Tag: Bill Nighy

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the brilliant and moving The Constant Gardener

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Hubert Koundé (Dr Arnold Bluhm), Archie Panjabi (Ghita Pearson), Bill Nighy (Sir Bernard Pellegrin), Gerard McSorley (Sir Kenneth Curtis), Pete Postlethwaite (Dr Lorbeer), Donald Sumpter (Tim Donohue), Richard McCabe (Arthur Hammond), Juliet Aubrey (Gloria Woodrow)

John Le Carré’s reputation as a spy novelist without peer can lead people to forget his books are often scathing condemnations of Western policy. The Constant Gardener, a superb adaptation of one of his finest novels, is no different. It’s a passionate, angry denunciation of how Western pharmaceutical companies, and their government partners, exploit the people of Africa. But it carries real force as it’s interwoven with a moving and tender study of grief and how it changes us, pushing us to see things from a different perspective. It’s that which gives the film its force.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a middle-ranking career diplomat, serving in the high commission in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an idealist determined to make a difference, is murdered. Justin determines to get to the bottom of her murder – and finds Tessa was investigating a British drugs company using the distribution of AIDS drugs to poverty-stricken Kenyans to test an experimental TB drug, covering up the harmful side effects and disposing of the dead. As flashbacks reveal Tessa’s investigation and motivations, Justin becomes ever more determined to unmask the drugs companies, and the figures in the British government protecting them.

Directed with vibrant urgency by Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener is part thriller, part romance and part study of loss. Continuing his style from City of God, Meirelles’ camera work is jagged, hand-held and often unsettling, becoming ever more disjointed and edgy as the plot itself heads into darker and darker territory. The film throws us into its Kenyan setting, not shying away from the poverty of the villages. At one point, an aerial shot travels from the golf course, where the British are at play, across a train track and settles on the neighbouring slums.

This is all part of the film’s anger, which translates Le Carré’s feelings from the book. Inspired by the story of an aid worker he met in Cambodia in the 1970s (and who died in Kosovo in the 90s), the film is as furious as the novel at the heartless exploitation of Africa for the benefit of Western companies. Who counts the cost of Kenyan lives lost to experimental drugs? Certainly not the rich and powerful, who keep any consequences at a distance and rationalise them as for the greater good.

And not many have the courage to stand up to this. Most it seems are like Justin – good people who prefer not to think about, or look to deeply at, the impact we are having on the world. It takes a firebrand like Tessa to shake things up – and she pays a huge cost for it. Starting with Tessa’s death, the film feels at first like a mystery, but the culprits are all too obvious. Instead the question is why, not who, and the dark conspiracy that unfolds is really about establishing who knew what rather than who was involved (everyone, of course, was involved).

Rachel Weisz (winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) excels in a part that could have been a holier-than-thou left-wing agitator, but which she makes warm, human and real. Tessa is a woman who cares deeply, but also loves deeply, who is genuine, unaffected and speaks her mind. Weisz’ performance hits just the right notes, passionate but playful. The bond between her and Justin is real and based on a deep love on both their sides.

So warm is her performance, that you totally understand the all-consuming grief and loss Justin suffers at her death. It’s a very different sort of part for Fiennes – gentle, vulnerable, sweet, far different from his more patrician roles. He nails the part perfectly, bringing out of it a great deal of emotional force. The film is a tender exploration of the impact of grief on a person, and the mixture of shock, sorrow, anger and confusion in Fiennes’ performance feels completely real. This stillness and sombre approach to loss carries real weight.

The film becomes both a crusade – the husband taking up the cause of his slaughtered wife – but also an unusual romance. The greatest pain for Justin is discovering that his wife kept so much of her life secret from him. She did it to protect him, but he longs for the chance to prove to her that he could have been her “secret sharer”, that she could have trusted him. Effectively the film – and Justin’s quest – is to emotionally reunite with his wife, to fully understand her. The emotional heart of the film is this story, the husband effectively communing with the ghost of his wife, wanting there to be no more secrets keeping them apart.

This does mean that, at times, the conspiracy angle of the film gets slightly rushed. A late sequence effectively is four confessions from supporting characters to Justin in a row. The film gets a little bogged down in the mechanics of Justin chasing down various pieces of paper. The eventual quest to find the doctor behind the scandal (a wizened with guilt Pete Postlethwaite) offers a rather neat resolution. But it doesn’t matter too much as the film culminates in an ending that is as bizarrely bleak as it is hopeful.

Beautifully shot by Meirelles, with a raw immediacy that keeps the tension up, with a genuine sense of Kenyan life, it has a wonderful cast of character actors doing their bit (Bill Nighy as an arrogant senior diplomat and Danny Huston as a weasely coward stand out). It’s a film that is full of righteous fury at the West – but also with a tender beating heat for the pain of grief and the struggle with mourning. Emotional and political, it’s the finest Le Carré adaption on film.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench battle with obsession in Notes on a Scandal

Director: Richard Eyre

Cast: Judi Dench (Barbara Covett), Cate Blanchett (Sheba Hart), Bill Nighy (Richard Hart), Andrew Simpson (Steven Connolly), Phil Davis (Brian Bangs), Michael Maloney (Sandy Pabblem), Joanna Scanlan (Sue Hodge), Tom Georgeson (Ted Mawson), Shaun Parkes (Bill Rumer), Emma Williams (Linda), Julia McKenzie (Marjorie), Juno Temple (Polly Hart)

Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal makes superb use of an increasingly unreliable narrator to reveal the complications in the affair between a female art teacher and a young male student. It’s a device that doesn’t always carry across as well to film, but Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber have still crafted a fine story about obsession and envy in all its different ways.

In an inner-city school, bohemian art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is a new arrival, struggling to learn how to control her students. It’s a skill long-since mastered by jaded and bitter history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who soon finds herself fascinated by the attractive and engaging Sheba. This relationship is complicated when she discovers that Sheba has begun a sexual relationship with one of her 15-year old students, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), a student with a difficult record who has shown a surprising interest in art. As Barbara positions herself as Sheba’s only trusted confidant, the danger of discovery begins to become ever more likely as Sheba’s behaviour becomes more and more reckless.

The real strength of Eyre’s film are the two lead performances from Dench and Blanchett, a match-up surely made in casting heaven. Dench is superb in one of her best film roles, turning Barbara Covett into exactly the sort of shrivelled up, bitter spinster you are not surprised to learn has led a life of loneliness. Dench laces the performance with a sharp nastiness, masked behind a chilly professionalism, but she also makes clear the aching loneliness, the desperation and the ability to deceive herself that Barbara has, the longing to be loved but also the possessive obsession that drives love away.

She’s equally well-matched by Blanchett, at her most glamourous and natural as Sheba. One of the film’s strengths is the way it avoids giving spurious psychological reasons for Sheba’s obsession for this basically fairly unpleasant young lout. Blanchett identifies this sense of being trapped in Sheba, this desire to rebel and taste a little bit of freedom (in every home scene she is shown undertaking most if not all the housework and childcaring duties), feelings that mutate into a sexual obsession with Connolly. Blanchett is desperate, self-deceiving and hugely tragic, unable to fully express the reasons for her feelings herself, but unable to let go of her addiction to a new wildness and danger in her life that you feel she has never really felt before.

These two performances power a film that explores obsession and envy, with Barbara obsessed (to a scarily possessive and manipulative degree) with Sheba, exploiting Sheba’s own reckless and sexual obsession with Connolly. These feelings are shown to be often beyond the understanding of other characters, and both women ret-con events and reactions from the target of their obsessions to build elaborate fantasy worlds. It’s the danger of obsession here, the way we shape the facts to meet our desired preconceptions. It doesn’t matter what reality, or what anyone else, says – you want to believe what you want to believe.

And it’s these obsessions that lead people both to take unbelievable risks and also to feel a crushing sense of envy and possession. Both Barbara and Sheba can barely tolerate the idea of their loves focusing attention elsewhere, and despite seeming to have so much control in their relationships are helpless victims. Sheba is reduced to begging tears when it feels like her relationship with Connolly is burning out. After all is revealed, Barbara’s efforts to take control of Sheba’s life are revealed to be powered by an almost desperately sad need to believe that Sheba and she are starting a new life together. So deep is Barbara’s denial about her own lesbianism (and so extreme her unhappiness about herself), it’s a romantic vision she is so deep in denial feels unable to even begin to put any sexual dimension onto.

Envy and human frailty run through the whole film. Most of the teaching staff, especially Phil Davis’ sad-sack maths teacher in love with Sheba, carry their own small obsessions and envies. Sheba’s husband himself left his first wife for Sheba when she was one of his students. The students have more than enough rivalries to deal with. 

It’s a deadly circle, with contact breeding obsession, breeding envy. To get such an effect, Marber’s adaptation needs to streamline the book. The biggest loss as a result is the book’s slow, creeping, realisation that Barbara is a deeply arrogant, bitter, unlikeable person who views most of the people around her with contempt. Here Dench’s waspish voiceover immediately makes it clear to the viewer that she is not that nice a person. It’s a shame, as it rather signposts for the viewer where the film may be heading. 

The storyline also races through the book (the film is less than 90 minutes) which means it often feels more like a melodrama. While I think it’s a strength that the film doesn’t try and give a real reason for Sheba’s decision to seduce (or be seduced) by her student, other than to hint at her own sense of bohemian freedom being lost at home, I can see how others will find the reasons for why the radiant Sheba is so drawn to such a surly kid rather hard to accept.

But it still works, because the film is so well-played. With Dench and Blanchett at their best (and excellent support from Bill Nighy, quietly superb as Sheba’s husband, a decent guy who can’t believe his luck that he is married to such a wonderful woman, and whose world falls apart in bitter recrimination), it’s a film that gives more than enough rewards. The film gives us a decent ending from the book, with more hope for Sheba – but the balance suggests that for Barbara the cycle of obsession will only continue. Heaven help anyone who sits down on a park bench next to her.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry and friends are on the run in the excellent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Rhys Ifans (Xenophilius Lovegood), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Toby Jones (Dobby), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Peter Mullan (Yaxley), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Warwick Davies (Griphook), Nick Moran (Scabior), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), David O’Hara (Albert Runcorn), Sophie Thompson (Malfada Hopkirk), Steffan Rhodri (Reg Cattermole), Simon McBurney (Kreacher)

The final book of the Harry Potter series made its own slice of film history: it was the first time a book was adapted in two films to “get the whole story of the book across” (or to make double the box office cash – take your pick). There was scepticism about creating a film about the first half (or so) of The Deathly Hallows, as a large chunk revolves around our heroes walking around the countryside, confused, lost and adrift. Instead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 turns this material into one of the richest, most engaging and best films in the series. Any film that expands a throw-away reference from the books to Hermione removing her parents memories of her, into an affecting opening scene showing Emma Watson doing the same is really inventively playing with the original source material.

David Yates takes on his third Harry Potter film – and this is possibly the best he filmed. In fact, the whole film feels fresher and different – perhaps because it’s the only film to not have a single scene at Hogwarts. Instead our characters are out in the forest and on the run – and the film has completely different vibe, immediately lending it a uniqueness. Equally, it isn’t shy about pointing out our heroes are all-at-sea. Harry doesn’t really know what he is doing, or where to start with his self-imposed quest: and surely when Ron angrily asks why Dumbledore didn’t tell him more (or if Harry wasn’t even listening properly) he’s voicing some of the questions of the audience.

This film, more than any other, focuses on the relationship between the leading three characters. While getting an idea of their friendship and loyalty to each other, we also get a sense of the tensions and envy between them. Not least in Ron’s grudging acceptance that he is the number two. Rupert Grint has been slowly building under David Yates’ films from a comic relief character to an increasing (slightly surly) teenage insecurity and troubled sexual maturity. 

This really pays off in this film: Ron is bitter and jealous. These feelings might be exacerbated by the necklace the characters must take turns wearing, but it’s just bringing to the surface Ron’s darker feelings of inadequacy: and Yates even brings them to the screen in a necklace-induced vision of a naked (but artfully concealed in smoke!) Harry and Hermione alternately making out and rubbishing Ron. It’s a plot point that covers Ron overcoming his resentment and cementing his position in the gang. It’s very well done – and Rupert Grint is very good.

Equally good is the gently sad, mutually affectionate relationship between Harry and Hermione. Alone together for large chunks of the film, the characters’ bond is firmly established, the chemistry between the two actors never clearer. The film plays with the subplot it’s been suggesting for a while of a potential deeper relationship between Harry and Hermione: not least in its beautiful silent dancing sequence to Nick Cave in the tent (one of the best ever entirely invented scenes in the series) that is friendly, but with a hint of the possibility of something more – something the characters seem to consciously decide to bench. This sort of emotional reality is what makes the film really stand out. It turns the “camping trip” of the novel into something more profound and engrossing – I’d say this is the only sequence that really outdoes the books altogether in the entire series.

But of course there is still plenty of action, and humour, a highpoint for both being our heroes infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, disguised as ministry employees. Playing the adult disguises of our heroes brings out three hilarious and sharply observed physical performances from David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson. In fact, the film has a bit of a thing for disguises, from a disfigured Harry (who may or may not be recognised by Draco, in another piece of excellent acting from Tom Felton as a terminally out-of-his depth and terrified Malfoy), to the opening scenes featuring half the cast being disguised as Harry. Daniel Radcliffe excels in this sequence, playing versions of most of the young cast with real wit and skill.

Yates allows a creeping sense of imminent danger to hang over the whole picture, straight from the off. A “conference of baddies” at Malfoy manor shows us Voldemort (the ever sinister Ralph Fiennes) re-establishing his murderous villainy from the start – and also belittling and mocking poor Lucius Malfoy (a crushed Jason Isaacs). From there, via a gripping escape from Harry’s home, to a wedding scene that quickly collapses into a terrifying attack from Death Eaters, it’s a film full of excitement.

Yates shoots this with tension and edge. A sequence with Harry and company fleeing through the forest from snatchers is so well-done, so intense and immersive, that they used it for the poster. This sequence uses really interesting camera work and tracking shots – in fact the whole film is very well filmed and extremely well-paced. It’s also got an eye for the real nastiness of regimes like Voldemort’s: people like Umbridge (an increasingly Himmlerish Imelda Staunton) flourish, while bullying thugs like Yaxley (an intimidatingly excellent Peter Mullan) rule the roost.

Kloves script sets up a lot of the fascinating back-story from the novel, not only around Dumbledore but also the Deathly Hallows themselves (I’ll not mention for now that most of this build-up is fumbled in the last film). There is a beautiful animation sequence establishing the history of the Deathly Hallows, which is an artistic highlight. The slow unveiling and revealing of facts is wonderfully done – and rewards the patient viewer.

The film culminates in a final sequence at Malfoy manor that carries a great wallop of emotional torment and dread (first torture scene in a Potter movie for those interested…). Surprisingly a lot of this emotional force comes from Dobby the elf – irritating as he was in Chamber of Secrets, here he gets a few scenes that carry real emotional force. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is possibly the only Harry Potter film that is an actual improvement on its original source material (there I said it). I think it’s a brilliant film, a film which carries real emotional weight and has genuine things to say, not just about good and evil, but also about the sort of teenage angst and yearnings we’ve all had. The three leads are all excellent, and there is barely a bum note in the whole thing.

Their Finest (2016)

Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy do their bit for the war effort by making movies in Their Finest

Director: Lone Scherfig

Cast: Gemma Arterton (Catrin Cole), Sam Claflin (Tom Buckley), Bill Nighy (Ambrose Hilliard), Jack Huston (Ellis Cole), Helen McCrory (Sophie Smith), Eddie Marsan (Sammy Smith), Jack Lacy (Carl Lundbeck), Rachael Stirling (Phyl Moore), Richard E Grant (Roger Swain), Paul Ritter (Raymond Parfitt), Henry Goodman (Gabriel Baker), Jeremy Irons (Secretary of War)

During World War Two, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to write dialogue for propaganda films – to be specific “the slop” (the women’s dialogue). She pitches the semi-true story of two young women who take a boat to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers, and is hired to work with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) to write a screenplay. Among the cast of this film is Ambrose Hillaird (Bill Nighy), an ageing matinee idol having trouble accepting his days of playing young heroes are behind him. Together they overcome initial difficulties to create a film that moves the nation.

Their Finest is a gently amiable piece of film-making, totally predictable but still rather entertaining for all that. You won’t exactly be gripped or compelled by it, but you certainly won’t feel cheated out of your time watching it. It doesn’t have much in the way of originality about it – and you can see most of its jokes and events coming a mile off – but it’s still got a certain charm and warmth about it. And it’s crammed full of some very fun “film-within-a-film” scenes, both seeing the film the team create and the work (and backstage politics) that go into making it. There are also some neat gags (and wry comments) about the casual sexism of the day – and the film (without dwelling on the issue) makes a number of heartwarming moments out of its lead character succeeding against the odds on her own merits.

It also has a couple of fine performances, not least from an engaging and bright Gemma Arterton, who brings a great deal of quiet depth and dignity to Catrin. Catrin has a sweet lack of self-confidence about her – a gentle doubt, that she must learn to overcome over the film. She makes an affecting and empathetic lead. It also helps that she has a great screwball comedy chemistry with Sam Claflin. Claflin’s part is far more conventional – the gruff man with the heart of gold – but he nails the part’s humanity and its comic grumpiness.

The film’s main weapon of entertainment is Bill Nighy, in a part almost certainly written for him so well does it match his strengths. Hilliard is just the sort of vain, pompous, arrogant preener that Nighy can play in his sleep – a man who needs to be flattered and praised into doing anything, who assumes when he first reads the script he’s being offered the role of the young hero not the drunk uncle. What Nighy does so well with parts like this, though, is bring them depth and pathos. Hilliard may be an egotist, but he’s gently comforting in tragedy and has a profound sadness and insecurity behind him about where his career and life is going. So, while he brings a lot of the film’s comedy, he’s also a large part of its heart, elements that emerge increasingly as the film progresses.

The sequences that follow the making of the film are very funny. Jack Lacy is wonderfully sweet and genuine as an actual war-hero, an American serving in the RAF, parachuted in by the Ministry of War to send a propaganda message to the USA. Lacy’s Carl is well-meaning and loves films (not least his hero worship of Hilliard) but a hopeless actor, who can’t help smiling at the camera after every line. It’s a neat indication of the film’s well-judged tone that he is never a butt: the crew work hard to improve him, he’s eager to learn, he’s completely lovely – and when a character does complain about the extra work he is causing, Henry Goodman’s Alexander Korda-ish producer simply states “he has done things none of us would be brave enough to do”.

Because there is a harder realism about this film. It doesn’t shy away from the dangers and brutality of war – there are bombings and people die. Some deaths are characters we know, others are on the edges of the story. “I’m a bit emotional today. My landlady was killed last night” one character states. Each of our lead characters encounters a dead body, or knows someone who has been killed. There is a genuine danger of obliteration or invasion just on the edges of the comedy. It’s a neat balance that the film keeps, between pathos and light comedy.

The film-within-a-film, The Nancy Starling, is a brilliant pastiche of 1940s British war films, instantly recognisable and affectionately amusing. But it’s also, when we finally see parts of the film, rather moving. It has a real emotional force to it – the film-makers achieve the difficult balance of giving us a pastiche we can chuckle at it, but also a pastiche that feels like it would genuinely move the people watching it in the film. 

Their Finest’s main problem might be that partly because it’s so quietly unassuming and gentle, it is almost completely bogged down in predictability. Most of the character arcs can be seen coming a pile off – my wife and I were able to practically write the scenes ourselves as they happened. There is very little original here. Even the stories of actors’ pretensions and film-making disasters have a breezy air of familiarity about them – the sort of stuff we’ve seen in films about film-making hundreds of times before. In fact, what’s striking is that a film so predictable and familiar remains entertaining and endearing – which is surely some sort of testament to the acting and direction.

Their Finest is perfect for what it is: an entertaining, weekend-afternoon film that will pop a gentle smile on your face. There is nothing particularly deep or memorable about it beyond that. It has some fine performances, some good jokes and it will make you laugh. But will you remember much about it within a few hours? Probably not. Is it a film that you can imagine revisiting to discover new gems in it? Again probably not. Is it a film that will entertain you on a Sunday afternoon? Absolutely.