Sarah Solemani

How To Build a Girl

13/11/20

Apple TV

Caitlin Moran’s 90s-set semi-autobiographical novel makes an awkward transition to film, with Moran handling screenplay duties and Coky Giedroyc directing. I say ‘awkward,’ because there’s quite a lot here that I like, but there are also elements that, to my mind, don’t quite come off. Moran’s own beginnings are well-documented (as are those of a young Julie Burchill, whose very similar formative years may also, I think, have provided some of the inspiration for this tale) and it’s inevitable that I spend much of the film speculating about who certain characters might be based on.

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a literature-obsessed teenager who struggles to make friends in her hard-knock state school and whose only ally is her English teacher, Mrs Belling (Joanna Scanlan), who recognises her star pupil’s talent despite spending much of her time trying to rein her in. Johanna lives in a crowded council house alongside her knackered mum, Angie (Sarah Solemani), her jazz musician father, Pat (Paddy Considine), her brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), and a whole clutch of squalling babies.

But when she enters and wins a local writing competition, it isn’t long before the world of music journalism beckons… and, almost before she knows it, she’s attending rock concerts and acquiring a reputation as the new hip gunslinger on the block, able to slay famous musicians with a single line of sarcasm.

But of course, all that careless bitching is sure to have repercussions somewhere further down the line…

Feldstein is a terrific talent, as her work in Booksmart attests, but, who decided to place her in a story set in Wolverhampton? To give Feldstein her due, she really does her best with what’s she’s been given, but her accent strays, inevitably, from Cardiff to Liverpool and all points in between, occasionally even paying visits to sunny California.

Furthermore, I’m not always entirely convinced by the depictions of working-class life on Johanna’s council estate, which at times feel distinctly caricatured, the memories of somebody who’s spent too many years in London’s hipster hangouts to achieve total recall.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. For the most part, How To Build a Girl galumphs merrily along, liberally peppered with cameo roles from a whole raft of well-known actors, many of whom are afforded barely a line of dialogue. (Clearly Moran and Giedroyc made full use of their address books.) Alfie Allen offers a nice performance as John Kite, the doomy, gloomy rock star whom Johanna falls head over heels for and there are some neat observations about the male-dominated world of music journalism in the 90s.

The overall result is pleasant enough, but the conviction remains that this would have flown more convincingly with an unknown in the lead role – preferably somebody from the Black Country.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Bridget Jones’s Baby

19/09/16

Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t like Bridget very much. Admittedly, in 1996, when Bridget Jones’s Diary was a newly-published book, I thought it was an entertaining read. Helen Fielding has a sprightly style, and the humour is easy and accessible. The narrative of noble goal-setting and ignoble failure works really well. And so I read the sequel and then I watched both films. And I don’t think any of them are bad: they’re funny, well-made, appealing tales. It’s just… Bridget. She’s so bloody passive. And I know she’s a character, not a role-model, and I don’t expect a protagonist without flaws, but there’s so much of Bridget, she’s so ubiquitous a figure – and she really, really drives me mad.

In this latest outing, nothing’s really changed. It’s still slick and competent, still laugh-out-loud funny, still complacent with its privileged world view (where Bridget, a successful TV producer living in at least half a million pounds’ worth of property, is somehow presented as a sort-of failure, poorer than all her friends, playing Cinderella to her rich suitors). She’s forty-three now, still single, still waiting for life to happen to her – and she’s bored; the old gang can’t be relied on for company, because they’re all too busy with their kids. She tries hanging out with the younger Miranda (Sarah Solemani) instead, but soon lands herself in trouble: after two one-night stands, she finds herself pregnant. But who’s the father? Is it Jack (Patrick Dempsey), the billionaire dating guru? Or Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), the love of her life?

What follows is a sort of comedy of manners, and it’s adroitly done. Of course it is: look at the cast and crew. Renée Zellweger imbues Bridget with an understated warmth and likability, and Emma Thompson (as Dr Rawlings) is as sardonic and witty as you’d expect – she’s the best thing about this film. It’s an engaging and engrossing tale, and the payoff – if predictable – is worth the wait.

My advice? Watch it. Enjoy it. Try not to get annoyed.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Hector

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04/01/16

Through a wintry landscape of the highways and byways of the United Kingdom, hobbles Hector (Peter Mullan) an ageing ‘gentleman of the road’. For the past fifteen years, he’s led a solitary life, sleeping in doorways and homeless shelters, eating in motorway service areas and down-at-heel cafes. But now he’s suffering from a serious medical condition, Christmas is coming and he’s finally looking to reconnect with the brother and sister he walked away from all those years ago. Perhaps understandably, they’re unwilling to see him…

Jake Gavin’s low budget tale is undeniably bleak and yet, at the same time,  strangely life-affirming, concentrating as it does more on the little kindnesses that strangers give to Hector – the cashier in the motorway services area who stands him a free breakfast, the Sihk corner shop owner who rescues him from the attentions of a couple of muggers, and the adorable Sara (Sarah Solemani) who runs the annual Christmas shelter where Hector is a regular visitor. And here is a film that will actually make you think about those helpless characters in shop doorways that so many of us pass by on a daily basis, often without a second thought. This is by no means a polished production. It’s rough around the edges and has no real conclusion to offer, but it’s a film full of heart, a raw and affecting slice of cinema verité.

Peter Mullan is, of course, a gifted actor and he makes Hector a fully fleshed out character. When he finally reveals the reason why he walked away from his family all those years ago, only the staunchest viewers will manage not to shed a tear. Hector is a delightful film, that barely made it to the multiplexes. If you get a chance to see it, big screen or small screen, take it. It’s a charmer.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney