Tag: Biography

King Richard (2021)

King Richard (2021)

Richard Williams creates two of the greatest tennis stars ever in this easy-viewing star vehicle

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Cast: Will Smith (Richard Williams), Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene “Brandy” Price), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci), Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen), Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew (Tunde Price), Danielle Lawson (Isha Price), Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price)

Sports movies have a very reliable formula. There’s the initial promise, early success, adversity, obstacles, a moment of doubt, a renewal of commitment and a final success. I think it’s fair to say that King Richard pretty much hits all the beats you expect. In fact, its pretty much exactly the film you expect it to be when it starts and doubles down hard on the charisma and charm of its star.

King Richard tells the story of how the Williams Sisters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), took their very first steps towards dominating the world of tennis, as told through the eyes of their father Richard (Will Smith). Richard Williams had been determined from almost the moment his children were born, that he would never stop working (and push them) to build lives that would take them away from the working-class ghetto he grew up in. Teaching himself tennis coaching, from the moment they can hold a racket the girls are coached. But, being working class and black in a white-middle-class sport, Richard must work night-and-day to win professional coaching and playing opportunities for his daughters. Not to mention, struggling to ensure that they don’t forget their roots or get chewed up and spat out by the sport.

First and foremost, King Richard is a showpiece for Will Smith. The part fits him like a glove: Williams a larger-than-life, force-of-“Will” role that feels about 2/3rds Williams and 1/3rd Smith. With Williams fast-talking patter, never-give-up determination and absolute commitment to protecting his loved ones, the role plays to all Smith’s strengths. Smith gives a quintessential movie-star performance, which to-be-honest often feels like a Will Smith personality role (the modern equivalent of a Cary Grant performance), but is very entertaining because few people are as good at crafting their personae to benefit a movie as Smith is. Smith is heartfelt, earnest, loveable, sometimes slapable (Note: I wrote that before Smith’s slap-heard-around-the-world was forever attached to his Oscar-winning performance), but always a charming guy you root for.

Which is odd, as Richard Williams is a man with a mixed reputation. He was a demanding, argumentative, often controlling presence who irritated and alienated far more people on the tour than he befriended. Some saw him as a self-promoter, others as a man at times causing problems for his daughter’s careers. King Richard doesn’t shy away from showing these qualities – the awkwardness, the temper, the selfishness, the arrogance – but presents them all in the best possible light. The film is purest hagiography and Richard Williams is always vindicated in all his calls.

Awkwardly the film is also determined to give him all the credit for the Williams’ sisters success. Now there is merit in this – and the script was developed with the sister’s input, so it feels a bit presumptuous to get angry on their behalf. The sisters would never have become what they are if their father had not put rackets in their hands so young and invested hours in training them. Similarly, they would not have been as fully-rounded people without his constant mantra about family, humility and hard work. But also, they did have quite a bit of talent themselves – and certainly they profited from lessons they picked up from the other coaches they worked with.

However, one of the points King Richard is gently making – and it is gently made, as if the film was worried its crowd-pleasing potential might have been affected if it banged this drum too hard – is that Williams had to be a domineering figure because he was fighting against a racial divide in the sport. He feels out of place in the tennis country clubs because he is. No one else on the junior tour is anything other than white and well off. Every coach and trainer is applying methods that have worked for affluent middle-class athletes, without considering any adjustment might be needed for two young women coming from a totally different background.

You can argue the hagiography is partially a course correction from years of the only black father and coach on the tour being denounced as uppity, loud-mouthed, self-obsessed and intrusive. Its still made clear he shares these traits with many other tour parents, but adding to it a massive dose of supportive parenting. There are moments when the film addresses how Williams’ obsession that he knows best might just be starting to run the risk of alienating his daughters: in particular Aunjanue Ellis delivers a blistering late speech (which probably got her an Oscar nomination by itself, so compellingly is it performed) where she lays out in no-uncertain-terms Williams many character flaws and damaging behaviours. (Coincidentally the film’s most compelling dramatic scene).

Maybe a bit of hagiography is what we need from a film designed to be an uplifting, triumph against the odds and celebration of one man’s fatherly love and devotion to give his daughters a chance to change their stars. The film is professionally directed by Green and some of the titbits of the sisters early training (throwing American footballs to build service strength among others) is fascinating.

The film is probably at least twenty minutes too long and starts at some points to repeat the same beats again and again. It doesn’t really do anything new and is exactly the sort of film you could predict it being. But it has some good performances, Smith is at the top of his (Oscar-winning) game, and it is an enjoyable, if predictable, feel-good watch.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Liev Schreiber and Tobey Maguire recreate Spassky/Fischer in Ed Zwick’s pointless chess drama

Director: Ed Zwick

Cast: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Father Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer)

In the 1960s and 70s, Chess suddenly became world news. Like the space race before it, it was effectively a way for the USA and USSR to combat each other without the risky side effect of blowing up the whole world. The USSR had all the best players: until American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer emerged to shatter this monopoly. In 1972 the world seemed to come to a stop to watch the world championship clash between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik. Ed Zwick’s film attempts to bring together the personal and the political – two superpowers using a game as a proxy for war – into an enlightening package. It fails.

The film opens with Fischer trashing his apartment in search for bugs on the eve of the 1972 final before flashing back in time. You’d expect the film to give us an idea of what bought our “hero” to this point. Zwick’s film utterly fails to do this. Now Fischer – very well played by an aggressively prickly Tobey Maguire – was a hugely troubled man. Though never formally diagnosed some combination of paranoia, OCD and a myriad other personality problems meant he was never more than a step away from self-destruction. Despite this he was deeply driven by an ambition to be the best chess player in the world. Its rich material, but the film never begins to get to grips with Fischer.

Could this be because it wants to tell an uplifting story – the film is really building towards the standing ovation Spassky gives Fischer in game 6 at the 1972 championship when Fischer whipped him in about 40 moves of perfect play – but is struggling with the fact that Fischer himself is deeply unsympathetic. A paranoid conspiracy freak who even by the standards of the 1960s was an aggressive, virulent anti-Semite (Fischer would later match Mel Gibson in his anti-Semitic tirades, blaming Zionism for everything from 9/11 down). A bully who refused to interact with anything except on his own terms, who cut all friends and family from his life for the most minor transgressions. There is no insight given here at all, or suggestion of what was wrong with Fischer.

It’s hard to hang a “triumph against the odds” structure – as Zwick’s unimaginative and conventional film tries to – around this. A far more interesting film would have used the 1972 tournament as an Act 2 triumph and then explored in more depth Fischer’s long spiral of self-destruction that would see him as a bearded eccentric ranting against Jews and America, in exile in Iceland. A film like that would also have then been able to properly do service to the idea of Fischer as a pawn of American state interests, who celebrate him when they want to rub the Soviet nose in it, but then drop him as soon as his purpose is served.

Instead, the film becomes formulaic and empty, leaving us with the impression that we learn nothing about Fischer at all. Why did this man of Jewish descent hate Jewish people so much? Was it self-loathing? What motivated him to seemingly self-destruct his own career so regularly? Was it a fear of being beaten? We have no idea. Instead that opening scene of Fischer destroying his apartment tells us everything we learn about the man over the course of the film. He remains an enigma – and since he’s also deeply unpleasant (the film skirts a little around how much) and we don’t get given any rich material to understand why he’s like this, he becomes a tedious figure to spend time with.

Zwick’s film also fails to communicate the cold war motivations behind this. Although there are the odd shots of the powers-that-be watching on TV in the Kremlin and the White House, we get no sense of how or why these powers are using chess to promote their own ideology. The film is endlessly reliable on vintage and reconstructed newsreel footage to constantly tell us directly things it can’t work out how to do with dialogue, from the political situation to chess moves. You learn nothing about the Cold War from this film. Michael Stuhlbarg’s lawyer turned promoter for Fischer states openly that he wants to use Fischer to show up the Russkies – but that blunt statement is it.

Instead the film is only really interesting when it is effectively recreating footage from the 1972 championship. And when a film’s strong points are recreating real events perfectly, you know you are in trouble. Zwick’s film lacks ideas, a compelling plot, insight or invention. It suffers badly today when compared to the far more dynamic and insightful The Queen’s Gambit (whose lead character is a heavily fictionalised female Fischer). Zwick’s film is him at his plodding, middle-brow worst, presenting a would-be epic shorn of anything of actual interest of controversy. The only thing that redeems it are decent performances from Maguire, Sarsgaard and Schreiber. Otherwise, this is an empty mess that tells you nothing at all about anything. You could checkmate it in about four moves.

The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg bring the making of Facebook to life in Fincher’s modern American classic

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron Winklevoss/Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Brenda Song (Christy Lee), Rashida Jones (Marilyn Delpy), Joseph Mazzello (Dustin Moskovitz), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage)

Nothing has changed our interaction with the world faster than the internet. And nothing on the internet has changed how we interact as much as social media. As it drives changes in the way we relate to other people, it’s a brave film that tries to capture this zeitgeist and turn it into an effective movie. The Social Network is a brave movie – and also a brilliant one, a defiantly modern and far-sighted movie that avoids being the sanctimonious message movie it could have become, by concentrating on personal relationships, drama and, above all, a strong and compelling story.

Its October 2003 and a 19-year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). So, he responds like many people today would – but not in 2003 – by writing a series of rude and angry blogs about her. And at the same time, he does something you and I wouldn’t be able to do – he builds overnight a campus website called Facemash that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students. It’s a sensation – and a scandal.

Off the back of it, Zuckerberg is approached by the Winklevoss brothers (in a skilled double performance by Armie Hammer) to see if he’d be interested in building an elite social network, Harvard Connection, for them. Zuckerberg agrees – but did he independently already have the idea for Thefacebook, an elite social network for Ivy League students? Either way, with funds from friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) he builds the platform which is to become Facebook. Does it all end well? Since the story is framed around Zuckerberg in 2009, sitting in depositions while being sued by both the Winkelvoss brothers (“the Winklevi”) and Saverin, you can guess not.

Fincher’s film reflects its central character in many ways – cool, efficient, tightly wound, juggling intellectualism with simmering tension. It’s vibrant, fresh, razor-sharp, perfectly paced and superbly dramatic. It turns what could have been a terrifically dull story of very clever people typing lines of code into a whipper-sharp story of jealousies, rivalries and suspicions. It also brilliantly veers away from being a polemic. It could easily have made points – as many films have – about the “evils and dangers of that creepy thing the internet” or constantly reminded us how morally superior film-makers are to social media kingpins. It does nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a brilliantly insightful look at the birth of a phenomenon that also makes subtle, intelligent points about some of the behaviours that phenomenon led to. All while keeping us gloriously entertained.

A big part of the film’s success is in Sorkin’s superb script. The material is perfect for him. The character’s intellectualism fits with his pithy turn of phrase, while their perceptions of themselves as victims or on a moral crusade fits with his ability to write morality with empathy. It also helps that he is the master of crackling dialogue. The idea to structure the film around the depositions is also a master-stroke. Not just a reminder of what’s to come, it adds an air of artificiality to everything we see (perfect as well for Sorkin’s smarter-than-life dialogue) – after all, each scene is based on the filtered remembrances of people in the depositions. And all of them remember a subtly different story.

Sorkin and Fincher also manage to avoid having villains in play. It would be easy to make Zuckerberg a villain: many films would have done. But Zuckerberg here isn’t bad – it’s more that he’s tunnel-visioned, selfish and socially inept. Erica (a marvellous turn by Rooney Mara as the first victim of social media bullying) has a point when she says she dumping him not because he’s a geek but because he’s not really a nice person. But Zuckerberg’s actions – his betrayals as some read them – come not from vindictiveness but a shark-like moving forward that leaves people behind him. And he’s also, as the film is keen to show repeatedly, lonely. He has one friend – whom he sacrifices on the altar of his creation – and is ruthless at cutting people out of his life when they fail to meet the standards he has set them.

The film channels the skills of Eisenberg – whose range is not huge – perfectly here, in a role he was surely born to play. Eisenberg crafts his physicality in something hunched, oppressed and sullen while his flat voice is perfect for a man who expresses himself through his creation not his personality. He gives Zuckerberg both a ruthlessness, but also a strange lack of knowledge – constantly surprised that his actions have consequences that leave him alone. He makes him a true lonely god of the internet – the man who invented the biggest social networking centre in the world, but who doesn’t have a friend himself.

But it also makes clear that Zuckerberg lacks the usual flaws of his kind: he’s not interested, it seems, in money, riches, fame or drugs. To him, the prize is to do not to be seen to do. He makes a rich contrast with Sean Parker (a brilliantly charismatic Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who briefly influences him but is primarily interested in the flash and bang that the retiring Zuckerberg isn’t. What he does have is the drive and ruthlessness that his friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderful performance from Andrew Garfield as a marvellously sweet, but clearly naïve and out-of-his-depth man completely lacking the vision a project like Facebook needs) doesn’t have – and which makes Saverin unsuitable for thinking in the global terms Zuckerberg is.

And the film has little time for the Winklevoss twins. Played with chutzpah in a double role by Armie Hammer (who skilfully distinguishes both of them), Zuckerberg is right when he describes them as rich kids who had everything they ever wanted in life – and seem outraged that they can’t be given the rights to Facebook as well. As he points out they intended to do nothing other than come up with a concept. These rowers – in a witty touch their boat is sponsored by that dinosaur Polaroid – also represent the old elite under siege from new media. The entitled rich, who can’t comprehend that the world is being handed to them on a plate.

The film also makes for an intriguing meta-commentary on the growth of social media. From the trolling of Erica, through the bitter feuds and arguments, the he-said-she-said fighting of the depositions, and the quick shifts between friendship and rivalry, it also manages to capture the world of social media in a nutshell. The atmosphere where actions can explode in people’s perception, where statements you made years ago come back to bite you, where judgement and criticism are constant and the ability to communicate more easily also makes fights easier to start, seem more and more prescient.

Fincher’s film does this marvellously, with a wit and sense of dramatic flair that reminds me of a more grounded Network. Sure the scene at Henley-on-Thames is hand-in-the-mouth agonising for any British person to watch (it is littered with major errors from turn-of-phrase to its understanding of life in Britain), but when every other scene in it is perfectly done it doesn’t matter. Like any victory, Facebook has many people claiming to be its father. You could say the film about this film: superbly directed, a brilliant script and perfectly cast, it’s a triumph.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe struggles with reality as Math’s genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (William Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles Herman), Adam Goldberg (Richard Sol), Josh Lucas (Martin Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Judd Hirsch (Professor Helinger)

There is nothing Hollywood likes more than a man overcoming adversity. Make him a troubled genius and that’s even better. Throw in a supportive wife who bends over backwards to help him and you’ve got the dream Hollywood scenario. You can bet Oscars will follow – and they certainly did for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which hoovered up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (it probably would have also nabbed Best Actor if Russell Crowe’s personal behaviour hadn’t turned him from idol to Hollywood’s most unpopular actor).

The film is a romantically repackaged biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a pioneering mathematician whose life was turned upside down by his diagnosis with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Even before then, Nash had become increasingly preoccupied by delusions and fantasies, many of them revolving around “secret government code-breaking work” for a bullying CIA Agent (Ed Harris). Slowly coming to terms with his diagnosis, with the help of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash must learn to put aside the things he knows he are not real, while trying to rebuild his life.

Ron Howard’s film is assembled with his usual assured professionalism. It is never anything less than effective, what it never quite manages to be is inspired. Perhaps because it’s a very standard Hollywood biopic. It effectively presents the life of its troubled genius as something very easily digestible, hitting all the beats of suffering, determination and eventual triumph you could expect when the film starts.

This makes for exactly the sort of middle-brow filmmaking made with absolute professionalism that, if you turn your head and squint a bit, can be made to look like Oscar-winning art. That seems incredibly harsh on the film: but there is really nothing particularly “new” about anything here: in many ways, it could have been made almost exactly the same in the 1940s (and it would probably have won an Oscar then as well).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Howard’s direction is sharp and exact, and he stages the film very well, drawing very good performances out of the cast. The film is good at immersing us in Nash’s delusions, particularly in the first hour of the film (it’s not until the hour mark that anyone overtly states there is anything wrong with Nash beyond eccentricity and social awkwardness). Howard shoots the fantasies totally straight: in fact if you had managed to avoid knowing what the film is about, you can totally imagine being tricked into thinking it’s a genuine spy thriller.

With that though, the film gives you just enough hints. Take a beat and look at Nash’s CIA actions and they don’t make much sense. A secret code that involves him tearing pages out of thousands of magazines and pinning them up around his office connected with bits of string (standard filmic language for the obsessive nutter)? The CIA injecting a number implant into his arm? A dead drop at a posh house which requires letters to be sealed with wax? The film gives us the hints that Nash is more troubled than just awkward around people, but doesn’t lay it on too thick. And at least one plot reveal that something we have seen was in fact a Nash-delusion the whole time is so skilfully presented that it surprised me (and I know surprised several other people).

The film is also strong on schizophrenia and delusion. Reworking Nash’s real-life auditory hallucinations into visual fantasies (including imagined buildings and people) works really effectively for film. It also really opens up for us the horror of how difficult living with something like this might be. How would you feel if you could never trust the world you saw around you? What if you discovered things that were central to your life turned out to be fantasies? That people you had built relationships with were not real? That’s a traumatic emotional burden, and the film is very strong at building your empathy with Nash.

It’s also helped by Crowe’s very effective performance in the lead. Shy, buttoned-up, physically awkward, his eyes always cast down, body slouched and voice an embarrassed mumble, Crowe brilliantly embodies a nervous outsider whose problems fitting in only magnify his growing dependence on fantasies that place him at the centre of the world. There is a touching vulnerability about Crowe here that so rarely gets seen. A big part of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Jennifer Connelly also makes a great deal of her very traditional role as the supportive wife, bringing just the right level of assurance, spark and warmth to the role. Connelly carefully shifts the character from flirtatious confidence to heartbroken but supportive wife. But she doesn’t lose track of Alicia’s own frustrations at living with a medicated, unresponsive husband – even if, of course, any regrets she may have about the way her life turned out are overcome swiftly.

Which of course is completely different from real life where, for all her support, the couple divorced. Nash also had a baby (which he didn’t acknowledge) with a nurse he had an affair with. But these are real life complexities that have no place in a crowd-pleasing biopic like this. Similarly gone are Nash’s possible flirtations with bisexuality, his experiments with drugs or his flashes of violence. Added in are an entirely invented “pen gifting” Princeton ceremony and Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he gives thanks to his loving wife (in real life no such speech happened and the couple were separated). But that’s not the story this film wants to tell, so truth can go hang.

Perhaps these, post-diagnosis, difficulties are why the final third of the story – which sees Nash casting aside the invasive treatments to overcome the power his delusions have over him through willpower alone – is the least involving part. After all, they had to drop most of the actual real-life events that happened (see above). But there simply isn’t as much drama in watching someone quietly adjust to rebuilding a career in maths as there is in seeing them struggle.

Perhaps as well, because maths is a pretty difficult to bring to the screen. The film falls back into many accepted visual tropes – you’ll see a lot of writing on windows – and explains Nash’s theory of co-operative dynamics with a bar-and-booze based conversation around pulling girls in bars. That’s about as far as engagement with maths and understanding his theories goes – but we take it as read that Nash is a genius because he acts like one, people tells he is and he writes lots of big equations on boards.

A Beautiful Mind offers few real surprises (except for one) and presents a story that Hollywood has basically been making for decades. Things from real-life that don’t fit the story have been cut out, to make this as conventional a film as possible: the troubled genius and the loving wife behind him. It’s very well played (as well as Crowe and Connelly, Paul Bettany is brilliantly charismatic as Nash’s eccentric college roommate) and directed with a professional skill. But it’s also a very safe and even conservative film that has skill but not inspiration.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones excel in the thoughtful and well handled The Invisible Woman

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Amanda Hale (Fanny Ternan)

In 1865 Charles Dickens was involved in a train accident. While he worked tirelessly, tending to those caught up in the accident, he was also extremely careful to hide the fact he was travelling with a young actress called Nelly Ternan. Ms Ternan was his lover, had been for several years, and the couple were returning from Paris. Dickens managed to avoid the inquest and preserve the secret of his affair. Because, while he was happy to publicly announce his separation from his wife, the idea of the public hearing that he had an affair with someone 27 years younger than him was unthinkable.

The affair is deduced from careful deduction and the small remaining correspondence (both parties destroyed large numbers of letters) by the biographer Claire Tomlin. Her book forms the basis of Fiennes’ thoughtful, careful and intelligent film, with the director playing Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan. The Invisible Woman is restrained and unjudgmental film-making, that largely avoids obvious moral calls and weaves a beautifully constructed tale of two people who make themselves both happy and miserable.

And that misery is partly due to the times they live in. It’s an era of Victorian morals, where all that matters is the surface appearance and any real emotions underneath can go hang. But it’s also a world where very different rules apply to men and women. Dickens can leave his wife (in a press announcement) – but of course a woman could never do the same. It’s a world of strictly defined rules, with clear roles for both genders that cannot be deviated from. And it forces Nelly Ternan to travel to Paris, because the public shame that would come with her pregnancy by Dickens would destroy her. It’s why, years after Dicken’s death, she is lying about how well she knew the man (even changing her name and age to further distance herself) so that she can conform with the expectations of being a school-master’s wife (and ensure she will not be thrown out to the streets).

The rules are so strong that both Dickens and Ternan are as much in thrall to them as anyone else. Dickens is willing to bend the rules – but only so far. He would clearly never dream of living openly with his unmarried partner and their child as his friend Wilkie Collins (a perfectly cast Tom Hollander) would do. And Nelly Ternan is as outraged at this liaison – and as desperately uncomfortable in their home – as any prim housewife would be. In fact, in many ways, Nelly is even more conservative than Dickens.

But then she has to be. After all, he would be a rogue, she would be a whore. Choices aren’t great for women – and in her chosen career of actress, Nelly is clearly far more enthusiastic than she is talented. It’s worries about the career that leads to her mother – an excellent performance of motherly love mixed with a quiet understanding of the world from Kristin Scott Thomas – all but encouraging Dickens to seduce her daughter. Because, for an independently minded woman passionate about the art, if you can’t be an actress your other option is to be a muse.

Even Dickens seems quietly ashamed at his seduction of this woman, while she half-persuades herself it isn’t happening until it is. So, what draws them together? Refreshingly this isn’t a question of an older man excited by a younger woman – or a naïve woman swept up by a powerful man. Instead, these are kindred spirits. Both of them are passionate, intelligent and questioning. They both express an emotional honesty and openness. They have shared passions for literature, theatre and stories. It’s a romance that slowly blossoms and is based on a shared feeling. It would have been easier to tell a story of seduction and abuse – but this is a more intelligent film than that. At that fatal train accident, its Dickens who yearns to stay with Nelly and its Nelly that urges him to leave to preserve his secrets.

As these two, we have two actors with beautiful chemistry. Felicity Jones is inspired as Nelly Ternan. She both idolises Dickens, but is also drawn towards him on a very human level. She is astute, but conservative and at times even remote. Her older self, over a decade later, is both prickly and defensive – and those are qualities you can trace in her younger self, and not just because of her fear of disgrace. It’s a beautifully judged performance, both older than her time and also with a vibrancy and energy that entrances.

Fiennes, a more reserved actor, seems like an odd choice for the bon vivant Dickens – but he brilliantly excels in the role, full of energy and room-filling dominance. He marvellously conveys the charm and passion of Dickens, but also his thoughtlessness. This is after all a man who drops his wife by newspaper announcement and builds a barrier between their bedrooms. Who loves Nelly, but not enough to make her anything but a secret. Who is passionate and excited about his work, but can be turn distant and cool in his personal life. It’s a fabulous performance.

And the two leads are centred in a low-key, poetic film. You get the sense that there is a danger in getting to close to genius. Dicken’s wife Catherine – a beautifully sad and lonely performance from Joanna Scanlan – even warns Nelly about it (while delivering a gift from her husband, sent to her by mistake). It’s a danger that shapes Nelly’s whole life – but also her life is enriched by having Dickens in it. It’s a film that avoids obvious moral judgments – and while there are things done which cause pain, everyone is living in an imperfect society. Fiennes direction and use of visual language is wonderful and this is an impressive film.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)

film stars dont die in liverpool
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell as an unconventional couple in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Director: Paul McGuigan

Cast: Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Julie Walters (Bella Turner), Kenneth Cranham (Joe Turner), Stephen Graham (Joe Turner Jnr), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Frances Barber (Joy Hallward), Leanne Best (Eileen)

In 1981, Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is performing The Glass Menagerie in Lancaster as part of a UK tour. When she collapses backstage seriously ill, she asks her former lover, young Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), to come to her aid. Peter takes her back to his parents (Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool. The two had met a couple of years ago – Grahame the fading star, Turner the would-be actor – and age hadn’t prevented their relationship flourishing into a passionate romance. The film cuts between what pulled them apart in the past, and the present day, where Turner discovers Grahame has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has at best a few months to live.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on Turner’s book and is directed with just the right stylistic flourish by Paul McGuigan. Fundamentally a straight-forward (even rather conventional) narrative, McGuigan doesn’t crowd out the action and emotion, but skilfully intercuts past and present together (for instance, characters walk through doors in 1981 and emerge in their memories of 1979). This is pretty subtly done throughout (although the glorious, sun-kissed past and the rain drenched Liverpool present isn’t particularly subtle!) and allows the film to focus on its main strengths – the acting.

The success of the film rests on the chemistry – and skill – of the two leads who both give wonderful performances. Annette Bening excels in nearly a career-best role, as a star clinging to the remnants of her career. Outwardly displaying glamour and confidence – complete with a soft-toned movie star voice – it’s a brilliant study of inner fragility and uncertainty. She carefully reveals a Gloria Grahame who is deeply insecure and fragile.

Bening brings a lot of empathy to the role of a slightly lonely woman who has spent years avoiding questions around her own health, terrified that it could make her unemployable. It’s a fear that has a tendency to make her brittle and defensive. And of course, that’s only added to by her knowing that she is ageing in a young person’s profession. Even jokes about age expose her self-doubt and fear. (Peter drops an early clanger when she tells him after their first date she dreams of playing Juliet with the RSC: “You mean the Nurse?” he says without thinking. She throws him out.)

It’s one of the nice things about the film that the only person who really has a concern about age – or ever seems to mention it as an issue – is the older woman. Nobody else in the film questions the relationship between these two on age grounds (all the doubts raised are based on background and, above all, Grahame’s track record with marriage – four and counting). It’s purely an obsession of Grahame’s – because she doesn’t want to be reminded of her own mortality and, unconsciously, the far younger Turner is a constant reminder of this. And Grahame isn’t really that old anyway: certainly not at heart, her vibrancy being one of the first things that attracts Peter to her.

Peter’s feelings though are heart-breakingly genuine, shown in Bell’s wonderfully compassionate performance. McGuigan frequently allows long reaction shots to study the emotional impact of events on the characters, and no-one benefits from this more than Bell whose face is frequently a picture of conflicted, tortured emotion, of grief that he’s only just managing to hold in. Bell is terrific.

The film charts a romance that starts with a blissful freedom, but ends with a very true and heartfelt declaration of love. The past – saturated with cleanliness and colour as it is – is full of fun, romance and semi-surreal early encounters stuffed with expressive dancing (a great reminder that Bell can really move!) and watching Alien. The time the two spend in New York is similarly golden tinged. What draws it to a close is illness – and Grahame’s fears of how it will affect Turner as well as not wanting to live her last few months being nursed by her lover like an invalid.

It’s an involving romance and relationship piece, and it also gives time to how important families can be. Turner’s parents (lovely work from Walters and Cranham) are supportive and caring of Grahame – and his brother (edgy work from Graham) is only frustrated that they put her before their own interests. It makes quite a contrast with Grahame’s family, a mother who seems more interested in herself (Redgrave at her grand damest, showily quoting Shakespeare) and bitchy, jealous sister (a prickly Frances Barber).

But it’s mainly a film about the two leads and while it doesn’t reinvent anything about biopics or romances (or tragic stories of loss), it tells its story neatly and cleanly and allows scope for the acting to do a lot of the work. Bening and Bell more than rise to the challenge.

Invictus (2009)

Morgan Freeman perfectly captures Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar), Tony Kgoroge (Jason Tshabalala), Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko), Julian Lewis Jones (Eitenne Feyder), Patrick Mofokeng (Linga Moonsamy), Matt Stern (Hendrick Booyens), Marguerite Wheatley (Nerine Winter)

Sometimes, very rarely, a man emerges perfectly suited to his time and place. Perhaps there is no finer example than Nelson Mandela, who emerged from a hellish imprisonment for 27 years on Robben Island to become the first black President of South Africa. The man who could have sparked – and arguably would have had the sympathy of many if he had – a wave of policies that inflicted the same unfairness and injustice on the white population that they had poured onto the black for decades. Instead he chose reconciliation and forgiveness. Can you imagine many other political leaders saying when his people were wrong – and that as their leader, his duty is to tell them so? Invictus would be triumph even if it all it did was remind us of the vision and greatness of Mandela. Fortunately it does more than this.

Like many modern film biographies, the film focuses on a single moment or point in history to explore in microcosm a complex man and his dangerous times. When Mandela (Morgan Freeman) comes to power, South Africa is a country seemingly doomed to division. The whites fear and resent the new power the black population has. The black population is keen on vengeance after years of persecution. Mandela however knows there must be a new way: the hatred propagates only itself, and for the country to move on it must come together as one Rainbow Nation. But in this new nation, there are symbols that are particularly divisive. South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks their green and gold colours a symbol of apartheid, are the most visible of these targets.

But Mandela understood that, to bring the country together, he must ease the fears of the white population that the end of the apartheid meant an apocalypse for everything they held dear. He pushes to preserves the Springboks name and their colours. He gives the team his backing, and enlists Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to help him. Because Mandela knows that the approaching Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa, is a glorious opportunity to show the world that the nation is solving its problems. And Mandela is shrewd enough to know that sport can bring people together in ways few other things can. Against all the odds, rugby will become the tool he will use to start the nation healing.

Eastwood’s film is sentimental in the best possible way. It presents a stirring true-life story with a simplicity and honesty that never overpowers the viewer or hammers them over the head. Eastwood also allows space to show in small but telling ways how dangerously divided this country is. From the Presidential staff who start packing up their desks the morning after Mandela’s win, convinced the new President will show them all the door (wrong), to the slow fusing together into one team of Mandela’s personal security staff (black) and their colleagues from the secret service (all white – many of whom arrested Mandela’s colleagues in the past). Even liberal whites like the Pienaar’s keep a black maid as a servant, while ANC party members push for a sweeping aside of every vestige of the old regime.

It’s a dynamite environment in which a single man can make a difference. And with a combination of the sort of patience you learn from 27 years living in a small cell, charm and an unbelievable willingness to turn the other cheek, Mandela is that man. While Eastwood’s film allows beats to remind us he is just a man – his difficult relationship with his family gains a few crucial scenes – the film is also unabashed in its admiration for this titan. And rightly so. Mandela’s smile, his humbleness and his determination to both do the right thing and to avoid provocation is awe-inspiring (his white security guards are stunned that he seems not to hear the abuse he is showered with when attending a rugby game early in his Presidency – he hears and sees everything, their black colleagues assure them).

Morgan Freeman is practically a Hollywood symbol of dignity and righteousness – if he can play God he can play Mandela – and his portrayal of the great man is a perfect marriage of actor and subject. Capturing Mandela’s speech patterns and physicality perfectly, he also brilliantly seizes on his character. This is a man who can put anyone at their ease, who humbly speaks of his excitement of meeting Pienaar, who we see putting hours into learning the names and backgrounds of every member of the South Africa Rugby squad. He’s a realist who knows that change needs time, political muscle and sometimes a willingness to cut corners and force the issue – but he’s also a man to whom principle drives all. Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance is outstanding.

The strength of the film lies in the simple, stirring hope that it derives from seeing the struggle that even small triumphs need. As we see personal relationships begin to grow – from a security team that segregates itself in their office to eventually enjoying a kick-about together – and the growing sense of community in the nation as the world cup draws near, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in the throat. The film doesn’t overegg this, but allows the moments to speak for themselves.

But it’s also a sport film – possibly the highest profile rugby film since This Sporting Life. The film recreates the drama of that World Cup very well – as well as the intense physicality of rugby as a sport. Matt Damon physically throws himself into it, as well as playing Pienaar with a natural ease carefully allowing his sense of national duty and awareness of being part of something larger than himself to grow (although an Oscar nod is still a little generous). The camera throws us wonderfully into the games, and the film largely manages to avoid the manufactured drama of the game (largely because what happened in real life was often dramatic enough!)

Invictus may not be the most revolutionary film ever made – and catch it in the wrong moment and you might think it was a sentimental journey – but it’s made with a matter-of-fact, low-key charm that I think manages to not overwhelm the heart. Instead it manages to produce a great deal of emotion from its carefully underplaying. With a fantastic performance from Morgan Freeman, it’s a wonderful tribute most of all to a very great man, who changed his country and the world for the better through the power of forgiveness – a power he was able to invest a whole nation with.

Amadeus (1984)

Tom Hulce is the childlike genius in Amadeus

Director: Milos Forman

Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Antonio Salieri), Tom Hulce (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Elizabeth Berridge (Constanze Mozart), Roy Dotrice (Leopold Mozart), Simon Callow (Emanuel Schikaneder), Christine Ebersole (Caterina Cavalieri), Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II), Charles Kay (Count Orsini-Rosenberg), Kenneth McMillan (Michael Schlumberg), Richard Frank (Father Vogler), Cynthia Nixon (Lorl), Patrick Hines (Kapellmeister Giuseppe Bonno), Jonathan Moore (Baron von Swieten)

Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was a smash hit play, both at the National Theatre and on Broadway. With such a delicious plot line – captured so beautifully in its tag line “The Man, the Music, the Madness, the Murder!” – is it any wonder that this fable about the life of Mozart, framed around the envy of his contemporary Antonio Salieri who, as an old man, claims to have murdered the great genius, was swiftly bought to the screen? Radically reworked and restructured by Peter Shaffer for the screen, Amadeus may stand as one of the few times where the script for the film is superior to the script for the stage. And the film itself is so carved out of radiance, that every single production of the play will forever live in its shadow.

As an old man Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) confesses to the murder of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). After a suicide attempt, he tells his tale to a young priest (Richard Frank). As a younger man, Salieri was the court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). He has everything he dreamed of as a young man – fame, riches and a life of music – all of which fortune he sees as a sign from God. His world view is shaken with the arrival in Vienna of the young genius Mozart. A brilliant artist and composer, with a God-given gift for composition, Mozart is also everything the reserved Salieri is not – brash, rude, impulsive and a man of once-in-a-generation talent. How, Salieri wonders, could a man like him be given all the gifts, while Salieri’s music is merely competent? Salieri believes this is a cruel joke played on him by God – made worse by the realisation that alone in Vienna society, Salieri seems able to recognise the genius. Salieri decides to destroy this chosen child of God once and for all.

Shot on location in Prague – and Czech defector Milos Forman was treated as a returning hero when he bought the film there – Amadeus is perhaps one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made. The cinematography is luscious, the production design – utilising every inch of the almost untouched-since-the-18th-century Prague settings (Thank God for Communist inefficiency Forman joked) – sinks you into the era completely while the costume design is striking, imaginative and excellent. The film is an opulent feast. But it is a million miles from being a staid period piece – instead this is something fresh, bold and modern.

Amadeus is perhaps one of my favourite films of all time. I just think it gets everything more or less right. Not least, capturing the idea of the passions and struggle of creativity. It’s clear why this story spoke so clearly to Hollywood, because no film captures as well as this one, the horrible plight of the competent journeymen, working every hour, while watching an effortless genius create masterpieces as easy as breathing. That’s the real tension here – and what makes us all empathise with Salieri, at least on some level. All of us have looked at the things we create – be it putting up a shelf to writing a play – and frustratingly seen our grasp exceed our reach, while seeing others do what we have so failed to achieve with frustrating ease.

Matched in with this, it’s a film that understands perhaps better than any other the burdensome process of creation. It’s easy for viewers to just remember the childish excess of Mozart – but Forman and Shaffer also show a dedicated and passionate worker. Hulce’s Mozart crouches over a billiard table, oblivious to the world around him while he composes (the soundtrack, as it often does, is flooded with the score he is composing, while his wife tries to get his attention – snapping to silence as soon as she succeeds). His dedication to his music is absolute – in his first scene, only hearing the orchestra starting to play his music before his arrival snaps him out of his raucously rude flirtatious banter with Constanze. Scenes of him conducting and directing rehearsals pinpoint his exactitude and perfection. Salieri as well is seen frequently labouring carefully and precisely over his work, while lacking the inspiration of Mozart.

It’s pinpointed with a beautiful late scene, where a bed-ridden Mozart dictates his Requiem score to Salieri. Mozart is electric, precise, his thinking fast-paced, complete, his passion for the score all-consuming – with poor Salieri desperately trying to keep up (“You go to fast” he frequently whines). It’s a scene that captures completely the intensity of mining creation. (Hulce apparently deliberately skipped lines during the scene, to add to Abraham’s confusion in the scene – with Abraham’s later agreement!). Its part of what the film beautifully captures, how being able to bring your ideas, perfectly formed, into the world is the most enchanting drug of all.

So you can see why Salieri grows too loath this blessed talent. In a wonderful moment – again perfectly utilising Forman’s decision to use the music as almost a character in the piece – he flicks through a portfolio of Mozart compositions, all of them first drafts devoid of any correction, the music playing in his head (and on the soundtrack) as he reads. It’s the sort of skill his diligent and slavish composition could never achieve.

It’s pinpointed even more in their first scene together, where Mozart arrives at Joseph’s court. The emperor plays a small welcoming march, composed by Salieri, which is fine. Mozart not only memorises the tune on first hearing it (“The rest is just the same?”) but then beautifully starts to play with it before suddenly turning it into an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, composing this beautiful piece on the spot. Nothing could be more devastating but to see your hack work improved in front of others into something genius – and the genius in question to be so oblivious of the impact, that he behaves like he’s done you a favour. No scene in the movies, I believe, has ever captured so completely this world of difference between the journeyman and the artist.

The film is crammed full of moments like this, all perfectly delivered by a perfectly chosen cast. The film was controversial at the time for using American actors – with their natural accents – rather than Brits (the “American accents jar the ear” whined Brit critic Leslie Halliwell). In fact it’s an inspired idea, that adds an air of modernity to the piece, but also principally opens the door to making the whole genre less stuffy (as if 18th century Venetians would speak with received pronunciation). The only characters who speak with English accents are the most upper-class, Italian-fixated, Opera purists. Everyone else – with even Simon Callow (the original stage Mozart, here in his film debut) adopting an accent – speaks with a Yank twang.

F. Murray Abraham beat out seemingly the whole Western acting world to land the leading role of Salieri. (In a backhanded compliment if ever I heard it, Forman suggested on meeting Abraham that he simply was Salieri). Abraham’s precise, detailed and beautifully judged performance – which allows gallons of resentment and self-pity to bubble under the surface of a tight self-control. He also has a wonderful spry lightness as his elder self, who has come to terms with his failures. It’s a brilliant role – and one Abraham struggled to match for decades to come.

Tom Hulce is equally superb as Mozart. I’ve talked a lot about how wonderfully the film – and Hulce – captures inspiration. But Hulce perfectly mixes this with a childlike vulnerability, an impulsive foolishness and sense of absurdity. His Mozart is frequently rude, obnoxious and interested only in a good time – frequently losing nights to drink, sleeping around with a crude sense of humour. But he’s also sweetly childlike, who needs to be looked after – Elizabeth Berridge (very good, a late replacement for Meg Tilly during shooting) as Constanze frequently has to mother him and manage his life and career. The rest of the cast are equally strong, from Jeffrey Jones’ studied normality as the Emperor, to Roy Dotrice’s firmness as Mozart’s disapproving father.

Amadeus brings this all together superbly – Forman’s direction is faultless – and mixes it together with Mozart’s music. Not a single piece of music is used twice in the film, and each quote from the music has been perfectly chosen to reflect the scene, from the film’s opening with Symphony #25 to its close with the Requiem. Sections from opera performances are shown – with the actors conducting (both learnt). The music soaks through the whole film – Shaffer and Forman believed it was the “third lead”. And it perfectly captures the tone and emotion every time, deepening and enriching the film itself.

Winning eight Oscars (including Picture, Director, Actor for Abraham and Screenplay), Amadeus is not only the best film ever made about classical music, it’s also one of the most fascinating and profoundly engaging films ever made about creativity. Does it matter that historically it’s all bunk? Not really at all, as a fictionalised exploration of how the average can be tormented by the extraordinary it’s perfect.

The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme as her Majesty in The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Roger Allam (Robin Janvin), Sylvia Syms (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport), Mark Bazeley (Alistair Campbell), Julian Firth (Jonathan Powell)

It’s easy to assume The Queen is a cozy piece of film-making, not least because writer Peter Morgan’s exploration of the Royal Family has become every one’s favourite costume drama viewing thanks to his series The Crown on Netflix. But that’s to forget the acute sense of the personal and the public Morgan has, and his ability to write himself into the minds of his participants. And he’s perfectly matched here with the wry eye of Stephen Frears. Together they create a film that uses a single moment of history to explore the nature of our institutions and the particular characters of the people that fill them.

The film follows the death and aftermath of Princess Diana, and especially the dramatic public reaction to the death that expressed itself both in unparalleled scenes of national public mourning and hostility to the Royal family. Both are things a lifetime of duty and service have failed to prepare Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) for – but are also things intrinsically understood by her new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). As the public clamour for the Royals to join the public in an exhibition of public grief rises, it’s mixed with a furious demand for a royal ‘mea culpa’ for ruining the life of the “People’s Princess”. Could the Royal Family be finished?

Well of course it wasn’t, and perhaps it’s hard to understand for those who didn’t live through those crazy days of 1997. But there was never anything like it before – people wept in the streets as if they had lost a family member of their own. Princess Diana – a tireless campaigner for charities, who did a great deal to change public perceptions on AIDS among many other issues – was also a brilliant master of public opinion, far more attuned to the countries drift away from stiff-upper-lip reticence towards celebrity-worship sentimentality than the family she married into. As skilful a manipulator of the press, as she was a victim of their hounding, she’d made herself into someone larger than life. It’s the sort of modern cult of celebrity, that few others mastered – and certainly not in the Royal Family.

Diana hangs over the family in the film like a ghost, an embodiment of their sense that the country is drifting away from them. It’s a film where pace and speed are vital, Frears and Morgan brilliantly contrasting the rushing onslaught of events from the car crash to distraught, increasingly angry, crowds gathering outside Buckingham Palace with the relatively sedate official response, which was effectively a private retreat to Scotland and say and do very little. The film has a brilliant sense of the momentum of those crazy days, and of the clash between an institution straitjacketed by tradition and a world where the public exhibition of emotion is de rigour.

What the film finds however is the value in both, and in doing so perhaps becomes one of the greatest adverts for the monarchy – or at the very least for Elizabeth II – you will ever see. A lot of this comes from Helen Mirren superb performance as the Queen. It’s a role Mirren performs with a combination of Sphinx-like genius and a genuine fragility under a veneer of exactitude. Mirren’s Elizabeth is a woman whose sense of duty has led to a lifetime of living as a symbol, a profession that has demanded the avoidance of any sort of personal opinion what-so-ever (something Morgan leans on with his Alan Bennettish early scene, where the Queen chats with a maid about the recent General Election and regrets she never had the chance to tick a box for something). She’s a woman certain that she has performed her duty in the finest tradition of her family.

Her tragedy in the film is the bewildered sense of suddenly finding the country she thought she knew being completely different. Put simply, the destructive Diana, a difficult person privately but loved publically, is a woman she can’t understand – and a country that embraces her is one she struggles to understand as well. Mirren’s Queen has a sharply defined sense of her place and person, but finds herself questioning all that. While sharply refusing to be treated as fool, she has a distressed sense of suddenly being adrift in the world.

Morgan captures all this in a series of engaging “behind the scenes” moments, but his real trick is his sure touch with symbology. A magnificent stag on the grounds, being hunted by all and sundry, could easily have been a clumsy parallel with the Queen, but it’s delivered with real grace and serves as a true emotional catalyst for the Queen (twice!) as she finally begins to understand both her own situation, and the necessity for her to bend her own firm principles and tradition to meet the requirements of this new age.

It’s the main theme of the film, this conflict between tradition and modernism, but the film sees merit in both. Many of the formalities of court life are humoursly spoofed in their intricate pomposity, but the overblown sentimentalism and knee-jerk judgamentalism of the modern world are hardly much better. As Blair himself, the arch modernist, observes there will always be a place for a head of state who gives us a symbol to aspire to. Not least, because the burden of standing for things and being driven to play to the masses will eventually lead to the destruction of most political careers (the film mines a fair bit of material between the implicit comparison of Blair’s saint-like popularity in 1997 to the wreckage of his “Bliar” reputation in 2006).

Frear’s film is a gentle critique but also a sharp defence of the institution of the monarchy, as practiced by the Queen. It may pain her, but she will get on with it. Morgan’s script also suggests her quiet wisdom – the film’s coda has her suggesting that Diana, like all things popular today, will pass. 

The film is less sure footed elsewhere. It’s portrayal of New Labour at times leans a bit too heavily into public perception – Campbell (played by a bullying Mark Bazaely) as a brash blow-hard, Labour as being obsessed with spin and image, Cherie Blair as a judgemental Shrew. Other members of the Royal family sometimes bend into parody – by the time of the Crown, Peter Morgan was to find Prince Philip as a far more fascinating and richer character than he is here. But the performances are strong across the board, as if following their head of state in Mirren. Sheen’s re-creation of Blair is pitch perfect, and he also aptly understands the difficult balance in Blair between genuine decency and ambition. Roger Allam also provides a wonderfully dry cameo as the Queen’s old fashioned secretary, while Alex Jennings does a neat impersonation of a Charles desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing.

