Jack Lowden

Fighting With My Family

24/02/19

I have to confess that my expectations for this are not particularly high. This may surprise you, but the world of WWE wrestling is not something that’s ever figured high on the list of things I enjoy – but a members’ screening of Fighting With My Family at The Cameo, coupled with a quiet Sunday afternoon, is enough to entice me along to give it the benefit of the doubt.

And against all the odds, I am thoroughly entertained.

Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (who seems to be making more credible inroads into the movie industry than his old compadre, Ricky Gervais), this is a ‘based on a true story’ account of the career of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), who, from her childhood, along with brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), is schooled in the ways of all-things-wrestling by her parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Heady).  They run a small wrestling club in the exotic locale of er… Norwich, where they regularly put on small-time bouts and train the local teenagers in the ways of unarmed combat.

Saraya and Zak have always dreamed of hitting the heights of the WWE so, when they are invited to go along to a tryout in London, they are of course wildly excited. But things become more complicated when Saraya is invited to head out to Florida to see if she has what it takes to become a wrestling superstar – while Zak is given a polite ‘no thanks.’ Now he has to watch as his sister has chance of achieving everything he’s ever dreamed of, while he’s stuck in Norwich, helping to care for his partner’s new baby and training the local teenagers. Bitter? Yes, pretty much.

Merchant does a terrific job of this, managing to steer  clear of the obvious and giving us a much more nuanced story than we might have expected. Just when we think we know where this is heading, he throws in the odd surprise – like the seemingly snooty model girls training alongside Saraya, who turn out to be perfectly decent people. Pugh, in a role I’d never have anticipated after Lady Macbeth, is appealing as a square peg trying desperately to fit into a round hole, and Lowden does an excellent job of conveying Zak’s inner torment as his sister’s star continues to rise. Vince Vaughan is terrific as the hard-assed coach who pushes Saraya to the edge of endurance and there’s even a nicely judged cameo by Dwayne Johnson, where the man’s inherent likability is allowed to shine through.

Look, this is never going to be anybody’s choice for film of the year, but if you’re looking for a slice of undemanding fun, and a genuinely heartwarming conclusion, you could do a lot worse. It may not convert you into a rabid fan off WrestleMania, but you’ll have some genuine laughs, something that’s in woefully short supply these days.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Mary Queen of Scots

18/01/19

The Tudors are common parlance Chez B&B these days; since downloading the Six The Musical soundtrack, we’ve barely listened to anything else. Of course, this new film is a very different beast, but it does share a few key players, and our recently-discovered interest in the period makes us extra keen to see what’s on offer here.

What Mary Queen Of Scots has in common with Six is its telling of ‘herstory,’ with female experiences placed firmly and unapologetically in the spotlight. The perspectives belong to the women. Not just because they’re the main characters, but because the directors (Josie Rourke and Lucy Moss respectively) are women too, and so everything is reflected through this – sadly still unusual – prism.

Saoirse Ronan is Mary, and she’s every bit as impressive as you’d expect this extraordinary young actor to be. She’s strong and commanding, warm and vulnerable: the heart and heroine of this tale. Margot Robbie, as Mary’s English cousin and counterpart, has arguably the harder role: Elizabeth is less likeable, and burdened with the fact that (spoiler alert!) she has Mary imprisoned and then killed. But Robbie is more than equal to the task, imbuing the English queen with both formidable resolve and an unexpected frailty. The parallels between the two women – and the tragedy that they can not be allies – are central to the film.

The brutality of the era is clearly evoked, with bloody murders a-plenty. Thankfully, there are no extended battle sequences here (I’m a little weary of them); instead, the skirmishes are short and definitive, the armies as small as I suppose they really must have been, the power-grabs and politicking as baffling and depressing as they remain to this day.

The men might be peripheral, but they’re played with panache by such stalwarts as David Tennant (virtually unidentifable as John Knox, with his strange hat and straggly beard), Jack Lowden (as the loathsome, weak-willed Henry Darley) and Guy Pearce (playing William Cecil, chief advisor to his Neighbours stablemate, Robbie). The structural power bias is evident in the way these men succeed in out-manouevring even the redoubtable Mary, and in Elizabeth’s cannier recognition that the only way she can retain her position is by disavowing her gender, and surrendering her happiness.

A fascinating film, and – if the sold-out screening we’re at is anything to go by – one that is likely to do well. Mind you, we are in Edinburgh. And Mary is the Queen of Scots.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

England is Mine

10/08/17

England is Mine, the Morrissey biopic, is a bit of a let-down – much like the man himself. And, believe me, this is not a sentiment I’m happy to express. I loved Moz as a teenager and young adult; I still love the Moz I carry in my heart. It’s just hard to reconcile the boy he was with the immigration-hating Farage-fan he has become in later life. I hoped the film might redeem him – and it does, to some extent – but it’s a weak, diluted story, that leaves out all of the interesting bits.

There is stuff to admire: Jack Lowden is ace in the lead role, convincingly conflicted, straddling that odd line between shyness and arrogance. The first forty minutes or so are very good indeed, conveying a real sense of the stultification Steven Patrick felt, trapped in a world where no one saw more for him than the same as they had, all repetitive jobs and dull relationships. Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a lone bright star, opening up the world to him. And Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) offers another ray of hope, another route out of this Billy Liar life: these two characters are particularly well-acted, their larger-than-life personae portrayed with impressive subtlety.

There are lots of enjoyable little references to Smiths lyrics too: we see young Moz standing ‘under the iron bridge,’ walking through ‘a darkened underpass,’ staring at ‘the rocks below.’ He and Linder enjoy their afternoons at the cemetery, claiming words as their own, or producing the texts from whence they were ripped. There is fun to be had in spotting these.

But, honestly, it’s not enough. Where’s the music? I’m assuming efforts were made to secure the rights to at least some of the Smiths’ output? Or did writer/director Mark Gill really want to make a biopic that misses out the legacy of its main man? Okay, okay, the story ends before the Smiths begin, but surely the closing credits could have incorporated something relevant? Instead, the music throughout fails to set the scene: it’s all the stuff that Moz enjoyed, but there’s no context for it, nothing to show how wonderfully out of step he was. There’s a poster for Duran Duran at the end, which goes a little way towards establishing this idea, but there’s nothing aural to consolidate it. It’s a film about music. The soundtrack really matters here.

Also, there’s half an hour where nothing happens. Almost literally nothing. Moz has lost his rubbish job; his dreams of stardom are in the dust, because Billy Duffy has left him behind. He’s depressed. He takes to his bed. On the rare occasion he gets up, he mopes. If ever there’s a perfect moment for a montage sequence, this is it. We could have whipped through this in five minutes and then moved on. Instead, we’re there with him: bored, fed-up and underwhelmed.

‘To say the least, I’m truly disappointed.’

3 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