Tilda Swinton

The Personal History of David Copperfield

21/01/20

I arrive at the cinema expecting great things. The trailer for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a rollicking ride through one of Dickens’ best loved tales, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

The promise is kept: it is a rollicking ride. A bit too rollicking, if I’m honest, careening  through the 350,000 word novel at breakneck speed. Well, it’s a lot to fit into two hours. There’s nothing here I’d lose – no padding or filler required – but I’d be tempted to add an extra thirty minutes to the running time, just to give the story space to breathe.

Dev Patel is the eponymous hero of his own life, and very good he is too, all genial affability despite his social-climbing and urgent need to impress. Born a gentleman, he’s forced into poverty when his widowed mother remarries, and his stepfather (Darren Boyd) takes against the boy. Young David is not too worried at first: the poverty he’s witnessed so far – visiting Peggotty’s quirky, loving family in their upturned boat/house – has given him a romanticised impression of the working person’s lot. A back-breaking job in a bottle factory soon disabuses him of this worldview, and he determines to find a way to live a better life.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie form a show-stealing double-act as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her cousin Mr Dick respectively; in fact, there are almost too many perfectly-captured vignettes featuring too many wonderful actors. There’s Anna Maxwell Martin playing school mistress Mrs Strong – whoosh! There’s Benedict Wong as the ever-thirsty Mr Wickfield, and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes – whoosh! Daisy May Cooper’s Peggotty is warmly, wittily portrayed; Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow a frothy, silly delight. I do like the sense of breathless chaos: the lack of deference to period drama genre-norms; the diverse casting that proves it can (and should) be done. There’s just no time to focus in on anything before it’s gone.

In short, each scene is beautifully rendered; each character cleverly drawn. But the story feels a little superficial, with none of the darkness or political poignancy of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Souvenir

06/01/20

Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s latest feature is as much a study of film-making as it is an intimate portrayal of a flawed relationship. Its the early 1980s and wannabe film-maker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to find her voice. She’s in her mid-twenties, and keen to explore a story that will take her out of her ‘bubble.’ And it is quite a rarefied bubble, with a Knightsbridge flat and a place at film school all funded by her parents, a set of privileges that both advantage her (giving her the space and opportunity to pursue her dreams) and infantilise her (‘Can I borrow some more money, Mummy? No, I promise, I’m not being extravagant…’). Julie is keenly aware that hers is a narrow worldview, but soon realises that appropriating someone else’s experiences isn’t going to work. And, when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), it soon becomes apparent that even she is not impervious to drama and to strife.

Julie lacks confidence, and Anthony has lots of it. He’s ebullient, arrogant, charming and dismissive. He’s a bit older than her, works for the foreign office (or so he says), and has a taste for the finer things in life. Julie is swept off her feet but, at a dinner party, Anthony’s friend, Patrick (Richard Ayoade), reveals a disturbing secret. As time goes on, Anthony’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and manipulative, and Julie’s fragile sense of self takes a real battering.

It’s beautifully acted by all involved, although – given the film’s preoccupation with privilege – it’s a little concerning to see the emergence of another acting dynasty, with Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother (Tilda Swinton) playing her fictional counterpart with consummate skill. Swinton Byrne has certainly inherited the family talent and is mesmerising on screen, but I’m still not sure I like a world where directors’ godchildren are cast as leads in their films. It speaks too loudly of closed doors.

Still, that aside, this is a clever, thought-provoking film. It moves slowly and leaves gaps, as much revealed by what is not said as by what is. Julie is often rendered mute by Anthony’s outbursts; her parents are models of politeness and restraint. But the relationships are vivid nevertheless, and Julie’s core determination to create something of her own shines through, despite her ongoing ordeal.

Burke is especially interesting as Anthony, ensuring we empathise with him even as we despise his actions. As he gradually exerts more and more control over Julie’s life, we begin to will her to break free from his clutches, but she seems incapable of shrugging off his malignant influence. Meanwhile, the era and lifestyle against which this toxic relationship plays out are evocatively portrayed, the cinematography’s washed out tones a subtle reminder of the historical setting.

This exquisite slow burner of a film is, most definitely, one to watch.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Dead Don’t Die

13/07/19

Jim Jarmusch’s mumblecore zombie movie, The Dead Don’t Die (or Dawn of the Deadpan, as I like to think of it) is typically understated, the somnolent residents of Centreville downplaying the impending apocalypse even as it overwhelms them.

Bill Murray is the small town’s chief cop, Cliff Robertson, cheerfully supported by officers Ronnie and Mindy (Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny respectively). They’re an easy-going trio without much to tax them, apart from occasionally rebuking Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) for stealing Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi)’s hens.

True, strange things are certainly afoot: fracking has caused the earth to tilt on its access, blurring the lines between day and night; phones don’t work and TVs stutter; pets are missing all over town. But no one pays these things much heed – they shake their heads and carry on, with no real concern for where it might all lead…

The metaphor is hardly subtle. We’re all sleepwalking towards our own destruction, tutting and frowning about climate change and the rise of the far right. Jarmusch’s version of middle America (and, by extension, most of the western world) is not far from reality.

The zombies here (including, marvellously, Iggy Pop) are never really frightening. They’re not too dissimilar from the townsfolk they want to eat: shuffling in pursuit of banal and transient aims. “Wifi!” they moan, “Sweets! Chardonnay! Coffee!” They want what we want, and they move among us – and we won’t know until too late just how dangerous they (we) are. Sure, they’re bloody and hungry and the images are visceral, but it’s all very low-key and unremarked upon. The townsfolk never think to band together, to coordinate a response against their own demise. (Like I said, it’s not subtle.)

Having read several lacklustre reviews, I wasn’t expecting much from this. But I find myself really enjoying it – even the inconsistent post-modernism – largely because of its lugubrious tone. Sure, there are issues: Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton)’s story arc certainly jumps the shark (although Swinton is the luminous enigma you’d expect her to be) and the strand concerning three sweet inmates at the local juvenile detention centre leaves them, well… stranded. But it’s beautifully acted throughout, and – I think – a great addition to the zombie pantheon.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Suspiria

 

18/11/18

After the sublime Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino could probably have made pretty much any film he wanted to. For some reason, he’s landed on a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo masterpiece, Suspiria. This is starting to feel like a trend. After Steve McQueen’s recent reinterpretation of Lynda La Plante’s Widows, I wonder what we can expect next? Guillermo Del Toro’s On the Buses, perhaps?

I’ll admit that I’ve long had a soft spot for the original Suspiria. I first saw it at a University film society in the early 1980s. (I wasn’t even a student there, but they had the full uncensored cut, so naturally I inveigled my way in!) I had, I suppose, been expecting just another slice n’ dicer and was quite blown away by what I saw on the screen. To me, it was an almost overwhelming onslaught of vibrant colour, copious bloodshed and histrionic terror, quite unlike any other horror movie I’d ever seen. One thing it most certainly wasn’t was pretentious. Sadly, I can’t say the same about this film, which is long and rambling and only occasionally fizzes into enough life to fully command my attention. It feels as though it’s a long-cherished dream project for Guadagnino, and the problem with such an undertaking is that, while the director knows exactly what he’s trying to say at any given moment, the audience is not always quite so lucky.

The story is broken up into six acts, and is set in a divided Germany in 1977, where the news is all about the the Baader-Meinhoff separatists and their exploits in Entebbe. Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a student at a prestigious dance academy in West Berlin, comes seeking the help of elderly (and suspiciously latex-faced) psychiatrist Dr Joseph Klemperer, before running off into the night, leaving her journal for Klemperer to read. We then meet Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who duly arrives at the self-same dance academy, eagerly looking to enrol. At her audition, she manages to catch the eye of influential dance tutor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), but not everything here is as it appears…

While Guadagnino certainly doesn’t stint on the bloodletting and the nudity, he does attempt to intellectualise what was once a very straightforward tale of witchcraft and demonic possession, pulling in strands of other – seemingly disparate – stories,  with the result that they feel clumsily crowbarred into the proceedings. There’s the aforementioned Red Army Faction, and also Dr Klemperer’s tragic history during the Second World War, which, if nothing else, gives Suspiria’s original star, Jessica Harper, a brief cameo. And sadly, the only dancing in evidence seems to consist of people writhing around on the floor without recourse to any music.

Of course, this being a Luca Guadagnino film, it’s not a total loss –  there’s a decent sense of foreboding throughout and some truly jarring bits of body horror – but with a punishing running time of two hours and thirty two minutes, this one is only for the hardiest viewers and those, like me, who can’t resist seeing how a brilliant original has been reinterpreted.

I have to say, my major feeling here is one of profound disappointment.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Okja

10/07/17

This bizarre fantasy movie, helmed by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), caused some controversy at Cannes earlier this year because, as a ‘Netfix Original,’ it had no theatrical release and was therefore ineligible to compete with its more traditional brethren. But the cinematic world is rapidly changing and however a film is released, it surely deserves proper consideration. Whatever – it’s now available for all Netflix subscribers to see whenever they want.

The titular heroine of the film is not a human character, but a pig – a genetically engineered ‘super pig’ – bigger than your average farmyard swine and designed especially to feed a rapidly burgeoning population. Okja is one of ten specially selected pigs, sent out to farms across the globe and left to mature for ten years, before being recalled to participate in a competition to decide which is the best specimen. The competition is the brainchild of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Mirando corporation, and the competition merely a ruse to cloak the cold brutality of the operation with a cheesy PR campaign.

Okja lives on a remote farm in the mountains of South Korea, with Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a little girl who has come to regard the creature as a friend and equal. These early sequences are an unqualified delight. Okja is a superb CGI creation, beautifully realised amid lush mountain locations and sophisticated enough to challenge the best of Hollywood’s FX output. Okja and Mija live an idyllic existence until the arrival of a PR team from Mirando at the farm, led by the manic Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, a character apparently inspired by the late Johnny Morris). Before Mija knows what’s happening Okja has been pignapped and taken to Seoul, where (in the film’s standout sequence) she runs amok in a shopping arcade with Mija in hot pursuit.

Then a group of zany animal activists arrive on the scene led by Jay (Paul Dano) and suddenly the film isn’t quite so sure of itself. The main problem from  here is one of indecision about what the film is actually trying to be. What seems at first to be a charming, child-friendly concept rapidly turns into something much more controversial, replete with F-bombs, bloodshed and one scene so downright distressing it seems to have wandered in from an 18 certificate horror movie. Ultimately, this feels like a parable about the virtues of a vegetarian diet but, if that is the aim, it hasn’t been fully thought-through. Also, many of the film’s human protagonists have a tendency to come across as shrill caricatures (Gyllenhaal’s character, for example, a former animal lover driven to destroy everything he believes in, doesn’t really convince: there’s simply not enough evidence of any motivation here).

As the film thunders into its final strait it rallies somewhat, but the damage has already been done. Bong Joon-Ho is undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker but this falls somewhat short of his best efforts – nevertheless, it’s still a brave attempt to push the boundaries beyond the norm and is well worth checking out – if only  for those delightful early scenes.

Just don’t make the mistake of letting younger children watch it, unless you want tears before bedtime.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney