Keira Knightly

The Aftermath

11/03/19

There have been plenty of movies that concentrate on torrid wartime romances but, as you might guess from its title, The Aftermath is based in that uncertain period just after the end of World War II, when the victorious allied forces were trying to manage their defeated enemy and get them back into some semblance of order – after all but destroying them.

Based amidst the devastated ruins of Hamburg, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is one of the luckless officers charged with heading up those efforts and, to ensure that his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightly), can live comfortably alongside him, he commandeers the palatial home of German architect, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann).

Stephen claims he has never been a Nazi sympathiser and he is grieving the loss of his wife, who was killed during the allied bombing of Hamburg. Obliged to live up in the attic, Stephen and Freda can only watch in silent dismay as the British couple attempt to make themselves at home in the main part of their house.

But Rachel is mourning a loss of her own – and it’s quickly apparent that she and her husband are not exactly your average happily married couple. There’s a yawning chasm between them, one that they seem totally unable to cross – and it doesn’t help that Stephen is an attractive young man, who soon begins to cast alluring looks in Rachel’s direction – ones that she cannot help responding to.

The Aftermath is, ultimately,  a somewhat slight melodrama. It’s beautifully acted by the three leads – particularly Knightly, who once again effortlessly disproves the legions of critics who claim her career is based entirely on her looks  – and its evocations of post war Hamburg are convincingly mounted. But the film is lacking in any real depth beyond the tortured love triangle at the core of the story. We are never shown enough of the lives of the other characters who occasionally inhabit the screen. There’s a brief subplot that sees Freda becoming involved with young Hitler supporter, Albert (Jannik Schümann), but that feels underdeveloped – while Martin Compston has a fairly thankless role as Burnham, one of Lewis’s colleagues, a man who clearly thinks that all Germans should be treated as harshly as possible. He’s simply not given enough to do.

There are three credible outcomes for the situation and it’s probably true to say that the scriptwriters have opted for the least daring of them. Ultimately, The Aftermath is perfectly watchable film with a couple of genuinely tear-jerking moments, but I cannot help feeling that, properly handled, it could be so much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Colette

13/01/19

Imagine this scenario, if you will. A celebrity decides he wants to write a novel. He can’t actually write fiction himself so he gets somebody else to write it for him, but insists that his name goes on the published book. When the book is a huge success, he gets the writer to turn out more stories on the same theme and resolutely refuses to give their creator any credit whatsoever. Shocking, right? And yes, I know, it’s a depressingly familiar occurrence in this day and age. But Colette is proof that it’s by no means a new phenomenon.

When we first meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly), she’s a young woman living in the Burgundy countryside, carrying on a secret romance with trusted family friend Willy (Dominic West). He lives in Paris, where he is carving out a precarious career as an ‘author,’ many of his books ghost-written for him by more talented acquaintances. Pretty soon, he and Gabrielle are married, and she moves in to his apartment in the city, where she realises that her new husband is not exactly trustworthy. When she discovers he has been unfaithful to her, he protests that it’s not really his fault: he’s a man and he needs stimulation!

On hearing Gabrielle’s stories about her childhood, Willy decides that there just might be a book in it. He encourages her to write, mostly by locking her in her room for hours on end. The resulting book, Claudine à L’école, becomes an instant hit, selling millions of copies and necessitating sequels. Colette, as she now calls herself, is only just beginning to realize her own powers. She agrees to continue the deception but warns Willy that she is attracted to other people too…

Colette feels weirdly prescient, yet another example of a talented woman being subjugated to the will of a manipulative man – and then fighting back. Knightly, who often faces accusations that she ‘cannot act’ is on splendid form here, giving a nuanced and thoroughly believable performance in the lead role, while West somehow manages the impossible, making the repellant Willy oddly charming, so that I understand how this man can bend so many people to his will.

Of course, vital to this biopic is the subject of intellectual property, and anyone who has published any sort of written work will doubtless share my horror at the scene where Willy callously instructs an employee to burn the original handwritten copies of the Claudine novels. It’s all I can do not to shout at the screen.

But at the heart of this tale is Colette herself, and – even if this were a contemporary tale – it would still feel pretty sensational, what with her (partially) open marriage, lesbian affairs and long-term relationship with the (probably) transgender ‘Missy’ de Morny (Denise Gough). The fact that it all happened back in the 1890s is the real eye-opener. Gough and Knightly imbue the latter partnership with real warmth, and it’s fascinating to see the contemporary reactions to their public intimacy.

I’m currently working my way through Colette’s short stories, which are rather fey and whimsical, it must be said. But I’m planning to read the novels soon, and hoping to find some of what made her so beloved, and eventually won her the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Meanwhile, do catch this sumptuous, witty evocation of Parisian life at the turn of the century. It’s really very good.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

11/11/18

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

 

The Imitation Game

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15/11/14

So many bottoms on seats at a Saturday afternoon showing for what is, ostensibly, an ‘art house’ movie can mainly be put down to  one thing – the Cumberbatch Effect. Seriously, this man could go on film and read his shopping lists and an eager audience would surely turn up to watch him do it. So what a good thing that The Imitation Game is a unqualified delight, a truly absorbing and compelling tale, expertly told, that, despite a running time of 114 minutes, doesn’t flag for a moment. And in the lead role of mathematician and all-round genius, Alan Turing, Cumberbatch is (it has to be said) quite extraordinary.

Of course it’s not the first time that this story has been attempted in the cinema. Some may remember Enigma (2001), where Dougray Scott was charged with playing a fictional version of Turing called Tom Jericho and where all the awkward stuff was summarily skipped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a box office failure. This version of the story, however, stays closer to the facts and is all the better for it.

The film opens in 1951, where Manchester-based detective, Inspector Nock (Rory Kinnear) investigates a mysterious break in at Turing’s apartment and guesses that the man is hiding secrets, but he can have little idea of the web of intrigue that is going to be revealed as a result of his investigation. History of course has (eventually) recorded that Turing is the man who turned the tide of World War Two, by deciphering the German’s Enigma Code. In so doing, he shortened the course of the war by two years, saved millions of lives and (almost as a side-effect) pioneered the use of computers. But it’s also a tragic story. He was treated abominably for being a homosexual at a time when such a thing was illegal and suffered the almost unimaginable consequences.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum ( Headhunters) handles the proceedings with great skill and he’s aided and abetted by a superb screenplay by Graham Moore, one that skips effortlessly back and forth in time without ever confusing the audience and manages to make the most complex material easily understandable. An ensemble cast delivers a host of note-perfect performances. Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, Turing’s doomed would-be fiancé, is a particular delight and both Charles Dance and Mark Strong excel in their roles as, respectively, a crusty Commander and a secret service operative. Special mention should also be made for Alex Lawther, who plays Turing as a boy, a matching of two actors that, for once, absolutely convinces. But, even amidst such riches, this is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s movie and he manages to nail Turing’s (clearly autistic) character absolutely, by turns funny, awkward and inspirational. The film’s conclusion is just heartbreaking and only the stoniest character will manage to resist tears.

The Imitation Game is filmmaking of the highest order and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney