Category: Family drama

The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963)

Possibly the most luscious film ever-made, Visconti’s epic is a beautiful film of rage against the dying of the light

Director: Luchino Visconti

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Don Fabrizio Corbera), Alain Delon (Prince Tancredi Falconeri), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero Sedara), Rina Morelli (Princess Maria Stella of Salina), Romolo Valli (Father Pirrone), Terence Hill (Count Cavriaghi), Serge Reggiani (Don “Ciccio” Tumeo), Leslie French (Cavalier Chevalley), Pierre Clémenti (Francesco Paolo Corbera), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta Corbera), Ida Galli (Carolina Corbera), Ottavia Piccolo Caterina Corbera)

There might not be a more visually ravishing film than Visconti’s The Leopard. Every detail of costume and set design is perfect in this gloriously stately, carefully crafted adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel. It’s a perfect match for the autumnal melancholy of Visconti’s elaborate work, as an ageing prince in the Risorgimento rages quietly against the dying of the light. The Leopard is a delicate and carefully-paced film that carries a sweeping romanticism.

It’s 1860 and if the Sicilian aristocracy “want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Italy is forming itself into a nation and Sicily is in a state of civil war. On one side, the forces of the revolutionary republican Garibaldi – on the other, the old-guard of Francis II of the Two Sicilies, clinging to keep Sicily part of the Bourbon empire. Watching all this, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), scion of a noble family, watching the inevitability of change but clinging to tradition. His nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) embraces first the fervour of Garibaldi, then Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) the radiant daughter of nouveau riche Don Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). But is there a place for the prince in this new world of democracy and the power of the middle classes?

The Leopard hails from the same wistful remembrance of things past that powers Brideshead Revisited in the English language. In Visconti, son of Milanese nobility, it found its perfect director. Visconti didn’t just know the world behind the declining place for the nobility: he’d lived it. He brings every inch of that to the luscious beauty of The Leopard, a mournful final hurrah of a generation and way of living that has no place in the present and is only an echo of the past.

The Leopard is crammed with simply stunning period detail. Visconti shoots this with a calm, controlled, observant camera, that moves and pans slowly through sets, carefully following its players. It’s set in a world of elaborate drawing rooms and stunning vistas. Costumes are intricate in their period detail. Dinners are grand celebrations of the opulence of this bygone era. Every detail in the set is perfect to the minutest detail – you feel a drawer could be pulled open and only period-appropriate props would be contained inside.

Visconti though never makes the film a slave to its period trappings. The careful details of the prince’s life serve to stress how bygone and dying these days are. It’s a film full of moments of small but telling undercutting that stress how this world is crumbling. In church, wind blows dust across the gathered Corbera family, coating them in dirt. They mock the newly empowered Don Sedara – and the pompous chap’s ineffectiveness is hammered home when a band keeps interrupting his attempt to declare the results of a rigged unification plebiscite – but Fabrizio is desperate to secure a marriage alliance with him and it’s clear Sedara is very much in the political ascendancy.

Could Fabrizio have done more to preserve his way of life if he wasn’t so clearly entering the twilight of his years? He’s virile enough, dashing from the family home (priest in tow) to spend a night in town with his mistress. He can climb the hills and hunt with the best of them. He half considers that it’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to have a crack at Angelica himself. But this is truly the Lion in Winter. He’s powerless to defend the traditional position that guarantees his influence and lacks the drive and youth Tancredi has to fashion himself a new one. For all his wry wit and handsome features, he becomes a sweaty, mournful figure at a celebration ball watching the young people dance all night and musing on where his own vitality went.

That long ballroom sequence – a near 45-minute extended scene that ends the film – is one of the triumphant tour-de-forces of cinema. A gorgeous culmination of the beauty of the entire piece, Visconti also manages to present it as a final hurrah of a whole way of life. This celebration is crammed with military figures who call the shots and filled as much with older people struggling to keep the pace as it is young ones with an eye on something far more modern than the pleasures that thrilled their parents. At the heart of this, Visconti’s camera carefully follows the prince as he moves from room to room, a quiet, lonely observer, tears in his eyes at moments, reflecting on his mortality and rousing his youthful fire only for a single dance with Angelica.

As this rusting monument to the old ways, Visconti was gifted with a Hollywood star. To be honest, at first he was far from happy when he received Burt Lancaster. But – once you get over the oddness of Lancaster being dubbed by a plummy Italian accent – it’s a near perfect marriage of actor and role. Always a graceful and elegant actor, Lancaster becomes Italian – there is more than a foreshadow of the Godfather to him – and his genteel, noble face is perfect for this bastion, just as his expressive eyes are perfect for the part’s delicacy and sadness. It should be a bizarre miscasting, but it lands perfectly and much of the success of the final ball sequence is his ability to communicate so much from such small moments.

Visconti places him at the heart of this languid, precise film and contrasts the prince’s gentle moving out-of-step with the future with the dynamism and openness to compromise of his nephew. Tancredi – a youthful and passionate Alain Delon – is energetic and with a casual ease switches passions personal and political. Starting the film as a red-shirted revolutionary, he ends it as a uniform-clad member of the elite. Professing his love for the prince’s daughter, he ditches her on a sixpence for Angelica. Not that anyone can blame him: Claudia Cardinale is gorgeous but also shows the elemental charisma that Leone was to use to such great effect in Once Upon a Time in the West. Cardinale also feels like someone between two eras: attracted to the casual and flexible Tancredi but perhaps more drawn to the elegant grandeur of the prince.

The Leopard works as extraordinarily well as it does because it is so well paced. This is a film that requires an inordinate length, lingering shots and scenes, and for action to be happening elsewhere. Our single burst of action is to see Garibaldi’s forces fight in the streets of Palermo: other than this, momentous events happen elsewhere off-screen. The camera moves instead to study the scenery or the passing of normal people on the streets. We are always given the sense of this family and its world being cut off and left behind by real events. Tancredi starts the film explaining his conversion to Garibaldi in detail: later he will barely mention why he’s changed uniforms or feel the need to say why he is accepting positions the revolutionaries reject.

