Timothy Spall

Finding Your Feet

28/02/18

It’s tempting to imagine the kind of think-tank meeting that might well have preceded this film.

‘OK, guys, we need to create a movie that appeals to the silver-haired brigade. You know, another Exotic Marigold Hotel. That made millions!’

‘Great. Well, first of all, we’ll need a few National Treasures in the cast. Imelda Staunton, perhaps? Check! Timothy Spall? Excellent! Of course, we’ll have to get Celia Imrie in there somewhere and… oh, yes, Joanna Lumley! And we’ll need to give them something to do. You know, something a bit naughty. Smoking pot, perhaps…. knocking back malt whisky and… dancing! Yes, let’s have them dancing…’

And so on. The inevitable effect, unfortunately, makes Finding Your Feet feel like a cynical exercise in box-ticking. Which is a shame, because there are some excellent actors in this, doing their level best to make it work.

Sandra (Staunton) is the well-to-do wife of Mike (John Sessions), a former chief constable. Hosting his retirement party at their palatial home, she discovers that he’s been cheating on her for the past five years with Pamela (Josie Lawrence) and, understandably miffed, she packs her bags and heads off to the council estate home of her estranged sister, Biff (Imrie), who is what might be described in these circles as ‘as a bit  of a character.’ Sandra is understandably in a foul mood when she arrives, which goes some way to explain her general unpleasantness towards everyone she encounters, but not the scene in a Chinese restaurant where her attitude borders on out-and-out racism. Quite why Biff doesn’t send her packing is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile, Biff’s close friend, Charlie (Spall), lives on a barge and is currently watching in helpless dismay as his wife, Lilly (Sian Thomas), who has been consigned the the tender mercies of a nursing home, slips further and further into the grip of senile dementia. His first encounters with Sandra are not exactly cordial but, when Biff manages to persuade her sister to come along to the weekly dance class that Charlie also attends, he and Sandra have a quick spin out on the dance floor and, against all the odds, they start to enjoy each other’s company.

What else do we need here? Oh yes, of course, let’s ship the whole cast off to an exotic location – in this case Rome – so they can participate in an international dance festival and where that new relationship can be allowed to blossom. Oh wait, there’s still one vital ingredient missing… oh yes, a terminal illness. Perfect!

All this manages to yield not one single surprise in the telling, and you have to feel a little sorry for the actors who work their socks off to sell this tosh, but even they can’t quite convince us to actually care. I think what’s been overlooked is that The Exotic Marigold Hotel was a more heartfelt affair, with the heft of a Deborah Moggach novel behind it, and – even so – its success as a film most probably came as a pleasant surprise to everyone involved. Indeed, the attempted sequel was a pretty woeful affair as the makers attempted to replicate its charms.

Viewers can easily tell the difference between a genuine story and a marketing exercise. With Finding Your Feet I simply cannot escape the feeling that behind all those light-hearted escapades lurks a mean-spirited attempt to part older viewers from their money – and try as I might, I can’t quite forgive it for that.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Early Man

27/01/18

If the film industry ever handed out awards for sheer determination, Nick Park and his animation team would surely be first in line to pick up a gong. Give these people an unlimited supply of plasticine and several years in which to manipulate it and they’ll invariably come up with something eminently watchable. That said, it’s many years since the likes of The Wrong Trousers first brought Park to widespread attention and there’s something dispiritingly familiar about Early Man. Furthermore, set it alongside the jaw dropping spectacle of Coco and you begin to sense the limitations of the medium. Plasticine, when all is said and done, can only stretch so far…

Early Man opens in Manchester in the ‘pre pleistocene’ era as cavemen slug it out alongside a couple of warring dinosaurs. (This, of course, is an affectionate tribute to the work of pioneer animator Ray Harryhausen – apparently One Million Years BC was the film that first inspired a young Nick Park to experiment with a movie camera.) A sudden meteor strike eliminates the remaining dinosaurs and inadvertently inspires the surviving cavemen to invent the game of football.

Many eons later, we are introduced to a tribe of Stone Age warriors living in the fertile valley created by the meteor strike. Led by the cautious Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the tribe spends much of its time hunting rabbits, but plucky, snaggle-toothed youngster Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has loftier ambitions. Why not hunt mammoths, he reasons? There’s a lot more meat on them. Bobnar, however, is reluctant to accept any form of change.

