Category: Family drama

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Cameron’s film makes a huge splash despite its soggy plotted, flooded run-time

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldaña (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Kiri Sully), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Kate Winslet (Ronal), Cliff Curtis (Tonowari), Jamie Flatters (Neteyam Sully), Britain Dalton (Lo’ak Sully), Timothy Jo-Li Bliss (Tuk Sully), Jack Champion (Spider), Bailey Bass (Reya), Filip Geljo (Aonung), Duane Evans Jr (Rotxo), Edie Falco (General Frances Ardmore), Brendan Cowell (Captain Scoresby), Jermaine Clement (Dr Ian Garvin)

After thirteen years it finally arrived. The sequel to a film that seemed to leave no cultural impact, Avatar. People were convinced it would flop. But they say that about all Cameron films. And, if anyone should have learned anything from Terminator 2, Titanic and Avatar it was don’t bet against Cameron. If Avatar 2’s purpose was to make an awful lot of money, it has succeeded in every level. If its purpose was to make a strong and entertaining film… I’m not so sure.

About the same amount of time has passed on Pandora and Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have raised a family of four children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) born from the avatar of their friend Grace. They have also raised Quaritch’s son ‘Spider’ (Jack Champion) among them. Then the humans return… a bloody war begins, with Sully leading a guerrilla campaign. The company resurrects Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as a Na’vi super soldier to fight on their own terms. After Spider is captured, Sully and his family flee to live among the Metkayina, a sea-living tribe. But they can’t escape the war and its dangers.

As Avatar: The Way of Water is garlanded with praise and Oscars nominations, I feel like we are all part of a wide conspiracy of silence. So desperate are so many to keep viewers handing over their cash at the box office, that a film completely designed to be seen on the big screen (and this really is) is being praised to the skies by some as a masterpiece. It is not. It’s not even the best Avatar film. Instead, Avatar 2 is a visually impressive but hellishly long, predictable re-tread of the first film that stuffs the eyes with CGI wonders but leaves not a jot for the heart.

I was reminded part way through the overlong runtime that Cameron once made imaginative, thrilling sequels that completely reset the table. Aliens reinvented a haunted house horror movie as a pulsating action film. Terminator 2 turned a chase story into ramped up family story that mused on destiny. Avatar 2… basically tells exactly the same story, but with a familiar generational family conflict storyline and lots of water. It has the same environmental messages and anti-corporation vibe. When this lands, it works. A whale hunt is shot in terrifying detail, a giant mother whale creature brutally trapped and eviscerated for a small cannister of fluid extracted from its brain. This is also probably the most effective sequence and the one that moved me the most.

The effects do look impressive. There is no denying that, and the motion capture that turns the actors in blue giants is totally convincing. These Na’vi look and feel like flesh and blood beings. The visual imagination that creates this world, with its sweeping vistas and eclipse-kissed sky not to mention the myriad exotic creatures that populate it are stunning. If Avatar 2 deserves praise it’s for that. Pretty much every single frame looks like it cost a million dollars.

Unfortunately, it often also has a sheen of unreality. I became desperate for something real to appear on screen. But when only one character out of ten is not an effect, you don’t get much of that. On top of which the decision to film in slick, blur-free 48 frames per second means everything glides across the screen with the perfect-focused quality of a videogame. Don’t know what I mean? Try looking at things around you while moving your head at moderate speed. What do you see? Blur. Blur is real. The perfect focus of this world clues you up in every second that nothing in it is real.

The lack of reality eventually starts to remind you of The Phantom Menace. In fact, the only thing really separating this from that disaster is that James Cameron is a master director of epic, visual cinema. The film-making here, as a technical exercise , is beyond reproach. And few directors shoot action scenes with as much skill and raw excitement as Cameron. I can’t fault anything about that, even while I struggled to care as they dragged out over a huge chunk of time.

But Cameron’s weakness as always been the writing. He is a flat and unimaginative writer of dialogue – the Na’vi dialogue is awful flicking from ponderous (“We Sully’s stick together. That is our greatest weakness. And our greatest strength!”) to painfully bad (the number of “Bros” and “Dudes” from the Na’vi teenagers is fist-bitingly awkward, like your Dad trying to be down with the kids).

That’s not mentioning the fact that it’s so similar to the first film. The earth people return, war starts and eventually our heroes travel to a new part of Pandora where, just like Jake in the first film, they go through a training montage to learn the “way of the water”. This takes up most of the middle act. That’s not forgetting the huge number of themes and characters reshuffled and represented.  We build towards a clash very similar to the first film at the end. Nothing here feels fresh, everything feels like a retread. Our villain is resurrected as a Na’vi but, despite almost being defined by his racism in the first film, he doesn’t bat an eyelid at this.

There is a vague attempt to transfer Sully’s “torn between two cultures” storyline to Spider. But this character remains terminally under-developed and the film’s attempt to explore the father-son dynamic between him and Quaritch is so rushed, you wonder if Cameron was interested (odd since it’s crucial to the final act). Instead, we get a huge amount of generational clash in the Sully family, with Jake butting heads with his second son who struggles with being “the spare” (oddly appropriate right now), a hot head who gets everyone in trouble. These play out with a reassuring predictability, so much so that if I asked you to guess the fates of those involved you probably could.

There are bizarre logic gaps. Quaritch and his soldiers have been resurrected to destroy the Na’vi resistance – but instantly drop this for a personal vendetta against Sully (no one seems to care about the resistance after the first half an hour). When Spider is captured, Sully and gang don’t give a damn or even consider rescuing him. Sully doesn’t want to put the forest Na’vi in danger by staying – but doesn’t care about moving that danger to the water people.

Above all it’s frankly hellishly long, fully of trivial culture clash stuff and just the fact that the people in at are giant and blue or that it looks fabulous doesn’t make it good. Instead, Avatar 2 is a re-tread that feels like its treading water, spinning plates and repeating rather than reinventing. I’d rather watch the original again which, while it wasn’t inspiring, at least felt new.

The Heiress (1949)

The Heiress (1949)

Is it love or is it avarice? Wyler’s sumptuous costume drama is a brilliant translation of Henry James to the screen

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), Betty Linley (Mrs Montgomery), Ray Collins (Jefferson Almond), Mona Freeman (Marian Almond), Selena Royle (Elizabeth Almond), Paul Lees (Arthur Townsend)

Pity poor Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland). She’s seems destined forever to be the spinster, the last person anyone glances at during a party. Her father Dr Sloper (Ralph Richardson) can’t so much as walk into a room without gently telling how infinitely inferior she is to her mother. And when a man finally seems keen to court her, her father tells her that of course handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) will only be interested in her inheritance. After all, there is nothing a young man could love in a forgettable, dull, second-rate woman like Catherine. He’s cruel, but is he right – is Morris a mercenary?

The Heiress was adapted from a play itself a version of Henry James’ Washington Square. It’s bought magnificently to the screen in a lush, sensational costume drama that comes closer than anyone else at capturing those uniquely Jamesian qualities of ambiguity and contradictory motives among the New American elites. Magnificently directed by William Wyler, it brilliantly turns a theatrical character piece into something that feels intensely cinematic, without once resorting to clumsy ‘opening up the play’ techniques. And it marshals brilliant performances at its heart.

Sumptuously costumed by Edith Head, whose costumes subtly change and develop along with its central character’s emotional state throughout the story, it’s largely set in a magnificently detailed Upper New York household, shot in deep focus perfection by Leo Tover, which soaks up both the reaction of every character and the rich, detailed perfection of decoration which may just be motivating some of the characters. Not that we can be sure about that, since the motives of Morris Townsend and his pursuit of Catherine remain cunningly unreadable: just as you convince yourself he’s genuine, he’ll show a flash of avarice – then he’ll seem so genuinely warm and loving, you’ll be sure he must be telling the truth or be the world’s greatest liar.

Catherine certainly wants it to be true – and believes it with a passion. The project was also a passion piece for de Havilland, and this is an extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance that delves deeply into the psyche of someone who has been (inadvertently perhaps) humiliated and belittled all her life and eventually reacts in ways you could not predict. Catherine is clumsy, naïve and lacking in any finesse. With her light, breathless voice and inability to find the right words, she’s a doormat for anyone. She even offers to carry the fishmonger’s wares into the house for him. At social functions, her empty dance card is studiously checked and her only skill seems to be cross-stitch.

She is an eternal disappointment to her father, who meets her every action and utterance with a weary smile and a throwaway, unthinking comment that cuts her to the quick. Richardson, funnelling his eccentric energy into tight control and casual cruelty, is magnificent here. In some ways he might be one of the biggest monsters in the movies. This is a man who has grown so accustomed to weighing his daughter against his deceased wife (and finding her wanting) that the implications of the impact of this on his daughter never crosses his mind.

Catherine is never allowed to forget that she is a dumpy dullard and a complete inadequate compared to the perfection of her mother. Richardson’s eyes glaze over with undying devotion when remembering this perfection of a woman, and mementoes of her around the house or places she visited (even a Parisian café table later in the film) are treated as Holy Relics. In case we are in any doubts, his words when she tries on a dress for a cousin’s engagement party sum it up. It’s red, her mother’s colour, and looks rather good on her although he sighs “your mother was fair: she dominated the colour”. Like Rebecca this paragon can never be lived up to.

So, it’s a life-changing event when handsome Morris Townsend enters her life. There was criticism at the time that Clift may have been too nice and too handsome to play a (possible) scoundrel. Quite the opposite: Clift’s earnestness, handsomeness and charm are perfect for the role, while his relaxed modernism as an actor translates neatly in this period setting into what could-be arrogant self-entitlement. Nevertheless, his attention and flirtation with Catherine at a party is a blast from the blue for this woman, caught mumbling her words, dropping her bag and fiddling nervously with her dance card (pretending its fuller than of course it is).

Her father, who sees no value in her, assumes it is not his tedious child Morris has his eyes on, but the $30k a year she stands to inherit. And maybe he knows because these two men have tastes in common, Morris even commenting “we like the same things” while starring round a house he all too clearly can imagine himself living in – by implication, they also have dislikes in common. (And who does Sloper dislike more, in a way, than Catherine?) Morris protests his affections so vehemently (and Sloper lays out his case with such matter-of-fact bluntness) that we want to believe him, even while we think someone who makes himself so at home in Sloper’s absence (helping himself to brandy and cigars) can’t be as genuine as he wants us to think.

