Category: Films about mental health

Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972)

Tarkovsky’s search for inner meaning and depth in the framework of space

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Cast: Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Jüri Järvet (Dr. Snaut), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Henri Burton), Nikolai Grinko (Kelvin’s Father), Olga Barnet (Kelvin’s Mother), Anatoly Solonitsyn (Dr. Sartorius), Sos Sargsyan (Dr. Gibarian)

When Tarkovsky saw 2001 he was not impressed, calling it “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth”. Tarkovsky thought science fiction was in thrall to machinery and effects, rather than intellectual heft. (By the way, it shows how much Tarkovsky saw himself as a philosopher-poet, that he felt Kubrick a lightweight). Tarkovsky’s aim with Solaris was to present science fiction about people and ideas, rather than technology. Solaris is in equal parts fascinating and frustrating, wilfully slow (as Tarkovsky liked it) but also hypnotic, a film that never quite manages to marry up his stated aim to explore human feelings with his own intellectualist distance as a film-maker.

Adapted from Stanislas Lem’s novel, Solaris is set in an unspecified future and revolves around psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Kelvin is sent to a station orbiting the alien world of Solaris, an ocean world that quite possibly might be a gigantic living brain. It’s hard to tell if that’s the case, because contact with the planet has proved impossible over decades. Now the last three scientists on Solaris station are sending back strange reports and Kelvin’s job is to decide if the programme should continue. On the station he discovers the planet has somehow accessed the inhabitant’s dreams and made figures from their subconscious flesh – and he is horrified and then overwhelmed when his late wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears on the station, a ghost made real by the strange powers of Solaris. How human is she? And does it matter?

Lem cordially disliked Tarkovsky’s Solaris. He couldn’t understand why the film didn’t exactly follow the book – where were the long chapters of scientific philosophical discussion? He felt it a shallow palimpsest of his work. I like to imagine that infuriated Tarkovsky, a director who prided himself on his intellectualism like few others. Huffily retorting films are different from novels, nevertheless he later claimed Solaris was the least favourite of his films, preferring the pretentious Stalker. But Solaris is ghostly and haunting in a way that the self-important Stalker (for me) never is.

Tarkovsky’s view of man’s exploration of the stars is that it blinds us to the more rewarding search for truth and meaning here on Earth. Not for nothing does the film start with a long, wordless, sequence following Kelvin walking through the grounds of his father’s dacha. Reeds dance in the river, long grass strokes Kelvin’s waist, rain spatters down from the sky.  Nature is a key part of what makes us human – on the station, the scientists affix paper streamers to air vents to replicate the sound of wind among the trees, to make Solaris feel a little more like home. To Tarkvosky space is a boring, featureless mass, and Solaris nothing but a pale shadow of Earth’s glories.

What’s the point of hitting the stars, if we are cold and lifeless ourselves? Kelvin is this at the start of the film, a distant, emotionless man, plagued with regret, barely engaged emotionally with his world. A mysterious child runs around his father’s house – we assume it must be Kelvins daughter (Tarkovsky never confirms) but our hero never takes an interest in her. This will change with the appearance of Hari, exactly as he remembers her – unaged (she died at least twenty years ago) and a strange mix of who she was and his half-remembered memories.

But Kelvin isn’t ready to explore this yet. He puts the ghost in a rocket and shoots her off into space. Pointlessly, as his fellow inhabitants of the station tell him. They’ve tried similar with their own ‘visitors’ – they always reappear when they wake from sleep. And Kelvin can’t do the same again with the second Hari. Especially as this Hari is so distressed at the slightest separation from him, she tears her way through a metal door after he closes it on her.

It turns Solaris into Tarkovsky’s real aim: an exploration of what lies within, rather than ethereal dreams among the stars. As Dr Snout says, real exploration would require mankind to find a mirror not a rocket. Solaris becomes about how far Kelvin will go to emotionally connect to a woman who may or not be real and both is and isn’t the person he remembers. How much will he put aside his doubts and reconnect with feelings he has long suppressed? And in Hari’s case, as her self-awareness grows with every minute of her ‘existence’, how much will she change? And, as she is born from Kelvin’s guilt at her suicide, is she always destined to embrace self-destruction?

Solaris (1972 Andrei Tarkovsky) Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk

These ideas become the heart of Solaris, unfolding in Tarkovksy’s trademark style. Solaris is awash with long unsettling takes and an eerie lack of music – and even, in places, ambient sound – in which the actors move with a coldness and lackadaisical precision. Solaris is, in many ways, an awkward fit for the director. Tarkovsky is not one to embrace raw emotion. Donatas Banionis remains, throughout, an austere and unknowable figure, whose exact feelings remain at times unconnectable behind his stoicness. Solaris is like a terrible ghost story that looks at the impact of loss with the same professional interest Kelvin as a psychologist has. At times Tarkovksy seems like a philosopher juggling the enigma of humanity, but getting a little bored with the question. Crude as he would find it, an emotional outburst or two would do wonders for Solaris.

But perhaps that would sacrifice part of what makes Solaris as compelling, haunting and lingering as it can be. Because there is a feeling the whole thing is taking place in a drained-out dream that could cross into a nightmare. Hari is beautifully played by Natalya Bondarchuk, carefully balancing the slow flourishing of a shadow into a human, scared and alarmed by the onslaught of emotions she cannot understand. Her slow of a distinct personality, rather than as an extension of Kelvin, contrasts with the cagey uncertainty of the rest of the characters. And makes us wonder how real they might be, since she feels at times the most vibrant.

Tarkovsky’s film uses his style to wonderful effect throughout. His lack of interest in the trappings of the modern world actually adds to its eerie disconnect. Clothing and technology basically look exactly like the 1970s, cars are unchanged, the space station is a grimy wreck. Kelvin’s journey to the space station takes about 45 seconds of screen time – compare to the long, dreamlike drive Burton takes through the city (actually – and clearly – Tokyo). Tarkovsky’s heart is in the poetry of a horse’s movement. It adds to the sense of space exploration as a chimera and the 45 minutes the film takes in its prologue on Kelvin’s father’s dacha reminds us that understanding the world around and inside us is where Tarkovsky feels our aims should be directed.

Solaris ends with a sequence that has stayed with me for decades. Kelvin repeats his long walk through his father’s land, all of it this time in a chilling stillness. Not a gust of air or ripple on the water. He approaches his father’s house to see rain falling inside. A long cut back shows the truth. It’s a close to the theme Lem felt was least engaged with by Tarkovsky: the impossibility of communication between two species so fundamentally different they can only offer a simulacrum of each other’s behaviour.

Tarkovsky is straining for a different type of psychological journey. Solaris offers little in the way of emotional investment – it’s far too restrained, cold and distant for that. Such emotions are placed at the heart of Soderbergh’s remake – but that sacrificed the austere, ghostly haunting of this. Solaris plays like a construct from the planet of our emotions, thoughts and fears, its characters moving in journeys of discover in our world much as Hari does in theirs. It’s unknowability and discordant stillness and jagged long-shots make it unique. It’s one of the Tarkovsky films I always want to revisit.

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Hugely popular, I find it widely misunderstood but also a little too in love with its own cleverness

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Edward Norton (The Narrator), Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden), Helena Bonham Carter (Marla Singer), Meat Loaf (Robert Paulson), Jared Leto (Angel Face), Holt McCallany (Mechanic), Zach Grenier (Richard Chessler), Eion Bailey (Ricky), Peter Lacangelo (Lou), Thom Gossom Jnr (Detective Stern)

When Fight Club was made, the studio didn’t get it. You can’t blame them. Studio suits sat down and just couldn’t understand what on earth this primal cry of anger, giving voice to the disillusioned and dispossessed, was going on about. Fight Club was categorically not for them. I’d managed to miss it for decades, so it’s an odd experience watching this angry millennial film for the first time when I’m now exactly the sort of punch-clock office drone its characters despised. I think I missed the boat.

Our narrator (Edward Norton) is cynical, bored and feels his life is going nowhere. Suffering from crippling insomnia, he takes to attending support groups for various terminal illness survivors, releasing his own ennui among the pain there. It’s where he meets fellow ‘suffering tourist’, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), whom he’s attracted to while resenting her intrusion on his own private therapy. Shortly after he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic rebel with whom he founds an underground bare-knuckle fight group for men who can’t express themselves in the modern world. But Durden’s charismatic, anti-corporatist rhetoric tips more and more into radicalism and he starts an affair with Marla. What will our Narrator do?

Sometimes I think Fight Club might be one of the most misunderstood films ever. So many people who have fallen in love with it talk about it being an attack on conformity in our cold modern world. Of its celebration of people leaving the oppressive, mindless 9-5 grind to find something true and real that makes them feel alive. To be fair, Fight Club is partly this. But how do our heroes do this? By starting a cult where the bitter, resentful and inadequate search for meaning through violence and becoming part of a monolithic organisation that bans independent thought. Essentially, it’s a cult movie, exploring what makes people who can’t relate to the monotony of the “real life”, embrace an oppressive set of rules simply because those rules make them feel important.

This misreading by many is a tribute to the brilliance of Fincher’s direction. Fincher’s film is radical, sexy, pulsating and exciting. It’s shot like a mix of music video and experimental feature and crammed with cutting, witty lines that skewer and puncture the ”grown up” ideas that so many find weary and tiresome. It’s a modern Catcher in the Rye and it pours all its functional, dynamically written anti-establishment rhetoric into the mouth of one of the world’s most charismatic stars in Brad Pitt and allows him to let rip.

Fincher’s Fight Club is really, to me, about the intoxicating excitement of anger, of how easy it is to pour your frustrations into actions that are destructive and selfish but which you can invest with a higher meaning. School shooters, incels – many of them see themselves as stars in their own Fight Clubs, as cool anti-establishment rebels who see some higher truth beyond the rest of us. Fight Club is a brilliantly staged exposure of how this mindset is created and how damn attractive it can be.

Because when Pitt lets rip with this mantra on finding truth and purpose, turning your back on Ikea and Starbucks and all the other soulless “stuff” people find important, you want to stand up and cheer with him. You can see that the attraction of forming a secret brotherhood with a series of other similarly frustrated men, who feel emasculated and purposeless in a world where they can’t do something meaningful like fight Nazis or hunt deer. How they could find satisfaction and a sense of masculine validation in punching seven shades of shit out of each other. Because, as the adrenalin and the blood flows, and the teeth go flying, you feel alive.

It’s certainly a lot more fun than trying to actually deal with your problems. Fight Club is really about this sort of toxic, masculine anger and bitterness leads us to fail to deal with our problems. The Narrator needs Durden, because he can’t manage to process his own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He can’t deal with ennui – except through a constant stream of cynical, privately spoken, bitter remarks – and when he meets a girl he likes, he can’t cope with that either.

Durden comes into his life straight after Marla does, and Durden does everything with Marla the Narrator can’t. He flirts with, impresses and fucks her. That’s the sort of thing the Narrator (literally) can only dream about doing. The film builds towards the Narrator realising that, by embracing Durden, he is denying himself the possibility of something real with an actual kindred spirit (screwed up as Marla is, she has decency and empathy). Fight Club – much as many of its fans who find the final act “disappointing” don’t want to admit it – is about putting away childish resentments and growing up. Even if the Narrator is culpable for the things Durden does – and only threats to Marla awaken his acknowledgement that he should do something – he recognises the aimless, irresponsible and dangerous anger of Durden is not healthy.

Because Fight Club centralises a group of terrorists who tell themselves they are plucky anarchists who don’t want to hurt anyone – but we know it never stops there. Especially when you have a mesmeric, Hitlerish figure like Durden driving people on. Pitt is superb as this raving id monster, a hypnotic natural leader who delivers rhetorical flourishes with such intense and utter belief he essentially brainwashes a legion of men into following his orders without question – acid burns, bombs and death don’t even make them blink, just even more willing to follow his orders.

Fincher works so hard to make us understand the attraction of all this that sometimes Fight Club – with its flash filtered look set in a nearly perpetual night – is more than a little pleased with its impish menace. It also takes a little too much delight in teasing its infamous twist – it’s a little too delighted with the “ah but when you watch it back” ingeniousness with which it presents a melange of scenes (the twist also makes you realise later just how brainwashed and dangerous the men in this cult must be, once we realise what they saw and how little they reacted to it). Fight Club also, for all its cool lines and winning gags, has an air of pop psychology to it. (I am very willing to overlook its cheap anarcho-socialism as we are very clearly invited to see this as empty nonsense – for all many people watching the film don’t.)

Edward Norton is extremely good in a challenging role, a stunted and bitter dweeb who dreams of being a player and barrels along with ever more dangerous events. He walks a fine line between a sheltered follower and true acolyte, in several moments showing more than a flash of Durden’s ballsy, take-no-chances, sadism-tinged determination when you least expect it. It’s the sort of performance designed to make sense in the whole, not in the moment – and on that score it’s exquisite. He also makes a wonderful pairing with Helena Bonham Carter, exploding her bonnet reputation with a part that’s rough-edged, unpredictable but surprisingly humane and vulnerable.

Is Fight Club a masterpiece? I’m not sure. It’s a very clever, sharp and dynamic piece of film-making designed to pull the wool over your eyes (in more ways than one). But it can also be overly pleased with itself and does such a superb job of getting you to empathise with the deluded and violent that when it gear changes in the final act it never quite lands as it should. It feels like an angry teenager’s idea of the greatest film ever made (and you can’t deny it digs into the same “loner who sees the deeper truth” vibe that helped make The Matrix a phenomenon later that year). It’s Fincher at his young, punk best – and maybe Fight Club got all this out of his system (you can’t believe the same man made this and Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but for me it lives in the shadow of Fincher’s dark and dangerous Seven, a film which explores similar themes but with more humanity and greater depth than Fight Club.

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.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Faith, family and femininity are put to the test in Bergman’s bleak meditation on religion and love

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Harriet Andersson (Karin), Gunnar Björnstrand (David), Max von Sydow (Martin), Lars Passgård (Minus)

Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly marks a new era in the Master’s filmography. It was the first of three thematically connected films about faith and religion (although you could argue The Virgin Spring really makes this a quartet). It saw Bergman make a firm commitment to seemingly theatrical chamber pieces, with small, focused casts of trusted collaborators handling complex (joke-free) and searching themes. It was also first of his films set on Fårö, a place that would become so associated with him it would effectively be rechristened Bergman Island.

Through a Glass Darkly (Bergman’s second consecutive Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture) is a brooding, intense chamber piece set entirely in a house and beachside jetty on Fårö. It’s a family reunion. Author David (Gunnar Björnstrand) returns to Sweden from Switzerland to see his children. They are 17-year old son and aspiring writer Minus (Lars Passgård) and Karin (Harriet Andersson), now married to respected older doctor Martin (Max von Sydow). The real purpose of the gathering is to monitor the recovery of Karin, a schizophrenic whose condition has (without her knowledge) been declared inoperable. Karin is drawn to obey the commands of voices only she hears which she believes emanate from an abandoned bedroom, covered in cracked wallpaper. There she believes God calls for her to join him on the other side of the wall.

There is much to admire about Through a Glass Darkly, not least the striking, haunting, cinematography of Sven Nykvist. In a film that takes place on an almost silent island – there is no music, other than a few bars of Bach on the soundtrack, and barely any natural sound, so much so that a late arrival of a helicopter seems (deliberately) like an almost demonic visitor – light becomes the main force. It beats down from the sun, wraps across rooms, seems to transform spaces in front of an eye (there is a beautiful stationary shot of it flooding an abandoned boat where Minus and Karin sit in shocked horror). It picks out every feature of the scarred wallpaper in Karin’s room and casts searching shadows and stark, interrogative beams across the character’s faces.

It greatly expands both the intensity and claustrophobia of a challenging chamber piece, exquisitely directed by Bergman. The acting of the four leads – three trusted collaborators and a newcomer – is faultless. Andersson, in particular, tackles an almost impossibly difficult character who we first meet as a carefree young woman and leave as a huddled, shattered figure hiding from the light behind sunglasses. Andersson’s raw and searching performance avoids all overblown histrionics, becoming a detailed and compassionate study of a woman losing control over her actions. Bergman holds the camera on her for long takes, while Andersson lets a multitude of emotions play across her face.

Björnstrand is equally impressive as a (disparaging) Bergman stand-in, an artist neglecting his children in a quest for perfection, coldly distant to others, guilty at his selfishness (at one point he excuses himself to privately weep at his inadequacy as a father, then returns unchanged) but quite happy to take what he can from his family to use in novels. von Sydow takes a quietly restrained role as a sombre, somewhat dour man, hopelessly in love with his wife but clearly little more to her (and he accepts this) than a surrogate father. Passgård more than matches them as a depressed teenager, yearning for approval and frustrated at learning how difficult life is.

Bergman’s family follows this complex and challenging family, which becomes a filter for understanding if love is where God is in our world. The family is distant and uncommunicative with each other – the opening scene sees them laughingly return from a swim, but the second any of them split into pairs for conversations, resentments about the others come bubbling out. Is any love here real or performative? And if it’s performative, where is love and therefore where is God?

In this world, has Karin’s schizophrenia may have emerged as an attempt to insert an acceptable love that is otherwise missing from her life. Her father is a cold-fish, who immediately announces at their reunion dinner he will soon leave for Yugoslavia, then produces a series of gifts “from Switzerland” all too obviously purchased at an airport and unsuitable for the recipient (such as gloves that don’t fit Karin). Her husband overflows with desire for her, but she can hardly raise a flicker of interest in him sexually and behaves him with more like an affectionate daughter.

The most affection filled relationship she has is also the most inappropriate. She and Minus have a relationship of physical intimacy, and she kisses and strokes him with an affection that from the start feels uncomfortably close. They confide in each other emotionally in a way they never would do with others, and Minus is the first witness of one of her schizophrenic breaks, invited by her to view the room she believes is a passageway to God. This unhealthy intensity builds, through confidences and whispered confessions into a terrible encounter in a ruined boat, where Karin is commanded by her voices to seduce Minus into crossing a terrible line.

Perhaps this is a search for love and meaning “to see but through a glass darkly” as St Paul wrote. Karin is searching endlessly for love – and therefore God – but her search seems fruitless. Her family only slowly adjust, she shatters her closest relationship and eventually even her visions in her wallpapered room tip into nightmares. Bergman never lets us see the visions Karin witnesses or hear the voices she does (this places more pressure on Andersson whose controlled and measured performance is more than capable of delivering on) but we see all the traumatic impact on her as they prove as incapable of delivering confirmation of love in her world as anything else.

It’s surprising, for a film which starts as a family drama and becomes a quietly nihilistic drama, that Bergman ends on a moment of hope as David and Minus share a moment of closeness. Bergman later said he regretted this, and the moment does feel forced at the end of a downbeat drama. It may be a reflection of the fact that Through a Glass Darkly, intriguing as it is, is perhaps a little too serious and leans a little too heavily into artistic intensity. It lacks the touches of warmth, hope and humanity that makes Wild Strawberries a masterpiece and at times hits its notes of intense brooding a little too hard (its more or less from here that the Gloomy Swede label stuck).

It’s frequently an artistic triumph, but in some ways I find it less complete than other Bergmans. It’s exploration of its themes of faith and love don’t always coalesce quite as sharply as I would wish. It strains a little too much for profound importance at the cost of some of its humanity and the characters – brilliantly performed as they are – feel a little too much like puppets in the hands of God-like Bergman, going as and when according to his needs. But then, a Bergman film that doesn’t quite make it, would be the crowning achievement of other directors – and Through a Glass Darkly haunts the mind, turning over and over again in your thoughts, for days after you’ve seen it.

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Hell is other people in this Satresque version of the life of Ruth Ellis

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Miranda Richardson (Ruth Ellis), Rupert Everett (David Blakely), Ian Holm (Desmond Cussen), Stratford Johns (Morrie Conley), Joanne Whalley (Christine), Tom Chadbon (Antony Findlater), Jane Bertish (Carole Findlater), David Troughton (Cliff Davis)

Hell is other people. Dance with a Stranger is the tragic story of how Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson in an electrifying screen debut) became the last woman hung for murder in Britain. But it’s also a terrible Satre-like tale of three people stuck a destructive cycle, loathing each other but unable to imagine their lives apart. Ellis is fanatically, obsessively in love with feckless David Blakely (Rupert Everett) who blows hot and cold on her and is nowhere near consistent in his feelings as middle-aged Desmond Cussen (Ian Holm), so besotted with Ruth (who treats him like a benevolent uncle) that he drives her to her assignations and pays rent on the apartment where she sleeps with Blakely.

All three cause each other immeasurable harm in Newell’s cool, bleak, well-made true-crime story that is far less interested in the moments of violence and retribution, than the sad and sorry cycle that leads to them. Tellingly, we never see a single moment of the trial or punishment of Ruth and the film effectively concludes in long-shot as we watch the fatal shooting of Blakely from afar. But who needs the close-up of this inevitable ending, when we’ve had front row seats to the catastrophic relationships that led up to it.

Like many British films, it’s at least partly about class. In 1950s London, we’re still on the cusp of the sort of cultural levelling out of the 1960s. This is a post-war, Agatha-Christie-like London. Blakely and his friends are Waughish Bright Young Things, living on Trust Funds and driving racing cars for fun. Their evenings are spent in drinking clubs aiming for glamour, staffed by those yearning to jump up a notch on the ladder like Ruth Ellis. Such women are of course for dalliances (and casual screws) not for marrying. Ruth’s back-up lover Desmond is an RAF-veteran who misses the war, an overgrown besotted schoolboy and middle-aged bachelor who accepts he is only worth other men’s cast offs.

Blakely’s friends encourage him to mess Ruth around because she’s a working-class strumpet. Ruth is at least partly willing to forgive him because marriage could lift her once and for all out of the working classes. Desmond is of less-interest, because a loveless middle-class marriage of sexual duty simply isn’t as attractive. Neither does Ruth love – or lust after – him the way she does the dynamic, sexy, little-boy-lost Blakely. A man she finds herself so uncontrollably drawn to that, no matter what he does – not turn up, mock her in front of his friends, push her down the stairs or punch her in the face in public – she comes crawling back. Often with Desmond in helpless tow, ignoring his adoration while demanding he drive her to another confrontation with the selfish Blakely.

Dance with a Stranger finds intense sympathy, to various degrees, with all three of its leads. But most strongly it turns Ruth Ellis, who could be a historical statistic, into a figure of real tragedy. Richardson is superb as a woman who is confident, assertive – even arrogantly dismissive – in so many areas of her life except one: her compulsive, obsessive and destructive love for Blakely. Dance with a Stranger charts effectively her mental collapse: from a woman who flirts confidently in a bar, to a quivering, weeping mess standing in the streets staring up at her lover’s window, screaming abuse, smashing up cars and babbling incoherently and inconsolably.

The film charts the same deadly cycle, showing Blakely’s ill-treatment and selfishness having ever more deadly impact on Ruth’s mental well-being. In it all, Blakely isn’t always malicious, more immature and easily led. Everett’s performance is perfect at capturing this playboy uneasiness under a fundamentally weak personality, a man who has been handed everything on a plate and is unable to respond in any adult way to Ruth’s love for him. Nevertheless, his stroppy behaviour gets her fired from her job and his behaviour fluctuates from gifts of framed pictures and promises of devotion, alternated with angry outbursts and emotional and physical violence.

And Desmond Cussen picks up the pieces time and again. Ian Holm is wonderful as this hen-pecked sadomasochist, impotent and all-too willing to debase himself, hurt time and again by seeing Ruth returning time and again to the dismissive Blakely. Holm makes Cussen small, weak, moody and frequently pathetic. He limply follows where she leads and suffers with weary, besotted patience every one of her preoccupied complaints against Blakely. This is man who almost sado-masochistically puts himself in painful situations, can’t be angry with Ruth for more than a few minutes and gets into impotent scuffles with Blakely outside pubs.

But it’s also Cussen who has the gun – and the film at least suggests the possibility that his openness about its location might well have been a factor in Ruth’s later decision to use it. The killing is, deliberately, the least interesting part of the film. What matters is the mental state that led Ruth to this killing. The self-delusion and desperation to believe that she could form a relationship with Blakely, the same obsessive blind-spot that leads to her closing the film writing a condolence letter to Blakely’s mother. Ruth is a victim here as much as him (perhaps more?) a mis-used woman who cannot give Cussen what he wants and can never get what she needs from Blakely.

Newell’s direction is sharp and sensitive and while the film’s cycle of destructive behaviour – Blakely and Ruth row, break-up, Cussen picks up some pieces, rince and repeat – can become overwhelming, it is partly the intention. And it cements the feeling for the audience of being as much trapped in this hell as everyone else. Holm is superb, Everett perfectly cast but Richardson is mesmeric as Ruth, vivid, vibrant, vivacious, vulnerable and victimised in a film that goes a long way to humanise the suffering behind what seem open-and-shut cases.

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.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Therapy saves the day in this well-written and acted, but rather earnest drama

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Matt Damon (Will Hunting), Robin Williams (Dr Sean Maguire), Ben Affleck (Chuckie Sullivan), Stellan Skarsgård (Professor Gerald Lambeau), Minnie Driver (Skylar), Casey Affleck (Morgan O’Mally), Cole Hauser (Billy McBride), John Mighton (Tom), Scott Williams Winters (Clark)

Two unknowns, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, made a sensation in 1997 with their script for Good Will Hunting. It turned them into stars and the two youngest Oscar-winning screenwriters in history. Good Will Hunting is a heartfelt, very genuine film crammed with finely scripted scenes and speeches. It’s also an unashamed crowd-pleaser, a paean to friendship and opening your heart, all washed down with a bit of Hollywood-psychotherapy magic. It’s a basically familiar tale, told and performed with such energy that it made a huge impact on millions of viewers.

In Boston, orphan Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a fiery temper and a rap sheet as long as your arm. He’s content shooting the breeze with best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), but he is also a preternatural genius, an autodidact with a photographic memory able to solve complex theoretical problems in hundreds of fields. It’s why he effortlessly solves the impossible proof Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) pins up on a board at MIT, where Will works as a janitor. Lambeau is stunned, bailing out Will from his recent clash with the police – on condition he also sees a psychiatrist to resolve his anger management. Will reluctantly attends sessions with Lambeau’s old room-mate Dr Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a recent widower – and the two of them slowly grow a father-son bond, while Lambeau pushes Will to not waste his talents.

Good Will Hunting is directed with a sensitive intimacy by Gus van Sant, with the camera frequently placed in careful two-shot, medium and close-up to bring these characters up-close with the audience. It’s an emotional story of grief, unspoken rage and trauma – but it manages to largely not present these in a sentimental or overly manipulative way. It’s gentle, patient and tender with its characters, not shying away from their rough edges, with an empathy for their wounded hearts.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Will himself. Matt Damon gives a charismatic, emotionally committed performance, as utterly convincing in genius as he is a surly, fragile young man hiding emotional trauma. He’s charming and easy to root for. He takes down smarmy Harvard types with a barrage of erudite opinions, is often self-deprecating, fiercely loyal to his friends and categorically on the side of the little guy. But he’s also aggressive, rude and capable of violence. He gets into fights for no reason, arrogantly assumes he can understand everyone better than they can themselves, and uses his intelligence as a weapon to pin-point and apply pressure to weak points.

It’s what he does throughout the film, from launching attacks at prospective therapists (accusing an illustrious MIT professor of suppressed homosexuality and mockingly supplying a string of psychobabble cliches to another) to cruelly exposing the limits of Lambeau’s intellect (which the professor is all too aware of, having to work night and day to even touch Will’s starting point). He analyses and strips down insecurities with dazzling displays of verbiage. It’s funny when he recounts doing this to an NSA recruiter: it’s less so when he reduces girlfriend Skylar to tears as she tries to get close to him, cruelly breaking down her life and personality into digestible, cliched clumps.

It’s all about pain of course. Good Will Hunting is rooted in the familiar Hollywood cliché of inner pain only being “fixed” by therapy. As always in Hollywood, sessions start with confrontation and end with a tear-filled hug as breakthroughs (that in real life take years) are hit after a dozen sessions. Will of course is using his intelligence to fuel his defensiveness – abandoned and poorly treated throughout his childhood, he pushes people away before they can get to close and holds the few people he trusts as tightly as he can. He can’t believe people want to help or care for him: Lambeau must be jealous, Skylar must be lying about loving him, Dr Maguire must be a fool.

It’s Dr Maguire who sees the lost little boy under the domineering, intellectually aggressive, angry exterior. Robin Williams won a well-deserved Oscar for a part tailor-made to his strengths. Maguire is witty, eccentric, cuddly – but also, like many of William’s best parts, fragile, tender and kind. It’s a part that allows Williams to combine his emotive acting and comic fire: he can mix grief-filled reflections on the weeping sore that is the loss of his wife, with hilarious flights of fancy on her late night farting (yup that’s Damon laughing for real in those scenes). Maguire is no push-over though: he throttles Will when he goes too far mocking the memory of his wife and gets into furious arguments with Lambeau over their differing opinions on what’s best for Will.

That’s the film’s other major thread: male friendship. Will’s friendship with Chuckie is the film’s key romance, and Benn Affleck gives a generous, open-hearted performance (although one scene of fast-talking cool when Chuckie stands in for Will at a job interview feels like a scene purely written to give Affleck “a moment”). Both these guys are fiercely loyal to each other – but it’s Chuckie who knows Will is wasting gifts and opportunities he would die to have, and who loves his friend so much he wants him to leave. Refreshingly, the slacker friends aren’t holding Will back here (he’s doing that himself) – they care so much they are trying to push him away.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the romance plotline, which feels like a forced narrative requirement to give Will something to “earn”. Minnie Driver does a decent job as a spunky, cool Harvard student – the sort of dream girl who quotes poetry but also tells smutty gags to Will’s mates – but she feels like an end-of-the-rainbow reward. Their relationship is underwritten and she bends over backwards to forgive and reassure Will at every opportunity: my wife probably isn’t the only woman watching the scene where Will punches the wall next to Skylar’s head during an argument and felt that she probably needs to get the heck out. For all the film wants a grand romance, honestly the film would probably have been better if it had focused more on the friendship between Will and Chuckie (the true love of his life).

Good Will Hunting truthfully does little that’s original. Our hero struggles with his past, guilt, anger – but learns to become a better man through the magic, sympathetic ear of therapy. What makes it work is the confident writing, which never shies away from its hero’s unsympathetic qualities and the sensitive, low-key direction of van Sant (the film never uses crashing violin-like moments to overegg emotion). It’s also superbly acted across the board – Damon, Williams, Skarsgård, Affleck and Driver are all excellent. It’s a warm tribute to the power of friendship. In short it gives you a pleasant, engaging and easy-to-relate to story. And who doesn’t want that?

Judy (2019)

Judy (2019)

A star turn is the only thing of note in this empty, uninsightful biopic

Director: Rupert Goold

Cast: Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland), Jessie Buckley (Rosalyn Wilder), Finn Wittrock (Mickey Deans), Rufus Sewell (Sid Luft), Michael Gambon (Bernard Delfont), Richard Cordery (Louis B Mayer), Darci Shaw (Young Judy Garland), Bella Ramsey (Lorna Luft), Royce Pierreson (Burt Rhodes), Andy Nyman (Dan), Daniel Cerqueira (Stan), Gemma-Leah Devereux (Liza Minnelli)

By 1969 Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) was homeless, broke and stuck in a pill-and-alcohol fuelled depression. Desperate to provide a home for her children, she flew to London for a five-week booking at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Judy sees her, pushed beyond her physical and emotional limits, as she struggles to complete the run – or even get on stage – marrying the feckless young Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) and flashbacks to her memories as a Hollywood child star (Darci Shaw), under the punishing “mentorship” of studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery).

All this gets mixed together in Goold’s uninspired, sentimental and rather empty biopic that never really gets to grips with Garland’s personality, so desperate is it to shoe-horn her into a bog-standard narrative of redemption mixed with personal tragedy. Garland, I’m sure, would have hated it: she always pushed back against the idea that her life had been tragic (which this film whole-heartedly embraces) and the portrayal of her as a constantly misunderstood victim, generously one-sided as it is, boils her down into someone with no agency or control at all in her life.

As such, the most effective parts of this film are the flashbacks to her childhood, filming Wizard of Oz, living off diet pills so she can’t put on weight and working 18-hour days. All under the direction of a monstrously calm Louis B Mayer – a terrific performance of amiable, grandfatherly menace from Richard Cordery – who pleasantly tells her she is a dumpy child who must work like a dog to get ahead and owes everything to him. If the film gets anywhere to understanding Garland’s psychology, it’s in these scenes – I’d rather they’d made it about this than her swan song in England.

In the 1969 sections, the film continues to try and communicate that a life of constant work and pressure left Garland an emotional, physical (and possibly mental) wreck. It puts us on her side, stressing her vulnerability and desperation which she covers with brittle, demanding behaviour. But it’s too squeamish to show too much of her popping pills and downing more than the odd glass of vodka – despite the fact she’s clearly intoxicated for large parts of the film. It only briefly looks at how crippling anxiety affected her unwillingness to rehearse and implies her time in London was a lengthy period of unending servitude rather than a five-week booking singing her greatest hits (the film is hugely vague about timelines to increase the feeling of Garland’s powerlessness).

The film isn’t even smart enough to give us moments where other characters get a glimpse of the fragility under Garland’s prima donnai-sh petulance. Despite her treating both of them as a mix of underlings and informers, Jessie Buckley’s minder and Royce Pierreson’s pianist inexplicably become friends to the star part-way through the film. There is no scene to transition this, no moment of fragile tenderness they witness that makes them understand there is more to this demanding person than they initially thought. Instead, it feels like the narrative requires them to like her just as the audience is supposed to, so whoosh they like her.

The one affecting sequence sees a lonely Garland bumping into two gay fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) and rather sweetly asking if they would have dinner with her (they are of course thrilled). Back at their apartment, they cook a disgusting looking omelette, play the piano and she listens as they are tearfully talk about their life of persecution in homophobic Britain. It’s gentle, sweet and the only time we (or she) get a real sense of what Garland means to people – these fans idolise her as a symbol of hope. Even this scene is undermined by (a) it not having any lasting impact on Garland as soon as it finishes and (b) these characters being shoe-horned into a blatantly emotionally manipulative ending almost unwatchable in its cloying feel-good-ish-ness.

The one thing the film has going for it is a committed, pitch-perfect performance by Renée Zellweger who captures the vocal and physical mannerisms perfectly. She won every award going including the Oscar. It’s an impressive study and she plays the moments of pain as committedly and rawly as the gentle, tender moments. She does everything the film asks of her, and it’s not her fault that it asks so little of her. There is no dive into Garland’s personality, no questioning that any of her ills were self-inflicted, no criticism for her not turning up for gigs where customers have paid a fortune to see her, no attempt to explore other perspectives on the impact of her actions or how she has become the woman she is.

Instead, Judy meanders towards its semi-feelgood ending without ever really letting us feel we’ve understood much about either this woman or her difficult life, other than framing her as a victim from a life of exhausting show-biz exploitation. Told within a story that is low on drama, pathos or humour, you end up wondering what point it was trying to make in the first place.

Empire of Light (2022)

Empire of Light (2022)

Mendes passion project is strangely free of passion in a film that misses the targets it aims for

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary Small), Micheal Ward (Stephen Murray), Tom Brooke (Neil), Toby Jones (Norman), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Tanya Moodie (Delia), Hannah Onslow (Janine), Crystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Bates), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis)

In 1981, Hilary Small (Oliva Colman) is the duty manager of grand, old-fashioned, Margate sea-front cinema The Empire. A quiet, lonely spinster who’s never seen any of the cinema’s movies, she carefully performs her duties at work which include servicing the sexual needs of owner Mr Ellis (Colin Firth). However, her life changes when young Black man Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher. The two strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship – but runs into conflict as Stephen struggles with growing racism and Hilary suffers a relapse into schizophrenia.

Empire of Light has been described as personal passion project by Sam Mendes. Bizarrely it feels like a film which all passion has been strained out of. It’s a functional and safe film, scripted with little inspiration and given life largely by the charisma of its two leads.

Empire of Light partially frames itself as a love-letter to cinema-going and film. Strangely it hardly engages with either of these. In fact, it could (with minor script changes) be set just as easily in a department store, petrol station or bingo hall. This is a film where no-one talks about cinema, watches a film or even seems interested. Toby Jones’ projectionist explains the mechanics of his trade in what feels like a carefully scripted explanation of the workings of a machine the writer knows nothing about. For all the beauty of Roger Deakins’ photography, there is no moment of magic that you might expect from a director who claims to be enamoured with the medium.

Hilary finally decides to watch a film for the first time: “pick any one you like” she tells Jones. He tees up Being There – a film I’m wondering if Mendes has seen. For starters, would I show a film about mental health featuring a racist cartoon in the middle to a woman struggling with her own mental health who has just watched a close friend being beaten up by the National Front? You’re left feeling Norman simply teed up whatever film was in the machine. But then, as he says, he doesn’t really watch the films anyway. Afterwards Hilary and Stephen chat about Peter Sellers – but never once mention he has only just died.

Empire of Light fails at most other things it attempts to do. Its heart is in the coming-of-age, second-chance-at-life romance at its centre. There is fine chemistry between Colman and Ward, and their bashful coming together works as a meeting of two spiritually similar people who feel life is passing them by. Their unspoken courtship early on – rescuing a wounded pigeon together in the abandoned upper-storey of the Empire or watching the New Years fireworks on the roof – has a pleasant innocence. But fundamentally, these characters feel ill-defined and go through personal crises that feel pat and under-developed.

Colman gives her all as Hilary – although this sort of dumpy, frumpy, tragic, timid woman is becoming a little too much of a calling card – but this is a thin character. We slowly realise Hilary is a woman struggling with mental health – making her sexual exploitation by Firth’s smug, sleazy, manager even more unpleasant. She carefully goes about her work, stares down at the ground and wouldn’t even dream of intruding on the cinema-goer by actually watching the film. Colman masters the little touches of glee she gets at the presence of Stephen, Hilary’s simultaneous enjoyment and bashfulness about what she assumes is a hopeless crush.

Where the film fails though is in finding any depth in Hilary’s struggles with schizophrenia. Colman’s character is inspired, in many ways, by Mendes’ own mother. The film aims for a sympathetic presentation of mental health, which it manages but without providing any insight. While many aspects of mental health were not discussed at the time, a film made today really should have more to say than Empire of Light musters.  Instead, Hilary’s condition feels like a dramatic shorthand. For a passion project that’s not good enough – the film even falls back on the age-old “stops taking her meds” plotline. For all the gusto and commitment Colman brings to Hilary’s mental collapse – a furious destruction of a sandcastle, or ranting, drunk, in an apartment where the walls are strewn with self-penned graffiti – it never feels insightful enough.

It’s sadly the same with Micheal Ward’s Stephen. For all Ward is hugely charming as this saintly young man – and for all he expertly suggests Stephen’s anger at the growing tide of racism in Britain – the issues he deals with feel like window-dressing. The most interesting moment is his confrontation with an angry, racist customer who is appeased by Hilary rather than challenged – much to Stephen’s justified fury. But name-checking Brixton and New Cross and saying “it’s getting worse” doesn’t really feel like getting to grips with the dilemmas he, and young men like him, were facing. Particularly when Stephen responds to a deadly beating with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders. You can’t argue with Mendes’ genuine feelings, but there is never enough depth.

Instead, these major social issues are benched by the film’s end, making them feel like discussion points to make Hilary feel better about her life and for Stephen to resolve to move on with his. It has less to say about these issues than an episode of Call the Midwife. Just as it has nothing to say about the magic of cinema going, turning it into a retro back-drop of posters and old sweeties. Far from making a case for cinema, it makes the building as irrelevant as some worry it is becoming today.

Corsage (2022)

Corsage (2022)

The perils of a life married into royalty are as tricky for some 150 years ago as they are today

Director: Marie Kreutzer

Cast: Vicky Krieps (Empress Elizabeth), Florian Teichtmeister (Emperor Franz Joseph I), Katharine Lorenz (Countess Marie Festetics), Jeanne Werner (Ida Ferenczy), Manuel Rubey (King Ludwig II), Finnegan Oldfield (Louis de Prince), Aaron Friesz (Prince Rudolf), Rosa Hajjaj (Valerie), Lily Marie Tschörtner (Queen Maria Sophie), Colin Morgan (George “Bay” Middleton)

Known to the world as Sisi, there are few more troubled figures in the history of European royalty than Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Locked into a largely loveless marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph, she struggled with the expectations of her position. She suffered from an eating disorder in an obsession to reduce her waist size, exercising vigorously every day. She was an international icon, formed strong bonds with the Hungarian people, helping integrate them into the Austro-Hungarian empire and her later life was touched with tragedy (including her son killing himself in a murder-suicide pact with his lover) before her assassination.

Only touches of this dynamic story make it into this curious film, that focuses on one facet of her personality at the cost of exploring others. Focusing on the years 1877-78, Elizabeth (Vicky Krieps) is strapped into ever tighter corsets, struggles with “representing” Austria, attempts several love affairs that end in rejection, smothers her youngest child Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj) with affection and is prescribed a new “wonder drug” (heroin) to ease her nerves. While her family despair, she starts to groom her lady-in-waiting Marie (Katherine Lorenz) to stand-in for her at public events.

From a British perspective, pretty clear parallels are drawn between Elizabeth and that icon of 20th century monarchy Princess Diana. Like Diana, Elizabeth’s personal struggles are misunderstood and unsupported by her royal network. An intelligent, passionate woman, Elizabeth stifles under conditions that require her to do and say as little as possible. Her dull, formal husband (Florean Teichtmeister, refreshingly decent and befuddled as the Emperor) merely needs her to wave at events, nothing more. She finds this increasingly oppressive and constrictive.

Kreutzer’s film is a stylish presentation of Elizabeth as a sort of Royal rebel. Drenched in lavender – even the cigarettes she chainsmokes are lavender – Elizabeth takes every opportunity she can to leave the palace, avoids “smile and wave” events and behaves with unpredictability at social events (she’s as likely to laugh and flirt as storm out giving the room the finger). Her fainting could be due to her incredibly tight corsets – or it could just be a way of causing mischief. The system around her simply doesn’t know how to react to someone who doesn’t know herself what she really wants.

Corsage is most engaged with this analysis of undiagnosed depression, at a time when the condition was largely utterly unknown. We can see Elizabeth is mired in misery, but to others she’s merely a self-indulgent, difficult, un-co-operative woman. Shot with a candle-lit intimacy and drained out colours, the film presents the world much as Elizabeth (it suggests) may have seen it. Dark, oppressive and domineering.

Kreutser bravely avoids making her completely sympathetic. The film doesn’t shirk in showing how selfish and self-obsessed she can be. She can’t tell her maids apart (even Franz Joseph is more clued up on their names), bans loyal lady-in-waiting Marie from marrying as she needs her too much and drags her daughter through endless reluctant excursions (including a pre-sunrise horse ride) because she’s more interested in moulding her than listening to her.

Vicky Krieps embodies this prickly personality with huge skill. There are flashes of the sort of person Elizabeth could be. She frolics playfully for an early film camera in the countryside and comes flirtingly to life with two potential lovers, an English riding instructor “Bay” (played with bashful charm by Colin Morgan) and the man closest to being a kindred spirit King Ludwig II of Bavaria (an ebullient Manuel Rubey). Sadly, Bay is far too cautious to become the Empress’ lover (even when she turns up at his room dressed in little more than her corsage) and Ludwig far too gay (much as he values her friendship).

Krieps performance is full of empathy for her pain. She skilfully communicates her mixed feelings towards her genuinely decent-but-dull husband (Franz Joseph, the sort of man who peels off his fake sideburns and stores them carefully in a box). But also makes her demanding, sullen and frequently rude and overbearing. She lashes out at and banishes from her presence those who ‘betray’ her.

Elizabeth’s status is compared with those in the mental health hospitals she took such an interest in.  There women are bound to their beds or dunked in freezing baths to cure them of their lustful desires) and the war wounded. It’s a reminder that things could be a lot worse. But it’s also a reminder of the film’s singular focus, away from the other facets of this woman’s personality. There is no real reference to her efforts to support the Hungarian people, her most successful attempt to break out of the confines of her role. It’s part of the film’s sometimes myopic view of its subject.

Kreutzer’s film is full of style. But it’s sometimes hard to see to what purpose. Much of the music the characters listen to is anachronistic modern pop (performed by period instruments). Locations have been deliberately chosen for their ramshackle, faded appearance, no attempt made to return them to the grandeur they would had at the time. Elizabeth takes dips in a very modern pool and the film closes on a cruise liner that wouldn’t look out of place today. Semi-surreal moments pop-up, such as Elizabeth towering in a small-scale room that may-or-may-not be either a giant doll’s house or a visual representation of her state of mind. But they never quite coalesce into a whole or carry a clear purpose, beyond design flourish.

I think part of this is because the film delves into Elizabeth’s depression but offers little in way of acute analysis as to why she felt like this. With most of the interesting events of her life kept out of the film, we effectively drop into a few years of depression without a wider context of her interests or passions. Elizabeth becomes someone the film defines largely by her position, much as her depressing life did, leaving her remaining a somewhat puzzling enigma.

It culminates in a genuinely confusing, alternate history scenario that I was mystified what the film intended to me to feel about. Does it end on a note of tragedy or triumph? I’ve no idea – and the coda with Krieps dancing confuses me further. It’s a befuddling ending for a stylish film (with a great central performance) but which is often one-note. Eventually you feel you effectively learned everything it had to say after the first few minutes, and its happiness to settle for repetition and style over a more searching study eventually makes it disappointing.