Helen Mirren

The Duke


Cineworld, Edinburgh

The latest entry in the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ genre is The Duke – the final feature from versatile director, the late Roger Michell. This is the story of the improbably named Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), an irascible campaigner for pensioners’ rights, women’s suffrage and, in his spare time, a would-be playwright. Quite why his script The Adventures of Susan Christ never found an audience is anybody’s guess.

It’s the early 1960s and ,while England’s capital is celebrating a new-found sense of freedom, life on the gloomy streets of Newcastle is a somewhat bleaker prospect, as Bunton stumbles from job-to-job, constantly losing them because of his propensity to stand up against any signs of injustice he encounters. His long-suffering wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), slogs her guts out as a home help to her more affluent neighbour, Mrs Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), in order to make ends meet. She is mortified when her husband is obliged to spend a short spell in prison for non-payment of his TV licence (free TV for OAPs being his current pet project).

Meanwhile the couple’s younger son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), dreams of building and selling luxury boats, while his brother, Kenny (Jack Bundeira), has his own run-ins with the police to contend with.

And then a valuable painting of The Duke of Wellington by Goya is ‘borrowed’ from the National Gallery – and when it winds up hidden in the back of the Bunton’s wardrobe, it’s only a matter of time before the merde hits the fan.

The Duke is an irresistibly enjoyable piece that manages to evade the cosy complacency of so many films aimed at more mature audiences. Michell’s direction cleverly juxtaposes glossy widescreen shots of London with the grubby, timeworn realities of 60s Newcastle and the humdrum rigours of everyday working-class life are convincingly captured. The Buntons feel like real characters rather than archetypes. A past sadness that Kempton and Dorothy share is skilfully revealed in Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s canny script – and there’s also a twist to the tale that genuinely takes me by surprise.

But this is surely Broadbent’s film. He’s terrific in the central role, making us genuinely care about a character who was, by all accounts, a bit of a wastrel. The penultimate scene where Bunton stands up in court to discuss the art theft with his barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode), had me laughing out loud and is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. Meanwhile, Mirren handles her role as the family matriarch with her usual aplomb and even manages to knit aggressively.

I’m hoping that some enterprising theatre will finally decide to stage one of Bunton’s lost plays – I’d love to see whether Susan Christ achieves her ambitions – but until that happens, The Duke is sure to send you on your way with a smile on your face.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Anne Frank: Parallel Stories


It’s Holocaust Memorial Day and watching this documentary seems a fitting way to mark it. Anne Frank would have been ninety this year, had her life not been stolen by a repugnant ideology, had she not been murdered at sixteen because she was Jewish.

She’s just one, of course: a single, accessible representative of the unimaginable six million WWII victims of genocide. But her remarkable diaries provide a powerful insight, humanising those who were dehumanised, her singular narrative a worthy stand-in for those who cannot speak.

In this documentary by Sabina Fideli and Anna Migotto, other voices are added to the mix. We hear from five survivors (Arianna Szörenyi, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, Helga Weiss and sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci), and their testimonies are heartbreaking. It’s impossible not to cry whilst listening to these dignified, thoughtful old women, all of whom have managed to build good lives for themselves, despite the horrors they endured: taken from their families, imprisoned, starved, brutalised, experimented on. As Nazi atrocities fade from living memory, it’s imperative that we should bear witness to these remaining first-hand narratives, because we cannot afford to forget. This is what happens when the far right ascend to power; this is why we need to be alert.

If the survivors were this film’s main focus, I think its impact would be immense. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of filler too, additional elements that weaken its effect. There’s a young girl, for example (Martina), travelling around Europe, purportedly learning about Anne Frank. But she never gets to speak or respond emotionally to what she discovers. Instead, we get a lot of artful shots of her looking sad with on fleek eyes, posting vapid photo-messages on social media (‘What were you thinking, Anne?’) with a rash of hashtags attached (#emotional). This seems like a terrible waste: we know from Anne’s own diary how intelligent and erudite young people can be; why is Martina reduced to such banality? I can’t work out what we, the audience, are supposed to gain from her presence.

I’m not sure about Helen Mirren either. She’s reading excerpts from the diary, sitting in a mock-up of Anne’s bedroom in the tiny Annexe where she hid for two long years. She reads beautifully – of course she does; she’s Helen Mirren – but I can’t help feeling this section would be stronger if the reader were someone with a closer connection to Anne Frank and the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, for the survivors’ stories alone, this is a must-see. Because their stories really matter. As one of the marvellous youngsters featured in the opening sequence makes clear: we need to be open to refugees, to people fleeing fear and oppression. Because every time we turn our backs or close our doors, another Anne Frank is condemned to die, and we reveal just how little we have learned.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield



The Good Liar


The Good Liar is a pacy thriller, set in the unlikely world of silver dating. Helen Mirren is Betty McLeish, a retired Oxford professor, recently widowed and seeking companionship. She meets up with Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), who, despite appearances, is quickly exposed to the audience as all rogue and no charm – indeed, a thoroughly bad egg. He’s a conman, masterminding sneaky schemes to ensnare gullible businessmen, and keen to relieve Betty of her rather impressive savings.

Before long, Roy has moved in to Betty’s suburban bungalow. This is a platonic arrangement, necessitated by Roy’s supposedly bad knee, which means he can’t climb the stairs to his top-floor apartment. He invites his ‘accountant’ sidekick, Vincent (Jim Carter), to visit, and together they prepare the ground for their great robbery. But Betty isn’t stupid, and she has her grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), to look out for her…

The plot (based on Nicholas Searle’s novel)  is gripping, and it’s refreshing to see older actors in such meaty roles – and, indeed, to see this kind of dark thriller targeting an older audience. The Good Liar is a long way from the cosy middle-class japes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; these are complex characters, played with wit and vivacity.

There are some issues. Some of the so-called twists are apparent early on, and the extended flashback sequences are a tad too expositional. The final revelation comes out of the blue, and doesn’t feel like it’s been adequately set up. And I do have a problem with aspects of the film’s worldview, where illness and infirmity are served up as karma, and where the type of house you can afford to buy determines how ‘interesting’ you are.

Still, this is a lively, slick movie, as sprightly as its veteran leads.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield



Director Luc Besson has been having a thin time of things lately. His love project, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, was a baffling and expensive flop, so it’s little wonder he’s returned to more familiar ground with Anna, which has been awaiting release for some time. This histrionic spy-thriller has the feel of an 80s bonkbuster about it: patently absurd, but nonetheless rather enjoyable as it galumphs gleefully across the career of the titular hero (Sasha Luss), a young woman forced to become a high level assassin.

When we first meet her, she’s down at heel, addicted to drugs and enduring an abusive relationship with her no-good boyfriend, Piotr (Alexander Petrov), who gets her mixed up in some very bad business. But she is rescued (if that’s the right term) by KGB man, Alex (Luke Evans), who offers her an opportunity to ‘better herself.’ From this point, the film cuts to five years later – and from there to three years earlier; and we continue to switch back and forth in time like an out of control roller coaster. While it’s occasionally hard to keep track of exactly where we are, it means that the story often pulls the rug from under the viewer’s feet, throwing out some real surprises. It’s never dull.

Complications arise when CIA man, Lenny (Cillian Murphy), appears on the scene.  Anna carries on doing her missions, whilst longing for the freedom to walk away from something that has become an absolute chore.

Most of the familiar Luc Besson tropes are here: savage punch-ups with Anna taking on entire armies of black-suited hit men, casual executions in glamorous settings and young women slinking around in high end fashions (Anna’s cover identity has her posing as a model). There’s also a lovely turn from Helen Mirren as Anna’s chainsmoking KGB handler, Olga, having great fun in a show-off role.

Everything builds to a cross and double-cross conclusion and, while this isn’t Besson at his very best, it’ll certainly do until his next effort comes along. Just don’t think about that labyrinthine plot too much. You’ll tie your brain in knots.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


It’s early November and I’ve just been to see what is, for me, the first Christmas-themed movie of the year. Perhaps it’s more of a reflection on me than the season in question, but it still feels much too soon. However, I buckle myself in and watch Disney’s latest release, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The first thing to say about the film is that it’s undeniably opulent. The screen virtually pulsates with light and colour and general sparkliness. Overall, however, it puts me in mind of a gigantic glittering Christmas bauble, delightful to look at – but completely empty at its core.

This is the story of Clara Stahlbaum (McKenzie Foy), a teenage girl still mourning the recent death of her mother and feeling somewhat aggrieved when her gloomy father (Matthew MacFadyen) expects her to attend the huge Christmas ball they go to every year and look as though she’s enjoying herself. Before they leave for the ball, Mr Stahlbaum hands out presents to Clara and her siblings, gifts that have been left for them by their mother, who, it turns out, was an inventor. Clara is bequeathed some kind of a jewelled egg with a lock on it – but alas, there’s no key. However, if anyone knows how to unlock the egg’s secret, it’s the mysterious toymaker, Mr Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who’s hosting the ball tonight.

At the party, there’s a hunt for the various gifts that Mr Drosselmeyer has created for the visiting children. In search of her own present, Clara follows a length of ribbon out into the garden, through a maze and into a mysterious alternate world, where lie the Four Realms of the title. She soon discovers that her late Mother once ruled as Queen here. Now, with the help of Nutcracker Soldier, Philip (Jaden Fowara-Knight),  ‘Princess Clara’ has to resolve a quarrel that has plunged the different realms in to war.

There’s a ridiculously starry cast involved in these shenanigans  – Keira Knightly as Sugarplum, Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger and Richard E Grant as er… Shiver. Lots of other big names make fleeting appearances too, albeit for no good reason. The special effects are, of course, beautifully realised, but there’s little contrast between the magical world and the one that Clara has recently vacated. Furthermore, there’s no disguising the fact that this is just sumptuous fluff that doesn’t manage to field one single, original idea, repeatedly falling back on over-used fridge magnet messages – ‘the power is within you, Clara… you just need to learn to love yourself…’ and so on and so forth. Ad infinitum.

Look, I fully appreciate that this film isn’t aimed at somebody like me and, if I were an eight-year-old child, it’s quite possible I’d emerge from this feeling that I’d been thoroughly entertained. As it stands, I find TNATFR as tedious as its overworked title. There is a nice ballet sequence to accompany the end credits but, since members of the audience decide to chatter all the way through it, that’s a little squandered too.

A treat for young children only. Accompanying adults (and even discerning teens) might prefer to seek out something more original for their festive entertainment.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney





Despite a couple of well-deserved Oscar nominations, Trumbo didn’t trouble the multiplexes for very long at all – perhaps it was a tad too political to draw in the crowds, even with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in the lead role, but you can still catch it on the big screen at independent cinemas (it’s showing at Home, Manchester until the 23rd Feb.) It’s essentially a biopic of screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo and if the name doesn’t mean an awful lot to you, certainly some of the movies he wrote will – Roman Holiday, anyone? Spartacus? Exodus? 

The film begins in the late 1940s, when Trumbo is one of the most respected and successful screenwriters in the Hollywood cannon. He is also, like many of his friends,  a member of the Communist Party. As the ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee comes into being, such people are increasingly regarded with hostility and suspicion. They are seen by many as the ‘communist threat,’ secretly planning to overthrow the USA. Such suspicions are further fuelled by the scurrilous (and openly racist) rants of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hoppa (played here with venomous relish by Helen Mirren.) Trumbo is the man with the guts to stand up to the committee and for his pains is imprisoned for several years, even though he hasn’t actually broken any laws. On his release, his career in tatters, he’s  obliged to ghostwrite cheap movies for the unscrupulous producer Frank King (John Goodman) for a fraction of his former salary. He goes on to create similar opportunities for his other friends who have been similarly shafted, in each case ascribing authorship to a non-existent screenwriter. But when one of his films, The Brave One, is nominated for an Oscar, it’s clear that something has to change…

Biopics are tricky creatures, but Director Hal Roach does a good job with this one, aided no end by a scorching performance by Cranston  – his chain-smoking, wisecracking personification of the great man never fails to entertain, even as it informs. Roach has also made a decent fist of casting actors to play movie icons – Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific as Edward G. Robinson and Dean O Gorman’s turn as the young Kirk Douglas is extraordinary – just check out the sequences from Spartacus where he interacts on screen with Woody Strode – you literally cannot see the joins.

More importantly, perhaps, Trumbo takes a cold hard look at one of the most shameful eras in American history – and with the irresistible rise of Donald Trump to provide contemporary resonance, its message has never been more timely. Do take the opportunity to see this film, it’s really is worth the effort.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Woman In Gold



One of those real-life tales that would seem highly unlikely if presented as a piece of fiction, Woman In Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann, (Helen Mirren) an elderly Austrian-born woman living in California, who after the death of her sister contacts a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to ask his advice about a painting – a very famous one. Known to the world as The Woman In Gold, it was painted by Gustav Klimt, was commissioned by Maria’s father and is actually a portrait of her late Aunt. Looted by the Nazi’s during the Second World War, it now hangs in Vienna’s most famous art gallery and is widely regarded as Austria’s most quintessential piece of art. What chance would there be, wonders Maria, of having the painting returned to her?

The story looks at the long series of meetings, negotiations and court cases that the two leads have to go through in order to obtain justice. Mirren is on great form as the cantankerous Maria, (though it must be said that for a supposed octogenarian, Mirren looks distinctly healthy), while Reynolds, always an underrated actor, makes an adept transformation to the quietly-spoken but determined lawyer, prepared to take an entire country to the supreme court. The Altmann’s tragic history is shown through a series of assured flashbacks with Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany looking surprisingly convincing as a younger version of Helen Mirren.

In a story like this it would be all too easy to slip into schmaltz, but Director Simon Curtis manages to keep everything reined  in enough to tug at the heartstrings without losing control; and this is, after all, an emotional story of cruelty, dispossession and greed, that will make all but the stoniest individuals shed tears. A decent and absorbing film.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney