Fionn Whitehead

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

30/12/18

We haven’t reviewed earlier episodes of Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror series, mainly because we don’t really do TV shows – but a couple of things feel different this time around. For one thing, with so many feature films making their debuts on Netflix these days, it seems more appropriate. And for another, Bandersnatch is something of a game-changer. This is an interactive story, heavily influenced by the ‘make your own adventure’ books of the 1980s and one in which viewers can participate. As the tale unfolds, we are faced with a series of simple decisions: should a character choose Sugar Puffs or Frosties, for example? Clicking on one suggestion or another will influence what consequently happens on the screen. It starts small but the choices become ever more dramatic as the story scampers along.

It’s 1984 and young Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is an ambitious video game designer, who, after the tragic death of his mother, is living alone with his secretive father, Peter (Craig Parkinson). Stefan, when not spending time with his analyst, Dr Haynes (Alice Lowe), is developing a brand new game called Bandersnatch, which he takes along to major video game publisher, Tuckersoft, headed by ponytailed entrepreneur, Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudrey). At the initial meeting, Stefan is introduced to one of his video game designer idols, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), and is subsequently astonished to discover that the team like his ideas and want to offer him the opportunity to make it a reality.

But will he accept the offer? Well, that’s kind of up to you…

Bandersnatch is an astonishingly meta idea. As our choices send the action into deeper and ever more labyrinthine rabbit holes, it occurs to me that I am watching something that I am, however tangentially, able to influence. Rather than just being a passive observer, I am involved in the creation of a fiction. It gets even more interesting when characters I am trying to influence begin to disobey me. This is a genuinely exciting idea and it soon becomes apparent that the episode may require at least one repeat viewing to see if different choices will radically affect the outcome.

I’m not suggesting that Bandersnatch is one hundred percent successful. There’s a tendency to come up against buffers which repeatedly send you back to watch the same sequences over again – and I can’t help feeling that one particular outcome may happen in every version of the story – but Brooker deserves plaudits for coming up with this – and Netflix too, for having the chutzpah to finance it.

Where this concept may lead audiences in the future opens up fields for speculation, but to me it feels like an interesting first step. Watch this space.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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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

Dunkirk

22/07/17

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.

The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.

Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.

And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.

But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.

This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.

Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.

5 stars

Philip Caveney