Tag: Ewan McGregor

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Ridley Scott’s immersive combat film is politically simple but one of the great combat films

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Josh Hartnett (SSG Matt Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (SPC John Grimes), Eric Bana (SFC Norm ‘Hoot’ Gibson), Tom Sizemore (LTC Danny McKnight), Sam Shepard (General William F Garrison), Ron Eldard (CWO4 Michael Durant), William Fichtner (SFC Jeff Sanderson), Jeremy Piven (SW4 Clifton Wolcott), Ewen Bremner (SPC Shawn Nelson), Gabriel Casseus (SPC Mike Kurth), Hugh Dancy (SFC KURT Schmid), Jason Isaacs (CPT Mike Steele), Tom Hardy (SPC Lance Twombly), Orlando Bloom (PFC Todd Blackburn), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (MSG Gary Gordon), Johnny Strong (SFC Randy Shughart)

On 4 October 1993, the US won a pyrrhic victory supporting UN efforts to prevent genocide in the Somalian Civil War. A mission in Mogadishu to capture the lieutenants of rebel leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid collapsed into a desperate overnight street battle as Aidid’s forces rose up en masse (up to 4,000 of them) in an attempt to cut off and wipe out the c. 160 US troops.

Although the majority escaped, it was one of the most costly American operations since Vietnam, with the loss of 18 dead and 73 wounded and two Black Hawk helicopters shot down. As many as 2,000 Somalians were also killed. Pictures of the bodies of American soldiers dragged through the streets by Somalian rebels led to a major realignment of US foreign policy, with a reluctance to join future peace keeping operations (most notably the Rwandan genocide).

This is bought to the screen in a virtuoso directorial achievement by Ridley Scott, one of the most immersive and gripping war films ever made. Black Hawk Down doesn’t shirk on an inch of the war experience. Combat is loud, sudden, all-consuming and a barrage on the senses. It’s scary, confusing and always unforgiving. Mud, blood and dirt are flung into a camera that runs through streets alongside the soldiers, embedded with them under siege. The slightest lack of focus or mistake is punished by horrific injury or death. The battle is a nightmare of confusion and desperate improvisation in which neither side (especially the Americans) really knows what’s going on.

It’s not surprising they don’t. The film expertly demonstrates how a multi-approach plan (helicopters delivering ground forces, an armed convoy to collect prisoners) was effectively a rashly planned house of cards, which collapsed when the hornet’s nest of an uncontrolled city, crammed with thousands of potential hostiles, roadblocks and a prepared and dedicated enemy (willing to suffer a level of loss the Americans were not) was unleashed. Ground forces are stranded, helicopters shot down, the exposed convoy becomes a slow-moving hospital, all under constant fire in a dusty, urban centre where every single civilian could be a enemy combatant.

Scott shoots and edits this with pulse-pounding intensity, aided by the dizzying camera work of Sławomir Idziak and the high-octane cutting of Pietro Scalia, whose work grips you by the throat and never lets go. It’s a “grunt’s-eye” view of the war, that puts the viewer very much in the trenches with the soldiers. We pretty much join them running through gauntlets of bullets, ducking into foxholes and desperately trying to stay alive. Scott’s work is outstanding here, a brilliant depiction of the chaos of battle in which events are both intimidatingly out of control but also crystal clear to the audience, assembled with a never-lets-up energy leaving the viewer tense and breathless.

As Eric Bana’s fiercely professional Hoot says “it’s about the man next to you”. That’s very much what Black Hawk Down is about. There’s very little context about the American operation in Somalia, the Somalian people, the impact on long-term American politics…  The film believes the whys and wherefores are less important than protecting the lives of your colleagues.

Argument has raged about whether Black Hawk Down is pro-war or not. I’m not convinced it is. Can a film which shows soldiers maimed, disfigured and literally torn in two, really be a celebration of war? But, what it clearly is, is pro-the American fighting man. The training and expertise of these soldiers – trained to make every shot count and keep their cool in terrifying situations – is crucial to their survival. (The scattergun indiscipline of the Somalian rebels is noticeable by comparison – and it’s fair to note that Black Hawk Down gives very little focus to the Somalians at all, other than as a faceless hostile mass).

The film is in awe of the soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other: the dramatization of Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart’s request to be dropped in to provide some sort of cover to one of the downed Black Hawk pilots (a request they know is a suicide mission) exemplifies “leave no man behind” bravery. Black Hawk Down is a tribute to soldiers.

Interestingly though, that also means it’s a film where characters are more important for what they do rather than who they are. We learn very little personal information about any of them. Hartnett’s newly-promoted SSG has sympathy for the Somali people and is nervous about his first command mission. McGregor’s admin officer is unsettled by his first field operation. Sizemore and Isaacs are professional officers, executing orders to the best of their ability; Fichtner and Bana experienced Rangers, samurai trained to adapt and improvise. But their personalities are only hooks to hang their deeds on. Each melts into the large cast as needed. Black Hawk Down is the triumph of the unit – be that fighting together or some member volunteering to die to help protect others.

It is fair to argue the film should have done more to contextualise events. Black Hawk Down focuses so much on celebrating the bravery of soldiers, it skips any political impact: it’s not made clear in the end captions that the US effectively withdrew from its peace-keeping responsibilities for years afterwards (only shocked back into it by 9/11). It never mentions the UN were slow to respond as they had been caught in an almost identical disaster a few weeks before (a lesson the US didn’t bother to learn from). It never mentions the cost of non-intervention in places like Rwanda. It never explores how these events – and American complacency, not least in the committed-but-unengaged soldiers – were a step toward a terrorist world that would culminate in 9/11.

Scott was aiming to make an immersive film. Perhaps his work on films like Body of Lies (and even Kingdom of Heaven) later was about adding more shading and depth to his presentation of world affairs (and critique of American policy). But, in its intent, Black Hawk Down is a triumph, one of the most unrelenting and compelling combat films ever made. You can argue it turns the Somalis into bogey men fighters – but it’s trying (rightly or wrongly) to be a representation of a single military action, from a single side’s perspective. And there is no doubt this is one of Scott’s finest achievements – and one of the great war films.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor make a love story for the ages in Luhrmann’s electric Moulin Rouge!

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Monroth), John Leguizamo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinian), Caroline O’Connor (Nini), Kerry Walker (Marie), David Wenham (Audrey)

It’s 20 years old now and I still don’t think there has been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! Believe me it’s not for want of trying. Baz Luhrmann’s hugely inventive, uniquely stylistic musical is cinematic marmite: either loved or reviled (not sure I’ve ever met anyone who had a meh attitude to it). One of the pioneering inventors of the juke-box musical, Moulin Rouge! mixes pop songs with inspiration from opera to Greek myth and comes up with something Spectacular, Spectacular.

It’s the turn of the century, and Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris looking for truth, inspiration and above all: love. Arriving at Montmartre, he and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) fall in love. Satine is the star at Harold Zidler’s (Jim Broadbent) Moulin Rouge and also the star of Zidler’s planned stage show. She has been promised to his wealthy backer the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). With Christian commissioned to write the script, can he and Satine hide their love from the Duke and make sure the Show Goes On? Or will tragedy strike?

Fast paced and electric, Moulin Rouge! could inspire motion sickness, especially in its opening 15 minutes which throw us deep into its unconventional medley of styles, tones and inspirations. Did that first 15 minutes lose a lot of people? You can imagine it as the earliest scenes featuring Christian’s meeting with Toulouse-Lautrec and the other Bohemians are by far its weakest. If your irritation grows at these shrill scenes (crudely over-acted with an overbearing Keaton-ish energy), I can well imagine thousands of viewers checked out in Luhrmann’s music inspired Moulin Rouge can-can musical with its explosion of rap, Nirvana, Lady Marmalade and insanely quick cutting. It’s a statement opening – and throws you straight into its heightened reality. A tone that continues for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Luhrmann leaves nothing in the locker room here. Only a director of such exuberance, playfulness – but also deep skill and understanding of high and low culture – could have balanced it as well as he does. Go with it and you’ll love it. It’s pure operatic entertainment. Luhrmann’s master-stroke is to shoot a period musical in the style of the high-velocity music-video pop that excited people in 2001 – finally you get a sense of why the Moulin Rouge and can-can seemed so exciting and sexy back then. It’s a night-club of 1999, thrown into 1899.

But what makes the film work after that initial explosion of energy – and I’ll agree that the first 15 minutes tries too hard to grab your attention – is that Luhrmann mixes the styles up so effectively. There is everything here, from Busby Berkeley numbers to heartfelt love ballads to dreamy duets to a sexual tango to a classic theatrical set-piece, tinged with a spot of tragedy. Every musical number seems inspired by a different genre and style of musical theatre. And the use of modern pop music is fun, entertaining and mines the emotional connection we all feel for the best pop songs.

It’s an MTV pop musical, mixed with Gene Kelly, lashes of camp, cheeky humour and finally tragedy and suffering. It’s got a million cuts in it, but Luhrmann successfully makes the film darker, slower and more intimate as the film progresses. From the electric dynamism of the opening, this becomes an increasingly personal tragedy revolving around five key characters. It never loses that sense of showmanship – Zidler’s planned production is an overblown Bollywood inspired extravaganza that delights in recreating the joy and brashness of that genre – but the final hour is a more adult, foreboding movie with plenty of heart.

Moulin Rouge! is all about Luhrmann’s gadfly brilliance to discover inspiration from a host of sources, pulling it together into something brilliantly original, from the plot – which is inspired by La Boheme by way of Orpheus and Eurydice – to brilliant montage songs like the Elephant Love Song Medley, which takes snippets from nearly every popular love song you’ve ever heard. Very few films can switch so effortlessly from cheeky, end-of-the-pier humour to gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s energy effectively and brilliantly applied, and that comes from the director (who was, of course, inexplicably not among the films eight Oscar nominations).

Luhrmann also gets the actors to perform with the sort of energetic, fully-committed exuberance the film needs. The principals go at every single scene with no hesitations at all – bless them, none have any concern with appearing silly at all. McGregor reveals a sweetness and earnestness (as well as very strong singing voice) he hadn’t shown before. Kidman was an absolute revelation as a woman hiding doubt, insecurity and fear under an exterior of pure confidence. Broadbent’s comedic brilliance is matched with his dramatic flair. Roxburgh is hilarious, and also vile, as the selfish Duke. Luhrmann recognises their strength – after the first 10 minutes every scene features at least two of these performers.

Things have clearly been cut here and there. Motivations and even characterisations of some of the other members of the Moulin Rouge troupe change from scene-to-scene. Sometimes it tries too hard to be inventive. But it works so often that it hardly matters. And the remixes of the songs for performance are outstanding. The “Like a Virgin” Busby Berkely number is hilarious, the “Roxanne Tango” breath-takingly influential. “The Show Must Go On” is powerfully doom-laden and “Your Song” beautifully romantic. “Come What May” – the only original number – is an iconic ballad.

There’s not been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! – and Luhrmann has never managed to match it again since. Electric, dynamic, exciting, heartfelt, moving and above all extremely joyful, it has some brilliantly judged performances from its lead actors. There hasn’t been anything like it since – and I’m pretty sure we won’t see it’s like again.

The Impossible (2013)

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland survive extreme circumstances in The Impossible

Director: JA Bayona

Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Marta Etura (Simone), Sönke Möhring (Karl), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman)

In 2004 the Boxing Day tsunami hit the Indian ocean. The resulting tidal waves devastated communities in several countries, with almost a quarter of a million casualties. The impact left rich and poor alike in a desperate struggle to survive. These terrible events form the basis of this emotionally powerful, if sometimes manipulative, film that recreates the remarkable story of a Spanish family, separated in the tsunami, who all miraculously survived.

Here the family is re-imagined as British (presumably to sell the film around the world a little easier, as they now all speak English). Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who for the last few years has been a stay-at-home mum for her three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), on the cusp of becoming a teenager, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendegast), both younger. Her husband is businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor). Staying in Thailand for a Christmas vacation, the family are separated when the tsunami hits their resort. Maria (badly injured) and Lucas make their way to a hospital, where Lucas struggles to get the life-saving treatment his mum needs. Henry is trapped in the resort with their other two sons, desperately trying to find his missing wife and child. Around them swirl an entire country of refugees and affected people, all of them trying to find family members.

The Impossible gets an awful lot right. The recreation of the tsunami is faultless. You’ll feel every moment of terror as the water rips through the family’s high-end vacation spot. As Maria and Lucas are swept far away by a deep swell of fast-flowing water (stuffed with mud, filth and debris) you’ll feel every blow to bodies as debris hammers into them, and feel like you’ve lived through every moment of desperation as the two fight against the current to reach each other. The sense of powerlessness and fear – a mother trying to be brave for her son, a son frightened and desperate for reassurance, ashamed at being scared – are powerful, deeply affecting and hugely immersive. Bayona’s experience of directing horror comes wonderfully into play here, as he knows exactly how to push our buttons and make us feel the emotion, fear and anxiety of the situation.

This tone continues through most of the film’s first hour which largely follows Maria and Lucas as they attempt to reach the hospital. Running on adrenalin, Maria only slowly begins to succumb to exhaustion as her grievous wounds (smashed ribs, a horrifically graphic leg injury) sap her strength, even while she tries to maintain an air of calm for her son. What is intriguing in this sequence is that, like a set of scales, as the mother becomes weaker the son becomes stronger – Lucas suddenly propelled into become an adult. Lucas increasingly takes decisions on how best to survive, argues at times for hard calls and becomes, in many ways, the adult in the situation.

This sequence is helped hugely by the performances of the two actors. The physical commitment of every actor isn’t to be doubted (Holland and Watts spent hellish weeks in water tanks filming – although this is only relative compared to the horror of the actual tsunami). Watts (Oscar-nominated) brings power to a mother who believes she is the only thing her son has left in the world, and must survive at all costs for him. Her buttoning down of her terror for as long as she can is deeply moving, and she brings the part significant heart. Tom Holland is simply a revelation as Lucas. He develops an authority well beyond his years, the complexity of the emotions he deals with – from fear to anger and defiance, determination, anxiety, relief and despair – would have challenged an actor three times his age. Holland never loses trace of the central kindness in Lucas – no matter how desperate the situation – and he is the undoubted star of the film, his portrayal of a child forced to grow up scarily quickly is deeply affecting.

Ewan McGregor offers similarly excellent work. Left searching through the rubble of his holiday home, McGregor brilliantly captures a sense of a father trying to deny that his control over events has disappeared. He excels in an extremely moving breakdown scene – after finally contacting his wife’s parents in the UK, he collapses in desperate, uncontrollable sobs of guilt and fear, apologising for not knowing what to do. It’s some of the actor’s best work, brilliantly tapping into his natural warmth for excellent effect.

Where the film struggles more is in its focus. While it is a story of one – affluent – Western family, so naturally its focus will be there, it does turn the rest of the cast into little more than extras. Some focus is given to the Thai people: a group of poor local people is crucial in saving Maria and Lucas’ lives and getting them to a hospital, their immediate humanity and generosity reducing Maria (and the audience) to tears of gratitude, but that’s the only real look we get at them. The hospital where a large part of the story is set is full of Westerners, bar the staff. All the victims we spend significant time with are white and Western (all are presented sympathetically, bar a pair of Americans for whom the tsunami is a holiday inconvenience).

But you could watch the film and not realise that so many of the people who died were part of the indigenous population – and while thousands of Westerners also perished, the survivors did at least return to their homes, whereas those living in affected countries lost everything.

The film’s other flaw is the manipulative tone it moves into late on, in particular a series of prolonged “missed moments” as the separated family walk around the hospital, just missing each other. This may well have actually happened, but is so contrived that it feels like a narrative flourish. The plot slows down in the second half as the characters search for each other. The film’s final title cards were a perfect opportunity to bring more focus to other victims – and to mention the death toll and impact on the countries – but avoids all of this to simply confirm it’s based on a true story.

The Impossible has lots of powerful moments. Its moments of emotion are raw and affecting and, manipulative as it is, you do celebrate when the family is reunited. But it’s also a film that loses its way a bit – which captures a superb survivalist story but then becomes too sentimental towards its end. And by not doing more to acknowledge the impact on the Thai people, among others, you can’t help but feel it turns this tsunami into something that affected rich, white, Westerners – which is harder to forgive.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Stellan Skarsgård is the Russian traitor whose secrets pose a danger for the British elite in Our Kind of Traitor

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry MacKendrick), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Naomie Harris (Gail MacKendrick), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Mark Stanley (Ollie)

John Le Carré’s works often revolve around a dark, cynical view of government agencies as corrupt, indolent and focused on petty or personal concerns rather than doing what’s best for the country and its people. Is it any wonder that there has been such a burst of interest in adaptations on film and television of his work? 

Our Kind of Traitor is straight out of the Le Carré wheelhouse. On a holiday to save their marriage (after his infidelity), Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomi Harris) bump into charismatic Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Perry and he strike up a surprising friendship – and before he knows it Perry is agreeing to carry information from Dima to the British intelligence services. This attracts the attention of MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) who sees this as an opportunity to expose the corrupt links between Russian criminals and high-level British bankers and politicians. Dima, however, will only hand over the goods if he is promised asylum for his family – something the British authorities, aware of the mess his revelations could cause, are not happy to allow…

Susanna White, veteran of some excellent television series of the last few years, puts together a confidently mounted and generally well-paced drama, with many of the expected Le Carré twists and turns. If she leans a little too heavily on the murk – the green and blue filters on the camera get a big workout here – it does at least mean that we get a real sense of the twilight world the characters operate in, meaning flashes of wide open space and bright daylight carry real impact. She also really understands how violence is often more shocking when we see the reaction of witnesses rather than the deed itself – all the most violent and tragic events in the film are seen at least partly from the perspective of the reactions of those witnessing them. The sense of danger on the edges of every action, stays with us while watching this unjust nightmare unravel.

It also works really well with one of the core themes of the movie: our ability to feel empathy for other people and how it affects our choices. Dima is driven towards defection because of his distaste for the increasing violence of the next generation of Russian criminals, and their lack of discrimination about who they harm. He’s all but adopted the orphaned children of a previous victim of violence, and his motivation at all points is to insure his family’s safety. Hector, our case officer, is motivated overwhelmingly by a sense of tragic, impotent fury about his rival ensuring Hector’s son is serving a long sentence in prison for drug smuggling.

And Perry is pulled into all this because he has a strong protective streak – something that eventually saves his marriage. Perry frequently throws himself forward to protect the weak, with no regard for his safety, from his unending efforts to protect Dima’s family to throwing himself in fury at a mobster roughing up a young woman. His intense empathy and protective streak motor all his actions and run through the whole movie.

It’s a shame then that his actual character isn’t quite interesting enough to hold the story together. Nothing wrong with McGregor’s performance, the character itself is rather sketchily written. Aside from his protectiveness we don’t get much of a sense of him and – naturally enough – he’s often a passenger or witness to events around him. Similarly, Naomie Harris does her best with a character that barely exists.

Instead the plaudits (and meaty parts) go to Skarsgård and Lewis. Skarsgård dominates the film with an exuberant, larger than life character who never feels like a caricature and reveals increasing depths of humanity and vulnerability beneath the surface. Lewis matches him just as well, at first seeming like a buttoned-up George Smiley type, but with his own tragic background motivating a long-term career man to slowly build his own conscience.

Our Kind of Traitor handles many of these personal themes very well, but it doesn’t quite manage to tie them into something that really feels special. Instead this feels a bit more like a Le Carré-by- numbers. We get the shady secret services, government greed, good people trapped in the middle – even some of the characters, from the foul-mouthed spook played by Mark Gatiss to Jeremy Northam’s jet black Aubrey, seem like they could have appeared in any number of his novels. 

There is a film here that is wanting to be made about the invasion of the UK by dirty Russian money – but it never quite comes out as this Dante-esque, Miltonian spiral. Instead the film too often settles for more functional thrills, a more traditional or middle-brow approach that works very well while you watch it, but doesn’t go the extra mile to turn this into something you will really remember.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

He hates sand you know. Anakin puts the moves on Padmé in Attack of the Clones

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (Senator Padmé Amidala), Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Joel Edgerton (Owen Lars), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi)

Nothing could be as bad as The Phantom Menace. Surely? Well, umm, Attack of the Clones is pretty bad, but it’s not quite as stodgy and racist as the first one. It really isn’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still tone death, poorly written, crappily directed, poorly assembled, textbook bad film-making disguised under a lot of money.

Anyway, ten years have crawled by since Phantom Menace. Padmé (Natalie Portman) is now a senator campaigning against a revolutionary Separatist movement in the Republic, led by mysterious former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). After a failed assassination attempt, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padewan pupil Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) are assigned to protect her. After another assassination attempt throws up a strange link to a mysterious planet of industrial cloners, Obi-Wan investigates leaving Padmé in Anakin’s care: but the two of them are falling in love, strictly against the rules of the Jedi order.

Sigh. Attack of the Clones is once again a mess, overly computer engineered, badly directed by a director with no knack for visual storytelling other than throwing special effects at the screen. It has a densely disinteresting plot about shady dealings around a mysterious Clone army that eventually the film doesn’t bother to resolve. Lucas shoots the entire film in a shiny, sterile, entirely computer generated environment that looks worse and worse the older the film gets. It builds towards a series of clashes at the end that have impressive spectacle on first viewing, but are hugely empty viewing experiences the more you come back to them. But all this isn’t even the film’s main problem.

First and foremost, the most egregious problem with this film is the romance at its heart. This romance, whose impact is meant to be felt through every film is to come, is as clumsy and unconvincing as anything you are likely to see. Not for one second are you convinced that this couple could ever actually be a thing. For starters Anakin is a whiny, preening, chippy rather dull man who over the course of the film murders a village full of people. Hardly the sort of character to make women swoon. On top of this, his romantic banter and tendency of staring blankly and possessively at Padmé has all the charm of a would-be stalker, mentally planning out the dimensions of the basement he’ll imprison his love in. 

Padmé is hardly much more engaging. Her way of handling this love-struck young man, who she claims she doesn’t want to encourage? To flirt with him in a series of increasingly revealing costumes, while constantly telling him “no we can’t do anything” – for unspecified reasons. But then as she says “you’ll always be that 12 year old boy to me” (Oh yuck George!). Portman looks she can barely raise any interest in holding Anakin’s hand, let alone conceiving future generations of Skywalkers. The desperate attempt to create a sense of “love across the divide” falls flat, flat, flat with all the sweep of a Casualty romance of the week. Put it frankly, we are never ever given any reason at all for us to think that they have any reason to be in love.

Despite all this the film desperately tries to throw them together into a series of clichéd romantic encounters, from candle-lit meals to gondola cruises around the lakes of Naboo. Jesus the film even throws in a flirtatious picnic (in which, true to form, Anakin espouses the benefits of totalitarianism, hardly the sort of thing to get a young girl’s heart fluttering!) followed by a roll around in the long grass after a bit of horseplay. To be honest it’s sickening and all the fancy dressing in the world never disguises the utter lack of chemistry between either characters or actors. And you’ll suffer with the actors who are trawling through the appalling “romantic” dialogue. The infamous “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth” sums it up – especially as Anakin ends it with stroking Amidala’s exposed shoulder possessively. Late in the film Padmé says “I’ve been dying inside since you came back into my life” – I know how she fuckin’ feels.

But then to be honest nothing really works in this simply terrible film. Of course a lot of the blame rests with Lucas whose overwhelming ineptitude as a writer and director is exposed in scene after scene. Most of the dialogue lacks any wit or lightness at all, constantly straining for a grandeur it can’t deliver and reads like George simply knocked out the first draft and left it at that. As for his directing: the camera positioning lacks any imagination what-so-ever. Most scenes that don’t have lightsabers feature characters sitting talking at each other to fill in plot details (I’m not joking here, there are so many different designs of chairs in this film it’s like strolling around IKEA). Sometimes George spices it up by having characters work slowly and aimlessly from A to B telling each other the plot (I’m failing to resist saying this is a pretty decent metaphor from the film).

The film shakes this up with a few action sequences which either tediously ape things we’ve seen before, but not-as-good (a chase through an asteroid field smacks of Empire Strikes Back) or having a computer game realism to them that never involves you. A prolonged sequence in a battle droid factory literally looks like a computer game from its hideously shiny lack of realism, to its logic, to the way George shoots it with the conveyor belt moving relentlessly forward visually like a dated platform game.

In fact computer game is a pretty good way of thinking about this film. When making this film, Lucas was convinced this would be the start of a new age: that only dull, traditional directors would be building sets and that all the cool kids would make everything in computers. Watching this film today in hi-def blu-ray does it no favours. Lucas’ computer generated sets (in most shots everything except the actors and their costumes are not real) look ridiculously shiny and unrealistic. There is no weight and reality to anything. Instead it all looks like some sort of bizarre, wonky computer visuals. How can you invest in anything in this film when even the goddamn sofa they are sitting on is a visual effect? How can anything have any weight or meaning? Compared to the lived in appearance of the Millennium Falcon, nothing looks realistic or carries any weight at all.

George Lucas isn’t really a director of action either. It’s hard not to compare the epic battles here with the style and substance of the (equally effects filled world) of Lord of the Rings being released at the same time. There, the battle scenes not only carry real emotional weight and peril but also have at least some sense of tactics and story-telling. This is just a collection of special effects being thrown at each other, like an exploding fart in a special effects lab. This makes for events that look impressive when you first see them, but carry no lasting impact: when you revisit the film, nothing feels important or dangerous or coherent – instead it’s just a lot of stuff happening, loudly.

This goes for the famous Yoda-Dooku light saber duel. Sure when I first saw this, seeing a computer generated muppet take on a stunt double with an octogenarian’s face super-imposed on his felt really exciting. But again, on repeated viewings, it’s just a load of wham and bang that kind of leaves you cold (not least because the fight is a showy bore-draw). It’s as ridiculously over-made and over stuffed as half a dozen other fights in the film. It’s almost representative of how crude these prequels are: a character always defined by his intellect and patience in Yoda reduced to a bouncy special effect for a moment of cheap “wow” for the fans. I’ll also throw in the lousy fan service of turning Boba Fett (a character who has a fascination for a lot of fans for no real reason) into an integral part of the Star Wars backstory – as if George intended this character at any point to be so popular, until he released the merchandising opportunities…

Lucas’ direction fails time and time and time again. Even small scenes fall with a splat or feature moments that get the wrong type of chuckles. The moment where Anakin embraces his dying mother? Forever ruined by the snigger worthy collapse of Pernilla August’s Shmi in his arms, looking like a primary school child miming playing dead (tongue out and all) in a school play. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s chase through the skies of Coruscant packed with “jokey” attempted buddy cop lines that never ring true. The film has even more skin crawlingly embarrassing scenes than Phantom Menace, from a sickeningly cutesy room of “younglings” learning Jedi skills to Obi-Wan’s bizarre encounter with a greasy alien in some sort of American diner. There is precisely one moment of wit in the film (Obi-Wan using the force to tell a drug dealer to “You want to go home and rethink your life”). Other than that – nope, it’s poorly made, poorly written, poorly assembled rubbish.

None of the actors emerge with credit. Pity poor old Hayden Christiansen, left to his own devices by Lucas’s inept, direction free, direction. But he is absolutely, drop-down, unreedemably awful in this film. In fact Anakin, far from being a jumping off point, was the death-knell of his career. Was there really no other young actor with charisma who could have stepped in to take this role instead? Portman fairs a tiny bit better, while at least McGregor, Jackson and Lee have enough experience to take care of themselves. But there is no sense of relationship between any of these characters. The two most important relationships Anakin has in the film contain no chemistry: he and Padme and he and Obi-Wan (neither of whom seem to particularly like each other).

Attack of the Clones could never be as disappointing as Phantom Menace (what could?) but it’s far, far, far away from being a good film. It’s got a simply terrible script, is directed with a dull flatness that all the CGI flair and shouting can’t distract you from. There is nothing in there for you to invest emotionally in. It’s built around a relationship that quite frankly doesn’t work at all on any levels. It builds to a random ending that feels like George ran out of ideas rather than because it meets any thematic reason. How could it all have gone so wrong?

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Jedi vs Sith – where did it all go wrong in The Phantom Menace?

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quashie (Captain Panaka), Samuel L Jackson (Mace Windu), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum), Kiera Knightley (Sabé), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi), Brian Blessed (Boss Nass), Ralph Brown (Ric Olié)

Has there ever been a more disappointing film than The Phantom Menace? I don’t think any film has ever opened to so much hype and fan expectation. The Second Coming could have trouble competing with the expectations piled onto this first Star Wars prequel. Everyone thought it would be the film of the year. Until they saw it. No one thought it would be the film of the year after that.

Of course you should have sensed a disturbance in the force the second you read the opening crawl. The first sentence “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic” sounds promising right? Well let that expectation die as we hit the second sentence “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute”. Not exactly a flight for the Empire with the Death Star plans is it? Perhaps only a multi-millionaire like George Lucas could have expected a storyline based around a tax dispute would get the pulses racing. 

But then this is a jumping off point for a seriously shambolic film experience. Phantom Menace is a total mess, an incoherent, poorly scripted, farce of a film, a terrible stumble through a dashed off storyline that makes no sense. Anyway, Naboo is a planet under siege from the Trade Federation. Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to negotiate but things quickly turn to violence and they need to flee the planet with its 14 year old (?) elected (??) Queen (???) Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). On the planet of Tatooine they encounter a 9 year old slave Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with a natural instinct for the force. Qui-Gon wants to train him, while the Galactic Republic tries to resolve the siege of Naboo.

That’s sort of the story – but even writing it down seems episodic and vague. But then that’s everything in the film. Nothing is really clearly explained, and we are never properly introduced to who all the sides are in this film and what they might want. There is a complete lack of any real narrative sense at all. The antagonists and protagonists of the film are hard to define. In fact they are frequently a pile of two dimensional yawns. It’s pretty hard to care about any of them. I guess you feel a bond with Obi-Wan, but that’s based on old films – watch this and Obi-Wan is a do-nothing whiner. 

But all the characters are infected by this. George Lucas is completely unable to bring any characterisations to these people, his lines constantly falling flatly or crappily to the ground, while the actors themselves struggle to find anything to engage it. Harrison Ford famously told Lucas on the first film that “you can type this shit but you can’t say it” – and that’s pretty much nailed on for this film. There is not one single vaguely memorable line in this film. Rather you are struck every second with feeble lines that sound like they might have had depth (“There’s always a bigger fish!”) but when analysed for a second make no sense whatsoever. It’s no wonder Neeson seriously considered quitting acting after this film.

Yes these two characters will get it on in the next film. Yuck.

There isn’t a single character in the film to really invest in. There is no equivalent to your Han Solo, the witty outsider to puncture some of the grandaeur. Instead every character is a flat, po-faced, non-personality who spend all their time in the film very seriously going about their business, never explaining anything. The Jedi are particularly affected by this, written as serious stick-in-the-muds constantly lecturing and ticking off other characters. Qui-Gon Jinn makes a tedious lead character, who constantly gets in the way of the relationship building we need to see between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Because we know where the film series is going, spending time on Qui-Gon feels like wasted time. The backstory is to see the relationship build between Obi-Wan and Anakin – instead they hardly speak in the film, and we instead spend ages on Qui-Gon. It’s poor story-telling and wastes a film showing us unimportant back story rather than spending time on the core stuff. It’s bad enough that we have to waste one third of the prequel series on Anakin Skywalker: The Wesley Crusher Years (seriously has anyone, even a child, ever loved a film where a brattish, super kid is the hero? You won’t be shouting Yiipppeeee…)

Lucas isn’t a director of actors, he’d say the same. But he is supposed to be a master of visuals and special effects. This is a film where everything you could possibly imagine has been thrown at the screen. Each frame is full of complex business, every single section crammed with special effects. There is a lot going on visually all the time, but all of it comes across like an explosion in a colouring book. Unlike the effects of the original trilogy, nothing really feels real or carries any real weight. Instead you see every special effects shot in the film and see frames filled with clutter and shiny, computer generated weightless nonsense. Worst offender is the hideously overextended pod race sequence, like a particularly dull Formula One race, which carries no real stakes (as we all know the result) and, for all the high speed camera work and editing feels not one iota as thrilling as the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi.

On top of this, most of the interventions into the Star Wars backstory makes the original trilogy worse. This is the film that gave us midichlorians, some sort of magic alien thing that lives in blood and gives the Jedi the ability to use the force. The reaction to this midichlorian nonsense, undermining the mystique of the force into something that could measured like a top trump was so negative that it was mentioned at most once in the two sequels. Other areas got similarly scathed, not least turning Anakin Skywalker into the worst form of “gifted child”. I’m not even going to touch on the icky fore-knowledge we have about the fact that Anakin and Padme are going to get it on in the future, something that is hideous to think about.

The most hated character in film history?

Lucas also fudged the new stuff he introduced in the film. The worst element: of course it’s poor old Jar-Jar Binks. I genuinely feel sorry for Ahmed Best, an actor whose career never recovered, who is just doing here what he was told to do. But Binks is the most irritating character possibly ever conceived for a hit blockbuster. An idiotic, comic creation designed for the kids who falls over, trips up, says stupid things and steps in shit he does nothing useful for the whole course of the film and tries to entertain kids who were way more interested in Darth Maul. Binks is almost irredeemable, every sentence enough to send everyone’s teeth on edge. 

Lucas trumpeted how much Binks was setting the trend of being the first major computer generated character. Lucas was incapable of guiding the actors to respond (or even look at) the correct spaces where Binks was standing. And Lucas was so pleased with it, he never stopped to think. Binks makes no sense. Like the rest of the Gungans he’s a joke. There is literally no reason at all for the Jedi to take him anywhere with them, particularly as he constantly gets in the way, causes trouble and offends people. Even in the “desperate” final battle, Binks prats about – compare him to the moments of tragedy and sacrifice given to the Ewoks in Jedi and you’ll see how bad this is.

Yes Watto loves Money. What? What’s the problem?

And of course he and the Gungans are shocking racist caricatures in their Jamaican accent. If you had any doubts that Lucas had no one saying no to him on anything, this film is stuffed with pretty shocking racist characters. Binks is terrible, but the villains of this place are the money obsessed Trade Federation, all with Japanese accents. On Tatooine, Anakin is kept by a greasy, fly ridden, money obsessed, big nosed, fly-covered alien Watto who looks, sounds and acts like a children’s version of The Eternal Jew. Did no one watching the film take a second and say “hang on this looks a bit dodgy…”

All of this nonsense finally comes together in a grand final battle which sums the whole film up, in a sequence where the tone shifts and changes all the time with no sense of a single person doing so intentionally. We have the Gungans comically fighting the droids in a series of awful little vignettes. We have the Queen chasing through the palace in a poorly explained subplot. We have a 9 year old child accidentally flying a ship into space and accidentally blowing up the baseship (Anakin saves the day without even realising it, the one thing that could make the child even more irritating than he already is). And we have the Jedi fighting Darth Maul in a battle that looks impressive at first but is in fact overly busy and overly choreographed. 

The Phantom Menace has few reasons to like it at all. You get bored with the story. You don’t invest in the characters. You don’t engage with the events. You don’t feel your pulse racing. The plot drifts from planet to planet with very little logic at all. The dialogue is terrible. The story telling is abysmal. The direction is flat. The film throws in moments that crap over the original trilogy. Lucas made is wait for decades – but then seems to have produced a film that he didn’t really want to do. It’s a truly dire film.

Beginners (2010)

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor are a father and son building a bond in quirky fable Beginners

Director: Mike Mills

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Oliver Fields), Christopher Plummer (Hal Fields), Mélanie Laurent (Anna Wallace), Goran Višnjić(Andy), Mary Page Keller (Georgia Fields), Kai Lennox (Elliot), China Shavers (Shauna)

Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) is a reserved man who has struggled to hold a relationship down because of his own emotional distance. His world is shaken when his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out at the age of 75, after the death of his mother, and proceeds to lead an active life in the gay scene of LA, including taking on a boyfriend, Andy (Goran Višnjić). After his father’s death, reflecting on Hal’s love of life and increasing emotional honesty makes Oliver consider his own life and start to tentatively consider a relationship with a French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent).

This heavily auto-biographical film was based on the life and experiences of writer-director Mike Mills. It has moments of genuine sweetness and light, occasionally undermined by the slightly smug quirkiness that creeps into the story at several points. Mills sometimes tries a little too hard as a director, using montages of stock footage to place years into context and to add a quirky sheen to the drama.

In fact it’s that quirk that often gets in the way of the drama in the film, Mills relying too often on meet-cutes, a dialogue Oliver has (in subtitles) with his dog, jolly picture montages, the cartoons Oliver draws on themes like “The History of Sadness”, the achingly clever-clever graffiti Oliver sprays on walls etc. etc. Maybe I am just cold of heart but this sort of stuff gets on my nerves rather than awakening my warmer feelings. Clearly I’m getting old.

Someone who isn’t getting old is Hal. Played with Oscar-winning bravado and joie de vivre by Christopher Plummer, the film gets most (if not all) its emotional mileage out of Hal’s embracing of life and his equally profound regret at the years of concealment and emotional distance he inflicted on others. One tearful moment sees the extremely sick Hal holding Oliver’s hand on a bed, sadly reflecting he wanted to do this throughout Oliver’s childhood but didn’t feel he could. 

The film carefully positions Hal’s late acceptance of his personality and explosion of embracing life as an inspiration, and contrasts it with Oliver’s buttoned up repression. To be honest, someone as repressed and traditional as Oliver might well have taken slightly longer (you suspect) to deal with the fact that his dad comes out after the death of his mother – but then this is basically a father-son romance, so you can’t blame Mills for trimming down this expected drama. 

Instead the story focuses largely on Oliver learning to open his heart to a relationship with Melanie Laurent’s French actress (a relationship by the way so impossibly quirky the two of them meet at a fancy dress party – he’s dressed as Freud, she can only communicate through writing notes because she has laryngitis. To be fair it’s marginally less irritating than it sounds). This story is cross-cut with flashbacks to Hal’s last few years that illustrate different lessons Oliver learned from his dad.

This is all rather artfully and gently done, but very traditionally structured. The flashback material with Hal is far stronger and Christopher Plummer’s mix of playfully raging against the dying of the light and gentle emotion and sadness overwhelms the modern plotline. It’s hard to get wrapped up in Oliver’s stumbling shoot-yourself-in-the-foot courtship of Anna, when you have Plummer ripping through a beautiful monologue on how he was desperate not to be as distant as his own father. Even the jokes get overwhelmed – nothing in Oliver’s storyline is as amusing as Hal raving over garage music.

The real interest to be honest is in the relationship between Hal and Oliver, and the late blooming of emotional honesty and love between them (Oliver claims he can barely remember Hal from his childhood, and flashbacks confirm this). Even this however could have had more impact if the film had allowed more of this distance to be seen in the film, as we then lose the impact of the two characters starting to bond. 

In fact I’d love to have seen more of Hal and Oliver together, perhaps more intercut with flash-forwards about Oliver learning to accept love and joy into his life in the same way Hal did in his final years. Reversing the format, effectively. The warmest bond in the story is between Hal and Oliver and this seems a little lost. Ewan McGregor does his best, but he feels slightly constrained by the role, as if aware that he had the pressure of playing the director’s own life story. Melanie Laurent is adorable as Anna, but she feels like the sort of character one only meets in movies – beautiful, sexy, cute, showing the sort of incredible patience for the timid, confused, difficult Oliver that never happens in real life (in my experience).

Such a format change would also mean more Christopher Plummer, which is never a bad thing – and certainly wouldn’t be here, in one of Plummer’s finest performances: fun, witty, warm, kind, sad and gentle with a very touching relationship with his much younger lover (played very well by a sweetly naïve Goran Višnjić). It’s Plummer’s film and he rides above a story that often seems a little too unoriginal and quirky than you might have expected.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Dan Stevens and Emma Watson faithfully recreate almost shot-by-shot a much better cartoon

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (The Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Josh Gad (LeFou), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame de Garderobe), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette), Hattie Morahan (Agathe)

hhBeauty and the Beast was released at the perfect time. The generation who grew up watching the original could now take their children – or revisit the fond memories with their parents. It was a chance for everyone to wallow in sentimental nostalgia. Disney knew its market would be people who wanted something as close as possible to what they remembered: they certainly delivered.

Surely you know the story by now? But in case you’ve been living under a rock for your entire life: Belle (Emma Watson) is the beautiful but bookish village girl who dreams of a something more than this provincial life. When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned by a horrific Beast, Belle volunteers to take his place and stays in the castle. The Beast and all his servants are enchanted and only true love can break the spell – will Belle and the Beast fall in love?

I would ask why Disney feels the need to make what are effectively shot-by-shot remakes of their animated classics, but the fact this raked in almost a billion dollars at the box office kinda answers that question. But make no mistake, creatively this is karaoke: a few small flourishes have been thrown in, but effectively it’s a faithful recreation of a film that was already pretty much perfect to begin with. In fact, watching it, the only real emotion I felt was a desire to watch the “real” thing again. Damningly, twice my wife and I stopped to look up the equivalent scenes from the original on YouTube: in every case they were better.

That’s the big problem. Of all these remakes, only The Jungle Book was a genuine reimagining of the original. This one follows Cinderella and hews as close as possible to the film you’ve already seen. The plot is identical. The song and dance sequences are the same. The characterisations are the same. Hell, half the line readings are the same. It’s a film that is so dependent on people’s affection for the original that it’s terrified of offering anything too different from it. In which case – why not just watch the original? Would you rather look at a poster or the actual Mona Lisa?

Condon has thrown in some new pieces here and there to get an extra 30 minutes of action. One decent invention does involve the spell also causing the villagers to forget the castle exists, which is neat. The others add less. Belle has been turned into as much of an inventor as her father and, in one particularly bizarre sequence, invents the washing machine. There is a rather confused sequence involving a magic book which allows the Beast to go anywhere in the world (the witch clearly left a plethora of magic devices behind to entertain the Beast) – raising the question of why he needs that enchanted mirror, since he can apparently physically travel through both space and time with his Tardis-book. LeFou is subtly reimagined as gay – but this is very quietly done so as not to damage the film’s box-office potential in some markets.

There is a rather clumsily done storyline around Belle’s mother dying of plague when she was a baby, which also adds nothing. The film may possibly be trying to construct some kind of clunky commonality between the Beast and Belle with their parental traumas, but a dead mother with a rose fetish shares little with the stereotypical Cold Abusive Aristocrat father the Beast has – and anyway, they’re already giving them plenty of common ground through the good stuff they’ve lifted straight from the original film. Nothing else new really stands out.

In fact, the film is so studiously faithful, you get annoyed when it deviates from the original – particularly as it invariably does scenes less well. The final battle between Gaston and the Beast suffers horribly, with the emotional narrative of the fight thoroughly muddled, in contrast with the original’s clear and efficient storytelling. In the original, the Beast despairs and refuses to save himself from Gaston’s attack until he sees Belle. Here, he’s sort of defending himself and sort of not, and Belle is given some action nonsense, and Gaston’s death is turned from a clean narrative (one treacherous thrust hits home, then in sadistically going for the second he falls to his death) into a strange sequence where he stands and brutally shoots at the Beast repeatedly until the stonework beneath him randomly collapses and send him plummeting to his doom.

None of this, however, compares to the butchering of the moment when Belle discovers the library. In the original this is an endearingly sweet moment, with the Beast overcome with excitement at giving Belle a gift she really wants. The audience shares in his delight, and is charmed by his touching anxiety that she will like it, just as they share in her wonder at the discovery. It’s a major moment in the growth of their relationship. Here it’s thrown away – the Beast shows her the library in a fit of irritation at her pedestrian Shakespeare tastes. The film gives all the time and emotional weight to the tedious “magic book” sequence, where they travel to the “Paris of my childhood” and discover that, yup, Belle’s mum died of plague. Well that was both depressing and uninteresting…

Anyway – take a look at those two library scenes…

The acting is pretty good. Emma Watson does a decent job, particularly considering the pressure on her. She performs the songs prettily, although they don’t soar the way they did when performed by someone with the vocal power of Paige O’Hara. Her Belle is thoughtful but has a level of defiance and independence that’s been stepped up from the original. Dan Steven’s Beast is much more of a prince under a ghastly shell – unlike the original he’s literate, can dance and is well spoken (which makes his moments of animalism and his soup eating failure stick out all the more). The rest of the cast are fine – Ewan McGregor is as flamboyant as you’d expect, Emma Thompson sings the song very well, Kevin Kline makes a lot of Maurice. However for each of them, there are moments when you remember fondly that the animators invested the originals with more emotion.

The one member of the cast who does stand out is Luke Evans. How is the guy not a star yet? Sure the swaggering braggart Gaston might be the best part in the whole film, but Evans nails it with all the energy and egotism you would expect. His scenes are the best in the film by far, and he’s the only one who manages to do something a little different with his role.

Of course it looks fabulous, but it feels somehow a little bit empty. All the things that move you are done (mostly better) in the original – in fact, a major part of why they move you is the memory of the original. The acting is pretty good and it’s well filmed and made – the design is terrific. But honestly, with the original out there what’s the point? Why would you watch this rather than the other one? It’s not as moving, it’s not as exciting, it’s not as funny, it’s not as charming. All it does is to try and recreate the original as closely as possible. You can stage Hamlet thousands of times and each production would be different, but Disney can’t stage Beauty and the Beast twice without replicating it.

If you want it to exactly match your memories, without being quite as good, it’s the film for you. If you want a Disney live-action film that feels like something original, watch The Jungle Book.

Trainspotting (1996)

Another happy day in Edinburgh… Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle define their careers in the mid-1990s phenomenen

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Peter Mullan (Mother Superior), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Shirley Henderson (Gail Houston), Stuart McQuarrie (Gav), Irvine Welsh (Mikey)

Surprise, surprise the Drug’s Don’t Work. They just make you worse. Honestly, watching Trainspotting you would have to be a Grade A moron or wilfully missing the point to ever imagine that this film could, in any way what-so-ever, be endorsing the life of heroin addiction. The unbalanced, unreliable, sickly-looking, soul crushingly blank-eyed losers in this film are no-ones idea of an aspiration. The fate of Tommy alone, starting the film as a health freak and ending it as a smacked out, paper thin, wasting AIDS victim could only encourage the truly unbalanced to take up drugs.

You must know the story: Ewan McGregor is our “hero” Renton, a junkie with delusions every so often (the film implies this has occurred multiple times) of going clean, kicking the habit only to find that he is always drawn back in – largely it seems due to his own weak personality. Fellow junkies include Spud (Ewan Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and later (tragically) Tommy (Kevin McKidd). On the edge of their junkie circle (not a user) is psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who doesn’t need drugs when he can get a high from starting a bar fight. The basic plot is slim in this whipper sharp film where experience is all – Renton goes clean, gets sucked back in, misses prison, goes cold turkey, escapes to London, gets sucked back into a drug deal. That’s basically it. What’s important here is the experience.

This is possibly one of the best films about addiction ever seen (I watched it in a double bill with The Lost Weekend which actually works out as a pretty natural combo). Boyle and screenwriter Andrew Hodge aren’t scared to show that drugs at times can be fun (after all if they didn’t make you feel good part of the time why would you do them?) and they can give colour to life (particularly to the shallow non entities this film centres on). The is even a strange family warmth to Renton and friends getting smacked out in an otherwise disgusting dilapidated drug pit, listening to Sick Boy dissect the Sean Connery Bond films. This is then brilliantly counterbalanced by the appalling lows – from the truly unsettling dead baby, abandoned and unfed in said drug den, to Renton’s appalling cold turkey. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing here is that Danny Boyle directs with such verve and with a gleeful delight for every single shooting and editing trick in the book, but the film never feels like a triumph of style over substance, or as if the tricks are the centre of the director’s attention. Instead throughout the whole film you can tell the heart of the film makers – and therefore the heart of the viewer – is also focused on the story and the characters. So we get a film that crackles with energy, with a sense of youthful vitality (that is vital to understanding its characters), has an attractive anti-society message – but also reminds us that the perils of following this kind of counter culture life can be truly horrifying.

At the centre of this film is Ewan McGregor, who I don’t think has ever found a role that he could seize and bring to life as successfully as he did with this one. McGregor is captivating, managing to skilfully demonstrate without any judgement a man who believes he is strong, but is in fact desperately weak. His performance is so charismatic that you hardly notice that Renton is, actually, a pretty nasty person. High or not he has a barely concealed contempt for nearly everyone around him, his reaction to the baby death is shockingly cold, his treatment of Tommy laced with indifference, his pronouncements to the audience overflow with self-regard and delusion. But you just don’t notice.

What you do notice is that Robert Carlyle’s Begbie is a total nutter. Just like McGregor, I think Carlyle struggled to find a role that matched this one, probably not helped by the string of psychos he was offered by casting directors. Carlyle again actually isn’t in the film that much, but he nails how terrifying total self belief can be when matched with a complete lack of any moral sense. In fact most of the cast have hardly ever been better. Excellent support also comes from Peter Mullan, Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson and Stuart McQuarrie while Irvine Welsh pops up as low rent dealer.

Electric film making with a heart, I don’t think even Danny Boyle has topped this. There is something strangely perfect about this film – anything more and it might out stay it’s welcome, but every scene has something magic in it, some little touch that stays in the mind – either performance, dialogue, direction or all three. It looks fantastic and seemed to define its era. So fingers crossed for the sequel. No pressure…