Tag: Dexter Fletcher

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent excel as the Gilbert and Sullivan’s in Mike Leigh’s superb Topsy-Turvy

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (WS Gilbert), Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Vincent Franklin (Rutland Barrington), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Shirley Henderson (Leonara Braham), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Louise Gold (Rosina Brandham), Andy Serkis (John D’Auborn), Dexter Fletcher (Louis), Sam Kelly (Richard Barker)

It seems an odd-fit: Mike Leigh, auteur of working class drama, prestige period films and the music of the middle-class in Gilbert and Sullivan. But that’s to forget Gilbert and Sullivan were among the masters of theatre – and Leigh himself is a theatrical great. Topsy-Turvy, from seeing the most uncharacteristic of the director’s works, in fact perhaps an examination of the creative process Leigh has made his life. It’s a wonderfully made, superbly executed tribute to the struggles and rewards of artistic creation. A celebration of how disparate personalities come together to create something bigger than themselves. Affectionate, heartfelt, at times quietly moving, Topsy-Turvy is both one of Leigh’s most enjoyable films and one of his most tender.

It’s 1884 and the creative partnership between WS Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is at a turning point. With their latest, Princess Ida, hardly setting the box-office alight. Sullivan feels the partnership has gone stale – and also feels under pressure to turn his attention towards more ‘serious’ composing. Gilbert refuses to change his next libretto, which Sullivan feels is effectively more of the same. Things change though when Gilbert is intrigued by an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, quickly creating a new libretto: The Mikado. The two geniuses, finally in unison, work together to bring the production to the stage.

Topsy-Turvy is probably Leigh’s most purely entertaining film. For anyone who has ever been involved in theatre or the arts, you’ll certainly recognise more than a few moments in this film, which is practically Leigh’s love letter to the arts. Leigh’s aim was to pay tribute to the difficulties of creativity and the demand of having to constantly refresh and reinvent your work to stay relevant and fulfilled. He succeeded: few films have so beautifully captured the struggle, pain, satisfaction and joy of creation or the strange anti-climax artistic success can bring.

Most of the second half of the film is a fascinating look at every step required to bring a production to life. From casting and contract negotiations, to costume fittings, staging and work in the rehearsal room. We get a fascinating insight into the complex backstage politics and squabbles in this small world. From actors bitching about the management (always incompetent, regardless of the situation) to the delight and playfulness of rehearsals as different opportunities are explored, it’s a wonderfully true insight into the theatre. Matched with the intricate and extraordinary detail of the reconstruction of the original production – and you have an enthralling insight into theatre. It also very appropriate for Leigh, whose organic methods of creating a film through copious rehearsal and improvisation remains very similar to theatre.

Alongside this though, the film has plenty of sympathy for the cost of creative exertion. Many of the actors lead sad and even lonely lives. Shirley Henderson’s Leonara Braham struggles with drink, Martin Savage’s George Grossmith is a drug addict (the company is too polite to mention it, but he’s clearly struggling with withdrawal at the dress rehearsal), Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond has constant pains from an unhealed ulcer. WS Gilbert and his wife lead a chaste life, he as terrified of intimacy and connection as he is of watching first nights. Sullivan juggles health problems and a long-running, regular-abortion marked, affair with Fanny Ronalds with a lingering sense of shame at not having exploited his talents more fully. These are lives that come to life when doused with creation, for all the off-stage world reveals trouble and strife.

Much of the first half is a wonderfully judged contrast between the extraverted Sullivan, keen to stretch himself but lacking the application and drive, and the repressed Gilbert, doggedly ploughing on with his (stale-sounding) original idea and unable to comprehend Sullivan’s reluctance. Leigh’s film could easily have manifested itself as a clash between two mis-matched partners. However, while the film expertly draws the parallels between the two, it also shows how much their energy comes from mutual respect. Sullivan is, after all, right that Gilbert’s first idea is a limp retread. But Gilbert’s Mikado idea is so good we don’t need a scene showing Sullivan change his mind – the simple contrast of Sullivan’s chuckles and animated striding while Gilbert reads him The Mikado’s libretto with his boredom and constant questions to the abandoned libretto speaks volumes.

Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Gilbert. He has the repressed distance, the grumpy-old-man bluntness but he mixes it with small flashes of excitement and rapture that speak volumes. His fascinated glances at the Japanese exhibition – soaking up inspiration – are beautifully judged, while his later excited larking around with a samurai sword (the very next scene sees him with a first draft) is perfect. Broadbent is both supremely funny, with several perfectly judged mon-bots, and also heartbreakingly, unknowingly lonely in his distance and fear of emotional contact. Allan Corduner makes a perfect contrast as the brash Sullivan, enjoying fame in a way Gilbert never can, but sharing with him a tortured sense of his need to fulfil his artistic potential.

The rest of the cast – a delightful mix of Leigh regulars and familiar faces – are also fabulous. Lesley Manville is wonderful as Gilbert’s wife, a gentle, eager-to-please woman who we discover has carefully buried deep regret about her emotionally repressed marriage and lack of children (Gilbert’s own difficult relationships with his parents have had a long reach on his life). Timothy Spall is wonderfully entertaining as bitchy leading actor who reacts with quiet despair when his big number is cut. Shirley Henderson’s fragility is perfect for a woman whose stage presence masks her emotional vulnerability and drink dependence. Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage are marvellous as two actors whose willingness to carry on under all conditions is skilfully contrasted.

Leigh’s film is also a brilliant reconstruction of time and era (rarely can a researcher be so highly billed on a film’s credits). There is a delight taken in showing how the characters react to new inventions, from Gilbert’s bellowing phone calls (“I am hanging up the phone now!”) to Sullivan’s wonder at a fountain pen (“What will they think of next?”). The design from Eve Stewart, the glorious photography of Dick Pope and the Oscar-winning costumes Lindy Hemming all are perfectly judged. The film though never becomes buried in “prestige costume drama” trappings: it’s eye for history is to acute. From alcoholism to drug addiction, broken families to the seamier streets of London, this is a film that never succumbs to easy nostalgia.

What it remains is a loving tribute to the strange families the build up around theatre. When Temple’s song is cut from the play, the chorus come together humbly but selflessly to beg for the song to be retained, because of their affection and regard for Temple. There may be disagreements, but everyone pulls together to stage the show when the time comes. Leigh’s film is full of wit, affection and a deep, loving regard for those who have chosen a life of creativity. While the film can show the cost of such a life – and the contrasting emptiness and regret away from the stage, in a life which can doesn’t always provide satisfaction – it also celebrates art in a way few other films can. One of the greatest films about the theatre ever made.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Rami Malek brings Freddie Mercury to life in crowd-pleaser Bohemian Rhapsody

Director: Bryan Singer (Dexter Fletcher)

Cast: Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), Lucy Boynton (Mary Austin), Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Joe Marzello (John Deacon), Aidan Gillen (John Reid), Allen Leech (Paul Prenter), Tom Hollander (Jim Beach), Mike Myers (Ray Foster), Aaron McCusker (Jim Hutton), Ace Bhatti (Bomi Bulsara), Meneda Das (Jer Bulsara)

Biography can be a tricky territory on film. How can you hope to capture a whole life, with all its ups and downs, its shades of grey, in a single sitting of two hours? Well the truth is you can’t really – and Bohemian Rhapsody is an enjoyable but very safe and traditional attempt to tell something of Mercury’s life. It carefully organises his life into a clear five act structure (Beginnings, Early success, Triumph, Temptation and fall, Redemption) that wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to the writer of a medieval mystery play.

The film uses Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance as the book ends for a story that covers Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he joins Queen, works closely with the band to compose the hit songs that would make them legends, then falls tragically under the influence of band manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and leaves the band to build a solo career and succumbs to those dreaded demons of drink, drugs and sex. The film culminates in a brilliant recreation of Live Aid (by the way, only making the vaguest of passing references to the cause behind Live Aid, with the main motivation for performing seeming to be that everyone else is) which, despite some wonky CGI at points, brilliantly captures the atmosphere of being at an electric live gig. 

Bohemian Rhapsody is an affectionately made crowd-pleaser of a film which has convention running through its soul like sugar at the centre of stick of rock. With the heavy involvement of the surviving members of Queen and their manager, it’s a film that wants to very carefully avoid anything too controversial – which is fair enough when it’s people making a film about their friend – and does its best to shave off his rough edges, and apportion blame for faults anywhere other than Freddie.

As such, the film defines Freddie’s successes as those he achieved as part of “the family” of Queen – and his failures when he fell under the influence of others who were using him. The film draws Freddie as being desperate to find love and acceptance – from his struggles to be accepted by his traditional father (a very good performance by Ace Bhatti), to his deep love for his wife Mary Austin (while guiltily struggling with his homosexuality), to his sometimes prickly relationship with the rest of Queen, who are basically a band of brothers. Is it any wonder that someone as desperate for love as Freddie might fall under the influence of someone offering constant but not genuine affection?

Anyway, the film very carefully spreads the genius of Queen neatly around the band (we see them all chucking in songs and key ideas, even if Freddie is the driving force). Part of the reason the film works is that the band are right – these are songs for everyone. These are songs that make you want to be involved in their performance, that make you want to sing along and stamp your feet. It’s the magic alchemy of the band’s own genius that the film is so dependent on – even if the film does sometimes struggle to dramatise the act of creating art. Early on we see Freddie idly play the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody on the piano. “What’s that, it’s beautiful” asks his wife – “It has promise” Freddie shrugs. That’s about par for the course for how the songs come together in this film. What makes it work is the chemistry between the actors and the general lightness of the story telling.

That lightness is largely missing from the sections of the film that chart Freddie’s “dark days”. Keen to absolve Freddie as much as possible from fault, the film largely takes all his negative traits and actions and basically pours them into another man and identifies him as the reason for everything bad that happens in the film. I have no idea if the real Paul Prenter (a moustache twirling performance by Allen Leech) bore any resemblance to the chippy, bitter, scheming, selfish, greedy bad influence who appears in this film – but then Prenter has been dead for over 20 years so we’ll never know. The film blames everything – and I mean everything – on Prenter and paints Freddie as an innocent victim led astray.

The film also shies away as much as possible from showing us anything too gay. In fact, it’s hard not to get the awkward (if no doubt inadvertent) feeling that the film’s implying that the more Freddie got immersed in the gay underworld, the more he was consumed by his flaws and by bad things. In any case we get shots of Freddie at S&M parties, but shot with a dream like wistfulness that concentrates on Freddie walking towards the camera disconnected from his surroundings. The film juggles the timeline of Freddie’s life as much as possible to make for a clean narrative (in actual fact Prenter wasn’t dismissed until two years after Live Aid, Queen never split up and reformed and Freddie wasn’t diagnosed formally with AIDS until 1989), and it adds to a feeling that we are seeing a carefully formed drama that is telling a “better” version of Freddie’s life.

The biggest weapon in the film’s arsenal is Rami Malek’s performance in the lead role. His recreation of Freddie’s style and on-stage swagger is so faultless, you start to believe you are seeing the real thing. He also really adds a vulnerability, loneliness and sensitivity to Freddie’s private life. He can be prickly and arrogant, but it all stems from a deep insecurity that Malek brilliantly builds with a tender empathy. It’s a star-making performance, and he is very well supported by the rest of the cast, including Lucy Boynton as his loving wife, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello very good as the other members of the band and Tom Hollander excellent as their eventual manager.

The main issue with the film is its strident conventionality. It obeys all the rules you would expect of a good biopic, and builds a picture of Freddie’s life that perfectly fits an ideal drama structure. Its basically safe, traditional and largely directed with a lack of imagination (although it’s troubled production, Bryan Singer’s dismissal due to “personal problems” and Dexter Fletcher’s late parachuting in to finish the film no doubt contributed to this) which offers very little that will surprise you and, in its quesiness on homosexuality, some that might offend you. But I think it provides enough pleasure from Queen’s wonderful discography that it almost rocks you.

The Elephant Man (1980)

John Hurt is sublime as the tragic John Merrick in The Elephant Man

Director: David Lynch

Cast: John Hurt (John Merrick), Anthony Hopkins (Dr Frederick Treves), Anne Bancroft (Madge Kendal), John Gielgud (Francis Carr-Gomm), Wendy Huller (Mrs Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Dexter Fletcher (Bytes’ boy), Michael Elphick (Jim the porter), Hannah Gordon (Ann Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alexandra), John Standing (Dr Fox)

In the late 19th century, society was swept up in the story of a circus show freak, Joseph Merrick (renamed John here, as per Frederick Treves’ memoirs), saved from a life as a circus exhibit by Treves (a doctor at the London Hospital). Treves introduced him into society and formed a close friendship with him. Merrick died young (27) but his life became a sort of byword for struggling for dignity. The Elephant Man follows this journey.

John Hurt plays Merrick, with Anthony Hopkins as Treves, and the film is a pretty accurate reconstruction of the major events of Merrick’s life. The Elephant Man must have seemed like a strange proposition at the time. Produced by Mel Brooks! Directed by bizarro director David Lynch! About a man grotesquely deformed by nature! But what emerges put those doubts to shame, because this is a beautiful and emotional piece of film-making, guaranteed to put a tear in your eye. It’s an extraordinary and moving film, it’s almost impossible not to love.

In a career made up of playing characters who undergo enormous suffering, it’s fitting that one of John Hurt’s most famous performance sees him utterly unrecognisable under a mountain of make-up. (Acting in this was no fun either – Hurt worked alternate days to deal with the discomfort and stress, telling his wife “They’ve finally found a way to make me hate acting”). But what Hurt does here is extraordinary: under this mountain of make-up, the humanity, sweetness and tenderness of Merrick sings out. He’s a character you feel a total empathy for, with Hurt making him almost a gentle child, an innocent who learns to value himself and his own humanity. It’s mesmeric stuff.

Lynch’s film is all about the place Merrick holds in the world – and it’s not sure shy of showing it is one of exploitation and display. Sure, the circus life for Merrick is horrible under Freddie Jones’ freak-masker (Jones is magnificent here, alternating between weaselly, conniving, vulnerable, self-pitying and loathsome). But he’s plucked from this lower-class hell not for reasons of charity or loving care, but (initially) so that Treves can display him at medical conferences.

Even after demonstrating his sensitivity and artistic richness, Merrick is still rammed into a different treadwheel of society curiosity. Paraded before the rich and famous, his freakish appearance combined with his gentle, otherworldly, politeness and kindness becomes a new show in itself – something Treves himself (in a wonderfully played scene of introspection from Hopkins) slowly comes to realise. Alongside this, Merrick is still seen as fair-game by Elphick’s brutish night porter: if the hoi polloi can watch the freak, why can’t he parade him in front of working class customers at night? All this is intensely moving.

Does Merrick even realise that he is (in some ways) still a freak show, even while he collects photos of his new friends? The film is deliberately unclear: although it is clear that the (eventual) genuine friendship of Treves does lead Merrick to value himself as something more. The famous anguished cry (simply brilliantly played by Hurt) of “I am not an animal. I am a human being” after Merrick is chased into a train station bathroom by a crowd of scared and disgusted passengers is goose-bump inducing in both its sadness and its newfound moral force. From this point on, Merrick makes decisions for himself (for good or ill).

Lynch’s film walks a delicate balance around Merrick’s character and how much his life was a question of being exploited. Although the film does at times shoot Merrick with the slow reveal coyness of a monster movie, it never fails to regard him (and almost demand we do the same) with the utmost sympathy. In many ways, it shoots Merrick the same way people first seem him – a sense of shock followed by a growing appreciation that there is much more to see there than you might first suspect. 

That’s what works so well about Lynch’s inspired direction here – this is a sensitive, haunting and poetic film that wrings untold levels of sadness from Merrick’s life. Lynch reins in his more arty leanings very effectively. In fact, once you get over the film’s bizarre opening of Merrick’s mother being attacked (sexually assaulted?) by an elephant, the film relaxes into a classical style mixed with Lynch’s chilling eeriness and his games with time and mood (the timeline is particularly hard to work out in this film), while his sensitive handling of the macabre is perfect for this film’s storyline. While it’s easy to see this as the least “authored” of Lynch’s film, it’s possibly one of his finest and sets the groundwork for some of his later works, exploring humanity in the bizarre.

He’s helped as well by Freddie Francis’ simply beautiful black-and-white photography which brilliantly captures both the grime and the shine of Victorian London, with an inky darkness. Francis also embraces some of Lynch’s expressionistic style, and shoots the film with a real atmospheric sensitivity. It’s about perfect – and Lynch brings the outsider’s view to London that sees the entire city with a brand new eye. 

There are some sublime performances. Anthony Hopkins’ Treves is a masterclass in contrasted desires. He’s the sort of guy who can grab Merrick like a collector, but still shed a tear when he first sees him. Watching him slowly realise that he has used Merrick just as Bytes has done – within the confines of his Victorian paternalism – and grow to love him as a father does his son (feelings of course never expressed in words) is extraordinary. In the less flashy role, Hopkins powers a lot of the feelings of sadness the audience feel. Alongside him, a host of British legends do brilliant work, particularly Gielgud and Hiller as authority figures who slowly reveal themselves to have huge depths of compassion and understanding.

And what you end up with is a marvellous film. Brilliantly made, wonderfully filmed and hugely emotional with powerful, heartfelt performances from Hurt and Hopkins among many others. It’s extremely beautiful, and stirs the emotions wonderfully. You would struggle to get to the end of the film and not feel overcome with the final few moments, its sadness and the sense of regret. It’s possibly the most heartfelt of Lynch’s films – and also the one I enjoy the most.

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

Peter Mullan hits the right notes in crowd-pleaser Sunshine on Leith

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Cast: George MacKay (Davy Henshaw), Kevin Guthrie (Ally), Freya Mavor (Liz Henshaw), Antonia Thomas (Yvonne), Jane Horrocks (Jean Henshaw), Peter Mullan (Rab Henshaw), Jason Flemyng (Harry Harper), Sara Vickers (Eilidh)

Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical that really works, because its story feels natural, its characters are engaging and the songs don’t feel too shoehorned in (even if, of course, we have a character called Jean to allow Oh Jean to be sung, and another moving to Florida which will of course require a Letter from America). It’s a really good reminder of how many really toe-tappingly, hummable, great songs The Proclaimers came up with. It’s not a masterpiece of course – but as a piece of solid, competent, crowd-pleasing cinema it’s hard to beat. 

The plot follows two soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Davy (George MacKay) is keen to start a new life, Ally (Kevin Guthrie) wants to marry Davy’s nurse sister Liz (Freya Mavor). Davy founds himself drawn to Liz’s colleague Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), while Liz struggles to reconcile her love for Ally with her desire to spread her wings and see more of the world. Meanwhile Davy and Liz’s father Rab (Peter Mullan) discovers, on the eve of his 25th wedding anniversary to Jean (Jane Horrocks), that a brief affair in his early marriage led to the birth of a daughter (Sara Vickers) he never knew he had. Love and family problems play out to a string of Proclaimers hits.

Sweeping camera-work from Dexter Fletcher helps to create a romantic, vibrant image of Edinburgh – you’ll want to book your tickets as soon as the film ends, this is such a good advert for the city – and he draws some wonderful performances from the cast, all of whom I suspect had the time of their lives making this film. How lovely is it to see Peter Mullan moving away from gruff hardmen, to play a man as sensitive and humane as Rab – and also to hear him croon with feeling some top songs? He makes a superb partnership with Jane Horrocks, who not surprisingly is the most accomplished singer, and who channels her natural bubbly mumsiness into a genuinely moving portrayal of a wife dealing with completely unexpected betrayal.

The film keeps the humanity of its characters very much at the centre, never over-complicating the plot or overloading us with extraneous detail or drama. The quietly tense opening sequence of Davy and Ally on tour in Afghanistan (with a rendition of Sky Takes the Soul) swiftly helps us invest in their safety – and sets us up to really feel their release once they return to the safety of civilian life. Nothing hugely unexpected happens in the film at all – it can be pretty accurately predicted from the start – but the whole thing is told with genuine warmth and feeling.

There are some stand-out musical sequences. Over and Done With, told as a pub story-telling session, works really well – it’s wonderful up-beat, vibrant sequence. Jason Flemyng has a great dance cameo during a fun-filled number set in the Scottish National Gallery (Should Have Been Loved). Davy and Ally dance thrillingly down the street to I’m On My Way as they celebrate their discharge. The final number – it’s not a surprise – sees what seems like most of Edinburgh corralled into a massive rendition of a song about walking a very long distance…

George MacKay demonstrates he’s a pretty decent song and dance man – and he also has the every-day ordinariness that makes him a perfect audience surrogate. His chemistry with Antonia Thomas is also fantastic. As the secondary couple, Freya Mavor is headturningly watchable as Liz, while Kevin Guthrie gives a nice air of bemused immaturity to Ally.

Sunshine on Leithis a brilliant crowd-pleaser, and has clearly been made with love and affection for the material and the songs, which seeps off the screen. It’s a perfect advert for everything in it. I would say that I am not sure Fletcher is the perfect film director – he’s afraid to let the camera stand still for too long in the larger dance set-pieces, which means we lose the impact of some of these numbers (or the chance to really appreciate the choreography). But he totally gets the tone of the film, and delivers that in spades.

It’s much pretty guaranteed that you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love. And you’ll want to watch it over again.

Caravaggio (1986)

Nigel Terry is Caravaggio in Derek Jarman’s extraordinary meditation on art Caravaggio

Director: Derek Jarman

Cast: Nigel Terry (Michelangelo de Caravaggio), Sean Bean (Ranuccio Thomasoni), Tilda Swinton (Lena), Garry Cooper (Davide), Dexter Fletcher (Young Caravaggio), Spencer Leigh (Jerusaleme), Michael Gough (Cardinal del Monte), Nigel Davenport (Giustinani), Robbie Coltrane (Cardinal Scipione Borghese), Dawn Archibald (Pipo), Jonathan Hyde (Baglione), Jack Birkett (Pope)

Derek Jarman started his career as a painter, before he began making his own eccentric, art-house films, shot through with a fascination with visual imagery, colliding time periods, abuse of power and homosexuality. For years, Jarman had sought funding to make a biographical film about Caravaggio – one of his (and my) favourite artists. The film he eventually produced, Caravaggio, is quite simply not like anything you’ve really seen before – partly a masterpiece of striking imagery and inventiveness, partly a groaningly semi-pretentious, self-conscious piece of art cinema. What it never is though is dull.

Told in a disjointed series of flashbacks, in which not every scene necessarily connects with the scenes preceding and following it, Caravaggio as a young boy (Dexter Fletcher) is taken under the wing of Cardinal del Monte (an imperiously controlling Michael Gough): creepy part art patron, part pervert. Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) becomes a successful painter, while never losing his taste for the wildness and violence of the streets of Rome. He becomes fascinated by street fighter Ranuccio Thomasoni (Sean Bean) and Thomasoni’s lover Lena (Tilda Swinton), the three of them forming a sensually suggestive menage-a-trois, which eventually leads to tragedy. All this is framed with the dying Caravaggio, remembering in a semi-poetic voiceover feelings and moments from his life.

Firstly, for any fan of Caravaggio, this film is a visual treat. Every frame is lit and framed to be as reminiscent as possible of the style of the master. Many scenes are framed either in bare, stone rooms with single windows, or in sets emerging out of an inky blackness. Lighting often strikes diagonally across the frame, just as in Caravaggio’s best work. A number of scenes seem lit from a single source, such as a candle. On top of this, a number of scenes feature either the creation of, or inspiration for, a number of Caravaggio’s most memorable artworks: for those familiar with his work, it’s a delight to see these either recreated in the studio by models, or suggestively composed out of scenes. For an art lover, it’s a visual treat.

Jarman also has an intricate understanding of the creation of art, and when we watch Caravaggio at work it genuinely feels like watching a real artist, engaging with the world, recording images in his mind’s eye, and preparing his next work. The scenes watching Caravaggio create his masterpieces are fascinating in their detail and the careful build-up of paint to create an effect. The effort of models to stay still for the painter is constantly stressed. It’s a tribute to the work that goes into creation, even if the film succumbs to a few pretentious clichés (at one point Caravaggio and Ranuccio fight playfully with knives and Ranuccio cuts Caravaggio: of course Caravaggio smears the blood over Ranucci’s face. That tends to be what artists in films do). 

Jarman, however, makes a film that is deeper and more suggestive than that. This is a fascinating meditation on power and patronage in the world of art. Caravaggio is a genius, but also a tool of the people above him in the pecking order. One of the first things we see is the teenage Caravaggio selling first a painting, then his body, to a pervy art collector. The patrons call the shots here, and if they want to put your work on their wall, or their hands down your pants, the artist just needs to fall into line. Caravaggio himself is little different – the models he works with are treated with a certain warmth, but there is a clear hierarchy here. His relationship with Ranuccio and Lena is rooted initially in power – he can effectively buy them or their bodies, because he controls the money available to them. The renaissance was not a time of equality: everyone is in hock to someone else, and everyone is defined by what they can trade, be that their art, their body or both.

The film has a clear sensual charge to it in every frame, despite not containing a single scene of sex. There are highly suggestive moments of sexual abuse and desire throughout. It’s heavily implied Cardinal del Monte’s interest in the young Caravaggio is not completely innocent, as del Monte sits with him in bed teaching him to read. During their first modelling session, Caravaggio tosses a series of coins at Ranuccio, each of which the man inserts suggestively into his mouth. Every scene with Lena tingles with sensuality – either with Caravaggio, Ranuccio or the mysteriously powerful Cardinal Borghese (a corrupt looking Robbie Coltrane). 

Perhaps the most striking feature of the film though is its highly unique look. Taking his cue from Caravaggio himself – who painted the subjects of his historical pictures in contemporary dress and locations – Jarman and costume designer Sandy Powell dress the cast in a series of shabby, 1940s-1970s clothing (with the exception of a scene in the Vatican, which is established as a fancy dress party). Caravaggio is barely seen without a cigarette in his mouth, and dresses like a bohemian from Montmartre. Plenty of modern props are introduced – a banker fiddles with a pocket calculator, the writer Baglione hammers his criticisms into a typewriter while flicking through a luscious magazine of Caravaggio prints. Ranuccio cleans a motorbike.

All this manages to not only make the film continually visually striking, but also playfully reminds the audience all the time that they are watching a version of a reality – not a true story but a fictionalisation of the painter’s life. It gives Jarman an artistic licence that he exploits to the full, and makes this a film that really sticks in the memory. It’s an inventiveness you wish you saw more in films rather than slavish historical recreation.

Caravaggio is not a masterpiece – it’s a little too self-consciously arty for that. It almost delights at times in being disjointed and hard to follow. Some scenes leap over what seems like years of events. There is no real narrative through-line. The poetic voiceover can start to wear you down – I searched it for meaning, but I’m not sure if there was much there. Saying that, although this is very much a director’s film, there are some fine performances. Terry does a very good job as the artist himself, capturing a sense of the creative spark behind the eyes. Bean is excellent in one of his first roles as the earthy, insecure Ranuccio. Tilda Swinton however steals the film (it’s easy to see why she became Jarman’s muse) as the beguiling and mysterious Lena.

Caravaggio is that rare thing: a film about an artist that seems to understand art, and feel like a work of art itself. It’s unique and eye-catching and memorable as well as having a neat eye for the tragic. I was strangely mesmerised by it throughout. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a very good one.

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

Some more comic escapades in the not-really-true-at-all film of Eddie the Eagle’s life

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Cast: Taron Egerton (‘Eddie’ Edwards), Hugh Jackman (Bronson Peary), Iris Berben (Petra), Keith Allen (Terry Edwards), Jo Hartley (Janette Edwards), Tim McInnerny (Dustin Target), Mark Benton (Richmond), Jim Broadbent (BBC Commentator), Christopher Walken (Warren Sharp), Rune Temte (Bjørn), Edvin Endre (Matti Nykänen)

Watching Eddie the Eagle, it’s interesting to think that Edwards was ahead of his time. An unqualified ski jumper with a certain natural talent and a lot of dedication, his unspun, naïve enthusiasm effectively made him a perfect YouTube sensation, 15 years before that term existed. His joyous reactions and “just pleased to be here” manner while coming last in two ski-jumping competitions at the Olympics meant the public couldn’t get enough of him (then or now it seems) and he’s probably about the only thing anyone can really remember about the 1988 Winter Olympics.

I found my heart completely unwarmed by this lamely predictable film, a virtual remake of Cool Runnings and Rocky, which can barely move from scene to scene without tripping over clichés. In other sports films, the snobbery against the underdog feels unjust because we know they deserve to be there. Edwards doesn’t deserve to be there, and doesn’t prove himself anything other than a brave novelty act. Perverse as it sounds, the one area where the film deviates from its predictable formula is the part that makes everything else not really work.

It’s not a particularly funny film. That may be partly because every single comic beat in it is taken from somewhere else, but joke after joke falls flat. Scenes meander towards limp conclusions that can be seen coming a mile off. Every single character is either a cliché, mildly annoying or both. Jackman strolls through the film barely trying. Taron Egerton plays Eddie as virtually a man child, a naïve mummy’s boy, an innocent in the world of men, curiously sexless, but a cheery enthusiast with a never-say-never attitude. However, I often found him less endearing and more mildly irritating.

Virtually nothing in the film is actually true. This doesn’t necessarily matter, but I felt it made the film slightly dishonest. It leaves us with the impression Edwards was set to go on to success in his career – he wasn’t. It doesn’t mention the Olympic committee changed the rules to prevent amateurs taking part in this highly dangerous sport at this level. It doesn’t even begin to mention that almost the entire cast are invented supporting characters, or that many of the real characters (such as Edwards’ father) have had their personalities totally reimagined.

It also reshuffles the truth to make Edwards seem far more incompetent and unlikely than he actually was. In reality an accomplished amateur athlete and skier who just missed the Olympic team, he’s here reinvented as a barely proficient, uncoordinated klutz, a buffoon on skis. Egerton’s otherworldly naivety (at times his childish outlook on the world borders on the mentally deficient) is to be honest rather grating. By hammering up his ineptitude, it’s hard to really think that he should be clinging to these dreams that he’s not suited to perform.

Channel 4 run a TV reality ski-jump show called The Jump. Several celebrities who have taken part in it have suffered serious injuries. With that in mind, is it really wrong to wonder if a sport isn’t right in saying “the unqualified and the amateur shouldn’t be attempting this”? Yes the Olympics is partly about competing in the right manner – but shouldn’t that mean also protecting people from themselves?

The one slightly brave move the film makes is to briefly toy with the idea that Edwards is fundamentally misguided. Before the Olympics begins, his trainer pleads with him to continue his training, wait four years and qualify as a proper athlete rather than a novelty, to have a future of several Olympics rather than cheating into one. Edwards (and the film) ignores him, but I found I was thinking “you know what, he’s right”. The film never manages to remove from Edwards the whiff of the joke act.

I’ve been incredibly hard on this film – it’s not like it’s trying to do anything serious or meaningful. It just wants to tell a nice story about a nice guy. It prides itself on being a bland formulaic piece of film making. But I didn’t find it moving or heartwarming and I didn’t warm to Edwards. I admire his determination, but he’s like those deluded singers chasing their dream on X Factor. The characterisation of Edwards makes him hard to relate to and his final “success” doesn’t mean anything as the film never escapes the feeling that he is being laughed at rather than with. Add the fundamental dishonesty of the film and I found it really unsatisfying.

Give it a miss. Watch Cool Runnings instead. That’s full of invention too of course, but the invention is truer to the facts and the spirit of the truth, and the film itself is far funnier and more satisfying than this one.