Tag: Donald Sutherland

Murder by Decree (1979)

Murder by Decree (1979)

Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)

In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).

It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.

Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).

They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.

It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.

With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.

Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.

There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).

The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson head back into the area in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee Latier), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Lynn Cohen (Mags), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason)

It’s a year on from Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) victory at the 74th Hunger Games. They and the other victors live a life of relative luxury in the dictatorship of PanAm. Problem is Katniss’ humanity and defiance of the ‘rules’ from her victory have started to inspire whispers of discontent into open mutterings. When a “victor’s tour” fails to impact on her lustre, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) follows the suggestion of Games Maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – let’s celebrate the 75th Anniversary by chucking two victors from each district back into the ring. As the only female victor from District 12, this means Katniss will either wind up dead – or be put into a position where she has to abandon her humanity to become the killer she never wanted to be. But is there another game going on inside the game?

Catching Fire is an entertaining, fast-paced, well made sequel to The Hunger Games that successfully broadens and deepens the franchise. Far from being a difficult middle chapter, it’s well structured to tell a pretty self-contained story that riffs on events from the first film without being enslaved to them. It also very sharply deepens the social and political commentary from the first film, widening our knowledge of PanAm and our understanding of its corrupt, murderous system.

Lawrence’s direction is punchy, pacey and provides plenty of emotional depth and scope. It’s a film that skilfully balances questions of trauma and the horrors of murder-for-entertainment, with poundingly exciting action sequences in the games themselves. In some ways Catching Fire is the only film in the series that ends (more-or-less) with a triumphant bang, and it’s possibly why the film is the most satisfying of the lot, with the cleanest structure. It also has the advantage of widening the outer edges of the world of the film, while still largely operating within the self-contained world of the games arena.

Within that, it also manages to keep us on our toes. Many of the same set-ups – both in the build-up to the games and the action in the arena itself – echoes or reflects what we’ve seen before. The film uses this to throw at us moments the surprise us – as allegiences are revealed – or provide opportunities for dark humour (such as the setpiece Katniss decides to use to showcase her skills this time round, markedly, darkly different from her archery display in the first film).

The film is entertaining and also thought-provoking. Within the confines of its 12A certificate, it doesn’t flinch from the oppressive horror of PanAm in the districts, where sudden executions and brutal beatings are an everyday occurrence. Similarly, it demonstrates even more the heartless opulence of the capital, a world of hedonism where no questions are asked about what props this whole system up.

And at the heart we have Katniss. Wonderful played, with a full-blooded emotional commitment from Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is slowly become aware of her iconic status, but hasn’t changed dramatically from the at-times judgmental, prickly, abrasive loner she was at the start. She’s a reluctant figure-head for a new movement, but that’s what makes her both so effective and so moving. She’s not pretending or playing a hero – she simply does the right thing, because that’s what she believes she should do. Sure she makes a host of poor character choices, but that’s what genuine people do.

Lawrence’s grounded emotional realism in the lead, helps sets the tone for the whole franchise as something surprisingly gritty, dangerous and at times quite emotionally challenging. Hutcherson does fine work as the true heart of the film series, a decent, kind man who not only sees but also brings out the best in other people. Claflin is very good as a matinee idol victor who keeps us guessing on his motivations. Harrelson and Banks provide skilled depth to characters that could have been flamboyant cartoons. Sutherland enjoyably quietly munches some scenery as the dastardly Snow, while Hoffman coasts showily but effectively.

Catching Fire bursts along with a great deal of flair and lets us really see how despotic regimes like this operate. Katniss is manipulated into situations designed to fit a narrative that will cement the position of the regime. Ordinary people are corrupted by the wickedness around them. Humanity is seen as a dangerous quality. It’s intriguing and way more insightful than you might expect from a YA blockbuster. And its treated with a profound respect by everyone involved.

And it works because it also tells a cracking, entertaining story, revolving around richly drawn characters with fully fleshed out hinterlands and personal story arcs. For all it takes place in a dystopian future, it feels a real and grounded story. And its hard not to relate to a film where the central character, for all her flaws, is fighting for her right to not kill, maim and slaughter those around her for entertainment: who clings to her humanity despite all temptations to the contrary.

Catching Fire is also blessed with being the neatest, most straight-forward and cinematic of the stories (it’s the only film in the series that ends with anything near a triumphant bang rather than a searching question – for all that it’s a compromised triumphant bang). Told with verve, smoothness and pace it’s a very entertaining movie – and surprisingly rewarding.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence takes aim against a corrupt system in The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato)

“May the odds be ever in your favour”. They certainly were for The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA trilogy. It was one of many franchises trying to ride the success of the Harry Potter series – and easily the best (it’s vastly superior to, say, Twilight or the woeful Divergent). Shepherded to the screen by a confident Gary Ross, it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from book’s social politics and darkness, while also balancing that with complex and engaging characters. It stands up well to repeated viewings and never lets you forget it’s a film about teenagers involved in a brutal series of murderous blood sports.

In the future, after disasters and wars, the nation of Panem has been built. Twelve colonies are ruled from the capital. As punishment for a past rebellion, each year each district sends two tributes to the capital. These tributes will be feted, celebrated – and then pushed into an area and made to fight to the death in “The Hunger Games”, all of it transmitted on TV across Panem. To the winner, a lifetime of fame and comfort. To the losers – well, death. In the poorest district, District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute after her sister’s name is selected. Stubborn, surly, defiant and an expert archer, Katniss surprisingly finds herself capturing the public imagination – helped by a faked romance with her media-savvy fellow District 12 tribute (Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta). But in the ring will it be everybody for themselves? Or can Katniss keep hold of her soul?

The Hunger Games is rich material. Panem feels more and more like a mix between Gilead and Trumpian pomposity (the capital is a heavily stylised and artificial Rome-inspired centre of excess), in which life and death matters for very little. It’s a film that has astute things to say not only about how totalitarian regimes operate, but also how the oppressed often connive in their own suppression. So wrapped up is the population in the excitement of the Hunger Games, so invested in the results, that they’ve almost forgotten it is a tool of oppression. That the capital can only continue to exist if all the districts co-operate in following its orders and meekly supplying anything it asks – from food and resources, to teenagers for slaughter.

What this world needs is someone like Katniss. An individual who knows her own mind, who won’t play the game and will be herself. The film is brave in not softening the edges of this often prickly personality. Expertly played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is compassionate and caring – but she’s also judgemental, untrusting, holds grudges and in person is often surly, resentful and impatient. But what makes her a hero, is her refusal to collaborate in softening the Hunger Games. She knows she is being manipulated to make a world feel better about itself – and she is repulsed by the idea of taking life needlessly and the slaughter of the weaker and more vulnerable tributes. Indeed, she will go to huge lengths to keep others alive in the games – something that helps to wake a population up to how they’ve been hoodwinked by bright lights to forget their own humanity. Her defiance is less about politics and more about simple human decency and being able to make her own choices – something a whole world has forgotten.

Even the people in the capital have forgotten that the Hunger Games exist to suppress not entertain. The film gets some delightful mileage out of its satire of blanket media coverage. The TV coverage is pure ESPN or Sky Sports, mixed with shallow chat shows. Stanley Tucci has a ball as a flamboyant anchor who lets no moral qualms even cross his mind as he banters with the tributes in interviews with the same excited ease as he will later commentate on their slaughter. Wes Bentley’s would-be Machiavel TV producer has been so drawn into the mechanics of his games, he’s stopped even seeing the combatants as human beings, just another set of ratings-tools he can use to advance his career.

It’s a neat commentary from the film on how we can be so beaten down and crushed by the everyday that we forget – or overlook – how it is both controlling our own lives and forcing us to rethink our own views on life. This is a world where people are being taught that life and death are not valuable, that murder can be entertainment and that everyday burdens are worth dealing with because you have a chance of being allowed to fight to the death for a shot at eternal comfort. It’s a deeply corrupt and savage system, and the film doesn’t flinch away from exploring it.

Alongside that, it’s an entertaining, gripping and involving film (if one that is a little overlong in places). The second half – which focuses on the games – is both exciting and terrifying in its (often implied – after all this is still a film that needs to be shown to kids) savagery. It encourages us to identify closely with Katniss, to experience the same terror she does as well as delight in her ingenuity and inventiveness to escape death and plan strikes against her brutal opponents. By the end of the film we’ve taken her to our hearts – for all we’ve seen how difficult a person she is – as much as the population of Panem have.

Ross’s film is a triumph of adaptation, and you don’t say that about many YA novels. Suzanne Collins’ adaptation of her own book captures its thematic richness, while compressing it effectively. There are a host of interesting actors giving eclectic performances, including Harrelson as Katinss and Peeta’s mentor, Banks and Kravitz as their support team, and Sutherland as the controlling dictator behind it all. The Hunger Games is prime entertainment, with some fascinating design work (the costumes and sets are spot on) and very well made. It’s a franchise to watch.

The Eagle (2011)

eagle header
Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum on a spectacularly un-fun adventure in The Eagle

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Cast: Channing Tatum (Marcus Flavius Aquila), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Marcus’ Uncle), Mark Strong (Guern/Lucius Caius Metellus), Tarah Rahim (Prince of the Seal People), Denis O’Hare (Centurion Lutorius), Douglas Henshall (Cradoc), Paul Ritter (Galba), Paul Ritter (Galba), Dakin Matthews (Legate Claudius), Pip Carter (Tribune Placidus), Ned Dennehy (Chieftan)

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle is one of the classic young adult stories of all time. An enjoyable odd-couple-turned-brothers-in-arms series, with plenty of action and adventure it arrives on screen as a dark, gloomy and above all not-really-fun-at-all story that doesn’t seem to know whether it’s aiming for a boys-own yarn or an adult adventure. It basically fails to make either work.

In Roman Britain AD 140, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a young centurion whose father was one of the commanders of the Ninth Legion, which disappeared twenty years before somewhere in the North. Now Marcus is working to save his family honour – but his career as a centurion is cut short after he is injured almost single-handedly saving his garrison from attack. Depressed, he resolves to head north to try and find his father’s legion’s missing eagle standard – accompanied only by his strong-willed slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who hates Rome but owes his life to Marcus who saved him from execution in the gladiatorial ring. Heading North they find the eagle is in the hands of a savage tribe of warriors, who take no quarter.

Kevin Macdonald’s film probably should work like a Bernard Cornwell novel remixed in Roman Britain – or, better yet, like a proto-Simon Scarrow novel. There should be a growing sense of odd-couple bond – or at least chemistry – between Marcus and Esca as unlikely allies who become even more unlikely friends. Sadly, Macdonald misjudges the mood and instead turns the film into a grimly serious, mud spattered and miserable travel saga, which slowly drains any sense of enjoyment out of the story and its mission.

Instead, Esca and Marcus seem to hate each other’s guts for most of then movie until the plot finally absolutely demands that they lay down their lives for each other – at which point, an unearned switch takes part. Rather than an amusing “opposites attract”, men on a mission banter that the film sort of needs, instead everything is morose, angry and very, very serious. By the time the film hits the sort of banter tone it needed at the start, the credits start to roll.

It’s not helped by the choices of the two lead actors. Tatum is at his most “serious” here, with none of the playfulness and lightness that can make him an engaging presence. Instead he’s muscle bound and frowning, dispatching enemies without a second thought and forever gloomily reflecting on his father’s lost honour. Bell gets the tone slightly more on point, but he’s given almost nothing light to work with, instead having to juggle guilt and resentment at the oppression his people face and his part in it. With the dreary photography, all this misery finally starts to wear the viewer down.

Where’s the enjoyment of all this adventure? I get the film wants to make a serious point about the cost of empire and conquest, but did that have to be at the cost of any sense of fun? At least the film does take an interesting decision to make all the Romans American – reflecting the fact that America is “the new Rome” – but it doesn’t really take these revelations anywhere.

Not that you would really want it too as this is supposed to be an adventure story. Instead it’s a gloomy trip of two angry people in extreme cold and mud to grab a metal eagle, punctured by darkly framed fights, dully assembled dialogue scenes and a bubbling dislike between the two lead characters that never flowers into respect until far too late. By making neither of the two lead characters particularly likeable, we never really invest in their journey – and in the end just plain don’t care about what happens to them or if they ever get that eagle at all. For an adventure story, this is one trip you’ll insist you’d rather stay at home and guard the base.

JFK (1991)

Kevin Costner goes on a quest for the truth in Oliver Stone’s crazy but brilliant JFK

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B Long), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Donald Sutherland (Colonel X), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivan), Edward Asner (Guy Banister), Brian Doyle-Murray (Guy Banister), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Priutt Taylor Vince (Lee Bowers), Tony Plana (Carlos Bringuier)

When great events happen, it’s hard for us to accept they might take place for random reasons. Rather than freak occurrences or boring individuals, we’d rather see them taking place due to an impenetrable web of shadowy figures. There is something in us that rejects randomness and embraces order. Conspiracy theories are the (ironic) result of these, with their exponents often the most passionate believers in the all-pervading genius of big government. Events like the death of President Kennedy can’t be because some nobody shot him. Instead it must be part of a wider junta of baddies, with every man you see merely a front for a cabal of the wicked. It’s hard not to be swept up by the lure of the conspiracy theories (they invariably have the best stories after all) – and Oliver Stone’s JFK is perhaps the definitive mainstream conspiracy theory essay.

Taking the campaign of Louisiana DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to find out the “truth” about the murder of President Kennedy, Stone’s film is part a fascinating presentation of half-truths and “might-have-beens” and part a sprawling mess of irresponsible nonsense. Either way it’s assembled with astonishing panache, a level of filmic skill that makes it (literally) almost impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is true and what is invention. Stone’s film superbly interweaves a variety of film stocks and effects to seamlessly splice together newsreel footage, Zapruder film and his own reconstructions so brilliantly it frequently becomes hard to tell which is which.

The same logic also applies to the script. JFK is frequently engaging and fascinating. But you have to remember that it is the equivalent of meeting the most literate and articulate street corner “End-of-the-Worlder”. Such is Stone’s skill he could, I am sure, have created an equally compelling film which would have you questioning the Moon Landings or the shape of the Earth. JFK throws an army of questions, objections and theories at the screen. And while it rarely provides much in the way of answers, only points that it wants you to think about, these theories frequently fascinate. Imagine JFK as a sort of video essay, linked together with dramatic scenes, with its points delivered by authoritative and trusted actors like Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

There is absolutely no doubting the technique of Stone here, or his mastery of the language of cinema. The work of Robert Richardson’s photography, with its myriad styles, and of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing, pulling together a host of images, snapshots and flash cuts into an insidiously convincing whole, is breathtaking. Light in particular is superbly used, casting some characters in shadow, flaring up to (literally) blind others – light frequently plays across Garrison’s glasses, a visual metaphor for his own struggle to see the light. The speeches he writes for his characters are superbly done, and make their points with great skill – Sutherland (superb) has a hugely convincing story of military black ops action (and inaction) before and after the assassination that fills almost 20 minutes of screentime.

There are compelling arguments made about the ability of Oswald to fire the shots, the triangulation of fire, the spurning of an easier shot before the fateful turn, Oswald’s seemingly illogical movements after the shooting etc. etc. There is decent reasoning behind all of this, and the points are marshalled very well. But, like all extremist theories, suddenly it will turn into something just a little batshit (Lyndon B Johnson ordering the hit or some sort of cabal of Cubans, CIA, FBI and Secret Service working together to conduct a coup).

Much of Stone’s passion for finding the truth (the film’s mantra) is rooted in his own romantic view of Kennedy, as some sort of lost “Prince Who Was Promised”. To Stone, Kennedy would have withdrawn us from Vietnam (news I am sure to the President who started and escalated America’s involvement in it), ended the military industrial complex (contrary to his platform when elected of a stronger US military), bought the Cold War to an end (again, running against his sustained opposition to the Soviet Union) and introduced full Civil Rights (a cause he was lukewarm on at best – unlike his brother or his successor Johnson).

But Kennedy was a romantic figure who had the ability to invite people to invest him with whatever qualities they wanted (both good and bad), a magic cemented forever by his untimely murder. In reality there is no indication that JFK would do (or want to do) any of the things JFK argues he was assassinated for. But that’s all part of the magic of the conspiracy. Facts and events can be marshalled into whatever you want them to be. (Tellingly the only member of Garrison’s investigative team who questions these theories is shown to be a creep in the pay of the conspirators.)

So Kennedy can be a saint, and the film can outline (with no evidence at all beyond a series of coincidences and unlikely or random events) a grand vision of master schemers reshaping America over the body of a dead President. Does it really stand up? Well no of course not. But I will say it is compelling viewing – even if it is essential to keep an open mind about it. Stone later wished he had made clearer that much of the work here was pure fiction (and speculative at best). Certainly it’s a point to keep in mind.

Perhaps Stone should also have looked again at some of the other beats in the film. The film’s version of Jim Garrison as a kind of saintly campaigner for justice flies in the face of many (then and later) who believed the Louisiana DA a shameless self-promoter – an argument made easier to believe by the real Garrison’s cheeky cameo in the film as his ‘nemesis’ Earl Warren. No mention is made in the film that the case he brings against Clay Shaw was dismissed by the jury after less than an hour, and the film avoids explicitly showing his lack of evidence. Costner delivers the final speech, with its famous “back and to the left” commentary on what seems like Kennedy’s unnatural movement after being hit by a bullet and breakdown of the “magic bullet” (both theories now largely discredited), with aplomb, but the film puts a halo on Garrison which doesn’t really stand up.

But again at least it’s entertaining. Other parts of the film don’t even manage that: the baseline narrative that links up the various compelling conspiracy lectures is frequently dull, insipid and lamely written. Sissy Spacek has perhaps the most thankless role in film history as Garrison’s wife whose nearly every line is a variation on “Honey please stop reading the Warren Report and come to bed”. Even that though pales against the exploration of the 1960s gay scene in Louisiana (which Clay Shaw and his “fellow conspirators” were leading members of) which has an unpleasant stink of homophobia, playing into a host of deeply unpleasant (and false) stereotypes of gay people as perverted, promiscuous and preying on the straight. One suspects there was more than a little truth in the idea that Garrison’s fury at Shaw was at least partly motivated by homophobia.

These sequences work considerably less well today – and frequently go on far too long – but when the film focuses on its Kennedy theories it is at least compelling, even if it’s all rubbish. The film made it mainstream to believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy in which Oswald was, if he was involved at all, only a patsy. How different would the world have been if Oswald had lived and been made to explain why and how he killed Kennedy? But then chances are, being such an average an unremarkable man, people wouldn’t have believed him anyway.

Stone’s film is a triumph of agenda-led fantasy. Stuffed with faults it makes you at least ask questions – even if you wisely use those questions to affirm many of its points are questionable at best. But any film buff will love the skill it’s told with and the beauty of its technical assembly. Costner was perhaps a little too bland to drive the thing along (although the film uses his innate morality very well), but there are several good performances not least from Gary Oldman who is brilliant as put-upon, used but unknowable Oswald. Nuts, crazy and packed with compelling nonsense, it at least always encourages you to find out more about the actual history.

Ad Astra (2019)

Brad Pitt goes out to the stars in Ad Astra

Director: James Gray

Cast: Brad Pitt (Roy McBride), Tommy Lee Jones (H. Clifford McBride), Ruth Negga (Helen Lantos), Liv Tyler (Eve McBride), Donald Sutherland (Colonel Pruitt), John Ortiz (Lt General Rivas

Man has looked up at the stars for as long as we can remember and imagined what lies out there. From Gods to other intelligent life form, every culture has been drawn to imagine beyond the bounds of Earth and dream of finding what is out there. It’s a dream that powers the life of leading US Astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who in “the near future” led “The Lima Project” to Neptune to try and find intelligent life beyond the Solar System. Now missing 17 years, Clifford’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) has become a leading astronaut, tasked with leading efforts to find his father after a series of devastating power surges damaging the planet and killing thousands are traced back to the Lima. So Roy embarks on an epic voyage, from Earth to mankind’s bases on the Moon and Mars to Neptune in quest of his father.

James Gray’s artfully made film yearns for a moral and thematic depth that it doesn’t quite manage to achieve. Its structure is heavily inspired by Hearts of Darkness, with Marlow and Kurtz twisted into a Son-Father dynamic and many of the stop offs on the way McBride encounters eerily reminiscent of the adventures of Marlow. Is there a longer trek down the river than crossing the Solar System? 

Within this framework, Gray throws in an earnest meditation on the nature of mankind’s yearnings and how our instincts collide between our dreams for an unattainable unknown and the world around us. All of this accompanied by Pitt’s Conradesque voiceover, as McBride muses over his own internal struggles, doubts, inadequacies, frustrations and sorry all bubbling beneath his calmly controlled exterior.

Its Pitt’s film and Ad Astra is a reminder that he is an actor who looks to push himself to his absolute limits. Here he carries the whole film, for long stretches alone, his eyes conveying the cool professionalism and self-control of McBride, along with his own far-more-fragile-than-appears psyche. Carrying burdens of loss and regret, McBride seems to see crises that he encounters in space as relief from his own internal struggles. Whenever the shit hits the fan, McBride is the coolest man in the room (his commanding officers admiringly state his pulse rate never seems to go above about 80 in even the most life-threatening situations) and from tumbling from the outer atmosphere, evading pirates in a moon buggy in space or manually landing a spacecraft, he never fails at his professional duty. Only when confronted with the emotions of his own life is he left with his composure fractured.

Pitt conveys the isolation and pain of McBride extremely well, with acting and expressions so subtle they carry all the more emotional force. It’s a controlled and perfectly judged performance that powers the entire film, and bears a lot of the thematic weight of Gray’s invention. 

Gray’s direction is powered by clear memories of 2001 and Solaris (although I also felt echoes of Danny Boyle’s space horror Sunshine in its fascination with the dread and danger of the vastness of space not to mention Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar). It looks fantastic with a wonderful score, ambitiously grasping for importance.

Episodic as it moves from location to location, Gray’s film creates a convincing world of the future, where mankind has disputed colonies on the moon (space pirates roam between bases, taking hostages like Somalian pirates), space travel is commercialised (by Virgin of course) and people live and die on a far-flung underground base on Mars. While I did briefly think about the enormous cost of all this space travel with its huge fuel consumption and debris of discarded rocket sections (how on earth is this commercially viable?), not to mention the trouble that would be involved in erecting giant neon cowboys on the Moon, it’s convincing.

Gray’s film wants to delve into the mysteries of humanity, and McBride Snr’s entire life has been dedicated to the quest for finding out that we are part of something larger than ourselves, that we are not alone. Gray wonders perhaps if this shark-like desire we have for moving forward, the ruthlessness we display in leaving the past behind in quest for the future, perhaps mars us as a species, prevents us from finding contentment around us and leads to us damaging this world we have been given in our search to make it larger.

But the more Gray’s film closes its grip, the more themes seem to slip through its fingers. The journey is compelling in its creation of a series of worlds, Brad Pitt’s dedicated performance, and the sense of danger and the array of questions that the film throws up. But while 2001 in many ways manages to feel like it is about everything and nothing, so wonderfully engrained is the magical poetry in its soul, here it feels like the film gets less and less engaging the further the journey goes. The destination sadly cannot match the voyage, however beautifully filmed that voyage is.

Instead when the film arrives, we find it becoming more and more bogged down in father-son issues that feel just cheaper and less interesting than the more spiritual and enigmatic concerns the film has for much of the rest of its running time. Not helped by a disengaged performance from Tommy Lee Jones, the more the film heads into this territory the more it seems to lose the depth it aimed for earlier. Late attempts to restore the enigma, mystery and universality don’t succeed to completely restore the feeling that this is classic science-fiction poetry. It’s a shame as Gray’s film as many wonderful moments, beautiful craft in its making and a wonderful performance by Pitt – but it feels in the end as about much less than it could have been. But for all this, there is a magic unknowingness about it that could have it hailed as a classic in years to come.

M*A*S*H (1970)

Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt and Donald Sutherland are three madcap surgeons in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H  a film that looks less screwball and more misogynist every day

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Donald Sutherland (Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce), Elliott Gould (Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre), Tom Skerritt (Captain “Duke” Bedford), Sally Kellerman (Major Margaret Hoolihan), Robert Duvall (Major Frank Burns), Roger Bowen (Lt Col Henry Blake), Rene Auberjonois (Father Mulcahy), David Arkin (SSgt Wade Vollmer), Jo Ann Pflug (Lt Maria “Dish” Schneider), Jon Schuck (Captain “The Painless Pole” Waldowski), Carl Gottlieb (Captain “Ugly John” Black)

Robert Altman’s counter-culture M*A*S*H was his first (and probably only) unreserved smash hit, the film where Altman cemented his style as a director. Although set in the Korean War, the film was clearly more about attitudes towards Vietnam. Today M*A*S*H is probably more well known as the filmic spring board for the extremely long-running TV show starring Alan Alda (which, at 11 years, lasted seven years longer than the war it was set in). 

M*A*S*H (like the series) covers the mad-cap antics of the doctors at the 4077thmedicine outpost near the frontlines of the Korean war, a casualty clearing station where young men are patched up and either sent back to the front line or sent home. While the base is a military operation, most of the doctors serving there are drafted civilian doctors rankled by rigid military discipline. The leaders of this prickly bunch are “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland), “Trapper” John (Elliot Gould) and “Duke” Bedford (Tom Skerritt), with their targets ranging from generals to the stiff-backed military figures on the base, specifically the officious but less-competent surgeon Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and Head Nurse Major Hollihan (Sally Kellerman).

M*A*S*H is the first expression of what became Robert Altman’s signature style as a director. The film has a grimy immediacy that throws the audience into the middle of the action, and is cut with an edgy lack of artifice that at the time was seen as barely competent film-making. That didn’t outrage people as much as Altman’s willingness to allow a lack of conventional discipline in dialogue delivery, with actors overlapping wildly, some dialogue drifting out of earshot or not being captured on screen, no real story being developed through it. It’s a deliberately scrappy, scratchy, almost clumsy film shot with a great deal of artistic discipline (including a spot on The Last Supper parody) but cut and sound-edited with a casual precision that makes it feel extraordinarily experimental.

It infuriated its screenwriter Ring Lardner Jnr (no doubt the Oscar that he received soothed his pain), and Altman’s loose, improvisational style and unwillingness to go for conventional framing and style also alienated his leading actors. Altman and Sutherland (with Gould’s support) each pushed for the other to be dismissed from the film (Sutherland has claimed to have never seen the film, and ton have never understood its success; Gould later apologised by letter to Altman and worked with him several times again) and the whole film’s final style – its influential fly-on-the-wall vibe and nose-thumbing lack of formal discipline – can be attributed completely to Altman’s vision and artistic independence.

The film is important as a key landmark in film-making style and in Altman’s development as a director – but there is no other way of saying it, it has dated extraordinarily badly. For those more familiar with the TV show, its tone is going to come as quite a shock. The TV show is a lighter, sillier, more socially conscious creation (increasingly so in its later years) where the tone was more japery and deadpan silliness. The film is cruel, and its lead characters are swaggering, alpha jocks and bullies, whose meanness and astonishing levels of misogyny are constantly celebrated and rewarded. For those who remember Alan Alda as Hawkeye, Donald Sutherland’s viciousness is coming to come as quite a shock!

Hawkeye and Trapper John’s vileness at frequent intervals is pretty hard to stomach (the less said about the racist, unpleasant Duke the better). The film is really keen to show that all this rampant cruel practical jokery is a survival mechanism against the horrors of war, and the difficulty of dealing with patching young soldiers up to send them back out to die. But the film never really gives us a sense of the war, and the surgery scenes (while effective in their bloodiness and counterpointing the frat house atmosphere of the rest of the film) fail to create that ominous sense of senseless never-ending conflict that the film needs to balance out the vileness of the humour. Further, while Hawkeye and Trapper John are both shown to be dedicated and gifted professionals, they also remain two-dimensional figures, never really shown to have an emotional hinterland that expands their work. They are instead more like Wall Street stockbrokers: excellent at their job, but still a pair of arseholes.

Their attitude to women – and the film’s attitude – is beyond troubling today, it’s flat out offensive. The nurses on station are treated as no more than snacks for the men to enjoy, that they are entitled to pick up as often as they like, and who are barely given any character at all. Sex is as much an entitlement as rations. On his promotion to Chief Surgeon, Trapper John demands (half-jokingly) sex, while Hawkeye “volunteers” a woman to help “cure” another character who fears he has turned homosexual and is considering suicide. Counter culture against the war is celebrated throughout – but it shown in this film to be overwhelmingly a masculine campaign, in which women have no place and no equality. Men can feel the war is terrible, and men can rebel against authority, but women exist only to service their needs.

All of this boils down into a real bad taste in the film’s treatment of ultra-professional Major Hoolihan. Reviled by Hawkeye, Trapper John and Duke for the twin crimes of taking her military career seriously and not being interested in sex with Hawkeye, Hoolihan is systematically degraded and humiliated throughout the film. From having her sex with humourless prig and fellow disciplinarian Frank Burns broadcast around the camp (giving her the nickname “Hot Lips” from her pillowtalk, a title she never escapes) to having the shower tent collapsed around her in front of the whole camp to settle a bet about whether she is a “real blonde” or not – her reaction to which we are misogynistically encouraged to view as hysteria, as dismissed by her commanding officer – it’s tough to watch. The one compliment she gets in the film on being a good nurse is accompanied by her insulting nickname, and by the end of the film she has been reduced to being depicted as an air-headed cheerleader at a football game. Even her credits picture shows her ultimate moment of humiliation. She’s seen as a Blue Stocking, unnatural because she is attractive but not willing to be sexually available to men. This is the sort of treatment that could drive a person to suicide, here treated for laughs. It’s impossible to watch with a smile today.

And it’s the dated part of the film as Hawkeye and Trapper are never questioned for this behaviour – indeed they are celebrated and encouraged throughout as fun, cool guys – when in fact they are the worst sort of jock bullies and their antics the sort of tedious frathouse rubbish that blights too many all-male clubs. They are working class Bullingdon boys, who value nothing, with the film giving them passes because they are great surgeons. Sutherland in particular isn’t charming, he’s creepy and unsettlingly cruel, while Gould at least has a madcap goofiness with touches of humanity. 

Two hours with these arseholes is a long time, and the film just plain isn’t funny enough for what it is trying to do – neither does it convey the horrors of war enough, or the men’s understanding of it. More time shown on the surgeons at least acknowledging the horrors might have helped wonders – but the film assumes that we know what they are feeling and just rolls with it. You could generously say they are cruel in a cruel world. But the film never acknowledges the essential meanness of the humour here, and tries to involve us all in it with no sense of conflict or concern. It’s a troubling film to watch today, its rampant sexist cruelty is offensive and its lack of charm purely unintentional. Time will continue to be cruel to it.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are souls in love separated by war in Cold Mountain

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Jude Law (WP Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Eileen Atkins (Maddy), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod Thewes), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Reverend Veasey), Natalie Portman (Sara), Giovanni Ribisi (Junior), Lucas Black (Oakley), Donald Sutherland (Reverend Monroe), Cillian Murphy (Bardolph), Jack White (Georgia), Ray Winstone (Teague), Melora Walters (Lila), Charlie Hunnam (Bosie)

There was no difficult novel Anthony Minghella couldn’t adapt for the big screen. Cold Mountain is as beautiful and handsome a film as any he made, and his masterful scripting of a complex story is testament to his skill. So why is Cold Mountain not more loved? Is it because it’s almost too well made, too handsomely mounted, too literary and intelligent? Is it, actually, trying a little too hard? Is it a Cold Mountain itself, a giant structure of beauty but with an icy heart?

Based on Charles Frazier’s novel, set in the final days of the American Civil War, confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), knowing the war is lost, deserts to return to the woman he loves, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). The two of them have only spoken a few times but they feel a deep personal bond. During the years of war, poverty has hit preacher’s daughter Ada, although she has crafted a life-changing friendship with 18th century trailer trash Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) which has helped her survive. As Inman’s odyssey home leads to him encountering a number of different vignettes that show the despair Civil War has brought to America, Ada struggles to survive and avoid the sinister attentions of home guard enforcer Teague (Ray Winstone).

There is so much to admire in Cold Mountain I want to start there. The photography is beautiful, and the film is assembled with a striking grace and skill. Walter Murch’s editing and sound design is perfect, with each shot of the film being fabulously composed and each carrying a specific message and purpose that contributes to the overall impact. The use of music – a collaboration between T Bone Burnett and Gabriel Yared – is perfect, a series of wonderful period compositions and impactful orchestral pieces. 

Everything about how Minghella captures the feel of the time, the mood of the South heading into war, and the disintegration of social conventions as the war takes hold and lays waste to the land, rings completely true. From the celebrations of the young men at the film’s start, to the increasingly haunted, tragic look of Jude Law’s Inman as he discovers new horrors at every point in his journey, you know war is hell. Minghella ironically opens the film with a catastrophic defeat for the North – but the slaughter disgusts Inman, and his burial under mounds of rubble during an explosion leads to a spiritual rebirths with Inman deciding senseless killing isn’t worth the candle any more. In a war of willing volunteers, how do we respond when these volunteers don’t want to keep fighting?

And why should they, as each of the various vignettes Inman walks through is a wasteland of moral collapse? From a sex-obsessed preacher (an amusing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has lost his morals to a tragic widow desperately trying to feed her baby (Natalie Portman, effectively stealing the whole show with an intense performance of utter desolation), everything Inman sees shows that nothing is worth all this. The film gets a very good sense of the drive that pushes Inman forward: constantly moving, he’s rarely seen sitting or resting. Each of the Odyssey-inspired stories gives him something to reflect on, or another opportunity for moral and emotional torment , from dragging bodies in a chain gang to avoiding the lustful advances of a group of hillbilly sirens who trap deserters for money.

Meanwhile, things ain’t much better on the homefront, where corrupt bullies like Teague (a slightly too obvious Ray Winstone) are enforcing their own law at the expense of justice. Poverty is also the impact of war, and poor Ada suffers hugely from this, as supplies run low and eventually out. Minghella’s swift and skilful establishment of character shows from the start how Ada is a stranger in a strange land, a middle-class town girl who is completely unsuited for country life and utterly unready to fend for herself when the chips are down without support. 

Is it any wonder in this world, that Inman and Ada cling to memories? Part of the film’s effect depends on how you respond to the romantic bond between these two clinging to a few brief moments (a few exchanges and one immensely passionate kiss on the day of Inman’s departure). It’s an old-fashioned, sweeping, love story and it depends on you relating to that old-fashioned mythic love story. I’m not sure that the film quite sells this as effectively as it could do. Somehow, perhaps because Inman is so insular and Ada a little too difficult to relate to, the passion between them can’t quite carry the sweep that the film demands, even as Minghella skilfully intercuts between them.

Nicole Kidman in particular feels miscast as Ada. Kidman is too intelligent, too determined and strong a performer to convince as a woman who is unable to look after herself and nearly succumbs to fear – she’s just not an actress I can picture cowering in fear in front of an angry rooster. Kidman does her best, but the character never really wins the sympathy that we need for the performance to work. Jude Law has much more to work with as Inman, brilliantly communication a whole world of feeling with very little dialogue. 

What works less well with Law is that his plotline just doesn’t quite grip enough. The vignettes are often entertaining, but feel like episodic sketches, and the sense of a building picture of the despair of the South doesn’t quite come into shape as much in practice as it does in theory. Frankly, after a while, you are ready for Inman’s journey to come to an end and for him to intersect with Ada’s plotline back at Cold Mountain (which is built around a consistent group of characters who engage our interest).

In the home front storyline you’ll be relieved with the entrance (almost an hour into the film) of Renée Zellweger’s blowsy Ruby, a loud-mouthed, trailer-trash woman with a heart of gold and a mastery of farming who effectively saves Ada’s life. It’s a loud, big, Oscar-winning performance from Zellweger that plays with being a little broad, but is skilfully balanced by the slow reveal that this personality is a cover that Ruby uses to hide her own pain. Added to this depth, her heart-warming presence carries such simple pleasure and colour compared to the more muted performances from the leads that you welcome it. 

Because Inman and Ada don’t quite work as a romantic couple. There is something slightly cold about them, slightly hard to relate to. And for all the intense and brilliant construction and filming of the film – and the mastery of Minghella’s writing and direction – it never makes them into the sort of classic romantic couple you care for. You want to connect with it more than you ever really do, and whether that is down to miscasting or the lack of intense chemistry between them I’m not sure, but it means Cold Mountain never becomes the great romantic tragedy it should be. You want a film this good to be as good as it feels – and it never quite is.

Ordinary People (1980)

Mary Taylor Moore, Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland pose for an awkward picture in family troubles drama Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford

Cast: Donald Sutherland (Calvin Jarrett), Mary Taylor Moore (Beth Jarrett), Timothy Hutton (Conrad Jarrett), Judd Hirsch (Dr Tyrone Berger), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine Pratt), M. Emmet Walsh (Coash Salan), Dinah Manoff (Karen Aldrich), Fredric Lehne (Joe Lazenby), James B Sikking (Roy Hanley)

In 1980, Robert Redford became the first big Hollywood stars to parlay acting success into producing and directing small scale, independent films that otherwise might never have been made. Ordinary People was the first of these – with Redford focusing on staying behind the camera – and it was a big success. It even won four Oscars – best picture, screenplay, supporting actor for Timothy Hutton (despite the fact Hutton is really the lead) and best director for Redford himself (beating out David Lynch for The Elephant Man and Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull). It was a great story for 1980 – the matinee idol turned artist. But is Ordinary People that great a film?

The film covers the emotional collapse of a wealthy middle-class American family after the eldest son Bucky is killed in a boating accident. Younger son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) has had trouble coming to terms with the accident, which he survived, and has only just left an institution after a suicide attempt. His father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is desperate to try and relate to his son again, while his mother Beth (Mary Taylor Moore) remains emotionally distant attempting to put the accident behind them. Conrad starts seeing psychiatrist Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch), to adjust – but the after effects of Bucky’s death continue to tear the family apart.

Nobody really talks about Ordinary People any more do they? Out of all the 1980s Best Picture winners it’s perhaps the most easy to overlook (except maybe for Terms of Endearment). Why is this? Well truth be told it’s just a pretty ordinary picture. There really isn’t much to it. The story it tells of a wealthy family (only a millionaire like Redford could consider these loaded people ordinary) suffering emotional trauma and psychiatry finding the answer has been told so many times before, and since, that there isn’t anything particularly unique or interesting about it. 

In fact Ordinary People is exactly the sort of small-scale, quiet, middle-brow independent film that awards ceremonies slather over and a few years later (never mind over 30!) people struggle to see what the fuss was about. Redford directs the film with a quiet professionalism – the sort of competent craftsmanship and skill with actors that dozens of other directors could have done just as well. His Oscar for best director is especially galling when you consider the artistry and imagination of Scorsese’s direction of Raging Bull, or the unbearable sadness and tragedy Lynch gave The Elephant Man. It’s the sort of direction a non-famous director wouldn’t even have been nominated for.

This film uses shot-reverse-shot like it’s going out of fashion, most of the scenes are conversations across tables that are weighted down so heavily with meaning you start to lose interest in them. The score uses Pachelbel’s music in such an overwhelming style, it makes that sound as anodyne as much of the rest of the movie. Maybe it’s just because this is such well-trodden ground, but the revelations towards the end of the movie are so blindingly obvious you wonder why it takes so long to get to them (the son blames himself, the mother blames the son and doesn’t love him as much as the dead son, the father wants the two to kiss and make-up). 

This rotates around a series of psychiatrist scenes which at least have the feeling of actual sessions, even if Judd Hirsch (good as he is here) basically plays the sort of revelation inspiring psychiatrist that only appears in movies. The film has a touching faith in the power of analysis being able to solve all problems, and spends so long luxuriating in scenes like this it virtually forgets to put actual living, breathing characters in the middle of them. With the possible exception of the father, none of these characters feel particularly real – they are just mouthpieces for the plot.

Not that it’s badly acted at all. Timothy Hutton made his film debut here and he brings a real fire and passion to the role, as well as a moving emotional vulnerability and anger directed only at himself. The supporting actor Oscar feels a bit of a cheat, as he’s clearly the lead, but he’s very good here as Conrad, struggling to express himself, bottling up his feelings and lashing out at those around him. It’s a part that feels drawn together from bits and pieces of plot requirement, but Hutton plays it to the hilt – it just doesn’t feel like a really real person, more a collection of sad traits.

Mary Taylor Moore is in a similar situation as a mother so cold and distant from her son, so repressed and controlling her distance starts damaging the entire family. She’s unable to process what has happened so almost wants to pretend nothing has (and blames her son for not doing that same), that it again feels like something from a psychiatric case-study rather than real person. Moore gained particular attention at the time as she was best known for comedy (much like Judd Hirsch, famous for the sitcom Taxi) – so the performance at the time might have looked stronger than it actually was.

The best performance might well come from Donald Sutherland in the least flashy role as the father trying to puzzle out what is going on – and trying to work out his own feelings. It’s the only character that feels less like a construct and more a genuine person, whose answers aren’t easily worked out by a bit of psychology study. Sutherland is low-key, tender, gentle and carries all his emotion on the inside – it’s a subtle and excellent performance, overlooked way too much. 

Redford essentially directed an actor’s film here (it’s all about the big moments of acting) so it’s not a surprise that it seized the attention of the Academy (largely made-up of actors) but really it’s not that far away from a well-made “movie of the week”,  with its obvious beats and not particularly surprising revelations. Perhaps it’s the point that the family’s problems seem a lot more apparent to the viewer than they do to the characters – and there is some interesting development of perceptions, not least from Sutherland’s father who starts to come to profound realisations about his wife and son. 

But Ordinary Peopleis an uninspiring and even rather tame drama, that today looks even more low-key and insubstantial. While it tries to break free from the confines of “social drama” it actually wants to tie everything up with a neat bow psychologically – and despite the fact it has an ending that suggests not everything is perfect, it really concludes with a safe full stop. There is a reason why it’s surely one of the best pictures which has been most forgotten about.