Tag: Jennifer Ehle

She Said (2022)

She Said (2022)

Earnest, well-meaning but not entirely dramatic recounting of the New York Times investigation into Weinstein

Director: Maria Schrader

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Megan Twohey), Zoe Kazan (Jodi Kantor), Patricia Clarkson (Rebecca Corbett), Andre Braugher (Dean Baquet), Jennifer Ehle (Laura Madden), Samantha Morton (Zelda Perkins), Ashley Judd (Herself), Zach Grenier (Irwn Reiter), Peter Friedman (Lanny Davis), Angela Yeoh (Rowena Chiu)

In 2017, the New York Times published revelations about Miramax kingpin Harvey Weinstein that shocked the world. Weinstein had used his position to force his sexual attentions on anyone from aspiring actresses to employees, with a rap sheet of crimes ranging from gropes to rape. It shook Hollywood to its core. She Said is the dramatization of the investigation carried out by reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) who sought out the victims, won their trust and pushed the story through despite threats of legal action.

She Said is a worthy, well-meaning film. It has moments of genuine power and its recreation of the testimony of the victims is tragic and heart-rending. But yet… I didn’t find it dramatic. I was left wondering, why did this true story of journalistic tenacity not carry the same impact as Spotlight or All the President’s Men?

Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t really cover this story as an investigation. There isn’t the sense of facts slowly emerging to form a horrifying picture, or one small incident ballooning into an earth-shattering scandal. Instead, Twohey and Kantor are certain they have the basic facts from the start, with the film being instead a reveal of how many cases there are, rather than an expose of a wrong. While this is still important, it isn’t necessarily always dramatic and, eventually, She Said starts to feel every minute of its two-hour-plus run time.

The real focus of the film probably should have been the journalists’ determined work to win the trust of the principal witnesses – in particular Jennifer Ehle’s Laura Madden, whose whole life has been partially in the shadow of Weinstein’s assault in the 90s. Kantor – played with an empathetic richness by Zoe Kazan – worked night and day to encourage these women to bring their stories to the public. Instead, the film gets distracted with trying to cover too much, both the famous and the unknown victims, and the peripheral presence of Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd (playing herself) unbalance the movie away from the difficult, challenging – but more dramatically rewarding – work exploring office workers called into meetings to “massage” their gross boss.

It’s a shame the focus gets pulled away from these unknown women, who were little more than teenagers when Weinstein abused them in the 90s, since the sequences where they tell their stories are the ones that carry the most impact. There are superb cameo appearances from a trio of great actors. Ehle is superb as a woman resigned to trying to put things behind her, Morton brilliant as another prickling with rage and resentment, and Yeoh very good as a woman who never really managed to process her trauma. The careful, respectful, but deeply sad recounting of these women’s experiences by this trio are the film’s highlights.

Too much of the rest of the film gets bogged down in editorial procedure and the flat collecting of facts. It’s a bad sign when the film has to continuously state the “danger” the characters are facing while investigating and how every wall has ears. While Weinstein was a horrible man, terrifyingly powerful within his industry, I find it a stretch when (unchallenged) a character fears Weinstein will have him killed. I can’t see Weinstein hiring a hitman or utilising the sort of espionage techniques that would make the FBI jealous.

The film also struggles to get to grips with the depressing limits to any struggle for justice in the field of sexual harassment and assault. It starts by depicting Twohey’s investigation into Trump’s “locker room” pussy-grabbing “banter”, which peters out into a total failure to have any real impact at all. While the film suggests this as a motivating factor for the journalists to “get it right” this time, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the limits of #metoo. It’s clearly very different to get Hollywood to clean out its house, compared to taking on someone with real power. Equally, the film gives no space to attempting to understand why Lisa Bloom, who represented victims of Bill O’Reilly and Trump, went to town defending Weinstein. There are interesting topics to explore here, but She Said wants to simplify its narrative down to goodies and baddies.

Time is also given over to the journalist’s home lives, none of which adds much to the overall narrative. Kantor’s relationship with a 10-year-old daughter just beginning to understand words like “rape” never quite solidifies into a thematic motivator. Twohey’s struggles with post-natal depression are bravely raised, but effectively disappear from the film (which makes me feel even a feminist film is squeamish about saying anything except motherhood is the dream for all women).

The final arc gets equally slightly bogged down in the fact-checking procedure. At times, the film has a little too much of a documentary feel, as if drama might have got in the way of the message. Despite this, there are some very good performances, with Kazan and Mulligan concealing mounting outrage under professional, dispassionate cool (Mulligan gets an outburst at a harassing bar patron, which does feel like too much of a “for your consideration” moment), even if we get little sense of who they are as people.

She Said is a very worthy look at a seismic news story, which never quite translates its coverage of impactful events into a truly compelling narrative.

The King's Speech (2010)

Colin Firth lives in fear of his voice failing him in The King’s Speech

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Colin Firth (King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Cosmo Lang), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle Logue), Michael Gambon (King George V), Freya Wilson (Princess Elizabeth), Ramona Marquez (Princess Margaret), Anthony Andrews (Stanley Baldwin), Eve Best (Wallis Simpson)

It can be very hard to imagine the fear and pressure of not being able to trust your own voice. In a world where communication is valued so highly, what terror can it bring if you can’t easily express the thoughts in your own head? It’s a fear perfectly captured in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Because in a constitutional monarchy, what purpose does the King have, but to be a voice for his people? And if the King can’t speak, how can he hope to fulfil his duty? The King’s Speech uses its empathy for those struggling with a condition many find easy to mock and belittle, to create an emotionally compelling and deeply moving story that is a triumph not of overcoming an affliction, but learning how it can be managed and lived with.

In the 1930’s Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the throne. But unlike his charismatic brother David (Guy Pearce), he’s a tense man uncomfortable in the spotlight, whose life has been blighted by his stammer. As pressure grows from his father George V (Michael Gambon) to take on a more public role, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) begin the process of consulting doctors for “a cure”. But the answer might lie with a former actor turned speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose techniques are as much psychological as they are practical. As he and the future George VI begin to work together, a tentative friendship forms as the taciturn king begins to open up about his feelings and find real friendship for the first time in his life.

The King’s Speech delivers a well-paced, beautifully written (an Oscar winning script from David Seidler) moving story of two unlikely outsiders who find themselves as unlikely kindred spirits. While it’s easy to see its Oscar win for Best Picture as a triumph of the academy’s conservatism (and there is a case to make, with the film’s heritage style and rather conventional structure and story-telling), but that would be to overlook the emotional impact it carries. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I find a lump forming in my throat as it sensitively and intelligently tackles themes of depression, isolation and fear and builds towards the heart-warming achievement of a man who learns his afflictions don’t have to define him.

Hooper (who scooped the Oscar for Best Director) draws superb performances from his actors, as well as bringing his own distinctive style to the film. He had already shown with his TV miniseries John Adams that he could shoot period material with all the immediacy and energy of more modern subjects, and it’s what he does here. His unique framing – with the actor’s often at the edges of the frame, in front of strikingly character-filled surfaces – not only grounds the drama in reality, but also captures a sense of the characters own personal isolation, helped by the frequent intimately-close shots. It helps the film avoid throughout from falling into the “heritage” trap, and instead feel (for all its royal family trappings) like a personal, intimate and real story.

And the intimacy is what makes it work so well – especially since so many of the scenes are made up of two characters sitting and talking, gently but with a slowly peeling honesty, about their own thoughts and feelings. The film is hugely successful in building up our empathy for the often over-looked struggles those who stammer go through. The terror that everyday events can bring. The burden of not mastering your own voice. The anger not being able to express yourself can bring. The resentment of how others can perceive your condition as anything from an irritation to a joke to something that with just a bit of help and effort you could brush aside like a sore toe.

The film has drawn praise for its depiction of stammering – although I am reliably told by an friend with an expertise in such things that the film’s connection of stammering with psychological trauma is old-fashioned and far from proven. But it realistically shows the burdens both it, and a troubled childhood, can bring and draws attention and sympathy to the condition in the best possible way.

A lot of this is helped by Colin Firth’s outstanding, Oscar-winning, performance in the lead role. From first seeing him, his George VI is a buttoned-up man with tension pouring out of every pore, who has chosen taciturn aggression as a defensive alternative to actually having to speak. Firth’s observance of mechanics of stammering is spot on (I wonder if he consulted Jacobi, who has had more than his own experience acting a stammer!), but above all he captures the deep pain, frustration and fear it can bring to a person. Firth’s King is a man who has lived a life feeling coldly shunned by most of his family – an upbringing he is clearly working hard to correct with his sweetly loving relationship with his own children. He’s bitter and angry – not only struggling to understand and express these emotions, but allowing them to crowd out his natural warmth, kindness and generosity which emerge as he opens up to Logue, and experiences genuine friendship for the first time.

Firth sparks beautifully with Geoffrey Rush who is at his playful and eccentric best as Logue. A warm, witty and caring man with a sharp antipodean wit and playful lack of regard for authority (the film mines a lot of fun from Logue’s playful teasing of the stuffed shirt nature of monarchy and the British class system), Rush’s performance is excellent. Just as the King has been dismissed by others for his stammer, so Logue has been dismissed as an actor for his Aussie accent and is scorned by his colleagues for his unconventional methods and lack of qualifications. But, by simply listening to a man who has been lectured to his whole life, who is frightened of himself and his situations, he helps him find a voice (in, of course more ways than one). Rush’s performance is essential to the success of the film, both as the audience surrogate and also a character with his own burdens to overcome.

Backing these two is a superbly judged performance of emotional honesty, matched with that take-no-prisoners bluntness we grew to know in the Queen Mother, from Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Pearce offers a neat cameo as a bullyingly selfish Edward VIII. Jacobi is overbearingly pompous as the face of the establishment. Jennifer Ehle is wonderfully playful as Logue’s put-upon wife. Andrews contributes a neat little turn as Stanley Baldwin.

Historically the film telescopes events for dramatic purposes. In fact, the future King’s therapy had started almost a decade earlier. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill – a rather cliched performance – is converted here into an early supporter of George VI during the abdication crisis (in fact Churchill’s outspoken support for Edward VIII nearly destroyed his career). Baldwin has been partly combined with Chamberlain. Other events are simplified. But it doesn’t really matter too much. Because the emotional heart of the story is true – and the relationship between these two men, and the positive impact they had on each other’s life is what make the film so moving.

Culminating in a near real-time reconstruction of the King’s speech announcing the outbreak of the Second World War – a brilliantly handled, marvellously edited and shot sequence with masterful performances from Firth and Rush – the film is an emotional triumph. Sure, it hardly re-events the wheel, with its struggle to overcome adversity story line and tale of royalty bonding with commoner – but it hardly matters when the rewards are as rich as this. With superb performances all round, in particular from Firth, Rush and Carter and sharp direction of a very good script, this is a treat.

Contagion (2011)

Laurence Fishburne leads the drive to fight a pandemic in Soderbergh’s outbreak thriller Contagion

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Marion Cotillard (Dr Leonara Orantes), Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr Ellis Cheever), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Kate Winslet (Dr Erin Mears), Jennifer Ehle (Dr Ally Hextall), Elliott Gould (Dr Ian Sussman), Chin Han (Sun Feng), Bryan Cranston (Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty), John Hawkes (Roger), Enrico Colantoni (Dennis French)

It’s a fear that has gripped the world several times this century: the pandemic that will wipe us all out. It’s the theme of Steven Soderbergh’s impressively mounted epidemic drama, which mixes in an astute commentary on how the modern world is likely to respond to an event that could herald the end of times.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a businesswoman flying back to Minneapolis from Hong Kong (with a stopover in Chicago for a bit of rumpy-pumpy with an ex-boyfriend) who becomes Patient Zero for an outbreak of a virulent strain of swine and bat flu that proves near fatal for the immune system. While her stunned husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is immune, most of the population aren’t. Across the world, health organisations swing to action – from Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) at the CDC, to Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) running things on the ground in Minneapolis to Dr Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard) investigating for the WHO in Switzerland and Hong Kong. As populations panic, conspiracy-theorist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) sees this as an opportunity for personal promotion and enrichment.

Soderbergh’s clinical filming approach makes for a chillingly realistic piece of cinema realitie, possibly one of the director’s finest films in his oddly-uneven career. Soderbergh presents events as they are, laying out the film like a giant Pandemic board. Captions regularly tell us what day we are on from initial outbreak, as well as the populations of the various cities the plot lands us in. The film is shot with a documentary lack of fussiness, and largely avoids either sensationalism or the sort of Hollywood virus clichés of films like Outbreak. It also succeeds in largely avoiding heroes or villains (even the usual baddies for this sort of film, Big Phama companies, are shown as part of a potential solution not the problem) – even the outbreak is largely an act of chance, prompted by mankind’s actions, but there is no reveal that shady suits or military types are behind it all.

Watching the film today in the light of Brexit and Trump it actually appears strikingly profound and prescient in its depiction of the knee-jerk paranoia and wilful blindness of internet and media pundits who believe every opinion is equal and valid regardless of expertise. Alan Krumwiede (a slightly pantomime performance from Jude Law, complete with bad hair, bad teeth and an Aussie accent perhaps intended to echo Julian Assange) all but denounces the views of experts as “fake news”, claims his opinions on the causes and treatment of the disease are as valid as the expert professionals (all but saying “I think we have had enough of so-called experts”), uses his unique hit count as evidence for the validity of his (bogus) conspiracy theories and makes a fortune peddling a snake-oil natural cure which he claims saved his life (and leads to millions of people ignoring the proper precautions and treatments recommended by the WHO and CDC). 

Soderbergh shows that this sort of crap is as much a dangerous pandemic as the disease itself, encouraging an atmosphere of fear and hostility. At the time it just seemed a bit snide to say “a blog is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation”, but today, as websites spout up presenting all sorts of horseshit as legitimate fact, this film looks more and more ahead of the curve in its analysis of a public disillusioned and untrusting of authorities can turn their attention and trust to a venal liar who claims to be a tribune of the people, but is interested only in lining his own pocket. 

But then that’s one of this film’s interesting psychological points. If there is an antagonist in this film, it’s human nature itself. The “wisdom of crowds” is continuously a dangerous thing, as areas devolve into rioting and looting. The bureaucracy of local and international governments causes as many problems as the disease: even as bodies pile up in Minneapolis, Kate Winslet’s on-site CDC crisis manager must bat away furious lackeys of the State Governor, demanding to know if the federal government will cover the extra medical precautions. Announcements of public danger are pushed back until after Thanksgiving, so as not to have a negative impact on the holiday. The decent Dr Cheever, who unwisely leaks news of a lockdown of Chicago to his fiancée, is thrown to the dogs by the government who need some sort of scapegoat they can blame the whole mess on.

If our enemies are red tape and the selfish rumour-mongering of the unqualified and the self-important, acts of heroism here are generally rogue moments of rule-benders. A scientist at a private pharmaceutical company continues his work after being ordered to destroy his samples (and then shares his crucial findings about the disease with the world, free of charge). CDC scientist Ally Hextall tests a crucial antibody on herself because there simply isn’t time to go through the lengthy trials needed (needless to say Krumwiede uses this as further evidence that the outbreak is a government stitch-up). 

Alongside all this, Soderbergh’s detailed direction and editing chillingly chart the spread of the disease. Having explained carefully how it can be spread by touch, the camera details every move of infected people, carefully lingering for half a second on every touched item, with the implication clear that everyone else who will touch these objects soon (such as door handles) will themselves become infected. The film pulls no punches in showing the grim effects of the disease (poor Gwyneth Paltrow!) and the resulting chaos as the pandemic progresses, with social structure breaking down, chaos only held in check by mobilising army forces and imposing curfews and a national lottery for cure distribution, with areas off-limits for those not carrying a wristband barcode identifying them as inoculated.

Soderbergh assembles a fine cast for this drama, helping to put human faces to characters who often have to spout reams of scientific and medicinal dialogue. Fishburne is particularly good as a noble and reasonable head of the CDC, who succumbs only once to putting his loved ones first. Matt Damon is the face of “regular joes” as a father going to any lengths to protect his last surviving child. As one reviewer said the “undercard” of the cast is particularly strong, with Jennifer Ehle perhaps the outstanding performer as the eccentrically driven CDC research scientist. Cranston, Gould, Han, Hawkes and Colantoni are also equally fine.

Soderbergh’s film was a bit overlooked at the time, but rewatching it again, the more I think it might be strikingly intelligent analysis of our modern world, ahead of its time in understanding how new media and human nature can interact with government and society, and how this can lead to a spiralling in times of crisis. One of his best.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2017)

Re-education classes turn out to be not for the good in The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Dir: Desiree Akhavan

Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz (Cameron Post), John Gallagher Jnr (Reverend Rick), Jennifer Ehle (Dr Lydia March), Sasha Lane (Jane Fonda), Forrest Goodluck (Adam Red Eagle), Marin Ireland (Bethany), Owen Campbell (Mark), Kerry Butler (Ruth Post), Emily Skeggs (Erin), Quinn Shepherd (Coley Taylor)

In 1993 teenager Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is dispatched to a church-run sexual re-education camp after she is found to be in a same-sex relationship with a classmate. At the camp, her quietly cynical attitude quickly finds her aligned with the sceptical students Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) as they push up against the regime installed by Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). How dangerous is the world of sexual re-education for its students?

Not surprisingly, the answer is very. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a rather self-consciously indie film that sets up easy targets and then happily spends 90 minutes knocking them down. It’s often made with sensitivity, and has an excellent performance from Chloë Grace Moretz as its lead, a character you really root for, but this is a fairly empty viewing experience.

The film does get a lot of material out of the awful, cringing re-education programmes. It lands some blows against the hypocritical nature of the organisation, with at least one of the teachers (John Gallagher Jnr’s earnest Rick) also barely suppressing his homosexuality – and it re-enforces the cruelty of forcing people into becoming something they are not. But this is hardly news to any right-thinking person, and it doesn’t always make for good drama.

This is partly because Cameron herself never feels isolated in this re-education camp. She almost immediately falls in with like-minded rebel friends, and several of the other students are openly struggling with doubts. While the film perhaps wants to show that this sort of social engineering is never going to work, it does mean that our heroine never really feels at a disadvantage. You can’t help but feel a more effective film would isolate Cameron among people professing they are true believers (even if it turns out later they’ve been pretending), and show her struggling against conformity and clinging to her individuality. Instead, there seems no threat or any danger at all that she will ever drink the Kool Aid here at this camp – not for one second do you feel any chance that she is going to conform.

It makes for a major weakness for the film. It also makes Jane and Adam rather boring characters. They don’t challenge Cameron’s viewpoint at all, but merely echo her inner views with an added spice of rebellion. It makes for uninteresting scene constructions, and it’s not helped by the lack of chemistry between the three characters. By contrast, her relationship with roommate Erin, who is desperate to overcome her sexuality, makes for a far more interesting dynamic. Two characters with very different inner struggles, trying to find a common ground but frequently failing. Emily Skeggs is also heartbreaking as Erin, a young woman deeply unhappy and seemingly destined to remain so.

But there isn’t enough of this sort of thing. Nor is the viewer really challenged to consider the viewpoints of those running the camps. Jennifer Ehle, as the doctor running the camp, is a domineering Nurse Ratched figure, in a role which needed more shades of grey. She’s never a woman honestly doing what she believes is best, just a bully enjoying the power. John Gallagher Jnr’s conflicted worker doesn’t come into focus as a fully rounded human being, and his torment is touched on but his reasons for the decisions he has made are never explored.

It all contributes to a disappointing viewing experience. The film is too often shot with a self-conscious indie coolness, which gets on your nerves after a time, with its constant moody fall backs and gloomy set-ups. But it’s also a film that is taking a bit too much delight in making rather obvious and safe points over and over again, and failing to invest itself with enough drama to make for a compelling story. It’s a disappointment.

Wilde (1997)

Jude Law and Stephen Fry in a disastrous love affair in sensitive biopic Wilde

Director: Brian Gilbert

Cast: Stephen Fry (Oscar Wilde), Jude Law (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas), Jennifer Ehle (Constance Lloyd Wilde), Vanessa Redgrave (Jane Francesca Agnes “Speranza” Wilde), Gemma Jones (Sibyl Douglas), Judy Parfitt (Lady Mount-Temple), Michael Sheen (Robbie Ross), Zoë Wanamaker (Ada Leverson), Tom Wilkinson (Marquess of Queensbury), Ioan Gruffudd (John Gray)

Could there be a more perfect piece of casting than Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde? Not only is Fry the spitting image of the famed Irishman, but Fry’s own mercurial talent, his enormous outpouring of novels, articles and screenplays, his skill as a raconteur and his general ubiquitous presence as a personality make him a pretty good modern equivalent of Oscar Wilde. A lifelong admirer of Wilde – and an increasingly vocal proponent of gay rights and mental health awareness – Wilde’s life plugs into many of Fry’s own outlooks on the world. So yeah, perfect casting!

Opening in 1882 with Wilde’s tour of America (he effortlessly charms a group of clichéd “yee-haw!” silver miners – who literally fire their guns into the air in delight at his bon-mots in the film’s crudest touch), the film covers Wilde’s growing career, but focuses on his personal relationships. Unaware of his homosexuality, he marries Constance (Jennifer Ehle), but discovers his true nature with her friend Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen). However, this leads to his destructive, obsessive love for alternately petulant and caring Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), his beloved “Bosie”. When he is accused publically of sodomy by Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury (a raging Tom Wilkinson, chewing the scenery), Wilde takes the matter to court – a disastrous decision that destroys his life.

Brian Gilbert’s film is a sensitive and lovingly crafted slice of period drama, that movingly demonstrates the hypocrisy of Victorian values. Wilde is celebrated by the public, despite the open secret of his and Bosie’s relationship, while rent boys (including a one-line appearance from Orlando Bloom!) and discrete gay relationships are common place. Wilde is a gentle, naïve man for whom emotional closeness is more important than physical love. He charms a society only too aware of his nature. However, the instant he causes a stink, his reputation is ruined and his life collapses. What the film does so well is give us a sense of the inner vulnerability, doubt and desire for affection at the heart of a man who, perhaps more than any other, lived his life as a public exhibition.

Halliwell’s Film Guide claimed the film attempted to reposition Wilde as a family man, a grossly unfair view of the film’s stance. As if a man who discovers he is gay could not love his children, or that he could no longer care for his wife. Similarly, accusations that the film shows Wilde’s homosexuality as the roots of his downfall are similarly misguided – Robbie Ross is unaffected by legal troubles and he’s openly gay. No, the film is making a far more conventional (in a way) point – Wilde was brought low because he fell hopelessly in love with the wrong guy.

Jude Law’s big break was in this film – and watching it again is a reminder of what a firebrand, dynamic actor he can be. He makes Bosie half monster, half emotionally vulnerable child. He alternates (sometimes within the same scene) between affection, devotion, kindness and wildly petulant rage. He’s overwhelmingly selfish and self-obsessed – even as Wilde’s life collapses, he can only whine that he is furious his father is winning – but then remorseful and guilt-stricken when the consequences of his actions become clear (but not enough to not do it again). Law juggles all these contradictions with astonishing skill – it’s an assured, magnetic performance of brilliance. We can see why Wilde adores him, while at the same time wanting to wring his neck.

It’s also clear why all the other characters around Wilde find him so appalling. Ross (and Sheen is similarly superb as Wilde’s tragically “friend-zoned” devoted admirer) can’t bear the appalling influence Bosie has, but knows he’s powerless to do anything about it. In one great scene, Bosie haughtily says he knows Ross always hated him, before cruelly saying it’s because Wilde loved Bosie, but Ross was only “one of his boys” – the look of pain on Sheen’s face is brilliantly moving. Wilde himself seems almost sadly (if inevitably) drawn into Bosie’s tastes for casual sex and rough trade – often playing voyeur at these events, while sadly accepting Bosie doesn’t find him physically attractive. Wilde’s basically the victim of an abusive relationship – and the film does a brilliant job of demonstrating why a man otherwise so blessed with intelligence can’t see it.

Julian Mitchell’s excellent screenplay (based on Richard Ellman’s award-winning biography) uses Wilde’s The Selfish Giant as a framing device – subtly comparing Wilde and Bosie respectively to the giant and the child. It also brilliantly constructs a sense of Wilde’s quick wit and staggering intelligence, and provides a host of sparkling cameos for some fine character actors. The production design and photography are spot-on, and while Gilbert may be slightly workmanlike in his filming, he certainly lets the story tell itself.

The focus on Wilde’s family life is also reassuringly different – it’s brilliant to see Wilde’s obvious adoration for his children, and plenty of indication that he was actually (much of the time) a very good husband and father. Mitchell’s script softens Constance’s reaction to Wilde’s conviction (she wasn’t as forgiving and forward-thinking in her views as she seems to be here) but it does mean that we are allowed to see the full story of Wilde’s life, rather than having him defined by his sexuality. Jennifer Ehle also does a marvellous job with very little material, and her quiet dignity and support for her husband (despite her anger at his obsession with Bosie) is very affecting.

But at the centre of all this is that perfect casting of Stephen Fry. In all the rest of his career, Fry will never be better than he is here. His Wilde is intellectual, mildly arrogant, but also naïve, gentle and almost unworldly. His voice is perfect for the aphorisms, and he is really striking physically. Above all though, he brings a deep, emotional empathy to the part – you feel how personal this is for Fry the actor, and you feel how closely he identifies with a man who discovered his sexuality late. His besotted, blind love for Bosie is as affecting as it is frustrating. His vulnerability in Reading gaol is deeply moving. It’s a quite marvellous performance, anchoring a movie that is gentle, kindly, caring and sensitive in exploring the inner life of a very public man.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan struggle with their obvious discomfort in this ghastly, hellish, joyless film

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Cast: Dakota Johnson (Anastasia Steele), Jamie Dornan (Christian Grey), Eloise Mumford (Kate Kavanagh), Jennifer Ehle (Carla Wilks), Marcia Gay Harden (Dr. Grace Trevelyan-Grey)

For some reason, about ten years ago everyone got wildly turned on by reading a series of books ripped off from Twilight, which followed the adventures of a timid student and her induction into the world of sexual spanking by a controlling billionaire. It was like tepid porn you could read in the open and talk about in the office. The entire genre of “mom porn” (now to be spotted in every supermarket book section) was born.

Anyway, it came at last (so to speak): the film of the book. With it came EL James’ atrocious dialogue (full disclosure here: I’ve not read the book, but I looked up some quotes and read the synopsis on Wikipedia, so I reckon that’s probably better than reading it), paper thin characters and event-less action. Along, of course, with the sex. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a young student who encounters Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a mysterious billionaire. He likes spanking. She’s never done anything down there (“You’re a virgin”, “yes”, “but you’ve done other stuff?” “no” “oh my god” – goes one classic exchange between the two). Bless, she doesn’t even know what a butt-plug is. I guess she will find out.

I’ll be blunt. This is possibly one of the worst, most offensive, horrible films I’ve ever seen. I’m actually rather angry I watched it. Nearly everything about it stinks: the acting and film-making craft are as vile, tasteless and revolting as the ideas behind it. First and foremost, Jamie Dornan honestly looks like he vomited with shame after completing every scene. Dakota Johnson does a reasonable job with a character who is as well-developed as the stains on Grey’s bedding, but since she is merely required to look alternately sad, timid or (god help us) “aroused” (expressions which bear a distinct resemblance to each other, mostly involving biting her lip and opening her eyes really wide beneath her “frumpy geek girl” fringe), she hardly needed to be much more than competent to bring this sad excuse for a protagonist to life. Ehle and Harden hopefully picked up big paycheques for selling their talents to this dreck.

As a relationship film, this is awful. Imagine Pretty Woman, but if Richard Gere could only get it up by smacking Julia Roberts in the mouth. It’s that charming. Factor in if their sex scenes had been shot with all the creativity of high-end porn, with the actors unconvincingly panting and sighing throughout and you get an idea of how sexy this film is.

The original author of the novels, EL James, had unprecedented creative control, and the tension between her demands for the film and the film-makers’ ideas is evident throughout. The film is a real hotch-potch: James had rejected one script by Patrick Marber (of Closer fame) for deviating too strongly from the book. That script presumably attracted Taylor-Johnson’s involvement as director – she wanted, it seemed, to make a serious relationship drama. EL James wanted an illustrated edition of her book. While I respect James’ insistence to get what she wrote on screen, I would also say she’s not a film-maker, and has no idea about what works on screen. What ends up here is a compromised mess – about half a Taylor-Johnson/Marber style “serious exploration of an unsuitable relationship” film, half James’ soft-porn spankathon shit.

The sex is one of the main problems with this film – there is nothing remotely enjoyable, titillating or even amusing about the joyless couplings in this film. Jamie Dornan looks like he’d rather be literally anywhere else during the sequences, a constant expression of embarrassment behind his eyes. The poor guy looks like he’s desperate to take Anastasia home to meet his mother. Both the sex and the spanking in this film are pretty tame, but he sets about both with a grim eyed determination, as if he was already thinking of getting back to his trailer and phoning his real life wife and kids. In fact, the film would make a perfect cold bath – I simply can’t imagine ever wanting to have sex again watching this film, let alone indulge in any of the “erotic” games it features, which it manages to make look as enticing as root canal.

The big thing missing from this film is any fun whatsoever. A large slice of the blame for this must go to Taylor-Johnson. I suspect she wanted to make a film that was a serious examination of relationships, and the unexpected dangers desire can lead us into. However, she was pushing against the source material (and the all-powerful author), and her efforts were always going to be doomed. This is taken from a book that is, to put it bluntly, a piece of sub-Cinderellesque shit with extra spanking. What it really needed was not an artistic approach, but more of the camp “I know this is rubbish, just enjoy it” direction – in other words, it needed an efficient (even knowing) hack director, not an artist at the helm.

By trying to look at the dynamics of power relationships in a serious way at least part of the time, Taylor-Johnson (assisted by Dornan’s fantastically awkward performance) manages to highlight what a humourless, manipulative, controlling wanker Christian Grey is. By any objective measures, he is clearly a controlling and abusive boyfriend. Filmed entirely seriously, with moody music in the background half the time and none of book-Anastasia’s laughably cheesy descriptions of the latest antics of her “inner goddess” (usually to be found dancing the hula or turning cartwheels), this film throws into sharp relief what is actually happening in this story: an experienced, controlling man finds a naïve, inexperienced younger woman and coerces her into servicing his desires. The “negotiation” talk is one of the most uncomfortable examples of this: “we can negotiate” says the man who holds all the cards, to the girl who doesn’t even know what she can or should ask for. 

Throw in the fact that he is multi-billionaire who gets his rocks off by fucking his girlfriends the same way he (presumably) fucks his business rivals, only makes him seem even more of an unredeemable asshole. His ostentatious gifts of new cars, his controlling forbidding of Anastasia to drink on her nights out with friends, his insistence on coming to remove her from one of these nights out when she’s only met him twice and has not asked for his help or his presence, his demand for her to sign a contract, his following her to her parents’, his not taking no for an answer…  Need I go on? The more the film focuses on these darker sides of the relationship, the more you look at Grey less as a messed up Prince Charming, and more like an abusive predator. 

Grey is also clearly purchasing his new part-time live-in mistress like a piece of meat, and he treats her like a piece of property throughout. Tragically (and I’m not sure the film realises this) Anastasia is so sweet and vulnerable she seems to think that she just has to accept all this spanking and rope game malarkey as just part and parcel of having a boyfriend (“Do we still get to go to the theatre” she rather sadly asks when enquiring into the new rules of their relationship). I don’t get overwhelmed with sympathy with her though: every hesitancy is overcome by a new extravagant display of Grey’s wealth. The film does build towards her walking away – but she hardly does this with any decisiveness. Despite the film’s best efforts, she in no way comes across as an equal partner or a strong character. 

So the film’s serious tone is a major problem in that sense. It’s also a major problem as Taylor-Johnson just ends up turning this into a totally dull, lifeless film. Almost nothing happens in this film. Trivial events and dull conversations are interrupted occasionally by the actors rutting with all the passion of two people eating a microwave meal. The film’s sex scenes are, incidentally, totally unbalanced: throughout his session in the red room, we see endless shots of Johnson’s assets but Dornan politely keeps his jeans on almost throughout. The camera’s perfunctory, joyless efforts to capture Johnson’s nipples in every scene it can (never miss a chance to edge them in at the corner of a shot!) just builds this feeling of no-one enjoying their work, but shovelling onto the screen what the readers might want so they can all go home.

The only way this fucking piece of garbage could ever have really worked on the screen is if someone had basically accepted it for what it was: a steaming pile of manure written to titillate those scared of searching the Internet for real porn. If it had been treated like the ghastly, campy piece of crap it was, then the film itself could have been the ultimate “bad” film. But Taylor-Johnson’s attempt to create a serious relationship drama crashes up against EL James’ dire, pig-eared prose and depthless characters, and instead creates a film both tedious in the extreme and offensive. 

Honestly, not even as a camp watch will this work – it is dull, horrible and awful. It thinks it’s a dark Cinderella tale. It’s just a dark story about a horrible man. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

The Ides of March (2011)

George Clooney is a Presidential candidate with feet of clay in this bitter indictment of American politics

Director: George Clooney

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Stephen Meyers), George Clooney (Governor Mike Morris), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), Jeffrey Wright (Senator Franklin Thompson), Jennifer Ehle (Cindy Morris), Gregory Itzin (Jack Stearns), Max Minghella (Ben Harpen)

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an ambitious young political advisor on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). However, scandal bubbles under the surface of the campaign and Meyers finds himself a pawn in the power struggles between his boss Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the rival campaign manager Tom (Paul GIamatti), as well as increasingly drawn to a young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) with a secret.

Like some of the work of the current crop of actor-directors (Clooney and Affleck being the prime examples) this feels like a thematic remake of classic (better) films from the 1970s, in this case Robert Redford’s classic The Candidate. Like that film, this one explores a politician whose dynamism, photogenic appeal and liberalism hide feet of clay. The film takes a supremely cynical view of modern politics, presenting a world where even idealists will (when push comes to shove) do anything to assure their position because they believe that only they can deliver the change the country needs. As Rich Hall said in the build-up to the most recent election, it takes a special kind of ego to say “I’ve looked at this countries problems and what you need to solve them is me”.

To get this idea across a bit more, it probably would have helped to get more sense of what Morris (and his rival Pullman) stands for. The film tries to get round this with the shorthand of casting Clooney as Morris: we all know Gorgeous George is a Good Thing (although I’d also add that Clooney’s smoothly groomed, almost too-perfect good looks give him plausibility as a character drenched in hypocrisy behind his charismatic smirk). Instead we have to take it for granted, from his appearance and few phrases about green politics and job creation, that Morris is a Kennedy-like force for change. The film rather weights the decks by presenting no-one in this political game as being truly idealistic or in it for any other reason than personal gain or the thrill of the game – even Morris, a force for the film argues good, is shown to be totally hypocritical and devoid of personal empathy, believing that any means are justified by the end.

Gosling’s Stephen Meyers is the heart of the film, and it’s his growing corruption the film charts. Meyers starts as a slightly uneasy mix of professional politician, cynical about the media and the public, and idealist eager to change the country for the better. Gosling’s performance is the embodiment of the struggle between these good and bad angels, and Gosling has the right balance of naivety and ruthless careerism in his looks to capture this. Having seen this film once before, I actually found it more rewarding this time: Meyers is a cynic who wants to be an idealist.

Slightly less clear, however, is Evan Rachel Wood’s role as an intern. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say her role is largely a tragic one – but the film never quite shapes her as a real person. She’s a model of the intelligent, sexy young woman, more of a collection of beats than a real person (however winningly Wood plays her). Her eventual tragedy is something that happens rather than something that feels like it happens to her – and the story is about the effect this has on the male characters around her rather than what it might have meant for her. She’s a well designed plot device rather than a person.

The film does have an interesting stance on politics – even if it already feels outdated in our new Trumpian, post-truth days. Hoffman and Giamatti do good work as contrasting political fixers at opposite ends of the idealist and cynic spectrum. The vision of politics has something designed to support news cycles rather than to serve the people feels like it has more than some truth behind it. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s well made and has some brains behind it. And it does actually grow better on a second viewing.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty tries to raise questions and views, but dodges many of them

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), James Gandolfini (CIA Director), Stephen Dillane (National Security Advisor), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Mark Duplass (Steve), John Barrowman (Jeremy), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Chris Pratt (Justin)

Zero Dark Thirty is a deeply troubling film: a journalistic investigation into the hunt for Bin Laden, shot with an action thriller film ethos. It wears its factual accuracy and research with an ostentatious pride on its sleeve, but ducks out of making any judgement on the issues it presents, as if afraid to pollute the events it displays with editorialising. But some events demand discussion and a point of view: as one critic said, you wouldn’t make a film about slavery that focuses on the cotton output. Similarly, a film that drives us towards the killing of the vile Bin Laden should also challenge us more about the methods used to capture him, the extent to which we “became what we hunted”.

And I don’t buy that the film is challenging us to recognise this ourselves. It starts with recordings from the 9/11 flights (a moment which made me feel uneasy to say the least and many family members were also unhappy with), its lead character Maya is caught up in two bombings and an assassination attempt, her best friend (well played by Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a suicide bombing. All of this, along with the film’s omission of any exploration of the terrorists themselves, is encouraging us to look at a particular side of the argument. Cementing this is the end of the film which, despite caveats, has a “mission accomplished” feeling – it may not be flag waving, but it does want us to feel the professionalism of a job well done, reinforced by the tearful release of 12 years of tension from Maya. We are not being encouraged to question the attitudes or assumptions of the characters in front of us; we are being steered towards a particular view of these characters and events. Without an explicit endorsement, but implicit suggestions that ends may well have justified means.

Of course, 9/11 was an abomination – but setting the deck the way the film does means it makes it easier to condone the terrible things that the CIA do in this film to get the results it got. That’s the problem with the film’s “stanceless stance” – its patting itself on the back for not taking sides means it doesn’t acknowledge any depths to its facts, it gives no context. There are many, many issues and motivations, from both sides, behind the events we see here – but we don’t learn anything about any of them. Instead the film is like a Wikipedia page with brilliant photography and editing: a skilfully presented PPT deck that shows us what happens, but doesn’t feel like it tells us anything about why or how it happened.

Torture is of course the main issue here. The film opens with a gruelling extended torture sequence of almost 25 minutes. The information it yields directly is questionable, but it does eventually lead to a crucial name, which is backed up later by Maya watching videos of others undergoing “extreme interrogation” and saying the same name. Now, torture in something like 24 feels different: there at least (a) the whole world was a cartoon, (b) the danger was immediate (“a nuclear bomb will go off in thirty minutes dammit!”) and (c) there was a sense of conflict in its perpetrators. Neither is the case here.

That’s not a defence of 24, but here it’s full on psychological and physical assault over a sustained period of time with no identified imminent threat and no real sense that the torturers feel they are doing anything wrong (I guess the film is suggesting they have become deadened to it, but still would it hurt to say something along those lines?). And it actually happened, and not just to bombers and terrorist kingpins, but (in this film) to couriers and bankers. Surely that demands some sort of acknowledgement in the film that it was wrong? Instead the film fudges this and the torture of suspects is shown to contribute in some way to the successful delivery of Bin Laden; there is no real questioning of whether the value of the information it directly obtained justified its use.

Part of the problem of the film is that it was originally commissioned as a film about the hunt for Bin Laden – the US actually finding him rather screwed up the narrative. There are elements of that original film in there: a hunt for a chimera, an obsession with one man that blinds us all to the bigger picture: “You’re chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network grows all around you” Kyle Chandler’s character cries out with frustration at one point. Maya (and the film) slaps him down – it never questions whether Bin Laden was worth the focus and expense. But it hints at the repurposed nature of the film, which would have had to tackle this question head on before Bin Laden was found. Was this the best use of their efforts? Was there a benefit to the war on terror outside of the satisfaction of punishing Bin Laden? How in control was Bin Laden of the jihad by then?

It feels to me that this film is two films uneasily mixed together. One film wants to explore the nature of obsession, and wants to question if it’s worth catching one man at the cost of diverting attention from hundreds of others. The other film is a triumphant story of patience and dedication rewarded. You can’t help but feel that a film released prior to Bin Laden’s killing might have been a more interesting and profound piece of work, which could have looked at the nature and cost of obsession. Instead, history itself pushes the film into saying “well it had ups and downs but the ends justified the means eventually”.

None of this doubt about the final film is of course an apology for the appalling crimes of Bin Laden and his followers. And Zero Dark Thirty is, however you cut it, a very well made film and Bigelow is an extremely good director. Jessica Chastain invests a character almost devoid of personality, about whom we learn almost nothing, with an emblematic depth that makes her feel like a profound embodiment of American determination and will, like some sort of morally conflicted female Gary Cooper. The film also does feel like it has something to tell us about an America under siege – although again, by shying away from editorialising, it loses the chance to present a specific commentary on how 9/11 affected the country, and its sudden sense of vulnerability and unease in the world.

It’s a troubling film, a film that seems to be dodging taking a moral stand on areas. It could still have said “some of things that were done were bad but the end result was good”: that would have been fine. But by not making any statement at all, it feels like it’s dodging the issue, not challenging us.