Tag: Gary Oldman

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Gary Oldman’s passion project is a punishingly raw, unforgettably tough drama of marital abuse

Director: Gary Oldman

Cast: Ray Winstone (Raymond), Kathy Burke (Valerie), Charlie Creed-Miles (Billy), Laila Morse (Janet), Edna Dore (Kath), Chrissie Cotterill (Paula), Jon Morrison (Angus), Jamie Foreman (Mark)

Gary Oldman called it his Lamborghini. Where other stars poured money into fast cars, Oldman pumped millions into this passion project. Writing and directing, Oldman’s film was not autobiographical, but an exploration of working-class themes that had surrounded him during his life. Nil By Mouth is a punishing look at the self-destructive cycles of some working-class lives, trapped in ruts with little opportunities or aspirations, tinged with humour but smothered in an aggressive and toxic masculinity where women so often become the victims.

Raymond (Ray Winstone) is married to Valerie (Kathy Burke). They live in a council estate in London, along with Valerie’s junkie brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). Raymond makes a living in casual crime and carries a seething, barely controlled temper that explodes at the slightest provocation. Often that comes from his own family and his shocking and brutal capacity for extreme, vindictive rage will leave physical and mental scars on all around him.

Oldman’s Nil By Mouth doesn’t really have a plot as such. It’s more a ‘slice of life’ film – or a kitchen-sink drama, but one where the sink is ripped from the wall and used to smash someone in the face. Nil By Mouth is visceral, difficult to watch and relentlessly, almost overwhelmingly, powerful in its grimness. Oldman doesn’t allow a shred of romance about working class life. There is no nobility inherent in poverty, and for every piece of human decency there are those stuck in self-destructive cycles. Often this means men barrelling around causing pain, while women pick up the pieces.

Oldman shoots the film with an alarming immersiveness. Handheld cameras, awkward turns and a deliberate shunning of the careful and conservative distancing of two-shot set-ups, makes the viewer feel uncomfortable close to the characters in all their exceptionally flawed whole. The film is designed to make us feel as much in the room as possible, an increasingly helpless witness to the aggression and violence that bubbles under the surface of every moment. Just like Valerie’s young daughter, who watches everything with a mute silence, we are helpless witnesses.

Working-class London is an overwhelmingly male – and toxic – environment. No one can go more than a few words without effing and blinding. All the male characters guard their personal space like pit bulls. The slightest accidental touch can be met with nose-to-nose spittle fuelled fury. While there is a homespun humour to some of the conversations, the content is pitch-black. Anything that could even be vaguely interpreted as weakness is aggressively shunned.

It’s clear that all the man are emotionally stunted, frightened little boys behaving with the aggression of angry teenagers and the muscles of fully-grown men. Oldman’s gift with the film is to look at some of the most appalling people, with an understanding that never tips into sympathy. None more so than wife-beater Raymond. Raymond is a monster. A bleeding fist of anger, who sheds self-pitying tears in the aftermath of the latest atrocity he has inflicted upon his wife (“I do it because I love you”). Raymond sees himself as “the Daddy” but is actually a weak-willed bully, drowning in self-loathing and crippled by misdirected anger and grief at his own bullying father.

None of this excuses the appalling, terrifying behaviour he dishes out to Billy and Valerie. He nearly bites Billy’s nose off in an incandescent fury when Billy steals his drugs. That’s nothing to the jealous beating he meets out to Valerie when he witnesses her playing pool with a man. This shockingly violent outburst of kicks, punches and stamps to the prone and weeping Valerie is impossible to watch (mercifully Oldman keeps it mostly off camera). It’s felt inevitable: Raymond looks on the edge of handing out a beating every time we see him.

But then, Oldman is making the point, it’s inevitable to the characters as well. None of Valerie’s family are surprised by it – even if there is a vague attempt by her mother Janet (played excellently by Oldman’s real-life sister Laila Morse) to accept Valerie’s detailed story of a hit-and-run leading to her disfiguring injuries. Raymond is translating the pain handed out him onto his own family, dishing out treatment he received from his father but a hundred-fold worse. Just as his mother accepted treatment like this from his father, so Valerie will accept it from him. Her daughter will see this behaviour, and likely accept the same from her husband in the future.

Why do women accept it? Because what choice do they have? There is so few opportunities. Aspiration hardly comes into it – even if it clearly doesn’t exist for many – because quite simply the idea of there being another way of living your life than this just seems impossible. Women are there to pick-up the pieces. Janet has been doing it for years, nursing her son through a drug-habit with cash when he needs it (all of which goes into his arm). They need to keep the family, dysfunctional as it is, strangely functional. To let the dust settle, to welcome the abuser back in when he promises to change, give the junkie who has robbed them one more chance.

Nil By Mouth is at its strongest when it implies this terrible cycle. This can’t be the first time Raymond has struck Valerie (there is mention of an earlier estranged marriage, which presumably ended for the same reason). The film comes full circle to the family back together again – but no problems have been solved, no changes made, no revelations made. People have simply come together because, at the end of the day, what other choices are there?

Nil By Mouth isn’t perfect. Its grim power is sometimes overstretched at its two-hour plus run time. Much of the first half hour focuses on Billy, with Oldman’s camera a little too in love with the observational tragedy of this slightly shallow character (Creed-Miles does a good job, but the character is never quite interesting enough to sustain his screen-time). This is particularly obvious once the focus returns to the raw, unwatchable power of Raymond and Valerie.

Here Oldman also shows his strengths as a director of actors. Winstone – who a year before was making episodes of One Foot in the Grave and Murder Most Horrid – saw his whole career change with a performance of such stunning intensity, commitment and sheer visceral horror matched with self-pitying weakness, that he makes Raymond one of the most pathetic monsters of cinema. Kathy Burke is astoundingly good as Valerie, suffering, patient but unable to conceive of a change to her life. Both have never been better, turning a domestic tragedy into something of elemental force.

Oldman’s film is hard, grim, difficult viewing – but also essential. It marks him, after Laughton, as one of the greatest sole-directing credit actors (so far!) ever. Nil By Mouth, once seen, is impossible to forget.

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger leaves a great legacy as The Joker in The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Eric Roberts (Sal Maroni), Monique Gabriela Curnen (Detective Ramirez), Ng Chn Han (Lau), Ritchie Oster (The Chechan), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb) Anthony Michael Hall (Mike Engel), Joshua Harto (Coleman Reese), Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow)

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins reset the table for superhero films. The Dark Knight took that table, picked it up, overturned it and rebuilt it from scratch. This influential film is certainly the greatest superhero film ever made and the calling card Nolan will carry for the rest of his life. Its exclusion from the 2008 Best Picture list at the Oscars (and Nolan’s snubbing for Best Director) was so widely condemned as snobbery (especially as the slot went to the atrocious awards-bait The Reader, a film even Oscar-host Hugh Jackman quipped he hadn’t seen) it led to the Oscars doubling the number of Best Picture Nominees (something benefiting several genre films inferior to this one). The Dark Knight declared forever superhero films could be proper films with characters, intriguing stories and interesting things to say.

It’s been a year or so since Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) began his caped crusade as Batman, wiping out organised crime in the city. District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – working closely with Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) – has launched his own tough on crime crusade that has led to many mobsters landing behind bars. In the police force, Lt James Gordon (Gary Oldman – superb as a man whose good intentions lead to great harm) is straightening out the most bent police force on record. Now the gangs are desperate and in retreat – so desperate that they turn to the sort of dangerous, anarchic freak they would never usually countenance working with: a man known only as The Joker (Heath Ledger). The Joker though has his own plans for the city, for Batman and his own crazed ideas of social anarchy.

The Dark Knight is told on a huge scale: but Nolan never once loses sense of the fact this is an adventure film, while making sure that it explores ideas around society and humanity that leaves most high-brow films standing. Sumptuously made, a technical marvel it has set-pieces that stand with the greatest in cinema, dialogue that is crisp and brimming with intelligence and every performance in it excels. Nolan’s cinematic verve creates a film that always feels fresh.

It’s hard not to reflect on the film without remembering the tragic death of Heath Ledger. A controversial choice for the Joker – despite Brokeback Mountain he was seen by many as a lightweight actor – Ledger’s performance is astounding. He radically redefines the character, giving every scene an eerie edge somewhere between violence and black comedy. His Joker has the bowed head and animalistic prowling of a hyena (along with the laugh), a snake-like licking exploration of his facial wounds, a voice that switches from a deep baritone to a high-pitched giggle.

He’s dangerously, psychotically violent, with a dark, demonic delight in mayhem, a wickedness that is not funny so much as unsettlingly comic and an unpredictability laced with a sharp and intimidating intelligence. Ledger essentially redefined a character who had existed for decades. It’s an extraordinary performance, winning numerous awards, that stands as the definitive interpretation of the character as a scuzzy, streetwise hood with the willingness to do anything at all.

The Joker is the channel Nolan’s film uses to explore fascinating ideas around order and chaos, and the clash between anarchy and rules. Nolan understands that, for all his confused psyche – heading out to beat up criminals for his nightly activities – Batman is a bastion of law and order and moral righteousness. He’s a fiercely ordered and meticulous man, who plans several steps ahead of his enemies, holds rigidly to a moral code and has the confidence (arrogance?) to believe he is best placed to make the big calls for the many. They are personally traits he shares with all the films heroes: he, Gordon and Dent are all men who harvest long-term plans to deliver mass benefits.

Standing against them is their antithesis. The Joker believes principles are bunkum, with life motivated by randomness and selfishness. These are polar opposite theories of life being explored here – and the Joker’s plans (such as they are) are to show that mankind is, at heart, an awful, terrible thing that can only destroy. But the schemes of our heroes also smack of arrogance and control – a sense of almost divine certainty in their righteousness.

Basically, what we get here is a discussion on our fear of anarchy. Deep down we all like conspiracy theories, because it shows someone is in charge. Randomness is terrifying. We all like to feel there is an organising force behind events – no one wants to meet their end by the toss of coin. We feel comforted by being part of an overall plan – even if it’s a plan for our demise. The Joker’s power comes not from his skills in themselves, but his willingness to break all rules and destroy anything and anyone at any time for any reason. There is no protecting against this. And it’s terrifying.

Nolan introduces the concept – and the character’s warped way of thinking – from the very start. The stunning opening sequence features a bank heist (with a neat cameo from Heat veteran William Fichtner – a deliberate homage) where the Joker has devised a ragged, but brutal plan which involves each member of the gang offing each other in turn (not that they are aware of that!). It’s a blazingly, triumphantly cinematic opening and a brilliant entrée to Nolan’s superbly directed, engrossing film.

While juggling intelligent ideas it’s also a brilliant, edge-of-the-seat ride crammed with jaw-dropping set-pieces. Each of them is underpinned by that rich psychological clash. Bruce Wayne is trapped in tactics utterly unsuited for his opponent, his assumption that criminals are simple people motivated by greed. Even worse, the Joker delights in identifying the clear lines Batman won’t cross, and dances right across them, wiping out the psychological advantages that Batman has over other criminals: once the Joker establishes Batman will never kill him, he forever knows he has the upper-hand.

Bravely the film ends not with a bang, but a character-driven, personal three-way confrontation between its three heroes (Batman, Gordon and Dent), low-key but bubbling with resentments, fury and pain. It’s a perfect cap – and a capturing of the film’s argument that the greatest damage people like the Joker can cause is not to our property but to our souls.

It’s easy in all this to overlook Christian Bale, but he is wonderful as Wayne (and again this is a film that is as much, if not more, about Wayne than Batman). Increasingly distancing himself from people – his last links to human warmth being Alfred (Michael Caine, again in wonderful mentor form) and Rachel Dawes (re-cast to terrific effect with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who brings wonderful depth and complexity to the role) – Wayne carries a martyr complex, damaging to his psyche.

Nolan’s film is a dense and rich thematic exploration of chaos and certainty which expertly combines thills and actions with a character driven plot. Superbly acted, wonderfully paced, rich and intelligent – with a genre defining performance by Ledger – this is truly great film-making, one of the greatest blockbusters of all time.

Mank (2020)

Mank header
Gary Oldman excels as Herman J Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s bitter Hollywood epic Mank

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Gary Oldman (Herman J Mankiewicz), Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies), Lily Collins (Rita Alexander), Arliss Howard (Louis B Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (Joseph L Mankiewicz), Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst), Sam Troughton (John Houseman), Ferdinand Kingsley (Louis B Mayer), Tuppence Middleton (Sara Mankiewicz), Tom Burke (Orson Welles), Joseph Cross (Charles Lederer), Jamie McShane (Shelly Metcalfe), Toby Leonard Moore (David O Selznick)

It’s 80 years old, but age has not withered Citizen Kane’s mystique, still one of the greatest films ever made. The story of its creation has intrigued generations, a fascination only increased by the larger-than-life personalities involved, from Orson Welles down. David Fincher’s lovingly made, but bitingly shrewd deconstruction of classic Hollywood, explores the creation of the film by focusing on its credited co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz, the film neatly intercutting between the alcoholic Mankiewicz drafting the screenplay while in enforced retreat and his prime years as a writer-for-hire to the major Hollywood studios of the 1930s.

Mankiewicz is played by Gary Oldman (at 62, already seven years older than Mankiewicz was when he died). A noted wit, Mankiewicz makes an excellent living running the writers’ room at Louis B Mayer’s (Arliss Howard) MGM. Mankiewicz views the work of writing films as slightly beneath him, easy money (“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots” he cables Ben Hecht). Mankiewicz’s sociability eventually finds him an informal role as “court jester” to newspaper tycoon (and MGM bank roller) William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and he builds a warm friendship with Heart’s shrewd mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The relationship sours as Mankiewicz grows disgusted by the dirty tricks campaign MGM and Hearst launch against the left-wing candidate for governor in 1936. In 1939 Mankiewicz works on the script for Citizen Kane, hired by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) with the support of an assistant Rita (Lily Collins) who helps him craft the words and stay sober long enough to type them.

Fincher’s film can easily be seen as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood. Certainly, Fincher fully embraces 30s filming style. From the carefully crafted period credits to the slightly distorted sound that apes the echoey on-set recording of classic Hollywood, this is a technical masterpiece. Beautifully shot in a series of sultry black-and-white images, with several visual references to Citizen Kane, it looks simply marvellous. The musical score is a brilliant mixture of Herrmannesque and classic Hollywood symphonic music with an edge. Even the casting has a slight old-school Hollywood unreality about it, from Oldman being at least 30 years too old to Amanda Seyfried being too young. Fincher embraces every flourish and stylistic tic from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

But the film is about as far as you can get from rose-tinted glasses. Instead this is a vicious, angry, look at Hollywood’s corruption, that owes as much to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood is a carnival of greed and abuse of power, where art takes a second seat to cold hard cash (“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies!” Louis B Mayer exclaims). Power is abused, lies are peddled to the public (Upton Sinclair, the Democratic candidate for governor, is subtly savaged by MGM-propaganda films) and the rich shamelessly steal from the rest.

The film doesn’t give a pass to the “talent” either. Mankiewicz and his writers’ room – a who’s who of greats, from Ben Hecht to George S Kaufman, SJ Perelman and Charles MacArthur – are blasé and spend as much time playing cards and seducing broads as they do scribbling ideas. Mankiewicz sets the tone, a super-smart wordsmith who thinks the movies are a joke and never invests himself in any of his work, happy to simply pick up a pay cheque. Mankiewicz doesn’t care about the quality and completely misses (or doesn’t even understand or care about) the power of movies. Anyway, his judgement is terrible, denouncing The Wizard of Oz as an epic disaster in waiting and never bothering to ensure he receives credit.

Oldman perfectly captures the shambling, slightly rotund and scruffy disdain of Mankiewicz, as well as brilliantly suggesting that the booze and cigarettes are an aid to forget his own disgust and self-loathing. With Oldman’s verbal dexterity triumphant (Mankiewicz actually carries more than a few echoes of his Winston Churchill), Mankiewicz’s real gift (and reason for living) is clubability and a skill at getting on with everyone. He’s the ultimate insider in a profession he thinks is an unworthy joke. It’s what gives him the ability to drop perfectly formed, biting bon mots at the drop of the hat – and this devil-may-care attitude amuses William Randolph Hearst (a chillingly still and powerful Charles Dance who can turn from congenial to menacing in a moment).

It’s also what wins the friendship of Marion Davies, who Mankiewicz recognises as a kindred spirit, a woman of intelligence and sensitivity, playing a role in an industry she holds in uncertain affection. This is career best work from Amanda Seyfried, giving Marion intelligence and a touching vulnerability. However, unlike Mankiewicz, she is happy in the role she has been ‘cast in’. It would never occur to her to launch the sort of scathing attack on this gilded set that Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane becomes.

The film is in fact less interested in the writing of Kane than you might expect.Kan, even with Tom Burke making a wonderfully detailed Orson Welles. It does however make sure to give most of the credit for story and dialogue with Mankiewicz, with Welles reduced to a petulant tantrum (the inspiration for Kane’s room wrecking) when Mankiewicz demands credit. (The film is in effect a dramatisation of Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane essay, which attempted to shift the key creative contribution from Welles to Mankiewicz). But then perhaps Mankiewicz finally realised films can be a vehicle for respectable, worthy work.

That is surely the lesson Mankiewicz learnt from the 1936 Gubernatorial campaign. His offhand remark inspires MGM to refashion its news reel department into a propaganda machine. Mankiewicz is plagued by guilt, self-loathing and disgust for his employers over this cynical and destructive abuse of power – but also his own failure to exploit his skills and talent to really make a difference (in a way his brother Joseph manages to do). Again, Fincher’s intelligent and beautifully crafted film leaves all this lingering in the mind, its initial impact only growing over time as you digest its complexities.

However, it is a film perhaps a little too absorbed in its detail to keep an eye on the heart. There are several scenes that feel missing. The film needs more of Mankiewicz as the court jester at Hearst’s. It needs more space to allow us to understand where Mankiewicz’s rage and bitterness really comes from. It needs more time to tackle his mixed feelings about his work. More exploration of the foundations of Citizen Kane. The pace sometimes flags and it’s a cold and admirable film rather than one that can be love, occasionally feeling a little pleased with itself (with its deliberately scuff-marked film and burned reel marks). I can well imagine some people using the dreaded word “boring” and it’s really a film for the cine-buff rather than the casual viewer.

The main flaw – and it might well be a big one – is that there isn’t enough focus given to what motivates Mankiewicz to turn so completely against the gilded in-crowd. Even when haggling over credit with Welles, Mankiewicz still points out he (unlike Welles) is a Hollywood insider and will win any arbitration. But the motivations of the film are hard to find amongst the skilful recreation of its design. The characters at times seem a little to artificial and lifeless.

But it has a host of other positives, all superbly marshalled by Fincher’s pitch perfect direction. The cast is superbly led by Oldman. Among the rest, Arliss Howard is terrific as the venal and hypocritical Louis B Mayer, Tuppence Middleton very affecting as Mankiewicz’s put-upon wife and Lily Collins charming as Mankiewicz’s assistant Rita Alexander. With its evocation of Hollywood style spot on, Fincher’s film also brilliantly deconstructs the dark, corrupt heart of Hollywood where powerful producers and money men are focused on their own ends. Shown through the eyes of one disaffected insider, it makes for a film-buffs delight and an intriguing if sometimes cold viewing.

JFK (1991)

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

Director: Oliver Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannibal (2001)

Anthony Hopkins rides again in the terrible Hannibal

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), Julianne Moore (Clarice Starling), Gary Oldman (Mason Verger), Ray Liotta (Paul Krendler), Frankie R Faison (Barney Matthews), Giancarlo Giannini (Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi), Francesca Neri (Allegra Pazzi), Zeljko Ivanek (Dr Cordell Doemling)

For Dino De Laurentis, The Silence of the Lambs was always the one that got away. Owning the movie rights to the Lecter character, de Laurentis allowed Orion, producers of The Silence of the Lambs, to use the character name for free. De Laurentis was desperate to make his own Hannibal Lecter film, to cash in on Lambs success – so much so he would have put any old crap on the screen so long as it was connected to Lecter. Perhaps Thomas Harris wanted to test that out with his novel Hannibal, a blatantly for-the-money piece of pulp.

Hannibal is everything that Silence of the Lambs is not. Where Jonathan Demme’s film was subtle, insidious and unsettling this is brash, gory and garish. Harris’ serial killer works always circled around the possibility of tipping into a sort of Poesque-Gothic netherworld. Hannibal dives in head first, reinventing its central character as a sort of Robin Hood of murderous psychopaths and introducing everything from vengeful faceless paedophiles, to Dantesque murders and man-eating hogs. The plot, such as it is, sees Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) living under an assumed identity in Florence. Back in America he is being hunted not only by Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) but also Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled under a host of make-up) who wants revenge after being hideously disfigured by Lecter. Will Lecter turn the tables on these adversaries?

Both Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster were offered more money than they knew what to do with for this film. Both turned it down, citing the book – and its grotesque and bizarre outcome that see Lecter and Starling becoming lover-killers together – as the major factor. Foster in particular was out-spoken about how she saw the books extremity as a betrayal of the work she did with the character in the first film. 

No such concern for Hopkins though, who took a bumper pay cheque to return. Hopkins always said Lecter was an easy role to play – basically a creepy voice and a lot of actorly tricks – and it certainly makes it easy for Hopkins to coast through the part here. Really Hopkins treats the role no differently from the countless chat shows where he had been asked to say “Hello Claressse”, the only real difference being he was paid about $20million to do it here. This is Hopkins on unthinking autopilot, in a film that tries to play up the black comedy but instead becomes a ludicrous, offensive farce, drowning in blood.

Ridley Scott directs and his painterly visuals and mastery of the epic shot strips comes at the cost of the very things that made the original film so involving and tense. The Hitchcockian suspense and intimacy of Demme’s direction is jettisoned. Instead everything is a dialled up to a brightly coloured 11. The entire film mistakes gore, blood and overblown, cartoonish villainy for horror. Watching people being mauled by wild hogs, or some more unfortunate being lobotomised and made to eat his own brain isn’t scary it’s more gross. And because nothing feels remotely real in this film, it doesn’t even carry much impact.

The entire film is based around the fact that it’s Hannibal we’re paying to see – especially Hopkins reprising the role – so by Jiminiy we better work a little bit to make this lethal killer from Lambs into something a bit closer to an anti-hero. So instead, Lecter is rejigged as a sort of charming, amoral cannibal. The sort of guy who prefers to eat the rude and unmannered, who loves art and is only really dangerous when provoked. The film carefully gives us reasons to dislike everyone Lecter kills, and slowly falls in love with his sinister magnetism. 

This reduces Julianne Moore – in a truly thankless task – trying to both forge some sort of identity for Clarice from the story that is both unique and a continuation of what Jodie Foster did so well in the first film. It’s not entirely her fault that she fails. This is a film that depowers Clarice, that goes as far as it dares to turn her into a moth around Hannibal’s flame. The film backs away from the romance of the book (even if the film hints at it enough), replacing the eventual ending with something almost as stupid but at least doesn’t turn Clarice into a brain guzzling serial killer.

The plot flies around two arcs, one set around Hannibal in Florence the other on his return to America. Both carry no resemblance to the real world. The first does at a least have a decent performance of nervy greed from Giancarlo Giannini as the Italian detective who (wrongly) feels he can go toe-to-toe with Hannibal. The second revolves around Gary Oldman’s (unbilled – due to an argument over billing or a sly joke, depending on who you talk to) repulsive Mason Verger, a villain so revoltingly gothic you can’t believe in him for a second.

The film looks good and has a decent score, but it’s basically a claret splashed mess that can’t decide whether it’s a horror or some sort of black comedy. It settles for being nothing at all. A truly terrible movie, where everyone is there for the money and I imagine no one thought about the movie for a second once their work on it was done.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Gary Oldman prowls the night as Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Gary Oldman (Count Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina Murray), Anthony Hopkins (Professor Abraham van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker), Richard E. Grant (Dr Jack Seward), Cary Elwes (Lord Arthur Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Quincy P Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy Westenra), Tom Waits (Renfield)

In the 90s Francis Ford Coppola planned a series of high Gothic films of classic monster stories, kick starting the plans with his own production of Dracula (the only other film that came of this was Kenneth Branagh’s equally operatically overblown Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Going back to the story of the original novel (more or less), Coppola presented a deliberately high-intensity, theatrical, over-the-top version of Stoker’s tale that becomes as overbearing as it is visually impressive.

In 1462 Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) renounces God and becomes Dracula, after false news of his death leads to his wife (Winona Ryder) committing suicide and being damned by the church. Over four hundred years later, the immortal vampire Dracula plans to travel to England, with his plans unwittingly aided by his solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves). His interests are peaked all the more when he sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder again) – the reincarnation of his dead wife. Dracula heads to England, preying on Mina’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) leading to an alliance of Lucy and Mina’s friend, led by Professor van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to combat Dracula’s villainy and save Mina from her own dark temptations to join the besotted Vampire.

Coppola’s film doubles down on Gothic romance, thundering through the action with everything dialled up to 11. The (rather good) score hammers home every beat, the camera swoops and zooms through a parade of tricks, wipes and dynamic angles with cross fades frequently throwing two images on screen at the same time. It makes for a sensual – in more ways than one – overload, but also a rather oppressive viewing experience, with no respite or sense of calm but every single scene delivered with stomach churning acceleration.

It’s a film directed with a deliberate operatic style, that celebrates (and makes no attempt to hide) its set-based theatricality. The opening sequence sets the tone with its Kurosawa inspired costumes in front of an Excalibur style blood-red sky, with battle scenes (and impalings) staged as an elaborate puppet show. Oldman – with a hammy Eastern European accent that you could wade through like treacle – then rages and roars over his wives crumpled body, stabbing a cross that leaks blood all while images are cross-cut showing his wives demise and the beginnings of his own monstrous transformation. The film doesn’t ease up from there.

To be honest Coppola massively over-eggs the pudding, producing an over-blown monstrosity of a film that shouts and shouts and shouts and drains all subtlety from every frame. In particular the sexual undertones of Vampirism – and the harsh male judgement of female sexuality – that the book explores are placed unsubtly front and centre. Every vampire attack is presented as a positive ravishing, Frost and Ryder writhing orgasmically (poor Frost has to undergo the indignity of being humped and bitten by a Dracula in part human-part wolf form) while boobs are left on display after every single assault. From an early scenes that sees Lucy and Mina gawping at a pornographically illustrated Arabian Nights, we are left in no doubt that IT’S ABOUT SEX YOU KNOW.

Coppola shows no restraint at all in his directing, which leaves nothing to the imagination, and ends up leaving the actors adrift between a film that is part serious attempt to film the book and part ludicrous bodice ripper, like the cheapest 60s salacious horror film from the worst excesses of Hammer.

It certainly leaves the actors adrift. Oldman gives it a go with gusto, even if he seems completely lost as to what tone this character should hit (is he a monster, a lost soul, a conflicted lover, a megalomaniac – who knows?). Anthony Hopkins channels Orson Welles with the sort of ham that was to become more-and-more his go to in later years. Winona Ryder does her best with a role that oscillates wildly between Good Girl and Minx. She’s saddled with an English accent, which restrains like a straitjacket. Tom Waits has fun as the insane Renfield (here imprisoned in a crazy asylum that resembles a medieval dungeon).

The rest of the performances are pretty much abysmal. Poor Keanu Reeves is left ruthlessly exposed, horrendously miscast as a stiff-upper lip English lawyer in a performance that surely goes down somewhere in history as one of the worst ever. His acting here would barely scrap by in a school play, his delivery of the dialogue wooden beyond belief and some talcum powder added to his hair for the film’s later sections only makes him look ridiculous. Reeves is a decent performer in the right role, but he was never worst case than this. But then the rest of the cast are pretty much just as bad: Frost is out-right awful, hopelessly unable to make Lucy anything other than a slut, while Grant, Campbell and Elwes are all wooden and dull to a man.

The film does get some points for reverting closer to the plot of the book – unlike many versions – although the addition of the love story between Dracula and Mina is marred by tonal problems and the utter lack of chemistry between Oldman and Ryder (they famously fell out on set and the film never recovers). Coppola directs the film with no discipline at all, and no sense of balance between spectacle and story. While it has many merits in its design – it won no less than three Oscars and the costumes, make-up for Oldman and much of its look and style are flawless – it’s basically a pretty over-bearing and dreadful film that shouts at the viewer so long and so hard that it becomes easier in the end to laugh at it rather than with it. A sad misfire.

Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale redeems the Batman in Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (William Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul), Mark Boone Jnr (Detective Arnold Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb)

In the mid-2000s, Batman on film was a joke. A series that started with the Gothic darkness of Tim Burton had collapsed into the pantomime campness of Joel Schumacher. The franchise was functionally dead, so why hot burn it all down and start again from scratch. It was a radical idea – one of the first big “reboots” of a comic book saga. It was a triumphant success, changing the rule book for a host of film series and one of the most influential movies from the last 15 years. 

After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life drifts as he is unable to get over his own guilt at believing he was partly responsible for getting his parents into a situation where they were killed. In a Gotham run by organised crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Bruce exiles himself for years to try and learn the skills he will need to return and try and find some peace and deal with his fears by tackling crime head on. Recruited by his mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into the League of Shadows – a dark group of ninja inspired vigilantes – Wayne eventually rejects the group’s ruthlessness and returns to Gotham. There, working with his old guardian and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he starts to build a new identity: by day shallow playboy Bruce Wayne, by night The Bat Man ruthless vigilante, fighting crime. 

Why did it work so well? Because Christopher Nolan understood that the key to making a film that will kickstart a series and win the love of both the casual viewer and the fan is ‘simple’ – just make the film good. Make it a film powered by ideas, characters, a deliberate story and intriguing beats and audiences will love it. Make it a lowest common denominator film offering only bangs and crashes and ‘fan service’ and audiences will reject it. Because at the end of the day we know when we are being manipulated, and the assumption too many people behind making films like that is that people don’t really want intelligent films. They do.

Batman Begins works so well because it places character front-and-centre in a way no other Batman film – and very few superhero films – had before. Unlike all the other Batman films, here Bruce Wayne (and it is definitely Bruce Wayne) was the lead character, not a staid stick-in-the-mud around whom more colourful villains danced. Combine that with Nolan’s inspired idea to return Batman to something resembling a real-world, a more grounded, recognisable version of Gotham which has problems with organised crime that we could recognise from the real world. This are intelligent, inspired decisions that instantly allowed the film to take on a thematic and narrative depth the other Batman films had lacked. 

It’s Bruce Wayne’s psyche at the centre of the film – in an excellent performance of emotional honesty and physical commitment by Christian Bale – and his attempts to find solace in a sense of duty from his fears and his loss of a father figure. It’s Fear that is possibly one of the central themes of Batman Begins and the power it has over us. Fear is what Bruce must master – on a visceral level his fear of bats, on a deeper level his fear that he has failed his parents by failing the city they loved – and fear is the weapon all the villains use. Fear is the petrol for Falcone and his gangsters. Fear is the weapon Batman utilises. Fear is the study of choice of disturbed psychologist Joanthan Crane (a smarmily unsettling Cillian Murphy). A weaponised Fear gas is the WMD that the film’s villains intend to introduce into Gotham.

Understanding fear, working with it, finding its strengths and using these for good is at the core of the film. It’s there from the first beat – a traumatised young Bruce attacked by bats after falling into an abandoned well they nest in – and it’s there at the very end. Bruce’s training with mentor Ducard is as much about understanding and living with these terrors as it is physical prowess. His impact as Batman on the city is central towards channelling his own fears – bats, the dark, violence on an empty street – into universal fears he can use to terrorise criminals. 

It’s all part of the film’s quest to work out who Bruce Wayne is. With Bale superb at the centre, the film throws a host of potential father characters at Bruce, all offering different influences. He has no less than three father figures, in his father (a fine performance of decency by Linus Roache), the austere and understanding Ducard (Neeson channelling and inverting brilliantly his natural gravitas and calm) and the firm but fair and caring Alfred (Michael Caine quite brilliantly opening up a whole new career chapter). 

The influences are all there for Bruce to work out. Should he follow a path of compassionate justice as his father would do? How much muscular firmness and earnest duty, such as Alfred represents, should this be spiced with? How does Ducard’s increasingly extreme views of justice, combat and social order play into this? Which influence will win out over Bruce – or rather how will he combine all this into his own rules? It’s telling that the film’s villain turns out to be a dark false-father figure – the entire film is Bruce’s quest to come to turn with his own legacy and allow himself to accept his father and forgive himself.

It’s also telling that both hero and villain are driven by similar (but strikingly different) agendas. Both are looking to impose justice on the world. But where Bruce sees this as compassion with a punch – a necessary evil, protecting the good in the world while bringing down the evil – the League of Shadows see their mission as one of imposing Justice through chaos, of letting a world destroy itself so that a better one can rise from the ashes. 

Its ideas like this that pepper Christopher Nolan’s film. Throw in his superb film-making abilities and you have an absolute treat. Nolan’s direction is spot-on, superbly assembled with a mastery over character and story-telling. Beautifully designed, shot and edited it’s a perfect mixture of comic book rules and logic – the very idea of the League of Shadows – with the real world perils of crime, vigilanteeism and violence. With a superb cast led by Bale – and Gary Oldman also deserves mention, Nolan finally unleashing the decency, honesty and kindness in the actor that revitalised his career – Batman Begins relaunched Batman as a serious and intelligent series, that matched spectacle and excitement (and there is tonnes of it) with weighty themes, fine acting and superb film making. There is a reason why it’s been a touchstone for every reboot of a series made since.

The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017)

He’s a hitman. He’s a bodyguard. Let the predictable hilarity ensue!

Director: Patrick Hughes

Cast: Ryan Reynolds (Michael Bryce), Samuel L. Jackson (Darius Kincaid), Gary Oldman (Vladislav Dukhovich), Salma Hayek (Sonia Kincaird), Elodie Yung (Amelia Roussel), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Ivan), Joaquim de Almedia (Jean Foucher), Kirsty Mitchell (Rebecca Harr), Richard E. Grant (Mr Seifert)

The buddy movie. Two mismatched people from two very different walks of life – ideally opposing ones – are thrown together to do something or, better yet, go somewhere and along the way (guess what!) they slowly put all their initial hostility behind each other and found out that, hey, perhaps they have more in common than they thought becoming mismatched pals for life. I’d love to say The Hitman’s Bodyguard does something different. But no, it doubles down on this plot. And doubles down hard.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is an elite UK-based private bodyguard – but after the sudden assassination of one of his clients (and if you can’t guess who the assassin turns out to be, you’ve clearly never seen a movie) his career falls apart and he ends up guarding drug fuelled corporate executives in London (a frankly demeaning cameo for Richard E Grant). All this changes when he is brought in – of course! – by his ex-Girlfriend Amelia (Elodie Yung), an Interpol agent charged with delivering to the Hague notorious hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson). Turns out Kincaid has agreed to testify against Slobodan-Milosevic-style-dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, clearly using his recent Oscar to pick up a big pay cheque). But Dukhovich’s men are out to stop them, helped by turncoats in Interpol, so Bryce and Kincaid must hit the road together to get to the Hague – not helped by their obvious loathing for each other. Let the sparks fly!

If you didn’t notice just from that plot description that this is as familiar and overworn a plot as a moth eaten old coat, let me confirm for you. This film does literally nothing new, original, different and interesting than a hundred films before it. In fact it’s almost a work of art to make something so completely and utterly lacking in any form of originality. The entire film plays out, almost beat for beat, as a straight knock off of Midnight Run, but lacking its charm, comic chops, absurdity and heart.

Instead The Hitman’s Bodyguard is exactly the sort of film actors take on when they have a bit of a loose end and want to pick up a healthy cheque so that they can consider popping off afterwards to do something a little more interesting. To say the actors could play these roles standing on their head is an understatement: they could play them in a coma. 

Reynolds is charming as always, but the part barely stretches him. Jackson sprays swear words around like confetti, essentially playing his public personae and looks like a man shooting a film in between trips to The Belfry for a few rounds of golf. Salma Hayek plays a sweary, sexualised “bad girl”, in a role that I think she is embracing as a lark but in fact feels demeaning as the camera leers over her body as she does bad ass things (the part also lacks any charm whatsoever). As mentioned, surely the only thing that attracted Gary Oldman to this totally bland villain role was a stonking pay cheque – and who can blame him for that.

I suppose it passes the time okay, but the film frequently mistakes vast amounts of swearing and moments of violence for actual wit. Just hearing characters drop f-bombs and shout isn’t actually in itself that funny. There is nothing actually smart about the film at any point what-so-ever. No wonder the actors coast through it effectively playing versions of their own public personaes. 

The story line is so rammed full of ludicrous events and thumping clichés that, despite the enjoyment of a few bits of pieces, you can pretty much predict everything that will happen in the movie. If you can’t spot the second the Interpol characters appear on screen which of these guys is a mole for the baddies, then you’ve clearly never seen a movie. Every single beat and every single scene that this mismatched duo go through to get from enemies to frenemies is like reading a B-movie plot creation text book. 

But then if you’ve never seen a film before this might all seem rather enjoyable. If you are thinking about watching this film, I’d urge you to watch Midnight Run. It’s like this – it’s exactly like this – but much, much better. But then I guess the stars of this film will say the same. Even as they limber up to make a sequel: but then they’ve got bills to pay.

Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman, rather surprisingly, rather is Churchill during his Darkest Hour

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill), Lily James (Elizabeth Layton), Ben Mendelsohn (George VI), Stephen Dillane (Lord Halifax), Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain), Samuel West (Anthony Eden), David Schofield (Clement Atlee), Malcolm Storry (General Ironside), Richard Lumsden (General Ismay), Joe Armstrong (John Evans), Adrian Rawlins (Air Chief Marshall Dowding), David Bamber (Vice-Admiral Ramsay)

One of my favourite ever TV series is Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, a chronicle of Churchill’s time out of government (basically 1929-1939). It covers the political clashes between Churchill and his rivals brilliantly, as well as giving us a real feeling for Churchill’s own personality and flaws and featured a brilliant performance from Robert Hardy. Darkest Hour takes off almost where that series ends – and I think it might just be a spiritual sequel. And, for all its flaws, I might even grow too really like it.

Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is a beautifully filmed, imaginatively shot retelling of the crucial first month of Churchill’s premiership. Wright uses a great device of flashing the date up (in an imposing screen-filling font) as each day progresses. Apart from brief moments, the action rarely leaves Whitehall, with the focus kept tightly on the politics at home. Will Churchill win over the war cabinet to continue the war, or not? It revolves around dialogue shot with tension and excitement, and is structured key Churchill speeches: each carrying all the emotional impact you could expect and beautifully performed, with goose-bump effect by Gary Oldman.

Because yes, this film’s one piece of genuine excellence, and what it is really going to be remembered for, is the brilliance of Oldman’s performance. This is one of those transformative performances where the actor disappears. Of course it’s helped by the make-up, but there is more to it than that. The voice, the mannerisms, movement, emotion – as a complete recreation of the man it’s just about perfect. Whatever the film’s flaws, Oldman nails it. Sure it’s larger than life – but so was Churchill.

Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, demanding and temperamental – but he’s also warm and humane. In one beautiful moment he conducts a conversation with an un-encouraging Roosevelt, where his features seems to shrivel and shrink with despair, while his voice keeps up the optimism. Moments of gloom hit home, but there is also humour (and Oldman is actually rather funny in the lead role). There’s moments of pain, guilt and depression – it’s terrific.

However it does mean some of the other actors scarcely get a look in. Kristin Scott Thomas in particular gets a truly thankless part, no less than four times having to counsel a depressed Churchill with variations on “You’re a difficult but great man and your whole life has been leading to this moment” speeches. Lily James actually gets a more interesting part as Churchill’s admiring secretary, getting the chance to be frightened, awed, amused and frustrated with the Prime Minister – and she does it very well, even if her part is a standard audience surrogate figure.


The characters are neatly divided in the film: they are either pro- or anti-Churchill. The “pro” characters largely get saddled with standing around admiringly around the great man (Samuel West gets particularly short-changed as Eden becomes Churchill’s yes man). The “anti” characters mutter in corridors about how unpredictable and dangerous he is, how he could wreck the country etc. etc.

To be fair to the film, it does at least treat the doubts of Halifax (Stephen Dillane – all clipped repression, he’s excellent) and Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup – serpentine and tactical, although Chamberlain’s hold over the Tory party was nowhere near as great as this film suggests) as legitimate concerns. It does weight the dice in favour of Churchill, and we don’t get enough time to fully understand the reasons why peace with Hitler might have seemed reasonable in 1940 (tricky to get across to a modern audience so aware of Hitler’s status as evil incarnate). But Halifax’s stance that it was better to cut your losses than fight on to destruction is at least treated sympathetically, rather than making him a spineless weasel (as others have done).

The film really comes to life with the conflict between the Halifax-Chamberlain alliance and a (largely alone) Churchill. The cabinet war room clashes have a fire, energy and sense of drama to them that a lot of the rest of the film doesn’t always have. It sometimes drags and gets lost in filling the time with “quirky” moments with Churchill. There is a bit too much domesticity that feels irrelevant when we know the fate of the nation is at stake.

But then this is a sentimental film. Not only is it in love with Churchill (we see some blemishes, but his air of perfection goes unpunctured), but it uses devices that feelas you are watching them like sentimental film devices. None more so than Churchill bunking down on a tube train to exchange encouraging words with regular people and for them to tearfully recite poetry at each other. In fact it’s a testament to Oldman that he largely gets this hopelessly fake-feeling scene working at all.

Wright’s film makes a point later of demonstrating that – reporting back to the Tory party the results of this conversation – Churchill uses the names of the people he met, but completely replaces their words with his own. But it still gets itself bogged down in this sentimentality – including a teary end caption on Churchill being voted out of office. Every scene with Churchill and Clementine has a similar chocolate box feel, as does a late scene with George VI (who seems to flip on a sixpence between pro and anti-Churchill – although Ben Mendholsen is very good in the role).

Darkest Hour is an extremely well-made film. It’s told with a lot of energy – and it has a simply brilliant lead performance. Joe Wright finds new and interesting ways to shoot things: there are some great shots which frame Churchill in strips of light surrounded by imposing darkness. But its not brilliant. It will move you – but that is largely because it recreates actual real-life, moving events (who can listen to Churchill without goosebumps?). But it’s given us one of the greatest Churchill performances and it’s worth it for that if nothing else. And, for all its flaws, and the safeness of its storytelling, I actually quite liked it – and I think I could like it more and more as I re-watch it.