Helena Zengel

News of the World

11/02/21

Netflix

Director Paul Greengrass is generally considered an ‘action’ director.

With three Jason Bourne films to his credit, Captain Philips and the Anders Breivick movie, 22 July, he’s established a reputation for the use of hand-held cameras, rapid cutting and heart-stopping stunts, all designed to keep his public biting their collective fingernails. News of the World seems an unlikely vehicle for his talents. For one thing, it’s a western. For another, the story unfolds in a slow – one might even say ‘stately’ manner – and, while it’s strong on period detail, handsomely filmed and and nicely acted, there are no real surprises in this narrative.

In the years following the civil war, former Confederate officer Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) plies a humble trade, riding from town-to-town with a selection of newspapers, from which he reads extracts to grateful audiences. His aim is to inform them about the massive changes taking place in this ‘Brave New West.’ As he travels across the land in his ramshackle wagon, we witness some of those changes – and few of them are for the better: buffalo are being slaughtered for profit, Native Americans are herded off the land they’ve owned for centuries, and there are some small town entrepreneurs determined to make Kidd tell the local news in ways that make them look like heroes, no matter how heinous their actions.

But Kidd is steadfast. Facts are facts and he has little tolerance for fantasy, even when sticking to the truth spells danger.

Matters take an unexpected turn, when Kidd chances on Johanna (Helena Zengal), a thirteen-year-old German girl who has been the captive of a tribe of Kiowa for many years – the same Kiowa who murdered her parents when she was little. She has recently been ‘liberated’ and was en route to her surviving relatives in Castroville, Texas, when persons unknown decided to lynch the black trooper who was escorting her. After fruitless attempts to get somebody else to take on the responsibility, Kidd realises his only option is to accompany her himself, a trip of some 400 miles. At first it’s an uneasy alliance – Johanna only speaks Kiowa, so she and Kidd have to rely on signs and gestures to communicate. But as they travel onwards, so the ice thaws, and their friendship begins to develop…

To give the film its due, there is some welcome action in the middle section, when Kidd and Johanna are pursued by three sleazy drifters, determined to ‘acquire’ the girl so they can put her to work as a prostitute. It’s only in the ensuing chase sequence that we see some flashes of Greengrass’s action credentials – but, all too soon, we’re back to that leisurely pace as the odd couple close in on their destination, the point where they must finally part company.

Don’t get me wrong, this is entertaining stuff and Greengrass manages to make the theme of the importance of an impartial press feel relevant to contemporary America. Hanks offers another of his seemingly endless collection of taciturn heroes, and Zengal, who made such an impression in System Crasher, gets the most out of a role where she barely has an opportunity to speak.

But I’d have been happier if some of the events depicted here didn’t have quite such predictable outcomes.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

System Crasher

18/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Here’s a tip for you: don’t watch this film if you’re in the mood for a bit of light entertainment to help you while away a locked-down evening. Also, don’t watch it if you’re up for something sad but ultimately up-lifting. In fact, don’t watch it at all unless you’re prepared to spend a couple of hours feeling horrible and helpless, sobbing intermittently, furious about the way we let down our most vulnerable kids.

And nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is very vulnerable. Traumatised in her infant years, she is bursting with rage. Her social worker, Frau BafanĂ© (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), is running out of options. Benni has been expelled from so many group homes there’s nowhere left to try. All she wants is to go back to her mama (Lisa Hagmeister), but that’s not possible. Not when mama’s abusive boyfriend is there; not when mama fails every time to prioritise her daughter.

It’s utterly, devastatingly, heartbreaking. I don’t remember when I last cried so much. Zengel’s performance is extraordinary. Her Benni is a desperate child, who just needs someone to love her. But she’s so damaged, so violent and so destructive that not many adults can cope with her. Sometimes it seems like a breakthrough might be possible: there’s a string of well-meaning professionals such as her school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who go out on a limb to try to help. But three weeks’ respite in the woods isn’t a permanent home; a friendly mentor is no replacement for a family; they can never give enough. And Benni’s yearning is so vast it’s all-consuming. Everyone wants to make things better but no one knows what to do.

The film is German, so the social care set-up is different from ours here in the UK. But the inadequacy of a bureaucratic system to address the needs of a wounded child is all too recognisable. The team around Benni are decent, dedicated folk, their anguish as palpable as hers as each of their efforts fails.

Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt has crafted System Crasher to perfection, depicting Benni’s calamitous story in unflinching detail. I especially like the razor-sharp flickers of flashback we are shown whenever Benni begins to freak out, brief glimpses into the suffering that has shaped her blighted life. I like the colours too: a light-saturated palette that seems to suggest brighter possibilities.

Sadly, for Benni, such possibilities are only dreams. This is truly a modern tragedy.

5 stars

Susan Singfield