The Old Guard (2020)

I’m taking a pivot today from documentaries to feature a very recent release on Netflix, the action superhero film The Old Guard, most notable perhaps for its star turn by Charlize Theron, but with I think quite a lot of hidden depth. It’s an odd outing for a director previously best known for romances like the stellar Love & Basketball (2000) and the equally excellent Beyond the Lights (2014), but a very solid one too.


I see this is pulling down a good range of opinions, but even as someone who hasn’t always been so thrilled with the comic-book adaptations/superhero genre in the past, I thought it was great, punchily shot and edited and with some fine performances. One could quibble that not all the writing was up to the same standard, but it almost doesn’t matter with supporting actors of the quality of Chiwetel Ejiofor or KiKi Layne. At the heart of the film though is Charlize Theron and her gang of immortals, and it’s a difficult thing to convey hundreds if not thousands of years of existence adequately, but I think Theron pitched it at the right level. The film allowed moments of existential reflection, not to mention moral qualms about resorting to violence — already more than most genre films manage — but they key is in the characters and the performances, I think. Plus it all fit together expertly, and while she may be better known for romances, director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows herself to be a solid action director too.

The Old Guard film posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writer Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández); Cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd; Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari مروان كنزاري, Luca Marinelli; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 16 July 2020.

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Maryland (aka Disorder, 2015)

There is, it seems to me, a strong tradition in French cinema for the kind of atmospherics created by this film of Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote festival favourite Mustang). It properly puts itself inside the head of its protagonist Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier on leave due to post-traumatic stress, who takes up a security job to keep him busy. There are textures that remind me of aspects of Claire Denis‘s or Philippe Grandrieux’s works, a sort of low-key threatening feeling that’s constantly in the background. For much of the film it’s very difficult to be sure if this is all just in Vincent’s head, or if it represents an actual danger to those he’s in charge of protecting — Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a foreign businessman, and her son. The tone is expertly mediated through an evocative sound design and electronic score that keeps the mood tense even when little appears to be happening narratively on-screen. It’s an open-ended film with a mysterious resolution that seems to come more from the emotional state of its protagonist than from anything in the diegetic world of the film, and despite what some have written, it never quite follows the well-trodden path of multiple Hollywood action thrillers covering the same kind of themes. Certainly for those such as myself who have not been the biggest fans of Schoenaerts’ acting work (admittedly I’ve only seen films of his in English), this is a welcome surprise and an intelligent, absorbing thriller.

Maryland film posterCREDITS
Director Alice Winocour; Writers Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron; Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois; Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 30 March 2016.

A Little Chaos (2014)

I could glibly try and claim this is the best drama about gardening released this year, but that wouldn’t really be much help would it? Certainly the subject matter is niche — aside from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), I can’t think of any films primarily dealing with the creation of a garden (in this case, the Bosquet des Rocailles, or Salle de Bal, at the Palace of Versailles). Of course, it’s really about plenty of other things, like the tentative love affair between Kate Winslet’s Sabine du Barra and Matthias Schoenaert’s André Le Nôtre (the chief designer of the gardens at Versailles, a real historical figure), or the fluid movement of relationships and the shadings of class within the French court of the 17th century. I’m not sure how much of this detail is true to the period — Sabine is a fictional character, and Winslet seems all too English, though the garden Sabine is working on is real — but it allows for some lovely little vignettes, as when Sabine interacts with the King (Alan Rickman) incognito as if he were a fellow gardener. There’s a smaller role for Stanley Tucci as a prominent nobleman within the French court, another excellent reminder of his talent for stealing scenes, while Helen McCrory rounds out the ensemble as Le Nôtre’s jealous and unfaithful wife. As director, Rickman certainly manages to round up a good cast (as you’d expect), so even if the film sometimes seems slight, it’s never anything less than enjoyable to watch.

A Little Chaos film posterCREDITS
Director Alan Rickman; Writer Allison Deegan; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 29 April 2015.