It’s not a surprise that a cut-down version of The Leopard was a major bomb when released in America. The three-hour run time is needed to truly understand the drift and ennui Visconti’s film is exploring. It does it in a film dripping with gorgeous period detail and full of scenes awash with interest, but the point is this is a film of slow, deceptive but finally overwhelming impact. The quiet, controlled, predictable life that generations of the prince’s family has known, dies with the same polite, grand silence as it largely lived. The Leopard is a stunning tribute to the passing of an era.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Easy-going father-daughter sentimentality in Kazan’s debut, which softens up an already gentle novel

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Peggy Ann Garner (Francie Nolan), Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), Ted Donaldson (Neeley Nolan), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough), John Alexander (Steve Edwards)

In 1912 an Irish-American family, the Nolans, struggle to make ends meet in Brooklyn. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) keeps a close eye on the purse strings to ensure she can keep a roof over the head of her children: 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and young Neeley (Ted Donaldson). Problem is, Katie also has a third child: her husband Johnny (James Dunn), a happy-go-lucky dreamer and “singing waiter” who is also a hopeless drunk. Johnny, with his “live-your-dreams” outlook on life, natural charm and instinctive understanding of people, is Francie’s idol. With another child on the way, and the Nolan cash reserves at breaking point, can the family hold together?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn drips with sentimental, old-fashioned, easy-watching charm. Adapted from a best-selling novel by Betty Smith, it strips out most of the plot (which covers nearly 17 years rather than the single one featured here) and considerably waters down the original’s content. (It also, hilariously, avoids any appearance at all of the eponymous tree at the centre of the Nolan tenement block, which is cursorily referenced only twice.) Smith’s book was a semi-auto-biographical chronicle of a life of struggle survived by a daughter who flourishes, but the film is more of an optimistic fable of the triumph of family love.

It feels strange that this is the first film of Elia Kazan, who would become better known for hard-hitting, location-shot, method-tinged dramas rather than the tear-jerking charm here. Kazan was later sceptical about the film – highly critical of what he considered his overly theatrical staging, particularly of the scenes set in the Nolan home – and even at the time stated he was so unsure about what he was doing that the film was effectively co-directed by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. But Kazan’s skill with actors shines through and he invests it with a great deal of pace and emotional truth.

His main benefit is the very strong performances from Garner and Dunn in the film’s most important relationship. Both actors won Oscars (Garner the juvenile Oscar, Dunn for Best Supporting Actor) and it’s the loving meeting of hearts and minds between father and daughter that lies at the film’s heart. Francie is a young girl dedicated to education – slavishly, but obsessively, reading through the local library in alphabetical order, regardless of suitability of the books – who dreams of going to a better school and bettering her life. It’s a dream that her mother struggles to grasp – largely unable to see beyond the immediate needs of putting food on the table – but which her father understands and is desperate to support.

This bond is partly what leads to Francie’s idolising her doting dad. And Johnny is doting. He’ll do things her mother won’t dream of doing – including weaving an elaborate fantasy to win her a place at that better school. He’ll joke and laugh, sing songs and entertain her while indulging her artistic leanings. Unfortunately, he’ll also make promises to reform he won’t keep, stumble home late at night or be found, drunk in the street, having boozed away every penny he’s earned.

Dunn poured a lot of himself into this self-destructive dreamer. A vaudeville comedian who had a successful run of films with Shirley Temple in the 1930s, he had blown most of his fortune in bad investments. By the 1940s was struggling to find work with his drink problem widely known. But he was also charming, decent and kind, but seen to lack the drive to build a successful career. In effect, Johnny was a version of his own life, and Dunn not only nails Johnny’s charm but also laces the performance with a rich vein of sadness, guilt and shame, but still loved by all.

While Johnny jokes and laughs with the neighbours, Katie cleans the hallway of their tenement block to earn extra bucks and moves the family to a smaller room to save what money she can. Played with a fine line in drudgery and put-upon stress by Dorothy McGuire (in a role as thankless as Katie’s life is), Katie remains unappreciated by her daughter (who sees her as a moaner who won’t cut her father a break) and by her husband as being too obsessed with the purse-strings.

The major flaw, for me, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that the film falls almost as uncritically in love with Johnny as Francie. Getting older it’s hard not to see Johnny as essentially irresponsible and selfish, a well-meaning but destructive force on the family, the cause of the poverty which has made Katie crushed, dowdy and increasingly stressed and bitter. She essentially suffers everything – skipping meals, slaving over multiple jobs, saying no to every desire Francie has – while Johnny flies in, cracks jokes, says yes to everything and disappears when its time to work out how to deliver.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, however, wants to tell a sentimental story of a father-daughter bond and hasn’t got too much time for Katie – or for making Francie really face the flaws in her father and the virtues of her mother (for all the film gives mother and daughter a late reconciliation). There is something fake about this (tellingly the book gives a sharper realisation for Francie and subtly changes Johnny’s fate to make it less idealised). But all edges are shaved off here and the family divisions are bridged as easily as poverty is eventually solved. (There is also considerable watering down of the liberated lifestyle of Katie’s sister, engagingly played by Joan Blondell).

It makes for a film that’s warm, comforting and essentially light and even a little forgettable. It’s all too easy to drop off in front of it on a Sunday afternoon. Try as you might, you can’t say that about other Kazan films. A little more grit to this would have increased its impact considerably.

Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources (1986)

Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources (1986)

Luscious scenery and combines with fine acting to produce a sort of French Merchant Ivory

Director: Claude Berri

Cast: Yves Montard (César Soubeyrnan), Daniel Auteuil (Ugolin), Gérard Depardieu (Jean Cadoret), Emmanuelle Béart (Manon Cadoret), Elizabeth Depardieu (Aimée Cadoret), Ernestine Mazurowana (Young Manon), Hippolyte Girardot (Bernard Olivier), Margarita Lozano (Baptistine), Yvonne Gamy (Delphine)

At the time this double bill (which I’ll refer to as Jean de Florette unless specifically referring to the sequel only) were the most successful foreign language films ever released. Shot over seven months, they were also the most expensive French films ever made and garlanded with awards, including a BAFTA for best film. Jean de Florette turned Verdi into the soundtrack for France, while its photography transformed the rural idyll of Provence into a major tourist destination and the dream location for holiday homeowners. The films themselves remain rich, rural tragedies, gorgeous French heritage films, a sort of French Gone with the Wind replayed as Greek tragedy.

Told in two parts – although designed as one complete movie – they tell a story of how greed destroys lives in 1920s rural Provence. César (Yves Montard) is the childless landowner whose only hope of a legacy is his hard-working but dense nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil). Ugolin dreams of growing carnations but the perfect land is frustratingly not for sale. When an argument with the owner leads to his accidental death, the land falls to Jean Cadoret (Gérard Depardieu) hunch-backed former tax collector from the city and son of Florette, the girl who broke César’s heart decades ago when she left the village while he impulsively served in the foreign legion.

César and Ugolin resent Jean – Jean of Florette as they call him – and hatch a plan to see his dream of a rabbit farm fail. They secretly block up the spring on Jean’s land and keep his connection to Florette a secret from the rest of the village, encouraging them to see him as an outsider and hunchbacked bad-luck charm. Ugolin befriends the decent, optimistic and hard-working Jean and watches the farm disintegrate. A decade later, in Manon des Sources, Jean’s daughter Manon (Emmanuele Béart) plots revenge for her father on Ugolin and César.

Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s novel – written, ironically, after Pagnol’s film Manon des Sources was butchered down by the studio in 1952 from four hours into an abbreviated two. It’s a richly filmed, luscious picture crammed with gorgeous locations, sweeping camerawork and marvellous score that riffs on Verdi. It’s an entertaining story of injustice and comeuppances. It’s first half (Jean de Florette) is an, at-times painful, unfolding of Jean’s inevitable failure. The second (Manon des Sources) sees all those chickens come home to roost as Manon’s suspicions about César and Ugolin’s duplicitousness are confirmed.

But what perhaps made Jean de Florette as successful as it was, is its mix of Merchant Ivory and BBC costume-drama. Many outside of France essentially took it as art because the characters spoke French. But Jean de Florette is a tasteful, classy, very well-made prestige package designed to be easily digestible. Claude Berri marshals events with the skill of a natural producer – he’s effectively a sort of French Richard Attenborough with a great deal of natural talent with actors, but without the true inspiration of the greats. You couldn’t mistake Jean de Florette as something made by Carné let alone Godard or Truffaut. It’s decidedly too carefully, tastefully made for that.

Which is not to say it isn’t in many ways a very fine film. Its construction is well-executed across its two parts. Berri makes clear that – for all the film showed a picture post-card view of France, encouraged to promote tourism and ‘traditional values’ by the government – the village our film is centred around is rife with prejudice and underlying hostility. It’s all too easy to for them to take against Jean: not only he is an outsider, he’s a tax-collector and a hunchback to boot. Prejudice naturally sets them against him (the villagers gleefully watch this “city man” destroy himself vainly trying to turn his dry land fertile). Manon des Sources makes clear the whole village at the very least suspected the spring had been deliberately dammed but effectively couldn’t be bothered to help.

It’s not a surprise as Jean’s techniques are totally alien to the traditionalists. Played by Depardieu with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, guileless honesty and trust, Jean takes on farming as if its another mathematical problem. He has books full of calculations and productivity rates he expects to hit, covering everything from rabbit breeding to the daily amount of soil and water needed for crops. He is prepared for anything except the cruelty of humans and the weather (Berri makes clear that, even with one arm tied around his back by the spring being blocked, he nearly manages to pull it off).

Instead, his super-human efforts come to naught. Forced to walk miles a day to carry gallons of water back to his farm to irrigate his land, he starts to resemble the weighted down donkey he drags with him. Rubicons are crossed one by one: even his wife’s necklace is eventually called on to be pawned, for all his promises that it would never come to that (fitting the Zolaish tragedy here, the necklace turns out to be worth sod all). Ugolin does everything he can to befriend and support Jean without helping him, even ploughing the land for him when Jean comes close to finding the hidden water supply. The events beat down Depardieu, here in one of his finest “man of the soil” peasant roles, until he is literally left shouting at the heavens, imploring God to give him a break.

This makes is all the easier to despise César and Ugolin, especially as Berri cuts frequently to these hypocrites giggling at their own deviousness and Jean’s suffering. It makes Manon des Sources – arguably the even more rewarding part – all the more satisfying as we watch the two of them slowly destroyed, events replaying themselves from the other direction. Manon des Sources features a performance of Artemis-like grace from Emmanuelle Béart as the older version of Jean’s daughter (the younger noticeably never trusted Ugolin), whose beauty enraptures Ugolin and who in turn dams the source of the village’s water to expose the crimes against her father.

It leads to a series of shattering reveals that break César and Ugolin from their satisfaction and complacency. These two villains are portrayed in masterful performances by Yves Montard and Daniel Auteuil. Under buck teeth and a foolish grin, Auteuil is sublime as a man who has it in him to be decent but is all too easily led by his forceful uncle. He regrets his actions, while never making an effort to reform and reverts all too easily into a love-struck Gollum, spying on Manon and literally sewing her lost ribbon into his skin. He’s a pathetic figure.

Montard has the juiciest part, which flowers into one of true tragic force in Manon des Sources. César is a man whose life of regret and loneliness has turned him into a bitter old man, grasping, greedy and hungry for a legacy. He treasures the few possessions he has of Florette – faded letters and a single hair comb – like relics and subconsciously can’t bring himself to actually meet her son. Suppressed sadness makes him every more tyrannical and foreboding. But Manon explodes this exterior, as events and revelations strip away all he holds dear. It culminates in a breath-taking sequence of raw grief from Montard – which depends on the magnetic power of his eyes – as his last delusions are stripped away and the true horror of his actions exposed to him.

It’s this emotional power that gives the two parts of Jean de Florette its force and impact and lift it the higher plain of its costume drama roots. It may be a very self-consciously prestige picture, designed to appeal to the masses, but Berri’s conservative style is matched with a great skill of drawing powerful performances from the actors. He does this in spades with his four leads and events eventually gain, through their performances, some of the force of a Provence Greek Tragedy. Jean de Florette manages to avoid melodrama and provides real dramatic meat and, while it is not high art, it’s certainly very high drama.

Tender Mercies (1983)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Quiet, contemplative and almost wilfully undramatic, Duvall wins an Oscar in this gently moving soul-searching film

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Robert Duvall (Mac Sledge), Tess Harper (Rosa Lee), Betty Buckley (Dixie), Wilford Brimley (Harry), Ellen Barkin (Sue Anne), Allan Hubbard (Sonny), Lenny Von Dohlen (Robert), Paul Gleason (Reporter)

The music industry can be cruel. It’s bought out the self-destructive traits in Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a Country and Western singer whose career collapsed into alcoholism. Estranged from his wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) and a stranger to his daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin), Mac finds himself crashing, penniless, in a rundown motel in Texas. Paying for his bed and board with labour, Mac falls in love with and marries the motel owner, widow Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and becomes stepfather to her young son Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Mac quits the bottle and turns his life around, living quietly and determined to become a new man.

Tender Mercies is a slice-of-life film. It aims to present an ordinary man, facing challenges and struggling with demons. But in many ways, it’s quite remarkable. There can be few dramas that so consciously avoid drama. In Tender Mercies the expected fireworks and dramatic tentpole moments never happen. Events that in other films would have been “for your consideration” scenes or so underplayed they almost pass you by, or don’t even feature in the film. Mac and Rosa Lee’s courtship is made up of small, quiet conversations on the sofa. The proposal is a polite, softy spoken request. The wedding isn’t even shown.

This is a film that lets events play out with the random disconnectedness of real life. Characters from Mac’s past life drift in and drift out of the story with the unpredictability of reality rather than the construct of scriptwriters. Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning script is written in soft, quiet moments of silence, tenderness and quiet decency. It’s a film that wants to embrace classic, Southern values. Where religion, modesty and keeping your word are pivotal. Kindness, reserve and a lack of exhibition are traits widely praised. It’s a celebration of letting the ‘tender mercies’ of faith into your life and letting them define how you respond to the world and events around you.

It can feel like very little happens. But this is largely the point. That’s what life is like. Mac decides to change his life and knuckles down and does it. Rosa Lee trusts him to keep his word. Temptations and moments of anger are rare, and events are usually met with a suppressed acceptance. You could argue that Mac is emotionally repressed – that perhaps he associates emotional expression with the wildness that clearly plagued his early life of drink and violence – but also perhaps it is intrinsic in his stoic character. In the broader scheme of life – and in this faith-tinged world – accepting the rough with the smooth is a duty.

Robert Duvall won an Oscar for this, and he is at the heart of the film’s quietness, gentleness and lack of demonstrance. Duvall is so quietly restrained he masters the technique of doing a lot while seeming to do very little. He is softly spoken and carries much of his emotion behind his eyes. Mac does little that is conventionally dramatic, but constantly Duvall lets his face, body and the careful soulfulness of those majestic eyes convey great regret, guilt and tragedy. Duvall’s Mac is gentle, but with the careful determination of a man determined to keep his second chance alive. There is a weary sadness at him, a longing for emotional connection that he struggles to express. And few actors would be willing to embrace a part so low on emotional fireworks. Even when tragedy strikes, Duvall remains quietly restrained.

He’s the perfect lead for this Chekovian conversation piece, well filmed by Bruce Beresford. Beresford brings a marvellous visual sense for the wide-open spaces of Texas and a perfect empathy for the observational, careful balance of the film’s narrative. It’s a film made up of events taking place in long and medium shot, filmed with natural lighting. Beresford encourages all the actors to gently underplay and lets his camera observe without flash and flair, letting the deceptively simple set-ups focus on the emotions.

It’s a film about a quiet quest for happiness – but also a wary suspicion of the pain and guilt life can bring. The fear that happiness can lead to loss and pain. Its why Mac has placed such a premium on stoicism. It’s an attempt by a fragile man to emotionally protect himself. He silently longs for a bond with his daughter, played with a wonderful little-girl-lost quality by Ellen Barkin, and struggles with the responsibility for the unhappiness he has caused his ex-wife Dixie (a more overtly fragile Betty Buckley). Happiness might not be what you expect – jubilant music and an explosion of joy – but quietly finding a contentment.

And contentment is embodied here by Rosa Lee, played with dignity and rectitude by Tess Harper. Rosa Lee is gentle, understanding and in many ways defined by her faith of forgiveness and second chances. She represents the rebirth that starts the film – which opens with a drunk Mac crashing to the floor – and is the lodestone around which the plot rotates, the fixed-point Mac needs in his life. Duvall and Harper have a fabulous chemistry and fully commit to the honesty at the film’s heart.

Tender Mercies is a honest short story expanded into a thoughtful and (in its way) brave film. It veers towards silence where other films would hit noise. It presents inaction and acceptance where other films would pick melodrama. It centres a still, calm continuation of events over fireworks. Duvall is central to this, an affecting performance of immense complexity under a stoic exterior, all framed around Beresford’s reflective shooting style.

It’s lazy to say this is “old fashioned” – no 40s film would be as uneventful and restrained as this – instead this feels like a final flourish of 70s filmmaking, a late burst of Malick-style American romanticism and poetry. Perhaps that’s why it was surprisingly nominated for multiple Oscars. And why it carries a quietly hypnotic power.

The Quiet Girl (2022)

The Quiet Girl (2022)

Stunning, low-key deeply-moving drama as a child flourishes with love in this Irish drama

Director: Colm Bairéad

Cast: Catherine Clinch (Cáit), Carrie Crowley (Eibhlín Kinsella), Andrew Bennett (Seán Kinsella), Michael Patric (Da), Kate Nic Chonaonaigh (Mam)

Childhood can be difficult. Even more so when the child knows they are an unwanted daughter, in an overlarge family overseen by an uncaring father (Michael Patric) more interested in the horses and the bottle than those his family. Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is a quiet child in early 1980s Ireland who has learned quietness because she knows no one cares what she has to say. When her Ma (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is expecting another child, Cáit is sent to stay with her Ma’s middle-aged cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) on their farm. There she finds a warmth, care and love she never knew at her home. But, though this is a house with warmth and “no secrets”, it is also a home where a painful loss is never spoken of.

Adapted from one of the finest short stories from Claire Keegan, one of Ireland’s leading novelists, The Quiet Girl became the most successful Irish film of all time and the first nominated for an Oscar. It’s no wonder: this is a beautifully made, carefully crafted and immensely moving film, overflowing with humanity and empathy that left me dapping my eyes.

Perfectly scripted and directed with a quiet controlled restraint by Bairéad, The Quiet Girl is a film that throbs with emotion, a collection of small events and everyday moments of kindness that bloom into moments of great resonance by the skilful empathy built up for this child. Throughout the film, shot in a Academy ratio 4:3, Cáit is frequently positioned in the centre of the frame. At first, in her home and school, this superbly stresses her isolation. Events bustle around her, family members casting shadows over her. She stares down and away from us and feels like the single fixed point in a world of motion. She sits unnoticed in the backseats of cars and watching her father drink in pubs. She is at the centre of our perception, but adrift in a sea of activity around her.

Bairéad superbly uses this device throughout to slowly bring characters and interactions to curve inwards and focus on Cáit much as we do. When she arrives at her aunt’s farm, for the first time the attention of others in the frame settles on her. Their eyes are on her, they speak to her, move to connect with her. The Quiet Girl is intensely moving as it shows the difference a change of scene can make, the warmth and love can make to a child who has known nothing like it.

This is in many ways a simple story, but the low-key tenderness which Bairéad tells it gives it immense power. Cáit – played with quiet gentleness by Catherine Clinch – is a sensitive, intelligent and caring girl who has never been allowed to flourish. It’s striking after the film’s first fifteen minutes showcasing the indifference she faces, how much your heart glows as Eibhlín talks to her, makes her feel comfortable, washes her and tucks her up in bed. It’s a world away from the neglect we’ve seen Cáit suffer.

This is a film where small acts of kindness bring tears to the viewers eyes. When Cáit wets the bed on her first night – too scared to use the toilet – Eibhlín immediately notes her fear (she expected punishment) and apologises for giving her “a mattress that weeps”. Eibhlín separates her from her uncomfortable clothes, teaches her basic household tasks, brushes her hair, encourages her to feel a part of their home. For the first time Cáit is treated not as a burden – or worse – but as a human being. This is brilliantly conveyed by Carrie Crowley as Eibhlín, who delivers a performance of immense emotional depth, both tender and kind but with a deeper layer of sadness underneath, the cause of which is slowly revealed.

Bairéad is sensitive about the home environment Cáit has emerged from. There are dark hints: her Da is, at best, a potentially violent drunk with a temper and Cáit is introduced first hiding in a field, then under her bed. Arriving at her foster home she has a fear of “secrets”. Eibhlín is quick to pick up on this, reassuing her there are no secrets here.

No secrets perhaps, but a pain never spoken of. Cáit’s room is decorated in train wallpaper and she sleeps in a child’s bed. She is dressed in boy’s clothes (“our old things”) only a few sizes too big for her. Seán finds her hard to look at, at first – but when, under her care, she wanders off he becomes panicked and distressed. The loss this sad couple suffered is clear to us and The Quiet Girl becomes a film of mutual healing. There is pain on both sides: a child with parents and parents without a child.

Seán’s growing bond with Cáit is wonderfully paced and deeply affecting. Gruff but kindly, Andrew Bennett’s performance melts the heart. From a biscuit placed without comment on a table to a run to the post-box that turns into a repeated game, their slowly flourishing love is simply beautiful. As he buttons her coat or the two of them race to sweep clean the cow shed, you’ll find it impossible not to be moved. Seán is slower to bond with the child than Eibhlín, but both of them find the pain in their heart slowly eased by allowing theirs to open to this quiet, caring child.

Of course, it is only a holiday that must end. Bairéad’s film ends with Keegan’s own, tinged with a slight ambiguity. But it’s a beautiful one for all that, a heart-rending tribute to emotional connection between people. Bairéad’s film has this empathy running through it like a pulse. Shot with an immense visual beauty that turns everyday objects into items of intense beauty – from tables to drains – The Quiet Girl is a deeply moving quiet masterpiece, which carries a low-key emotional impact that is hard to beat and impossible to forget.

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box (1966)

Farce, murder, mayhem and comic energy abounds in this sometimes try-hard but fun enough knockabout comedy

Director: Bryan Forbes

Cast: John Mills (Masterman Finsbury), Ralph Richardson (Joseph Finsbury), Michael Caine (Michael Finsbury), Peter Cook (Morris Finsbury), Dudley Moore (John Finsbury), Nanette Newman (Julia Finsbury), Tony Hancock (Inspector), Peter Sellers (Dr Pratt), Cicely Courtneidge (Major Martha), Wilfrid Lawson (Peacock), Thorley Walters (Patience), Irene Handl (Mrs Hackett)

Do you know what a tontine is? For those who don’t (come on, own up!) it’s basically an investment named after the Florentine banker Lorenzo di Tonti in 1653. Investors pay into a scheme which gives a regular income while accumulating interest on the initial capital. As the investors die off, the individual payouts increase until the final surviving investor claims the full ‘pot’ of cash. It’s essentially a lottery for being the last surviving investor. That’s ripe for two things: murder and farce.

We got dollops of the latter in this slap-stick, old-school farce loosely (very loosely) based on a Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne novel. A Victorian tontine sees its members fall at regular intervals until there are only two survivors: estranged brothers, cantankerous Masterman (John Mills) and almost supernaturally tedious Joseph (Ralph Richardson). With Masterman pretending to be on his own deathbed to lure his brother out (to murder him), the blithely dotty Joseph is kept in health by his greedy nephews Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Finsbury). En route to see Masterman, a train accident leads to a series of farcical misunderstandings involving mis-identity, confusion and a dead body packed into a box and delivered to the wrong house.

Directed with an, at times, slightly too overtly zany bent by Bryan Forbes, The Wrong Box oscillates between being rather funny and trying too hard. It’s all too obvious to see the influence of the Oscar-winning Tom Jones in the film’s jaunty musical score and use of flowery-lined caption cards to announce events and locations. It’s also clear in the fast-paced, at times overblown, delivery of performances and dialogue, with its mix of improvisational humour and cheeky lines. Despite this though, The Wrong Box manages to be just about be fun enough (and it’s funnier than Tom Jones).

That’s probably because it’s not aspiring to be much more than a jaunt, an end-of-term treat in which a host of famous actors and comedians put on a show. Forbes might not have the inspired flair at comedy or the sort of timing this needs. But he’s got a nifty touch with dialogue and does a decent job of translating classic British theatre farce to the screen. The Wrong Box – even the title leans into this – is all about those classic farcical tropes of things being delivered to the wrong people because they have similar names, mistaken or misheard messages being passed on and people obliviously talking at cross purposes.

We get set-ups like Mills’ fake-bed-ridden old man trying multiple times to off Richardson’s bore, each attempt obliviously foiled by coincidence and accident. A body misidentified because its wearing someone else’s coat, then packed into a crate and delivered (to the wrong house) to disguise a death that hasn’t actually happened. Undertakers mistakenly taking away a man who has fainted at the foot of the stairs rather than a body in another room. All classic farce.

It’s not a surprise that experienced theatre actors emerge best. Richardson, in particular, is a delight as a man who has made such a study of trivia that he compulsively bores anyone he encounters. Fellow passengers on a train, a farmer who gives him a lift in his cart, attendees at a funeral – all of them glaze over in despair while Richardson’s Uncle Joseph, with monotonous eloquence, expounds mind-numbing trivia (including, at one point, in Swahili). He makes a fine contrast with Mills’ angry short-man, constantly fuming at a string of slights, real and imagined.

These two leads set the standard for the rest of the cast, a mix of comedians, theatre pros and star names. Peter Cook occasionally tries a little too hard as a bossy-boots determined to inherit the tontine – it’s remarkably that, even this early, Dudley Moore looks more relaxed in front of the camera (Moore’s later stardom would be inexplicable to the jealous Cook). Tony Hancock looks rather sadly like a rabbit-in-the-headlights as an inspector. Peter Sellers, not surprisingly, shows how it’s done: his two-scene cameo as a drunken doctor of loose morals, surrounded by cats and permanently sozzled is a master-class in low-key, rambling hilarity.

Michael Caine and Nanette Newman also acquit themselves very well. Throwing themselves into the spirit of things as our romantic leads – fulfilling the requirements of the genre by being both charming and sweet but also naïve and a little dim – they strike up a romance that manages to be both rather touching and also a neat parody of costume drama flirtation. Forbes shoots a rather nice scene where they breathlessly eye each other up, the camera cutting rapidly from exposed arms to facial features one after the other. Both are very funny, with Caine striking up a lovely double-act with Wilfrid Lawson as an almost incoherently drunk butler (Lawson’s finest hour since Pygmalion).

The film keeps its comic energy flowing well, with Forbes using a good mix of interiors and some attractive Bath locations (doubling for London). It’s also a film which – surprisingly since its written by a pair of Americans – really captures a sense of British eccentricity. I really enjoyed, in particular, the opening sequence that charts the deaths of the other members of the tontine – a parade of inept empire builders (soldiers, explorers, big game hunters) meting a series of surreal (often self-inflicted) deaths.

It probably does slightly outstay its welcome – 90 minutes would have been perfect. It’s a little too pleased with its semi-surreal set-up and stylistic flourishes – the floral on-screen captions definitely are far less funny than the films thinks. There is, at times, a little too much of the “isn’t this zany!” air about the film that can grate, with set-ups groaning with their desire to amuse (a late hearse chase scene falls into this) like a pub bore telling you a story in his self-proclaimed “inimical style”.

But at least The Wrong Box does make you laugh. And when that is all it is aiming to do, its hard not to have a soft spot for it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indy is back. Hunting aliens. What could go wrong? Grab a fridge and let’s work it out.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Shia LeBeouf (Mutt Williams), Cate Blanchett (Colonel Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Ray Winstone (George “Mac” McHale), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Jim Broadbent (Dean Charles Stanforth)

Flying into ignominy faster than a tumbling fridge, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lists Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as their favourite Indy film. I’ll confess I enjoyed it in an affectionate escapist way when I first saw it. But lord, doesn’t it just get worse after every viewing?

It’s the 1950s and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is still hunting for archaeological gems. Just as he’s still getting into trouble. This time with the Russians. A secret group in America, led by Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is on the hunt for a mysterious artefact – a secret mummified alien corpse. Spalko wants to trace the aliens to find the fountain of all knowledge. Indy is suspected of being a Commie agent – not least after his old ally Mac (Ray Winstone) is revealed as a double agent – but soon finds himself roped into searching for the secret aliens and their buried crystal skulls by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser and school drop-out and son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) (wonder who the father could be?). Soon they are racing to a secret alien tomb in the Amazon.

You can spend ages scooting around what doesn’t work here. But the heart of it might be this: this is a sequel trying to pass as a young man’s film, made by two older directors who had long since fallen out of touch with the passions that filled their lives 30 years earlier. Truth be told, I suspect both Spielberg and Lucas always saw Indiana Jones as a fun diversion from other passions and never really cared about it the way generations that grew up quoting it did. Perhaps that was the biggest disappointment of all about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film that has potential but always feels like it’s being put together by obligation (and to make money).

Still, the good stuff. Harrison Ford is, of course, still Indy and there is a great deal of pleasure in seeing him inhabit this gruff mix of brains, fists and reluctant, cynical decency. The film also does a good spin on the father-son relation of Last Crusade by casting Indy as the exasperated father who finds a bond with his wild-card son (well played by Shia LaBeouf). The two have a lovely run of banter, and some neat comedy – not least a great little moment in a bar where Mutt steals a drink from a waitress’ tray, only for Indy to smoothly put it back all the same motion.

There is an exciting chase through the streets of New Haven, with Indy and Mutt on a bike escaping the Russians, including a great sight gag of Indy being pulled into a chasing car passenger window, fighting through the car and emerging the other side back onto Mutt’s bike. The opening extended fight and chase sequence (before we hit that fridge) in an Area-51 storage site is equally well done, fast paced, witty and crammed with tonnes of Spielberg flourishes. Cate Blanchett is intriguingly off-the-wall as the villain. The film even leans into Ford’s age as Indy swings over a gap and misses (“Damn I thought that was closer”) and gives Indy much of his Dad’s grouchiness.

But too much doesn’t work. And all those beats that fall on their face eventually bury the moments that do work. For starters, the original films felt real. They are shot with a grainy realism and featured practical effects. Spielberg stressed in the build-up he wanted to keep that look. So naturally the first thing we see in the film is a CGI gopher. The film is shot with a glossy, lens-smeared shininess. After a while loads of stuff looks unreal. From the fake CGI sky in the opening scene to the hideously unreal looking jungle chase, culminating in the bizarre sight of Mutt swinging, Tarzan-like, leading an army of monkeys. Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like Lucas and Spielberg mistook making things bigger, glitzy and more exotic for making them better. Truth is nothing in this film is as exciting as Indy climbing over a real van in Raiders or riding a real horse alongside a real tank in Last Crusade. These are real and gripping. Everything here looks like it’s been built in a computer, nothing feels real or possible, and everything is bigger and heartless.

That heartlessness carries into the plot. The earlier films had clear and emotionally engaging stakes. Indy had to save his soul (Raiders and Doom), a village of children (Doom) and his relationship with his father (Last Crusade) while chasing clearly defined artifacts. Here he’s sort of incidentally building a father-son relationship with a kid he doesn’t realise is his son until over halfway through and heading into the Amazon to return a glass skull because it told him to do it. These are not well-defined stakes. That’s before we even touch on the aliens.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but where artefacts based on the Bible or Hindu religion make perfect sense, an alien skull chase that culminates in a parallel dimensions and flying saucers feels silly. It feels as awkwardly out-of-place as midichlorians in Phantom Menace. It makes the film jar as much as those special effects filled set pieces. I know it’s supposed to mirror the 50s setting by playing with the classic 50s B-movie set-up. But it doesn’t fit with the rest of the franchise.

And you are made even more aware of this by how cynically the film has been filled with fan-bait call-backs: the opening sequence in the Grail storage warehouse, the music cues, Karen Allen, a repeat of the father-son set-up (this time flipped), a car chase through a hostile environment, horrible small animals, Commies standing in for Nazis. Killer ants standing in for snakes, horrible insects and rats. Travel and map montages. All this does is remind you of better films.

It’s not helped by how many performances fall flat. Winstone and Hurt both insisted on reading the script before they signed up. Perhaps they also read their pay offers at the same time, because that’s surely the only reason they said yes to these roles. Winstone is painfully unfunny as the ever-betraying Mac whose geezerish cries of “Jonsey!” quickly gets on your nerves. Hurt is saddled with a sort of Ben Gunnish eccentric, babbling nonsense (you won’t believe by the way he and Ford are similar ages). Karen Allen, bar the sweetness of seeing her again, is not great.

