Sally Hawkins

The Phantom of the Open

20/03/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Good golf movies are few and far between. Tin Cup, maybe. Happy Gilmore?

After being trumpeted for what seems like forever, The Phantom of the Open has finally er… opened and, after having seen the needlessly detailed trailer for what feels like a thousand viewings, it’s hard for the actual film to generate any real surprises. Which is a pity, though hardly the fault of writer Simon Farnaby or director Craig Roberts.

This is the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a sixty-five-year-old crane operator, who, despite having no experience of – or indeed aptitude for – the game of golf, decides to enter the British Open Golf Championship. He initially appears as himself but, later, when he becomes persona non grata, under a series of increasingly unlikely nom de plumes. He’s also the father of twins, who briefly became the disco dancing champions of the world. (Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up.) It’s an immensely likeable story and, as played by Mark Rylance, Flitcroft is an immensely likeable chap: shy and unassuming, but with the dogged determination to keep going, no matter what.

‘Practice makes perfect,’ he’s fond of saying. A lot.

His lofty ambitions are aided by his ever-supportive wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), but vigorously opposed by his nemesis, Keith McKenzie (Rhys Ifans), a sneering official who sees golf as the realm of the well-to-do, not for some working-class oik with ideas above his station.

But of course, the fickle public does have a habit of flocking to support an underdog. When Flitcroft’s lamentable debut earns him the worst score in the history of the Open, he’s spotted by Daily Mirror journalist Lloyd Donovan (Ash Tandon), who takes the opportunity to give him that titular nickname and to ensure that plenty of other golf fans hear all about him.

And that’s pretty much all we get in this warm-hearted romp – from Flitcroft’s disastrous attempts to gain skills in his adopted sport to the unexpected discovery that, in America, there’s a whole society of golfers who follow him with adoration. There’s an attempt to instil more dramatic meat into the story when Flitcroft’s desperate misadventures embarrass his upwardly-mobile stepson, Michael (Jake Davies), a wheeler and dealer at the shipyard where his father is employed. Can the two of them ever reconcile their differences? But this feels like a side-issue. The Phantom of the Open is mostly a good-natured attack on the old chuckle-muscles and in that respect, it comes up to par.

As an aside though, I do wish cinema trailers would resist giving away so much of an upcoming film. This might have fared better in my affections if I hadn’t felt as though I could act as a prompt for most of the actors’ lines. Just saying.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Spencer

11/11/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

As a rule, I tend to avoid anything to do with the royal family. I’m opposed to the very idea of a monarchy (I’d use the word ‘republican,’ but that has different connotations these days), and am genuinely bemused by the affection people feel for the current bunch of tax-guzzlers. I’ve never seen a single episode of The Crown and I don’t care one jot where Harry and Meghan live, or if they’ve stopped performing ‘royal duties.’ I do think that Prince Andrew should be held to account for his actions – like anyone else accused of a crime – but that’s another story.

Suffice to say, I’m not drawn to this movie because it’s about Diana. Of course her death was a tragedy; that’s indisputable. Of course the monarchy made her life miserable; that seems indisputable too. But I never engaged in the national pastime of adoring her, nor in the national outpouring of grief at her demise. Hers was a distant story, about someone I didn’t know.

No, the truth is, I’m drawn to this movie because of the casting. I’m a big fan of Kristen Stewart (her performances in Certain Women, Seberg and Personal Shopper are all stellar), and the supporting roles are populated by the great and the good too: to wit, Timothy Spall as baleful equerry Major Alistar Gregory, and Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser, Maggie. The trailer is enticing; my interest is piqued.

The premise is simple: it’s Christmas. Like many a family, the royals gather to spend it together. Unlike many other families, they have a plethora of palaces to choose from, and an army of underlings to ensure everything runs smoothly (said underlings, it goes without saying, can’t enjoy the festive season with their own families). So many underlings, in fact, that it’s stultifying, and it’s easy to see why Diana feels trapped and claustrophobic. Even her tiniest transgressions are noted, reported and duly addressed; the traditions are set in stone, and she has no option but to conform.

Although this film is fiction, truth shines through it: the stifling atmosphere is almost palpable. Director Pablo Larrain depicts an inflexible institution; Diana is expected to mask her mental health problems – not just from the outside world, but also from her family, in the home that is so blatantly not hers. Her inability to do this is seen as wilful, as if depression and bulimia can just be wished away. This is a family so out of touch it’s painful. (Obliging a woman with an eating disorder to undergo a humiliating ceremonial weighing to ensure she’s eaten enough Christmas dinner. Really?) Maybe I do care a little bit about where Harry and Meghan live. As far away from this toxic environment as possible, I hope.

Stewart is luminous in this role. She brings Diana to life in a credible, relatable way. She’s fragile, but there’s a strong core: a survival instinct that compels her to rebel. Jonny Greenwood’s score is wonderful: the discordant piano adding to the sense of confinement. In contrast, the final, glorious rendition of All I Need is a Miracle is a breath of fresh air in an open-top car, away from the suffocating velvet curtains, stitched shut.

The people’s princess isn’t sanctified here – we see the carelessness her privilege affords her (wrecking the feast the kitchen staff have prepared for the next day; refusing carefully prepared treats from those who care for her; recalling staff from their holidays; asking the police to lie for her), but she is humanised. She’s presented as essentially sweet-natured, but flawed, as are we all. There’s a montage of memories that takes us from a little girl practising ballet, by way of a nervous bride to a woman running for her life. It’s devastating. I find myself on the edge of my seat, rooting for her, willing her to escape that gilded cage.

And, for a few short years, she did.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Eternal Beauty

09/10/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Films that tackle the subject of mental illness are difficult to get right and the ones that do are few and far between. Eternal Beauty, written and directed by Craig Roberts, is more successful than most at capturing the confused and sometimes terrifying world of a schizophrenic.

It does seem odd, though, that a film set in South Wales and financed by the Welsh Film Board should feature such a paucity of Welsh actors in its cast. Robert Pugh, the only cast member with a noticeably Welsh accent, ironically spends the entire film in almost total silence.

Go figure.

Sally Hawkins is Jane, who, since being left at the altar by her fiancé many years ago, has increasingly drifted into a chaotic world of delusion, much to the bewilderment of her family. (In flashbacks, she’s played by Morfydd Clark, who is great, although she looks nothing like Hawkins.) Jane dwells in a place where ‘reality’ is in very short supply and where the aforementioned fiancé phones her at random times throughout the day and night, to whisper sweet nothings down the line.

Jane’s singularly unsympathetic mother, Vivian (Penelope Wilton) treats her condition with utter disdain, while her father, Dennis (Pugh), can’t even seem to voice an opinion. Jane’s two sisters, the likeable Alice (Alice Lowe) and the frankly unpleasant Nicola (Billie Piper), each deal with her condition in their own way.

Jane’s fragile existence receives a sudden boost when she reconnects with a friend from childhood. Mike (David Thewlis) styles himself as a musician – though the brief performance we’re treated to suggests that this may not be his true forte. However, his sparky presence revitalises Jane and it begins to look as though he may be just the man to lead her out of the dark labyrinth in which she’s become ensnared. But this is no fairy tale…

As ever, Hawkins submits a brilliantly nuanced performance in the lead role and she’s ably supported by a whole host of excellent performers. Kit Fraser’s cinematography cleverly uses colour palettes to define the different characters and there’s a suitably quirky soundtrack of vintage songs to supplement the action. Niggles aside, Eternal Beauty is well worth a watch, if only to marvel at Hawkins’ ability to take the most demanding roles in her stride – and to wonder how Roberts has somehow managed to make this bleak tale curiously life-affirming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.

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Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.

Coco

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A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird

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This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya

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Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place

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This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner

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Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals

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Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Wildlife

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Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’

Roma

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Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

The Shape of Water

30/01/18

The release of a Guillermo del Toro movie is generally a cause for some excitement, but The Shape of Water arrives in the UK already garlanded with 13 Oscar nominations – this year’s most nominated film. It’s an unusual state of affairs because fantasy movies rarely get much of a look in at the Academy Awards, apart from the occasional grudging nod for special effects and cinematography. It doesn’t take long, however, to appreciate how this film has managed to garner so much acclaim. It’s a gorgeous, multi-faceted allegory that isn’t adverse to taking risks – The Creature From the Black Lagoon dancing in a Busby Berkeley routine? Hey, no problem!

To my mind, there are actually two del Toros out there – the one that creates eerie fairytale fantasies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and the one that offers us the likes of Pacific Rim, where giant robots punch colossal lizards repeatedly in the head until (eventually) they die. Take a wild guess as to which del Toro I personally favour! I’m glad to report that The Shape of Water falls squarely into the former category.

We’re in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a reclusive mute woman, works as a cleaner in a high security government laboratory, alongside her supportive friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When a mysterious new life form – simply referred to as ‘The Asset’, arrives for safekeeping – it is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, excelling in what must be his most repellant role to date). It turns out that the lab’s new addition is some kind of amphibious man, captured in the jungles of South America, where he is worshipped as a god – and it soon becomes clear that Strickland’s job is less to find out about this new acquisition than to make sure the Russians never do. Resident scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is interested in studying the creature, but the American military seems determined to view it as a suitable candidate for vivisection. Meanwhile, Elisa is beginning to establish a strange and deepening friendship with it…

The outline of the story itself may sound vaguely ridiculous, but it simply cannot prepare you for how utterly compelling del Toro’s film is. It’s a multi-layered affair, beautifully shot and cleverly scripted. Elisa is an outcast, watching from the edges of society, and her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic designer, is in a similar position, exiled from his regular place of work because he is secretly gay. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the early sixties is brilliantly conveyed. All-American diners seem friendly as they sell their day-glo green pies, but won’t allow black people to eat alongside their white customers. The old-fashioned cinema above which Elisa and Giles live plays to nearly empty houses every night because of the growing power of television, and yet every TV screen we see displays a series of classic movie comedies and sumptuous musicals. The Asset too is an outcast, a creature that doesn’t belong in this blinkered, paranoid world. Little wonder then, that both Elisa and Giles fall under his spell.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Every frame of it bursts with creativity, the performances are exemplary (special mentions should go to Hawkins – who manages to convey so much without the luxury of words, and to del Toro regular, Doug Jones – who makes us care deeply about his scaly bug-eyed character and about what will ultimately happen to him).

I appreciate that not everybody is going to love this as much as I do. It requires an almost total suspension of disbelief; this is in no way a realistic film. It’s a fantasy that deals in archetypes, a contemporary reworking of a tale that could have bled from the pens of the Brothers Grimm, juxtaposing scenes of beguiling sweetness with ones of graphic violence. I watch it spellbound. I had thought that del Toro couldn’t possibly improve on Pan’s Labyrinth, but you know what? I rather think he has.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Paddington 2

10/11/17

Paddington is a tough act to follow. That first film got everything right – a family entertainment that really did have something for everyone. It was also highly successful, so of course there was always going to be a sequel. The modestly titled Paddington 2 says it all. Not Paddington Episode Two, or Paddington Rides Again. No, this does exactly what it says on the tin –  a second adventure featuring Michael Bond’s celebrated ursine hero.

But, can it hope to be as good as its progenitor? The fact that the film’s release has been delayed for a month while the production company scrambles to disassociate itself from a certain Harvey Weinstein doesn’t augur well but, against all the odds, this second installment of the franchise manages to unfold its delightfully silly story without putting a single paw wrong.

The film opens with a flashback to darkest Peru, where Uncle Pastuzu (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) first encounter the orphaned bear cub who will become Paddington – and we discover that Aunt Lucy has a longheld ambition to visit the city of London. After the credits we nip smartly back to the present day, where Paddington is now a valued member of the Brown family, helping Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris). He’s also fitting in nicely with the community of the street on which he lives – cue plenty of cameos from what seems like scores of celebrated comic actors.

But with Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, Paddington is looking for a suitable present for his beloved aunt so, when his friend, Mr Gruber, (Jim Broadbent) who runs the local antique shop, shows him a charming (and rather expensive) pop-up book of the city, Paddington resolves to earn enough money to buy it for her. To this end, he tries his hand at window cleaning and barbering, both with suitably hilarious results. Then, by chance, his path crosses with that of has-been actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who, it transpires, wants the pop-up book for his own nefarious purposes…

Once again, the screenwriters have managed to capture the spirit of Michael Bond’s evergreen tales, presenting us with a storyline that will have people of all ages laughing uproariously – when they’re not clutching for their handkerchieves. Yes, this is undoubtedly manipulative stuff, but it’s done with such style and such sure-footedness, that you cannot help but be swept along. Scenes where the unthinkable happens and Paddington is actually sentenced to a spell in jail will have the hardest heart breaking into tiny pieces – and the little bear’s developing friendship with prison chef Knuckles McGinty (the ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) is a brilliant conceit which occasionally yields comedy gold.

It doesn’t end there. Paddington 2 is endlessly inventive (scenes where the little bear and his aunt cavort amidst a pop-up recreation of the city of London are a particular highlight). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Hugh Grant (who, weirdly, we think we spotted walking a tiny dog near Rosslyn Chapel a couple of weeks ago). His turn as the self-obsessed Phoenix Buchanan is one of his best performances ever and he very nearly steals the show from the titular bear – still endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw.

When you witness some of the absolute dross that passes for ‘family entertainment’ these days, it’s reassuring to see something as lovingly crafted as this. The next question? Can they do it a third time? Well, that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, this will do very nicely indeed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Paddington

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30/11/14

For what is ostensibly just another children’s movie, Paddington arrives surrounded by controversy. It has a PG certificate (mildly ridiculous when you think of the kind of big budget carnage that generally acquires a 12A) and others have complained that this new cinematic manifestation features a bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) that is decidedly ursine and not at all like Michael Bond’s original teddy bear creation. At the end of the day all this matters little. The film is a real delight, cleverly put together and featuring plenty of content to appeal to the more mature viewer. In fact, it might be true to say that much of it will be wasted on really young viewers and there are a couple of scenes here (mostly those featuring evil taxidermist, Millicent (Nicole Kidman)) that may actually traumatise them.

The film begins with an origins story (something that Bond never bothered with) which shows a family of rare bears in ‘darkest Peru’ that are discovered by British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie.) From him they learn to speak English and acquire a liking for marmalade. When he departs, he leaves them with an open invitation to visit him in London. But it takes a tragedy (an earthquake) to galvanise young Paddington into heading for England.  At Paddington station, he meets the Brown Family – Hugh Bonneville as an uptight insurance broker and Sally Hawkins as a much more free-thinking book illustrator. The Browns and their two children take Paddington in as a guest and much hilarity ensues…

And it does ensue, most convincingly. In fact, the script by Paul King, never puts a paw wrong, milking the slapstick sequences for enough laughs to keep a young audience entertained, whilst delving into more wistful pastures for older viewers. There’s a wonderfully inventive feel to the film – a host of Heath Robinson-esque inventions, some really appealing visual tricks (a repeated trope of the Brown’s home depicted as a doll’s house is a particular pleasure) and of course Ms Kidman’s character which introduces a touch of menace that the original story lacked. Despite so many doubts, the film makers have done credit to Michael Bond’s original creation (he himself has said that he can ‘sleep easy’ after viewing it) and have successfully ‘opened it up’ to create a satisfying family entertainment, that only the grumpiest viewer will find fault with. A well-deserved hit for the festive season.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney