Tag: Carey Mulligan

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Carey Mulligan excels as a Promising Young Woman

Director: Emerald Fennell

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Cassandra Thomas), Bo Burnham (Ryan Cooper), Alison Brie (Madison McPhee), Clancy Brown (Stanley Thomas), Jennifer Coolidge (Susan Thomas), Laverne Cox (Gail), Chris Lowell (Al Monroe), Connie Britton (Dean Elizabeth Walker), Adam Brody (Jerry), Max Greenfield (Joe Macklemore), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Neil), Alfred Molina (Jordan Green)

It’s late at night, you’ve had a few drinks and someone nice offers to drive you home. If you’re a man you probably think, what’s the problem? If you are woman, this can be just the first act of a night of sexual assault. It’s depressing to think this is the world we live in, but if there is one thing #metoo taught a lot of men, it’s that many women experience danger in situations we wouldn’t think twice about. These ideas are wonderfully explored in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, the striking, witty and deeply suspenseful Promising Young Woman.

Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) goes out week after week to clubs. She lolls in the corner, slurs her words and waits for guys to offer her a lift home. Those taxis always swing past their own apartments, they always ask her to pop in for one more drink which swiftly turns into an attempt at sex. At which point, Cassie reveals she is entirely sober… Cassie’s revenge campaign is all about revealing to guys who think they are nice, that they are in fact not nice at all. Dealing with trauma over her past, Cassie’s only meaning in life is this campaign, at the cost of any personal life. But a chance meeting with Ryan (Bo Burnham), someone she used to go to college with, presents her with a choice – a new start or a settling of accounts with the man at the root of her trauma.

Emerald Fennell’s film is a superbly timely drama that brilliantly dances from genre to genre. It’s possibly the sweetest and most romantic revenge drama you’ll ever see, or the funniest shocking tragedy. But it’s primarily a film powered by righteous anger: the world shouldn’t be like this.

Many of the men are of course vile – and perhaps most of all because they are so superbly certain of their self-satisfied niceness. The film opens with one of these nights, Cassie pretending to be utterly wasted in a bar while three men chat about how drunk she is, but also how hot. The guy who seems the nicest pops her in an uber, takes her home, pours her a massive drink and takes her pants off. At which point Cassie, stone-cold-sober announces “What the fuck are you doing?”. Later Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) will whine it’s not fair Cassie has “tricked” him into feeling bad (after he has already assaulted her). As if her not being helpless somehow makes him the victim.

But it’s not just men. Fennell’s film shows several times how many women conspire in keeping this status quo going. Cassie’s focused campaign against the people she holds directly responsible for the rape of her beloved best friend Nina starts with two women. One is the fellow student (now a self-satisfied mum-of-two, played with suburban smugness by Alison Brie) who thought that, by behaving like that, Nina basically had it coming. The second is the Dean of the university (a smoothly uncaring Connie Britton) who didn’t want to ruin the men’s careers. Both of these women are as much a part of the victim-blaming culture as the men Cassie shames on her nights out.

Fennell’s film is a brilliant expose of how toxic a certain kind of masculinity has become. And it’s not just the vile alpha-males responsible for the horror that happened to Nina (when we reach these people late in the film, their basic lack of humanity is staggering – even if Fennell strips them of any possible nuance by making them cartoonish in their Bullingdon-club vileness). The bulk of the men in the film are convinced that because they try and be nice, they therefore are nice.

But it’s still a film with a great deal of compassion. It notably isn’t a straightforward endorsement of revenge. It’s made clear what Cassie is doing is hugely dangerous – she has lucked out that the men she encounters are shamed into pleading and defensive whining. There is the distinct possibility that Cassie could be seriously hurt or worse – for all her planning and determination. That’s not to mention the psychological damage this has on her. She is a deeply disturbed, troubled and unhappy woman whose life is going nowhere.

It’s the emotional heart of Carey Mulligan’s wonderful performance. Mulligan nails the furious calm Cassie has on campaign – and her chilling authority in situations where she is on top. But she also shows Cassie’s emotional damage. She finds it impossible to open herself to any form of relationship, romantic or otherwise. She’s so shutdown she can’t even remember her own birthday. This crusade has sucked everything out of her life, and had a shattering emotional impact on her. Mulligan has never been better: a career defining performance, heartfelt and impassioned, dark and emotionally complex.

Fennell shoots the film with a real assuredness. When Cassie is in control, Fennell uses a series of carefully controlled static shots, often centring Cassie in the frame. Its only when events are out of her control that the camera shifts to greater movement and less stable shots. The confrontations are both darkly amusing but also chillingly edge-of-the-seat – because we can’t be sure whether everything will go wrong, or how far Cassie will go. Promising Young Woman is also very witty and even rather sweet – the slow, hopeful romance between Cassie and Ryan (a charmingly sweet Bo Burnham) is hugely endearing and gives the film a sense of hope. We’re torn: we want Cassie to have her revenge, but the damage to her is so huge that we also want her to move on.

It’s what makes Promising Young Woman a kaleidoscope of a film. Every time you shift it, your perspective changes. We thrill at seeing Cassie shame bad men, just as you worry for her safety every time. We never know what to expect from Ryan – after all we’ve seen so many men like him turn out to be predators – but we want him to be genuine. You’ll laugh one scene and have your stomach in knots the next. It culminates in a confrontation that shifts shockingly from black comedy to simply pure dark, more disturbing and difficult than you can imagine. Fennell – and a magnetic Mulligan – maintain all these different beats perfectly. A wonderful, and hugely timely, film.

The Dig (2020)

THe Dig header
Ralph Fiennes plays an amateur digger who makes a huge discovery in the poetic The Dig

Director: Simon Stone

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Edith Pretty), Ralph Fiennes (Basil Brown), Lily James (Peggy Piggott), Johnny Flynn (Rory Lomax), Ben Chaplin (Stuart Piggott), Ken Stott (Charles Phillips), Archie Barnes (Robert Pretty), Monica Dolan (May Brown)

One of the greatest archaeological finds in British History, the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Sutton Hoo revealed vast treasures and cultural insights that are very rarely glimpsed. Land-owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow with a young son Robert (Archie Barnes), hires self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the curious mounds on her land. Brown discovers one of them holds the buried ship. But the dig is taken from his control by the British Museum, led by Charlie Phillips (Ken Stott): professional archaeologists who want to ensure the work is ‘done properly’. With tensions of class and profession, everyone must race against time to complete as much of the work as possible before the outbreak of the Second World War.

On the surface, The Dig is a charming, heart-felt reconstruction of a fascinating moment of archaeological history, mixed with engaging (but familiar) stories of a working-class amateurs being patronised by upper-class professionals. However, Stone’s film manages to have a richer second layer. With war approaching, and mortality constantly on the mind of most of the characters, it’s also a subtle investigation of legacy, the past and death itself.

Stone’s film develops this with its rich, poetic filming style. Beautifully shot in a series of gorgeous hazy hues, with dynamic use of low-angles and wide-angle lenses, Sutton Hoo is given an almost mystical beauty. Stone also makes extensive use of playing dialogue over images not of the conversation, but smaller moments in character’s lives, from casual meetings to cleaning shoes, that as such take on a profounder meaning. It’s a visual representation of how our legacy is often a snapshot of images and relics, moments that stay in the memory even when events (or conversation in this case) has moved on. It’s subtly done, but carries a beautiful impact.

Then of course, it’s not surprising legacy in on the mind. Each of the characters is at a tipping point in their own lives. Edith Pretty – so consumed with quiet grief over the loss of her husband that she is desperate for there to be something on the other side – is struggling with her own health, aware she will shortly leave her son an orphan. Her cousin Rory prepares for service in the RAF – service she fears will shortly leave him dead (the dangers of the airforce are clearly shown when a trainee pilot crashes and drowns near to the dig).

This connection to the briefness and intangibility of life pushes people to address their own choices. After all they are all standing in the grave of a man considered so important at that the time, a ship was dragged several miles to honour him – and today we have no idea who he was. Married archaeologist couple Stuart and Peggy Piggott confront an amiable loveless marriage (he’s gay, she’s falling in love with Rory) that shouldn’t define their lives. Basil has dealt with quiet grief at a childless marriage, and sees his work in astronomy and archaeology as his legacy.

These ideas are gently, but expertly, threaded together with a reconstruction of the key issues around the dig. Needless to say, the academics – led by Ken Stott at his most pompous – have no time for Basil’s home-spun methods. Basil’s predictions of the Anglo-Saxon tomb are constantly dismissed until he literally digs the ship up. Immediately he is benched to clearing soil (and only on Edith’s insistence is he allowed to remain at all) and later his name will be scrubbed out of the official record. It’s always the way with Britain – and a sign of how tenuous our legacies can be.

The personal stories are not always as well explored. The film has its flaws, not least the sad miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Edith. In reality, Edith was in her mid-50s when the ship was discovered. The film was developed for Nicole Kidman, but with her withdrawal Mulligan (twenty years too young) was drafted in. Sadly, nothing was changed to reflect this: meaning the characters years of spinsterhood before marriage lose impact (seriously how old can she have been when she married? She’s got a 12 year old son!). A softly underplayed romantic interest between Edith and Basil is also rather unsettling considering the vast age difference between them. (It’s better to imagine it as a platonic bond).

It’s still more engaging than the rather awkward love triangle the film introduces late on between the married Piggotts and Edith’s (fictional) cousin Rory. It’s fairly familiar stuff – the closeted gay Piggott, the growing realisation of this by Peggy and the obvious charm and gentle interest of Rory – and more or less pans out as you might expect, although at least with a dollop of human kindness.

The film’s other delight is the acting. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the taciturn Basil, a dedicated self-taught man who knows what he is worth, but struggles to gain that recognition. Fiennes not only has excellent chemistry with Mulligan and Barnes, he also suggests a quiet regret in Basil as well as a fundamental decency tinged with pride. For all that she is miscast, Mulligan does very good work as Edith while Chaplin, James and Flynn make a lot of some slightly uninspired material.

The Dig is at its best when asking quiet and gentle questions about life and when it focuses on the platonic romance between Basil and Edith. Directed with a poetic assurance by Simon Stone, it doesn’t push its points too far and gets a good balance between fascinating historic reconstruction and more profound questions of mortality.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

“Hello old sport”: Leonardo DiCaprio is The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim), Jack Thompson (Dr Walter Perkins), Adelaide Clemens (Catherine)

The Great Gatsby is possibly the great American novel. I’ve only read it once, but I certainly admired its beautiful prose, capturing of an era of American life and understanding of the fragility behind America’s love of success. Baz Luhrmann is clearly a fan, as he spent years putting together this passion project, presenting the biggest, brashest version of Fitzgerald you are ever going to see.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a young writer turned bonds salesman in 1920s New York. He lives across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brash old-money man carrying on an affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of his garage mechanic. Carroway’s next-door neighbour is the sumptuously wealthy, but mysterious, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose parties and generosity are legendary. As Carraway gets to know Gatsby (as much as anyone can), he discovers that Gatsby has a deep, near obsessive, love for Daisy.

Luhrmann’s film is a technicolour explosion that uses many of the techniques you’ll be familiar with from any of director’s other films. The camera is a whirligig of motion. The colours are bright and primary. The whole tone of the film (certainly for its first hour) is larger than life. The narrative has been tweaked to take on the tone of a Greek Tragedy, with the loud noise, fast camera moves and speedy pace all inverted in the latter half to invoke sadness and tragedy. And of course, the music is deliberately anachronistic, mixing modern genre music with 1920s sounds.

Sometimes this high-budget technicolour brilliance does feel like it is partly getting in the way of the deeper themes that lie within the original. But that might be partly because the novel’s themes are so reliant on internalised feelings, unsaid or guessed emotions, and deeply purple prose, that these are ideas which are very hard to translate to the screen.

There is something to be said for Luhrmann turning one of the pillars of 20th-century American culture into a spiritual sequel to Moulin Rouge!. And Moulin Rouge! is what the film strongly resembles, not only in design, but its romantic structure, poetic retelling, high drama, sense of impending doom and danger behind the bright lights, assault on class and the way it stands in the way of true love, and the lack of freedom in our lives. Both even have sad, reflective authors book-ending events.

So your enjoyment of the film is probably going to depend on how you feel about Luhrmann’s OTT style. Love Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Julietand you will probably find something to enjoy here (and you’ll also notice his love of tragic love stories). Saying that, of those three, Gatsby is the one the carries the least depth to it, which is intriguing as it probably mines the most psychologically rich source material. While Luhrmann understands that the book is about the real emotions masked by explosive parties and opulence – the film often feels as choked by these things as the characters do.

This is partly because I feel both Maguire’s and Mulligan’s performances don’t quite work. Maguire is so stripped back, quiet and passive he almost disappears – you don’t get a sense of Carraway as either a shrewd observer or someone wrapped up in events: instead he’s a passenger, like the plot contrivance Gatsby sometimes treats him as. Similarly, Mulligan is slightly overwhelmed by the movie, not giving a strong enough performance for her to break through. The film powers forward with such momentum and brashness, it squashes her.

It’s probably why the most successful lead performance by far comes from DiCaprio. He’s perfectly cast as Gatsby: so good in fact you wish he was in a more thoughtful, relaxed film that would give him a more of a chance to breathe. DiCaprio perfectly encapsulates the desperation just beneath Gatsby’s surface, the fear and uncertainty that lies under his suave urbanity. He completely gets the character, understands he is a showman presenting a front to the world because that’s what he thinks the world wants, but who is, in his own way, as empty and lost as the world of bright lights he is offering people. It’s an excellent performance.

Luhrmann’s work with DiCaprio is what gives the film it’s centre and, for all the colour, noise and joy of the first 40 minutes or so, it finds its heart in the moments of acting and character interplay as the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom love triangle comes to a head. This scene, with its bubbling emotions, high stakes and tension is like an oasis of calm in the high-faluting scenery that surrounds it. But then this is a film where the smaller moments actually come across as richer than the larger ones – partly helped by the fact that Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki both give excellent performances as the key supporting characters. 

The Great Gatsby captures the feel of Fitzgerald rather well, but for all the dialogue of the book placed over the film in voiceover, it never quite manages to capture the spirit of the book in the same way. It looks wonderful, and its dynamic filming is certainly enjoyably impressive, but it doesn’t quite become a film that deals in emotions and depth. It flashes and fizzles but it never lets us really soak in its ideas and themes. It’s all too much at times, and the tragic sadness at the heart of the story, of this lost boy trying to live the life of a man, never comes out as it should. An interesting and entertaining film, but not one that will last.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen are drowned in the shadow of the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Bennet), Matthew Macfadyen (Mr Darcy), Brenda Blethyn (Mrs Bennet), Donald Sutherland (Mr Bennet), Tom Hollander (Mr Collins), Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet), Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennet), Jena Malone (Lydia Bennet), Talulah Riley (Mary Bennet), Judi Dench (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), Simon Woods (Mr Bingley), Tamzin Merchant (Georgiana Darcy), Claudie Blakely (Charlotte Lucas), Kelly Reilly (Caroline Bingley), Rupert Friend (Mr Wickham), Penelope Wilton (Mrs Gardner), Peter Wight (Mr Gardiner)

I’ve written before about certain books having been adapted so successfully there feels very little point rolling out another. If ever an adaptation set this principle, it’s the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Not only did it perfectly capture the spirit and style of the book, with perfect scripting and direction, but the two lead actors – Jennifer Ehle and especially Colin Firth – were simply perfect (for all his achievements, the first line of Firth’s obituary will forever be “Darcy Dies”.)

So Joe Wright and his team were already climbing a mountain when they announced plans to make a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. What they’ve produced in the end is a well-made, handsomely mounted film full of visual invention – that has been pretty much rejected by nearly everyone I know who loves Austen. It’s a film that, in attempting to plough its own furlough, has ended up not really pleasing anyone: for the casual viewer it’s an entertaining but forgettable watch. For the Austen fan it’s just plain not right.

Structurally the film places Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy slap bang at the centre, and has little to no interest in anything else. This leads to major themes and relationships being neglected or outright abandoned in some bizarre cut choices. The film wants to front-and-centre Lizzy’s increasing isolation – so Jane is dispatched from the film for almost over an hour. Even more oddly, Wickham is cut down to a few spare scenes – which makes her passionate sympathy for him and anger against Darcy make very little sense. All this isolation also means we never really understand the social implications and importance of marriage – in fact the whole thing is basically turned into a Cinderella romance: Rich Man Meets Poor Girl (And No One Else Matters). 

Which means a lot of the focus for the film lands on Keira Knightley. Is there a more controversial actor in film than Knightley? Oscar-nominated for the role, among my Austen-loving friends I have found only revulsion against her performance. She plays it with spirit but too much of a modern sensibility. She’s fine, but she’s just not convincing: she doesn’t look like her, she doesn’t have her warmth and wit and seems more like she’s wandered in from some sort of “flirty girls” comedy. Nothing really communicates the character’s intelligence and wit – and Knightley probably looks a little too modern for the whole thing to work. 

On top of that the film doesn’t want her to be too unsympathetic at any point, so dials down her judgemental nature, and also reduces any possibility of us judging her partiality for Wickham by mostly removing him from the film. However, this also removes many of the obstacles from the plot that stand in the way of romance.

Matthew MacFadyen does a decent job as “Nice Guy In A Period Drama”, but the character is just wrong for Darcy. Like Lizzy’s tendency to rush to judgement, Darcy’s apparent coldness and snobbery have been watered down to almost invisibility. His first announcement of love is so genuine, so gentle, so loving that you are amazed that Elizabeth dismisses him out of hand. It’s no surprise this Darcy turns out to be a decent bloke, the edges of the character have been completely shaved off. This puts a big old dent in the plot, reduces his character development, and ruins the impact of sweet later moments like Darcy’s uncertainty when the two meet at Pemberley. 

There are some good performances though. Tom Hollander is very funny as a social-climbing Mr Collins. Donald Sutherland gets so much warmth and twinkly good humour out of Mr Bennet that Wright even ends the film on him (another odd choice, but never mind). Judi Dench could play Lady Catherine standing on her head. Rosamund Pike is rather good as Jane – she totally feels right for the period. Brenda Blethyn largely manages to avoid turning Mrs Bennet into a complete stereotype. Saying that, Simon Woods portrays a version of Bingley so bumbling, tittering and awkward you are amazed either Jane or Darcy could be interested in him, let alone bear to spend time with him.

But then large chunks of the film feel odd. The screenplay works overtime to turn the film into a straight-forward star-crossed lovers story: so it’s Darcy and Elizabeth all the way, and the film is desperate to make them both likeable from the off. And if that means that, in a film called Pride and Prejudice, both the pride and the prejudice have to be junked to make sure even the stupidest audience member will like the hero and heroine, well that’s apparently a price worth paying. Lowering the Bennets’ social status as far as the film does, also turns the story into a full-on Cinderella territory. Darcy and Bingley are so posh an entire room falls silent when they walk in – in comparison the Bennets are so poor they share their house with pigs.

Ah yes the pigs. Why? The Bennets aren’t paupers. If they were, why would Collins want the place? Why would they be invited to the ball? Why would Bingley and Darcy even consider them as partners? Why would a family so aware of impressions have a home that is literallyfull of shit all the time? Why is Mr Bennet scruffy and unshaven – and why doesn’t anyone care? Who designed this? If the Bennets are so fixated on getting good marriages why do they literally live in a pig sty? It’s a visual idea that undermines the whole story.

I’m not joking. Here is a pig walking through the Bennet house.

It’s full of things like this that don’t feel right. The film junks most of the language of the original book, which makes it sound jarring (it even re-works Darcy’s first proposal: “in vain I have struggled, it will not do…” – large numbers of Austen lovers I know can recite those lines verbatim. This film apparently thought it could create a better version. It couldn’t). Large chunks of the film happen in the rain like some sort of version of Wuthering Heights. Why is that? Is it because professions of love in the rain are romantic in a Mills and Boonish sort of way? Or is it an echo back to Firth’s wet shirt?

Emma Thompson’s sublime adaptation of Sense and Sensibility demonstrated that it is completely possible to adapt an Austen novel into a two-hour film and still preserve the characters, relationships, major events and themes of the book, while also making a story that stands on its own two feet for non-Austen-ites. This film bungles its attempt to do the same. 

But there are things Wright gets right. The camera work and transitions are lovely. A long tracking shot that weaves in and around the ball early in the film, taking in every single character is not only a technical marvel but really gets across a feeling of what these hectic and bustling social events are like. There is a beautiful time transition at Longbourn, as Elizabeth rotates on a screen and the camera takes on a POV shot, showing the seasons changing each time the camera revolves around through 180 degrees. The cinematography is luscious and Wright – his first film – shows he was more than ready for the step-up from TV.

It’s just a shame that the film they made doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t capture the sense of the book. It doesn’t capture the sense of the characters. It makes bizarre and just plain wrong choices. It’s a decent film, but it is not a good adaptation of the novel. And that’s a major problem, because if you are going to adapt something as widely loved and revered as this, you better bloody well understand the novel – and I don’t think enough people here did. It’s told with a sweeping romantic style – but they are adapting the perception of Pride and Prejudice rather than the actual story. The chemistry and romance aren’t there: the film even ends with an odd sequence of Sutherland and Knightley, probably because there was better chemistry between these two than the two leads. It’s a film that basically doesn’t work at all.

Suffragette (2015)

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

Director: Sarah Gavron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Education (2009)

First love: Never as smooth as you think it will be

Director: Lone Scherfig

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Jenny Mellor), Peter Sarsgaard (David Goldman), Dominic Cooper (Danny), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Alfred Molina (Jack Mellor), Cara Seymour (Marjorie Mellor), Emma Thompson (Miss Walters), Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs), Sally Hawkins (Sarah), Ellie Kendrick (Tina)

The education in question is the first sexual relationship of a girl who is 16 going on 17. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a schoolgirl and prospective Oxford candidate who finds herself winning the attention of charming older man David (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny is swept off her feet by the world of classy bars, art and culture David introduces her to and begins to lose interest in her literal education: if all education can do is turn women into either lawyers’ wives or teachers what is the point?

Strangely for a film based on a man approaching middle-age taking advantage of a naïve and excited teenager, it’s strangely cosy and charming, with the whiff of “safe” family viewing. Nothing wrong with that of course, but the whole confection is just a little too slight, a little too well packaged, a little too carefully and thoughtfully put together to really leave a lasting impression. Instead it’s an enjoyable enough 90 minutes which doesn’t really have anything that stays with you.

What it does have going for it above all is the marvellous lead performance from Carey Mulligan. At the time best known for appearing in the Blink episode of Doctor Who, Mulligan cements her early promise by demonstrating what a charismatic and vibrant performer she is. Jenny delights in the ease with which David deceives everyone without it ever occurring to her that he might be lying to her, and this teenage arrogance could easily be smackably annoying – but Mulligan makes her deeply engaging and loveable. You want to protect her from making an irrevocable decision that will ruin her life at 16 (sort of the opposite to Bella in Twilight). But Mulligan’s endearingly engaging performance sweeps the audience up into Jenny’s fascination with the exciting life David seems to be offering, and makes you understand why she believes it to be a viable option. She’s a radiant centre to the film and it’s almost impossible to imagine it working at all without her.

It is in fact very well-acted throughout. Sarsgaard underplays the role, suggesting the underlying shallowness and weakness to David which is far clearer to the audience than the characters. The supporting cast are knock-outs: Rosamund Pike is hilarious as a sweet airhead, Alfred Molina embodies the gullibility of the striving middle-classes mixed with great reserves of unspoken love and affection, Olivia Williams is terrific in an underwritten part as Jenny’s concerned teacher.

It’s strange watching the film to see how it romanticizes the sort of behaviour that, if we encountered it today, would be denounced as grooming at best, paedophilia at worst. In fact, the film soft-peddles a lot of the unpleasantness of its characters: David and Danny, it is clear, are conmen and swindlers, though I suspect the film wants us to think of them more as charming rogues. I suppose it’s the impact of seeing the story from Jenny’s perspective, but some more outside commentary would perhaps have been interesting: it also might have been more interesting to see Jenny actually having to deal with the moral consequences of some of the actions that happen around her. 

This is a slight affair, almost a shaggy dog story. There are many more things it could have explored (the swindling career of David, the role of women in the 1960s, the changing perceptions of “blue stockings” and their career options) but instead it settles for being a charming period piece. It makes no secret of the fact that, deep down, we are not meant to trust David and nothing in the plot ever really surprises you. It’s a gentle amble through an ill-advised teenage romance. But, despite all that, it’s very well acted and Carey Mulligan proves she was set to become a star.