Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

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Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.

Midnight Special (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Like any Baz Luhrmann film, this is a splashy, flashy exercise in surface textures, style and costume, set design and special effects, but like the best of his works it matches these stylistic traits to characters who are constantly telling stories about themselves as a way of ingratiating themselves into the world around them. Yet if it’s a story about adapting, it’s not clear that this adaptation is particularly necessary, and when it tries to visualise some of the novel’s grand metaphors (ones so grand they are writ large on vast billboards or flash brightly and insistently), it can get a bit clunky. Some things are best left on the page and in the reader’s imagination.

I suppose that’s part of my fundamental problem with Luhrmann’s style: that it wants to revel in the grand artifice of its visuals, while also criticising the existence they depict as being ultimately hollow and self-defeating. Yet it’s a tension that results in some real coups de théâtre, making his films both invigorating and infuriating in equal measure, not to mention a bit wearying.

Gatsby is narrated by Nick (played by Tobey Maguire), here looking back at the novel’s events from a distance of time and, perhaps ominously, from a sanatorium, where he is recovering from alcohol abuse and depression. Maguire’s Nick is a gormless observer, waving goofily at the protagonists when he’s not wearing a perplexed expression. Given the framing device, we can at least be thankful he refrains from playing drunk; Luhrmann’s visuals do more than enough to suggest the quality of a fever dream, all hyperstylised parties and superimposed period colour. (Having said that, the early scenes do flash past in a blur, edited as if a trailer rather than the film proper, though this too is not unusual for Luhrmann.)

At the centre of the film is of course Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby, and he does very well at this perplexing character, as much a self-created nouveau riche trying to inveigle himself into the world of old money, as he is a cipher and cynosure of Nick’s narrator. It’s appropriate then for Gatsby to be embodied by such a quintessential silver screen heartthrob as DiCaprio, rapturously filmed by Luhrmann’s camera (never more so than when first properly introduced in the film, framed against a background of fireworks). Gatsby is the lightning rod for Nick’s anxieties about American class, and the impossibility of the ‘American Dream’, thus requiring him to hold in balance forces that pull his character in various contradictory directions. Even more blank is Daisy Buchanan (played perfectly, airily by Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin who has married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), scion of an old money family. If Gatsby is a reconstruction of Nick’s imagination, then Daisy is at one further remove, so insubstantial a presence as to not exist when she’s not being coveted by the male characters.

143 minutes is a long time to be in this world (too long, no doubt), and if the film does slow down for the second half, it can still seem somewhat bludgeoning in its impact. I’ve mentioned those overwhelming visual metaphors, which are accompanied by myriad references to God and judgement in the script, to the extent that the filmmakers seem to be pushing beyond mere heavy-handedness into something more viscerally affecting. The viewer’s tolerance for this is probably down to how well you respond to Luhrmann’s style. There are car racing scenes taken straight from the Fast & Furious franchise, and a heady indulgence of the rush of nostalgia that at its best recalls Raúl Ruiz’s take on Proust (the similarly stylised Le Temps retrouvé, Time Regained, 1999). Yet the most affecting scenes for me may be the smaller ones, such as the vulgarity of Gatsby’s showering Daisy with his shirts (reminiscent of nothing in recent cinema so much as James Franco’s materialistic hollering in Spring Breakers about all his possessions), or the ridiculous expanse of flowers that close in on Gatsby and Daisy when they eventually meet.

The film succeeds at what it wants to do, and though I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again, it’s one I enjoyed thinking and talking about afterwards. A lot of this may be down to the source text, but there was enough in Luhrmann’s vision to capture the attention and even, at times, the imagination.


CREDITS
Director Baz Luhrmann; Writers Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Simon Duggan; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington (2D), London, Sunday 19 May 2013.