Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

The visual language of cinema is redefined for Hollywood, with this expressionistic, fairy-tale, silent masterpiece

Director: FW Murnau

Cast: George O’Brien (The Man), Janet Gaynor (The Wife), Margaret Livingston (The City Woman), Bodil Rosing (Maid), J Farrell MacDonald (Photographer), Ralph Sipperly (Barber), Jane Winton (Manicurist), Arthur Housman (Obtrusive gentleman), Eddie Boland (Obliging gentleman)

It’s 1928 and Hollywood has a neat idea. How about an annual awards ceremony toasting the best the industry has produced in the last year? But how on earth do you decide the “best” film? Isn’t comparing war films to arthouse films like comparing apples and oranges? The solution? An award for Outstanding Production and another for Best Unique and Artistic Picture. FW Murnau’s revolutionary silent movie, Sunshine: A Song of Two Humans, was the first and last winner of the latter category: a movie so technically inventive and astonishingly cinematically literate that its influence has seeped into almost every frame of footage shot by the movies ever since.

It would be fair to say Sunrise is less a narrative, more a quiet piece of expressionist art. Its plot is incredibly slim, essentially a fairy tale. In an unspecified country village (presumably in America, but it might as well be from the Brothers Grimm), a married man (George O’Brien) falls in lust with a floozy from the big city (Margaret Livingston). Before he can take the infatuation any further than canoodling by a country lake, he’s got to get rid of his wife (Janet Gaynor). He takes her out on a boat, planning to “get her drowned”, but can’t go through with it. She works out his intent though and runs. He follows her and they wind up in the big city, where a series of encounters helps them remember they actually do love each other. When they return to the village, she briefly seems lost in a genuine boating accident, before a fairy tale ending.

That’s what Sunrise is: a fairy tale. Murnau aimed at universality in his film. Namesless every people and generic, fantastic locations. A dreamlike structure and pace. It would have a monster who becomes a prince, a damsel in distress who saves the day and a wicked “crone” who wants to shatter their happiness. Thisnarrative simplicity is all part of turning it into a universal fable. It makes for a beautiful simplicity in narrative that is surprisingly effective if you surrender yourself to it. No one is going to mistake it for Tolstoy or Zola (for all it’s Therese Raquin remix), but you might just mistake it from something from Hans Christian Anderson.

This atmosphere benefits even more from Murnau’s artistry. One of the true founding fathers of cinema, Murnau believed in the power of images. (He died with the advent of sound – somehow that seems sadly fitting for a director whose expressionistic power would have sunk forever under the fixed rigidity of Hollywood movie cameras capturing sound.) Sunrise has fewer intertitles than almost any other silent movie. Most are concentrated in the film’s first 20 minutes, establishing plot and character. Then it relies almost entirely on the power of images.

Sunrise may be a slight story, but cinematically it’s a heavyweight. Today, transitions, flashbacks, montages, superimposed images and vivid panoramas are just part and parcel of film. But many of these techniques date from the work of Murnau, and Hollywood really woke up to them with his first American film. Sunrise is immaculately shot – photographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss would also win one of those Oscars – a series of beautifully composed images, with a free flowing camera that looks normal today but reinvented the industry back then. Few other films, except maybe Citizen Kane, can claim to be as influential on cinematic technique.

Look at the opening montage of the big city. What seems like a straightforward fixed shot was a triumph of invention. The city was a carefully constructed set, with the shot combining forced perspective of a model train, dwarf extras and intelligent angles and camera positioning to create a vibrant, overhead shot of city life quite unlike anything anyone had seen before. (Rochus Gleis’ Oscar-winning art design is superb.) The city, when we see it in more depth, is a fascinating collection of architectural influences contrasting beautifully with the village’s homespun ruralism.

The camerawork and editing is sublime, its use of superimposed images truly extraordinary. As the man meets his fancy woman by a lake, they lie back and look at the stars. Above them, in the night sky, images of the city are imposed that stress its energy, excitement and raw sex appeal (can-can dancers and the like). It’s almost like our lovers are watching an actual movie.

Later the imposition will be reversed: after reconciling in the city, man and wife walk down a busy street – without a cut, as they walk, the street fades away and is replaced by the country fields of their home. In most cases, the imagery throws the character’s inner longings up on the screen for the viewer to digest. It doesn’t stop there. Images at various points show the city woman imposed standing behind the man as he debates killing his wife (again those inner thoughts given visual life). As the man lies back on his bed and stares at his wife, water is superimposed on top of him – it’s clear what he is thinking.

Murnau shoots with an expressionistic, early-morning brilliance, the man working home from his assignation – his slumped back and shoulders (George O’Brien joked his back did most of the work) telling us everything about his mood, in contrast with the brilliance of the surroundings, which we realise he finds as overwhelming as we do (he even gets slightly lost in the frame).

The possible drowning is a masterclass in cutting – moving swiftly from the man’s furrowed brow, as he builds up to what he must do, and the wife’s growing realisation of what he has in mind. A big part of the film’s poetic beauty is how this point of no return is an entrée to a love story. Reunited in the city, the two walk into a church and witness a wedding: the ceremony reminds them of the one they once shared, and Murnau captures the two of them emerging from the church just before the married couple, cementing the rebirth of their marriage. It’s an overwhelmingly optimistic view of love and the durability of the human spirit.

