Dominic West

Colette

13/01/19

Imagine this scenario, if you will. A celebrity decides he wants to write a novel. He can’t actually write fiction himself so he gets somebody else to write it for him, but insists that his name goes on the published book. When the book is a huge success, he gets the writer to turn out more stories on the same theme and resolutely refuses to give their creator any credit whatsoever. Shocking, right? And yes, I know, it’s a depressingly familiar occurrence in this day and age. But Colette is proof that it’s by no means a new phenomenon.

When we first meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly), she’s a young woman living in the Burgundy countryside, carrying on a secret romance with trusted family friend Willy (Dominic West). He lives in Paris, where he is carving out a precarious career as an ‘author,’ many of his books ghost-written for him by more talented acquaintances. Pretty soon, he and Gabrielle are married, and she moves in to his apartment in the city, where she realises that her new husband is not exactly trustworthy. When she discovers he has been unfaithful to her, he protests that it’s not really his fault: he’s a man and he needs stimulation!

On hearing Gabrielle’s stories about her childhood, Willy decides that there just might be a book in it. He encourages her to write, mostly by locking her in her room for hours on end. The resulting book, Claudine à L’école, becomes an instant hit, selling millions of copies and necessitating sequels. Colette, as she now calls herself, is only just beginning to realize her own powers. She agrees to continue the deception but warns Willy that she is attracted to other people too…

Colette feels weirdly prescient, yet another example of a talented woman being subjugated to the will of a manipulative man – and then fighting back. Knightly, who often faces accusations that she ‘cannot act’ is on splendid form here, giving a nuanced and thoroughly believable performance in the lead role, while West somehow manages the impossible, making the repellant Willy oddly charming, so that I understand how this man can bend so many people to his will.

Of course, vital to this biopic is the subject of intellectual property, and anyone who has published any sort of written work will doubtless share my horror at the scene where Willy callously instructs an employee to burn the original handwritten copies of the Claudine novels. It’s all I can do not to shout at the screen.

But at the heart of this tale is Colette herself, and – even if this were a contemporary tale – it would still feel pretty sensational, what with her (partially) open marriage, lesbian affairs and long-term relationship with the (probably) transgender ‘Missy’ de Morny (Denise Gough). The fact that it all happened back in the 1890s is the real eye-opener. Gough and Knightly imbue the latter partnership with real warmth, and it’s fascinating to see the contemporary reactions to their public intimacy.

I’m currently working my way through Colette’s short stories, which are rather fey and whimsical, it must be said. But I’m planning to read the novels soon, and hoping to find some of what made her so beloved, and eventually won her the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Meanwhile, do catch this sumptuous, witty evocation of Parisian life at the turn of the century. It’s really very good.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Tomb Raider

 

23/03/18

Has there ever been a decent video-game movie adaptation? From Super Mario to Assassin’s Creed, the concept seems somehow doomed  to failure. Tomb Raider has, of course, already been tried before – with middling results and Angelina Jolie in the title role. Now here’s Alicia Vikander staking her claim to that fabled bow and arrow, and to be fair to her, she certainly looks the part. She’s clearly put in hours down the gym honing the old biceps and triceps. She’s also ditched the ridiculous hot pants of her video avatar in favour of clothing more suitable for jungle exploration, which is, I think, a good thing. I’m not sure about the posh boarding school accent, though.

We first meet her in London, where she’s earning pennies as a bicycle courier, rather than signing the paperwork that will entitle her to the Croft mansion and its accompanying billions. (Yeah, right, like that would happen.) You see, her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has been missing for seven years, but Lara, always a bit of a daddy’s girl, isn’t quite ready to give up on his possible return, despite her legal guardian, Ana (Kristen Scott Thomas), continually urging her to sign on the dotted line. It seems that Lord Richard has disappeared while looking for a legendary island off the coast of Japan, the last resting place of an evil Empress, reputed to have the power to destroy the world. When Lara discovers her father’s secret lair in the cellar of his stately home, she also finds a map of the island and a video of her father urging her to destroy it. Does she follow his advice? Well, it would be a pretty short and dull story if she did…

Instead, she heads to Japan and enlists the help of ship’s captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) – somebody else with father-issues – to take her to the island. Once there, she discovers that an evil organisation is also looking for the tomb of the Empress and has sent the ruthless (and very sweaty) Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins) to oversee the operation. But who will reach the tomb first? And what kind of welcome are they likely to receive?

For all the running, leaping, swimming and fighting that Lara is regularly called upon to perform, the film feels curiously turgid and only fizzes into life intermittently. The blend of Indiana Jones-ish high adventure mixed with a touch of the paranormal is probably a fair encapsulation of the original game but, no matter how high the production values employed by director Roar Uthaug, there’s a terrible sense of ‘seen it all before’ hovering over nearly every scene. And… does it really matter that the storyline doesn’t make an awful lot of sense? It does to me, anyway. But I’m finicky like that.

This is a thick-eared slab of undemanding light entertainment that never really cooks up the necessary head of steam needed to power its own concept. A post-credits sequence optimistically sets up a possible sequel but, based on this, I certainly won’t be the first in the queue to watch it.

And I ask again. Has there ever been a decent video-game movie adaptation? If so, I haven’t seen it.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Square

18/03/18

In The Square, writer-director Ruben Östlund posits an age-old question: what is art? The response he offers, however, is original and refreshing, and we leave the cinema with a lot to think about.

Claes Bang is Christian, chief curator of a prestigious Swedish gallery. He talks of pushing boundaries, seeking truths about humanity, attracting audiences beyond the usual ‘culture-vulture’ crowd. He’s a sympathetic character with a gentle demeanour and an affable charm – and he appears to have a genuine curiosity about what art can achieve.

When he’s mugged, though – in broad daylight, on a busy street, amidst a sea of commuters  – the lines between art and life are blurred. He’s scammed by a trio of actors – a fake cry for help (a sound that echoes throughout the movie), a fake attacker, a fake would-be-hero who enlists Christian’s support. Excited rather than irked by the robbery – he’s rich; he can afford to lose what they take – Christian decides to play them at their own game, embellishing his account of what’s occurred, and engaging in an equally audacious and staged riposte. We never know if any of the consequences are real – or if they’re just a continuation of the prank.

Is this art? If not, why not? What makes it different from Oleg (Terry Notary)’s ape performance at a charity dinner, where he terrorises the guests, first humiliating Julian (Dominic West) and then brutally attacking Prinsessan Madeleine (Madeleine Barwén Trollvik)? And how much of this is real, anyway? Are the victims actors too? And what about their rescuers? We’re left to ponder these ideas.

Despite its esoteric leanings, Östlund’s film is admirably accessible. There are numerous story strands, but they’re all as well lit as the exhibits in the gallery, with space for the audience to stand back and think. It’s funny too – and cynical. Even when a gag seems obvious, such as the unpopular ‘mirrors and piles of gravel’ exhibition being hoovered up by an over-enthusiastic cleaner, we’re pushed to think beyond our first response, as Christian whispers to his assistant, “We’ve got photographs, we’ve got the gravel; we’ll rebuild it ourselves; no one will know.” And so we’re forced to ask: if they succeed in replicating it, will it still be the same piece of art?

The over-arching story is one of personal development: Christian is not without his flaws, and he learns much as he confronts his privilege and prejudice. Elisabeth Moss is fabulous (of course) as Anne, with whom he has a one-night stand, and Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder provide some welcome light relief as trendy PR gurus, charged with sending new commission ‘The Square’ viral (they’re not dissimilar to Siobhan, Jessica Hynes’ W1A character; PR is obviously a target ripe for satire). Their ‘art’, of course, is considered beyond the pale, even though it garners the attention the ‘real’ artists crave.

This is a fascinating movie, eminently watchable and thought-provoking too. A tad too long, perhaps – a twenty-minute trim would have improved things for me – but all-in-all, definitely one to watch.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield