Tag: Ciarán Hinds

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis triumphs in this incomparable masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday/Paul Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Dillon Fraser (HW Plainview), Russell Harvard (Adult HW Plainview), David Willis (Able Sunday), Hans Howes (William Brandy), Paul F. Tompkins (Prescott)

Citizen Kane’s original title was “American”. David Thomson observed perhaps there hasn’t been another film so deserving of that title until There Will Be Blood. This is one of those once-in-a-decade films, possibly the greatest American film of the twenty-first century and Anderson’s career-defining masterpiece. It’s a gripping exploration of what makes America tick, captured within the self-destructive greed and hunger for power of one man. It’s a stunning piece of work, a cast-iron masterpiece, that takes a stack of influences and reinvents them into something fresh, daring, bold and above all unrepeatably unique.

Adapted very loosely from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, the film follows thirty years in the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a misanthropic and fiercely ambitious empire-building oil man. Running a ‘family business’ with his adopted son HW (Dillon Fraser) – the boy’s father having been killed in a drilling accident – Plainview takes up a sea of leases across California. The film focuses on his exploitation of a rich seam under the community of Little Boston. A very religious community – dominated by the strong-willed Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), almost a mirror image of Plainview’s monomania – Little Boston becomes the setting for Plainview’s struggles with men and land, in a growing cacophony of drama that inevitably (as the title promises) builds towards an explosion.

Watching it you can see the inspirations. It reflects The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which Anderson watched endlessly in preparation) in its chilling exploration of the impact of greed and Plainview is the grandfather of Charles Foster Kane. It’s set in a Fordian west, but filtered through the unique vision of Kubrick. But it’s not a slave to these: it’s a truly original work, an off-kilter epic, shot with a stunning beauty that’s half poetry, half gothic horror by Robert Elswit. It sounds like no film ever made, a deeply unsettling score that mixes discordant rhythm and baroque-inspired strings by Johnny Greenwood.

And it has two geniuses at its centre. Anderson, a director best known for large-scale ensemble pieces, inverts his style to focus on one single misanthropic force of nature, a man who sees people as only tools or rivals. His film hits every note from near silent-cinema expressionism, to Grand Guignol fever-dream intensity. It’s shot with an all-consuming urgency, long-takes of fluid camera movement, mixed with interrogative still shots. The film digs itself into your soul, takes hold and doesn’t let go. It’s at times as darkly funny, as it is horrifyingly bleak. No one else could have made it.

And no one else could have played Plainview. If There Will Be Blood cemented Anderson as one of the leading directors of the early 21st century, it confirmed Day-Lewis as the era’s greatest actor. Day-Lewis is beyond superb here: this is the sort of, epoch defining performance you see only a few times in your life. Hunched forward, like a man constantly on the move, dark eyes gleaming and his voice a malevolently rolling John-Huston inspired baritone, Day-Lewis makes Plainview a misanthropic monster. He’s articulate, instinctive and destructive. Achieving his dreams only makes him even more inhuman and bitter. And Day-Lewis makes clear the stunted, half-grown creature under the skin of the confident businessman.

It’s clear he’s desperately lonely, but seemingly only has enough humanity in him for one relationship at a time – even then, people still must serve a purpose. HW – and later Henry, the man who arrives on his land claiming to be his brother (a wonderful inscrutable performance from Kevin J O’Connor) – become props in the family business. Plainview reaches out to them for emotional connection, but it’s all one way. When an accident robs the young HW of his hearing, Plainview is incapable of caring for him – he treats the deafness like a betrayal. He banishes HW, just as he will banish and punish all those who he sees as betraying him, including Henry. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a piece of performative magic from Day-Lewis.

Alongside this genius, Anderson’s subject is America. It’s a stunning exploration of how capitalism, greed and an insatiable hunger for more – be it money, land, power or anything else worth a jot of value – has shaped the country. Plainview is the dark soul of pioneering American entrepreneurial spirit, obsessed to the elimination of anything else, with accumulation. Oil is the life blood of the country, God’s own gift of power wrapped in a dangerous black liquid. It’s pumping through the country’s soil, and to control it is to control the country’s circulation. It’s Plainview’s faith – and it’s the faith of all these men forging an empire out of the ground, motivated by the desire for more. It’s partly why the film is so focused on men – because it’s always grasping men like this, titans of industry, who shape the dark soul of our civilisation.

Nothing will please Plainview until he controls all around him, confessing in a quiet moment (there are no words for how brilliantly unrepentant, yet also strangely regretful Day-Lewis is in this underplayed scene) that he has “a competition within him. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Like the country itself, he has forged himself from nothing through naught but will-power and a determination to never know failure. There Will Be Blood argues that, much as we might want to think otherwise, America is built on the backs of men like Plainview – monsters with the vision and determination to turn a desert into a city.

God himself has no place in these calculations. Anderson contrasts the obsessive sweat of Plainview with the dogmatic and vainglorious Christianity of Eli Sunday (a brilliantly weasly Paul Dano). Eli’s church is a haven of evangelistic worship and showmanship, which Plainview immediately finds disgusting (does he recognise another expert peddler of bullshit?). Eli has a moral arrogance and as much as a desire to control as Plainview, and the battle that grows between these two for dominance not only shows the ruthlessness of both men, but also reflects the struggle between religious obligation and Mammon that has run through America’s history.

The rivalry between the two men revolves around three crucial confrontations. Having effectively robbed valuable land from Eli’s family for a pittance, Plainview then humiliates Eli, forcing him head first into the mud, refusing to allow him any influence over his dig. Eli’s revenge comes in spades: controlling a vital piece of land for Plainview’s pipeline, he demands Plainview comes to his church to be rebaptised. The resulting scene sees him goad, provoke and demean Plainview for his sins, forcing Plainview into a series of humiliating confessions (both actors are earth-shakingly brilliant).

Their final reckoning closes the film – and is both its most controversial and overblown sequence. Jumping forward fifteen years, to Plainview’s sprawling mansion (where Day-Lewis has become a dishevelled hermit, his misanthropy unchecked and his victories only confirming his loathing of humanity) it’s the famous ‘milkshake’ scene, played with the sort of OTT intensity only Day-Lewis could risk and which the film has carefully built us towards accepting. Blood-dripped in a Kubrickian setting of a bowling alley, it’s the final expression of two men’s mutual hatred and views of a world – Eli’s that it owes him something for his faith, Plainview’s that he controls it through will alone.

Only a film that has built on such firm grounding of escalating tension and excess could make such a scene a success. This is a film that starts with a near-silent 15 minutes, of Plainview hammering with a pickaxe obsessively in the belly of the country’s soil. It ends – after a long journey that has seen Plainview wheedle, steal, bully and grasp – with him entombed again, this time in his mausoleum of a home, no daylight allowed and the air filled with Plainview’s hate-filled rants. Along the way, we’ve seen the plains of California as a place of dreamy beauty, marshalled to the will of one man to control all around him, scenes of striking beauty and haunting intensity.

There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece, an inspired parable for American history, a showcase for one of the greatest actors of his generation to redefine his craft and a marvel of character study, epic vision and haunting lyricism from its director. There is not a false note in it and it stands towering as a landmark in American film history. The greatest American film of the 2000s? Possibly yes.

Belfast (2021)

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh pays tribute to his early years in Northern Island in this autobiographical film

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciarán Hinds (Pop), Lewis McAskie (Will), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Michael Maloney (Frankie West), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Gerard Horan (Mackie), Conor MacNeill (McLaury), Turlough Convery (Minister), Olive Tennant (Catherine)

Directors making films about their childhood is a well-established sub-genre. Fellini got the ball rolling, a few years ago Alfonso Cuarón made his own black-and-white look at growing up in troubled political times in Roma and this year Pablo Sorrentino has released a film focused on his own teenage years in The Hand of God. Huge admirer of Kenneth Branagh as I am, I can’t deny he’s not a unique visionary in the vein of those filmmakers. But, Belfasthas a heartfelt, genuineness and a sweetness that verges just the right side of sentimentality and is a loving tribute not only to the city he grew up in but also to his parents, making it Branagh’s most personal project since In the Bleak Midwinter and possibly his finest non-Shakespeare film.

Branagh’s substitute is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the child of a protestant family, living on a cross-community street in August 1969. His main concerns in life are friends, films, football and a classmate he has a crush on at school. But for his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), their worries are much more about the growing sectarian violence in the city. Pa has an offer of a job in England, which could bring them a new life. But it means the whole family leaving behind it everything it has ever known, including Buddy’s beloved grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). As the city becomes more dangerous, what will the family decide to do?

If there is a memory piece Belfast reminds me of most, it’s John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. That film was true to Boorman’s memory, that growing up during the Blitz was also an exciting time, because as a child he never realised that death could be seconds away. It’s the same with Belfast. Branagh is keeps the film as much as possible from the child’s perspective. A child might be aware of the news playing on the TV, see the growing number of soldiers stopping and searching people on the streets and be wrapped up in riots, while never really understanding what exactly is going on.

The film has been unfairly attacked by some for not focusing on the accepted narratives of this era of Belfast’s history: misery, killing and brutality. What Belfast instead brings to the fore is the warm community. Streets where everyone knew your name, people sat outside their homes and chatted with neighbours, shared celebrations together and looked after each other. You can understand why it was such a wrench to leave this behind – even with soldiers patrolling the street. How scary it was for a person of any age – from Buddy to Ma, who has known nothing but Belfast her entire life – to even consider going to a place where no-one would know you and you would be an outsider.

Belfast is dedicated to those who stayed behind, those who left and all the lives who were lost. It’s a tribute to a community spirit and family, that has chimed with a great deal of people who lived in the city at the same time and place. The film is fundamentally hopeful because, under the violence and danger, it makes a plea – and demonstrates – that many people in Ireland just wanted to live their lives and didn’t care which church their neighbours went to. The opening few moments of the film is a snapshot of these halcyon days, kids from different communities playing together on the streets and their families gossiping and laughing together.

It’s shattered by the film’s first outburst of violence, as a Unionist gang attacks the street and hurl Molotov cocktails at the houses of Catholic residents – with Buddy, confused and terrified, caught in the middle and dragged into his house and safety by his frantic Ma. It’s a threat that will hang over the film for the rest of its runtime, embodied by Colin Morgan’s bullying enforcer, but only vaguely understood by Buddy – and considerably less important to him than whether he gets to sit next to the girl he has a crush on at school.

That crush is one of many things he gets advice on from his Grandad, played with a genuinely heart-warming twinkle by an Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds. Hinds is the picture of the perfect Grandad, wise, attentive, patient and full of homespun advice and wisdom – dialogue that Hinds brings to life with an expressive warmth. He’s paired to wonderful effect with Judi Dench (also Oscar-nominated) as Buddy’s Granny, who’s got a sharper tongue (and most of the funny lines) and has a cold-eyed realism about what it might be best for her son and his family.

You could check yourself and ask if Branagh is idealising his memories. But I think this is partly the point of the film. At several moments there is a slight air, not so much of fantasy, but of a childhood’s perception and memory being restaged. Jamie Dornan’s hard-working, caring Dad is frequently shot by Branagh in a way reminiscent of the Western heroes in the film buddy watches (High Noon in particular). A late confrontation between Dornan and Morgan plays out like a child’s romanticised memory of how something might have played out – as does a sequence where Dornan and Balfe sing and dance to Everlasting Love. I think Branagh is asking us to consider this might not be exactly what happened, but a fantasy tinged, child’s idealised memory of an event.

And Branagh’s film – shot in a luscious black-and-white – is told with a sharply edited pace and economy. It frequently allows us to see the ‘true’ situation in the background or on the edge of Buddy’s perception. Ma – beautifully played by Caitríona Balfe as grounded, moral but vulnerable and scared – has genuine worries not only about the violence but also the couple’s financial situation. There is an argument, and a later sad half-ultimatum, between Ma and Pa that we understand but Buddy is only vaguely aware is happening. Branagh’s film is full of half moments like this, where he trusts we are intelligent enough to see exactly what the child is seeing and also see more.

Branagh also draws a superb performance from Jude Hill as Buddy. This is a kid who is wide-eyed, natural, unforced and gets the balance just right between sweetness and a childish selfishness and vulnerability. There are real moments of terror and distress for Buddy, which are immensely well-done, and Branagh proves again there are few better directors of actors out there.

In among this there are some lovely moments where we see Branagh’s passion for the arts and film-making take hold. These are shown in splashes of pure colour: from clips of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which an enraptured Buddy watches in the cinema, to actors performing A Christmas Carol in the Belfast theatre appearing in perfect colour. That’s not to mention touches of everything from Westerns to Star Trek to a shot of Buddy reading a Thor comic-book (sadly no Shakespeare).

Belfast is above all warm-hearted and loving tribute from a son to his parents and the impossible decisions they needed to take to give him opportunities in life they never had. Branagh’s script is crammed with some wonderful lines and plenty of hard-earned sentiment and the cast play each of these moments to perfection. It’s a passion project that really communicates its passion and shows how love, family and hope are universal. Cynics will sneer, but it’s a lovely film.

Amazing Grace (2006)

Ioan Gruffudd in full flight in the conventional but charming Amazing Grace

Director: Michael Apted

Cast: Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Romola Garai (Barbara Spooner), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt the Younger), Ciaran Hinds (Banastre Tarleton), Albert Finney (John Newton), Michael Gambon (Charles James Fox), Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson), Youssou N’Dour (Olaudah Equiano), Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence), Nicholas Farrell (Henry Thornton), Sylvestra Le Touzel (Marianne Thornton), Stephen Campbell Moore (James Stephen), Bill Paterson (Heny Dundas), Jeremy Swift (Richard)

From 1782 to 1807 William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) fought a long – sometimes lonely – campaign to end the slave trade (and eventually slavery – the film confuses the two, with slavery continuing in much of the Empire for over twenty more years) in the British Empire. During that time, he competed with vested interests, parliamentary rivals and accusations of being a radical at a time when Britain was at war with Revolutionary France.

Michael Apted’s old-fashioned film covers this, hitting every beat you would expect for a biographical drama. It uses a traditional framing device of starting in the middle of the story: Wilberforce in 1797, depressed, hooked on laudanum and out of hope, revitalised by meeting Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) who will become his wife. This makes for a perfect narrative tool as it means she can ask him questions like “tell me what happened” which serves as a neat entrée into a whole host of flashbacks sketching out in the swiftest means possible the history of abolitionism.

Amazing Grace could have been made in the 1930s, so closely does it hue to the classic rules of biopics. It’s practically a structural brother to The Life of Emile Zola, a hagiographical portrait of an (admittedly outstanding) man which shows the expected arc of moral awakening, early success, tricky mid-point, the sad years, getting the band back together for one final big push ending in friends and foes alike coming together to hail his accomplishments. It’s all threaded together with a script that carefully moves through every event, simplifies history down and sometimes wears its research rather heavily.

You can’t argue that it isn’t well-meaning and heartfelt, but its simplicity (and the careful traditionalism of its shooting) makes it look more like a well-made TV special than an actual movie. But if you are a sucker for such things, as I am, it has more than enough to engage you. It also makes a compelling case about the horrors of the slavery and allows a few moments of spotlight to fall on former slave turned abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (well played by Youssou N’Dour). It certainly has its heart in the right place, its passionate liberalism and sense of moral outrage very clear.

Gruffudd – his skill for playing reluctant moral authority and duty honed from playing Hornblower – is good as Wilberforce, his obvious investment in the subject matter clear. Garai doesn’t have much to do other than tee up flashbacks, but does it with charm. Many of the rest veer on the side of fruity: Hinds and Jones scowl effectively as slave-owning senior lords (for some reason they sit in the House of Commons; Jones is even playing a Duke for goodness sake!). Gambon twinkles as only he can as Charles James Fox. Finney hams up lustily as the blind John Newton. Best of all though are Sewell as an eccentric Thomas Clarkson and Benedict Cumberbatch in an early sign of star-quality as the morally divided, reserved but decent Pitt the Younger.

It all comes together into something that seems tailor-made for Sunday afternoons. Nothing wrong with that – and not every film needs to reinvent the wheel – and since it wears its heart so openly on its sleeve, you can’t help feeling warmth towards it. It’s a Spark notes look at history – and glosses over the fact that slavery itself continued for decades – but as hagiography it’s endearing and as a feel-good biopic it succeeds at what it sets out to do.

Munich (2005)

Eric Bana leads a team of Mossad agents in Spielberg’s uneven terrorism drama Munich

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Eric Bana (Avner Kaufman), Daniel Craig (Steve), Ciarán Hinds (Carl), Mathieu Kassovitz (Robert), Hanns Zischler (Hans), Geoffrey Rush (Ephraim), Ayelet Zurer (Daphna Kaufman), Mathieu Amalric (Louis), Michael Lonsdale (Papa), Marie-Josée Croze (Jeanette), Lynn Cohen (Golda Meir)

At the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist cell, Black September. The world was shocked and appalled. Israel responded with a hard-line anti-terrorist campaign, that saw Mossad teams traversing the globe, assassinating Palestinian leaders involved with Black September. They learned not only was terrorism a hydra, but that the moral high-ground erodes quickly when the shooting starts. Can terrorism be defeated by violence? Munich argues not: instead suggesting violence is a beast that feeds itself – an argument that, in 2005 in the fourth year of the War on Terror (the film ends with a shot of the World Trade Centre) was increasingly relevant to another country, traumatised by the slaughter of innocents.

Adapted by Tony Kurshner and Eric Roth, it’s based on a book Vengeance by George Jones about the man who claimed to be the leader of the Mossad cell (whether that is true or not is debated). He’s fictionalised here (to side-step that issue) as Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana). His team consists of driver Steve (Daniel Craig), explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), forger Hans (Hanns Zischler) and clean-up man Carl (Ciarán Hinds) with Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) as their handler. The team hunt down and eliminate their targets – but as the mission goes on they pay a heavy cost, both in their eroding of their own moral certainties and in blood as they become targets for repercussions.

Spielberg’s film is his least flashy, least sentimental and (I suppose) most mature film, a cold-eyed, even-handed look at the Middle East conflict that acknowledges faults and consequences on all sides, draped in the muted colours and bleached out photography of 1970s conspiracy thrillers. It’s also a very long and very self-consciously important film, that makes mis-steps and at times is crudely obvious as well as being more interested in posing questions than presenting any answers. Where it is at its best, is demonstrating how campaigns like this are tasks worth of Sisyphus.

Munich takes a long, hard look at the cost of violence – both on its victims and its perpetrators. Death in this film is slow, painful and frequently disturbing. Shot people stagger and slump in drunken shock, dying slowly. Bomb victims are ripped apart, recognisable limps left hanging from walls and ceilings. Machine gun bursts tear bodies apart. The cost of inflicting this violence leaves increasingly deep psychological violence on the team (we don’t get to see if it does on the Palestinians, a limit to the films even handedness), as it becomes harder and harder to treat those they kill as faceless monsters, rather than men with families of their own.

Spielberg reconstructs the horror of the killings in Munich with a documentary realism, not shying away from the horror. It follows the appalling opening moments of the attack, with the athletes taken hostage and the shocked world media reaction. Spielberg returns later in the film to restage the final murder of the athletes at the Munich airport with sickening detail (perhaps too much – but more of this scene later).

Showing the impact of violence from both sides, Munich strains at always being even-handed (despite this both sides attacked it for bias). It’s an Israeli story so we mostly see the psychological impact of carrying out the violence on the Israeli team, and little of the Palestinian perspective. But the film throws in a chance meeting between Avner and what-could-be his Palestinian equivalent, where Avner is brutally told that, when fighting for their home, the Palestinians will never give up, and consider any price worth paying – attitudes he can’t help but recognise as he fights for his own home. The film has clear sympathy with the sufferings of the Jewish people, and their need for a home of their own – but wonders if this is the right way to defend it. Spielberg is a friend to Israel – but wants to be an honest one.

What starts out as clear and simple (a campaign against terror) becomes morally complex. The team’s first targets are sympathetic, family men. When Avner talks to a later bomb victim, he’s friendly and welcoming. A Palestinian cell they (accidentally or maliciously) end up sharing a safe house with, thanks to their mutual French contacts, are surprisingly relatable. The mission’s accomplishments are unclear – the targets are killed, but all that happens is more people take their place. Worse, those that do are only more infuriated by the campaign of violence.

That’s the question – how do you fight terrorism? It breeds on a belief of injustice and persecution – and Spielberg’s film suggests, all the campaign does is pour petrol on that fire. Avner becomes a paranoid psychological wreck by the end of the film, plagued with a loss of moral certainty. The film argues that the only result of all this has been the price he and other have made – an end to the violence is further away than it was at the operation’s beginning.

Spielberg’s film is strong on showing the pointlessness of this campaign. What it’s less strong on is answers. In many ways, the film boils down to a simple “deep down we are all the same, why don’t we just get along” message. While handsomely filmed and daring in its questioning about the futility of anti-terrorist (and indeed terrorist) action, it’s a simplistic film, largely lacking nuance. The characters are ciphers – Bana, for all his skill, plays a shell of a character, designed to make statements, who is alternately ruthless or questioning as the plot demands. Because the film strives so hard to remain even-handed, it brings little to the table itself in terms of proposed solutions, merely focusing on telling us what we know: an eye for an eye eventually makes his all blind.

It’s also a film that has more than its fair share of clumsy mis-steps. It’s view of the world is picture post-card in is simplicity. First thing we see in Paris, is a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Go to London and it rains. First shot in Holland is our characters on bikes. Its characters are largely plot devices, well played but rarely fleshed out in people who feel like human beings, more like mouthpieces to express viewpoints.

Most atrocious of all, the film concludes with a penultimate sequence staggering in its misjudgement. Retired and living in America, Avner makes focused, vigorous love to his wife intercut with the showing of the final deaths of the athletes in brutal detail. It’s tasteless, ill-judged and horrendously unclear. I suppose we are meant to think Avner is purging himself of his burden of guilt – but the scene is so appallingly done, so grossly detailed it comes across as both offensive and insultingly twee in using the deaths of real people (staged in detail) to help our lead character feel better about himself. When Spielberg does sex, he invariably gets it wrong – and does again here.

Munich is a very worthy film, but it’s too-long, dramatically simple, for all its daring commentary on the war on terror. It’s well-acted – Michael Lonsdale and Matthieu Almaric are very good as Avner’s French contacts, while Hinds is a stand-out among the team – but the characters are ill-formed and the entire film takes a very long time to make a very simple point. Well-made but a film trying a little too hard to always be profound.

Frozen 2 (2019)

The gang are all back together in Frozen 2

Director: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck

Cast: Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Josh Gad (Olaf), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Sterling K Brown (Mattias), Evan Rachel Wood (Iduna), Alfred Molina (Agnarr), Martha Plimpton (Yelena), Jason Ritter (Ryder), Ciaran Hinds (Pabbie), Jeremy Sisto (King Runead), Rachel Matthews (Honeymaren)

Frozen was a phenomenon, a film that seemed to come out of nowhere and seized the imagination (and the passions) of audiences. Why did it work so well? It’s got a great bunch of characters, a focus on sibling affection that is very easy to relate to (and very different from most romance-based Disney films), a well-rounded bunch of characters (so easy to relate to, they inspired a number of fan in-jokes in a way that only characters in films you really care about can) and of course that song. Frozen II works very hard to double down as much as possible on the things that worked, and to give you the chance to spend more time with these characters. If it fails to match the magic of the first film, it still makes for an entertaining trip to the cinema.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are now living together in the kingdom of Arendelle, and all is peace and contentment. Until one day a siren call that Elsa keeps hearing from across the water occurs at the same time as a series of elemental events in the kingdom, each harnessing earth, fire, air and water. The sisters quickly work out that this must be connected in some way with the stories their parents told them of the Enchanted Forest, a magical land near to Arendelle that  disappeared after a mysterious feud between the two kingdoms. Accompanied by living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven, the sisters head off to find the cause of the disturbances, solve the mystery of the enchanted forest and save Arendelle. Phew!

