Rachel Weisz

Black Widow

23/07/21

Cineworld

After the apocalyptic smorgasbord of the Avengers trilogy, Marvel Studios seem to be struggling to find their proper niche in the cinema.

Black Widow has been a conspicuous victim of the lockdown, its release delayed by almost two years. Finally, here it is, gamely attempting to make its presence felt under the restrictions of a 12A certificate, where the excessive violence feels somehow at odds with what the filmmakers are actually allowed to show. This seems an ill-advised move. Cartoon violence is one thing, but Black Widow appears to have all the smashing, bashing and limb-breaking of a more realistic depiction without any of the consequences. Director Cate Shortland has to employ a lot of shakey-cam, so we don’t linger on injury detail. Protagonists emerge from bruising combat with a discreet smear of blood at the corner of the mouth. It’s unconvincing to say the least.

Maybe a 15 certificate would have been a better option?

The film is, by necessity, a prequel. It begins in 1995 in Ohio, where Russian super-soldier Alexie Shostakov (David Harbour) and his ‘wife,’ Melina (Rachel Weisz), are posing as a happy family, with their two ‘daughters,’ Natasha and Yelena in tow. But when evil forces close in on them, they are forced into running for their lives. Yelena winds up being a ‘widow,’ a genetically engineered soldier, for the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), while Natasha defects to the West. She grows up to be an Avenger and, of course, in time, Scarlett Johansson.

In 2016, Natasha finds herself on the run once again, this time from her American employers, and it isn’t long before she reconnects with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). After first attempting to beat the crap out of each other – as you do – they team up and go in search of their ‘parents.’ Alexie’s in a penitentiary and first needs to be sprung, while Melina is hard at work in a remote outpost teaching pigs to stop breathing (that’s not a misprint BTW). Subsequently, the family decide to team up in order to take down Dreykov and what has now become a massive army of widows, all of them turned into mindless servants by the liberal application of er… pheromones.

Much bloodless punching and kicking dutifully ensues – at times, this feels decidedly like Marvel’s take on the Jason Bourne movies, only with added Spandex – before everything culminates in one of those big action set-pieces which takes place aboard Draykov’s sky-station.

The screenwriters make a valiant effort to establish a feminist statement amongst all this Sturm und Drang, but the effect is horribly overdone, the proverbial sledgehammer/nut scenario played out at maximum volume with minimal coherence. While we should definitely be pleased that a mainstream superhero franchise is finally trying to get in step with female empowerment, it needs to be done in a less ham-fisted manner than this. Once again, here’s a clear case of what is essentially an animated comic strip getting ideas above its station.

Johansson and Pugh are both good in their roles – indeed the film’s best moments are rooted in their bickering, competitive sisterhood – while Harbour is assigned the role of comic relief, a blundering Russian oaf addicted to shots of vodka. Overweight and out of practice, he can still put up a decent fight when he needs to. Weisz seems criminally short-changed in her thankless role as mother/scientist/all-round ass-kicker.

Marvel aficionados will know to hang around for the inevitable post-credits sequence, but I feel so underwhelmed by Black Widow, I really can’t be bothered to wait. Another helping? No thanks, I’ll pass.

3 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

 

The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

My Cousin Rachel

10/06/17

I’ll admit to a soft spot for Daphne du Maurier, despite the melodrama and the bodice-ripping. Okay, so her books are essentially pot-boilers, all over-hyped emotion and bald sensationalism. However, I read them first as a teenager, and just couldn’t put them down. They’re exciting, engaging stories, whatever literary merit they lack. But, though I devoured all those my local library stocked, My Cousin Rachel didn’t grace their shelves. So I approach this film in the unusual position of a fan who doesn’t really know the source material.

It’s typical du Maurier though; this doesn’t challenge my expectations. And director Roger Michell embraces her style, filling in the expository details with remarkable economy, and focusing on the growing fears of Philip Ashley (Sam Clafin), as the eponymous Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his uncle’s widow, beguiles him with her charms.

It’s the ambiguity that makes this film: is Rachel a femme fatale, a ruthless gold-digger who wants to destroy Philip? Or is she, instead, held to account for her beauty, made to carry the blame for men’s desires, accused of destroying them if she does not reciprocate?  This duality is what creates the tension here, and it’s meticulously rendered throughout. I tend towards the latter theory, but it’s really not clear cut.

A fascinating movie then: slow-paced but exhilarating; schlocky but sophisticated. The Cornish locations are beautifully evoked, Rachel Weisz is glorious in the lead role (of course she is), and the supporting cast is decent too. Well worth a watch – and now I’m off to buy the book. It’s about time I read it, after all.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Denial

02/02/17

You’d be hard put to find a worthier subject than that depicted in Denial. It’s based around the true story of American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who, in the late 90s, was sued for defamation by author, David Irving (a slimmed-down and eerily repellant, Timothy Spall), after she dismissed his ramblings in print as the work of  a ‘holocaust denier.’ An admitted lifelong Hitler obsessive, Irving repeatedly maintained that there was no real proof that the Nazis carried out genocide on the Jewish people during the Second World War, and that Jews had simply fabricated the idea in order to obtain reparation from the Germans after the conflict was over.

The trial is played out in London and Lipstadt is horrified to discover that, because of the peculiarities of British law, it is not for her to prove that Irving is wrong, but rather that she is correct in insisting that the Holocaust actually took place. To lose the case would be unthinkable. Her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is insistent that Lipstadt will not be allowed to take the stand, and neither, for that matter, will any Jewish survivors, who will run the risk of being publicly humiliated by Irving. Just to make things even more difficult, Julius decides that the case  should be deliberated not by a jury, but by a single high court Judge.

This is, of course, what actually happened, so we can hardly take umbrage with the particulars of the case – but, in terms of a screenplay, it makes it very hard for playwright David Hare to generate any sense of the actual drama. Lipstadt is forced to sit throughout the proceedings in frustrated silence while barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) conducts the case on her behalf. The result is, I’m afraid, a curiously unaffecting film, one that fails to engage an audience as much as it needs to. Even the scenes shot in modern day Auschwitz seem somehow perfunctory and lacking in emotional depth. And of course, since we all know the outcome of the case, there’s no real suspense here, either.

This is a shame because on nearly every other level the film is nicely done. There are strong performances from an excellent cast, it is decently shot and Irving’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman is cleverly reenacted. But I have to say, worthy though the subject undoubtedly is, this doesn’t have the kind of impact it could.

3.6 stars 

Philip Caveney