Tag: Derek Jacobi

The King's Speech (2010)

Colin Firth lives in fear of his voice failing him in The King’s Speech

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Colin Firth (King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Cosmo Lang), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle Logue), Michael Gambon (King George V), Freya Wilson (Princess Elizabeth), Ramona Marquez (Princess Margaret), Anthony Andrews (Stanley Baldwin), Eve Best (Wallis Simpson)

It can be very hard to imagine the fear and pressure of not being able to trust your own voice. In a world where communication is valued so highly, what terror can it bring if you can’t easily express the thoughts in your own head? It’s a fear perfectly captured in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Because in a constitutional monarchy, what purpose does the King have, but to be a voice for his people? And if the King can’t speak, how can he hope to fulfil his duty? The King’s Speech uses its empathy for those struggling with a condition many find easy to mock and belittle, to create an emotionally compelling and deeply moving story that is a triumph not of overcoming an affliction, but learning how it can be managed and lived with.

In the 1930’s Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the throne. But unlike his charismatic brother David (Guy Pearce), he’s a tense man uncomfortable in the spotlight, whose life has been blighted by his stammer. As pressure grows from his father George V (Michael Gambon) to take on a more public role, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) begin the process of consulting doctors for “a cure”. But the answer might lie with a former actor turned speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose techniques are as much psychological as they are practical. As he and the future George VI begin to work together, a tentative friendship forms as the taciturn king begins to open up about his feelings and find real friendship for the first time in his life.

The King’s Speech delivers a well-paced, beautifully written (an Oscar winning script from David Seidler) moving story of two unlikely outsiders who find themselves as unlikely kindred spirits. While it’s easy to see its Oscar win for Best Picture as a triumph of the academy’s conservatism (and there is a case to make, with the film’s heritage style and rather conventional structure and story-telling), but that would be to overlook the emotional impact it carries. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I find a lump forming in my throat as it sensitively and intelligently tackles themes of depression, isolation and fear and builds towards the heart-warming achievement of a man who learns his afflictions don’t have to define him.

Hooper (who scooped the Oscar for Best Director) draws superb performances from his actors, as well as bringing his own distinctive style to the film. He had already shown with his TV miniseries John Adams that he could shoot period material with all the immediacy and energy of more modern subjects, and it’s what he does here. His unique framing – with the actor’s often at the edges of the frame, in front of strikingly character-filled surfaces – not only grounds the drama in reality, but also captures a sense of the characters own personal isolation, helped by the frequent intimately-close shots. It helps the film avoid throughout from falling into the “heritage” trap, and instead feel (for all its royal family trappings) like a personal, intimate and real story.

And the intimacy is what makes it work so well – especially since so many of the scenes are made up of two characters sitting and talking, gently but with a slowly peeling honesty, about their own thoughts and feelings. The film is hugely successful in building up our empathy for the often over-looked struggles those who stammer go through. The terror that everyday events can bring. The burden of not mastering your own voice. The anger not being able to express yourself can bring. The resentment of how others can perceive your condition as anything from an irritation to a joke to something that with just a bit of help and effort you could brush aside like a sore toe.

The film has drawn praise for its depiction of stammering – although I am reliably told by an friend with an expertise in such things that the film’s connection of stammering with psychological trauma is old-fashioned and far from proven. But it realistically shows the burdens both it, and a troubled childhood, can bring and draws attention and sympathy to the condition in the best possible way.

A lot of this is helped by Colin Firth’s outstanding, Oscar-winning, performance in the lead role. From first seeing him, his George VI is a buttoned-up man with tension pouring out of every pore, who has chosen taciturn aggression as a defensive alternative to actually having to speak. Firth’s observance of mechanics of stammering is spot on (I wonder if he consulted Jacobi, who has had more than his own experience acting a stammer!), but above all he captures the deep pain, frustration and fear it can bring to a person. Firth’s King is a man who has lived a life feeling coldly shunned by most of his family – an upbringing he is clearly working hard to correct with his sweetly loving relationship with his own children. He’s bitter and angry – not only struggling to understand and express these emotions, but allowing them to crowd out his natural warmth, kindness and generosity which emerge as he opens up to Logue, and experiences genuine friendship for the first time.

Firth sparks beautifully with Geoffrey Rush who is at his playful and eccentric best as Logue. A warm, witty and caring man with a sharp antipodean wit and playful lack of regard for authority (the film mines a lot of fun from Logue’s playful teasing of the stuffed shirt nature of monarchy and the British class system), Rush’s performance is excellent. Just as the King has been dismissed by others for his stammer, so Logue has been dismissed as an actor for his Aussie accent and is scorned by his colleagues for his unconventional methods and lack of qualifications. But, by simply listening to a man who has been lectured to his whole life, who is frightened of himself and his situations, he helps him find a voice (in, of course more ways than one). Rush’s performance is essential to the success of the film, both as the audience surrogate and also a character with his own burdens to overcome.

Backing these two is a superbly judged performance of emotional honesty, matched with that take-no-prisoners bluntness we grew to know in the Queen Mother, from Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Pearce offers a neat cameo as a bullyingly selfish Edward VIII. Jacobi is overbearingly pompous as the face of the establishment. Jennifer Ehle is wonderfully playful as Logue’s put-upon wife. Andrews contributes a neat little turn as Stanley Baldwin.

Historically the film telescopes events for dramatic purposes. In fact, the future King’s therapy had started almost a decade earlier. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill – a rather cliched performance – is converted here into an early supporter of George VI during the abdication crisis (in fact Churchill’s outspoken support for Edward VIII nearly destroyed his career). Baldwin has been partly combined with Chamberlain. Other events are simplified. But it doesn’t really matter too much. Because the emotional heart of the story is true – and the relationship between these two men, and the positive impact they had on each other’s life is what make the film so moving.

Culminating in a near real-time reconstruction of the King’s speech announcing the outbreak of the Second World War – a brilliantly handled, marvellously edited and shot sequence with masterful performances from Firth and Rush – the film is an emotional triumph. Sure, it hardly re-events the wheel, with its struggle to overcome adversity story line and tale of royalty bonding with commoner – but it hardly matters when the rewards are as rich as this. With superb performances all round, in particular from Firth, Rush and Carter and sharp direction of a very good script, this is a treat.

Gladiator (2000)

Russell Crowe dominates in Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Russell Crowe (Maximus Decimus Meridius), Joaquin Phoenix (Emperor Commodus), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Richard Harris (Emperor Marcus Aurelius), Oliver Reed (Proximo), Derek Jacobi (Senator Gracchus), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Tomas Arana (General Quintus), Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius Verus), David Schofield (Senator Falco), John Shrapnel (Senator Gaius), Rolf Moller (Hagen), Tommy Flanagan (Cicero), David Hemmings (Cassius)

When Gladiator hit the big-screen the swords-and-sandals epic genre was dead. A relic of the early days of technicolour Hollywood, where the widest possible screens were designed to tempt audiences away from the television and into the movie theatre, Roman epics were often seen as stodgy things, usually carrying heavy-handed Christian themes while gleefully throwing as much of the decadence of the empire on the screen as possible. Gladiator changed all that, bringing an emotional and psychological complexity to the genre, as well as a rollicking good story and some brilliant film-making. An Oscar for Best Picture confirmed the genre was back.

In 180 AD General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) commands the final battle of the Roman forces to conquer the German tribes and bring them under the control of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The humble, dutiful and principled Maximus is a natural leader and the son Marcus Aurelius wishes he had, rather than the son he has the insecure and ambitious Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). When the Emperor decides that Maximus not Commodus will succeed him – with the brief to restore the Roman republic – Commodus murders the Emperor. When Maximus refuses to give Commodus his loyalty, the new Emperor sentences him and his family to death. Maximus escapes, although he is badly injured, but arrives too late at his home to save his wife and son from death. Collapsing, the General is taken by slavers, healed by fellow slave Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and sold to the North African Gladiator school of Proximo (Oliver Reed). Maximus will play the Gladiator game – because he longs to have his revenge on Commodus.

Gladiator is superbly directed by Ridley Scott, who perfectly mixes the epic scale of the drama with the intimate, human story at its heart. The film looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish, with the superb visuals backed by a breathtakingly beautiful score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard that skilfully uses refrains and themes to instantly identify the core emotions in the audiences mind. These themes are associated with emotional beats that immediately plug us into the interior thoughts and emotions of the characters. 

It works because of the emotional truth at its heart. Basically it’s a love story between a man and his dead wife, and isn’t afraid to explore the depths of love that we feel for those closest to us and our pain of their loss. Maximus’ wife and child are represented in silent flashbacks and by two small icons Maximus carries with him on campaign. When, late in the film, he is reunited with these items his raw, tearfully quiet joy carry as much force as any real reunion would do. What drives the film is less a drive for revenge – although there is no doubt this is a motivator for Maximus – but of a continued sense that he must fulfil all his duties (in this case restore the Republic as his surrogate father wished) before he can return to his wife and son (i.e. die).

It’s that which makes the film so easy to invest in emotionally, and which makes Maximus (a hardened killer) so easy to relate to. If he was just a raging man out for revenge, the film would carry a leaner harsher look. But he is instead a man motivated by love, who yearns to be with his family again. Mortality hangs over the entire film – the first shot of the film, famously of the hands in the wheat, have buried themselves in the consciousness because we can all relate to a man who longs to lay down his labours and be with the people he loves. Christianity doesn’t appear too much in Gladiator (unlike older Hollywood Roman epics) but faith is there in spades. And Maximus will do nothing that will jeopardise a reunion with his family in heaven.

This deeply involving story of a man who remains faithful to the memory of his wife – and Scott wisely removed any love plot with Lucilla, which would have felt like cheatingso strongly does the film build Maximus’ love for his wife – that audiences are happy to go with the film through all the violence that follows. Gladiator hit the sweetspot of having something for everyone, from emotion to action. And the action is brilliant. The opening battles is hugely impressive, from its scale to the imaginative interpretation of Roman tactics. It’s trumped by the more raw and ragged action that comes in the Gladiatorial ring, as Maximus transfers his brutal efficiency at war into the ring for the amusement of the crowd.

Like all Gladiator films and series the film successfully has its cake and eats it – so we get a sense of the horror of people fighting to the death for our entertainment, while also heartily enjoying watching our heroes kick ass. The sequence that uses this most effectively, as Proximo’s outmatched Gladiators follow Maximus’ strategic experience and military training to defeat a group of deadly chariot fighters, would-be a stand out in any movie.

The film further works due to the assured brilliance of the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe in the lead role. Crowe exudes natural authority as a general – he genuinely feels like the sort of man that first his soldiers and then his fellow Gladiators will follow to the bitter end. Crowe also dives deep into the soulful sadness at the heart of Maximus, the romantic longing and the searing pain of the betrayal and murder of his family. It’s a performance of immense, small-scale intimacy that also never once gets over-shadowed by the huge spectacle around him. I’m not sure many other actors could have pulled it off.

But the whole cast is extremely strong, Scott encouraging great work across the board. Joaquin Phoenix in particular takes the villain role to a bravely unusual place. His Commodus, far from a sneering Caligula, is in fact a weak, anxious, jealous even strangely pitiable man, so insecure and riven with envy for others that he becomes twisted by it. But we never lose a sense of the humanity at his heart, the sense of a little boy lost, scared by the world around him. It makes sense the Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla – walking a difficult line as a character who has to play both sides – could both fear and hate him but still love the fragile little brother she still senses in him.

Scott’s trusting of experienced pros – many you feel hungry for an opportunity like this – is clear throughout the whole cast. Richard Harris was pulled out of a career slump and reinvented here as an elder statesman, with a wry, playful and eventually moving performance as Marcus Aurelius. Scott’s biggest risk was pulling Oliver Reed from a life better known for drinking bouts to play Proximo. Playing his best role for almost thirty years, Reed reminded us all for one last time that as well as a chat-show joke he was also a powerful and dominant performer, his Proximo a snarling scene stealer. Reed’s death – his final scenes completed with special effects – made this a better tribute than he could have ever imagined.

There are few feet placed wrong in Gladiator. As an action spectacular it’s faultless, but this works because of the truth and love at its heart. It creates an epic that is emotionally involving as it is exciting to watch. The reconstruction of Rome is hugely impressive and Scott paces the film perfectly, letting its force grow along. You never once feel thrown by its scope, and so completely does it wrap you up that, as it becomes more operatic in the final act, the film is never at risk of losing you. It deserves to be remembered with the best of the Hollywood epics.

Ironclad (2011)

James Purefoy carries a big sword in nonsense medieval blood bath Ironclad

Director: Jonathan English

Cast: James Purefoy (Thomas Marshall), Brian Cox (William d’Aubigny), Derek Jacobi (Reginald de Cornhill), Kate Mara (Lady Isabel), Paul Giamatti (King John), Charles Dance (Archbishop Stephen Langton), Jason Flemyng (Becket), Jamie Foreman (Jedediah Coteral), Mackenzie Crook (Daniel Marks), Rhys Parry Jones (Wulfstan), Aneurin Barnard (Guy), Vladimir Kulich (Tiberius)

Let’s just take a moment to enjoy the fact that the most expensive film ever made entirely in Wales was directed by a guy called English. After that, you can enjoy the guilty-pleasure hack and blood nonsense of this sort of proto-Game of Thrones,which bears almost as much resemblance to British history as George RR Martin’s souped up re-tread with extra dragons.

Anyway, King John (Paul Giamatti) has signed Magna Carta – as always that document which gave the barons some say in the government is here reimagined as some sort of manifesto for a socialist revolution – but now Rome has told John that he doesn’t need to stick to it after all. So John hires (honestly) a load of Viking warriors to take out his enemies. Yes that is just as silly as it sounds. Before we know it, the barons need to take control of Rochester Castle, a stronghold which is apparently the key to the south of England. So Baron William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) puts together a “Dirty Dozen” (well Dirty Half Dozen, it’s a British budget after all) to defend the castle, led by Templar knight Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy). Let the siege begin!

If that doesn’t give you an idea of the way the film mixes and matches parts of British history into some sort of heady brew, I don’t know what will. We got King John! We got Magna Carta! We got Templar knights! We got Vikings! All of this is frozen into a hyperviolent mixture of historical epic and “men on a mission” war film, with added limbs flying off left, right and centre. Most of it is delivered at an absurdly energised pace. At least all involved seem aware that they are making a stoopid B movie, rather than some sort of genuine historical epic.

Criticising the history of the supposed historical epic seems completely superfluous, so instead sit back and enjoy the skill with which Jonathan English apes Neil Marshall in his blood letting and imaginative slaughter. Sure, he hasn’t got Marshall’s narrative skill or his ability to carve human interest out of even the most basic cardboard characters. But he still manages to present what we see with enough sense of action and adventure. Ridiculous as it might feel that a tiny group of men holds off an entire legion of King John’s troops, you sort of go with it as the film is shot with enough sense of ragged viciousness that you don’t notice the gaps in the tiny budget (less than a single episode of Game of Thrones). 

The actors all know they are in something rather silly as well. It’s a bizarre mixture of people, from Hollywood star character actors to B-movie stalwarts to Brit TV stars to slumming classical actors. James Purefoy grounds the stuff with his usual commitment and charisma. Just as well he does as Paul Giamatti clearly rocks up in the spirit of a lark, hammily overacting to such a ludicrous degree that he sounds like John Adams on a bad acid trip. It’s a surprise they don’t turn him on the walls of Rochester Castle and let him chew through the defences. Between these two hardly anyone else gets a look in, although Brian Cox does well as the brave leader of the castle who suffers a particularly brutal death involving mutilation and imaginative use of a catapult. 

Some typically subtle restrained work from Paul Giamatti

There are some impressive set pieces and some very stirring bits of head mashing, limb slicing violence but the overall plot is completely bog standard, as if with all that investment they either didn’t have time to put a story together or felt that they needed to make something that would appeal as much as possible to the lowest common denominator in order to recoup the costs. But at least there is a nice sense of growing comradeship between this hardy gang fighting against the odds and the film gets some sense of honour and duty being causes worth dying for against tyrants. I mean, it’s not there in spades, but it’s there.

And if you like this sort of B movie hack and dash stuff you’ll probably actually rather like this. Heck I’ve seen it twice, and I found the second viewing actually rather good fun in particular, especially as I knew going into it the entire film was an absolutely absurd pile of nonsense designed to just let you watch blood spray across the screen and heads depart bodies. Roll with it – put your critical facilities on hold and forget the history – and you will rather enjoy its earnest B movie antics.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Michelle Williams navigates the world of fame as Marilyn Monroe, escorted by Eddie Redmayne

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndike), Emma Watson (Lucy), Dominic Cooper (Milton H. Greene), Derek Jacobi (Owen Morshead), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Toby Jones (Arthur P Jacobs), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Zoë Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg), Michael Kitchen (Hugh Perceval), Philip Jackson (Roger Smith), Simon Russell Beale (Cotes-Preedy), Robert Portal (David Orton), Jim Carter (Barry), Richard Clifford (Richard Wattis), Gerard Horan (Trevor)

In 1956 Laurence Olivier was the greatest actor in the world; Marilyn Monroe was the biggest star (and sex-symbol) in the world. Surely when they came together to make a movie, it would be cinema gold. It wasn’t. Olivier directed and starred with Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, an almost impossibly slight puff piece, partly assembled (so rumour goes) so Olivier could sleep with Monroe. But it turned out Monroe’s fragile psyche and Stanislavkian approach to acting was incompatible with Olivier’s well-honed craft. The two did not get on.

Simon Curtis’ gentle, at times charming, but basically very lightweight film follows the making of the film through the eyes of Colin Clark. Clark, son of the famous art critic Kenneth Clark, was a naïve, romantic young man keen for a career in the movies through his father’s contacts. Hired by Olivier’s production company, Clark is tasked to take care of Monroe throughout the film. He becomes increasingly fascinated and infatuated with her as they spend more and more time together.

The film is based on Clark’s diaries, and he is played by Eddie Redmayne at his most fresh-faced. The problem with Clark is that, to be honest, rather than a young man on a journey of self-discovery, he comes across a little like a social-climbing creep and borderline stalker. Clark recounts a short-lived friendship that obviously had huge importance to him – but the film doesn’t want to deal with the fact it probably meant virtually nothing to Monroe, beyond some company during a lonely time. 

It’s not helped by the fact Clark comes across slightly like a pushy groupie, the self-proclaimed guardian of Monroe’s needs – qualifications barely justified by his actions. The film wants us to think he got closer to the magic of celebrity than anyone, but he feels like a stranger with his nose a little closer to the portcullis. Quite frankly, Colin is the least interesting character in his own story, and Redmayne fails to really give him much depth for us to engage with. Instead he remains a slightly unsettling inverted snob, manipulated by Monroe. The film, you feel, just doesn’t get this. At the end someone tells Colin he is “standing taller” than when he first met him (the implication being the relationship has made a man of him – as if spending a bit of downtime with a celebrity was the only route to emotional maturity). But rather than being part of a sweet star-crossed romance, Colin feels like someone creepily attaching himself to someone vulnerable. 

However, Michelle Williams is very good as Marilyn, capturing a real sense of her emptiness and insecurity. She perfectly captures Monroe’s physicality and vocal mannerisms. She is very good at capturing Monroe’s sense of permanent performance, of her glamour, kindness and innocence, mixed with her maddening vulnerability and (inadvertent?) selfishness. It’s a fine performance – better than the film deserves. 

Because the film is afraid of remotely criticising Monroe at all – or really engaging with the deep psychological reasons for her depression, or addressing the possibility that part of her appeal was her slight blankness that any desires could be projected onto. Instead, the film suggests, she’s sad because men just use her. Apart from Colin of course. His kissing, skinny-dipping and sharing a bed with her are entirely unmotivated by any lustful yearnings.

The film is in love with Monroe, presenting her just as Colin saw her – perfection. In fact, just as Dougray Scott’s put-upon Arthur Miller says, she was probably exhausting and all-consuming. She certainly sucks the naïve Colin into her orbit, in a way he (or the film) hardly notices or understands. It wants us to think of this as a romance – in fact, Monroe’s fragility created a neediness that meant she didn’t feel she needed to consider other people, so overwhelmingly concerned was she with her own brittleness. The film essentially believes she was a star, so is basically allowed to do what she wants. The fact that she did so with an air of gentle vulnerability means the film gives everything she does a pass.

So it’s rather hard not to sympathise with Olivier’s growing frustration with Monroe’s unreliability. Kenneth Branagh triumphs as Olivier, surely the role he was born to play: very funny, but also with a patrician charm and all-consuming arrogance. Branagh taps into Olivier’s vulnerability, his sense that he may not be able to communicate his acting strength into movie stardom, that he is yesterday’s man. For all her difficulty, Monroe had that “star quality” that makes her the centre of your attention. I’d argue Olivier almost certainly had the same – but the film is so in love with Monroe, it needs to slightly bring Olivier down. Branagh, however, is so good that he constantly punctures the film’s attempt to force Olivier into a less sympathetic role than the one it indulges Monroe with.

My Week with Marilynis far from terrible – it’s just a rather empty film. It has a terrific cast with these British star actors all offering fine pen portraits of assorted actors, producers and agents. The film however is slight, and so in love with its fairy-tale elements, it doesn’t notice that Clark’s story is slightly more creepy and certainly a lot more emotionally empty than the film wants it to be. It wants to take us behind the curtain of a 20th-century icon – instead it accidentally shows how impenetrable their screens are, and how easy it is for ordinary people to persuade themselves that the most fleeting of contacts was something special.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

A dishevelled Kenneth Branagh (and tache) investigates a Murder on the Orient Express

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Johnny Depp (Samuel Ratchett), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Derek Jacobi (Edward Masterman), Leslie Odom Jnr (Dr Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi), Miranda Raison (Sonia Armstrong)

Is there a murder mystery with a more widely known resolution than Murder on the Orient Express? Possibly not – if for no other reason that film and television versions of this story are as numerous as the suspects in the actual mystery. If that wasn’t a big enough challenge for Branagh to take on, he also joins a list of umpteen actors to play Poirot himself: following in the (very precise) footsteps of the big guns: Finney, Ustinov and of course, above all, David Suchet. How does his version of this most famous detective in his most famous adventure measure up? Well, with mixed results.

For those who don’t know, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is “possibly the world’s greatest detective”. Here, he is travelling back from Istanbul  on the Orient Express, a berth having being secured at the last minute by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) the director of the line. En route he is approached by the sinister Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who asks if he can serve as his bodyguard. Poirot refuses – only for Ratchett to be murdered that night. Bouc asks Poirot to investigate – and it soon becomes clear that the dozen other passengers in Ratchett’s carriage could all have had motives to kill him. But who is the killer?

Murder on the Orient Express is on the cusp of being a very good film. But, like the train itself, it gets bogged down too often in changes from the source material that add nothing, action scenes that feel toe-curlingly out of place, and bombastic filming that goes a little bit too far. In many ways it captures some of the faults of its director, my much-loved hero Kenneth Branagh – and I do love him, but as a director he has a tendency to make things too big, to wear his love of the complex shot on his sleeve; to basically try too hard. As a director, that’s what it feels like he’s doing here.

It’s filmed with a luscious, chocolate box, old-school Hollywood grandeur. The camera swoops and zooms over some gorgeous landscape as the train puffs through snowy mountain scenery. There are some loving travelogue tracking shots of Istanbul and Jerusalem. The film lingers with a loving eye on the luxury and class of the Orient Express itself (including some egregiously clunky product placement). The costumes look lovely.  But the end result of all this lavish filming is that it sometimes goes too far towards the reassuring, Boxing-Day-afternoon treat. 

Everything is a little too technicolour at points. It also means that some of Branagh’s more self-consciously tricksy camera work stands out a little too much. A “birds-eye” view of the discovery of the body (the camera above the heads of the actors looking straight down) is oddly disconnecting – it works a lot better when Poirot and Bouc examine the crime scene, giving the audience a god like view of the scene. Some overly complicated shots swoop up along the aqueduct where the train is stuck, past Poirot speaking to characters, then over the top of the train. It’s a rather too overblown and clumsy attempt to make a conversation seem cinematic – it feels a little forced.

It’s one of many points where the film feels like it is trying too hard to make the story edgier or more overtly cinematic. Not the least of these are sequences that up the action quotient. I feel very confident this is the first Poirot film you’ll ever see where the hero is involved in not one but two dynamic fights. One of these is a bizarre chase down the aqueduct with Poirot and another character. The second involves gunfire (an effective shock to be fair) and Poirot using his cane as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. 

There is nothing wrong with making Poirot more active – Branagh’s character is very much the ex-soldier and policeman, busting open the door to Ratchett’s berth to investigate, walking over the train’s roof, brow-beating the odd suspect (at one point at gun point). It’s just all too much – what audience is this playing to? Who really goes to a Poirot film expecting a goddamn fight scene? Even Count Andrenyi is introduced ninja-kickboxing photographers (I’m not joking here) – is this really what Agatha Christie would have wanted?

There are some odd choices made to deepen Poirot’s character. He is given some sort of lost romantic interest – no less than four times in the film he is given scenes where he holds a photo and bemoans “mon cher Kat-a-rean”. In the opening sequence, Poirot’s love of symmetry is introduced by him accidentally stepping in a cow pat and then stepping in it with his other foot to make each equal. Not only does a “stepping in shit” joke seem wildly out of place, but I don’t believe someone as fastidious and observant as Poirot would even step in it in the first place, let alone choose to step into it twice.

The train doesn’t just stop, it’s nearly taken out by an avalanche. A knife isn’t just discovered, it’s literally found stabbed into a character’s back. Characters have been changed to allow a more diverse cast – which I applaud – but making Arbuthnot a soldier turned doctor is a change that makes very little sense. The claustrophobia of the original is lost by having workers turn up almost immediately to dig the train out. Several scenes are filmed outside, with workers surrounding the train digging it out. Some of these undermine the original or are a little silly.

The suspect assemble

But I’m being really hard on this film because there are major flashes of promise here. Not least in Branagh’s performance as Poirot. I’m very confident in saying that, after David Suchet of course, this is the second best Poirot committed to film. The first thing anyone will notice is of course the moustache. Yes it looks absurd, but you attune to it quickly. It’s also a plot point: Poirot uses it, and his eccentricities, to lure people (Columbo style) into a false sense of security. When the film relaxes into just letting Poirot investigate (and hues closer to the original), Branagh gives Poirot a warm humanity and gentleness. His eyes are a wonder – intense disks of sadness. 

Branagh gives Poirot a love of order and justice that defines his world view – and the film introduces a moral conundrum for Poirot in the solution of the crime. I would say David Suchet’s TV version did this better – stressing Poirot’s Catholicism and belief in the rule of law as major factors that conflict him when confronted with the solution. But Branagh captures a real sense of Poirot’s conflict (even if the solution reveal is overplayed and overshot – right down to a “last supper” style tableaux in a railway tunnel) and his sadness, confusion and decency are really lovely – there is even a very neat touch with him forgetting to straight and smarten his appearance, as he deals with the ramifications of his solution to the murder. He looks like cartoon character, but he makes Poirot a real man. I would definitely like to see him do the role again.

The rest of the all-star cast rather struggle for crumbs, as the focus remains solidly on Poirot (largely because the film is intended as the possible first in a series). Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, charming and endearing but also given a character arc that sees him develop and change. Of the stars, Depp is suitably grimy as Ratchett, Pfeiffer imperiously stylish and skittish as Hubbard and Odum Jnr affecting as Arbuthnot. I was very taken with Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham, a young charm hiding steel underneath. Dafoe, Dench, Colman, Jacobi and the rest are given little to do but are reliably excellent when they are. Others like Cruz feel wasted. 

When the film focuses on Poirot simply investigating, it is very good. Each interrogation of the passengers is brilliantly played by Branagh – Poirot subtly adjusting his methods and approach depending on the person he is talking to. Poirot’s introduction sequence in Jerusalem has a playful Sherlock feel to it: Poirot solving a crime in seconds (having been dragged from his hotel, where he pickily demands eggs that are perfectly equal), including accurately predicting how the criminal will try and escape. There are lots of lovely moments – but just when you settle down to enjoy it, something wildly over-the-top or silly happens.

Murder on the Orient Express is by no stretch of the imagination a bad movie. In some places, it’s charming and a lot of fun. If it’s designed for watching on a bank holiday afternoon it works very well. But it’s, at best, the third best version of this story on film (after the 1974 Lumet film and the Suchet TV version). Do we really need to watch the third best version of an already familiar story? If we could transplant Branagh’s performance into Lumet’s film, now that would be something. But as it is, we’ve got a decent if flawed film that just tries too hard to do too much.

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.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Edward Fox takes aim as suave assassin The Jackal

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Edward Fox (The Jackal), Michel Lonsdale (Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel), Terence Alexander (Lloyd), Michael Auclair (Colonel Rolland), Alan Badel (The Minister), Tony Britton (Inspector Thomas), Denis Carey (Casson), Cyril Cusack (Gunsmith), Maurice Denham (General Colbert), Olga Georges-Picot (Denise), Barrie Ingham (St. Clair), Derek Jacobi (Caron), Jean Martin (Wolenski), Ronald Pickup (Forger), Anton Rodgers (Bernard), Delphine Seyrig (Colette de Montpellier), Donald Sinden (Mallinson), Timothy West (Commissioner Berthier)

The definition of lazy criticism is to say a story doesn’t work because we know the outcome. If that was the case, no production of Hamlet would ever work, and no adaptation of a best-selling book would ever find favour with an audience. We’d be bored by films based on history and we’d be even more indifferent to the hundreds of films made every year that follow accepted narrative structures. What makes a film compelling is often not the destination, but the journey. How do we get there? What do we learn? How does it make us feel? All of these things are keenly observed throughout Fred Zinnemann’s masterful adaptation of The Day of the Jackal.

The year is 1962 and the French President Charles de Gaulle is blamed by many for weakening France by granting independence to Algeria. The Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) hire an English professional assassin known only as The Jackal (Edward Fox) to assassinate De Gaulle. When word of the target leaks to the panicked French Government, Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is given an impossible task – identify a man of whom the government knows nothing and stop him from carrying out a plan only he knows the details of. Meanwhile, the Jackal relentlessly goes about his meticulous planning.

So anyone with passing familiarity with history will know that de Gaulle was not assassinated in the early 60s. Watching The Day of the Jackal, you know that the Jackal will fail. But that’s not the point of the film. Instead it’s a masterful, streamlined thriller that completely understands how much we can invest in watching someone go about a job with calm, cool professionalism. It’s the ingenuity and meticulousness that makes the film compelling, the way each angle of the Jackal’s plan is carefully considered and information slowly delivered to the audience. In some areas we are a couple of steps ahead of Lebel’s search. In others we are as far behind as he is: we may know the weapon and the Jackal’s secret identities, but we know as little about his final plan as Lebel does – it’s only when it’s revealed that all the pieces we’ve seen make perfect sense.

It’s a film that has been assembled with all the grace and skill of a master clockmaker. Zinnemann’s direction and Kenneth Ross’ taut screenplay make every second count. There isn’t a single piece of flab on the bones of this movie, every scene carries a piece of vital information that contributes to the overall picture. Zinnemann sprinkles the film with careful passing shots of calendars and clocks, making the sense of a countdown towards the Jackal’s strike hang intimidatingly over the whole film. The film is gripping, right from its opening reconstruction of the almost-successful OAS assassination attempt on De Gaulle in 1962. Everything feels perfectly interlinked and connected, each scene brilliantly builds on top of the ones before.

This is quite simply an unshakeably brilliant engine of a film, a relentless ride with tension and excitement dripping from every frame. It’s not afraid to be cruel or dangerous – and some of the victims are truly blameless – and it’s not afraid to show that violence and cruelty are weapons as much for the authorities as the Jackal (the cruellest act, after all, is committed by the French Army on poor loyal Wawlinski).

A large part of the success of the film rests on Edward Fox’s performance in the lead. Fox gives the Jackal an unshakeable, public-school, confidence, an attractive resolve that sees him meet every obstacle with a cool elán, resolutely unperplexed by anything that he encounters. Fox’s superb performance succeeds in making you engage with (and even root for) a man who is a cold-blooded professional killer, who commits murder (when provoked) without hesitation. How does this happen? Again it’s his efficiency, his expertise. The film totally understands how engrossing watching talented people go about their work can be.

The film makes the minutia of setting up an operation immensely compelling. In careful detail, we see exactly how the Jackal goes about getting a false passport from the authorities. How he scopes out a potential place to conduct the assassination. His careful preparation of disguises and fake identities. In one gloriously done scene, we see him practise using his specially constructed rifle on a melon at a huge range. Carefully he takes a series of shots at the melon, adjusting the sight each time to make the weapon as accurate as possible. The scene is a showcase for the Jackal’s meticulous professionalism (you can see why the producers were outraged when the scene was cut from a TV screening in the 1980s – it’s practically a highlight of the movie).

