Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

For all that I’m trying to watch films with some element of female authorship, this adaptation of a comic book written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn (the team behind the stylish and misanthropically nasty Kick Ass) doesn’t exactly give me a great deal of hope. It has enough stylishness in its staging, with the kind of set design and gaudy palette that fully justifies its origins, that it has won over plenty of people. It also stars Colin Firth, putting in an impeccable performance as the kind of heightened Englishman he’s so often called to be in films, in a film that itself lovingly curates an overabundance of signifiers of English-ness (my favourite being an underground workshop packed with taxicabs and red London Routemaster buses, amongst other such iconic machines). Which would all be fine, except these signifiers include the mock-Burberry-clad working-class ‘chav’ — whose apparently natural environment is picking fights in pubs (one which is actually a really very pleasant pub, it should be pointed out, should you find yourself down the Lambeth Road anytime soon) — and it does so with a level of subtlety that makes Attack the Block seem the very model of kitchen-sink drama. Then there’s the sickening attitude to violence that would orchestrate a mass killing to a jaunty soundtrack and self-consciously stylish camerawork and then try to exculpate itself by painting the victims as merely bigots, but then this is all of a piece with a film that also finds plentiful humour in some kind of anal-fixated homophobia, not to mention a bit of racism (there’s a quip in relation to Samuel L. Jackson’s bad guy about “colourful megalomaniacs” that’s straight from the Cumberbatch playbook). But, you know, it’s FINE, right, because it’s a SATIRE about spy films, exposing all of this as the seedy underbelly of the genre (albeit one that’s always been pretty clearly on display throughout much of the Bond cycle, to the extent that I was almost thankful that Kingsman‘s cribbing from Skyfall of the value of a 50-year-old whisky wasn’t turned into a cheap gag at the expense of a woman’s death). So, in short, no I didn’t much like it, though the plentiful laughter from the young woman along the row from me at the cinema suggests this might just be one guy’s grumpy opinion. There’s a self-aware refrain that’s repeated a few times that this isn’t “one of those kinds of films”, but it just leaves me wishing that it had been. Instead, if you’re a fan of violently nihilistic misanthropic nastiness clothed in the natty threads of the aristocratic English gentleman, knock yourself out. This is probably your film of the year.

Kingsman: The Secret Service film posterCREDITS
Director Matthew Vaughn; Writers Jane Goldman and Vaughn (based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons); Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.

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Sunshine on Leith (2013)

I was born in Edinburgh and spent the first ten years of my life there, which means I’m left with peculiarly rose-tinted memories of the place, untouched by the kinds of behaviour essayed in films like Shallow Grave or Trainspotting (the latter of which is cutely referenced here). And much though I applaud the attempt to make this musical resonate with real working-class lives, I’m left feeling it has the same PG-rated optimistic glow of childhood memories running through it as I do.

You can see that sensibility right from the start in the cheesy font of the title, which pops up over a touristy view of Edinburgh’s Old Town. And likeble though the film undeniably is, in truth it lost me pretty early on, when it cut from a view of Edinburgh Castle out the protagonist’s window, to the ‘local’ bus stop many miles away on the Leith waterfront. Leith has always traditionally been the poorer cousin of Scotland’s capital city, and functioned as its port with all the historical baggage that implies. Of course, now it’s far brighter, smarter and more upmarket, fully integrated as part of the city with only hints of its industrial past.

Sunshine on Leith is based on the pop songs of the Proclaimers, via a popular stage musical, and, as its title and provenance suggest, it’s pretty cheerful about everything. The drawbacks are that the characters’ emotional arcs are largely defined by these pop songs and the film’s PG classification, so they never get far beyond simplistic conflicts, or move into the greyer, more irresolvable territory you sometimes feel they need to. On the other hand, I cannot deny those songs their own emotional core, which is sometimes more nuanced than the film can admit. Then again, hearing characters in any film just spontaneously break into song is always a delight, so I imagine many will be able to appreciate and enjoy it on that level alone.

It’s just that the nuances are never really followed through. For example, the English nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), who’s in love with our ex-squaddie protagonist Davy (George MacKay), gets a verse of a song hinting at some dark past, but it’s soon swept away. Sure, “it’s over and done with” (as the song’s chorus goes), but it would still be nice to know more about this darkness that apparently still preys on a largely sunny and optimistic cahracter. The leading men, too — Davy and his mate Ally — are returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but their only link to the brutalising implications of wartime combat is their legless friend seen recuperating at a local hospital. So we get a hint of the bittersweet ramifications of, say, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) and its wartime setting, but the bitter implications in Leith are quickly brushed away in favour of the sweet, replaced by stock characters and clichés.

I don’t doubt I’m overthinking this. It’s a pop confection, and even the craggy Peter Mullan cannot help but be glowingly forward-thinking. When the Proclaimers’ songs aren’t being sung, the score is reliably clunky, guiding our emotional responses with a heavy hand, and you get the sense from the picture postcard views and locations that one eye is constantly on the film’s saleability abroad. For me, it also doesn’t help that the film frequently turns to sheer corny sentimentality, but then I also want to imagine my own childhood memories of Edinburgh are not irreconcilably disconnected from reality in the same way that the film is. Sunshine on Leith deserves to do well — Scottish cinema should be about more than feckless junkies — and I predict it may do well in singalong screenings, but I wanted a bit more darkness intermingled with the light.

Sunshine on Leith film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Stephen Greenhorn (based on his stage musical); Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, George MacKay, Antonia Thomas, Freya Mavor; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 7 October 2013.