Olivia Colman

The Favourite

01/01/19

Since 2015’s The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established a reputation for quirky and enigmatic films that approach their subject matters from completely unexpected directions. Take The Favourite for instance. This sumptuously dressed costume drama offers us a story that seems as mad as a box of frogs – but it only takes a cursory Google search to establish that most of what happens here cleaves fairly close to established historical truth – proof if ever it were needed that fact can be a lot stranger than fiction. That said, Lanthimos finds ways of amping up the oddness to the max.

We are in the early 18th century, in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a troubled monarch plagued by recurring bouts of gout, who wanders about the place like a sulky teenager. She is totally under the control of the manipulative Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who – as well as being Anne’s secret lover – also uses her to further her strong political ambitions. Into the court comes Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), whose family have fallen on hard times and who is now looking for gainful employment. Sarah grudgingly takes her in as a servant, but Abigail soon tires of a life of drudgery, and decides instead to insinuate herself into the Queen’s good graces, something she proves to be rather adept at.  It isn’t long before a powerful rivalry is ignited between Sarah and Abigail and it’s clear that both women are prepared to do whatever it takes to gain the upper hand.

Lanthimos manages to convey an atmosphere of cold suspicion beautifully and his regular use of a fish eye lens amplifies the claustrophobic ambiance of this troubled court. The film is built around three superb performances from the female leads, with Colman already nominated for a best actress Oscar, and Stone and Weisz for best supporting actress. Indeed, the three of them dominate the film to such a degree that few of the male characters get much of a look in, though I do enjoy Nicholas Hoult’s sardonic turn as Harley, leader of the Tories, who forms a sneaky alliance with Abigail in order to oust his political opponents from power. Those of a prudish persuasion should note that the film is rumbustious enough to fully earn its 15 certificate – some of the scenes here are a bit saucy, to say the very least.

With a running time of just under two hours, The Favourite positively gallops along, making me laugh out loud and, occasionally, gasp in surprise. It would be very hard to think of a more enjoyable way to begin a new year’s viewing.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Murder on the Orient Express

03/11/17

Let’s face it, we know what we are going to get with this one. Agatha Christie’s story is a classic of its kind, and Poirot’s style of detection a thing of wide repute. The trailer makes it clear that this incarnation doesn’t stray far from the cosy murder-as-family-entertainment tradition, so we settle in for a glossy, star-studded slice of nostalgia; we know it won’t be challenging but we think it might be fun.

And it is fun, to a point. It’s handsomely done, with glorious vistas, and the opening scenes in Istanbul are wonderfully vibrant, teeming with life and energy. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot, as pedantic and idiosyncratic as Christie paints him in her books. And the unthinking decadence of the upper classes is beautifully clear, their sumptuous surroundings barely noted, the train’s luxury accepted and dismissed.

It’s a shame, then, that we never feel any sense of claustrophobia, even when the train breaks down, and everyone is trapped in the middle of nowhere, even when the sleazy Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered. I won’t give any spoilers here, just in case,  although I imagine most people know the plot; suffice it to say, I know there are reasons why the suspects’  reactions are not as we might initially expect, but still… No one really mixes; no one seems irritated with anyone else; they’re all so separate, as if they’re not in close proximity. It’s all plot and no character, despite the starry cast.

The starry cast is a problem too. They’re all magnificent, but I only know that from their other work, not from what they do here. There’s nothing for them to do. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Caroline Hubbard, is perhaps the luckiest; there’s some substance here, so she can milk her role. But to under-use actors as fine as Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz et al is criminal: these are all essentially cameos.

In the end, sadly, this is just a pointless remake of what is – sorry, Agatha fans – a silly story. It’s not awful – everything is bigger here, including Poirot’s moustache – it’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Lobster

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18/10/15

There’s no other way of saying it. The Lobster is weird.

This surreal blend of dark comedy and occasional violence won the Jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and it represents Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s first foray into the English language. It was strangely heartening to see that despite its unabashed art house ambitions, it had somehow managed to pull a decent crowd into a multiplex on a Sunday afternoon. Gratifying too, that only a few people walked out of the showing shaking their heads.