As does Catherine. Part of the brilliance of de Havilland’s performance is how her performance physically alters and her mentality changes as events buffet her. A woman who starts the film mousey and barely able to look at herself in the mirror, ends it firm-backed and cold-eyed, her voice changing from a light, embarrassed breathlessness into something hard, deep and sharp. De Havilland in fact swallows Richardson’s characteristics, Sloper’s precision and inflexibility becoming her core characteristics. The wide-eyed woman at the ball is a memory by the film’s conclusion, Catherine becoming tough but making her own choices. As she says to her father, she has lived all her life with a man who doesn’t love her. If she spends the rest of it with another, at least that will be her choice.

Wyler assembles this superbly, with careful camera placement helping to draw out some gorgeous performances from the three leads – not to forgetting Miriam Hopkins as a spinster aunt, who seems as infatuated with Morris as Catherine is. The film is shaped, at key moments, around the house’s dominant staircase. Catherine runs up it in glee at the film’s start with her new dress, later sits on it watching eagerly as Morris asks (disastrously) for her hand. Later again, she will trudge up it in defeated misery and will end the film ascending it with unreadable certainty.

The Heiress is a magnificent family drama, faultlessly acted by the cast under pitch-perfect direction, that captures something subtly unreadable. We can believe that motives change, grow and even alter over time – and maybe that someone can love somebody and their money at the same time (perhaps). But we also understand the trauma of constant emotional pain and the hardening a lifetime of disappointment can have. It’s the best James adaption you’ll ever see.

Waiting Women (1952)

Waiting Women (1952)

Bergman experiments with form and genre in this fascinating collection of female-led short stories

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Anita Björk (Rakel), Eva Dahlbeck (Karin), Maj-Britt Nilsson (Marta), Birger Malmsten (Martin Lobelius), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Lobelius), Karl-Arne Holmsten (Eugen Lobelius), Jarl Kulle (Kaj), Aino Taube (Annette), Håkan Westergren (Paul Lobelius), Gerd Andersson (Maj), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Lobelius)

Waiting Women is another early step in Bergman becoming one of the great directors in cinema. It’s easy to feel it’s a film worth seeing largely for completeness sake – I certainly felt that, seeing this unknown nesting at the bottom of a BFI box set containing Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal. But Waiting Women is a playful and inventive film that sees Bergman experimenting with form and genre and show-piecing his inventive use of the camera (it’s a key reminder this famed wordsmith also worked with two of the most gifted cinematographers in movie history, Gunnar Fischer and (later) Sven Nykvist).

Three women sit waiting at a country-side retreat (echoes of the holiday home in Wild Strawberries) waiting for their husbands (three brothers) to arrive. While they wait, they share stories. Rakel (Anita Björk) talks about her husband Eugene’s (Karl-Arne Holmsten) suicidal response to discovering her affair with childhood friend Kaj (Jarl Kulle). Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) remembers keeping her pregnancy from her now-husband Martin (Birger Malmsten), who she met thinking he was a penniless artist rather than the son of an industrial power-house family. And Karin (Eva Dahlbeck) remembers a night after a function which she and driven husband Fredrik (Gunnar Bjornstrand) spent trapped in a lift and almost rekindled the spark in their marriage.

Bergman’s takes these three stories and presents each in strikingly different ways. The first he packages as a full-blown romantic melodrama, with heightened passions, elaborate threats of death and dramatic proclamations of affection and desperation. The second shifts gear into a moody expressionistic drama, almost a silent-movie, with minimal dialogue and the scene shifting from striking shadow-play on hospital walls to silent comedy in a Parisian nightclub. The third caps the film with a single-location farce with witty wordplay and a dollop of sadness and regret.

It makes for a film that constantly surprises you – and a director looking to experiment and stretch his artistic legs, finding new ways of expressing himself in film. (He even pops up for a Hitchcock-like cameo!) It’s also three entertaining (in different ways) short stories and another, superb, Bergman female-centric film. Because, make no mistake, our sympathies are all with the women, whose stories leave you with more than a little impression – for all they have joyfully prepared the house for their husbands – that each of them are not leading the lives they might have wished.

The first story is the most conventional – perhaps because Rakel’s hormonal love-affair with a long-lost school friend feels like a twist on Bergman’s Summer Interlude. But all is carefully dialled up to eleven in a romance that would not feel out-of-place in Emily Brontë. The flirtatious lust between Rakel and Kaj – centred around a joint trip to a bathing house which drips with illicit sexual energy – simmers. There is an early Chekovian introduction of a gun, before Kaj’s essential coldness is revealed and Eugen’s shock swiftly turns to anger and suicidal resentment. It’s a marvellous Bergman scripting touch that Eugen always feels like the sort of man who will shoot himself to make his wife feel bad about herself rather than because of his own pain.

Bergman shoots it with brisk tracking shots interspersed with close-ups and allows the action to become increasingly bombastic as it builds towards its melodramatic conclusion of Eugen shuttered away in a boat house, threatening to end it all. It makes for a striking gear change as our second story begins, and the visual mastery of Bergman and Fischer’s partnership comes to the fore in a middle-chapter that homages the Silent Masters. Marta’s memories of her pregnancy and her meeting with her husband, begins with the nightmareish image of a face behind frosted glass, distorted out of all recognition (Bergman, as always, the lost great-horror director) before she finds herself in a hospital ward, breathing in anaesthetic gas, and seeing the shadows of the branches from the tree outside, twist and dance like possessive hands on the walls around her.

Played with a sympathetic sweetness, tinged with just the right touch of edgy defiance, by Maj-Britt Nilsson, Marta’s memories of meeting her husband in Paris plays out in her memory like an expressionistic film. In a Parisian nightclub, the camera ducks and swerves around exotic dancers, beautiful compositions of body and movement in every frame. She drops her GI boyfriend for a Martin after a series of surreptitious glances across the room and passed notes. Their courtship and early relationship in his blissful studio play out like a romance – until his family arrive with a chilling explosion of words about expectations and duties that shatter the illusion. The chapter closes with something that could be either memory or dream – Martin and Marta, with the warmth of their early days returned, on a beach together. Reality or regret? Bergman gives reasons to believe both.

The final story is the most enjoyable, lightest and also (in its own way) saddest. Beautifully shot largely in a single confined location – and this is a workshop for Bergman to build his confidence with composition – it gains hugely from the witty and controlled performances of Dahlbeck and Björnstrand as the austere married couple. Home truths and flashes of attraction seep out – and Bergman makes us feel for a moment that a corner has been turned when they return (at last) to their family home. It’s all an illusion though – its still Bergman after all – as the mood is shattered by Fredrik’s almost immediate resumption of his professional duties after a chance phone-call.

If its one thing you can pick up from these three stories, its that finding love, contentment and satisfaction is difficult for women. As three very different women, Björk, Nilsson and Dahlbeck are all superb, and the little hints of sadness Bergman gives all of them turns what could be a collection of shaggy dog stories into something suddenly, surprisingly, profound. Yes they are waiting – but is it for their husbands, or for the lives they (privately) might wish they had? As Marta’s sister Maj (Gerd Andersson) considers elopement with Marta’s nephew Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), the normal expectations of discouraging such an action are challenged. After all, why shouldn’t Marta try for happiness? What’s the worst that could happen: that they could gain wisdom (as the other women have done?) from a summer of forbidden and confused love? Perhaps Bergman wanted to find out: his next film was the romantic first-love fable that turns sour Summer with Monika.

Aftersun (2022)

Aftersun (2022)

Memory fails to give the information needed in this striking, thought-provoking debut

Director: Charlotte Wells

Cast: Paul Mescal (Calum), Frankie Corio (Sophie), Celia Rowlson-Hall (Adult Sophie), Brooklyn Toulson (Michael), Sally Messham (Belinda), Spike Fearn (Olly), Harry Perdios (Toby)

Memories resemble half-remembered dreams more than we like to think. No matter how hard we try, we are always constrained in what recollect: if we didn’t notice or understand it at the time, trying to remember every detail of an event can be like trying to assemble a jigsaw using the final picture and many blank pieces. It’s a core theme from Charlotte Well’s fascinating, thought-provoking, debut picture, a fictional memory piece unlike anything else.

In the late 90s, 31-year-old Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio), go on a package holiday to Turkey. For Sophie, this was an exciting holiday of a lifetime. But, looking back on the holiday decades later, the now 31-year Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) knows something was wrong. Her father was a far more fragile, delicate man than her 11-year-old self could hope to realise. But her attempt to understand this will be forever restricted by her memories and the few camcorder films she has of the holiday.

Well’s film is both a challenging, intriguing musing on the nature and unknowability of memories, and a superb presentation of a loving father-and-daughter relationship. What it doesn’t give you at any points are easy or obvious answers. There are no revelations, no breakthroughs, no sudden dramatic recollections that reposition everything. There isn’t even a confirmation of what exactly happened to the father after 11-year-old Sophie flew back home to her mother. There is a sense of unease throughout, which plays against the childhood joy in many of the scenes. We know something is amiss. But this isn’t about adult Sophie trying to solve a puzzle: it’s clear she never well. She can assemble the jigsaw, using the final picture, but the blank pieces will always remain blank.

To film this, Wells (with great confidence and skill for a first-time director) uses a number of unshowy but intelligent camera angles and film stocks. The film opens with home recordings, before images rewind and granulate before our eyes. Reflecting how memories are never quite what we need them to be, but are reliant on what we were focusing our attention on at the time, the film frequently concentrates visually on the wrong things while important events happen just out of shot.

That opening camcorder scene sees Calum, with weary firmness, asking Sophie to turn off the camera rather than answer questions about where he wanted his life to be now when he was 11. When we reach this moment again in the film’s flashback structure (which we now realise is crucial to understanding Calum’s depression and feelings of inadequacy), the film is constrained by what Sophie was focusing on at the time. So, we focus rigidly on the small television in the hotel room Sophie was playing her recording on, meaning we only see events in the room on hazy TV-screen reflections and the small part of the mirror visible on screen.

This recurs throughout. We focus on character’s legs or the skydivers floating down the Turkish sky (the activity Sophie wanted to do that Calum ruled out because she was too young). A polaroid picture slowly developing on the table during their meal together on the final night. Other scenes that had a strong impact on a child play out full screen: her encounters with a group of older children who play pool with her. Her first flirtation with a boy her own age, that ends with a kiss (though she ‘remembers’ more clearly other children hammering on the roof above them).

Above all, she has many clear memories of her father. Aftersun is a beautiful depiction of a loving relationship between father and daughter. Sophie remembers clearly the shared jokes (mocking a tour guide, mucking around in a pool). She remembers the insistence her father tried to teach her self-defence moves, the way he carefully applied her sun cream, the night they threw bread rolls and ran away from a tour guide concert, teaching her his tai chi moves while she playfully imitated him. It’s a warm, intimate, extremely genuine relationship superbly bought to life.

But she also remembers harsher moments. The times her father would go quiet. The way he wouldn’t tell her how he broke his arm (he wears a cast for the first few days of their holiday). The moment he adamantly refuses to sing karaoke with her on stage – and her stubborn insistence to perform REM alone – before he passes out in their hotel room, leaving her locked out. Flashes of silence or ennui which he tried to hide from her, but she can just about understand now.

And it’s clearer to us, not least from the brilliance of Paul Mescal’s performance. Few actors can convey such deep, gut-wrenching pain and emotional turbulence under a confident exterior. Mescal looks like a happy-go-lucky guy, but every movement is tinged with an unknowable sadness. At times he seems crushed. It’s clear he’s working overtime to (largely successfully) hide this from his daughter. But still he’ll talk briefly about his own unhappy childhood, marvel that reaching 30 was “hard enough” when someone asks what he will do at 40, talks about future plans he doesn’t seem to quite believe in and uses tai chi and meditation to suppress some deep emotional trauma.

Adult Sophie – and the film – can only imagine what he might be going through, or what caused this spiritual crisis. Wells throws in scenes of Calum alone, which clearly can’t be memories (Sophie isn’t there) – are these Sophie’s imaginations and interpolations? Her attempts to fill in the gaps? Is she imaging her father walking alone through the streets at night, or weeping uncontrollably in his hotel room after she leaves? Is this her attempt to fill the gaps, just as a conversation where Calum assures Sophie she can always talk to him about anything is played in long shot, like Sophie remembers it but didn’t realise its importance at the time.

There is a recurring visual intercut of the adult Sophie watching what looks like an unaged Calum dancing in a club, strobe lighting only intermittently lighting his face. The film’s emotional closing moments, cut to a Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure, finally help us to understand what we might be seeing here, the closest thing to a reveal (unveiled during a virtuoso rotating transition shot which takes us through multiple locations and timelines in a single fluid movement) the film has.

At the centre of much of this is an extraordinary performance from Frankie Corio as Sophie, a precociously talented child who gets a perfect balance between understanding and ignorance, and brilliantly communicates that age when children are starting to form independent character and interests away from their parents.

Aftersun is a thought-provoking, dynamic and challenging piece of cinema, that lingered with me for days after seeing it. Sad but also strangely joyous at times, acted with perfection, it marks Wells as a talent to watch.

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Hard truths and deep emotion combine with Mike Leigh’s warmth and humanism in this powerful, spectacular film

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Lee Ross (Paul), Lesley Manville (Social worker), Ron Cook (Stuart), Emma Amos (Scarred girl)

“Secrets and lies. We’re all in pain! Why can’t we share our pain?”. These words come from family photographer Maurice (Timothy Spall), fighting a losing battle against his own pain while doing his best to hold his family together. It’s the mission statement for one of Mike Leigh’s most powerful films, a heart-rending drama that left me tearful. This is as gut-wrenching as Leigh can get, with actors delivering performances that feel ripped from their souls. Despite this, it gets me because this is a hopeful film about the power of love, whose anguish builds from watching what could (and should) be a loving family, failing (almost until the end) to share pain long suppressed due to shame.

That family are the Purley’s. Maurice is a successful photographer with a charming house in suburbia, dotingly maintained by his perfectionist wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). Sister Cynthia, who effectively raised Maurice, remains a working-class single-Mum to 21-year-old Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). This class difference fuels resentments between Cynthia and Monica.

Unspoken secrets abound. But our first introduction is middle-class black optometrist played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hortense Cumberbatch. (A running joke in the film is everyone’s unfamiliarity with this surname – how times change!). Hortense was adopted and now, with both her parents dead, wants to make contact with her birth mother. That birth mother – to her shock – is Cynthia, who gave birth to Hortense at 15. The relationship between Hortense and Cynthia becomes a catalyst for searing revelations, and shattering of emotional barriers, in the Purley family.

Leigh’s film is a triumph of his quiet, observational, unobtrusive directorial style, grounded on a deep and profound understanding of people and their strengths and foibles. As with his earlier films, the characters were developed after an intensive rehearsal process, with the actors given information only when their characters were. Secrets and Lies takes his approach to everyday life to its zenith, finding levels of tragedy (and warmth) in the simple pain of carrying on that other dramas can only dream of.

It is about how hopes can be both sustaining and damaging. A refrain heard in the movie is “You can’t miss what you’ve never had”. Au contrarie. The film is stuffed with people deep in grief about, or desperate to find, things they’ve never had. Hortense wants to discover where she came from. Cynthia’s life is one of lonely disappointment, resenting the domestic contentment of Maurice and Monica. Maurice and Monica are anguished by their childless marriage, Monica resenting Cynthia for having had the child she longs for. Roxanne wants a stable family, resenting her mother’s clumsy confirmation seemingly everyday that her birth was an accident (even if not a regretted one).

But, in typical British style, no one can talk about any of this. Instead, the Purleys cling to impressions of what the other family members are like. Monica sees Cynthia as a hopeless deadbeat, who can’t care for her children. Cynthia sees Monica as a snob, who stopped Maurice having a child. Roxanne sees Cynthia as constantly disappointed in her, Cynthia sees her as difficult, rebellious young woman unable to look after herself. And Maurice attempts to hold all this together, positioning himself as a jovial head-of-the-family, and whacking down any pain of his own.

Hortense, by comparison, is a model of well-adjusted upbringing. Leigh’s film doesn’t let us see much of her family – we witness her (non-adopted) siblings feuding over an inheritance – but the film constantly enforces the love she got from her parents, from the film’s beautifully staged opening at her mother’s funeral to her smiling reminiscences of parents (flaws and all) who did their best, were honest with her and taught her she was loved. Seen in conversation with her best friend Dionne (a neat single scene cameo by Michele Austin), she’s humane, warm and self-aware enough about her hopes and failings.

But she also has the fixated determination of the middle-classes – the sort of go-getting attitude completely alien to Cynthia, to whom events always happen rather than being something she starts. She disregards the advice of a social worker (a wonderful cameo of rushed professionalism, tinged with just enough genuine care by Lesley Manville) to make contact through social services and instead takes the plunge to contact Cynthia herself.

One of Secrets and Lies many strengths is its open-eyed honesty about the joy and pain of adoption. Hortense, as noted, found a loving family through adoption. But still she wants to know, why did her mother not even hold her when she was born? The answer isn’t simple, as Cynthia’s devastated reaction to the question shows: because if she held her, she would never have let go. This is the emotional centre-piece of an emotionally devastating but deeply uplifting scene at the centre of the movie as Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time.

Shot in a café in a single near-seven-minute uninterrupted take with a stationary camera (a stylistic choice Leigh repeats at a family BBQ later in the film, as we wait for inevitable secrets to flood out), this is an acting masterpiece. Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste (both Oscar-nominated) give extraordinary performances throughout, but achieve the sublime here. Blethyn delivers nearly every line as if it was being pulled out of her soul by pliers, at points convulsed with teary shame unable to look Hortense in the eye: Jean-Baptiste, so assured throughout, is quiet, almost abashed but clinging to a professionalism to help resolve facing emotion head-on (right down to sitting next to Cynthia rather than opposite her).

Emotionally truthful performances run throughout. Spall is superb as a man who is no pushover – he quietly but determinedly shrugs off a drunken former mentor (a neat cameo from Ron Cook) asking to be given a chance – but who will bend over backwards to accommodate those he loves. Logan battens down hysterical guilt and grief under a house-proud fussiness. Rushbrook is a cauldron of resentments under a surly exterior. The relationship between Cynthia and Hortense – beautifully played by both actresses – quickly becomes one of genuine affection, for all their vast differences.

The film builds towards a celebratory BBQ for Roxanne’s birthday – which Cynthia brings Hortense to, claiming her as work friend. Leigh uses a long take as the family eats (we, the audience, constantly awaiting the emotional walls to break) before a devastating sequence as one after another family secrets come tumbling out, shattering emotional reserves, characters clinging to each other for comfort in floods of repressed tears, stunned onlookers open-mouthed.

It’s a scene of huge emotional impact – I cried – as regrets, loss and resentments built from years of understanding tumble out. But it’s hopeful, uplifting almost, because this is not the end. It’s a start. It’s very clear that, having finally said what they are really feeling, the extended family can move in a way that was impossible at the start. That they are closer now than ever. Hortense is the agent of positivity, and Leigh’s film closes with a quiet scene with Roxanne that suggests they have every chance of forming a warm, genuine, relationship.

Secrets and Lies is a superb film, a masterclass observation and domestic near-tragedy, powered by extraordinary performances of lived-in reality from the actors, that carries emotional strength but also has a rich vein of hope running through it. It is one of Leigh’s masterpieces.

All This and Heaven Too (1940)

All This and Heaven Too (1940)

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

Director: Anatole Litvak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

A small town family is corrupted by a malign force in Hitchcock’s favourite of his films

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Teresa Wright (Charlie Newton), Joseph Cotton (Uncle Charlie Oakley), Macdonald Carey (Detective Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Wallace Ford (Detective Fred Saunders), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton)

It’s a surprise to discover Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favourite of his films (although the Master of Suspense was a notorious kidder). It rarely makes even the top ten of Great Hitchcock’s and for years was semi-forgotten in his CV. But delve into this small-town chiller and it becomes less of a surprise the master was so fond of it. Hitchcock’s first American-set film (his previous American films being British-set), this takes an idyllic, everyone-knows-your-name, no-doors-locked small town in California and injects into the middle of it a ruthless sociopath, as charming as he is shockingly ruthless. Doesn’t that sound like Hitchcock all over?

That small-town is Santa Rosa in California. There the Newton family is thrilled at the imminent arrival of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) from New York. None more so than his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), a precocious teenager who shares her uncle’s wit and worldly wisdom. He arrives laden with gifts – but also dragging two police detectives and swirling rumours of terrible crimes. Surely Uncle Charlie – hero to all and idol of his niece – can’t also be the ruthless “Merry Widow” killer, dispatching aged widows for their riches? And, if he is, what on earth will Charlie do about it?

A lot of what would become Hitchcock’s central concerns in his later, darker, mature works make their inaugural appearance in this dark, creeping mystery. Everything in the Newton home is perfect, until they welcome Charlie, whose amiable greed and self-interest tarnishes everything he touches. Despite this, he’s the most likeable, charismatic, charming character in the film. So much so, a big part of us wills him not to be the murderer we can all be pretty confident he is. He’s far too exciting and dynamic for us to want him torn away from us!

The two Charlies are close – so much so Hitchcock would surely have dialled up the incestuous spark between them even further if he had made the film fifteen years later. They have a near supernatural mental bond, seemingly able to predict where and when the other might be. They laugh and flirt. In arguments Uncle Charlie grasps his niece like a frustrated lover, clutching her too him. As well as sharing many character traits (implying it would be easy for Charlie to become like Uncle Charlie) they’re closeness feels as much like a courtship as it does familial closeness. When Uncle Charlie takes Charlie to a gin bar to gain her confidence and support to hide from the cops, the entire scene feels like the appeal of a would-be lover.

It overlaps another theme future Hitchcock have taken further: the thin line between innocence and killer. Uncle Charlie and his namesake have a special bond. They share the same world-view and many of the same ideas. They’re both charismatic and natural leaders. They both feel stifled by this small-town world. They are both ruthlessly determined when roused. One of them might be innocent and one might be good – but how much of a push would it be to turn one into the other?

Hitchcock probes this possibility throughout in a film stuffed with doubles and duality. Both Charlies are introduced with similar shots of them lying in bed, being questioned by others. Later Uncle Charlie will inherit Charlie’s room in the house. Greeting each other at the station, they move towards each with mirroring shots. They share the same name. Twins, doubles, mirrors and the number two abound in the film – a marvellous blog here captures this all in far more detail and insight than I could here.

Uncle Charlie slithers into Santa Rosa like the serpent into the garden of Eden. He offers temptation left, right and centre. The Newton family receive lavish (stolen) gifts. His brother-in-law’s bank gets a investment from the cash Uncle Charlie carries around (he’s old fashioned you see). He laughs and jokes, reminds Charlie’s mother of the joys of her past and inveigles himself into the heart of the family (he even sits at the head of the table). But he’s also a dark, sinister figure, frequently framed at the top of staircases, marching inexorably towards camera and (in one stand out moment) breaking the fourth wall to address us directly while coldly, contemptuously outlining his theory about the pointless burden useless lives have on the rest of us.

He’s played with a charismatic, cold-hearted, jovial wickedness by Joseph Cotton. Cotton is so good as this on-the-surface amiable man, with a soul devoid of any love, it you’ll wish he’d got parts like this more often. Liberated from playing decent best-friends, Cotton dominates the film with a malignant charisma, married with a growing only-just-concealed desperation at the fragility of his fate. Opposite him, Teresa Wright is marvellous as a young woman who finds her sense of morality fully awakened into outrage by this dark presence corrupting everything in her life.

Corruption is central to Shadow of a Doubt – no wonder Hitchcock loved it – with Uncle Charlie turning everything in the simple, honest town into something darker and tainted by his very presence. There is an almost cliched home-spun decency about the town (almost as if co-writer Thornton Wilder was parodying his Our Town), serving to make Uncle Charlie’s modern sociopathy even more of a destructive force.

Shadow of a Doubt is directed with immense care, but a great deal with subtle flourish. Staircase shots abound, to stress sinister motivations, positions of weakness and unease. Characters lurch towards the camera frequently, as if the whole film was hunting us down. An air of menace, lies and danger builds inexorably as Uncle Charlie’s true-nature leaks out. There is also wit: not least from Charlie’s father (a jovial Henry Travers) and eccentric neighbour (a scene-stealing Hume Cronyn) gleefully discussing true crime throughout. There is also Hitchcock’s love of irony, not least in the fact Charlies problems are largely caused by his attempts to conceal a newspaper article that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Hitchcock makes his cameo early on as a card player on a train journey. He’s revealed to be holding all the trumps. That’s how he likes it: and perhaps explains his fondness for Shadow of a Doubt. Low key but perfectly constructed, it’s a film that latches onto themes of corruption, dark temptation and ruthless violence. Film logic abounds – who cares that the detective’s investigation is so inept they’d never be employed again – and the second half is crammed with murder attempts as unsubtle as they are ingeniously dark. Shadow of a Doubt feels like a prototype for darker themes of obsession and temptation Hitchcock would explore in the future. Perhaps that’s why he was so fond of it: it’s where he started to spread his wings.

The Prince of Tides (1991)

The Prince of Tides (1991)

Past traumas are uncovered and a gentle love story unfolds in Streisand’s extremely effective relationship drama

Director: Barbra Streisand

Cast: Nick Nolte (Tom Wingo), Barbra Streisand (Dr Susan Lowenstein), Blythe Danner (Sally Wingo), Kate Nelligan (Lila Ward Newbury), Jeroen Krabbé (Herbert Woodruff), Melinda Dillon (Savannah Wingo), George Carlin (Eddie Detreville), Jason Gould (Bernard Woodruff)

For many, La Streisand is easy to knock. She developed a reputation as difficult: controlling, demanding and perfectionist. But don’t we praise these qualities in men? Perhaps she has more than a point when she claims complaints against her are grounded in sexism. Her snubbing by the Academy – The Prince of Tides got seven nominations including Best Picture, but none for Streisand bar as Producer – certainly feels like a crusty boys’ club deciding there is no place at their big night for a strong-minded woman. Doubly unfair since Streisand deserves plenty of praise for a film as rich, heartfelt, moving and surprisingly funny as The Prince of Tides.

Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) is a football coach in South Carolina, where his marriage to Sally (Blythe Danner) is drifting towards the rocks, largely thanks to Tom’s jovial inability to be emotionally open. He’s called to New York when his poet sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon) attempts suicide. To aid her recovery, Tom must talk to her psychiatrist about the traumas of their childhood. But Tom himself is far, far away from putting bottled-up pain behind him. Streisand plays the psychiatrist, Dr Susan Lowenstein, struggling in an unhappy marriage with an arrogant violinist (Jeroen Krabbé, being Euro-smug as only he can) and with a troubled relationship with her son Bernard (played by Streisand’s real-life son Jason Gould). Despite initial uncertainty, will a spark of romance flair up between Wingo and Lowenstein?

Well, if you listen to the luscious score by James Newton Howard for a few seconds, you can be pretty confident the answer will be “yes”. (But it’s fine – Lowenstein’s husband is an arrogant tosser and Wingo’s wife tearfully confesses her own affair; no need to worry about betrayal here.) Officially adapted from his own huge novel by Pat Conroy,working with Becky Johnston (though it was an open secret Conroy frequently confirmed that Streisand wrote the script), it distils a massive novel into a tightly paced, extremely well-made romance that feels, in many ways, a throwback to the “women’s pictures” of the 1940s. (Conroy was thrilled.)

The big difference is that the typical Bette Davis role is here played by Nick Nolte. This is an extraordinarily superb performance by Nolte: never before had I appreciated what a deeply soulful, sensitive performer he is, especially when he is called to play the “gruff” card so frequently. Nolte’s Wingo is a Southern, gentlemanly good-old-boy, a man’s man who laughs off trouble and moves with the physicality of a rough-and-tumble sportsman. But, under the surface, he’s a sensitive, vulnerable a man tortured by past traumas he can barely bring himself to think about and consumed with guilt, self-loathing and the inability to express his feelings.

In nearly every frame of the film, Nolte is sensational: endearing, funny, joyful (his dancing at a house party has a hilarious self-mockery to it) but also stand-offish and self-contained. The film revolves around key meetings between him and Streisand’s Lowenstein, which grow increasingly intense as the taciturn joker Tom, almost against his will, has his carefully mounted defences stripped away. We see nothing, by the way, of Lowenstein’s treatment of Savannah, so tightly focused is the drama on Tom’s story. While narratively sensible, this does mean that Savannah is reduced to little more than a narrative device.

It makes for effective drama, well directed by Streisand. It’s a film that mixes moments of shock – Tom seeing his sister’s bloodstains on her apartment floor or deflate into mumbling incoherence when pushed on his past – with moments of genuine warmth and sweetness. Heck even a heated argument between the two of them segues suddenly into something comic when Lowenstein impulsively throws an Oxford English Dictionary at him, damn near breaking his nose. It should also be noted Streisand unselfishly casts herself in the less showy role – essentially a feed for Nolte – and cedes the finest moments and meat of the film to him.

Perhaps that’s also partly why Streisand’s doctor is the least convincing part of the film. With her diva nails and famous features, no amount of dome-like-glasses ever really makes you forget you are watching one of the world’s icons pretend to be a psychiatrist. (Particularly as the film relies on the magic therapist trope so beloved of Hollywood, where gentle probing and quiet “what do you think” lines lead to huge emotional revelation.) If anything, she’s more convincing and comfortable as the socialite mum struggling with her dreadful husband and resentful son.

Why the son is quite as resentful as he is to his mother, is left a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, Jason Gould does a decent job as a young man torn between playing the football he loves and fulfilling the musical promise his father expects. (He also has a great father-son chemistry with Nolte, who coaches him in football skills.) Much clearer is why Lowenstein is struggling with her ghastly husband. Jeroen Krabbé is beautifully, smackably, smug and condescending. So much so that I laughed heartedly at the film’s most crowd-pleasing moment, as Tom punishes him for his rudeness over a dinner party by juggling his priceless Stradivarius over the edge of a penthouse balcony.

It makes it easy for us to accept Streisand’s eventual affair – much as Blythe Danner’s Sally regretfully confessing that Tom’s emotional closed-offness has driven her into the arms of another man. Despite the poster’s impression though, this is far from a steamy romance, waiting almost four fifths of its runtime before the two confess their feelings for a cathartic affair. For the bulk of the film, it’s an unspoken mutual affection, driven by Tom’s Southern flirtatious manner and Susan’s half-smiles. Again, it’s a slow-build, carefully paced romance that feels real.

Also because the film’s real build is not towards the two stars converting flirting to grinding, but in uncovering the exact trauma Tom is suppressing and has made him resent his mother (Kate Nelligan very good as an aspirant social-climber, refusing to invest love in her children) almost as much as his violent father (a surly Brad Sullivan). The reveal is, in some ways, expected – but also shockingly unexpected, particularly due to the visceral rawness which Streisand shoots the Nolte-narrated flashback with (Nolte is, needless to say, wonderful in this scene).

It’s part of the surprisingly effectiveness of a film that, in other hands, could have been a sentimental family drama, but is lifted by excellent, committed performances (Streisand is clearly a whizz with actors) and sensitive, patient direction. Streisand resists attention-grabbing flash, carefully letting scenes and emotions build, using subtle but effective camera movements. It comes together into a film that surprised me greatly with its richness. It eventually has a heart-warming message to tell of the power and importance of having the courage to admit your pain and emotions and, in its portrait of a man’s man engaging with his vulnerability, projects a message still powerful today. If Redford or Eastwood had directed it, they would have won an Oscar.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

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

Director: FW Murnau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter (2010)

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

Director: David O Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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