Tag: Jim Broadbent

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indy is back. Hunting aliens. What could go wrong? Grab a fridge and let’s work it out.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Shia LeBeouf (Mutt Williams), Cate Blanchett (Colonel Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Ray Winstone (George “Mac” McHale), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Jim Broadbent (Dean Charles Stanforth)

Flying into ignominy faster than a tumbling fridge, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lists Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as their favourite Indy film. I’ll confess I enjoyed it in an affectionate escapist way when I first saw it. But lord, doesn’t it just get worse after every viewing?

It’s the 1950s and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is still hunting for archaeological gems. Just as he’s still getting into trouble. This time with the Russians. A secret group in America, led by Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is on the hunt for a mysterious artefact – a secret mummified alien corpse. Spalko wants to trace the aliens to find the fountain of all knowledge. Indy is suspected of being a Commie agent – not least after his old ally Mac (Ray Winstone) is revealed as a double agent – but soon finds himself roped into searching for the secret aliens and their buried crystal skulls by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser and school drop-out and son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) (wonder who the father could be?). Soon they are racing to a secret alien tomb in the Amazon.

You can spend ages scooting around what doesn’t work here. But the heart of it might be this: this is a sequel trying to pass as a young man’s film, made by two older directors who had long since fallen out of touch with the passions that filled their lives 30 years earlier. Truth be told, I suspect both Spielberg and Lucas always saw Indiana Jones as a fun diversion from other passions and never really cared about it the way generations that grew up quoting it did. Perhaps that was the biggest disappointment of all about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film that has potential but always feels like it’s being put together by obligation (and to make money).

Still, the good stuff. Harrison Ford is, of course, still Indy and there is a great deal of pleasure in seeing him inhabit this gruff mix of brains, fists and reluctant, cynical decency. The film also does a good spin on the father-son relation of Last Crusade by casting Indy as the exasperated father who finds a bond with his wild-card son (well played by Shia LaBeouf). The two have a lovely run of banter, and some neat comedy – not least a great little moment in a bar where Mutt steals a drink from a waitress’ tray, only for Indy to smoothly put it back all the same motion.

There is an exciting chase through the streets of New Haven, with Indy and Mutt on a bike escaping the Russians, including a great sight gag of Indy being pulled into a chasing car passenger window, fighting through the car and emerging the other side back onto Mutt’s bike. The opening extended fight and chase sequence (before we hit that fridge) in an Area-51 storage site is equally well done, fast paced, witty and crammed with tonnes of Spielberg flourishes. Cate Blanchett is intriguingly off-the-wall as the villain. The film even leans into Ford’s age as Indy swings over a gap and misses (“Damn I thought that was closer”) and gives Indy much of his Dad’s grouchiness.

But too much doesn’t work. And all those beats that fall on their face eventually bury the moments that do work. For starters, the original films felt real. They are shot with a grainy realism and featured practical effects. Spielberg stressed in the build-up he wanted to keep that look. So naturally the first thing we see in the film is a CGI gopher. The film is shot with a glossy, lens-smeared shininess. After a while loads of stuff looks unreal. From the fake CGI sky in the opening scene to the hideously unreal looking jungle chase, culminating in the bizarre sight of Mutt swinging, Tarzan-like, leading an army of monkeys. Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like Lucas and Spielberg mistook making things bigger, glitzy and more exotic for making them better. Truth is nothing in this film is as exciting as Indy climbing over a real van in Raiders or riding a real horse alongside a real tank in Last Crusade. These are real and gripping. Everything here looks like it’s been built in a computer, nothing feels real or possible, and everything is bigger and heartless.

That heartlessness carries into the plot. The earlier films had clear and emotionally engaging stakes. Indy had to save his soul (Raiders and Doom), a village of children (Doom) and his relationship with his father (Last Crusade) while chasing clearly defined artifacts. Here he’s sort of incidentally building a father-son relationship with a kid he doesn’t realise is his son until over halfway through and heading into the Amazon to return a glass skull because it told him to do it. These are not well-defined stakes. That’s before we even touch on the aliens.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but where artefacts based on the Bible or Hindu religion make perfect sense, an alien skull chase that culminates in a parallel dimensions and flying saucers feels silly. It feels as awkwardly out-of-place as midichlorians in Phantom Menace. It makes the film jar as much as those special effects filled set pieces. I know it’s supposed to mirror the 50s setting by playing with the classic 50s B-movie set-up. But it doesn’t fit with the rest of the franchise.

And you are made even more aware of this by how cynically the film has been filled with fan-bait call-backs: the opening sequence in the Grail storage warehouse, the music cues, Karen Allen, a repeat of the father-son set-up (this time flipped), a car chase through a hostile environment, horrible small animals, Commies standing in for Nazis. Killer ants standing in for snakes, horrible insects and rats. Travel and map montages. All this does is remind you of better films.

It’s not helped by how many performances fall flat. Winstone and Hurt both insisted on reading the script before they signed up. Perhaps they also read their pay offers at the same time, because that’s surely the only reason they said yes to these roles. Winstone is painfully unfunny as the ever-betraying Mac whose geezerish cries of “Jonsey!” quickly gets on your nerves. Hurt is saddled with a sort of Ben Gunnish eccentric, babbling nonsense (you won’t believe by the way he and Ford are similar ages). Karen Allen, bar the sweetness of seeing her again, is not great.

The feeling you are watching the runt of the littler is impossible to escape. Indy was a hero people loved because you could see him bleed. When he was punched it hurt. When he fell, he struggled to get back up. The Indy from Raiders would never have been hurled miles in a fridge from a nuclear blast and been absolutely fine. Christ, he was too knackered to stand up after running from that rock. That’s why the fridge moment doesn’t work: no one watching it can believe for a moment that either (a) a fridge would be hurled away like that rather than melt (b) that anyone would be utterly unharmed by it or (c) that its lead lining would save anyone from being irradiated. A mystic box that melts people’s faces when open we can buy because its “power of God” is carefully established with just enough mysterious power. Something grounded in reality like a nuclear blast can’t work. We know what that does – the fridge stretches our willingness to disbelieve too far.

But then you feel Spielberg and Lucas didn’t mind. To them these were fun home movies, a chance to indulge some childish gags. They weren’t invested in it the way we were. They had moved on and I don’t think really either of them wanted to make it. When they did, they showed they didn’t really know what people really liked about the films in the first place. They assumed it was the action. Maybe they thought they needed that with the blockbusters they were going up against. But people loved the heart and the reality. When the fridge was nuked, they knew they won’t going to get that here. That Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have none of what made us fall in love in the first place. It was an adventure we wouldn’t want to follow Indy on ever again.

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

Michael Bond’s lovable bear makes an almost perfect screen-transition in this heart-warming tale

Director: Paul King

Cast: Ben Whishaw (Paddington Bear), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Brown), Sally Hawkins (Mary Brown), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Julie Walters (Mrs Bird), Nicole Kidman (Millicent Clyde), Peter Capaldi (Mr Curry), Jim Broadbent (Samuel Gruber), Imelda Staunton (Aunt Lucy), Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo), Tim Downie (Montgomery Clyde)

If there is one thing we need in troubled times, it’s kindness. Few characters are as overflowing with warmth and decency as Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. First introduced in 1958, the lovable marmalade-consuming little bear all the way from darkest Peru is never anything less than kind and decent – even as the well-meaning bear gets himself into a string of catastrophes.

Paddington is one of the most universally beloved figures from post-War British culture – surely no surprise he was the perfect tea-party guest for that other beloved icon of the same period, the Queen. The pressure was on for a Paddington film – could it match the tone of the books? The answer was an over-whelming yes. Paddington is an endlessly heart-warming triumph, which it is impossible to watch without a warm glow building inside you, and a goofy smile on your face.

Explorer (Tim Downie) discovers a species of intelligent, marmalade-loving bears in darkest Peru. Forty years later, after a terrible earthquake, a young bear travels to find a new home in London. He meets the Brown family – overly cautious father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), caring Mary (Sally Hawkins) and their children Judy (Madeline Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) – who take him into their home and name him Paddington after the train station where they found him (his bear name being unpronounceable). Paddington (Ben Whishaw) works hard to settle in with his new hosts – but danger looms from an ambitious Natural History Museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who longs to make Paddington the centrepiece of her collection.

Directed with a great deal of unobtrusive flair by Paul King, Paddington is a truly endearing film about the triumph of opening your heart to strangers. The Brown family don’t realise it, but they are in need of a burst of kindness in their lives to help bring them together. They get it in spades with Paddington. The film captures perfectly the little bear’s personality. This is Paddington exactly as you remember him: polite, decent, kind and hilariously accident-prone. King’s film also gets the tone exactly right – there are no pop-culture references or rude gags (although there are a few subtle double-entendres of a sort) and the film is set in a timeless mix of 1950s London and today.

The film’s CGI Paddington is gorgeously designed – a wonderful rendering of the bear’s appearance tailored with more realistic fur, but still the same as the book– and perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw was a late replacement – Colin Firth voluntarily withdrew, as he felt his voice was ill-matched to this naïve, gentle young bear – but his light and gentle tones convey all the warmth you need. It’s a superb performance, humane, kind and deeply funny, and so well suited you suddenly realise in your head Paddington always sounded like this.

King creates a series of gorgeously handled set-pieces to showcase Paddington’s possibilities for well-intentioned mayhem. On his first night in the Brown household, he duels with toothbrushes, mouthwash, toilet flushes and showers, culminating in flooding their bathroom with a swimming pool’s worth of water. He gets mummified in sellotape, slips up in the kitchen and causes several marmalade-sandwich involved disasters (most hilariously a marmalade baguette-pneumatic tube mix-up). But he always means well: a caper-filled set-piece through the London streets sees Paddington finally collide with a man he’s trying to return a dropped wallet too – allowing someone we’ve known all along to be a pickpocket to be apprehended by the police.

The Brown family’s home – already a beautifully designed dolls-house made real, with a tree blossom mural that changes to reflect the mood of the scene – comes to life with Paddington in it. (Watch how the colours of their clothing change depending on how much Paddington is part of the family or not). Mary (a wonderfully warm Sally Hawkins) is already eager for him to stay. Judy and Jonathan (superbly sparky performances from Madeline Harris and Samuel Joslin) are quickly won over by him. It’s only Mr Brown – a performance of perfectly judged fussy, pinickity, rule-bound caution and stuffiness by Hugh Bonneville which flourishes into something warmer – who is unsure. But then this is a man so obsessed with his risk analysis job, he prevents his children from doing anything (34% of all childhood accidents happen on the stairs!) and has forgotten how to have fun.

Watching Mr Brown slowly warm to Paddington is a huge part of the film’s charm and warmth. Who could imagine the man who tries to leave him at the train station (and urge his family not to catch the bear’s eye, muttering “stranger danger”) would later be dressing up as a Scottish cleaning woman to help him infiltrate the Geographer’s Guild building? (This sequence is a little comic physical and verbal tour-de-force Bonneville.) It’s a larger part of the film’s wider – and most rewarding – message: the importance of treating migrants to this country with respect and care.

The pro-migration message is throughout the film – and the film is a fabulous reminder to many of what we have gained from those who have come to this land from across the seas, from NHS staff to political leaders to entertainers. Paddington’s journey to London – in a small boat, then sneaking past customs – is all-too-familiar.  Next door neighbour Mr Curry (a comically ingratiating Peter Capaldi) voices many of the “concerns” of anti-immigrant communities (let one bear in and who knows how many will follow?). Even Mr Brown voices worries about bears telling you sob stories to win your trust. The important message here is the value migrants bring us. A recurring calypso band reminds us of parallels with the Windrush generation. It’s not spoken but Jim Broadbent’s antique shop owner’s accent and memories of arriving on a train in London as a child clearly mark him as a Kindertransport child. Paddington has a subtle and truly important message for people: when we open our arms to people, we gain as much as they from the exchange.

Paddington throws in a few moments of darkness: the shock death of Uncle Patuszo is surprisingly affecting and Nicole Kidman’s taxidermist is possibly the scariest villain you’ll see in a kid’s film this side of the child catcher. But in some ways this enhances the warmth even further. By the film’s end you’ll feel your own life has been enriched by the small bear’s presence as much as the Brown’s has. We need him in times like this.

The Duke (2022)

The Duke (2022)

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

Director: Roger Michell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Year (2010)

Another Year header
Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are either a blissfully happy and kind or rather smug couple in Another Year

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (Tom Hepple), Ruth Sheen (Gerri Hepple), Lesley Manville (Mary Smith), Peter Wight (Ken), Oliver Maltman (Joe Hepple), David Bradley (Ronnie Hepple), Karina Fernandez (Katie), Martin Savage (Carl Hepple), Michele Austin (Tanya), Phil Davis (Jack), Imelda Staunton (Janet)

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a blissfully content middle-class London couple. He’s a successful geologist, she’s an attentive NHS counsellor. They divide their time between work, their allotment and socialising with friends. But many of their friends are disaster zones. Gerri’s work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville) is a divorcee who falls over herself to tell people how happy she is, but is clearly depressed with a drink problem. Similarly, Tom’s old uni friend Ken (Peter Wight) is a lonely alcoholic, seriously overweight and equally depressed.

The fascinating question at the heart of Mike Leigh’s heart-felt and beautiful film is: are Tom and Gerri a sweetly loving couple who go out of their way to support friends – or are they a desperately smug pair, facilitating those around them in self-destructive patterns? It’s hard to say either way: and that’s the beauty of Leigh’s honest, subtle character study which presents a single year in the lives of these characters.

It’s also, of course, superbly acted by the cast – all of them regulars in the work of Leigh. Broadbent and Sheen are brilliant as a couple completely content and happy in themselves and confident that they essentially have life sussed. They are kind, considerate and supportive of everyone. But how much is this genuine and how much is it performative? They fuss and smile to each other around the depressed and fragile Mary – but do nothing to help her change and improve her life, and merrily continue to fill the glasses of both her and the even more alcohol ravaged Ken.

When Tom’s sister-in-law dies, they rush to support his quiet, reserved brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They arrange every detail of the funeral and do everything they can to remove any burden from him. Tom is furious at the selfish and uncaring attitude of Ronnie’s son Carl (a grimly chippy Martin Savage) who seems convinced he is somehow being cheated by them. They bring Ronnie back to stay with them for a few weeks – but frequently leave him alone or allow him to sit watching their own insular conversations. Sure, they give him a home and support, but do they really care or are they going through the motions of people who want to believe they really care?

Wouldn’t a real friend of Ken, tell the obviously over-weight, permanently drunk, desperately self-loathing man that he has serious problems and help him change his life, rather than refill his glass at every opportunity? Or is it a sign of Tom and Gerri’s decency that they don’t see it as their place to tell other people to live their lives? In addition, Tom sticks loyally by Ken in a way very few people would – its clear during a golf game with Ken, Tom, son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and pal Jack (Phil Davis) no-one else wants Ken there – and gives him more warmth and attention than you suspect anyone else ever has. Does it just not occur to him a real friend would help Ken change his life?

Above all, we see the frantic desperation and all-consuming anxiety, fear and neediness of Mary, played with a heartfelt and deeply moving frankness by a never-better Lesley Manville. Mary is a very sweet woman, who has lost her place in the world and clings to the idea – now long since departed from reality – that she is a young glamour puss, rather than a desperate, divorcee in her fifties. Tom and Gerri support Mary, making her a part of their lives. She is a frequent overnight guest in their house, has known Joe since he was little and relies on Gerri utterly for friendship.

But there is also a slight air of judgement with their treatment of Mary. Does having this all-too-obviously tragic case, this failure who is utterly emotionally dependent on them, make them feel better about themselves? What have they done over the years, for all those sympathetic ears and shoulders to cry on, to help Mary deal with the root cause of problems? While they are willing to listen at great length to her (often tedious and repetitive) conversation, they never once really step into help her effect real change.

Events bubble up as the lonely Mary begins to fixate on a fantasy of her forming a relationship with Joe. It’s implied everyone is aware of this, but politely do their best to hope the situation will go away. Manville is of course brilliant in playing the tragically self-deluded hope under this longing for a never-will-be relationship – particularly as she never once looks down on Mary, but plays with a real empathetic warmth, that helps us feel an immense sorrow for this woman, while still acknowledging she can be deeply frustrating.

And Mary perhaps has more warmth, and ability to connect naturally with people, than Tom and Gerri. This is suggested during a wonderful late scene with Ronnie (a brilliantly quiet David Bradley), where in a long conversation she forms more of a bond of him than we’ve seen Tom and Gerri, for all their patience, ever form. It’s impossible not to relate to Mary as she’s so clearly such a vulnerable person, desperate for love and human connection. Seeing her slow-motion collapse across the film is heart-rending. For all her flaws, she’s someone you are desperate to see happy.

Mike Leigh is able to capture all this in his beautifully observant film, perfectly placed, low-key but deeply affecting. There are never obvious beats and he is willing to show the positives as well as the flaws in every character. He never tips the deck either for or against Tom and Gerri, allowing us to judge them by their actions: they could be warm, friendly, open-house people who stick loyally to troubled friends most people would drop immediately; or they could be subconsciously using these tragic cases to feel even more blissfully happy with their own perfect lives. Leigh never tips it either way, and the breathtakingly emotional performances and beautifully played and written scenes mean that, even though the film is short on plot, it feels rich in character and emotion. It ends with a beautiful held long shot on Mary that, like the rest of this film, is deeply moving but also leaves you with more questions than answers. A triumph.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor make a love story for the ages in Luhrmann’s electric Moulin Rouge!

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Monroth), John Leguizamo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinian), Caroline O’Connor (Nini), Kerry Walker (Marie), David Wenham (Audrey)

It’s 20 years old now and I still don’t think there has been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! Believe me it’s not for want of trying. Baz Luhrmann’s hugely inventive, uniquely stylistic musical is cinematic marmite: either loved or reviled (not sure I’ve ever met anyone who had a meh attitude to it). One of the pioneering inventors of the juke-box musical, Moulin Rouge! mixes pop songs with inspiration from opera to Greek myth and comes up with something Spectacular, Spectacular.

It’s the turn of the century, and Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris looking for truth, inspiration and above all: love. Arriving at Montmartre, he and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) fall in love. Satine is the star at Harold Zidler’s (Jim Broadbent) Moulin Rouge and also the star of Zidler’s planned stage show. She has been promised to his wealthy backer the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). With Christian commissioned to write the script, can he and Satine hide their love from the Duke and make sure the Show Goes On? Or will tragedy strike?

Fast paced and electric, Moulin Rouge! could inspire motion sickness, especially in its opening 15 minutes which throw us deep into its unconventional medley of styles, tones and inspirations. Did that first 15 minutes lose a lot of people? You can imagine it as the earliest scenes featuring Christian’s meeting with Toulouse-Lautrec and the other Bohemians are by far its weakest. If your irritation grows at these shrill scenes (crudely over-acted with an overbearing Keaton-ish energy), I can well imagine thousands of viewers checked out in Luhrmann’s music inspired Moulin Rouge can-can musical with its explosion of rap, Nirvana, Lady Marmalade and insanely quick cutting. It’s a statement opening – and throws you straight into its heightened reality. A tone that continues for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Luhrmann leaves nothing in the locker room here. Only a director of such exuberance, playfulness – but also deep skill and understanding of high and low culture – could have balanced it as well as he does. Go with it and you’ll love it. It’s pure operatic entertainment. Luhrmann’s master-stroke is to shoot a period musical in the style of the high-velocity music-video pop that excited people in 2001 – finally you get a sense of why the Moulin Rouge and can-can seemed so exciting and sexy back then. It’s a night-club of 1999, thrown into 1899.

But what makes the film work after that initial explosion of energy – and I’ll agree that the first 15 minutes tries too hard to grab your attention – is that Luhrmann mixes the styles up so effectively. There is everything here, from Busby Berkeley numbers to heartfelt love ballads to dreamy duets to a sexual tango to a classic theatrical set-piece, tinged with a spot of tragedy. Every musical number seems inspired by a different genre and style of musical theatre. And the use of modern pop music is fun, entertaining and mines the emotional connection we all feel for the best pop songs.

It’s an MTV pop musical, mixed with Gene Kelly, lashes of camp, cheeky humour and finally tragedy and suffering. It’s got a million cuts in it, but Luhrmann successfully makes the film darker, slower and more intimate as the film progresses. From the electric dynamism of the opening, this becomes an increasingly personal tragedy revolving around five key characters. It never loses that sense of showmanship – Zidler’s planned production is an overblown Bollywood inspired extravaganza that delights in recreating the joy and brashness of that genre – but the final hour is a more adult, foreboding movie with plenty of heart.

Moulin Rouge! is all about Luhrmann’s gadfly brilliance to discover inspiration from a host of sources, pulling it together into something brilliantly original, from the plot – which is inspired by La Boheme by way of Orpheus and Eurydice – to brilliant montage songs like the Elephant Love Song Medley, which takes snippets from nearly every popular love song you’ve ever heard. Very few films can switch so effortlessly from cheeky, end-of-the-pier humour to gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s energy effectively and brilliantly applied, and that comes from the director (who was, of course, inexplicably not among the films eight Oscar nominations).

Luhrmann also gets the actors to perform with the sort of energetic, fully-committed exuberance the film needs. The principals go at every single scene with no hesitations at all – bless them, none have any concern with appearing silly at all. McGregor reveals a sweetness and earnestness (as well as very strong singing voice) he hadn’t shown before. Kidman was an absolute revelation as a woman hiding doubt, insecurity and fear under an exterior of pure confidence. Broadbent’s comedic brilliance is matched with his dramatic flair. Roxburgh is hilarious, and also vile, as the selfish Duke. Luhrmann recognises their strength – after the first 10 minutes every scene features at least two of these performers.

Things have clearly been cut here and there. Motivations and even characterisations of some of the other members of the Moulin Rouge troupe change from scene-to-scene. Sometimes it tries too hard to be inventive. But it works so often that it hardly matters. And the remixes of the songs for performance are outstanding. The “Like a Virgin” Busby Berkely number is hilarious, the “Roxanne Tango” breath-takingly influential. “The Show Must Go On” is powerfully doom-laden and “Your Song” beautifully romantic. “Come What May” – the only original number – is an iconic ballad.

There’s not been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! – and Luhrmann has never managed to match it again since. Electric, dynamic, exciting, heartfelt, moving and above all extremely joyful, it has some brilliantly judged performances from its lead actors. There hasn’t been anything like it since – and I’m pretty sure we won’t see it’s like again.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent excel as the Gilbert and Sullivan’s in Mike Leigh’s superb Topsy-Turvy

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (WS Gilbert), Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Vincent Franklin (Rutland Barrington), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Shirley Henderson (Leonara Braham), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Louise Gold (Rosina Brandham), Andy Serkis (John D’Auborn), Dexter Fletcher (Louis), Sam Kelly (Richard Barker)

It seems an odd-fit: Mike Leigh, auteur of working class drama, prestige period films and the music of the middle-class in Gilbert and Sullivan. But that’s to forget Gilbert and Sullivan were among the masters of theatre – and Leigh himself is a theatrical great. Topsy-Turvy, from seeing the most uncharacteristic of the director’s works, in fact perhaps an examination of the creative process Leigh has made his life. It’s a wonderfully made, superbly executed tribute to the struggles and rewards of artistic creation. A celebration of how disparate personalities come together to create something bigger than themselves. Affectionate, heartfelt, at times quietly moving, Topsy-Turvy is both one of Leigh’s most enjoyable films and one of his most tender.

It’s 1884 and the creative partnership between WS Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is at a turning point. With their latest, Princess Ida, hardly setting the box-office alight. Sullivan feels the partnership has gone stale – and also feels under pressure to turn his attention towards more ‘serious’ composing. Gilbert refuses to change his next libretto, which Sullivan feels is effectively more of the same. Things change though when Gilbert is intrigued by an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, quickly creating a new libretto: The Mikado. The two geniuses, finally in unison, work together to bring the production to the stage.

Topsy-Turvy is probably Leigh’s most purely entertaining film. For anyone who has ever been involved in theatre or the arts, you’ll certainly recognise more than a few moments in this film, which is practically Leigh’s love letter to the arts. Leigh’s aim was to pay tribute to the difficulties of creativity and the demand of having to constantly refresh and reinvent your work to stay relevant and fulfilled. He succeeded: few films have so beautifully captured the struggle, pain, satisfaction and joy of creation or the strange anti-climax artistic success can bring.

Most of the second half of the film is a fascinating look at every step required to bring a production to life. From casting and contract negotiations, to costume fittings, staging and work in the rehearsal room. We get a fascinating insight into the complex backstage politics and squabbles in this small world. From actors bitching about the management (always incompetent, regardless of the situation) to the delight and playfulness of rehearsals as different opportunities are explored, it’s a wonderfully true insight into the theatre. Matched with the intricate and extraordinary detail of the reconstruction of the original production – and you have an enthralling insight into theatre. It also very appropriate for Leigh, whose organic methods of creating a film through copious rehearsal and improvisation remains very similar to theatre.

Alongside this though, the film has plenty of sympathy for the cost of creative exertion. Many of the actors lead sad and even lonely lives. Shirley Henderson’s Leonara Braham struggles with drink, Martin Savage’s George Grossmith is a drug addict (the company is too polite to mention it, but he’s clearly struggling with withdrawal at the dress rehearsal), Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond has constant pains from an unhealed ulcer. WS Gilbert and his wife lead a chaste life, he as terrified of intimacy and connection as he is of watching first nights. Sullivan juggles health problems and a long-running, regular-abortion marked, affair with Fanny Ronalds with a lingering sense of shame at not having exploited his talents more fully. These are lives that come to life when doused with creation, for all the off-stage world reveals trouble and strife.

Much of the first half is a wonderfully judged contrast between the extraverted Sullivan, keen to stretch himself but lacking the application and drive, and the repressed Gilbert, doggedly ploughing on with his (stale-sounding) original idea and unable to comprehend Sullivan’s reluctance. Leigh’s film could easily have manifested itself as a clash between two mis-matched partners. However, while the film expertly draws the parallels between the two, it also shows how much their energy comes from mutual respect. Sullivan is, after all, right that Gilbert’s first idea is a limp retread. But Gilbert’s Mikado idea is so good we don’t need a scene showing Sullivan change his mind – the simple contrast of Sullivan’s chuckles and animated striding while Gilbert reads him The Mikado’s libretto with his boredom and constant questions to the abandoned libretto speaks volumes.

Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Gilbert. He has the repressed distance, the grumpy-old-man bluntness but he mixes it with small flashes of excitement and rapture that speak volumes. His fascinated glances at the Japanese exhibition – soaking up inspiration – are beautifully judged, while his later excited larking around with a samurai sword (the very next scene sees him with a first draft) is perfect. Broadbent is both supremely funny, with several perfectly judged mon-bots, and also heartbreakingly, unknowingly lonely in his distance and fear of emotional contact. Allan Corduner makes a perfect contrast as the brash Sullivan, enjoying fame in a way Gilbert never can, but sharing with him a tortured sense of his need to fulfil his artistic potential.

The rest of the cast – a delightful mix of Leigh regulars and familiar faces – are also fabulous. Lesley Manville is wonderful as Gilbert’s wife, a gentle, eager-to-please woman who we discover has carefully buried deep regret about her emotionally repressed marriage and lack of children (Gilbert’s own difficult relationships with his parents have had a long reach on his life). Timothy Spall is wonderfully entertaining as bitchy leading actor who reacts with quiet despair when his big number is cut. Shirley Henderson’s fragility is perfect for a woman whose stage presence masks her emotional vulnerability and drink dependence. Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage are marvellous as two actors whose willingness to carry on under all conditions is skilfully contrasted.

Leigh’s film is also a brilliant reconstruction of time and era (rarely can a researcher be so highly billed on a film’s credits). There is a delight taken in showing how the characters react to new inventions, from Gilbert’s bellowing phone calls (“I am hanging up the phone now!”) to Sullivan’s wonder at a fountain pen (“What will they think of next?”). The design from Eve Stewart, the glorious photography of Dick Pope and the Oscar-winning costumes Lindy Hemming all are perfectly judged. The film though never becomes buried in “prestige costume drama” trappings: it’s eye for history is to acute. From alcoholism to drug addiction, broken families to the seamier streets of London, this is a film that never succumbs to easy nostalgia.

What it remains is a loving tribute to the strange families the build up around theatre. When Temple’s song is cut from the play, the chorus come together humbly but selflessly to beg for the song to be retained, because of their affection and regard for Temple. There may be disagreements, but everyone pulls together to stage the show when the time comes. Leigh’s film is full of wit, affection and a deep, loving regard for those who have chosen a life of creativity. While the film can show the cost of such a life – and the contrasting emptiness and regret away from the stage, in a life which can doesn’t always provide satisfaction – it also celebrates art in a way few other films can. One of the greatest films about the theatre ever made.

Brooklyn (2015)

Saoirse Ronan excels as an Irish immigrant in the USA, torn between two loves

Director: John Crowley

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Ellis Lacey), Emory Cohen (Tony Fiorello), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Jim Broadbent (Father Flood), Julie Walters (Mrs Kehoe), Brid Brennan (Miss Kelly), Eva Birthistle (Georgina), Fiona Glascott (Rose Lacey), Jane Brennan (Mrs Lacey), Jessica Paré (Miss Fortini), Emily Bett Rickards (Patty), Nora-Jane Noone (Shelia), Eve Macklin (Diana), Jenn Murray (Dolores), Eileen O’Higgins (Nancy)

In the 1950s, Irish immigrants flocked to Brooklyn to build themselves a new life. Those who made the move often found themselves torn between two worlds – the lure of the new life they were building across the water, and the pull of the land of their fathers. Brooklyn, based on a successful novel by Colm Tóibín, places this conundrum in an intensely dramatic context by making the conflicting calls on its central character as much romantic as they are emotional.

Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is our homesick young woman, eager to build a new life in America. Sponsored by kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, with more than a passing resemblance to Tóibín) and living in the boarding house of kindly-but-no-nonsense Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters, in a role surely written for her) she finds work in a department store and trains at night as book keeper. She meets and falls in love with a sweet Italian American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), but when tragedy occurs back in Ireland, on her return there she is strongly drawn to her homeland and to kindly, handsome Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Which life will Ellis choose?

You can see why Brooklyn was so popular with Oscar voters, and why it struck such a chord with so many people. It’s reassuringly, warmly, old-fashioned, a big-hearted, brightly filmed, gorgeously mounted “woman’s picture”, the sort of story that Hollywood studios churned out in the 1940s and 1950s (you know, those sort of “who will she choose!” films). Crowley pulls the material together however with real emotional force, married with an interestingly different (if gently touched upon) theme of the immigrant experience.

Helped by a very good script by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn is not only emotionally moving but also much funnier than you might expect. Part of this is deliberate choice, expanding parts of the novel (particularly the dry humour of Mrs Kehoe, seized upon with relish by Julie Walters) that bring the funny, but also from the warmth, regard and humanity it invests its characters in. Ellis is a character so well drawn, whose feelings are so real, that we end up feeling deeply invested in her, and all the more ready to respond to her quick intelligence and dry (but gentle) wit. 

It’s a gift of a part for Saoirse Ronan, who is quite simply outstanding as a quiet, sheltered woman who grows, changes and decides to create her own destiny before our very eyes. (Helped by Hornby’s script again, which uses the Ireland-USA-Ireland structure to pinpoint many dramatic bookends and contrasts that Crowley subtly, and not forcefully, brings to the screen.) Ronan’s intelligence and her conflicting desires are clear in every scene, while her eyes seem able to communicate reserves of emotional depth. In two cultures where it isn’t easy for a woman to define her own destiny, Ronan brilliantly shows the difficulties many woman had in understanding or expressing what they want, in a world where they haven’t been set-up to think like that.

The film also doesn’t make it easier for her by making her two suitors – while radically different men – both such charming, lovely guys. Cohen’s Tony is a boyish enthusiast, full of hopes and dreams, who seems to represent everything that America has to offer Ellis. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim is decent, honourable, kind, old-fashioned man who represents everything that she realises her Irish culture has for her – tradition, decency and a sense of self. It also speaks to how well drawn Ellis is by the film, and how deeply well-though out Ronan’s performance is, that it makes perfect sense that these two very different men would be drawn to her, and that both bring out different parts of her personality, which never feel contradictory.

It works as well because we’ve lived through everything Ellis has. She is present in nearly every scene in the film, and we see her change from a shy, scared, frightened woman on the boat from Ireland who needs to be cared for by an experienced emigrant fellow passenger (a very good cameo from Eva Birthistle) to a woman who flourishes in her new surroundings and the opportunities she is given. We need to feel that connection with her, since some of her behaviour (if it came from a man) would probably be seen as quite shabby indeed. But because we have such an understanding of her inner life – and because Ronan has such an empathetic and expressive face – we understand the reasons for her conundrum.

It’s that conundrum that lies at the centre of the film, and to be honest what dominates it. It works because it is done with such emotional truth (aided by Michael Brook’s excellent, heart-string tugging score that mixes American sounds with Irish folk to glorious affect), but the film is primarily a nostalgia romance. While it’s very setting makes you think about the immigrant life, it has very little to say really about either the cultural phenomenon or the impact it has on either the USA or Ireland (a charity Christmas meal for former Irish railway workers now all homeless is as close as it gets to talking about long-term integration). It doesn’t really matter, because the central story sweeps you up so much, but it does make the film more of a romance than the grander claims made for it by some as some sort of commentary on Irish immigration.

But there’s nothing wrong with such a handsome, romantic, emotional drama, or one that feels so reassuringly old-fashioned, even as it is made with touches of wit and confidence. Making some welcome comments on feminism, and led by Saoirse Ronan at her finest, it’s still a triumph of old-style, romantic, women’s pictures that you’d have to be pretty cold not to feel some sort of warming in your cockles by the end of it.

King of Thieves (2018)

Michael Caine leads the Old Lags on one last hurrah in the misjudged King of Thieves

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Michael Caine (Brian Reader), Jim Broadbent (Terry Perkins), Tom Courtenay (John Kenny Collins), Charlie Cox (Basil/Michael Seed), Paul Whitehouse (Carl Wood), Michael Gambon (Billy “The Fish” Lincoln), Ray Winstone (Danny Jones), Francesca Annis (Lynne Reader)

In 2015, a group of old lags robbed a safety deposit company in Hatton Garden. Over the Easter weekend, the gang broke while the facility was empty, drilled through a wall, climbed into the safe and cleared out almost £14 million in cash, diamonds and other goods. The crime captured the public imagination largely because the robbers, bar one member of the gang, were all over 60. This country has a certain nostalgia for rogues, and a tendency towards a condescending affection for the aged. In real life, the only thing remotely charming about these hardened criminals, many of them with extremely violent backgrounds, was their age.

James Marsh pulls together a great cast of actors for his heist caper. Brian Reader, the brains behind the operation, is played with gravitas by Michael Caine. Terry Perkins, the man who cuts Reader out of the profits, is played by Jim Broadbent. Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, Paul Whitehouse and Michael Gambon play the rest of the lags while Charlie Cox is the young tech expert who brings the possibility of the heist to Reader’s attention. With a cast like this, it’s a shame the overall film is a complete mess from start to finish.

I watched this film after first watching ITV’s forensically detailed four-part series, Hatton Garden, covering the heist in full detail. That drama was far from perfect, but it was vastly superior to this. The main strength of Hatton Garden was that it never, ever lost sight of the fact that this was not a victimless crime. Real-life small businesses went bust due to property lost in the heist. Families lost priceless, irreplaceable heirlooms. Items of hugely sentimental value have never been recovered. Lives were damaged. On top of that, Hatton Garden stresses the grimy lack of glamour to these thieves, their greed, their paranoia, their aggression and their capacity for violence. Far from charming rogues, they are selfish, greedy old men who fall over themselves to betray each other and are clueless about the powers and abilities of the modern police force.

King of Thieves occasionally tries to remind people that these were hardened career criminals. But it also wants us to have a great time watching actors we love carry out a heist against the odds, like some sort of Ocean’s OAPs. James Marsh never manages to make a consistent decision on the angle he is taking on these men or the crime they carried out. It’s half a comedy, half a drama and the tone and attitude towards the burglars yo-yos violently from scene to scene. The end result, basically, is to let them off with a slap on the wrist.

“It’s patronising” rages Reader at one point at the media coverage of the crime, annoyed at how it stresses their age as if that somehow makes it a jolly jaunt. Never mind that the film does the same. The score contributes atrociously to this, a series of jazzy, caperish tunes that echo the 60s heydays of these violent men (Reader and Perkins had both stood trial for murders, and were lucky to get off) punctured with some cheesily predictable songs. Tom Jones plays as our heroes comes together, and Shirley Bassey warbles The Party’s Over as things fall apart. The old men banter and bicker about the confusions of the modern world like a series of talking heads from Grumpy Old Men and the general mood is one of light comedy.

The film does try and darken the tone in the second half, post-robbery, as things start to fall apart and tensions erupt in the gang. Here we get a little bit of the mettle of the actors involved in this. Jim Broadbent, in particular, goes way against type as Perkins’ capacity of violence (even at a diabetes-wracked 67) starts to emerge. Tom Courtenay’s Kenny Collins emerges as manipulative liar, playing off the robbers against each other. Ray Winstone sprays foul language around with a pitbull aggression. Even Michael Caine roars a few death threats, furious at being betrayed by the gang.

But it never really takes, because the film never throws in any sense of the victims of this crime. Blood is never drawn in this slightly darker sequence of the film. Even the clashes between the gang are played at times for light relief. Anything outside the gang is ignored. The victims? Who cares. The cops? There is barely a policeman in this film who has a line.

The film undermines the whole point it might be trying to make – that these were dangerous men – by succumbing to romanticism at its very end. As the captured old lags await trial, we first see them laughing and joking with each other as they prep for court and then, as they walk towards the dock, the film throws up old footage of the actors from the 60s, 70s and 80s, stressing their romanticism. Look, the film seems to be saying: these were criminals, but they were old fashioned criminals, remember when Britain used to make its own underdog crims instead of being awash with hardened, violent gangs? It’s hard to take. And it’s like the whole film. A tonal mess that finally absolves the robbers who ruined lives and who still haven’t returned almost £10 million of ordinary people’s goods. King of Thieves isn’t charming. It’s alarming.

The Young Victoria (2009)

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend play the royal couple in the cozy The Young Victoria

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Emily Blunt (Queen Victoria), Rupert Friend (Prince Albert), Paul Bettany (Lord Melbourne), Miranda Richardson (Duchess of Kent), Mark Strong (Sir John Conroy), Jim Broadbent (King William IV), Harriet Walter (Queen Adelaide), Thomas Kretschmann (King Leopold), Jesper Christensen (Baron Stockmar), Jeanette Hain (Baroness Lehzen), Julian Glover (Lord Wellington), Michael Maloney (Sir Robert Peel), Michel Huisman (Prince Ernest), Rachael Stirling (Duchess of Sutherland)

Now ITV’s Victoria exists, it’s a bit strange to go back and watch The Young Victoria. With the love today of long-form drama, and the time it can invest in things, it’s funny to see what the drama took almost 8 hours to do being crammed into an hour and a half here. But saying that, The Young Victoria is still an entertaining, luscious viewing experience which, while it has some strange ideas about certain events, is the sort of relaxing Sunday afternoon viewing that will take you out of yourself.

After the death of William IV (a slightly overripe Jim Broadbent), Victoria (Emily Blunt) is elevated to the throne. Finally able to shed the control of her mother’s (Miranda Richardson) domineering secretary Sir John Conway (Mark Strong), Victoria is determined to steer her own course. But she is surrounded by competing influences, not least from the charming arch-politician Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) dispatches his nephew Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) to England with the express interest of marrying Victoria and controlling her – but Albert and Victoria find themselves as kindred spirits, supporting each other to rule.

The Young Victoria is the epitome of prestige costume dramas. It looks fantastic, the cinematography is ravishing, the production and costume design exquisite. It’s pretty clear what the producers thought would sell the picture abroad. The royal regalia is pushed very much to the fore, and we get some wonderfully sweeping scenes, not least an impressively large-scale coronation. The soundtrack brilliantly riffs on Handel, and Julian Fellowes’ script mixes period regal style with a sweeping feeling of romance between Victoria and Albert.

The film actually does a very good job of repositioning Victoria as a young woman, and gives her a strong quality of self-determination and a desire to be herself in a man’s world. It’s really helped in this by the combination of imperial strength, girlish wilfulness and sharp intelligence Emily Blunt brings to the role. Blunt and the film also aren’t afraid to show that, however much Victoria had guts and determination, she was also quite a headstrong woman not above making emotionally led mistaken decisions. In fact, much of the drama spins out of Victoria learning to try and put these youthful crushes and prejudices aside.

Having said that, it’s interesting that the successful conclusion of the film centres on Victoria accepting that she needs the help of Albert to run the kingdom, and that she needs to remove competing influences for her affection – Melbourne and Lehzen – to focus her affection and loyalty on him. The film frames this as a winning romance and a successful partnership (which it was) – but it’s also vaguely creepy if you think about it. Mind you, since all the affectionate influences on Victoria are implied by the script to be at least partly motivated by self-interest, with the possible exception (eventually) of Albert, it manages to suggest this was for the best.

Albert’s background gets some interesting exploration here. He’s very much presented at first as the tool of Leopold as a means of controlling British politics. But he is far too independent, smart and noble to ever be the means of manipulation. Friend is very good here – his performance is quiet, authoritative but also heartfelt. Fellowes guilds the lily a bit to show his devotion by having Albert shot by a would-be assassin late-on in the film. Historically the assassin’s pistol wasn’t loaded, and Albert didn’t get shot (though Fellowes protests Albert didput himself in front of Victoria and that this intent is what’s important, not whether he was shot or not) but the moment does work – it gives the drama a boost and it’s undeniably moving.

While Albert is presented overwhelmingly sympathetically, interestingly Lord Melbourne gets quite a kicking. Paul Bettany is presented far more as a rival love interest than the sort of father-figure Melbourne was in real life (Bettany is probably 20 years younger than the real Prime Minister). Melbourne is shown as cynical, controlling, manipulative and overwhelmingly motivated by self-interest (a few more pushes and he would virtually become the film’s villain). He’s constantly contrasted negatively with Michael Maloney’s upright, honest Sir Robert Peel (one of my favourite statesmen of the 19th century so at least I’m pleased) – and his relationship with Victoria is one of self-promotion, which seems odd seeing as historically the two of them were so close. 

The film introduces other villains for us to hiss at. Kretschmann and Christensen do a good job as arch political schemers. Our real villain though is Mark Strong, who does a great job of scowling, controlling nastiness as the failed-bully Sir John Conroy. Strong’s performance works so well because he makes it clear that Conroy feels that his “Kensington System” (an attempt to manipulate and cow Princess Victoria into being a submissive puppet) is genuinely in her best interest, and that he genuinely cares for her. His partnership with Miranda Richardson as Victoria’s near-love-struck mother works very well.

The Young Victoriathrows in enough interesting character beats like this for it to really work as an enjoyable afternoon period-drama. With some great performances – Emily Blunt carries the movie brilliantly – and while some of the historical characterisation is a bit off, and other moments feel a little too chocolate box it’s a very entertaining, undemanding view., it’s great fun. The hardcore Victorian costume-drama fans will probably prefer Victoriafor the same story in more depth – but this film does it with great sweep (and doesn’t cram in Victoria’s stupid below-stairs plotlines!).

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry and Dumbledore prepare for war in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Natalia Tena (Tonks), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the least stand-alone of the Harry Potter novels. Intended as a bridge into the final book (and carrying a lot of mystery), for obvious reasons it also has no Dumbledore-explains-the-plot-to-Harry chapter at the end (making it unique in the series). It also has the series’ least interesting MacGuffin – the identity of the Half-Blood Princehimself being considered of such little note here that it barely gets a mention in the film. But despite all this, the highly experienced Harry Potter crew deliver another exciting, dramatic and fully engaging film.

While I may not have thought David Yates was a natural film director, I have to say in this film his cinematic craft has really kicked into gear. There are images of fascinating depth and beauty here, and the film is beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar-nominated). Like never before, Hogwarts seems like a place of inky greens and deep soulful shadows. The camera often allows characters’ faces to fill the middle of the frame, while still giving us depth of vision of the world around them. Carefully composed shots show the rich detail of plenty of objects, from dead birds to photographs. It’s a luscious film.

It also has a sad nostalgia to it: it feels like it’s about things coming to an end. Unlike any other film in the series, there are very few scenes of hi-jinks in Hogwarts. Comic relief characters like Neville and Hagrid are noticeable by their (mostly) absence. 

Instead the film looks at that sad half-way house between being a child and an adult. Or rather, the responsibilities and duties of an adult being thrust onto a child. Obviously Harry is scarcely ready to take on his mantle of chosen one – and feels bereft and lonely. But, in a neat contrast, Draco Malfoy is also being pushed into a task he is far too young for, and ill-suited to. The film could have actually made more of pulling out the contrasts between these two characters – although time is always at a premium in these films, with so much of Rowling’s plot to squeeze in.

Despite this, Tom Felton gives his finest performance in the series as a tortured and deeply scared Draco Malfoy, who for the first time seems like just a normal, insecure boy terrified of the dark acts he feels he has to do. The film gets a lot of emotional mileage out of this (more than it does, actually, from Harry’s predicaments) and Felton’s expressive agony and tearful lack of control for the first time make him someone we can relate to, and feel sorry for.

It also brings out different character traits in other characters, not least the protective side of Snape. Alan Rickman gets one of his meatiest roles in the series here, wonderfully playing multiple different emotions and motivations under a cold inscrutable surface. His character is a constantly intriguing shift of feelings – but it’s clear he does, in his way, care for Draco’s safety (just as he does for the other children in his care). Rickman also gives a brilliant sense of Snape’s moral uncertainty, and his every look suggest waves of emotion under tight control. It’s a wonderful performance of suggesting a lot under the surface while not doing a lot. Not to mention Rickman also manages to skilfully leave everything open for debate as to Snape’s true motives.

It’s striking how many of the series regulars come into prominence here. Not just Felton and Rickman, but this is also Gambon’s finest performance. By now Gambon had pretty much nailed Dumbledore, giving the part a great deal of compassion and quiet moral force. His sad urging for Draco to ask for his help near the end of the film is rather moving, as are the soft, sad tones Gambon drops throughout the film suggesting Dumbledore’s pain and guilt. Gambon gets a perfect balance between a twinkly charm and a quiet authoritativeness that works wonderfully.

Surprisingly however, what works less well is Harry’s plotline. Daniel Radcliffe is underpowered and slightly underwhelming, a little too sullen and sulky to really win our sympathy (Radcliffe himself has named this as his least favourite performance). It doesn’t help either that there is no chemistry between him and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. Wright, bless her, is not a strong actor and she constantly undersells each of these scenes – unable to bring the sort of bright, sexy playfulness her book equivalent has. Instead both she and Radcliffe feel sulky and awkward, and the romantic scenes between them (of which there are many) fall flat time and time again. Once you notice this total lack of spark between them you can’t see anything else!

Radcliffe has far more chemistry with Emma Watson – but she and Rupert Grint (along with many of the rest of the younger cast) have very little of any real consequence to do. The dysfunctional middle of the film, with Radcliffe and Wright flirting, drifts all the time, meaning the focus of the film zeroes in on the “adult-character” plots. Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves do their best to add drama and excitement to a book where most of the dramatic high points are Dumbledore and Harry either watching memories, or Harry using a book to do much better at potions.

And by and large they succeed. Action sequences are added: the opening attack on the Millennium Bridge by Death Eaters is terrific, and there is an exciting (if totally plot free) attack by Death Eaters on the Weasley home. Yates again sells the moments of awe: there are some beautiful shots in Voldemort’s cave hideaway, and once again he makes Dumbledore’s power a true jaw-hits-the-floor moment. 

Half Blood Prince is beautifully filmed and well directed, even if one of its primary sub-plots doesn’t really work. There are some terrific performances: Felton, Rickman and Gambon possibly do their best work here, while Jim Broadbent is wonderfully funny but also touchingly sad and rumpled as Slughorn. It’s not Radcliffe’s finest hour, but it’s a film that works very well as an entrée to the series’ final arc. And it really captures a sense of morose sadness, mourning and regret wonderfully effectively – the final sequences carry real emotional weight. It’s a fine film – and one of Rowling’s favourites as it turns out.