Milk (2008)

Milk (2008)

A political pioneer is lovingly paid tribute to in van Sant’s heartfelt biopic

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), James Franco (Scott Smith), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Major George Mascone), Denis O’Hare (State Senator John Briggs), Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich), Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta)

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Milk is a passionate, accessible and lovingly crafted biopic from Gus van Sant, which aims to restore this crucial figure back to the heart of public consciousness. van Sant covers a lot, but he crafts a film that hums with respect and a great deal of life. It also gains a huge amount from Sean Penn’s extraordinary and compassionate Oscar-winning performance, which embodies the spirit of this political pioneer.

Milk, in many ways, takes a traditional biopic approach, attempting to capture all the major events of Milk’s life in just over two hours. We follow Milk (Sean Penn) from closeted office worker, starting a relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco) to San Francisco and becoming part of a vibrant gay community – although one still facing an onslaught of discrimination and persecution from the authorities. Milk determines to change things, eventually elected as City Supervisor in 1977. From there he fights against the anti-gay Proposition 6 and pushes for change, until his murder by fellow City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) in November 1978.

Milk makes a strong statement about the dangers faced by the gay community in this period of American history. It opens with a montage of newsreel footage showing the impact of raids and the reaction to Milk’s murder. It explores in detail the vicious backlash against gay rights across America, with Florida among several states passing legislation to repeal rights. There is a creeping sense of danger throughout, from Milk walking down a dark street looking over his shoulder, to the everyday prejudice characters encounter on the streets. Above all perhaps, it strongly demonstrates the powerful sense of shame people were driven into about their sexuality, most powerfully in a young man who cold-calls Milk begging for help. Milk fascinatingly explores the tensions within the gay community and its representatives – split between radicals, like Milk and his friends, and the more traditional elite worried someone “too gay” will alienate people.

It’s a beautifully shot, loving recreation of 1970s San Francisco, fast-paced, insightful and informative. As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives an extraordinary, transformative performance. Penn’s careful study has beautifully reproduced Milk’s mannerisms and vocal tics, but above all he has captured a sense of the man’s soul. Penn presents Milk as fiery but caring, loving but sometimes selfish, passionate but reasoned, both an activist and a politician. He’s a man determined to make life better, so young men don’t feel the shame he felt growing up – not a hero or a superman, just someone who feels he can (and should) make a difference. Penn’s energetic performance mixes gentleness with a justified vein of anger at injustice.

And he has a lot to be angry about. The film’s finest sequence is Milk’s duel with Senator John Briggs (waspishly played by Denis O’Hare) over Proposition 6. van Sant skilfully re-constructs the debate, but also carefully elucidates the high stakes and the impact its passing would have had. van Sant’s film is frequently strong not only at reconstruction but also in using drama to inform and, above all, to bring to life the sense of hope people had that the struggle could lead to change.

The film grounds Milk firmly within his relationships and friendships, while exploring clearly the issues that motivated him so strongly. To do this, the film shies away from Milk’s polyamorous relationships, grounding him in a series of long-term relationships, some functional and some not. It presents Scott Smith (sensitively played by James Franco) as Milk’s lost “soul-mate” (the couple split over Milk’s all-consuming focus on campaigning) – perhaps van Sant’s attempt to keep the film as accessible as possible by introducing a more traditional element. Smith is contrasted with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a sulky and immature man equally alienated by Milk’s focus.

Those personal relationships are extended to explore the tensions and fractured friendship between Milk and his eventual murderer Dan White. You’d expect the film to recraft White as a homophobic killer. Instead, it acknowledges White’s crime was largely motivated by factors other than gay rights, primarily his mental collapse and his sense of aggrievement over a workplace dispute. Sensitively played by Josh Brolin, White is presented as a man’s man suffering from a deep sense of inadequacy and insecurity (the film openly suggests he may have been closeted himself). Milk’s mistake is misunderstanding the depths of this man’s insecurities and never imagining the lengths they might drive him to. Brolin is very good as this troubled, if finally unsympathetic, man.

Milk of course fully anticipated being murdered – it was just he expected a homophobic slaying at a rally, rather than an office shooting by an aggrieved co-worker. One of the clumsier devices used in the film is its framing device of Milk recording his will a few days before his unexpected murder, a device that seems to exist solely to allow Penn to pop up and explain things more fully at points the film can’t find another way to expand. But again, it might be another deliberate attempt by van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black to make a film as accessible as possible, by falling back on traditional biopic devices (including its semi-cradle-to-grave structure), just as he aims to shoot the film in a vibrant but linear and visually clear style, avoiding overt flash and snappy camera and editing tricks.

Perhaps that’s because the film generally knows it doesn’t need to overplay its hand to capture emotion (when it does, it’s less effective: you could argue its slow-mo murder of Milk to the sound of Tosca is far less affecting than the look of shock and horror that crosses Penn’s face a moment earlier when he realises what is about to happen – a cut to black might have worked more effectively here). Actual footage of the candlelit vigil after his murder, mixed with reconstruction, is simple but carries real impact. Throughout the film, real-life stories pop-up time and again of prejudice and pain, which move with their honesty. Above all, it becomes a beautiful tribute to a passionate, brave and extraordinary man who left the world a better place than he found it.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Farrell (Pádraic Súilleabháin), Brendan Gleeson (Colm Doherty), Kerry Condon (Siobhan Súilleabháin), Barry Keoghan (Dominic Kearney), Pat Shortt (Jonjo Devine), Jon Kenny (Gerry), Brid Ni Neachtain (Mrs O’Riordan), Gary Lydon (Paedar Kearney), Aaron Monaghan (Declan), Shelia Fitton (Mrs McCormick), David Pearse (Priest)

Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are life-long friends on the small Irish island of Inisherin. Until one day, in 1923, Colm bluntly says he won’t speak to Pádraic again as “I just don’t like ya no more”. What on earth has led to this seemingly permanent severance? Did Pádraic do something wrong? The torment of not knowing will create a huge strain on Padraic, who prides himself on “being nice” and can’t understand why the older Colm doesn’t want to chat him. Just as Colm can’t understand why Pádraic can’t leave him alone, especially as he is almost universally agreed to be dull. Eventually this blunt stop to a friendship swiftly escalates out of all control.

McDonagh’s film is packed with the scintillating dialogue you would expect, and he combines it with an intriguing, tragedy-tinged character study where two sympathetic characters tip themselves into destruction through the unwillingness of either of them to compromise. It’s no coincidence that the film is set during the Irish Civil War. Cut off from the mainland on their tranquil island (where life feels like it hasn’t changed for the best part of 100 years), the characters are disturbed from their own civil war, every now and again, by the sound of gunfire and explosions from the mainland. The Banshees of Inisherin can be seen as a commentary on civil wars: don’t they all start, essentially, from someone deciding they have had enough and “just don’t like ya” anymore?

This marvellously rich film boils down a whole country tearing itself apart over what sort of future it wants, into one personal clash over two people’s future. The future increasingly obsesses Colm, a man preoccupied with mortality (who assumes his life can now be counted in years rather than decades), suffering from depression, worried he will disappear leaving no mark. A talented fiddle player, he wants to be like Mozart, remembered decades later – and he can’t do that wasting time every day for hours on end listening to Pádraic talking about his “wee donkey’s shite”.

It’s a perspective on the future, that Pádraic just can’t understand. For him, what does it matter what people you’ll never meet think about you? What matters to him is that the people around him like him and remember him as a “nice fella”. Not in a million years does legacy occur to him: the familiarity of everyday being the same is the most comforting thing, and change a horrific and terrifying thing to be avoided as much as possible.

You can see all this instantly in Colin Farrell’s heart-rending performance as this gentle, fragile but unimaginative soul, heart-broken at the inexplicable loss of his best friend. The film is a striking reminder that, contrary to his looks, Farrell’s best work is in embodying lost souls, the sort of people never ready for the life’s hurdles. Pádraic certainly isn’t, and his attempt to process what has happened defeats him. A man who considers his pet goat his next best friend and is as reliant as a child on his sister, doesn’t have the ability to understand what Colm is driving at about mortality, assuming instead he will stumble across the right words to be welcomed back into Colm’s company. He becomes the unstoppable object, trying to batter down Colm’s wall of silence.

He’s onto a losing battle, as Colm reveals himself to be – either due to his depression or his just not caring any more – the immovable force. Wonderfully played with a tinge of sadness and a depression-induced monomania, by Brendan Gleeson, Colm is a decent guy in many ways but fails to appreciate or consider the effect his actions will have on others. Instead he is focused on achieving at least something notable from his life. It leads to dramatic steps to drive Pádraic away, Colm threatening to cut off one of his fiddle playing fingers every time Pádraic bothers him, a threat he transpires to be more than willing to carry out.

And so civil war breaks out. As well as the parallels with Ireland’s war, I also felt strong echoes of our own poisoned social-media discourse. By his own lights, Colm believes his sudden severing of contact with Pádraic is perfectly reasonable. Many people who have “ghosted” others no doubt feel the same. Colm is reasonable when he explains it, and he still steps in with silent acts of comfort and support when Pádraic falls foul of the island’s brutish police office. But he never considers the traumatic impact this unexplained change will have on Pádraic – or how flashes of kindness can be as cruel as hours of non-acknowledgement.

Radicalism, in civil war and social media, quickly takes hold. What else can you call Colm’s threat to slice off his own fingers (the fingers he needs to live his dream of fiddle-playing legacy)? Just like people blowing hard on Twitter, he needs to deliver or lose face. Pádraic makes angry, passionate condemnations of Colm in the pub, like he’s posting rants online. Things escalate to a point where no-one feels they can step away or backdown.

That’s the tragedy McDonagh identifies here. This one decision of Colm’s – no matter the motives – ends up having disastrous effects on both men. Pádraic changes from a gentle soul to someone capable of wrathful fury and lifelong grudges. Colm literally disfigures himself, guaranteeing he will never achieve the very thing he started this for. Could there be a better parable for the destructive nature of civil combat? Neither Colm or Pádraic are willing to compromise: what if Colm said he would only see Pádraic once or twice a week, eh? Just like Ireland, they burn the world down.

This all takes place in a rich framework, with McDonagh skilfully working in clever, challenging sub-plots. The legend of the banshee, who foretold death and enjoyed watching destruction, is woven throughout, embodied by the sinister Mrs McCormick (a ghostly Shelia Fitton). The most forward-looking person on the island is Pádraic’s sister Siobhan – brilliantly played by Kerry Condon – who finds herself wondering why on earth she stays in such a self-destructive small-world. Barry Keoghan (also superb) plays the universally acknowledged village dunce, who (if you stop and listen to him) quotes French and poetry and (for all his crudeness and lack of social graces) is clearly a man stunted under the heel of his abusive father, the village policeman.

As events escalate and rush out of control – McDonagh’s pacing is very effective here – the film slows for carefully judged moments of emotional power, from the burial of a beloved pet to a character weeping in bed at the painful choices that must be made. McDonagh has created a powerful universal metaphor for the dangers of extreme, definitive choices and a total rejection of compromise by boiling it down to the smallest scale possible.

And your sympathies ebb and flow, due to the beautiful performances from its lead. Farrell is heartbreaking, a memory you carry as he becomes more vengeful. Gleeson is coldly reasonable, even as we grow to understand his crushing sense of mortality and character-altering depression. These two actors power an intelligent and thought-provoking film that achieves a huge amount with subtle and rewarding brushstrokes.

All This and Heaven Too (1940)

All This and Heaven Too (1940)

Illicit romance, murder, scandal… it should all be so much more exciting than this film makes it

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Bette Davis (Henriette Deluzy-Desportes), Charles Boyer (Duke Charles de-Praslin), Barbara O’Neil (Fanny Sebastiani de-Praslin), June Lockhart (Isabelle de Choiseul-Praslin), Virginia Weidler (Louise de Choiseul-Praslin), Jeffrey Lynn (Reverend Henry Martin Field), George Coulouris (Charpentier, Harry Davenport (Pierre), Montagu Love (Army General Horace Sebastiani), Helen Westley (Mme LeMarie), Henry Daniell (Broussais)

In the 1840s, Henriette (Bette Davis) arrives as governess at the home of the Count de-Praslin (Charles Boyer). She’s calm, collected, patient and caring: in short she’s everything that the count’s wife Fanny (Barbara O’Neil) is not, and it doesn’t take the count long to work it out. With Henriette swiftly becoming a second mother to his four children, the count and Henriette find themselves falling, unspokenly, in love. But Fanny isn’t fooled – and neither is the gutter press – and as scandal brews, the count takes drastic action to stop his wife, leading to a legal case that will shock France.

All This, and Heaven Too was conceived as a sweeping romance to rival Gone with the Wind. Money was lavishly splashed on sets and costumes (Bette Davis has no fewer than 37 costumes in the film, averaging at one every five minutes). Based on a famous murder case – that some felt had contributed towards the anti-monarchy atmosphere that led to the revolution of 1848 – All This, and Heaven Too had everything on paper to challenge Gone with the Wind in romance stakes. So why doesn’t it?

There is something too restrained, too slow and controlled about the film. It’s overlong – the original cut was over three hours, reduced to 2 hours 20 minutes – and takes a very long time to get going. The two stars underplay very effectively – with Davis cast very successfully against type as a mousey, rather timid Jane Eyre-ish figure – but it also means that the sort of grand romance the film is aiming for never quite takes fire, for all the careful shots of burning flames between the two lovers as they discuss their romantic predicaments in roundabout terms.

Litvak’s film saddles itself with a framing device that, while accurate to the real-life story, adds very little. The film opens with Henriette teaching children in America – children who have no respect for her, having heard whispers of her scandalous past – which leads into her telling the story to them (and us) about her past. The film returns to this framing device at the end, but as a whole it provides very little insight or interest to the core thrust of the film’s action. The film also wastes time on Jeffrey Lynn’s Reverend (Heinrette’s future husband), a relationship that seems largely in there to absolve Henriette of any possible indirect responsibility for the murder (she can’t be a hussy, she marries a man of the cloth!).

A large chunk of the film is designed to minimise what was a major scandal that rocked French society. This was a (possible) sexual affair between an unhappily married aristocrat and the governess to his children. It culminated in the countess being stabbed and beaten to death and her blood-stained husband found on the scene, claiming he had fought and chased away an intruder (which, writing it down, is basically the plot of The Fugitive). He never confessed, but committed suicide via arsenic in prison a few months later. Henriette was arrested as an accessory (presumably for encouraging the count to kill his wife) but released.

This should have been racy, racy stuff – but the film shies away from it. It’s probably linked to the expectation that the Hays Code would never accept the idea of Henriette as an adulteress who never goes unpunished. The possible Therese Raquin style set-up is instead translated into a more Jane Eyre model, with the employer in love but the servant too noble to act on her feelings and expose herself to disgrace. The film does pull no punches in making clear that the count committed the crime (the camera zooming in on Boyer’s starring eyes as a he advances on his pleading wife) but since he was always destined to meet a historical punishment (he helpfully absolves Henriette on his deathbed) there were no concerns there.

All This, and Heaven Too can’t have a passionate, lusty drama so it avoids any overt spark between Boyer and Davis. Both actors play this steaming, unspoken attraction extremely well, but the film has to work overtime to get drama out of their several scenes of standing carefully apart or side-by-side, talking about everything except their own feelings. Boyer, as ever, is first class: his expressive eyes and beautiful ability to listen and react is as perfect for an unspoken romance, as it is for a man who becomes convinced murder is his only escape. Davis’ meeker, Joan Fontainesque role suits her extremely well, even if it disappoints those expecting fireworks.

Those fireworks come from Barbara O’Neil instead, raving and unreasonable as a woman driven to the edge by this semi-imagined affair, in an energetic performance that gained one of the film’s three Oscar nominations. But the film’s strange momentum affects her too: she is left to repeatedly hit the same notes over again, as the film repeats its established set-up over and over for over 90 minutes before she is murdered (then squashes everything connected to the historical scandal and the murder trial into the final 40 minutes).

It’s productions standards are high and it’s well shot by Gone with the Wind cameraman Ernest Haller. There is some beautiful use of shadows and several ball scenes are expanded with some gorgeous use of mirrors. It ticks many of the boxes you expect a period romance to have, but is fatally hampered by its caution and by its restrictive narrative choices. It ends up feeling long and drifts too often through its build-up, forcing it to rush its pay-off. All of this contributes to its lack of challenge to GWTW in the romance stakes.

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

Brutal, dark and nihilistic British gangster film removes any chance that you might fancy trying a life of crime

Director: Mike Hodges

Cast: Michael Caine (Jack Carter), Ian Hendry (Eric), John Osborne (Kinnear), Britt Ekland (Anna), Brian Mosley (Cliff Brumby), George Sewell (Con McCarty), Tony Beckley (Peter the Dutchman), Glynn Edwards (Albert Swift), Alun Armstrong (Keith), Bernard Hepton (Thorpe), Petra Markham (Doreen), Geraldine Moffat (Glenda), Dorothy White (Margaret)

It’s probably the finest British gangster film ever made. Get Carter is a cold, dark, grimy film – a punch to the solar plexus, which completely rejects any sense of charm in its gangster characters. Michael Caine called Jack Carter a shadow Caine, the man he could have become if his life had broken out slightly differently. It’s set in an unremittingly bleak Newcastle, but it feels like it might be happening in an anti-chamber of hell, with its thoroughly amoral lead barely aware he’s spiralling towards destruction. It’s a sociopathic, Jacobean revenge tragedy set among the dirt filled suburbs of Newcastle.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a professional fixer for London gangster brothers. He returns to his childhood home of Newcastle after the sudden death of his brother. But he’s not satisfied with the official explanation. Instead, he dives into an investigation, in which he cares not a jot about the collateral damage he causes or the likely reaction of the underworld powers that be as he rocks the boat to destruction, trashing the lives of everyone he meets, good and bad.

Powered by an extraordinary performance of blank nihilism and cold, unexpressed fury by Caine, nominally Jack is a man motivated by the harm done to his family. However, Hodges film is so cold-eyed and realistic about the mentality of gangsters, we know it’s just an excuse. Carter is never heart-broken, he’s annoyed. His brother may have been punished and his niece (it transpires) misused, but fundamentally what motivates Carter is the affront. By taking a pop at his family, he feels they really think they can take a pop at him. How dare they: he’s Jack Carter.

Any charm Carter has, solely comes from residual affection for Caine. By any measure, Carter is an awful man (even if he has a good turn of phrase). He is a sociopath with no concern for anyone. When friendly Keith (a young Alun Armstrong) is beaten black and blue for helping Carter, how does our hero respond? Tosses a few bank notes on his bed and tells him “buy some karate lessons”. Carter sees the world solely as made up of debts, which can be discharged by money, never mind the situation. His niece throws beer over a friend? He’ll pay for the dry-clean. Keith gets bashed up: take a roll of twenties, what’s your problem?

Carter directly kills four people (and is responsible for several other deaths), all with a blank-eyed lack of reaction. There isn’t any sadism to what he does – the deaths are mostly efficient and to his mind, justified, because by taking actions against his family they disrespected him. When he locks a woman in the boot of his car, and a pair of heavies push the car into the Tyne he doesn’t bat an eyelid at her inevitable death (never mind he slept with her hours before). People who find themselves close to Jack, or drawn into his circle, suffer terribly and he literally couldn’t care less.

Get Carter is the bleakest of all gangster films, shot with an imaginative kitchen-sink beauty by Mike Hodges, which actually carries a lot more visual glory than you might expect. Drained out colours abound – there are virtually no bright primary colours in this, with the whole of Newcastle a mix of muddy browns, soot-stained greys and filthy charcoals. Hodges’ film is also dynamic and fast-paced: he throws in striking aerial and crane shots (there is a beautiful shot that follows a car chase from a bird’s eye view), but also gets down and dirty in this grainy world.

It’s an urgent, lean and mean film constantly kicking you in the shins, but told with skill and artistry. Hodges pieces together a marvellous early scene, where Carter visits local heavy Kinnear (a suave, chillingly well-spoken John Osborne): simultaneously, in one single location, two scenes (both with vital information) play out at the same time – Carter chats to Kinnear’s moll Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), picking up vital information while on the same sofa Kinnear beats his guests at cards. Everything though is perfectly clear: masterful stuff. It’s also a film crammed with small details that reward careful viewing: Carter’s bed has a cross-stitch of “What would Jesus say?” above it (I dread to think) and on his train journey, look out for a fellow passenger with a distinctive ring.

So confidently is this put together, it’s amazing to think Hodges was a first-time director. This is a film dripping with menace, but also a horrifyingly immersive camera. We are frequently thrown into the midst of the action. Carter frequently looms over the camera or is filmed in violent motion moving towards his next goal. There is not a jot of romanticism around the film: neither about the gangsters or the bleak world they operate in. Newcastle is pre-Thatcherite hellhole, with precious little glamour. Even the gangster locales – the clubs and pubs – are bashed-up and unpleasant.

Across the board, the gangsters are exposed as cruel, heartless and vile. Touches of class are ruined by everyone’s fundamental lack of class. Cliff Brumby’s (Brian Mosley) planned classy restaurant sits atop a concrete multi-story car-park. Kinnear’s (John Osborne) fancy country house is the setting of the grimmest, most depressing orgy you’re likely to see. Carter is trying his best to dress classily, but his cruelty always punctures the illusion. He’s introduced watching a porn film with his bosses in London and the film revolves around the seamy underworld of homemade porn.

The women in the film are primarily used by the gangster as props for these films, and Get Carter doesn’t shy away from the exploitative fate for women in this world. However, you can’t disagree that it takes in a bit of exploitation itself. Britt Ekland has high billing for her single scene, where she lies mostly naked on a bed pantily having phone sex with Carter (who goes about this, as all things, with a functional efficiency, at least as interested in the excited reaction of his middle-aged landlady who is sitting in the room with him while he chats on the phone). It’s undeniably a moment for us to gawp but it still feels less cold and cruel than those awful porn films.

Carter discovers his niece has found her way into these. He even sheds a tear over this: but he doesn’t care because of what has happened to her. Again it’s all about him: Carter couldn’t care less about the morals and is perfectly happy for porn to soak up other women. He’s not really that interested in his niece: it’s all about the damage to him, that a “made man” like him should have a member of his family getting boffed like a slag for others entertainment. How bloody dare they?

Get Carter understands this is a dark and soulless world, and is a film bereft of hope. Its hero is a revenge obsessed sociopath, who only smiles in the film after he has burnt everything around him down. Gangsters destroy everything they touch and care about nothing other than themselves. All debts can be settled with money, all women are toys to be used and thrown away. Death means nothing and the world is a drained-out hell of shabby houses and dirty clubs. It’s the grimmest and finest British gangster film out there. Who would want to be gangster after seeing this?

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Östlund’s super-rich satire lines up straight-forward targets to easily knock down

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Harris Dickinson (Carl), Charlbi Dean (Yaya), Dolly de Leon (Abigail), Zlatko Burić (Dimitry), Iris Berben (Therese), Vicki Berlin (Paula), Henrik Dorsin (Jarmo), Woody Harrelson (Captain Thomas Smith), Alicia Eriksson (Alicia), Jean-Christophe Folly (Nelson), Amanda Walker (Clementine), Oliver Ford Davies (Winston), Sunnyi Melles (Vera)

In my review of The Square, Östlund’s previous Palme d’Or winner, I described its targets as “so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels”. If only I’d known: Triangle of Sadness, his satire on the super-rich, takes this to the Nth degree: it’s an entire film of Östlund spraying machine gun bullets into an aquarium of drugged fish. That’s not to say there ain’t good jokes in here and several of its sequences are cheeky, engaging and funny. It’s well-made and high quality: but it’s also obvious and is in a such a rush to make its oh-so-clever satirical points that it frequently blunts its own impact.

The film revolves around a luxury cruise liner. On board: the self-obsessed, selfish, greedy representatives of the world’s oligarchs. A Russian who repeatedly amuses himself by bragging that he sells “shit” (fertiliser), a Danish app builder who splashes his cash, a married couple of British arms-traders who jovially bemoan how UN restriction on landmines made for tough financial years… you get the idea. Also on board: Instagram influencer supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her insecure male model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). All of them treat the staff like slaves. But when the ship sinks after a storm and an attack by Somali pirates, the surviving passengers find they entirely lack the skills needed to survive on an island, unlike toilet-cleaner Abigail (Dolly de Leon) who rockets from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy.

Östlund’s film lays into the emptiness, greed and selfishness of the super-rich with glee, even if it hardly tells us anything we don’t already know. The rich are only interested in their own needs and can only see others as tools for their own pleasure: who knew? Wanting to expand his satirical targets even further, Östlund also takes a pop at the social media generation. Apparently, they are shallow and interested only in commodifying their own lives. Who knew? It’s the sort of stuff that makes for a punchy student revue, but you want a little bit more challenging that moves above cheap shots from a Palme d’Or winner.

In many ways the film’s most interesting section (and most subtle ideas) take place before we even reach the boat. The film’s first chapter exclusively follows Carl and Yaya. Carl auditions for a modelling job where he’s treated like a piece of meat (hilariously they mutter about him needing botox). At a fashion show, staff pleasantly demand three people move out of their seats to make way for VIPS – who immediately ask for one more seat. Everyone shuffles along one (the camera following this with a neat tracking shot), leaving Carl seatless. This is a more subtle commentary on the self-obsessive focus of the super-rich than anything that follows.

Carl and Yaya are in an interesting position: they are both part of the beautiful super-rich and not (they don’t have any money). That early act opener balloons from a disagreement over who pays for a meal into Carl inarticulately arguing for sexual-equality and mutual partnerships that defy gender roles. It’s more interesting than almost anything that follows, because it’s multi-layered and raises genuine issues we all face (to varying degrees).

But the film abandons multi-layered the second it steps foot on the boat. There are fun set pieces. Carl unwittingly gets a pool attendant fired because he’s jealous of Yaya’s admiration for his topless body. The staff on the boat gee themselves up for days of enthusiastic deference with a tip-expectant-group-chant. A Russian lady demands the staff all swim in the sea so they can have as much fun as she is having (and to show how ‘normal’ she is). The film’s most infamous set-piece occurs as a storm coincides with the captain’s dinner (with the fish courses under-cooked due to the aforementioned obligatory staff swim) leading to nearly all the passengers projectile vomiting across the state room, then sliding around the floors of the swaying ship in their own filth.

Amusing as that can be in its guignol excess, it tells you how subtle the film is. The film is awash with obvious, lazy jokes – of course the polite arms trading couple are called Winston and Clementine! To hammer home the social issues the film whacks us over the head with, the Captain (an awkward performance from Woody Harrelson) an alcoholic Marxist spends the storm pissed in his cabin, reading Noam Chomsky and his own anti-capitalist ravings over the ship’s tannoy. This takes up a huge amount of screen-time and manages to be both obvious and not very funny.

The film enjoys taking these pot-shots so much, it ends up feeling rushed when we arrive at the island. If we had seen more of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail earlier in the film (in actuality, the film sidelines her as much as the characters do, barely allowing her more than a minute of screentime in its first hour), the shift in social hierarchy would have carried more impact. If Östlund’s film had more patience to show the passengers expectation that shipwrecked life would be identical to that on the boat, then Abigail taking charge after a few days that would have carried more impact. Instead, Abigail takes command from arrival, and then essentially behaves (in a way I’m not sure the film quite understands) with exactly the same self-entitled greed as the passengers did. She takes the best cabin, establishes a hierarchy, keeps most of the food and turns Carl into a sex toy.

Because we’ve not really seen Abigail earlier in the film, we don’t get a sense of her earlier mistreatment (really, most of the film would have been better told from her point-of-view) or join her satisfaction at the tables being turned. The film also exhausts its commentary on the super-rich leaving it with little to say about in its third act Lord of the Flies set-up. Instead, the film dawdles its way to a conclusion and cliffhanger ending that feels unearned.

It makes you regret the loss of its earlier more subtle commentary on Instagrammers Carl and Yaya (good performances from Harris Dickinson and the tragically late Charlbi Dean) who are drowning-not-waving in a world where they must commodify their bodies but have no power over them, struggling to work-out where they fit in a world. It throws this overboard to go for some (admittedly at times funny) gags about greed and very obvious social commentary. If it had committed to its social underclass uprising earlier – or carried on with its more subtle themes from the opening prologue – it would have been a better film. Instead it’s as subtle and probing as the faceful of vomit it serves up halfway through.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

A man accidentally agrees to a murderous exchange in Hitchcock’s tense, seductive thriller

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton), Kasey Rogers (Miriam Joyce Haines), Marion Lorne (Mrs Antony), Jonathan Hale (Mr Antony), Howard St John (Captain Turley)

Two men meet on a train: Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and entitled playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). They chat awkwardly, possibly because Guy is too polite to tell Bruno to sod off and leave him alone. They both have problems: Guy can’t marry his girlfriend, Senator’s daughter Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) because his trampy wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) won’t give him a divorce; Bruno longs to escape from the shadow of his controlling dad. Then Bruno makes a suggestion: he’ll dispatch Miriam and Guy can kill his father. No-one will suspect a thing, as neither man has a motive. Criss Cross. Guy shakes hands and forgets all about it: until Bruno murders his wife and demands quid pro quo.

Hitchcock’s dread was to be arrested for a crime he did not commit. As a young boy, his father sent him down to the local police station with a note instructing him to locked up for a few hours to teach him a lesson. The horror stayed with Hitchcock for his whole life. Strangers on a Train was one of his best explorations of this concept (with the twist that the hero secretly wanted to but wouldn’t of course), and desperately attempts to prove his innocence and stop the psychopath he’s accidentally commissioned.

It’s a dream of a concept from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, superbly assembled into a tense thriller, where questions of whodunnit are (as so often in Hitchcock) irrelevant, with the real suspense coming from how the hero is going to get himself out of his predicament. That horrific predicament is masterfully assembled by Hitchcock into a series of striking set-pieces and shots, all of which carefully build a sense of being trapped in a terrible, oppressive nightmare as Guy realises there is no escape from the expectant glare of Bruno, determined that he fulfil his side of the bargain.

Bruno haunts Guy like a phantom. Guy sees him standing in front of an empty Lincoln memorial, Hitchcock shooting Walker like a distant black smear on the pristine white background. At a tennis match, Bruno sits fixedly starring at Guy, while every other face moves from side to side around him. Bruno inveigles his way into the home of Guy’s would-be fiancée and cheerfully sends him instructions on the best time and method for dispatching his father. The world seems to close around Guy – he’s framed through grills, trapped in rooms, never in control of his own destiny.

Bruno is relentless in his pursuit – and that feels like the right word for it – of Guy. It’s a superb performance from Robert Walker as this sexually ambiguous psychopath, chillingly amoral, fixated on his own desires and unrelenting in his sinister obsessions. Walker’s charisma and slimy, insinuating charm dominate the movie – he’s bizarrely sympathetic, so honest is he in his carefree sociopathy – and makes a great contrast with Granger. Here Hitchcock used the weakness of an actor to splendid effect. Original choice William Holden would never have been so meek and awkward talking with Bruno on a train: Granger, a less strong performer, utterly convinces as someone so inept at removing himself from an unwanted conversation he accidentally commits to murder.

The meeting between the two men on the train drips with homoerotic tension. It plays pretty much like a pick-up, Bruno smoothly working his way from sitting opposite Guy, to sitting next to him, to sharing dinner with him. Hitchcock introduces the two of them with tracking shots of their very differently shoed feet walking to a train, until they accidentally touch feet. Later a lounging Bruno stretches out his feet to touch Guy’s once more. Bruno essentially seduces Guy, Guy’s flustered awkwardness at least as much connected to a sort of sexual confusion as it is to the strange social interaction. Walker’s performance has a seductive purr and a beautiful delicate, feminine precision.

Not that it stops him committing murder. The killing of Miriam (wonderfully played with a slutty charm by Kasey Rogers) sees Bruno again as stalker, only this time with murder in mind. He prowls behind Miriam – dragging two horny lads along – as she moves through a fairground, keeping his distance but constantly catching her eye. Hitchcock tracks these flirtatious glances – this really is murder by seduction – and Bruno impresses her like a would-be lover with his prowess at the strong-man bell. It’s a dance, the two of them drifting down a tunnel in boats, one after the other.

And it culminates in an intimate killing by strangulation. Hitchcock uses a virtuoso shot: we watch the killing of Miriam reflected in the lens of her fallen oversized glasses, Bruno bearing down over her until she disappears. The perverse sexual excitement Bruno feels over the killing creeps into his fascination with Anne’s sister Barbara (played, for extra perverse points, by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia) who wears similar glasses to Miriam. Bruno stares at her with dreadful, tingling excitement and eventually loses control of himself miming out strangulation on a guest at the Morton’s house, swept up in the thrill of it.

Of course, Guy is far too straight-laced (in every sense) to get to wrapped up in Bruno’s plot. (Rather different from Highsmith, where his equivalent character regretfully but willingly upholds his part of the bargain.) The film overplays its hand slightly as it heads into the denouement with an overextended tennis match intercut with Bruno attempting to retrieve Guy’s lighter from a drain (where he has dropped it, en route to planting it at the murder scene). It pulls it back though with a final fight on a wildly speeding-out-of-control carousel (just the right side of ridiculous).

The film is littered with little references to doubles and dark shadows and is a superbly constructed thrill ride by Hitchcock. Granger’s weaknesses as a performer are surprisingly well suited to his role, although Hitchcock failed to hide his lack of regard for Ruth Roman in a weakly written role. The film gets a superb dark momentum from Robert Walker’s marvellous performance and Hitchcock shoots it with a brilliantly unsettling stalkerish eye, with Bruno’s trailing of each of his targets tinged with a dark sexuality beneath the malicious intent. With good reason, Hitchcock called this his “first American movie” and it kickstarted a run of hits.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Classic 80s romance? Or is it, in fact, a searing kitchen-sink drama about class and depression? One of the great mis-remembered films of all time

Director: Taylor Hackford

Cast: Richard Gere (Zach Mayo), Debra Winger (Paula Pokrifki), Louis Gossett Jnr (Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley), David Keith (Sid Worley), Lisa Blount (Lynette Pomeroy), Robert Loggia (Byron Mayo), Lisa Elbacher (Casey Seeger), Tony Plana (Emiliano Santos Della Serra), Harold Sylvester (Lionel Perryman), David Caruso (Topper Daniels)

An Officer and Gentleman is remembered as a sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, with power-ballads underplaying attractive Hollywood stars passionately proclaiming their love. It ain’t anything like that. This proto-Top Gun – a film it has strong similarities to in structure and design – is actually a kitchen-sink drama masquerading as a feelgood movie, with a final romantic image and “Take My Breath Away” leaving a deceptive memory behind. Where Top Gun is loud, brash and fundamentally reassuring and straight-forward, An Officer and a Gentleman is jagged, surprisingly difficult and unsettling. Put it this way: Tom Cruise doesn’t call anyone the c-bomb in Top Gun.

Zach Mayo (one of Richard Gere’s legendary performances, the memory of which guided much of the rest of his career far more than its reality) is a Navy-brat determined to be nothing like his alcoholic, whoring dad (Robert Loggia). He’s going to graduate from Naval Flight Candidate school and become “an officer and a gentleman”. Zach is a damaged soul, defensive, closed-off and selfish, a smarmy, cruel loner interested only in what he can get out of any relationship. The film is about whether Zach will learn to become a sympathetic, caring person, rather than a resentful douche.

There are three influences that might just change him. Firstly, fellow trainee Sid (David Keith), from a Naval officer family, attending because his deceased brother can’t. The second is training officer and uncompromising disciplinarian Sgt Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jnr). And, finally, factory worker Paula (Debra Winger), one of the local women officer candidates are warned are intent on bagging a husband by fair or foul. Each will play a different role in making Zach a fully rounded person.

Hackford’s film is a tough, hardened one that takes a long hard look at mental health, guilt, suicide, parental resentment and a host of other complex issues. Any romantic moment is matched with one of pain, fury or characters doubled over with guilt and shame. It dives deep into its flawed hero and shows how someone can, almost unwittingly, be reconstructed into something warmer. It does all this in grimy, scruffy settings with characters making desperate choices motivated by poverty and lack of choices.

It opens with a shaggy-haired, scruffy Gere starring into a mirror in a dark motel room while his father is passed out in bed with two prostitutes. We are constantly reminded of Zach’s working-class background, his life growing up trailing behind his (largely indifferent) father after the suicide of his mother, left to fend for himself in the rough and tumble of the Philippine streets. At naval school, the same chippy resentment of how people perceive his roots persists – along with the lessons he has spent his whole life learning: that he should count on no-one but himself.

Zach doesn’t believe he’s worth loving. Facing abandonment issues (of different kinds) from both his parents, he doesn’t give a toss about anyone and expect them feel the same. He sets up a grift selling pre-polished buckles and boots to his fellow candidates, only helping them for a price. He completes exercises alone, cheats in aeronautical class, and gloats as he passes anyone on physical trials. When dating Paula, he frequently retreats into cold rudeness when conversation turns to anything emotional, and repeatedly claims he wants nothing more than a bit of fun. It all stems – as Paula realises – from a defensive hostility, pushing people away before they can leave him.

His lack of team-playing is identified early by Foley as his Achilles heel. Louis Gossett Jnr won an Oscar for his impressively nuanced work here. At first Foley seems an almost unbelievably horrible man, a bully dropping racist and homophobic slurs with casual ease, who makes it his mission to drive his candidates out of the programme (right down to bragging that he chisels a mark on his swivel stick whenever another one drops out).

However, Hackford and Gossett Jnr skilfully show this is, to a degree, a show: Foley is tough because the military is tough, and deep down he does care. Candidates slowly earn his respect (female candidate Seeger may fail to climb a wall, but goddamn he respects her guts) and he quietly goes to great lengths to support them. Foley’s act is intended to get them to excel – and he’ll be proud of them when they do, just as they will be grateful to him. The strength of Gossett Jnr’s performance mean his scenes dominate the narrative (at the cost of the romance), but this is to the film’s benefit.

Interestingly, that romance is often the least effective part of the film. Gere and Winger have fine chemistry (despite, allegedly, not getting on) but the narrative often takes sudden time jumps. From one scene to another they’ll go from together to split up, and the film never quite manages to show us naturally how this is changing Zach. Instead, it frequently stops to tell us this, with on-the-nose conversations. Winger is good, but the relationship feels forced – as if it a film couldn’t exist without a romance, when actually Paula could be removed altogether and it wouldn’t really change the film.

It’s forced perhaps because what really feels like it changes Zach is the friendship with Sid. Played very well by a sensitive David Keith, Sid is everything Zach is not. Confident, happy to help others, a natural leader and team player. Under the surface he isn’t – doubtful and insecure – but the friendship between them is the spark that changes Zach. Sid is, much like Goose in Top Gun, the sacrificial pal, but this sacrifice promotes real growth in Zach. The parallel romance between Sid and gold-digger Lynette (a fine Lisa Blount) is also an effective commentary on Zach and Paula, both characters being mirror images of the leads.

The film culminates in that romantic sweep-you-off-your-feet moment in the factory: but that feels like it belongs in a different film than the hard-boiled one we’ve been watching of a man confronting his fear of failure and lack of self-worth. Gere, by the way, is very good as Zach – his smirk a defensive screen for a host of psychological problems (few actors would have been willing to be as unlikeable as Gere is here). An Officer and a Gentleman is really a character study in working-class resentments, but somehow is mis-remembered as the quintessential 80s romance. It truly isn’t. Instead Hackford’s film – flawed as it is – is smarter and pricklier than that.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Manhunting takes on a new meaning, in this punchy, influential horror-thriller that launched a whole genre

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack, Irving Pichel

Cast: Joel McCrea (Bob Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zahoff), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar), William Davidson (Captain)

It’s man of course. Adapted from Richard Connell’s iconic short story, The Most Dangerous Game sees famous big-game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) washed up on jungle island in the middle of the ocean. He finds a Gothic castle, home to White Russian aristocrat Count Zahoff (Leslie Banks). Zahoff is an overblown egotist with a hunting obsession. He seems an urbane, generous – if sinister – host. But what’s behind that locked iron door? If he’s such a passionate hunter where are all his trophies? And why do people keep getting ship-wrecked and disappearing on his island?

The Most Dangerous Game is staged in a trim 63 minutes, with much of the first half being build-up towards the extended chase sequence that fills it’s second half. The film kickstarted a genre of “manhunt” films, which would take its ideas (and violence) much further. On its release, many of the shots of Zahoff’s human trophy room (with its mounted and pickled heads and his grim, wry commentary of the fates each met on his hunt) were cut, and the first victim, drunken buffoon Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong) is killed off camera. That’s not to say the violence is avoided as the film’s final battle features snapped spines, stabbings and death by bloody-thirsty hounds.

It all makes for an exciting film, told with whipper-sharp pace. This is especially surprising considering how relatively slowly it starts, with Rainsford and his friends chatting about the ethics of hunting (oh the irony!) on their luxury yacht before it sails into Zahoff’s booby trap. Any idea we are in for a staid journey is quickly dispelled as Rainsford’s two fellow survivors are swiftly gutted by sharks, forcing him to swim for shore and the striking, immersive jungle set.

The Most Dangerous Game was shot on the same sets as King Kong – either concurrently or as a test for design work for that classic, depending on who you ask. Schoedsack would go on to direct that – and bring along Wray, Armstrong and several other members of the cast – and TMDG is a wonderful initial try-out for Kong. You can even recognise shots and settings from that film, while the film’s wonderful use of tracking shots, careful editing and superb whip-pans as hunter and hunted charge through the bushes makes for brilliant dramatic tension in its own right.

That’s after we’ve had the odd gothic, horror-tinged oddness of Zahoff’s castle. Zahoff’s trophy room is somewhere between medieval torture chamber (a sort of iron maiden device seems to be the main persuader Zahoff users to get guests to join in ‘the game’) and haunted house, with pickled heads bubbling in jars. The house itself is intimidating, huge in scale with rooms decorated with blood-thirsty hunting tableaus inspired by myths and legends.

It all matches Zahoff’s own OTT grandness. Played, in a remarkable film debut, by Leslie Banks, Zahoff is a truly iconic villain. Banks, a war veteran with striking scars and half of whose face had been paralysed, is a mesmeric, captivating presence whose eyes shine with obsessive indifference and sadistic glee. Spending his nights pontificating to his guests – who he treats with snobby disdain – he’s also a braggart and a cheat. He talks a good game of giving his guests a “fair chance” – but arms them only with a knife, while he has a bow and arrow and rifle (not to mention a team of dogs and three burly, violent, Tartar servants). Banks plays the role to the absolute hilt, dressed in stormtrooper black, a riotous operatic grandness just the right side of camp, relishing every second.

He soaks up most of the interest in the film. Joel McCrea is left with little to do but to look wary – although the revenge-soaked fury he returns with in the film’s violent denouement is effective. Fay Wray adds a lot of charm to the film in this early trial as scream queen. Robert Armstrong tries the nerves a little too much as her drunken brother, overplaying the comic stumbling. But the relative grounded normality of McCrea and Wray is needed for us to stick with them when they are reduced to fleeing through the jungle to escape the maniacal eyes of Banks.

Zahoff of course wants to get the respect of noted hunter Rainsford, but that doesn’t stop him frequently cheating in their battle of wills. He’s smart enough to dodge Rainsford’s traps, but doesn’t hesitate to unleash his hounds or leave (what he believes to be) the killing blow to someone else. It’s a nice beat to remind us that, for all his big speeches, Zahoff is an inadequate bully desperate to be the legend he claims to be.

It’s something we grow aware of throughout the film’s momentum packed second half, essentially a wild chase through the jungle with Rainsford and Eve desperately trying everything to stay one step ahead (the original story didn’t include a female character, but it’s a wonderful insertion which helps humanise Rainsford considerably compared to Zahoff). The unrelenting action, expertly shot, is undeniably exciting (even if we expect, based on its successors, a higher number of innocents being chased to meet fatal deaths) helping to make TMDG one of the most influential B-movies around.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Zeffirelli helps to reinvent Shakespeare on film as vibrant, urgent, young and sexy

Director: Franco Zeffirelli

Cast: Leonard Whiting (Romeo), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), John McEnery (Mercutio), Milo O’Shea (Friar Laurence), Pat Heywood (Nurse), Paul Hardwick (Lord Capulet), Natasha Perry (Lady Capulet), Robert Stephens (Prince), Michael York (Tybalt), Bruce Robinson (Benvolio)

When Romeo and Juliet was released in 1968, it was like a shot of adrenalin into the heart of Shakespeare. It was a play where audiences were used to middle-aged classical actors posing as teenage lovers (not just on stage: the last Hollywood version cast Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer with a combined age of 76). It was a play of wispy poetry, light breaking from yonder windows and stately tragedy. What it definitely wasn’t, was a young play. A play full of vibrant energy, youthful abandon and plenty of sex and violence. Zeffirelli’s film changed that: it was fast, sexy and above all young. It was unlike any Romeo and Juliet many cinema goers had seen before.

Everything new is eventually old of course. So influential was Zeffirelli’s film, it came to be remembered as a “tights and poetry” epic. Its traditional Renaissance Italian setting and well-spoken cast came 30 years later to represent the very same stuffy traditionalism it was kicking in the shins. When Baz Luhrmann released his William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, full of fast-paced editing, MTV tunes, gunplay and horny, Verona Beach teenagers, it was biting its thumb at the revolutionary style of Shakespeare Zeffirelli had introduced.

But, such is the richness of Shakespeare, there is more than enough room for both visions. Watching the film today is still to be struck by its pace and energy. This is a grimy, immediate film which Zeffirelli frequently shoots with a handheld intensity (particularly in the film’s sequences of violence). The costumes may have a primary-coloured sheen to them, but the emotions are raw and dangerous. There is a comedic zip and energy to its first half, which gives way to a grim sense of inevitable tragedy, that always seems just a few adjusted decisions away from being averted.

To pull the film together, Zeffirelli made some tough decisions. Almost 65% of the dialogue was jettisoned, most notably the whole of Juliet’s speech prior to taking the sleeping drug. Everything was cut and arranged to play to the strengths of his cast. His young lovers were great at the physical and emotional teenage energy, so that’s what Zeffirelli focused on. He cast two unknowns: 17-year-old Leonard Whiting and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey. Both had exactly the sort of unfussy naturalism he was looking for, playing the roles with a breathless, energetic genuineness.

They are, of course, not the greatest performers of the roles you will ever see. But Whiting’s Romeo is passionate, naïve and utterly believable as the sort of love-struck teenager who will choose oblivion when he’s lost his true love. Hussey (who, unlike Whiting, continued as an actor) has a wonderful innocent quality and a forceful determination underneath it. The two of them throw themselves into every scene (and each other) with gusto, rolling on the floor in despair or bounding into fights and arguments as if every word or blow will be their last.

It’s a youthful energy that the whole film bottles up and sells to the audience. Its opening scene takes the “I bite my thumb at you sir” classicism of the initial Montague-Capulet clash, and throws it into a dusty street brawl that sucks in most of the city. The camera weaves among this action, as people fly at each other, onlookers run in panic and extras’ bodies pile into the scuffle.

It’s an effective entrée for the film’s most effective sequence: the plot-turning fight that leads to the death of Mercutio and Tybalt. Zeffirelli brilliantly stages this as youthful bravado and hot-headedness that gets out of hand. Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight is initially more performative than deadly (so much so Mercutio’s friends don’t realise he’s been wounded until he dies) – only Romeo’s attempts to stop it cause it to escalate. Tybalt is horrified at the possibility he has harmed Mercutio and flees in terror. Mercutio maintains a front of all-good-fun that turns more and more into bitterness. Romeo’s revenge on Tybalt starts as an out-matched sword fight but turns into a brutal, dusty scrabble on the ground, with fists and daggers flying. All shot and staged with an improvisational wildness, people in the crowd ducking out of the way. It still carries real immediacy.

It’s particularly effecting as, until then, the film is arguably a romantic comedy. The first half not only surrenders itself to the youthful abandon and passion of the lovers, it’s also not adverse to a bit of knock-about farce with the Nurse (a fine performance of gruff affection from Pat Heywood). The Capulets’ ball is staged as another immersive scene, Nina Rota’s music helping to create one of the best renaissance courtly dances on film. With Romeo blanked by an austere Rosalind (who seems to barely know who he is), it zeroes in on the intense, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-you bond between the two lovers. All of it shot with a dreamy romantic intensity.

That carries across to the balcony scene, that again stresses the dynamism and sexual longing that revolutionises the poetry-and-posing the scene had become in people’s minds. This is after all a young couple who can’t keep their hands off each other to such an extent, they have to be physically separated by Friar Laurence (a cuddly Irish Milo O’Shea, over-confident and ineffective) before their marriage.

It makes it all the more striking then when the second half tips into melancholy and heartbreak. Zeffirelli brings the focus even more intensely onto the lovers. As well as Juliet’s speech, the Apothecary and Romeo’s killing of Paris (shot but cut as there were worries it would make the hero less sympathetic) are ditched, and the action is streamlined and runs inexorably to Romeo’s decease and the camera’s focus on Juliet’s hand as she begins to come back to life.

It’s a film full of interesting little side notes and character interpretations. John McEnery’s energetically manic and witty Mercutio (he, along with O’Shea handles much of the actual Shakespeare) is excellent, with more than a hint of a repressed homoerotic longing for Romeo. Natasha Perry’s austere Lady Capulet flirts openly with Michael York’s fiery Tybalt (their secret affair now a popular interpretation) while Paul Hardwick’s bluster as Capulet carries an air of desperation, with Zeffirelli capturing sad glances at his wife. To bolster its Shakespeare credentials, Olivier speaks the prologue (as well as dubbing multiple members of the Italian cast) for no pay or credit (though he must have known there was zero chance of his famous voice not being recognised!).

Zeffirelli’s film may just be, in its way, one of the most important Shakespeare films in history. If Olivier had shown Shakespeare could work as spectacle and Welles that it could be art, Zeffirelli showed it could be exciting and cinematic. That energy and filmic motion didn’t need to serve the poetry. It became so influential, that it eventually came to be seen decades later as “classical Shakespeare”. But it helped lay the groundwork for a series of films and productions that would leave posing, poetical renditions of the Bard behind.

A Single Man (2009)

A Single Man (2009)

Grief is at the heart of this moving, beautifully made debut from Tom Ford

Director: Tom Ford

Cast: Colin Firth (George Falconer), Julianne Moore (Charley Roberts), Nicholas Hoult (Kenny Potter), Matthew Goode (Jim), Jon Kortajarena (Carlos), Paulette Lamori (Alva), Ryan Simpkins (Jennifer Strunk), Ginnifer Goodwin (Mrs Strunk), Teddy Sears (Mr Strunk), Lee Pace (Grant Lefanu)

Grief is like a gaping wound that never heals. It’s an unbearable burden LA-based English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) can’t bear any longer. Distraught after the death of his partner of sixteen years Jim (Matthew Goode), George decides November 30th 1962 will be the last day of his life. He will spend the day putting his affairs in order, soaking up the isolated intensity of moments, have dinner at his oldest friend Charley’s (Julianne Moore) house, then take his life. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man follows that one day.

The universal pain of grief and vibrancy of love shines out of one of the most tender gay-love stories ever made (strikingly shot and acted by a straight director and leads). A Single Man is a film that aches in every frame with the desolation of loss and the agony of moments that can never be claimed, touches that can never be made and conversations that can never be had. It studies how empty and overbearing life can feel when we know we must face it alone, without the person who made the world make sense to us.

It is of course a double burden when that loss cannot be acknowledged. George learns of the death of Jim via an awkward phone call from Jim’s brother (a vocal cameo from Jon Hamm) who can’t bring himself to openly acknowledge the love between the two men and tells him it’s a “family only” funeral. George himself can only convey repressed English regret during the phone call, before collapsing into lurching emotional hysteria after it. His loneliness and cool distance from others is all a side effect of man who must always hide his true feelings and who and what he is.

The film gains a huge amount from Colin Firth’s extraordinary performance in the lead role, hiding a seething, raw pain under a genteel and refined exterior. This seemingly cold, precise man – who dresses like a fashion model and is polite to a fault – is a tempest below the surface of loss that cannot be expressed. It’s as much the burden of putting on one face to the world, knowing there is another below the surface, that has crushed George’s spirit over the past years, as the loss of Jim. All of this is captured by Firth with exquisite sensitivity, in a perfectly judged performance.

Even George’s closest confidante Charley – his best friend, and one-time experimental romantic fling, now a depressed divorcee – can’t quite understand George’s feelings for Jim. Played with a wonderful air of domestic, middle-aged tragedy by Julianne Moore, Charley still can’t quite believe a homosexual love can ever really be the “equal” of a heterosexual one – that some part of George would have been happier if he had accepted a ‘normal’ relationship and family with her rather than the more ‘exotic’ relationship he chose. If even those closest to George can’t really see his relationship as legitimate, what chance does his apple-pie neighbourhood have of doing so?

It’s the intense loneliness – no one to share his pain with, no way to really mourn his love – that has finally beaten the will to carry on for George. Ford’s direction reflects his sense of ennui by presenting the world as coldly drained out, rich colours replaced with greyscale-tinged greys and blues. Warm colours only intrude in those moments where George consciously decides to engage, one final time, with the wonders the world has to offer, the frame filling with warmth and colour.

Ford’s elegiac film doesn’t shy away from the coldness of pain and loss. Opening with a (literally) chilling scene, as George imagines encountering Jim’s dead body in the snows, it conveys the functional distance the world can seem to have when we are dealing with life changing internal feelings. George is entrapped into tired conversations about university politics (his gaze drifts to two male tennis players, the screen momentarily filling with colour). Reflecting his fastidious nature, he carefully puts his affairs in order at the bank and catalogues keys, account details and suicide notes on his desk. All of it feels irrelevant compared to the pain within.

But A Single Man is also a hopeful film. Even when the world seems at its bleakest – when we have decided we can’t go on – there is still hope. It’s represented here by Nicholas Hoult, warm, open and honest as George’s student Kenny who intuitively identifies something is wrong with George and goes to huge lengths to try and find out what. The tenderness between the two – and the protectiveness as well as genuine smiles Kenny can promote in George – is a beat that suggests there may still be some chance of happiness in this world where we least expect it.

It’s part of the same warmth and humanity that underlies Ford’s heartfelt film, wonderfully directed. If it was a parade of bleakness, it would have far less effect. But flashbacks to George and Jim together show the joy and comfort of their lives, while the small moments of warmth and humanity in the present constantly remind us of what George’s decision will cost him.

The film’s final dark splash of irony may well be a little too on the nose, sign posted as a possibility a little too heavily earlier in the film. But, in its exploration of grief and intelligent, intense character study it’s a wonderful debut from Ford. And Firth’s extraordinary, career defining role (a year later, after winning the Oscar for The King’s Speech he thanked Tom Ford as being someone who owed a piece of the award to) is one for the ages that speaks to anyone who has ever known loss.