Michael Smiley

Censor

23/08/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

It’s 1985, the UK is in the midst of Thatcherism and the era of the ‘video-nasty’ is casting a pervasive grip on the public imagination. Enid (Niamh Algar) works as a censor – presumably for the British Board of Film Classification, though it’s never spelled out. Enid’s daily routine obliges her to suffer through a seemingly endless supply of filmed rapes, murders and general carnage, occasionally making notes as she does so (such as suggesting that a display of eye-gouging might be cut down a little). Her colleague, Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) tells her she’s too diligent, that if it were down to him, he’d pass the lot without a qualm, but Enid wants to ensure that she takes every care to protect the public. Because such violent images can be harmful, right?

Enid also has something lurking in her past, the mysterious disappearance of her sister, Nina, when they were children, now an unsolved ‘cold case.’ So when Enid is asked to look at a film by mysterious director, Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), she’s deeply disturbed to discover that some of the details in his screenplay seem to eerily recall what actually happened to her and Nina back in the day, details that she has suppressed for years. And then she meets North’s sleazy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley), and the memories of her childhood trauma start to crowd in on her consciousness. Soon, she is having trouble differentiating between what she sees on the screen and what’s really happening…

This is writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond’s first full-length feature and she handles it with verve and assurance. My abiding fear was that a twenty-first century feature that clearly references infamous 80s film-makers like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulvi would feel too much like a director trying to have her cinematic cake and eat it – but, while it’s probably fair to say that there is some of that about Censor, it’s to Bailey-Bond’s credit that she manages to navigate those murky X-rated waters without ever getting out of her depth.

Cinematographer Annika Summerson probably deserves much of the praise for managing to uncannily recreate the look of those vintage films, complete with grainy imagery, lens-flare and ever-changing aspect ratios. Algar shines as a woman who has repressed her inner demons for so long, she wears them like a suit of clothes.

Censor is fascinating, both as a memento of an infamous period in cinema history and as a gradually-unfolding mystery with a cleverly handled pay-off.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney