Richard Curtis

Yesterday

20/06/19

Welcome to Richard Curtis Land – a magical place where famous film stars can fall in love with meek bookshop owners; where smitten young men can write their declarations of love for recently married women on a series of cue cards; and where, in this latest iteration, the Beatles never existed. Yes, that’s right. Imagine if you will, a world where the names John, Paul, George and Ringo mean absolutely zilch.

Aspiring singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is scratching a precarious existence playing a series of dead-end bookings by night, and working at a cash and carry by day. His gigs are arranged for him by his ‘manager,’ Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who works days as a secondary school teacher and who quite clearly fancies the pants off Jack, something he appears to be entirely oblivious to. But, after his last disappointing show, Jack is about ready to give up his dreams and ‘go back to teaching…’

He is blissfully unaware that his career is about to take an unexpected leap in an upward direction. Riding home on his bike one evening, he is struck by a bus, at the same moment a sudden loss of electricity hits the entire world for a full twelve seconds. Once recovered from his accident, Jack discovers that there have been some baffling changes to the world he knows – and when he sings Paul McCartney’s Yesterday to a bunch of friends, they react very strangely. ‘When did you write that?’ asks Ellie, incredulously.

A bit of surfing on the internet reveals the incredible truth. In this new alternate reality, the Beatles have never existed – and yet Jack knows most of their songs! So he starts to perform and record them, passing them off as his own work and – perhaps not surprisingly – after a few false starts, his career shoots upwards into the stratosphere. But we know, don’t we, that there’s always a price to pay for such deceit? And what true happiness can ever be achieved through an act of plagiarism?

Yesterday is a typical Curtis vehicle, amiable, and eminently watchable – but the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who displays none of the distinctive, visual flourishes I’ve come to expect from him, leaving me with the conviction that this could have been directed by just about anybody. While the earlier stretches are surely the funniest (there’s some nice interplay between Jack and his parents, played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar), later developments, where Jack falls under the influence of heartless record executive, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), are not quite as assured.

And… there’s something that this film has in common with Curtis’s earlier effort, About Time: the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. Occasionally, I find myself thinking ‘Really?’ as some new revelation comes lurching out of the woodwork. Am I supposed to believe, for instance, that Jack manages to walk around for months without ever noticing that cigarettes no longer exist?

Still, this isn’t meant to be high art. Curtis is a talented storyteller, and for the most part this affable mix of comedy and music is perfectly entertaining. And, naturally, it has a soundtrack to die for. A shame then that it doesn’t give Danny Boyle more of a chance to show off his skills.

That would have been something to make a song and dance about.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Hampstead

25/06/17

Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. Reviewers of Hampstead are mostly unimpressed by this based-on-real-life wannabe rom-com, which tells the tale of Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), a vagrant who builds a shack on Hampstead Heath, and his unlikely relationship with Emily Walker (Diane Keaton), an American widow in financial straits. Indeed, Wendy Ide, writing for The Guardian, goes so far as to call it “a ghastly faux-mance,” while Peter Bradshaw, in the same newspaper, notes ruefully that “Richard Curtis’s style of comedy drama is very difficult to imitate.” But it’s The Telegraph’s Robbie Collins who really skewers the movie with a one-star review and the acerbic observation that “Donald’s tumbledown cabin has its own well-stocked lake and an immaculate kitchen garden – when Emily pops around for a cosy diner à deux, there’s fresh salad served in a wooden bowl, grilled fish, and wine served in elegant stemware – while his vagrant’s beard is so well-conditioned it could win a prize at Crufts.” And, while my socialist leanings mean I never thought I’d side with anyone writing for this particular Tory rag, I find I just can’t argue with him.

Okay, I can argue a bit. I think the single star is a little unfair. The acting is, for the most part, really very good (Keaton and Gleeson are both extremely engaging, while Lesley Manville somehow manages to transcend her role, which is, it seems, ‘under-developed cypher, with a bit of secretly-tragic rich bitch thrown in’). The plot is nicely stitched together, holding our attention throughout. But… oh dear. This is very much an outsider’s view of poverty, a romanticised vision of the ‘authenticity’ that being poor provides. What it reminds me of most is the Noel Streatfeild novels I read as a child, which I both loved and derided, amused as I was by their privileged depiction of what it meant to be poor. “They’ve got no money,” I’d tell my mum, raising my seven-year-old eyebrows. “So they’re down to just a couple of servants, a nanny and a cook and some woman who comes in from the village now and again. And they’ve got to take in lodgers, because they’ve got this massive house. So there’re a couple of university professors and an opera singer all sharing the space. They can’t afford their places at ballet school, so they have to get scholarships.” And then we’d laugh, putting on ‘posh’ voices, and braying, “How on earth are we supposed to manage, dahling, with just a nanny and a cook?” Well, we found it funny anyway. Maybe you had to be there.

I understand the comparisons to Richard Curtis, but I think they miss something important. It’s not just that he’s better at it (funnier, more charming), but that he doesn’t pretend to be making a social point. His films are unabashedly about those who have it all: they’re frothy, unrealistic depictions of a London that doesn’t really exist, but they don’t claim to be anything else. Hampstead has pretentions toward social commentary, but it doesn’t understand its own material.

It’s not just the improbably delightful home that Donald has constructed from old windows and planks of wood, it’s Emily’s so-called money worries that make me pause for breath. “After I’ve sold the flat and paid off all the debts,” she sobs, “I’ll be left with a little bit, not much, but enough to get me something small outside London, maybe.” Enough, it turns out, to buy a sizeable beamed cottage next to a river on the outskirts of a picturesque Cotswolds village. Ah, that kind of ‘little bit.’ Poor Emily. And after all the hard work she’s never done and the jobs she’s never had. Surely she deserves more than this? (Actually, she does seem to have travelled back in time to the 1960s – well, it is outside London, so what do I expect? – maybe the property prices hark back to that time too?)

In the end, sadly, Hampstead is just a load of ill-informed nonsense, and there’s not much to be said in its defence. The true story it’s based on must have been much grimier and more interesting, and it’s a real shame we can’t get to the nub of it. The rose-tinted worldview we are presented with here is far too shallow to convey the important truths that are hinted at but never properly explored.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield