Matthias Schoonaerts

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


A Little Chaos



We missed its theatrical release but here it is, courtesy of Netflix, made all the more prescient by the recent death of its much-admired director and star, Alan Rickman. This isn’t quite Rickman’s swan song (there are a couple of films still awaiting release) but given the sadness of the situation, I only wish I could say that I liked A Little Chaos more than I actually did. It’s a polite film, handsomely mounted but lacking power and conflict and moreover, it’s a story that plays fast and loose with history.

King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) is in the process of creating the famous gardens of Versailles and the man appointed to oversee the task is master gardener, Andre Le Not (Matthias Schoenaerts). Realising that it’s too big a job for one person, he decides to apportion certain areas to other contractors and holds interviews for the posts. One applicant is the (completely fictional) Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), trying to make headway in a world dominated by men – the fact that she manages to do so, probably emphasises more than anything else that this really is fiction. Something about her captivates Le Not (it’s definitely not her skills with herbaceous borders) and he assigns her the job of creating a water garden for the King. But as she struggles to carry out the work, she meets with considerable opposition, not least from Le Not’s bitchy wife, Madame Le Not (Helen McRory) who does everything she can to scupper Sabine’s plans. All the while, Sabine is harbouring a secret – a sadness from her past that keeps returning to haunt her.

There’s not much else to report. The inherent bitchiness of Louis’s court is nicely sketched  and there’s a fabulous scene where Sabine encounters the king and mistakes him for a gardener, something that Louis enjoys and encourages. It’s here where you really appreciate Rickman’s qualities as an actor, offering a sleepy, lizard like sensuality that makes the sequence a bit of a standout – but sadly there aren’t enough delights of this quality to carry the film. Winslet is terrific, but then she generally is and Schoenaerts, a Belgian playing a Frenchman, makes a decent fist of an English accent, something he’s obliged to do in order to tie in with everyone else.

And a major problem is, that when we finally see Sabine’s water garden, something she’s laboured on throughout the film, its… well, a little underwhelming.

It’s not a trial to watch – it will provide a diverting hour or so of entertainment – but one can’t help feeling that it might have been more than that. Which given recent circumstances makes the whole thing seem a trifle sad.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney


Far From The Madding Crowd



Thomas Vinterberg is a brave man – brave enough to take on Far From The Madding Crowd, in the certain knowledge that it is going to be compared to John Schlesinger’s 1967 masterpiece and inevitably found wanting. But perhaps I’m being unfair. Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp – these are all names that belong to another era and will mean very little to young cinema fans – and there’s no doubt that Carey Mulligan’s take on the tempestuous Bathsheba Everdean is as accomplished as you could reasonably want, even if some of her costumes – (the leather riding jerkin in particular,) don’t quite convince as being of the period.

Thomas ‘Chuckles’ Hardy is of course, a writer who excels in miserable stories and few come glummer than this tale of thwarted love and desire. Bathsheba is an orphan, who works as a farm labourer. The neighbouring farm is owned by handsome but taciturn shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoonaerts.) Gabriel takes a shine to Bathsheba and asks her to marry him, but she’s not quite ready to settle down yet and declines his offer. Shortly afterwards, as it is wont to do in Hardy novels, disaster strikes, robbing Gabriel of his livelihood and obliging him to move away. Bathsheba does rather better for herself, inheriting a farm when her Uncle dies unexpectedly. By a twist of fate, (or massive coincidence, whichever you prefer) she finds herself as Gabriel’s employer and is subsequently lusted after, both by her rich neighbour, Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and by a rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge.) Gabriel remains in the background, her ever watchful guardian angel. But which man will she end up with? And how many gallons of tears will be shed along the way?

Vinterberg, who came up through the Danish Festen cinema movement, makes a pretty good fist of this quintessentially English tale. The rolling landscape of Dorset is handsomely portrayed, the performances are all pretty much spot on (Sheen is in particularly good form as the tragic, obsessive Boldwood) and though the Sergeant Troy ‘reveal’ is handled far better in the Schlesinger version, it’s hard to fault such a meticulously rendered production. Hardy fans will perhaps feel that this version is more about Gabriel’s story than Bathsheba’s, but that seems to me a minor quibble. This is superior filmmaking and the results are well worth catching.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney