Tag: Jason Isaacs

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Ridley Scott’s immersive combat film is politically simple but one of the great combat films

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Josh Hartnett (SSG Matt Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (SPC John Grimes), Eric Bana (SFC Norm ‘Hoot’ Gibson), Tom Sizemore (LTC Danny McKnight), Sam Shepard (General William F Garrison), Ron Eldard (CWO4 Michael Durant), William Fichtner (SFC Jeff Sanderson), Jeremy Piven (SW4 Clifton Wolcott), Ewen Bremner (SPC Shawn Nelson), Gabriel Casseus (SPC Mike Kurth), Hugh Dancy (SFC KURT Schmid), Jason Isaacs (CPT Mike Steele), Tom Hardy (SPC Lance Twombly), Orlando Bloom (PFC Todd Blackburn), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (MSG Gary Gordon), Johnny Strong (SFC Randy Shughart)

On 4 October 1993, the US won a pyrrhic victory supporting UN efforts to prevent genocide in the Somalian Civil War. A mission in Mogadishu to capture the lieutenants of rebel leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid collapsed into a desperate overnight street battle as Aidid’s forces rose up en masse (up to 4,000 of them) in an attempt to cut off and wipe out the c. 160 US troops.

Although the majority escaped, it was one of the most costly American operations since Vietnam, with the loss of 18 dead and 73 wounded and two Black Hawk helicopters shot down. As many as 2,000 Somalians were also killed. Pictures of the bodies of American soldiers dragged through the streets by Somalian rebels led to a major realignment of US foreign policy, with a reluctance to join future peace keeping operations (most notably the Rwandan genocide).

This is bought to the screen in a virtuoso directorial achievement by Ridley Scott, one of the most immersive and gripping war films ever made. Black Hawk Down doesn’t shirk on an inch of the war experience. Combat is loud, sudden, all-consuming and a barrage on the senses. It’s scary, confusing and always unforgiving. Mud, blood and dirt are flung into a camera that runs through streets alongside the soldiers, embedded with them under siege. The slightest lack of focus or mistake is punished by horrific injury or death. The battle is a nightmare of confusion and desperate improvisation in which neither side (especially the Americans) really knows what’s going on.

It’s not surprising they don’t. The film expertly demonstrates how a multi-approach plan (helicopters delivering ground forces, an armed convoy to collect prisoners) was effectively a rashly planned house of cards, which collapsed when the hornet’s nest of an uncontrolled city, crammed with thousands of potential hostiles, roadblocks and a prepared and dedicated enemy (willing to suffer a level of loss the Americans were not) was unleashed. Ground forces are stranded, helicopters shot down, the exposed convoy becomes a slow-moving hospital, all under constant fire in a dusty, urban centre where every single civilian could be a enemy combatant.

Scott shoots and edits this with pulse-pounding intensity, aided by the dizzying camera work of Sławomir Idziak and the high-octane cutting of Pietro Scalia, whose work grips you by the throat and never lets go. It’s a “grunt’s-eye” view of the war, that puts the viewer very much in the trenches with the soldiers. We pretty much join them running through gauntlets of bullets, ducking into foxholes and desperately trying to stay alive. Scott’s work is outstanding here, a brilliant depiction of the chaos of battle in which events are both intimidatingly out of control but also crystal clear to the audience, assembled with a never-lets-up energy leaving the viewer tense and breathless.

As Eric Bana’s fiercely professional Hoot says “it’s about the man next to you”. That’s very much what Black Hawk Down is about. There’s very little context about the American operation in Somalia, the Somalian people, the impact on long-term American politics…  The film believes the whys and wherefores are less important than protecting the lives of your colleagues.

Argument has raged about whether Black Hawk Down is pro-war or not. I’m not convinced it is. Can a film which shows soldiers maimed, disfigured and literally torn in two, really be a celebration of war? But, what it clearly is, is pro-the American fighting man. The training and expertise of these soldiers – trained to make every shot count and keep their cool in terrifying situations – is crucial to their survival. (The scattergun indiscipline of the Somalian rebels is noticeable by comparison – and it’s fair to note that Black Hawk Down gives very little focus to the Somalians at all, other than as a faceless hostile mass).

The film is in awe of the soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other: the dramatization of Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart’s request to be dropped in to provide some sort of cover to one of the downed Black Hawk pilots (a request they know is a suicide mission) exemplifies “leave no man behind” bravery. Black Hawk Down is a tribute to soldiers.

Interestingly though, that also means it’s a film where characters are more important for what they do rather than who they are. We learn very little personal information about any of them. Hartnett’s newly-promoted SSG has sympathy for the Somali people and is nervous about his first command mission. McGregor’s admin officer is unsettled by his first field operation. Sizemore and Isaacs are professional officers, executing orders to the best of their ability; Fichtner and Bana experienced Rangers, samurai trained to adapt and improvise. But their personalities are only hooks to hang their deeds on. Each melts into the large cast as needed. Black Hawk Down is the triumph of the unit – be that fighting together or some member volunteering to die to help protect others.

It is fair to argue the film should have done more to contextualise events. Black Hawk Down focuses so much on celebrating the bravery of soldiers, it skips any political impact: it’s not made clear in the end captions that the US effectively withdrew from its peace-keeping responsibilities for years afterwards (only shocked back into it by 9/11). It never mentions the UN were slow to respond as they had been caught in an almost identical disaster a few weeks before (a lesson the US didn’t bother to learn from). It never mentions the cost of non-intervention in places like Rwanda. It never explores how these events – and American complacency, not least in the committed-but-unengaged soldiers – were a step toward a terrorist world that would culminate in 9/11.

Scott was aiming to make an immersive film. Perhaps his work on films like Body of Lies (and even Kingdom of Heaven) later was about adding more shading and depth to his presentation of world affairs (and critique of American policy). But, in its intent, Black Hawk Down is a triumph, one of the most unrelenting and compelling combat films ever made. You can argue it turns the Somalis into bogey men fighters – but it’s trying (rightly or wrongly) to be a representation of a single military action, from a single side’s perspective. And there is no doubt this is one of Scott’s finest achievements – and one of the great war films.

Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Wartime heroics get bogged down in bland love-triangles and tedious inventions

Director: John Madden

Cast: Colin Firth (Ewen Montagu), Matthew Macfadyen (Charles Cholmondeley), Kelly Macdonald (Jean Leslie), Penelope Wilton (Hester Leggett), Johnny Flynn (Ian Fleming), Jason Isaacs (Admiral John Godfrey), Simon Russell Beale (Winston Churchill), Paul Ritter (Bentley Purchase), Mark Gatiss (Ivor Montagu), Nicholas Rowe (Captain David Ainsworth), Alex Jennings (John Masterman)

In April 1943 a body washed up on the shore of neutral Spain. It was a Major William Martin, carrying Allied plans to launch a massive invasion of Greece in July 1943. German agents intercepted these plans before they could be returned to the British and the Germans shifted their troops to counter this invasion. Problem for them was, Major Martin wasn’t real, the plans he carried were inventions and the Allies were planning to attack Sicily. Welcome to Operation Mincemeat.

Adapted from an entertainingly written and well researched book by Ben MacIntyre, Operation Mincemeat is about one of the most successful wartime deception plans ever launched. The film is a bit of a deception operation itself. Although it looks like a Boys-Own caper film, with eccentric boffins solving problems and running circles around the Nazis, it’s actually a dry, slow, sombre film that seems embarrassed at even the faintest idea of flag-waving Wartime heroism. Instead, everything is glum, depressing and bogged down in invented details that never convince.

Which is a real shame, because when the film focuses on the things that actually happened it’s both entertaining and informative. To create Major Martin, MI6 needed a body – specifically a military-age male who drowned. That was almost impossible to find in London at the time – and the final ‘candidate’ had to be kept as ’fresh’ as possible for months. The letters he carried included ‘private correspondence’ from one British General to another – a letter that went through almost twenty drafts as the British authorities squabbled about how blunt its ‘personal’ views could be. When the body washed up, a helpful Spanish officer tried to return the papers immediately. When the film is on this material it’s good.

But it feels embarrassed by the idea of enjoying this stuff. After all, war is hell and the idea that we could even for a moment think these eccentrics (nearly all of whom spend their time penning spy stories) might find part of this subterfuge fun is disgraceful to it. So, we are constantly reminded of the horrors of war: the moral quandaries of using a person’s body for an operation, the troubling “wilderness of mirrors” of espionage. All this means that lighter moments – or moments where we could enjoy the ingenuity of the characters – are rushed over as soon as possible.

The other thing the film is embarrassed about are the lack of female characters. As such Kelly MacDonald’s Jean Leslie – who contributed a vital photograph of herself as ‘Major Martin’s’ paramour and the background of this fictional relationship – is elevated to third wheel in the planning. But, in a move that feels bizarrely more sexist and conservative, she also becomes the apex of a love triangle between herself and Firth and MacFadyen’s characters. This tedious triangle takes up a huge amount of time in an overlong film and is fatally scuppered by the total lack of chemistry between any of the participants.

It also means our heroes are forced to spend a lot of time running around like love-sick, horny teenagers, following each other and passing notes in class. At one point Cholmondeley tells Jean about Montagu’s wife with all the subtlety of “I saw X kissing Y behind the bike sheds”. This also means that the matey “all in this together” feeling essential to these sort of caper films (which is what this story really is) is undermined. This ends up feeling rather like a group of people who learn to dislike each other but vaguely put personal feelings aside for the greater good.

The real exciting history clearly isn’t exciting enough. Instead, ludicrous, artificial “improvements” littered through the story. I get that Jason Isaacs’ Admiral Godfrey is turned into a moronic, obstructive bureaucrat for narrative reasons. But the ridiculous shoe-horning in of a link between the Operation and the Anti-Nazi resistance in Germany in the second half of the film feels blatantly untrue even while it’s happening. By the time one of our heroes is being confronted by a German agent in their own home, the film has checked out of reality.

Truth is, this is a bad film, over-long, overly dry and crammed with artificial flourishes. Partially narrated by Ian Fleming (a woefully flat performance by Johnny Flynn, sounding oddly like Alex Jennings), the film attempts to draw links between this and the formation of James Bond but these fall as flat as everything else. MacFadyen gives probably the best performance among some wasted Brit stars. The truth is, a one-hour straight-to-camera lecture from Ben MacIntyre would have been twice as entertaining and interesting and half as long. A chronic misfire.

The End of the Affair (1999)

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in a doomed romance in The End of the Affair

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart (Mr Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Richard Smythe), James Bolam (Mr Savage), Sam Bould (Lance Parks), Deborah Findlay (Miss Smythe)

The End of the Affair is one of Graham Greene’s most autobiographical novels, based strongly on his relationship with Catherine Walston, wife of a friend in the civil service. Unlike the affair in the book, Greene’s continued for decades, long after the publication of the novel in 1951 (which had led to the husband demanding an end to it – a demand ignored). Greene’s novel recounts the dangerous passions of an affair, mixed with the powerful anxieties and uncertainties that the Catholic faith can have on relationships. Jordan’s film captures much of this – but in places fails to fully understand the spirit of Greene’s compelling novel.

Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is a moderately successful popular author, excused war service due to having injured his leg in the Spanish Civil War. In 1946, a chance meeting with Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), a staid civil servant brings back vivid memories of Maurice’s wartime affair with Henry’s wife Sarah (Julianne Moore). The affair ended abruptly for reasons Maurice cannot understand, and his love is twisting into jealous resentment. With Henry now concerned Sarah is having an affair – and seemingly unaware of Maurice and Sarah’s wartime relationship – Maurice takes it upon himself to hire Parkis (Ian Hart) a private investigator to find out more. The results though give him profound and affecting insights into both the present and the reasons for the end of his own affair with Sarah.

Jordan’s adaptation gets so much right, it’s almost more of a shame that it gets things wrong as well. The atmosphere of the film is simply perfect. It looks and feels exactly like a classic slice of Greeneland, with its dreary London, rain-soaked settings and gloomy period setting. Roger Pratt’s Oscar nominated photography is perfect for the tragic beauty of Greene’s work, and its matched with a sublime musical score from Michael Nyman that wrings every inch of emotion from the story.

Ralph Fiennes is also the perfect idea of a Greene hero – slightly imperious, bitter, arrogant with an air of prep school smugness mixed with an underlying sense of grim inferiority. It’s hard to imagine any other actor – maybe except Colin Firth – better suited to the slight air of dissolute, not obviously sympathetic world-weary struggle that a Greenian hero needs to exhibit. Fiennes barely puts a foot wrong and could have practically walked off the page.

Equally good is Julianne Moore, who nails a very English type of person, a woman determined to do her best and to set standards, but who carries just below the surface a deep well of emotional pain and sorrow that briefly is allowed to peek through. It’s a heart-rending performance of a person desperate for happiness, but hiding that longing under a veneer of acceptability, who sacrifices what she wants from life to meet the obligations of her faith. 

Because, it being Graham Greene, Faith is the big issue here – the idea of the private deals we make with God and the cost that those impose on us, the sacrifices of our own happiness in surface of something higher than ourselves. Greene’s novel intrinsically understand the eternal struggle felt in Catholicism to do the right thing, to accept the love of God into your life even if it means turning your back on more earthly loves and passions. How these journeys can be hard – unbearable even – but carry a level of reward in themselves. 

It’s that feeling for God – who Bendrix grows to believe has cheated him from happiness on earth – that powers his “diary of hate” that he is writing as the book opens. It’s an idea the film only fitfully engages with. Jordan deviates from the novel’s real intention at a key point, in particular “correcting” a dramatic error he feels Greene makes by having Sarah die “off camera” in the book, of a sudden cold, after confessing to Bendrix her reasons for ending the affair, her pact with God.

This narrative change allows a sequence in Brighton as the two reignite their affair – but it also undermines the tragedy of the book, that suddenness of loss, and also makes Sarah’s death feel like a tit-for-tat punishment for going back on her word. More to the point, the affair restarting has the air of an atheistic view of the Catholic complications here, an idea that these can be easily brushed aside because the “heart wants”. It’s to miss the point of Greene’s world thinking and undermine the small everyday tragedy in favour of something more conventional and “epic”.

It’s a major tweak that undermines the strength (otherwise) of Jordan’s work here – his directing and scripting is otherwise largely faultless. Other changes to the source clarify the message – I think changing Smythe (a gently but arrogantly certain Jason Isaacs) into a priest rather than an atheist Sarah is using to test her faith makes sense, even if it does suggest that she acts under the influence of someone else rather than on her own opinions. Making Bendrix a Spanish war veteran rather someone suffering the effects of a childhood illness adds a political and moral romanticism to the character entirely absent from any of the rest of his personality. But it’s fine.

Jordan’s film has many strengths. Its tone is excellent and it’s passion inspiring (the tender explicitness of the sex scenes landed it with a bizarre and controversial 18 certificate) and there are superb performances, not just the leads but Stephen Rea excellent as the meek but noble husband and some lovely comic work from Ian Hart as a haplessly efficient private eye. But the film slightly misses, in the end, the point of the novel – which is a real shame. If Jordan had stuck to the book, and its complex themes of guilt and grief and Catholicism we could have really had something here.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry and Voldemort prepare for their final showdown in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), John Hurt (Ollivander), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Ciarán Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Kelly MacDonald (Rowena Ravenclaw), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout), Geraldine Somerville (Lily Potter), Adrian Rawlins (James Potter), Warwick Davis (Griphook/Professor Flitwick), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), Nick Moran (Scabior), Natalie Tena (Tonks)

And so here we are. After 19 hours and 40 minutes, the Harry Potter franchise draws to a close in the rubble of Hogwarts. The franchise goes out swinging for some big hits – and it misses some of them – but at least it’s trying. If this turns out to be one of the least satisfying films in the franchise (at best the 6th best Harry Potter film), it’s not because they haven’t thrown anything at it.

The film adapts just under the last half of JK Rowling’s final novel. In an interesting structural twist, it actually ends up covering just over one day of time: between our heroes breaking into Gringotts Bank and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, less than 24 hours has taken place. Nothing is really made of this in the film, but it’s an interesting thought. In fact Yates’ film is full of interesting half-thoughts that never go anywhere. More than any other film in the series, this is one where it is essential you’ve read the book before viewing it. Without the book you don’t get any of the rich context for most of the events.

This all culminates, for me, in the way the film falls apart in the last 20 minutes or so. This final section of the film changes, or cuts, so much of the book’s thematic depth, so many of its plot strands and explanations, that every time I see it I feel my disappointment starting to rise. I don’t want to be the guy who says “just shoot the book” – but if any film could have stuck with the book it’s this one. Why did they cut and change so much of this stuff? Did they really think, after almost 11 years and 20 hours of screen time, we wouldn’t have the patience for some of the more complex things from the book? Did they really feel that they had to stamp their own distinctive vision on it? Anyway, here are the things that always annoy me about this film:

1. Dumbledore’s backstory gets forgotten

Okay this is a minor one – and the film does leave some hints in. But for GOODNESS’ SAKE, they cut this book into two films, spent ages in the first film talking about the mysteries of Dumbledore’s dark past, then just as we meet Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (a neat turn from Ciarán Hinds) and are about to get an explanation, Harry basically says words to the effect of “I’m not worrying about that. And neither should you folks. On with the film”.  

Even the Ghost of Dumbledore doesn’t get to explain any of this stuff. All the careful mood build of Part 1 is just thrown away. The book is about learning about death, the futility of the search for power, and humility. Dumbledore’s backstory of failed ambition is a massive part of this – and it gets dropped. It’s not like we didn’t have time in a series that has churned out films pushing up to three hours in length. I mean why put all that stuff in the first film, if you aren’t even going to reference it at all in the second film?

2. The Deathly Hallows get benched

Again wouldn’t be quite so bad if we hadn’t spent a huge amount of time in the first film talking about them – but are the words Deathly Hallows even mentioned here? Instead, just like Voldemort, the film is seduced by the elder wand, focusing everything on the ownership of this MacGuffin. The point of the book is that all this stuff is a chimera –and that the real point is learning that death should not be feared but accepted at the proper time. 

As it is, this never gets built on – and the importance of the resurrection stone (including why it tempted Dumbledore so much) never gets explained. Rather it just comes down to who controls the powerful thing, with none of Rowling’s richer themes.

Harry ends up controlling all three here but we never really get the sense of Harry controlling them all, or understand his decision to throw away the stone, or his realisation that death is not to be feared but accepted.

3. Neville gets blown away

Gotta feel sorry for Matthew Lewis (who is very good here). Reading the book he must have been thrilled: “So I pull the sword out of the sorting hat and then in one move cut the head off the snake like a total bad ass”. This should have been a great moment (it’s an iconic one from the book). Instead Neville gets blasted and, presumably to give them something to do, Ron and Hermione spend ages trying to kill the snake (intercut with Harry and Voldemort fighting) until finally Neville gets to lop that head off – by which point the moment has well and truly passed.

 4. No one mentions Voldemort keeps making the same mistakes

In the book, Harry has a beautiful moment where he basically tells our Tom that he’s made the same mistakes over and over again. Namely that, by killing Harry, who sacrificed himself for love, he made exactly the same mistake as he did with Harry’s mother and now cannot harm any of those Harry died for (i.e. the rest of the cast). It’s a great moment, where finally Harry understands what the novels have been building towards. Doesn’t merit a mention.

Neither does Voldemort’s childish obsession with famous things – he is consumed with belief in the power of a wand, he can’t let go of associating his horcruxes with famous things and the lineage of iconic wizards, etc. etc. Voldemort is basically a big, silly, empathy-free, sulky teenager – the film misses this point entirely.

Instead of explanations and depth, the film reduces Harry and Voldemort’s final clashes into dull punchy-bashy stuff. The director clearly fell in love with the visual idea of Harry and Voldemort’s heads merging together while apparating. This is a visual image that I hate because it (a) feels like showing off and (b) would only work if they were semi-reflections of each other – which they certainly aren’t. They are polar opposites. It’s a flashy effect that actually makes no thematic sense what-so-bloody-ever.

5. Voldemort goes out like a 3D special effect

Perhaps not a surprise in a film, but Voldemort gets killed and disintegrates into a huge puff of 3D-film smoke. I hate this. I hate it. I really, really, really hate it. I’ll tell you why:

  • The spells used in the duel are really unclear – it’s a great moment in the book that Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds against Harry’s disarming curse – instead we get the bright lights.
  • Voldemort dreads death more than anything – and Rowling’s writing of his body falling dead to the ground like any other normal dead guy taps exactly into what Voldemort spent his whole life struggling against. It’s a beautiful irony.
  • No one knew if Voldemort was dead or not the first time because he disappeared. In the book he is killed, by his own curse, in front of everyone and his body is left behind for everyone to look at and say “yup. Guy is dead”. Not here. Here he blows up in a puff of smoke in front of no witnesses. Did Harry just head back into the great hall and say “Okay guys. Take my word for it. He’s dead. He just is. Trust me on this. It’s not like last time. Totally dead. Promise.”

Wow. Okay that’s not really a review is it? That’s just like a disappointed fan whining “I don’t like it because it is different”. But my point isn’t that this is bad because it’s different. It’s bad because it takes stuff from the original and changes it AND NOT FOR THE BETTER. Moments that worked beautifully, or carried so much weight in the original are bastardised crudely for no clear reason.

As I say, after almost 18 hours and a life time (for many viewers) of growing up with these characters: surely we could have given the film a bit more time and allowed some actual intelligent context from the books to creep in? Surely we had the patience for Harry getting to point out to Voldemort how wrong he is? Everyone in the audience was ready for that right? If there was one film people were probably willing to dedicate three hours of their life too, in order to see it done properly it was this one, right? Rather than rushed by in a little over two?

But no this film goes always, always, always for the big spectacle. Not that this always work: Yates doesn’t shoot the battle hugely well. Aside from one excellent sequence which shows our three heroes trying to get across the castle courtyard, while chaos rages around them (beautifully scored as well), the battle is unclear, dingy and not hugely exciting. Again, I’d have liked to have had a bit more of this – to get some moments with this huge cast doing stuff in the battle (especially since they are ALL back – kudos to the producers there).

It’s a real, real shame because honestly parts of this movie are really, really, really good. Tom Felton is cracking again as Draco – and the film gives real development time to showing the impact all this has on the Malfoy family with genuine empathy. The break-in at Gringotts is exciting and fun – as well as giving Warwick Davies his best moment in the series as two-faced Griphook. Inventions and flourishes, such as Harry having visions of an enraged Voldemort slaughtering the staff of Gringotts in fury, are chilling.

Some moments of the book are carried across really well, in particular Snape’s escape – a powerfully filmed sequence of bravery from the pupils, and some great work from Maggie Smith. Yates really understands how to get moments of magic to work: the creation of the shield around Hogwarts is totally spine-tingling. When the film sits and breathes it generally gets it right. Fiennes is terrific still as Voldemort, serpentine, arrogant, unsettling. He gets some lovely moments here – from fury, to pained fear (as horcruxes bite the dust) to an almost-funny-awkward-mateyness as he tries to seduce Hogwarts pupils to his side (his awkward hug of Draco is terrific).

The three leads are of course great. Daniel Radcliffe could certainly have delivered the more complex moments of the book if he had been given the chance. He even does his best to sell the slightly awkward coda “19 years later”: a controversial sequence, it makes a great footnote in the book but it was always going to be a tough ask to make three teenagers look like 40 year olds convincingly, particularly when we are nearly as familiar with their faces as our own.

There are some troubling and failed moments in this film, stuff that doesn’t work. But then there is this:

Oh wow. For all that the film changes stuff from the books for the worst – this is a moment it unquestionably does better. And a massive, massive part of this has to be down to Alan Rickman. Rickman was told this backstory from the start of the films – and he delivers it with a passionate commitment here. Helped by brilliant score, and fascinating re-editing of moments from previous films seen from new angles, Rickman delivers the reveal of Snape’s heartbreaking moments perfectly.

Was I tired? Was it the added impact of Rickman’s own depth? I don’t know but I shed tears watching this again. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece of film making. Everything in it works perfectly: directing, writing, music, editing, filming and above all the acting. It’s just sublime. For all the film misses the point elsewhere it finally totally gets it here. I would take this moment over dozens of moments of Harry and Voldemort fighting each other.

And yes this Harry Potter film might miss the point, and it might bungle the ending, and it might well fail to carry across the richness and intricate plot explanations of Rowling’s original. Yes it gets bogged down in “who controls this wand” and yes it misses the point completely about the film being about learning to overcome a fear of death and defeat (something Voldemort totally fails to do) but then it has moments where it works wonderfully like this. 

But in these films we got a beautiful franchise, with some excellent films. It’s always going to reward constant viewing. And it will always move the viewer. And it’s always going to be great.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry and friends are on the run in the excellent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Rhys Ifans (Xenophilius Lovegood), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Toby Jones (Dobby), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Peter Mullan (Yaxley), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Warwick Davies (Griphook), Nick Moran (Scabior), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), David O’Hara (Albert Runcorn), Sophie Thompson (Malfada Hopkirk), Steffan Rhodri (Reg Cattermole), Simon McBurney (Kreacher)

The final book of the Harry Potter series made its own slice of film history: it was the first time a book was adapted in two films to “get the whole story of the book across” (or to make double the box office cash – take your pick). There was scepticism about creating a film about the first half (or so) of The Deathly Hallows, as a large chunk revolves around our heroes walking around the countryside, confused, lost and adrift. Instead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 turns this material into one of the richest, most engaging and best films in the series. Any film that expands a throw-away reference from the books to Hermione removing her parents memories of her, into an affecting opening scene showing Emma Watson doing the same is really inventively playing with the original source material.

David Yates takes on his third Harry Potter film – and this is possibly the best he filmed. In fact, the whole film feels fresher and different – perhaps because it’s the only film to not have a single scene at Hogwarts. Instead our characters are out in the forest and on the run – and the film has completely different vibe, immediately lending it a uniqueness. Equally, it isn’t shy about pointing out our heroes are all-at-sea. Harry doesn’t really know what he is doing, or where to start with his self-imposed quest: and surely when Ron angrily asks why Dumbledore didn’t tell him more (or if Harry wasn’t even listening properly) he’s voicing some of the questions of the audience.

This film, more than any other, focuses on the relationship between the leading three characters. While getting an idea of their friendship and loyalty to each other, we also get a sense of the tensions and envy between them. Not least in Ron’s grudging acceptance that he is the number two. Rupert Grint has been slowly building under David Yates’ films from a comic relief character to an increasing (slightly surly) teenage insecurity and troubled sexual maturity. 

This really pays off in this film: Ron is bitter and jealous. These feelings might be exacerbated by the necklace the characters must take turns wearing, but it’s just bringing to the surface Ron’s darker feelings of inadequacy: and Yates even brings them to the screen in a necklace-induced vision of a naked (but artfully concealed in smoke!) Harry and Hermione alternately making out and rubbishing Ron. It’s a plot point that covers Ron overcoming his resentment and cementing his position in the gang. It’s very well done – and Rupert Grint is very good.

Equally good is the gently sad, mutually affectionate relationship between Harry and Hermione. Alone together for large chunks of the film, the characters’ bond is firmly established, the chemistry between the two actors never clearer. The film plays with the subplot it’s been suggesting for a while of a potential deeper relationship between Harry and Hermione: not least in its beautiful silent dancing sequence to Nick Cave in the tent (one of the best ever entirely invented scenes in the series) that is friendly, but with a hint of the possibility of something more – something the characters seem to consciously decide to bench. This sort of emotional reality is what makes the film really stand out. It turns the “camping trip” of the novel into something more profound and engrossing – I’d say this is the only sequence that really outdoes the books altogether in the entire series.

But of course there is still plenty of action, and humour, a highpoint for both being our heroes infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, disguised as ministry employees. Playing the adult disguises of our heroes brings out three hilarious and sharply observed physical performances from David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson. In fact, the film has a bit of a thing for disguises, from a disfigured Harry (who may or may not be recognised by Draco, in another piece of excellent acting from Tom Felton as a terminally out-of-his depth and terrified Malfoy), to the opening scenes featuring half the cast being disguised as Harry. Daniel Radcliffe excels in this sequence, playing versions of most of the young cast with real wit and skill.

Yates allows a creeping sense of imminent danger to hang over the whole picture, straight from the off. A “conference of baddies” at Malfoy manor shows us Voldemort (the ever sinister Ralph Fiennes) re-establishing his murderous villainy from the start – and also belittling and mocking poor Lucius Malfoy (a crushed Jason Isaacs). From there, via a gripping escape from Harry’s home, to a wedding scene that quickly collapses into a terrifying attack from Death Eaters, it’s a film full of excitement.

Yates shoots this with tension and edge. A sequence with Harry and company fleeing through the forest from snatchers is so well-done, so intense and immersive, that they used it for the poster. This sequence uses really interesting camera work and tracking shots – in fact the whole film is very well filmed and extremely well-paced. It’s also got an eye for the real nastiness of regimes like Voldemort’s: people like Umbridge (an increasingly Himmlerish Imelda Staunton) flourish, while bullying thugs like Yaxley (an intimidatingly excellent Peter Mullan) rule the roost.

Kloves script sets up a lot of the fascinating back-story from the novel, not only around Dumbledore but also the Deathly Hallows themselves (I’ll not mention for now that most of this build-up is fumbled in the last film). There is a beautiful animation sequence establishing the history of the Deathly Hallows, which is an artistic highlight. The slow unveiling and revealing of facts is wonderfully done – and rewards the patient viewer.

The film culminates in a final sequence at Malfoy manor that carries a great wallop of emotional torment and dread (first torture scene in a Potter movie for those interested…). Surprisingly a lot of this emotional force comes from Dobby the elf – irritating as he was in Chamber of Secrets, here he gets a few scenes that carry real emotional force. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is possibly the only Harry Potter film that is an actual improvement on its original source material (there I said it). I think it’s a brilliant film, a film which carries real emotional weight and has genuine things to say, not just about good and evil, but also about the sort of teenage angst and yearnings we’ve all had. The three leads are all excellent, and there is barely a bum note in the whole thing.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and friends prepare to face the Dark Lord in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eyed Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerve McGonagall), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney), Julie Walters (Mrs Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Katie Leung (Cho Chang), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Natalie Tena (Tonks), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt)

By the fifth film, the Harry Potter franchise was really on a roll – and a lot of the core creative team that would carry the series through to the final film were in place. It’s particularly striking how much a distinctive look and tone the series now had, that is both different from the books and a logical extension of them. It’s also the film where I think the series finally decided it would tell it’s own version of Rowling’s story, rather than an exact staging. 

Rather than simply tightening the plot of Rowling’s mammoth book, Order of the Phoenix decided to rework the story to deliver what it wanted to do. Vast amounts of Hogwarts material is ruthlessly cut, including large sections of Ron and Hermione’s sub-plots. The film streamlines the story, reducing Harry’s feelings of isolation in the story (the film instead centres the importance of friendship and loyalty). And despite turning one of the longest books in the series into the shortest film, this captures the sense of the book excellently. It clearly identifies the key themes that drive Rowling’s series and runs with these very effectively. This film, more than any others so far, shows the deep bonds of loyalty that connect not just the central trio, but also the other members of the school. The Dumbledore’s Army sequences have a wonderful sense of camaraderie about them – these people genuinely feel like a group of friends.

These sequences also give Daniel Radcliffe some great material to play with. Harry clearly would make a hell of a teacher – Radcliffe makes him encouraging and supportive, capable of drawing the best out of his students. Radcliffe does his expected excellent job all the way through this film. His ability to play scenes of grief and longing has increased dramatically – his reaction to the death of Sirius Black is really well done. But he also presents Harry as essentially a warm and caring person – exactly the polar opposite of the man Voldemort has become. It’s another terrific performance.

Order of the Phoenix was David Yates’ first film as a director of the series – Yates has gone on to direct all the subsequent outings in the Potterverse – and part of the reason he seems to have cemented the role is that he gives a perfect mixture of Columbus, Cuarón and Newell. He can juggle elements of Rowling’s story, he works very well with actors, he has enough creativity and vision as a director to present this world in interesting new ways. He’s a perfect combination of a number of skills from the previous directors – and he really runs with that legacy here.

Order of the Phoenix is a dark and gorgeously shot movie, with a tight story structure (it’s the only film not written by Steven Kloves, and Michael Goldenberg’s fresh take on the film I think really helps). Every scene has a painterly brilliance, and scenes simmer with tension and paranoia – Yates doesn’t lose track of the fact that Harry is being persecuted by the authorities for taking an unpopular stance on Voldemort’s return. 

Yates establishes his intention to turn this into a notably darker episode from the very start, opening with a vicious Dementor attack (redesigned to make them more fluid). This is followed quickly by a show trial at the Ministry. Then to a darker, gloomier Hogwarts now a den of unjust rules (the expulsion of Thompson’s gentle Sybil Trelawney is a particular fine heartstring-tugging moment), and cruel punishments. It’s a film that never allows us to forget death has entered Harry’s world. By the time we hit the final battle sequences in the Ministry of Magic, we know our heroes are putting their lives on the line. Scary as this is, we also appreciate the bonds of love that have taken them there all the more.

A lot of the creep and cruelty of the film emerge from Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge. Staunton is brilliantly cast as the twee ministry official who hides a ruthless viciousness, buttressed by a sociopathic conviction that whatever she does must be right. Staunton’s soft politeness is the perfect vehicle for showing Umbridge’s sadistic cruelty. Umbridge is the worst form of politician –blindly following the orders of any authority figure who can promote her on their coat-tails. The design of her character is similarly spot-on: she dresses almost exclusively in fluffy pink knitted suits, and her office is an explosion of pink, china plates and fluffy animal pictures. Staunton is almost unbelievably vile in her smug, condescending moral emptiness.

It’s further evidence of what a brilliant job this series did with casting. By this point, truly great actors were appearing in this film while sharing less than a dozen lines between them: Thewlis, Gleeson, Smith, Thompson and even Coltrane get remarkably little do in this film, but still seize your attention. Wonderful performances also come from the less famous names: George Harris gives a brilliant twinkly wisdom and gravity to Kingsley Shacklebolt while Robert Hardy (quietly excellent in the previous films) gets some more material to showcase his skills as the wilfully blind Fudge.

Of the other stand-outs, Helena Bonham Carter is brilliantly malevolent as the psychotic Bellatrix. Jason Isaacs gets some marvellous moments of smooth patrician wickedness as Malfoy. Gary Oldman is the ideal roguish father-figure as Sirius, the actor’s obvious bond with Radcliffe really coming across. Gambon is very comfortable now as Dumbledore, really showing the authority behind his Dumbledore’s eccentricity.

Then you have actors who dominate from mere minutes of screen-time. Fiennes again delivers in a short scene at the close of the picture. And then of course we get Rickman: he makes so much of such brief moments as Snape. He has probably the two biggest laugh-out-loud moments (both totally reliant on his delivery of non-descript words like “Obviously”). His occlumency classes with Harry showcase him at his best: trying to help, but unable to overcome his essential bitterness and resentment. These sequences are wonderfully contrasted with Harry’s comfort as a teacher to his friends: by contrast Snape is dismissive, impatient and unsympathetic.

The film finds moments of humanity and comedy throughout. Rupert Grint finally gets to show another side of Ron, as Ron matures slightly into a loyal wing-man , who makes it clear he will not countenance criticism of Harry in his hearing. And while this is a dark film, it’s also the one that deals with Harry’s growing romantic feelings for Cho – and he gets a beautifully played little romance that reminds us that Harry is (at the end of the day) still a nervous kid. It’s a film that understands friendship and love and their importance.

So it’s why the final battle sequence in the Ministry of Magic works so well. Tense and dangerous, we also root overwhelmingly for the courage of the kids. The work Yates had done on the wizard battles really pays off – they have a greater sense of choreography than ever before, while the apparating (in a trailing, misty, fast-moving cloud) really adds a fantastic visual element. Little shots work so well – I love the cut from Harry fighting alongside Sirius to his friends crouching behind a rock staring up at their friend in awe. It’s a beautiful reminder that what Harry is doing is so brave.

Of course, the film ends in the series’ first truly gripping wizard fight as we finally get Dumbledore taking on Voldemort. It was a great sequence in the book – and is translated wonderfully to the screen with a series of gripping visuals. There are brilliant beats throughout and we learn about the characters. We see Voldemort’s targeting of the defenceless Harry throughout, the way Dumbledore puts himself in the way of danger (including angrily throwing Harry backwards with magic when he steps forward). Above all you see Harry’s own courage (and his impulsiveness motivated by caring so much).

Order of the Phoenix is another excellent entry into a series that flourished and became richer the longer it went on. Yates showed that he was in tune with the fundamental ideas of Rowling’s writing and that he was able to marry excellent performances with impressive visuals. It’s brilliantly made – shot wonderfully, very well edited with a marvellous score – and is an impressive and muscular piece of film making. Very impressive.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Daniel Radcliffe discovers dark goings on in the bowels of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Christian Coulson (Tom Riddle), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Snout), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  David Bradley (Argus Filch), Toby Jones (Dobby), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Julian Glover (Aragog)

Another movie, and time for another everyday school year for Harry and friends: classes, exams, sports days and saving the entire population of the school from a grisly death. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it right? So welcome to the second Harry Potter film, that mixes the fun of flying cars and tricky elves with giant spiders and ferocious snakes.

Chris Columbus and team went virtually straight from the first film into making this one, and it’s pretty clear they had learned a lot from the last one. Sure, Columbus is still a safe pair of hands rather than an inspired director, but there is a bit more flair from cast and crew here. It also manages to look a lot less like a primary colour explosion or an illustrated version of the book, and more like a piece of film-making. Maybe this can be attributed to new cinematographer Roger Pratt, who gives the film a far more imaginative palette of darks blacks mixed with beautiful core colours (no surprise he returned to shoot Goblet of Fire). In addition, both design and costumes are far more adult and less Dickensian-robey than I remembered (though there’s still a way to go until we get to the steampunk 50s look of Prisoner of Azkaban that would dominate the rest of the films).

It also helps that the introduction to the wizarding world was covered so well in the first film. In fact, this is the last film where anyone felt it necessary to shoe-horn recaps into the dialogue, reminding us of who (and what) everything is. A particular moment of irritance for me is the first entry of Dumbledore and McGonagall: met with Harry breathlessly saying their names – just in case you were one of those people who didn’t contribute to the $1billion the first film made worldwide, or who hadn’t read any of the books by this point.

Anyway, Columbus got the principles out of the way in the first film so he could focus a bit more on this slightly darker, more developed story (just as Rowling was able to do in the books). The mystery of the Chamber of Secrets is more compelling than that around the Philosopher’s Stone in Potter’s first outing, and this is the film where we properly meet the series antagonist Voldemort – here played with a smarmy, casual cruelty by Christian Coulsen (it’s a shame this didn’t lead to bigger things for Coulsen). Radcliffe gets the chance to get his teeth into a decent final confrontation – and also the series’ first big action set-piece, quite well-shot with a creepy menace – as he takes on a basilisk.

In fact Radcliffe is much stronger in this movie – more relaxed, more confident and embracing Harry’s essential decency and sense of honour (the qualities that are always duller to play as an actor). He’s still struggling a bit at the moments that call for real emotion – but he does very well here indeed. Most importantly, you believe him and everything he does – which is quite something for a child actor to accomplish. 

He gets more depth and range to play with than Rupert Grint who was already being shoehorned into being gurning comic relief. There are few faces Grint isn’t asked to pull in this movie – and get used to that sad-sack downward grin, or the teeth-clench of terror, because these are going to become major weapons in his arsenal. Watson doesn’t actually get a lot in this movie, but even by this point it was becoming clear that she was pretty much a perfect fit for the character. 

The series also confirmed it had great roles for the cream of British acting – and that it was going to be a fine pension plan for most of Equity. Jason Isaacs plays the wicked Lucius Malfoy with relish and a scowling, patrician pride – no wonder he became not only a regular in the series, but one of its champions. He’s very good here indeed, as is other new addition Mark Williams, a perfectly charming shambolic dad as Arthur Weasley.

The show however is carried off by Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh offers a performance close to of self-parody of his public perception, as a swaggering self-promoter, a preening egotist who can’t help but brag about his (almost non-existent) achievements and accomplishments. Branagh is deliriously funny as Lockhart, not only getting a lion’s share of the best scenes, but also bringing out some delicious comic rebuttals from the rest of the teachers – not least Rickman and Smith – who clearly can’t stand Lockhart. It’s a great performance – cocky, old-Etonianesque, full of surface charm and puffed up pride, but with a nasty selfish mean steak just below the surface.

It all feels part of the generally more free and engaging direction this film takes compared to the first one. Some of the best actors from the first film get relegated in screentime, but it shows the greater confidence the filmmakers have in the kids. The film really begins to introduce the ideas of good vs evil and the principles of friendship, humanity and love that differentiate Harry from Voldemort. Columbus isn’t quite the director to bring all this together into an epic vision, but he is good enough to deal the cards effectively. He gives it enough pace and shine so that we are never bored, though we’re also never wowed.

Despite the increased darkness and greater emotional depth, Columbus never loses track of the sense that he is making a family entertainment. He may still not be able to bring an artistic flourish to events, but he balances the light and dark very well. Not least the fact that the racism under the surface of the wizarding world emerges here. In the first film Voldemort alone was the villain, but in this one we first hear the term “mud blood” bandied about to describe Muggle-borns. We also find out that the wizarding world has its own slave class in elves (given a sometimes irritating Jar-Jar Binks-lite face by Dobby, a character with far more appeal to the kids than the parents). These are complex ideas – and all part of the world becoming richer.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still in the lower tier of Harry Potter films, but it’s a significant step-up from the first film. Visually it’s richer and more interesting. The stakes are higher, the themes deeper and more intriguing. It’s still very much a children’s film, and it still inclines towards being an over-faithful adaptation – it’s a bum-numbing 2 hours and 40 minutes so keen is it to not leave anything out – but this has far stronger material in it than the first film, and is a sure sign that this series was building a foundation it could flourish from.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Hilarious hi-jinks in Soviet Russia as the politburo struggle to deal with The Death of Stalin

Director: Armando Iannucci

Cast: Steve Buscemi (Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (Lavrenti Beria), Paddy Considine (Comrade Andreyev), Dermot Crowley (Lazar Kaganovich), Rupert Friend (Vasily Stalin), Jason Isaacs (Georgy Zhukov), Olga Kurylenko (Maria Yudina), Michael Palin (Vyacheslav Molotov), Andrea Riseborough (Svetlana Stalin), Jeffrey Tambor (Georgy Malenkov), Paul Whitehouse (Anastas Mikoyan), Paul Chahidi (Nikolai Bulganin), Adrian Mcloughlin (Joseph Stalin)

Armando Iannucci is a brilliant television satirist, who spring to wider fame with the success of foul mouthed political satire The Thick of It (re-imagined as Veep in the USA). His sweaty, sweary, fly-on-the-wall style, and characters who embody the panicked agitation of the nakedly ambitious but not-too-bright, was a perfect match for our modern world. Does the style work for the past? You betcha.

In Soviet Russia, a country near paralysed with terror, the ruthless dictator Stalin dies. This starts an immediate scramble to succeed him, with the leading candidates being weak-willed, vain and foolish deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), vaguely principled but fiercely ambitious opportunist Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and sinisterly sadistic police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Soviet Russia though is a pretty ruthless place for political manoeuvring, with retirement usually coming in the form of a single bullet to the back of the head.

First off the bat, The Death of Stalin is a blisteringly funny film, a real laugh-out loud riot. Why does it work so well? Because it understands that, hand-in-hand with the horror, Stalinist Russia was so completely barking mad that it lends itself completely to black comedy. Imagine The Thick of It, but with Malcolm Tucker executing rather than dismissing terrified ministers. Welcome to the madness. Events that seem crazy are pretty much true: although time has been telescoped, the struggle for the succession did more or less play out like this (with less swearing).

Every scene of this dark farce has a memorable, stand-out line or moment. The sweaty panic of these over-promoted yes-men is brilliantly reminiscent of the sort of panic you can imagine seeing in your office, with the exception that it probably isn’t literally life-and-death. Iannucci completely understands the wild improvisation of the fiercely ambitious in high-stress situations. If you think the ministers of The Thick of It were adrift when confronted with parliamentary enquiries, imagine how their counterparts struggle when faced with the threats of a bullet in the head.

Because that’s the great thing about this film – while still being hilariously foul-mouthed, it actually gives a pretty good idea of what it might have been like to live in Soviet Russia. The characters are constantly having to adjust to who is in favour and who isn’t, what it is permissible to think and say and what isn’t, who is “dead and who isn’t”. Iannucci totally understands human nature doesn’t change – those left alive around Stalin are just the sort of shallow, selfish, weaklings he’s been lampooning in The Thick of It. Most of the ordinary people we see are just desperate to keep their heads down – getting noticed for regular joes in this film is basically a death sentence. 

The opening sequence really gets this idea across. Paddy Considine is hilariously nervy and terrified as a radio producer ordered to send a recording of the live concert they’ve just broadcast (unrecorded) to Stalin. The frantic rush to reassemble the orchestra, fill the audience up again with people from the street, replace the conductor (the original having passed out in terror at the possibility that he may have been bugged questioning Stalin’s musical knowledge) is brilliantly funny – but works because the genuine expectation that doing the slightest thing wrong could lead to immediate execution is completely clear. Especially as the scene is intercut with Beria’s heavies rounding up innocent civilians to disappear into a gulag. 

Iannucci doesn’t dodge the ruthlessness. The film is punctured throughout by executions, often carried out with a black farcical desperation. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Beria, whose violence, sadism and pathological rape addiction we are constantly reminded of (and which are even more effectively sinister as he’s played by the cuddly Simon Russell Beale). In turn, a frantic Beria berates the rest of the politburo for their participation in the orgy of killings and show trials Stalin organised. We see people about to be taken to their deaths hurriedly offering terrified goodbyes to their loved ones. The final sequence of the film, as the battle for the succession reaches its end-game, tones down the jokes to give us an alarmingly realistic picture of a coup. Black farce ending in death: it’s as legitimate a picture as any of living in Stalinist Russia.

All of this is presented in a razor-sharp and witty script, and the cast who deliver it are brilliant. In a fantastic touch, the actors (with the exception of Isaacs) use their own accents, which only adds to the crazy fun. The acting is, across the board, fabulous. Russell Beale gives his greatest ever film performance as a grubby, ambitious, not-quite-as-smart-as-he-thinks Beria, with bonhomie only lightly hiding his chilling sadism and cruelty. Buscemi is equally brilliant as Khrushchev, who has the ego and self-delusion to convince himself that he is the only hope for a reformed USSR, while actually being a weaselly political player with naked ambition.

Around these two central players there is a gallery of supporting roles. Tambor gives a brilliant moral and intellectual shallowness to the hapless Malenkov. Friend is hysterical as Stalin’s drunken son, a deluded man-child barely tolerated by those around him. Palin’s cuddliness works perfectly as fanatical Stalinist Molotov. Whitehouse, Crowley and Chadihi are also excellent, while Riseborough does well with a thankless role as Stalin’s daughter. The film may be hijacked though by Isaacs as a swaggeringly blunt General Zhukov, re-imagined as a bombastic, plain spoken Yorkshireman, literally entering the film with a bang half-way through and bagging most of the best lines.

The Death of Stalin is not just a brilliantly hilarious comedy, it also feels like a film that completely understands both the terror and the confused ineptitude of dictatorship. In a world where it is death to question the supreme leader, is it any surprise that his underlings are all such clueless, ambitious idiots? Has anyone else understood the black comedy of dictatorship before? I’m not sure they have. You’ll laugh dozens and dozens of times in this film. And then you’ll remember at the end that when this shit happens, people die. This might be the best thing Iannucci has ever made.

Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt and his boys saddle up – but sadly not on a war against cliche

Director: David Ayer

Cast: Brad Pitt (Sgt Don “Wardaddy” Collier), Logan Lerman (Norman Ellison), Shia LeBeouf (Boyd “Bible” Swan), Michael Peña (Trini “Gordo” Garcia), John Bernthal (Grady Travis), Jason Isaacs (Captain Waggoner)

The Second World War. How many times has it been placed on screen? And  how hard is it now to tell an original story about the conflict? This film proves it is, in fact, very hard indeed. Norman (Logan Lerman) is a young clerk sent to join a tank crew as a replacement machine gunner. He joins the crew of the tank Fury led by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt), a famed veteran whose crew are a tightly loyal crew of old hands: Logan’s reluctance to fight quickly makes him a target for anger. But when they are sent on a mission to hold a crossroads, will he prove himself?

There isn’t much original in this rather dull remix of elements from other war films – most notably The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan and elements of Inglorious Basterds, with Pitt in particular essentially offering a second version of the same Nazi-hating wild guy he played in Tarantino’s film. As a result, there is almost nothing in here that you haven’t seen in several – often much better – Second World War films before. Nothing seems fresh, nothing seems original and as a result nothing is ever particularly exciting or engaging.

Added to that, this “coming of age in a time of war” drama is undermined by the fact that none of its characters are particularly sympathetic, engaging or likeable. The film wants to partly show that constant conflict and war has dehumanised its principle characters– and we see the effect it starts to have on  young Norman – but that doesn’t change the fact that the tank crew we are saddled with for the course of the movie are boorish, unpleasant, swaggering, bullying assholes. The small amount of shading added to them doesn’t change that, and it’s pretty hard to feel anything at all when they start getting killed off late in the movie.

The final confrontation scene also flies in the face of logic – one broken-down tank takes on 200 German soldiers? Why don’t the troops outflank it? More to the point, as everyone involved acknowledges the war is nearly over, why bother with the risk – what is at stake? Why the kamakazi final stand? Never are the stakes clearly explained – instead it’s just lazy “men gotta do” action rubbish. Ayer may feel that he making a point with Norman’s character about innocence shattered by conflict, but it’s a pretty murky point that’s been made many, many, many times before, and I don’t think he is swift in criticising or condemning some of the terrible things Wardaddy and his soldiers do in this film, despite their undoubted efficiency at combat. But like many films of this genre, slap the label Nazi or SS on anyone and it justifies any level of violence directed at them.

I’ll give the film a nod for some good photography and some impressive sound and visual effects. In terms of showing tank warfare, this is pretty impressive, and the deadly firepower of these weapons is brought very well to life. The characters may not be engaging, but this is decently acted – even if many of the scenes rely too heavily on grandstanding performing. Brad Pitt is good enough to even sway some interest in a 2D character he could play in his sleep: quieter scenes of reflection allow us to think that there is more to Wardaddy than a love of fighting.

But this is a dull and empty film and it builds towards things you’ve seen done better elsewhere.

Good (2008)

Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs are conflicted brothers in arms in this all too familiar (in every sense) Nazi Germany story

Director: Vincente Amorim

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (John Halder), Jason Isaacs (Maurice Israel Glückstein), Jodie Whittaker (Anne), Steven Mackintosh (Freddie), Mark Strong (Philipp Bouhler), Gemma Jones (Halder’s Mother), Anastasia Hille (Helen Halder), Steven Elder (Adolf Eichmann)

Is there a more overused quote than Edmund Burke’s “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”? It’s virtually become a cliché and can be heard spouted with chin-stroking smugness in everything from Law & Order episodes, opening title cards to crappy action films to the message-boards of the internet. If Good can have any claim to history (and it probably can’t), it can say that it’s the film of the phrase.

Our Good Man is John Halder (Viggo Mortensen). Our Evil is Nazism. Halder is a literature professor in 1930s Germany. He’s written a novel in support of euthanasia: this brings him to the attention of the party authorities, who need intellectual support for their own plans. Halder accepts an honorary rank in the SS – and from there it’s compromise after compromise that leads to the Holocaust. His good and bad angels are his new young wife Anne (Jodie Whittaker), who loves the advantages party membership brings, and his Jewish best friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs), whose situation goes from bad to worse.

It’s a very, very earnest film which wears its heart on its sleeve. Which is the main problem – the film-makers were clearly desperate to “tell it right” and stay true to the original play – but the whole idea comes across slightly outdated, obvious and far too familiar. Whatever point the play had to make when first staged in 1981, has now been said and done to exhaustion. Despite the care and attention, there now isn’t much originality or freshness. As such, it never really rouses any feelings.

The story it tells of its lead’s reluctant seduction into being an active Nazi can probably be charted fairly accurately without watching the film. The plot device of the Jewish friend feels too on the nose and obvious (compelling as Jason Isaacs is in the role), and the betrayals by inaction follow well-established patterns. The few moments of interest are shied away from – when Halder first puts on his SS uniform (to take grudging part in Kristallnacht) his wife is so aroused she performs oral sex on him: it could have been an interesting point about the sexual seduction of power and the brilliant design of Nazi regalia, but the film rushes over it.

I was also not sure about the device of Halder haunted by visions of various figures he encounters lip-synching to scratchy recordings of Mahler songs. You can guess where this going when you see the film, but it’s a device that is a little unclear. It’s meant to signpost moments of Halder’s moral disintegration (Halder flirts with his new-wife-to-be? The music. He accepts SS rank? The music. Congratulations from Goebbels? The music. He abandons his friend? The music.). It’s final reveal, an echo from Halder’s future trip to Auschwitz is interesting but not exactly profound or revealing – and the device is heavy handed in its use in any case. It’s clear Halder is a failed man and this device doesn’t tell us anything about that.

Despite the film’s predictability and lecturing, it does have good moments. Many of the scenes of Nazi brutality are shot with an affecting simplicity (I admired the cold, POV shooting of Halder’s visit to the arrival point of a camp implied to be Auschwitz), and much of the acting is on form. Mortensen holds the film together well as the deluded moral weakling blown by every wind; he avoids any temptation for histrionics and is happy to make his character detestable in his weakness (this is a film that challenges us to accept that we would probably be as cowardly as Halder is). This in turn gives more freedom for fireworks from Isaacs, who delivers a passionate and intense performance of angry powerlessness. Whittaker is impressive in a shallowly written part as Halder’s ambitious young wife. Mark Strong’s cameo as a suave party big-wig is great, as is Steven Mackintosh’s role as a genial SS officer, moaning about his career.

It’s got its moments but this is a stagy, talky film that tells a familiar old story without panache or originality. It settles for making the same point over and over again. It bravely offers no possible redemption for Halder at all, but his general story is so familiar it never engages as much as it should. Essentially the film’s script could just as easily have had its characters endlessly repeat Burke’s famous phrase – in fact, the one surprise in the film is that neither the quote nor Edmund Burke ever gets name checked. Very, very, very noble but lacks life.