Tag: David Thewlis

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Felicity Jones and  Eddie Redmayne bring to the screen the life of Stephen Hawking

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), Charlie Cox (Jonathan Jones), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Simon McBurney (Frank Hawking), Emily Watson (Beryl Wilde), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason), Harry Lloyd (Brian), Guy Oliver-Watts (George Wilde), Abigail Cruttenden (Isobel Hawking), Christian McKay (Roger Penrose), Enzo Cilenti (Kip Thorne)

If you want a story of a triumph over adversity, there are few where adversity was faced off so successfully and publicly than the life of Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with motor-neurone disease while still a postgraduate, Hawing defied the diagnosis that gave him little more than a few years to live, to shape a life and career that would have a profound impact on the world and make him probably the most famous scientist alive. Not bad for a man who spent a large part of his life confined to a wheelchair, only able to communicate through a synthesised computer voice.

But his life was not just a story where he was the only character. Many of his accomplishments came about because of the unflagging support of his wife Jane. This film takes as its source the book Jane wrote about their life together. And while it arguably sugar-coats or plays down some of the more uncomfortable or divisive elements of their marriage (a marriage that was eventually to end in divorce and several years where they did not speak), it also serves as a warm tribute to the many years they spent together where their support for each other was total and offered with no agenda or demands.

Here in James Marsh’s inventive and well-made film, which manages to more-or-less transcend its “movie of the week” roots, Hawking and Jane are played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in performances that scooped an Oscar and a nomination respectively. Both are deserved, as these are rich, dedicated and empathetic performances, crammed with admiration for their subjects. It all fits perfectly well in Marsh’s moving if (at times) rather conventional film, which he directs with a lack of flash and plenty of heart. 

It’s a film that sometimes avoids delving too deeply into the emotional heartlands of its lead characters, and the frequently messy situations that life throws you into (the end of this relationship comes with a remarkably calm sadness, which contrasts heavily with the furious argument Jane describes in her book). It’s also a film that has a very clear agenda of framing Jane as a near saint in her devotion and patience, and Stephen as a brave soul with a superhuman perseverance and regard for his wife. So the introduction of choir leader Jonathan Jones (played with a sweet charm by Charlie Cox) into their domestic life as a surrogate father to the Hawking children and friend to Jane (very definitely not a lover, the film is eager to make clear) is very much something accepted by both without a hint of doubt or recrimination. Similarly, Hawking’s later divorce of Jane is set in a context of “setting her free” rather than the more (allegedly) definitive break it was in real life.

Real life, you suspect, was messier than this. The film does mine some excellent emotional honesty from Jane’s decision to marry Stephen being, at least partly, based on her belief that this man she loves only has a few years to live. From the start she doesn’t anticipate signing up for a lifetime of providing care and abandoning her own aspirations to support Stephen’s (the film makes no real mention of her own dreams of becoming a translator) – but Jane does so with a decided willingness and sense of duty. Similarly, Stephen does not anticipate a life essentially trapped in a wheelchair – finally speechless – and the film allows beats of frustration from him, alongside the determination to not let these problems prevent him from achieving his potential.

The film revolves around Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking. Needless to say it’s a technical marvel, a stunning accomplishment not only in its physical mastery (especially as it was all shot out of sequence, so in each scene Redmayne needed to carefully map how far the symptoms had progressed) and commitment, but also in its searing emotionality. Hawking’s brightness, his bashful playfulness, his intelligence and sense of cheeky charm are all there – and they’re later married with a pained, just-controlled bitterness mixed with stern mouthed resentment and gutsy determination to deal with the hand he has been given. Redmayne’s performance is a superb capturing of the all-consuming feelings of being betrayed by your own body, of no longer being the master of your own frame and being forced to adjust your plans and expectations to meet the limits nature has put on you.

Felicity Jones is equally good in a superbly heartfelt performance as Jane, a woman who gifts Stephen the determination and will to see past the limits the disease places on him. But it’s also a performance that acknowledges the draining burden of having to support someone this ill, of having to constantly be the strong member of the marriage, the one who must always be as ready to save her husband from choking at dinner as she must be to drop everything and fly across Europe to take life-saving medical decisions about him. Jones’ performance never slips into self-pity, but mines a rich vein of willing sacrifice powered by love.

Marsh’s film is largely unflinching around the everyday miseries and sorrow of the terminally ill and restrictingly disabled. We are confronted in every scene with the limits that Hawking’s body places upon him, from deteriorating handwriting and clumsiness to the loss of all speech and movement. This progression is presented with a detail uncoloured by maudlin sentimentality. Doctors are sympathetic but bluntly clear about the dangers and risks of treatment, each adversity is met with a quiet determination to carry on.

The Theory of Everything is a heart-warming watch – and features two superb performances. The portrait of a marriage that works, for the most part of their lives together, despite all obstacles is inspiring. While the film glosses over well-publicised issues over the end of the relationship – and perhaps downplays the emotional strains on both towards its end – it still succeeds in making a largely unsentimental picture of a genius who overcame all, and the brave woman who gave him the dedication he needed to do it.

Legend (2011)

Tom Hardy plays with himself in Legend

Director: Brian Helgeland

Cast: Tom Hardy (Ronnie Kray/Reggie Kray), Emily Browning (Frances Shea), Christopher Eccleston (Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read), David Thewlis (Leslie Payne), Taron Egerton (Edward “Mad Teddy” Smith), Chazz Palminteri (Angelo Bruno), Paul Bettany (Charlie Richardson), Colin Morgan (Frankie Shea), Tara Fitzgerald (Mrs Shea), Paul Anderson (Albert Donoghue), Sam Spruell (Jack McVitie), John Sessions (Lord Boothby), Kevin McNally (Harold Wilson)

Tom Hardy is the sort of actor who, if you could find a role for him in your film, you certainly would. So how about getting the chance to cast him twice? That’s the happy situation Brian Helgeland was in here, with the chance for Hardy to play not one but both of the Kray twins. The buzz around Hardy taking on both roles was so strong that the film itself was almost completely forgotten in the crush. This was perhaps easy to do since the film is pretty mediocre at best, a confused mess that can’t decide if it wants to wallow in the undeserved glamour of the Krays or whether it wants to explore the darker currents below the surface.

The film covers most of the career of the Kray brothers – the seemingly more grounded, ambitious Reggie and then the more impulsive Ronnie, recently released from psychiatric prison. The Kray brothers balance competing demands: Ronnie is essentially happy where he is, king of a small pond, while Reggie has dreams of expanding a criminal empire across the Atlantic in partnership with the Mafia. Meanwhile, various gangland opponents and the police stalk the brothers, while Reggie’s relationship and later marriage to Frances Shea (Emily Browning) slowly collapses.

Helgeland’s film is a fairly bland piece of film-making that wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants to enjoy the criminal undertakings of the Krays, their clubland cool, charisma and charm. But it also wants to make clear that these are violent criminals who have very few moral qualms about anything they do. It’s a printing and an exploration of the legend, but the problem is that it never actually becomes particularly interesting, despite the best efforts of everyone involved. Perhaps everyone became too blinded by the pyrotechnics and undoubted skill of Hardy’s double performance that the overall film itself got a bit lost.

Hardy is superb, turning the brothers into two highly distinctive personalities who both seem like two halves of the same shattered personality, whose character traits slowly merge and even swap over the course of the film. Hardy also develops a key physicality and style for both characters that is very similar but also clearly different in both cases. So you get Ronnie, Churchill-bulldog like, with a muscular, growling heaviness that stinks of paranoia. And Reggie, smart-suited and slicked back, with a confident thrusting demeanour that falls apart over the film into a weasily fury.

Both these progressions make perfect sense, and Hardy is so skilled at playing both halves of many conversations that you forget while watching the film that you are looking at one actor playing two roles. Astonishingly – and perhaps the biggest trick he pulls – he turns this tour-de-force double role into something that feels so natural you don’t notice it happening. And the bond that ties the two brothers together into a descent into hell is so strong that even when beating the crap out of each other they still seem like two halves of one messed up personality.

Hardy is of course so brilliant, the rest of the skilled cast basically only get a few beats to sketch out various gangland figures and coppers. Excellent actors – Eccleston, Thewlis, Bettany, Anderson – are picked out to do this, but none make much of an impression. The thrust is always the strange dance of personality between the Krays, two brothers who effectively destroy each other with their actions, but are so closely bound together that the one cannot survive without the other.

It’s psychology like this that you wish the film could explore, especially as Hardy takes both brothers to dark and bitter places that makes both of them openly vile and terrifying to imagine meeting. Helgeland chooses to explore much of this – particularly Reggie’s darkness – through a rather tired voiceover led structure via Emily Browning’s Frances Shea. There is nothing wrong with Browning’s performance, but the predictable and rather traditional structure that this gives the story – not to mention the rather clumsy scripting – ends up dragging the film along.

Helgeland makes a decent job of directing this film, and it looks fine, but it is strangely underpowered and unengaging at every turn, a bland piece of gangland history that only really catches fire when both Hardys take the stage and this superstar actor lets rip. Away from him, there is a soft-focus nostalgia in its look back at the sixties, which confuses the attitude the film has towards the Krays, and a ticking off of historical events that gets in the way of creating a compelling narrative.

Hardy overshadows the film and he deserves to as he is more or less the only reason to watch it.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl struggle through this turgid retelling of hacking derring-do in The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Moritz Bleibtrue (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr Tarek Haliseh)

In 2010 the world was thrown into turmoil when a website called Wikileaks published a host of top-secret government documents that revealed a never-ending stream of Western wrong-doing during the war on terror. The leak was co-published by WikiLeaks and the Guardian and New York Times. However Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) had other ideals – namely that the files should not be redacted in any way to protect serving US officials or informants in hostile countries. 

It should be a gripping story of the state failing to keep up with the speed of modern communications. But instead this is one hell of a turgid, dull info-dump of a film that turns this potentially explosive event into something about as gripping as watching a series of people type into a computer. On top of that, the film totally fails to develop any proper personality dynamics to engage your interest, and instead falls back into the usual crude filmic language of a star-struck protégé realising his mentor has feet of clay.

Bill Condon’s direction is totally incapable of making the entry of data into a computer dynamic or visual, and is completely unable to bring the world of computer hacking and data search to life. In fact, there is so much information given to the viewers (rather than drama) that the impression I was left with is that Condon doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the movie anyway. He certainly doesn’t manage to make it interesting or feel that important. 

Visually, the film is flat and falls back on superimposing text on the screen when people type or creating a sort of “mind palace” office to represent the inner workings of the Wikileaks server (which is basically just a big office space). In fact, the film gets less interesting as it progresses – which is a real shame after a nifty credits sequence that chronicles in images the development of the press from cave paintings, through the Rosetta stone, printing, television and the internet. 

Not to mention the lack of drama about this. Things are just happening – we never get any sense of the danger or the world-changing impact, or any reason why we should care. Poor Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are wheeled out as a trio of American government big wigs who talk at each other at great length about what is going on and how it will endanger government assets – but it’s all show and not tell. The plight of a Tunisian informant – played with his usual skill by Alexander Siddig – is reduced to a few scenes, a human element that gets trimmed so much it carries little impact. 

The film also deals with the personality clashes Assange inspires, here interpreted as a borderline sociopathic monster, an egotist and liar interested only in his own legend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a superbly detailed and richly observed impersonation of Assange, but the character has no depth. He’s merely a sort of phantom monster, who the film slowly reveals has no conscience. Compare it to the presentation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a film that is everything this clunking disaster is not). That film is also told from the prospective of a disillusioned former colleague, but there our view of the central character is shaded and given depth – and we are encouraged to recognise we are seeing one person’s perspective. Here the film swallows whole the side of the story presented by Daniel Berg.

Berg played with a disengaged flatness by Daniel Brühl, snoozing through a part shorn of any dynamism, whose views oscillate constantly until he finally settles for being a campaigner to keep sources safe. Alicia Vikander gets shockingly short shrift as a girlfriend – she even has the obligatory “stop working on the management of earth-shattering leaks and come to bed” scene. Berg allies himself with the traditional media, similarly portrayed with a clunking obviousness: David Thewlis is a standard shouty journalist, Peter Capaldi a chin-stroking concerned editor. 

The Fifth Elementis flat and unable to dramatise the world of computer coding. The dialogue is turgid and obvious (there is a terribly obvious metaphor of Assange constantly lying about the reason for his white hair – he can’t be trusted you see!) and the performances are either dull, clichéd or saddled with this terrible writing. At the end, as Cumberbatch plays Assange denouncing the entire film in a reconstruction of a talking head interview, you get a sense of the more interesting, fourth-wall-leaning film this might have been. But sadly the rest of the film reminds you what a flat, tedious, stumbling, confused, inexplicable misfire this really is.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry and friends are on the run in the excellent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Rhys Ifans (Xenophilius Lovegood), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Toby Jones (Dobby), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Peter Mullan (Yaxley), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Warwick Davies (Griphook), Nick Moran (Scabior), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), David O’Hara (Albert Runcorn), Sophie Thompson (Malfada Hopkirk), Steffan Rhodri (Reg Cattermole), Simon McBurney (Kreacher)

The final book of the Harry Potter series made its own slice of film history: it was the first time a book was adapted in two films to “get the whole story of the book across” (or to make double the box office cash – take your pick). There was scepticism about creating a film about the first half (or so) of The Deathly Hallows, as a large chunk revolves around our heroes walking around the countryside, confused, lost and adrift. Instead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 turns this material into one of the richest, most engaging and best films in the series. Any film that expands a throw-away reference from the books to Hermione removing her parents memories of her, into an affecting opening scene showing Emma Watson doing the same is really inventively playing with the original source material.

David Yates takes on his third Harry Potter film – and this is possibly the best he filmed. In fact, the whole film feels fresher and different – perhaps because it’s the only film to not have a single scene at Hogwarts. Instead our characters are out in the forest and on the run – and the film has completely different vibe, immediately lending it a uniqueness. Equally, it isn’t shy about pointing out our heroes are all-at-sea. Harry doesn’t really know what he is doing, or where to start with his self-imposed quest: and surely when Ron angrily asks why Dumbledore didn’t tell him more (or if Harry wasn’t even listening properly) he’s voicing some of the questions of the audience.

This film, more than any other, focuses on the relationship between the leading three characters. While getting an idea of their friendship and loyalty to each other, we also get a sense of the tensions and envy between them. Not least in Ron’s grudging acceptance that he is the number two. Rupert Grint has been slowly building under David Yates’ films from a comic relief character to an increasing (slightly surly) teenage insecurity and troubled sexual maturity. 

This really pays off in this film: Ron is bitter and jealous. These feelings might be exacerbated by the necklace the characters must take turns wearing, but it’s just bringing to the surface Ron’s darker feelings of inadequacy: and Yates even brings them to the screen in a necklace-induced vision of a naked (but artfully concealed in smoke!) Harry and Hermione alternately making out and rubbishing Ron. It’s a plot point that covers Ron overcoming his resentment and cementing his position in the gang. It’s very well done – and Rupert Grint is very good.

Equally good is the gently sad, mutually affectionate relationship between Harry and Hermione. Alone together for large chunks of the film, the characters’ bond is firmly established, the chemistry between the two actors never clearer. The film plays with the subplot it’s been suggesting for a while of a potential deeper relationship between Harry and Hermione: not least in its beautiful silent dancing sequence to Nick Cave in the tent (one of the best ever entirely invented scenes in the series) that is friendly, but with a hint of the possibility of something more – something the characters seem to consciously decide to bench. This sort of emotional reality is what makes the film really stand out. It turns the “camping trip” of the novel into something more profound and engrossing – I’d say this is the only sequence that really outdoes the books altogether in the entire series.

But of course there is still plenty of action, and humour, a highpoint for both being our heroes infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, disguised as ministry employees. Playing the adult disguises of our heroes brings out three hilarious and sharply observed physical performances from David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson. In fact, the film has a bit of a thing for disguises, from a disfigured Harry (who may or may not be recognised by Draco, in another piece of excellent acting from Tom Felton as a terminally out-of-his depth and terrified Malfoy), to the opening scenes featuring half the cast being disguised as Harry. Daniel Radcliffe excels in this sequence, playing versions of most of the young cast with real wit and skill.

Yates allows a creeping sense of imminent danger to hang over the whole picture, straight from the off. A “conference of baddies” at Malfoy manor shows us Voldemort (the ever sinister Ralph Fiennes) re-establishing his murderous villainy from the start – and also belittling and mocking poor Lucius Malfoy (a crushed Jason Isaacs). From there, via a gripping escape from Harry’s home, to a wedding scene that quickly collapses into a terrifying attack from Death Eaters, it’s a film full of excitement.

Yates shoots this with tension and edge. A sequence with Harry and company fleeing through the forest from snatchers is so well-done, so intense and immersive, that they used it for the poster. This sequence uses really interesting camera work and tracking shots – in fact the whole film is very well filmed and extremely well-paced. It’s also got an eye for the real nastiness of regimes like Voldemort’s: people like Umbridge (an increasingly Himmlerish Imelda Staunton) flourish, while bullying thugs like Yaxley (an intimidatingly excellent Peter Mullan) rule the roost.

Kloves script sets up a lot of the fascinating back-story from the novel, not only around Dumbledore but also the Deathly Hallows themselves (I’ll not mention for now that most of this build-up is fumbled in the last film). There is a beautiful animation sequence establishing the history of the Deathly Hallows, which is an artistic highlight. The slow unveiling and revealing of facts is wonderfully done – and rewards the patient viewer.

The film culminates in a final sequence at Malfoy manor that carries a great wallop of emotional torment and dread (first torture scene in a Potter movie for those interested…). Surprisingly a lot of this emotional force comes from Dobby the elf – irritating as he was in Chamber of Secrets, here he gets a few scenes that carry real emotional force. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is possibly the only Harry Potter film that is an actual improvement on its original source material (there I said it). I think it’s a brilliant film, a film which carries real emotional weight and has genuine things to say, not just about good and evil, but also about the sort of teenage angst and yearnings we’ve all had. The three leads are all excellent, and there is barely a bum note in the whole thing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry and Dumbledore prepare for war in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Natalia Tena (Tonks), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the least stand-alone of the Harry Potter novels. Intended as a bridge into the final book (and carrying a lot of mystery), for obvious reasons it also has no Dumbledore-explains-the-plot-to-Harry chapter at the end (making it unique in the series). It also has the series’ least interesting MacGuffin – the identity of the Half-Blood Princehimself being considered of such little note here that it barely gets a mention in the film. But despite all this, the highly experienced Harry Potter crew deliver another exciting, dramatic and fully engaging film.

While I may not have thought David Yates was a natural film director, I have to say in this film his cinematic craft has really kicked into gear. There are images of fascinating depth and beauty here, and the film is beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar-nominated). Like never before, Hogwarts seems like a place of inky greens and deep soulful shadows. The camera often allows characters’ faces to fill the middle of the frame, while still giving us depth of vision of the world around them. Carefully composed shots show the rich detail of plenty of objects, from dead birds to photographs. It’s a luscious film.

It also has a sad nostalgia to it: it feels like it’s about things coming to an end. Unlike any other film in the series, there are very few scenes of hi-jinks in Hogwarts. Comic relief characters like Neville and Hagrid are noticeable by their (mostly) absence. 

Instead the film looks at that sad half-way house between being a child and an adult. Or rather, the responsibilities and duties of an adult being thrust onto a child. Obviously Harry is scarcely ready to take on his mantle of chosen one – and feels bereft and lonely. But, in a neat contrast, Draco Malfoy is also being pushed into a task he is far too young for, and ill-suited to. The film could have actually made more of pulling out the contrasts between these two characters – although time is always at a premium in these films, with so much of Rowling’s plot to squeeze in.

Despite this, Tom Felton gives his finest performance in the series as a tortured and deeply scared Draco Malfoy, who for the first time seems like just a normal, insecure boy terrified of the dark acts he feels he has to do. The film gets a lot of emotional mileage out of this (more than it does, actually, from Harry’s predicaments) and Felton’s expressive agony and tearful lack of control for the first time make him someone we can relate to, and feel sorry for.

It also brings out different character traits in other characters, not least the protective side of Snape. Alan Rickman gets one of his meatiest roles in the series here, wonderfully playing multiple different emotions and motivations under a cold inscrutable surface. His character is a constantly intriguing shift of feelings – but it’s clear he does, in his way, care for Draco’s safety (just as he does for the other children in his care). Rickman also gives a brilliant sense of Snape’s moral uncertainty, and his every look suggest waves of emotion under tight control. It’s a wonderful performance of suggesting a lot under the surface while not doing a lot. Not to mention Rickman also manages to skilfully leave everything open for debate as to Snape’s true motives.

It’s striking how many of the series regulars come into prominence here. Not just Felton and Rickman, but this is also Gambon’s finest performance. By now Gambon had pretty much nailed Dumbledore, giving the part a great deal of compassion and quiet moral force. His sad urging for Draco to ask for his help near the end of the film is rather moving, as are the soft, sad tones Gambon drops throughout the film suggesting Dumbledore’s pain and guilt. Gambon gets a perfect balance between a twinkly charm and a quiet authoritativeness that works wonderfully.

Surprisingly however, what works less well is Harry’s plotline. Daniel Radcliffe is underpowered and slightly underwhelming, a little too sullen and sulky to really win our sympathy (Radcliffe himself has named this as his least favourite performance). It doesn’t help either that there is no chemistry between him and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. Wright, bless her, is not a strong actor and she constantly undersells each of these scenes – unable to bring the sort of bright, sexy playfulness her book equivalent has. Instead both she and Radcliffe feel sulky and awkward, and the romantic scenes between them (of which there are many) fall flat time and time again. Once you notice this total lack of spark between them you can’t see anything else!

Radcliffe has far more chemistry with Emma Watson – but she and Rupert Grint (along with many of the rest of the younger cast) have very little of any real consequence to do. The dysfunctional middle of the film, with Radcliffe and Wright flirting, drifts all the time, meaning the focus of the film zeroes in on the “adult-character” plots. Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves do their best to add drama and excitement to a book where most of the dramatic high points are Dumbledore and Harry either watching memories, or Harry using a book to do much better at potions.

And by and large they succeed. Action sequences are added: the opening attack on the Millennium Bridge by Death Eaters is terrific, and there is an exciting (if totally plot free) attack by Death Eaters on the Weasley home. Yates again sells the moments of awe: there are some beautiful shots in Voldemort’s cave hideaway, and once again he makes Dumbledore’s power a true jaw-hits-the-floor moment. 

Half Blood Prince is beautifully filmed and well directed, even if one of its primary sub-plots doesn’t really work. There are some terrific performances: Felton, Rickman and Gambon possibly do their best work here, while Jim Broadbent is wonderfully funny but also touchingly sad and rumpled as Slughorn. It’s not Radcliffe’s finest hour, but it’s a film that works very well as an entrée to the series’ final arc. And it really captures a sense of morose sadness, mourning and regret wonderfully effectively – the final sequences carry real emotional weight. It’s a fine film – and one of Rowling’s favourites as it turns out.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter friends confront wanted killer Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Julie Christie (Madam Rosmerta), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybill Trewlawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Pam Ferris (Marge Dursley)

Well this is more like it. The first two films set the tone and established the universe. But Prisoner of Azkaban – filmed after a year’s break from the back-to-back filming of the first two films – is such a notable step-up in quality from the previous films, it completely stands alone as a marvellous piece of cinematic storytelling, not just as part of a franchise.

Why is this? Well I think the answer is pretty clear. After the solid, but unspectacular, direction from Chris Columbus, the reins were handed to a gifted filmmaker in Alfonso Cuarón. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has all the visual invention and dynamism the first two films lacked. Alongside that, Cuarón tells the story with a brilliant mixture of light and dark. For the first time, the adaptation also escaped the need to dramatise everything in the book onto the screen – this film is a good 20 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets but immeasurably superior.

Prisoner of Azkaban looks fantastically gorgeous, and is brilliantly shot. The production and costume design has been spruced up, to give the film a sort of steam-punk 1950s look, as if the wizarding world had slightly arrested a few decades behind the rest of the world. Cuarón was also one of the first directors in the series who seemed relaxed enough to let the children act like children – so we get scenes of them mucking around in the dormitory or dressed with a teenage coolness. Hogwarts becomes a castle of shadows and gloom, in a magical, wintry whiteness and Scottish Highlands shades of greens and blues. More than any of the previous films, its a world that feels ‘real’ and lived in. It’s a style that would dominate all the remaining films: Cuarón essentially set the tone for the rest of the series to come.

It also helps that Cuarón was blessed with perhaps the strongest of Rowling’s stand-alone stories, a tight and taut thriller that reaches a surprising conclusion and features playful use of things like time travel and illicit magic. Cuarón, however, really embraces the emotional core of that story, and allows all these characters to expand in richness and depth. Harry faces real torment and anger when confronted with the story of the death of his parents, and his desperate yearning to have some sort of connection with them is a key thread that runs through almost every scene.

The film highlights the growing flirtation and connection between Ron and Hermione. Hermione herself is increasingly shown as a level-headed, empathetic young woman, who really understands the feelings of her friends. Several other characters are allowed to show depths: don’t forget this is the film where we see Snape’s first reaction when confronted with a werewolf is to put himself between it and the children. Rickman, by the way, is brilliant in this film, giving us the first hints of the deep and abiding feelings Snape held for Harry’s mother in his bitter anger at Sirius.

As always the film introduces some fantastic new characters into the mix. Gary Oldman is simply superb as Sirius Black, bringing to life his torment and rage, but most especially Blacks warmth and generosity (as well as his boyish enthusiasm). It was a major change of pace for Oldman, who has credited the film with changing his image in Hollywood away from one-note villain. Emma Thompson is very funny as (possibly) delusional divination teacher Sybil Trelawney. David Thewlis though waltzes off with the movie as a sad-eyed Remus Lupin, a man who clearly has known great losses. Thewlis plays Lupin with a caring, scruffy charm, an ideal teacher and mentor – generous but also firm when needed. It’s impossible not to end the film caring deeply for him. He’s terrific – it’s a real shame he never got another real showpiece scene in the rest of the franchise.

This is also our first introduction to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore – a replacement for the late Richard Harris. Gambon plays the part with a curious twinkly cheekiness, and a greater physical robustness, along with a faint Irish twang which feels like a homage to Harris. It’s a slightly uncertain start, but Gambon’s unusual, slightly-faded-hippie take on the part stands out from Harris’ austere wise-man very nicely. His lightness makes the moments of power all the more awe-inspiring. It also rather fits in with the tone of Cuarón’s slightly off-beat style.

Cuarón has a real eye for the offbeat gag – from a cleaner almost being blown away by a monster’s howl in the Leaky Cauldron, to the kids eating animal sweets in their dormitory, to Dumbledore’s off-camera delay tactics with Fudge (“Well it is a very long name minister” he says when asked to sign something), there are many delightful sight and sound gags throughout the film to make it a joy to discover. His balance of this with the heart of the story is brilliant: the inflation of Pam Ferris’ vile Aunt Marge is both brilliantly funny, but also clearly motivated by the revolting things she openly says to Harry about his parents. It’s a great balance the film pulls off time and time again.

The film is wonderfully structured and beautifully paced. It’s got a very clear five act structure, and thematic thread running through the whole film of grief and needing friends to help cope with this. The parts of the book that don’t contribute to this have been skilfully trimmed down. Cuarón then brilliantly interweaves set-piece moments, many of them introduced with an off-the-wall inventiveness, such as the umbrella dancing in the wind before the storm-swept Quiddich match (is there any health and safety in this school at all by the way?).

By the time you hit the final sequences, thanks to the film’s structure, you’ve no doubt about the revolting dangers of the Dementors. These spectral creatures are returned to again and again by Cuarón’s careful editing, as we see them drifting around the borders of Hogwarts, killing flowers and freezing lakes by their very presence. These terrifying creatures are the creepy stuff of nightmares – and Cuarón doesn’t flinch from this. It also makes Harry’s successful conjuring of a Patronus at the film’s conclusion a stirring and triumphant moment, a suitable triumphal ending to the film.

Cuarón’s direction of this film re-set the table for the entire franchise. Both Mike Newell and David Yates would follow in his footsteps, and present the world as Cuarón imagined it: dark blacks, and muted primary colours, as much a world of creepy, unsettling threat and danger, as it was of delight and wonder. From this point on the films would start to stand on their own feet, focusing on exploring the themes and emotions of Rowling’s story, rather than covering every scene. Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Harry Potter films and the most important landmark in the series. It’s not just a great Harry Potter film, or a great fantasy film or kids’ film. It’s a great film.

Anonymous (2011)

Did the Earl of Oxford write Shakespeare (spoilers: No of course he didn’t.)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Rhys Ifans (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), David Thewlis (Lord Burghley), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Xavier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Oxford), Joely Richardson (Young Elizabeth I), Derek Jacobi (Himself), Mark Rylance (Henry Condell), Helen Baxandale (Anne de Vere)

Many people would say that, for as long as there has been Shakespeare, there have been arguments about who wrote him. But that would be wrong. Because at the time everyone knew it was Shakespeare. Murmurings grew in the nineteenth century, but it’s only in our bizarre more recent times, when everyone wants to feel that they are smarter than anyone else, that conspiracy theories have taken hold. This film dramatizes one of the most famous conspiracy theories – and takes it to the bonkers extreme, chucking in royal incest, bastard claimants to the throne and blood purity, like it’s desperate to be some sort of poetry-circle Game of Thrones.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a genius. He has written hundreds of plays, despite never (it seems) setting foot in a theatre. When he does one day, he suddenly thinks – hang about I should get these on the stage! Looking for someone to put their name to the work, he approaches a reluctant Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) before credit is high-jacked mid performance by drunken dullard William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Oxford continues producing the plays through Shakespeare, carefully using them to influence the crowd to support the Earl of Essex’s (Sam Reid) campaign to succeed Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and win her away from the influence of the Cecils (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg). 

It’s not often you get a film that is both a stinking, insulting piece of propaganda garbage, but on top of that is also a terrible film full stop. Anonymous is such a film. This mind-numbingly stupid, childishly idiotic film is probably the best case that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare to come out of Hollywood. Because, after watching this film, you’ll sure as shit be convinced it wasn’t someone as tedious, pompous and arrogant as Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Unbelievably Emmerich and co thought they were making a film that would reset the table of Shakespeare debate. The only thing that will need resetting will be your table after you’ve overturned it in fury.

Our film’s Shakespeare goes crowd surfing in an Elizabethan mosh pit. Seriously.

The Oxfordian theory is yet another garbage “alternative history” that puts forward a candidate claimed to have “really wrote Shakespeare”. The central conceit usually goes something like this: Shakespeare was from a middle-class background, grammar school educated, never travelled and generally lacked the academic chops to write the plays. He was simply too common to be a genius. Ergo someone super smart must have done so instead.

The Oxford theory was put forward at the turn of the last century by (and I’m not making this up) Thomas Looney (yes it is literally a Looney Theory). It argues that Oxford was well travelled, well-educated and known as a poet so must have written the plays and poems. Shakespeare was hired to put his name on the plays because it was too shameful for an Earl to write for the theatre. Of course this doesn’t explain why Oxford had the sonnets released under Shakespeare’s name while allowing his own (not so good) poems to circulate freely – but facts never stopped these people. Oxford also inconveniently died in 1604, before the likely composition (and first performance) of over a third of the plays, but again never mind eh? 

Anyway, I’ll get into the film in a second, but I’ll leave you with this. All contemporary evidence points to Shakespeare being the author of Shakespeare’s plays. All evidence we have indicates he was recognised as the writer by his contemporaries. The much vaunted travel knowledge rests on a few well-known city names and landmarks (who could possibly have known Venice had a bridge called the Rialto? Oh I don’t know, maybe anyone hanging out in taverns in international trading-hub London?) and includes howlers like Bohemia having a coastline and it being possible to sail between Milan and Verona. All evidence of research (far too hard work for the Looneys) into typography and the composition of the plays points to Shakespeare or at least that many of the works were composed after Oxford’s death. I would also add that the bollocks (which this film explores) of Shakespeare not spelling consistently is no great surprise when standardisation of spelling was still over 100 years away. Anyway…

The clueless bumbling playwrights of the time.

Anonymous is well designed. It’s well shot. There are some decent costumes. Rafe Spall is okay as a ludicrously crude, shallow and dumb Shakespeare. Nothing and nobody else emerges from the film with any credit. It’s got the intellectual rigour of a child. It understands virtually nothing about the Elizabethan state. It even turns Elizabeth I (played direly by Vanessa Redgrave and a little bit better by Joely Richardson in flashback) into a hormonal idiot, a sex-obsessed harlot banging out bastards left, right and centre while wailing about how much she needs the man she loves. Even its understanding of theatre is crap. It is crap.

At the forefront of this steaming pile of manure is Rhys Ifans, utterly mis-cast from start to finish as super-genius Oxford. Ifans is bland, disengaged and bottled up, his manic potential completely wasted. Oxford comes across as an arrogant arsehole, talking down to fellow playwrights, ignoring his daughter, soaking up vicarious adulation from the crowd as if it was his right, and merrily putting his full weight behind an agenda stressing government should be left to those born to it, rather than the nouveaux rich Cecils. If an unpleasant prick like Oxford was soul of the age, it’s just as well time has moved on.

This viewpoint is all part of the film’s charmless embracing of the Looney theory that the plays are all a carefully constructed pro-Essex, pro-elitist propaganda machine, designed to manipulate the masses into staying in their place. To make this work, the film plays merry hell with history. Because nothing works better for a film claiming to be “true” history than to change established historical facts to better fit its story. Essex is repositioned as anti-James VI of Scotland, while the Cecils are shown to be advocates for his succession from day one. It hardly seems necessary to say that this was the complete opposite of their positions. The film can’t claim to be telling us the “real story” while simultaneously changing events left, right and centre to better fit its agenda.

Historical fast-and-looseness continues with Elizabeth I. Needless to say, half the male cast are her children – Essex, Southampton and (of course) even Oxford. This allows for lots of icky sex as an unknowing young Elizabeth and Oxford bump-and-grind. Even without the incest, this scene would still be revolting beyond belief. If this film has any claim to fame, it will be remembered as the film where the Virgin Queen performed fellatio on young Oxford (a weaselly Jamie Campbell Bower, dire as ever) while he recited Shakespearean sonnets. I watched this with a group of friends and this scene was met by horrified mass shrieking.

Mother and son share a post-coital moment

The land of the Elizabethan theatre doesn’t fare much better. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights are, to a man, plodding mediocrities dumb-founded that a play can be written entirely in verse. Poor Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto struggling manfully with a terrible part) in particular gets it in the neck, Oxford haughtily telling him he “has no voice”. Shakespeare is not only an idiot, he’s also money-grubbing, illiterate and (the film heavily implies) even murders Christopher Marlowe when he “works out the truth”. 

But that’s the thing about this film: it really doesn’t give a shit about facts. By the time we reach the Essex rebellion and the film has changed the one categorical fact we have linking Shakespeare to the rebellion (his company performed Richard II privately for Essex’s friends the night before) you’ll have ceased to care. (The film substitutes Richard III instead and claims the hunchbacked king was created as a portrait of Robert Cecil – never mind that the character had already appeared in two plays by this point…) The Tower is the centre of some sort of all-powerful police state that alternates between scarily efficient and ludicrously incompetent depending on the demands of the script.

Amidst this firebombing of history, the film weaves its pointless conspiracy theory. So of course, Oxford is not only the greatest writer ever, but as Elizabeth’s son he’s also the true King of England. He is such a special snowflake genius, he’s even (in the film’s most stupid scene) shown writing and performing (as Puck) A Midsummer Night’s Dream aged 14. In a skin-crawlingly shite scene, Oxford searches for a play to give to Johnson while the camera pans along shelves of masterpieces he has casually knocked out. I would argue the plays have clearly been written by someone with an intimate understanding not only of theatre but the strengths and weaknesses of the company of actors originally performing them – but then this is a film that turns Richard Burbage into a harassed theatre manager, so what would be the point. By the end of the film, the announcement is made that all evidence linking Oxford to the plays will be destroyed and he will be forgotten. So you see the very fact that there is no evidence that this ever happened, is in itself evidence.

I realise I’ve not even mentioned the framing device of this film. The film opens in a Broadway theatre – and rips off the idea from Henry V that we are watching a play performance that becomes ever more realistic. Notable Oxfordian Derek Jacobi (playing himself) even narrates, neatly shitting on the memory of the same function he served in Branagh’s Henry. I love Sir Derek, but honestly a little of that love died during this film as he sonorously intones this lunatic nonsense. He’s not the only one of course – Mark Rylance (another believer) shamelessly pops up for a cameo. Needless to say, at the end of the “performance” the crowd in the Broadway theatre leave in stunned silence. I like to think that, rather than having their perceptions of the world shaken, they were just stunned such an epic pile of fuckwitterey garbage made it to the stage.

Oh Sir Derek. How could you? How could you?

Or the screen for that matter. This is a dire, stupid film, poorly acted and woefully directed by a tone deaf director. Roland Emmerich, hie thee back to disaster porn! Everyone in it is pretty awful, the script not only stinks, it makes no sense, half the scenes are borderline embarrassing. Even if it wasn’t about a pretty distasteful Shakespearean authorship theory, this would still be a truly terrible film, a narrative and performance disaster. The only good thing about it is, the film is so bad, its conspiracy theory so unbelievably ludicrous, its fast-and-looseness with history so plain that, far from re-setting the table for Shakespearean studies, it seems to have fatally holed the Oxfordian theory below the water line. It’s offensive because it wants to peddle its bizarre agenda as true history, while simultaneously changing the historical events at every opportunity. Just fucking awful.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Gal Gadot prepares to save the world as Wonder Woman

Director: Patty Jenkins

Cast: Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (General Erich Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick Morgan), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Elena Anaya (Isabel Maru), Lucy Davis (Etta Candy), Saïd Taghmaouri (Sameer), Ewen Bremner (Charlie), Eugene Brave Rock (Chief Napi)

The DC universe has largely been a feeble attempt to parrot the success of Marvel, but without the latter’s charm or sense of fun. Each film has been a crushingly, overwhelmingly, teenage-boy focused series of grim super-bashing. So it’s a refreshing change that for their fourth film we get something different: lighter, funnier, warmer and focused on women rather than men.

On a hidden island, the Amazons live in hiding, waiting for the day they will return to save humanity from the villainous fallen god Ares. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) queen of the Amazons, trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) into becoming their greatest warrior. Their timeless world is shattered in 1918, when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands his plane on the island – and explains the world is torn apart by war. Convinced this is Ares’ influence, Diana leaves the island with Steve – and finds herself thrown into a world she scarcely understands, with only her faith in the goodness of mankind to sustain her.

Wonder Woman is a change of pace from previous DC filmes – largely because it is pretty good. For the first time in this struggling universe, we have a bit of lightness and humour, and some engaging central characters. Which, considering the dark grimness of the previous entries is saying something. It’s bright, feels like a comic book (in a good way), has a decent story arc and, most importantly, you care. Is it the best comic book movie ever made? Of course not, but it’s a damn solid effort.

A lot of this is due to Gal Gadot being such an endearing lead. She gives Diana a perfect blend of serene, super-powered action goddess and naïve, charming lost-out-of-time sweetness. So one minute she can cooing over the first baby she’s ever seen, the next she can be laying out baddies in a scuffle. Her unquestioning faith in the fundamental goodness of people makes her innocence very winning. In fact, her secret weapon is empathy, a quality the film really embraces. Gadot’s skill is in keeping such unremitting goodness and positivity hugely loveable. She is terrific.

The film deals with her head-turning beauty with a witty affection (“You put specs on her and she’s suddenly not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?” Etta comments on one particularly feeble disguise option Steve suggests). In fact, the romance between Diana and Steve (Chris Pine similarly engaging as an “above average” man head over heels in love) is really well drawn – he clearly adores her, while she has a shy, almost teenage crush which blossoms over time into a genuine affection. It’s a very innocent and heart-warming romance, that plays out extremely well.

Needless to say as well, the film makes a fine counter-balance to the leering cameras you see in other films. Diana’s unmatchable competence is immediately recognised by Steve: while Steve understands the world, Diana is very much the hero, for all her fish-out-of-water naïveté. The film holds off a reveal of the costume for a long time – but when it is, it’s not a sexualised moment, but one of awe. The opening section of the movie, with its Amazonian islanders, also allows plenty of ass-kicking to be given to the women (Robin Wright is especially terrific as an Amazonian general – she should get her own Taken style action series).

Wonder Woman is not perfect. Structurally it’s pretty similar to other origin stories. Much of the backstory makes little sense, while the powers (or not) of the Amazonians in comparison with Diana are poorly explained. Away from the charm of the lead characters, nothing feels particularly new – none of the action sequences feel unique, and are shot with competence rather than inspiration. The final battle briefly looks like it might do something different, before it becomes an all too familiar CGI bashing.

I’m also not sure about setting the film in the First World War. Seeing Diana lead a successful charge through the trenches where real people died in their thousands, somehow doesn’t sit quite right. It’s uncomfortable to watch a cartoon hero walking across no man’s land into gunfire, just as thousands of real people had to, but without super-powers to make it a moment of awesome cool. They just died; it wasn’t the setting for an action sequence, oh a moment of “wow she’s cool”.

I’m not sure about the film’s use of the grim trenches of the First World War for kick-ass action

Unlike the Second World War (where at least we know the SS were completely despicable) its portrayal of German soldiers as mostly faceless villains feels unjust – these were largely just ordinary people in a horrendous situation. Making Luddendorf a psychotic, lunatic also feels uncomfortable – he was real. Would it have been so difficult to make up a General von Baddie? (It doesn’t help that Danny Huston gives a truly abysmal performance of over-the-top hamminess). This is an area where Captain America handled its setting much better – the film may have been set in a real war, but the villains are specifically Hydra soldiers, a made-up army of made-up people who had consciously sworn allegiance to Evil. The First World War was a complex tragedy in shades of grey – presenting it as a good vs evil, with the Germans eager to embrace a horrifying nerve gas, just doesn’t feel right.

The strengths of the film are away from the action, and I think that’s why it has formed a bond with people. You genuinely care and root for Diana and Steve. It’s got wit and humour and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When the action really kicks off the film isn’t anything special, but before then it has its moments: a charming sequence where Diana tries on (and breaks with various fighting moves) female costumes of the 1910s; a beautiful Renaissance-painting style flashback to the backstory of how the gods fell; the early fumbling scenes of romantic interest between Diana and Steve. It’s where the heart of the film is.

In fact that’s what the film is really about (and what really makes it work) – the heart at the centre. It gets a little bit lost in all the booms and bombast of the second half, but there is more than enough of it in the first half to carry it through. When the film is tightly focused you can really feel it coming to life. The more of that the better. It’s also a breath of fresh air for presenting such a strong female lead, whom the men are defined by their relationship to (rather than vice versa). It’s fun and it’s heart-warming. Its old ideas presented from a fresh perspective