Joel Edgerton

Red Sparrow


There’s no doubt that Red Sparrow is a problematic film. The controversy over its apparent misogyny (with graphic depictions of rape and sexual violence) has been loud, and I have to admit I’m not predisposed to like it.

Still, I try to keep an open mind and, actually, I don’t find it particularly anti-feminist. There’s no denying the sexism of the culture portrayed, nor of many of the characters, but this feels more like a comment on what women have to do to succeed within a system that denies them any power than an endorsement of the patriarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a Russian ballerina, who – after a horrific dancing ‘accident’ – is coerced by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) into attending “whore school,” where the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) teaches her recruits to respond to the sexual desires of targeted others in the name of patriotism. Once graduated, Dominika is given her first mission – to seduce American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), and the double-dealing shenanigans  begin.

It starts well. There’s a great sequence where Dominika’s fateful ballet performance is cross cut with Nate’s skirmish in Gorki Park, the pace of both segments growing ever faster and more frantic as the tension builds. And the ending is decent too, with a satisfying pay-off that I won’t reveal.

But there are problems with the lumpen stuff  that’s in-between. Firstly, the Red Sparrow Academy, the concept of which is – quite frankly – risible. I find myself stifling giggles as Matron impassively tweaks the cadets’ nipples, or orders  them to perform lewd acts on each other. And the stuff that follows – the actual spying – is, dare I say it, deadly dull. It’s probably a more accurate depiction of the life of a secret agent than the high-octane thrills we get from, say, a Jason Bourne movie, but it’s a lot more boring too. And then there’s the violence, which is extreme and often feels gratuitous. One lengthy torture scene in particular is very hard to watch, and the detail doesn’t add much to my understanding of the film.

The performances are as excellent as you’d expect; her recent tabloid fall-from-grace notwithstanding, Lawrence is, I think, a fine actor and she has total command of this role. Edgerton and Schoenaerts provide efficient support and the cinematography is more than just decent.

But still. It’s not enough to make this particular bird fly.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield


It Comes at Night


What is the disease that’s afflicting America? In Trey Edward Schults’ stylish dystopian fear-flick, it appears to be an airborne virus that’s decimating the population, and isolating survivors. Joel Edgerton stars as Paul, an ex-history teacher holed up in his family home with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They’re paranoid and distrustful, trapped in their sealed sanctuary, donning gas masks and carrying guns whenever they’re compelled to venture into the outside world.

Staggering into this powder-keg of neuroses is Will (Christopher Abbott), desperately seeking shelter for his young family. He, his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their infant son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), are reluctantly invited to move in, albeit with very strict parameters. But things are bound to go wrong.’Trust no-one,’ Paul tells Travis. ‘You can’t trust anyone except your family.’ Suspicion and wariness pervade every interaction: it’s a recipe for disaster.

The film is fiercely intense. Okay, so the allegory isn’t particularly subtle: the fear and ‘othering’ of outsiders is, in fact, the disease – and it’s the same one that’s afflicting the real America today. Scare-mongering about refugees, seeking to impose travel-bans: these isolationist behaviours do not auger well. Without trust and cohesion, society can’t work.

It’s a tightly crafted film, with a real sense of claustrophobia throughout. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is particularly mesmerising as the teenage boy, struggling to mature in a disintegrating world with no peers with whom to compare experiences.  And I like that there are no ‘baddies’ here, just individuals seeking to protect themselves and their families, unwittingly destroying all that they hold dear. As their circle shrinks ever smaller, there is less and less to hold on to, and the ending (which I won’t spoil here) is beautifully bleak.

This is a sly, thought-provoking little film, with plenty to ponder and discuss after the credits roll.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield




Writer/director Jeff Nichols seems to favour outlaws. Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special all feature protagonists who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Loving is, however, the first time he’s based a film on a true story.

Virginia, 1958. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) romances his sweetheart Mildred (Ruth Negga), gets her pregnant and then arranges a hasty marriage. So far, so everyday; but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose. Richard is white and Mildred, African-American. Though they have travelled to the more enlightened Washington DC to get hitched, such a marriage is still deemed illegal in the state of Virginia and almost before they know it, they have been dragged from their bed in the dead of night and slung into jail. The upshot is that they are faced with a difficult choice. They can get the marriage annulled and forget that anything ever happened; or they can leave Virginia for a minimum of 25 years, risking long jail sentences if they are ever reckless enough to return. But the Lovings are made of stern stuff and they vow to live together in Virginia whatever circumstance may throw at them…

It’s staggering to think that only fifty years ago such laws could even have existed and the Loving’s case was eventually the basis of a major change to the American constitution, so this is an important subject. Nichols relates the story in his signature style, taking his own sweet time, steering clear of sensationalism and coaxing superb performances from his lead actors. Neggar has already been rewarded for her efforts with a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but in many ways it’s Edgerton who has the trickier role, portraying a gruff, monosyllabic man who bears the many crosses he is made to carry with exceptional stoicism.

The film’s gentle pace is clearly something that divides people. We’ve rarely witnessed so many walkouts from a movie as We saw on the Friday evening we viewed Loving. But I found the film powerful and eloquent, an excellent addition to Nichols’ growing canon of work. Nice too to see a cameo from the director’s favourite actor, Michael Shannon, as the photographer who takes pictures of the couple for an article in Life Magazine.