The feeling you are watching the runt of the littler is impossible to escape. Indy was a hero people loved because you could see him bleed. When he was punched it hurt. When he fell, he struggled to get back up. The Indy from Raiders would never have been hurled miles in a fridge from a nuclear blast and been absolutely fine. Christ, he was too knackered to stand up after running from that rock. That’s why the fridge moment doesn’t work: no one watching it can believe for a moment that either (a) a fridge would be hurled away like that rather than melt (b) that anyone would be utterly unharmed by it or (c) that its lead lining would save anyone from being irradiated. A mystic box that melts people’s faces when open we can buy because its “power of God” is carefully established with just enough mysterious power. Something grounded in reality like a nuclear blast can’t work. We know what that does – the fridge stretches our willingness to disbelieve too far.

But then you feel Spielberg and Lucas didn’t mind. To them these were fun home movies, a chance to indulge some childish gags. They weren’t invested in it the way we were. They had moved on and I don’t think really either of them wanted to make it. When they did, they showed they didn’t really know what people really liked about the films in the first place. They assumed it was the action. Maybe they thought they needed that with the blockbusters they were going up against. But people loved the heart and the reality. When the fridge was nuked, they knew they won’t going to get that here. That Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have none of what made us fall in love in the first place. It was an adventure we wouldn’t want to follow Indy on ever again.

The Whale (2022)

The Whale (2022)

Manipulative and sentimental, Aronofsky’s tear-jerker is dishonest and disingenuous

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Charlie), Sadie Sink (Ellie Sarsfield), Hong Chau (Liz), Ty Simpkins (Thomas), Samantha Morton (Mary), Sathya Sridharan (Dan)

The Whale is the sort of film that is either going to bring you out in tears or hives. Me? Let’s just say I felt incredibly itchy as I sat through this naïve, sentimental and manipulative film. I hated its dishonesty and its disingenuousness. The only thing I felt move was my stomach.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese, reclusive English professor who teaches online courses with the camera turned off. Nursed by Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his deceased partner, Charlie has never processed his depression and guilt at his partner’s suicide. Now, facing death from congestive heart failure, his last wish is to finally bond with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he has not seen in the eight years since he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton). Ellie is now an angry, high-school drop-out teenager. But Charlie is sure he can see the good in her.

So much has been made about the morbid obesity of the film’s lead. The prosthetics coating Fraser in layers of fat are impressive. An opening montage shows Charlie struggling to move around the house. Picking something up off the floor is impossible and he has to lever himself out of the bed or into the shower. But the film is hugely pleased with itself that it dares to see a fat person as “one of us”. Aronofsky initially films him like a freak show monster – already patting himself on the back about how “humanising” it will be when we learn that obese people are just as capable of being at the heart of maudlin, self-pitying films as thin ones.

The Whale is adapted from a stage play. Not only does it really feel like it (it’s all set within Charlie’s apartment, with characters announcing their arrival in a neat four-act structure), it also sounds like it. The dialogue is forced, artificial and clumsy, making on-the-nose emotional points. Characters feel like narrative constructs. Sadie Sink’s Ellie is the sort of precocious-but-angry tear-away genius brat you never find in real life. Ty Simpkins’ hipster-turned-missionary is more a collection of quirks than a person. The script leans heavily on clumsy metaphors – a walk on the beach, bible quotes, Ellie’s childhood essay on Moby Dick – milked for all they are worth.

Worst of all, a film that prides itself on being about the power of honesty feels like a big, walloping lie. It lies about its characters and it lies about the real issues that drive them. Firstly, it never once touches on issues of mental health and addiction that have led Charlie to this state. Sure, we get a scene of him compulsively eating. But Liz, his “caring” nurse, brings him medicine and huge piles of food (a massive bucket of fried chicken, enormous sub sandwiches…). It’s like caring for an alcoholic by bringing him chicken soup and a huge bottle of whisky. How is this helping someone recognise and deal with an addiction? Which is what this level of over-eating is.

Worst of all the film treats this as a “charming friendship between two eccentrics”. It eventually touches on the fact they are both hurting from the suicide of Charlie’s partner Alan. But never once is the film brave enough to link their behaviour now to this act. Charlie failed to get Alan help, keeping him away from the world and others, believing that the isolated love of a single person would solve his depression. Liz repeats the same mistakes. She isolates Charlie, encourages him to eat, never challenges him to seek help or process his grief, and creates a safe environment for him to destroy himself. If he was a drug addict, what would we say about a carer who draws the curtains and encourages him to shoot up? We’d be calling her the villain of the piece.

That’s before we even dive into the film’s lack of honesty about Charlie. It’s sad to think of a character being so depressed he’s eaten himself to death. That’s awful – even if the film never wants to reflect on the emotional and psychological reasons for this (because that would be depressing in a film as desperate to be upbeat as this one). But by showing us Charlie at the end, full of regret and self-pity, the film white-washes his mistakes and selfishness. There are clear flaws in Charlie that contributed to this state – however much the film wants to present it as a terrible accident.

Charlie abandoned his family and made no contact with his daughter for years (he complains it was too difficult and tries to blame her mother), leaving her traumatised. The film loves its sentimental device of Charlie reading to himself Ellie’s childhood essay (which he knows by heart). But this is, basically, a selfish fantasy: an idea for Charlie to cling to that he was a good Dad and Ellie a kid with a future, radically different from the actual reality. Just like he never addresses why guilt and depression drove him to destroy himself, so he refuses to deal with the issues Ellie is facing now by simply not acknowledging that she has changed from his idealised version of her as the sweet, sensitive girl who knew Moby Dick was really about Melville’s unhappiness.

Instead, the film suggests her mother is the one who really failed. Charlie – who has spent about an hour in her company in eight years – would have donebetter. Just like Liz passing him chicken buckets, Charlie’s solution to solving his daughter’s problems is to smother her with love rather than get her to ask herself why she does and says the cruel things she does. How can the film not see he is repeating the same ghastly cycle again, encouraging a depressed, vulnerable person to stick her head in the sand and hope for the best? Well, he’s wrong. And the fact that the film doesn’t see this means it’s lying to itself as much as he is.

By the end you’ll be stuffed by sentiment, greased by the insistent score. Every single frame is like being walloped over the head while Aronofsky shouts “cry damn you”. The dreadful script is well acted, even if no-one ever makes these device-like characters feel like real people (except maybe Morton). Fraser is committed, a lovely chap and I’m very pleased he’s having “a moment”. But this is a simplistic character, that requires little of him other than to wear a fat suit and cry. He never once really delves into any complexity. It’s also true of Hong Chau, a collection of quirk and tears.

The Whale is a dreadful film, manipulative, artificial and full of naïve and dishonest emotions that avoids dealing with any complex or meaningful issues. Instead, it thinks it’s achieved something by making you see a fat person as a real person. There is almost nothing I can recommend about it.

The Fabelmans (2022)

The Fabelmans (2022)

Spielberg explores his childhood in this warm but honest look at the triumph and pain of movie-making and family

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Gabriel LaBelle (Samuel Fabelman), Michelle Williams (Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman), Paul Dano (Burt Fabelman), Seth Rogan (Bennie Loewy), John Butters (Regina Fabelman), Keeley Karsten (Natalie Fabelman), Sophia Kopera (Lisa Fabelman), Mateo Zoryan Francis DeFord (Young Sammy), Judd Hirsch (Boris Schildkraut), Jeannie Berlin (Hadassah Fabelman), Robin Bartlett (Tina Schildkraut), David Lynch (John Ford)

Perhaps no director is more associated with cinema’s magic than Steven Spielberg. And watching The Fabelmans, a thinly fictionalised story about his childhood, clearly few directors have as much of that cinematic magic in their blood. The Fabelmans joins a long line of post-Covid films about auteur directors reflecting on their roots (clearly a lot of soul searching took place in 2020). Surprisingly from Spielberg, The Fabelmans emerges as a film that balances sentiment with moments of pain and a love of cinema’s tricks with the suggestion of its darker powers rewrite reality according to the eye of the director (or rather the editor).

The film follows thirteen years in the life of the young Spielberg, here reimagined as Samuel Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, by way of Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord). His father Burt (Paul Dano) is an electrical engineer with a startling insight into the way computers will shape the modern world. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist turned full-time Mom. The family moves from New Jersey to Phoenix and finally California, as Burt’s career grows. From a young age Samuel is enchanted by cinema, filming startling narrative home movies, packed full of camera and editing tricks. But he and the family are torn between art and science, just as Mitzi’s friendship with “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogan), Burt’s best friend, is revealed to go far deeper.

The Fabelmans is both a love letter to cinema and to family. But it’s a more honest one than you expect. It’s got an open eye to the delights and the dangers of both, the pain and joy that they can bring you. The film’s theme – expertly expressed in (effectively) a sustained monologue brilliantly delivered by Judd Hirsch in a brief, Oscar-nominated, cameo as Samuel’s granduncle a former circus lion tamer turned Hollywood crew worker – is how these two things will tear you apart. The creation of art makes demands on you, both in terms of time and dedication, but also a willingness to make reality and (sometimes) morality bend to its needs. And family are both the people who give you the greatest joy, and the ones that can hurt you the most.

Spielberg’s film tackles these ideas with depth but also freshness, lightness and exuberant joy. Nowhere is this clearer than the film’s reflection of Spielberg’s deep, all-consuming love for the art of cinema. Its opening scene shows the young Samuel – an endearingly warm and gentle performance from Francis-DeFord – transfixed during his first cinema visit by the train crash the concludes DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. So much so he feels compelled to recreate it – much to his father’s annoyance – with an expensive gift trainset, before his mother suggests filming it. Even this 10-year olds film, shows a natural understanding for perspective and composition.

The young Samuel – in an inspired moment of Truffautesque brilliance – is so enraptured with his resulting film, that he plays it repeatedly, projecting it onto his hands, as if holding the magic. No wonder he becomes a teenager obsessed with movie-making, who talks about film stocks and editing machines at a hundred miles an hour, locking himself away for hours carefully snipping and editing footage. The film this young auteur directs – very close recreations of Spielberg’s actual movies – are breath-taking in their invention and the joy. A western with real gun flashes – Burt is astounded at the effect, achieved by punching holes in the film – an epic war film crammed with tracking shots and stunningly filmed action.  This is a boy who loves the medium, excited to uncover what it can do, who finds it an expression for his imagination.

He’s clearly the son of both his parents. Burt, played with quiet, loving dignity by Paul Dano (torn between holding his family together and the knowledge he can’t do that), is a quintessential man of science. It’s from him, Samuel gets his love for the nitty-gritty mechanics of film-making, its machinery and precision. But to Burt it’s only a “hobby” – real work is the creation of something practical. So his artistic sensibility films comes from his mother Mitzi, gloriously played by Michelle Williams as a women in a constant struggle to keep her unhappiness at bay by telling everyone (and herself) its all fine. She needs a world filled with laughter and joy.

It’s what she gets from Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogan, cuddly and kind). It’s also where the darkness of both family and film-making touches on this bright, hopeful world. Creating a film of a camping trip the extended family have taken, its impossible for Samuel not to notice at the edge of the frames that Bennie and his mother are more than just friends. His solution? Snip this out of the film he shows the family, then assemble an “alternative cut” which he shows his mother, showcasing the tell-tale signs of her emotional (if not yet physical, she swears) infidelity. The Fabelmans skirts gently however, over how Spielberg’s teenage fear of sexuality in his mother and the association of sex with betrayal may have affected the bashful presentation of sex in many of his movies.

Samuel’s camping film works best as a reassuring lie. He’ll repeat the trick a few years later, turning his jock bully (who flings anti-Semitic insults and punches) into the super-star of his high-school graduation film, a track superstar who is made to look like a superman. Confronted about it, Samuel acknowledges it’s not real – but maybe it just worked better for the picture. It’s as close as Spielberg has ever come to acknowledging the dark underbelly of cinematic fantasy: it can mask the pain and torment of real life and it can turn villains into heroes. His unfaithful Mum becomes a paragon of virtue, his school bully a matinee idol.

Why does he do it? Is it to gain revenge by confronting those who have let him down with idealised versions the know they can’t live up to? Even he is not sure. Perhaps, The Fabelmans is about the young Spielberg reconciling that even if the movies are lies, they can also be joyful, exciting lies that we need: and that there is more than enough reason to continue making them. Just as, angry as we might get with our parents, we still love them.

The film is held together by a sensational performance by Gabriel LaBelle, who captures every light and shade in this journey as well as being uncannily reminiscent of Spielberg. It’s a beautifully made film, with a gorgeous score by John Williams that mixes classical music with little touches of the scores from Spielberg classics. And it has a final sequence dripping with cineaste joy, from a film deeply (and knowledgably) in love with cinema. Who else but David Lynch to play John Ford, handing out foul-mouthed composition tips? And how else to end, but Spielberg adjusting the final shot to match the advice, tipping the hat to the legend?

The Fabelmans creeps up on you – but its love for film and family, its honesty about the manipulations and flaws of both and its mix of stardust memories and tear-stained snapshots feels like a beautiful summation of Spielberg’s career.

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.