Tag: Jane Fonda

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

Julia (1977)

Julia header
Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave play friends separated by time in Fred Zinnemann’s award-bait Julia

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Jane Fonda (Lilian Hellman), Vanessa Redgrave (Julia), Jason Robards (Dashiell Hammett), Maximilian Schell (Mr Johann), Hal Holbrook (Alan), Rosemary Murphy (Dorothy Parker), Dora Dull (Woman passenger), Elizabeth Mortensen (Girl passenger), Meryl Streep (Anne Marie), John Glover (Sammy)

Playwright Lilian Hellman (Jane Fonda) remembers her close childhood friendship with Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), the daughter of wealthy Jewish parents being bought up by her grandparents. As young women, their lives take dramatically different routes: Lilian finds eventual success with The Children’s Hour, with the support of her mentor and lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards); Julia travels to Vienna and then Germany where she becomes involved in anti-Nazi activity. Eventually, the need for money leads to Julia asking Lilian to smuggle funds over the German border.

That’s the meat of Fred Zinnemann’s old-fashioned, highly-genteel memory piece that also manages to make it sound far more exciting and interesting than the dry, worthy, middle-brow story that actually ends up on screen. What’s missing from the film almost completely is passion. This is a story that required fire: a sympathy for radicalism, or anger at the targeted cruelty and injustice of fascism. It gets none of this, instead offering a handsome reconstruction of period details, all filmed with a Golden Age glow, and a narrative focus that feels like it’s aimed at the wrong character.

It’s part of why this awards-bait drama hasn’t lasted in the public perception (it’s very hard to find a copy to watch – really striking for a film nominated for 11 Oscars and winning three, including two acting Oscars). There is very little really rewarding either emotionally or narratively here. The film lacks a real sense of danger or foreboding – even a scene showing fascist thugs throwing Jewish students off a balcony in Vienna is shot with a striking lack of edge or horror. And it unbalances itself by giving more time and priority to Hellman’s struggles to come up with a play “worthy of her” than it does to the title character and the real drama of her struggles. Redgrave is on screen for about 14 minutes. It’s effectively like watching The Pianist but entirely from the perspective of Emilia Fox’s character rather than Adrien Brody’s.

What we end up with is a film that feels old-fashioned, dry and respectable. It offers everything that will impress you, and reassure you that it is important film-making: a big subject, famous names, actors giving emotional performances, period detail, a tragic ending. But it lines these factors up in a way that never ever comes to life dramatically. There is a story buried in here about friendship – and Fonda and Redgrave are very good at selling a strong personal bond, especially considering their limited time on screen together – but what should be the heart of the story gets lost in a biography of Hellman, a digression into her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, and the lack of insight the film seems to have into the fate of Jews and outsiders in an increasingly fascist Europe.

The film’s only real sequence of interest is Hellman’s dash with money across the border and illicit meeting with Julia, a sequence involving coded messages, switching of hats and double-meaning conversation which fits with a spy novel. Zinnemann films this with a fine air of tension and intrigue – but it’s the only time the film stumbles to life.

I think Zinnemann struggled to find what really compelled him to tell this story. Which is a shame as a Julia-focused story – a woman struggling against a system – would have been meat and drink to the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man For All Seasons. Instead, his skill from those films of empathising with characters trapped in a desperate situation and forced to take a stand on principle, is lost. In the end he and the film find little to interest them in Hellman, the successful novelist who feels a middle-class intellectual’s guilt at not doing more to help, who is fundamentally a footnote in a far larger story of rising Nazi terror in Europe.

The film has also perhaps faded from public attention because subsequent controversy revealed that a large part of this true story was almost certainly self-aggrandising bull-shit by Hellman. A New York psychiatrist, Muriel Gardiner, claimed in 1983 that Julia’s story was her story and that she had never met Hellman (but they did share a lawyer). No trace of a “Julia” has been found in Hellman’s life, and no evidence at all that she ever undertook this dangerous dash into Germany. Zinnemann also fell out with Hellman, privately coming to believe she was “an extremely talented, brilliant woman, but she was a phony character” and said his “relations with her were very guarded and ended in pure hatred”. Knowing that, it’s hard not to see the same distance on the screen.

Saying that, Jane Fonda is very good in the film, surprisingly fragile, uncertain and scared, and plagued with guilt that she cannot do enough to help her friend. Redgrave won an Oscar for her committed and passionate performance, which tapped into her radicalism and gives a slight character a great deal of depth (in her speech, the pro-Palestinian Redgrave made a famously controversial political speech denouncing “Zionist hoodlums”). Robards won the film’s other acting Oscar, for a professional turn as Hammett. In a very weak year for American film, Schell also landed an Oscar nomination for a brief cameo as a go-between Hellman meets in a Parisian park.

The performances are fine and the style and manner of the film is reassuringly middle-of-the-road. There is everything here to convince you this is an important film, apart from drama, purpose or conviction. Perhaps it’s so hard to find, because so few people have looked for it since 1977?

The China Syndrome (1979)

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon struggle against Big Business interests in the Nuclear Industry in The China Syndrome

Director: James Bridges

Cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman DeYoung), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Dan Jacovich), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack), Daniel Valdez (Hector Salas)

Do we really trust nuclear power? There is something about the dangerous possibilities of splitting the atom that alarms people even today. For all that burning coal wrecks our atmosphere, people would still rather that than live downwind of a station powered on substances that could obliterate everything within a five mile radius if something went wrong. The China Syndrome is about exactly that, an accident at nuclear power plant that could spell disaster for California.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a roving reporter for a Californian news channel, who (thanks to her sexist bosses) is constantly relegated to ludicrous puff pieces (“Today a hot air balloon landed in downtown LA!”). Sent to a nuclear power plant, she stumbles upon the real news story she has waited her whole career for when she and camera-man Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) secretly film a near catastrophic incident. Investigations try to brush the event under the carpet, but shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) knows corner-cutting and cost-saving is putting the whole of LA at risk – and, much against his inclination, he needs to speak out. 

The China Syndrome comes very much from that burst of 1970s conspiracy thriller films where shady big-business types are willing to throw almost anything under the bus in order to make a big bonus. It’s a film that takes a pop not only at the heartless bastards running a shoddy nuclear power plant (who couldn’t care less if the reactor is poorly welded together, so long as the money keeps rolling in) but also the hypocritical cowards running the media. The heads of the news channel kowtow swiftly to big business and are staggering in their sexism and race-to-the-bottom news coverage.

This film is as much about this brainless conformism as it is the dangers of nuclear power. The film is full of people who don’t want to rock the boat: half the people working at the plant would rather turn a blind eye to problems than pay the personal price of exposing them – even Jack Lemmon’s manager is the most reluctant whistleblower you’ll see in the movies. Fonda’s journalist may not be happy with her role as airhead eye-candy, but she will play the game in order to get ahead in the industry the role – and many of her media comrades seem almost totally lacking in any journalistic instincts. The film is bookended by inane TV coverage and advertising, a condemnation of an America that doesn’t ask questions and is sleepwalking towards catastrophe.

This catastrophe is, of course, extremely close – the power plant nearly goes into meltdown because a single dial gets stuck on a high reading, leading the control room to believe the nuclear rods are about to get flooded rather than nearly being exposed. Bridges mines a heck of a lot of tension from this crisis – told entirely from the perspective of the control room – as workers react with both stressed fear and a practised professionalism to a crisis that could become a disaster. Its part of a film where regular joes are generally professional and good at their jobs, but are let down and betrayed by the culture encouraged by the higher-ups.

Some of these themes, however, get a bit muddied in the film’s middle third, which gets bogged down way too much in nuclear theory, committee meetings, slow explanations of different types of weld, and dry lectures on the functioning of nuclear energy. While it is admirable that the film has no score, you can’t help but feel that a little music here to add some drama to Lemmon looking at x-rays or Fonda staring at diagrams could have helped pump up the tension. 

But it all gets paid off by the sudden (and surprising) shift to action and drama in the film’s final third, kickstarted by a surprisingly gripping car chase between Jack Lemmon’s quiet station manager and some shady goons hired by the company. Suddenly the film is powering through a tense series of set pieces that both feel like a different movie, while still a natural progression of the stakes.

Bridges directs the film very well. Each scene is calmly and coolly assembled, and he has a great eye and ear for technology and the noises and motions of machinery, which dominate the film – even if the film is rather in love with these background sounds, which risk taking over the soundtrack. It’s all part of stressing the cold mechanicalism and lack of humanity throughout both these industries. Sometimes the foot comes off the gas a little too much – you could probably trim at least 15 minutes – but when it comes to the moments of tension he directs with sharp snappiness.

The acting is also sublime. Jane Fonda is extremely good as Kimberly Wells. Initially she seems as light and superficial as the stories she is forced to cover, but Fonda paints a clever picture of a woman squeezed into playing a role, but yearning for (and capable of) so much more, who when she finds her moment shows levels of determination and cunning you would never have expected. For all her desire to become a ‘proper’ journalist though, Wells is savvy enough to make sure she is being filmed from her good side… Fonda makes her a careerist who uncovers a sense of moral purpose. She also manages to bring real emotion to the role, making Kimberly Wells a character we swiftly connect with.

The movie however is stolen away by Jack Lemmon, brilliantly low-key and everyday as the shift manager who becomes an overwhelmingly reluctant whistleblower. Lemmon’s performance is a perfect study in smallness, of a quiet dignity. He’s got no desire to rock the boat, quietly stating that the “plant is his whole life” – but when stirred, his professional pride transforms into determination to do the right thing, even while his lack of magnetism makes him unpersuasive and hard to take seriously. It’s a terrific performance of low-key tragedy, with Lemmon building the tension with small flashes of resentment, fear, determination and disillusionment flashing across his face. It’s a great reminder of what a marvellous dramatic actor Lemmon was.

Expertly produced by Michael Douglas (who does sterling work in the third-banana role as the camera man overflowing with conviction), The China Syndrome may at times be dry, but it makes up for that with its moments of high drama and moral conviction. By and large it avoids hectoring and lecturing the audience (when not teaching us about nuclear power), and lets its points be soft-sold rather than banged home. With some terrific performances, it’s a film that still feels relevant today, and is a great example of the 1970s conspiracy thriller genre.

Youth (2015)

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel try to embrace their past in Paolo Sorrentino’s mesmeric Youth

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Cast: Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger), Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle), Rachel Weisz (Lena Ballinger), Paul Dano (Jimmy Tree), Jane Fonda (Brenda Morel), Roly Serrano (Argentinian Footballer), Alex MacQueen (Queen’s emissary), Robert Seethaler (Luca Moroder), Ed Stoppard (Julian Boyle), Paloma Faith (Herself), Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner (Screenwriters)

Well this is something different. Youth is a hard to categorise film from Paolo Sorrentino. Sorrentino often seems the definition of (admittedly beautifully filmed) style over substance. But he’s also able to suggest great, unseen depth, a hard to define quality. Sometimes these qualities result in an impressive but frustratingly empty work. And sometimes it results in something simply wonderful. Youth falls firmly into the second category. In fact, it fits so firmly into this that I think it might be the most wonderful film Sorrentino has made. Put frankly, I loved this film. I can’t quite put my finger on why somehow, but I loved it.

It’s set in a Swiss retreat, peopled by the rich and famous. There are film stars, Miss Universe, famous pop stars and an overweight former Argentinian footballer (who could be anyone right?). Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a world-famous composer, a man officially in retirement, uninterested in answering entreaties from the Royal Family to perform his famous “Simple Song #3” at Prince Philip’s birthday. He is accompanied by his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his assistant, and struggles with her father’s difficult personality and her resentment towards him. Fred’s best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a famous director, is also staying at the resort with a gang of screenwriters, preparing his script for what he intends to be his final film (his “testament”).

Youth is a film that conveys great depth and emotional strength, while never falling into any category or offering up clear answers or spoon-fed themes. Instead it explores, in a gentle way, age, disappointment, hope, lost opportunities and warm memories. It’s nominally a film about old people reflecting on their youth, but it’s also full of moments that show these characters still have moments of vibrancy. In a beautiful moment, the footballer (barely able to get himself out of a pool without oxygen) carries out a series of beautifully skilful keepie-uppies with a tennis ball for over a minute, before he wheezes and has to stop. That’s kinda the whole film right there in an image: age and youth all in one go. It’s beautiful. I loved it.

Sorrentino loves the flashy shot, and carefully framed image. This film is full of them, and they work wonderfully well. It’s sprinkled throughout with gorgeous dream sequences and fantasy moments, from Boyle seeing a field full of his leading ladies past, to Lena dreaming of a hilariously overblown music video showing her unfaithful husband (a slimy Ed Stoppard) and Paloma Faith (a very good sport) undulating over a speeding car. We see Fred sitting in a field conducting a semi-imaginary orchestra of cows with bells. Imaginative shots are sprinkled throughout, everyday things seen from new and unique angles. 

And its so emotionally fulfilling, filled with both lump-in-the-throat moments and moments of searing, magical hope and joy. It explores what matters to us as we get old – and how what matters to us in our lives changes as we age. Sometimes these things remain the same, sometimes we move with the times. Sometimes we adjust, and sometimes we don’t. It’s a film where some characters struggle to recall events, others reinterpret their lives as they happen. You could criticise the film for not having a clear central theme, but its theme if anything is life – and life is not easy to categorise. It’s a mountain of different moments and attitudes: and that is what this film likes. It’s messy and hard to predict. And it’s strangely beautiful. 

So Sorrentino crafts a feast of a film here, crammed full of dialogue that should be almost too weighty and overtly “important”, but somehow never comes across like that. It’s partly because it’s delivered with such experienced, lightly worn skill, but also because Sorrentino pulls off the trick of positioning it as profound rather than overbearing. Shot with a gentle, elegiac expressiveness, it’s a film that brilliantly works, that conveys and carries great weight. It’s about the human condition, and it feels real and human at all times.

It also helps that it’s superbly acted. There isn’t a dud performance here – and some give some of the most beautiful work of their career. Michael Caine takes a few minutes to accept as a world famous composer (something about him just doesn’t quite work), but you quickly let it go because he is astonishingly good here. Caine’s Fred carries great reserves of regret and loss, but also many memories of joy. Caine is beautifully expressive – part observer, part driver of the action. He has the wonderful air of being young-old and an old-young-at-heart. He’s playful but also tired. He’s strangely unknowable but at times open. It’s a beautiful performance.

Just as good is Harvey Keitel. The film is full of these two guys – like Stadler and Waldorf – moaning about getting old. But Keitel brings a great tragic depth to Boyle, a great director fallen on hard times, a man whose best days may well be behind him but who refuses to let the light die. He’s both funny and (by the end) incredibly moving. Rachel Weisz is radiant as Lena – a scene where she finally lets years of anger out is wonderful – but another late scene as she quietly weeps with a sort of sad joy is simply superb. She has a gentle romance that builds with real sweetness. She’s impossible to look away from in this, she’s brilliant.

Youth also has moments where it explores the nature of art and its legacy. Ballinger feels he is probably a good-but-not-great composer. Boyle feels there are moments he touched greatness, but is never sure if it’s there or not. Paul Dano plays a great stage actor who is known worldwide for his role as a robot in a Star Wars style smash. What is art? The film doesn’t dare to answer the question, but it does ask what are artists? How do they question themselves? Why do they do what they do? Artists in this film are always watching – even the footballer – they are always looking to become a part of their world or comment on it. 

Sorrentino’s film is marvellous. I really loved it. It’s crammed full of brilliant moments. Even Jane Fonda’s overblown cameo as a film star works (I think just). It’s played with such brilliancy, structured with such light playfulness, that it is able to carry great depth and grace. It’s a film that rewards reviewing – I’m not sure I’ve worked out the implications of the final shot, or what it might mean for how we should interpret Ballinger’s final actions – and I can’t wait to see it again.

The Butler (2013)

Forest Whitaker takes on a lifetime of service, as the Civil Rights movement meets Downton Abbey

Director: Lee Daniels

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Colman Domingo (Freddie Fallows), Yaya DeCosta (Carol Hammie), Terrence Howard (Howard), Adriane Lenox (Gina), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Robin Williams (Dwight D Eisenhower)

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grows up on a plantation in the South; after his mother is raped and his father killed by the son of the house, the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) takes him on as a house servant as a token gesture of regret. His training here sets him on the path to working in a succession of increasingly wealthy hotels and, finally, the White House. Over 30 years, he serves the Presidents in office, never involving himself or commenting on policy, proud of his service to his country. This often puts him in conflict with his Civil Rights activist son Louis (David Oyelowo), with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) stuck in the middle.

This is the sort of film that feels designed to win awards. It’s based on a vague true story (it changes nearly all the events of course) and it’s about a big subject. It’s got big name actors doing acting. It aims at big themes. What it actually is, is a film that misses its marks. It’s a film that spends time with big themes but has nothing to say about them, or in fact anything interesting to say full stop. It assumes that the historical context will do the work, and leaves it at that. Instead, it settles for trite sentimentality and cliché, personal stories played on a stage that makes those stories seem slight and inconsequential rather than giving them reflective depth.

The biggest problem about the film, leaving aside its heavy-handed sentimentality and mundane predictable storytelling, is that all the way through it feels like we are following the wrong story. It’s such a vibrant and exciting period of history, so full of events, passion and struggle: and instead we follow the story of Cecil, essentially a bland passive character who achieves very little and influences even less. There are vague references to leading “the regular life” and how working in domestic service is like some sort of subversive act to demonstrate the education and hard-working possibilities of the minority, but to be honest it never really convinces.

The film promises that Cecil was a man who had a profound impact on the people he served – but this doesn’t come across at all. Instead, the parade of star turns playing US Presidents are there it seems for little more than box office: we see them speaking about Civil Rights issues or planning policy, but we get very little sense of Cecil having any bond with them. The cameos instead become a rather distracting parade, as if the film was worried (perhaps rightly) that Cecil’s story was so slight and bland that they needed the historical all-stars to drum up any interest in it. It doesn’t help that the cameos are mixed – Rickman, Schreiber and Marsden do okay with cardboard cut-out expressions, but Cusack in particular seems horribly miscast. A braver film would have kept these pointless camoes in the background and focused the narrative on Cecil and his colleagues below stairs, and their struggles to gain equal payment with their white colleagues. This film is seduced by the famous events and names it spends the rest of the time backing away from.

The performance at the centre is also difficult to engage with. Forest Whitaker is such an extreme, grand guignol actor that it’s almost sad to see him squeeze himself into a dull jobsworth such as Cecil. Whitaker seems so determined to play it down that he mumbles inaudibly at great length (it’s genuinely really difficult to understand what he is saying half the time), slouching and buttoning himself into Cecil’s character. It doesn’t come across as a great piece of character creation, more a case of miscasting. Oprah Winfrey does well as his wife, although her character is utterly inconsistent: at times a drunk depressive, at others level-headed and calm. The link of either of these characters to the hardships of life as a Black American or their role in racial politics is murkily unclear.

The star turn of the film – and virtually all its interesting content – is from David Oyelowo, who ages convincingly through the film from idealist to activist to elder statesman. His story also intersects with the actual historical events that are taking place in America and he is an active participant – unlike Cecil the passive viewer, just as likely to switch the TV off as follow the news. Often I found myself wishing the film could follow his character rather than Whitaker’s.

That’s the problem with the film: what point is it trying to make? The film seems to want to honour Cecil’s service in the White house – but the film is a slow journey towards Cecil’s sudden revelation that maybe his son’s campaigning for Civil Rights was the right thing to do. This flies in the face of the film’s tribute to Cecil’s decades of quiet, unjudging service: the film can’t make up its mind whether it wants to salute Cecil for being an unjudging, dedicated servant to a long line of Presidents, or for having the courage to take a political stance towards the end. It’s having its cake and eating it. It’s this shallow lack of stance that finally makes it an empty and rather dull viewing experience.