But change soon arrives anyway, in the shape of a tribe of bronze age conquerors, led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston sporting an ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French accent). He wishes to mine the valley for it’s rich bronze deposits and Bobnar’s tribe soon find themselves banished to the volcanic badlands – but not before Dug has been kidnapped and taken to Lord Nooth’s stronghold. Here, he discovers that this technologically advanced civilisation is addicted to two things – capitalism and football, a game that Dug’s tribe have somehow managed to forget over the years. In a desperate bid to save his homeland, Dug challenges Nooth’s resident team – Real Bronzio – to a football match. If Dug’s tribe wins they get to stay in their beloved valley. If they lose, they will be condemned to work in the bronze mines until they die… so, no pressure there.

Okay, it’s a promising concept and Park manages to exploit it skilfully enough, finding much humour in the telling, even if some of the jokes are so old they might have originated in the Stone Age themselves. The tribe’s smaller roles are filled by a stellar cast of voice artists and Park supplies all the requisite grunts for Dug’s porcine sidekick, Hognob. If, like me, you don’t care a jot for soccer, don’t despair, it’s not going to spoil your enjoyment of this quirky and typically charming story one little bit. But you may find yourself wondering, as I did, where Park goes from here. A pre-film trailer announcing that Shaun the Sheep is a mere year away doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation… and we’ve been hearing for a long time that a new Wallace and Gromit is still in the pipeline, despite the death of Peter Sallis.

But wouldn’t it be great to see Nick Park try something completely different? Something totally unexpected? Meanwhile, Early Man offers an enjoyable couple of hours at the cinema, even if there are no real surprises on offer.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Denial

02/02/17

You’d be hard put to find a worthier subject than that depicted in Denial. It’s based around the true story of American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who, in the late 90s, was sued for defamation by author, David Irving (a slimmed-down and eerily repellant, Timothy Spall), after she dismissed his ramblings in print as the work of  a ‘holocaust denier.’ An admitted lifelong Hitler obsessive, Irving repeatedly maintained that there was no real proof that the Nazis carried out genocide on the Jewish people during the Second World War, and that Jews had simply fabricated the idea in order to obtain reparation from the Germans after the conflict was over.

The trial is played out in London and Lipstadt is horrified to discover that, because of the peculiarities of British law, it is not for her to prove that Irving is wrong, but rather that she is correct in insisting that the Holocaust actually took place. To lose the case would be unthinkable. Her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is insistent that Lipstadt will not be allowed to take the stand, and neither, for that matter, will any Jewish survivors, who will run the risk of being publicly humiliated by Irving. Just to make things even more difficult, Julius decides that the case  should be deliberated not by a jury, but by a single high court Judge.

This is, of course, what actually happened, so we can hardly take umbrage with the particulars of the case – but, in terms of a screenplay, it makes it very hard for playwright David Hare to generate any sense of the actual drama. Lipstadt is forced to sit throughout the proceedings in frustrated silence while barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) conducts the case on her behalf. The result is, I’m afraid, a curiously unaffecting film, one that fails to engage an audience as much as it needs to. Even the scenes shot in modern day Auschwitz seem somehow perfunctory and lacking in emotional depth. And of course, since we all know the outcome of the case, there’s no real suspense here, either.

This is a shame because on nearly every other level the film is nicely done. There are strong performances from an excellent cast, it is decently shot and Irving’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman is cleverly reenacted. But I have to say, worthy though the subject undoubtedly is, this doesn’t have the kind of impact it could.

3.6 stars 

Philip Caveney

The Enfield Haunting

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19/06/16

A recent viewing of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, which utilises elements from the real life case of the Enfield Hauntings, prompted us to seek out this stylish three part series originally commissioned by Sky Living and now available to view via Amazon. Where Wan’s film turns the histrionics up to number 11, this offers a much more credible and absorbing version of the events, allowing viewers to make up their own minds as to whether there was something  genuinely supernatural about them or whether they were simply an elaborate and brilliantly executed hoax.

Maurice Grosse (Timothy Spall) is the psychic investigator enlisted in 1977, to look into the claims of the Hodgson family, who claim to have been plagued by poltergeist phenomenon in their little house in Enfield. Grosse and his wife, Betty (Juliet Stevenson) are still trying to come to terms with the recent death of their own daughter in a motorbike accident, so they are clearly quite receptive to the idea of life after death, as is author Guy Playfair (Matthew MacFadyen) fresh from investigating some mysterious supernatural happenings in South America. Though initially sceptical, he soon changes his tune once he’s been hurled bodily across a room. Most of the spooky phenomena are centred around teenager Janet Hodgson (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who is prone to talking in the gruff voice of one of the house’s earlier tenants, an old man who died there some years earlier and who’s name has been inexplicably changed from Bill to Joe. But compared  to the liberties Wan’s writers took with the story, that seems a minor niggle.

Directed by Krystoffer Nyholm (The Killing) and cannily scripted by the real Guy Playfair (together with Joshua St Johnson), this version makes Wan’s effort look like the overcooked hokum it actually is. There’s a skilfully orchestrated sense of mounting dread throughout and I loved the open-ended coda, which steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural.

If you haven’t caught up with this yet, do – it’s an accomplished three parter. Little wonder that it is Sky Living’s most successful production to date.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Love Punch

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6/12/14

Sometimes in cinema, you encounter a bit of fluff. And other times, you encounter double fluff with extra fluff and i suppose this is the file to which you would safely consign The Love Punch. This light comedy featuring more mature actors than you’d normally expect to see in this kind of story was probably aimed at the same audience that The Exotic Marigold Hotel mined so effectively, but it’s nothing like as assured and it has to be said, it’s profoundly silly, to boot.

Pierce Brosnan plays Richard, an affable chap who works for a multi-national company (in what capacity, we’re never entirely sure.) He’s divorced from Kate (Emma Thompson) with whom he maintain an affable friendship (cynics will mutter that we’re already straying into the realms of the unbelievable.) When the company is purchased by a ruthless asset-stripper, the pension scheme into which Richard and most of his staff have bought, (Kate too, as it happens) is rendered entirely worthless. The head asset-stripper decamps to Paris in order to get married and publicly purchases a ten million dollar diamond necklace for his beloved, whereupon Richard and Kate hatch a plan to pop across the channel and nick it (as you do.) They also enlist the help of their plucky neighbours, Penelope and Timothy (Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall) and with a confidence that belies their humble origins, the foursome set off to take on the bad guys.

The problem is, that the characters manage to assay their chosen mission with such aplomb everything seems faintly unbelievable. And more fatally, there’s never any real sense of danger, no fear that something might go wrong for them, even when Richard and Kate find themselves in the back of a van perched on the edge of a cliff. Obviously, the veteran actors all make the most of this meagre material and the film’s enough to pass an undemanding hour or so, but nothing more than that. This is perfunctory film-making at best. You’ll have forgotten the details before the credits have finished rolling. And will Richard and Kate get back together? Who cares?

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Mr Turner

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7/11/14

Mr Turner is that rarest of things, a resounding art house success. Judging by the ‘bums on seats ratio’ at my local Cineworld, Mike Leigh has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation with this biopic of the great artist, Joseph Mallard Turner. It’s a difficult movie, one that obeys few of the rules you’d expect to find in a recent cinematic success – there are no car chases, superheroes or heads exploding in slow motion. But it’s also a richly rewarding experience and one that takes its own sweet time to convey its central message – that great artists exist outside of everyday conventions. For the first time since Topsy Turvy (his impressive biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan), Leigh has eschewed the contemporary ‘talking heads’ routine that is his trademark, to give us a historical piece where he’s employed the canny use of CGI to convey the intrinsic moods of some of the artist’s best-known work.

In the title role, Timothy Spall is simply quite extraordinary. He gives us a grunting, gurning turnip of a hero, a (probably autistic) painter who is hopeless at small talk and who treats the other people who drift into his world as little more than contemptible. We witness his deplorable relationship with Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the niece of the woman who bore him two (unacknowledged) children but, nevertheless, a subject of brutal sexuality. We see his idolisation of his father, William (Paul Jesson) and his secretive relationship with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), where he finally found true happiness.

The film observes few of the accepted tropes of cinema. There’s no real story arc here, just a series of vignettes, illustrating Turner’s world, his relationships with those around him and his often stormy association with the Royal Academy. But throughout, there is stunning cinematography (by Dick Pope) that eerily recreates some of the man’s finest paintings; there’s dry humour -particularly in  the scenes with Ruskin (John McGuire), which serve to accentuate Turner’s lifelong hatred of critics, and there’s the stunning scene where Turner turns down the offer of £100,000 for his complete works from a rich benefactor, insisting that he wants to bequeath his paintings to ‘the nation.’

Mike Leigh is, quite simply, an anomaly. In an age where cinema is increasingly ruled by those who seek to champion the everyday, he is, quite simply, a national treasure, a man who ploughs his own furrow and does so on his own terms. Mr Turner will either leave you cold or cut you to the marrow. I’m happy to say that I belong to the latter category.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney