Tag: Charlotte Rampling

Dune (2021)

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson excel in Denis Villeneuve’s marvellous Dune

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Timothée Chalamet (Paul Atreides), Rebecca Ferguson (Lady Jessica), Oscar Isaac (Duke Leto Atreides), Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), Stellan Skarsgard (Baron Valdimir Harkonnen), Dave Bautista (Glossu Rabban), Charlotte Rampling (Gaius Helen Mohiam), Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), Javier Bardem (Stilgar), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Thufir Hawat), Zendaya (Chani), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dr Liet-Kynes), David Dastmalchian (Piter De Vries), Chang Chen (Dr Wellington Yueh)

In the history of “unfilmable novels”, few are perhaps as “unfilmable” as Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel Dune. In fact, in case we were in any doubt, we even have the evidence with David Lynch’s curiosity Dune (either a noble attempt or an egregious mess, depending on who you talk to – I fall between the two camps depending on the time of day). Denis Villeneuve – fresh from his glorious reinvention of Blade Runner – is one of the few directors with the vision and the clout needed to bring this fictional universe to the screen. He delivers a visually stunning slice of cinematic story-telling, that remains faithful to the novel while carefully calculating how much of the story to focus on. It makes for a sweeping, spectacular film.

The set-up in Herbert’s books is labyrinthine, but one of the film’s great skills is to boil it down to something digestible and understandable. It helps as well that, unlike Lynch’s film, this focuses on roughly the first half of the novel only. 10,000 years in the future, mankind travels through space – but space travel is dependent on a spice that can only be mined on a sand-covered planet called Arrakis, populated by colossal worms and a race of mysterious sand-dwellers called the Fremen. Control of the mining operation of the planet is taken from the brutal House Harkonnen, and its patriarch (Stellan Skarsgard), and granted to the more moderate House Atreides and its head Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). However, this is just a ruse to trap and destroy House Atreides, whose popularity endangers the Emperor. On arrival on the planet, Leto’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is believed by the Fremen to be a long-promised messiah – and Paul is plagued with strange visions of his future. Can he, and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), survive and fulfil their destinies?

Dune is a complex, sprawling piece of world-building – the sort of book so stuffed with unique words, concepts and language that it includes a full glossary to help the reader work out what’s going on. Villeneuve’s genius here is to work out exactly how much of that world building to build into the script, and how much to leave out. Where the Lynch Dune tried to cover everything in this universe and seemed to introduce new characters and concepts in every scene (right up to the end), Villeneuve’s Dune is far more focused. It gives enough tips of the hat to readers of the book to be faithful, but doesn’t bother the more casual viewer with what, say, a mentat is or who the Space Guild exactly are. The overload of information that crushed Lynch’s Dune is skilfully avoided here.

What we get instead is a wonderfully focused, coming-of-age story that places the young hero front-and-centre – and filters our experience through his eyes. This not only helps give us a very clear human engagement with this world, it also makes for a highly relatable central arc to build the rest of the world building around. After all, we understand the “chosen-one-finds-his-destiny” story: using that as a very clear framework, allows the wider universe to be slowly and carefully drip-fed around that. It also plays very well to the reader (who will know the unspoken detail and enjoy subtle references to it on screen) and to the initiate (who won’t need to know every last detail of every last character’s background and won’t be overwhelmed by those references).

On top of which, Dune is, in itself, a sumptuous and visually beautiful example of expansive world-building. Fitting a series that has spawned dozens of novels and an entire universe of expanded storylines, endless care and loving attention has gone into creating every inch of this world. Jacqueline West’s costumes brilliantly capture the mix of medieval and space-punk futurism in the world’s design (this is after all a universe which is effectively Game of Thrones in space – one of many franchises to owe a huge debt to Dune) and Patrice Vermette’s set design superbly contrasts the different planets aesthetics. The imagery carefully contrasts the greens and blues (and water!) of the other worlds with the striking yellows and dryness of Arrakis – it’s beautifully filmed by Grieg Fraser – and the scale is epic, re-enforced by Zimmer’s gothic choir inspired music.

Villeneuve marshals this all into a story that is part world-building set-up, part conspiracy thriller and eventually becomes a full-on chase movie. Each shift in story-telling style flows naturally into the next, and Villeneuve keeps the pace and sense of intrigue up highly effectively. He also understands that films like this need a touch of wit and human warmth: Herbert’s book, for all its strengths, is also a po-faced and slightly pretentious read, with every event and character consciously carrying a massive sense of importance. Dune recognises this, and makes sure to mix lightness and touches of humour to avoid the operatic seriousness tipping into being a little silly (as it did in Lynch’s version).

Villeneuve is helped in this by a well-chosen cast. Chalamet is perfectly cast as the naïve Paul, growing in statue and wisdom as the film progresses: he is effectively vulnerable but also a determined and mentally strong hero, one we can have faith in but still feel concerned about. Ferguson is the film’s stand-out performance as his conflicted mother, determined to protect her family. Isaac is perfect as the charismatic and noble Leto, as is Skarsgard as the viciously bloated Vladimir. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is terrific as an official with split loyalties. Charlotte Rampling has a highly effective cameo as a mysterious priest while Jason Momoa gives possibly his finest performance (certainly his warmest and wittiest) as a larger-than-life warrior.

The film glosses over certain elements – in particular the plot against House Artreides, and Leto’s suspicions of it are wisely simplified and stream-lined – and wisely revises or avoids elements of the book that have dated (most notably the slight stench of homophobia around the bloated, predatory Vladimir). In some ways it’s a beautiful coffee-table version of the story, but it’s careful enough to suggest anything we are not seeing from the book is still happening, just off-camera (I await the inevitable Director’s Cut with even more Mentats, Conditioning and Weirding!). However – based on the cinema I sat in – this has worked a treat to win converts over to the story.

A sweeping, impressive and epic version of a huge novel, it’s a triumph of directorial vision and skilful compression and adaptation. By trying to make Dune work for a larger audience, without sacrificing its heart, rather than laboriously include everything and everyone, it successfully makes it into a crowd-pleasing space opera with depth. Catch it on the big screen!

The Little Stranger (2018)

Little stranger header
Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t believe in ghosts in The Little Stranger

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Dr Faraday), Ruth Wilson (Caroline Ayres), Will Poulter (Roderick Ayres), Liv Hill (Betty), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs Ayres), Harry Hadden-Paton (Dr David Granger), Anna Madeley (Anne Granger), Richard McCabe (Dr Seeley)

Can an adaptation of a novel work when the key to its success was the way it was told rather than the story itself? With its unreliable narrator and distinctively interior style, Sarah Waters’ book was a tough ask. But, making it even harder for the big screen, The Little Stranger is a ghost story narrated by a fervent non-believer, who witnesses none of the supernatural elements and spends his time finding detailed, logical reasons for why the people living in the haunted house are as unsettled as they are. It makes for a challenge which, for all the style Lenny Abrahamson brings, the film doesn’t quite manage to meet.

Our sceptic is Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a young village GP in the years immediately after the Second World War. Faraday grew up in the shadow of the Ayres house, a grand country seat now being lived in by the last remnants of the Ayres family who have fallen on hard times. Son Roderick (Will Poulter) has been left with debilitating injuries after his RAF service, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) seems destined to become a spinster, and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) struggles to hold together what’s left of the house’s prestige, among leaking roofs and bills that can’t be paid. Dr Faraday becomes an intimate of the household. But are the family’s problems partly linked to a malign presence in the house, perhaps the unsettled ghost of a third, long-dead Ayres sibling? Or is it all just bad luck, frozen pipes, branches on the window and creaking floorboards?

Well of course it isn’t. The film’s main problem is that it takes a book where the narrator spends the entire time stubbornly refusing to accept he is in a ghost story, and repackages it as a more conventional tale of creeps and psychological horror. While moments like this are undoubtedly unsettling, it rather flies in the face of what made the book unique in the first place.

In the book you find yourself – despite knowing deep down he’s wrong, because that’s not how stories work – thinking that maybe all this is just a series of terrible coincidences impacting a psychologically fragile family. In the film, you are never in any doubt that the ghosts are real. Not least, because we are frequently witness to supernatural events. When Charlotte Rampling’s character is terrified in the nursery by the ghost of her lost child, we share the terror with her. A truer adaptation of the book would have only shown us the aftermath – a trembling woman on the ground surrounded with broken glass – and asked us if we shared Faraday’s diagnosis of suicidal depression.

The change in perspective from the book has a particularly bad impact on the Faraday character. Faraday, deep down, is a sort of chippy Charles Ryder, as much in love with the house – and the prospect of one day owning it – as he is with the family itself. This mix of longing, envy and class jealousy bubbles under the surface of the character in the book, qualities that we have to read between the lines to detect. In the film however, these qualities are bought firmly to the surface.

This means that, for all Domhnall Gleeson has just the right rigidity and lack of imagination for the born sceptic, it means the character’s sinister possessiveness towards the Ayres house comes more to the fore. In the film it’s hard to escape the sense Faraday is as much a creep as the ghost (something the film even perhaps vaguely suggests in its open-ended conclusion). He’s cold and undeniably bitter, quietly but resentfully recording each moment where he is treated like a retainer.

The film also loses some of the context of the book as well. Part of the reason this house is falling apart is the declining wealth of the family in a world of post-war depression and higher death duties. Today the Ayres house would have been long since flogged to the National Trust. The crumbling house – compared to the grand vision in Faraday’s memories – is itself a metaphor for a particular class in Britain. However, this gets a bit lost in the film. Instead it’s easy to see the Ayres as just personally unlucky rather than symptomatic of a general collapse of the landed class.

But the film does do lots of good things. The ghost stuff is undeniably creepy – even if, as I say, it leaves the viewer in no doubt that Faraday is wrong and the Ayres are right. Will Poulter is very good in a small role as the bitter and scarred son, while Wilson captures a sense of premature middle-aged drift in Caroline, a woman unhappy in her life but unsure what she wants. Rampling is similarly very strong as a crumbling matriarch.

The film also looks lovely – perhaps too lovely, with its idealised view of a 1950s that surely was dirtier than this – and is well assembled. It just fails to bring a narrative drive to the film to replace the uncertainty and scepticism of the narrative voice that made the book so strong. There Faraday’s dismissals and self-denial about his class envy were what made the story compelling: here they are both removed – and what’s left isn’t quite interesting or unique enough to fill the gap.

Georgy Girl (1966)

Lynn Redgrave excels as permanent odd-girl out in Georgy Girl

Director: Silvio Narizzano

Cast: Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Parkin), James Mason (James Leamington), Alan Bates (Jos Jones), Charlotte Rampling (Meredith), Bill Owen (Ted Parkin), Clare Kelly (Doris Parkin), Rachel Kempson (Ellen Leamington), Denise Coffey (Peg), Dandy Nichols (Hospital Nurse)

Made at the height of the Swinging Sixties – when London was the coolest city in the world – Georgy Girl is, in some respects, a time capsule. It was seen at the time as almost impossibly naughty and subversive, with open talk of abortions and affairs, mothers who feel their lives have been changed for the worse by having babies and young people struggling to accept their responsibilities. Now of course, it all looks rather tame. But there remains a charm to the film – helped above all by its performances – that still manages to make it a winning film, despite some of its attitudes raising entirely different questions today than its makers intended.

Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) is the plain-looking (and doesn’t the film keep reminding us of this!) daughter of the devoted butler (Bill Owen) to millionaire James Leamington (James Mason). Leamington has supported Georgy while she grows up – even letting her use his house for her children’s performance classes – but now his interest in her is changing. With his wife dying, James offers her the chance to become his mistress (with an actual contract). Georgy turns it down – not least because of her growing interest in Jos (Alan Bates), the fun-loving boyfriend of her flatmate Meredith (Charlotte Rampling), a drop-dead gorgeous violinist who treats him and everyone else with disdain. When Meredith falls pregnant with Jos’ baby, the two of them marry – but Meredith wants nothing to do with the child, a contrast to Georgy who has always dreamed of family.

It’s actually a film of cold, hard realities. Beware any film which gives you a conventional happy ending – the hero chasing a woman down a street crying out that he loves her – around the half way mark. All the characters are presented with choices, and are forced to either compromise or run away. It’s telling that the characters who most fit the mood of the era invariably run away, while those with a more traditional outlook stick it out. You could argue that far from being a celebration of the 60s, Georgy Girl is a fierce critique.

At the time, Georgy was seen as something of a free spirit. Perhaps this was because of her unconventional looks or her playful imagination when working with the children in her performance class. Maybe it was the opening sequence, which sees her getting a fashionable haircut, only to instantly wash it out in a sink. Or could it be because she treats her father’s wishes for her to listen to her elders and betters with disdain? (Let’s skirt over the fact her father seems to be effectively pimping her to his employer.) The way she makes a scene at Leamington’s birthday party by performing a raunchy cabaret number? Most of all though it may well have been due to the catchy (and instantly recognisable) Seekers song that plays over the opening and closing of the movie and serves as her calling card.

Interestingly though, watching it now, there is something incredibly conservative about Georgy – and quite possibly about the film itself. While she lives in the heart of the buzzing metropolis, Georgy’s dreams seem to come from another age: to become a mother, in a comfortable domestic setting. It’s hardly a feminist rallying cry. Georgy is so keen for this, she is perfectly willing to step (almost literally) into the shoes of Meredith, inheriting her husband, child and home. The film also misses no opportunity to remind the viewers Georgy is plain, dumpy and sexually inexperienced. Redgrave has been dressed to look like a sort of Teutonic housekeeper. The film doesn’t seem to quite know where to land between praising Georgy and slightly encouraging us, to chuckle at her.

Georgy isn’t in fact the swinging 60s icon in the film. That unquestionably is Charlotte Rampling as Meredith. Looking absolutely stunning, dressed by Mary Quant, Meredith is everything we expect from the era: confident, outgoing, ambitious, sexually liberated. But Meredith is also a stone-cold, ruthless, heartless bitch. Superbly played by Rampling, she treats Georgy as a servant, Jos as a mix between comfort blanket and vibrator, and decides to get married and have the child (rather than abort it as she has two others of Jos’ children – without telling him) because she’s bored. Once the poor child is born, the idea of sacrificing anything from her life is anathema to Meredith who promptly disappears over the horizon.

Georgy Girl is actually a film with much more mixed – even satiric – views of women and its era. The sort of liberation Meredith enjoys goes hand-in-hand with a selfish shirking of responsibility and using her beauty as a justification to treat everyone she meets as supplicants. Georgy is stuck in the middle, a woman in an era of growing freedoms but whose aims remain solidly in the Victorian era. The men are an equally mixed bag. Today we would certainly call what Leamington has been doing grooming. Jos has a happy-go-lucky 60s charm to him, but is flighty, unreliable, selfish and disappears with a smile the second the going gets tough. For all the film is sort of remembered for its joie-de-vive, it’s actually a searing look at the era with mixed feelings about its characters.

The fact we really end up caring for Georgy is due to Lynn Redgrave’s wonderful performance. A second choice for her sister Vanessa, the role typecast Redgrave in Hollywood’s minds as sort of dumpy loser (especially after her Oscar nomination). But she brings the role a real magnetism. Georgy is doomed to play second fiddle in people’s lives (and perhaps even her own). Perhaps the most 60s thing about her though is her determination to get what she wants – whether that is avoiding an affair with her father’s employer, or securing a good life for Meredith’s baby.

The rest of the cast are equally strong. Bates brings the best of his impish charm to the part (even if at times he tries too hard), as well as a metrosexual edge to Jos as someone very comfortable with joking around and being a bit camp. James Mason (who took a massive pay cut for the role, a decision which paid off with an Oscar nomination) is superb as fragile but creepy Leamington, a man who believes he is genuinely in love and is also excited at the prospect of replacing his bed-ridden wife (played by Redgrave’s actual mother Rachel Kempson, adding a nice Oedipal touch) with a younger model. Bill Owen mixes both a hilarious servility with assertions that his daughter “owes” Leamington something for all he’s done for her.

Georgy Girl works well because it is – and remains – funny as well as being dramatic and thought provoking. It might not be a feminist tract – and the character most likely to be seen as a feminist in the thing is its least sympathetic by far – and it might well affectionately scorn a woman who doesn’t look like a conventional man’s idea of attractive, and give her a traditional outlook behind a playful exterior – but it’s an energetic and rather charming film that does make you care. Separating it from the era it’s set in, might well do it a world of good.

Zardoz (1974)

Yes Sean Connery actually wears this in Zardoz

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Sean Connery (Zed), Charlotte Rampling (Consuella), Sara Kestelman (May), Niall Buggy (Arthur Frayn/Zardoz), John Alderton (Friend), Sally Anne Newton (Avalow), Bosco Hogan (George Saden)

Be warned. When a director is given the money to make any film he wants – with total creative control and no interference from anyone else – you’ve got a 50/50 chance of either getting a work of genius or a piece of pap. In the case of John Boorman’s Zardoz you definitely get the latter. Zardoz is possibly one of the most bizarre, misguided, surreal and finally plain bad films you’ll see, like a walking advert for the most pretentious and terrible outreaches of science fiction. 

It’s the year 2293, and the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The “Brutes” live in the wastelands, growing food for the “Eternals” – immortal figures, leading a luxurious but empty, pointless existence on a series of country estates protected from the outside world by forcefields, their lives governed by a super computer. In the middle are the “Exterminators”, who control (i.e. kill and enslave) the Brutes and worship “Zardoz”, a giant flying head sent by the Eternals. Until, one day, Exterminator Zed (Sean Connery) sneaks his way into Zardoz and finds himself in the world of the Eternals and starts to lead them to question the point of their interminable immortality.

Zardoz looks overwhelmingly silly, and is often filmed and edited with such high-flown, empty surrealness, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously from the start. It looks so bizarre – with its terrible costumes, camp playing and overly designed look and feel – that it’s hard not to suppress a snigger. This is made worse by the shallow, pretentious and obvious social satire forced upon on once you start to concentrate on the dialogue.

It’s also one of those films that mistakes an incoherent, poorly explained plot – in which characters frequently change sides, motivations and aims at the drop of a hat – for a sort of mystical profoundity. The influence of The Prisoner is very strongly felt, from its commune-like setting to our “hero” being trapped in a stylised world where he is trying to work out the rules. But while The Prisoner manages, more or less, to suggest some sort of deeper meaning behind all the stylistic self-indulgence and pleased-with-itself babble, Zardoz just manages to be unengaging and heavily self-indulgent. 

You don’t need a philosophy major to work out the social commentary being made in a world where the richest exploit the rest of the population to live a life of ease and content. Nor is it a surprise to find that this sort of life without challenges, continuing forever, has led to stagnated and lazy lives where everything (even, to the film’s shock, sex – although of course the muscular Connery fixes that) has lost all meaning. Frankly this world takes off-cuts of several, far better and smarter films, and remixes them together into a turgid mess.

And it looks so silly. The entire design of the film constantly shoots it in the foot. How could you take Sean Connery seriously in that costume? The Eternals wear the sort of Greek-influenced hedonistic costumes that you would expect to see on a second-rate episode of Star Trek. The film frequently uses stylistic decisions that look absurd – and try too hard – from the hand gestures used to show the Eternals’ mind control (looking like a partial lift from the Macarena) to the bizarre sequences where Zed’s memory is searched using an projector, frequently using surrealist images mixed with physical theatre that frankly looks more than a little bit silly.

Sean Connery goes at this all with a respectful commitment, even if the character isn’t particularly engaging, and is hard to relate to since most of his memories seem to revolve around rape and murder. As if recognising this, there is a late plot turn where we find out that Zed is far more than he appears. But rather than making this intriguing, it makes virtually all his actions earlier in the film incoherent. But then it’s not as if that’s a problem: Charlotte Ramping, Sara Kestelman and John Alderton as the leading Eternals swop views, sides and opinions virtually scene to scene. Rampling in particular goes between plotting Zed’s death to becoming his acolyte in one conversation. For some this might be a sort of poetry. But really it’s crap.

In amongst all the nonsense, the film has a seedy, porny view of women. The Eternals seem to walk around – perhaps because they are so indifferent to sex – virtually in the buff. Connery has sex (eventually) with most of the female cast, as well as groping several others. Boobs frequently appear in shot. In one moment so bizarre it must be a joke, Zed’s sexual drive (so alien to the Eternals) is even explored by showing him some pornographic images (including some naked women mud wrestling) to see if it gets his rocks off (sadly for them, he shows much more – visible – interest in Rampling than the images they are showing). 

It all finally comes to an end in an orgy of violence intercut with images that comment on rebirth in a way that is supposed to be (no doubt) an intellectual comment on the balance between love and death – but actually is just another clumsy, empty excuse for a bit more sex and violence (and plenty of nudity). But then since the film has long since stopped making any sense (with scenes including Connery dressed as a bride, chasing himself through a hall of mirrors and briefly gaining the power to turn back time and protect others from violence with “his aura”) that it hardly seems to matter. The film had a seriously damaging impact on the careers of both Boorman (who makes a good job of the opening scene and then sees the whole film slide down a silly, indulgent and pointless mess) and Connery. Not a surprise. It’s terrible.

Red Sparrow (2018)

Jennifer Lawrence tries but fails with dismal material in the dreadful Red Sparrow

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Dominika Egorova), Joel Edgerton (Nate Nash), Matthias Schoenaerts (Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov), Charlotte Rampling (Marton), Mary-Louise Parker (Stephane Boucher), Ciaran Hinds (Colonel Zakharov), Joely Richardson (Nina Egorova), Bill Camp (Marty Gable), Jeremy Irons (General Vladimir Andreiovich Korchnoi), Thekla Reuten (Marta Yelenova), Douglas Hodge (Colonel Maxim Volontov)

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is in trouble. After an act of sabotage by her dance partner, her career in ballet is over. Out of options, she is forced into enrolling at the elite FSB Sparrow School by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts). There young men and women are trained, under the tutelage of its controlling Matron (Charlotte Rampling), to sacrifice all their pride and their bodies for the good of Mother Russia. Thrown into the field, Dominika finds herself entangled with the CIA Agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), whom she has been ordered to seduce.

Red Sparrow is a bad film on several levels. Firstly, it’s at heart a trashy espionage movie that confuses being about intelligence with actually being intelligent. A few late twists doesn’t suddenly make this a work of genius. Secondly, its attitude of being about this damn dirty business of spying manages to make it so grim it’s not even fun to watch. Finally, it’s the sort of film that thinks constantly telling us it has a strong female lead at its heart is the same as actually having a strong female lead at its heart.

To take that final point last… Poor Jennifer Lawrence. Surely only the $20million she was paid for this film attracted her to this. I’ll start by saying she feels miscast in a role that requires a ruthlessness and capacity for viciousness that is not a natural part of her range. But this film struggles to make her feel like a character with real agency. During the course of this film, she has her leg broken, nearly gets raped (twice), strips down in front of a group of people (twice), gets smacked in the face, beaten, tortured, stabbed, shot… And a few sudden last minute gear reversals which suggest that she has been playing her own game this whole time don’t shake the impression that the film is wallowing in the torture and violence that runs through the film.

Anyway, the film is reliant on that because it’s not sharp or clever enough to really have anything else in there in its place. So we stumble from violent set piece to violent set piece, while the characters talk incessantly about macguffins and characters we care almost nothing about. The film has an almost impenetrable plot, not because it’s complex, but because it’s poorly explained and impossible to care about. Actors who are way too good for this material – and I mean the whole cast – struggle to put fire and energy into a shaggy dog story that never goes anywhere.

This all serves to make it a dull film. It really should be a guilty pleasure. All the right material is in there. Spy thrillers make for fun films. It’s interesting to have a woman at the centre of it. It’s got good actors. But too many scenes and set pieces veer towards the overly violent and sexual. For a film that is about a silly spy training school turning out honey trap agents, this film seems determined to ram the grimness of spying in our faces at every turn. This makes sense for a high brow Le Carre adaptation. It makes no sense for silly high-concept Jennifer Lawrence star vehicle.

Who really needs to watch poor Jennifer being slapped about and ill-treated for over two hours? Who has the patience for it? Who is going to enjoy it? The film struggles to get across the idea that Dominika is good at this spying game so it needs other characters to say it openly. Its rug pull towards the end lacks all signposting so gives no satisfaction whatsoever. By the time it comes round you’ll have long ceased stop caring about anything in it as well. A tedious, grimy and rather unpleasant film from start to finish that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

45 Years (2015)

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling excel in a successful marriage suddenly going wrong after 45 Years

Director: Andrew Haigh

Cast: Charlotte Rampling (Kate Mercer), Tom Courtenay (Geoff Mercer), Geraldine James (Lena), David Sibley (George), Dolly Wells (Charlotte)

What would you do if you found out, after 45 years, that there were huge things you never, ever, knew about the partner you had shared your life with? That the very basis of your marriage is completely different than you believed? How would that change everything you remembered before that? How could that change where your marriage may go in the future?

That’s the situation Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) a retired teacher in a quiet country house outside Norwich finds herself in. Five days before their 45th wedding anniversary party, her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter from the German police notifying them the body of a girl who died 50 years ago, Katya, has been found. Katya had been lost falling into a crevasse on a climbing holiday with Geoff. Geoff is profoundly shaken and distracted by the news – and over the next week, it emerges his relationship with Katya was far more profound and important to him than he has ever mentioned to Kate (and in fact he has never mentioned Katya to her before).

Counter as it runs to spoiler territory, I’ll say off the bat that Geoff did not murder Katya (the obvious, knee-jerk, twist we expect from years of films). Instead this is a far more complex and engaging story about the impact profound, emotional revelations can have on relationships that seem as strong and long-lasting as between Geoff and Kate. The film follows a single week as long since buried feelings, emotions and resentments begin to simmer and burst out – and as Kate begins to question everything she has ever understood about her Geoff and her life.

And how shocking would that be if you learned things about the person you loved that suddenly made them feel like a completely different person? And how could you ever begin to compete the with the romantic image your partner has in their head of someone who died 50 years ago, before they ever met you, but whom you start to feel everything you have ever done or said has been quietly, maybe even subconsciously, judged against?

45 Years is a hugely intelligent, acute and engrossing film. Virtually a two hander, it relies on the actors – shot by Haigh with an intimacy that immediately establishes their own long running and secure relationship – the film is a series of carefully structured conversations, many of which have the surface appearance of normality that hides far deeper emotional currents of angry, loss, grief, doubt and resentment. The film brilliantly taps into our own fears of having secrets kept from us, of being betrayed in some way – even if the betrayal is far more complex than expected.

And it understands completely that time here is not a healer. Instead, like some sort of monolithic ghost, Katya invades Kate and Geoff’s life. For Geoff it brings back a flood of feelings that he had long since repressed and pushed to one side. For Kate, these age old events have all the pang of newly discovered revelations. For them both Katya’s death may as well have been a few days not fifty years ago. Suddenly, her memory begins to permeate every inch of their home and every second of their (previously) happy marriage.

All this is played with expert compassion and humanity by Tom Courtenay and a possibly career-best Charlotte Rampling. Rampling (famously cheated of a BAFTA nomination like Courtenay but honoured with an Oscar nomination) mines untold depths of vulnerability, emotional doubt and insecurity that solidifies into barely acknowledged feelings of anger, pain and resentment. The final sequence of the film – set at that celebration party we were waiting for – rests on her brilliance at wordlessly reacting as she slowly processes the things that she has discovered in the last few days, and how they have changed her perception of both her, her husband and the decisions she and he have made in their lives.

Tom Courtenay is equally good as Geoff, becoming increasingly distant, withdrawn and anger, but (in that very British way) trying to pretend nothing has changed. He throws in flashes of carefree fun and moments of trying to jolly on, but it’s never really real. The two actors are also brilliant at suggesting the lived in comfortableness of a long term relationship, every scene of theirs having a careful short hand of intimacy. Two sublime performances.

The whole thing is brilliantly packaged by Andrew Haigh’s subtle and careful direction into something that haunts the imagination long after it finishes. It’s the sort of film you’ll be desperate to discuss with people as soon as it finishes, to try and understand and interpret what you’ve seen in it. That final sequence is a perfect pay off for everything you’ve seen before, a brilliant sequence of uncertainty and hesitation. Fabulous film making and a very good film.

The Duchess (2013)

Keira Knightley in lusciously filmed, but shallow The Duchess

Director: Saul Dibb

Cast: Keira Knightley (Lady Georgiana Devonshire), Ralph Fiennes (Duke of Devonshire), Hayley Atwell (Lady Bess Foster), Charlotte Rampling (Countess Georgina Spencer), Dominic Cooper (Earl Grey), Aidan McArdle (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Simon McBurney (Charles James Fox)

My main memory of The Duchess is seeing the trailer while watching Mamma Mia in the cinema. The first shot was Keira Knightley’s face, met with an overwhelming groan from the female-dominated audience. There is something about Knightley that seems to get people’s goat.  If you’re one of those who struggle to warm to Knightley as a performer, this probably isn’t going to be the film that changes your mind.

In the late 18th century, Lady Georgiana (Keira Knightley) marries the absurdly wealthy, but older and duller, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She wants a meeting of minds. He just wants an heir. The marriage flounders – and gets worse when the Duke in turn starts an affair with Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), Georgiana’s closest friend. As her home-life becomes a menage-a-trois, with the Duke treating both women as wives (with their agreement) she begins to experience deeper feelings for the dashing Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), an ambitious politician.

So, first things first, Keira Knightley. She does a decent job. She’s pretty good. But, rather like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it feels like her best is a 7/10 performance. She’s dedicated, she’s really striving here – but always feels like someone trying rather than truly natural and unforced. She brings Georgina’s glamour and does a decent work of her bewildered hurt, but she (and the film) don’t communicate her intelligence and political activism, so she never really develops as a character. You can’t really put your finger on her doing anything wrong as such, it’s just a performance where you always see the acting, and never feel the naturalism.

It’s particularly noticeable here as her two supports – Fiennes and Atwell – are such accomplished performers. In many ways, the film would have been improved with Atwell in the lead. As it is, as the third corner of the triangle, she has just the right mix of guilt, warmth and mercenary self-interest. In a terrific low-key performance, Fiennes manages to turn a character the film always wants to push into being a bullying villain into a man who feels alive, real and often understandable if not (whisper it) even rather sympathetic.

The film is desperate to turn Georgiana into a suffering victim, and to push Devonshire into the role of a domestic despot. But in fact, most of Devonshire’s actions are quite forward thinking: he adopts and cares for his bastard daughter (conceived pre-marriage), he saves Bess’ children and cares for them as his own, he condones a quiet affair from his wife, he treats her with the utmost public respect and allows her to spend time with her son by another man (although this is relegated to a caption at the end). The only problem is he clearly doesn’t love her, while he clearly does love Bess. Hardly able to believe he wasn’t as besotted with Georgiana as the film is, the film works overtime to try and turn someone a little dull, with some surprisingly generous views, into a monster.

In order to make it categorical who is “right” and who is “wrong”, the film chucks in a gratuitous marital rape scene that feels so out of character and over-the-top, it actually makes you step out of the film. Did it really happen? There’s no evidence of it, and it flies in the face of virtually every other action the Duke does in the film. It’s probably also in there to further contrast Georgiana’s joyless couplings with the Duke against her passionate rumpy-pumpy with Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey (here re-imagined as a penniless adventurer and radical, rather than the son of an Earl) Like Knightley, Cooper has the glamour and dash for the high-class Mills and Boon plot the film is peddling, but fails to convey Grey’s intellect and political ideals.

The film has deliberate echoes of Princess Diana throughout – the crowded marriage, the glamourous outsider marrying into a great family, the sense that her dashing public image made him look like a dullard. And like much of the public reaction to Charles and Diana in real life, the film can’t compute why Devonshire didn’t love this public idol, overlooking the fact that they shared no interests and had nothing in common. Many of Georgiana’s negative aspects are downplayed to help this – the gambling addiction that left her bankrupt is no more than high spirits here.

Basically this is a film interested in style over substance, aiming to turn a fascinating story about a menage-a-trois into something very straightforward and traditional about a husband who treats his wife badly. Now the style is great – Rachel Portman’s score is brilliant, the photography luscious, the make-up and costumes gorgeous – but the substance often isn’t there. The idea of Georgiana’s celebrity is only briefly touched upon, and her intellect barely at all.

Not content with airbrushing out her less appealing characteristics, even her positive ones are done few favours by this candyfloss depiction of her life – one of the first women to take a prominent role in the British political scene, a published writer of novels and poems, and a famously charismatic social figure, here she is little more than a mannequin on which to hang elaborate period hairstyles and costumes, who talks about being a free-spirited intellectual without doing anything that corresponds with these interests.

It shoves in dramatic events which feel out of step with both the characters and the events to push the film towards being as straightforward as possible. Knightley does a decent job – and Fiennes is extremely good as the Duke – but it settles for being something safe and traditional rather than a really interesting look at the cultural moods of the time, or the complexities of the real people it claims to portray. It shares it’s subjects beauty, but reduces her to blandness.