Frozen 2 is engaging, fun and has some very good jokes. Its main problem is a plot that feels both sprawling and epic and also muddled and confusing. As the film hits its final act, you may well feel more than a little confused about why events are unfolding like this, what the motivations of certain characters are, why some things happen to characters etc. What the film seems to lack is a compelling unfolding of the plot, and a clear structure of how these events link together to form the overall arc.

As such, we seem to head to several locations and constantly encounter a series of magical creatures, but never really get a firm grasp of how they link together. The film has a series of flashbacks and expands the backstory of the series, but then never really pulls together clearly how the events of the past shaped the present. The moment where this is explained feels rushed and murky, and seems to revolve around a sort of “anti-magic” attitude from a key character in the past that has no context with the rest of the film and never feels really clear. 

The plot may not be the strongest, but where the film really does work is in its sense of humour and its fun script, and the engaging riffs Lee and Buck make on the previous film. Fan humour from the first film – not least the close relationship between Kristoff and Sven – is doubled down on in this film with a series of knowing sight gags. Olaf – far more engaging here than in the first film – has a series of excellent fan gags, peaking in a hilarious showpiece moment where he essentially acts out the entire plot of Frozen for the people of the Enchanted forest (all of whom respond like the fans). It’s a hilarious show piece, and a real sign of the film’s strengths, which are often when it is riffing on the first film.

The film also carries across the other things that worked from the first film. The close relationship between the two sisters is central to most of the film’s development (although it also means that Anna seems to have to protest her devotion in virtually every scene). The sense of outsider and isolation in Elsa is also explored further, with her confusion over being happy where she is but still yearning for something more. The film also threads in a charming B-plot of Kristoff’s attempts to propose to Anna, which provides both charm and several moments of comic gold.

The film does struggle to find a replacement song for Let It Go, although Into the Unknown comes close, another inspiring, story-packed, ballad for Idina Menzel to bring to inspired life again. The song also plays well with the several fans who have seen Elsa become a gay icon, with most of the lyrics leaning on the idea of heading out from the safety of knowing where you are to finding your true self in the “unknown”, answering the siren call of your own desires. Also of course, it’s a belting song which you can enjoy on its own merits!

First Man (2018)

Ryan Gosling as an unreadable Neil Armstrong in the engrossing but cold First Man

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Ed White), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin), Pablo Schreiber (Jim Lovell), Christopher Abbott (David Scott), Patrick Fugit (Elliot See), Lukas Haas (Michael Collins), Shea Whigham (Gus Grissom), Brian d’Arcy James (Joseph Walker), Cory Michael Smith (Roger Chaffee), Ciaran Hinds (Robert R Gilruth)

About halfway through this film, it struck me: Neil Armstrong is a not particularly interesting man who experienced the most interesting thing ever. It’s a problem that First Man, an otherwise exemplary film, struggles with: Armstrong himself, put bluntly, is unknowable, undefinable and, in the end, an enigma I’m not sure there is much to unwrap. Which is not to detract one iota from Armstrong’s amazing achievements, or his legendary calmness under pressure or his courage and perseverance. It just doesn’t always make for good storytelling.

First Man charts the years 1961-1969. During these years of professional triumph, Armstrong has success as test pilot, an astronaut on the Gemini programme (including command of Gemini 8, carrying out the first docking in space then saving his own life and the life of his pilot with his quick thinking when the mission nearly encounters disaster) and then the Apollo programme and his own first steps upon the moon. But Armstrong’s life is dogged by loss and tragedy, first his five-year old daughter to cancer, then a string of friends in accidents during the hazardous early days of the NASA space programme, including the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 fire. Armstrong becomes a man burdened with these losses.

There is very little to fault in the making of First Man – in fact it’s further evidence that Chazelle is a gifted filmmaker with a glittering future of great movies ahead. There are two things this film absolutely nails: the supreme majesty and awe of space and the terrifyingly rickety nature of the spacecraft we send men up into it in. 

Helped hugely by a superb score by Justin Hurwitz, which makes extensive and beautiful use of a theremin, the film captures the sense of mankind’s smallness, our vulnerability, in the face of the overwhelming vastness of space. Mixing goose-bump inducing wailing solos with orchestral sweep, and encapsulating the feeling of how small and lonely man in space is, the score goes a long way to match up with the visuals in creating a sense of space. The Oscar-winning visual effects – mixing computer graphics with some ingenious practical effects – never intrude but bring out the gritty reality of tin cans in space. 

Chazelle also really understands the impact of being so far beyond anything we can imagine, and his moon landing sequence is a thing of beauty. He expertly uses a number of close ups in the confined, claustrophobic campaign and largely eschews exterior shots (most of which only use the perspective of the crew’s view from the tiny windows, or of the cameras mounted on the side of the spacecraft). The moon landing follows suit, as we are thrown in alongside Armstrong and Aldrin as the lunar landing module takes its place on the moon – until the hatch opens with a whoosh of air (and sound) escaping the picture. And with that whoosh, the camera flies out of the hatch and switches – in an astonishing visual trick – from wide screen to IMAX shot to give us our first view of the vastness of space filling the frame. Suddenly, space fills the entire screen and the shocking beauty of the moon is a beautiful touch. We get as close as we can visually to experiencing the switch for Armstrong from confined spaces and beeping switches to vast panoramas and all-consuming silence.

And we really feel the switch, because Chazelle has so completely immersed us into the dangers and insecurities of the space programme. The spacecraft are repeatedly shown as alarmingly shaky, screwed together (the camera frequently pans along lines of bolts inside the cabins), thin, tiny, vulnerable capsules that shake, groan, whine and seem barely able to survive the stresses and strains they are put under. Any doubts about the risks the astronauts are under are dispelled in the opening sequence when Armstrong’s X-15 rocket twice bounces off the atmosphere and the internal cockpit around him glows orange under the extreme heat. But it’s the same on every flight we see – these craft don’t look safe enough for a short hop to the Isle of Wight, let alone hundreds of thousands of miles to the moon and back.

And that’s clear as well from the danger that lurks around every corner of the space programme. Death is a constant companion for these pilots and can come at any time. Armstrong himself escapes only due to a combination of luck and skill. When luck disappears, death follows swiftly for many of his co-pilots. Off-screen crashes claim the lives of three of his friends. Chazelle sensitively handles the horrifying Apollo 1 fire (news reaches Armstrong of the death of several friends, including his closest Ed White, while wining and dining politicians at the White House), and the terrible cost of this tragedy hangs over every single second of the moon programme. Fate or chance at any moment could claim lives. This grim air of mortality hangs over the whole film, a melancholic reminder of the cost of going further and faster to expand mankind’s horizons.

This grief also runs through Armstrong’s life and shapes him into the man he becomes. The death of Armstrong’s daughter at the start of the film sets the tone – the shocking loss of a child at such a young age is tangible – and it seems (in the film) as if this was the moment that led to Armstrong hardening himself against the world. He weeps uncontrollably at the death of his daughter, but later deaths are met with stoic coolness. Armstrong in this film is a cool enigma, who by the end of the film treats concerned questions from his children about whether he will return alive from the moon mission with the same detachment he shows at the official NASA press conference. “We have every confidence in the mission” he tells these two pre-teens, “Any further questions?”

It’s the film’s main problem that in making Armstrong such an unreadable man, who buttons up and represses all emotion, that it also drains some of the drama and human interest from the story. While you can respect Armstrong’s professionalism and coolness under pressure, his icy unrelatability makes him hard to really root for over the course of two hours. The film also strangely only sketches in the vaguest of personalities for the other astronauts (Aldrin gets the most screentime, but is presented as an arrogant, insensitive blowhard) so we hardly feel the loss of the deaths. Its part of the attitude towards Armstrong as a man chiselled from marble, so lofty that the film doesn’t dare to really delve inside his own inner world or feelings but builds a careful front around him to avoid analysis.

It’s not helped by Ryan Gosling, whose skill for blankness makes him somewhat miscast here. Try as he might, he can’t suggest a deeper world of emotional torment below the calm surface, no matter how soulful his eyes. It’s a role you feel needed a British actor, who could really understand this culture of repressed stiff-upper-lipness. Indeed Claire Foy fares much better as his patient, loyal wife who holds her composure (more or less) for the whole film under the same pressures of grief as Armstrong. Gosling just can’t communicate this inner depth, and his blankness eventually begins to crush the film and our investment in its lead character.

First Man in almost every other respect is a great piece of film-making and another sign of Chazelle’s brilliance. But it’s never as dramatic as you feel it should be. Armstrong’s life doesn’t carry enough event outside his moon landing experience, and the film can’t make an emotional connection with the man, for all the loss and suffering it shows for him. For a film that is so close to so perfect on space and the Apollo programme it’s a shame – but makes this more a brilliant dramatized documentary than perhaps a drama.

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.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry and Voldemort prepare for their final showdown in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), John Hurt (Ollivander), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Ciarán Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Kelly MacDonald (Rowena Ravenclaw), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout), Geraldine Somerville (Lily Potter), Adrian Rawlins (James Potter), Warwick Davis (Griphook/Professor Flitwick), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), Nick Moran (Scabior), Natalie Tena (Tonks)

And so here we are. After 19 hours and 40 minutes, the Harry Potter franchise draws to a close in the rubble of Hogwarts. The franchise goes out swinging for some big hits – and it misses some of them – but at least it’s trying. If this turns out to be one of the least satisfying films in the franchise (at best the 6th best Harry Potter film), it’s not because they haven’t thrown anything at it.

The film adapts just under the last half of JK Rowling’s final novel. In an interesting structural twist, it actually ends up covering just over one day of time: between our heroes breaking into Gringotts Bank and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, less than 24 hours has taken place. Nothing is really made of this in the film, but it’s an interesting thought. In fact Yates’ film is full of interesting half-thoughts that never go anywhere. More than any other film in the series, this is one where it is essential you’ve read the book before viewing it. Without the book you don’t get any of the rich context for most of the events.

This all culminates, for me, in the way the film falls apart in the last 20 minutes or so. This final section of the film changes, or cuts, so much of the book’s thematic depth, so many of its plot strands and explanations, that every time I see it I feel my disappointment starting to rise. I don’t want to be the guy who says “just shoot the book” – but if any film could have stuck with the book it’s this one. Why did they cut and change so much of this stuff? Did they really think, after almost 11 years and 20 hours of screen time, we wouldn’t have the patience for some of the more complex things from the book? Did they really feel that they had to stamp their own distinctive vision on it? Anyway, here are the things that always annoy me about this film:

1. Dumbledore’s backstory gets forgotten

Okay this is a minor one – and the film does leave some hints in. But for GOODNESS’ SAKE, they cut this book into two films, spent ages in the first film talking about the mysteries of Dumbledore’s dark past, then just as we meet Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (a neat turn from Ciarán Hinds) and are about to get an explanation, Harry basically says words to the effect of “I’m not worrying about that. And neither should you folks. On with the film”.  

Even the Ghost of Dumbledore doesn’t get to explain any of this stuff. All the careful mood build of Part 1 is just thrown away. The book is about learning about death, the futility of the search for power, and humility. Dumbledore’s backstory of failed ambition is a massive part of this – and it gets dropped. It’s not like we didn’t have time in a series that has churned out films pushing up to three hours in length. I mean why put all that stuff in the first film, if you aren’t even going to reference it at all in the second film?

2. The Deathly Hallows get benched

Again wouldn’t be quite so bad if we hadn’t spent a huge amount of time in the first film talking about them – but are the words Deathly Hallows even mentioned here? Instead, just like Voldemort, the film is seduced by the elder wand, focusing everything on the ownership of this MacGuffin. The point of the book is that all this stuff is a chimera –and that the real point is learning that death should not be feared but accepted at the proper time. 

As it is, this never gets built on – and the importance of the resurrection stone (including why it tempted Dumbledore so much) never gets explained. Rather it just comes down to who controls the powerful thing, with none of Rowling’s richer themes.

Harry ends up controlling all three here but we never really get the sense of Harry controlling them all, or understand his decision to throw away the stone, or his realisation that death is not to be feared but accepted.

3. Neville gets blown away

Gotta feel sorry for Matthew Lewis (who is very good here). Reading the book he must have been thrilled: “So I pull the sword out of the sorting hat and then in one move cut the head off the snake like a total bad ass”. This should have been a great moment (it’s an iconic one from the book). Instead Neville gets blasted and, presumably to give them something to do, Ron and Hermione spend ages trying to kill the snake (intercut with Harry and Voldemort fighting) until finally Neville gets to lop that head off – by which point the moment has well and truly passed.

 4. No one mentions Voldemort keeps making the same mistakes

In the book, Harry has a beautiful moment where he basically tells our Tom that he’s made the same mistakes over and over again. Namely that, by killing Harry, who sacrificed himself for love, he made exactly the same mistake as he did with Harry’s mother and now cannot harm any of those Harry died for (i.e. the rest of the cast). It’s a great moment, where finally Harry understands what the novels have been building towards. Doesn’t merit a mention.

Neither does Voldemort’s childish obsession with famous things – he is consumed with belief in the power of a wand, he can’t let go of associating his horcruxes with famous things and the lineage of iconic wizards, etc. etc. Voldemort is basically a big, silly, empathy-free, sulky teenager – the film misses this point entirely.

Instead of explanations and depth, the film reduces Harry and Voldemort’s final clashes into dull punchy-bashy stuff. The director clearly fell in love with the visual idea of Harry and Voldemort’s heads merging together while apparating. This is a visual image that I hate because it (a) feels like showing off and (b) would only work if they were semi-reflections of each other – which they certainly aren’t. They are polar opposites. It’s a flashy effect that actually makes no thematic sense what-so-bloody-ever.

5. Voldemort goes out like a 3D special effect

Perhaps not a surprise in a film, but Voldemort gets killed and disintegrates into a huge puff of 3D-film smoke. I hate this. I hate it. I really, really, really hate it. I’ll tell you why:

  • The spells used in the duel are really unclear – it’s a great moment in the book that Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds against Harry’s disarming curse – instead we get the bright lights.
  • Voldemort dreads death more than anything – and Rowling’s writing of his body falling dead to the ground like any other normal dead guy taps exactly into what Voldemort spent his whole life struggling against. It’s a beautiful irony.
  • No one knew if Voldemort was dead or not the first time because he disappeared. In the book he is killed, by his own curse, in front of everyone and his body is left behind for everyone to look at and say “yup. Guy is dead”. Not here. Here he blows up in a puff of smoke in front of no witnesses. Did Harry just head back into the great hall and say “Okay guys. Take my word for it. He’s dead. He just is. Trust me on this. It’s not like last time. Totally dead. Promise.”

Wow. Okay that’s not really a review is it? That’s just like a disappointed fan whining “I don’t like it because it is different”. But my point isn’t that this is bad because it’s different. It’s bad because it takes stuff from the original and changes it AND NOT FOR THE BETTER. Moments that worked beautifully, or carried so much weight in the original are bastardised crudely for no clear reason.

As I say, after almost 18 hours and a life time (for many viewers) of growing up with these characters: surely we could have given the film a bit more time and allowed some actual intelligent context from the books to creep in? Surely we had the patience for Harry getting to point out to Voldemort how wrong he is? Everyone in the audience was ready for that right? If there was one film people were probably willing to dedicate three hours of their life too, in order to see it done properly it was this one, right? Rather than rushed by in a little over two?

But no this film goes always, always, always for the big spectacle. Not that this always work: Yates doesn’t shoot the battle hugely well. Aside from one excellent sequence which shows our three heroes trying to get across the castle courtyard, while chaos rages around them (beautifully scored as well), the battle is unclear, dingy and not hugely exciting. Again, I’d have liked to have had a bit more of this – to get some moments with this huge cast doing stuff in the battle (especially since they are ALL back – kudos to the producers there).

It’s a real, real shame because honestly parts of this movie are really, really, really good. Tom Felton is cracking again as Draco – and the film gives real development time to showing the impact all this has on the Malfoy family with genuine empathy. The break-in at Gringotts is exciting and fun – as well as giving Warwick Davies his best moment in the series as two-faced Griphook. Inventions and flourishes, such as Harry having visions of an enraged Voldemort slaughtering the staff of Gringotts in fury, are chilling.

Some moments of the book are carried across really well, in particular Snape’s escape – a powerfully filmed sequence of bravery from the pupils, and some great work from Maggie Smith. Yates really understands how to get moments of magic to work: the creation of the shield around Hogwarts is totally spine-tingling. When the film sits and breathes it generally gets it right. Fiennes is terrific still as Voldemort, serpentine, arrogant, unsettling. He gets some lovely moments here – from fury, to pained fear (as horcruxes bite the dust) to an almost-funny-awkward-mateyness as he tries to seduce Hogwarts pupils to his side (his awkward hug of Draco is terrific).

The three leads are of course great. Daniel Radcliffe could certainly have delivered the more complex moments of the book if he had been given the chance. He even does his best to sell the slightly awkward coda “19 years later”: a controversial sequence, it makes a great footnote in the book but it was always going to be a tough ask to make three teenagers look like 40 year olds convincingly, particularly when we are nearly as familiar with their faces as our own.

There are some troubling and failed moments in this film, stuff that doesn’t work. But then there is this:

Oh wow. For all that the film changes stuff from the books for the worst – this is a moment it unquestionably does better. And a massive, massive part of this has to be down to Alan Rickman. Rickman was told this backstory from the start of the films – and he delivers it with a passionate commitment here. Helped by brilliant score, and fascinating re-editing of moments from previous films seen from new angles, Rickman delivers the reveal of Snape’s heartbreaking moments perfectly.

Was I tired? Was it the added impact of Rickman’s own depth? I don’t know but I shed tears watching this again. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece of film making. Everything in it works perfectly: directing, writing, music, editing, filming and above all the acting. It’s just sublime. For all the film misses the point elsewhere it finally totally gets it here. I would take this moment over dozens of moments of Harry and Voldemort fighting each other.

And yes this Harry Potter film might miss the point, and it might bungle the ending, and it might well fail to carry across the richness and intricate plot explanations of Rowling’s original. Yes it gets bogged down in “who controls this wand” and yes it misses the point completely about the film being about learning to overcome a fear of death and defeat (something Voldemort totally fails to do) but then it has moments where it works wonderfully like this. 

But in these films we got a beautiful franchise, with some excellent films. It’s always going to reward constant viewing. And it will always move the viewer. And it’s always going to be great.


Excalibur (1981)

Nigel Terry gets a special gift in John Boorman’s crazily OTT Arthurian epic Excalibur

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Nigel Terry (King Arthur), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana Le Fay), Nicholas Clay (Sir Lancelot), Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere), Paul Geoffrey (Sir Perceval), Gabriel Byrne (King Uther Pendragon), Corin Redgrave (Duke of Cornwall), Patrick Stewart (King Leondegrance), Keith Buckley (Sir Uryens), Clive Swift (Sir Ector), Liam Neeson (Sir Gawain), Robert Addie (Mordred), Niall O’Brien (Sir Kay), Ciarán Hinds (King Lot), Charley Boorman (Young Mordred), Katrine Boorman (Igrayne)

John Boorman had wanted to make a film about King Arthur for over a decade, but it only came into being after his plans for an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings fell through (the suits were convinced the film couldn’t be a hit – good call). So, with a lot of prep work for Tolkien in place, Boorman moved a lot of his ideas for LOTR over to Excalibur. In doing so he created something probably truly unique – a bonkers version of the Arthurian legend, so consistently Wagnerian (often literally), high-falutin’ and overblown that it has a strange integrity in its operatic silliness.

The film begins with Arthur’s conception, a result of King Uther’s (Gabriel Byrne) lust for his ally’s wife, Igrayne (the director’s daughter Katrine). Merlin (Nicol Williamson) agrees to magically disguise Uther as Igrayne’s husband for one night, and in return spirits away the resulting child to be reared ignorant of his heritage. Years later, with a leaderless kingdom in chaos, Arthur (Nigel Terry) draws the magical sword Excalibur from the stone, and proves himself as king. He marries Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and brings Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) to Camelot – oblivious of their love for each other. Slowly this love destroys the peace of the land – encouraged by the schemes of Arthur’s vengeful half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren).

Excalibur is a film set in a completely heightened middle-ages dreamworld, as if it’s a series of drawings from an illustrated edition of King Arthur brought to life. The design of the film is dialled up to eleven: the armour the characters wear is ridiculously elaborate, shiny and eye catching. The characters never seem to take it off: Uther even has sex wearing it (poor Igrayne is completely naked – that can’t have been comfortable for her). Full armour is worn at meals, wedding, social events, everything: at the same time it’s brilliantly ineffective, punctured with ease by axes and spears.

The rest of the design of the film is equally overblown. Camelot seems to have been literally made from silver and gold. Lancelot kips in the forest and sleeps in the nude. Battle scenes are filmed on moody, misty nights, with horses and knights riding with insane riskiness at each other. Excalibur itself is almost impossibly shiny and unblemished and occasionally glows green. Everything has a high-artistic feel to it, like a Romantic painting. Nothing looks real – it uses a “rule of cool” aesthetic, anything that looks good from anything approaching medievalism is used.

The acting itself follows this operatic style. Half the dialogue is delivered shouting: Patrick Stewart in particular must have lost his voice while filming this one. Filmed in Ireland (it practically kickstarted the Irish film industry), many Irish actors got their first film break here, not least Gabriel Byrne (a furiously lusty Uther), Liam Neeson (a drunken oafish Gawain) and Ciarán Hinds (growling in the background). Each roars through their dialogue, perhaps none more so than Corin Redgrave who screams his with such flemmy passion it’s often hard to work out what exactly he’s saying. 

There are quieter moments from the three leads, even if all three of them don’t really have the charisma to impose themselves on sketchily drawn characters. Cherie Lunghi adopts an odd, part-time Irish accent as a bland Guenevere. Nicholas Clay is an upright Lancelot who simmers with guilt but is just a wee bit dull. Nigel Terry’s performance as Arthur (from young yokel to tortured king) gets better the more times I see it, but it lacks a certain star quality. But then in Boorman’s design, these three characters are just tools of fate rather than real characters – and the film has so much story to cover it often has very little time for character development.

The real stars of this film are Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren. The two actors had a long-standing animosity – Boorman deliberately cast them to get an extra spark out of their scenes. But both actors seize their colourful characters – and have the time to add some depth to their bombastic, larger-than-life moments. Mirren gets to express bitterness and fury under simmering sexuality, as well as a genuine love for her son. Williamson is fantastic: playful, half nutty professor, half vengeful force of mystic power, he turns Merlin into an eccentric but somehow sinister old man. Williamson finds bizarro and unique line readings of even the simplest lines, stretching the material in the way only a really great actor can. He’s such an electric and interesting character, that he makes a performance that’s basically well over the top, hugely enjoyable and also even rather sweet.

As such, Williamson is perfect for Boorman’s overblown, crazy film. The score uses Wagner and Carmina Burana to great effect, and the closing moments are shot before a giant blood red sky. Boorman’s shiny, colourful world effectively melts down in the second half of the film into musty, moody greys: his concept of Arthur losing his way and the kingdom disintegrating works extremely well, and means we get a real sense of things falling apart. The Grail Quest is like a creepy fever dream – with knights we have known dying in gruesome ways, freezing in chapels or hanging in a tree with their corpses picked clean by crows (of course one crow eats an eye!). 

In many ways Excalibur is a very silly film: it’s hard to believe it was made six years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as much of its design and action is more than a little reminiscent of that film (it’s probably the only parody you could argue was made before the film it best sends-up). You probably need to see it at a certain age or enter into it with the right mindset for something that walks a difficult line between fairy tale and earthy campness. But I still love it.

Because Boorman really goes for it here. You know from the early sequence of Uther and Igrayne having sex against a background of actual fire, in full plate armour, intercut with a lingering death of Cornwall impaled on a series of spears in Uther’s camp (his death and Uther’s climax are of course cut together) what sort of film you are going to get. Everything is OTT. The drama leaves nothing behind, and Boorman wisely removes any sense of restraint from this telling of the legend. It looks gorgeous – even if dated moments like the Lady of the Lake are more likely to raise sniggers than not – and it really, really goes for it. Not many other films could get away with something so over-the-top and bizarre: but this sort of does.