Rhys Ifans

The King’s Man

02/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s two Kingsman movies. A refreshing take on the spy genre, written with a nod and a cheeky grin, they provided easy, if undemanding, entertainment. After long delays caused by the pandemic, we finally get to see The King’s Man, a sort of origins tale, which explains how the Kingsman Agency came into being.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a very different kettle of fish – some of which is well past its sell-by date. It isn’t that Vaughn’s screenplay (written this time without Jane Goldman) is short on ideas. There are just too many of them, fighting with each other for breathing space and frankly as risible as the proverbial box of frogs.

After the violent death of his wife in South Africa, Lord Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a rich pacifist do-gooder swears to shield his young son from any possibility of warfare. Twelve years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) has grown to be a young man and, with the world hurtling headlong towards the conflict of the First World War, he decides he wants to be involved. He’s blissfully unaware that, over the intervening years, his father has created a special network of spies, working alongside two of his trusted servants, Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). Working with other ‘domestics’ across the world, all with access to centres of government, the trio are able to gather evidence of any approaching catastrophe and take steps to avoid unnecessary lives being lost… yes, that really is the premise!

Cue a series of unlikely adventures, with Oxford and son working alongside Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance), being present at the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand and even taking on Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) in a martial-arts infused punch-up (actually one of the films better sequences). Meanwhile Tom Hollander struggles with a triple role as three of history’s most famous cousins – King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas – and ultimately, we learn that the entire war has been engineered by… No, I can’t tell you. Not without being embarrassed by the sheer absurdity of it. Put it this way. I seriously doubt you’ll see it coming.

While it’s true there are a couple of excellent action set-pieces in the later stretches of the film, there’s a long grim wait before we get to them, during which we are treated to a parade of caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On film. There are also some conspiracy theories that frankly beggar belief. The final straw is the use of Dulce et Decorum est to pass comment on the senseless slaughter of the First World War. While Fiennes reads it beautifully, it’s hard not to imagine Wilfred Owen spinning in his grave as Vaughan makes a desperate attempt to have his Bakewell Tart and eat it.

The overall message here seems to be that humanity always depends on rich toffs to step in and bail them out of trouble when, once again, the rest of us make a mess of things. Fiennes, a superb actor, is worthy of better material than he’s given here and I’m not referring to the tailoring.

It’s a great shame, because clearly a lot of time, effort and money has been expended on this production. Released on Boxing Day in an apparent attempt to hoover up the Christmas market, I seriously doubt this will recoup what must have been a considerable investment.

Even during the festive season, there’s only so much cheese an audience can swallow.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Misbehaviour

15/03/20

Misbehaviour chronicles the true-life weirdness of the 1970 Miss World pageant, notable both for being disrupted by the Women’s Liberation Front and for celebrating its first ever black winner. This tension between different types of progressiveness keeps the film interesting as it explores the nuances inherent in trying to effect change.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada,’ who made history by placing first in the contest. For her, Miss World is all about representation and opportunity: there are little black girls, she tells white activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who will see her on TV and know that they can be successful too. And she’s hoping that the exposure will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming a broadcaster. She’s composed and dignified, utilising the competition for her own ends. It’s difficult to argue with her point of view.

But that’s where this film succeeds: it doesn’t try to argue with her. It allows for the fact that competing narratives can be simultaneously true. Because Alexander and the rest of the Women’s Libbers aren’t wrong either: it is appalling to see women weighed, measured, paraded and graded. It is appalling that this is what women have to do in order to succeed.

But even within the activists, there is space for difference. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley)’s direct action mantra is a world away from Alexander’s ‘get a seat at the table and fight from within’ approach. As writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe make clear, there is no one path to righteousness. But one thing is certain, the Miss World pageant is an outmoded model, and casually misogynistic men like organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, on fine form) are going to have to face the fact that their time is up.

Misbehaviour is a gentle film, despite its themes of outrage and activism. There’s no post #MeToo hint of inappropriate sexual attentions being foisted on the contestants; instead, director Philippa Lowthorpe concentrates on the insidiously benign sexism that pervaded the era, and on the bravery of the women who called it out, on whose shoulders today’s young feminists stand.

Thank you.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Snowden

14/12/16

To some, Edward Snowden is a menace, a man who endangered the security of the USA. To others, he is an unsung hero, somebody who sacrificed his career in order to tell the truth about the ways in which the CIA was covertly spying on everyday citizens. (Trust me, this film will almost certainly have you sticking a plaster over the camera on your laptop). It’s perhaps no great surprise to learn that Oliver Stone, one of America’s most infamous liberals,  belongs firmly  in the latter category; and as portrayed by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Snowden is a decent man, a gifted computer nerd who loves his country, and becomes increasingly dismayed by the lengths that the organisation he works for is prepared to go to in order to ‘preserve the nation’s security.’

Stone has been off form for some years now. It’s a very long time since he dazzled us with the likes of Salvador and JFK – and the unmitigated disaster that was Alexander the Great is perhaps best brushed under the Persian carpet. Here, he’s on much more confident form, ably assisted by a measured central  performance by Gordon-Levitt and a nicely Machiavellian turn from Rhys Ifans as shady wheeler-dealer, Corbin O Brian. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Timothy Olyphant pop up in cameo roles, while Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto portray the trio of journalists who help Snowden break the story that sends him into exile.

It’s a prescient story and an important one. Stone manages to pull off an inspired trick by having the real Edward Snowden portray himself in the film’s closing section. While this may not be up there with his finest efforts, this is definitely Stone’s best work in quite a while.

Here’s hoping that the powers that be will eventually be shamed into giving Edward Snowden the pardon he so evidently deserves.

 

4.2 stars
Philip Caveney