Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

Atonement film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Perhaps I’m just getting weary of superhero movies now, but it’s not just me, surely? Days of Future Past, while hardly being terrible (sorry, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is not the equal even of its immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011, although I’m setting aside 2013’s The Wolverine). I had hope for Marvel movies after the surprisingly enjoyable Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that was made by a different studio. By comparison, Days of Future Past just seems lazy and bloated. There’s an end-of-days apocalyptic plotline, including a thin excuse to bring together the different timelines (and their respective actors), but it’s no more compelling than Star Trek: Generations so many years before, another franchise to which Patrick Stewart has lent his considerable actorly gravitas. As with that franchise, here too it’s ultimately the younger generation who are more convincing and enjoyable in their roles, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto nicely playing off one another, though Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains dependable across both timelines. There’s also an expanded role for Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s just as well she’s such a fine actor as she’s required to express plenty of fairly uninflected rage and caprice. Indeed, if there’s anything I’ll remember about Days of Future Past in years to come, it won’t be the special effects or the big setpieces or the now-canonical protracted final battle sequence, but the sense of so many very talented actors (those named above, along with a smaller role for Peter Dinklage, and poor Anna Paquin all but left on the cutting-room floor) being wasted on over-extended big-budget bloat.

X-Men: Days of Future Past film posterCREDITS
Director Bryan Singer; Writer Simon Kinberg (based on the Uncanny X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne); Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Thursday 22 May 2014.

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

This film and Parker are different takes on the same kind of thing — action-oriented thriller japery — with the exception that the latter at least accepts its generic role and treats it straightforwardly as pulp with a minimum of fuss. Punch is overlaid with a spurious layer of political corruption that seems rather redundant, when all it really wants to be is about chiselled guys shooting lots of guns, of which there is plenty.

But more than that, it’s a London film, which intrigues me as a resident of this city. Interestingly, it presents a side of London that’s been seen a bit less often in films, being the modern shiny glass-and-steel London of recent decades. In fact, the filmmakers are very careful to avoid showing any old or touristy bits of London, which itself makes the film a fascinating document. It starts with a chase scene (a fairly incomprehensible chase scene) around Canary Wharf, shot when it’s at its emptiest and most eerie (so, a weekend evening then, presumably). It then takes in a panoply of modern buildings in the City, with plenty of helicopter shots over the top of the Shard, and one scene supposedly set on the roof of St Bart’s Hospital where the two characters are framed with Elephant & Castle’s Strata London tower in the near background (for non-London readers, that’s an impossible geography).

In fact, the look of the film is all very stylish, with beautiful close-ups of faces framed by alienating modern architecture. There are plenty of forbidding and empty modern spaces drained of warmth and humanity, in which many large-bore weapons are unleashed.

This is all certainly an aspect of London, and yet it’s not a London I really recognise. Then again, the film is heavily focused on generic tropes, many of which have been transplanted from similar films set in the US (and to that extent, it certainly makes me question how much of this kind of stuff is really true over there; it is probably as much a myth in the US as it is in this film). This is not London so much as “London”, a city overrun by violent gun crime (expressed by a number of newspaper headlines and glimpsed news bulletins to this effect), in which the police are desperate to get their hands on weaponry in order to combat the terror the citizens feel just walking the streets. Obviously there are aspects of this that hark back to the mood around the time of the 2011 riots, and yet even then there was never really a sense that people felt afraid of the city or wanted more armed police on the streets.

It’s in the characters and their interactions that those generic tropes become even more keenly felt. Our tale revolves around a young cop (James McAvoy), damaged and embittered by his failed pursuit of a dangerous super-criminal years earlier (Mark Strong; it’s not clear exactly what his crimes are, but it seems as if theft at least is involved). There’s his new work partner (Andrea Riseborough), with whom McAvoy has some suppressed romantic sparks, who is heir to his impulsive streaks. There’s the distrustful work colleague (he wears glasses), and the avuncular boss (David Morrissey), beholden in some shady way to a presumed-crooked politican via his cagy PR handler. Then there’s the gang of criminals reunited to avenge a death, who in the denouement seem to be backed up by a small army of cannon fodder (but that’s not really a spoiler; it’s just that kind of film). There doesn’t seem to be any element of this film which is not familiar at some level, though the pus-filled gunshot injury that McAvoy tends throughout the film injects at least a small amount of ‘realism’ to the otherwise action-rote superhuman feats pulled off elsewhere by Strong’s bad guy.

Were it not for the excellent actors corralled to deliver the script, it would be far more easy to dismiss in its entirety as an (admittedly stylish) exercise in derivative genre cinema. In the end, the film uses an interesting take on London in the service of a by-numbers plot.

Director/Writer Eran Creevy; Cinematographer Ed Wild; Starring James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 26 March 2013.