Emma Thompson

Last Christmas

23/11/19

Last Christmas is a strange film, with an identity crisis every bit as troublesome as the one its protagonist is dealing with.

Said protagonist is Kate (Emilia Clarke) – formerly known as Katarina, but currently in the process of rejecting her Yugoslavian parents and heritage. She’s been critically ill and is recovering from surgery, but she’s struggling to accept the new version of herself, refusing to follow her doctor’s orders, desperate to pursue her singing dreams but unable to perform as well as she used to. It’s a lot for a young woman to cope with, and she’s worn her friends’ patience thin. Her boss (Michelle Yeoh) is wearying of her too: Kate is lazy, inattentive and unreliable, not qualities Santa needs from an elf-assistant in her Covent Garden Christmas shop.

Just as things seem to be spiralling out of control, up pops Tom (Henry Golding), a charming but mysterious stranger, who helps Kate to negotiate her way through the thorny issues she’s entangled in. He’s elusive, though, not relationship material, he tells her. But will her heart heed what he says?

I quite like the schmaltzy plot, but the telling (writing by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings; direction by Paul Feig) is pretty artless, with huge signposts to the so-called twist, which you can spot from about the twenty-minute mark. And so many interesting ideas are set up and then abandoned, the running time taken up instead with not-quite-there comedic sequences, and characters interacting in ways that don’t convince.

For example, what about George Michael? Kate has a sticker on her suitcase and posters on her bedroom wall; she says she ‘loves’ his music, and it makes a decent backing track. But – so what? Her relationship with her idol is never explored; we don’t learn a single thing about what he means to her. Except, of course, for a queasily literal interpretation of the titular song. And, um, why no gay men – not a solitary one! – in a movie supposedly inspired by Michael? That seems a shocking omission, given his outspoken views on gay rights and representation.

I’m interested in Kate’s rejection of her roots in the former Yugoslavia too. This is a tantalising thread, her frustration with her mother (Emma Thompson) tied up with her desire not to be an outsider, not to worry like her mum about Brexit and hate crimes. But it’s not taken anywhere. True, as she begins to get herself together, we see her speaking her parents’ language to help some strangers on a bus, but there’s a lot more to unravel here.

It’s not all bad. It’s good to see a London rom-com where the characters’ accommodation is credible, for example: all sweet-but-very-cramped apartments or long-commute-away-small-terraces. This makes a change from the usual run of things, where we’re often expected to suspend our disbelief and accept that ordinary working people can live in mansions in zones 1 and 2.

But that’s not enough, is it? Last Christmas can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a knockabout comedy, a heartwarming tale of redemption, or a political satire. Sadly, it misses all three targets. This is an over-stuffed turkey of a film, all promise and no prize.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Late Night

12/06/19

Mindy Kaling’s feature debut is a warm, witty and timely tale, a gentle rebuke to those who bemoan positive discrimination, blind to the privilege that underlines their own positions. To Kaling’s credit, the overt message in no way impedes the film’s humour or likability.

Kaling stars as Molly, an Indian-American woman, who’s been working as an admin assistant in a factory – sorry, chemical plant. An essay-writing competition affords her the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to write for her hero, late night TV host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But, while Katherine is keen to improve  her show’s ratings by shaking up her all-white, all-male writing team, the men themselves are less accommodating, threatened by the presence of an outsider. It doesn’t help that one unfortunate latecomer is literally fired as Molly hovers near his seat.

Thompson is magnificent as the imperious, demanding Katherine. Our view of her is softened by the tenderness of her relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who is struggling to come to terms with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. This strand offers us an insight into Katherine’s psyche, and helps us to appreciate the sheer talent and drive that has led to her success, and the potential cost of failure. No wonder she is exacting and difficult.

It turns out Molly is exactly what Katherine needs. Not because she is a genius; not because she’s better than all the guys. But because she is as good as them, and she has something different to offer, a less comfortable, tried-and-tested approach. In her innocence, she questions their assumptions and, in time, makes them question themselves.

It’s not all one way though; Molly is not a one-woman saviour – she has lessons to learn too. Veteran writer, Burditt (Max Casella), and conceited ‘head of monologues’, Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), as well as Walter and Katherine themselves, all have sage advice to offer her. The lesson here is simple: we all benefit from inclusivity.

If this makes the film sound dull, then I’m doing it a disservice. It’s properly funny, with Kaling’s genial charm a perfect foil for Thompson’s acerbic wit. Molly’s quiet determination proves a force to be reckoned with, and provides plenty of laughs along the way.

Late Night is a cracking story – a political rom-com for our times.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Children Act

10/09/18

Oh dear. I’m a little bit annoyed with The Children Act. Which is clearly not an ideal response. I can’t deny it looks good, and Emma Thompson’s star shines as brightly as it ever did (she’s magnificent, really; I am a true fan of her work). The supporting cast are pretty marvellous too. And yet… and yet.

My issues are all with the story, adapted for the screen by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel. Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a high court judge who earns her daily crust making life and death decisions: is it right to sacrifice a conjoined baby to give his twin a better chance of survival? Even if his parents don’t agree? There are no easy answers to the dilemmas she faces, but she is a consummate professional, dedicated and compassionate,  focused and fair-minded.

And then, one explosive weekend, her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), reveals that he’s unhappy with the way she’s been neglecting their marriage and tells her he wants to have an affair. Reeling, Fiona answers her phone as Jack’s packing his suitcase, and picks up an urgent case. A Jehovah’s Witness teenager is refusing a blood transfusion; his doctors want to force life-saving treatment on the boy. This should be run-of-the-mill for Fiona, but she’s out of whack, thrown off by her own emotional turmoil. She visits seventeen-year-old Adam (Fionn Whitehead) in hospital, learns more about the leukaemia that threatens his life, asks him what he really wants.

Later, it transpires that what Adam wants is more than Fiona can give: he’s obsessed with her, phoning her, writing letters to her, asking her if he can live with her as a lodger or an odd-job man; he wants to learn from her. But I don’t really understand the underlying message here; I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from this. Is the implication that Fiona should invest more in the boy? Or that she’s transgressed by opening up as much as she has? What’s the point of this final third; what is it trying to say?

Some of what’s implied may not be deliberate, but there are a few points that keep niggling at me. For example, the whole Jehovah’s Witness/blood transfusion thing. Why is this the only story I ever hear about the JW church (there is, I concede, a refreshingly different take in Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice)? It’s just another unfathomable religious stricture, and one that can only affect a tiny minority. Why does it have so much traction in fiction and film? Perhaps it’s just too soon after (the much better) Apostasy?

There’s also the vexed question of misogynistic stereotypes: why does Fiona Maye have to suffer for a successful career? She’s sacrificed her marriage; she’s sad about not making time to have children. Why? Why is this always the narrative? It’s boring and annoying to meet this cliché again. Her husband seems to be holding down his career okay, and he can fit in dinner and tennis and a semblance of a social life. Why can’t it be the same for her?

Ach, it’s a shame, because the acting really is sublime. I’m especially impressed by Jason Watkins’ turn as Maye’s hapless lackey, Nigel – an object lesson in the art of maximising the impact of what is really a small role. And the glimpse into the life of a judge is fascinating too; this feels as if it could be something better, if only it were less… restrained. As it stands, it doesn’t really work for me.

3.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

30/10/17

Hold the front page! Adam Sandler has made a good film! No, seriously, I’m not making this up. He’s one of the featured performers in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and he’s pretty damned good in it.

Of course, those who know these things will already be aware that, in 2002, he made a film called Punch Drunk Love directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and he was pretty good in that too. (At a push, I’d even argue that The Wedding Singer is a decent movie.) But even his most avid fans will have to admit that such occurrences are pretty rare and that most of his considerable cinematic output is either to be avoided like the plague or to be viewed in that ‘so bad its good’ ironic sort of way.

Here, Sandler plays Danny, the son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a once acclaimed sculptor who, through a combination of bad luck and bad business decisions, now finds himself coasting on his previous successes, doomed to watch helplessly as other, less talented (at least in his estimation) artists, receive all the adulation that he thinks is his by right. Because of Harold’s single-minded determination to bolster his own ego, Danny has never really enjoyed anything approaching a career (he’s a failed musician), but has pretty much devoted his life to helping his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), achieve her ambitions to become a film maker.

Danny’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is also terribly unfulfilled, the kind of character who drifts along through life going wherever destiny takes her and it’s clear that she too has suffered because of her father’s emotional distance. Harold is now bumbling through a marriage (his fourth) to the alcoholic Maureen (Emma Thompson), but, when an unexpected illness threatens to carry him off, Danny and Jean’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), comes to visit. Matthew is a highly-motivated and very successful businessman, who is trying to sort out his father’s financial straits but, when the three offspring come together for the first time in years, old resentments soon come bubbling to the surface…

This is the kind of territory Baumbach excels at and he has an absolute field day here. The story is told in episodes, each one jumping forward a little in time and there’s a delightful recurring motif of Danny losing his temper and the camera cutting away as if to censor his outbursts. Hoffman is excellent as the highly manipulative Harold and Stiller delivers a nice performance as a man being torn between caring for his father and punching him on the nose. There’s even a delightful cameo from Sigourney Weaver as… well, Sigourney Weaver. If you are expecting to see this at the cinema anytime soon, don’t be misled. This is another Netflix Original, ready for viewing at any time by its customers. However much traditional filmgoers may resent this phenomenon, it’s clear that it’s here to stay. Netflix has recently announced that they will be ramping up their production slate – and, as long as they continue to make quality films like this one, I say good luck to them.