David ( a barely recognisable Colin Farrell) finds himself dumped by his wife of twelve years (well, eleven years and one month, to be exact – the film is very pedantic about things like that). In the dystopian society in which the story is set, this means that he soon finds himself whisked off to a mysterious seaside hotel, where he has just forty five days to find himself a new partner. If he fails in his quest, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice and ‘set free’. David opts to be a lobster, because he’s always been quite good at boating and water sports. Meanwhile, he and his fellow guests go out on daily hunting expeditions in the forest, shooting ‘loners’ in the nearby woods with tranquilliser guns. For every loner they bring back, their time at the hotel will be extended. On his first day there, David meets up with ‘the limping man’ (Ben Whishaw) and ‘the lisping man’ (John C. Reilly) and forms an uneasy alliance with them – in this world, people are defined by their characteristics – David, for instance, is shortsighted. The hotel is presided over by Olivia Colman and her partner, (Gary Mountaine) who can always be called upon to perform a hysterically funny version of a Gene Pitney number, when required (trust me, it works!). Indeed, the first half of the film, is often laugh-oh-loud funny. Whishaw introducing himself to the other guests is a particular delight. In the later sections, when David goes on the run in the forest and falls under the wing of a survivalist leader (Lea Seydoux), the laughs are somewhat harder to find, but the narrative still holds you in its grip, right up to the tense and decidedly unresolved ending.

Yes, you say, but what is The Lobster actually about? Good question.

For me, it’s an allegory about relationships and the immense pressure that is placed upon them by the expectations of society. It’s about the way people have to compromise with each other in order to coexist. And it’s about mankind’s inherent selfishness, the casual cruelty that people will often inflict upon one another. It’s by no means a perfect film – but in its own, unconventional way, it’s more challenging than anything else you’re likely to encounter at the cinema, these days. And one thing’s for sure. You’ll talk about it afterwards.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

London Road

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28/06/15

London Road is an extraordinary film. Although clearly indebted to its theatrical roots, this is a truly cinematic work – and quite unlike anything I have seen before.

Centred around the infamous Ipswich murders of 2006, when five prostitutes were killed over the course of a few months, London Road tells the stories of the local residents: their discomfort at their street becoming part of the red-light district; their horror at the murders; their reactions to the revelation that the killer was Steven Wright, a neighbour of theirs. Through verbatim accounts, drawn from interviews conducted with the real life residents of the street , we learn of a community torn apart – and then, ultimately, uniting to reclaim its heart.

And it’s a musical.

Actually, it’s not really a musical, as such, but it is mostly sung – and the effect is stunning. The dialogue is faithfully reproduced, with every ‘um’ and ‘ah’ included; every hesitation, interruption, exclamation rigorously documented in the lines. The language dictates the rhythms, and the score stretches and amplifies the natural cadences of speech, creating a kind of hyper-realism that is utterly compelling. Some lines are repeated to create a kind of chorus or refrain, thus reinforcing some of the more prevalent ideas (‘He could be one of us…’).

There’s no driving narrative here, no one character whose tale defines the story. It’s exactly what you might imagine a series of interviews to amount to: a collage of disparate accounts. And yet, this collage serves to create a very clear whole picture. There are conflicting emotions, as the prostitutes move away from the area to somewhere where they feel safer, and the residents begin to take a pride in where they live again. ‘I know it’s awful,’ says Julie (Olivia Colman), as she looks around the resurgent neighbourhood, ‘but I’d like to shake his hand.’ It’s an uncomfortable truth, made more so by the brooding presence of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood) walking through the street, untouched and unobserved, clutching a balloon like a hopeful child. No one can condone the murder of these troubled women, but none of us would like them working where we live.

There are some big names attached to this film: Tom Hardy makes a fleeting appearance as a taxi driver obsessed with serial killers. But it doesn’t feel right to single anyone out: this is an ensemble performance, with all parts contributing fully to the whole.

It’s a game-changer, I think.

Go see it.

5 stars

Susan Singfield