Category: Courtroom drama

Breaker Morant (1980)

Breaker Morant (1980)

Complex moral issues are brilliantly explored in this superbly made attack on war and its consequences

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Edward Woodward (Lt Harry “Breaker” Morant), Bryan Brown (Lt Peter Handcock), Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Lt George Ramsdale Witton), Jack Thompson (Major James Francis Thomas), John Waters (Captain Alfred Taylor), Rod Mullinar (Major Charles Bolton), Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell (Lt Colonel Denny), Alan Cassell (Lord Kitchener), Vincent Ball (Colonel Hamilton)

To some the case is still a cause celebre. In 1902, near the end of the Boer War, three Australian officers were put on trial (effectively, but the term didn’t exist) for war crimes – the murders of two German missionaries and the execution of six Boer. Two of them – Captain Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and Lt Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) were shot – the third, Lt George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) was sentenced to life (later commuted). But were they guilty or scapegoats? Fighting in a guerrilla unit, ordered to use the same tactics as their Boer opponents, were the men simply taking their blame for decisions made by their (British) superiors?

Beresford’s superb film is far more complex and challenging than a simple polemic. These men are sympathetic, but no martyrs. A defence of “just following orders” sounds queasy in a post-Nuremberg world. The film makes abundantly clear that all three are guilty of the crimes they have been accused off. Ironically, the one charge they are acquitted of (the underhand, unordered murder of a German missionary) is the one Handcock (the trigger man) and Morant (who ordered it) are most deserving of being shot for. But these are still junior officers, taking the fatal blame, while policy makers tut-tut and distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.

What Breaker Morant does, in an intelligent and impassioned way, is attack imperialism, arrogance and the way war twists ordinary men into carrying out deeds they would never have thought themselves capable of. War turns a poet and lover of horses like Morant into an angry, impulsive murderer; a happy-go-lucky chancer like Handcock into an assassin; a decent, naïve man like Witton into a triggerman. This, Beresford’s film argues, is the consequence of military aggression and imperial overreach. It’s impossible not to think of Vietnam, Afghanistan or other wars, where initial intentions are lost in a sea of hit-and-run attacks, mutual brutality and a comfort with the dea that any deed is excused if carried out in service of the conflict.

Breaker Morant manages to pull off a difficult trick. It’s a film about an unfair trial, rigged from the start to product a verdict of guilty, which never whitewashes the accused but always reminds us through flashbacks that they are definitively guilty (but not solely responsible for) the crimes they have been accused of. It asks a challenging question: who should we punish more, the soldier on the ground who commits the crime, or the general miles away who decided on the order of combat that allowed it? It’s a film that argues both are guilty, both corrupted by war. Kitchener (played with a surprising dignity by Alan Cassell) isn’t presented as a monster, but a man who feels sacrificing these men to a firing squad to bring the Boers to the negotiating table is as valid (if regretful) a military tactic as ordering them to charge a machine gun emplacement would have been.

The trial takes up the bulk of the film and is a display of inventive camera-work and editing to present a small location in a constantly dynamic and interesting way. Beresford uses a rich combination of close-up, deep-focus, reaction cutting and fluid cameras to alternately expand and contract the space according to the pressures of the scene. A senior officer gives his oath in extreme close-up, the court blurred behind him, his tense face giving a visual image that defines the fact we know he’s come to lie. Later the opposing counsels conduct an angry exchange with the tribunal in perfect deep focus behind them, never letting us forget who really makes the decisions.

The trial has been set up for the Australians to lose. Their defence counsel, an under-prepared solicitor turned army major with limited trial experience, clutches his notes in the first few minutes of the trial. Major Thomas’ main experience is with wills (“Should come in handy” Handcock drily comments). Nevertheless, Thomas emerges as a brilliant, passionate advocate. It’s a superb performance from Jack Thompson, full of courtroom fireworks but underpinned by both moral outrage but also a suppressed certainty that everything he is doing is in vain. His defence skewers the army’s case in several key places (it certainly swings some of the tribunal, two of whom vote to acquit) but he’s pushing boulders up slippery hills.

Every witness statement is underpinned by flashbacks showing the actions play out more or less as stated. Sure, witnesses lie, absolve themselves and colour the narrative, but on the essentials its true. The accused – apart from the assassination of the missionary – don’t deny their crimes. They also show not a shred of remorse. After all they were just holding up the British way. As the pieces of imperial memorabilia – paintings of Victoria, British flags (including one towering over the men in the field as they eat) and the constant refrain of a military band playing outside during the trial – remind us, while their decisions are their own they are very much part of a wider system (“We’re the scapegoats for Empire” Morant says before he’s shot).

If there is a case for anger, it’s there. These men remain so dedicated to the army, they even volunteer to come out of their prisons to help defend against a Boer attack. Their decisions were their own but the expectations on them were clear. If the Nuremberg Trial had focused on corporals and platoon commanders, while Field Marshals and Ministers were treated as negotiating partners, would that have been justice? The film also makes clear colonial arrogance makes the Australian officers easy sacrifices – a witness at the trial even tries to paint Australians as naturally inclined to violence and indiscipline (before he is dismantled by Thomas).

The film (despite how its remembered by some) makes very little case for them as martyrs. The final sequence of the execution is the only point the film leans into an “epic martyr” angle. Morant and Handcock are shot on a red-sun kissed hill, holding each other’s hands as they march to their final resting place, refusing a blindfold with Morant defiantly shouting at the squad “Don’t make a mess of it!” before being squashed into ill-fitted coffins (in another sign of the film’s dark wit, Handcock comments they haven’t even been measured for these coffins “I shouldn’t think they’ve had any complaints” Morant replies dryily).

It’s that closing sequence that has probably led some to see this as making a case for the men. Far from it. This is a sensational, gripping and intelligent trial drama that manages to both represent injustice and also about make the guilt clear. It’s superbly acted. Woodward is quietly, authoritatively marvellous as a difficult, socially awkward, would-be-marionet with a poetic soul. Brown is charismatic in the film’s flashiest part, Fitz-Gerald quietly disbelieving at what fate has bought him. Breaker Morant bubbles with anger and sadness but makes its target far wider and more challenging. Its target is war and the mentality that leads us to applaud soldiers for what we ask them to do until we are told what they have done. One of the greatest films of the 1980s.

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder and amorality abound in the darkest (and perhaps Greatest) Ealing comedy ever

Director: Robert Hamer

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Alec Guinness (The nine members of the d’Ascoyne family), Valerie Hobson (Edith), Joan Greenwood (Sibella), Audrey Fildes (Mama), Miles Malleson (Hangman), Clive Morton (Prison Governor), John Penrose (Lionel), Hugh Griffith (Lord High Steward)

Imagine you’re Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price). Your mother is the outcast daughter of the d’Ascoyne family (all of whom, male or female, bear a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness), Dukes of Chalfort. These vindictive snobs won’t even allow his mother to be buried in the family mausoleum. However, in the event of a series of unlikely deaths, Louis is the eventual heir to the dukedom. That couldn’t happen, could it? Even if they’re all such stuffy, tedious bores that the suave, sophisticated, urbane and witty Louis feels a lot more like what a duke should be.

What to do? Well, it’s obvious really: Louis will have to murder them. Because Louis wants nothing more than the thing he can’t have. It’s the same with the ladies in his life: his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood), sensual and manipulative, seems all the more tempting when he’s with the refined and austere Edith (Valerie Hobson) and vice versa. We know that the charming Louis’ murderous career will eventually end at the gallows – the film opens with him writing his memoirs and eating his last meal in prison – but what crime will find him there?

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the first of the Ealing comedies. It’s also pretty much the one that sets the Gold Standard. I’ll confess I’ve been sceptical in the past, but rewatching it again, its black comic humour, shrewd psychology and delightful amorality delighted me as never before. Kind Hearts is a very, very funny movie: perfectly constructed, gorgeously scripted and supremely sharp, knowing and scintillating. It’s a miraculously marvellous film.

Is there a comedy sharper and more heartless than Kind Hearts? Our hero is, at best, a sociopath who kills without the slightest regret. Murders are frequent punchlines. One of its leading ladies is as selfish, conniving and ruthless as the hero. D’Ascoynes bite the dust regardless of their decency (and some of them are genuinely quite nice). But we don’t care – largely because Louis is such a smoothly charming and amusing person.

Brilliantly played by Dennis Price, even when poverty forces him into the role of draper’s assistant Louis is the genteel duke to his fingertips. His sociopathic focus on his own desires is delivered with such dry wit (“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”) we can’t help but like him, even though he is a remorseless killer. Dispatching one d’Ascoyne and his mistress in a river “accident” he only sighs “I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.”

Some critics have attempted to position Louis as some sort of class warrior, pruning the nobility. Would that were so, eh? The biggest snob in the film is clearly Louis (compared to him the worst of the d’Ascoynes are more rude and boorish), a man so convinced of his own intellectual and hereditary superiority that even his lowly roots don’t concern him.

Louis really matches our expectations of a duke. He’s refined in voice and manner, dignified in physicality and has the sort of arch wit no one else can compete with (when Sibella tells him her husband wishes to go to Europe to expand his mind, Louis replies “He certainly has room to do so”). He is a million miles from a class warrior: he wants nothing more than to take his place on the velvet cushions of the House of Lords (so much so he insists on being tried there). He’s so convinced of his own superiority, the dispatch of legions of d’Ascoynes cause him to lose not a second of sleep.

He’s also charming, funny and ingenious: we like him. It’s the same reason we like Joan Greenwood’s scheming, sexy and selfish Sibella: what’s more fun than an unashamed baddy? It’s easier to like her more than Valerie Hobson’s staid Edith – though Hobson’s generous performance is spot on for creating the ideal upper-class wife, exactly the sort of refined status symbol Louis would long for.

Hamer’s perfectly paced comedy is largely a triumph of dialogue and characterisation. He shoots much of it in carefully positioned mid-shot. But there are wonderful moments of visual comedy. Who can forget Admiral d’Ascoyne slowly submerging, going down with his sinking ship? Or, best of all, Louis and Edith’s gentle garden conversation about her husband Henry d’Ascoyne’s future while, in the background, over a wall, the small explosion that has just killed him smokes away (“I could hardly point out that Henry now had no time left for any kind of activity, so I continued to discuss his future” Louis observes). But above all, Hamer doesn’t skim on the cold amorality of Louis. While we are never invited to judge him, there are no attempts to hide his sociopathic blankness.

Confronted with real emotion and situations outside his control, Louis is helpless. When his mother dies, he can only mourn her with a flourish straight out of the cheap melodrama he despises. When Sibella’s husband, the dull Lionel, insults his background, he’s reduced to punching him. Caught off guard in his trial, his articulate wit absolutely deserts him. Louis slips on  personae like the fine suits he wears, but his ambitious mind can only travel on his pre-planned route, no others.

But that makes him more than match for the d’Ascoynes. In a masterstroke, all members of this family are played by Alec Guinness, the sort of impish, playful trick Guinness loved. It’s a series of eight distinct comic sketches – to be honest none of them a challenge to Guinness, who is such a great actor that playing these pencil-sketch eccentrics was no-problem-at-all – but still a delightful running gag. His d’Ascoynes include a bumbling vicar, a windbag general forever banging on about his Boer (Bore?) war, a sneering playboy scion, bumbling amateur-photographer Henry (the most sympathetic by a mile), a stuffy banker, an austere suffragette and a bullying duke with a capacity for violence.

Seeing each of these Guinnesses is a neat running joke (not to mention, a little gag at the in-breeding of the upper classes). Price gets in on the act as well, doubling up as Louis’ Italian Tenor father (who dies of shock on Louis’ birth – our hero’s first murder?). But it’s also part of the film’s comedic commentary on construction, duality and falseness. Is it a surprise that the d’Ascoynes are all facets of the same actor, when Louis himself is an entirely self-constructed man, part bitter by-blow, part natural duke? Nothing is ever quite what it seems. Louis lies to everyone he meets, pretends affections he never feels and presents a front to the world totally different from his real self. Even the reason Louis is on death row turns out to be radically different from what we expect.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect display of arch Wildean front, redirected into sociopathic irritation (I can’t call Louis furious – he’s not got enough depth to him for real anger). It’s a jet-black comedy, crammed with superb lines and brilliantly acted, above all by Price whose tortured unknowability behind his Cowardian suaveness is perfect. Guinness went into film legend, Greenwood is fascinatingly vicious and Hobson the embodiment of polite class. Every scene has a great line and the humour is as dark as it comes. It’s one of the greatest of all Ealing’s comedies –certainly the darkest and most vicious – with a hero who looks, acts and talks like a villain.

Peyton Place (1957)

Peyton Place (1957)

Small-town America is the home of hypocrisy in this ridiculously silly soap opera that spawned…a long-running TV soap opera

Director: Mark Robson

Cast: Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selana Cross), Lee Philips (Michael Rossi), Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross), Lloyd Nolan (Dr Matthew Swain), Russ Tamblyn (Norman Page), Terry Moore (Betty Anderson), David Nelson (Ted Carter), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Elsie Thornton), Leon Ames (Leslie Harrington)

Small-town America: what mysteries lie behind those white picket fences? If the small New England town of Peyton Place is a guide, all sorts of terrible things. Why is Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) so afraid of sex and romance? Could her fear that the slightest kiss could turn her would-be-writer teenage daughter Allison (Diane Varsi) into a slut, be rooted in her own mysterious past? Why does Allison’s friend Selena (Hope Lange) fear her drunken and lecherous step-father Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) so much? Why is Mommas-boy Norman (Russ Tamblyn) so shy?

If that all sounds like the set-up for a great-big TV soap… well that’s because it essentially is. Peyton Place was a huge box-office success in 1957, but you can argue it found its natural home when it later mutated into a long-running TV soap. It’s one long onslaught of high-flung, ridiculously OTT events, all filtered through the sort of dialogue punctured by swelling music to hammer home the feelings. Peyton Place is completely disposable – but also strangely enjoyable, rollicking along like all the best soaps do, so full of events that you don’t have time to stop and realise how silly it is.

Adapted from a doorstop popular novel, screenwriter John Michael Hayes faced quite a task. The original was crammed with sex, foul language and everything from murder to teenage pregnancy, illegal abortions, rape and incest. That’s not exactly the sort of stuff the Hays Code dreamed of. Peyton Place: The Movie is almost a triumph in how much of this stuff it manages to cover, all in a very cunning, under-the-radar way. Sure, the rough edges are shaved off (and, of course, not the hint of a cuss word makes it to the screen) but it still manages to tick a lot of those boxes.

It’s all to hammer home the hypocrisy of small-town America. Curtain-twitching busybodies watch every moment, leaping for their phones at the merest hint of scandal: from kisses out of school to teenage kids skinny dipping (bet they can’t believe their luck when an actual murder happens). Peyton Place follows in Picnic’s footsteps (to which it is vastly superior, equally shallow but much less pleased with itself and far more entertaining) in exposing the hypocrisy of 50s America, where everybody goes to church and no-one practices the good-will and love it preaches (and yes, I know the film is set in the 1940s, but no one told the costume or production designers).

Peyton Place was littered with acting nominations (in a year where 12 Angry Men got none, for Chrissakes!). It’s a little hard to understand why, considering every part fits neatly into a trope. Lana Turner is the nominal lead as the frigid clothes-store owner who hides a secret shame (all about that long-lost husband) that gets in the way of her flirtation with the newly arrived schoolmaster (played with smug dullness by Lee Philips). But that’s only because she’s the most famous actor in it. Her performance sets a sort of template for mothers that would be repeated countless times.

The real leads (both Oscar nominated for Supporting Actress) are Diane Varsi and Hope Lange as the two teenagers at the heart of Peyton Place’s ocean of hormones (although, it being a 50s film, a smooch at a booze-free party is the furthest anyone goes). Varsi narrates most of the film as a precocious would-be writer, with several grandstanding scenes wailing at her mother for being so unfair. It’s a broad but engaging performance and she manages to make Allison not quite as wet as she could be. She also gets a shy romance with nervous Norman Page (a gentle Russ Tamblyn, also nominated): Norman is clearly closeted, struggling with his sexuality in a small town (“I don’t know how to kiss a girl” he says) but the film does its best to overlook this.

More engaging is Hope Lange, who gets the juiciest material to play. The film is surprisingly daring in staging her rape by her boorish step-father (a slightly too ripe Oscar nominated Arthur Kennedy, although still the most memorable male performance). Robson’s camera pans up from her being pinned down, to her raised hands and then finally cuts outside. Lange plays the trauma of this – including an unwanted pregnancy, removed by the Doctor in an abortion the film bends over backwards to make an accident-induced miscarriage – with a great deal of vulnerability and empathy, her shame and desperation rather moving.

It makes her the target for gossip. Peyton Place smugly ticks off small-town America for its gossipy meanness – while still peddling a message that, if we just followed the warmth of the best of small-town values, the world would be a better place – ending with Lloyd Nolan’s doctor delivering a pompous ticking-off to the town (from the witness box during a murder case no-less). Peyton Place at heart is a fairly conservative film, that ends with most people discovering their inner-goodness (apart from a few irredeemable harridans), and all wickedness resolved.

It’s directed with workmanlike professionalism by Mark Robson, but it didn’t need inspiration. It’s odd to consider this had nine Oscar nominations, since it feels like the sort of disposable mini-series Netflix throws together every week. Its main claim to fame might be that its quaint small-town smugness, masking a bucketload of scandal, served as the main inspiration for Twin Peaks (though dialled up to a whole other level of weird). It’s overlong, overblown and very silly, but because it doesn’t take itself seriously (unlike heavy-duty message film that year Sayonara, a silly soap that thought it was Pulitzer material) it’s actually ridiculously entertaining, in a totally trashy way.

The Duke (2022)

The Duke (2022)

An eccentric Brit pinches a priceless painting in this cozy tea-time drama

Director: Roger Michell

Cast: Jim Broadbent (Kempton Bunton), Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton), Fionn Whitehead (Jackie Bunton), Matthew Goode (Jeremy Hutchinson), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Gowling), Aimée Kelly (Iree), Joshua McGuire (Eric Crowther), Charlotte Spencer (Pammy), John Heffernan (Nedie Cussen QC), Charles Edwards (Sir Joseph Simpson), Sian Clifford (Dr Unsworth)

In 1961, a 60-year old working-class Geordie and social campaigner (in the “tilting at windmills” sense) Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) made headlines. He went on trial, accused of stealing Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. Bunton was outraged that the British Government had spent £140k (about £3.3 million today) on preserving the painting for the public. Bunton believed the money would have been better spent paying for TV licences for veterans. When Bunton returned the painting, his trial became a media sensation.

Michell’s film (his final one, as he passed away before its Covid-delayed release) is an inoffensive, gentle, Sunday-afternoon cuddle fest, that never quite decides what it really wants to be. The tone frequently bubbles with a faint “caper”-like atmosphere, with its jazzy 60s score, split screen shooting and pops at the foolishness of the establishment, who never consider the painting could have been nabbed by a British eccentric from oop North (two sexist police officers rubbish a female handwriting expert who correctly identifies Bunton’s background). But it’s a slow, rather unfocused character study that has a melancholic grief at its heart. These elements never really fuse together.

Bunton is the quintessential plucky-British eccentric, railing against the system, that this country loves to love. He has a fixation on the injustice of the BBC licence fee (he even “fixes” his TV by removing the part of the cathode that receives the BBC signal, so that he can legitimately refuse to pay the licence), he’s a convinced class warrior. He’s fired as a taxi driver for (a) giving veterans and others free rides and (b) banging on endlessly about his political fixations to his passengers (even one of his charity rides begs him to shut up). He’s fired from a bakery for standing up for a Pakistani fellow worker in the face of racial discrimination. He sits in the rain vainly trying to get people to sign his anti-licence fee petition.

But he’s got no real idea how to use the painting to achieve his aims. While this lack of a plan fits his character, it does mean the central section of the film tends to drift, mostly taking some cheap shots at the British authorities‘ self-satisfied complacency, while Bunton tucks the painting in a cupboard and does nothing with it other than write the odd letter to the press, trying to leverage its return for support for his causes

The film has an odd, inverted snobbery about art throughout. It sees paintings as solely a preserve of the rich. A female journalist early in the film (who we are clearly meant to sympathise with) questions the money spent because of its small size (as if surface area was the best judge of Artistic value!) – and the director of the National Gallery is only allowed a vague defence of its quality in return (which we are clearly meant to sneer at). Bunton calls the painting “not very good” and disparages Goya as a “drunk Spaniard” (which feels rather like calling Turner a “blind idiot”), with the film offering no counter view. It never mentions that the picture was (a) placed in the National Gallery for all to see for free; or (b) that the government actually only put up £40k with the rest donated by a millionaire.

Instead, the film takes an odd angle that painting is the “wrong sort of art” to be spending so much money on – the writers and directors never mention that in the same year the Government spent £1 million on the National Theatre (25 times what they spent on the Goya). I’m pretty sure Bunton would have hated that as much, if not more (especially since no one could see a National Theatre show for free, unlike the Goya) but you can’t expect writers Richard Bean and Chris Coleman and director Michell to bite the theatre teat that fed them. The film ends with an odd caption stating the licence fee was made free for over-75s forty years later – but doesn’t explain that it was done in a way designed to hobble an institution loathed by the Conservative Government (and I doubt Bunton would have supported the action either!).

On top of this, there is a way more interesting film to be made here about grief. The loss of their daughter, aged 18, to a cycling accident hangs over everything the Buntons do. It’s the source of unspoken tension between Kempton and Dorothy. He visits the grave frequently and can’t understand why she won’t, and they can hardly bring themselves to talk about the loss or display her picture. While centring this would make for a more melancholic film, it feels like its heart.

But that would be a less crowd-pleasing film, and that’s what this film is trying to be. The final act is dedicated to the courtroom, and its mostly about watching Kenton and his lawyer (a lovely turn from Matthew Goode) running rings around the system. Of course every character in the film puts their differences aside to cheer on Bunton on the stand. It’s when the film gets a bit of the fizz back from the opening. Not enough for it to be anything more than passable entertainment – but it helps.

The lead performances are of course excellent, much better than the film deserves. Broadbent is absolutely perfect casting, playing this dedicated social-warrior to charming perfection. Mirren gives a performance way better than the thinly-written exasperated wife deserves. But they’re the main selling points of an otherwise fairly average movie. The film telescopes the events of four years into six months, but only rarely gives itself the sort of energy and fun it needs to be anything more than a something you can let pass before your eyes on a Bank Holiday.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

A court case hinges on a heck of a twist or two in Wilder’s well-mounted Christie adaptation

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole), Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole), Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll), John Williams (Mr Brogan-Moore), Henry Daniell (Mr Mayhew), Ian Wolfe (Carter), Torin Thatcher (Mr Myers QC), Norma Vaden (Emily Jane French), Una O’Connor (Janet McKenzie), Francis Compton (Justice Wainwright)

Agatha Christie is better known for detectives who unearth murderers, not lawyers defending those accused in court. But that doesn’t mean Witness for the Prosecution, a very effective courtroom drama, shirks on classic Christie flourishes. Witness has a single stonking twist that huge numbers of people never see coming (the end of the film comes with a sonorous warning entreating people not to spoil the surprises, the sort of anti-spoiler warning that would make Marvel proud).

Leonard Vole (an unlikely Tyrone Power) is the soldier and would be entrepreneur, who stands accused of the murder of a rich older woman (Norma Vaden) who conveniently left Vole her money. Defending Vole is richly-toned, highly-skilled barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), recovering from a heart attack and doing his very best to dodge the overly attentive concern of his private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Vole’s case looks difficult, with much circumstantial evidence stacked against him and worries about whether his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) will stand by him or not?

Billy Wilder directs with a smooth professionalism – he later modestly claimed of his Oscar nomination, that it was like giving the crew that moved Michelangelo’s Pietá an award for best sculpture – but his real contribution (with fellow writer Harry Kurnitz) was sharpening the dialogue, expanding Christie’s characterisation (in particular adding much more shrewdness and eccentric pomposity to Robarts) and upping the zip of Christie’s original. It certainly met with the approval of the grandé dame of crime who listed this, and Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, as the only two adaptations of her work she liked.

The film is largely based around the courtroom dynamics, as witnesses are examined and cross examined and facts gently dragged into the light. There is plenty of quality theatrics, not least since Robarts and his opposition counsel Myers (a fearsome Torin Thatcher) are more than a little skilled at keeping things sparky for the jury. There is a hint of cynicism in Witness: Robarts needs to convinces himself of a client’s innocence, but there is a suggestion this is because it helps him work out how to effectively defend them, less because of any moral reasons. And certainly, the entire mechanics of the trial operates largely as a show, an entertainment with jokes and compelling stories offered by both sides.

There is of course no better showman than Robarts. Played by Charles Laughton in one of his last great – and possibly most enjoyable – performance, Robarts is an affectionate, witty performance of carefully studied eccentricity and barking bluffness. But there is also a vulnerability in him: Robarts needs to belief in his own legend and his ability to separate truth from lie (he even prides himself on his “monacle test”, using a reflection from it to shine in suspects eyes, believing a liar will get flustered and trip themselves up – needless to say it turns out to be faulty).

Wilder – with Laughton as a brilliant collaborator – transforms Robarts into a far more forceful and charismatic figure, making the late plot twists even more of a shock. If someone as professionally adept and plugged in as Robarts can be taken in, what chance do the rest of us have? Oscar-nominated, Laughton, a twinkle permanently in his eye, powers through moments of high court theatricality but also heartily enjoys the banter of real life, taking a real delight in his schoolboy mischief as he persists in having his own way.

A large part of that, is a running of dodging treatments and sticking to a diet of things that are bad with him. Wilder’s finest change from the original, in introducing Robart’s ill health and his love-hate relationship with his nurse Miss Plimsoll. Who is, of course, played by Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife. The chemistry between these two is spot-on, with Lanchester (also Oscar nominated – and unlucky to lose to Miyoski Umeshi in Sayonara) in particular playing the combination of world-weary exasperation and growing affection for Robarts perfectly.

Combined with those twists, it’s the interplay between these two that is the real highlight in the film – well that and the twists. Many of those twists are bound up with Marlene Dietrich’s character. Dietrich gives one of her most colourful and wide-ranging performances here. The secrecy of the film probably stopped her from landing an Oscar nomination (much to her regret – Wilder even apologised to her). Power is miscast – he lacks the required natural innocence and looks both too old and incongruously American – but fortunately spends most of the film in the dock.

The final twist is a doozy, perfectly delivered by the actors and Wilder. Wilder directs throughout with quiet authority – as well as fine sense of humour, in particular a stair lift scene that sees Robarts using the device as a tool to dodge being told what to do. Laughton and Lanchester in particular are wonderfully funny. It’s got some excellently handled courtroom tricks and you won’t forget how it turns out. It’s a solid example of Wilder’s skill behind the camera – but a very enjoyable film and a must for Christie fans.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

The mechanics of courtroom showmanship is ruthlessly exposed in this gripping drama

Director: Otto Preminger

Cast: James Stewart (Paul Biegler), Lee Remick (Laura Mannion), Ben Gazzara (Lt Frederick Manion), Arthur O’Connell (Parnell McCarthy), Eve Arden (Maida Rutledge), Kathryn Grant (Mary Pilant), George C. Scott (Claude Dancer), Orson Bean (Dr Matthew Smith), Russ Brown (George Lemon), Murray Hamilton (Alphonse Paquette), Brooks West (Mitch Lodwick), Joseph N Welch (Judge Weaver)

Winston Churchill once said Democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. You could say something similar about trial by jury: it ain’t perfect, but it’s better than any other justice system we’ve given a spin to in human history. Trials aren’t always forums for discovering truths: they are stages to present arguments (or stories), and they are won by whoever has the best one. Maybe cold, hard facts and evidence make up your story, maybe perceptions. Maybe it’s about how you tell the story. Elements of all three are found in Otto Preminger’s brilliant courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder.

In a small town in Michigan, a US army lieutenant, Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for the murder of innkeeper Barney Quill. Manion says he did the deed only because Quill raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Representing him is lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a former district attorney looking to start-up a new practise. On the opposite side is new DA Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and, far more of a worry, hot-shot lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) all the way from the Attorney General’s office. They say there was no rape – only a jealous murder after a consensual affair. It’s he-said-she-said, only “he” is dead. How will the trial clear that one up?

Otto Preminger was the son of a noted Austrian jurist, and Anatomy of a Murder can be seen as a tribute to his father, and to the process of the law itself. Not that it’s a hagiography. The film recognises the virtues as well as the faults of the system. Above all, that the system is not perfect, it can’t base every decision on firm facts and often requires people to take leaps of faith based on their gut instinct about who may, or may not, be telling the truth.

Preminger’s film does its very best to put us in the position the jury is in. We get no real evidence about what happened beyond what they get, and very few bits of additional information (except, perhaps, for seeing what many of the characters are like outside of the courtroom). Instead, the viewer is asked to make their mind-up on whether events fell-out as Manion claims (or not) based on our own judgement of the probabilities and of his (and Laura’s) character. The film opens with the crime committed and closes shortly after the verdict: there are no flashbacks or pre-murder scenes to help nudge us towards one view or another. The murder victim appears only as a photo. Like the jury we have to call it on what we see in front of us.

Anatomy of a Murder also makes clear there are plenty of shades of grey in the process of justice. During his first consultation with Manion, Biegler carefully suggests he consider whether he was in fact insane when he committed the deed – as that sort of defence will be much easier, since he doesn’t deny the killing. Sure enough, on their second meeting, Manion is now deeply unsure about his state of mind. Biegler then works backwards to establish precedent for the plea (a finds a single, over 75 years old one) to pull together a defence of irresistible impulse and to peddle hard a picture of the victim as an unrepentant rapist practically asking for a wronged husband to do the deed.

Biegler’s case is flimsy – but the key thing is to present it with pizzazz. And that’s what he’s got. Stewart’s performances in Hitchcock classics are highly regarded, but this might well be his finest dramatic performance. This is a brilliantly sly deconstruction of Stewart’s aw shucks charm: Biegler promotes an image of himself as a down-on-his-heels, bumpkin-like country lawyer, punching above his weight against the big city lawyers, Stewart dialling up the famous drawl. But it’s miles from the truth: Biegler is a former DA, an experienced trial lawyer and a formidable advocate. Stewart flicks the switch constantly, visibly putting on his persona like a skin, shedding it when no longer needed.

There is a constant suggestion that everything Biegler does is for effect. From fiddling with fishing tackle during the prosecution’s opening statements, to furious court-room theatricals as he thuds tables at slights and injustices. All of it is carefully prepared, rehearsed and delivered to make an impact on the jury. The constant parade of effect, manufactured outrage and appeals to an “us against them” mentality provokes exasperation from his opponents and a weary toleration from the Judge (played by real-life McCarthy confronting attorney Joseph N Welch). Stewart uses his Mr Smith Goes to Washington nobility, but punctures it at every point with Biegler’s cynicism and opportunism. Biegler, at best, persuades himself his client is innocent – but I would guess he doesn’t really care either way. He immediately perceives the personalities of his clients and then does his best to shield their less flattering qualities from the jury.

The one advantage we have over the jury is the additional insight we get into this strange couple, living a possibly unhappy, and certainly love-hate, marriage. Manion plays wronged fury in the court – but Gazzara gives him a lot of self-satisfied smarm and bland indifference to his crime in real life, meeting every event with a smirk that suggests he’s sure he can get away with anything. Equally good, Lee Remick’s Laura presents such a front of decency and pain in court, you’ll find it hard to balance that with the promiscuous, blousy woman we see outside of it, who provocatively flirts with intent with anything that moves. But it’s all about the show: present them right, and these unsympathetic people can be successfully shown as a conventional loving couple.

The prosecution is playing the same game. George C. Scott is superb as a coolly professional lawyer, who will use any number of tricks – from angry confrontation, to seductive reasonableness – to cajole a witness to say anything he wishes them to say. He will turn on a sixpence from being your friend, to berating you as a liar. And he’s not averse to his own morally questionable plays in court. Like Biegler, he knows presenting a good story is what is needed to win: the truth (or otherwise) isn’t enough.

Anatomy of a Murder still feels like a hugely insightful look at the legal process. Most of its runtime takes place in court, which Preminger shoots with a calmly controlled series of long-takes and two-shot set-ups, that help turn the film into something of a play (as well as a showpiece for fine acting). Along with its very daring (for the time) exploration of rape, it has a very cool soundtrack from Duke Ellington, that drips with allure and gives the film a lot of edge. The acting is all brilliant – along with those mentioned, Eve Arden is first-class as Biegler’s loyal secretary and Arthur O’Connell sweetly seedy as his heavy-drinking fellow lawyer. Anatomy of a Murder gives a first rate, at times cynical, look at the flaws and strengths of trial by jury – and is an outstanding courtroom drama.

The Last Duel (2021)

The Last Duel header1
Adam Driver and Matt Damon fight The Last Duel in medieval France

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Buchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csorkas (Crespin), Željko Ivanek (Le Coq), Tallulah Haddon (Marie), Bryony Hannah (Alice), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Adam Nagaitis (Adam Louvel)

The medieval era had its own solution for “He said, She said”. Let God decide via a fight to the death. After all, He would never let the injured party lose, would he? Scott’s The Last Duel is a dramatisation of one of the last French judicial duels, in December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Scott’s Rashomon-inspired film shows the events leading up to the duel from all three characters’ perspectives.

The three different stories we see are not radically different. Unlike Rashomon – which presented totally different versions of the same events, according to the prejudices or agendas of the storytellers – The Last Duel’s versions stress subtly different reactions or presents different fragments of an overall story. So, for instance, Le Gris and Carrouges remember different elements of a battle. Carrouges recalls the noble charge to save the innocent, saving Le Gris’ life in the final stages of combat. To Le Gris it’s a suicidal charge, in which he saves an unhorsed Carrouge’s life. After the rape, Carrouge remembers offering his wife sympathy; she remembers his anger and demand they have sex at once to “cleanse her” of the stain.

These mixed recollections work best when we see each of them remember a fateful reconciliation meeting between Le Gris and Carrouges (where Le Gris and Marguerite first meet). A wedge has been driven between them ever since Carrouges believed Le Gris cheated him out of both land and his father’s former position. When the two agree to try and put the past behind them, Carrouge asks Marguerite to give Le Gris a kiss of peace. He remembers her surprise and timidity. Le Gris remembers her as being quietly excited with a kiss that lingers. Marguerite remembers a kiss from Le Gris that lingers too long. Small moments like this are where the film is at its strongest, making its concept feel very relevant today in our world of accusation and counter accusation.

But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time there isn’t this subtle variation. Where the film is weakest is when we (frequently) see the same events, presented the same way, three times. While our perception of Carrouges changes – from the ill-treated noble he sees himself to the sullen, self-entitled whiner everyone else sees – our idea of Le Gris is fundamentally the same (blissfully self-entitled). Fundamentally, when we see events the first time, later versions only really tweak our perception of them rather than challenge it.

You can see this in the rape itself, which we first see from Le Gris’ perspective. The film shows Le Gris’ understanding of consent has been twisted by most of his sexual experience being court orgies with playfully protesting prostitutes. His pursuit of a genuinely unwilling Margeurite around her room echoes exactly the pretend-chases and “chat up lines” he’s used in those earlier scenes, so we understand it’s possible he doesn’t actually understand he’s raped her. But no viewer can see Le Gris’ version as anything other than rape. In fact, the only tangible difference when we see the event from her perspective is that her screams of “No” and “Stop” are louder and the camera focuses more on her anguished face. If the film is presenting any tension about whether this is a consensual encounter or rape, it ends the second we see Le Gris’ story.

This negatively effects the drama – and actually makes Marguerite’s version seem strangely superfluous. You start to feel we might as well see all three perspectives at the same time, as the narrative trick ends up adding little to the film – especially since the film categorically states Marguerite’s version is the truth. Why not just tell the whole film from her perspective in that case? It also doesn’t help that Marguerite goes last – which means until an hour into the film, the character we should be most engaged with and sympathetic towards has stood on the side-lines.

This is particularly unfortunate as the film is striving for a feminist message. The men are callous and self-obsessed, treating women as sex toys or assets – and are praised for it. Marguerite though is intelligent and principled, marginalised by her husband and condemned as a whore when she protests her rape. She pushes her case with determination, despite discovering she will be condemned to burn if Carrouge loses (he of course is only in his own honour). Her word is only good if backed a man, and she is powerless to defend her innocence.

It’s the lot of medieval women. Harriet Walter (rocking a bizarre appearance, straight out of David Lynch’s Dune) as Carrouge’s mother tells Marguerite the same thing happened to her, but she considered it pointless (and dangerous) to press charges. What we see of the judicial system is ruthlessly unjust and misanthropic, with women harangued to confess their guild for tempting men.

But it doesn’t quite click together. It’s a shame, as many scenes are highly effective. The rape – both times we see it – is alarming. The final duel is brilliantly shot and hugely tense, not least because Marguerite stands literally on the top of an unlit bonfire watching every blow. Scott’s shoots the film with the same blue-filtered beauty he gave to the early scenes of Kingdom of Heaven.

There is of course an oddness in seeing such American actors as Damon, Affleck and Driver in period setting. The accents are an odd mix: Comer basically uses her regular (non-Scouse) performance voice, Damon does a gravelly version of his own, Walter an American twang to match Damon, Affleck is halfway to plummy Brit, Driver flattens his Californian tones. Damon is pretty good as the sulky, surly Carrouge who gets less sympathetic the more we see him, Driver is suitably charming on the surface but selfish. Comer plays wounded injustice extremely well and brings a lot of emotion to a difficult role. Affleck has the most fun, flouncing around in a blonde wig as a lordly, hedonistic pervert who likes nothing more than belittling Carrouge.

The Last Duel is part way to a decent film, but it just lacks that little bit extra to make it really come to life. Its alternative versions of the truth don’t illuminate as much as they need to – even if they are at points pleasingly subtle in their differences. It has an admirable feminist message, but defers most of it to the second half of the film (were they worried about sidelining the famous male actors?) and it’s concern that we should not doubt Marguerite at any point does undermine its drama. Handsomely filmed, it doesn’t make the impact it should. Perhaps that’s why it was one of the leading box office disasters of the Covid Pandemic?

The Firm (1993)

“He can’t handle the truth!” Tom Cruise takes on The Firm. We lose.

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Tom Cruise (Mitch McDeere), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Abby McDeere), Gene Hackman (Avery Tolar), Holly Hunter (Tammy Hemphill), Ed Harris (FBI Agent Wayne Tarrance), Hal Holbrook (Oliver Lambert), Jerry Hardin (Royce McKnight), David Strathairn (Ray McDeere), Terry Kinney (Lamar Quinn), Wilfrid Brimley (Bill DeVasher), Gary Busey (Eddie Lomax), Paul Sorvino (Tony Morolto)

Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is graduating top-of-his-class from Harvard Law. A plucky kid who’s worked for everything he has – and who wants to provide the best he can for wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) – Mitch has lots of offers but is seduced by a perk-filled offer from a law firm in Memphis. Everything goes wonderfully at first. But then associates at the firm start to die under suspicious circumstances and Mitch discovers no-one everleaves the firm except in a wooden box. Maybe all that off-shore tax-dodging isn’t quite as innocent as it seems – and those big-city clients with Italian-sounding names aren’t so friendly after all…

Adapted from a best-selling novel by John Grisham at the height of his airport-novel flogging days, The Firm is bought to the screen by Sydney Pollack. And what a complete dog’s dinner he makes of it. The Firm is a dreadful film: long, slow and dull with a plot that stretches right through elaborate and comes out the other side as confusing. By the time Mitch is tearing through Memphis, briefcase flapping behind him, you’ll have long-since ceased caring about anything involved in the film at all. Because for a film of such great length, very little seems to happen in it – and what little does happen is wrapped up in a mixture of legalese and curiously flat chase sequences.

Cruise plays Mitch at his most gung-ho, cocky, shit-eating grinnish. He’s preppy, super-smart, arrogant but also loyal, brave and principled. Aside from a brief temptation by money – and that because he wants the best for his family! – and of course a dalliance with a honey-trap on a beach (but it was a set-up, so not his fault!), he’s practically perfect in every way. He’s even a decent athlete, playfully taking part in back-flipping competitions with a break-dancing pre-teen busker (one of the most clumsy and bizarre introductions of a Chekov’s skill in the movies).

To put it bluntly, Mitch is an irritating character and watching him (very slowly) decide to do the right thing doesn’t make gripping viewing. Around him a host of experienced character actors do their thing, none of them stretching themselves. Tripplehorn does her best with the thankless part of “wife”, though she does at least get to do something a little proactive at the end. Hackman grins and coasts as Cruise’s mentor with the lost conscience. Hunter pouts and wisecracks (Oscar-nominated) as Grisham’s twist on an Eve-Ardenish secretary. Holbrook and Brimley scowl behind smiles as high-ups at the Firm. Harris shouts a lot as a permanently angry FBI agent with a heart of gold. Sorvino breaks out his Mob Boss 101.

Pollack marshals all these forces together with minimal effort and then ticks the boxes of all Grisham-cliches. The only thing missing are some courtroom dynamics, but we get the next best thing with wee-Tommy playing the FBI, the Mafia and the Firm off against each other in a desperate attempt to stay one step ahead of the game. I can’t stress enough how turgid and dull this film is. However scintillating you feel the set-up you might be, as the film clocks into the second hour (with 30 minutes still to go), you’ll be amazed how little sense of peril or threat there is.

There is nothing sharp, pointed or pacey about this film. “It has to happen fast” Tom announces at one point, as he kicks his impenetrable plan into gear. “Good luck in this film” my wife commented. She’s spot-on. Pollack fails to bring any sense of pace or peril to the film. For all we are repeatedly told Cruise’s life is at risk, it never really feels like it.

A big part of this massive failure is the terrible musical score that covers every single second of the film. Provided by an Oscar-nominated Dave Grusin (beating out Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano from even being nominated, one of the most inexplicable oversights at the Oscars from the 90s), every single second of the film is overlaid with a plinky-plonky piano score that would not sound out of place in a second-rate jazz bar or a hotel lift. Rather than bring you to edge of your seat, the score actually makes you feel like you should be resting back in it with a large cocktail in hand and a fuzzy sense of upcoming sleepiness clouding your brain. Which to be honest might work: pissed and half-asleep is probably the only way to get anything from the movie.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Paul Muni campaigns for justice in The Life of Emile Zola

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Paul Muni (Emile Zola), Gloria Holden (Alexandrine Zola), Gale Sondergaard (Lucie Dreyfus), Joseph Schildkraut (Captain Alfred Dreyfus), Donald Crisp (Maitre Labori), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Nana), John Litel (Charpentier), Henry O’Neill (Colonel Picquart), Morris Carnovsky (Anatole France), Louis Calhern (Major Dort), Ralph Morgan (Commander of Paris), Harry Davenport (Chief of Staff), Vladimir Sokoloff (Paul Cezanne)

One of the lesser-known Best Picture winners, The Life of Emile Zola is a prime example of the 1930s trend for “Great Man” pictures, setting the template for a whole genre of biographical movies. A whistle-stop tour of how the Great Man came to be, before a tight focus on what made him great – ideally ending in either triumph or disaster (or, as is the case here, with both). It’s from a time when the viewing public didn’t expect a rigid adherence to the fact – and when films were very open with their flexibility with the truth (the film opens with an on-screen caption which happily states most of what happens in it is made up.) Actually, I think being told from the start you are watching a heavily fictionalised version of the truth covers a multitude of sins: and that The Life of Emile Zola is pretty entertaining when you get past that.

Emile Zole (Paul Muni) is of course one of the most famous French authors. But he was also at least as famous for his campaigning and presence as he was for his volumes and volumes of best sellers. The film follows Zola, for its first forty minutes or so, from poverty-stricken writer, struggling to make ends meet in the draughty hovel he shares with similar future-genius Cezanne, to success (although in real life by the time he wrote Nana, the book that makes him a sensation here, he was already hugely famous). Zola becomes increasingly aimless. What worlds are there left to be conquered? That all changes when Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) the wife of army officer Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) asks for his help to save his life from unjust imprisonment and exile on Devil’s Island. Because the army are convinced Dreyfus is a spy – and won’t let inconvenient things like evidence that someone else did it get in the way.

The film is called The Life of Emile Zola but really it might as well have been called The Dreyfus Affair. This infamous miscarriage of justice drives the entire second half of the movie – with Zola himself disappearing from focus for stretches as the film covers the conspiracies that led to Dreyfuss spending the best part of a decade imprisoned for something he didn’t do. What seems strange today is that the film makes no mention of the most famous angle of the case: Dreyfus was almost solely suspected because he was Jewish, and the case became one of the most infamous antisemitic persecutions in history. But the studio heads – Jewish themselves and nervous of being accused of making a film that criticised Nazi Germany – removed all reference to Dreyfus’ Jewishness from the script. It’s a curious omission, but by and large doesn’t affect the film’s final impact.

Dieterle’s movie is also one of the first courtroom dramas. A large chunk of the final third is given over to Zola’s trial for libel (after his famous J’Accuse article, denouncing the army’s persecution of Dreyfus). In a crowded courtroom, the film carefully follows the intricacies of the court case, from calling to witnesses to final speeches (all fairly accurate, even if Zola is given a larger role with a final speech). As in the trial itself, the blatant unfairness (witnesses shouted down, defence questions vetoed, evidence withheld and even invented) is hammered home with shocking regularity. Donald Crisp does fine work as the liberal lawyer, hamstrung by a crooked system.

The Dreyfus affair element is really what makes the film come to life. The French army officers are almost to a man a group of corrupt bullies, who have pre-decided the outcome of their investigation and are determined that every single element of it should support that decision. By contrast Joseph Schildkraut (winning an Oscar that feels more for Dreyfus than him, delivering an effective if rather one-note performance) is the soul of decency and nobility as a Dreyfus who is at first bewildered then fighting a manful struggle against despair. Even better is Gale Sondergaard, who gets an ahistorical impassioned speech to win Zola to the cause and carries a core of quiet anger under her shock.

The Dreyfus Affair was the struggle of Zola’s life, the crusade that would win him a place in history, perhaps even more than his books. It’s also the sort of campaigning material that gives rich rewards to actors. Paul Muni seizes the opportunity. The film was shot in reverse so Muni would need to spend less and less time in make-up as shooting went on: the old-age make-up and wigs are very effective, matched by Muni’s physicality and voice which subtly changes as the character ages.

Muni is an actor who seized any chance for a bit of grandstanding. The film gives him its best one with a five-minute monologue closing the trial, during which Zola argues with passionate but quiet reasonableness that Dreyfus is an innocent victim. It’s even more effective since Dieterle has kept Muni silently off-centre for much of the court case. Muni sometimes carries the whiff of stagey ham, but in several moments he brings both a charming cheek and strong morality to Zola. It’s a very strong performance from one of the leading actors of the 1930s.

The film itself is also a good mixture of the twee and the compelling. Most of the Dreyfuss material falls into the latter category. It’s the early days of Zola that falls into twee: Zola scrippling ideas, bantering with Cezanne on the purpose of art, playfully mining prostitute Nana for the material he will make into a hit book. There is a nice foreshadowing through the film with Zola’s obsession with blocking draughts – an obsession that will later cost him his life to a misfunctioning heater.

It’s a well directed film. Dieterle mixes in nice touches of humour (a husband and wife using subterfuge to disguise from each other that they are both buying Nana) and also effective details that speak of Dreyfus’ isolation (the letter that has been redacated into nothingness, the effective transition of several years at Devil’s Island that stresses how little has changed, Dreyfus’ giddy joy when finally allowed to walk unheeded in and out of his prison cell).

The Life of Emile Zola looks today like a surprising winner of Best Picture. But the patterns for both courtroom drama and many biographical dramas were laid down here. By the end, as the survivors pay tribute to Zola with high-blown speeches, the audience should be convinced that this was a man deserving of being honoured by a whole movie. It’s setting of a template copied many times over can make it look a little twee today, but its’ still well done, with some powerful flashes of effective film-making and great acting.

The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg bring the making of Facebook to life in Fincher’s modern American classic

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron Winklevoss/Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Brenda Song (Christy Lee), Rashida Jones (Marilyn Delpy), Joseph Mazzello (Dustin Moskovitz), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage)

Nothing has changed our interaction with the world faster than the internet. And nothing on the internet has changed how we interact as much as social media. As it drives changes in the way we relate to other people, it’s a brave film that tries to capture this zeitgeist and turn it into an effective movie. The Social Network is a brave movie – and also a brilliant one, a defiantly modern and far-sighted movie that avoids being the sanctimonious message movie it could have become, by concentrating on personal relationships, drama and, above all, a strong and compelling story.

Its October 2003 and a 19-year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). So, he responds like many people today would – but not in 2003 – by writing a series of rude and angry blogs about her. And at the same time, he does something you and I wouldn’t be able to do – he builds overnight a campus website called Facemash that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students. It’s a sensation – and a scandal.

Off the back of it, Zuckerberg is approached by the Winklevoss brothers (in a skilled double performance by Armie Hammer) to see if he’d be interested in building an elite social network, Harvard Connection, for them. Zuckerberg agrees – but did he independently already have the idea for Thefacebook, an elite social network for Ivy League students? Either way, with funds from friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) he builds the platform which is to become Facebook. Does it all end well? Since the story is framed around Zuckerberg in 2009, sitting in depositions while being sued by both the Winkelvoss brothers (“the Winklevi”) and Saverin, you can guess not.

Fincher’s film reflects its central character in many ways – cool, efficient, tightly wound, juggling intellectualism with simmering tension. It’s vibrant, fresh, razor-sharp, perfectly paced and superbly dramatic. It turns what could have been a terrifically dull story of very clever people typing lines of code into a whipper-sharp story of jealousies, rivalries and suspicions. It also brilliantly veers away from being a polemic. It could easily have made points – as many films have – about the “evils and dangers of that creepy thing the internet” or constantly reminded us how morally superior film-makers are to social media kingpins. It does nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a brilliantly insightful look at the birth of a phenomenon that also makes subtle, intelligent points about some of the behaviours that phenomenon led to. All while keeping us gloriously entertained.

A big part of the film’s success is in Sorkin’s superb script. The material is perfect for him. The character’s intellectualism fits with his pithy turn of phrase, while their perceptions of themselves as victims or on a moral crusade fits with his ability to write morality with empathy. It also helps that he is the master of crackling dialogue. The idea to structure the film around the depositions is also a master-stroke. Not just a reminder of what’s to come, it adds an air of artificiality to everything we see (perfect as well for Sorkin’s smarter-than-life dialogue) – after all, each scene is based on the filtered remembrances of people in the depositions. And all of them remember a subtly different story.

Sorkin and Fincher also manage to avoid having villains in play. It would be easy to make Zuckerberg a villain: many films would have done. But Zuckerberg here isn’t bad – it’s more that he’s tunnel-visioned, selfish and socially inept. Erica (a marvellous turn by Rooney Mara as the first victim of social media bullying) has a point when she says she dumping him not because he’s a geek but because he’s not really a nice person. But Zuckerberg’s actions – his betrayals as some read them – come not from vindictiveness but a shark-like moving forward that leaves people behind him. And he’s also, as the film is keen to show repeatedly, lonely. He has one friend – whom he sacrifices on the altar of his creation – and is ruthless at cutting people out of his life when they fail to meet the standards he has set them.

The film channels the skills of Eisenberg – whose range is not huge – perfectly here, in a role he was surely born to play. Eisenberg crafts his physicality in something hunched, oppressed and sullen while his flat voice is perfect for a man who expresses himself through his creation not his personality. He gives Zuckerberg both a ruthlessness, but also a strange lack of knowledge – constantly surprised that his actions have consequences that leave him alone. He makes him a true lonely god of the internet – the man who invented the biggest social networking centre in the world, but who doesn’t have a friend himself.

But it also makes clear that Zuckerberg lacks the usual flaws of his kind: he’s not interested, it seems, in money, riches, fame or drugs. To him, the prize is to do not to be seen to do. He makes a rich contrast with Sean Parker (a brilliantly charismatic Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who briefly influences him but is primarily interested in the flash and bang that the retiring Zuckerberg isn’t. What he does have is the drive and ruthlessness that his friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderful performance from Andrew Garfield as a marvellously sweet, but clearly naïve and out-of-his-depth man completely lacking the vision a project like Facebook needs) doesn’t have – and which makes Saverin unsuitable for thinking in the global terms Zuckerberg is.

And the film has little time for the Winklevoss twins. Played with chutzpah in a double role by Armie Hammer (who skilfully distinguishes both of them), Zuckerberg is right when he describes them as rich kids who had everything they ever wanted in life – and seem outraged that they can’t be given the rights to Facebook as well. As he points out they intended to do nothing other than come up with a concept. These rowers – in a witty touch their boat is sponsored by that dinosaur Polaroid – also represent the old elite under siege from new media. The entitled rich, who can’t comprehend that the world is being handed to them on a plate.

The film also makes for an intriguing meta-commentary on the growth of social media. From the trolling of Erica, through the bitter feuds and arguments, the he-said-she-said fighting of the depositions, and the quick shifts between friendship and rivalry, it also manages to capture the world of social media in a nutshell. The atmosphere where actions can explode in people’s perception, where statements you made years ago come back to bite you, where judgement and criticism are constant and the ability to communicate more easily also makes fights easier to start, seem more and more prescient.

Fincher’s film does this marvellously, with a wit and sense of dramatic flair that reminds me of a more grounded Network. Sure the scene at Henley-on-Thames is hand-in-the-mouth agonising for any British person to watch (it is littered with major errors from turn-of-phrase to its understanding of life in Britain), but when every other scene in it is perfectly done it doesn’t matter. Like any victory, Facebook has many people claiming to be its father. You could say the film about this film: superbly directed, a brilliant script and perfectly cast, it’s a triumph.