The Queen’s main interest though is showing that tradition and modernism can sit side-by-side – and that a leaning too far in either direction is harmful for all involved. It sprinkles in intriguing levels of criticism for Diana, but matches that with a respect for the Queen, that makes her real while keeping her a symbol. Helen Mirren’s performance deserved every price going, and the film itself rewards with each new viewing.

Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes to the ring in Scorsese’s marvellous Raging Bull

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenora LaMotta), Frank Vincent (Salvy Batts), Lori Anne Flax (Irma LaMotta)

On the surface, Raging Bull seems an unusual topic for Scorsese. A sports biopic? For this, the least sports-engaged director in Hollywood? Even in Scorsese’s most masculine works, sports are always noticeable for their absence. But Raging Bull is a masterpiece, a film whose legacy has seen it named as the greatest film of the 1980s, showcasing possibly Robert De Niro’s most famous performance. A brilliant combination of art, searing personal drama and boxing, Raging Bull may not always be the easiest watch in the world, but it’s a scintillating piece of cinema.

Opening in 1964, we see the overweight, ageing Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) preparing for a comic stand-up routine. From there, the film flashes back to the younger Jake in the ring, with the film following LaMotta’s boxing career. However, the real drama is in his out-of-the-ring relationships, with his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) and his second, younger, wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). LaMotta inside the ring is a bull, a man who can take unbelievable levels of punishment. Outside the ring though he is a fragile, paranoid, self-loathing man with a sharp self-destructive streak, whose envy and jealousy systematically destroys every relationship he touches.

Watching the film, its clear Scorsese knows very little about boxing but fortunately he knows everything about filmmaking. Raging Bull is a marvel, a superbly made and directed marvel. Scorsese’s triumphant decision was to shoot the film in black-and-white (some truly beautiful work from Michael Chapman). This gives the film both the classic, gorgeous feel of a 1940s Hollywood movie, but also allows the boxing matches themselves to take on an almost impressionistic artistry, with powerfully emotive monochrome images. The photography also creates a stark, documentary like sense of reality for the many scenes of domestic disharmony and violence, while later shots brilliantly allow LaMotta (lost in self-loathing and disgust) to almost disappear into the inky darkness of the frame. Raging Bull would be half the film it is, if it was in full colour.

Recovering from a cocaine addiction that nearly killed him, Scorsese was intimately familiar with self-destruction – and its perhaps this that drew him towards LaMotta’s jealousy, possibly the film’s major theme. LaMotta is a self-loathing individual, who sees little value in himself, who treats pummellings in the ring like just punishments and believes everyone is betraying him. It’s one of the finest films about the green-eyed monster ever made. Obsessed with his younger wife – whom LaMotta first encounters at age 15 and whom he marries as soon as she is legal – LaMotta also earnestly believes she is sleeping with every man around. It’s clear that these paranoid fantasies stem from his own disgust at himself, LaMotta’s own conviction that there is nothing of value in him.

It’s this jealousy that really destroys LaMotta, his trigger-happy temper seeing him able to switch on an instant from a calm – but monomaniacal – insistence that he just wants to know the truth about his wife, to indiscriminate violence. LaMotta is an impulsive, excessive creature who does everything to a huge degree, from doubting his wife, to shovelling food into his guts. Scorsese’s camerawork – particularly it’s La Dolce Vitaish love of Cathy Moriarty – reflects LaMotta’s internal dysfunction. It worships Moriarty in the same way LaMotta does, but also reflects his obsessive possessiveness.  

All of this is further captured in Robert De Niro’s iconic performance. De Niro won the Oscar for this stunning tour de force. Raging Bull became almost as famous for De Niro’s all-consuming preparation: he trained for months to achieve the physique and skill of a professional boxer (he even entered some professional bouts, winning two out of three). He then went completely the other way, the entire film going on a four month hiatus while De Niro went on an eating tour around Italy to pile on the pounds for the ageing, overweight LaMotta. At the time it seemed like no other actor had gone to such levels.

This focus on De Niro’s preparation sometimes obscures in the mind the genius of the actual performance, as if we have almost been blinded by the training and technique behind it. De Niro’s energy, his fury, his intelligent understanding of the fractured mind of the paranoid brilliantly brings LaMotta to life. So intense is the actor’s understanding of the disgust that lies at the heart of LaMotta’s personality that, even at his worst, the man is never completely unsympathetic. De Niro rages through scenes of jealous outbursts and violence, but he also has a childish gentleness of the man unable to understand the world around him, twice in the film collapsing into bursts of affecting tears. The older LaMotta is perhaps wiser, but just as inarticulate in emotions as his younger version and as unable to fix the damage. It’s a masterful performance, a physical and emotional tour-de-force.

De Niro also worked closely on the choreography of the boxing scenes, which allowed Scorsese the freedom to shoot these with an imagination and brilliance that had never been seen before. Each fight has its own unique feel, with Scorsese understanding that this sport is a neat parallel for how LaMotta sees life, a series of brutal clashes with pride and self-regard on the line. Scorsese’s fights are elemental clashes – the soundtrack frequently uses slowed sounds to create an animalistic roar.

The camera is frequently thrown into the ring with the pugilist – and LaMotta here is really more of a pugilist than a boxer, there is very little sense of tactics – with low angles and tight camerawork. Scorsese puts the camera – and the viewer – into the ring, making us part of the fights. Every punch and blow carries impact, and this is perhaps the most blood drenched boxing film in history, with the darkened liquid covering the faces of the fighters and dripping from the ropes of the ring. The fights reflect LaMotta’s mood, with one late fight seeming like an almost medieval battle, mist rolling in and the fighters flying at each other with a reckless abandon. There is nothing romantic about boxing here, it’s a grimy reality of violence with a purpose and brute strength, endurance challenges that only the strongest can emerge from.

LaMotta’s confidence and mastery of the ring is contrasted throughout with his lack of nous and understanding in the real world, and his ability to destroy everything he touches. Joe Pesci excels as his supportive brother who realises far too late the uncontrollable anger at the heart of this fighter, while Cathy Moriarty is also excellent as a young woman whose only real mistake is to want to live some part of her own life. Scorsese charts LaMotta’s destruction of both of these relationships, culminating in the washed up boxer pounding the walls of a jail cell weeping and screaming “Why! Why! Why!”, hatred for his self-destruction dripping from every pore.

Raging Bull looks unlike any other boxing film, instead like a perfectly formed art piece, its soundtrack full of classical tunes and its photography adjusting between the beauty of neo-realism and the cold realities of documentary film making. It’s superb, a masterful film, a work of art and also a profound understanding of the destructive impact of jealousy and self-loathing. Showcasing career defining work from De Niro, it’s no wonder this is still hailed as the greatest film of the 1980s and one of the greatest of all time.