Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Sexist, violent, crude and deeply disgusting. Transformers continues to make you weep for your childhood memories

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Josh Duhamel (Colonel William Lennox), John Turturro (Seymour Simmons), Tyrese Gibson (Robert Epps), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Carly Spencer), Patrick Dempsey (Dylan Gould), John Malkovich (Bruce Brazos), Frances McDormand (Charlotte Mearing), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Alan Tudyk (Dutch Gerhardt)

I’m ashamed to say when I saw it in the cinema I sort of enjoyed it. Goes to show how the excitement of a trip out can make the most ghastly, horrible, vile piece of work feel like fun. Even at the time, I recognised enjoying Transformers: Dark of the Moon was like becoming engaged with the story-telling in a porno. Doesn’t change the fact it’s a crude exercise, pandering to your baser instincts.

The plot? Autobots. Decepticons. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry if you’ve not seen the previous films: this merrily contradicts them. In the 60s an Autobot ship crashes on the moon, the moon landings were all about exploring the wreckage. In the present day our “hero” Sam (a never more annoying, unlikable Shia LaBeouf) can’t land a job and the Decepticons hatch a plan to destroy the planet by bringing their homeworld Cybertron here. Former Autobot Boss Sentinal Prime betrays everyone. Optimus Prime doubles down on being a psychopath. It’s very loud and makes no sense.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon exposes Michael Bay’s aesthetics as those of a porn director. Everything is crude, huge, brash, obvious, tries to do as much work for you as possible and panders to your worst instincts. Dark of the Moon is shocking in almost every possible sense: from its crude sexism and leering camera, its revoltingly heavy-handed, end-of-the-pier, terminally unfunny comic relief, its overlong, explosive battle sequences (shot with the slavering longing of a pornographic gang-bang). Dark of the Moon is a revolting film, a disgusting perversion of what was a kids cartoon.

Can you imagine letting a child watch this? Let’s deal with its disgusting sexism first. Megan Kelly had been sacked between this and Revenge of the Fallen for denouncing Michael Bay’s working basis (I’ll admit calling him Hitler went too far). Every chance in the film to disparage her character is taken (two appallingly unpleasant tiny Autobots all but call her a bitch). She’s replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, introduced walking up-stairs, the camera starting at her feet and trailing up, lingering on her bottom (she’s wearing just a slightly-too short shirt). Later two characters will discuss “the perfect curves” of a car – while the camera pans up her body. Those are only the most egregious of the deeply uncomfortable sexual objectification of this poor woman.

How about its crude humour? Several actors enter a private competition to give the loudest, least funny comic cameo. Malkovich gurns and rants as Sam’s pointless, kung-fu obsessed boss. John Turturro does whatever he wants as a Transformers obsessed former-agent. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are eat-your-fist levels of unfunny as Sam’s parents. Worst of all is Ken Jeung as a Deep Throat style informer whose every scene is crammed with homophobic jokes about anal and oral sex. Remember, once upon a time this was for kids. All this alleged humour does is add to the already bloated run-time. You’ll suffer through every single word, because you certainly won’t miss it due to laughing. Bay’s idea of funny is if the joke is delivered LOUD by a wild-eyed actor, preferably accompanied by a whip-pan. He’d probably love Roy Chubby Brown.

The film has two of the least likable heroes perhaps ever placed on film. Shia LaBeouf must have genuinely hated himself by the time he made this. Perhaps that’s why he makes no effort to make Sam even one per cent likeable. Sam is a whining, petulant man-child, alternating between bitching about his job to bragging about his trophy girlfriend (whom he spends half the film whiningly chasing). In the first of these films, LaBeouf had a goofy charm. Now the character is just a deeply arrogant little prick, with major entitlement issues. LaBeouf shouts and screams throughout, but mostly just looks really angry at himself for even being there.

Then we come to the pièce de resistance: Optimus Prime. When I was a kid, this noble warrior was like the perfect Dad. Traumatised kids wept when he died in the animated movie. Revenge of the Fallen started turning him into a violent killer. This completes the journey. Bay probably thinks Prime is a bad-ass taking names. He’s actually a violent, psychopathic killer who arrives at a battle with the inspiring words “We will kill them all”. Prime allows the whole of Chicago to be destroyed (at the cost of millions of lives) to prove a point to the stupid humans. At the film’s end he reacts to Megatron’s offer of a truce by ripping out his spine and then executes Sentinel Prime by shooting him point blank in the head while Sentinel pleads for his life. Ladies and gentlemen: our hero.

It’s customary to say the special effects are good, so: the special effects are good. The violence is pornographic, shot often in slow-mo, with explosions, fast editing and huge noise filling the screen. Transformer bodies are mauled, beheaded, eviscerated. There are several rather chilling executions. Prime rips out the equivalent of heart, lungs, eyes and brains. Bay adds a reddish oil to the transformers, which looks like blood spraying up. Just like the humour, the action goes on FOREVER. The final Chicago battle takes up fifty minutes of buildings falling, brutal slaughter and triumphalist flag-waving. After repeated viewings it’s not just boring, it starts getting offensive.

Dark of the Moon is, quite simply, only just (only, only, only just) better than Revenge of the Fallen – and it says it all that it’s because it’s not as racist. In every other sense it’s simply revolting: violent, crude, sexist and homophobic. This is a horrible, horrible film made by a soulless director. It genuinely is like a beautifully shot pornographic film that wants you to respect the craft that’s gone into it while you finish yourself off. For a brief few seconds you might get sucked in – but you’ll certainly not be boasting about it afterwards.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Marvel opens up its infinite universes as it lays the groundwork for bringing back old characters with new faces in this corporate outing

Director: Sam Raimi

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch), Rachel McAdams (Dr Christine Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Karl Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Xochitl Gomez (America Chavez), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Nicodemus West)

Spoilers: The main spoiler would be looking at the cast list. I won’t name the cameos are but I do mention a main plot development revealed within 15 minutes.

Parallel universes have infinite possibilities. These are largely not found in this lumpen, fan-service obsessed and (whisper it) slightly dull film that fails to follow-up on either the promise of the first film (to which it makes awkward call-backs) or its main concept. It allows Raimi scope to indulge his Evil Dead style visuals, but all within the confines of producing another entry in the series that feels like a bridge between chapters rather than an interesting story in its own right.

Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attends the wedding of former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), when he’s torn away to fight a squid monster chasing a teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). America has the power to travel between parallel universes – and is dragging behind her the dead body of a parallel Strange who failed to protect her from a mysterious foe trying to steal her power. Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong – the most engaging performance in the film from this under-rated actor) and the Sorcerers protect America – but Strange’s attempt to recruit Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) goes awry when it turns out its she hunting America, using dark magic in an attempt to find her parallel versions of her lost children.

DSITMOM has been called the MCU’s horror film: which by no means it’s The Exorcist. It’s a sort of very, very gentle entrée to the genre – like Cronenberg’s Videodrome was turned into a kid’s TV series or a comic-book version of Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It has a few flourishes, but none of this is allowed to get in the way of the corporate enterprise. It’s more interested in giving people what it feels they want and fitting itself into the timeline of a series.

In fact it sometimes feels like an attempt to mirror the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (I wonder how many of the cameos were added after that film’s release?). It takes the elements of guest stars and parallel universes and presents them in ways that provide little insight or long-term reward. In No Way Home alternate versions of characters are used to explore how different events could have shaped our heroes. The returning stars aren’t just thrown in, they have arcs and emotional journeys. The whole is both fun and an engaging story but also nostalgic. Compare, as well, the TV series Loki (by the same writer) that brilliantly used parallel versions of its lead to deconstruct and develop his character.

DSITMOM does none of this. There are rich opportunities to see how Strange may have developed in different universes: after all this is the closest thing to an “ends justify the means” character in the MCU. Would different versions of him go more or less further – and how might it make our Strange reflect on his occasionally ruthless ‘big picture’ thinking (this is after all, as the film mentions, the guy who allowed half of all life to blink out of existence as part of a masterplan only he knew). We don’t get nearly enough of that. In fact, we get virtually none of it.

These opportunities are ignored in the two parallel universes we spend the most time in, where Strange is either a dead war hero or an insane hermit corrupted by dark magic. Neither of these characters is really contrasted effectively or interestingly with our version. A faint plotline of Strange learning trust from the mistakes of others is threaded through, but only lightly. Instead, the film focuses more attention on Strange’s lost love for Christine Palmer, an oddly unsatisfying focus since Strange has appeared in at least four films since his first solo effort six years ago, and the franchise has failed to mention this motivating loss once (not even a throwaway line in No Way Home to build it up).

Mind you it’s better than the development Wanda Maximoff gets. DSITMOM is pretty much impenetrable unless you’ve watched WandaVision. Even if you have, as I have, you’ll probably be a little annoyed at the ‘development’ she gets here. At the end of that series, Wanda had accepted the damaging consequences of her grief and started moving on. Here though, she’s a sociopathic monster defined solely by her motherly grief and her ruthless determination to tear universes apart to heal it. It feels retrograde to, essentially, be saying “women who suffer loss go axe-crazy” or to double down on her willingness to harm others to cling to a ‘normal life’ fantasy (as well as contrary to the hopeful tone the series ended on).

That’s not to mention the clumsy fan service peppering the film. The main outing to a parallel universe is basically an excuse for fan-pleasing cameos. These amount to nothing more than a series of actors popping up say “Hello I’m Y” and promptly suffering terrible fates (because it’s a parallel universe and you plot armour means nothing there). Like Yoda fighting Christopher Lee, it’s cool when you first see it but risks becoming less and less rewarding overtime because it’s utterly insubstantial.

DSITMOM is basically insubstantial. It drags on – it’s a chase film that largely lacks momentum – it has a series of slightly bored looking actors (Ejiofor wins, with a Mordo who seems to have become Strange’s nemesis in the interim between this and the first film despite never being mentioned in any other film since), gets absorbed in a MacGuffin filled plot (there are no less than two Magic Books of Wham-a-bam that are being hunted or fought over) and flattens down most of Raimi’s style into a corporate product with little heart (compare this to his Spider-Man films which look like Citizen Kane or Vertigo next to this).

There are about two moments of invention: a sequence when Strange plummets through a series of bizarre parallel universes (including one where he’s made of paint) and a battle between two Stranges that utilises musical notes as weapons. Everything else feels production flattened, as do the actors, and ends teeing you up for a third film with another “whoop” cameo. Flat, lumpen and failing to capitalise on its possibilities, this is a big disappointment, an empty lightshow with brief but shallow pleasures.

Murder by Decree (1979)

Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)

In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).

It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.

Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).

They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.

It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.

With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.

Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.

There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).

The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.

Vertigo (1958)

Obsession and grief come dangerously into play in one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeline Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry John (Coroner), Raymond Bailey (Doctor), Ellen Corby (Hotel manager), Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel), Lee Patrick (Car owner)

Spoilers: Vertigo was controversial at the time for revealing its twist, three quarters of the way through the film. I might well do the same in the review – although this is possibly a richer film if you know the twist going in

In 2012 Vertigo dislodged Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s decadal “Greatest Film” poll, after 50 uninterrupted years for Welles’ classic. It’s an astonishing turn-around for a film was a box-office disappointment and first met with reviews that called it “long and slow” and complained that Hitchcock had “indulged in such farfetched nonsense”. (Welles also hated the film – bet he’s even more pissed off at it now.) This is partly because Vertigo is a fiercely, almost defiantly, complex and cold film that defies easy characterisation and flies in the face of the fast-paced watchability of most of Hitchcock’s popular films. But it’s still a haunting and fascinating masterpiece, which has its greatest impact when you reflect on it days after it has finished.

Its plot is both complex and slight. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is an ex-police detective, his career ended by crippling acrophobia bought on by powerlessly watching a fellow officer fall to his death. He’s hired by old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Madeline is in the grip of an idée fix that she is an incarnation of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in 1857. Scottie follows her – and develops an idée fix of his own for the beautiful Madeline. When his acrophobia prevents Scottie from saving Madeline from jumping to her death from a bell tower, he suffers a near-breakdown. Then he catches sight of Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) who has a chilling resemblance to Madeline. And Scottie tries to turn her into just that.

Vertigo is a dizzying film of monomania and obsession, something you are immediately plugged into with its beautiful Saul Bass opening (swirling spirals, reflecting the circular nature of the obsessive) and its hauntingly mesmeric and off-beat romantic theme from Bernard Herrmann (possibly his greatest work – and he also scored Kane!). More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo places us firmly into the POV of its lead character, who is in all but three scenes and whose perceptions and observations we not only share but which totally guide our understanding of everything we see in the film (until that twist, when suddenly we shift to knowing more than he does).

Hitchcock’s technique is truly masterful here. There isn’t the flash of something like North by Northwest, but the sort of chilling control that builds tension and unease that also marks out films like The Birds or, to a degree, Psycho (although that’s much more of a black joke, where Vertigo is terrifyingly serious). Hitchcock uses a huge number of POV shots, alternating with shots of Stewart’s reactions (at times these are disturbing in their fixed intensity) building a subtle momentum that reflects the character’s obsession and further filters everything we experience from his perspective.

That would be the perspective of an ever-more obsessed man tipping steadily into stalkerish territory. Few films have so clearly drawn the link between the private eye and the voyeur. As Scottie silently prowls the streets of San Francisco, observing every inch of Madeline’s actions – and Vertigo has long, worldless stretches of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – the disturbing pleasure and control that following brings you becomes more and more clear. It’s certainly giving a sense of masculinity back to Scottie, introduced to us hanging helplessly from a ledge and then so hamstrung by his condition he can’t even climb a step ladder without collapsing.

Judged from this perspective, Scottie is one of the most darkly disturbing characters in film. Rescuing Madeline from the Golden Gate (where she has jumped in) he takes her home, undresses her and puts her in his bed – hardly normal behaviour. It’s not long from there before he surrenders to his romantic obsession (feelings Madeline perhaps returns), that eventually leads him again to be a powerless witness as Madeline plunges to her death right in front of him.

Catatonia and mental collapse follow – but really it’s perhaps just a continuation of the same obsession in another form. Because after a stay in a sanatorium, Scottie is back on the streets again, prowling for something – anything – that could make him feel closer to Madeline again. Which is how he spots Judy, the woman who reminds him of the woman he’s lost. Scottie doesn’t so much woo Judy as seemingly browbeat her into a bizarre (joyless and sexless) relationship and undertake a terrifyingly grotesque remodelling exercise, designed to make her into a carbon copy of Madeline.

This sequence is probably partly at the heart of the film’s fascination for critics and film historians – even more so since we’ve learned about Hitchcock’s manipulative, controlling relationship with his blonde female stars. Here we have Scottie instructing his love interest how to dress, walk and cut her hair – all while telling her it’s for her own good and she’ll like it – his voice with the breathless longing of a closeted pervert (that is when Scottie manages any sexual yearning to Judy, who he treats more like a treasured exhibit). This is Hitchcock dramatizing his own hang-ups, presenting them as creepy and dangerous, making Vertigo partly as well a fascinating psychological study of its director. Did Hitchcock know that his controlling relationship with women was wrong? And, in real life, could he not help himself or did he not care?

Vertigo is a perfect exploration of obsession. But it also pulls the rug out from us – and rewards constant reviewing as a result – because the film reveals there was a whole other level going on. Scottie may seem the Hitchcock substitute, but the in-film Hitch figure is actually the amiable Gavin Elster. Because the entire action of the film is carefully stage-managed by Elster to manipulate Scottie (and us!): Judy and Madeline (as Scottie has met her) are in fact the same woman, a doppelgänger for Elster’s wife. The real Madeline – who Scottie never sees or meets – is murdered by Elster at the top of that tower, and Judy/Madeline was helping build a backstory to have this murder written off as suicide, with Scottie’s acrophobia perfect to make him a powerless witness.

Here comes that pleasure for rewatching: because now when Scottie rescues “Madeline” from the river, then spends the next day with her, we thought at first he knew more than she. Now however, we understand he’s always been a patsy who knew less than anyone else. We’ve been manipulated by Elster, the master director, pulling the strings and building horrors for us. That’s Hitchcock.

The film reveals this in one of the few scenes told from Judy/Madeline’s perspective – and means we then watch Scottie actually craft a woman who actually is the woman he’s obsessed with into his memory of that very same woman. (Get your head around that!) And she allows it, because she seems as desperate as he to recapture the passion of those brief days together – but cannot tell him the thing that would help to do that. It all leads, of course, to Scottie’s destructive obsession leaving him once again to being a helpless witness as another victim plummets to their death.

Vertigo is effectively a two-hander, and most of the focus usually lands on Stewart. He is chillingly dead-eyed in this, his crazed hunting after something he doesn’t even understand capturing the controlling horror behind some romance. In many ways though, Kim Novak has the more complex part. She doesn’t speak for almost 45 minutes – she spends it mostly in long shot performing Elster’s play for Scottie (and us) of the mentally disturbed wife. But when Novak does take centre stage, this is a complex multi-layered performance, carefully modulated throughout to communicate (in advance) Judy’s vulnerability and love for Scottie, without ever letting us realise she is anything but the death-fixated “Madeline”. Novak marries two contradictory characters into one with a simple and convincing aplomb. Equally good is Barbara bel Geddes, in almost the only other named role, as Scottie’s one-time fiancée now best friend, all too aware that her feelings are not returned.

Vertigo will never match the likes of Casablanca or North By Northwest – on a list of films truly popular with audiences. It’s been described as the ultimate critic’s film: a cool, chilling, brilliantly filmed, psychological thriller that quietly exposes the mechanics of film, the manipulation of story-telling and the dark psyche of its director. In many ways initial reviews were right: on first impression, the film is cold and slow, with characters it’s hard to relate to. But it has a truly haunting quality few others can match. And it constantly presents us with a clear image, while never allowing us to guess we are seeing only part of the overall picture. It can leave us as dizzy as Scottie is, hanging from that ledge and staring down at doom, the camera zooming inside his head and showing us his terrifying POV. You need to work at it, but this is a film to value.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Tom Clancy’s door-stop thriller is turned into an involving conspiracy thriller that makes masterful use of Harrison Ford

Director: Philip Noyce

Cast: Harrison Ford (Jack Ryan), Willem Dafoe (John Clark), Anne Archer (Dr Cathy Ryan), Joaquim de Almeida (Colonel Felix Cortez), Miguel Sandoval (Ernesto Escobedo), Henry Czerny (Bob Ritter), Harris Yulin (James Cutter), Donald Moffat (President Bennett), Benjamin Bratt (Captain Ramirez), Raymond Cruz (Domingo Chavez), James Earl Jones (Jim Greer), Tim Grimm (Dan Murray), Hope Lange (Senator Mayo)

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has always been the All-American hero (his slimy, besuited CIA rival even frustratedly snarls “you are such a Boy Scout”). Ryan is almost too-good-to-be-true: pure as the driven snow, incorruptible, a success at everything he does and a devoted family man. What chance does someone like that have in Washington? In Clear and Present Danger, Ryan is dragged into the War on Drugs, unwittingly becoming the front man for an illegal military assault team against the Columbian cartels, ordered by a US President on a vendetta for the death of a friend. When the truth comes out, you’ve got one guess who takes it on himself to save the soldiers who are hung out to dry by the suits in Washington.

We know he’ll do the right thing as well, because he’s played by Harrison Ford. Ryan is basically a blank slate as a character, so Ford’s straight-of-an-arrow everyman decency does most of the heavy lifting to establish who he is. As an action hero, Ford has the chops but his real strength is his ability to look frazzled, scared and muddling through – rather like the rest of us would. Ryan gets in some real scrapes here, from dodging missiles in an attack on a diplomatic convoy to desperately fighting for his life in a timber factory. Ford’s strength as an actor is to be both authoritative and also vulnerable – his willingness to look scared but determined works wonders.

Clear and Present Danger also gives plenty of scope for Ford to employ his other major empathetic weapon: the clenched jaw and pointed figure of moral outrage. He does a lot of both here, a central scene seeing Ryan confronting besuited rival Ritter (played by a weaselly, bespectacled Henry Czerny, the polar opposite of Ford’s clean-cut everyman-ness) earnestly telling him he broke the law and is heading to jail (laughed off). There can’t be an actor more skilled at getting you to invest in someone, to both simultaneously worry about him while being confident he will do the right thing. It’s a rare gift, and Clear and Present Danger exploits it to the max.

Ford is the centrepiece – and main strength – of a competent, well-made conspiracy thriller, directed with a professional assurance by Philip Noyce. It makes a good fist of translating Clancy’s doorstop novel – with its huge complexities – to the screen (although you might need a couple of viewings to work out the twisty-turny, backstabby plot, where wicked schemers turn on their own schemes). Noyce has a special gift for keeping dense technical and exposition scenes lively. At one point he cross-cuts a parallel investigation into a fake car bombing between Ryan (who flicks doggedly through textbooks) and his Cartel rival who employs gadgetry and computers. Plot heavy scenes like this are well-shot, pacey and capturing plenty of reaction shots, even if they only feature characters messaging each other on clunky 90s computers or walking-and-talking in shadowy metaphors.

Clear and Present Danger also successful juggles its Washington shenanigans, with parallel intrigue in its Columbia setting. There ruthlessly charming Cortes (played with a wonderful cocksure suaveness by Joaquim de Almeida) is scheming to takeover his boss’ (a blustering Miguel Sandoval) operation. These plot unfold both together and in parallel, allowing for a little bit of neat commentary contrasting the cartels and Washington. The film manages a bit of critique of America’s thoughtlessly muscular intrusion into the affairs of other countries, with a President turning a blind eye after passing on implicit instructions (but still with a boy scout hero who will sort it all out).

Noyce also pulls out the stops for a couple of brilliantly executed scenes. Great editing, sound design and committed acting makes a scene where Luddite Ryan races to print off incriminating evidence from a shared drive while technically assured Ritter deletes the files, edge-of-the seat stuff. Never before has racing to fill a printer with paper seemed more exciting.

That pales into significance with the film’s centre piece, a genuinely thrilling Cartel ambush on a US diplomatic convoy, with Ryan stuck in the middle. With perfect build-up – from James Horner’s tense score to the skilful editing – the attack (with Oscar nominated sound design) is hugely tense, leaves our heroes terrifyingly powerless and is flawlessly executed by Noyce and his crew. It makes the whole film a must watch all on its own.

It’s surrounded by several other well-handled action set pieces, featuring the Marines sent on a covert mission (and then hung out to dry). As the operation leader, Willem Dafoe plays very successfully against type as a (ruthless) good guy, as Clancy’s other regular character, uber-fixer John Clark. Dafoe also has the chops to go toe-to-toe with Ford, and like de Almedia’s charmingly wicked Cartel-fixer also serves as another neat contrast to Ryan’s decency-with-a-fist.

The film is rounded out by a troop of reliable actors. Anne Archer has little to do as Ryan’s supportive wife, but Donald Moffat is good value as the shifty President (communicating both intimidating authority and Nixonian survival instinct), Harris Yulin perfectly cast as a President-pleasing apparatchik and Raymond Cruz as an ace but naïve marine sharp-shooter. Clear and Present Danger has few pretensions to be anything other than an involving thriller – but that also helps make it a very enjoyable one.

Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Wartime heroics get bogged down in bland love-triangles and tedious inventions

Director: John Madden

Cast: Colin Firth (Ewen Montagu), Matthew Macfadyen (Charles Cholmondeley), Kelly Macdonald (Jean Leslie), Penelope Wilton (Hester Leggett), Johnny Flynn (Ian Fleming), Jason Isaacs (Admiral John Godfrey), Simon Russell Beale (Winston Churchill), Paul Ritter (Bentley Purchase), Mark Gatiss (Ivor Montagu), Nicholas Rowe (Captain David Ainsworth), Alex Jennings (John Masterman)

In April 1943 a body washed up on the shore of neutral Spain. It was a Major William Martin, carrying Allied plans to launch a massive invasion of Greece in July 1943. German agents intercepted these plans before they could be returned to the British and the Germans shifted their troops to counter this invasion. Problem for them was, Major Martin wasn’t real, the plans he carried were inventions and the Allies were planning to attack Sicily. Welcome to Operation Mincemeat.

Adapted from an entertainingly written and well researched book by Ben MacIntyre, Operation Mincemeat is about one of the most successful wartime deception plans ever launched. The film is a bit of a deception operation itself. Although it looks like a Boys-Own caper film, with eccentric boffins solving problems and running circles around the Nazis, it’s actually a dry, slow, sombre film that seems embarrassed at even the faintest idea of flag-waving Wartime heroism. Instead, everything is glum, depressing and bogged down in invented details that never convince.

Which is a real shame, because when the film focuses on the things that actually happened it’s both entertaining and informative. To create Major Martin, MI6 needed a body – specifically a military-age male who drowned. That was almost impossible to find in London at the time – and the final ‘candidate’ had to be kept as ’fresh’ as possible for months. The letters he carried included ‘private correspondence’ from one British General to another – a letter that went through almost twenty drafts as the British authorities squabbled about how blunt its ‘personal’ views could be. When the body washed up, a helpful Spanish officer tried to return the papers immediately. When the film is on this material it’s good.

But it feels embarrassed by the idea of enjoying this stuff. After all, war is hell and the idea that we could even for a moment think these eccentrics (nearly all of whom spend their time penning spy stories) might find part of this subterfuge fun is disgraceful to it. So, we are constantly reminded of the horrors of war: the moral quandaries of using a person’s body for an operation, the troubling “wilderness of mirrors” of espionage. All this means that lighter moments – or moments where we could enjoy the ingenuity of the characters – are rushed over as soon as possible.

The other thing the film is embarrassed about are the lack of female characters. As such Kelly MacDonald’s Jean Leslie – who contributed a vital photograph of herself as ‘Major Martin’s’ paramour and the background of this fictional relationship – is elevated to third wheel in the planning. But, in a move that feels bizarrely more sexist and conservative, she also becomes the apex of a love triangle between herself and Firth and MacFadyen’s characters. This tedious triangle takes up a huge amount of time in an overlong film and is fatally scuppered by the total lack of chemistry between any of the participants.

It also means our heroes are forced to spend a lot of time running around like love-sick, horny teenagers, following each other and passing notes in class. At one point Cholmondeley tells Jean about Montagu’s wife with all the subtlety of “I saw X kissing Y behind the bike sheds”. This also means that the matey “all in this together” feeling essential to these sort of caper films (which is what this story really is) is undermined. This ends up feeling rather like a group of people who learn to dislike each other but vaguely put personal feelings aside for the greater good.

The real exciting history clearly isn’t exciting enough. Instead, ludicrous, artificial “improvements” littered through the story. I get that Jason Isaacs’ Admiral Godfrey is turned into a moronic, obstructive bureaucrat for narrative reasons. But the ridiculous shoe-horning in of a link between the Operation and the Anti-Nazi resistance in Germany in the second half of the film feels blatantly untrue even while it’s happening. By the time one of our heroes is being confronted by a German agent in their own home, the film has checked out of reality.

Truth is, this is a bad film, over-long, overly dry and crammed with artificial flourishes. Partially narrated by Ian Fleming (a woefully flat performance by Johnny Flynn, sounding oddly like Alex Jennings), the film attempts to draw links between this and the formation of James Bond but these fall as flat as everything else. MacFadyen gives probably the best performance among some wasted Brit stars. The truth is, a one-hour straight-to-camera lecture from Ben MacIntyre would have been twice as entertaining and interesting and half as long. A chronic misfire.

The Courier (2021)

True-life Cold War thrills, as two spies battle to prevent the Cuban Missile crisis

Director: Dominic Cooke

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Greville Wynne), Merab Ninidze (Oleg Penkovsky), Rachel Brosnahan (Helen Talbot), Jessie Buckley (Shelia Wynne), Angus Wright (Dickie Franks), Željko Ivanek (John McClone), Kirill Pirogov (Oleg Gribanov), Anton Lesser (Bertrand), Maria Mironova (Vera)

In October 1962 the world nearly ended, as the USA and the USSR clashed over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The history of this grim month is well known, as the fate of the world hung in the balance. What’s less known is the role Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky played in passing information on Soviet capabilities and strategy to the West – and how crucial this was to bringing the crisis to a (world-surviving) end.

The Courier covers – in a pleasingly old-fashioned, Le Carré-ish way – Penkovsky’s (Merab Ninidze) dangerous espionage career, and the relationship he built with British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne – totally unconnected to the Secret Services – was chosen by MI6 to make initial contact with Penkovsky. He then served as Penkovsky’s courier, carrying secret documents and microfilm back to the West under cover of business trips to the Soviet Union – and the two men became close friends. When the Cuban Missile Crisis increases the risks to Penkovsky, it’s Wynne who pushes for a risky mission to extract him before he is uncovered and killed.

Directed with confident, low-key aplomb by Dominic Cooke, The Courier mixes shady, spy-thriller tropes (secret meetings, scratched signals, one-time pads, secret cameras) with a genuine friendship between two very different people. All taking place in a grim, Soviet environment where the risk of discovery lurks around every corner. Ordinary receptionists and chauffeurs could all be active or potential informants of the KGB, and there is not a single room that cannot be bugged.

It’s a very unusual world fish-out-of-water Wynne finds himself in. Expertly played by Cumberbatch as a stiff-necked people-pleasing fixer (introduced deliberately losing a game of golf to close a business deal with the triumphant winners), Wynne uncovers depths he didn’t suspect in himself. He at first has no interest in spying – or the Soviet Union – and simply wants a quiet life rebuilding trust with his wife (Jessie Buckley making a great deal of a rather thankless part of a woman kept in the dark about her husband’s activities) after a past affair.

He needs brow-beating from MI6 to even carry out his first mission – which he executes with a nervy unease – and reacts with horror at the idea of repeating it. What draws him in is the same quality that will see him take huge risks: his sense of humanity and fair play and the bond of mutual friendship and understanding between him and Penkovsky. Wynne willingly accepts dangers and sacrifices others would blanche at, out of loyalty and a sharply defined sense of right and wrong.

Wonderfully played by Ninidze, The Courier makes clear the huge risks Penkovsky is taking even considering talking to the West. This is a country where a Western spy is executed in the middle of a special staff meeting at his ministry. Whose leader is hell-bent on asserting Russian dominance and devil-take the consequences (sound familiar?). A country taking part in an arms race that could destroy the world, and disregarding the risks that could lead to those weapons being used. A quiet, loving family man, Penkovsky is appalled at the aggressive posturing of his country and how it is endangering his family and millions like them around the world.

It’s the bond between these two men, their sense of duty and their desire to protect, their quiet wit and small acts of thoughtfulness – as well as their capacity for betrayal (Penkovsky of his country, Wynne of his wife) – that draws them together. For Wynne, the selfless risks of Penkovksy create a deep well of respect and admiration, as well as pushing this businessman to develop into a justified-risk-taking moralist with a greater emotional connection to the beauty of life (represented by two contrasting scenes showing the two of them attending a Russian ballet – the second performance moves them both to tears, as if reminding them why they fight).

Around them, shot in a beautifully drained out style that really adds to the sense of terror and danger, plays out a sharp, well-paced spy thriller. Rachel Brosnahan plays Penkovsky’s CIA handler – an invented female agent, allowing the film to take a few shots at the stuffed-shirt unimaginativeness of her superiors – while Angus Wright (all stiff realpolitik) is his MI6 one. The official agencies play a more pragmatic bat, pushing Penkovsky to greater-and-greater calculated risks to improve their access. They also coldly accept any double agent has only a limited shelf-life before discovery, and getting the maximum out of them while they can is essential.

The film’s final act explores the impact of this, as Penkovsky is exposed and Wynne goes to dangerous lengths to try and help him escape. Shifting at this point into something more claustrophobic and hand-held, the film’s final act layers on the grim suffering spies face when uncovered – and includes several moments of genuinely moving suffering.

The Courier is a low-key, efficient, well-made and well-paced true-life espionage story, that feels like the professional, smartly assembled, film-making that often gets squeezed out of cinemas today. Very well acted by a strong cast, every frame has a perfect mixture of 50s/60s style and Cold War paranoia and its final sequence carries a decent emotional punch. A fine retelling of an overlooked story.

Ali (2001)

Will Smith captures The Greatest in a film that misses the fire and passion of Muhammad Ali

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Will Smith (Muhammad Ali), Jamie Foxx (Drew Bundini Brown), Jon Voight (Howard Cosell), Mario van Peebles (Malcolm X), Ron Silver (Angelo Dundee), Jeffrey Wright (Howard Bingham), Mykelti Williamson (Don King), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sonji Roy), Nona Gaye (Khalilah Ali), Michael Michele (Veronica Porché), Michael Bentt (Sonny Liston), James Toney (Joe Frazier), Charles Shufford (George Foreman), Joe Morton (Chauncey Eskridge), Barry Shabaka Henley (Herbert Muhammad)

There is perhaps no greater sportsman of the 20th century than Muhammad Ali. Not for nothing did he call himself “The Greatest”. His impact on his sport is unrivalled, and his impact on our culture almost matches it. He’s one of those titanic figures that, even if you don’t care a jot for boxing, you know exactly who he is. Ali approved the film – and even more so, Smith’s performance – in Mann’s film that covers ten turbulent years in Ali’s life, from winning the title and changing his name, to refusing the Vietnam draft and losing his boxing licence and title, to reclaiming the title again in  the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle”.

If there is a major flaw about Ali, it’s that Ali was a man who was about so much more than just boxing – but Ali struggles to be more than a film about a boxer. It’s hard today to look at the film and not think that a black director would have had more connection with the emotional, cultural and political turmoil that defined Ali’s life in the 60s and 70s. Mann mounts all this well – and gives it plenty of empathy in the film – but his outsider perspective perhaps contributes to the film’s coldness.

Coldness is the prime flaw of the film. There was no sportsman larger than life than Ali. No public figure who demanded attention more, no boxer who fought his battles as much with wit, convictions and passion as well as fists as Ali. A film of his life needs to capture some of this magic alchemy: it needs to feel like a film that conveys the man Ali was. While there is no doubt there was a melancholy in Ali, a quiet inscrutability behind the pizzazz, this film leans too much into this. It does this while never really telling us anything about Ali’s inner life.

As two marriages are formed and collapse, we don’t get an understanding of what drew Ali to, and caused him to turn away from, these women. His relationship with the Nation of Islam ebbs and flows throughout, but other than a few on-the-nose statements from Ali, we don’t get an idea of how his faith defines him. We get his brave stand against serving in the Vietnam war, but not the emotional and intellectual conviction behind it (other than parading a series of famous quotes).

The film is packed with famous black figures – from Malcolm X to rival boxers and Ali’s support team – his father and family, not to mention three of his wives, but the relationship the film is most invested in is Ali’s mutual appreciation/attention-feeding verbal duels with boxing correspondent Howard Cosell (a pitch-perfect vocal and physical impersonation by Jon Voight). There feels something wrong about this film about a black icon, that his relationship with a white man feels the best defined.

But then it’s also a flaw with the film that its most striking, inventive and memorable sequences are all pitch-perfect recreations of filmed events. Will Smith perfectly captures the vocal and physical grace of Ali, and brilliantly brings to life his interviews with Cosell and his larger-than-life press conferences. The boxing matches are compellingly filmed, a perfect mix of slow-mo and immersive angles (they were largely fought for real, with few punches pulled). Ali’s final KO of Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, after several rounds of exhausting Rope-a-dope, is punch-the-air in its triumphal filming and scintillating excitement. But all of this stuff you could actually watch for real today. How essential is a film that uses actors to recreate, with better camera angles and superior editing, stuff that was filmed when it actually happened? Essentially if I want to see Ali stunning the world with his words, or sending Foreman to the canvas, would I choose to watch the man himself, or Will Smith’s perfect impersonation of him doing it?

There is nothing wrong with Will Smith’s performance though. For all his Oscar-winning work in King Richard, this is his finest performance. Bulked up to an impressive degree (Smith spent a year preparing for the film), he’s got Ali’s movements in and out of the ring to a tee and the voice is an unparalleled capture of The Greatest’s. It’s a transformative, exact performance – Smith has just the right force of character for the patter, but also brings the part a soulful depth that the film struggles to explore further. It’s a superb performance.

Enough to make you wish this was in a better, more passionate film. Ali was at the centre of a storm of civil rights and class war in America. He became the public face of a black community struggling to make its voice heard, sick of tired of being treated like second-class citizens by a country they were expected to die for in battle. The politics of the time is lost – Mario van Peebles has a wonderful scene as a troubled Malcolm X, but even he feels like a neutered figure – and the cultural impact of Ali is diluted.

The film ends with captions that dwell on Ali’s later boxing career and his marriages. That’s fine. But this a man who was so much more than what he just did in the ring. He used his position to take a stand on vital issues in America, at huge personal cost, when thousands of others would have settled down to mouth platitudes and make money. He took on the government and refused a compromise that would have allowed him to continue boxing, because he felt the war and America’s domestic policies were wrong. He was a brave leader of men, at a time of furious injustice. The film conveys the facts, but none of the glorious passion. It’s a photocopy of Ali, which is why its best bits are recreations of filmed events. It can’t quite understand or communicate the tumultuous feelings behind racial injustice in the 60s and 70s. It could – it should – have been so much more.

An American in Paris (1951)

Romance, love and a lot of dancing in this charming Best Picture winning musical

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Cast: Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Oscar Levant (Adam Cook), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Eugene Borden (Georges Mattieu)

“This is Paris. And I’m an American who lives here!” Those are almost the first words you hear in this charming but light and frothy Best Picture winner. They are pretty much an indicator of the loosely constructed, lightly plotted film that unspools. With the rights to the back catalogue of Gershwin, a story was swiftly thrown together to give us a reason to watch Gene Kelly and friends dance and sing their way through them. Tapping into a post-war romanticism about the delights of Old Europe, An American in Paris is a hugely entertaining technicolour delight that blew audiences away.

That American is Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), an ex-GI hanging around in Paris to try and make his dreams of being an artist like Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec come true (one glance at his paintings is enough to know he has no chance). His best friend is fellow ex-pat, ageing ‘child prodigy’ pianist Adam (Oscar Levant). Adam’s friend is Henri (Georges Guétary), a famous French singer (and war hero!). Henri is engaged to Lise (Leslie Caron), who meets Jerry by chance, neither knowing who the other is. Doncha-know-it Jerry and Lise fall in love. All this while Milo (Nina Foch), a wealthy would-be patron, longs to make Jerry her companion. How will these romantic complexities play out?

The story is by Alan Jay Lerner, but it can’t have taken him more than a long afternoon to come up with it: two friends unknowingly love the same woman, which will she choose? There is the odd sparkling piece of dialogue, but really this is a showcase for three things: Gershwin, Kelly’s dancing and Paris. Pretty much in that order, since the film is almost completely shot on a Studio backlot  (there are some brief second unit shots of the actual locations). Kelly objected at first to the lack of location shooting (“Ever tried dancing on cobble stones?” a producer pointed out), but actually it works for a film that is basically a fantasia on the city of romance, at points literally taking place in dream-like Parisian streets.

Constructed on a huge set (with some ingenious technical effects to expand the heights of the buildings, like Jerry’s apartment) the film is basically one delightful dance sequence after another, shot with a technicolour richness by Minnelli. We get introduced to our three male leads – Jerry, Adam and Henri – in overlapping voiceover, their faces unseen, as the camera roams over their Parisian locale. (We also get a neat repetition three times of the same joke as a camera settles on someone who nearly fits their description only to be told “no that’s not me”).

From there they meet each other and burst into a richly dynamic all-singing, all-dancing rendition of By Strauss in a classic Parisian café, that uses every prop going.  (It later gets mirrored with an equally amusing ‘S Wonderful where, unknowingly, Jerry and Henri sing of their love for the same woman, while a stressed Adam who knows the truth puffs seemingly a whole pack of cigarettes at once). Not to be out down, as Henri describes his fiancée to the boys, we see Caron perform a series of ballet steps each of them styled differently to reflect the different facets of her personality.

Kelly took on much of the choreography work and the film is a tribute to his grace. The man could move like almost no one else. One of the best bits of choreography in the film isn’t even a musical number: after his introduction Jerry gets out of bed in his tiny apartment and, with a stunningly witty musical grace, rearranges all the furniture from ‘night-time’ (bed) to ‘day-time’ (table and chairs). It’s just about a perfect bit of physical choreography, one of my favourite in the movies and at least as beautiful in its way (if not more so than) Jerry and Lise ballet stepping to Love is Here to Stay under a Parisian bridge. Not to complain about this number, which is a hugely influential routine of two dancers moving increasingly in rhythm with each other, shot with a luscious romantic beauty by Minnelli.

The numbers are so good, you give a pass to the fact that Jerry behaves like a bit of shit. His paintings are hilariously – and I believe intentionally – third-rate rubbish (he’d barely manage to land a job as a postcard painter), so its clear his aspirations to art are a fantasy. It’s also clear that Milo can’t seriously be interested him as an artistic prospect, as opposed to a bed one. Jerry of course knows this, but he still blows hard and cold on her with a slightly shabby selfishness. He’ll take her money for an apartment and whisk her away to a masked ball when he’s feeling low. But he’ll also flirt shamelessly with Lise right in front of Milo and her friends, and then act with a churlish “what’s the problem” harshness in the car with a tear-stained Milo on the way home.

I’m not sure how sorry the film wants us to feel for Milo, but one look at Nina Foch’s fragile face and her wobbling voice a few seconds away from tears as she deals with humiliation from her possible-boyfriend, always puts me on her side (at least at that moment). Jerry is borderline stalker in his pursuit of Lise, chasing her down in the café he has been bought to by Milo (after spending large chunks of the evening starring uncomfortably at Lise), dragging her into a dance and then pestering her later at her workplace into a late night meal. Just as well she loves him. Honestly if Kelly wasn’t so charming, you’d give Jerry a slap. Or a restraining order.

An American in Paris saves its final flourish for its last act: a seventeen minute ballet, taking place in a mix Jerry’s memories and wishes after it seems he and Lise will be kept apart for ever. Choreographed by Kelly, there isn’t anything else really like this in the movies (until La La Land stole the idea). Minnelli and Kelly sit in the ballet in a deliberately artificial Paris, essentially Jerry’s paintings bought to life and mixed with those of his artist heroes. This sequence is at times a little indulgent (some reviewers have unkindly compared Kelly’s desire to dance a ballet to a clown gracing us with his Hamlet) but it’s beauty and dynamism means it rewards investing in it.

Because Kelly and Caron (who is admittedly incredibly raw here as an actor) are wonderful dancers and the choreography here showcases them to perfection. Partially retelling the events of the film, partially telling its own romantic fantasia of a couple bought together and pulled apart, it’s a perfect mixture of several dancing styles and emotions and looks stunning, in its hyper-realistic design.

It makes for a unique ending to a classic musical that gets a bit overlooked – possibly because of the brilliance of Singin’ In the Rain that followed a year later, but was a flop compared to this mega-hit – but is an explosion of superb musical entertainment. Sure, the story is slight – only Nina Foch gets anything approach a hard-hitting role – but the joy is grand. Kelly is charm itself, Levant and Guétary very good in roles that riff on their personas and the whole thing will have you tapping toes and clicking fingers.

The Northman (2022)

Alexander Skarsgård tears through flesh and blood in quest for revenge in this bizarre, fascinating Viking epic

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård (Amleth), Nicole Kidman (Queen Gudrún), Claes Bang (Fjölnir the Brotherless), Anya Taylor-Joy (Olga of the Birch Forest), Ethan Hawke (King Aurvandill War-Raven), Björk (The Seeress), Willem Dafoe (Heimir), Oscar Novak (Young Amleth), Gustav Lindh (Thorir), Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (He-Witch), Kate Dickie (Halldora), Ralph Ineson (Captain Volodymyr)

Ask people about Hamlet, and they picture a poetic Prince, plagued with doubt and vulnerability, talking to skulls rather than carrying out his mission of revenge. What you probably don’t think about are Vikings on a Berserker rage, slaughtering left, right and centre. But Hamlet has its roots in a bloody Scandinavian legend, where remorseless death is handed out by a ruthless killer. That’s the side of Hamlet, Eggers takes for inspiration in his bloody, bold and resolute Viking film, a blood-soaked acid trip it’s hard to imagine anyone else making.

It’s 895 and King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns from conquest to his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Amleth takes his vows of manhood with his father, guided by a demented He-witch (Willem Dafoe) – only for his father to be almost immediately killed by his half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bangs), who seizes his throne and wife. Amleth escapes – and years later has grown into a berserker Viking warrior (and Alexander Skarsgård). He sees his chance for revenge when he disguises himself as a slave, and joins a shipment traveling to Fjölnir’s village (Fjölnir having lost his throne). There he forms an alliance with Russian slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and works to undermine and terrify Fjölnir, before he can enact his revenge and save his mother.

The Northman is, possibly above all, a shocking, absorbing deep-dive into Viking Culture. Eggers doesn’t shirk for a second from the bloody, ruthless mayhem of Viking life. Our introduction to the adult Amleth sees him first whipping himself (and others) into a (possibly magic mushroom fuelled) Berserker rage, dressed as wolves and howling at the fireside, before launching an unbelievably ruthless attack on a Russian village. The desperate peasants are butchered with savage fury (and blood lust). In the aftermath, rape, murder and other horrors occur uncommented on in the background, while those not seen fit for slavery are herded into a barn to be casually burned alive.

Amleth, at no point, expresses a jot of regret for his actions (as a Viking wouldn’t), and even after passing for a slave never questions the institution. His revenge uses the same ruthless, blood-dripping fury as his ravaging and his only passing moment of pause is about directly killing Viking women and children (he gets over it). In all this he is in no way different from the rest – in fact he’s even one of the more sympathetic – Vikings. Fjölnir – revealed as otherwise a wise and generous leader – ruthlessly murders and rapes his slave as he fancies and a weekend’s entertainment for all is watching two teams of slaves beat themselves to death in a no-holds-barred version of hockey.

Eggers leaves you in no doubt that, for all the grim fascination, this is a brutal and savage civilisation that you would in no way want to encounter. Saying that, despite Eggers’ clear intentions, with the film’s cast modelling a sort of chiselled, gym-trained super-human Aryanism, sweeping away Slavic peasants and enforcing a triumph of Nordic culture, parts of this film are surely being channelled into the wet dreams of elements of the right-wing.

The film doesn’t just explore violence. Family bonds are demonstrated to be all important to Vikings – Amleth and Fjölnir are dedicated to their families and go to huge ends to protect and mourn them. (A funeral of one warrior features elaborate blood-letting, as the deceased’s horse is decapitated and his favourite slave willingly butchered so both can join him on the journey to the afterlife). There is a mutual regard and affection between warriors – even opponents – in a culture that puts itself above others. Honoured slaves are respected – though told they can never be equal. Licensed fools and mystics are given a great deal of freedom – Willem Dafoe’s crazed He-witch at Aurvandill’s court mocks all and sundry with no repercussions. There is a huge faith placed in wise men and women who inspire awe and fear – even a slave, such as Olga, with possible mystic powers is treated with caution. Bonds and duties across generations and to the next life are revered. Prophecies and destinies are respected. Poetry and storytelling is highly valued.

For all the killing, there are elements of a rich culture here and strong family bonds. All these combine in the person of Amleth, who will not be shaken from his destiny but will enact it in his own time, in line with the prophecies he of a seeress (an unrecognisable Björk). Eventually it doesn’t matter if Amleth’s idealised memory of his parents turns out to be not the whole story, or if he has a chance to build a new life. Destiny is, in fact, all.

Eggers’ film takes place in what almost a state of heightened, fevered excitement. Beautifully shot by Jarin Blaschke, it mixes expressionistic near-black-and-white, with drained-out shots of violence and flame-lit moments of psychological and body horror. Visions shot in a piercing mix of blues, greys and icey chilliness puncture the film, with strange compositions of characters, Valkyries, Valhalla and the Gods. Supernatural elements pepper the film, with Amleth’s father influencing events in the shape of a raven and Amleth completing a quest for a fateful sword. These moments of hyper-reality are perfectly executed and in a visually unique, blood-drenched nightmare.

Where The Northman is less successful is exploring the inner-depth of its characters. Skarsgård is charismatic and physically perfect, but doesn’t give much inner-life to Amleth. Moments of doubt or uncertainty in Amleth never quite convince and he feels more a force of nature than a person. There are richer performances from others, Kidman in particular a revelation as a cryptic, unknowable woman with a mid-film encounter of heightened emotional (and sexual) tension between her Skarsgård. Bangs’ Fjölnir is strangely sympathetic. Anya Taylor-Joy carries a dominant, mystical force in her performance that helps make her character a bridge between multiple worlds.

All these combine into a film of shocking violence, jaw-dropping beauty and troubling emotional and psychological horror. There is no doubt the film is overlong – there are probably one too many deeply odd segues into drug-induced ravings of various prophets and seers – but as an exploration of a culture so uniquely alien, its sublime. As a piece of work from a truly distinctive and unmatchable director, it’s superb. You look it The Northman and can’t believe anyone else could have made it. If nothing else, that makes it a film worthy of your time.