The film’s long second act of hijinks in the city can strain the patience of some. It’s effectively the couple’s second honeymoon, from having their photos taken (a candid moment of genuine love) to dancing at a Moulin Rouge style club where the man captures an escaped pig (yes seriously). It’s dreamlike (the camera work, especially in the club, reflecting this) but undoubtedly low on plot and drama. But it’s charming in its simplicity and in Murnau’s little touches of wit – the couple’s attempt to hide a damaged statue in the photographer’s studio is surprisingly funny.

It all leads us back to the narrowly averted tragedy of the final act as – irony of ironies – the newly reconciled couple are swept up in a genuine storm on the river that nearly sweeps the wife to her death. The man is distraught – so much so his homicidal rage is often overlooked him. Anyone seriously considering bumping his wife off is not well adjusted, and his reaction to the presumed loss of his wife it to attempt to strangle his lover.

This doesn’t intrude on the optimism of the tale and Murnau’s desire to present a fairy-tale like restoration of domestic bliss (after all, darker things happen in Brothers Grimm), all of which ends with an art deco sunset that kisses the frame. O’Brien’s body language may seem crude today, but it perfectly communicates the tempest at the heart of the man’s doubt. Gaynor has a beautiful innocence to her (she won an Oscar as well). Together they play enraptured love without being cloying, and are equally convincing during the rage and accusation.

Murnau, inexplicably, didn’t get an Oscar (not even a nomination), but Sunrise is a testament to his artistic brilliance with cinema. Effectively, he created a new grammar for this language, a superb use of visuals, effects, editing and production to lift a slight story into the realms of high art. Which is what Sunrise is: an arthouse poem, a visual feast that will linger with you long after its runtime has elapsed. Its influence has touched so many parts of cinema, that you might wonder today what all the fuss is about. But everything from your arthouse darling to your favourite Marvel blockbuster owes Sunrise a debt.

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter (2010)

A fighter has a title shot, in a surprisingly heartwarming film about the importance of family, no matter how messed up it is

Director: David O Russell

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Micky Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming), Melissa Leo (Alice Eklund-Ward), Jack McGee (George Ward), Frank Renzulli (Sal Lanano), Mickey O’Keefe (Himself)

Everyone loves Rocky. We all want to that local-hero-turned-good, the guy who went the distance. Lowell, Massachusetts had that in Dicky Eklund. Eklund, a minor pro-boxer, once went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 (he argues he knocked him down, although many are convinced Leonard slipped). “The Pride of Lowell” then became… a crack addict, tumbling from disaster to let-down, helping and hindering the career of his brother, fellow boxer Micky Ward.

The story of the two brothers – leading up to Ward’s eventual title shot in 1997 – comes to the screen in Russell’s affectionate, if traditional, boxing drama, long a passion project of Mark Wahlberg who plays Micky. Wahlberg kept himself in boxer-condition for years as he dreamed of making the film, recruiting director and cast and producing the film. The fine, sensitive film we’ve ended up with is a tribute to his commitment and producing skills, while the fact that Wahlberg casts himself in the least dynamic part is a nice sign of his generosity.

Because it’s only really on the surface a Micky Ward film. Sure, the film follows the vital events in his life. It opens with him bashed up in a mis-match, filling his role as a “stepping stone” fighter, someone the future champs flex their muscles against. We follow his struggles to escape from under the thumb of his large brash family – above all his bombastic, domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo). He forms a relationship with ambitious-but-caring Charlene (Amy Adams), moves up the ranking, lands that title shot, fights the big bout. But it never quite feels like Micky is the star.

Because, really, this feels like it’s about Dicky Eklund working out the first act of his life is over, and trying to find if he has what it takes to start a second, more humble, one. The film opens with Dicky followed by an HBO crew for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Dicky’s convinced himself it’s to chart his boxing come-back. It’s actually about the horrific impact of crack addiction. Dicky is a strung-out, unreliable junkie, living on past glories but screwing up everything he touches, being enabled by the fawning worship of his mother and sisters, who still worship him as the families main event (and continue to do so, even as Micky rises to title shot). The film’s heart is Eklund sinking to rock bottom and realising he has forced the compliant Micky into playing a subservient role in his own life.

Perhaps it feels like a film more focused on the remoulding of this charming but selfish figure because of the compelling performance of Christian Bale. Starving himself down to match Eklund’s wizened, strung-out physique (he’s still got the boxer moves, but his body has wasted away) is a day’s work for a transformative actor like Bale. But this isn’t just a physical performance, but a deep immersion into the personality of a person who almost doesn’t realise until it is too late how fundamentally flawed he is. Bale’s a ball of fizzling energy and electric wit coated in a lethargic drug-induced incoherence. His energy is frantic but uncontrolled, wild and mis-focused. It’s a superb, heartfelt performance of loveable but dangerous uselessness that nabbed Bale an Oscar.

But what makes The Fighter a surprisingly warm film is that, for all his many flaws, selfishness and self-obsession, Dicky genuinely cares for his brother. He wants the best for him, he believes in and loves him. Much of the power of Bale’s performance comes from the fact he never forgets this, even when Dicky is at his worst. In fact, Russell’s whole film works because that warmth and love everyone feels for Micky is never forgotten and never weaponised by Russell into helping us make moral judgements about the characters. Nor does it forget that Micky may sometimes hate his family, but he never stops loving and needing them.

A weaker film would have stressed the trailer-trash greed of Melissa Leo’s Alice. Leo (who also scored an Oscar and famously dropped the f-bomb on live TV, condemning the ceremony to a permanent time delayed broadcast ever since) is in many ways playing an awful character: controlling, nakedly favouring Eklund over his brother, quick to judge, rude and aggressive. She’s never truly likeable – but Russell’s film understands everything she does is motivated by love. She genuinely wants the best for Micky, even while she pushes him into bad fights and never listens to him. She tries to protect him, and expresses this in destructive selfishness.

In many ways she’s just like Micky’s girlfriend Charlene, who recognises early that Micky’s family (who have turned him into a timid hen-pecked type) can’t be trusted to run his whole career, but who also subtly pushes herself into Alice’s place as the leading decision-making influence in his life. Very well played by Amy Adams (who lost the Oscar to Leo), Charlene is smart, sexy, loving but just as determined that it’s her way or the highway.

What Micky needs to do, the film carefully (if rather safely) outlines, is take the best qualities of all his influences. It’s Eklund’s “job” to realise Micky needs everyone he loves singing from the same hymn-sheet. It needs compromise and putting other people first. It makes for a nice little paean to the importance of family relationships, founded on forgiveness and admitting when you are wrong. Micky forgives his mother and brother for their selfishness: they, in turn, acknowledge their mistakes. Eklund is crucial here: Bale is again superb as a man who suddenly realises pride has nearly ruined his life and embraces the junior role in the relationship with his brother.

Sure, none of this reinvents this wheel, but it still makes for engaging and rather sweet drama. Russell mixes it with some neat stylistic flourishes that don’t overwhelm the film. It’s shot with an edgy, handheld immediacy reflecting its street roots. The fights are shot with old TV cameras, so that invented footage can fuse with 90s HBO coverage. Russell of course gets great performances from his actors, as he always does.

The Fighter is in many ways predictable. But it wears its heart very much on its sleeve, and Wahlberg deserves credit for assembling it and for giving a quiet, generous performance at the centre of it. And the film’s commitment to the idea that, no matter the problems in our families, we can all find the courage to admit our mistakes and pull in the same direction remains heartwarming.

Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair (1939)

Two people in love, separated by circumstance, in this film of two halves: one comedy, one sentimental

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Irene Dunne (Terry McKay), Charles Boyer (Michel Marnay), Maria Ouspenskaya (Michel’s Grandmother), Lee Bowman (Kenneth Bradley), Astrid Allwyn (Lois Clark), Maurice Moscovich (Maurice Cobert)

In many ways you could say Love Affair was the turning point in Leo McCarey’s career. For years in silent films and the early talkies he had been one of Hollywood’s leading comedy directors, the quick-witted master of the improvisational pun. But there was a second McCarey: the devout Catholic, concerned about social issues. The McCarey who light-heartedly complained when was given an Oscar for The Awful Truth rather than his heartfelt critique of elderly care, Make Way For Tomorrow. This McCarey increasingly leaned into well-meaning, sentimental dramas.

So why is Love Affair a turning point? Because the first half is a charming, funny, sexy meet-cute: and the second a well-meaning but sentimental love story that pulls two people apart. Those meet-cuters are famous Parisian playboy (he’s basically a gigolo) Michel Marney (Charles Boyer) and nightclub singer Terry McKay (Irene Dunne). They meet on a trans-Atlantic liner and fall in love. Problem is they are both engaged to others (both of them rich), waiting for them in New York. Should they decide to chuck it in and be together, they arrange to meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. Come the day, Michel waits – but on the way there, Terry is hit by a car and possibly left paralysed. She doesn’t want to tell him. He thinks she never planned to show up. Will they ever be together?

That car crash is the pivot in a film that feels like two genres surprisingly successfully wedded together. Love Affair is a great idea (so good in fact that McCarey remade it about 20 years later as An Affair to Remember), a romantic story with all the joy and vibrancy of a couple finding each other and falling in love, then the painful sting of tragic circumstances pulling them apart. It manages to be sweetly funny and then more or less manages to land just the right side of sentimental (though, lord, it skates near to the edge).

You go with that more overtly manipulative conclusion though, since the subtle comedic and romantic manipulation of the first half is so well done. McCarey encouraged his actors to improvise: filming started with McCarey sitting at a piano, plinking keys, waiting for inspiration to jazz up the script. It’s an approach many actors found challenging (Cary Grant nearly had a meltdown at first on The Awful Truth). But he found the perfect pairing with Boyer and Dunne.

Of course, Irene Dunne was a veteran. An actress far too overlooked today, Dunne flourished under McCarey’s style. Here she’s gloriously warm, sexy and charming. Terry McKay has a very dry (at times almost slightly smutty) wit; she’s absolutely no fool, but also kind, caring and considerate. Dunne sparkles every time she steps in front of the camera, displaying the sort of comic timing you can’t buy (her teasing glances at Michel during their first meeting, when she accidentally reads a telegram all about his sexual exploits at Lake Como, are to die for). But her face also lights up with a genuine radiance as she finds herself falling in love.

She also sparks wonderfully with Charles Boyer. Another overlooked star of 1930s Hollywood, Boyer was desperate to work with McCarey. He found the improvisational style awakened a relaxed, playful element in his acting that helped make Michel exactly the sort of dreamboat you could imagine falling in love with on a cruise. Boyer was also a superb reactor, his face able to communicate anything from growing interest, to delight and also piety, pain and disappointment. Boyer’s comic timing, like Dunne’s is faultless. Like her, he also effortlessly shifts to drama in the second half, expertly demonstrating the maturity of a playboy into someone generous and understanding.

With these two actors, McCarey couldn’t go too far wrong. Their natural ease with each other makes for wonderful chemistry. They are two people who progress naturally from teasing, to enjoying each other’s company, to realising they enjoy each other’s company way too much. Today, Love Affair can look a little tame – they don’t even kiss (although one shot of crashing waves, cutting to them opening a door on the boat to walk along the deck together, is rather suggestive). But the point is that this is love not an affair (or an affair about love). The feelings they develop for each are genuine and, bless them, they don’t want to corrupt it with behaviour that could compromise them.

Tellingly their love is cemented during a stop off in Madeira, where they visit Michel’s aunt (played by an archly eccentric Maria Ouspenskaya). She welcomes them into her home, bonds with Terry, and Michel shows Terry a far different side to himself than his playboy persona: a thoughtful artist. McCarey even shoots them together (in a beautifully lit scene by photographer Rudolph Maté) in a chapel, kneeling side-by-side at the altar. Could McCarey make the endorsement of their love more clear?

Perhaps he felt he needed to, since the screenplay was controversial. The Hays Code had no intention of allowing a film showing two engaged people walking out on their partners. Perhaps that’s why they needed to be “punished” with that sudden car crash. The second half is less successful: maybe because I find the “I can’t ruin his life by making him look after me in a wheelchair” a little too on the nose. Boyer and Dunne play the hell out of it: Dunne is quietly crushed under a surface of charm and what-will-be-will-be. Boyer tries his best to hide his pain, but still searches for some of what he’s lost in his new career as an artist.

Of course, the truth will out – and it will end happily. But there’s a little too much sentiment in the second half, after the heartfelt romancing of the first. A little too much put-a-brave-face-on-the-pain, a few too many contrivances to maintain the illusion (of course they go to the same play on Christmas Eve!). There are too many sickly sweet scenes of Dunne singing with the kids at the orphanage she’s recuperating at (a ghastly advance warning of McCarey’s tedious Going My Way). But it just about works, because we really care about Terry and Michel. We want them to be together, come what may.

Love Affair can be a mixed bag, but it’s got two wonderful performances for Boyer and Dunne (she was nominated, he was robbed) and McCarey manages to juggle comedy, romance, sweetness and a little touch of sadness. It’s a luscious romantic film, even while you see it manipulating you – and for that, it will always give you a great deal of pleasure.

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Questions of family, up-bringing and sexuality are explored with tenderness and a great deal of wit in this thought-provoking family drama

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Cast: Annette Bening (Nic Allgood), Julianne Moore (Jules Allgood), Mark Ruffalo (Paul Hatfield), Mia Wasikowska (Joni Algood), Josh Hutcherson (Laser Allgood), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are just like any other married couple after years of living together and raising two children: seemingly contented, settled in their ways and routines, missing some of the passion they had in the beginning, locked into their designated roles in the marriage. Nic is the dedicated doctor (with a slight drink problem) whose alpha personality dictates much of how the household is run; Jules is the more relaxed, more bohemian figure, who has rotated through several possible careers while raising their children.

Those children are inadvertently about to shake things up. Both mothers have each given birth to one of the children, using sperm from the same anonymous donor. Older daughter – straight A high-school graduating Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – is Nic’s child; slightly slacker, sports-fixated son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is Jules’. But both children are curious about who their father is: and, with Joni now old enough to request the information, they discover him to be local bohemian restauranteur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Meeting Paul – and bringing him into their family life – opens up cracks in their parents’ marriage which will have far-reaching consequences.

Some from the LGBTQ community criticised Lisa Cholodenko’ film on its release for presenting a lesbian marriage in such a largely conventional way. In many ways though that is in fact its strength. This engaging dramady doesn’t see anything unusual or unworldly about a lesbian marriage: in fact it shows that the problems that can beset long-term heterosexual marriages are just as likely to happen in homosexual ones. Nic and Jules are essentially – even if they don’t realise it at first – stuck in a rut. The passion has largely gone after years, the knowledge that you need to make an effort has evaporated, too many conversations are about household and parental duties. Jules quietly, almost unknowingly, resents what she sees as Nic’s dominance in their lives, while Nic privately feels she pulls much more weight in keeping things running. Not that they consciously realise this at first, in conversations that drip with in-jokes and a very casual familiarity (both Bening and Moore are superb at embodying a relationship that has become so long-term it has developed its own language).

But into this drops a bombshell in Paul. Wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, Paul is relaxed, playful, optimistic and upbeat. To some in the family – in particular Jules and Joni – he is everything that the more uptight and regimented Nic is not. No wonder these two both find themselves drawn to him. Unfortunately, nice guy that he is, Paul is also superbly unruffled by consequences. Events roll off his back. At first this seems like a great thing. He’s patient, understanding and thoughtful when talking to the kids. He helps the uptight Joni to relax. He gives helpful advice to Laser about his unpleasant friend Clay. But his lack of thought about his actions is there from the start (Laser, astutely, is disappointed in his first impression of Paul as self-obsessed). His advice for Joni openly encourages her to defy Nic’s boundaries. He accompanies Laser to watch Clay attempt a dangerous skating stunt like he’s a bro not a dad. And then there is Jules.

The film also drew fire from the LGBTQ community for presenting one half of its normalised lesbian couple entering into an affair with a man. But for Jules, it’s clear, the relationship is really about getting the sort of attention, focus and (to be honest) sexual interest that Nic seemed to stop giving her a long time ago (at one point, Nic prepares a luxurious bath for Jules – but then takes a phone call from work and abandons the promised massage for work). Paul is flirty, sensual and horny: sure he’s a man, but he can give her the sort of sexual pleasure that absent-minded fondlings with Nic late at night no longer even begin to give.

But that’s all it really is to Jules – a sudden, unexpected craving. There is no doubt that her heart belongs to Nic – just as there is no doubt that both she and Nic will be devastated when the affair comes out. (Cholodenko shoots Nic’s realisation beautifully. During a “family dinner” with Paul, the sound drains out during a fixed shot on Bening’s face which pained, heartbroken realisation and anger crosses across. It’s a tour-de-force for Bening that probably went a long way to securing her Oscar nomination). Paul, conversely, seems supremely unaware of the likely impact of his actions – during that family dinner he shows no compunction about bonding for the first time with Nic (who relaxes as we have never seen before until the truth is revealed) over a mutual love for Joni Mitchell.

Paul is, unknowingly, the serpent in the garden that will unbalance the careful equilibrium in the family. Nic is hostile to him from the start, his presence seeming to play into deep rooted insecurities and a fear of being supplanted. For Jules he presents an exotic alternative chance – a relationship with someone who feels accommodating and deferential to her. It blows open the comfortable but familiar rut the two of them are in. In the cracks, Jules becomes distracted and selfish, Nic doubles down on drinking and demands for obedience to her family rules.

If it sounds heavy going, it surprisingly isn’t. Cholodenko (sharing script writing with Stuart Blomberg) throws in plenty of jokes and moments of sweetness. Bening and Moore are both incredibly good in the lead roles: Moore is bubbly, relaxed, sexy but sad deep down dissatisfied and surprisingly selfish. Bening seems at first merely a domineering control freak with a drink problem, but she is revealed as deeply fragile, loving and devoted, a woman whose love is expressed in ways the objects can find overbearing, however well meaning they are. (Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both also great as their kids.)

The Kids Are All Right bubbles with some well judged moments of comedy, drama and tragedy. This is a film, eventually, about the strength of family. Paul may tempt with his care-free optimism and consequence-free thinking. But this film sides, overwhelmingly, with people like Nic who may sometimes make you want to tear your hair out, but will be there time and again, day-after-day, offering love in a way people like Paul never can. Laser and Joni may tease her, may bridle at her rules – but they love her unconditionally, in a way the film shows us with gestures small and large time and again. So, for that matter, does Jules: her actions grow from wanting a more overt return on the affection she more naturally gives.

It’s a film that wears its heart firmly and shamelessly on its sleeve, as it urges us to both recognise and empathise with this fundamentally loving marriage going through a rough patch. And by normalising families like this, it sends a strong message of inclusivity: after all, if we all share the same problems, doesn’t that all help us realise we are the same?

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

For decades unchallenged as the best loved Hollywood film ever made, but showing some signs of its age, it’s still an undeniable marvel

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Ann Rutherford (Careen O’Hara), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Jane Darwell (Mrs Meriweather), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Harry Davenport (Dr Meade)

For most of the twentieth century, if you asked people to draw up a list of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, you can be pretty sure this would be close to the top. A landmark in Hollywood history, everything about Gone with the Wind is huge: sets, run time, costs, legend. It’s crammed with moments that have developed lives of their own in popular culture. Its score from Max Steiner – luscious and romantic – is instantly recognisable, practically Hollywood’s soundtrack. It’s the most famous moment in the lives of virtually all involved and for decades whenever it was released, it raked in the cash. But as we head into the twenty-first century, does GWTW (as it called itself even at the time) still claim its place at the head of Hollywood’s table?

It’s the love child of David O. Selznick. Never mind your auteur theory: GWTW credits Victor Fleming as the director, but parts of it were shot by George Cukor (the original director, who continued to coach Leigh and de Havilland), William Cameron Menzies (the legendary art director, who shot the Atlanta sequences) and Sam Wood (who covered for an exhausted Fleming for several weeks). This is a Selznick joint from top to bottom. GWTW is possibly the ultimate producer’s film: a massive show piece, where not a single cent isn’t up on the screen. Huge sets, vast casts, colossal set pieces, thousands of costumes and extras. It’s an extravaganza and Selznick was determined that it would be an event like no other. And a hugely entertaining event it was.

It would also be scrupulously faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, with a dozen screenwriters working on it (including Selznick). GWTW was the ultimate door-stop romance novel. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire film is a no-holds barred “Lost cause” romance of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the passionate, wilful daughter of a plantation owner, desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is attracted to her but all set to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Also interested in Scarlett is playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Romantic complications are set to one side when the Civil War breaks out, bringing disaster to the South. As the war comes to its end will Scarlett and Rhett find love, or will Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley continue to come between them?

GWTW’s casting was the sort of national obsession not even the casting of a superhero gets today. Every actress in Hollywood seemed to screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, with Selznick playing the search for all the publicity it was worth. No one suggested Vivien Leigh. But, lord almighty, Leigh was placed on this Earth to play Scarlett O’Hara. GWTW is dominated by Leigh, dripping movie star charisma. She would be synonymous with the role for the rest of her life, and it’s no exaggeration to say this one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. Leigh balances a character stuffed with contradictions. Scarlett is wilful and vulnerable, impulsive and calculated, childish and dependable, selfish and generous, spoilt and sensible, romantic and realistic… But Leigh balances all this with complete ease. It’s an act of complete transformation, an astonishingly confident, charismatic and complicated performance.

There was no debate about who would play the romantic hero, Rhett Butler. He basically was Clark Gable. And Gable was perfect casting – so perfect, he was almost too scared to play it. But he did, and he is sublime: matinee idol charismatic, but also wise, witty and vulnerable (it’s easy to forget that Rhett is really in the traditional “woman’s role” – the ever-devoted lover who sticks by his woman, no matter how badly she treats him, spending chunks the latter half of the film halfway to depressed tears). For the rest, Leslie Howard was oddly miscast as Wilkes (he seems too English and too inhibited by the dull role) but Olivia de Havilland excels in a generous performance as Melanie, endearingly sweet and loyal.

These stars were placed in a film production that’s beyond stunning. Shot in glorious technicolour, with those distinctive luscious colours, astonishingly detailed sets were built (plantations, massive dance halls, whole towns). Everything about GWTW is designed to scream prestige quality. It lacks directorial personality – the best shots, including a crane shot of the Civil War wounded or a tracking shot on Leigh through a crowded staircase, seem designed to showpiece the sets and volume of extras. It’s a film designed to wow, crammed with soaring emotions and vintage melodrama. Nothing is ever low key in GWTW: disasters are epic, love is all-consuming passionate clinches. They built stretches of Atlanta so they could burn it down on camera. It’s extraordinary.

And much of GWTW is extremely entertaining. Especially the first half. It’s an often overlooked fact that if you ask people to name things that happen in GWTW, nearly everything (bar the film’s final scene obviously) they will come up with is in the first half. Rhett behind a sofa in the library? Atlanta on fire? Rhett and Scarlett at the ball? Scarlett surrounded by admirers at a garden party? “I’ll never be hungry again?” All before the interval. The first half is a rollicking, fast-paced rollercoaster that takes us from the height of the South to the devastation after the war. It grabs you by the collar and never lets go, supremely romantic, gripping and exciting.

The second half? Always duller. Bar the start and finish of the second half (nearly two hours in all), it’s a Less memorable film. Sure, it has the O’Hara’s in extreme poverty, Scarlett reduced to converting a curtain into a dress to glamour up some cash to keep Tara. It’s got Ashley and Melanie’s adorably sweet reunion. And it’s got possibly the most famous line ever in movies “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (not to mention “Tomorrow is another day”).

Other than that? It’s a bitty, plot-heavy series of forgettable, episodic moments which you feel really should have been cut. Who remembers Frank Kennedy? Or Scarlett’s lumber mill? Rhett pushing his daughter in a pram? The London sequence? There is a solid hour of this film which is flatly shot, dully paced and devoid of anything memorable at all. GWTW owes all its beloved reputation to the first half: and to be fair you’ll be so swept up in that you’ll give the film a pass for its middling second act. After all you get just about enough quality to keep you going.

But what about the elephant in the room? GWTW, like no other beloved film, has a deeply troubling legacy. They were partly aware of it at the time – after all, every racial epithet was cut, as is every reference to the KKK (it’s referred to as a “political meeting” and Rhett and Ashley’s membership is glossed over) and we never see the attack they carry out on a shanty town of former slaves. But GWTW remains, in many ways, a racist film peddling an unpleasant and dangerous mythology that the “Lost Cause” of the South was all about gentlemanly fair play, rather than coining it off plantations full of enslaved workers.

GWTW, in many ways, plays today a bit like a beloved elderly relative who comes round for dinner and then says something deeply inappropriate half-way through the main course. The dangerous mythology is there from the opening crawl which talks of the South as a land of “Cavaliers and cotton fields” where “Gallantry took its last bow…[full of] knights and their ladies fair, of Master and Slave”. The third shot of the film is a field of smiling slaves, working in a cotton field. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar (at a segregated ceremony) and she is wonderfully warm as Mammy, but her character is another contented underling. At least she seems smarter than the other main black characters, Pork and Queeny: both are like children reliant on the guidance of their masters.

The Cause of the South is luscious and romantic, as are the people who fight it. Nearly every Yankee we see is corrupt, ugly and greedy, rubbing defeat in our heroes’ faces. It’s not quite Birth of a Nation, but the second half has a creeping suspicion of freed black people. A carpetbagger from the North is a smug, fat black man who mocks wounded Southern soldiers. Scarlett’s walk through the streets of a rebuilt Atlanta sees her startled and mildly hustled by black people who no longer know their place. Every prominent black character is sentimental about the good old days. GWTW would make an interesting double feature with 12 Years a Slave.

It’s this dangerous and false mythology that makes the film troubling today. It’s why you need to imagine the entire thing with a massive asterisk – and why you should be encouraged to find out more about the era than the fake and self-serving fantasy the film peddles as reality. But for all that, GWTW is so marvellous as a film that it will always be watched (and rightly so), even if it was always a film of two halves and only becomes more controversial in time. But watch it with a pinch of salt, and it is still one of the most gorgeous, sweeping and romantic films of all time: that’s why it still remains, for many, the definitive “Hollywood” film.

After Love (2021)

After Love (2021)

Loss, grief and family combine in Aleem Khan’s poetic, heartfelt debut

Director: Aleem Khan

Cast: Joanna Scanlan (Mary Hussain), Nathalie Richard (Genevieve), Talid Ariss (Solomon), Nasser Memarzia (Ahmed), Sudha Bhuchar (Farzanna), Nisha Chadha (Mina)

Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) is a white English woman who converted to Islam decades ago to marry Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). Ahmed works as a captain of a ferry ship, travelling between their home in Dover and Calais. When he suddenly passes away, Mary is distraught. But that’s nothing compared to how she feels when she discovers Ahmed had a second family in Calais: Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their son Solomon (Talid Ariss) – whose very existence is a painful memory of the child Mary and Ahmed lost decades ago. Mary travels to Calais to do she’s-not-sure-what but, due to a misunderstanding, ends up working as a cleaner in Genevieve’s house as she packs for a move, totally unaware Ahmed is not just ignoring her calls.

The debut film from Aleem Khan – whose mother was similarly a white English convert, living in Kent, who immersed herself in her adopted culture – After Love is part fascinating moral dilemma, part profound exploration of the burden of grief. Mary’s life has been shattered by the loss, not only of her husband, but the even greater loss of her understanding of what her life was. Khan captures this with a beautifully shot visual metaphor: Mary hallucinates the world literally collapsing around her, from dust dancing in the sunlight, to cracks appearing in the ceiling above her to a vivid hallucination of the white cliffs of Dover collapsing behind her as she sails to Calais.

Khan’s film is at its strongest when it centres Mary’s emotions and faith. It’s a wonderful endorsement of the power of faith. Faith is central to Mary’s life: she immersed herself in her adopted culture – from prayer to dress to food, which she cooks with love-infused skill. Part of the film’s purpose is to challenge any underlying assumptions we may have about this culture. Mary’s faith is not something forced upon her or which provides barriers to her. It has, instead, given her peace, purpose and contentment. In a world where images of Islam are not always so positive, it’s refreshing to see religion as such a positive force in a person’s life.

But the film also knows seeing a woman in a hijab carries certain assumptions. Its perhaps the biggest reason why, when Mary arrives at her door, Genevieve assumes she is a cleaner. Later she will question why Mary wears it, as if it was a set of chains rather than a personal choice that is an expression of her faith. For Genevieve, the hijab not only makes it easier to push her into a servile position, it also defines her, in the eyes some, as being on the lower rungs of society (which she isn’t). You can be confident if Mary had turned up wearing a black dress and a hat, the film would have played out very differently.

We see Mary carefully prep what she might say to this other woman, before she arrives. It all goes out of the window in tongue-tied fear and shock when she arrives. Instead, she ends up working as a cleaner. Mary accepts the misunderstanding for reasons she almost can’t understand herself. Is it meekness? Awkwardness? Curiosity? Shock that this woman is far more glamourous than she is? Does she want revenge? She hardly knows herself, using her position in the house, effectively as a servant, to learn more about this woman and the family she built with her husband.

If there is a weakness in After Love it’s the slightly contrived nature of this plot. In a film grounded in the realism of the pain of loss – Mary’s devastation, confusion and sense of being adrift is explored with a profound sensitivity – it revolves around the sort of plot device that wouldn’t seem out of place in a soap opera. It takes a bit of investment – which the film just about manages to earn – to go with this storyline, which relies slightly on contrivance to sustain itself.

But it does allow us to have our perceptions about Genevieve challenged as well. While we assume, at first, she will be little better than a hussy, we discover she is a sensitive, realistic woman, well aware that she is (and more than a little guilty about being) “the other woman”. She is struggling with her teenage son Solomon, who can’t understand why his life is so unusual and of course blames his mother more than his absent (and therefore idealised) father.

In fact, the longer Mary stays in this house, not telling the truth, becoming a confidant to mother and son, the more you start to feel your loyalty shift. From our first perception of Mary being the wronged woman, the more you start to feel she is taking terrible advantage of Genevieve and her son. That not telling them Ahmed is dead, as they long to hear from him, is wrong. That her attempt to comfort Solomon (whom she starts to feel a motherly love for) by texting him from Ahmed’s phone is inadvertently deeply cruel. You start to feel unease about this interloper, lying to this family at what is already a difficult time.

The fact you stick with her is due to the extraordinary performance by Joanna Scanlon. Quiet, polite, over-flowing with faith and a desire to help, Scanlon also lets us see that the loss of Ahmed (and the loss of her memories of a happy marriage) has torn her apart. Scanlon’s performance drips with grief and pain, an anguish she can barely form into words. It’s a gentle powerhouse of humanity (and rightly BAFTA winning). Richard and Ariss also give fabulously raw performances as two people only just holding their own relationship together, never mind processing the loss of a husband and father.

After Love is strongest when exploring the profound and lasting effect of grief. Khan’s film is shot with a poetic beauty, and he draws deep and moving performances from his lead actors. It revolves around a massive contrivance but carries enough impact that you’ll feel the same note of hope, of the debris settled and life going on, as the film ends on.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

The Magician (1958)

The Magician (1958)

Illusion, faith and rationalism are all explored in Bergman’s fascinating musing on performance

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Albert Emanuel Vogler), Ingrid Thulin (Aman/Manda Vogler), Gunnar Björnstrand (Dr. Vergerus), Naima Wifstrand (Granny Vogler), Bengt Ekerot (Johan Spegel), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Birgitta Pettersson (Sanna), Gertrud Fridh (Ottilia Egerman), Lars Ekborg (Simson), Toivo Pawlo (Police Superintendent Starbeck), Erland Josephson (Consul Egerman), Åke Fridell (Tubal), Sif Ruud (Sofia Garp), Oscar Ljung (Antonsson), Ulla Sjöblom (Henrietta Starbeck), Axel Düberg (Rustan)

He who tells the truth may be the greatest liar. So thinks Mr Aman (Ingrid Thulin), in the carriage carrying him and the rest of Albert Emmanuel Volger’s Magnetic Health Theatre to a performance in a village in nineteenth-century Sweden. It’s fitting for Aman to thinking about it, since he’s actually Vogler’s wife Manda. The mute Vogler (Max von Sydow) claims powers of healing and mesmerism. But perhaps he’s making it up? If we peek behind the curtain, what is the truth?

Peeking behind the curtain is exactly what their clients want to do. The troupe is due to perform before a trio of rationalists, practically falling over themselves to debunk every step Vogler takes. Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a chilly health official who only believes what his own hands touch. Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) wants to prove it’s rubbish to his wife Ottila (Gertrude Fridh), while Police Superintendent Starbeck (Tovio Pawlo) is a swaggering bully who just likes making people feel small. But can the imperious Vogler turn the tables on these would-be myth busters?

Bergman first struck upon the idea for The Magician after observing how much audiences at the theatre wanted to go backstage and meet the actors – and how they were invariably disappointed when they did at how everyday it was. Based on a GK Chesterton play, The Magician is a multi-layered musing on the relationship between performance and viewing, and the conflict between rationalism and faith. At heart it sympathises with the plight of the performer, presenting their work to an unsympathetic, uninterested, unengaged and unimpressed audience.

The theatre troupe look all sorts of glamourous, with the eccentric costumes and their intriguingly unknowable personae. They offer a carnival of the weird and wonderful that fascinates the rationalists, in spite of how much they want to debunk it. But, as they strip down the acts, they find plainer, simpler, less mysterious people below. Despite their eagerness to know how the trick is done, they are disappointed to find out. They barely watch the acts, or listen to the skill of the performers, because they are focused on unpicking the minutia and detail (Bergman having a pop at pretentious critical writing like the material here perhaps?).

Our rationalists are, to a man, an unpleasant, smug and often insufferable bunch. They have a clear world view and anything unscientific doesn’t fit in it: even God is “totally out of date”. Tovio Pawlo’s Starbeck is a crude, jumped-up bully, who feels barely more than a step or two higher up the social pyramid than Vogler. Egerman (a wonderfully nervy and insecure Erland Josephson) is so in awe of facts and statistics he can barely think for himself. Really controlling things is Dr Vergerus, a masterful performance of arrogance and self-satisfaction masquerading as open-minded scientific enquiry from Gunnar Björnstrand.

Far from inquiring, Vergeus’ mind is rigidly closed to anything outside of his world view. People are categorised and little more than objects of curiosity – he even speaks (ominously it turns out) of an eagerness to dissect Vogler. Flashes of the supernatural or inexplicable are met with blank terror which Vergeus swiftly covers with cold impassivity. He has made up his mind well before Vogler arrives. Like the rest of the rationalists, he preaches absolute truth but only on his own terms.

And perhaps he’s right to, in a way. The troupe are liars – but at least they are honest about it. They claim magical skills of healing and love potions (“what the bottle looks like and the colour” is far more important than the contents) which they merrily flog to the credulous. Their magic tricks are dressed up in elaborate costumes and quasi-mystical business. Their promoter Tubal (another impressive, bombastic performance for Bergman from Åke Fridell) shamelessly peddles exaggerated stories of their mastery. They may be a glamourous, but they are also cheap.

And then of course there is Vogler, who has practically dressed himself as a prop. Coated in pale make-up, Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing black wig, von Sydow presents Vogler as an enigmatic showman. Bergman makes fabulous use of his riveting stare – surely he doesn’t need any flim-flam to hypnotise when he can glare at you like that. There is a sadness to Vogler though: his faith in himself has gone. Encountering a dying actor on the road (a neat cameo from Bengt Ekerot – and a nice call-back to his and von Sydow’s Seventh Seal team-up), Vogler’s face leans forward in fascination, curiosity and a strange longing as the actor faces death, as if he is longing to touch powers beyond once more. Manda is adamant his powers used to be real, but behind the contemptuous and defiant stare it’s unclear if Vogler knows where he is going.

Not that it matters. He’s still got the star quality to leave Mrs Egerman weak at the knees, desperate to seduce him to touch a part of his magic. And the powers are still there – even in their first meeting, Vegeus feels a flash of discomfort as Vogler’s fixed stare causes his mind to drift (a fear he dismisses in seconds). Its only as Bergman’s film strips down the performance qualities of Vogler – his costume, his make-up, his stage persona – and leaves an off-duty actor, that the dark fascination of his clients finally snaps all together into smug, rationalist contempt.

But that’s not before Vogler turns the table on Vergeus with an unsettling confrontation in a locked loft, after a performance seems to have gone disastrously wrong. It’s Vogler’s intimidating “real performance” to prove he and his troupe can still engross and deceive their audiences. This horror-tinged, mesmeric sequence of reflections, shadows, distant sounds and small movements is another reminder of what a master of the cinema of terror Bergman could have been (imagine he had joined von Sydow for The Exorcist!). It’s a superb sequence that almost shakes Vergeus’ faith in his certainty, before becoming another confirmation of how dismissive audiences are when they find out how the trick was done (no matter the impact it had on them at the time).

The Magician isn’t perfect. The middle of the film spends a little too long with the servants in the belly of the house (a Bergman trope of delight for the love of simple, everyday pleasures among the working classes). But its exploration of rationalism and artistry is fascinating. There are masterful performances (in addition to the earlier named, Ingrid Thulin is outstanding). But there is a lingering sense underneath that perhaps Bergman is gently accusing us of being little better than the rationalists, eager to know how cinema works but then talking it down when we find out. Which I suppose means a review of it rather makes his point.