Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.

One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.

This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.

The Limehouse Golem film posterCREDITS
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.

Their Finest (2016)

I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.

Their Finest film posterCREDITS
Director Lone Scherfig; Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans); Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov; Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017.

Chalet Girl (2011)

Coasting through the dregs and ephemera that crop up on the various streaming services, a wealth of films with stars you may have heard of but which have more or less been forgotten to history (usually for good reason), leads you down some odd little alleyways. This one, for example, is a snowboarding romcom leaning heavily on the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between an ordinary girl just looking to make some money to help support her single-father family, and the plutocratic capitalists on their winter jollies who have their own Austrian ski chalet. It capitalises on the charm of its rising-star lead actor Felicity Jones (as the girl, Kim, who has a perfunctory background as a skateboarding prodigy), and the chiselled jaw of television leading man Ed Westwick (best known as cad Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl, playing not far from type as Johnny, the scion of wealth and privilege). It also rounds up some likeable supporting performances from Tamsin Egerton as posh ski instructor (or ‘chalet girl’) Georgie, and Bill Nighy as the (as always) likeable father of Johnny, as well as Bill Bailey and Brooke Shields for bonus WTF points. Everyone else in this refined society, though, is just a one-dimensional upper-class berk with few redeeming features (though I don’t take particular exception to that). The resulting film may be as light and powdery as the snow that settles on their Austrian mountain, but there’s plenty to like all the same, whether the winning acting, or the actually rather sharp and deftly-put together script by Tom Williams, someone I’d not previously heard about, but a strong enough effort to make me want to seek out other things he’s done. Certainly worthwhile if it’s late on a weekend evening, you’ve had a few drinks, and you want something to pleasantly pass the time.

Chalet Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Phil Traill; Writer Tom Williams; Cinematographer Ed Wild; Starring Felicity Jones, Ed Westwick, Tamsin Egerton, Bill Nighy; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 25 July 2015.

Pride (2014)

It’s easy to be dismissive of a certain strand of emotionally-manipulative feel-good films about small communities resisting state oppression, or maybe it’s just easy for me. I can be cynical. Pride recalls similar British films of the recent past, set in the same milieu (miners fighting for their lives and livelihood against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party), like Brassed Off (1996) and to a certain extent The Full Monty (1998). Still, it does the whole thing every bit as well as those films did, and further frames it within the (largely metropolitan) struggles for gay rights during the same era, a struggle marked in some measure by the scourge of AIDS and the Thatcher government’s almost dismissive response to it. (I was but a young lad in the 1980s, but I still remember the bleak finality of their TV ads about AIDS.) You could argue there’s a bit of rose tinting involved in taking two narratives permeated with real pain, death and indignity, and crafting something heartwarming and feel-good out of it. Sure, there’s a nod at the beginning to the unlikeliness of the (drawn from real-life) conjunction of two struggles in the form of Mark Ashton’s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist group, who collect money to help the embattled mining community. When they have their first meeting in London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop (still there, pleasingly), one man angrily denounces the way he’d been beaten up by miners when he was younger, stalking out of the shop and taking most of the rest with him. However, such unease is quickly smoothed over as Ashton (played likeably by Ben Schnetzer) finds a Welsh mining community who are willing to accept donations from the LGSM, and there follows a wary yet rather delightful rapprochement between the two very different camps, ably helped by wiser heads amongst the Welsh (including the very much not-Welsh actors Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy). And yet, whatever reservations one may have about the way things unfold, it has an irresistible charm, by turns funny, sweet and heartbreakingly poignant. It’s also an unapologetic flag-waver for the union movement, bookending the film with rousing pro-union anthems. Most surprisingly, the events of the film are all drawn from real life, so the film’s title is quite apt: it makes one proud, and not a little bit teary.

Pride film posterCREDITS
Director Matthew Warchus; Writer Stephen Beresford; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Friday 12 September 2014.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

It seems nowadays like almost a cliché of the tentpole blockbuster adapted from a popular source text, that the final book will be split into more than one film — as if it’s just so sensible a commercial manoeuvre that why would we question it? It happened with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (2011/12), and is set to happen with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014/15) — and then there’s The Hobbit (2012/13/14), which has been split into three — so it’s worth recalling that before Deathly Hallows there hadn’t been much of a precedent for this kind of thing (Kill Bill, perhaps, though that wasn’t from a novel). Wanting to be faithful to the text and make the inbuilt fans of the franchise happy, and wanting to create a good cohesive piece of narrative cinema, can often pull filmmakers in two directions, so splitting a text can also be a means to ensuring there’s enough time to do justice to the author’s intentions (see also: making a miniseries). And it’s true that previous instalments have had so much plot in them, that just trying to keep up with what’s going on is quite an exercise. So going into the denouement to this wizarding saga, the producers have decided two films are necessary, and who am I to argue?

What this means in terms of the final film is that the plot’s longueurs are preserved, though I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily. It’s rare in a blockbuster for the action to slow down, but here it does on a few occasions: at one point for an extended animated sequence narrating the backstory to an arcane symbol, and at another for almost half an hour, as the protagonists try and figure out what they need to do, albeit set against some ruggedly beautiful scenic backdrops. It allows some of the interpersonal relationships to be teased out — the sense of resentment that Ron (Rupert Grint) has built up towards Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and particularly Harry’s relationship with the more intelligent Hermione (Emma Watson). And when they do all figure things out a bit better, it makes them stronger as a group — necessary if they are to face up to the final, looming battle with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

But despite the tangled interpersonal web of the film, there’s also a relative freedom, in the sense that it is set more in nature than previous instalments. Sure, there are still hideaways like the Blacks’ home in London, and an enjoyable caper sequence set in the labryinthine underbelly of the Ministry of Magic (set up by the introduction of Bill Nighy as a new Minister), but elsewhere the film sets itself in the wide expanses of various far-flung locales: an undulating beach; a rocky coastline; a woodland clearing; Lovegood’s little cottage out in the middle of a plain. That freedom to run — whether in chase of or in flight from foes — is captured by the poster, a headlong rush by the characters that pushes the quest forward to the discovery of further horcruxes that will weaken Voldemort, but it’s a feeling that in the film is in tension with those scenes of the protagonists’ confusion, doubt and stasis.

At some level, I’m not surprised to see contemporary reviews exhibiting some disappointment with this instalment, given the way it slows things down in anticipation of a breathless conclusion still a year away. However, in retrospect and in the knowledge that I’m able to immediately move on to the second half, I really appreciate the way that Deathly Hallows Part 1 paces itself and gives more time to the central characters we’ve been following for so long; few other characters make much of a mark, as their illustrious actors are shuffled off into what are basically cameos. If it represents the confused calm before a gathering and inevitable storm, it’s a pause for breath that’s richly deserved by this point.

Next (and Last): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Eduardo Serra; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

My critical introduction to this film series was via Mark Kermode’s ever more vituperative rants on Simon Mayo’s and his BBC Radio 5 Live film review podcast, and needless to say, hearing his opinion did not engender much of a desire to see the films. There it probably would have ended for me, were it not for my wife’s desire to re-watch them. On this third instalment, I’ve heard plenty of subsequent opinion on both sides of the divide, some saying that the third film is even worse than the second, while other friends consider it not just the best of the franchise but a great film in its own right. If I can’t entirely embrace that challenging position, I am certainly of the opinion that it is a far superior film to Dead Man’s Chest (2006). The real surprise is that the two films were made back-to-back by the same cast and crew, given how differently they turned out.

Where the second film is all perfunctory exposition combined with propulsive forward momentum, the third takes a bit more time with the character interactions. Geoffrey Rush, a highlight of the first film, returns as Captain Hector Barbossa, and assumes from Bill Nighy the mantle of most charismatic screen presence (though Nighy remains, and is still enjoyable). At any moment, he is happy to break into gurning piratical ‘yarrrrs’, a whirligig of barely-suppressed self-mockery, and is as such a perfect fit to the essential campness of the whole series (a quality rather missed from the po-faced second film, Depp aside). The plot is even more labyrinthine, yet there’s (admirably, in my opinion) less attempt to try to explain it to the viewer: you either take it or you leave it. In fact, I’m wary of trying to summarise it, though suffice to say it extends the conceit of Davy Jones’ locker with more edge-of-the-earth questing for familial salvation. In short, it’s more of a canvas against which the images — now unyoked from being mere picture-book illustrations — are free to really captivate. A pirate ship sailing calmly across the screen framed by the inky black water reflecting a starry night sky, or borne across the white sands by an army of crabs, to Captain Jack introduced via his nose in extreme close-up, amongst many others. There’s also a really memorable opening, where a mass public hanging leads to an outbreak of song and seems to portend a move into Les Misérables territory.

Certainly, there’s still some troubling racial othering, and while Calypso to some extent moves beyond being a one-note voodoo stereotype, no such journey can be ascribed to Chow Yun-fat and his Singaporean posse. With his long wispy beard, his character has not unreasonably been compared to Fu Manchu, while his gang do everything but light up on opium pipes (or maybe they do, it’s all rather a blur of ersatz chinoiserie).

However, on the whole, this is an impressive sequel with more than a little wonder and mystery intermixed with the hokum of the plot. It is at once better acted with more room for the characters to breathe, and is thereby more enjoyable, with the action setpieces more fitted to be compared to a theme park ride. Such a carnivalesque origin may ultimately be the height to which the series can aspire, but when it achieves it (as I would argue it does here), there’s a palpable sense of fun to be had.

Director Gore Verbinski; Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy; Length 168 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 April 2013.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Whatever the drawbacks of its source material (it’s based on a carnival ride at Disneyworld, after all), the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003) was at least proficient entertainment with some good actors thrown into the mix. In extending the franchise, the filmmakers have crammed in a whole lot more attractively-shot theme park diversions but seem to have lost a few elements that (for me, at least) make for a good film watching experience.

Let’s start with the actors. Johnny Depp has some good acting in him, but as Captain Jack Sparrow, it’s largely sacrificed here to a broad caricature of fey piratical fecklessness which would be (indeed, is) enjoyable as the comic relief, but when your character is made the focus of the script, becomes a little wearing. Unfortunately, the other lead pirate (Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom) lacks the charisma or even the two-dimensionality of fellow youthful naïf Guybrush Threepwood. There’s still a wealth of good character actors from the first film (Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport) — with Stellan Skarsgård and Tom Hollander added into the mix for this film — but they are largely squandered here, leaving only Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann as the unlikely candidate for most charismatic, and she does at least display some gumption, though not when the plot requires her to be girly (such as when Davenport, Bloom and Depp are fighting each other and she is petulantly tossing pebbles).

This points to another issue I have with the film, which is that the screenwriting is generally lazy. Just like some of the characters, there’s too much of this world which is required to function differently depending on the exigencies of the immediate needs of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief is one thing (this is a fantasy world after all), but the film is constructed so much as a series of cumulative setpieces that it doesn’t hang together much as coherent narrative. There’s a lot of plot too, such that a momentary lapse in concentration here and there left me confused about what the characters were now doing. In précis though, Will and Elizabeth are arrested at the start of the film by Hollander’s Lord Beckett but can gain their freedom by capturing Captain Jack’s compass. The question of what it does is such a perfunctory MacGuffin that the screenwriters essentially have Bloom’s character say just this (on being questioned on its purpose by Elizabeth, he replies “Does it even matter?” before moving swiftly on). Meanwhile, Captain Jack is after a key which the literate will have figured out opens the titular chest, rather neatly linked both figuratively and literally to the film’s key dead man and villain, Davy Jones (enjoyably played by Bill Nighy in a Scottish accent and obscured by plenty of CGI).

It’s not that the plot is confusing, it’s that it’s deployed merely to set up each successive setpiece, leading to a deadening of affect as each is surpassed by yet another that creates plenty of occasion for derring-do, but seems to add up to very little. There is, buried deep within, some critiques of imperialism in murderous search of lucre, as scenes with Lord Beckett, chairman of the rapacious East India Company (a real historical entity with a very real and deadly historical legacy), are played out in front of vast maps of the world which are literally being painted as he speaks. Captain Jack at one (very fleeting) point finds signs of the East India Co.’s involvement with some local cannibals, its crossbones-like logo imprinted on a jar of paprika. But none of this is really followed up, as the film quickly jettisons any interest in such critiques. There’s the merchandising to think of, after all.

Though another respect in which the film is troubling is pointed to by those cannibals. Quite aside from the scene in the ravine where the remaining crew of Captain Jack’s ship are split into two dangling cages and the one containing all the pirates with any ethnicity is swiftly despatched, there’s a worrying undercurrent of broad racial stereotyping. The cannibals who have engineered this cage scenario for Captain Jack’s crew have also dressed him up as a white god-like figure and in most respects act just like the kind of stereotypes of barbaric yet simple-minded tribal peoples at which even the similarly retrogressive Indiana Jones series would blanch. Elsewhere, black people are portrayed as mystic bayou-dwelling voodoo people, so it’s safe to say that the film wins no awards for subtlety, and it makes my objections to the racial othering in the recent Olympus Has Fallen (2013) seem almost quaintly misplaced.

If this all adds up to a film which is misguided, it doesn’t mean that it’s entirely without any redeeming qualities. Despite a bloated running time, it moves along at a fair pace (it could scarcely fail to do so), and Bill Nighy energises it whenever he’s on screen. It just suffers from being needlessly lazy, but then it was surely made in as desperate a search for lucrative payout as the East India Company within the film itself. With a bit more thought put in at the start of the enterprise, something so much better could have resulted.

Next up: The series picks up a bit with the third instalment, At World’s End (2007).

Director Gore Verbinski; Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy; Length 151 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 23 April 2013.