Some people change the world in the glare of publicity. Others do it quietly, avoiding the limelight, but their contributions are nonetheless every bit as valuable. Loving is an accomplished film that’s well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney



Midnight Special



Writer/director Jeff Nichols has given us some fine movies over the last few years but one thing he’s not so good at is coming up with a decent title. Take Shelter? Not one of the best. Mud? A terrible title for an excellent film. And now, here’s Midnight Special, a title that for the life of me I can’t see the relevance of when applied to this absorbing story – but I suppose this is a minor niggle. The film this most reminds me of is ET… though I hasten to add, a much more sophisticated, grown up and gritty version of Speilberg’s sci fi tale.

Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is a very special boy. It has something to do with his eyes. He must be kept in darkness as much as possible and has to wear special goggles whenever he steps into the sunlight. When we first meet him, he’s been abducted by his biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend,  cop Lucas (Joel Egerton) from the religious community that has looked after him for the past two years. Because of the boy’s habit of ‘speaking in tongues,’ the cult’s leader,  Calvin (Sam Shepard) believes that Alton may be some kind of messiah and he and his followers will do just about anything to get him back, even if it means picking up weapons to enforce their will.

Sam and Lucas hook up with Alton’s birth mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and the four of them set off on a perilous journey to bring Alton to the special destination where he repeatedly tells them he needs to be – but how can they get there when the combined forces of the FBI, the US military and a bunch of religious fruitcakes are intent on intercepting them?

Midnight Special is expertly told, releasing nuggets of information bit-by-bit, just enough to keep you hooked and to make you want to know more. When the solution is finally revealed it is, quite frankly mind-blowing and at this point, will divide audiences into ‘hell yes!’ or ‘no way!’ categories. I, happily, belong to the former. There are compelling performances from all concerned (Adam Driver is particularly good as a baffled boffin trying to work out what’s happening) and the pace never flags.

This is a riveting story about the power of belief and the lengths to which people will go to honour it. It also confirms Nichols as a film maker at the height of his powers.

It will be interesting to see what he does next.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney


Black Mass



Time was, when Johnny Depp’s name attached to a movie could be interpreted as a guarantee of quality, but to be fair, it’s been a while since that maxim held true. A once keen ability to pick the right project has lately foundered amidst a welter of vanity puff-pieces. So it’s heartening to report that Black Mass is a major step in the right direction, with Depp submitting his best performance in a very long time.

Here, he’s depicting real life  villain James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a career criminal who operated successfully around his home town of Boston over a period of thirty years, largely because his brother, Bobby, was a senator and his best friend, John Connolly,  an FBI agent. Bulger cannily formed an ‘alliance’ with Connolly, trading inside information on his rivals to ensure that he could operate his web of vice and murder with complete impunity.

Depp has worked hard to make himself look unattractive – complete with thinning hair, bad teeth and pale blue eyes, he’s hardly recognisable as his former self. Initial fears that this is simply going to be a ‘makeup led’ performance are soon quashed, as he submits a convincing turn as a repellent psychopath, a man who can skip from helping an old lady with her shopping, to shooting a man point blank in the face, without raising so much as an eyebrow.

There’s a lot of unflinching violence on show here, but its matched by a sharp script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and there’s the added bonus of a supporting cast to die for – Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sargaard… Seriously, there’s enough talent on show here to fill several movies; but there’s no denying that this is Depp’s film and he has a field day with it.

Like many real life stories, if presented as a piece of fiction, this would seem unlikely. Stay in your seat for the closing credits which offer glimpses of the real protagonists and we’re finally able to fully appreciate the lengths to which director Scott Cooper has gone to ensure that his actors resemble the major players.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney





Exodus: Gods and Kings



Ridley Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a director of the stature of David Lean. Unabashedly old school he is never happier than when commanding armies of extras on a massive scale, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually take on a biblical subject – the story of Moses. Here, the great man is played by a scowling Christian Bale who at the beginning of the film is fighting the Hitites alongside his ‘bessie mate’ Ramses (Joel Edgerton.) But when Ramses becomes pharaoh, word gets out that Moses is actually an adopted hebrew, a fact that gets him banished from Egypt and sent back to join ‘his people’ where before very long he is instructing them to seek their freedom.

There has already been some controversy about this film which features two caucasian actors in the lead roles and Scott’s reply (that it was all about getting funding and who would pay to see Mohammed Whatever in the lead role?) was understandably badly received, but I’m going to put that matter aside and concentrate on what’s on the screen, which really is a great big curate’s egg of a film. This being a Ridley Scott production, there are scenes of incredible cinematic splendour – the construction of the pyramids is amazing, the Plagues of Egypt are particularly jaw-dropping and the climactic parting of the waves is nail-biting stuff – but along the way we have to endure too many turgid scenes of people standing around in temples talking in (suspiciously contemporary terms) about fairly boring subjects. And one has to wonder why Scott bothered to engage the services of Sigourney Weaver when he wasn’t going to bother to give her anything to say. What I did like was the daring treatment of many of the accepted fantastical elements of Moses’ story. The parting of the waves is quite clearly a tsunami, we see Moses himself carving the ten commandments onto stone tablets and most contentious of all, ‘God’ is depicted as a scruffy kid with a bad haircut. Some will hate this, but what was the alternative? A white haired, bearded old geezer speaking in a stentorian voice? A bit too Life of Brian, methinks.

in the end, Scott does it his way and God help anyone who stands in his path. Overall, I enjoyed this, but those slow lengthy passages dragged down the final score somewhat. One thing is clear. When it comes to epic cinema, nobody else comes close to the majesty that is Ridley Scott. On a sad note, the film is dedicated to his brother, Tony, who took his own life in 2012.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney