Tag: David Oyelowo

See How They Run (2022)

See How They Run (2022)

Smug, semi-spoof murder mystery which can’t decide whether it loves or scorns the genre

Director: Tom George

Cast: Sam Rockwell (Inspector Stoppard), Saoirse Ronan (Constable Stalker), Adrien Brody (Leo Köpernick), Ruth Wilson (Petula Spencer), Reece Shearsmith (John Woolf), Harris Dickinson (Richard Attenborough), David Oyelowo (Mervyn Crocker-Harris), Charlie Cooper (Dennis), Shirley Henderson (Agatha Christie), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Ann Saville), Pearl Chandra (Selia Sim), Paul Chahidi (Fellowes), Sian Clifford (Edana Romney), Lucian Msamati (Max Mallowan), Tim Key (Commissioner Harrold Scott), Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Gio)

It’s the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (“how much longer can it run”, the characters ask. If only they knew…) and producers are in talks for a big movie adaptation. At the party, boorish American film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) offends absolutely everyone – and promptly gets murdered. Not only are the cast (including Richard Attenborough – wittily impersonated by Harris Dickinson) suspect, but also the film producers which, contractually, can only go into production when the play closes. Investigating: dishevelled Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his super enthusiastic sidekick Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

See How They Run desperately wants to be a witty commentary on Agatha Christie style locked-room mysteries. It even opens with a voiceover from Brody’s Köpernick, full of scorn for the medium and its cliches before revealing, as per form, that as the least sympathetic character he himself is about to be knocked off. To be fair, there are one or two decent jokes. But the presence of Reece Shearsmith just made me think: Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology dramady Inside No. 9 would have pulled off the same idea, but with far more wit and better understanding of Christie, in half an hour. And certainly with better jokes.

Instead See How They Run feels like it has only the most superficial understanding of Christie, based more on watching a few scenes of Poirot rather than reading the books. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out made a wittier, smarter and more enlightening commentary on Christie in its updating of the form, than this comedy ever manages. It’s never quite clear whether the makers want this to be a genuine Christie-style mystery or an inversion. Stoppard and Stalker go about their investigation in a traditional manner. The suspects all have motives of a sort. There is a definite mystery.

But it’s all lightweight and uninformed. Christie tropes are nudged and then ignored, as if the writers don’t understand them. What better opportunity could you have for Christie’s love for one mysterious character in the story turning out to be an actor in the group in disguise (invariably summarised by Poirot as “the performance of his/her life!”). There actually is a mysterious character here – but it turns out to be another person. Christie tropes around red herrings, secondary crimes, poison – all of them go unexplored.

The film ends with a deliberately counter-intuitive action sequence: but it’s not clear to me why. It’s neither particularly funny, nor does it feel like it has anything to say about the form other than offering an ending we might not expect. There is a nudge on the fourth wall (it’s the ending Köpernick wants) but what point is being made here? Is the action ending endorsing Köpernick’s belief that Christie-style mysteries are formulaic or boring, or is the shoot-out meant to look excessive and ridiculous? Is it implying everything we are watching is Köpernick’s dying fantasy? Is it a gag? I have no idea at all, and that sums up this tonal mess.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. It tries to present a genuine murder mystery – and to be fair, when it does this, it does make for a good guessing game – but also wants to take potshots at the genre. It ends up doing neither particularly successfully. And there’s something a bit unlikeable about a film that wants to feed off the audience’s love of a Golden Age detective mystery, but also kinda wants to tell you how the thing you like is actually a bit stupid – and by extension so are you.

Its humour all too often feels a little studenty and obvious – the naming of Rockwell’s character as Stoppard being a case in point (although it does make for one good gag when Pearl Chandra’s charming Shelia Sim denounces another character as “a real hound, inspector”). It eventually feels like a rather smug film, which just goes to show how hard it is to make a Christie-style mystery.

If there is a decent joke in the thing, it’s that it manages to build a film where the plot of The Mousetrap is vital to the outcome, without ever revealing anything about what happens in The Mousetrap. (Presumably, the Christie estate would have had their guts for garters if they did.) Any moment where it looks like we might learn a major event in the play, a character interrupts or someone says “I already know”. These narrative gymnastics are the most inventive thing about it.

The other thing it’s got going for it is a performance of immense charm and comic likeability from Saoirse Ronan, who has rarely been as sweet, bubbly and adorkable as she is here. Ronan’s comic timing is excellent, and Stalker’s mixture of dogged determination and chronic over-enthusiasm provides virtually all the film’s highlights. Rockwell ambles through a (perhaps deliberately) under-written role, but most of the rest of the excellent cast feel under-utilised. Who casts Shearsmith and gives him not a single joke? Sian Clifford to deliver about three lines? David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson do a lot with very little, but it’s telling that the final act appearance of Lucian Msamati and Paul Chahidi as a master-and-servant double act provides almost as much humour as the rest of the cast put together.

See How They Run passes the time – but that’s really about that. It doesn’t really have anything smart or funny to say about murder mysteries and it never offers anything truly unique or striking to justify itself (other than Ronan’s lovely performance). It’s straining as hard as it possibly can to ape the Coens or (most of all) the quirk of Wes Anderson, but totally lacks the skill and finesse of either. It feels like a film commissioned off the back of Knives Out success: but to be honest if you want to see something that brilliantly riffs off Christie while also being a bloody good mystery, just watch that instead.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

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

Director: Rupert Wyatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midnight Sky (2020)

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Dystopian end-of-the-world drama gets dull and dreary in this misfire

Director: George Clooney

Cast: George Clooney (Augustine Lofthouse), Felicity Jones (Dr “Sully” Sullivan), David Oyelowo (Commander Adewole), Kyle Chandler (Mitchell), Demián Bichir (Sanchez), Tiffany Boone (Maya), Caoilinn Springall (Iris), Ethan Peck (Augustine), Sophie Rundle (Jean)

The world has been evacuated after an unspecified radiological disaster, with the survivors bound for K-23, a newly discovered moon of Jupiter capable of supporting life. The only person left on Earth is Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), suffering from a terminal illness. He remains behind at an arctic base to warn returning space missions. The returning mission Aether – crewed by Jones, Oyelowo, Chandler, Bichir and Boone – are en route, but to make contact with them Lofthouse must travel across the arctic to a back-up transmitter, accompanied by a mysterious wordless child called Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who seems to have been left behind during the evacuation.

The Midnight Sky is the largest, most technically ambitious film Clooney has directed. Did the focus on the technical aspects mean he took his eye off other elements? Even the ones his previous films have been strong on: dialogue and character. The Midnight Sky looks great and has some impressive effects. But it is a dull film, lacking pace or energy, populated by paper-thin characters and often feeling like a Frankenstein-like stitching together of elements of other, much better, films.

It splits its focus between two story lines: one a survivalist two-hander between Clooney and child actress Caroilinn Springall; the other a “journey home against the odds” space mission. The first carries a little more interest, if only because Clooney manages to brilliantly convey loneliness, isolation, sadness and how terminal illness increases the effects of all of these. There is also emotional depth from his growing bond with Iris: the two of them playfully flicking peas at each other over dinner and his protecting her from the dangers outside. This is shot in some stunning Iceland vistas and shows a competent selection of various traditional survivalist set-ups during the struggle to complete the journey. It’s not exactly original, but at least it holds the interest.

That interest isn’t found in the space scenes – although the lack of originality is. How did Clooney fail to notice that he assembled a terrific cast of actors, but then failed to give them so much as a whisper of a character to play between them. This crew are terminally unengaging 2-D characters, whose dialogue echoes tropes of other films. Despite the dangers they encounter while navigating a course to Earth (that inevitably takes them through uncharted meteor storms), we are never really given a reason to really care about these characters (all the sad mooning over holograms of the families they left behind doesn’t actually make us feel like we know them).

The sense of nothing we are seeing here actually feeling new is key, and the main problem with the whole film. Countless other films have covered world-ending events. Clooney’s battle to cross the arctic and survive carries more than an echo of The Revenant by way of The Road. The struggles in space have lashings of Gravity with an Interstellarvibe. And those are just for starters. Even the final narrative twist (which you can probably see coming) echoes other film twists. For all the handsomeness of the film, it never feels fresh, always more of a tribute remix of other superior films that you should probably just consider rewatching instead.

That’s Clooney’s main failing here. As if he was so focused on getting the technical elements spot on, he never checked if the patient had a pulse. The Midnight Sky, knitted together from the offcuts of other films, has only the vaguest of heartbeats. Nothing is original and virtually no character in it ever feels either fully-formed or someone we care about. Others, all too obviously, serve as nothing but narrative devices. There are some wonderful shots and a lovely score from Alexandre Desplat. But narratively, the film often feels too cold, distant and emotionally dead. It ends up feeling far, far longer than its two-hour run time.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Forest Whitaker dominates as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit), Simon McBurney (Stone), David Oyelowo (Dr Junju)

Forest Whitaker won every award going for his performance as Idi Amin. A film can perhaps only begin to scratch the surface of what a megalomaniac nutjob Amin was, and the depths of his depravity and corruption. But The Last King of Scotland is perhaps less focused on that, and more on the pull that people as charismatically self-absorbed and larger-than-life like Amin can have on the weak-minded and, on a wider basis, how this can end up with him leading an entire country on a not-so-merry dance, everyone desperate to gain the love and approval of a single dominant personality.

That weakling is Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) a young medical graduate from Edinburgh, who is arrogant, cocksure over-sexed and over-here in Uganda, keen for adventure and to get as much sex and experiences in as he can while he’s over here. A gap-year student with a desire for the easy life, after a chance meeting Garrigan becomes chief-physician and confidant to Amin, a man with a deep love for Scotland and who likes to think of himself as a father to those around him. It takes Garrigan a long time to realise that this indulgent, if bad-tempered, charismatic father-figure  is in fact a brutal dictator, his eyes eventually opened by the experiences of one of Amin’s wives Kay (Kerry Washington) who pays a heavy price for mothering an epileptic and adultery. Will Garrigan escape from Uganda?

Macdonald’s film gets a brilliant sense of both the exotic appeal of Uganda at the time (and or Amin) and it’s heat-embroiled danger. The camera work is flooded with yellows and grimy details, that makes every scene feel like its bathed in heat (and later danger) as well as giving it a documentary realism (helped by its use of handheld and immediate footage). The story of the film itself is a fairly basic morality tale, but these stories work because of their universality and it’s clear that Garrigan’s selfishness, shallowness and self-interest is going to lead to a terrible awakening.

The film’s real strength is Whitaker’s tour-de-force as Idi Amin. Whitaker is an actor who has been straining at the leash for an explosive roll, and he gets one here. If ever there was a part that would allow an actor to let rip it’s the one, with Amin part Hannibal Lector, part decadent Roman emperor, a low-rent Hitler with an ego larger than his country. But the bombast and childish fury work because it is built within the framework of a sort of puffed-up magnetism, a charismatic “hail-fellow-well-met” bonhomie that suggests this guy could be the best fun in the room. So dripping in assurance and confidence is Amin that he becomes strangely attractive – and the sort of all-powerful force of nature that would have most of us smiling if we caught a word of approval from him.

The trick of the film is to front-and-centre this lighter, fun-loving aspect. It’s easy to enjoy it like Garrigan as Amin charms the audience as much as he does its lead character. Sure there may be violence at the margins, but good-old-Amin is just doing what needs to be done. He’s brilliant with the people. It’s funny when he on-a-whim appoints Garrigan to decide a major architectural pitch from several countries. He’s playful and enthusiastic. When he’s cross with people he seems at first more disappointed than angry. It’s only as the film goes on that we realise we have been gaslit as much as Garrigan, that Amin may be a fun guy but he also cares nothing for anyone and that the more his focus shifts away, the more we see his callous paranoia and lack of any moral scruples.

Certainly we start getting a sense of the ruthlessness he is prepared to exhibit to enforce his rule in Uganda and the brutality with which he will suppress any resistance. Aides killed in a failed assassination attempt illicit no sympathy. He feels no guilt or responsibility for anything he does. In one brutal moment he berates Garrigan for failing to counsel him against expelling all Asians from Uganda. When Garrigan protests he did, Amin only responds with “Yes, but you did not persuade me Nicholas!” the sort of inverted logic practised only by the insanely self-obsessed.

Whitaker’s performance powers all this, a magnetic masterclass in insanity, charisma and paranoia. He’s well matched by James McAvoy (the film’s real lead) whose performance is similarly a masterclass is shallowness and petty triteness. If anything the film is almost too successful in this. A Garrigan is such a little arsehole it takes quite a force of will to build up any sympathy for this serial shagger playboy. It’s capable to think as the fire turns on him that perhaps he deserves this – and the number of (mostly black) characters who lay down their lives to protect him starts to get a bit wearing after a while.

Because this in part is a film where actual Ugandans are not heard that much. The two principle characters we see are both victims: Kerry Washington in a thankless part as the attractive young wife you just know from day one Garrigan will climb into bed with and David Oyelowo as the sort of noble doctor you only seem to find in movies. For all its horror at Amin’s crimes, it’s still largely filtered through the eyes of a young, white, innocent abroad who sees up-front the dangers but the real victims of Amin, the Ugandans themselves, are clichés or elevated clichés.

While you could say that was not the point of the film, it still means we miss some of the real danger and psychopathy of the leading character, so absorbed are we in seeing the increasing peril of the white man caught up in it all. It’s why The Last King of Scotland doesn’t quite work as well as it should, any why it settles in the end for a being a morality tale plot-boiler about a monster at the heart of the forest, rather than a deeper and more intelligent film about the tragedy of an African state. It’s still enjoyable for all that, but it could have been more.

A United Kingdom (2016)

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo are a love match in underwhelming A United Kingdom

Director: Amma Asante

Cast: David Oyelowo (Seretse Khama), Rosamund Pike (Ruth Williams Khama), Terry Pheto (Naledi Khama), Vusi Kunens (Tshekedi Khama), Jack Davenport (Alistair Canning), Laura Carmichael (Muriel Williams-Sanderson), Jack Lowden (Tony Benn), Tom Felton (Rufus Lancaster), Charlotte Hope (Olivia Lancaster), Nicholas Lyndhurst (George Williams), Anastasia Hille (Dot Williams)

Some films just have a safe, crowd pleasing, “your whole family would like it” feel to them. A United Kingdom falls very neatly into this category. It’s a simple and straightforward story, told with a cosy safety that won’t challenge you or really stick in your memory.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of the Bamangwato tribe in what will become Botswana, is studying law in England in the late 1940s to prepare for his reign. He meets and falls in love with London girl Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) – and despite the protests of their families and their nations, they marry and resolve to build a life in his country working for the betterment of his people. But first they must overcome what seem insurmountable obstacles.

A United Kingdom is a very well-meaning film. It has an important story to tell about acceptance and prejudice. Many of the points it makes about the negative reactions to mixed race marriages and colonial politics are still painfully relevant today. It’s an earnest and good-hearted film. It’s just a real shame that it’s also not that special.

It’s well acted by the two leads, we can give it that. Sure they are presented as almost flawless individuals, but David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are engaging performers and give a lot of emotional weight to the story. Their courtship is sweetly hesitant and their relationship feels real and lived in. Oyelowo brings much of the magnetic charisma he has shown in a wide range of films to the part, and Pike’s neat mixture of prim Englishness, decency and stubborn self-determination work really well.

But the story it so simply done, the whole thing feels like a TV movie of the week. The film is flatly directed and conventionally shot: London is always dark, filmed through a blue lens, with rainwater or fog dripping off every shot. Africa by contrast is a vibrant, orange lensed place where every sunset and sunrise looks like a painting. Very few shots show much more imagination than that. There is no flair or originality to the cinematography, the composition of the shots, or even the musical score (which swells up stirringly at emotional moments and then fades instantly from memory). On every technical level, it can boast nothing more impressive than workman-like competence.

The narrative is equally simplistic: our heroes fall in love, deal with rejection, passionate speeches are made, allies are slowly won over and a deus ex machina finally makes everything fine. The stakes of what Seretse is putting at risk through his marriage are never made completely clear, despite all the talk of digging and diamonds. The final resolution of the entire problem is so simplified, contrived and rushed I almost had to double check the runtime to see if I missed anything. It’s all part of the same simplification in the story that sees sides change with confusing speed – Seretse’s sister goes from rejecting Ruth to treating her like a sister in a blink; Ruth’s father (distractingly played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, forever Rodney) is given one moment in a cinema to switch from prejudiced British working man to repentant father.

The characters themselves are very plainly drawn: they are either goodies or baddies with no attempt made to look at the deeper feelings or motivations behind them. For instance, Seretse’s uncle is shown as simply outraged by the marriage, with no attempt to explore why a marriage like this may not have been seen as ideal in a fragile community, or how it might have made holding a deal with the UK together difficult. Similarly, the Brit characters are almost to a man mustachio twirlers or bitchy mem-sahibs, callously sipping sherry as they thwart Seretse and Ruth’s plans. (Spare a thought for poor Tom Felton, yet again hired to play Draco Malfoy In A Different Historical Costume.)  Even Clement Attlee (so regularly beautified as the Prime Minister who oversaw the creation of the Welfare State and NHS) is portrayed here as a cold-hearted architect of realpolitik.

By making its lead characters so saintly and pure, and anyone who disagrees with them so cruel and sunk in villainy, the film weakens itself. Yes it has a sweet relationship at the middle, but it also manages to make this feel slightly lightweight, because the film itself is so flimsy. When their opponents are such cartoonish baddies, and their aims for their country so unclearly explained, it minimises the impact of the story. Instead of showing us the birth of a modern, democratic nation through the focal point of one couple’s struggle against prejudice and adversity, it makes both personal and national triumphs feel actually less impressive than they were – no more than a Sunday afternoon, Mills & Boon tale of a working class London girl and a handsome, “exotic” stranger.

A United Kingdom is an important story that has made itself into a slight one, a conventionally filmed and simplistically told tale that never carries the weight and impact it should do. Despite good performances from the leads, it’s really nothing special.

The Butler (2013)

Forest Whitaker takes on a lifetime of service, as the Civil Rights movement meets Downton Abbey

Director: Lee Daniels

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Colman Domingo (Freddie Fallows), Yaya DeCosta (Carol Hammie), Terrence Howard (Howard), Adriane Lenox (Gina), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Robin Williams (Dwight D Eisenhower)

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grows up on a plantation in the South; after his mother is raped and his father killed by the son of the house, the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) takes him on as a house servant as a token gesture of regret. His training here sets him on the path to working in a succession of increasingly wealthy hotels and, finally, the White House. Over 30 years, he serves the Presidents in office, never involving himself or commenting on policy, proud of his service to his country. This often puts him in conflict with his Civil Rights activist son Louis (David Oyelowo), with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) stuck in the middle.

This is the sort of film that feels designed to win awards. It’s based on a vague true story (it changes nearly all the events of course) and it’s about a big subject. It’s got big name actors doing acting. It aims at big themes. What it actually is, is a film that misses its marks. It’s a film that spends time with big themes but has nothing to say about them, or in fact anything interesting to say full stop. It assumes that the historical context will do the work, and leaves it at that. Instead, it settles for trite sentimentality and cliché, personal stories played on a stage that makes those stories seem slight and inconsequential rather than giving them reflective depth.

The biggest problem about the film, leaving aside its heavy-handed sentimentality and mundane predictable storytelling, is that all the way through it feels like we are following the wrong story. It’s such a vibrant and exciting period of history, so full of events, passion and struggle: and instead we follow the story of Cecil, essentially a bland passive character who achieves very little and influences even less. There are vague references to leading “the regular life” and how working in domestic service is like some sort of subversive act to demonstrate the education and hard-working possibilities of the minority, but to be honest it never really convinces.

The film promises that Cecil was a man who had a profound impact on the people he served – but this doesn’t come across at all. Instead, the parade of star turns playing US Presidents are there it seems for little more than box office: we see them speaking about Civil Rights issues or planning policy, but we get very little sense of Cecil having any bond with them. The cameos instead become a rather distracting parade, as if the film was worried (perhaps rightly) that Cecil’s story was so slight and bland that they needed the historical all-stars to drum up any interest in it. It doesn’t help that the cameos are mixed – Rickman, Schreiber and Marsden do okay with cardboard cut-out expressions, but Cusack in particular seems horribly miscast. A braver film would have kept these pointless camoes in the background and focused the narrative on Cecil and his colleagues below stairs, and their struggles to gain equal payment with their white colleagues. This film is seduced by the famous events and names it spends the rest of the time backing away from.

The performance at the centre is also difficult to engage with. Forest Whitaker is such an extreme, grand guignol actor that it’s almost sad to see him squeeze himself into a dull jobsworth such as Cecil. Whitaker seems so determined to play it down that he mumbles inaudibly at great length (it’s genuinely really difficult to understand what he is saying half the time), slouching and buttoning himself into Cecil’s character. It doesn’t come across as a great piece of character creation, more a case of miscasting. Oprah Winfrey does well as his wife, although her character is utterly inconsistent: at times a drunk depressive, at others level-headed and calm. The link of either of these characters to the hardships of life as a Black American or their role in racial politics is murkily unclear.

The star turn of the film – and virtually all its interesting content – is from David Oyelowo, who ages convincingly through the film from idealist to activist to elder statesman. His story also intersects with the actual historical events that are taking place in America and he is an active participant – unlike Cecil the passive viewer, just as likely to switch the TV off as follow the news. Often I found myself wishing the film could follow his character rather than Whitaker’s.

That’s the problem with the film: what point is it trying to make? The film seems to want to honour Cecil’s service in the White house – but the film is a slow journey towards Cecil’s sudden revelation that maybe his son’s campaigning for Civil Rights was the right thing to do. This flies in the face of the film’s tribute to Cecil’s decades of quiet, unjudging service: the film can’t make up its mind whether it wants to salute Cecil for being an unjudging, dedicated servant to a long line of Presidents, or for having the courage to take a political stance towards the end. It’s having its cake and eating it. It’s this shallow lack of stance that finally makes it an empty and rather dull viewing experience.

Selma (2014)

Martin Luther King fights the good fight

Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee C. White), Lorraine Toussaint (Amelia Boynton Robinson), Stephan James (John Lewis), Wendell Pierce (Hosea Williams), Common (James Bevel), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), Tim Roth (George Wallace), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper)

Tragically, for a while this film seemed to be most famous for being the poster child for “Oscar-Gate” or hashtag oscarssowhite (sorry hashtags are not my thing). Selma was the film that should have been littered with nominations. Instead it got just two – one for Picture, one for Best Song. Of the many, many snubs the most shocking were Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, particularly as other contenders up for the awards had certainly done inferior work that year . This film, however, categorically demands to be remembered in its own right – it is a fine, very moving piece of work, a dynamic history lesson that avoids preaching from a pulpit.

A lot of this comes down to the breathtaking work from David Oyelowo, who delivers one of those performances where the actor seems to transcend his skin, not just imitating Martin Luther King but inhabiting him, exploring and expressing every depth and shade. It’s a performance that stands comparison with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln. Oyelowo’s King is a big hearted, patient man but also a shrewd political player, a family man who betrays his wife, a political campaigner who holds the big picture and the small in his mind. It’s a totally committed performance that is intensely respectful without ever feeling hagiographic.

Oyelowo’s performance also immeasurably helps the film’s structure, as this is a biography that focuses on one single key moment in its subject’s life, rather than attempting to cover the whole lot in one 2-3 hour sitting. I rather like this, as the important thing about these biopics is to understand the person at the centre, not just to tick off events in their life. Anyway this film focuses on three months in 1965: King is campaigning for equal voting rights, and planning a high-profile march across Alabama from Selma and Montgomery to pressure President Lyndon B Johnson to promote the Voting Rights Act.

This is a very powerful film, humming with a constant sense of the deep rooted injustice and oppression in America at this time. It makes no compromises in showing the violence meted out to Black Americans, but it’s the day-to-day injustice that DuVernay shows particularly well: in the opening scene, Annie Lee Cooper (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) has her carefully prepared application to vote cruelly dismissed by a smalltown clerk, gleefully and casually exploiting a succession of legal loopholes to thwart her. It’s a simple scene but amazingly powerful in its casual (unspoken) racism, and it brings to life in a few strokes the day-to-day experience of millions of people at this time.

It’s also a beautifully shot film, that uses the real-life location of the Selma bridge spectacularly. An assault on the first attempted march by mounted policeman, shrouded in tear gas, is deeply moving in its simplicity, the camera catching the brutal overreaction of the police with a journalistic eye (Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams is particularly impressive in the build-up to, and aftermath of, this sequence). Other moments of violence are equally shocking, but DuVernay never over-eggs the moment, allowing the events and the story to speak for themselves. We know how terrible some of these events are, and how disgusting the treatment of Black Americans was – the film never uses music or editing to hammer it home to us.

The film ends on the kind of high note you can only feel when injustice has been overcome and decent people triumph (punctured, DuVernay acknowledges, by the fates of some of the characters,  revealed at the end of the film. More than one of these is a gut punch – not least the death of King himself three years later). But it’s never twee, preachy or a history lesson. Instead it’s a living, breathing expression of a moment in history that wraps you up in its story. Oyelowo is of course outstanding, but there is some excellent support, not least from Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta (overlooked at the time, but outstanding), Andre Holland, Stephen James, Lorraine Toussaint and Common as King’s fellow Civil Rights leaders. Tom Wilkinson adds a lot of depth to a sometimes thinly written Johnson, while Tim Roth translates his contempt for George Wallace in a performance of slappable vileness. A beautiful and marvellous film.