Tag: Family drama

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Father and son post divorce are explored in this Best Picture winning look at the state of marriage in the 1970s
Director: Robert BentonCast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O’Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Howland Chamberlain (Judge Chamberlain)

Kramer vs Kramer is a near perfect example of how time changes the perception of a film. On its release, it was the smash-hit of the year, scooping five Oscars. It took a sympathetic look at divorce and explored the then unthinkable idea that a single father could find fulfilment in taking on the woman’s role of caring for a child. Today, it’s more likely to be seen as a thinly veiled attack on feminism and a promotional video for Fathers4Justice. But a film can be a warm celebration of a father building a relationship with his child and an implicit criticism of women who want it all.

The film opens with Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) tucking her 7-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) into bed, telling him she loves him, and then walking out of her New York apartment for good. She tells husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) – a workaholic advertising executive – she is deeply depressed and has to find what she wants from her life. Ted, a loving but distracted father, has no idea either how to raise his son or run a household. At first, he resents Billy for distracting him from his career, just as Billy resents him for being unable to care for him as Joanna could. Eventually though, Ted and Billy build a loving relationship, with Ted placing Billy’s needs first. At which point Joanna returns and demands custody, a clash that will lead to the courts.

Benton’s film, adapted from a successful novel, is shot with a chamber-piece richness by Nestor Almendros and signposts its art-house credentials with a Vivaldi string score. It’s superbly acted. Hoffman (winning for Best Actor) is hugely committed, running a gamut of emotions from anger and despair to a joyful devotion for his son. Streep won Best Supporting Actress as the deeply-torn and conflicted Joanna. Hoffman and Benton draw superbly natural work from Justin Henry as Billy, an unaffected, completely unmannered performance. Benton marshals these three actors through a series of simply shot but often surprisingly affecting scenes, alternating between raw hurt, anger and tender forgiveness.

But this is a film that needs a sister film. Specifically, one that shows events from Joanna’s perspective. Although the film – at Streep’s insistence – tries to avoid demonising her feminist desire for more in her life than cooking and cleaning, it still gives short shrift to her departure. With the film’s focus on the heart-warming relationship between father and son, it’s very hard not to implicitly see Joanna as first a selfish abandoner and then a hypocritical antagonist trying to steal Billy. There is little attempt to not stigmatise Joanna as, on some level, a bad parent.

For all the film opens with a long hard look at Joanna’s face, struggling with the conflict between her depression and leaving her beloved son, there is no real effort to explain or understand what motivates Joanna to do the things she does. There are some half-hearted justifications very late in the film, during its courtroom sequences – but these only dip lightly into any turmoil Joanna must have been feeling. Worst of all, it’s all presented as something Ted has to learn to “forgive” rather than understanding it was a crisis he played a role in causing.

The film’s main focus is on Ted learning to become a father. Ted is a classic workaholic dad of the 1970s. He stays late at the office boozing with his boss, has literally no idea about Billy’s everyday schedule and is so inept at home that cooking French toast is completely beyond him. He has no idea about how to enforce rules with Billy, alternating between showering him with ice cream to keep him quiet and then vainly trying to re-enforce rules. (In a great scene, Billy slowly and deliberately sees how far he can push these rules as he first refuses dinner, fetches ice cream from the freezer and then starts eating it, all while Ted lamely states “Don’t you dare do that” – it ends of course with mutual screams of “I hate you”.)

What Ted does is learn to become a parent. Or rather, learn how to become a 1970s mother – since it’s a joke made time again that he is the only man dropping his son off at school, taking him to the park or attending his school play. Benton’s film takes some decent pot shots at the poisonous masculine world of work, as Ted eventually loses his job for letting his single-minded focus shift towards his son – his boss offers no sympathy at all for a man whose mistakes are due to his distraction by “woman’s work”. And the Ted at the start of the film would have agreed.

The relationship between Hoffman and Henry is beautifully played, a gently paced but very naturally flourishing of love and acceptance between two people who have had their lives shattered in different ways. The Ted we met at the start could never have run several blocks to the emergency ward, carrying an injured Billy (shot with a one-take urgency by Benton) – and then point-blank refused the doctor’s suggestion he needn’t bother staying with his son while the wound is stitched up. That Ted wouldn’t have taught Billy to ride a bike or helped him learn his lines for the Halloween play. For all its dated attitudes at times, the film deserves praise for the way it stressed that men could – and should – be this involved in the lives of their children.

It should be noted that Hoffman, at the height of his method dickishness, smashed a glass in this scene without warning Streep he was going to do it – her shock was real. Hoffman also made Henry cry for camera at one point by telling him, when filming was done, he would never see any of his new ‘friends’ on the set again. You see now why he was perfect for Tootsie?

But it’s not perfect. The final act, with the return of Joanna, sees both parents gearing up for a paternity battle– and having watched Ted and Billy spend nearly an hour and 20 minutes build a heart-warming relationship, we know where our sympathies lie. Even at the time, lawyers denounced the viciousness and one-sided result of this court case, which seems inexplicable given these two parents live only a short-distance apart with similar salaries. Not that it matters as the film ends with a puff-piece Hollywood fiction moment, as Joanna bravely sacrifices her custody because she recognises she can’t take Billy from his home.

Of course, what the film doesn’t do is acknowledge that Joanna spent essentially seven years doing the sort of all-consuming parenting Ted has only just discovered in the last 18 months. Neither does it do much to avoid suggesting Ted taking these tasks on is an astonishing act of character, just as Joanna abandoning them is an act of calculated selfishness. That’s not to attack the obvious love Ted discovers for his son. He even – eventually – confesses to his son that Joanna’s leaving was his fault for taking her for granted. But the film is so taken-up with the (admittedly beautifully done) relationship between father and son, that it neglects any exploration of the wife and mother beyond her (twice) being a cataclysmic event in their lives.

But it’s a film of its time. And in trying to at least show a divorce where no one was too much at fault and stressing a father could be as much of a parent as a mother, it was trying to do a good thing – even if it sometimes looks like an elderly relative who clumsily says something offensive while trying hard to be open-minded. The three leads are superb and the film has some genuinely heart-warming moments. It looks more and more flawed at times today, but this was trying to do something very daring. And nothing dates worse than daring.

Minari (2020)

A family struggle against adversity in Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical and heartwarming Minari

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Cast: Steven Yeun (Jacob Yi), Han Ye-ri (Monica Yi), Alan Kim (David Yi), Noel Kate Cho (Anne Yi), Youn Yuh-jung (Soon-ja), Will Patton (Paul)

Lee Isaac Chung grew up in rural Arkansas during the Reaganite 80s, when everyone felt they could live the American dream. His young life – and the experiences of his parents – from the basis of Minari, an emotionally involving, tender and quietly hopeful film about planting a future. The film is named after an obstinate Korean plant which takes root and grows where it can – a struggle the Yi family can sympathise with.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) dreams of building a family legacy, a Korean food farm that will find an eager market among Korean-Americans. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is less than keen, looking with dread at the leaky trailer house her husband has invested their savings in. Nevertheless, Jacob sets about planting with back-breaking dedication, but very little practical knowledge – all while he and Monica continuing working as chicken sorters during the day. Her concerns are not helped by the heart condition of their son David (Alan Kim) – and that they are now over an hour from a hospital. Not even the arrival of Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to provide childcare can help reduce the growing tensions in this family.

Although Minari is mostly in Korean, this is a very American tale. Jacob is a man very much trying to live the American dream, building a new business (and life) for his family. Even more American than that, he’s doing it out in the American west, working to conquer land that has beaten several farmers before him. Minari perfectly fuses together a respect for Korean heritage and culture with an inclusive view of the American ideal: that being rewarded for your hard work is something anyone can achieve.

As such Minari repackages many familiar story elements – childhood memories, a bond between an eccentric elderly relative and a child, near biblical struggles against the elements to build a farm, marital problems and fish-out-of-water set-ups – into something that feels fresh and highly engaging. Chung’s involving, carefully intimate direction is crucial to this, his connection with the material helping make it both funny and at times heart-breakingly tragic, while never allowing it to slip from being fundamentally hopeful.

Jacob’s desire to build the farm is both impressively ambitious and strangely irresponsible. Jacob wants to demonstrate his family should have faith in itself, taking immense pride in ‘Korean smart thinking’ as he finds home-made solutions to farming problems. He works with such dedication – frequently to the point of physical exhaustion – that its impossible not to admire him. But as he carries out his improvised fixes – from a well he digs that runs dry to working out how close together he can plant his produce – everything carries an edge-of-your-seat tension, as we are all too aware he’s making it up as he goes. Yeun is excellent as a man afraid of failure, driving himself to do everything he can to escape that fate, but often too blunt and proud to ask for help.

Chung isn’t afraid to demonstrate the damage this can have on a marriage. The couple frequently argue. So much that they seem to have forgotten the romantic moments in Korea that bought them together – hearing ‘their song’ playing, Jacob can’t even remember having heard it. Monica resents a farm she never wanted but feels forced to support. Han Ye-ri is wonderful, beautifully expressing a range of suppressed emotions, her face speaking volumes about her shock on first seeing their new home. The couple move between arguments and silent non-communication as the pressure of trying to make this business work – combined with supporting a family– drives a wedge between them.

Much of this is seen from their perspective of their children, in particular son David (an effectively sweet performance from Alan Kim). Fitting for a film about a director’s memories of his childhood, David is really the main character, with his perceptions and interactions with the other characters driving the narrative. He’s at an age where he is just beginning to understand some of the problems in his life, but still has the joy and sulky stroppiness of a young child.

What becomes the heart of the film is the relationship between David and his newly arrived Grandma, who he ends up sharing a room. David’s hostility to this woman – he’s furious that she’s not like an American, cookie-baking Grandma, instead being too Korean and (according to David) smelly – slowly changes, as she treats him with an honesty he doesn’t get from his tense parents. Any friendship formed over one tricking the other into drinking piss is sure to last!

The Grandma is played, in a scene-stealing performance scooping a truckful of prizes, by veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung. In many ways it’s a simple part – the older family member who says outrageous things, but has a heart of gold – but Youn plays it with a quirk but also an immense sincerity that becomes genuinely moving. Unlike his parents, she encourages David to do things (like running) rather than do as little to preserve his heart. She helps him build his confidence – and finds she has more in common with this bluntly-spoken child than anyone else. In turn she gives him the attention his stressed parents are unable to. It’s not an original role, but it’s quite beautifully judged.

What is (sadly) surprising is that this Korean family finds themselves warmly welcomed into this Christian Arkansas community. I was waiting – as I am sure other viewers have – for a moment of racism or for Jacob to be exploited. Instead, the Yi family are given nothing but support from banks and the church in Arkansas (the only person who does screw the family is an unseen Korean businessman who cancels a crucial order). The family makes friends with local eccentric and Korean war veteran Paul (a jittery but charming performance by Will Patton) who, when he says he’s honoured to be invited to their home, really means it.

This warmth, of people maybe arguing and feuding but coming together and supporting each other, is a big part of what makes this film hopeful. The characters may all make huge mistakes – but they do for the very best of reasons. This is not a depressing film – which considering how much goes wrong, is a surprise. It’s a film where hard work is noble and huge disaster strikes it draws people together not apart. The minari itself is a part of that message of hope: it will grow down by the river, forge a fine crop, and survive all disasters: like family, it’s something we can always rely on.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are tempestuous but loving mother and daughter in Terms of Endearment

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Greenway-Horton), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton), John Lithgow (Sam Burns), Lisa Hart Carroll (Patsy Clark), Danny De Vito (Vernon Dalhart)

Spoilers: If you can spoil one of the most famous tear-jerkers of all time.

I think its fair to say 1983 was a weak year at the Oscars. The finest film of the year, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, was a four-hour Swedish saga (and arguably a TV series anyway), wasn’t nominated. The most lasting films of the year, Flashdance, ScarfaceWar Games and Return of the Jedi, were never Oscar bait. Terms of Endearment motored through to hoover up five Oscars – beating out The Big Chill (cut from a similar soapy cloth), The Dresser (a British stage adaptation), The Right Stuff (a slightly cold Mercury programme saga box office flop) and Tender Mercies (a low-key character drama about a Country-and-Western singer that won Robert Duvall an Oscar). By any measure that’s not a list for the ages.

And Terms of Endearment had the added bonus of being the second biggest hit of the year, after Jedi (yes, I know!). It’s a surprise, as this sort of female led drama rarely scoops the big prize – so at least it makes a pleasant change. Terms spools out a collage of scenes (there are sometimes time jumps of years between scenes), chronicling the lives of over-protective, domineering mother-and-free-spirit Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, defiant, at times highly-strung, Emma (Debra Winger). The two have a difficult, though loving relationship, often depending on each other for emotional support – especially in their relationships: Emma’s with feckless philandering English Professor ‘Flap’ Horton (Jeff Daniels) and Aurora’s with playboy retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). But both come together when tragedy and illness strike.

Watching Terms of Endearment today, it’s often hard to see what the fuss was about. Although it wasn’t the first film to jerk tears via last-act illness (see Love Story), this started a wave of films where illness to a key member of the family (usually a mother) has a devastating, tear-jerking (but often eventually heart-warming) effect on the rest of the family (especially young children). Terms of Endearmentprobably does this better than those that followed, but watching it today its hard not to see it as something a little more familiar than it might have felt at the time.

Brooks’ background was in TV (he had several successful shows on his resume, from The Mary Taylor Moore Show to Taxi – so he certainly knew what the masses liked) and this, his first film, often feels like a cut-down mini-series. It matches exactly the sort of soapy, family saga of several TV epics of the time, and Brooks shoots the film with an unfussy, visually flat series of TV angles (aside from his skill with actors, his directing Oscar is a travesty). With each scene effectively standing alone – its collage effect means the film covers at least 14 years minimum with often only the age of the children any indication that time has passed – it also has a slightly bitty air of something assembled for cutting into episodes or advert breaks.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this. But, it does mean the film feels like it meanders along through a series of small crises, designed to be easily digestible. The film has a whimsical lack of directness – not helped by its overbearing (and dated) musical score. It relies strongly on sparky dialogue delivered by a cast who all look like they are having a good time (although, allegedly, they really weren’t with Winger and MacLaine in particular barely on speaking terms when the cameras weren’t rolling).

The main dramas are romantic. Aurora doesn’t quite know how to respond to her feelings for gnarled playboy Garrett. An early date between them hilariously contrasts her ludicrously over-formal clothes and his scruffy indifference. Its a difficult dance between two people who, for various reasons, are scared of commitment. But then Emma has made her own mistakes. She’s married Flip (is there a worse name in cinema?) for independence, but really they have nothing in common – and Flip’s eye quickly goes roving. Emma responds in a way her mother would understand: a potentially ‘first strike’ affair with John Lithgow’s meek bank manager (Lithgow and Winger have a wonderful scene at a diner, where he is almost too scared to touch her hand). You can see both mother and daughter teeing themselves up to make the same mistakes: the generations never learn from each other.

At the heart of the film is the mother-daughter relationship. But for me, this often lacks focus and never really coalesces into something that feels real or emotionally coherent. Now you could say that’s like life – and that’s a fair point – but several of the events feel heightened (particularly those featuring Aurora) and the characters are mutually dependent when the story demands it, and barely in touch when the opposite is needed. It’s easy to feel some connecting thread is being lost in those massive time-jumps. I found it hard to escape the feeling several times that people behave like this in the movies but never in real life.

But then, you get the final thirty minutes which revolves around the cancer diagnosis and eventual death of Debra Winger’s character. Here is where Brook’s flat, unobtrusive style comes into its own, his simple, restrained staging of these scenes making them surprisingly moving and affecting – especially considering the artificiality of some of what we’ve seen so far. For the first time, emotion, truth and earnestness – without too much blatant heart-string tugging – comes into play, and these simple scenes of two mothers saying goodbye to their children and each other end up having real emotional impact – as do the slightly stunned scenes of grief of those left behind.

It’s a shame then that most of the rest of the film before that doesn’t quite connect with me. The film was festooned with Oscars, but naturally the person most responsible for it working – Debra Winger – missed out. Winger is superb here, the only character who feels genuinely true, tender and also flawed in natural ways. She is slightly impulsive but also frightened of change, a character who can shout and rage but also is weak and dependent on emotional bonds. She’s totally believable and I would have loved to see more on her troubled relationships with her kids, and how her eccentric mother has impacted her ability to form bonds with her kids. The film doesn’t go there.

The Oscar went through to Shirley MacLaine who gives a big, showy performance as Aurora – and nabs the “Oscar Clip” moment as she bellows at nurses to give her daughter her medication. MacLaine’s Aurora never for one moment feels like a real person, but instead a novelistic invention of an eccentric mother, thrown on screen. MacLaine plays her to the hilt, but it’s a performance that feels mannered. But she gets the film’s fun moments – and gets to spark off Jack Nicholson who coasted to another Oscar as the sort of horny scoundrel he would play again and again for the much of the next thirty years on screen.

Terms of Endearment has enough in it that, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love it. Perhaps it does mean more to mothers-and-daughters. I found it at times overly twee and laboured. But I can forgive it a fair bit for how effectively it displays grief – and how brilliant Debra Winger is in it. Over honoured? Sure. But, for its genre, a high point.

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas embark on a disastrous affair in Fatal Attraction

Director: Adrian Lyne

Cast: Michael Douglas (Dan Gallagher), Glenn Close (Alex Forrest), Anne Archer (Beth Gallagher), Ellen Hamilton Layzen (Ellen Gallagher), Stuart Pankin (Jimmy), Ellen Foley (Hildy), Fred Gwynne (Arthur), Mug Mundy (Joan Rogerson), Tom Brennan (Howard Rogerson), Lois Smith (Martha)

It was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s and was said to bring to life every man’s worst nightmare – which as David Thomson rather astutely put it, probably meant “too many men in the 1980s were worrying about the wrong thing”. Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful, middle-ranking lawyer representing a publishing company. He flirts with editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Then one weekend, when his wife Beth (Anne Archer) is away with their daughter, he spends his time sleeping with her. Problem is, Alex won’t accept it was just a brief fling. Soon she’s calling his office, visiting his wife, claiming to be pregnant as part of a swift descent into furious obsession, demanding Dan leave his family for her. It won’t end well.

Fatal Attraction is a film that is going to struggle the more we move into the #metoo era. While in the 1980s audiences could be expected to be reasonably sympathetic to a man who just wants a bit on the side – and then feels oppressed by the moral consequences that follow – today it’s a bit tricky to feel the same. Put bluntly, Dan is a selfish man who is desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing. And while he realises he’s probably made a mistake after his first one-night stand, he still throws himself into a second day of flirting and sex with Alex (out of a sense of social obligation).

But then Fatal Attraction is a deeply conservative film that plays into feelings of fear and anxiety at the idea of the perfect domestic life being assaulted by an outsider. It portrays the damaging impact on Dan and his family as entirely the responsibility of Alex, instead of admitting that clearly both Dan and Alex are to blame for what happens. Sure, Alex becomes a (literal) bunny-boiler (this film is the origin of the phrase) and later a knife-wielding psychopath. But all this spins out of Dan’s selfishness and his fundamental lack of regard for the feelings of either his wife or Alex (both of whom he wants to think of him as being a good guy – which he probably isn’t).

Dan’s “have his cake and eat it” attitude is the real villain here – and while he is, of course, unlucky to hook up with someone as unbalanced as Alex, any perfectly rounded person would be expected to at least match some of Alex’s reactions. She’s right to say that he is shirking his responsibility, right to say that its wrong for him to use her for a bit of fun and discard her, and she’s right to be disgusted at his automatic offer to pay for the abortion he assumes she will agree to.

A more modern version of Fatal Attraction would probably play out a bit more like the TV multi-perspective drama The Affair (where Dominic West and Ruth Wilson’s characters split the narrative between their very different perspectives on a life-shattering love-affair). It would show more sympathy for Alex’s desperation, loneliness and sadness – and really explore what it is that happened in her past that made her react as extremely to rejection and betrayal as this. And it would have greater criticism for Dan’s cavalier attitude to other people’s feelings.

But then a film like that wouldn’t have been a hit. Glenn Close may not have liked the reshot ending – which came out of test screenings that showed audiences really wanted Douglas to kill that bitch – with Alex entering the Gallagher country home with murder in mind. But the final desperate battle between Dan/Ruth and Alex – and the nuclear family being re-cemented in the shedding of Alex’s blood – was what made the film such a hit. Because who wants the complexity of shared responsibility when “The Other Woman” can literally rise from the dead to strike one final blow before being gunned down?

The film also worked of course due to Glenn Close’s fabulous performance in the lead role. Close worked hard to not position Alex – for all the film aims to do this – as a creepy stalker. Instead she invests her with a righteous fury of a woman who feels she has been terribly wronged, whose every attempt at peace-making has been slapped away and responds with justified anger. There is a real fragility in Close – who consulted psychiatrists to understand Alex’s fragile mindset – and she never lets us forget the pain motivating her actions, even as the film becomes ever more melodramatic and turns her character into more and more of a horror film staple.

Opposite her, Michael Douglas is equally good. This was Douglas’ first in a run of roles where he seemed to embody something in the everyday American-man that lived in terror of female independence and sexuality (he would be terrified on screen by Sharon Stone, Kathleen Turner and Demi Moore over the next seven years). Douglas is great though because while he looks the American dream, he conveys this sense of weakness and compromise. He convinces completely as a rather weak-willed man, terrified of being made to face the consequences of his actions. Archer is also first-rate in a surprisingly low-key role as the wronged wife.

Fatal Attraction starts out as a fascinating look at morality and morals in modern America and ends as a slasher film. A more complex film might have lasted better – even if it wasn’t such a hit – but it throws just about enough depth in there, before the madness descends.

A Separation (2011)

A family on the bring of collapse in Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant A Separation

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Cast: Payman Maadi (Nader), Leila Natami (Simin), Sareh Bayet (Razieh), Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), Merila Zare’I (Miss Ghahraii), Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi (Nader’s father), Babrl Karimi (Judge), Kimia Hosseini (Somayeh), Shirin Yazdanbakhsh (Simin’s mother)

It’s very easy today to imagine Iran as another world. A mysterious country, locked behind an oppressive regime that we are constantly told by our leaders is a frightening, distant place not to be trusted. But this prosperous country, with its rich historical background, isn’t some sort of Mars. It’s full of regular, normal people just trying to do their best for their families. It’s the strongest thing you’ll take out of Asghar Farhadi’s heartfelt, low-key, deeply moving masterpiece: deep down, we are all united by how circumstances push us into desperate situations with few good options.

Married couple Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Natami) have petitioned for divorce. Secular Muslims, they want to emigrate to find better opportunities for their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to leave now – but Nader won’t leave while his aged father (Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi), suffering from Alzheimer’s, is alive. Their only option, under Iranian law, is divorce. However, separation makes it impossible for Nader to care during the day for his father. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayet), a devout Muslim – but the position causes her a host of problems, from concerns about touching another man (she calls her Imam to ask if she can change the old man’s trousers after an accident), to her worries about what will happen if her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a feckless man in and out of prison, finds out she is working for a single man. After Razieh ties  Nader’s father to a bed to keep him safe, she and Nader argue, during which he forces her out of his flat. Razieh then has a miscarriage that night. Did Nader know she was pregnant? If so, he could face prison for murder. Both families find themselves in desperate straits.

A Separation is a superb piece of film-making, deceptively simple in its assembly and shooting, but carrying a huge emotional force as we become invested in the lives of the people it follows. Farhadi never passes moral judgement over his characters. All of them have strong reasons for doing what they are doing, rooted in what’s best for the family. Everyone acts in the way they feel will best protect their loved ones. Arguments become profoundly personal and damaging – but they don’t start out that way. It’s simply a question of things slipping out of control.

That’s not helped by the laws of the Iranian state. Farhadi’s film is very careful to never pass explicit comment on Iran’s laws. But the nature of the regime – and the mood it encourages – is at the heart of all the problems. Tensions are perhaps inevitable between the middle-class and secular Nadar and Simin, and the more working-class and traditional Razieh and Hodjat. This is class and religion in one cocktail, both sides carrying impressions that are nearly impossible to shake off.

But it’s the laws of the state that amplify this: where a man and a wife must go through a demanding pantomime for divorce or a man can be sentenced for murder for the lightest push on the shoulder of a woman who then miscarries. The judge hearing the pre-trial arguments (a very gentle and dignified performance from Babrl Karimi) may be the very soul of reasonableness, but it doesn’t change the fact that the laws he must rigidly uphold continually inflame the situation.

The story is brilliantly constructed, a tightly plotted melodrama that frequently presents new information that forces us to reinterpret what we have seen and heard. It mixes superbly domestic drama and crime procedural, and frequently only the audience has the complete picture of everything that has happened. Key arguments – the loss of money, Razieh’s unexplained absence from her duties, the difficulties of keeping Nadar’s father safe – are shown to us from every angle. But still, we understand the very natural – and human – reactions that people who do not have all the facts, as we have, make. Perhaps it’s the constant stress of simply living – magnified in a crowded and difficult city like Tehran – that seem to put every character on a knife-edge, terrified that a wrong step could land them in a host of trouble.

But that’s the power of Farhadi’s film-making – he invests every shot with sympathy and empathy. He wants us to understand everyone. It would be easy to make Hodjat exactly the sort of chippy, argumentative, working-class figure Nadar clearly thinks he is – but we also see his desperation, poverty, shame at not being able to provide for his family. Simin is easy to see as a woman trying to escape to live her own life – but she is also willing to cause collateral damage to the rest of her family. Nadar is the picture of a more liberal Iranian – but he also refuses to listen to people and is selfish in equating what he wants with what everyone else should want. There are no easy moral choices here – and no clear “heroes and baddies” for us to invest in.

The film reminds us that on every side of a dispute there are real people, with real concerns. And that the collateral damage can be just as bad. Nadar’s father is left even more catatonic than he was at the film’s start. Nadar and Simin’s daughter Termeh becomes consumed with guilt and disillusionment over the moral compromises her parents are forced to make. Her distress plays constantly at the edges of scenes – and even her morals eventually end up compromised – only coming fully into focus with Farhadi’s heartbreakingly open-ended conclusion.

The acting is superb. Payman Maadi is harassed and desperate under a veneer of controlled reason. Leila Natami plays a modern career woman, compromising herself every day, with great power and intensity. Sareh Bayet’s vulnerability is matched only with her profound sense that she cannot compromise her morals, in a performance that brilliantly mixes fear, resentment, warmth and anger. Shahab Hosseini superbly brings to a life a loud, brash man who is secretly profoundly weak, scared and trapped. There isn’t a wrong note in the entire cast, and Farhadi’s patient and intimate direction and shooting allows each of them to bring their characters superbly to life.

This is a brilliant film which shows an intriguing – but sensitive – insight into life in Iran. But it most strongly demonstrates how human we all are. Everyone in the film is doing what they feel is best for their family – be that trying to hold them together, forcing the issue of emigration, earning money from work, or suing for compensation for the loss of a child. It’s a glorious reminder of how our lives can be altered by circumstances, and our intentions drastically different from their impact.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Family life is troubled in post-war Japan in Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story

Director: Yasujirō Ozu

Cast: Chishū Ryū (Shūkichi Hirayama), Chieko Higashiyama (Tomi Hirayama), Setsuko Hara (Noriko Hirayama), Haruko Sugimura (Shige Kaneko), So Yamamura (Kōichi Hirayama), Kuniko Miyake (Fumiko Hirayama), Kyōko Kagawa (Kyōko Hirayama), Eijirō Tōno (Sanpei Numata), Nobuo Nakamura (Kurazō Kaneko), Shirō Ōsaka (Keizō Hirayama)

When you think about Japanese cinema, many people’s minds turn to the work of Kurosawa, or high tempo manga animations. But there is another side to Japanese cinema – a more careful, meditative, almost lyrical side – and few directors express that better than Yasujirō Ozu. Tokyo Story is his masterpiece, a film so masterfully put together – but also so restrained and simple in its telling – its reputation has grown until it is considered a contender for the greatest film ever made. 

Ozu’s trick with Tokyo Story is to tell a story that is focused on a very particular time and place, but also brings with it a universal relevance. Elderly married couple Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) travel to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children, doctor Kōichi (So Yamamura) and hairdresser Shige (Haruko Sugimura). But their children now have their own work and life pressures – living in small, crowded homes in Tokyo that double as business places – and they just don’t have the space or time to spend with their parents. The only person who makes their time for them is their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the probable-widow of their son who went missing during the war and has not been seen in over eight years. 

Ozu’s film is about a transition in Japanese culture, as the country modernises in the post-war environment and the natural deference and familial links that had previously powered much of its way of life began to fade in importance. Families are now distant, patience and respect between the generations is fading, and many in the elderly generation struggle to understand their children. In the same way, the younger generation forge their own lives and see their priorities change from those of their parents. This is an acute issue at this post-war era of Japan – but who hasn’t experienced some level of this inter-generational confusion?

That’s perhaps why Tokyo Story carries as much impact as it does. A quiet, reflective and gently paced film, it’s striking that it doesn’t place blame or cast characters as heroes or villains. Instead, everyone is, by-and-large, trying their best, struggling with pressures of their own. While it’s easy to see the children as uncaring – it’s also clear that their own lives are hugely busy, with demanding workloads and the homes they live in are small, cramped and difficult for them to live in. Shige and her husband effectively sleep on the floor of their hairdressing parlour. Kōichi struggles to fit himself, his wife, two children and a doctor’s surgery into what looks like a pretty simple two-up-two-down home. While the children are frequently thoughtless – or quick to persuade themselves that what’s easy for them is also easy for the parents – the film makes clear that there are reasons for this.

Nevertheless our sympathies are clearly meant to lie more with the parents rather than their children. Polite, quiet and determined to think the best of their children, the parents are reserved, dutiful relics of a very different Japan. They fall over themselves to thank their children for any time or patience shared with them, and feign enjoyment of the spa (packed full of young party people) their children send them to as a treat (it takes one night of no sleep for them to decide, quietly, to leave). These are people determined not to rock the boat, resolved that everyone is acting for the best. 

However, it is clear the emotional impact of these events is greater than they might expect. Shūkichi, it emerges, has a history of too much drinking – and a few days in Tokyo is enough for him to hook-up with some old drinking buddies and stumble into Shige’s home late at night, drunk as a skunk. But the emotional impact is also clear in their growing closeness and regard for their daughter-in-law Noriko, the only person in Tokyo who seems to make an effort to spend time with them, rather than their own children.

Superbly played by Setsuko Hara, with a gentleness, slight timidity and genuine sense of kindness that makes her the warmest character in the film, Noriko thinks the best of everyone and desires all to be happy. For her adopted parents, however, her good treatment slowly awakens to them to the way Noriko has put her own life on hold since the disappearance of their son. His photo still hangs like a shrine in her home, and she shows no interest in moving her life on. Warm and kind as she is, she is as lonely as the parents. Tomi in particular becomes overwhelmingly concerned for this vulnerable person – perhaps a child that needs her protection in a way her own children no longer do. Staying the night at Noriko’s, their conversation touches – in a very reserved way – on deep emotional trouble. Tomi stresses her desire for Noriko to be happy – and as they go to sleep seems to be overcome with tears and emotion. But she won’t speak openly of her worries for Noriko.

It takes later events, and Tomi’s later illness, for Shūkichi to broach the subject openly, kindly telling Noriko that both of them worry about her future happiness and her waiting for a man who will never come back from the war.  They urge her to restart her life – a suggestion Noriko meets with an emotional out-pouring of tears, but also perhaps a sense of being given permission to re-start her life.

This emotional content plays out with all the more power due to Ozu’s restrained and quiet shooting style. A huge majority of the film is shot in mid-shot, with the camera positioned at the height of someone kneeling on a tatami mat (Ozu called them his “tatami shots”). This has the impact of making events play out gently in front of the viewer, a bit like a play, but giving things a strangely intimate stillness. The sort of cinema language we are used to – cross-cutting and over-the-shoulder shots for conversation – is completely absent. Ozu rarely cuts, keeps the camera more-or-less stationary and only occasionally throws in shots where the characters deliver dialogue effectively straight at the camera. This effect in particular adds to the intimacy, making us part of the scene with the characters expressing their thoughts or concerns directly to us.

In addition, Ozu beautifully allows scenes to both gradually play in and out. The cutting of most scenes allows an establishing shot of a location, followed by a prolonged series of tatami shots that start before the scene proper begins and then frequently continues for a few moments after the scenes finish. Again this makes the film all the more personal, as the characters expand and live beyond the confines of the requirements of the scenes. Watching characters silently continue to pack – or quietly sitting having run out of things to say – in some way carries as much power as dialogue, and really immerses you in the world of the film.This quiet, meditative effect becomes increasingly engrossing, as Ozu’s slow-paced, gentle filming style lets this small-scale story play out very effectively. Although not much really happens in the story, this story of miscommunication between the generations gains a universal strength the more you let yourself get lost in it. The acting is excellent, with Chishū Ryū (playing a character twenty years older than him) and, in particular, Chieko Higashiyama extremely moving and heartbreakingly real as the parents. But what really gives the film its heart – and its sense of hope – is the beauty of Setsuko Hara’s Noriko. It’s this character that provides the hope for a warmer, stronger, more understanding future for all. As Noriko returns to Tokyo at the film’s end – cradling a gift – we hope that a cross-generational understanding is in our grasp. 

Ozu’s final shot features the sounds of traditional children’s singing being drowned out by a train. It’s a sign of how progress has changed our society – but the film carries enough hope for us to promise ourselves that things will get better.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford sacrifices everything for a daughter who doesn’t deserve it in Mildred Pierce

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce), Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce), Butterfly McQueen (Lottie), Lee Patrick (Mrs Maggie Biederhoff), Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson)

There are few things that classic Hollywood did quite as well as a melodrama. Adapted loosely from a James M Cain novel – its murder plot line is a flourish solely for the screen – this is a triumphantly entertaining picture that mixes themes of sex and class with good old-fashioned family drama. It’s got psychology and it’s also got the high-concept family feuding around the building of a restaurant business that you could find in Dynasty. Put simply, Mildred Pierce is a prime slice of entertainment.

After her second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) is shot dead, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is brought in by the police for questioning. After the collapse of her first marriage to Bert (Bruce Bennett), Mildred has expanded her home-baking business into a full restaurant chain, with the support of Bert’s old business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Mildred’s goal is to provide for all the needs of her eldest child Veda (Ann Blyth), a selfish snob who despises her mother for having to work for a living. The tensions between self-sacrificing mother and demanding, unloving daughter, lead Mildred to take a series of disastrous personal and business decisions, culminating in her wastrel, upper-class, Veda-approved, second husband Monte going down in a hail of bullets. But who pulled the trigger?

The murder mystery plotline adds effective spice to this very well directed (Michael Curtiz is at the top of his game) melodrama. Full of domestic thrills and spills, it races along like a combination page-turner and soap, perfectly matching a deeply sympathetic, self-sacrificing heroine with a host of deeply unsympathetic wasters, chancers and bullies. It’s capped by giving our heroine possibly the least sympathetic child in film history, the deliberately selfish and greedy Veda. 

Sure you could argue that its psychology is either pretty lightly developed, or thrown in only for effect. It’s never clear when or why exactly Veda and Mildred’s relationship went south so completely, or where Veda’s deep resentment and ideas above her station come from. It also avoids looking at how Mildred’s complete devotion has probably completely spoiled a child who clearly needed to be told “no” a lot more, a lot sooner. But it doesn’t really matter as the film follows the logic of an event-filled plot-boiler, throwing revelations and cliff-hangers at you left, right and centre.

In the lead, Joan Crawford took on a role that many had turned down before her – stars at the time were not keen to be seen playing roles that suggested they were old enough to have mothered children as old as Ann Blyth. The decision to push for the role paid off as she netted an Oscar and it’s the finest performance of her career. A somewhat haughty actress, Crawford here demonstrates depths of vulnerability and tenderness as a much-put upon woman who, despite everything, will stop at nothing to give her daughter what she wants. Crawford dominates the film, her air of self-sacrifice never once tipping over into self-pity, even as the character so desperately seeks for the sort of love and affection that is denied her from those around her. 

Around her most of the cast – with the exception of Eve Arden’s entertaining, wise-cracking best friend (Oscar nominated) – are basically a bunch of sharks. None sharper than Ann Blyth’s (also Oscar nominated) sweet-faced but dead-inside daughter. Rarely has a display of more naked grasping, snobbish disdain ever been captured on film, matched with unapologetic greed. Veda has no compunction about the moral consequences of her actions and, like Zachary Taylor’s archly lazy Monte, is as interested in spending Mildred’s money as she is contemptuous of its source. 

Curtiz’s film constantly however plays with our judgements and expectations of people. Veda has more than her share of moments of pain and vulnerability as she shares some of the more painful travails of her mother. Similarly, Wally Fay (very well played by a roguish Jack Carson) oscillates between being a trusted confidante of Mildred, and a lascivious greedy creep. First husband Bert (a somewhat dry Bruce Bennett) starts as a love rat but may have more decency about him than anyone else (except Mildred).

The film is wonderfully shot in luscious black-and-white by Ernest Haller, in a dynamic noirish style. Water reflections lap across ceilings. Smoke from fires and cigarettes rises up and seems to dance and swirl in the light. There are some beautiful shots of faces – the camera work in particular perfectly locates a vulnerability in Crawford’s superior features – and there is a beautiful shot late on when two people caught in an illicit kiss roll their heads back from the shadows to emerge into the light. The entire design of the film is spot-on, and it looks and sounds fabulous today.

Mildred’s struggles make this a brilliant example of the stereotypical “women’s picture”, a tale of a woman struggling against all the odds to make her way in the world, with the twist that the daughter she is straining to support is a monster and the men she chases are feckless wasters. Mildred makes chronically terrible decisions throughout but for the best of motives – and part of the film’s appeal is that you are so invested in her fundamental decency you are willing her not to make the same mistakes again and again.

Curtiz’s melodrama is brilliantly enjoyable and never lets up. It’s also a feminist icon of a sort – Mildred is never punished for having a career, indeed she’s celebrated for it (and is far more savvy about it than nearly all the men). She leaves her husband, runs her own household, pushes for her own divorce all while protecting and providing for her child (not her fault the child ain’t worth it). Mildred Pierce is ahead of its time, and still a fabulously entertaining film.

Boyhood (2014)

Ellar Coltrane grows up before our eyes in Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Ellar Coltrane (Mason Evans Jr), Patricia Arquette (Olivia), Ethan Hawke (Mason Evans), Lorelei Linklater (Samantha Evans), Libby Villari (Catherine), Marco Perella (Bill Welbrock), Brad Hawkins (Jim), Zoe Graham (Sheena)

If there is one thing we can all relate to, it’s the trials and tribulations of growing up, that shift from being a child to an adult. It’s the subject of Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which follows the growing up of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 to 18 and his relationship with his divorced parents Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). What is however most striking about Linklater’s film is that it was shot over a staggering period of time, 12 years in fact, meaning that Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater literally grow up on screen before our eyes.

It makes for an almost unrepeatable power over any other film dealing with the same subject, by letting all the actors naturally grow older over the length of the film. Suddenly it becomes not just a film dealing with an idea, but instead a real life dramatisation of the process of ageing, becoming some sort of emotional scrap-book or album, a type of film version of the trick of making a drawing move by quickly flicking the pages of a notebook. It adds an air of depth and reality to the whole film that gives it a universal strength and appeal. It’s an actual slice of real life, it’s unrepeatable and profoundly well done and immersive.

Linklater was given near creative freedom to shoot the film – with the small yearly budget for shooting the film being squirrelled away into various studio accounts. Linklater creates a film with a lack of actual drama that makes it feel even more like a part of life. There are precious few “narrative points” or dramatic tools in the overall film, with the exception maybe of Olivia’s hard drinking second husband Marco (Bill Welbrock). Instead, the issues that Mason (and Samantha) deal with have a universal relevance. These are the sort of events – the sort of conversations – that any child could have growing up. Far from making the film dull, this serves to increase its power.

Linklater based each year’s filming script on the events and feelings that were going on in the life of Ellar Coltrane at the time (although he had a clear idea of the final scene and shot), which perhaps also helped to draw such a series of deeply felt and real performances from Coltrane. The intimacy of the story also brilliantly makes each scene feel engrossingly real, precisely because everything is grounded in reality and nothing in some sort of overarching film narrative.

It’s a film entirely about capturing the rhythms and beats of real life and Linklater’s style allows moments of spontaneity, of naturalness and reality. Nothing in the film ever feels forced. You could argue that it also leads to a film that is almost restrainingly unambitious – it’s about as grounded as you can get, and barely has a structure as such at all beyond time passing. But that would be to miss the point – and the very fact that the film ignores virtually all the clichés of filmmaking narrative and storytelling is something to be praised than to be criticised. 

The film works so well due to the commitment of all involved, not least Arquette and Hawke as the parents. Arquette won nearly every award going (including the Oscar) as the mother, and her performance is a testament to the film’s strengths. It totally eschews the loud moments of acting, the look-at-me Oscar bait that the role could have had, to instead focus on a quiet, sad dignity – but also warmth and loving regard for her children. There is no studied pretence to the role at all, but instead Arquette seems to play instead the moments of joy, tinged with disappointment at moments and chances lost from early motherhood, that you can imagine everyone feeling. It’s a bravely real performance, stuffed with moments of searing, heartfelt emotional truth.

Hawke is just as good as the father, a man who slowly comes to terms with his own responsibilities and adulthood over the course of the film. Starting as still something of a would-be beatnik and playboy, we see him slowly – especially after a second marriage – grow up and accept the role of an adult and a parent, while still clinging to the idea of dispensing fatherly/brotherly wisdom to his son.

If Linklater’s film does have a flaw it’s on this focus of father-son. There really was nothing to stop this from being Childhood rather than Boyhood, but instead it’s the story of the son (and with a particular stress on his bond with his absent father) that is at the heart of the film. It’s perhaps reflecting the angle that Linklater himself bought to the story, but its shame the film doesn’t try and be more even handed by allowing us to get a greater sense of how time and childhood affected both Mason and Samantha, rather than filtering Samantha’s experience through Mason’s perspective. It also means that Mason’s relationship with his mother is downplayed in favour of the bond between father and son, a general preoccupation with male relationships that runs through the film.

It’s a minor flaw I suppose, more of a missed opportunity – and less tasteless than a clumsy sequence where Oliva inadvertently motivates a Mexican immigrant to change his life, something he is profoundly grateful for years later but which she seems uncomfortably unaware of – but then this is a film that gets so much else right. Linklater’s live-action time-lapse film is a work of art that is probably unrepeatable, and is so low-key and normal that it carries a force and relevance few other films can.

Magnolia (1999)

Family dramas come together in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beloved Magnolia

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Tom Cruise (Frank TJ Mackey), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luiz Guzman (Luiz), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), William H Macy (“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Michael Murphy (Alan Kligman), John C. Reilly (Officer Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Patridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson Gator), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), Eileen Ryan (Mary), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector)

After the success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson landed a terrific deal: he could make what he wanted, about anything at all, at any length he liked. “I was in a position I will never ever be in again” is how Anderson remembers it. And thus was born Magnolia, a beautifully assembled labour of love, an imaginative remix of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts with biblical imagery. A sprawling collection of short stories, which leans into high tragedy and melodrama, Anderson’s Magnolia is the sort of film that is always going to find a special place on a film buff’s list of favourite films.

The film follows the lives of several people over a single day in LA. Legendary host of long running quiz show What Do Kids Know? Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is dying of cancer and desperate to reconcile with his traumatised daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia is tentatively starting a relationship with devout and kindly police officer Jim Kurring (John C Reilly). Former champion of Gator’s show, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith’s (William H Macy) life is a disaster after his parents stole his winnings, and he’s struggling to hold down even the most basic of jobs. Former producer of the show Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is also dying  of cancer, cared for by his dedicated nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is wracked with guilt, while Earl himself is desperate to reconcile with his estranged son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), now a self-help guru who coaches men on how to pick up women. 

If you can’t see the links between the works of Robert Altman here, then you clearly need to look again. But it’s well worth it, as Anderson is a worthy successor to the master. He directs with a fluid confidence that comes from a director making a picture to please himself. Magnolia is frequently self-indulgent in its style and quirks, but it doesn’t matter when the effect of watching the film is so rewarding. From long takes to having the characters (all of them in different locations) sing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” at a key moment in the film, there are flourishes here that will annoy some but will be precisely what others fall in love with the film for.

And that love is deserved as this is a thoughtful and intelligent film about the impact the past (and specifically our parents) can have on us. As the man said, “they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”. Certainly the case here. From “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith to Claudia Gator, the film is crammed at every level with children (young and old) who have had their lives negatively affected by their upbringings. The past is a heavy burden, and it’s near impossible to shake-off – and in the cases of Donnie and Claudia brings with it a heavy dose of self-loathing. 

But what’s striking is that problems with the past don’t result in the same outcomes for people. Who would have thought that seemingly misogynistic motivational speaker Mackey’s beef with his dad is that Earl walked out on him and his dying mother when Mackey was a teenager? Part of the fascinating psychology of the film is how a son who loved and cared for his mother grew up to encourage men to treat women just as his father treated his mother. Is this some sort of perverse way to feel closer to the father who abandoned him? Perhaps Mackey has defined his life around hatred for his father, along with a deep longing for love – and perhaps his inability to deal with these feelings led to a professional career espousing the exact opposite? One of the neat things about Anderson’s film is that it largely avoids pat answers to this sort of thing. It’s left up to us to decide for ourselves – and perhaps reflect on how every person is an unanswerable riddle.

Whatever the answers are, it’s clear that parental problems are being paid-forward. The new Quiz Kid champion Stanley Spencer is a precocious child genius, being treated as an ATM by his father, who brags about his son while passive-aggressively demanding Stanley keep winning to continue funding his failing acting career. Stanley is a desperately unhappy child, more than smart enough to realise he is a performing monkey but unable to escape. And how can you get out of knots like that? After all, the film shows us one possible future for Stanley with Donnie – but walks a deft tightrope on whether the same life of loneliness and disappointment is inevitable for Stanley or not.

These familial clashes are introduced in the first hour and then simmer with exquisite timing during the film’s second hour. Anderson’s brilliant decision to build the film around a live recording of Gator’s quiz show means we are constantly reminded (as the show plays in the background throughout other scenes) that everything we are seeing is happening at the same time. The second hour of the film is a superbly deft cross-cutting from storyline to storyline, each building in tension. The desperation and entrapment in each scene beautifully spark off and contrast with each other. The sequence is at times marginally undermined by a slightly oppressive music score, but it’s beautifully assembled and shot and carries a real power – a superb balancing act of almost real time action that plays out for a nearly the whole of the second act. 

And Anderson knows skilfully to balance the gloom with real sparks of humanity and decency. Two characters in the film – Reilly’s cop and Hoffman’s nurse – are decent, kind and generous souls who have an overwhelmingly positive impact on every character they encounter. Both characters – and both actors are superb in these roles – are quiet, low-key but humane people who offer a quiet absolution to a host of characters, and opportunities to move on from the burdens of the past. Hoffman’s Phil is a genuinely kind person, who puts others before himself while Reilly’s Jim (surely the best performance of the actor’s career) is such a sweet, well-meaning, honest guy, that you understand why so many people feel bound to unburden themselves to him.

There is a lot to unburden in this film, and some of these moments tip over into melodrama at points. There are tear stained deathbed confessions, and angry, tearful moments of resentment and guilt bursting to the surface. At times, Magnolia is a little in love with these big moments, and indulges them too much, but it offers so many moments of quiet pain that you forgive it.

Not that the film is perfect. Today, even Anderson says it’s too long – and it really is. Unlike Altman, Anderson is less deft at pulling together all the threads in an overlapping story. This is effectively a series of short films intercut into one – the plot lines don’t overlap nearly as much as you might expect, with only Jim moving clearly from one plotline to another. It’s also a film that is driven largely by men. Of the few female characters, all are defined by their relationship to a man (and an older dying man at that), and not one of the female characters isn’t some form of victim. 

Anderson’s failure to really wrap the stories together means you can imagine unpicking the threads and reducing the runtime. Julianne Moore’s role as Earl’s guilty, unfaithful trophy wife (is she unaware of Earl’s own past of infidelity?) could have been easily shed from the film. Moore, much as I like her, gives a rather hysterical, mannered performance that feels out of touch with some of the more naturalistic work happening elsewhere in the film. The most melodramatic of the plots (every scene features Moore shouting, weeping, shrieking or all three), it also ends with the most contrived pat “hopeful ending”. It’s a weaker story that lags whenever it appears on screen.

Magnolia starts with a discussion of coincidence, but it’s not really about that – and the coincidence of all these people seems largely in the film to be reduced to the fact that they are all living in the same city with similar problems. It’s a slightly odd note to hit, as if Anderson slightly shifted the focus away from lives moving into and out of each other, in favour of a series of more self-contained linear stories. (That opening montage discussion of three (fictional) moments of fate and chance, while beautifully done, could also easily be trimmed from the film).

But then, these tweaks wouldn’t change the fact that Magnolia is a superbly made film, or that Anderson is a great filmmaker, even if he doesn’t quite manage to create the sprawling, interweaving, state of the nation piece he’s aiming for here. But as a collection of beautifully done short stories, it’s great. And the acting is superb. Tom Cruise drew most of the plaudits for an electric performance of egotism and triumphalism hiding pain and vulnerability near the surface, Anderson using Cruise’s physicality and intelligence as a performer better than perhaps any other director. Among the rest of the cast, Hall is superb as the guilt ridden Gator, Macy very moving as the desperate Donnie and Melora Walters heartrending as the film’s emotional centre, who ends the film breaking the fourth wall with a tender smile, that is perhaps one of the most beautiful final shots of modern cinema.

All this and it rains frogs at the end as well. But that introduction of biblical bizarreness is both strangely profound and fitting for Anderson’s stirring and inspiring film.

Dark River (2017)

Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley make for one unhappy family in Dark River

Director: Clio Barnard

Cast: Ruth Wilson (Alice Bell), Mark Stanley (Joe Bell), Sean Bean (Father), Joe Dempsie (David), Esme Creed-Miles (Young Alice), Dean Andrews (Matty)

British Independent film can be a grim place. Clio Barnard is undoubtedly a gifted film-maker and visual stylist, and infuses her work with a striking poetic lyricism – but blimey Dark River is hard going. And not just because it’s a grim film about grim subject matter – it’s a film that feels likes it’s trying way too hard at almost every point. 

Alice Bell (Ruth Wilson) returns to her family’s farm after 15 years, on the death of her father (Sean Bean). A victim of her father’s continued sexual abuse, Alice finds the farm still haunted by memories – and feels threatened by her violent, depressed brother Joe (Mark Stanley) who resents being left to care for the farm and their dying father alone. Both siblings make legal claims for ownership of the farm – and the dispute and tensions swiftly escalate.

Dark River makes no secret of its historic child abuse plotline. But this narrative development seems to have become so common in grounded, grim dramas like this that it’s hard not to view almost everything you see as a walking cliché. Appalling as Alice’s experience has been, this film doesn’t show us anything that we haven’t seen hundreds of times before in a storyline like this. All the expressions of trauma, the style of shooting, the silent dread – it’s all been done before. It already feels tired here and lacking any form of originality.

It doesn’t help that the film is slow-paced, and determined to create an arty atmosphere. For all the beauty of the gloomy Yorkshire dales and rain-drenched sheep, you can’t help but feel the film is wallowing in all its Bronte inspired poetic grimness. Every second of the film seems to be designed to hammer home the “grim up north” feeling, in an attempt to add an amount of poetic weight to a story that feels slight, predictable and all-too-familiar.

Meanwhile, the central conflict of Alice’s determination to turn the farm around and claim ownership of it never seems to ring true. Every second on the farm she feels uncomfortable and haunted by memories: her brother even says she can’t step foot inside the farm house. Why does she want to stay here? Why does she fight so hard to claim possession of it? It never really makes sense.

The struggle between the siblings feels equally forced, remarkable as the film’s understanding of Joe’s drunken inarticulacy and ill-expressed emotional turmoil can be. The true emotional reasons behind their fury never click, as we never get a sense of any real relationship between them either past or present. For all the haunting, ghost-like presence of Sean Bean as the dead father (who appears as a constant vision or half-memory) that sense of the past, and the unspoken tensions don’t quite click into place, leaving the film reliant on the language of cliché.

The film’s main asset is the extraordinary performances of the lead cast. For all the clichéd and familiar scenes and story structure they encounter, Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley are both exceptional. Wilson’s Alice is a heartbroken, vulnerable and confused figure only just able to understand the emotional trauma her father has left her with. Mark Stanley matches her as an angry young man, furious at the world, prone to dangerous outbursts, an inarticulate mountain of rage with no direction. The scenes between these two throb with an emotional strength and truth that the rest of the film can hardly match.

Dark River is very well made and striking in its visual language with some very strong performances. But it’s also overly familiar and trying too hard to be both important and artistic. You’ll quickly find yourself drifting away from it as it goes on, admiring it but never truly engaging with it.