This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.
CREDITS Director John Crowley; Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín); Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent; Length 112 minutes. Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015.
At a certain level, the title of my post is a provocation, because one of these films is not like the others, for several reasons. But let’s start with what unites them which is, yes, that they are all set almost exclusively in the company of men, whether in the sporting world of wrestling (Foxcatcher), the musical world of jazz drumming (Whiplash) or the not-so-futuristic world of tech geniuses (Ex Machina).
In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s John du Pont is his own worst enemy, and his mentor status is something that his wealth and privilege allow him to buy. In fact, the wrestler brothers who are nominally the central characters in the film (Channing Tatum’s Mark and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave), take an emotional backseat in the narrative to Steve Carell’s performance, though all three actors do fine work. John “call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle” du Pont has lived a life of wealthy solitude, and it’s this which has bred a desperation to fit in that leads to the film’s tragic denouement and (justly) overshadows everything else. The film’s (and Carell’s) triumph is to imbue a sense of bleak empathy with this most outsider of figures, for all the immeasurable harm he inflicts.
Harm is explicitly what teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) wants to inflict on his students in Whiplash, for it’s part of his philosophy of achievement, largely derived from an anecdote about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker that is mentioned several times in the film. For student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a philosophy that appeals to him, being so desperate to distinguish himself from his smarter, richer fellow students at the prestigious academy he attends. The film is largely a psychological battle between these two set over a drum kit and suffused with sweat and blood, much of it filmed in extreme, lascivious close-up (or so it feels). The other students and relationships fall quickly into the background, and you’d be forgiven for imagining there were no more important instruments in any musical ensemble than the drums, but that’s because it’s a story of student and teacher played out as psychological warfare.
Yet, despite their shared testosterone, these first two films are quite different from the third I want to discuss. They may all dwell on pursuits which are stereotypically masculine, but I’d argue that the first two films are interested more in the nature of obsession. They are both about desperate protagonists who want to succeed at all costs. I don’t know if the sort of monomaniacal focus that these films’ protagonists have is something specifically male (it certainly feels like it can be, sometimes), but if the films don’t pass the Bechdel Test, you imagine it’s because in their deeply-warped worlds, no one is talking about anything else but them.
Ex Machina, though, is very much about men. At first, it feels like it might be a boring male-bonding-in-the-wilderness story, as coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked off to a vast, remote estate to hang out with his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an alpha male bearded heavy-drinking tech genius. But Nathan has something up his sleeve, a project he’s been working on: a robot. Specifically, a female robot, Ava (the currently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander). When I left the film, the first thing I googled was “feminist critique” because it pushes obsessively at something disturbing about gender relations, and being a white male geek (of sorts), I can’t really be sure if it’s enacting a story of emancipation from the male gaze, or the opposite. A little bit of both, I suspect, because unquestionably the female form is literally objectified. Limbs, hair and naked skin are effortlessly transferred and reconfigured, and unselfconsciously put on display. One of the women doesn’t even have the power of speech. The film comes on like a version of the story of Adam and Eve, with Ava the ne plus ultra of feminine duplicity, but she’s as much a constructed figure of patriarchal fear as Rosamund Pike’s Amy in Gone Girl, so I suspect the way you react to Ava will be similar. I’d be offended, except that the men in the film are no paragons either, and they end up as they start, trapped by their own objectifying gaze. Whatever fears of artificial intelligence it may stir up, the film’s triumph is reserved for consciousness.
Whatever else you might say about Ex Machina — and I think there’s a lot that could, and no doubt will, be said — it does at least allow for many different readings. Putting it alongside the other two films is just to point up their conventional qualities: well-crafted, certainly; flawlessly acted, definitely. But whatever the weaknesses of science fiction, I can think of few other genres as willing to pose difficult questions, and to make audiences think. All three films take you on a ride, but with Ex Machina the ride continues after the film ends.
Foxcatcher (2014) || Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015 || Director Bennett Miller | Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman | Cinematographer Greig Fraser | Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo | Length 134 minutes
Whiplash (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015 || Director/Writer Damien Chazelle | Cinematographer Sharone Meir | Starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons | Length 106 minutes
Ex Machina (2015) || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015 || Director/Writer Alex Garland | Cinematographer Rob Hardy | Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac | Length 108 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 11 May 2014 || My Rating very good
Frank Sidebottom was a musical alter ego of the late Chris Sievey, who gained some localised renown in England from the 1980s onwards with his massive papier-mâché head and cheerfully nasal song delivery. However, this film, which is co-written by Jon Ronson and based on accounts of his time in Sidebottom’s band, is not about Frank Sidebottom. It just takes the idea and image of that character and grafts it on to a far more thoroughgoing American story, one that trades on the legacy of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart (the legend of him imprisoning his band to record the seminal Trout Mask Replica album), Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston (whose mental health issues have been well documented) and perhaps a bit of Jandek (with his laconic public appearances). One needn’t necessarily know the music or stories of any of these artists, but Frank has its own catchy tunes, in amongst the rather more abstract noise, of the in-film (and unpronounceable) band Soronwfbs, led by the eponymous Frank (Michael Fassbender). Ronson’s own alter ego is the lead character Jon (Domhnall Gleason), an entirely annoying, self-interested twerp whose youthful naïveté also allows him to take on the challenge of joining Frank’s band, and whose self-absorption never seems to waver over much of the film’s running time. And yet, Fassbender’s largely masked performance has enough pathos that even when the film has transitioned from being an awkward comedy of Jon’s English manners to something altogether darker and more mysterious as the band slowly come together only to quickly fall apart, the audience is still on board.
CREDITS || Director Lenny Abrahamson | Writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan | Cinematographer James Mather | Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal | Length 95 minutes
FILM REVIEW || Director Joe Wright | Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson | Length 129 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014 || My Rating good
I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.