Category: Relationship film

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Farrell (Pádraic Súilleabháin), Brendan Gleeson (Colm Doherty), Kerry Condon (Siobhan Súilleabháin), Barry Keoghan (Dominic Kearney), Pat Shortt (Jonjo Devine), Jon Kenny (Gerry), Brid Ni Neachtain (Mrs O’Riordan), Gary Lydon (Paedar Kearney), Aaron Monaghan (Declan), Shelia Fitton (Mrs McCormick), David Pearse (Priest)

Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are life-long friends on the small Irish island of Inisherin. Until one day, in 1923, Colm bluntly says he won’t speak to Pádraic again as “I just don’t like ya no more”. What on earth has led to this seemingly permanent severance? Did Pádraic do something wrong? The torment of not knowing will create a huge strain on Padraic, who prides himself on “being nice” and can’t understand why the older Colm doesn’t want to chat him. Just as Colm can’t understand why Pádraic can’t leave him alone, especially as he is almost universally agreed to be dull. Eventually this blunt stop to a friendship swiftly escalates out of all control.

McDonagh’s film is packed with the scintillating dialogue you would expect, and he combines it with an intriguing, tragedy-tinged character study where two sympathetic characters tip themselves into destruction through the unwillingness of either of them to compromise. It’s no coincidence that the film is set during the Irish Civil War. Cut off from the mainland on their tranquil island (where life feels like it hasn’t changed for the best part of 100 years), the characters are disturbed from their own civil war, every now and again, by the sound of gunfire and explosions from the mainland. The Banshees of Inisherin can be seen as a commentary on civil wars: don’t they all start, essentially, from someone deciding they have had enough and “just don’t like ya” anymore?

This marvellously rich film boils down a whole country tearing itself apart over what sort of future it wants, into one personal clash over two people’s future. The future increasingly obsesses Colm, a man preoccupied with mortality (who assumes his life can now be counted in years rather than decades), suffering from depression, worried he will disappear leaving no mark. A talented fiddle player, he wants to be like Mozart, remembered decades later – and he can’t do that wasting time every day for hours on end listening to Pádraic talking about his “wee donkey’s shite”.

It’s a perspective on the future, that Pádraic just can’t understand. For him, what does it matter what people you’ll never meet think about you? What matters to him is that the people around him like him and remember him as a “nice fella”. Not in a million years does legacy occur to him: the familiarity of everyday being the same is the most comforting thing, and change a horrific and terrifying thing to be avoided as much as possible.

You can see all this instantly in Colin Farrell’s heart-rending performance as this gentle, fragile but unimaginative soul, heart-broken at the inexplicable loss of his best friend. The film is a striking reminder that, contrary to his looks, Farrell’s best work is in embodying lost souls, the sort of people never ready for the life’s hurdles. Pádraic certainly isn’t, and his attempt to process what has happened defeats him. A man who considers his pet goat his next best friend and is as reliant as a child on his sister, doesn’t have the ability to understand what Colm is driving at about mortality, assuming instead he will stumble across the right words to be welcomed back into Colm’s company. He becomes the unstoppable object, trying to batter down Colm’s wall of silence.

He’s onto a losing battle, as Colm reveals himself to be – either due to his depression or his just not caring any more – the immovable force. Wonderfully played with a tinge of sadness and a depression-induced monomania, by Brendan Gleeson, Colm is a decent guy in many ways but fails to appreciate or consider the effect his actions will have on others. Instead he is focused on achieving at least something notable from his life. It leads to dramatic steps to drive Pádraic away, Colm threatening to cut off one of his fiddle playing fingers every time Pádraic bothers him, a threat he transpires to be more than willing to carry out.

And so civil war breaks out. As well as the parallels with Ireland’s war, I also felt strong echoes of our own poisoned social-media discourse. By his own lights, Colm believes his sudden severing of contact with Pádraic is perfectly reasonable. Many people who have “ghosted” others no doubt feel the same. Colm is reasonable when he explains it, and he still steps in with silent acts of comfort and support when Pádraic falls foul of the island’s brutish police office. But he never considers the traumatic impact this unexplained change will have on Pádraic – or how flashes of kindness can be as cruel as hours of non-acknowledgement.

Radicalism, in civil war and social media, quickly takes hold. What else can you call Colm’s threat to slice off his own fingers (the fingers he needs to live his dream of fiddle-playing legacy)? Just like people blowing hard on Twitter, he needs to deliver or lose face. Pádraic makes angry, passionate condemnations of Colm in the pub, like he’s posting rants online. Things escalate to a point where no-one feels they can step away or backdown.

That’s the tragedy McDonagh identifies here. This one decision of Colm’s – no matter the motives – ends up having disastrous effects on both men. Pádraic changes from a gentle soul to someone capable of wrathful fury and lifelong grudges. Colm literally disfigures himself, guaranteeing he will never achieve the very thing he started this for. Could there be a better parable for the destructive nature of civil combat? Neither Colm or Pádraic are willing to compromise: what if Colm said he would only see Pádraic once or twice a week, eh? Just like Ireland, they burn the world down.

This all takes place in a rich framework, with McDonagh skilfully working in clever, challenging sub-plots. The legend of the banshee, who foretold death and enjoyed watching destruction, is woven throughout, embodied by the sinister Mrs McCormick (a ghostly Shelia Fitton). The most forward-looking person on the island is Pádraic’s sister Siobhan – brilliantly played by Kerry Condon – who finds herself wondering why on earth she stays in such a self-destructive small-world. Barry Keoghan (also superb) plays the universally acknowledged village dunce, who (if you stop and listen to him) quotes French and poetry and (for all his crudeness and lack of social graces) is clearly a man stunted under the heel of his abusive father, the village policeman.

As events escalate and rush out of control – McDonagh’s pacing is very effective here – the film slows for carefully judged moments of emotional power, from the burial of a beloved pet to a character weeping in bed at the painful choices that must be made. McDonagh has created a powerful universal metaphor for the dangers of extreme, definitive choices and a total rejection of compromise by boiling it down to the smallest scale possible.

And your sympathies ebb and flow, due to the beautiful performances from its lead. Farrell is heartbreaking, a memory you carry as he becomes more vengeful. Gleeson is coldly reasonable, even as we grow to understand his crushing sense of mortality and character-altering depression. These two actors power an intelligent and thought-provoking film that achieves a huge amount with subtle and rewarding brushstrokes.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Very thin romantic drama that finds very little to offer beyond it’s set-up of “love across the divide”

Director: Henry King

Cast: William Holden (Mark Elliott), Jennifer Jones (Dr Han Suyin), Torin Thatcher (Humphrey Palmer-Jones), Isobel Elsom (Adeline Palmer-Jones), Murray Matherson (Dr John Keith), Virginia Gregg (Anne Richards), Richard Loo (Robert Hung), Soo Yong (Nora Hung), Philip Ahn (Third Uncle)

In 1940s Hong Kong, Eurasian Dr Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) works at a respected hospital and carefully balances her relationship with the Chinese and Western expat communities. All of which is shaken up when she falls in love with American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden). As China’s civil war sees the country turn Communist – and with war rumblings in Korea – can this love across the divide survive prejudice, Mark’s estranged wife and the disapproval of her friends?

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing was a box-office hit and scooped no fewer than eight nominations (including Best Picture) in a weak year at the Oscars. It won two of them for its main virtues: the lush, romantic score from Alfred Newman and its title song (which became a massive hit). Aside from that, it’s a very slight romance (with a tragic ending) based on Han Suyin’s autobiographical novel (Suyin, who sold the rights because she needed the money, refused to watch it).

It’s very much a film of its time. The focus is at least as much on the locations and wide-screen framing as it is on story (it was made slap-bang in the middle of the era when these were considered cinema’s unique selling point over TV). Before the script was even completed, a second unit team was dispatched with the stars to shoot wordless sequences on location, all to capture that Hong Kong atmosphere. Writer John Patrick and director Henry King’s job was then to build a narrative framework using as many of these as possible, inspired by the book.

What they came up with is as conventional as they come: essentially, two charming, attractive Hollywood stars meet, flirt, fall in love and face the consequences. Despite the earth-shattering events around them, very little intrudes into the story. The outbreak of Chinese Communism gets name checked a few times – one of Suyin’s colleagues at the hospital is a proud Commie – but only a few moments are spent on considering the impact this might have on Hong Kong or the expat community. Similarly, the Korean War might as well have been started by people who just wanted to drag William Holden away from romantic bliss.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing has its chances to really tackle the racial element of this relationship. But bar a few small moments, it mostly avoids this. Sure, Suyin loses her job for largely unspecified reasons (the implication is there that it’s for crossing this racial divide), and she gets dragged across town to get a ticking off from the grand doyen of the expat community for flirting with a white man (although this could just as well be for the fact he’s separated but still married). But her Chinese family mostly accept Suyin’s relationship with little complaint, and far more easily than they do her cousin’s relationship with a foreigner (guess it’s because Mark is such a top bloke). The whole issue feels slightly swept, awkwardly, under the carpet – which just doesn’t feel true. For all its patronising heavy-handedness, at least Sayonara two years later really engaged with this theme.

But then, maybe it’s because Jennifer Jones doesn’t even look remotely Asian. Reportedly unhappy with her make-up, its toned down to such a subtle extent that honestly half the time she doesn’t look that different than she does in any other role. I suppose, today, we should thank our lucky stars they didn’t go the whole yellow-face hog, but it does look odd considering everyone else of even remotely Asian descent is played by an Asian-American actor.

Despite this, Jones is actually rather good as Suyin: intelligent, sensible and very surprised to find herself falling in love with someone so socially unsuitable for her as Mark appears to be. She’s compassionate, witty and knows her own mind, and if Jones is given a few too many speeches explaining Asian culture to Mark (or rather to the viewer), at least she delivers them with grace and gravitas. Holden is also good, even if he could play this dashing romantic role standing on his head.

Fascinatingly both stars, despite their convincing on-screen chemistry, couldn’t stand each other. As well as having incompatible working styles – Jones was details oriented, Holden more instinctive – they failed to bond personally. (Jones reported she ate garlic to annoy famed lothario Holden, while Holden claimed a bunch of flowers he purchased Jones to clear the air were literally thrown back in his face.) It, surprisingly, doesn’t come across on screen, and the film’s strongest moments by far are the romantic ones between the two leads.

Fortunate, as that’s the meat of a film that barely has anything else on its bones during its swift runtime. King directs with a professional competent flatness that doesn’t give any additional life to the project. Aside from some decent romantic moments atop the couple’s favourite hill and a swimming sequence (obviously imitating From Here to Eternity but without an ounce of that film’s dynamism and sexiness) there is little to keep drawing you back.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing settles for being a reassuring, lightweight romance, in which two handsome people, in luscious locations, fall in love. It offers very little outside of that, so basically your enjoyment of the film will be decided by how much that sort of thing wins you over. If you want more from your romances, it’s not for you.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

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

Director: FW Murnau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair (1939)

Two people in love, separated by circumstance, in this film of two halves: one comedy, one sentimental

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Irene Dunne (Terry McKay), Charles Boyer (Michel Marnay), Maria Ouspenskaya (Michel’s Grandmother), Lee Bowman (Kenneth Bradley), Astrid Allwyn (Lois Clark), Maurice Moscovich (Maurice Cobert)

In many ways you could say Love Affair was the turning point in Leo McCarey’s career. For years in silent films and the early talkies he had been one of Hollywood’s leading comedy directors, the quick-witted master of the improvisational pun. But there was a second McCarey: the devout Catholic, concerned about social issues. The McCarey who light-heartedly complained when was given an Oscar for The Awful Truth rather than his heartfelt critique of elderly care, Make Way For Tomorrow. This McCarey increasingly leaned into well-meaning, sentimental dramas.

So why is Love Affair a turning point? Because the first half is a charming, funny, sexy meet-cute: and the second a well-meaning but sentimental love story that pulls two people apart. Those meet-cuters are famous Parisian playboy (he’s basically a gigolo) Michel Marney (Charles Boyer) and nightclub singer Terry McKay (Irene Dunne). They meet on a trans-Atlantic liner and fall in love. Problem is they are both engaged to others (both of them rich), waiting for them in New York. Should they decide to chuck it in and be together, they arrange to meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. Come the day, Michel waits – but on the way there, Terry is hit by a car and possibly left paralysed. She doesn’t want to tell him. He thinks she never planned to show up. Will they ever be together?

That car crash is the pivot in a film that feels like two genres surprisingly successfully wedded together. Love Affair is a great idea (so good in fact that McCarey remade it about 20 years later as An Affair to Remember), a romantic story with all the joy and vibrancy of a couple finding each other and falling in love, then the painful sting of tragic circumstances pulling them apart. It manages to be sweetly funny and then more or less manages to land just the right side of sentimental (though, lord, it skates near to the edge).

You go with that more overtly manipulative conclusion though, since the subtle comedic and romantic manipulation of the first half is so well done. McCarey encouraged his actors to improvise: filming started with McCarey sitting at a piano, plinking keys, waiting for inspiration to jazz up the script. It’s an approach many actors found challenging (Cary Grant nearly had a meltdown at first on The Awful Truth). But he found the perfect pairing with Boyer and Dunne.

Of course, Irene Dunne was a veteran. An actress far too overlooked today, Dunne flourished under McCarey’s style. Here she’s gloriously warm, sexy and charming. Terry McKay has a very dry (at times almost slightly smutty) wit; she’s absolutely no fool, but also kind, caring and considerate. Dunne sparkles every time she steps in front of the camera, displaying the sort of comic timing you can’t buy (her teasing glances at Michel during their first meeting, when she accidentally reads a telegram all about his sexual exploits at Lake Como, are to die for). But her face also lights up with a genuine radiance as she finds herself falling in love.

She also sparks wonderfully with Charles Boyer. Another overlooked star of 1930s Hollywood, Boyer was desperate to work with McCarey. He found the improvisational style awakened a relaxed, playful element in his acting that helped make Michel exactly the sort of dreamboat you could imagine falling in love with on a cruise. Boyer was also a superb reactor, his face able to communicate anything from growing interest, to delight and also piety, pain and disappointment. Boyer’s comic timing, like Dunne’s is faultless. Like her, he also effortlessly shifts to drama in the second half, expertly demonstrating the maturity of a playboy into someone generous and understanding.

With these two actors, McCarey couldn’t go too far wrong. Their natural ease with each other makes for wonderful chemistry. They are two people who progress naturally from teasing, to enjoying each other’s company, to realising they enjoy each other’s company way too much. Today, Love Affair can look a little tame – they don’t even kiss (although one shot of crashing waves, cutting to them opening a door on the boat to walk along the deck together, is rather suggestive). But the point is that this is love not an affair (or an affair about love). The feelings they develop for each are genuine and, bless them, they don’t want to corrupt it with behaviour that could compromise them.

Tellingly their love is cemented during a stop off in Madeira, where they visit Michel’s aunt (played by an archly eccentric Maria Ouspenskaya). She welcomes them into her home, bonds with Terry, and Michel shows Terry a far different side to himself than his playboy persona: a thoughtful artist. McCarey even shoots them together (in a beautifully lit scene by photographer Rudolph Maté) in a chapel, kneeling side-by-side at the altar. Could McCarey make the endorsement of their love more clear?

Perhaps he felt he needed to, since the screenplay was controversial. The Hays Code had no intention of allowing a film showing two engaged people walking out on their partners. Perhaps that’s why they needed to be “punished” with that sudden car crash. The second half is less successful: maybe because I find the “I can’t ruin his life by making him look after me in a wheelchair” a little too on the nose. Boyer and Dunne play the hell out of it: Dunne is quietly crushed under a surface of charm and what-will-be-will-be. Boyer tries his best to hide his pain, but still searches for some of what he’s lost in his new career as an artist.

Of course, the truth will out – and it will end happily. But there’s a little too much sentiment in the second half, after the heartfelt romancing of the first. A little too much put-a-brave-face-on-the-pain, a few too many contrivances to maintain the illusion (of course they go to the same play on Christmas Eve!). There are too many sickly sweet scenes of Dunne singing with the kids at the orphanage she’s recuperating at (a ghastly advance warning of McCarey’s tedious Going My Way). But it just about works, because we really care about Terry and Michel. We want them to be together, come what may.

Love Affair can be a mixed bag, but it’s got two wonderful performances for Boyer and Dunne (she was nominated, he was robbed) and McCarey manages to juggle comedy, romance, sweetness and a little touch of sadness. It’s a luscious romantic film, even while you see it manipulating you – and for that, it will always give you a great deal of pleasure.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Questions of family, up-bringing and sexuality are explored with tenderness and a great deal of wit in this thought-provoking family drama

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Cast: Annette Bening (Nic Allgood), Julianne Moore (Jules Allgood), Mark Ruffalo (Paul Hatfield), Mia Wasikowska (Joni Algood), Josh Hutcherson (Laser Allgood), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are just like any other married couple after years of living together and raising two children: seemingly contented, settled in their ways and routines, missing some of the passion they had in the beginning, locked into their designated roles in the marriage. Nic is the dedicated doctor (with a slight drink problem) whose alpha personality dictates much of how the household is run; Jules is the more relaxed, more bohemian figure, who has rotated through several possible careers while raising their children.

Those children are inadvertently about to shake things up. Both mothers have each given birth to one of the children, using sperm from the same anonymous donor. Older daughter – straight A high-school graduating Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – is Nic’s child; slightly slacker, sports-fixated son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is Jules’. But both children are curious about who their father is: and, with Joni now old enough to request the information, they discover him to be local bohemian restauranteur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Meeting Paul – and bringing him into their family life – opens up cracks in their parents’ marriage which will have far-reaching consequences.

Some from the LGBTQ community criticised Lisa Cholodenko’ film on its release for presenting a lesbian marriage in such a largely conventional way. In many ways though that is in fact its strength. This engaging dramady doesn’t see anything unusual or unworldly about a lesbian marriage: in fact it shows that the problems that can beset long-term heterosexual marriages are just as likely to happen in homosexual ones. Nic and Jules are essentially – even if they don’t realise it at first – stuck in a rut. The passion has largely gone after years, the knowledge that you need to make an effort has evaporated, too many conversations are about household and parental duties. Jules quietly, almost unknowingly, resents what she sees as Nic’s dominance in their lives, while Nic privately feels she pulls much more weight in keeping things running. Not that they consciously realise this at first, in conversations that drip with in-jokes and a very casual familiarity (both Bening and Moore are superb at embodying a relationship that has become so long-term it has developed its own language).

But into this drops a bombshell in Paul. Wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, Paul is relaxed, playful, optimistic and upbeat. To some in the family – in particular Jules and Joni – he is everything that the more uptight and regimented Nic is not. No wonder these two both find themselves drawn to him. Unfortunately, nice guy that he is, Paul is also superbly unruffled by consequences. Events roll off his back. At first this seems like a great thing. He’s patient, understanding and thoughtful when talking to the kids. He helps the uptight Joni to relax. He gives helpful advice to Laser about his unpleasant friend Clay. But his lack of thought about his actions is there from the start (Laser, astutely, is disappointed in his first impression of Paul as self-obsessed). His advice for Joni openly encourages her to defy Nic’s boundaries. He accompanies Laser to watch Clay attempt a dangerous skating stunt like he’s a bro not a dad. And then there is Jules.

The film also drew fire from the LGBTQ community for presenting one half of its normalised lesbian couple entering into an affair with a man. But for Jules, it’s clear, the relationship is really about getting the sort of attention, focus and (to be honest) sexual interest that Nic seemed to stop giving her a long time ago (at one point, Nic prepares a luxurious bath for Jules – but then takes a phone call from work and abandons the promised massage for work). Paul is flirty, sensual and horny: sure he’s a man, but he can give her the sort of sexual pleasure that absent-minded fondlings with Nic late at night no longer even begin to give.

But that’s all it really is to Jules – a sudden, unexpected craving. There is no doubt that her heart belongs to Nic – just as there is no doubt that both she and Nic will be devastated when the affair comes out. (Cholodenko shoots Nic’s realisation beautifully. During a “family dinner” with Paul, the sound drains out during a fixed shot on Bening’s face which pained, heartbroken realisation and anger crosses across. It’s a tour-de-force for Bening that probably went a long way to securing her Oscar nomination). Paul, conversely, seems supremely unaware of the likely impact of his actions – during that family dinner he shows no compunction about bonding for the first time with Nic (who relaxes as we have never seen before until the truth is revealed) over a mutual love for Joni Mitchell.

Paul is, unknowingly, the serpent in the garden that will unbalance the careful equilibrium in the family. Nic is hostile to him from the start, his presence seeming to play into deep rooted insecurities and a fear of being supplanted. For Jules he presents an exotic alternative chance – a relationship with someone who feels accommodating and deferential to her. It blows open the comfortable but familiar rut the two of them are in. In the cracks, Jules becomes distracted and selfish, Nic doubles down on drinking and demands for obedience to her family rules.

If it sounds heavy going, it surprisingly isn’t. Cholodenko (sharing script writing with Stuart Blomberg) throws in plenty of jokes and moments of sweetness. Bening and Moore are both incredibly good in the lead roles: Moore is bubbly, relaxed, sexy but sad deep down dissatisfied and surprisingly selfish. Bening seems at first merely a domineering control freak with a drink problem, but she is revealed as deeply fragile, loving and devoted, a woman whose love is expressed in ways the objects can find overbearing, however well meaning they are. (Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both also great as their kids.)

The Kids Are All Right bubbles with some well judged moments of comedy, drama and tragedy. This is a film, eventually, about the strength of family. Paul may tempt with his care-free optimism and consequence-free thinking. But this film sides, overwhelmingly, with people like Nic who may sometimes make you want to tear your hair out, but will be there time and again, day-after-day, offering love in a way people like Paul never can. Laser and Joni may tease her, may bridle at her rules – but they love her unconditionally, in a way the film shows us with gestures small and large time and again. So, for that matter, does Jules: her actions grow from wanting a more overt return on the affection she more naturally gives.

It’s a film that wears its heart firmly and shamelessly on its sleeve, as it urges us to both recognise and empathise with this fundamentally loving marriage going through a rough patch. And by normalising families like this, it sends a strong message of inclusivity: after all, if we all share the same problems, doesn’t that all help us realise we are the same?

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

For decades unchallenged as the best loved Hollywood film ever made, but showing some signs of its age, it’s still an undeniable marvel

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Ann Rutherford (Careen O’Hara), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Jane Darwell (Mrs Meriweather), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Harry Davenport (Dr Meade)

For most of the twentieth century, if you asked people to draw up a list of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, you can be pretty sure this would be close to the top. A landmark in Hollywood history, everything about Gone with the Wind is huge: sets, run time, costs, legend. It’s crammed with moments that have developed lives of their own in popular culture. Its score from Max Steiner – luscious and romantic – is instantly recognisable, practically Hollywood’s soundtrack. It’s the most famous moment in the lives of virtually all involved and for decades whenever it was released, it raked in the cash. But as we head into the twenty-first century, does GWTW (as it called itself even at the time) still claim its place at the head of Hollywood’s table?

It’s the love child of David O. Selznick. Never mind your auteur theory: GWTW credits Victor Fleming as the director, but parts of it were shot by George Cukor (the original director, who continued to coach Leigh and de Havilland), William Cameron Menzies (the legendary art director, who shot the Atlanta sequences) and Sam Wood (who covered for an exhausted Fleming for several weeks). This is a Selznick joint from top to bottom. GWTW is possibly the ultimate producer’s film: a massive show piece, where not a single cent isn’t up on the screen. Huge sets, vast casts, colossal set pieces, thousands of costumes and extras. It’s an extravaganza and Selznick was determined that it would be an event like no other. And a hugely entertaining event it was.

It would also be scrupulously faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, with a dozen screenwriters working on it (including Selznick). GWTW was the ultimate door-stop romance novel. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire film is a no-holds barred “Lost cause” romance of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the passionate, wilful daughter of a plantation owner, desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is attracted to her but all set to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Also interested in Scarlett is playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Romantic complications are set to one side when the Civil War breaks out, bringing disaster to the South. As the war comes to its end will Scarlett and Rhett find love, or will Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley continue to come between them?

GWTW’s casting was the sort of national obsession not even the casting of a superhero gets today. Every actress in Hollywood seemed to screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, with Selznick playing the search for all the publicity it was worth. No one suggested Vivien Leigh. But, lord almighty, Leigh was placed on this Earth to play Scarlett O’Hara. GWTW is dominated by Leigh, dripping movie star charisma. She would be synonymous with the role for the rest of her life, and it’s no exaggeration to say this one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. Leigh balances a character stuffed with contradictions. Scarlett is wilful and vulnerable, impulsive and calculated, childish and dependable, selfish and generous, spoilt and sensible, romantic and realistic… But Leigh balances all this with complete ease. It’s an act of complete transformation, an astonishingly confident, charismatic and complicated performance.

There was no debate about who would play the romantic hero, Rhett Butler. He basically was Clark Gable. And Gable was perfect casting – so perfect, he was almost too scared to play it. But he did, and he is sublime: matinee idol charismatic, but also wise, witty and vulnerable (it’s easy to forget that Rhett is really in the traditional “woman’s role” – the ever-devoted lover who sticks by his woman, no matter how badly she treats him, spending chunks the latter half of the film halfway to depressed tears). For the rest, Leslie Howard was oddly miscast as Wilkes (he seems too English and too inhibited by the dull role) but Olivia de Havilland excels in a generous performance as Melanie, endearingly sweet and loyal.

These stars were placed in a film production that’s beyond stunning. Shot in glorious technicolour, with those distinctive luscious colours, astonishingly detailed sets were built (plantations, massive dance halls, whole towns). Everything about GWTW is designed to scream prestige quality. It lacks directorial personality – the best shots, including a crane shot of the Civil War wounded or a tracking shot on Leigh through a crowded staircase, seem designed to showpiece the sets and volume of extras. It’s a film designed to wow, crammed with soaring emotions and vintage melodrama. Nothing is ever low key in GWTW: disasters are epic, love is all-consuming passionate clinches. They built stretches of Atlanta so they could burn it down on camera. It’s extraordinary.

And much of GWTW is extremely entertaining. Especially the first half. It’s an often overlooked fact that if you ask people to name things that happen in GWTW, nearly everything (bar the film’s final scene obviously) they will come up with is in the first half. Rhett behind a sofa in the library? Atlanta on fire? Rhett and Scarlett at the ball? Scarlett surrounded by admirers at a garden party? “I’ll never be hungry again?” All before the interval. The first half is a rollicking, fast-paced rollercoaster that takes us from the height of the South to the devastation after the war. It grabs you by the collar and never lets go, supremely romantic, gripping and exciting.

The second half? Always duller. Bar the start and finish of the second half (nearly two hours in all), it’s a Less memorable film. Sure, it has the O’Hara’s in extreme poverty, Scarlett reduced to converting a curtain into a dress to glamour up some cash to keep Tara. It’s got Ashley and Melanie’s adorably sweet reunion. And it’s got possibly the most famous line ever in movies “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (not to mention “Tomorrow is another day”).

Other than that? It’s a bitty, plot-heavy series of forgettable, episodic moments which you feel really should have been cut. Who remembers Frank Kennedy? Or Scarlett’s lumber mill? Rhett pushing his daughter in a pram? The London sequence? There is a solid hour of this film which is flatly shot, dully paced and devoid of anything memorable at all. GWTW owes all its beloved reputation to the first half: and to be fair you’ll be so swept up in that you’ll give the film a pass for its middling second act. After all you get just about enough quality to keep you going.

But what about the elephant in the room? GWTW, like no other beloved film, has a deeply troubling legacy. They were partly aware of it at the time – after all, every racial epithet was cut, as is every reference to the KKK (it’s referred to as a “political meeting” and Rhett and Ashley’s membership is glossed over) and we never see the attack they carry out on a shanty town of former slaves. But GWTW remains, in many ways, a racist film peddling an unpleasant and dangerous mythology that the “Lost Cause” of the South was all about gentlemanly fair play, rather than coining it off plantations full of enslaved workers.

GWTW, in many ways, plays today a bit like a beloved elderly relative who comes round for dinner and then says something deeply inappropriate half-way through the main course. The dangerous mythology is there from the opening crawl which talks of the South as a land of “Cavaliers and cotton fields” where “Gallantry took its last bow…[full of] knights and their ladies fair, of Master and Slave”. The third shot of the film is a field of smiling slaves, working in a cotton field. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar (at a segregated ceremony) and she is wonderfully warm as Mammy, but her character is another contented underling. At least she seems smarter than the other main black characters, Pork and Prissy: both are like children reliant on the guidance of their masters.

The Cause of the South is luscious and romantic, as are the people who fight it. Nearly every Yankee we see is corrupt, ugly and greedy, rubbing defeat in our heroes’ faces. It’s not quite Birth of a Nation, but the second half has a creeping suspicion of freed black people. A carpetbagger from the North is a smug, fat black man who mocks wounded Southern soldiers. Scarlett’s walk through the streets of a rebuilt Atlanta sees her startled and mildly hustled by black people who no longer know their place. Every prominent black character is sentimental about the good old days. GWTW would make an interesting double feature with 12 Years a Slave.

It’s this dangerous and false mythology that makes the film troubling today. It’s why you need to imagine the entire thing with a massive asterisk – and why you should be encouraged to find out more about the era than the fake and self-serving fantasy the film peddles as reality. But for all that, GWTW is so marvellous as a film that it will always be watched (and rightly so), even if it was always a film of two halves and only becomes more controversial in time. But watch it with a pinch of salt, and it is still one of the most gorgeous, sweeping and romantic films of all time: that’s why it still remains, for many, the definitive “Hollywood” film.

After Love (2021)

After Love (2021)

Loss, grief and family combine in Aleem Khan’s poetic, heartfelt debut

Director: Aleem Khan

Cast: Joanna Scanlan (Mary Hussain), Nathalie Richard (Genevieve), Talid Ariss (Solomon), Nasser Memarzia (Ahmed), Sudha Bhuchar (Farzanna), Nisha Chadha (Mina)

Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) is a white English woman who converted to Islam decades ago to marry Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). Ahmed works as a captain of a ferry ship, travelling between their home in Dover and Calais. When he suddenly passes away, Mary is distraught. But that’s nothing compared to how she feels when she discovers Ahmed had a second family in Calais: Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their son Solomon (Talid Ariss) – whose very existence is a painful memory of the child Mary and Ahmed lost decades ago. Mary travels to Calais to do she’s-not-sure-what but, due to a misunderstanding, ends up working as a cleaner in Genevieve’s house as she packs for a move, totally unaware Ahmed is not just ignoring her calls.

The debut film from Aleem Khan – whose mother was similarly a white English convert, living in Kent, who immersed herself in her adopted culture – After Love is part fascinating moral dilemma, part profound exploration of the burden of grief. Mary’s life has been shattered by the loss, not only of her husband, but the even greater loss of her understanding of what her life was. Khan captures this with a beautifully shot visual metaphor: Mary hallucinates the world literally collapsing around her, from dust dancing in the sunlight, to cracks appearing in the ceiling above her to a vivid hallucination of the white cliffs of Dover collapsing behind her as she sails to Calais.

Khan’s film is at its strongest when it centres Mary’s emotions and faith. It’s a wonderful endorsement of the power of faith. Faith is central to Mary’s life: she immersed herself in her adopted culture – from prayer to dress to food, which she cooks with love-infused skill. Part of the film’s purpose is to challenge any underlying assumptions we may have about this culture. Mary’s faith is not something forced upon her or which provides barriers to her. It has, instead, given her peace, purpose and contentment. In a world where images of Islam are not always so positive, it’s refreshing to see religion as such a positive force in a person’s life.

But the film also knows seeing a woman in a hijab carries certain assumptions. Its perhaps the biggest reason why, when Mary arrives at her door, Genevieve assumes she is a cleaner. Later she will question why Mary wears it, as if it was a set of chains rather than a personal choice that is an expression of her faith. For Genevieve, the hijab not only makes it easier to push her into a servile position, it also defines her, in the eyes some, as being on the lower rungs of society (which she isn’t). You can be confident if Mary had turned up wearing a black dress and a hat, the film would have played out very differently.

We see Mary carefully prep what she might say to this other woman, before she arrives. It all goes out of the window in tongue-tied fear and shock when she arrives. Instead, she ends up working as a cleaner. Mary accepts the misunderstanding for reasons she almost can’t understand herself. Is it meekness? Awkwardness? Curiosity? Shock that this woman is far more glamourous than she is? Does she want revenge? She hardly knows herself, using her position in the house, effectively as a servant, to learn more about this woman and the family she built with her husband.

If there is a weakness in After Love it’s the slightly contrived nature of this plot. In a film grounded in the realism of the pain of loss – Mary’s devastation, confusion and sense of being adrift is explored with a profound sensitivity – it revolves around the sort of plot device that wouldn’t seem out of place in a soap opera. It takes a bit of investment – which the film just about manages to earn – to go with this storyline, which relies slightly on contrivance to sustain itself.

But it does allow us to have our perceptions about Genevieve challenged as well. While we assume, at first, she will be little better than a hussy, we discover she is a sensitive, realistic woman, well aware that she is (and more than a little guilty about being) “the other woman”. She is struggling with her teenage son Solomon, who can’t understand why his life is so unusual and of course blames his mother more than his absent (and therefore idealised) father.

In fact, the longer Mary stays in this house, not telling the truth, becoming a confidant to mother and son, the more you start to feel your loyalty shift. From our first perception of Mary being the wronged woman, the more you start to feel she is taking terrible advantage of Genevieve and her son. That not telling them Ahmed is dead, as they long to hear from him, is wrong. That her attempt to comfort Solomon (whom she starts to feel a motherly love for) by texting him from Ahmed’s phone is inadvertently deeply cruel. You start to feel unease about this interloper, lying to this family at what is already a difficult time.

The fact you stick with her is due to the extraordinary performance by Joanna Scanlon. Quiet, polite, over-flowing with faith and a desire to help, Scanlon also lets us see that the loss of Ahmed (and the loss of her memories of a happy marriage) has torn her apart. Scanlon’s performance drips with grief and pain, an anguish she can barely form into words. It’s a gentle powerhouse of humanity (and rightly BAFTA winning). Richard and Ariss also give fabulously raw performances as two people only just holding their own relationship together, never mind processing the loss of a husband and father.

After Love is strongest when exploring the profound and lasting effect of grief. Khan’s film is shot with a poetic beauty, and he draws deep and moving performances from his lead actors. It revolves around a massive contrivance but carries enough impact that you’ll feel the same note of hope, of the debris settled and life going on, as the film ends on.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Questions of intimacy and sex are explored but not in depth in this theatrical two-hander

Director: Sophie Hyde

Cast: Emma Thompson (Nancy), Daryl McCormack (Leo Grande)

A widowed, retired former RE teacher “Nancy” (Emma Thompson), hires a high-class escort “Leo Grande” (Daryl McCormack) to explore the opportunities in life she feels she has missed: namely, any sexual experience that doesn’t involve functional, passion-free couplings with her deceased husband; the positions and acts she’s heard about that he considered “demeaning” to all involved; and, above all, something called an orgasm. Over multiple meetings, the fragile Nancy and the smooth, charming, but personally guarded Leo tentatively explore physical and emotional barriers.

Hyde’s film could very easily be a theatre piece. Largely taking place in a single location – the hotel room Nancy has hired for their meetings – across four “acts”, it’s a film that relies heavily on the skill and chemistry between the two actors. On that front, it’s very blessed to have such skilled performers who play off each other with such generous and dynamic performances.

They’re helped by a witty script from Katy Brand, crammed with good lines. Nancy is a fusspot, sheltered and deeply self-conscious, who approaches everything from a teacherly angle, including drawing up a sexual “checklist” for their session (“attainable goals” as she puts it). Her middle-class, middle-age hesitancy around sex as something to feel ashamed about casts its mark over everything she says and does (“I don’t like anything going in places where things are meant to come out”) and she can’t shake her own shame and fears that she is exploiting someone (she worries she feels like “Rolf Harris” – a reference that hilariously flies over the head of Leo).

It’s a gift of a role for Emma Thompson, who delights in the witty (if theatrical) dialogue, but also sells speeches full of personal discontentment, bitterness and profound regret. Her early nerves – with a little pinch of guilt – at hiring this sex worker, slowly tip into an outpouring of painful regrets. Nancy is a woman who has lived her life by strict rules – rules that have left her deeply unhappy and desperate for a meaningful intimate relationship with someone to confide in.

Thompson, in a way that I’m not entirely sure the film does, also understands that Nancy is not as nice a person as she might believe she is. Her sadness is often counterpointed with bitterness, rudeness and a tendency to judgementalism. It’s a defensive shield for her deep unhappiness within – but it also perhaps suggests why she is as lonely as she is. This is Thompson at the top of her game, effortlessly funny, heart-rending and frustrating almost from moment to moment.

Her unease, and near-Catholic guilt at sexual intimacy and satisfaction, contrasts neatly with the smoothly professional Leo. It can’t be easy for a young actor to go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight, but McCormack plays Leo with a huge subtlety. Eager to put Nancy at her ease in their first meeting, we see him carefully but skilfully move between several different, possible, personas in search of something she will like. Flashes of personal intimacy and friendship he gives her always leave you guessing how much is real, and how much settling on a persona for his client. Brief moments of thoughtfulness show Leo reflecting on his own past – issues that will come to the surface in later sessions. McCormack skilfully walks the tightrope of playing a man with an invented personality, who adjusts his persona from moment to moment to best please someone else.

The main delights of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are in the (sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing) exchanges between these two, as Nancy constantly puts off what she paid for, partly due to not knowing if she wants it and partly being ashamed to ask for it. At its strongest moments the film uses this to explore our own societal feelings about the entwining between sex, shame and guilt.

After all, sex is something we all have very clear ideas about. And, just like we do with our bodies, often end up judging ourselves harshly against some imagined standard. The film gently argues that perhaps a world of high-class, shame-free, professional sex with someone who knows what they are doing – and can help a client enjoy something that many find quite stressful – might not be a bad thing. It says a lot that Nancy’s first assumptions about Leo tie into a fear that he might be being exploited or vulnerable in some way. It’s also interesting that Leo (at least as he claims – he of course may not be telling the complete truth) enjoys his work, because he sees it as a sort of ultimate people pleasing.

It would be a stronger film if it was able to do more of this thoughtful societal commentary. It never quite manages to really grapple with the issues it raises though, partly because it becomes a little preoccupied with the personal hang-ups of its characters (it would have also helped with Leo didn’t have his own past problems to deal with as well, which rather undermine part of the film’s point that we shouldn’t feel ashamed or that choosing a life like this isn’t always linked to past problems).

It also, by making it very clear that Leo is working at the very expensive end of the sex industry, perhaps takes a slightly rosy view of sex work, glossing over the risks and exploitation experienced by others in the industry with a couple of breezy lines. However, it’s also a very strong two hander, well-written with two excellent performances from McCormack and Thompson, both of whom are superb. It just could have been a little more.

Airport (1970)

Airport (1970)

Disaster awaits in the sky in this ridiculous soap that is less exciting than Airplane!

Director: George Seaton

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfied), Dean Martin (Captain Vernon Demerest), Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston), Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen), George Kennedy (Joe Patroni), Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett), Van Heflin (DO Guerrero), Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero), Barry Nelson (Captain Anson Harris), Dana Wynter (Cindy Bakersfeld), Lloyd Nolan (Harry Standish), Barbara Hale (Sarah Demarest), Gary Collins (Cy Jordan)

A busy Chicago airport in the middle of a snowstorm. Workaholic Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t have time to prop up his failing marriage to his humourless wife: he’s got to keep the flights moving, clear the runways and solve the problems other people can’t. He’s not dissimilar to his brother-in-law Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who hasn’t got time for his plain-Jane wife at home when he’s got a flight to Rome to run and a saintly pregnant air hostess girlfriend Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), to deal with. Tensions will come to a head when depressed former construction worker Guerrero (Van Heflin) joins Demerest’s flight, planning to blow himself up so his wife can profit from his life insurance. Disaster awaits!

“A piece of junk”. That was Burt Lancaster’s pithy review of this box-office smash that was garlanded with no fewer than ten Oscar nominations. He’s pretty much spot on. Airport is a dreadful picture, a puffed-up, wooden soap opera that never takes flight, stapled together with a brief disaster plotline that only really kicks in during the final act of the film and is solved with relative ease. Other than that, it’s all hands to the pumps to coat the film in soapy suds, which can be stirred up by the strips of wooden dialogue that fall from the actors’ mouths.

Seaton adapted the script from a popular low-brow novel, though it feels as if precious little effort went into it. It’s corny, predictable dialogue does very little to freshen up the bog-standard domestic drama we’re watching in a novel setting. Both lead actors juggle loveless marriages with far prettier (and much younger) girlfriends. Those girlfriends – Jean Seberg for Burt and Jacqueline Bisset for Dean – play thankless roles, happily accepting of their place as no more than a potential bit-on-the-side and very respectful of the fact that the job damn it is the most important thing.

The film bends over backwards so that we find Burt and Dean admirable, despite the fact that objectively their behaviour is awful. Burt treats his home like a stopover, barely sees his kids and seems affronted that his wife objects he doesn’t attend her important charity functions and doesn’t want the cushy job he’s being offered by her father. Just in case we sympathise with her, she’s a cold, frigid, mean and demanding shrew who – just to put the tin lid on it – is carrying on behind Burt’s back. We, meanwhile, applaud Burt for showing restraint around the besotted Jean Seberg, merely kissing, hugging and chatting with her about how he’d love to but he can’t because of the kids at home damn it!

He looks like a prince though compared to Dean. Only in the 1970s surely would we be expected to find it admirable that a pregnant girlfriend happily takes all the blame – the contraceptive pills made her fat and she knows the deal – begs her boyfriend not to leave his wife and then urges him to not worry about her. Dean’s wife doesn’t even seem that bad, other than the fact she’s a mumsy type who can’t hold a candle to Bisset’s sensuality. That sensuality is overpowering for Dean, who at one point pleads with her to stay in their hotel room because the taxi “can wait another 15 minutes”. Like a gentleman his reaction to finding out Bisset is pregnant, is to offer to fly her to Norway for a classy abortion (rather than the backstreet offerings at home?).

This soapy nonsense, with its stink of Mad Men-ish sexual politics (where men are hard-working, hard-playing types, and women accept that when they age out, he has the right to look elsewhere) is counterbalanced by some laboriously-pleased-with-itself looks at airport operations. Baggage handling. Customer check-in. Customs control checks. Airport maintenance. All get trotted through with a curious eye by Seaton. Just enough to make parts of the film feel briefly like a dull fly-on-the-wall drama rather than a turgid soap.

Soap is where its heart is though. Helen Hayes won an Oscar for a crowd-pleasing turn (from which she wrings the maximum amount of charm) as a seemingly sweet old woman who is in fact an expert stowaway. Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton play with maximum commitment (Stapleton in particular goes for it as if this was an O’Neil play rather than trash) a married couple whose finances are in the doldrums, leading the husband to take drastic steps.

It’s all marshalled together with a personality-free lack of pizzaz by Seaton, who simply points the camera and lets the actors go through their paces, with a few shots of humour here and there. There are some interesting split-screen effects, but that’s about the last touch of invention in the piece. It’s mostly played with po-faced seriousness – something that feels almost impossible to take seriously today, seeing as the structure, tone and airport observational style of the film was spoofed so successfully in Airplane (a much better film than this on every single level, from humour, to drama even to tension – how damning is that, that a pisstake is a more exciting disaster thriller?)

It smashed the box office in 1970 and got nominated for Best Picture. But its dryness, dullness and lack of pace mean it has hardly been watched since. Although it can claim to be the first all-star disaster movie, it’s not even fit to lace the flippers of The Poseidon Adventure, which far more successfully kickstarted the cliches that would become standard for the genre (and is a tonne more fun as well as being a disaster movie – this has a disaster epilogue at best). An overlong, soapy, dull mess.

Another Round (2020)

Another Round (2020)

Vinterberg’s film explores our complex relationship with alcohol with a surprising lack of judgement

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen (Martin), Thomas Bo Larsen (Tommy), Magnus Millang (Nikolaj), Lars Ranthe (Peter), Maria Bonnevie (Anika), Helene Reingaard Neumann (Amalie), Susse Wold (Principal)

Mankind’s most difficult relationship? Might just be with alcohol. Ever since Noah first toppled over pissed, we’ve struggled to balance that delightful buzz a touch of intoxication gives with the destructive impact way too much has. It’s a relationship explored in Thomas Vinterberg’s curious mix of warning and celebration, Another Round, which (slightly obliquely) looks at the positives and negatives of alcohol consumption.

In a gymnasium school in Copenhagen, history teacher Martin (Mads Mikkeslen) has lost all passion and interest in his students (so much so they try to have him removed) and his marriage is stuck in an increasingly distant rut. After a birthday meal, he and three friends – PE teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), psychology teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) and music teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe) – agree to a pact to combat their ennui. After reading a theory that mankind is born with 0.05% blood alcohol content deficiency (and topping it up makes you more creative and relaxed), they decide to experiment with maintaining a certain level of inebriation. At first it has a positive impact; but as they push the boundaries of the experiment, the negatives swiftly multiply.

Vinterberg’s film is notable for not taking an obvious (or firm) stance on alcohol consumption. It’s easy to imagine an American or British film dwelling on the negatives at the cost of everything, or demonstrating deep regret in the friends for ever starting on this journey in the first place. Another Round doesn’t do this. In fact, it rather bravely points out the positives we can feel from the happiness and relaxation alcohol can give. So much so that, at first, it actually improves people’s lives. After all, if it was always all bad – we wouldn’t drink it would we?

This is most notable in the case of Martin. He might stumble in the staffroom on the way to class, but (after a swig of vodka) his teaching becomes more inspiring, electric and engaging. He rediscovers a passion for working with students, dropping the disengaged drawling of semi-confused facts we see him use earlier (where he doesn’t even seem to be listening to himself, randomly drifting from the Industrial revolution to Churchill) and replacing it with insightful parallels, high-energy tempo and fun activities. Whether it’s psychological or something else, being able to relax clearly has a positive short-term impact on his ability to teach.

It’s matched in the others as well. Peter gets his students singing with an intensity and beauty he couldn’t begin to get them to reach earlier. Tommy, in his work with a primary school football team, brings out the skilled footballer in a shy, bespectacled student (although his uncomfortable blurring of the line between teacher and surrogate parent with this boy hints at Tommy’s lack of control, which the film will explore in more depth). Vinterberg echoes the giddy feeling of elation all four feel by subtle use of a free-moving handheld camera, compared to the more staid rigidity of the earlier stable shots.

Martin also dramatically improves his personal life. He starts to reconnect with his family and rebuild passions with his wife. Sure, there are negatives. Hidden alcohol stashes at the school are discovered. It becomes harder to hide their intoxication in the common room. But it still feels good, right? Problem is, Martin makes the mistake many of us have. If a small amount of this makes me feel this good – why don’t I take a large amount? Surely if I up the blood alcohol content even higher, the positives will be all the greater. Sadly, of course, it doesn’t work like that.

Vinterberg’s film is careful not to use labels like alcoholism. But, in the same way it isn’t afraid to show the world-beating confidence a stiff drink or two can give you, it doesn’t shy away from the impact of over-consumption. Deciding, “as an experiment”, to push their drinking to absurd levels for one night only, to get as intoxicated as possible, the four have a fab night. But the next morning? Peter loses all his clothes diving in the sea. Nikolaj wets the marriage bed in a confused stupor. Martin wakes up, face bleeding, on the pavement having tried (and failed) to use his keys on his neighbour’s house, and is carried home by his humiliated children.

This is as nothing compared to the terrible impact of alcohol on Tommy. While all four of the men no doubt become increasingly dependent, it’s Tommy who tips into full blown alcoholism. Beautifully played by Thomas Bo Larsen, its painful to watch this gruff-but-playful bachelor dip increasingly into confused, stumbling, permanent inebriation, living in a home made of finished bottles and unable to hide from colleagues or students his intoxication.

But, for all that much of the second half of the film focuses on these negatives, it doesn’t offer easy solutions. All four realise things have gone too far – but none of them can forswear (or even seem to consider doing so) alcohol. Martin’s marriage collapses and Nikolaj’s nearly goes the same way. But they still gather at the film’s end for a drink. It’s at this point that it can be a little unclear what Vinterberg’s thoughts are on the demon. But then perhaps that is the point: we all know it’s bad for us anyway, so a film that looks at how we balance that desire with a certain level of responsibility is always, perhaps, going to shy away from either easy answers or definitive statements.

It’s perhaps why the film ends with a surprisingly blissful, up-beat ending of hope for the future rather than despair, as Martin explodes into a riotous improvised dance routine. It’s easy to forget Mikkelsen is a trained dancer, and the fact he provides such a striking, memorable ending to the film is fitting as it’s a triumph for him. At first a shambling, sad-sack figure, Mikkelsen’s Martin finds a casualness and relaxation that seemed beyond him (the film is a physical triumph for Mikkelsen – his drunken move through a common room worthy of Gene Kelly or Buster Keaton). Mikkelsen’s work is extraordinary in its emotional complexity – bursts of pained sorrow, rage, guilt, self-loathing, despair and hope flash across his face and he holds the entire film together.

He’s ably supported by Larsen, Millang and Ranthe – all superb – and Vinterberg’s deceptively casual and unobtrusive direction helps craft a film that offers scenarios but not lectures. While I could have hoped for the film perhaps taking a bit more of a stance one way or the other – or give a more unflinching look at the impact on others of alcohol abuse – as a personal story Another Round is vibrant, honest and (strangely) hopeful, for all the terrible impacts it displays. It lingers with you like a hangover.