Rosamund Pike

A Private War

17/02/19

Marie Colvin was an extraordinary woman, and Rosamund Pike, it turns out, is exactly the right actor to convey her strength and singularity. Her performance as the celebrated war reporter is gutsy and bold, nuanced and considered – quite possibly a career best.

A Private War is a biopic, detailing the last ten years of Colvin’s life, following her from war zone to war zone, highlighting the personal toll – both physical and mental – of uncovering and revealing so many unpalatable truths. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, but it doesn’t quite pay off.

Maybe it’s because Colvin is famous as an observer and interpreter of stories; as the central character, she seems misplaced. It’s as if the important stuff – the stuff she’d want to focus on – is happening off-screen, and we’re reduced to watching her reactions instead. Of course it matters what happens to those who chronicle events, but their narrative is inevitably secondary to the events themselves. Here, that order is subverted, and I don’t think it wholly succeeds. I feel curiously distanced, from the wars as well as Colvin, never emotionally engaged.

Still, there’s much to praise here too. Pike isn’t the only one to deliver a great performance: Jamie Dornan does a sterling job as Colvin’s sidekick, photographer Paul Conroy, and Tom Hollander injects warmth and like-ability into his portrayal of otherwise hard-headed newspaper editor Sean Ryan. Stanley Tucci provides the much-needed – both in the movie and, I imagine, in Colvin’s real life – light relief, as her London lover, the only person with whom we see her truly relax.

We are shown the horrors of war – a mass grave in Iraq, besieged towns in Syria – and the awful relentlessness of it all, the despair of those affected. But it never gets personal; we never learn enough about the individuals. ‘Find the people,’ Colvin tells rookie journalist, Kate Richardson (Faye Marsay), ‘and tell their stories.’

It’s a shame the movie doesn’t take its protagonist’s advice.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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A United Kingdom

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25/11/16

Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom tells the true story of Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and the extraordinary international response to his marriage to Ruth Williams, a white, middle-class Londoner. Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) isn’t happy and vows to disown her; Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kenene), believes it renders his nephew unfit to rule. But their combined disapproval is nothing compared to the horror of colonial might, and the crushing forces of British and South African politics. It’s a disturbing account of late imperialism, laying bare some awful truths about our not so distant past.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are perfectly cast as the central couple, committed as much to their ideals as to each other. They are at once proud and humble, resolved and open-minded. The film’s focus on Khama’s emotional reactions personalises colonialism in a way I have never seen before, illuminating the brazen greed, hypocrisy and gross sense of entitlement of those seizing rule of lands that are not their own. Jack Davenport, as the brutal, arrogant Alistair Canning, embodies this with ease.

The post-war era is beautifully evoked, with both London and Botswana rendered real and immediate; the cinematography is very good indeed. If there’s a problem, it is perhaps in the feelgood cosiness that somehow permeates this film, despite its immersion in some very ugly deeds. Nevertheless, this is a mightily important tale, and definitely one worth going to see.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Hector and the Search For Happiness

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20/07/15

The presence of Simon Pegg in a movie can usually be relied upon as some kind of quality control, but as Hector and the Search For Happiness proves all too readily, this can’t always be relied upon. Based upon the best selling self-help book by Francis LeLord, the film tells the story of Hector (Pegg) a successful psychiatrist, happily living in London with his girlfriend Clara, (Rosamund Pike.) But talking to a succession of depressed people on a daily basis eventually has an inevitable effect on him and he undergoes a bit of a mid life crisis; whereupon he tells Clara that he needs to go off and ‘find himself’ or more accurately, to find the essence of pure happiness.

To this effect, he visits China (for no apparent reason other than Chinese people are considered to be quite happy.) He  goes to work with an old college friend in Africa, and, in the final segment, he visits Los Angeles and his old flame, Agnes (Toni Collette) now a happily married woman with two children and a third on the way. Pegg tries hard to instil the proceedings with some degree of interest but is ill served by a story that despite involving so much travel is clearly going nowhere. It’s all a bit vapid to be honest. There’s some nice scenery to enjoy along the way and several serious actors appear in minor roles – Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno and Christopher Plummer to name but three, but apart from a few fridge magnet bon mots, there really isn’t an awful lot to be gleaned from the story, which eventually collapses into a conclusion that is so mind-numbingly predictable, we could have saved Hector the price of all those air fares.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

What We Did On Our Holiday

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4/10/14

On paper, this looked rather promising. Created by the writing team that brought us Outnumbered, it seemed to belong in that same tried-and-tested arena of harassed parents vs precocious children. Doug (David Tennant) and Abi (Rosamund Pike) are taking their three young kids up to the Scottish Highlands to visit Granddad Gordie (Billy Connolly) to celebrate his birthday, but nothing here is as straightforward as it might appear. Doug and Abi have actually separated after his infidelity with one of his students, while Granddad Gordie isn’t going to be celebrating any more birthdays, as he’s suffering from terminal cancer. So rather than upset him, everyone (kids included) is told to pretend that it’s business as usual.

The film starts well, following the established Outnumbered formula, as the two parents struggle to control their fractious offspring in a variety of picturesque locations on the long drive up to Scotland and there are plenty of laughs, expertly mined. But all too soon they arrive at their destination and we are introduced to Granddad Gordie, who unfortunately turns out to be one of those all-wise creations who wander around spouting lines that would be better placed on a series of novelty fridge magnets. On the morning of the birthday bash (an overly elaborate and expensive affair orchestrated by Doug’s pompous brother, Gavin (Ben Miller) and his depressive wife, Agnes (Amelia Bulmore), Gordie decides to take the three kids on a fishing trip and at this point, the story takes an abrupt left turn into much darker (and it has to be said, faintly unbelievable) territory. The three children take centre stage and matters aren’t helped one jot by the fact that they are considerably less appealing than their TV counterparts – the little girl in particular is profoundly irritating.

Having served up a mostly laughter-free middle section, the writers decide that what we really need to round things off is a syrupy, optimistic conclusion, which they duly deliver complete with a cliff top Highland Fling at sunset. This is a pity, because the film promised so much in its first half hour, that the dismal ending somehow rings even more hollow. Though there are decent performances from most of the adult actors, this can only count as a missed opportunity.

1.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Gone Girl

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4/10/14

David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s twisted page-turner is a classier affair than the actual book – but as with Before I Go To Sleep, having read the work beforehand is a definite disadvantage, because this is a story that gets its chops from the big reveals it occasionally drops into the proceedings.

On the day of his fifth anniversary, bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing. Signs in the house suggest that she has been abducted. A police investigation ensues and as it unfolds, Nick begins to look more and more suspicious… does he actually know more about Amy’s disappearance than he is letting on? It would be a crime to reveal too much of the plot machinations here because Gone Girl is all about plot. Indeed, Flynn pushes the various twists and turns to such an extent that, in book form at least, the story starts to seem somewhat risible. But Fincher is so adept at creating atmosphere, it’s easier to overlook such shortcomings on the big screen. What’s more he has cast the film so shrewdly, that we believe in characters that on paper seem flimsy.

The book’s conclusion was a particular disappointment for me, but again, Fincher manages to make it work. This is an assured production that never loses momentum and which serves its source material well. If you haven’t already read the novel, maybe you should wait until after you’ve seen the film.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney