Tag: Brian Cox

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (2007)

A chilling chronicle of the hunt for a serial killer told with a superb mix of journalism and filmic flair

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jnr (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sergeant Jack Mulanax), Donal Logue (Captain Ken Narlow), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), Chloë Sevingy (Melanie Graysmith), John Terry (Charles Thieriot), Philip Baker Hall (Sherwood Morrill), Zach Grenier (Mel Nicolai)

It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of American history, like San Francisco’s version of Jack the Ripper. For a large chunk of the late 60s and early 70s, a serial killer known only as “the Zodiac killer” murdered at least five (and claimed 37) innocent people, all while sending mysterious, cipher-filled letters to San Francisco newspapers, taunting police and journalists for failing to catch him and threatening further violent acts. The investigation sifted through mountains of tips and half clues but only produced one possible suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen: though no fingerprint or handwriting match could conclude a case.

The story of the hunt for this elusive killer, stretching into the 1980s and concluding with another dead-end coda in 1992, is bought to the screen in a film from David Fincher that expertly mixes cinematic flair with journalistic observation. Channelling All the President’s Men and 70s conspiracy thrillers as much as it does the dark obsession of Fincher’s Seven, Zodiac is a master-class not only in the bewildering detail of large-scale investigations (in the days before computer records and DNA evidence) but also the grinding, destructive qualities of obsession, as those hunting the Zodiac killer struggle to escape the shadow of a case that grows to dominate their lives.

Zodiac focuses on three men, all of whom find their lives irretrievably damaged by their investigation. At first, it seems the drive will come from Robert Downey Jnr’s Paul Avery. Avery is the hard-drinking, charismatic, old-school crime correspondent on the San Francisco Chronicle. In a performance exactly the right-side of flamboyant narcissism, Downey Jnr’s Avery is a man who likes to appear like he takes nothing seriously, even while the burden of the case (and a threat to his life from the Zodiac killer) tips him even further into a drink habit that is going to leave him living in a derelict houseboat, in a permanent state of vodka-induced intoxication.

The second is Inspector Dave Tosci, a performance of dogged, focused professionalism from Mark Ruffalo. He’s confident he’ll find his man, and will go to any lengths to do it, staying on call night and day, and hoarding facts about the case like a miser. He relies more than he knows on level-headed, decent partner Bill Armstrong (played with real warmth by Anthony Edwards). Tosci’s self-image and belief slowly crumble as every lead turns dead end, every gut instinct refuses to be backed by the evidence. The killing spree becomes his personal responsibility, a cross he bears alone for so long that when a belated letter from Zodiac surfaces in 1978, his own superiors believe Tosci sent it in some vain attempt to keep a cooling case alive.

Our third protagonist, present from the arrival of the very first Zodiac letter at the door of the Chronicle, is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith. A quiet, studious, teetotal political cartoonist who is literally a boy scout, Graysmith spent a huge chunk of the 70s and 80s trying to crack the case, eventually turning his investigation into a best-selling book. It’s Graysmith who becomes the focus of Fincher’s investigation of obsession. The glow of monomania is in Gyllenhaal’s eyes from the very start, as the cipher and its deadly message spark a mix of curiosity and moral duty in him. He feels compelled to solve the crime, but it’s a compulsion that will overwhelm his life. The Zodiac is his Moby Dick, the all-powerful monster he must slay to save the city. (“Bobby, you almost look disappointed” Avery tells him, when Avery suggests some of the Zodiac’s murderous claims are false, as if reducing the wickedness of the Zodiac also reduces the power of Graysmith’s quest.)

The real Graysmith commented when he saw the film, “I understand why my wife left me”. It’s a superb performance of school-boy doggedness, mixed with quietly fanatical, all-consuming obsession from Gyllenhaal, as the film makes clear how close he came (closer than almost anyone else) to cracking the case, but nearly at the cost of his own sanity. Graysmith pop quizzes his pre-teen children on the case over their breakfast (a far cry from, at first, his instinct to shield his son from the press coverage) and as he becomes increasingly unkempt, so his house more and more becomes a mountain of boxes and case notes.

It’s the secondary theme of Zodiac: how obsession doesn’t dim, even when events and evidence drop off. The second half of the film features very little new in the case (which peaked in the early 70s) but focuses on the lingering impact of the ever more desperate and lonely attempts to solve it. Armstrong, the most well-adjusted of the characters, perhaps knew it was a hopeless crusade when he threw his cards in and left the table after a few years to spend time with his children while they grew up. Avery cashes out as well – even if his health never recovers. Tosci is cashiered from the game, and even Graysmith finally realises the impact on him.

That second half of the film is long. Too long. It also, naturally, leaves us with no ending – a sad coda that hints at the guilt of primary (only) suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, but gives us (just like the surviving victims) no closure. It’s fitting, and deliberate, but still the only real flaw of Zodiac is that, at 150 minutes, it’s too long. The deliberate draining of life from the case, like a deflating balloon, also impacts the narrative, which consciously drops in intensity (and, to a degree, interest – despite Gyllenhaal’s subtle and complex work as Graysmith). It’s even more noticeable considering the compelling flair with which Fincher delivers the first half of his scrupulously researched film.

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent almost 18 months interviewing everyone involved with the case. Nothing was included in the film unless it could be verified by witnesses. That included the crimes of the Zodiac: only attacks where there were survivors are shown, the only minor exception being Zodiac’s murder of a taxi driver (where only distant eye-witnesses were available) – even then, every event is confirmed by ballistics and no dialogue is placed into the mouth of the victim. The film also acknowledges the unknown nature of the Zodiac killer: each time the masked killer appears in recreations of his crime he is played by a different (masked) actor, subtle differences in build, tone of voice and manner reflecting the contradictory eye-witness statements. These chilling scenes are shot with a sensitivity that sits alongside their horrifying brutality. Fincher felt a genuine responsibility to reflect the horror of what happened, but with no sensationalism.

Instead, he keeps his virtuoso brilliance for the investigation. The newspaper room filling with the super-imposed scrawl of the Zodiac killer, while the actors read out the words. Restrained but hypnotic editing, carefully grimed photography, camera angles that present everyday items in alarming new ways, a mounting sense of grim tension at several moments that makes the film hard to watch. A superb sequence surrounding the Zodiac’s demand to speak to celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (a gorgeous cameo from Brian Cox), first on a live TV call-in show, then in person (a “secret meeting” swamped by armed police, which Zodiac, of course, doesn’t turn up to). This is direction – aided by masterful photography (Harris Savides) and editing (Angus Wall) – that immerses us in a world (like drowning in a non-fiction bestseller), while never letting its flair draw attention to itself.

Zodiac was a box-office disappointment and roundly forgotten in 2007. It’s too long and loses energy, but that’s bizarrely the point. It implies, heavily, that Allen (played with a smug blankness by John Carroll Lynch) was indeed the killer, but doesn’t stack the deck – every single piece of counter evidence is exhaustingly shown. In fact, that’s what the film is: exhaustive in every sense. It leaves you reeling and tired. It might well have worked better, in many ways, as a mini-series. But it’s still a masterclass from Fincher and one of the most honest, studiously researched and respectful true-life crime dramas ever made. And just like life, it offers neither easy answers, obvious heroes or clean-cut resolutions, only doubts and lingering regrets.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

You’ll believe an ape can talk in this brilliant relaunch of a franchise that had become a joke

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Dr Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Dr Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs), Terry Notary (Rocket/Bright Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Richard Ridings (Buck)

It was always a concept some found hard to take seriously. Actors, in heavy make-up, pretending to the Ape masters of Planet Earth. It didn’t help that, after the first few films in the Planet of the Apes franchise the quality took a complete nosedive. Quite a lot for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to overcome: could it take this staple of popular culture and make it not only not a joke, but something people actually wanted to see? Well yes it certainly could. Rise is an intelligent, cinematically rich, surprisingly low-key and brilliantly done relaunch.

It has the advantage of course of decades of special-effects development. Gone are the days of Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit. Now motion capture can literally transform an actor into a chimp. In a way that other Planet of the Apes films never could, it can make the Apes the centre of the film. And if you are going to call for an actor who can help you bring life to a motion capture created character, who else are you going to call but Andy Serkis?

Serkis plays Caesar, the ape who (those of us familiar with the franchise know) will become the founder of the Ape civilisation. The first Ape who stood up and said “No”. He’s the son of Bright Eyes, a chimp who receives ALZ-112, an experimental drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. Its invented by Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), desperate to cure his father Charles (John Lithgow). The experiment goes wrong and Bright Eyes is killed – but not before giving birth to Caesar, who inherits unnatural levels of intelligence from the drug. Will protects and raises Caesar, treating him as a son. But when Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to see it as his mission to help his fellow apes. The revolution starts here.

Rise – for all it has a computer effect in almost every frame – works because it is small-scale intimate story. For a film full of nothing but effects, it feels remarkably like a sort of sci-fi relationship drama. It’s effectively about a child learning to become a man and find his own destiny, leaving behind a loving (but ineffective) father who, unknowingly, is blocking his progress, to stand as his own man (or rather ape). The motion capture is so stunningly well-done you forget that you are looking at a special effect for in almost every frame, and instead accept Caesar as our lead character.

Wyatt’s film eases us into this, centring Will (played with a generosity and warmth by James Franco) as our lead character and filtering our perception of Caesar through his eyes, as he grows up in his suburban house and learns to climb in San Francisco’s Redwood forests. The careful shift to making Caesar our central character – complete by the time we see him imprisoned in the dangerous environment of the ape sanctuary – is so masterfully done, that we hardly notice that large chunks of the second half of the film take place in wordless silence among the apes, Caesar’s thoughts and emotions communicated only by body language, expressive eyes and hand gestures.

To get that to work, you need a stunning actor behind it. Serkis’ performance is extraordinary: he used motion capture to become an ape, exactly capturing the physicality but also marrying it with real human emotions. We can look at Caesar’s face at any point and know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. His joy in his home, his protective fury when a confused Charles is assaulted by a furious neighbour, his distress at being locked away, his fear and confusion at his new surroundings his hardening resolve and his determination to liberate his fellow apes. This is extraordinary stuff.

It’s not just Serkis. Every ape has a talented actor behind it. Notary is a master of ape physicality, Konoval creates a beautifully wise and tender orangutan, Ridings finds loyalty and tenderness in a gorilla, Christopher Gordon a psychotic energy to abused lab-rat ape Koba. The marriage between actor and ape is perfect, and means we are completely on their side against mankind (be it in the lab or the ape sanctuary) they are up against. Wordless sequences of Caesar’s ingenuity: establishing himself as the Alpha with shrewd combat tactics, winning friends with cookies, stealing drugs to gift the other apes his own intelligence (their silent wonder at their interior worlds expanding is brilliantly done) and finally leading a revolt (including that goose-bumps rousing “No!”) is superb.

Wyatt’s skilful, calm and controlled visual storytelling is a triumph in making the determination of a CGI Ape a punch-the-air moment. Wyatt makes each Ape as much – sometimes more – of a character than the humans and weaves an emotionally complex story for Caesar. This isn’t about an angry Ape leading bloody revolution. This is a confused, gentle teenager trying to work out who he is. Is he Will’s son or his pet (do sons normally wear leashes in public)? Is he a dreamer or a leader? And, above all, is a man or an ape? When push comes to shove, where will his loyalties lie?

This makes for emotionally rich stuff – so much so that when the Apes make a final act stand for freedom on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll shed tears over the self-sacrifice of one of their number. It’s also an intriguing look at humanity, none of whom come out as well as they could. The ‘good’ people – like Will and ape sanctuary worker Rodney – are kind but ineffective (everything Will does goes horrifically wrong, despite his best intentions). The ‘bad’ – Oyelowo’s money-first Drugs Company CEO or Cox and Felton as abusive ape sanctuary owners – are corrupt, selfish and greedy. No wonder the apes, stuck in a hole and only pulled out to be sold for drugs trials, feel so angry.

It’s not perfect. There are some clumsy, awkward homages to the original film (the worst being Felton shrieking “it’s a mad house!”) that don’t pay off. The human characters are at times two dimensional. But that doesn’t matter when the story-telling around the chimps is so superbly done. Wyatt fills the film with effects, but focuses so completely on character and emotion that it never feels like that for a moment. Rise is a small, intimate film about personal growth and a struggle for limited freedom. It helps make it a powerful and highly effective one – and easily superior to every Apes film made since 1968. A superb start to what became a wonderful trilogy.

Braveheart (1995)

“Freedom!” Mel Gibson’s Braveheart escapes the shackles of history

Director: Mel Gibson

Cast: Mel Gibson (William Wallace), Sophie Marceau (Princess Isabelle), Patrick McGoohan (Edward I), Angus MacFadyen (Robert the Bruce), Brendan Gleeson (Hamish), David O’Hara (Stephen), James Cosmo (Campbell), Peter Hanly (Prince Edward), Catherine McCormack (Murron MacClannough), Ian Bannen (Bruce’s Father), Sean McGinley (MacClannough), Brian Cox (Argyle Wallace)

Think back to 1994 and a time when no one really knew who William Wallace was and Mel Gibson was the world’s favourite sexy bad-boy. Because by 1995, William Wallace had become the international symbol of Scottish “Freedom!” and Mel Gibson was an Oscar-winning auteur. Can you believe a film like Braveheart won no fewer than five Oscars, including the Big One? History has not always been kind to it – but then the film was hardly kind to history, so swings and roundabouts.

It’s the late 13th century and Scotland has been conquered by the cruel Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) – a pagan apparently, which just makes you think that Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace simply don’t know what that word means. William Wallace (Mel Gibson) saw his whole family killed, but now he’s grown and married to his sweetheart Murron (Catherine McCormack). In secret, as the wicked king has introduced Prima Nocte to Scotland, giving English landlords the right to do as they please with brides on the wedding night. When Murron is killed after a fight to avoid her rape, Wallace’s desire for revenge transforms into a crusade to win Scotland its freedom. A brilliant tactician and leader of men, battles can be won – but can Wallace win the support of the ever-shifting lords, such as the conflicted Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen)? Will this end in freedom or death?

Even in 1995, Braveheart was a very old-fashioned piece of film-making. You can easily imagine exactly the same film being made (with less sex and violence) in the 1950s, with Chuck Heston in a kilt and a “Hoots Mon!” accent. In fact, watching it again, I was struck that narratively the film follows almost exactly the same tone and narrative arc as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – with the only difference being if that film had concluded after the Sheriff’s attack on Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood gutted alive in the streets of Nottingham.

This is a big, silly cartoon of a movie, that serves up plenty of moments of crowd-pleasing violence, low comedy, heroes we can cheer and villains we can hiss. Mel Gibson, truth be told, sticks out like a sore thumb with his chiselled Hollywood looks and defiantly modern mannerisms. The film takes a ridiculously simplistic view of the world that categorises everything and everyone into goodies (Wallace and his supporters) and the baddies (almost everyone else).

It’s also far longer than you remember it being. It takes the best part of 50 minutes to build up to Wallace going full berserker after the death of his wife. A later section of the film spends 30 minutes spinning plates between Wallace being betrayed at the Battle of Falkirk and then being betrayed again into captivity (you could have combined both events into one and lost nothing from the film). There is some lovely footage of the Scottish (largely actually Irish) countryside, lusciously shot by John Toll and an effectively Celtic-influenced romantic score by James Horner. In fact, Toll and Horner contribute almost as much to the success of the film as Gibson.

Gibson is by no means a bad director. In fact, very few directors can shoot action and energy as effectively as the controversial Australian. The best bits of Braveheart reflect this. When he’s shooting battles, or fights, or brutal executions he knows what he’s doing. Even if I’d argue that Kenneth Branagh managed to make much less than this look more impressive in Henry V. The battles have an “ain’t it cool” cheek to them, that invites the audience to delight in watching limbs hacked off, horses cut down and screaming Woad-covered warriors ripping through stuffy English soldiers. It’s probably not an accident that the film channels more than a little bit of sport-fan culture into its Scottish warriors.

Where Gibson’s film is more mundane is in almost everything else. The rest of the film is shot with a functional mundanity, mixed with the odd sweeping helicopter shot over the highlands. Its similarities to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are actually really strong, from the matey bonhomie of the gang at its heart, its pantomime villain, the moral certainty of its crusades and the fact that Mel Gibson is no more convincing as a 13th-century Scot than Kevin Costner was as Robin Hood. But at least Prince of Thieves knew it was a silly bit of fun. Braveheart thinks it’s got an important message about the immortality of Freedom.

Alongside that, it’s a film that focuses on giving you what you it thinks you want. Gladiator – in many ways a similar film – is a richer and more emotional film, not least because it has the courage to stick to being a film where the hero is faithful to his dead wife and whose triumph is joining her in death. In this film, there are callbacks throughout to the dead Murron – but it doesn’t stop Wallace banging Princess Isabelle, or the film using the same sweeping romantic score to backdrop this as it did for the marriage of Murron and Wallace. What on earth is it trying to say here?

It goes without saying that the real Wallace did not have sex with Princess Isabelle and father Edward III – not least because the real Isabelle was about ten when Wallace died and I’m not sure putting thatin the film would have had us rooting for Wallace. Almost nothing in the film is historically accurate. Wallace is presented as a peasant champion, when he in fact was a minor lord (the film even bizarrely keeps in Wallace travelling Europe and learning French and Latin – a big reach for a penniless medieval Scots peasant). Even the name Braveheart is taken from Robert the Bruce and given to Wallace. The Bruce himself – a decent performance by Angus MacFadyen – is turned into a weak vacillator, under the thumb of his leprous Dad (a lip-smacking Ian Bannen).

The historical messing about doesn’t stop there. Even Wallace’s finest hour, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is transformed. The film-makers apparently felt the vital eponymous bridge “got in the way” – a sentiment shared by the English, who in reality were drawn into its bottleneck and promptly massacred. Instead we get a tactics free scrap in a field – fun as it is to watch the Scots lift their kilts, it hardly makes sense. The Scots culture in this film is a curious remix of about five hundred years of influences all thrown into one. Prima Nocte never happened. The real Edward II was a martial superstar – but here is a fey, limp-wristed sissy (the film’s attitude towards him stinks of homophobia). Almost nothing in the film actually happened.

But the romance of the film made it popular. It’s a big, crowd-pleasing, cheesy slice of Hollywood silliness. The sort of film where Wallace sneaks into someone’s room at the top of a castle riding a freaking horse and no-one notices. It tells a simple story in simple terms, using narrative tricks and rules familiar from countless adventure films since The Adventures of Robin Hood. It looks and sounds great, enough to disguise the fact that it isn’t really any good. Because it has a sad ending, scored with sad music, it tricked enough people to think it had depth and style. In fact is a very mediocre film, hellishly overlong, that turns history into a cheap comic book. It remains in the top 100 most popular films of all time on IMDB. It’s about as likely an Oscar winner as 300.

The Boxer (1997)

Daniel Day-Lewis returns from 14 years in prison in this passionate but obvious film about the Troubles in Ireland, The Boxer

Director: Jim Sheridan

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Danny Flynn), Emily Watson (Maggie), Brian Cox (Joe Hamill), Ken Stott (Ike Weir), Gerard McSorley (Harry), David Hayman (Hamill’s aide), Ciaran Fitzgerald (Liam)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan collaborated before this on the stirring, passionate and angry In the Name of the Father, a film that acutely analysed the impact of the Troubles on ordinary people. That film was about a miscarriage of justice that ruined lives. This film tries to cover similar ground, but somehow the force of the narrative never really comes together as much as it should.

The Boxer himself Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison after 14 years, due to his peripheral involvement with the IRA. He’s guilty for sure, but has played the game inside and refused to name names. He comes out still in love with Maggie (Emily Watson) – but she is married to another man currently in prison (putting her out of bounds by the code pushed by the IRA). Making things more complex, her father Joe (Brian Cox) is a leading IRA man currently part of negotiations with the British government. Danny and his former trainer Ike (Ken Stott), now a struggling alcoholic, decide to reopen the local boxing gym, making it a denomination free facility for all the community. But their efforts to try and build bridges are not welcomed by all – not least local IRA enforcer Harry (Gerard McSorley) who makes it his mission to destroy Danny.

Why does The Boxer not work as well it should do? It’s got nothing to do with the commitment of the cast, all of whom offer excellent performances. Day-Lewis, inevitably, spent almost three years in preparation learning to be a boxer. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t really give anyone here something interesting to play with. Instead it makes fairly familiar points about the dangers when we let hatred govern our lives, and carefully sorts and packages most of its characters into goodies and baddies, while making sure in every single scene we are always told exactly what we should be thinking and feeling.

It’s a flaw that I’ve often found in other of Sheridan’s films. He’s a passionate but rather blunt director, full of righteous anger and a determination to make films that carry a social message. But he often makes these points without subtlety or imagination. Here we get an Ireland shot almost completely in a washed-out blue, with the tensions of a community increasingly simplified down into rotten apples playing on the fears and resentments of different groups to continue the spiral of hate.

In the middle of this, Sheridan places a love story between Day-Lewis and Watson’s character that both of them play with a tender commitment and an emotional vulnerability, but which never really invests the audience. It always feels too heavily built on cinematic contrivance – with its long separation, new relationships and social obstacles put in the way. Much as Day-Lewis and Watson give it their all, they never manage to make it feel anything other than it is – a rather tired “movie” love story, that moves it characters through familiar beats.

More interesting than this by far are the real tensions in a community that is tired of violence and wants to move on, but keeps on getting dragged back into old ways because there is simply too much history to overcome. The most interesting character by far is Brian Cox’s IRA bigwig, a man carrying a burden of blood from the past but has an actual desire to see the country change. A film about a man like this, trying to walk a tightrope between negotiations with the British and keeping his own furious foot-soldiers in line (when all they want to do is to bomb something) would have carried real impact. Sadly, it’s too often relegated to the margins of the story while the film follows the immediate social impact of Danny trying to find a third way between war and surrender.

Peaceful co-operation is what Danny wants, and the gym for all people in the Belfast community is how he intends to go about it. Boxing itself is peripheral to the film – what really matters is that idea of bringing people together, of giving them something they can all own and feel some pride in. It’s an idea that Ike believes in above all things, and the prospect of recreating it with Danny’s release from prison gives his life real meaning (Ken Stott is very good as a character who is something of a cliché but still carries a real emotional wallop). Ike and Danny’s vision offers the community a possibility of moving on – something some are not ready to take on.

Not least Harry, played by a quietly fuming Gerard McSorley, prowling scenes like a man who can’t wait to hit someone. The film does at time suggest that there are “good” IRA and “bad” IRA chaps (with Harry firmly in the bad), but it does at least show that these extremists are a danger to everyone, not least the people they claim to protect. Harry’s prejudice towards Danny is motivated above all by his fear of Ireland’s way of life changing, and in that way it forms a decent expression of the film’s core message about the difficulty – but essentialness – of moving on.

Sheridan’s film is a cry for hope and opportunity at a difficult time – and its alarming watching it now to remember what a ghastly place Northern Ireland was at this time, when it’s so well known today as the Game of Thrones backlot. It’s just a shame that the story feels like such a – well – story. The film feels like a slightly over-cooked melodrama, and as the character clashes you expect and the twists you can see coming start to work their way into the narrative, it feels like the central story of a man wanting to make a better life for himself and his neighbourhood gets lost in the mix.

And it does. That’s the basic weakness of The Boxer in the end. For all of Day-Lewis’ skill and Watson’s emotional truth, their story just ends up feeling not that important, you feel that the more interesting things are happening on the margins: Cox’s IRA man feels more worthy of a film, while Stott gets some of the most electric moments of emoting. Sheridan’s film has fire in it, but it ends up burning up his main narrative, while the story relies too heavily on melodrama and cliché. Eventually it fizzles out and you end up not feeling as outraged as you should. Where the true story of In the Name of the Father helped control Sheridan’s spoon-feeding tendencies, here the fictional story allows full reign for the sort of narrative twists that end up feeling a little too tired and obvious.

Ironclad (2011)

James Purefoy carries a big sword in nonsense medieval blood bath Ironclad

Director: Jonathan English

Cast: James Purefoy (Thomas Marshall), Brian Cox (William d’Aubigny), Derek Jacobi (Reginald de Cornhill), Kate Mara (Lady Isabel), Paul Giamatti (King John), Charles Dance (Archbishop Stephen Langton), Jason Flemyng (Becket), Jamie Foreman (Jedediah Coteral), Mackenzie Crook (Daniel Marks), Rhys Parry Jones (Wulfstan), Aneurin Barnard (Guy), Vladimir Kulich (Tiberius)

Let’s just take a moment to enjoy the fact that the most expensive film ever made entirely in Wales was directed by a guy called English. After that, you can enjoy the guilty-pleasure hack and blood nonsense of this sort of proto-Game of Thrones,which bears almost as much resemblance to British history as George RR Martin’s souped up re-tread with extra dragons.

Anyway, King John (Paul Giamatti) has signed Magna Carta – as always that document which gave the barons some say in the government is here reimagined as some sort of manifesto for a socialist revolution – but now Rome has told John that he doesn’t need to stick to it after all. So John hires (honestly) a load of Viking warriors to take out his enemies. Yes that is just as silly as it sounds. Before we know it, the barons need to take control of Rochester Castle, a stronghold which is apparently the key to the south of England. So Baron William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) puts together a “Dirty Dozen” (well Dirty Half Dozen, it’s a British budget after all) to defend the castle, led by Templar knight Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy). Let the siege begin!

If that doesn’t give you an idea of the way the film mixes and matches parts of British history into some sort of heady brew, I don’t know what will. We got King John! We got Magna Carta! We got Templar knights! We got Vikings! All of this is frozen into a hyperviolent mixture of historical epic and “men on a mission” war film, with added limbs flying off left, right and centre. Most of it is delivered at an absurdly energised pace. At least all involved seem aware that they are making a stoopid B movie, rather than some sort of genuine historical epic.

Criticising the history of the supposed historical epic seems completely superfluous, so instead sit back and enjoy the skill with which Jonathan English apes Neil Marshall in his blood letting and imaginative slaughter. Sure, he hasn’t got Marshall’s narrative skill or his ability to carve human interest out of even the most basic cardboard characters. But he still manages to present what we see with enough sense of action and adventure. Ridiculous as it might feel that a tiny group of men holds off an entire legion of King John’s troops, you sort of go with it as the film is shot with enough sense of ragged viciousness that you don’t notice the gaps in the tiny budget (less than a single episode of Game of Thrones). 

The actors all know they are in something rather silly as well. It’s a bizarre mixture of people, from Hollywood star character actors to B-movie stalwarts to Brit TV stars to slumming classical actors. James Purefoy grounds the stuff with his usual commitment and charisma. Just as well he does as Paul Giamatti clearly rocks up in the spirit of a lark, hammily overacting to such a ludicrous degree that he sounds like John Adams on a bad acid trip. It’s a surprise they don’t turn him on the walls of Rochester Castle and let him chew through the defences. Between these two hardly anyone else gets a look in, although Brian Cox does well as the brave leader of the castle who suffers a particularly brutal death involving mutilation and imaginative use of a catapult. 

Some typically subtle restrained work from Paul Giamatti

There are some impressive set pieces and some very stirring bits of head mashing, limb slicing violence but the overall plot is completely bog standard, as if with all that investment they either didn’t have time to put a story together or felt that they needed to make something that would appeal as much as possible to the lowest common denominator in order to recoup the costs. But at least there is a nice sense of growing comradeship between this hardy gang fighting against the odds and the film gets some sense of honour and duty being causes worth dying for against tyrants. I mean, it’s not there in spades, but it’s there.

And if you like this sort of B movie hack and dash stuff you’ll probably actually rather like this. Heck I’ve seen it twice, and I found the second viewing actually rather good fun in particular, especially as I knew going into it the entire film was an absolutely absurd pile of nonsense designed to just let you watch blood spray across the screen and heads depart bodies. Roll with it – put your critical facilities on hold and forget the history – and you will rather enjoy its earnest B movie antics.

Red Eye (2005)

Rachel McAdams is on the flight to hell with only Cillian Murphy for company in Red Eye

Director: Wes Craven

Cast: Rachel McAdams (Lisa Reisert), Cillian Murphy (Jackson Rippner), Brian Cox (Joe Reiset), Jayma Mays (Cynthia), Jack Scalia (Charles Keefe), Robert Pine (Bob Taylor), Teresa Press-Marx (Marianne Taylor)

Are there any two things in the world we are more unsettled by than plane flights and the possibility that the strangers we meet might turn out to be nutters? Well Red Eye taps into both of those terrors with an effective B-movie of fast-paced brutality, which plays out almost in real time. Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is catching the red eye flight home to get back to her job managing a five-star hotel in Miami. At the airport bar she meets handsome, charming stranger Jackson (Cillian Murphy), and then finds herself sitting next him to on the plane. Just as things seem to be going well for romance, Jackson reveals he’s a terrorist and he wants Lisa to change the room booking of the Director of Homeland Security so his team can take him out – and if she says no, hitmen will take out her beloved father Joe (Brian Cox). But there may be more to Lisa than Jackson bargained for.

Craven’s film is an extremely efficient, sharp, lean little thriller with a cracking idea at its heart. It’s such a whipper cracker of an idea – the stranger on a plane who turns dangerous – that once the claustrophobia of the flight is removed in the final quarter, the film never quite gets its energy back. It’s Lisa’s mid-flight powerlessness, the self-contained, claustrophobic lack of escape, that makes the first three quarters of the film so compelling. Because as soon as Lisa realises that there is something wrong, there is nothing she can do and nowhere she can go to escape. And Jackson has manoeuvred the situation so she looks like the untrustworthy, awkward one while Jackson seems (outwardly) reasonable and friendly – cutting off any chance of help from fellow passengers.

These sequences in the plane work so well because they are so tightly directed, written, edited and played. Rachel McAdams is very good as a woman who at first seems self-occupied and slightly distant, then weak and vulnerable, before becoming resourceful and courageous. She’s well matched by Cillian Murphy as the smooth, in-control terrorist who begins to crumble as his plans turn against him.

It’s another decent structural twist in the film as it’s Rippner’s own arrogance and pride that eventually proves his undoing, as he drops enough information amongst his hubristic brags and threats for Lisa to work out how she can gain the upper hand. Before that she already shows plenty of invention to try and communicate her situation to the other passengers – and the tension of these cat-and-mouse games of evasion is portrayed perfectly.

It’s not a perfect film. The final quarter too quickly turns Murphy’s character into a psychotic version of his near namesake, Jack the Ripper, while the final cat-and-mouse hunt between these two characters in a new location doesn’t have the same tension as the plane setting. Similarly, the plot hinges on McAdam’s character falling victim to a past sexual assault – and how that event has shaped her later life – that today seems a little uncomfortable in its perfunctory treatment in the story. But these are blemishes – Red Eye is largely a sleek little thriller that makes its points with a nail-biting B-movie meanness. Craven sure knew how to put something like this together.

Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix plays a complete prick in this unbearably pleased with itself satire Her

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Twombly), Scarlett Johnasson (Samantha – voice), Amy Adams (Amy), Rooney Mara (Catherine Klausen), Olivia Wilde (Blind Date), Chris Pratt (Paul), Matt Letscher (Charles), Lukas Jones (Mark Lewman), Kristen Wiig (Sexy Kitten – voice), Brian Cox (Alan Watts – voice), Spike Jonze (Alien child – voice)

Every so often you start off engaged with a film and then, the longer it goes on, the less and less you like it. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact moment where I started to really take against Her, but I certainly had by the end of it. As someone once famously sort of said about Kriss Akubusi: “hard to dislike but well worth the effort”.

Anyway, Her is set in the near future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive, insular man who writes personal romantic letters for other people who aren’t articulate enough (or bothered) to do it themselves. Getting divorced from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore downloads a new Artificial Intelligence Operating System for his computer. The system is designed to create a personality that appeals to the customer – and that is certainly the case here with this system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore, finding it hard to connect with the real world, is drawn to Samantha and, as she grows and develops, they start a relationship. But can the relationship survive the divide between realities and Samantha’s growing self-awareness and personality?

Okay. I’m going to swing hard for this film, so let’s start with what’s good shall we. Spike Jonze directs very well. It looks beautiful. There is some lovely music. The future world it shows is close enough to our own to still feel connected. Amy Adams is rather good as Theodore’s old college friend, and Rooney Mara turns in a very good performance as Theodore’s wife, a woman who doesn’t let Theodore get away with his excuses. Scarlett Johansson is perfect casting as the alluring and engaging voice of Samantha (much as I was primed to be annoyed by her post-production replacement of Samantha Morton, who had been on set with Phoenix). There are some sweet and even romantic moments.

Okay that’s it. This is a film overwhelmingly, unbearably, unbelievably pleased with the cleverness of its own concept and trite ideas (a man loves his computer – take that our modern consumerist world!). It then goes on to tell us almost nothing, bar the most basic statements about our struggles to interact with, and relate to, each other in this technology-filled world. Apparently it’s hard to create bonds with real people where we are viewing everything through our phones. Bet that has never occurred to anyone before right?

But my main problem with this film is the lead character. Now I will say that Joaquin Phoenix does a good job with this role, and his skilful acting brilliantly holds the story together. He does extremely well with a part that is almost exclusively reacting to someone not actually there. But my problem is with this characterisation of Theodore. To put it bluntly, he’s a prick.

In fact, he’s the sort of quirky nerd beloved of this genre, but take a long look and he’s basically a complete creep. And all his relationships with women seem to be based on him not wanting to engage with the problems of the other person. He requires the focus to be on his wants and needs, as if he is the only person in the world who can be sensitive or sad – no wonder he falls in love with a computer programme designed to reflect the behaviours he finds appealing.

“You want a wife without the challenges of dealing with something real” his wife accuses, eagerly pointing out his inability to deal with or even want to engage with human emotions. The film wants to give him a pass, because he is such a sensitive soul, but it’s bullshit. Theodore is a deeply selfish person, despite what the film wants, who has that geeky, arrogant, self-satisfied sensitivity that blindly says “if I struggle in the world, then it’s the fault of the world not me”.

Theodore is a constant happy victim, a whining, softly-spoken, guilt-tripping prick who only sees himself as a victim and makes no effort to change or understand his behaviour to other people. The film wants us to think that the world is a puzzle to his poetic soul, but it’s actually a maze he doesn’t want to find a way out of. He doesn’t want to engage with it and only feels justified and reinforced in these feelings by everything he does.

He is like the perfect ambassador for passive aggressive guys: “Oh I don’t get the girls because they don’t want to open themselves up to my sensitivity blah blah blah”. Theodore goes on a blind date early in the film: it goes well, they make out, sex is on the cards and then she asks “Before we do anything, will you see me again?”. Theodore can’t even bring himself to make even the smallest offer, meekly babbling about having a busy weekend. When she reacts angrily and leaves, the film wants us to side with Theodore’s timidity, rather than say “yeah it is a bit shitty to let a girl put her hand down your pants and then not even show the slightest interest in seeing her again, and then call her unpleasant”. Fuck you Theodore.

Theodore is basically a controlling arsehole and it’s where the romance of the film drains out. He clearly has no idea why his marriage ended, but while the film wants us to think he’s too sensitive for the rough and tumble, it seems clear he had no interest in, or comprehension of, his wife’s life. She is constantly subtly blamed for not having patience with Theodore – the film ends with him writing her a cathartic e-mail saying he will always love his memory of her and thanking her for being part of his life, forgiving her from leaving (again, screw you film). Instead she, like other people, doesn’t deserve Theodore because she doesn’t have the patience to delve into his life.

Theodore, though, has no depths. He’s a bland, faux-poetic guy with a nervy disposition and a disinterest in other people’s emotions, focused only on his own gratification. He wants his relationships to adjust to what he needs them to be. As Samantha grows and develops into a more fully rounded personality, his first reaction is hostility and jealousy at the thought of her talking to other people and operating systems. It’s not sweet and endearing – or Theodore again being taken advantage of, as the film wants us to think – it’s creepy, and Theodore is the sort of passive aggressive gentle guy who ends up stalking and murdering the girl who rejected him.

How can you engage with the points of this film, when the central character through whom everything is filtered is so awful? Distance in relationships in this modern world – and the lack of genuine interaction – is a point that hardly needs hammering home as it does here. The trite points about love and relationships the film makes are all wrong. The film is so on the nose about distance between people and the artificial nature of our interactions, the hero even writes other people’s love letters for them. It’s subtle as a sledgehammer.

Computers and phones are everywhere and everyone uses them, but there is less insight and heart in this story than an average episode of Black Mirror (which would have done the same thing in half the time). The film does its best to build a romance between the two, but it never quite lands or has the impact it should, because it never feels like an equal relationship: first Theo has the control, then Samantha grows beyond anything Theo is capable of but is still trapped by her initial programming of devotion to him. What point is this meant to be making about romance and commitment? Theo lives in a dream-world and does so until the end of the film. 

Her is the sort of film lots of people are going to love. It uses the conventions of romantic films very well. It has darker moments, such as a sequence where Theo and Samantha try to use a surrogate for sex (a scene where to be fair I could understand why Theo is creeped out and disturbed), but none of these ever comes together into a coherent point. And Theo remains, at all times, a block on the enjoyment of the film, an unpleasant figure hiding in plain sight that stops you from falling for the film. In love with itself, in love with its idea, in love with its cleverness, this is a film that tells you everything about the smugness of the geek and nothing about the subjects it actually wants to get you thinking about.

Rob Roy (1995)

Tim Roth and John Hurt are the villainous aristocrats taking advantage of Liam Neeson’s honour in Rob Roy

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Cast: Liam Neeson (Rob Roy MacGregor), Jessica Lange (Mary MacGregor), John Hurt (Marquess of Montrose), Tim Roth (Archibald Cunningham), Eric Stoltz (Alan MacDonald), Andrew Kier (Duke of Argyll), Brian Cox (Killearn), Brian McCardie (Alasdair MacGregor), Gilbert Martin (Guthrie), Ewan Stewart (Coll), Jason Flemyng (Gregor), David Hayman (Tam Sibbalt), Shirley Henderson (Morag)

In the mid-1990s there was one of those bizarre Hollywood coincidences that saw two similarly filmed Scottish-based dramas head into production at the same time: Braveheart and Rob Roy. Braveheart stole the headlines, and the Oscars, and turned William Wallace from a footnote in history into an icon of Scottish independence. However, it’s arguable that the over-looked Rob Roy is the better, richer, more involving film.

In 1713, Rob Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) is the Chief of the Clan MacGregor, in a loving marriage to Mary (Jessica Lange), and supports his clan through protecting the cattle of the gentry. Knowing that this is not enough to help their poverty, Rob borrows £1,000 from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) to start a cattle trading business. However, on collecting the money, his friend Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) is murdered by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), a foppish playboy and ruthless fencer, who is staying with Montrose and wants the money to clear his debts. Montrose demands Rob falsely testifies that his rival the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir) is a Jacobite in return for forgetting the debt – when he refuses, he is named an outlaw and a rebel.

Rob Roy works so damn well because it is thrillingly told, well-scripted, shot with a romantic sweep in some terrific Scottish locations and uniformly excellently acted. It’s perfectly constructed as a classic melodrama, because the heroes are pretty much completely upright, admirable and inspiring (without ever being tiresome or sanctimonious), while the villains are intriguingly shifty and vile, running the gamut from cowardly opportunist to vicious sociopath. Chuck this in with a tightly focused plot, and it works extremely well.

Liam Neeson is perfect casting as the upright Rob. Few people do nobility and decency better than Neeson, and Rob is just about the most stand-up guy you can imagine. You can totally understand why every one of his clan seems to worship the ground he walks on. Neeson’s classical physicality and stance totally sell him as the ultimate highlander, while his kindly eyes and gentle manner make him an obvious fit as an inspiring leader. 

Caton-Jones directs the action with zip, even if the film does perhaps go on a fraction too long. He sets Rob’s decency and honour at the centre of the film, and brilliantly builds the thematic story around the shifting world where old-school honour and decency is being left aside for the more ruthless realpolitik of Montrose. Rob’s old-school decency makes him the kind of hero figure you see in a traditional Western – and Caton-Jones is clearly inspired by the scope and sweep of John Ford Westerns, making excellent use of the mist and the hills. 

The Scottish highlands are our wild plains, the traditional values are those of the homestead – and the communities Rob protects are presented with a warmth and glow that is never galling. A lot of this is due to Jessica Lange’s excellent performance as Mary, a woman of warmth, tenderness but also hard-hearted realism mixed with a sharp strength of will. Lange (and her lilting accent is quite lovely to listen too) handles the events that occur to her as the wife of a rebel with a dignity, but also a fierce rage just below the surface. If Rob is defending honour, she represents it.

But the real strength the film has is its villains. It has three very different but terrific antagonists, each of them brilliantly brought to life by three very good actors. John Hurt brings Montrose a brilliant sense of slightly perverted corruption, the arrogant insouciance of a man who works out there is more going on than he is being told, but not caring so long as he can turn it to his advantage. Brian Cox is excellent as the cowardly, greedy, shallow and bullying land property manager, snivelling and timid beneath his bluster. 

The real swagger through comes from Tim Roth, who is quite superb as the flamboyant sadist and sociopath Archibald Cunningham. Roth marches off with the film, pitching it just right as a man who presents (and lives) a performance to the entire world: a foppish playboy who seems light and disposable, but is in fact a ruthless, dangerous man with no principles and a horrifying capacity for violence. The character has enough humanity to prevent him from becoming a caricature – he’s bitter at being a bastard, he has a strange affection for his mother. He’s aware that he’s the baddie – he just doesn’t care. In fact he loves it. He invites people to underestimate him – and takes a sadistic delight in proving them wrong. He’s a perfect dark reflection to Rob.

The film introduces him demonstrating his terrifying skill with a sword in a sporting duel: and you don’t need a PhD in storytelling to guess that the film is heading towards a second, closing sword duel between our noble hero and his sadistic opposite. When it comes, it’s a belter of a sword fight, brilliantly choreographed, that sums up the whole movie: Rob fights with a broadsword (and the film demonstrates how exhausting swinging one of those can be) and depends on directness and fairness. Cunningham fights with a rapier, is quick, indirect and gleefully delights in inflicting a number of glancing wounds. It’s one of the best sword fights (and uses of combat to communicate character) on film – and it’s engrossing.

Rob Roy is easily overlooked – but it’s a fine film, full of memorable moments and above all stuffed with terrific performances. Caton-Jones shoots the film very well, and works brilliantly with the actors. You’ll remember them all – and you’ll invest in their stories. Yes it is a little too long, and yes sometimes it’s a little too in love with the romance of the highlands – but it’s a smashing, exciting and engrossing film and you’ll certainly find plenty in it to enjoy: not least Roth’s showboating menace.

Troy (2004)

Brad Pitt sails into history and legend as Achilles in the misunderstood Troy

Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Cast: Brad Pitt (Achilles), Eric Bana (Hector), Orlando Bloom (Paris), Diane Kruger (Helen), Brian Cox (Agamemnon), Peter O’Toole (Priam), Rose Byrne (Briseis), Saffron Burrows (Andromache), Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus), Sean Bean (Odysseus), Julian Glover (Triopas), James Cosmo (Glaucus), John Shrapnel (Nestor), Julie Christie (Thetis), Garrett Hedlund (Patroclus), Vincent Regan (Eudorus), Nigel Terry (Archeptolemus), Trevor Eve (Velior), Tyler Mane (Ajax)

VERSION CONTROL: Some films are just vastly superior as Director’s Cuts. Troy is one. The longer cut of Troy,I can assure you, is a richer, deeper, more enjoyable film. So watch that one. I’m also spoiling The Illiad. For those who worry about such things.

When I was younger I loved the Greek myths. I had two or three books of them and I read them over and over again. I practically grew up knowing the whole story of the siege of Troy in intimate detail. This helped feed my love for sweeping epic films, with big casts, spectacle and themes. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear I love Troy. That I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s the film I wish had existed when I was a kid, because I would have watched it again and again. I know it’s not perfect, but I can forgive it almost anything. 

In Ancient Greece, a peace treaty has finally been agreed between Sparta’s King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) and Priam (Peter O’Toole) of Troy. Priam’s sons Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) are in Sparta to seal the treaty – only for Paris to fall in love with Menelaus’ unloved wife Helen (Diane Kruger). When they elope – despite Hector’s fears for the harm it will cause Troy’s people – Menelaus’ ambitious brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox) sees his chance to cement his hold over the last corner of the Mediterranean by conquering Troy. But to do so he’ll need the help of the greatest warrior in Greece, Achilles (Brad Pitt), who cares only for his legend and hates Agamemnon. 

Directed with an old-fashioned grandeur by Wolfgang Petersen, mixed with an unflinching look at the blood and guts of war, Troy is a grand, cinematic epic that looks fantastic. The production and costume design are spot-on, and there is a great mixture of the “real” and the “special effect” in what you see on screen. It’s also got some cracking battle and fight choreography. The sword fight choreographers worked overtime on this one. The film embraces the grace and style of Achilles – he’s not the largest or strongest, but he has a pace, speed, intelligence and ruthlessness that allows him to duck, sway and constantly be one step ahead of his opponents. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his violence, and the camera never forgets the fallen.

It’s a film that understands the impact of war. It makes us care about many of the characters – and frequently shocks us with senseless, sudden deaths, or devotes time to the grief of those they leave behind. Our hero Hector has an almost tortuous-to-watch lengthy build up to his final fight – and then the camera gives us a moment or two when he is fatally wounded to see the light start to go from his eyes before Achilles delivers the killer blow. It’s a film that moves the viewer, that excites us with action while letting us grieve the cost of war.

The script is also a reasonably decent adaptation of elements of Homer, remixed with a modern (God-free) twist – as if this was the “true” story legend has been spun from. The script is put together by Game of Thrones’ David Benioff, and has his recognisable mix of epic scope and noble principles, clashing with realpolitik.

So why was Troy rejected by so many people? Why was it so misunderstood on release? It’s a mis-sold and partly mis-cut story struggling to embrace its own implications. Maybe I’m reading stuff into it, but I feel like this is a different film than the marketing or filmmakers seem to have understood. 

Firstly, Achilles is (at least for the first two thirds) effectively the film’s villain. He has no interest in people, only a sociopathic wish to be remembered as a great warrior. He’s ruthless in combat and slaughters indiscriminately. He’s temperamental and emotionally stunted. Contrast him with Eric Bana’s Hector: a devoted family man, who values the lives of the people of Troy first and foremost. Hector is effectively reimagined from the source material as a very modern man – the audience surrogate, the hero we can relate to, compared to the greedy, rapacious Greeks.

The struggle the film has is its biggest star plays Achilles – and it doesn’t want to compromise his box office appeal. So it tries not to draw too much attention to this contrast, and avoids passing too much judgement on Achilles. So we struggle when Achilles and Hector fight – anyone with any sense is surely rooting for the guy with a wife who just wants to see his kid grow up, rather than the sociopath, even if he is played by a super-star. All the characters hammer home our distress at Hector fighting Achilles, by the fact all of them reckon he’s got no chance. There are moving farewells for Hector with his father, wife and son. Hard to sympathise with Achilles when he slays the film’s most sympathetic character and drags him in the dirt right?

Achilles only starts to develop humanity (and become a modern hero) when he hits rock bottom after killing Hector – and is shamed first by Priam’s humbling, controlled pain (a tour-de-force from Peter O’Toole) then by his slowly developing love for Briseis. From this point , Achilles fights specifically to protect others – and finally puts aside his longing for immortal fame to try and save Briseis from the slaughter of the sack of Troy. The film’s slightly muddled unwillingness to condemn Achilles earlier, and its desire to celebrate him at the end, muddies the water. But there is a clear character arc slowly developing of Achilles becoming a humbler, more humane man.

As Achilles doesn’t look that good opposite Hector, the film turns Agamemnon into a ruthlessly ambitious, vain and greedy tyrant (played with a lip-smacking, roaringly enjoyable style by Brian Cox). Agamemnon (like many of the Greeks) is a modern politician – he wants to fashion the Greek city states into a single nation (sure one under his control, but it’s a more modern idea). The film, however, uses him to make Achilles desire for lasting fame feel more sympathetic. We all hate hypocritical politicians and cowardly bullies, right? And we all prefer the romance of the individual fighter uninterested in worldly affairs, right? Ergo, says the film, if we don’t like Achilles because we prefer Hector, we can also like Achilles a bit more if we don’t like Agamemnon. It’s clever structure in a way – but because the film doesn’t completely commit to it, it gets a bit lost in the telling.

The film’s attitude to Agamemnon is reflected in its favouring of Trojans over Greeks. While the Greek commanders squabble, or engage in political chicanery, the Trojans have an old school nobility. The film is enamoured with Priam. He’s played by Peter O’Toole in his grandest style (and O’Toole, though he can’t resist a bit of ham here and there, is very good). But Priam is in fact a naïve idiot, who makes a mess of everything. He’s incapable of accepting the realities of the world – his decisions lead to disaster at every turn. He may be overtly noble, honest and full of integrity – but like Ned Stark in Game of Throneshe’s completely out of his depth in Agamemnon’s ruthless world. Achilles may call him a “far better king”, but by any modern standard, Priam is in fact a terrible king, who makes all his decisions based on his regard for the Gods, rather than a claim appraisal of the situation.

These two reasons are why the film struggles. The film despises the Greeks but wants us to love Achilles – while at the same time having him kill without compassion, including our main audience surrogate character. It wants us to aspire to the romantic ideals of Priam and the Trojans – even while it demonstrates time and again that these ideas are hopelessly misguided, and completely wrong. It goes part of the way to accepting these contradictions, but it can never quite bring itself to villainise Brad Pitt, or condemn the noble Peter O’Toole.

I like to watch it my own way, balancing these contradictions – and I think if you do that (like watching the TV show The Tudors if you accept what the show can’t: that Henry VIII is the villain) then the film is really rewarding, full of interesting ideas and packed with cracking scenes.

It also allows some wonderful performances. Brad Pitt is, I suppose, an odd choice for Achilles in many ways – and he seems a bit bound in by his 1950s-Hollywood-Epic-Transatlantic accent. But he really looks the part, and I don’t think he’s afraid to let Achilles look bad – and he sells his conversion into a more heroic figure. Eric Bana is terrific as Hector – warm, engaging, hugely admirable. He has a world-weary tiredness to him – while Pitt’s Achilles is as cold as marble, Bana’s Hector looks like he has the cares of the world on his shoulders, tired already of the violence and horror he has had to endure.

There are tonnes of excellent supporting performances. Sean Bean in particular is so good as the wry and infinitely wise Odysseus you will be wishing they had made an Odyssey sequel so you can see more of him. Cox and O’Toole are rather good (bless, they are clearly enjoying themselves) as flip sides of the same coin. Byrne is affecting as gentle Briseis. Brendan Gleeson makes a fiercely bullying Menelaus. I’m not sure Saffron Burrows has ever been better than here. James Cosmo and Nigel Terry shine in smaller roles.

Poor Orlando Bloom struggles with a part that is hugely difficult – Paris is basically a spoilt coward. The film makes great play of Helen (a pretty good Diane Kruger in a near impossible part as the most beautiful woman, like, ever) being attracted to Paris precisely because he’s more of a romantic, and not interested in violence – but he tends to come across more as a thoughtless playboy, who lands everyone in trouble. It’s tricky for Bloom as this is the purpose of the film – and in many ways he’s very good casting for it – but that’s partly because he’s not the most persuasive of actors. He has a slight redemption arc – but I’m not sure Bloom as the presence to really sell it. 

I can’t believe how much I’ve actually written about this– but, for all its faults and its confused structure  I actually rather deeply love it. Maybe it’s tied in too much with my love for Greek myths. Maybe I love these all-star character actor epics. But I think it’s a film that puts a lot at stake for its characters – and really makes you invest in them – and that draws some fine performances from its cast and frames them all in a brilliant vista. It’s crammed with some terrific scenes. It never fails to entertain me. It’s almost a go-to film. I’ve seen it dozens of times and yet it never tires for me. I love it. In many ways it’s one of my filmic (forgive me) Achilles’ heels.

Churchill (2017)

Brian Cox does his very best Greatest Britain as Churchill

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky

Cast: Brian Cox (Winston Churchill), Miranda Richardson (Clementine Churchill), John Slattery (General Dwight D. Eisenhower), James Purefoy (King George VI), Ella Purnell (Helen Garrett), Richard Durden (Jan Smuts), Julian Wadham (Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery), Danny Webb (Field Marshall Alan Brooke), Jonathan Aris (Air Field Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory)

Someone should open a club: The Churchill Club. Every actor who’s played the Great Man gets instant membership. President the late Robert Hardy (seven times!). Other members? You name it: Finney, Gambon, Burton, Spall, Gleeson, Russell Beale, West, Hoskins… Think of a shorter, slightly rotund British character actor and inevitably they’ve had a go. Even the decidedly non-rotund, non-short, non-British John Lithgow aced the role in Netflix’s The Crown. With Gary Oldman also making his pitch this year in Darkest Hour, this film sees renowned character actor Brian Cox join the club. 

1944. Its three days before D-Day and Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is getting cold feet. Haunted by memories of Gallipoli, he fears that the attack on Northern France will lead to disaster and oceans of blood. Against the advice of his Generals Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and Brooke (Danny Webb), he attempts to push General Eisenhower (John Slattery) to change the plans. As depression takes its grip on him, only his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) can get through to him. 

Churchill is a bit of a mess. It’s pretty well acted but highly televisual, shot with a self-conscious flourish that only emphasises its micro-budget. Teplitzky is in love with the cross-fade (or even worse the half fade) – constantly cutting from place to place for brief moments in the middle of scenes, often for lingering shots of actors staring out to sea or walking through fields. The action is often framed oddly, in long shot with full bodies in shot framed between ground and sky. Other scenes are filmed flatly – when Montgomery addresses his army, no amount of slow pans can hide that it consists of about 20 men.

On top of that, every single scene is scored within an inch of its bloody life. Now I love the power of film music, but this goes too far. The score is bland, predictable and unimaginative and just not that interesting to listen to. When it’s dropped heavy-handedly on top of every single scene it makes you want to scream. It’s also often completely misjudged or inappropriate – as gentle romantic piano swells during a key discussion between Churchill and the King, you almost expect them to kiss. 

That’s before we get started on the script, which is instantly forgettable. Alex von Tunkleman wrote a long running column in the Guardian on historical accuracy (or not) in films. Talk about a hostage to fortune, when you try to write your own film… I’ll go into historical issues in a bit, but there are lots of little things that feel wrong from Smuts (Deputy PM Of South Africa!) following Churchill around like some sort of valet too Montgomery addressing the Prime Minister to his face as “Churchill”. Stuff that just doesn’t feel quite right. The script also relies on a fictional “young secretary” who eventually speaks truth to the great man and wins his respect. Von Tunkleman is no writer of snappy dialogue, the film too often feeling like a wonky history lesson than a drama.

Historically the film does explore a different side of Churchill – enough to ruffle the feathers of the millions of Churchill fans out there. It focuses on his depression and self-doubt, within the framework of a period when he was starting to become sidelined by America. It also focuses on his little known opposition (certainly initially) to D-Day (he favoured a second front opened in Europe’s “soft underbelly” of Italy) – although it certainly expands this last-minute opposition for dramatic effect. I’m pretty sure he was on board by this point (however initially reluctant)!

What the film looks like it might do (but never quite does) is really explore some of Churchill’s laws and vulnerabilities – to look at the negatives and see how overcoming (or dealing with these) made him a great man. It touches heavily on Churchill’s depression – the “black dog” – with a desperately worried Churchill retiring to his bed to despair, praying for bad weather to prevent the landing and bawling out his secretary. Churchill is frequently wrong or mistaken, and the film captures much of the frustration his generals had with this talented amateur. It also isn’t afraid to show that, with American muscle driving the war, Churchill was becoming more of a mascot than a major orchestrator of allied strategy.

It’s a shaded portrait, but the film is eventually seduced by Churchill’s magnestism – a King’s Speech style final radio broadcast is all swelling regard, and a coda of Churchill waving his hat on a beach towards France hammers home his legendary status – miles away from its careful look at his growing irrelevance (and his concerns about this) early in the film. For all we have characters constantly stressing to Churchill his time is passing, the film can’t help finishing with a flourish that hammers home his centrality.

Churchill is flat and unimaginative but it does have an energetic, engaging performance from Brian Cox. While not in the first rank of Churchills, he captures the charisma, without slavishly imitating the famous voice. His Churchill, with his depression and doubt, also feels different: a slightly counter-establishment actor like Cox fits nicely with this. It’s an assured, charismatic performance hampered by the material. The rest of the cast feed off scraps though Miranda Richardson is assured as a twinkly level-headed Clementine. Richard Durden also deserves mention as gruffly supportive Smuts, as does James Purefoy as a gentle George VI.

Churchill means well – but fails. It’s aiming to question some of the reverence we have for the past, but ends up falling between stools, in the end too in love with the myth, but too critical to please the die hards. Flatly filmed and woodenly written, too many scenes fade from memory too quickly. Brian Cox (and Winston) deserved better.