Tag: Helen Mirren

The Duke (2022)

The Duke (2022)

An eccentric Brit pinches a priceless painting in this cozy tea-time drama

Director: Roger Michell

Cast: Jim Broadbent (Kempton Bunton), Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton), Fionn Whitehead (Jackie Bunton), Matthew Goode (Jeremy Hutchinson), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Gowling), Aimée Kelly (Iree), Joshua McGuire (Eric Crowther), Charlotte Spencer (Pammy), John Heffernan (Nedie Cussen QC), Charles Edwards (Sir Joseph Simpson), Sian Clifford (Dr Unsworth)

In 1961, a 60-year old working-class Geordie and social campaigner (in the “tilting at windmills” sense) Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) made headlines. He went on trial, accused of stealing Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. Bunton was outraged that the British Government had spent £140k (about £3.3 million today) on preserving the painting for the public. Bunton believed the money would have been better spent paying for TV licences for veterans. When Bunton returned the painting, his trial became a media sensation.

Michell’s film (his final one, as he passed away before its Covid-delayed release) is an inoffensive, gentle, Sunday-afternoon cuddle fest, that never quite decides what it really wants to be. The tone frequently bubbles with a faint “caper”-like atmosphere, with its jazzy 60s score, split screen shooting and pops at the foolishness of the establishment, who never consider the painting could have been nabbed by a British eccentric from oop North (two sexist police officers rubbish a female handwriting expert who correctly identifies Bunton’s background). But it’s a slow, rather unfocused character study that has a melancholic grief at its heart. These elements never really fuse together.

Bunton is the quintessential plucky-British eccentric, railing against the system, that this country loves to love. He has a fixation on the injustice of the BBC licence fee (he even “fixes” his TV by removing the part of the cathode that receives the BBC signal, so that he can legitimately refuse to pay the licence), he’s a convinced class warrior. He’s fired as a taxi driver for (a) giving veterans and others free rides and (b) banging on endlessly about his political fixations to his passengers (even one of his charity rides begs him to shut up). He’s fired from a bakery for standing up for a Pakistani fellow worker in the face of racial discrimination. He sits in the rain vainly trying to get people to sign his anti-licence fee petition.

But he’s got no real idea how to use the painting to achieve his aims. While this lack of a plan fits his character, it does mean the central section of the film tends to drift, mostly taking some cheap shots at the British authorities‘ self-satisfied complacency, while Bunton tucks the painting in a cupboard and does nothing with it other than write the odd letter to the press, trying to leverage its return for support for his causes

The film has an odd, inverted snobbery about art throughout. It sees paintings as solely a preserve of the rich. A female journalist early in the film (who we are clearly meant to sympathise with) questions the money spent because of its small size (as if surface area was the best judge of Artistic value!) – and the director of the National Gallery is only allowed a vague defence of its quality in return (which we are clearly meant to sneer at). Bunton calls the painting “not very good” and disparages Goya as a “drunk Spaniard” (which feels rather like calling Turner a “blind idiot”), with the film offering no counter view. It never mentions that the picture was (a) placed in the National Gallery for all to see for free; or (b) that the government actually only put up £40k with the rest donated by a millionaire.

Instead, the film takes an odd angle that painting is the “wrong sort of art” to be spending so much money on – the writers and directors never mention that in the same year the Government spent £1 million on the National Theatre (25 times what they spent on the Goya). I’m pretty sure Bunton would have hated that as much, if not more (especially since no one could see a National Theatre show for free, unlike the Goya) but you can’t expect writers Richard Bean and Chris Coleman and director Michell to bite the theatre teat that fed them. The film ends with an odd caption stating the licence fee was made free for over-75s forty years later – but doesn’t explain that it was done in a way designed to hobble an institution loathed by the Conservative Government (and I doubt Bunton would have supported the action either!).

On top of this, there is a way more interesting film to be made here about grief. The loss of their daughter, aged 18, to a cycling accident hangs over everything the Buntons do. It’s the source of unspoken tension between Kempton and Dorothy. He visits the grave frequently and can’t understand why she won’t, and they can hardly bring themselves to talk about the loss or display her picture. While centring this would make for a more melancholic film, it feels like its heart.

But that would be a less crowd-pleasing film, and that’s what this film is trying to be. The final act is dedicated to the courtroom, and its mostly about watching Kenton and his lawyer (a lovely turn from Matthew Goode) running rings around the system. Of course every character in the film puts their differences aside to cheer on Bunton on the stand. It’s when the film gets a bit of the fizz back from the opening. Not enough for it to be anything more than passable entertainment – but it helps.

The lead performances are of course excellent, much better than the film deserves. Broadbent is absolutely perfect casting, playing this dedicated social-warrior to charming perfection. Mirren gives a performance way better than the thinly-written exasperated wife deserves. But they’re the main selling points of an otherwise fairly average movie. The film telescopes the events of four years into six months, but only rarely gives itself the sort of energy and fun it needs to be anything more than a something you can let pass before your eyes on a Bank Holiday.

The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme as her Majesty in The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Roger Allam (Robin Janvin), Sylvia Syms (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport), Mark Bazeley (Alistair Campbell), Julian Firth (Jonathan Powell)

It’s easy to assume The Queen is a cozy piece of film-making, not least because writer Peter Morgan’s exploration of the Royal Family has become every one’s favourite costume drama viewing thanks to his series The Crown on Netflix. But that’s to forget the acute sense of the personal and the public Morgan has, and his ability to write himself into the minds of his participants. And he’s perfectly matched here with the wry eye of Stephen Frears. Together they create a film that uses a single moment of history to explore the nature of our institutions and the particular characters of the people that fill them.

The film follows the death and aftermath of Princess Diana, and especially the dramatic public reaction to the death that expressed itself both in unparalleled scenes of national public mourning and hostility to the Royal family. Both are things a lifetime of duty and service have failed to prepare Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) for – but are also things intrinsically understood by her new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). As the public clamour for the Royals to join the public in an exhibition of public grief rises, it’s mixed with a furious demand for a royal ‘mea culpa’ for ruining the life of the “People’s Princess”. Could the Royal Family be finished?

Well of course it wasn’t, and perhaps it’s hard to understand for those who didn’t live through those crazy days of 1997. But there was never anything like it before – people wept in the streets as if they had lost a family member of their own. Princess Diana – a tireless campaigner for charities, who did a great deal to change public perceptions on AIDS among many other issues – was also a brilliant master of public opinion, far more attuned to the countries drift away from stiff-upper-lip reticence towards celebrity-worship sentimentality than the family she married into. As skilful a manipulator of the press, as she was a victim of their hounding, she’d made herself into someone larger than life. It’s the sort of modern cult of celebrity, that few others mastered – and certainly not in the Royal Family.

Diana hangs over the family in the film like a ghost, an embodiment of their sense that the country is drifting away from them. It’s a film where pace and speed are vital, Frears and Morgan brilliantly contrasting the rushing onslaught of events from the car crash to distraught, increasingly angry, crowds gathering outside Buckingham Palace with the relatively sedate official response, which was effectively a private retreat to Scotland and say and do very little. The film has a brilliant sense of the momentum of those crazy days, and of the clash between an institution straitjacketed by tradition and a world where the public exhibition of emotion is de rigour.

What the film finds however is the value in both, and in doing so perhaps becomes one of the greatest adverts for the monarchy – or at the very least for Elizabeth II – you will ever see. A lot of this comes from Helen Mirren superb performance as the Queen. It’s a role Mirren performs with a combination of Sphinx-like genius and a genuine fragility under a veneer of exactitude. Mirren’s Elizabeth is a woman whose sense of duty has led to a lifetime of living as a symbol, a profession that has demanded the avoidance of any sort of personal opinion what-so-ever (something Morgan leans on with his Alan Bennettish early scene, where the Queen chats with a maid about the recent General Election and regrets she never had the chance to tick a box for something). She’s a woman certain that she has performed her duty in the finest tradition of her family.

Her tragedy in the film is the bewildered sense of suddenly finding the country she thought she knew being completely different. Put simply, the destructive Diana, a difficult person privately but loved publically, is a woman she can’t understand – and a country that embraces her is one she struggles to understand as well. Mirren’s Queen has a sharply defined sense of her place and person, but finds herself questioning all that. While sharply refusing to be treated as fool, she has a distressed sense of suddenly being adrift in the world.

Morgan captures all this in a series of engaging “behind the scenes” moments, but his real trick is his sure touch with symbology. A magnificent stag on the grounds, being hunted by all and sundry, could easily have been a clumsy parallel with the Queen, but it’s delivered with real grace and serves as a true emotional catalyst for the Queen (twice!) as she finally begins to understand both her own situation, and the necessity for her to bend her own firm principles and tradition to meet the requirements of this new age.

It’s the main theme of the film, this conflict between tradition and modernism, but the film sees merit in both. Many of the formalities of court life are humoursly spoofed in their intricate pomposity, but the overblown sentimentalism and knee-jerk judgamentalism of the modern world are hardly much better. As Blair himself, the arch modernist, observes there will always be a place for a head of state who gives us a symbol to aspire to. Not least, because the burden of standing for things and being driven to play to the masses will eventually lead to the destruction of most political careers (the film mines a fair bit of material between the implicit comparison of Blair’s saint-like popularity in 1997 to the wreckage of his “Bliar” reputation in 2006).

Frear’s film is a gentle critique but also a sharp defence of the institution of the monarchy, as practiced by the Queen. It may pain her, but she will get on with it. Morgan’s script also suggests her quiet wisdom – the film’s coda has her suggesting that Diana, like all things popular today, will pass. 

The film is less sure footed elsewhere. It’s portrayal of New Labour at times leans a bit too heavily into public perception – Campbell (played by a bullying Mark Bazaely) as a brash blow-hard, Labour as being obsessed with spin and image, Cherie Blair as a judgemental Shrew. Other members of the Royal family sometimes bend into parody – by the time of the Crown, Peter Morgan was to find Prince Philip as a far more fascinating and richer character than he is here. But the performances are strong across the board, as if following their head of state in Mirren. Sheen’s re-creation of Blair is pitch perfect, and he also aptly understands the difficult balance in Blair between genuine decency and ambition. Roger Allam also provides a wonderfully dry cameo as the Queen’s old fashioned secretary, while Alex Jennings does a neat impersonation of a Charles desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing.

The Queen’s main interest though is showing that tradition and modernism can sit side-by-side – and that a leaning too far in either direction is harmful for all involved. It sprinkles in intriguing levels of criticism for Diana, but matches that with a respect for the Queen, that makes her real while keeping her a symbol. Helen Mirren’s performance deserved every price going, and the film itself rewards with each new viewing.

The Good Liar (2019)

McKellen and Mirren excel in this enjoyable confidence trick caper The Good Liar

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Roy Courtnay), Helen Mirren (Betty McLeish), Russell Tovey (Steven), Jim Carter (Vincent), Lucian Msamati (Beni), Mark Lewis Jones (Bryn), Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Vlad)

The truth can be a difficult thing to grasp. Particularly when so many people are skilled at twisting and turning it for their own purposes. Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) is one of the best in the business, a selfish and greedy con man who preys on the vulnerable and the arrogant unlike, ruthless in is business dealings and with anyone who tries to muscle in on his business. His latest mark is Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a lonely widow who has inherited a huge fortune from her late husband. Meeting Betty through a “lonely hearts” online dating agency, Roy skilfully inveigles his way into her life and her home. But is all as it seems to Roy?

The Good Liar is an entertaining and enjoyable con trick of a film, that sets up its stall very much like a number of other films in this genre. We are presented with a picture of the conman at work, and shown many of the tricks and hoodwinks that the film will practice on us, being worked out in practice by the conman early in the film. It’s possible to see how the joins work – and do find your expectations being carefully prepped – but the film is entertaining enough that you are happy for it to let you try and lead you down the deceptive garden path even as it points out a few trips along the way.

A large part of the success is down to the brilliance of the two leading performances. Ian McKellen is at possibly his very best as the genial, amusing, waspish Roy who we only slowly begin to realise is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, with a line in casual cruelty and violence. It takes a great actor like McKellen, to play so successfully a consummate actor (and liar) as Roy, and never seem either too forced or overplaying the hand. His Roy has several excellent lines, and also a brilliant ability to look and sound genuine and heartfelt at one moment and shift gears to ruthless coldness the next. It’s a superb performance, wonderfully entertaining in its delight in its own villainy. You almost want to forgive Roy his essential vileness, such is his surface charm and McKellen’s waspish delight in playing such an unrepentantly horrible man. McKellen has done his best film work working with Condon and this film might be his best yet.

Mirren matches him well as the mark, a considerate, intelligent and decent woman. Mirren has a difficult job here, for reasons that would perhaps be spoilers, although I think it is safe to say that most viewers going into a film like this would expect that it would have a few cards up its sleeves. Needless to say Mirren is perhaps not all she seems, but she handles the difficult balancing act of seeming one thing and suggesting enough of another, that the final reveals never come as a surprise or seem inconsistent with her characterisation throughout the film. 

Instead the film takes us on a delightful dance where we know that something is going on that we don’t know about or can’t see – and playfully the film effectively shows us the mechanisms of the con very early on as Roy and his business partner Vincent (an excellent Jim Carter) carry out another confidence game on some other victims. But Condon’s playful film lets us know enough that something is happening that Roy can’t even begin to guess at, while also allowing us to enjoy his confidence, arrogance and fast-thinking willingness to dance from lie to lie depending on the mood. 

The one problem the film might have is that the final reveal of what is going on is based on information that is not delivered early in the film, but instead dropped on us at the end in an info-dump. While it makes sense that the film wishes to play its cards close to its chest, it perhaps would have been more satisfying to have little bit more of the information sprinkled throughout the film, enough for us to have a bit of a chance of piecing together they why before we are told. On reflection the film gives us moments that point towards the big picture, even if never enough information is given.

But the film still works because it has a devilish charm and waspish wit, and a delightful performance of gleeful devilry from McKellen, in one of his best roles yet. Making a superb pairing with Mirren, Condon’s enjoyable film hinges on the success of its actors and its enjoyment of the tricky narrative sleight-of-hand that con films can do so well.

Gosford Park (2001)

Cruelty, snobbery and viciousness – just another night at Gosford Park

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Eileen Atkins (Mrs Croft), Bob Balaban (Morris Weissman), Alan Bates (Mr Jennings), Charles Dance (Lord Stockbridge), Stephen Fry (Inspector Thompson), Michael Gambon (Sir William McCordle), Richard E. Grant (George), Derek Jacobi (Probert), Kelly Macdonald (Mary Maceachran), Helen Mirren (Mrs Wilson), Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello), Clive Owen (Robert Parks), Ryan Phillippe (Henry Denton), Kristin Scott-Thomas (Lady Sylvia McCordle), Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham), Emily Watson (Elsie), Claudie Blakely (Mabel Nesbitt), Tom Hollander (Lt Commander Anthony Meredith), Geraldine Somerville (Lady Stockbridge), Jeremy Swift (Arthur), Sophie Thompson (Dorothy), James Wilby (Freddie Nesbitt)

We’ve always fancied ourselves that when Brits make films in America – think John Schlesinger’s brilliant analysis of New York hustlers in Midnight Cowboy – they turn the sharp analytical eye of the outsider on American society. But do we like it when America turns the same critical eye on us? Gosford Park is a film surely no Brit could have made, so acutely vicious and condemning of the class system of this country, without the hectoring that left-wing British filmmakers so often bring to the same material, it’s just about perfect in exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty that undermines our class system. You’ll never look at an episode of Downton Abbey the same way again.

In November 1932, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) hosts a shooting party at his country house. McCordle is almost universally despised by his relatives and peers – most especially his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) – but tolerated as his vast fortune from his factories basically funds the lives of nearly everyone at the house party. While the upper classes gather upstairs, downstairs the servants of the house led by butler Jennings (Alan Bates) and housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) order the house to meet the often selfish and thoughtless demands of the rich. The house is rocked midway through the weekend, when a murder occurs overnight. With motives aplenty, perhaps the new maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) of the imperious Countess Trentham (Maggie Smith) has the best chance of finding the truth.

First and foremost, it’s probably a good idea to say that this is in no way a murder-mystery. Robert Altman, I think, could barely care less about whodunit. While the film has elements that gently spoof elements of its Agatha Christie-ish settings, Altman’s interest has always been the personal relationships between people and the societies they move in. So this is a film really about the atmosphere of the house and most importantly how these people treat each other. Altman despised snobbery, and in a world that is fuelled by that very vice, he goes to town in showing just how awful and stifling so many elements of the class system really were.

“He thinks he’s God Almighty. They all do.” So speaks Clive Owen’s Robert Parks, valet, of his employer the patrician Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance, excellent). You’ve got the attitude right there: the rich see themselves as a different species to those pushing plates around and cleaning clothes below stairs. The idea of there being anything in common is laughable. Slight moments of casual conversation between servant and master in the film are governed by strict laws and carry a quiet tension. 

It’s so acute in its analysis of the selfishness, snobbery, cruelty and arrogance of the British class system that each time I watch it I’m less and less convinced that Downton Abbey (the cuddliest version of this world you could imagine) creator Julian Fellowes had much to do with it. This film is so far from the “we are all in this together” Edwardian paternalism of that series, you can’t believe the same man wrote both. All the heritage charm of Downton is drained from Gosford, leaving only the cold reality of what a world is like where a small number of people employ the rest.

Upstairs the hierarchy is absurdly multi-layered. Everyone is aware of their position, with those at the top of the tree barely able to look those at the bottom in the eye, let alone talk to them. The rudeness is striking. Maggie Smith (who is brilliant, her character totally devoid of the essential kindness of her role in Downton Abbey has) is so imperiously offensive, such an arch-snob, she can only put the thinnest veil over her contempt when she deigns to speak to her inferiors. Her niece, played with an ice-cold distance by Kristin Scott-Thomas, embodies aloofness, selfishness and casual cruelty.

Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, superb) – the one real person in the film, and a film star – is treated like a jumped up minstrel player, with characters falling over themselves to make snide comments about his career. His guest Morris Weissman (an excellent Bob Balaban), a Hollywood film producer, is treated with similar contempt – when reluctant to divulge details of the film he is in England researching (a Charlie Chan film) for fears he will spoil his plot, the Countess bluntly informs him “oh, none of us will see it”. Later, as Novello plays the piano (essentially singing for his supper) only the servants are pleased – most of the upper classes endure it under sufferance (“Don’t encourage him” the Countess says when there is a smattering of applause). You can see why, after only a few hours in the house, Weissman whispers to Novello: “How do you put up with these people?”

The servants themselves are bits of furniture, or barely acknowledged at all. Altman doesn’t shoot a single scene without a servant present, but this often hammers home their irrelevance to the upper classes (it’s made even more effective by seeing actors like Bates, Jacobi, Grant, Macdonald, Owen and Watson essentially being treated as extras). There are no bonds between upstairs and downstairs at all. Any upset witnessed on either side is responded to with silence. When Emily Watson’s Elsie (a brilliant performance of arch awareness of her place) momentarily forgets herself and speaks out at the dinner table, it’s treated like she has crapped on the floor – needless to say her career is finished.

The servants however echo the pointless rituals and ingrained hierarchy of their masters below stairs. For ease (!) the house servants insist the visiting servants are only addressed by the names of their employers not their own names. At their dinner table, their seating reflects the hierarchy of their employers. Many of the servants are more grounded and “normal” than the upstairs types, but they are as complicit in this system continuing as anyone else. They simply can’t imagine a life without it, and accept without question their place at the bottom rung of the house. 

Ryan Phillippe, later revealed as an actor masquerading as a servant (for research), immediately shows how hard it is to move between the two social circles. The servants despise him as a traitor who may leak secrets about their views of the employers. The guests see him as a jumped up intruder, even more vulgar than Novello and Weissman. His later humiliation is one of the few moments that see both sides of the social divide united (it’s fitting that it is an act of cruelty that reinforces the social rules that brings people together). 

The focus is so overwhelmingly on the class system – with Altman’s brilliant camera work (the camera is never still) giving us the sense of being a fly-on-the-wall in this house – that you forget it’s a murder mystery. Here the film is also really clever, archly exposing the harsh realities of the attitudes held by your standard group of Christie characters. Dance’s Lord Stockbridge in a Christie story would be a “perfect brick” but here we’ve seen he’s a shrewd but judgemental old bastard. The film throws in a clumsy Christie-style incompetent police detective, played by Stephen Fry. This is possibly the film’s only real misstep as Fry’s performance touches on a farcical tone that seems completely out of step with the rest of the film. But the Christie parody is generally wonderful, exploding the cosy English world the public perception believes is behind Christie (even if the author herself was often darker than people remember!).

It’s a hilarious film – Maggie Smith in particular is memorable, from cutting down her fellow guests, to judgementally tutting at shop-bought (not homemade) marmalade – but it’s also a film that creeps up on you with real emotional impact. Kelly Macdonald is very good as the most “everyday” character, who takes on the role of detective and has superb chemistry with Clive Owen’s dashing valet. But the film builds towards a heart-rending conclusion – a conclusion that, with its reveal about the darker side of Gambon’s blustering Sir William, feels more relevant every day – that shows the secret tragedies and dark underbelly of these worlds, with a particularly affecting scene between Atkins and Mirren (Mirren in particular is such a peripheral figure for so much of the film, that her final act revelations and emotional response carries even more force).  It’s heart rending.

Gosford Park is a film continually misremembered as either a cosy costume drama or a murder mystery. It’s neither. It’s a brilliant analysis of the British class system and a superb indictment of the impact and damage it has had on people and the country. Hilarious, brilliantly directed by Altman with a superb cast – it’s a masterpiece, perhaps one of the finest films in Altman’s catalogue.

Trumbo (2015)

Bryan Cranston is the put-upon idealist Trumbo under the scornful eye of Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), Louis CK (Arlen Hird), Elle Fanning (Nikola Trumbo), John Goodman (Frank King), Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G Robinson), Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan Hunter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks), Dean O’Gorman (Kirk Douglas), Stephen Root (Hymie King), Roger Bart (Buddy Ross), David James Elliott (John Wayne), Christian Berkel (Otto Preminger)

Hollywood loves to make movies about itself. It particularly loves to make movies where Hollywood is seen to be working on a higher moral plane. Trumbo is a film about the Hollywood Ten – the ten major screenwriters, directors and actors in Hollywood whom the industry blacklisted in the 1940s because of their sympathy for communism. Their leading light was Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a rich screenwriter who finds himself imprisoned and unemployable. Trumbo encourages the writers to group together and write under pseudonyms for cheap film studios – although the right-wing in Hollywood continues to persecute them. Trumbo cannot reveal his identity as a writer – even after winning two Oscars – until 1960 when Kirk Douglas gives him a credit for Spartacus.

Trumbo is a very earnest, straightforward and rather bland re-tread of a key moment in Hollywood. It’s made with very little imagination, and remixes the world of 1940s politics into something that bears more resemblance to the political situation now than it does to the time. That’s not to defend the House Committee on Un American Activities (HUAC), the Congress Committee that led the campaign against communist subversion in Hollywood. Their persecution of communists flew in the face of American ideals of free speech, and their ruin of the lives of innumerable actors, writers and directors not found to be ideological pure is appalling.

But this is a film that simplifies its politics into a world of good and bad. It also works hard to try and whitewash Hollywood. Watch this film and you would believe it was Congress that had worked overtime in order to ban certain Hollywood creatives from working. Not so: the black list was put forward by the movie studios themselves and endorsed by the various guilds. Famous actors and directors, such as Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, furiously dropped their support for the Hollywood Ten after feeling they had been deceived by the Ten about their Communist associations. The film mentions none of this of course, running with a Hollywood-vs-Congress story line and crowbarring in people like McCarthy and Nixon who had very little to do with HUAC.

The main Hollywood figures campaigning against the Black List are either faceless Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals types, or lip-smacking, practically mustachio-twirling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with ludicrous OTT camp wickedness by Helen Mirren). John Wayne is the only recognisable Hollywood “legend” shown on the side of these guys – and, while he does get mocked for his non-war-record early on by Trumbo, he is quickly shown to be a moderate pushing for forgiveness for those who repent (and is noticeably absent from the villainy of the organisation later in the film) – Hollywood doesn’t want to be too harsh on one of its own.

Roach’s political simplicity also affects the actors who found themselves in an impossible position. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G Robinson points out, writers can work under a pseudonym, actors can’t. I was reminded of when Elia Kazan won an honorary Oscar and several famous Hollywood actors refused to applaud him, as Kazan had “named names” (or rather confirmed names HUAC already knew) when pulled before the committee. Robinson here is rammed into the same position, denounced as a snitch and a traitor for confirming the names of the Hollywood Ten when many of them are already in prison. As at the Oscars, I’m not sure it’s our place to judge. It’s cosy to assume “I would have told them no” but who can say if we would have or not? And can we really judge those who decided they didn’t want to go to the wall for a communist cause they didn’t believe in (as Kazan and Robinson didn’t, being more left-wing sympathisers than Stalinists like Trumbo)?

It’s another part of the film’s simplicity that Communism is not of course interrogated any further. Watch this film and the political views of Trumbo and his colleagues come across as nothing more than a more idealistic version of Obama-ism. In reality, Trumbo was a Stalinist who pushed for non-intervention in World War II until Russia was attacked by Hitler. This is not mentioned or explored in the film at all. In fact, the complexity of these idealists climbing into bed with a regime soaked red with blood that was suppressing freedom across large chunks of the globe isn’t even raised. Roach wants to tell a story about good-old-fashioned-Hollywood-democrats being persecuted by nasty right-wingers.

Away from the film’s simplicity it’s nothing special. Roach does competent work and there is the odd good scene. Trumbo himself is basically a rather selfish arsehole, who judges everyone around him and frequently ignores his put-upon family. Cranston does a decent job as Trumbo – but you can’t help but feel his generous Oscar nomination was in part a recognition for his work on Breaking Bad. Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel get some of the best scenes as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger working with Trumbo on Spartacus and Exodus. Bizarrely, the film totally avoids diving into the themes of Spartacus– or exploring what Trumbo was thinking about when he wrote “I’m Spartacus”, that paen to unity from the pen of a man abandoned by everyone, surely a hugely personal line not in the original source material – and instead skirts only on the surface, ticking off events. It kinda sums the film up: a solid enough to watch, but basically forgettable, that never engages with the inner lives of the men it claims to understand.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Animated DeMille epics in the rather brilliant The Prince of Egypt

Director: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells

Cast: Val Kilmer (Moses), Ralph Fiennes (Ramesses II), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), Sandra Bullock (Miriam), Jeff Goldblum (Aaron), Danny Glover (Jethro), Patrick Stewart (Pharaoh Seti), Helen Mirren (Queen Tuya), Steve Martin (Hotep), Martin Short (Huy), Ofra Haza (Yocheved)

When Dreamworks Studio was put together by three Hollywood mega hotshots (Katzenberg, Spielberg and David Geffen), Jeffrey Katzenberg, former head of Disney, finally got the chance to make his animated version of The Ten Commandments. The Prince of Egypt was the first project under the Dreamworks animation label – and it was intended to beat Disney at its own game. It succeeded – so well that many people think it actually is a Disney film. Is that a good thing?

Anyway, the story should be familiar. In Ancient Egypt, Moses (Val Kilmer), the child of Jewish slaves, is adopted by Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart) as a baby after being found in the bulrushes. Moses grows up as brother to Ramesses (Ralph Fiennes) the future Pharaoh – until the shock of finding out his heritage leads him to flee Egypt. But an encounter with the burning bush (voiced again by Kilmer) gives him a new mission – back to Egypt to demand of Ramesses “Let My People Go”. Will he succeed? Well: There Can Be Miracles (When You Believe).

It helps you to believe in miracles when a film looks as gorgeous as this one does. The animation is amazing, not just because of its quality and richness, but the imagination of its images. From the framing of Pharaoh and later Rameses around the Egyptian architecture around them, to an extraordinary dynamic shot of Moses throwing his sandals from the room when encountering the burning bush, to the haunting interpretation of the killing of the firstborn, it’s brilliant. 

It doesn’t stop there either, with the final parting of the Red Sea awe-inspiring in its scale. But the film does equally beautiful work with the smaller, more intimate moments: each character feels real and lived in, and the film perfectly captures smaller moments of affection, love and hurt with genuine emotional force. It’s a terrifically well-made film.

And of course it has a classic story – it’s literally stood the test of time. So imaginative are the visuals – and so impressive is its scope and scale – that it almost dwarfs the DeMille style it’s quietly apeing. In fact, I’d worry whether it is a film that will have greater appeal to movie-lovers and parents than perhaps it does to children. There isn’t much in the way of humour – even the film’s nominal comic characters, a pair of cynical Egyptian priests (and near con artists) voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short, are on the side of the oppressive baddies. There are a few decent songs in there – I rather like the Les Miserables style oomph of “Deliver Us” – and the film makes great use of the beautiful voice of the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza. But there is no getting around that this is a serious piece of film-making, with nary a comic camel in sight.

But this is no bad thing at all, and I think it stands The Prince of Egypt in good stead as it’s a film you’ll like more the older and more mature you are watching it. Not least the wonderfully complex relationship it explores between Moses and Ramesses – these two wild young men start as carefree kids (the first thing we see them do is smash up a temple building site in the film’s most cartoonish sequence, a sort of Wacky Races chariot drag race), and each become dramatically changed by responsibilities. Moses ascends to a higher plane of responsibility and humanity – but Ramesses finds himself forced into defending to the death a system of government he seemed at best disinterested in as a young man.

The film actually carries a great deal of sympathy for Ramesses. It’s in many ways a tragedy of the brother relationship between these two princes of Egypt getting shattered by events. But Ramesses is a lonely, almost needy figure, who needs Moses’ affection and respect. Ralph Fiennes mines a lot of vulnerability for this man struggling to fill his father’s shoes, who just wants Moses to chuck this whole prophet business in and go back to being his only friend. Ramesses becomes a complex, vulnerable and rather sad man – unable to deal with the pressure of his role and desperate to revitalise a lost connection with Moses, the hatred he eventually feels for his former brother born almost exclusively from rejection. 

Moses isn’t quite as interesting a character – he’s more of a waster who becomes a stand-up guy – but the film successfully builds an aura about him. It struggles a bit more with those Old Testament morals: we are meant to condemn Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Jewish firstborn that opens the film, but God’s massacring of the the Egyptian firstborn (for all Moses’ discomfort with it) is presented as being primarily the fault of the Egyptians’ stubbornness.

But then that steers us into theological territory, which no animated epic for kids can really manage to set new ground with. Instead, let’s focus on the many things the film does right. First and foremost that striking visual imagery and beautiful animation, and the depth and shading it gives to the characters. The all-star cast do extremely well – even Jeff Goldblum is fairly restrained – and it’s got some great songs. It deserves to be shown as often as The Ten Commandments on the television.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Bob Hoskins rules London – but for how long? – in classic Brit gangster masterpiece The Long Good Friday

Director: John Mackenzie

Cast: Bob Hoskins (Harold Shand), Helen Mirren (Victoria), Derek Thompson (Jeff), Bryan Marshall (Harris), PH Moriarty (Razors), Dave King (Parky), Eddie Constantine (Charlie), Paul Freeman (Colin), Stephen Davies (Tony), Paul Barber (Errol), Pierce Brosnan (Irishman)

The Long Good Friday nearly turned into a one-hour TV special starring a dubbed Bob Hoskins. The fact that it didn’t – and that today it can stand as one of the greatest British films ever made – is thanks to George Harrison’s Handmade Films, which bought the rights and saved the film. Thank God they did, as this is brilliant: thrilling, dangerous, intense but witty, strangely tender, satirical and smart. Fantastically made and wonderfully acted, it’s not just a great gangster film, it’s a great film.

Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is the undisputed gangland boss of London, desperate to turn legitimate. He has a plan for development of London’s dockside into a paradise of office blocks and apartments. All he needs is a big investor to support his “corporation” to make the final push. On an Easter weekend he prepares to greet an American investor from a similar “company” to his own. But as Shand prepares for this life-changing weekend, his business is hit by a wave of killings and bombings that seem targeted at shattering his organisation. What’s behind this? Who is “having a go”? And how does this link with a mysterious money shipment we witnessed at the start of the film? Shand’s going to find out – and has to do so without his investors getting cold feet.

The Long Good Friday is a well-written, brilliantly structured mystery mixed with some brutal gangland violence. Mackenzie’s film is lean and mean but laced with dry, biting humour. Everything in the film works perfectly, and it really understands the veneer of culture, class and decency that gangsters like Shand like to put over their crime dealings.

Not that Shand isn’t a decent bloke of course. Bob Hoskins is simply superb as Shand, a likeable, strangely decent guy at first, who seems to somehow shrink and twist as the film progresses and he is less and less able to control the anger he keeps bottled up. Shand clearly cares deeply for those around him, but he’s also clearly stubborn and convinced of his own superiority. Hoskins brings the part a humane gravitas, a force of nature fury that burns through the film. And when confronted with opponents he can’t understand, he still tries to use the rules of gangland to take them on.

Of course these rules are completely unsuited for his IRA opponents. Despite the advice of his pet policeman Parky, Shand is confident that he can deal with these bomb-toting fanatics. Even worse, he thinks that they are basically playing by the same rules that powered his own rise to the top of the gangster tree. Part of the tragedy of the part is seeing someone who essentially appears relatively likeable at the start of the film fall back on the violence and rage that powered his assent to the very top. Needless to say the IRA aren’t intimidated by cockney thugs, and have no intention of letting Shand get away with his attempts to strike back. 

Here is a film brave enough to not only show the IRA at its centre, but to make them as effective and ruthless as this. Not even our geezer gangsters can take them on, and the poor plods seem petrified as soon as they rear their head. Could there be a more cutting criticism of Britain’s policy in Ireland? Terrorism has hardly gone away since – you imagine Shand being equally outmatched by Al-Qaida.

As well as a gripping gangster film, The Long Good Friday is a prescient and intelligent criticism of Thatcherism. Shand is actually pretty much spot-on with his vision of London being redeveloped into a political and economic power-house, one of the major cities of Europe. Many of the locations the film uses would be unrecognisible today, as they are all sites of offices and apartments. Shand has a 1980s swagger to him, a barrow-boy made good who likes to think of himself as a visionary businessman. He’s desperate to grab for himself a bit of the new money he senses could be washing around Thatcher’s Britain. So the film makes a nice satire of the “loadsamoney” generation, as well as of the gangster world of the East End. Shand’s yacht and flat are the quintessential yuppie pads, and Shand’s motivation is raking the cash in.

British hubris actually seems to lie at the heart of the whole film. Shand’s swagger and super-confident, “Britain reborn” attitudes are all based in his firm belief that Britain has its own special destiny. Of course, as events begin to hit home, this sense of British pride (represented by Shand’s determination to reshape London into a city of glass and office complexes) begins to shrivel under the weight of events. Shand is reduced to angrily denouncing everyone from the Irish to his potential American partners to the other nations of Europe.

(In fact it’s interesting watching the film in the light of Brexit – Shand would on the surface seem to be the poster boy for a certain type of UKIPer, but he’s actually passionately excited about the opportunities the Union presents, and the centrality of London to that world. He’d almost certainly loath Farage.)

All this thematic content – and this is a hugely British film, instantly recognisable to anyone who has grown up here – gets swept up in this brilliant gangster flick. The acting is sublime. Helen Mirren is a stand-out as a woman who is a very equal partner in Shand’s business empire, just as smart and just as ruthless. Derek Thompson (him off Casualty!) is good as a slightly sleazy major-domo, as is PH Moriarty as a gangland heavy (he certainly looks the part!). Future stars like Kevin McNally, Paul Freeman, Dexter Fletcher (as a kid) and most notably Pierce Brosnan (in his first acting job as a handsome IRA hitman) fill out the cast.

Brilliantly acted, tightly directed and full of great cultural and political depth, with terrific pace, scintillating action, engrossing tension, a deceptively simple story and a great script: The Long Good Friday surely stands as a landmark British film. And it has one of the finest final sequences you’ll see, which considering it revolves solely around Hoskins sitting in a car is saying something.

The Madness of King George (1994)

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren excel in this masterful adaptation of Alan Bennett’s classic play

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Nigel Hawthorne (King George III), Helen Mirren (Queen Charlotte), Ian Holm (Dr Willis), Rupert Everett (Prince of Wales) Amanda Donohoe (Lady Pembroke), Rupert Graves (Captain Greville), John Wood (Lord Chancellor Thurlow), Geoffrey Palmer (Dr Warren), Jim Carter (Charles James Fox), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Duke of York), Julian Wadham (William Pitt), Anthony Calf (Captain Fitzroy), Adrian Scarborough (Fortnum), Struan Rodger (Henry Dundas), Caroline Harker (Mrs Fitzherbert), Roger Hammond (Dr Baker), Cyril Shaps (Dr Pepys)

Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III allegedly changed its name for the film adaptation because producers worried American audiences would feel they missed the first two films in the series. It’s not actually true, but it was a lot of free publicity for Nicholas Hytner’s film debut – a marvellous, accomplished and brilliant theatrical adaptation that will always take a firm place on my list of favourite films. It’s an excitingly well-made, hilarious and heartfelt film that captures forever Nigel Hawthorne’s greatest ever performance.

In 1788 King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) is still fuming over the loss of “the colonies” (the film front and centres talk of the plucky United States, to help sell the film in the land of the free) and the behaviour of his ambitious oldest son George (Rupert Everett). Happily married to his wife Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), and the father of 15 children, George is a stickler for form and duty. So imagine the shock of his ministers when his behaviour becomes impulsive, irrational and finally obscene. With the king talking non-stop and impossible to control, the Prince of Wales schemes to become Prince Regent. Desperate, the king’s ministers call in Dr Willis (Ian Holm), a professional doctor of the mad, who claims he can (with time) cure the king. But will it be in time to prevent the regency?

Nicholas Hytner has rather charmingly claimed that he knew so little about film-making he didn’t realise the difficulty of many of the things he asked for, and if he had known he would never have asked. He gives much of the credit to the seasoned pros working on the film pulling out the stops to give him what he asked for. The end result is a brilliantly paced, lusciously filmed epic that is both a wonderfully moving personal story of a crotchety but lovable monarch and a witty look at regency politics. Several scenes are shot with an imaginative brilliance, from shots that throw themselves into the middle of scuffles at court with the unbalanced king, to sweeping landscape shots that make it look like the thing cost millions of dollars.

The other advantage of bringing in Hytner (director of the original stage production) was his brilliant understanding of Alan Bennett. Bennett’s script is superb, crammed with sensational lines and brilliant jokes that never get in the way of the humanity. Bennett is always more than radical than his cosy reputation suggests, and King George is a witty deconstruction of the purpose of the Royal family (politicians frequently comment on their pointlessness and George defines it as “smile and wave” and to act as “a model family”). It’s got a great understanding of the frustrating waiting game of long-serving heirs (being Prince of Wales “is not a position, it is a predicament”). The film even lands a cheeky gag at the end with the suggestion that the King’s condition was hereditary.

Hytner’s film uses the trappings of royalty brilliantly, contrasting them to great effect with the later degradation of the king – in an inspired moment, George’s first “enthroning” in the restraint chair Willis uses to condition him into behaving is soundtracked to Handel’s Zadok the Priest. George’s court is an uptight, staid place where people can’t relax (or even sit – George is so adamantly opposed to people sitting in his presence even a heavily pregnant woman is not exempt during an interminable bell-ringing version of Handel). George is a constrained figure – so it’s no wonder his insanity displays itself as an increasingly loose-lipped lack of inhibition.

The question of madness is richly handled. As Willis says, many of the mad consider themselves kings, so what does a king fancy himself as? And how can you tell what is normal for a king anyway? George is an eccentric from the start – and even his recovery at the end is basically eccentricity with an element of self-control rather than a full recovery. The film never shies away from making you invest in the rough treatment the king undergoes to wrestle him back to sanity. The doctors get short shrift, either incompetent or scheming (“When will you get it into your head that one can produce a copious, regular and exquisitely turned evacuation every day of the week and still be a stranger to reason” Geoffrey Palmer’s wonderfully dry Warren tells a toilet-obsessed colleague). 

The film is slightly more confused about Willis. Strongly played, with a twinkly chippiness, by Ian Holm (who is just about perfect) the film can’t quite decide if Willis is responsible for the king’s recovery or not. It’s a battle of wills, but is Willis ahead of his time or as medieval as his colleagues? Does Willis’ aggressive conditioning (punishing bad behaviour with restraints) force the king back into sanity? Or is it George’s love of his wife that provides the final push? Or is the king naturally on an upcycle where madness expresses itself in eccentricity rather than incoherence? It’s not clear (maybe this is deliberate) but Willis’ regime of punishment and reward has a slight air of quackery.

What’s pretty deliberate was Bennett and Hytner’s insistence that only Nigel Hawthorne could play the king. Thank god they did, as Hawthorne is simply brilliant. Cheated of the Oscar in 1994, Hawthorne is compelling. He also conveys the natural authority of a king, and the “grumpy old man” side of the king is mined for brilliant comic effect. But it’s also a beautifully heartfelt and hilarious performance, running the gamut from delight in obscenities to teary fury and fear at the treatment from his doctors and loss of mental control. Such a sublime performance.

And it surely inspired some top work from the brilliant cast around him, many of whom revived their roles from the stage production (chief among these Wadham’s wonderfully dry Pitt).  Helen Mirren is warm, proud and eventually desperate as Charlotte, while Rupert Everett mines the Prince of Wales for all the comic pomposity and childishness he can. Rupert Graves is excellent as a loyal equerry, while John Wood, Jim Carter and Geoffrey Palmer also excel. You’ve rarely seen such a strong cast of British stage notables, and it’s not surprising they were attracted to perform in a script that has as many good lines as this one.

It’s accomplished and luscious, is brilliantly shot and designed, and is packed full of wonderful sequences. It wears its intelligence lightly, with George as a proto-Lear struggling to hold onto his marbles. The characters even sit and read Lear at one point (“Is that wise?” questions Thurlow. “I had no idea what it was about” says the little-read Willis). George may recover his wits in time, but it’s unclear whether this makes him more or less of a human being. In many ways at the height of his insanity, he’s a warmer, friendlier person (if out of control), then he is as his buttoned-up, stickler-for-duty self. 

The Madness of King George is the sort of film all theatre adaptations wish they could be, brilliantly cast, opening out into something that not only feels compelling to watch but also brings out the great depths of the original play. What is monarchy for? How can we tell if the all-powerful are mad or not? What is sanity anyway? All this and with some superb jokes, and a story that really involves you. With Nigel Hawthorne’s simply brilliant performance at the centre, this is one for the ages.

Excalibur (1981)

Nigel Terry gets a special gift in John Boorman’s crazily OTT Arthurian epic Excalibur

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Nigel Terry (King Arthur), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana Le Fay), Nicholas Clay (Sir Lancelot), Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere), Paul Geoffrey (Sir Perceval), Gabriel Byrne (King Uther Pendragon), Corin Redgrave (Duke of Cornwall), Patrick Stewart (King Leondegrance), Keith Buckley (Sir Uryens), Clive Swift (Sir Ector), Liam Neeson (Sir Gawain), Robert Addie (Mordred), Niall O’Brien (Sir Kay), Ciarán Hinds (King Lot), Charley Boorman (Young Mordred), Katrine Boorman (Igrayne)

John Boorman had wanted to make a film about King Arthur for over a decade, but it only came into being after his plans for an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings fell through (the suits were convinced the film couldn’t be a hit – good call). So, with a lot of prep work for Tolkien in place, Boorman moved a lot of his ideas for LOTR over to Excalibur. In doing so he created something probably truly unique – a bonkers version of the Arthurian legend, so consistently Wagnerian (often literally), high-falutin’ and overblown that it has a strange integrity in its operatic silliness.

The film begins with Arthur’s conception, a result of King Uther’s (Gabriel Byrne) lust for his ally’s wife, Igrayne (the director’s daughter Katrine). Merlin (Nicol Williamson) agrees to magically disguise Uther as Igrayne’s husband for one night, and in return spirits away the resulting child to be reared ignorant of his heritage. Years later, with a leaderless kingdom in chaos, Arthur (Nigel Terry) draws the magical sword Excalibur from the stone, and proves himself as king. He marries Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and brings Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) to Camelot – oblivious of their love for each other. Slowly this love destroys the peace of the land – encouraged by the schemes of Arthur’s vengeful half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren).

Excalibur is a film set in a completely heightened middle-ages dreamworld, as if it’s a series of drawings from an illustrated edition of King Arthur brought to life. The design of the film is dialled up to eleven: the armour the characters wear is ridiculously elaborate, shiny and eye catching. The characters never seem to take it off: Uther even has sex wearing it (poor Igrayne is completely naked – that can’t have been comfortable for her). Full armour is worn at meals, wedding, social events, everything: at the same time it’s brilliantly ineffective, punctured with ease by axes and spears.

The rest of the design of the film is equally overblown. Camelot seems to have been literally made from silver and gold. Lancelot kips in the forest and sleeps in the nude. Battle scenes are filmed on moody, misty nights, with horses and knights riding with insane riskiness at each other. Excalibur itself is almost impossibly shiny and unblemished and occasionally glows green. Everything has a high-artistic feel to it, like a Romantic painting. Nothing looks real – it uses a “rule of cool” aesthetic, anything that looks good from anything approaching medievalism is used.

The acting itself follows this operatic style. Half the dialogue is delivered shouting: Patrick Stewart in particular must have lost his voice while filming this one. Filmed in Ireland (it practically kickstarted the Irish film industry), many Irish actors got their first film break here, not least Gabriel Byrne (a furiously lusty Uther), Liam Neeson (a drunken oafish Gawain) and Ciarán Hinds (growling in the background). Each roars through their dialogue, perhaps none more so than Corin Redgrave who screams his with such flemmy passion it’s often hard to work out what exactly he’s saying. 

There are quieter moments from the three leads, even if all three of them don’t really have the charisma to impose themselves on sketchily drawn characters. Cherie Lunghi adopts an odd, part-time Irish accent as a bland Guenevere. Nicholas Clay is an upright Lancelot who simmers with guilt but is just a wee bit dull. Nigel Terry’s performance as Arthur (from young yokel to tortured king) gets better the more times I see it, but it lacks a certain star quality. But then in Boorman’s design, these three characters are just tools of fate rather than real characters – and the film has so much story to cover it often has very little time for character development.

The real stars of this film are Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren. The two actors had a long-standing animosity – Boorman deliberately cast them to get an extra spark out of their scenes. But both actors seize their colourful characters – and have the time to add some depth to their bombastic, larger-than-life moments. Mirren gets to express bitterness and fury under simmering sexuality, as well as a genuine love for her son. Williamson is fantastic: playful, half nutty professor, half vengeful force of mystic power, he turns Merlin into an eccentric but somehow sinister old man. Williamson finds bizarro and unique line readings of even the simplest lines, stretching the material in the way only a really great actor can. He’s such an electric and interesting character, that he makes a performance that’s basically well over the top, hugely enjoyable and also even rather sweet.

As such, Williamson is perfect for Boorman’s overblown, crazy film. The score uses Wagner and Carmina Burana to great effect, and the closing moments are shot before a giant blood red sky. Boorman’s shiny, colourful world effectively melts down in the second half of the film into musty, moody greys: his concept of Arthur losing his way and the kingdom disintegrating works extremely well, and means we get a real sense of things falling apart. The Grail Quest is like a creepy fever dream – with knights we have known dying in gruesome ways, freezing in chapels or hanging in a tree with their corpses picked clean by crows (of course one crow eats an eye!). 

In many ways Excalibur is a very silly film: it’s hard to believe it was made six years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as much of its design and action is more than a little reminiscent of that film (it’s probably the only parody you could argue was made before the film it best sends-up). You probably need to see it at a certain age or enter into it with the right mindset for something that walks a difficult line between fairy tale and earthy campness. But I still love it.

Because Boorman really goes for it here. You know from the early sequence of Uther and Igrayne having sex against a background of actual fire, in full plate armour, intercut with a lingering death of Cornwall impaled on a series of spears in Uther’s camp (his death and Uther’s climax are of course cut together) what sort of film you are going to get. Everything is OTT. The drama leaves nothing behind, and Boorman wisely removes any sense of restraint from this telling of the legend. It looks gorgeous – even if dated moments like the Lady of the Lake are more likely to raise sniggers than not – and it really, really goes for it. Not many other films could get away with something so over-the-top and bizarre: but this sort of does.

Eye in the Sky (2015)

The great Alan Rickman is an exasperated General, in drone-strike moral fable Eye in the Sky

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Helen Mirren (Colonel Katherine Powell), Aaron Paul (Lt. Steve Watts), Alan Rickman (Lt. General Frank Benson), Barkhad Abdi (Jama Farah), Jeremy Northam (Brian Woodale), Iain Glen (Foreign Secretary), Monica Dolan (Angela Northman), Richard McCabe (George Matheson), Phoebe Fox (Carrie Gershon), Babou Ceesay (Sgt. Mushtz Saddiq), John Heffernan (Major Howard Webb)

As Shakespeare said, sometimes we are urged: “to do a great right, do a little wrong”. Eye in the Sky is a film about that dilemma. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 on the terrorist “Most Wanted” list are meeting in a house in Kenya. They are preparing suicide bombers. A series of attacks could be minutes away. A drone strike will probably save hundreds of lives. Seems obvious doesn’t it? Unfortunately, sitting in the fatality zone is an innocent young girl, just trying to sell bread. Take out the bombers and you’ll save dozens of other children – but you’ll almost certainly kill this one child.

Your initial reaction to this sort of situation would probably be “thank goodness that’s not my decision”. Problem is, you get the feeling many of our elective representatives feel the same: as the situation escalates (from capture, to kill, to controlled strike, to a certainty of civilian casualties) so does the buck-passing, from politician to politician all unwilling to make a call.

Guy Hibbert’s well researched and thought-provoking script combined with Gavin Hood’s taut direction make this a gripping conversation thriller about the impossibility of moral debates. Hibbert’s script brilliantly piles moral debate on moral debate – just as we accept the desirability of one action, the circumstances change with bewildering speed. Everything, from a change of travel plans to battery failure on a vital piece of equipment, amps up the pressure and makes the situation more morally unpalatable.

The buck-passing becomes almost a dark farce in this expert script. A put-upon civil servant is repeatedly sent to communicate with a string of senior leaders, from the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister. Later a crucial decision takes place over a conference call, with an ever-expanding series of international attendees. It’s like a deadly serious Yes, Minister, with Jeremy Northam’s junior minister a flummoxed and vacillating Jim Hacker.

The military seems equally divided – senior officers focus on the big picture, aware of the evil they must do but seeing it as a necessity to prevent worse acts, but the junior ranks actually executing the strikes push back with increasing distress. Mirren’s colonel pressures a sergeant into effectively falsifying a fatality prediction for the girl, to push her superiors into authorising the strike on this vital target. A shallower film would have played great play of this. But Hood and Hibbert never take that easy route.

The film also explores distance conflict. Nearly all the participants are based thousands of miles away, watching on screens and pushing buttons. Rickman’s General has a knock-out final speech about his first-hand experiences of the horror of suicide bombings – and compares this to the moral objections of the greatest opponent of military action in the film, who has watched it all play out with “coffee and biscuits”. Remote warfare is neither in itself good or bad – and those objecting to actions are not angels, just as those pushing for action have their own moral reasons for doing so, and the film demonstrates that amidst all this, the “right answer” (if there is such a thing) can be almost impossible to identify.

Conversation thrillers like this are dependent on the quality of the actors – so it’s lucky we’ve got a great cast here. A gimlet-eyed Helen Mirren is as tough as you’ve seen her as the field commander who suppresses all doubt in pursuit of the greater good. In his last on-screen role, Alan Rickman gives one of his best performances as a wry, humane general who has come to terms with the hideous moral cost soldiers have to bear. His increased exasperation at the procrastination of his political masters adds some black comedy, but he also gives the character a wonderful humanity (a prologue in which he struggles to buy his grandchild a present is not only wonderfully witty, but humanises the character immediately).

Few actors do tortured conscience under the surface better than Aaron Paul – and his drone pilot turned reluctant killer provides much of the moral force of the film. Paul’s sensitive and anguished divide between following orders and living with the knowledge he’s wilfully condemning a child to death is beautifully done. Barkhard Abdi grounds his field operative not only with much of the film’s more conventional derring-do, but also layers the character with dedication and selflessness.

Eye in the Sky is a marvellous piece of tense and layered film-making. It makes high drama out of moral quandaries, and really makes us pause to stop and think about the impact of our decisions both in a wider context, and a very painful immediate one. The professional military figures – even Mirren’s cold Colonel Powell – are motivated by a painful familiarity with acceptable loss, rather than gung-ho aggression. The politicians struggle to reach a decision not only through reluctance, but with empathy for their potential victims. It overeggs the pudding with its final shots of the young girl who has unwittingly been at the centre of a major international incident, but other than that it hardly puts a foot wrong.