies tragically when Italian air force planes unload their bombs onto the church, where Gepetto is working on a huge crucifixion. This backstory helps flesh Geppetto out and makes his subsequent actions more believable – especially when Pinocchio is forged from the very tree planted to mark Carlo’s grave.

Revelation number two: the Pinocchio that Geppetto eventually carves in a drunken rage looks nothing like a ‘real boy’. He’s a strange, spindly, half-finished marionette, generally shunned and mistrusted by the people in his home village. Contrary to the original tale, it’s the villagers who have to learn to accept Pinocchio, rather than the other way around.

Revelation number three: this version is set in Italy in the 1930s, under the rule of Benito Mussolini. Pinocchio’s adventures on the ‘Donkey Island’ are exchanged for scenes where he unwittingly becomes a poster boy for fascism. (It’s nakedly clear what del Toro is saying here. And it makes perfect sense, because to take on Disney’s most iconic scenes would be a pointless exercise. If you can’t better a scene, do something entirely different, right?)

There’s more, much more, packed into the film’s two hour run. We meet Sebastian J Cricket (Ewan McGegor), an ambitious, self-aggrandising would-be author, who only agrees to take on the task of being Pinocchio’s ‘conscience’ in the hope off getting a book deal. There’s Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), the greedy, venal owner of a travelling freak show, who spots an opportunity to make lots of money and who bullies his monkey assistant, Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) at every opportunity. And wait till you see what the animators (and Tilda Swinton) have done with the infamous Blue Fairy, rechristened here as the Woodland Sprite. More than anything else, there are fundamental changes to the character of Pinocchio himself. He’s no longer the obnoxious, pig-headed lout of the novel, but a sweet, misguided misfit, desperately trying to be liked. A scene where he can’t understand why all the villagers hate him, but adore the other wooden figure nailed to a cross on the church wall is a stand-out.

It’s not just the levels of invention in the story that make this such a unmitigated triumph. It’s the loving attention to detail: every character, every set, every painted landscape; it all pulses and dazzles with imagination of the highest calibre. There’s so much to see here, it’s clearly going to need repeated viewings to really take it all in. And watching it makes me wish that dear old Ray Harryhausen was still alive to see where modern technology has brought the art of stop-motion animation.

Many films have the word ‘masterpiece’ attached to them, but few deserve it as thoroughly as this one. All you need to do it hit the Netflix button, so… no pressure.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Your Christmas or Mine?

08/12/22

Amazon Prime

Christmas movies are so hard to get right, especially when it comes to pleasing a committed Scrooge like me. Much of what passes for festive fare turns out to be inane, tinsel-adorned tat, often built around some available musical output. 2019’s Last Christmas springs immediately to mind. Pitched as a tribute to the late George Michael, it is a big dollop of vacuous candy floss. So I approach this film with some trepidation, noting that it barely registered at cinemas across the UK on its recent release – but a combination of ill-health and freezing weather conditions prompt me to take a gamble on it. I’m glad I do.

Your Christmas or Mine? (terrible title) is written by comedian Tom Parry and directed by Jim O’ Hanlon. James (Asa Butterfield) and Hayley (Cora Kirk) are young drama students in the throes of a heady romance. We first meet them at a busy railway station, where they are preparing to head off to their respective family homes to spend Christmas on different sides of the North/South divide. But, at the last moment, James experiences a sudden overpowering longing to spend more time with Hayley. He jumps off his train, changes platforms and scrambles aboard her service, seconds before it leaves the station.

Unfortunately, Hayley has had the very same idea…

After a sudden snowfall, the twosome find themselves marooned in unfamiliar locations and obliged to spend Christmas with their partner’s families. Once I’ve accepted this unlikely event, things rapidly get more interesting, as James and Hayley realise that neither of them has been entirely truthful. Why does James’ dad, Humphrey (Alex Jennings) hate Christmas so much? Why is Hayley’s dad (Daniel Mays) so obsessed with turduckens? And… who the hell is Hubert?

Parry’s culture-clash comedy sparkles with delightful dialogue, manic misunderstandings and riveting revelations, while the two central characters’ escapades are pitched just on the right side of believability. There’s a poignant explanation for Humphrey’s Scrooge-like persona that unexpectedly gives my tear ducts a bit of a workout; the two leads are immensely likeable, and there are cameos by excellent character actors (Mark Heap, Harriet Walter and David Bradley, to name but three.) Best of all, there are a couple of surprises I genuinely don’t see coming.

Your Christmas or Mine? is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours and, after witnessing some real festive stinkers in recent years, that’s something to be thankful for. If asked for a Christmas movie recommendation this year, I’m happy to go with this.

Or Die Hard. It’s a tough call.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

A Monster Calls

01/01/17

A Monster Calls is an intensely emotional movie, telling the tale of twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and his struggle to deal with the realisation that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Siobhan Dowd, who conceived the novel the film is based on, died of the same disease before she could write her book. What we have here, then, is fellow author Patrick Ness’s interpretation of Dowd’s idea – and it’s good to see he’s done her proud.

Lewis MacDougall’s performance is extraordinary. (I should perhaps note here that he’s a student at The Drama Studio in Edinburgh, where I now work; sadly I can’t claim any credit for his achievements, as he’s not in my class, I’ve never met him, and he’d filmed this before I even joined the team.) He’s a gifted young actor, perfect for the screen, with a touching vulnerability here that’s reminiscent of David Bradley’s Billy Casper in the 1969 classic, Kes. His anger, fear and frustration are all writ large, and Philip and I find ourselves crying at regular intervals.

The story is essentially a simple one, making use of the idea of ‘the monstrous other’ and exploring the concept of duality. Conor is conflicted: he loves his mother, but he can’t live with the uncertainty of not knowing when she’s going to die. And so he stumbles between quiet acquiescence and towering rage, the latter symbolised by the unleashing of the yew-tree monster – like Jekyll’s Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, Bertha Rochester, or even Blue’s Savage in David Almond’s graphic novel. Like its literary predecessors, this monster allows Conor to release his repressed emotions. It is both his undoing and his salvation.

There’s a stellar cast at work here, with Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell occupying the roles of Gran and Dad respectively, neither of whom are what Conor needs to fill the void left by his mum, although they both try hard, in their own ways. Felicity Jones’s portrayal of the dying Elizabeth is utterly heartbreaking; she’s a real chameleon, and it’s hard to think of her as the same actor I saw in Rogue One last week. And the monster’s stories are beautifully realised, with some delightful sequences featuring dazzling, stylised animation.

There are some flaws: the bullies’ dialogue, for example, is wholly unconvincing and depressingly generic, and the first fifteen minutes or so seem aimed at a much younger audience. But these are minor niggles in the face of such an affecting, tragic piece of work. It’s a lovely film, and well worth going to see.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield