Kit Harrington

Brimstone

28/09/17

Westerns are a pretty rare species in this day and age, but even rarer is the Dutch Western – indeed, I can’t think of any others before Martin Koolhaven’s Brimstone, a long and rather visceral story that seems to be mostly a mediation on the awful treatment meted out to women in the Old West. With a variety of locations in Europe standing in (pretty convincingly) for America, the film plays audacious tricks with chronology, jumping backwards from time to time to reveal what happened earlier. It finally zooms back to its starting point for a violent conclusion.

When we first meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), she is a married woman with a stepson and a young daughter to care for. She is also mute and we learn, fairly quickly, this is because she has no tongue. When not working alongside her husband raising sheep, she is the local midwife, helping to deliver her neighbour’s children. But the arrival of The Reverend (Guy Pearce) sends her into an evident state of terror. It’s clear from the first sight of him that the two of them have history and that he is there to exact some kind of vengeance. As the film progresses, we learn more about their past… and it’s not an appealing story. This is a relationship forged in hell.

While I take Koolhaven’s point that women were treated abysmally at that time, I think there’s a fine line between the depiction of such brutality and inviting viewers to relish in those depictions. As I watch, women have their tongues cut out. They are whipped, punched, sexually violated and generally abused. Mind you, the violence is not confined to the female characters. One man has his innards cut out and wrapped around his neck. Another is hanged whilst trying to take a crap. This is clearly not The Little House on the Prairie. Pearce’s character must be one of the most irredeemably malevolent creatures ever committed to film; indeed, the film hints at the fact that he might not even be human, but some kind of supernatural being that simply cannot be killed. It also seems to be putting forward the suggestion that religion is at the heart of all evil

If you can get past all the violence, it has to be said that Brimstone is superbly filmed and acted – it’s great to see Dakota Fanning back on screen and brilliantly handling what must be a very demanding role. I also particularly like the evocative score by Junkie XL (who wrote the music for Mad Max: Fury Road). But to be honest, this is a hard film to enjoy – too heavy-handed in its sadistic depictions of brutality for my taste, even if it does feature some powerful scenes. Game of Thrones fans may like to know that it also features Kit Harrington in a minor role as a gunslinger.

Those of you with sensitive stomachs may want to give this one a miss – and if you’re already upset by the sheer volume of violence against women in film, it’s definitely not for you.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Testament of Youth

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27/01/16

What a useful thing Netflix is; a handy way of catching up with all those movies you somehow managed to miss on the big screen. Testament of Youth is one such film. Overshadowed by bigger, brasher options on its initial release, it slipped quietly through the multiplexes of our green and pleasant land, making barely a ripple. Luckily, it works well enough on the small screen. Based on Vera Brittain’s landmark book, we first meet Vera (Alicia Vikander) on Armistice day, looking decidedly distraught, while all around her are celebrating. Then we slip back in time to discover the string of incidents that have brought her to such a state.

Here is an England of eternal summers, where the upper classes bathe in lakes and wander in meadows with barely a care in the world. Vikander certainly looks the part of the English Rose, even if her accent occasionally gives her origins away. Vera is a ‘bluestocking’ who wants nothing more than the chance to study at Oxford, like her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), even if their father (Dominic West) would rather see Vera bashing the keys of a piano and hunting for a suitable husband. But she sticks to her guns and passes the University’s entrance examination. Fairly soon, she meets Roland (her Game of Thrones co-star, Kit Harrington) and love starts to blossom between them. But of course, the advent of World War One is lurking in the wings and with barely a pause for breath, Roland and Edward enlist in the British army and march away to do battle; whereupon, Vera throws in her course at Oxford, enrols as a nurse and eventually ends up at the Front, nursing soldiers, many of them German.

It’s a handsomely mounted film, that manages to resist being too chocolate-boxy – scenes of soldiers with their arms and legs blown off soon see to that – and if it’s not the most hard-hitting dramatisation you’ve ever seen, nevertheless its compelling enough to hold your attention for a couple of hours and to confirm the notion that, yes, war is a terrible thing and wouldn’t we all be a lot better off it the powers-that-be could just agree to get along with each other? If also offers the opportunity to spot a whole string of notable actors in cameo roles, always a bonus.

If like me, you missed this on the big screen, here’s your chance to catch up with it. It’s well worth your attention.

4 stars

Philip Caveney