Felicity Jones

The Midnight Sky



What a strange, mournful film The Midnight Sky is! It’s hardly the feel-good picture to end 2020 on a note of hope and yet, for all that, George Clooney’s futuristic saga exerts a slow-burning grip, as it gradually unfolds a story that takes place in two major locations, millions of miles apart.

It’s the year 2045 and the Earth is comprehensively doomed. There’s been some kind of global catastrophe – the intimation is there’s been a sudden rise in radiation levels – which means that the planet’s inhabitants are counting down their final days. Scientists based in a research station in the Arctic circle, one of the last places to be affected, are making a last desperate bid to escape, but Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) figures there’s no point in going with them. He has a serious illness and has to depend on nightly dialysis in order to eke out his final days – see, I told you it was gloomy!

Lofthouse decides to spend what time he has trying to contact the space craft AEther, which is returning from a mission to K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, where they’ve been investigating its potential as an alternative place to live. Lofthouse feels particularly bad about the crew’s situation, since he’s the man who discovered K-23 and is indirectly responsible for sending them out there in the first place. But they are still out of range of his communication signals and he’s rapidly slipping away.

Then Lofthouse discovers that he’s not alone. A little girl is hiding out on the base. Iris (an adorable debut by Caolinn Springall) doesn’t seem to have the power of speech, but she gives Lofthouse another reason to stay alive as long as he can.

Meanwhile, on the AEther, Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his pregnant partner, Sully (Felicity Jones), are heading home through a previously uncharted section of space, an area where sudden meteor storms are a regular occurrence. And of course, there’s the added irony of the situation. They and the other members of their crew have no idea that they are all returning to a dying planet…

If my synopsis makes this feel like a somewhat disparate story, let me assure you that the cuts back and forth are nicely judged and expertly handled – Clooney directed this and he’s done so with considerable skill. A series of short sequences featuring Ethan Peck as a younger Lofthouse seem at first to add very little to the story, but they do make perfect sense when we get to its poignant conclusion. Before that, there’s plenty to keep me on the edge of my seat – on earth, there’s a heart-stopping encounter with melting ice and, in the midst of a blizzard, an attack by wolves. Up in the eye-popping splendour of the solar system we witness the most terrifying cinematic space walk since Gravity. And then, in the film’s final stretch, there’s a last act reveal that I really don’t see coming and which has me reaching for a hanky.

The Midnight Sky won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’ve already seen some dark mutterings about it on social media, complaints that it isn’t the straightforward action/adventure that people were expecting. Well, fair enough, it certainly isn’t that but, to my mind, it’s much more. It’s a dire warning about what humankind is doing to the world it currently inhabits, a plea for us to start investigating alternative worlds. It’s also a meditation on our inbuilt compulsion to survive at all odds.

And, miserable creature that I am, I find it genuinely uplifting.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Aeronauts


This ‘inspired by a true story’ film is pitched as a family-friendly affair in the trailer, but actually plays more like a hair-raising tale of (literally) high adventure. It’s based around a genuine hot air balloon ascent made in 1862 by two men, but here, one of the men has been replaced by fictional female balloonist, Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones). It has to be said that her character is one of the best elements in this production and anyway, women have been callously written out of the history books so often, it’s actually refreshing to witness one actually being written into it.

Meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) has a burning ambition to venture higher than any man has done before, mainly because he fervently believes it will advance the fledgling science of weather prediction. Glaisher seeks out ‘the widow Rennes,’ a woman still in mourning for her husband, who died in an earlier balloon ascent. He somehow manages to persuade her to be his pilot, though he is quietly appalled by all the carnival razzmatazz she brings to the public launch.

Once up in the air, the film settles into a series of alarming and genuinely vertiginous escapades as the duo battle storms, winds and freezing temperatures. There are some stunning ariel shots and occasional flashbacks to the couple’s respective stories – Glaisher trying to come to terms with the advancing senility that is overtaking his father, Arthur (Tom Courtenay), and Rennes dwelling on that earlier ascent which cost her so dearly. While the action scenes are enough to put me right on the edge of my seat, the flashbacks are rather less successful and I’m particularly disappointed to see brilliant character actors like Anne Reid and Tim McInnery given so little to do.

A couple of questions I can’t help but ponder after seeing this. When balloonists throw stuff out of the gondola in order to ‘lose weight,’ what happens to those unfortunates who happen to be wandering around thousands of feet below them? And, if Glaisher went through such hell advancing the science of weather prediction, why do I find myself walking to the cinema through a rainstorm that completely failed to show up on my weather app?

The Aeronauts is certainly worth seeing, not least for Jones’ delightfully gritty  performance in the lead role. But don’t expect to see the jolly, easygoing film promised by the trailer. This is made of sterner stuff and those who suffer from vertigo might just decide to give this one a wide berth.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

On the Basis of Sex


I really want to like On The Basis of Sex. Not just because Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is a truly inspirational woman who deserves a decent film, but also because we’re seeing this one with a couple of friends, and it’s much more fun to enthuse collectively than it is to disparage. I’ve read a few lacklustre reviews, so I’m far from certain I’ll get what I want. But the cinema-gods are smiling down on us tonight, and I’m pleased to report this is a cracking biopic.

Okay, so Daniel Stiepelman’s script isn’t especially innovative or radical; this is a traditional telling. But that’s no bad thing: the writing is tight and concise, intimate and focused. Given that Ginsburg’s activism is of the quiet variety – all research and paperwork and detailed knowledge of tax laws – and her marriage was harmonious and free from high drama, it’s no mean feat to have made such a compelling movie from her tale. The shocks are all in the blatant sexism; it’s hard to believe this is only (really) a few years ago. Thank goddess for RGB and other pioneers.

Mimi Leder’s subtle direction takes us with Ginsburg from her 1956 enrolment in Harvard Law School up to her landmark 1970 case, where she forces the court to concede that gender discrimination is actually a thing. In this instance, it’s a tax code penalising a man: he can’t claim tax relief for the nurse he employs to care for his mother while he’s at work; if he were a woman (or, indeed, married), he would however qualify. After years of suffering discrimination on the basis of sex – unable to get a job as a practising lawyer, lumbered with a professorship that isn’t what she really wants – this is Ginsburg’s chance to nudge the floodgates. Once gender discrimination has a legal precedent, other laws can be challenged.

Felicity Jones is made for this part, I think, effortlessly conveying a surface of dignity and composure but a core of steel and fire. Ginsburg must surely be delighted with the way she’s been portrayed. Armie Hammer is also disarming, as Ginsburg’s devoted husband, Martin, as supportive a partner as anyone could wish for. And Cailee Spaeny (last seen by B&B in the criminally overlooked Bad Times at the El Royale: not a single awards nomination – really?) as the Ginsburgs’ daughter, Jane, surely has a bright future ahead? She’s arresting, even in this small role.

It’s a charming film, and an important story. It’s scary to think how recent this all is, and how hard-won the rights we now enjoy. There were no women’s toilets at Harvard Law School when RBG went there; there were laws – actual laws – that stated women couldn’t e.g. fly aeroplanes.

How far we’ve come.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield


A Monster Calls


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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


There are prequels and there are sequels – and then there are ‘inbetweenquals’ like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, helmed by brit director Gareth Edwards and starring Felicity Jones, making a surprisingly confident transition to action hero territory. But the ultimate question that must inevitably hang over this production is this: as a standalone, does its justify its place in the already extensive Star Wars canon? And the answer is… just about.

After JJ Abrams crowd-pleasing revamp (a film that even those who didn’t much care for Star Wars could easily enjoy), Rogue One is clearly aimed much more at the obsessive fans of the series – and it must be said that the must successful parts of this film really are the ones that recall classic moments from the original movies.

The events of this film take place sometime after the end of the clone wars and before those outlined in Episode IV – A New Hope. Young Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of Death Star designer, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), now estranged from him because of his apparent return to the Empire after the murder of his wife at the hands of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Captured by stormtroopers and on her way to prison, Jyn is rescued by members of the Rebel Alliance and made to accompany handsome young rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on a mission to find her father, in order to try to discover a way to defeat the terrifying weapon before it makes mincemeat of all who oppose it. We already know, of course, that the Death Star was destroyed at the end of Episode IV – this film, then,  seeks to explain how the information about a fatal flaw, planted in the Death Star’s workings gets into Princess Leia’s hands in the first place.

Edwards makes a reasonable attempt at this – there’s some convincing world-building going on and enough references to later films to keep all the fan boys and girls happy. However, there’s a seemingly endless series of battles and the film only really hits its stride in the final third. There’s also one gasp-out-loud moment when a character turns around to reveal the face of deceased actor Peter Cushing – or rather a walking, talking CGI recreation of him, testament to just how adept these special effects have become – but sadly there’s not an awful lot here in terms of character development and it says a lot when some of the strongest aspects of the script are the droll quips of the film’s main android character, K2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), which lends some much-needed humour to what is a parade of rather po-faced antics.

Star Wars diehards will doubtless approve of this. It ticks enough boxes to earn its place in the pantheon, and there’s a cameo by classic character Darth Vader. Those like me, who enjoyed the first two films, hated the next four, but loved the relaunch, may simply find this a bit of a Star Bore. Choose wisely my young apprentices- and may the force be with you!

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney


The Theory of Everything



After the tragic tale of Alan Turing as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, prepare to be totally devastated by the almost equally tragic tale of Professor Stephen Hawking. Even if this story has a more uplifting conclusion, (Hawking winds up as a National hero rather than being chemically castrated) there’s still plenty to weep over along the way so be prepared and take along a good supply of tissues.

Based on the book my Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane, the story begins in 1963, where a vigorous young Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) is studying his craft at Cambridge University. The period detail is quite nicely captured, though this is a 1960s where (apparently) nobody smokes a cigarette and where a firework display looks decidedly better than the dismal pyrotechnics I remember from my own youth. But these are minor niggles. After a chance meeting at a pub, Stephen connects with Jane (a radiant Felicity Jones) and after a little uncertainty, they become lovers. But tragedy waits in the wings when after a fall, Stephen is diagnosed with motor neurone disease and told that he has two years to live. Cue the tears.

The remainder of the story is how the couple triumphed against all odds, managing to become parents three times over and how Stephen came to write the most successful book that nobody actually read. It’s also essentially about how Jane sacrificed so much in order to be Stephen’s full time carer. If you were worried that it would be all hearts and flowers, don’t despair, because there’s a fairly sour conclusion to this real life tale that’ll get the old tear ducts flowing all over again. A host of solid performers struggle to make themselves visible in minor roles (poor Emily Watson barely gets a look in) but this film belongs entirely to its lead actors. Redmayne is frankly astonishing, managing to inhabit Hawking’s tricky persona with ease and never losing sight of the man’s innate dignity, but it’s Jones who is the real revelation here, portraying Jane as a woman determinedly maintaining her English Rose composure whilst clearly displaying every inner torment through those soulful eyes. It’s surely a performance worthy of Mr Oscar when the time comes around.

The Theory of Everything is more than just another tearjerker. It’s stylishly done and comes complete with two superb performances fitted as standard. Just don’t forget to take that box of Kleenex!

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney