Olivia Colman

The Father

11/06/21

Cineworld

It’s been over a month since the 2021 Oscars, where The Father won awards for best male actor and best adapted screenplay, but somehow it seems I’ve been eagerly awaiting its arrival for much longer than that. It’s finally here, available to view on the big screen, where its powerful narrative pulses from every frame.

Anthony Hopkins is, it seems, the oldest recipient of the best actor award and we know, don’t we, that sometimes such honours are handed out because it’s late in an actor’s career and there might not be another chance to reward him? But make no mistake, his performance in the lead role is a genuine tour de force. As ‘Anthony,’ a widowed man enduring the terrifying, mind-scrambling rigours of Alzheimer’s, he pulls out all the stops, taking his character through a range of moods and manifestations – from grandstanding showoff to sly insinuator – before delivering a final, desperate scene that is absolutely devastating.

Those seeking a rollicking, sidesplitting comedy should be warned: this is not the film for you.

Anthony – when we first encounter him – is living alone in his spacious London apartment, where he’s receiving regular visits from his compassionate daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Anthony has recently dismissed his paid carer, claiming that she’s stolen his watch, and he’s adamant that he will not, under any circumstances, move out of the place that he has always regarded as home. But as the story progresses, the touchstones of his life crumble one by one as the familiar things around him begin to change at a terrifying rate. The place doesn’t look the same… items have been moved, rearranged. Anthony’s favourite painting is missing… and why does somebody by the name of Paul (Mark Gatiss) parade around saying that this is actually his apartment? Who is Paul exactly? Anne’s ex-husband? If so, who’s the other Paul (Rufus Sewell), and why does he act like he owns the place? And what’s all this nonsense about Anne moving to Paris?

Perhaps the new home help, Laura (Imogen Poots), might be able to put things in order, but why does she remind Anthony so much of his other daughter, Lucy, the one he seems to have lost touch with? And most bewildering of all, why is it that sometimes, even Anne appears to be a different person than she used to be?

Florian Zeller’s astonishing film, adapted from his stage play, unfolds almost like a psychological horror story, as Anthony struggles to take in what’s happening to him. While I expected this to be bleak, I’m not fully prepared for the power with which it hits me. There’s doubtless extra impact because, for the last ten years of her life, my own mother was afflicted by Alzheimer’s and I recognise many of the beats here as being absolutely authentic. Perhaps that’s why the tears are rolling so copiously down my face.

Despite being confined mostly to one set, The Father never feels stage bound, because so much of what I can see onscreen is in a constant state of flux and because, at times, I feel every bit as unsettled as Anthony does. I’m never entirely sure where a scene is taking place, when it it is set and who is present in it – and that’s not meant as a criticism, but as an observation about the story’s unsettling grip on me. While there was aways a danger of The Father being completely dominated by Hopkin’s extraordinary performance, Colman is as excellent as always, managing to kindle the audience’s sympathy with a mere glance. And Olivia Williams is also compelling as the film’s most enigmatic character.

I walk out of the cinema, bleary-eyed from crying and, if I still have a few unanswered questions, well, that feels exactly right. This is an assured film that handles its difficult subject with rare skill.

So, worth the wait? Most definitely. But maybe remember to take some hankies?

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

The Mitchells vs the Machines

06/05/21

Netflix

A sinister organisation enslaves the planet Earth and the only surviving family must fight to free humankind.

It sounds like the plot of a po-faced, dystopian nightmare, doesn’t it? But in the hands of animation veterans, Lord and Miller, what emerges is an irresistibly good-natured romp, replete with funny one-liners and a whole stash of movie references. You’d have to be pretty dour not to enjoy what’s on offer here.

The Mitchells are essentially a family of misfits. Eldest daughter, Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is a movie-mad teenager (though with that name, you might reasonably have expected her to be more of a theatre fan). She spends every spare minute making films on her phone and is looking forward to going to college in California, where she can study the beloved art full time. Her little brother, Aaron (Michael Rianda), is dinosaur-obsessed and incapable of talking to girls. Mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph) is the family peacemaker, while her husband, Rick (Danny McBride), is so out of touch with the changing times, it hurts. Ask this man to send a simple text message and he struggles helplessly – and his idea of trying to bond with his daughter, as she prepares to leave home for college, is to set up an across country family drive to California, so they can all reconnect.

But, en route to their destination, an unexpected problem occurs. Like most other people in America, the Mitchells use PAL as their provider of all things digital – a brief look at one of the company’s pompous launch events tells you that we could easily substitute the word APPLE or FACEBOOK. Helmed by young social media impresario, Mark Bowman (Eric André), PAL is a complex system that can run every aspect of a human’s life. But, when Mark decides it’s time for an upgrade to a more sophisticated version, PAL doesn’t appreciate being made redundant and decides to initiate a coup. Almost before humankind knows quite what’s happening, they are being becoming slaves to their own creation.

But the Mitchells are not ones to give in easily…

Wittily scripted by writer/directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, TMVTM takes off at a gallop and rarely pauses to stop for breath. The state of the art animation is cleverly interwoven with more simplistic flourishes, clearly designed to mirror the style we’re shown in Katie’s homemade animations and there’s a sprightly rock soundtrack against which a frantic series of chases and punch ups plays out. For those seeking a little more depth to the proceedings, there are also visual references to famous movies mixed into the formula. I spotted half a dozen on the first watch, and I’ve no doubt repeated viewings would unearth many more. Be warned, some of them are pretty obscure. (Look at the pattern on Katie’s socks, for instance. Do they remind you of a carpet in a famous movie hotel?) Seriously, movie nerds are going to have a field day with this.

The master stroke though, is having the villainous PAL voiced by Olivia Colman. Hearing her sweet tones wrap themselves around some very nasty commands is probably worth the price of a Netflix subscription all by itself. Oh and the Mitchells are also the owners of an amusing dog called Doug the Pug. Win, win.

Okay, so TMVTM does have a broad sweep of sentimentality running through its core, though it never feels too overdone. While this animation might not be on punching terms with the top rank of Pixar productions, it’s nonetheless a welcome slice of exuberant escapism with a serious message at its core.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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

 

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