Similar investment, however, is made in the detailed footwork involved in tracing and detecting the Jackal by the French and English police. Michael Lonsdale is a perfect foil for Fox’s urbane cool, with his dour, grey, crumpled Label, a man selected somewhat unwillingly for a mission but who slowly reveals the cool head and nerves of steel that made him perfect for the job. The police-work used to try and close the net on the Jackal is as intricate as the hitman’s own work – careful plodding through files and methodical calculation and educated guesswork. It’s as far from the rush and tumble of Hollywood as you can imagine – but somehow, because it feels so real, every discovery against the odds by the authorities becomes hard-won and exciting. The sense of a net being skilfully built also serves to make the Jackal’s skilful evasion of each trap all the more compelling.

And the tense race against time lasts for the whole of the film. The film brilliantly keeps this cat-and-mouse game alive, with the police and the Jackal constantly leap-frogging each other to stay one step ahead. Each move and counter-move has all the intricacy of a chess game. There are enough twists and turns to keep every audience member gripped. The eventual assassination attempt itself is built up to beautifully – a wordless, tense but brilliantly assembled montage of liberation day celebrations keeps both the police and the audience on their toes as to where the Jackal will strike from. The finale of the film turns on a twist of fate that is simply a brilliant coup de theatre. There is even a droll little coda that deepens the mystery of the Jackal even further.

Zinnemann’s direction throughout is flawless – calm, measured and methodical, and never allowing flash or bombast to drown out events. It’s helped as well by the wonderful cast of actors – a real who’s-who of British and French character actor talent, with Alan Badel’s smooth Interior Minister, Eric Porter’s cool but fanatic OAS leader, Cyril Cusack’s quiet gunsmith and Derek Jacobi’s eager young detective particular standouts. I also have a lot of time for Olga Georges-Picot’s quietly moving performance of a woman pushed to extreme actions by grief.

The Day of the Jackal is another of those near perfect movies. Everything it sets out to do it does perfectly, and it rewards constant viewing. It’s got some terrific unflashy performances and is a perfect demonstration of why professionalism and expertise can be so engrossing. It wraps this up into a deliciously tense confection, where every scene bubbles with undercurrents of drama and danger. There is not an off-beat – instead it’s a brilliant piece of pulp cinema that transcends itself into being something truly adept and dramatic. You can’t take your eyes off it for a second. I don’t hesitate for a second in saying it’s one my favourite thrillers.

Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

Derek Jacobi plays way against-type in dark art biography, Love is the Devil

Director: John Maybury

Cast: Derek Jacobi (Francis Bacon), Daniel Craig (George Dyer), Tilda Swinton (Muriel Belcher), Anne Lambton (Isabel Rawsthorne), Adrian Scarborough (Daniel Farson), Karl Johnson (John Deakin), Annabel Brooks (Henrietta Moraes)

Maybury’s film about the relationship between the painter Francis Bacon (a revelatory Derek Jacobi) and his lover, small-time crook George Dyer (Daniel Craig), is an overtly arty piece of cinema. It opens with Bacon mourning Dyer’s death – then flashes back to Dyer literally falling into the picture (Maybury films Craig falling through darkness over the credits) before crashing through Bacon’s skylight during a bungled robbery. Here to rob the joint, he ends up getting invited to bed. So Dyer stays on as live-in lover, model and odd-job man.

Maybury’s plans for making a film about Bacon looked like they had been scuppered early, when the Bacon Estate refused permission for a single Bacon to actually appear in the film (there are a few ersatz Bacons at the edges of frames). Maybury gets around this ingeniously: he effectively turns the entire movie into a massive Bacon painting.

Rarely have fish-eyed lenses been used so much. They are all over scenes here, distorting and ballooning faces. Maybury uses shots through pint glasses and lightbulbs to bend images. The lighting (brilliantly shot by John Mathieson) recreates the visual discomfort of Bacon’s work and his use of block background colours (particularly reds and browns). Famous Bacon flourishes are reproduced – lightbulbs and mirrors appear particularly prominently. We may not see Bacon paint, but we watch him paint himself (brushing his teeth with Vim, using spit to curve his eyelashes), all while staring into a three-surface mirror – becoming his own Triptych.

The tragic Dyer even dreams in Bacon paintings: haunted by a crouching flayed man on a diving board (a dark twist on the paintings Bacon would make of him after his death). Dyer even ends the film literally consumed by Bacon’s work – he exits his hotel room into a dreamy reconstruction of Bacon’s Triptych in Memory of George Dyer, effectively recreating the painting in motion before ending it slumped lifelessly forward. It’s a neat visual image for a theme that runs throughout – the weak, pathetic Dyer is consumed by Bacon so completely, he literally becomes a painting.

Triptych in Memory of George Dyer – the visuals and design of which are brilliantly recreated in the movie

Poor George Dyer. It’s hard not to feel sorry for such a weakling, hopelessly out of his depth. Craig’s performance as an incompetent, strangely innocent (“Do you actually make a living from painting?”) petty crook and alcoholic is perfect – a fine reminder of what a great actor he is. He’s mostly a silent passenger when Bacon socialises with the hoi polloi, but this makes it even sadder to see him attempt to take on Bacon’s “life of the party” expressiveness later when regaling his working-class friends, limply imitating Bacon’s “cheerio” as he downs another glass of champagne.

This film doesn’t shy away from the dark destructiveness of the relationship: or from exploring Bacon’s promiscuous sexual masochism, and his emotional sadism. Several sex scenes are modelled after Bacon’s paintings. The roughness of the sex is constantly at the forefront. If you’ve ever wanted to see a naked James Bond preparing to beat a prone, topless Brother Cadfael with a belt, then this is probably the film you’ve been waiting your whole life to see.

Many of the film’s successes are due to Craig – and to Jacobi, who is a revelation in the best film role of his entire career. Not only is he strikingly physically similar to Bacon, but he attacks the part with a waspish bitterness and cruelty, giving a dominant performance of Bacon’s selfishness and malice. The small moments of painting we see are performed more like fights then acts of creation. However, Jacobi allows enough moments of sensitivity – the hints of sadness and regret he feels after another act of dismissive cruelty, the small touches of affection intermixed with rejections. The film makes clear Bacon was an abusive partner, and Jacobi’s performance projects all the dark charisma you could possibly want.

So why isn’t the film better regarded? The answer is there at the top: this is an overtly arty film, in many ways a commentary on the artist and his work rather than a drama. Its visual dynamism is impressive, but wearing. It’s frequently not subtle – if you were in any doubt about Bacon’s semi-sexual arousal at violence, we get to see his jubilant reaction to blood being sprayed across his face at a boxing match. Later Jacobi waxes lyrical over the beauty of a car crash while the camera pans across twisted bodies. The edgy, distorting style and overbearing dirtiness of the action may be true to much of the tone and style of Bacon’s work – but it’s hardly a bundle of fun to watch.

Love is the Devil may get close to an understanding of what drove Bacon, and what lies underneath his art – but it goes about it a very self-important way, in a film that often feels a little too pleased with itself. Craig is very good, and Jacobi an absolute revelation – but it doesn’t change the fact that the film is almost deliberately alienating and difficult. Few other characters (including an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) get much of a look in, and the claustrophobic focus finally starts to wear the viewer down. It’s a must for admirers of Bacon (though you’ll be hard pressed to admire the man after viewing this!), but it’s a film that delights a little too much in being difficult to watch.

The Odessa File (1974)

Jon Voight narrowly misses a train in The Odessa File

Director: Ronald Neame

Cast: Jon Voight (Peter Miller), Maximilian Schell (Eduard Roschmann), Maria Schell (Frau Miller), Mary Tamm (Sigi), Noel Willman (Franz Bayer), Derek Jacobi (Klaus Wenzer), Shmuel Rodensky (Simon Wiesenthal), Peter Jeffrey (David Porath), Klaus Löwitsch (Gustav Mackensen), Kurt Meisel (Alfred Oster), Günter Meisner (General Greifer)

One of the best thriller writers in the game is Frederick Forsyth. He never gets quite the credit he deserves, probably because he’s a very safe writer and he has certain character formulas which he reuses over again. But what his plots lack in depth, they more than make up for in the gripping intensity and extreme readability. A Forsyth plot barrels along and doesn’t let you rest for a minute.

The Odessa File is an adaptation of Forsyth’s journalistic style thriller, exploring the shady world of former Nazi war criminals, now hiding in new identities in positions of influence throughout the German republic. Set in 1963, Peter Miller (Jon Voight) is an idealistic young investigative journalist, who finds the diary of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. Horrified by the stories of the Holocaust, Miller decides to hunt down the “Butcher of Riga” Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell playing a real war criminal), a renegade Nazi recently spotted alive by the writer shortly before his death.

The Odessa File is an episodic film that carefully follows Miller’s investigation, at first alone, later as an undercover operative for Israeli intelligence. Each scene takes us step-by-step closer towards the final target (Roschmann), which means each scene introduces new characters and locations. The one consistent note we have is Voight, who is pretty good as the driven, idealistic (and arrogant) Miller, and he holds the film together rather well. Each of the tense set-ups works well as a self-contained little story, although it does mean that the overall arc of the film is less engaging than it should be. However, you are invested in wanting the investigation to succeed.

This is partly because the black and white flashbacks to the Holocaust are surprisingly effective from a film from the 1970s. Atrocities are implied and sensitively shown, in an unsensational way, but remain very affecting. Schell’s bombastic acting style also really works as a fanatical and sadistic Nazi (it also works very well in the film’s final confrontation). Combine this with the well-written, unembellished readings from the diary (good work from Cyril Shaps as the voiceover artist) and the film very sensitively establishes its anti-Nazi credentials early on.

Where it doesn’t really work is its whole Odessa plot. The shadowy group of Nazis proves laughably easy to penetrate. The network is then blown wide open seemingly within hours. There is a sub plot about the Nazis supplying missiles to Nasser to fire at Israel which is totally unclear (it has something to do with the factory Roschmann is now running). In fact, the whole organisation’s structure is unclear and the film lacks a real face for its antagonists. The film barrels along fast enough that you don’t notice it too much when viewing it, but reflecting on it afterwards everything makes slightly less sense, and the contrivances become far more glaring.

Other than Miller (whose motives the film is deliberately obscure about) not many of the other characters get a look in. In particular the female characters are little more than ciphers or “stop reading about the Holocaust and come to bed” girlfriends. The Nazis are all pretty interchangeable, although Noel Willman brings a nice sense of menace to a Nazi fixer. The strange intermixing of real and imaginary characters (including Simon Wiesenthal) is also a little odd.

But the story is exciting enough, and Voight’s earnest performance makes you care about Miller enough, that you’ll enjoy watching it. It’s not a classic like The Day of the Jackal (a perfect cinematic expression of Forsyth’s forward motion as a writer) but it’s going to keep you entertained for a couple of hours.

I also think the final revelation of Miller’s motives is bungled and undermines the anti-Nazi message. It turns out Miller is primarily motivated by concluding Rorschmann murdered his father during the war. This immediately trivialises the horrors of the Holocaust – yeah, it was bad, but you can’t expect someone to go to all this trouble to hunt a bad man for that alone can you? It’s a problem in the book as well, but at least there, more weight is given to Miller’s anger at the war. Here he drops a few lines about the evils of Nazism, but it never quite snaps together.

This is a good, decent, sharp thriller – but it has its chances to be more than that, and it misses them.