Tune in and check this out – if only for the novelty of seeing an Adam Sandler movie that doesn’t make you reach of the ‘off’ switch.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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

The Legend Of Barney Thomson

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29/07/15

Robert Carlyle has been suspiciously quiet of late, but The Legend of Barney Thomson, based on a series of novels by Douglas Lindsay, puts him on both sides of the camera, as he directs and stars in this gruesome farce concerning the misadventures of a Glaswegian barber. Barney (Carlyle) has been working at Hendersons for most of his adult life but because he lacks ‘the chat,’ he’s beginning to prove unpopular with the regular customers and is on the verge of being given the push. This is a disaster for him as Barney is a tragic character. He has no real friends and his diffident personality (a far cry from Begbie in Trainspotting) means that everyone takes advantage of him. This includes his pushy mother, Cemolina, (a scene-stealing turn from Emma Thompson as a chain-smoking, foul mouthed harridan with a gambling addiction.) Meanwhile, Glasgow is being rocked by a series of murders, made even more shocking by the fact that the killer has a predilection for mailing body parts from the victims (all male) to the next of kin. Events become more complicated when Barney unexpectedly finds himself in the frame as a potential murder suspect and soon falls under the watchful gaze of the vicious DI Holdall (Ray Winstone).

Once you get past the outrageous nature of the plot and the fact that everything is played with the volume turned up to eleven, there’s much to enjoy here as the hapless Barney stumbles from one potential disaster to another. Carlyle uses some infamous Glasgow locations as his backdrops and even though the results are unlikely to endear themselves to the Scottish tourist board, they give the film a definitive look and style that speaks volumes. There are also some superb cameos here – Tom Courtney as the priggish Chief Superintendent McManaman is an absolute hoot, while Ashley Jenson makes a meal of her role as an uptight Detective Inspector locked in a bitter feud with Holdall.

While the film is far from perfect, it’s nonetheless entertaining and occasionally had the sparse audience at the showing we attended laughing out loud. But a quick glance around the less-than-packed auditorium speaks volumes for its chances of success. A pity, because this is a bold film, that takes no prisoners. And that’s a rare thing in these troubled times.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

The Love Punch

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6/12/14

Sometimes in cinema, you encounter a bit of fluff. And other times, you encounter double fluff with extra fluff and i suppose this is the file to which you would safely consign The Love Punch. This light comedy featuring more mature actors than you’d normally expect to see in this kind of story was probably aimed at the same audience that The Exotic Marigold Hotel mined so effectively, but it’s nothing like as assured and it has to be said, it’s profoundly silly, to boot.

Pierce Brosnan plays Richard, an affable chap who works for a multi-national company (in what capacity, we’re never entirely sure.) He’s divorced from Kate (Emma Thompson) with whom he maintain an affable friendship (cynics will mutter that we’re already straying into the realms of the unbelievable.) When the company is purchased by a ruthless asset-stripper, the pension scheme into which Richard and most of his staff have bought, (Kate too, as it happens) is rendered entirely worthless. The head asset-stripper decamps to Paris in order to get married and publicly purchases a ten million dollar diamond necklace for his beloved, whereupon Richard and Kate hatch a plan to pop across the channel and nick it (as you do.) They also enlist the help of their plucky neighbours, Penelope and Timothy (Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall) and with a confidence that belies their humble origins, the foursome set off to take on the bad guys.

The problem is, that the characters manage to assay their chosen mission with such aplomb everything seems faintly unbelievable. And more fatally, there’s never any real sense of danger, no fear that something might go wrong for them, even when Richard and Kate find themselves in the back of a van perched on the edge of a cliff. Obviously, the veteran actors all make the most of this meagre material and the film’s enough to pass an undemanding hour or so, but nothing more than that. This is perfunctory film-making at best. You’ll have forgotten the details before the credits have finished rolling. And will Richard and Kate get back together? Who cares?

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney