Jane Goldman

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

Kingsman: the Golden Circle

24/09/17

Marmite movies – you wait for ages and then two come along at once.

No sooner has the Twitterverse stopped ranting about Darren Aronfsky’s mother! than they are virtually foaming at the mouth over this sequel to Kingsman: the Secret Service. The way people talk about it, you’d think the original was some kind of cinematic masterpiece. It certainly wasn’t that, but it was, in my opinion, great fun – an adrenalin-fuelled Bond spoof. This first film covered the induction of straight talking street-kid, Eggsy into the suave and sartorially elegant ranks of the Kingsmen, a secret society pledged to defend the world from evil.

Inevitably perhaps, the sequel is bigger and flashier, with such a starry cast that Taron Egerton finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being third-billed in what is ostensibly his movie. Director Matthew Vaughan and writer Jane Goldman have clearly decided, this time out, to pursue an even more audacious plot line, cranking the old silly-o-metre up to maximum override – in the process, I’m afraid, making the whole thing a tad too ridiculous even for my taste.

Drug kingpin, Poppy (Julianne Moore), based in a secret hideout in the South American jungle (aren’t they all?), is seeking to enslave the world with her own brand of opiates. She even inserts a special ingredient into her produce that turns its users into blue-veined freaks with a life expectancy of just a few days. While she’s at it, she also unleashes a series of vicious attacks on the Kingsman headquarters, killing off most of its key operatives. The only two survivors, Eggsy  (Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong), head off to Kentucky and the headquarters of Statesman, the American equivalent of their own organisation. There, they team up with Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) in a bid to find an antidote to Poppy’s drugs and save millions of people from an untimely death…

As I said, the plot is so borderline-deranged, it’s hard for an audience to feel any sense of jeopardy – and no amount of guest appearances from the likes of Elton John, Jeff Bridges or Poppy Delevingne can prevent this from feeling like an over-inflated soufflé, all style and very little substance. It’s not a total write-off, mind you. Vaughan still has a winning way with an action set-piece and there are several here that periodically ramp up the excitement, but all too soon we’re back to robot dogs, people being made into hamburgers, Eggsy knocking around with a princess and introducing her to all his mates on the estate… and then there’s the little matter of a character who was murdered in the previous film still being alive. How do they explain that one? Well, they do try. I can’t help feeling that a storyline that kept a little closer to some kind of reality would help no end.

Look, here’s the bottom line. If you didn’t like the first film, you’ll hate this – and if, like me, you enjoyed the first one, you might just be willing to accept everything being ramped up to number eleven. But as far as I’m concerned, this is where I bale out.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

(By the way, what’s with the John Denver thing? Here’s yet another movie that employs Take Me Home, Country Roads for one of its key scenes – about the fourth or fifth I’ve seen in as many months.)

The Limehouse Golem

11/09/17

This Ripper-esque murder mystery, adapted from the novel by Peter Ackroyd and written for the screen by Jane Goldman, has plenty of things to commend it, even if the story seems a little over-familiar. Bill Nighy (in a role originally intended for the late Alan Rickman) plays Inspector John Kildare, brought in by his superiors to investigate a series of grisly murders in the East End of London. Kildare, we quickly learn, has been passed over for promotion because he is a homosexual. The baffling nature of the crimes suggest he’s being offered as some kind of sacrificial lamb, somebody to take the inevitable hit when he fails to get a conviction.

Kildare is also drawn into the trial of former music hall star, Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), who stands accused of poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). The problem is that the dead man is one of the chief suspects for the Golem murders. The others are famous music hall star, Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Karl Marx (Henry Goodman): yes, that Karl Marx! Assisted by Constable George Flood (Daniel Mays), Kildare starts his investigation – and quickly discovers that he is wandering into a very tangled web indeed…

So yes, plenty to enjoy here – superlative performances from most of the cast (especially Booth), an intriguing look at the kind of entertainment laid on in the music halls of the period (I have to say, people must have been easily pleased in those days – it’s not exactly comedy gold) and some convincing recreations of Victorian London in all its grubby glory.  And yet, something doesn’t quite gel. The story unfolds slowly and fitfully, feeling longer than it’s one hour and forty nine minute running time. It only generates a full head of steam as it moves towards the final half hour or so. Nighy is always a pleasure to watch, but I couldn’t help feeling he wasn’t really given enough to do here, required mostly to stand around and look perplexed.

It would be criminal to give away the ending, so I won’t – but suffice to say, that I thought it was one of the stronger elements of the film. Rookie director Juan Carlos Medina may not have the lightness of touch needed to make this work perfectly, but it’s nonetheless a decent effort.

Be warned, though, the visceral murder scenes are not for the squeamish.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

thumbnail_24150

01/10/16

Based on the popular novel by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a Tim Burton film, that doesn’t feature his usual cohort of friends/family and is largely set in North Wales. Jake (Asa Butterfield) is unusually close to his secretive Grandfather, Abe (a scenery-chewing Terence Stamp) who often regales him with stories about a children’s home he spent time in during the Second World War.

When Abe is (rather horrifically) murdered by an odd looking monster (one that appears to have stepped out of a Guillermo Del Toro film), Jake accompanies his hapless father, Franklin (Chris O Dowd) to the remote Welsh island where the home was located and which is now no more than a burned out ruin. Jake has a vague notion of finding some answers about his Grandpa’s death, but almost before you can say ‘time travel’ Jake has somehow found his way back to the 1940s, where the home functions in a weird time-loop, presided over by the titular Miss Peregrine (a remarkable turn from Eva Green) who amongst her many talents has the ability to transform herself into a bird of prey. The children at the home all have odd powers of their own which range from invisibility to internal bee-keeping and the possession of a second mouth at the back of the neck. (Always handy). But the home is under threat from the evil creatures that control the monsters. They are led by Barron (Samuel L Jackson) a vile looking shape-shifter with a predilection for eating human eyeballs…

Like most Burton movies, this is often very nice to look at (he started off as an illustrator and that always shows) but there’s something curiously unengaging about the film, which is packed full of over-complicated incident, yet rarely manages to exert any kind of grip on the attention. It seems to go on for an inordinately long time, before it finally reaches a climax in an exotic location (Blackpool) where screenwriter Jane Goldman has to find something useful for every one of those peculiar kids to do. Despite all the monsters rampaging across the screen, there’s no real sense of threat here and it isn’t very enlightened to have the one black actor in the film cast as a child-murdering villain.

There are admittedly a few nice moments dotted about (a spirited tribute to the ‘fighting skeletons’ sequence from Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts being one of them) but ultimately this isn’t Burton’s finest moment. For a film that’s so packed with fantasy elements, MPHFPC is long on exposition and woefully short of magic.

2.9 stars

Philip Caveney