Paddy Considine

Funny Cow

22/04/18

If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.

Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.

Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.

But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Journeyman

02/04/18

It’s seven years since Paddy Considine’s blistering directorial debut, Tyrannosaur, made breakout stars of Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan. Since then, he’s mostly confined himself to assaying character roles in a host of feature films, from big budget thrillers to more modest independent productions. He’s generally a welcome asset to any film, but, when, we wondered, was he going to step up and take the reins again? In Journeyman, he finally goes the full Orson Welles, writing, directing and starring in this heartrending drama about boxing – or rather, about the aftermath of boxing, and what can happen to some of its exponents.

Considine plays Matty Burton, middleweight champion of the world, and currently training to defend his title against loudmouthed young contender, Andre ‘The Future’ Bryte (Anthony Welsh). Burton is happily married to Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and the couple have an infant daughter, Mia, who is their pride and joy. But, after a bruising title fight, Matty returns home badly beaten and shortly afterwards suffers a devastating collapse. Almost before we know what’s happening, he is home from hospital, radically brain damaged, and a changed man. He now needs to relearn the simplest things in life – how to tie his shoelaces, how to make a cup of tea and, more importantly, how to relate to the people he loves. The responsibility for his daily care falls on Emma, because Matty’s best friend, Jackie (Paul Popplewell), and his trainer, Richie (Tony Pitts), are nowhere to be seen. Overcome by shame after what happened to him, they have chosen to hide themselves away. Emma is struggling to get through each day and, what’s more, the husband who was once so calm and collected can now be violently unpredictable.

If you’re looking for a nuanced tale, this may not be the film for you. The story here is as straight and powerful as a haymaker to the jaw, as we share Matty’s tortured path to redemption. I like the fact that the script steadfastly refuses to condemn the sport that has so radically changed his life – and that Considine’s character never tries to assign blame for his condition, but instead, rises to the challenge of rediscovering the man he was before he was so radically damaged. I also like the fact that, in the end, it isn’t medicine or therapy that saves him, but love and friendship.

In a recent interview, the actor explained how for ages he resisted taking on the role, believing that he might be attempting too much – but it’s hard, having seen the film,  to imagine anyone else inhabiting the part quite so convincingly. Both he and Whittaker submit powerful performances here, and they are ably supported by a whole cast of characters, many of whom are not professional actors, but nurses and occupational therapists. If this isn’t quite the five star wonder that Tyrannosaur was, it’s nonetheless a poignant and powerfully affecting film.

A word of warning, though. If you have tears, prepare to shed them. I kid you not. I cried a bucket full.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Death of Stalin

23/10/17

If there was a prize for ‘Most Unlikely Subject for a Comedy’, the death of Russian premier Joseph Stalin would probably figure on the list of prime contenders. I mean, how amusing can that actually be? But Armando Iannucci clearly isn’t interested in such preconceptions. Against all the odds, he’s fashioned a funny and subversive entertainment from this unpromising source, based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury.

It’s March, 1953, and Russia is cowering under the brutal regime of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. People can be rounded up and shot for the most spurious of reasons – perhaps they’re intellectuals. Perhaps they belong to the wrong organisation. Perhaps their faces just don’t quite fit. The atmosphere of paranoia is amply portrayed in the film’s opening sequence, where radio director Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), is forced to restage a live performance by a symphony orchestra, simply because Stalin has phoned up and asked for a recording of it – and unfortunately no such recording has actually been made. ‘Don’t worry,’ Andryev assures his bemused audience as he ushers them frantically back to their seats. ‘You won’t be killed. I promise.’

Armando Iannucci’s comedy of terrors is a brave and wonderfully assured undertaking, finding comic mileage in the absurdity of day-to-day existence under the jackboot of a tyrant – and from the unexpected possibilities that are unleashed when that tyranny finally comes to an end. When Stalin unexpectedly drops dead from a heart attack, the various members of his government begin the complex task of jockeying for position in the new order and the results are a joy to behold.

