Free Fire

Rebecca

23/10/20

Netflix

Ben Wheatley is certainly a versatile director. Over a relatively short career, he’s given us surreal dark comedy in Sightseers, dystopian sci fi in High-Rise and a bloated snore-fest in the endlessly protracted action movie Free Fire. Now he plunges himself headlong into a remake of Rebecca, clearly undeterred by the fact that many cinephiles regard the 1940 version as Alfred Hitchock’s finest hour.

Daphne Du Maurier’s source novel is well-regarded but there’s little doubt that it’s a bit of a potboiler – albeit a brilliantly executed one. Essentially a contemporary riff on Jane Eyre, it has been memorably described as a ghost story without a ghost, which seems about right.

The unnamed protagonist of the story, played here by Lily James, is suffering through the thankless task of being a ‘lady’s companion’ to the extremely unpleasant Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd, being effortlessly loathsome). Mind you, the suffering takes place on the French Riviera, so I can’t help feeling that things really could be a lot worse.

When she encounters eligible widower Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer), she thinks herself to be completely out of his league, but a whirlwind romance duly ensues and it isn’t long before she’s whisked back to Manderley, his stately home in Cornwall, complete with battalions of servants and a baleful housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas). The latter is clearly devoted to her employer but more particularly to the memory of his late wife. The newly married Mrs De Winter soon discovers that Rebecca is a tough act to follow – and that there’s something decidedly fishy about her death…

Jane Goldman’s screenplay gets quite a few things right and redresses omissions left out of the earlier film, mainly due to pressure from the Hayes Code. This version adheres to Du Maurier’s downbeat conclusion, which is a typically reckless move on Wheatley’s part, but it pays off.

Lily James nails the heroine’s awkward vulnerability, while Hammer gives us a much more likeable De Winter than Laurence Oliver’s rather saturnine performance. Furthermore, Scott Thomas is a perfect Mrs Danvers: cool, calculating – and with a prowling sexuality.

There are other good things too. In his sumptuous location photography, Laurie Rose opts for vivid colours rather than the usual muted tones and somehow captures the era perfectly. I also enjoy the inclusion of several traditional folk songs, which really shouldn’t work, but do, giving certain sequences a kind of Wicker Man vibe, helping to accentuate the lead character’s sense of alienation.

If I’ve a major criticism, it’s that this Rebecca is somewhat lacking in suspense – a quality that Mr Hitchcock knew all about. In the film’s latter stretches, where Mrs De Winter has to turn detective in order to save her husband’s reputation – and life – she seems to achieve her objective without breaking a sweat. Of course, the fact that she even wants to help him is itself a matter of some controversy.

Du Maurier’s story is ultimately nihilistic, as though her primary concern is to give the subject of romance a thoroughly good kicking. Wheatley colludes in this endeavour, and the result is well worth viewing.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney