Tag: Ben Whishaw

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

Michael Bond’s lovable bear makes an almost perfect screen-transition in this heart-warming tale

Director: Paul King

Cast: Ben Whishaw (Paddington Bear), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Brown), Sally Hawkins (Mary Brown), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Julie Walters (Mrs Bird), Nicole Kidman (Millicent Clyde), Peter Capaldi (Mr Curry), Jim Broadbent (Samuel Gruber), Imelda Staunton (Aunt Lucy), Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo), Tim Downie (Montgomery Clyde)

If there is one thing we need in troubled times, it’s kindness. Few characters are as overflowing with warmth and decency as Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. First introduced in 1958, the lovable marmalade-consuming little bear all the way from darkest Peru is never anything less than kind and decent – even as the well-meaning bear gets himself into a string of catastrophes.

Paddington is one of the most universally beloved figures from post-War British culture – surely no surprise he was the perfect tea-party guest for that other beloved icon of the same period, the Queen. The pressure was on for a Paddington film – could it match the tone of the books? The answer was an over-whelming yes. Paddington is an endlessly heart-warming triumph, which it is impossible to watch without a warm glow building inside you, and a goofy smile on your face.

Explorer (Tim Downie) discovers a species of intelligent, marmalade-loving bears in darkest Peru. Forty years later, after a terrible earthquake, a young bear travels to find a new home in London. He meets the Brown family – overly cautious father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), caring Mary (Sally Hawkins) and their children Judy (Madeline Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) – who take him into their home and name him Paddington after the train station where they found him (his bear name being unpronounceable). Paddington (Ben Whishaw) works hard to settle in with his new hosts – but danger looms from an ambitious Natural History Museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who longs to make Paddington the centrepiece of her collection.

Directed with a great deal of unobtrusive flair by Paul King, Paddington is a truly endearing film about the triumph of opening your heart to strangers. The Brown family don’t realise it, but they are in need of a burst of kindness in their lives to help bring them together. They get it in spades with Paddington. The film captures perfectly the little bear’s personality. This is Paddington exactly as you remember him: polite, decent, kind and hilariously accident-prone. King’s film also gets the tone exactly right – there are no pop-culture references or rude gags (although there are a few subtle double-entendres of a sort) and the film is set in a timeless mix of 1950s London and today.

The film’s CGI Paddington is gorgeously designed – a wonderful rendering of the bear’s appearance tailored with more realistic fur, but still the same as the book– and perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw was a late replacement – Colin Firth voluntarily withdrew, as he felt his voice was ill-matched to this naïve, gentle young bear – but his light and gentle tones convey all the warmth you need. It’s a superb performance, humane, kind and deeply funny, and so well suited you suddenly realise in your head Paddington always sounded like this.

King creates a series of gorgeously handled set-pieces to showcase Paddington’s possibilities for well-intentioned mayhem. On his first night in the Brown household, he duels with toothbrushes, mouthwash, toilet flushes and showers, culminating in flooding their bathroom with a swimming pool’s worth of water. He gets mummified in sellotape, slips up in the kitchen and causes several marmalade-sandwich involved disasters (most hilariously a marmalade baguette-pneumatic tube mix-up). But he always means well: a caper-filled set-piece through the London streets sees Paddington finally collide with a man he’s trying to return a dropped wallet too – allowing someone we’ve known all along to be a pickpocket to be apprehended by the police.

The Brown family’s home – already a beautifully designed dolls-house made real, with a tree blossom mural that changes to reflect the mood of the scene – comes to life with Paddington in it. (Watch how the colours of their clothing change depending on how much Paddington is part of the family or not). Mary (a wonderfully warm Sally Hawkins) is already eager for him to stay. Judy and Jonathan (superbly sparky performances from Madeline Harris and Samuel Joslin) are quickly won over by him. It’s only Mr Brown – a performance of perfectly judged fussy, pinickity, rule-bound caution and stuffiness by Hugh Bonneville which flourishes into something warmer – who is unsure. But then this is a man so obsessed with his risk analysis job, he prevents his children from doing anything (34% of all childhood accidents happen on the stairs!) and has forgotten how to have fun.

Watching Mr Brown slowly warm to Paddington is a huge part of the film’s charm and warmth. Who could imagine the man who tries to leave him at the train station (and urge his family not to catch the bear’s eye, muttering “stranger danger”) would later be dressing up as a Scottish cleaning woman to help him infiltrate the Geographer’s Guild building? (This sequence is a little comic physical and verbal tour-de-force Bonneville.) It’s a larger part of the film’s wider – and most rewarding – message: the importance of treating migrants to this country with respect and care.

The pro-migration message is throughout the film – and the film is a fabulous reminder to many of what we have gained from those who have come to this land from across the seas, from NHS staff to political leaders to entertainers. Paddington’s journey to London – in a small boat, then sneaking past customs – is all-too-familiar.  Next door neighbour Mr Curry (a comically ingratiating Peter Capaldi) voices many of the “concerns” of anti-immigrant communities (let one bear in and who knows how many will follow?). Even Mr Brown voices worries about bears telling you sob stories to win your trust. The important message here is the value migrants bring us. A recurring calypso band reminds us of parallels with the Windrush generation. It’s not spoken but Jim Broadbent’s antique shop owner’s accent and memories of arriving on a train in London as a child clearly mark him as a Kindertransport child. Paddington has a subtle and truly important message for people: when we open our arms to people, we gain as much as they from the exchange.

Paddington throws in a few moments of darkness: the shock death of Uncle Patuszo is surprisingly affecting and Nicole Kidman’s taxidermist is possibly the scariest villain you’ll see in a kid’s film this side of the child catcher. But in some ways this enhances the warmth even further. By the film’s end you’ll feel your own life has been enriched by the small bear’s presence as much as the Brown’s has. We need him in times like this.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Hunger, desperation, the sea and a very big whale in this Moby Dick origins story

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

No Time to Die (2021)

One final mission for Daniel Craig in No Time to Die

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Lea Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Rami Malek (Lyutsifer Safin), Lashana Lynch (Nomi), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter), Christoph Waltz (Ernst Stavro Blofield), Ralph Fiennes (M), Billy Magnussen (Logan Ash), Ana de Armas (Paloma), David Dencik (Dr Valdo Obruchev), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner)

Remember when Daniel Craig was cast as Bond? Remember that CraigNotBond campaign, based largely on Craig being blonde? For about five minutes there was doubt about the franchise… and then Casino Royale became one of the best Bond films ever made. Craig is, clearly, one of the greatest Bonds ever, so No Time to Die, his sign-off for the role was always going to be a big movie. It’s at times exciting and gripping, but also a strange beast, partly straining at the confines of the franchise at others desperately trying to service all expectations.

It’s five years after the events of Spectre (you’d assume the less said of that the better, but unfortunately that film is absolutely at the heart of No Time to Die so we can’t dodge it). And it’s five years since James Bond (Daniel Craig) abandoned Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), believing she had been responsible for luring him into a Spectre ambush. Today, Spectre agents steal a biological weapon from MI6. A retired Bond, living off the grid in Jamaica, is recruited by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to hunt it down for the CIA but MI5, and their new 007 (Lashana Lynch), are also on the trail. Plots within plots are slowly revealed and it seems all roads lead back to Madeleine and her childhood escape from a scarred killer, the mysterious Safin (Rami Malek). Just when Bond thinks he’s out, they drag him back in…

I have very mixed feelings about No Time to Die. You have to admire the skill and expertise with which it has been made. It looks absolutely gorgeous. The action set-pieces are full of ingenuity and excitement – in particular a duel between Bond and Safin’s agents in a mist-filled Norwegian forest. The opening action set-piece, in a picturesque classic Italian town, with Bond leaping off bridges and bringing out the Aston Martin for one final spin, is a doozy.

But do you remember when Bond was, y’know, escapist fun? Or even really just fun? If there is one thing I’d argue that No Time to Die isn’t, it’s fun. Yes lots of exciting things happen, but it’s also a rather maudlin film. It’s got a weary end-of-days feeling and a slight air of self-importance. Its absurd length doesn’t help puncture this. Unlike almost any other Bond film, I have a hard time imagining watching this again: it’s probably a better film than, say, The Spy Who loved Me, but honestly which one would you rather watch on a Sunday afternoon?

But Daniel Craig is superb: the ultimate expression of his wryly amused but guarded and distant Bond, a man constantly worried about lowering his defences and letting anyone in, hiding pain under an insolent grin but secretly desperate for an emotional connection. It’s clear he is one of the great Bonds. He also feels rooted Fleming. Fleming’s Bond was never a super-hero, but a flawed, lonely man, often muddling through, far more vulnerable and emotional than people remember. No Time to Die has a lot of echoes of Fleming, which is no bad thing.

No Time to Die buries itself in the emotional world of Bond. This is as close as you going to get to a character study of our super-agent. So much so that the action (and even the presence of a Bond villain) feel like only a contractual obligation. I would love it if they had made a final, indie-tinged film on a small budget where we saw Craig’s Bond wrestling with complex feelings and trying to work out what it’s all about. More of Bond playing kids’ games with Leiter in a Jamaican bar, or preparing a child’s breakfast in the morning (scenes where the film literally has its heart). It makes No Time to Die an often poorly structured and ill-focused film (factors that contribute to its length) that’s trying to be about Bond but also be BOND. It’s a circle the film can’t really square.

The Bond franchise has always slavishly followed whatever the latest big trend in cinema was so No Time to Die doubles down in following the Marvel series, by retroactively converting all of Craig’s Bonds into one single Bondverse, with No Time to Die as its Avengers Endgame. Problem is, this was all thought of far too late, feels hideously thrown-together with no thought, and means both this film and Spectre had to bend over backwards to retroactively fill out now crucial back story.

As a result, we get the bloated runtime as the film needs to set up a personal back story, explore an emotional arc, establish a new threat and thread in huge set pieces. The writing and structuring aren’t deft enough to do this as well as Marvel does. The result is something three hours long but still feels hard to follow. Craig’s best film – Skyfall – worked because it was basically a stand-alone entry. The series (and the character) works best as a mission-focused individual.

Many elements of the story introduced here make little or no sense. Safin – in a truly awful performance by a whispering Rami Malek, straining to look intimidating – is possibly the worst, most incoherent Bond villain ever. His motivation makes no sense: at first he seems focused on eliminating only those who murdered his family; his rants about collateral damage in no way squares with his plan to unleash genocide via a bio-weapon. His “we are two sides of the same coin” confrontation with Craig feels like a feeble attempt to recapture the magic of the confrontation with Bardem in Skyfall.  An opening sequence suggests a plot-defining link between him and Swann which has promise but goes almost no-where (when they finally meet again mid-film, she doesn’t even know who he is).

A braver film would have dumped this bio-hazard nonsense and placed issues of family at its heart: a hero uncertain about settling down, the villain a person desperate to find a new family. This would have placed the link between Safin and Swann at its centre, and also allowed an even more intriguing exploration of Bond’s character by contrasting him directly with a villain explicitly focused on the same preoccupations. Instead, the comparison isn’t there and Swann remains an incoherent character – alternately weak and strong as required by the plot. Craig and Seydoux also have no real chemistry and look physically mismatched (Seudoux’s youthful looks make Craig look older than he is). Compare their chemistry with that between Craig and Ana de Armas (in a knock-out guest slot, the film’s most fun moment).

Instead it feels like a film where every single idea has been thrown at the frame and all of them made to stick. Lashana Lynch has some fine charisma, but basically nothing to do as the new female 007 (the part actually feels like a bone the franchise has tossed at diversity – Bond even gets the 007 title back part-way through). There are constantly plots within plots within plots, like a dementedly rushed series of 24. Bond goes AWOL, then AWOL from AWOL, then he’s in then out then in again from MI6. A more tightly structured story would have dared to cut some of the flab, but No Time to Die is only part way towards being the brave break from tradition it needs to be.

Sure, it takes daring decisions: it has a tragic ending and shock deaths punctuate the film. But while it needed to be a smaller, intimate story with a sombre mood, it still throws in ridiculous villains, bases on islands, armies of goons and a world-ending threat. These things honestly don’t really work together and contribute to making the film too long and too sombre to be any fun. It’s a film that’s only part way to being what it wants to be, but still obsessed with being what it thinks it should be. An awkward Frankenstein that I’m not sure will have as much shelf life as its maker’s hope.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Dev Patel makes a charming lead in this Dickens adaptation that finds the comedy but misses the heart

Dir: Armando Iannucci

Cast: Dev Patel (David Copperfield), Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Whishaw (Uriah Heep), Paul Whitehouse (Mr Peggotty), Aneurin Barnard (James Steerforth), Daisy May Cooper (Peggotty), Morfydd Clark (Dora Spenlow/Clara Copperfield), Benedict Wong (Mr Wickfield), Darren Boyd (Mr Murdstone), Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone), Anthony Welsh (Ham Peggotty), Rosalind Eleazar (Agnes Wickfield), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Mrs Steerforth), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Strong)

If Charles Dickens ever had a favourite child, it was probably David Copperfield. His novel – heavily inspired by events in his own life and upbringing – is an epic masterpiece, part coming-of-age story, part heart-warming family saga, part social satire. It’s quite a challenge to boil down its hundreds and hundreds of pages – and multiple plot points and characters – into less than two hours, but that’s the task Armando Iannucci takes on here. Does it work?

Well, to be honest, not quite. There is a lot to admire here, I’ll say that straightaway. And maybe I’m hard on it as I’ve read (or listened to) the novel at least three times. But for me this version drains out the heart of the novel. It zeroes in on the comedy – and there are several scenes and characters that are inarguably funny – but in doing so it removes or peels away anything bittersweet or with even a hint of sadness. It’s funny, but also a strangely empty and unengaging version of the story that it’s hard to get invested in and finally seems to drag.

Iannucci uses a terrific framing device, inspired by Dickens’ own public readings of his work. The film opens with Copperfield (a wonderfully jovial and engaging Dev Patel) publically introducing his novel to a theatre full of people which, with a flourish, disappears as he walks into the scenery and into his own past. Iannucci sprinkles his film with little flourishes like this to remind us of the semi-created nature of what we are watching, from Mr Murdstone’s hand looming into the Peggottys’ boat to pluck Copperfield into the next scene, through to the use of projected imagery at key points to fill in visually backstories the characters in the scene are relating.

The book has been well pruned and structured – and this is in some ways a triumph of compression, since it ticks off nearly all the main storylines of the plot (with some changes) and includes all the main characters. The real purist will decry such things as the loss of Barkis and Mr Micawber’s famous lines, or the translation of Mr Creakle into a factory owner or Rosa Dartworth into Steerforth’s mother. But these are necessities of adaptation and much of the storyline remains the same (if abbreviated). The script punches up the comedy a great deal – Iannucci has been vocal in his feeling that Dickens does not get the appreciation he deserves as a comic writer.

The script also digs up a few gems in the novel – Copperfield’s nervousness in reading, his inability to read to Murdstone’s gaze, is imaginatively reinterpreted as dyslexia. The semi-Freudian longing he feels for the warmth and innocence of his lost childhood is neatly captured by casting Morfydd Clark (very endearing and charmingly ditsy) as both his mother and his first love Dora. There are several laugh-out loud moments and a charmingly freewheeling love for absurdity.

But what doesn’t work is that the heart and soul of the novel has been stripped out. There is, to put it frankly, no pain or difficulty here. The tears in Dev Patel’s eyes at the end of the film as he closes his recital with the audience and reflects on the triumphs and losses of his life feel unearned. Put frankly nothing seems that hard, for all poverty rears its head at time. Even the Murdstones are less fearsome and cruel than they need to be. Worst of all, anything of any real emotional depth or tragedy from the book is removed. The two key tragic deaths of the book are actively reversed here, with both Dora and Ham surviving at the end. The complexities of Copperfield’s feelings for Dora and Agnes are resolved with immense ease for a traditional happy ending in a garden of the heroes surrounded by friends and families (exactly the sort of happy ending that Greta Gerwig gently poked fun at in Little Women). 

It’s all boiled down and told for jokes and the emotional engagement just isn’t there. Dev Patel enters the film too early – Copperfield is a young adult before he even heads to his aunt’s house – meaning the lost, vulnerable sense of sad childhood turning into a happy one is completely lost, and Copperfield’s fragility is too quickly brushed aside. Mr Micawber (a funny turn from Capaldi, but far too wheedling) is played so much for laughs that his essential decency and kindness is lost in favour of a man who spends his life borrowing cash. Too often humour is the first and only port of call, and finally it crushes the heart out of the story.

There are triumphs in the film’s cast. Hugh Laurie is simply outstanding as Mr Dick – warm, funny, wise, surreal, eccentric, half a philosopher, half an engaging and excited child – it’s Laurie’s finest performance ever on film. Benedict Wong is very funny as the alcoholic Mr Wicklfield. Tilda Swinton has great fun as a battleaxe but wise Miss Trotwood. Nikki Annuka-Bird could cut glass as Mrs Steerforth. Aneurin Barnard makes for a charmingly dissolute Steerforth. Ben Whishaw is terrific as the unctuous and ambitious Uriah Heep. The colour-blind casting works a treat to bring a range of wonderful actors in.

It’s just a shame the story doesn’t translate as well. There is a theme somewhere in here of Copperfield trying to work out his identity (much prominence is given to his multiple names and nicknames) but it never really takes flight, serving as a fig leaf of an arc rather than an actual arc. It’s a film full of jokes and fine moments – but with no heart, and no real engagement with the audience, it ends up feeling far longer than reading the book.

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw and Matthew Goode make for a bad revisitation to Brideshead

Director: Julian Jarrold

Cast: Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder), Ben Whishaw (Lord Sebastian Flyte), Hayley Atwell (Lady Julia Flyte), Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain), Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain), Greta Scacchi (Cara), Patrick Malahide (Mr Ryder), Felicity Jones (Lady Cordelia Flyte), Ed Stoppard (Lord Brideshead), Jonathan Cake (Rex Mottram), Joseph Beattie (Anthony Blanche)

There are some books that have been filmed definitively and you feel just shouldn’t be touched again. Perhaps the most definitive case is Brideshead Revisited. An 11-part, almost 13-hours-long, series from the height of the mini-series era, ITV’s 1981 Brideshead Revisited dramatised literally every page and every event of the just over 300 page novel, and did it with a perfect understanding of the book’s richness and complexity. So what hope could a film have – even if it is written by that man who had such a triumph with that other definitive production, the BBC Pride and Prejudice – Andrew Davies himself?

In the 1920s in Oxford, aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) falls in with the bohemian set of fellow student Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Sebastian takes Charles to his family home of Brideshead, a beautiful, entrancing family estate. But Sebastian is an unhappy man, increasingly prone to drinking, conflicted about his family’s strong Catholic faith and his own sexuality. He’s also tortured by the growing love between Charles and his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Their domineering mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) attempts to guide the family as she wishes, but Sebastian’s alcoholism leads to a crisis. Years later Charles and Julia restart their relationship, only to find Catholicism and fate once again intruding to complicate matters.

Brideshead Revisited is a rich, sweeping, heartfelt and profound look at so many themes it seems impossible to cover them all in a single sentence. It touches upon questions of faith, class, politics, friendship, sexuality, love – all of them sensitively and intelligently explored by Evelyn Waugh. The TV series captured all these themes with an acute, empathetic emotional intelligence. This film, forced to telescope action into two hours, simplifies and sexualises the novel to make it as boiled down and simple as possible. While this probably makes for a decent, but nothing new, film for those who don’t know the novel, for those of us who do it’s nothing less than a total travesty.

Everything is made as straight-forward and basic as possible. Subtle suggestions from the novel are turned into blunt, simplified assertions that clang out of the actors’ mouths and hit the ground. This is especially clear in the character of Charles Ryder, a fascinating observer in the novel, both a snob and a romantic, capable of great warmth and kindness and also a distant indifference. Here, he’s little more than a social climber (his lower middle class roots are stressed), constantly being asked “What do you really want?” by other characters. His attachment to Sebastian, and introduction to the Brideshead house, seems based less on a magnetic friendship and more on his unspoken desire to be part of an “in-crowd”.

Ah yes, that relationship with Sebastian. Ben Whishaw’s performance as Sebastian is, quite simply, one of the worst realisations of an iconic character you are ever going to see. The novel’s Sebastian, is an impossible glamourous, handsome, slightly effete, but magnetically charismatic figure who effortlessly wins admirers and friends everywhere – so much so, that his intensely vulnerability, sadness and self-loathing that lead to his alcoholism are spotted way too late, and then hideously mismanaged. The character Whishaw plays here is so different, he’s effectively Flyte in name only.

It all stems from the film’s longing to put the book’s suggestion of a homosexual bond between Charles and Sebastian to the forefront. So we are made perfectly aware of Flyte’s feelings, and Whishaw turns the character instead into a stereotypical, limp-wristed, effete, tragic gay man struggling with a hopelessly unrequited love for Charles that pushes him over the edge to depression. Oh yes, it has to be unrequited love because we can’t have Charles show any homosexual inclinations. Particularly as the film is desperate to reposition Charles and Julia into a “love-at-first-sight” romantic couple from the start. So of course we have Charles twice rejecting sexual advances from Sebastian (once with the cold shoulder, the second time with an angry push). 

But in sexing up the content on the surface, the film totally kills the bond between the two characters. There is, frankly, no reason for Charles and Sebastian to be friends. Sebastian is from the start a slightly pathetic figure, so you never get a sense at all why Charles is drawn towards him. This then magnifies the feeling that Charles main motivation is the house (and Julia) and that he sees Sebastian as someone he must tolerate (and whom he later feels guilty about) rather than as a friend. Sebastian himself loses all his complexity, instead becoming a slightly pathetic, tragic, overlooked figure reduced to screaming at Charles “You only wanted to be my friend because you wanted my sister!” By pumping up the subtext, the film kills the central relationship of the book – and completely undermines the tragedy of Sebastian.

But then Andrew Davies was keen – as he stated himself in interviews – to reposition the novel as a conventional great romantic novel. Now it’s true that Charles calls Sebastian in the novel the “fore runner” for his feelings for Julia (and this relationship between Julia and Charles is, I will say, one thing the TV series didn’t quite nail), but in no way was she his main focus from the start. It makes Charles’ treatment (and, let’s be honest, leading on) of Sebastian crueller, and it also crudely simplifies the novel into a “love against the odds” story that we’ve seen a thousand times before. It drains the novel of one of the factors that made it original in the start.

So we end up with a Charles who basically, rather oddly, suffers the company of Sebastian but treats him as someone he wants to shrug off. We’ve got a romantic plot line between Julia and Charles that has been reduced to the most basic, cookie-cutter, Mills and Boon romance you can imagine. And the film still struggles through to attempt to deal with the book’s (perhaps) other major theme, religion. Catholicism, guilt and the power (and domination) of faith is key to the book – but here, it’s a crude subplot that positions religion as a sort of trouble-causing piece of mummery that gets in the way of happiness. Pretty much as far as you can get from Waugh’s understanding of the complex demands of faith, denial, guilt and love.

You could say it’s unfair to continually compare the film to the book and TV series. But not only is this meant to be an adaptation, but the film chose to shoot at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, just as the TV series did. So we see scenes play out, often in the exact same location as the masterful TV series. If the film doesn’t want to try and be original and find a new location, and visually apes the TV series as much as possible, it feels fair enough to compare it – and it find it wanting.

It’s a well-made film, I’ll give it that, and I like Adrian Johnstone’s score, but it’s turned an intelligent and absorbing novel into a sub-Merchant Ivory period prestige piece, with the focus on the lovely locations and the beautiful costumes rather than anything else. Performances wise, Matthew Goode is fine (but can’t escape the shadow of Jeremy Irons), but Hayley Atwell probably comes out best as a vibrant Julia (who gets, in a way, much more to do than the book gives her). For the rest, Emma Thompson gives a far too mannered performance as the domineering Lady Marchmain (here unquestionably a villain) and Michael Gambon coasts as the dying Lord Marchmain (who here turns up literally out of the blue at the end of the film to die).

Brideshead Revisited is an irrelevant piece of celluloid that brings nothing new whatsoever to the novel or the TV series. Worse it takes the key themes of the novel and subverts, ruins or mangles them in order to try and turn the story into a straightforward heterosexual romance. In doing so, it removes everything that makes the original interesting, unique or compelling – and makes people wonder why they should bother going back to the book – surely the worst offence of all.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Emily Blunt is practically perfect in every way in Mary Poppins Returns

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Jack), Ben Whishaw (Michael Banks), Emily Mortimer (Jane Banks), Pixie Davies (Annabel Banks), Nathanael Saleh (John Banks), Joel Dawson (Georgie Banks), Julie Walters (Ellen), Colin Firth (William Weatherall Wilkins), Meryl Streep (Topsy), Dick van Dyke (Mr Dawes Jnr), David Warner (Admiral Boom), Jim Norton (Mr Binnacle), Jeremy Swift (Hamilton Gooding), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Templeton Frye), Noma Dumezweni (Miss Penny Farthing)

Some sequels go into production even before the first film hits the cinemas. Others give you a good long wait – and Mary Poppins has had you waiting 54 years. Of course, part of that was down to her creator, PL Travers. Travers so hated the Disney original (I mean, she really hated it) she outright banned all other adaptations of her work – but her estate were far more open to the prospect (and let’s be honest, probably also to the money) that Disney could finally go ahead with a sequel.

And thank goodness for that, since this delightful film is practically perfect in every way. It’s 25 years since the events of the first film, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is now a widower with three children, whose home is about to be repossessed by the bank for non-payment of loans. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is trying to help, but the pressure and sadness are showing on Michael and are forcing his children Annabel, John and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) to grow up fast. The Banks family is in trouble – so it’s the perfect time for the arrival of Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to save the day – with a little bit of help from gas-lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Mary Poppins Returns is a triumphant mix of nostalgia and originality, that walks a very difficult tightrope between being a loving pastiche and tribute to the original film while also managing to bring its own original charm and magic touch. That’s a difficult trick to pull off – but it basically takes a slight remix of the original film’s story and adds a heft of emotional impact to create something that feels modern and fresh while also being very close tonally to the original.

This is never clearer than in Emily Blunt’s sublime performance as Mary Poppins. If there is anyone who had a more difficult job in this film than Blunt I can’t think of them. She had to take on the most iconic character of an iconic actress – and does so brilliantly, but creates a character who feels an equal mix of both Andrews and Blunt. This is clearly the same character as before, but Blunt mixes in a wonderful heart-warming care and concern under the pristine English exterior that melts the heart. She has a glowing twinkle to her, an almost bottomless charm with an endearing delight for the wonder and silliness that is part of Poppins world. And boy can she sing and dance? She carries the film with effortless grace – to such endearing effect that, just like with Julie Andrews, you miss her as she becomes less prominent in the final act.

And of course she is matched by a superb company of actors. Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the transition to the big-screen like a duck to water, hugely loveable, wonderfully charming and superb (as you would expect) at the musical sequences. The three children give exemplary performances, with never a hint of sickly sentimentalism. Emily Mortimer is radiantly giddy as Jane, while Ben Whishaw will bring a lump to the throat as a Michael who is struggling under a huge amount of grief.  That’s not the mention wonderful turns from the whole of the cast, especially from Holdbrook-Smith as a kindly lawyer.

All these actors are “marshalled” brilliantly by director Rob Marshall. With his experience of musicals – both on screen and stage – Marshall knows his stuff and brings all his experience to bear here to create a sequel that will be seen (I’m sure) as a worthy companion to the original. Marshall’s direction of the musical sequences is faultless. He knows exactly how and where to place the camera for maximum effect, and gets just the right tone and mood from these scenes. He’s also, let’s not forget, a brilliant choreographer and has put together some exquisite sequences, not least the lamplighter song Trip the Light Fantastic, a whirligig showstopper of a number that if you saw it in the West End would have the whole crowd on their feet.

The songs make for easy criticism (reviewers seem duty-bound to say they are not as good as the original) – but to these ears Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s songs and scores are both catchy and engaging. Give them time and I’m sure you’ll find them as replete with impact as the Sherman brothers’ tunes from 1964. Saying that, there might be one musical number too many – but that’s a very minor criticism. 

Because this is a film that gets so much else right. The storyline is certain to leave a lump in the throat, with its delicate handling of grief and the sadness both of growing up and also children being forced to leave their childhoods behind in impossible circumstances. These are universal themes – and they certainly impacted on me, and on a cinema packed with families all of whom were engrossed. That’s part of the magic of what Marshall has achieved here – heck, even the final Big Ben set-piece starts pushing you towards the edge of your seat in tension. I also loved the bravery of the colour-blind casting. It’s a film that stands on its own feet so well, it almost takes you out of the film when Dick van Dyke appears at the end – it doesn’t need the cameo, this film is its own beast.

Mary Poppins Returns will leave a smile on your face and a glow in your heart. It’s totally lovely from start to finish. Emily Blunt is superb (with wonderful support from all) and Rob Marshall triumphs as director and choreographer in this, surely his finest movie ever. It’s got something for all ages, and a truly heart-warming story. It takes everything that works so well in the first film and builds on it. It’s a wonderful mixture of homage and originality, that you will enjoy time and time and again. Practically perfect!

The Danish Girl (2015)

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander struggle with questions of identity in the overly sentimental The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe), Alicia Vikander (Gerda Wegener), Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil), Ben Whishaw (Henrik Sandahl), Amber Heard (Ulla Paulson), Sebastian Koch (Dr Kurt Warnekros), Pip Torrens (Dr Jens Hexler), Nicholas Woodeson (Dr Buson), Emerald Fennell (Elsa), Adrian Schiller (Rasmussen)

Working out who you are can be a lifetime’s struggle for some people. Finding out that who you are is someone outside the bounds of what society considers normal or acceptable often calls for a special kind of bravery. That’s the kind of bravery that Einar Wegener had when he realised that he felt he was a woman, not a man. Einar became one of the first ever recipients of sex reassignment surgery, becoming Lili Elbe. It’s an inspiring true-life story, fudged in Tom Hooper’s syrupy, sentimental film.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, slowly realising his fascination with women’s clothing is actually part of a far larger realisation, that she identifies as woman rather than a man. Her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), helps Lili explore her identity, herself journeying through pain at losing her husband to final acceptance and support as Lili begins surgery to complete her transition.

Tom Hooper’s film is shot and framed with the magnificence you expect from his previous films. Hooper’s mastery of framing not only presents people in striking contexts (he has a particular eye for positioning people artfully in a frame with fascinating walls behind them), but also uses the camera to drill into its protagonists (throwing backgrounds into soft focus) to help you begin to empathise with them. It’s a great way to build a connection with the lead characters. But the film never quite adds enough depth and real understanding to its beautiful visuals. I’m not sure it really gets inside the mind of Lili and gets a real understanding of her.

For starters, the structure of the film is confused. The main problem is that the dramatic thrust of the film is Lili realising she is a woman. The character’s emotional and psychological conflict is all bound up in struggling to accept this: the journey of the film is Lili’s internal journey to know and accept herself. Once this realisation is made the drama drains out of the film. Try as it might, it can’t make a series of operations to make complete Lili’s transition dramatically interesting. It also fails to really get inside the psychology of Lili at this point, making her feel more like an exotic, occasionally selfish, passenger through a series of treatments, rather than someone who feels like she has real dramatic thrust.

This is partly because the film splits the perspective more or less equally between Lili and Gerda. While the film follows the passage of Lili realising who she is, if anything more of its empathy and understanding (and interest) is invested in how Gerda reacts to this change. You can see the logic of some complaints that the story of this leading LGBT figure is filtered through the perceptions of their heterosexual wife. Gerda’s emotional journey – pain, anger, rejection, sorrow, despair, acceptance and support – is what really drives the film, far more really than Lili’s realisations. 

But this slightly skewed perception is all part of a film that never quite feels true. I appreciate that Lili moved in some bohemian circles, but surely more people would have been more outraged in the 1920s and 30s by this change. The only people in the film we see reacting in any way negatively are two doctors and a pair of thugs in Paris. Other than that, far from a struggle for acceptance, people seem to fall over themselves to tell Lili how wonderful her new identity is.

The most supportive figure of all is Lili’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil (played very well by Mattias Schoenaerts) – who’s the centrepiece of another major issue with the film. This wonderfully warm and kind man befriends and supports both Lili and Gerda. I left the film wanting to find out what happened in real life to this man who seemed too good to be true. Guess what: he was literally too good to be true. He didn’t exist. In fact no one in the film existed other than Lili and Gerda. Furthermore the timeline (and many of the events) of the film have been changed, as have some of the facts around their relationship. For a film pushing itself as an inspiring “true story” this feels more than a little bit like a cop out.

This is part of the film simply trying too hard. From lingering shots of Einar longingly fingering women’s clothing early in the film, to the syrupy music sore that hammers home as many of the emotional beats of the film as possible, it’s a film that wants to do things as obviously as possible for the audience. It wears its “importance” very heavily: you can tell all involved believed that the project they were working on was going to have an impact on viewers across the world.

Not that we should detract at all from two lead performances. Redmayne immerses himself utterly in the role and performs with sensitivity, giving Lili an early sense of fear that develops into an increasingly relaxed and confident determination. Vikander is equally good, running the full gamut of emotions: she probably is the movie’s heart (making her supporting actress Oscar feel even more like character fraud). Two fabulous performances – and plenty of striking visuals, well directed – but it’s a film that really never quite feels like it gets into the heart of its lead, and always feels like it’s pushing you into feeling an emotional reaction, straining for you to shed tears, rather than letting them come naturally.

Suffragette (2015)

Votes for Women is the cry in this bad movie made about an important issue

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Maud Watts), Helena Bonham Carter (Edith Ellyn), Anne-Marie Duff (Violet Miller), Romola Garai (Alice Haughton), Ben Whishaw (Sonny Watts), Brendan Gleeson (Inspector Steed), Samuel West (Benedict Haughton), Meryl Streep (Emmeline Pankhurst), Adrian Schiller (David Lloyd George), Geoff Bell (Norman Taylo r), Finbar Lynch (Hugh Ellyn)

Votes for Women was a historic movement that looked to settle a gross injustice. It’s a major issue brimming with importance: and Lord doesn’t Suffragette know it. In fact, Suffragette is practically a textbook example of an important issue being turned into a bad film. Clunky, weighed down with its own bombast and stuffed to the gills with clichés, Suffragette fails to move and makes its vital political points seem leaden and dull.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a young washerwoman, who one day finds herself accidentally swept up in a suffragette protest. Before she knows it, her friend Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) has inveigled her to give testimony at a parliamentary hearing, where she meets Edith Ellynn (Helena Bonham Carter). Ellyn believes that peaceful struggle will lead nowhere and violent action is the only way to get what they want. As the violence escalates, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) is tasked to infiltrate and bring down the suffragette movement.

It should be more interesting. But Suffragette is a sluggish “issue drama” whose every frame drips with the self-importance of people who feel they aren’t just making a film, they’re making a “statement”. This feeling infects everything, from the heavy-handed dialogue (too many scenes feel like speechifying rather than dialogue) to the obvious characterisations. Nothing in the film ever really rings true, and nothing ever really grips. On top of that sloppily written, it doesn’t really have any dramatic structure and events eventually peter out.

Mulligan’s saintly character – as a kind of suffragette every woman – goes through everything from abuse from her boss, to losing her home and children, to being force-fed in prison. It strains credulity – particularly as she’s playing some fictional archetype. The truly noble suffragettes are all working-class and put-upon, while Romola Garai’s upper-class wife quickly turns her back on the cause when things get risky. Bar Brendan Gleeson’s humane Inspector and Finbar Lynch’s decent husband (and even he performs an act of betrayal), every single man in this is a bastard – a paternalistic liar, a wife-beater, a bullying husband or an abusive boss. It’s just too bloody much. The film seems not to trust its audience to understand the story unless it’s acted out by a series of caricatures, as if we can’t appreciate that gender equality is a good thing in itself without a saintly sad-faced girl being mistreated by a series of misogynist ogres.

Mulligan is rather good but her angry denunciations and points during her scenes with Gleeson just sound like she’s mouthing research from the writer. The end result is, despite all the things Maud goes through, you just don’t really care about her. She feels like an empty character. Even the end of the film doesn’t revolve around her: Emily Davison is reintroduced just in time for the conclusion at the Derby. Why not just make a film about Davison? Why did they feel the need to place this uninteresting fictional character at the heart of it? Did they just feel it had to be a working class hero?

Because the script tries to cover every single element of the suffragette movement, it often feels like a box-ticking exercise. Meryl Streep gets the best tick, popping up to deliver a single speech as Emmaline Pankhurst before disappearing. But the collection of events thrown together don’t convince. Helena Bonham Carter does her very best to make Edith’s radicalism seem compelling and thought-through, but even that seems like a tack-on rather than something that really teaches us about any of the characters. Moral questions around violence and protest are almost completely ignored, and the film doesn’t really distinguish between those (essentially) willing to kill and those who wanted to protest within the law.

On top of its mediocre writing, the film is also only competently directed – its pace is often way off and sluggish, and most of the scenes are shot with an unimaginative televisual eye, mixed with standard “throw you into the action” shots for major protests. It all contributes to the entire venture not coming to life at all. For such a huge issue, and for all the importance it’s being treated with here, it just seems lifeless and rather dull.

This is despite the decent acting (Anne-Marie Duff is excellent, as are most of the rest of the principals) and the efforts of all involved. But it’s just not engaging. The most moving and gasp-inducing moment is the end credits roll of dates where countries gave women the vote (1970 for Switzerland!) – but when the most moving thing you see in the film could have cut and pasted from a Wikipedia page you are in trouble.

But what can you say about a drama about women’s rights where the male Inspector comes out as the most interesting and nuanced character? That just doesn’t feel right. And that’s the problem with Suffragette. Nothing feels right. Everything feels off. The history doesn’t ring true, the characterisations feel forced, the events seem predictable and clichéd. There’s nothing to really get you impassioned here – other than with frustration about a bad movie fudging an important subject.

The International (2009)

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts are lost in the high-pressure world of big finance in The International

Director: Tom Twyker

Cast: Clive Owen (Louis Salinger), Naomi Watts (Eleanor Whitman), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Wilhelm Wexler), Ulrich Thomsen (Jonas Skarssen), Brian F. O’Byrne (The Consultant), James Rebhorn (New York DA), Michel Voletti (Viktor Haas), Patrick Baladi (Martin White), Jay Villiers (Francis Ehames), Fabrice Scott (Nicolai Yeshinski), Haluk Bilginer (Ahmet Sunay), Luca Barbareschi (Umberto Calvini), Alessandro Fabrizi (Inspector Alberto Cerutti), Felix Solix (Detective Iggy Ornelas), Jack McGee (Detective Bernie Ward), Ben Whishaw (Rene Antall), Lucian Msamati (General Motomba)

Welcome to another of my unlikely pleasures. I remember seeing The International because we took a punt on it with an Orange Wednesday 2-for-1. I had no real expectations, but I was totally wrapped up in it. It has an old-school 1970s Hollywood-conspiracy-thriller feel. I keep waiting for it to be rediscovered (I’m waiting in vain it seems). But it’s a wonderful, tense little thriller which – by focusing on the shady, morally corrupt dealings of private banks – always seems relevant. Throw in alongside that a truly stand-out action set-piece at the centre of the film and you have a much overlooked pleasure.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is a scruffy Interpol agent, with a reputation for getting too involved in his cases. Working with Assistant New York DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), Salinger is investing possible illegal arms deals involving private investment bank IBBC. After their inside contact and Whitman’s fellow DA are both murdered in quick succession, Salinger takes the battle directly to IBBC. But the bank, chaired by ruthlessly blank businessman Jonas Skarsson (Ulrich Thomsen), is prepared to go to increasingly violent lengths to protect its interests, with assassinations arranged by its in-house security expert ex-Stasi agent Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and carried out by his mysterious Consultant (Brian F. O’Byrne).

Tom Twyker shoots the film in cool grays and drained out colours, giving it a very cold palette fitting for its exploration of the ruthless viciousness of big business. Twyker uses the cold, modern architecture of the various businesses the film is set in to great effect, making a wonderful, imposing backdrop. The camera constantly allows this domineering modern architecture to fill the frame, and mixes it up with some well-chosen aerial shots that reduces the action to cogs in a machine. It’s a very distinctive visual film – and it’s not until it finishes that you realise (apart from blood) you’ve really seen a red, a green or a purple in the whole film. There’s no jittery editing or hand-held camerawork – it’s got a smooth old-school cinematic quality to it.

The plot is a chilling conspiracy thriller, that (within the confines of a Hollywood action thriller) gets really in-deep into the workings of big finance. Critics accused it of being a light-weight Jason Bourne but really it’s more of a colder Parallax View. It largely eschews action in favour of paranoia, investigation and simmering tension. It’s a well-constructed journey down the rabbit hole, as Salinger gets both closer towards answers, and further away from bringing anyone to justice. 

Clive Owen’s rumpled performance is perfect. Far from being a “Bond audition”, Salinger is an outsider, a man who lives for his job, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and spends large chunks of the film either terrified or out-of-his-depth. Practically the first thing that happens to him is being knocked out by the wing-mirror of a truck. His grubby, unshaven scruffiness doesn’t recover from that. Owen gives the performance both a moral conviction and a slight air of desperation and bewilderment, as if he can’t quite understand why others aren’t as wrapped up in his case as he is.

He’s part of a great cast of actors – the film is full of unusual choices and rewarding cameos. Armin Mueller-Stahl mastered playing these world-weary ex-spies years ago, but delivers here. Broadway star Brian F O’Byrne is great, as a ruthlessly efficient hitman. Ulrich Thomsen is rather good as the blank businessman and family man, who seems to see no moral issues in the conduct of his bank’s business. Interesting actors like Patrick Baladi, James Rebhorn, Luca Barbaeschi, Haluk Bilginer and Lucian Msamati round out the cast with terrific cameos – there is always a unique actor and dynamic performance around every corner.

The plot of the film doesn’t unfold the way you expect it to – and mixes hope with a nihilistic powerlessness. Twyker’s directing is professional and he adds a lot of intelligence to a standard Hollywood set-up. He also throws in a few moments where the film pauses to reassess things we’ve seen before or to allow Salinger to puzzle out another crucial clue.

And it’s fitting for a film so in love with overwhelming power of modernist architecture that its most explosive sequence takes place in New York’s Guggenheim museum. This is a gut-wrenchingly exciting, destructive gun battle that serves as the pivot point. Brilliantly shot and edited, and perfectly built towards, it explodes into the film and grabs your attention. Owen again is perfect for this sequence – determined, but terrified and completely out of his depth – and Twyker’s use of the Guggenheim is masterful. Honestly it’s one of the best shoot-out scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie: five minutes of brilliance. You’d remember the film for that scene alone, if for nothing else.

Okay it’s not a perfect film by any stretch. Poor Naomi Watts has a thankless, ill-formed part. I’m pleased the film doesn’t include any romantic connection between the two characters at all, but (despite her work on the case) Whitman seems more a plot device than a character. The script largely fails to serve up too many memorable lines – and its main strengths are to present familiar actions and events in a fresh manner. Some have found the plot momentum to often flag – and there is something to that – and the overall schemes of the bank are not always completely clear.

But, nevertheless, I really like The International. It’s got a classic old-school feel to it. Its views on the immorality of big business feel very true, as does its presentation of the villain as basically a monolithic institution – the actual guys running the bank seem irrelevant, it’s just the ongoing nature of business. And in this world of corporations, where destroying a few men don’t admit to a hill of beans, how can truth and justice ever win out? Even if it had nothing else, tackling that idea makes The International feel like something new and worth revisiting. Well that, and that Guggenheim gun fight…

Spectre (2015)

Bond heads into danger in thematic mess Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Léa Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Dave Bautista (Mr Hinx), Andrew Scott (Max Denbigh), Monica Bellucci (Lucia Sciarra), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner), Jesper Christensen (Mr White)

SPOILERS: Okay, surely most people have seen this by now – but just in case I’m going to spoil the big twist of Spectre. It is, by the way, a really, really, really stupid, annoying terrible twist. So you won’t mind. But just in case you do… Spoilers.

In 2002, Austin Powers: Goldmember had, amongst its ridiculous plotlines, a reveal that Austin Powers and Dr Evil were, in fact, long lost brothers. It was the crowning height of silliness in the franchise, the ultimate punchline to Mike Myers’ James Bond spoof. Well the wheel comes full circle: in 2015, Spectre’s shock plot reveal was – James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld – wait for it – they were only – guess what! – raised by the same man, so basically sorta brothers! Who would have thunk it? The world’s greatest spy and world’s greatest villain both grew up together. Yup, the Bond producers actually thought this was a good idea. Yup they were completely wrong.

Spectre opens in Mexico with Bond (Daniel Craig) preventing an attack on a football stadium – although this attack basically involves trashing an entire city block. Benched by M (Ralph Fiennes), he investigates the shadowy organisation known as Spectre, which he discovers is run by Franz Oberhauser (Christop Waltz), a man Bond seems to know a great deal about. Meanwhile M engages in Whitehall battles with the intelligence director Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his sinister “Nine Eyes” programme, designed to control all surveillance in the developed world.

Spectre is a film that really falls apart in its final third, as ridiculous revelation piles on top of ludicrous contrivance. After Skyfall, we all wanted Sam Mendes to come back to do another Bond film, but this makes every single mistake that film avoided: self-conscious,  silly in the wrong way, takes itself way too seriously, despite its best efforts it doesn’t really do anything new, and attempts to build a “Bond universe” around a franchise that works because it keeps reinventing itself in stand-alone films. It’s the Bond producers attempt to do a Marvel film – and it ain’t pretty. Did we need to create some sort of tenuous link between the Craig-era Bond movies? Did we need Blofeld and Bond to have a “very personal” connection? No we massively did not.

Mendes shoots the action with a mock grandeur that seems to be serving other things than the plot. Critics fawned over the long shot that follows Bond through the Day of the Dead street festival, through a hotel, out of a window, across a series of roofs and into the first action scene. But for me, it’s a self-conscious, look-at-me piece of trickery. It’s an air of pretention that runs through the whole film: it’s a film that wants you to think it’s making Big Points around Bond’s psychology and background, but keeps running aground because it goes about them in such a ham fisted way, particularly when compared to Skyfall’s subtlety and willingness to look at Bond’s vulnerability.

Most sequences in the film feels strangely flat and lifeless. There is a surprisingly sterile car chase through the streets of Rome between Bond and Hinx. The opening montage in Mexico just never really grips – maybe because it’s not clear what’s going on, maybe because it feels so self-consciously grandiose. The film’s tone is over the place – there are lashings of Moore. Bond falls through a collapsing building only to land on a sofa. During the car chase, Bond hits a button only to have some Frank Sinatra start playing on the radio. Craig does at least go through the comedy with a breezy lightness, though it sits oddly in a film that features a villain shooting himself in the head, and a guy having his eyes gouged out. 

The whole investigation into Spectre just isn’t interesting. Because the film has been written with such a self-conscious eye on fandom, it never gives us a reason within the film to care about it at all. Spectre don’t seem to be doing anything, other than being a shady organisation making money. We don’t get told why Bond is invested in it or Oberhauser until late in the day. The film pins everything on a “beyond the grave” video from Judi Dench’s M to give us a reason for chasing this plot. But nothing feels at stake and we don’t get told about Bond’s personal stake in it until almost the end – and even when we do, Bond doesn’t really seem to give a toss about the reveal.

Ah yes. The reveal. A few years ago, Star Trek Into Darkness had a terrible, nonsensical reveal around Benedict Cumberbatch’s character – turns out he was Khan. This was met with derision because (a) it had no impact on the wider viewers who didn’t know who Khan was, (b) it felt shoe-horned in as fan service, and (c) it had no impact on the characters in the film who’d never met Khan before. So who cared? He might as well have said “My real name is Fred”. This was the case with the Blofeld reveal here. The name means little to non-Bond fans. And it means naff-all to Bond. We’ve never heard it mentioned in the film before. It comes out of nowhere. It means nothing – it’s dropped into the film to get a cheer at comic con – so nakedly so, that it just annoyed people.

It doesn’t help that the whole “secret brothers” thing is a really, really dumb idea. I mean so mega-dumb it was, as mentioned, the final ridiculous flourish of Austin Powers. How did they look at this and think “yes”? Again it feels like retreading Skyfall ground – this already had given us interesting insights into Bond by having him return to his childhood home. But what did we learn about Bond here? Sweet FA. Whatever iconic status Blofeld had is immediately undermined by making him a pathetic envious child. Christoph Waltz’s bored performance doesn’t help either.

And as the film doesn’t spend any time establishing Blofeld or Spectre doing terrible things, it has to make a series of tenuous connections to Craig’s other films to ludicrously suggest that everything that happened in those films was Blofeld’s evil plan. This is so clearly bollocks, retroactive adaptation that it just makes you snort. Skyfall’s villain was very clearly established as a personally motivated lone-wolf – it makes no sense that he was sent by Blofeld. The first two Craig films established a secretive organisation, but it was framed very much as corporate ruthless villainy – the idea that it was an organisation established to destroy Bond is nonsense.

The reveal that Blofeld wants to destroy Bond personally makes most of the film itself make no sense. If Blofeld wants Bond to come to his base to exact revenge for childhood wrongs, why does his muscle-man Hinx spend the film so aggressively trying to kill him (especially in the film’s stand out action sequence, a no-holds-barred scrap on a train)? It’s almost like they were making it up as they go. Even Quantum of Solace held together better plotwise than this (ironically QoS goes almost completely unmentioned in Blofeld’s evil schemes – probably because it’s a bad film). The final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld strains credulity and patience – reaching for a personal rivalry that hasn’t been established by anything other than fans’ vague memories of watching You Only Live Twice on a Sunday afternoon years ago.

I’ve not mentioned the Bond girls either. The film tries to make a “strong female character” in Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, but she is a plot device rather than a character, with no consistent personality, solely there to be whatever the plot requires. When it needs her to be a gun-toting, self-reliant, go-getter who sasses Bond, she is. When it needs her to be a damsel in distress she forgets all that firearms stuff and waits for a man to save her. When the plot needs her to express total devotion for Bond she does. When it needs her shortly afterwards to leave him, guess what, she does that as well. She is a character who makes no sense at all. It doesn’t help that she looks way too young for Craig. The wonderful Monica Belluci is given a thankless role of informant and brief sex partner for Bond – she of course was far too close to Craig’s age to be the main Bond girl. Just as he did with the shower sex scene in Skyfall, Craig manages to make this seduction seem inappropriate and pervy – it’s not his strength.

Lea Seydoux. She is, by the way, 17 years younger than Daniel Craig. Just saying.

 The stupidly unclear, dully predictable “Nine Eyes” plot doesn’t make things any better either. One of Skyfall’s neatest tricks was to cleverly mislead us about Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory, setting him up as an antagonist to slowly reveal him as an ally. This film attempts an inverted version of this trick with Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh. Problem is, Scott is at his most softly-spoken Moriarty sinister – you are in no doubt he’s a wrong ‘un from the first frame. What would have worked is making Denbigh Bond’s ally. This would make the reveal of his villainy at least a surprise for some people in the audience. As it is the whole reveal is no shock what-so-ever. The whole plot starts to feel like plates being spun in the air, a way to give Fiennes, Kinnear and Harris something to do on the margins of the film.

I mean – he just LOOKS like a villain doesn’t he?

Okay Spectre is well filmed. It’s got some good scenes. Ben Whishaw continues to be excellent as Q – and gets loads to do here which is great. Craig actually does some of the comedy with charm and skill – even if he hardly seems as engaged with the material here as he did before, as if he was already becoming tired of the whole enterprise. But it’s too long (over 2 and a half hours!), and straight from its pretentious “The Dead Are Alive Again” opening, it’s straining for a thematic depth and richness that it constantly misses. It makes nothing of its family feud plotline and we learn very little about Bond as a character at all. It mistakes stupid fan-service and pointless reveals for plot, and it builds itself towards a reveal that it expects to get a cheer from the audience, but has no real connection to the plot of the film we are watching, and is in no way earned by the events of the film. 

Spectre is, at best, in the middle rank of Bond films – too self-important, incoherent and (whisper it) a little dull in places to really work. It’s not a complete failure – but it is a major disappointment. There is enough here to entertain most of the time, but not enough to really engage the mind or the guts. For Sam Mendes, lightening didn’t strike twice.