Mia Goth

Emma.

14/02/20

Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.

Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)

Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.

It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.

The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.

Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.

All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

High Life

13/05/19

The first English language production by French auteur Claire Denis, High Life uses the conventions of a science fiction film to tell its rather bleak story, though there is little in the way of the kind of visual splendour you might expect to find in this genre. Here is a nuts and bolts future where space ships look like packing crates and space suits resemble things you might pick up in Gap. Monte (Robert Pattison) is a former Death Row inmate who, when we first meet him, is alone on a space ship with a baby. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, how the two of them came to be there.

Monte, it turns out, was part of a team of prisoners, sent on a journey to a black hole deep in space in order to harness its energy. This crew of misfits is presided over by Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who – presumably spurred on by the knowledge that the mission is going to take longer than the average human life span – has become obsessed with the idea of starting new life aboard the ship. But instead of letting the crew just pursue things in the usual way of procreation, she keeps everyone heavily sedated. The male crew members have to submit a daily sperm sample to her, which she, in turn,  administers to the females.

Hardly surprising then, that deep resentment begins to simmer, and it’s only a matter of time before things kick off.

Denis has quite a reputation and it might be this, more than anything else, that has initiated the slew of glowing reviews this film has already garnered – but for the life of me, I can’t share this enthusiasm for it. It soon becomes apparent that, while the film’s setting might be futuristic, its sexual politics remain deeply entrenched in the stone age. And this prompts some worrying questions.

Why does Binoche’s character wander around the spaceship in a nurses’s outfit that is clearly several sizes too small for her? And why, in the extended sequence when she pleasures herself in the ship’s ‘fuckbox,’ does it look as though it has been choreographed to please some unseen male gaze, even though it’s been co-authored by Denis herself? There’s also a particularly nasty rape scene, later in the film, which culminates in the bloody death of the perpetrator, but which adds precisely nothing of value to the story. Presented as it is, it just feels salacious.

These are not the only problems I have with High Life. I learn very little about Monte and even less about his crew mates, which makes it hard for me to care about them when they end up as so much flotsam. I think that Monte has some feelings for Boyse (Mia Goth) but can’t be entirely sure – and what exactly is the story behind Monte’s childhood crime, only partially revealed in flashback? Finally… that harnessing of the black hole’s power… how was that supposed to work exactly? It seems a bit cavalier to use the conventions of a genre without properly thinking it through.

If High Life was the product of a debut director, it would be panned and quickly forgotten. But I fear it’s become one of those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ movies, with few people prepared to step up to the plate and denounce it as the wrong-headed, misogynistic muddle that it surely is.

Unless I’m missing something? Answers on a  postcard, please…

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Cure for Wellness

24/02/17

Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski sets a course for even darker waters with  this 18 certificate mystery movie, giving us a twisted fairy tale that evokes plenty of other great films, yet still somehow manages to retain its own identity. This is the kind of thing that Tim Burton does, only, dare I say it? Better. Much better.

Ambitious young executive, Lockhart (Dane Dehaan) is sent by his employers to a remote sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, where he is instructed to locate and bring back the company’s head honcho, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who went out there for the ‘cure’ and has subsequently gone AWOL. No sooner has Lockhart arrived than he’s presented with a whole host of unanswered questions. Why is the sanitarium’s mysterious director, Volman (Jason Isaac, sporting a Germanic accent) so oily and evasive? What’s going on with the weirdly enigmatic Hannah (an engaging turn from the appropriately named Mia Goth)? And what exactly is in that special spa water that everybody seems addicted to drinking?

Verbinski takes his time answering those questions and, even if some of the convoluted plot’s loose ends are never satisfactorily tied up, it’s nevertheless an intriguing and sometimes suspenseful journey getting there. Despite a running time of two and a half hours, the film never drags and switches smoothly from one deeply creepy set-piece to the next. A sequence in a dentist’s chair is likely to put you off ever sitting in one again, while other scenes here will doubtless dissuade you from eating jellied eels for life. Along the way, some of the best horror films in history are cleverly recalled – Rosemary’s Baby, Dance of the Vampires, The Shining… and there’s even a strand that put me in mind of vintage TV series, The Prisoner (which to my mind is the ultimate praise).  If everything goes a bit Hammer Horror at the conclusion, it’s by no means a bad thing.

Not everyone will like this. It’s probably far too weird for mass approbation and there’s a complete refusal to take the easy path when the scenic route has so much for offer – and speaking of scenery, the location photography is particularly sumptuous. But be careful. Behind every pretty thing, there’s something sinister waiting to jump out at you.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney