Tag: George MacKay

Munich: The Edge of War (2021)

Munich: The Edge of War (2021)

The backstory of history’s most famous empty promise is explored in this solid historical drama

Director: Christian Schwochow

Cast: George MacKay (Hugh Legat), Jannis Niewöhner (Paul von Hartmann), Jeremy Irons (Neville Chamberlain), August Diehl (Franz Sauer), Liv Lisa Fries (Lena), Sandra Hüller (Helen Winter), Alex Jennings (Sir Horace Wilson), Ulrich Mathes (Adolf Hitler), Anjli Mohindra (Joan), Jessica Brown Findley (Pamela Legat), Mark Lewis Jones (Sir Osmond Cleverly)

It’s 1938 and Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) wants the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Will the British and French say no? The danger is, if they do, it will lead to a war only Germany is ready for. War is feared by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons), who remembers the horrors of the trenches. So, he flies to Munich to make a deal with Hitler. While there, a member of the British legation Hugh Legat (George MacKay) is contacted by an old friend, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), a German diplomat now extremely disillusioned by the brutal Hitler regime.

Schwochow’s film is a handsomely mounted film version of Robert Harris’ best-selling thriller. Lots of critics called it a “What if” history film, which pretty much suggests people don’t understand what that term means. The film presents a pretty much a faithful (if compressed) version of the Munich talks, rather than some sort of alternative history. What makes it different is the revised angle it takes on Chamberlain – spiced up with a fictional plot about young diplomats trying to bring down Hitler.

Played with an avuncular, praetorian charm by a perfectly-cast Jeremy Irons, Harris book (and this film) presents Chamberlain not as a naïve idiot, duped by Hitler, but a man very much aware of the nature of his opponent, but who felt duty bound to do everything he could to safeguard peace. Chamberlain speaks with real emotion of the loss of a whole generation in the trenches and his fear that Britain is not ready for another war. Sure, Irons’ Chamberlain can also be arrogant and blinkered, convinced of his own cunning shrewdness, but he’s willing to risk his reputation for peace.

What he’s willing to sacrifice of course are the Czechs – and the film doesn’t give a lot of time (if any) to this screwed nation, that saw huge parts of its country split off and handed over to an aggressive power. The film would have been richer with more content around the debates and discussions at the conference and giving more time – as the novel does – to understanding Chamberlain’s strategic thinking. The film implies Chamberlain’s infamous bit of paper was his effort to clarify where blame for eventual war would lie – but it doesn’t allow us to understand more about what Chamberlain initially intended to gain from the conference or when he decided that he was unlikely to win any concessions from Hitler. We never see a moment of the negotiations, which seems a waste for a film that was designed to re-evaluate Chamberlain.

That’s partly because the film, like the book, gives a lot of time to its fictional plot. And like there, never seems to make this seem as vital or interesting as the historical storyline. Perhaps because, while the Munich storyline presents us with something we’ve not seen before, the fictional storyline feels familiar and derivative. George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner do good work as slightly naïve young men who feel they can change the world, if they find a way to apply pressure at the right moment. But they feel like narrative devices to spice up the history, to throw in a bit of light espionage and peril to stop it being a film about a conference.

But everything feels familiar: clandestine meetings in crowded bars and pubs (surely anyone watching would hear everything?), meetings in parks, document handovers, pacey walks with people looking over their shoulder… It’s all handsomely done but it doesn’t feel fresh. And somehow, since we know (as this isn’t a What if… movie!) that it all end in failure (our heroes spend ages trying to get a copy of the Hossbach memorandum to Chamberlain who basically ignores it immediately) it doesn’t feel urgent enough.

And more interesting personal stories get short-changed. There is more than a hint of sexual chemistry between Hugh and Paul, that the film does more than hint at in performance, but doesn’t explore. Liv Lisa Fries as a young woman both men fall in love with, ends up shifted into a very stereotyped martyr role. There are some interesting ideas touched upon with the growth of a resistance movement to Hitler, but it never quite tells us enough to understand this. And the film shies away from being too bleak in its ending – even though the fates of both our lead characters must surely be a terminal one as they head into the war (given their chosen paths of anti-Nazi resistance cell and the RAF).

I wish the film – just as I felt when reading the book – had dropped most of its standard espionage sub-plot and instead had focused solely on Chamberlain. Especially with an actor as well-suited to the role as Irons. It would have allowed to focus exclusively on re-evaluating and exploring the motivations of those at the conference and the political and military difficulties they faced. Unfortunately, this gets diluted too much, which means we never quite get our perceptions challenged as much as they should. It’s a well-made film, but settles too often for being traditional rather than daring.

1917 (2019)

George MacKay is lost in the horrors of war in Sam Mendes’ one-shot 1917

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Will Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Tom Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Richard Madden (Captain Blake), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Daniel Mays (Sgt Saunders), Adrian Scarborough (Major Hepburn), Jamie Parker (Lt Richards), Michael Jibson (Lt Hutton), Richard McCabe (Colonel Collins)

No film can even begin to capture the unspeakable horror of war, and those of us who have never been in the middle of it can only imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Based on the experiences of his grandfather Alfred, Sam Mendes’ World War I story tries to immerse the viewers in the experience by staging a film designed to play out in real time, in two epic takes (actually a series of very long takes seamlessly spliced together). It’s a technical accomplishment, but also a film partly dominated by the precision of its construction rather than the emotion of its telling.

One day in April 1917, two young Lance-Corporals, brave and selfless Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and more war-weary Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a desperate mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The next morning, a British regiment will walk into a trap set by German forces. Blake and Schofield must take a message through no-man’s land, cancelling the regiment’s planned attack, or 1,600 men will die – including Blake’s brother who is serving with the regiment. 

Mendes’ film is a triumph whenever it is in motion. The time-limited race to travel across miles of hostile land – through no-man’s land, booby-trapped abandoned trenches, hazardous open fields and ruined towns that have become battlegrounds – works a treat whenever our heroes are constantly moving forward. Drawing a strange inspiration from Lord of the Rings, with its quest structure and Schofield as a Samwise to Blake’s Bilbo, the film is compellingly completed with the over-the-shoulder, walking-alongside intimacy of the camera work that follows every step of this journey, that never pulls ahead or shows us something that the soldiers can’t see and keeps us nearly constantly (bar one stunning shot of a ruined town lit only by firelight and early dawn) at the level of the soldiers.

It’s an epic experience film, and Mendes’ camerawork and ingenuity in the shooting create the impression of a one-take film – some shots seem to travel at least a mile, through winding trenches, with our heroes. The effect is justified by the desire of the film to throw us into the experience of the soldiers and to create the impression that we are sharing a journey with them – and hammers home the time pressure these men are operating under as we experience everything first hand, including the only undisguised cut (and time jump) in the film. The horrors of the war are superbly shown – dead bodies, many bloated or deformed by exposure, litter the frame but tellingly bring little comment from the soldiers, demonstrating how accustomed they have become to such sights. Each frame seems covered with muddy surfaces, and sharp freezing chills. Technically it’s a marvel, and you have to admire Mendes’ ambition in even attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps, though, that is one problem with the film. You are so impressed with the showy intelligence and grace of the camera movements, the ingenuity needed to keep the camera rolling through takes lasting ten minutes or more and travelling miles at a time, that move in and around confined rooms and trenches, that you at time spend as much (if not more) time marvelling at the brilliance of the film making as you do feeling the emotion of the story. While the long takes add immeasurably to the many moments of peril, dread and terror that the characters go through (helped also by Thomas Newman’s eerily unsettling score), they also become as much about admiring the technical brilliance as they are investing in the story.

Of course, the story has been boiled down to something very simple and elemental – and it avoids many clichés you half-expect from the start. But the film itself gets slightly less interesting when the relentless march forward stops, when the characters slow down or take moments of reflection. A section in the middle of the film where the action pauses around a young French woman hiding in a bombed out French town doesn’t quite work, and has a slight air of spinning plates – you could have allowed a longer break in the single take effect to take us from one event to another. In fact you wonder if a film that had more of a time jump or had been constructed around 3-4 clear long takes with time jumps might have worked better.

This is not to criticise the two actors who embody the leads. George MacKay is superb as a soldier who experiences immense suffering and torment on a journey he is less than willing to undertake from the first, and finds himself opening up his emotions and feelings more and more as the film progresses. Dean-Charles Chapman is a good match as a slightly more naïve youngster, desperate to do the right thing and selfless in his courage. These two move on a journey that essentially sees them handed over from one big-star cameo to another (something that is sometimes a little distracting, if necessary to allow these brief appearances to have character impact) with Firth, Strong, Cumberbatch, Madden et al all delivering terrific work in a few short minutes on screen.

Mendes’ direction technically is faultless, and the style chosen really adds huge and unrepeatable visual benefits, all superbly caught by Roger Deakins’ sublimely beautiful photography. At one moment a flare is fired – and we see it arch out of shot and then repair behind us in real time as the characters move forward. At another, an aerial dogfight goes from distant to alarmingly close. The countryside recedes hauntingly as a ride is hitched from a motorised regiment. 

The single-take effect does make it far easier to relate in these moments to the soldiers. It works less well at smaller moments – and arguably could have been replaced by a more conventional style here to give even more impact to the rest – but its execution is perfect. Maybe too perfect, as it doesn’t always make room for the heart. Hollywood’s directors seem more and more drawn to the long take for the immersive, big-screen quality they carry – four of the last five Oscars have gone to directors whose films are almost entirely made up with them. But they create – as is sometimes the case with 1917 – something that is a product for the largest screen, immersive experiences that perhaps lack rewarding depth on later revisits.

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

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

Director: Dexter Fletcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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