The film has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of authenticity, but to be fair, there’s no real attempt to make it feel authentic. Characters talk in a mix of accents from regional British to (in the case of Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Krushchev) broad American, and the script misses no opportunity to go for a well-timed belly laugh.  

The cast is stellar – I particularly like Simon Russell Beale as head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, a smiling assassin who hides his vile nature under a mask of cheerful bonhomie. Jeffrey Tambour is also excellent as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, who suddenly finds himself simultaneously having to lead the country in its collective grief and incapable of coming to a rational decision about anything. Rupert Friend has a lot of fun with the role of Vassily, Stalin’s loose-canon, vodka-swilling son. But the film’s undoubted comic highlight is Jason Isaacs as straight talking ‘Marshall of the Soviet Union’, Georgy Zhukov, the hilarity aided no end by the fact that he talks with a pronounced Yorkshire accent. I’ve no idea why that’s so funny, it just is.

Okay, so this isn’t quite the comic masterpiece that some have dubbed it. The film suffers somewhat from the age-old problem of having nobody in particular to root for, since they all appear to be lying, double-dealing creeps – unless of course, you count Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Yudina, a concert pianist who seems to be the only person in the film brave enough to speak her mind about Stalin’s cruelty; but hers is a cameo role, acted out on the sidelines. The only other character we remotely care about is Stalin’s hapless daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), who can only watch the carnage that unfolds in the wake of her father’s death and hope against hope that she’ll somehow make it out of there alive.

Weighing in at a relatively sprightly 106 minutes, The Death of Stalin is a clever and accomplished movie, well worth investigating. This is Iannucci playing to his strengths as a political satirist and mostly coming up with the goods. Interesting though, that despite a script peppered with crackling dialogue, the film’s funniest scene is an entirely visual one. Go figure.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Macbeth

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08/09/15

Macbeth has been filmed many times with varying degrees of success. Indeed, the story is so familiar there’s no point at all in describing what actually happens, since it is indelibly imprinted upon most people’s consciousness. Yet every single film made thus far has overlooked a really important opportunity. Macbeth and his wife need to be teenagers. Only the overbearing hubris of youth and rampant ambition can ever fully explain their actions. Of course, when you’re in the business of financing a movie, the simple truth is that you need names that will put bums on seats, so the chances are we’ll never get to see such an interpretation on the big screen. Which is a shame.

Here, Michael Fassbender gives us a grimy, muscular Macbeth, while the usually dependable Marion Cotillard struggles somewhat with her Scottish accent as his scheming wife. If you’re going to film this play, you really need to have something different up your sleeve and apart from a few neat flourishes, director Justin Kurzel doesn’t have an awful lot to offer us. He opens with the funeral of the Macbeths’ young son (something alluded to in the text but not, to my knowledge, ever shown before) and then he gives us a big slow motion battle, set against some bleak highland scenery. The witches are nicely restrained (some of their most famous lines summarily dispensed with) and from there, matters proceed at a funereal pace, with Fassbender and Cottilard reciting their lines whilst gazing into the middle distance, like actors in an Ingmar Bergman film.

It isn’t terrible, you understand, but the leaden quality rather neuters this most virile of Shakespeare’s plays, making you long to push on to the next action sequence, rather than relishing those wonderful words. There’s also a terrible misstep when Macbeth appears to discuss the assassination of Banquo (Paddy Considine) as the entire court listens in. It must have been Kurzel’s intention to do it this way, but it looks, frankly, risible.

The closing sections, in which the avenging forces set fire to, rather than transport the woods of Dunsinane, finally allow a touch of awe into the proceedings and the confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris) is visceral enough to ensure this probably won’t be suitable to show in schools. There’s also a nice twist at the end involving the King’s sword – but by this time, it’s a little too late to salvage proceedings.

Advance reviews for this had led me to expect something extraordinary, but overall this felt like just another version of a tried and tested story. Decent but not a game changer.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney