Two Short Reviews of Recent Films Set in the 19th Century

Two more short reviews of films I just haven’t been able to summon up the enthusiasm to think about at great length. Not that either of them is bad, mind.


© Entertainment One

Mr. Turner (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014 || Director/Writer Mike Leigh | Cinematographer Dick Pope | Starring Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

This latest by Mike Leigh seems to have divided audiences and critics, though by most metrics it has done very well at the box office, a fine feat considering its length. Presumably it appeals to the heritage crowd, what with being a period film, and at that it does very well, conjuring a good sense of 19th century London, with its galleries and its fine houses, as well as its muck and dirt, not to mention the failings of medicine (Dorothy Atkinson’s servant gets progressively more blighted by psoriasis as the film goes on). At the film’s heart is Timothy Spall’s JMW Turner, a painter of some of the finest works of English art, who here is a gruffly monosyllabic grouch who communicates more in coughs and splutters than with words (Spall’s performance is in fact second only this year to Gérard Depardieu’s in Welcome to New York for guttural grunting). Yet it’s an oddly disjointed film, which moves along in vignettes — Turner at the Royal Academy disputing with his fellow painters, Turner at home, Turner on holiday in Margate, this kind of thing. To be fair, this gives it the sense of a series of (moving) paintings, much like Turner’s work, and like his work a lot of the film is very beautifully shot. However, even the most artfully composed film could never approach the breathtaking vistas of Turner’s later paintings, so perhaps my point of comparison is just unfair in the first place.


© Roadside Attractions

The Homesman (2014) || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 25 November 2014 || Director Tommy Lee Jones | Writers Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones | Length 122 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Another film set in the 19th century — in fact, covering many of the same years as Mr. Turner, albeit on another side of the Atlantic — is this film by actor turned writer/director Tommy Lee Jones. His debut film as director was the wonderful and underrated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a film with a great feeling for border territories, and this new film is again set on a frontier of sorts. I’m tempted to call it a Western, though it’s not set in the west but rather in Nebraska, and it deals with a sturdy frontierswoman, Mary Bee Cuddy (played capably by Hilary Swank), who for various reasons has to accompany three mad women back to civilisation, where they can be (more) properly cared for. She soon picks up Tommy Lee’s disreputable George Briggs to help her, and thus begins their journey. It’s all very ably and attractively shot by veteran DoP Rodrigo Prieto, and in the two central roles Jones and Swank make for a fine odd couple. But things take a turn later on which is both unexpected and abrupt, though undoubtedly it suggests (and, more widely, the film does capture well) a sense of the difficulties attendant on life in this era and location. In which respect, of course, the roles for the mad women are rather thankless, amounting to little more than gurning and groaning at times. Yet, while it’s a film that feels as if it has two distinct parts, it certainly also has its virtues.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The cinema of Martin Scorsese quite often deals with self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled men. It’s a place to learn about the contemporary construction of masculinity more than anything else, and this is his latest chapter in that ongoing exploration, placing itself in the milieu of high finance — specifically a “boiler room” stockbroking firm from the late-1980s through the 1990s. This is the domain of self-made man — wise guy, almost — Jordan Belfort, played at full throttle by the still youthful-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, though he at least has the decency to look a little worn by the end. It’s been written up largely as a film of swearing, drugtaking and hedonism, but really it’s another periodic health check for the struggling ideal of the American Dream. It doesn’t preach or moralise, but the message is pretty relentlessly, propulsively, loudly clear for its three hours.

I made the error of looking at the recent 12 Years a Slave somewhat as a film trying to teach us about the evils of slavery — a lesson hardly needed, and certainly not at the heart of the film’s purpose. Likewise, you can’t really wonder if the The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to get across the idea that financial corruption is bad, or if the people involved are morally questionable. There is literally not a single character in the film that has any claim to our sympathies — the closest we get is the FBI agent Patrick (Kyle Chandler), but even he is given to pettiness, and hardly seems enthused by his life. I’d say there’s no one who is likeable, but most of them are likeable enough on their own level, which for most of them is a fairly amoral level. There’s pathos too (or perhaps I mean to say, most are pretty pathetic), but for the majority of the running time you can keep these guys at an arms’ length: they are not like us. They are embodiments of the primal, rampaging id, who have freed themselves from quotidian concerns through their relentless acquisition of wealth. It’s not until near the end, after nearly three hours of their childish petulance, that you get a sense for where it’s all headed — encapsulated by a underplayed final scene (introduced by the real Belfort) which brings Jordan back into something recognisably like our world.

Up to that point, though, things are blackly comic — madcap and slapstick at points — as Belfort struggles to build his wealth after the Wall Street firm where he begins his career goes bust in the 1987 crash. He restarts by trading penny stocks to working-class guys from a dowdy office in New Jersey, moving on to creating and enlarging his own firm with the help of his low-life friends, chief among them the garrulous Donnie (Jonah Hill in horn-rimmed specs and shell suits) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne), called “Rugrat” because of his glaring toupee. He marries a model blonde wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives a hard-partying lifestyle. The movie can indeed be charted largely by Jordan & co’s ingestion of narcotic substances, starting with a hit of a crack pipe with Donnie near the New Jersey office, before progressing primarily to cocaine (taken in various locations and, er, from various orifices) and Quaaludes. Most of the film is structured around Jordan getting loaded (making money, taking drugs), before the final act charts his rocky comedown — crashing not just from drugs and booze, but financially, maritally and even nautically.

It’s a classic story, and Scorsese really attacks it stylistically with all the tricks learnt from his many decades’ worth of filmmaking. It feels like the kind of free-wheeling spirit of Casino (1995), certainly in the glitziness of the enterprise, which matches that of the characters (or at least, their entitled sense of self-worth). DiCaprio gives a narration from Jordan’s point of view, even addressing himself directly to camera in a few scenes, as he explains his criminal enterprise with scarcely-concealed glee. There are freeze-frames and jump-cuts too, but this isn’t the vacuous-style-for-its-own-sake brand of filmmaking that you get from Scorsese’s latter-day imitators (to take one recent example amongst many, in Pain & Gain), but it adds to the deadening affect of this flamboyant world. Scorsese also reminds us that he is deft at comedy, whether it be the earnest discussions of humiliating excess (the dwarf-throwing that opens the film), or a marvellous sequence when DiCaprio needs to return home but finds himself floored by extra-strength Quaaludes — a scenario which might be done with all the hallucinogenic trippiness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but which Scorsese films from a fixed vantage point with no gimmicks or trickery, just documenting the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance, and which is all the funnier for it.

As a whole, the film feels a bit like this, like being the sober one at an increasingly riotous party, with people who are fun to be around initially, but whose drunken antics soon become quite draining. There’s no overt judgementalism about the narcotic excess (there are in fact many open proclamations of how enjoyable it is), but then there doesn’t need to be: this film hardly glorifies drug use, given it chooses avatars who are so existentially loathsome. If there’s a more potent criticism it would be that this remains very much a film about boys; there are women, but they are largely seen through the eyes of the (as I hope I’ve made clear, hardly upstanding) male protagonists, and therefore mostly sexualised and ultimately humiliated, although the warping power of money seems to blind everyone in the film to it. But despite this, it still feels fairly effortless as a film, while managing to give a real — and disturbing — sense of malaise, which, as we see in the final scene, is only just out of our reach and beyond our control.


© Paramount Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne | Length 179 minutes || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 27 January 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent

Argo (2012)

Like all film-lovers, I’ve had a complicated relationship with The Oscars™ over the years, but my general feeling is that I dislike the ways it rewards filmmakers and actors (and when it gets things right it’s usually for the wrong reasons anyway), and I dislike the way it affects how American studios create and distribute certain kinds of films. There are subgenres of ‘Oscar-baiting filmmaking’ that generally produce either torpid, listless, dull and often overlong films of little human interest but with plenty of empty emoting and visual grandstanding, or, as with last year’s winner The Artist (2011), perfectly entertaining little movies with an inflated pseudish cachet.

Argo falls into the latter camp: it’s entertaining and I enjoyed it for the most part, but I wouldn’t make any great claim for it being the height of film art. In fact, it’s rather campy in places: Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Hollywood studio people seem to be in an entirely different film. The scenes set in Iran at the height of the 1979-80 hostage crisis, though, are appropriately gripping, as we watch Ben Affleck’s CIA agent working to “exfiltrate” the six escaped US embassy workers, who are uneasily holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence (played by the ever-reliable Victor Garber).

Plenty of others far more knowledgeable than I have picked holes in the history, and I don’t doubt it takes liberties with the facts. More concerning is the demonisation of many of the Iranians, though the film’s animated introduction makes it clear that the US itself had a great part to play in the radicalisation of Iran and the overthrow of a democratically-elected government (as remains their wont to this day). Nevertheless, when it’s focused on the intimate human drama of these six Americans and the oddly far-fetched plot to get them out of the country, it makes for fine entertainment.


© Warner Bros.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ben Affleck | Writer Chris Terrio (based on the book Master of Diguise by Antonio J. Mendez and an article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 6 February 2013

My Rating 3 stars good