Tag: John Hurt

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.

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.

Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver is last woman standing in Alien

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert)

For decades, space was seen as a place of wonder. But Alien reminded us it was also a place where no one can hear you scream. We dream the vast void out there contains life: but what if the life we found was a relentless killing machine, a seemingly invulnerable monster literally having humanity for breakfast? Ridley Scott’s Alien took science fiction and ran it through the blender of horror, turning its space ship into a terrifying haunted house with an alien straight out of slasher films. It’s still a landmark today.

In deep space, the Nostromo’s crew is pulled out of hypersleep early – long before arriving back in our solar system. A strange distress call from an unidentified vessel needs to be investigated, on standing orders from “the company”. The seven-strong crew lands their ship and a party heads out – only to return with third officer Kane (John Hurt) with a strange alien creature attached to his face. The creature can’t be removed until it detaches itself of its own accord. All seems well until an unfortunate dinner party – at which point the crew finds itself being hunted one-by-one by a relentless alien monster.

Scott’s film is so famous today it’s very hard not to forget your foreknowledge of what’s going to happen and to experience it as its original viewers did. But it still works brilliantly – even if almost everyone watching knows only Ripley is getting out of this alive. The film is a masterpiece of slow-burn tension punctuated by moments of shocking horror. The final Alien itself doesn’t appear until almost an hour into the picture – but before then we’ve had our nerves more than jangled by the unsettling disquiet of the film’s mood. From the Nostromo, to the storm-laden planet they land on, and the vast alien ship – now a tomb of dismembered corpses with an unsettling organic look, like a giant carcass – everything in the film is designed to put us ill-at-ease. You can’t watch this film and expect anything to turn out for the best.

The camera prowls around the dank, grimy and run-down ship – space travel has rarely looked this unglamorous – like the predator that will hunt the crew. It’s slow, stately lingering on the crew, their faces, the eerily unsettling sounds and score, all serve to act like an advance funeral. Every single beat of the film stresses claustrophobia and dirt. It looks like a horrible trap already, and the film embraces a sense of grim inevitability. The observational style of the editing and shooting as we follow the characters, overhearing their bickering and functional work-based conversations, also helps add to this mounting sense of unease. It’s a surprisingly quiet film for much of its opening act, ambient noise and unsettingly lingering music dominating.

There is a poetical eeriness about the whole film. This is also partly from the sense of the ship being a society in microcosm. Much of the bickering is around bonus pay shares, the working-class engineers of the ship (one of whom is also black) bemoaning their smaller shares. The officers sit at the top, a mixture of entitled, distant, officious and daring. They have their own feuds over status, professional boundaries and personal rivalries. The captain is a laissez-faire professional, who offers only a general guidance and could really be just another member of the crew. The ship is like a giant oil-rig in space, with the crew basically a group of “truckers”. The film is as much about interpersonal tensions as it is about an alien monster who hunts people down.

But it is mainly about an alien monster that tears people apart. After almost an hour of deeply unsettling and unnerving build-up, when the monster (literally) rears its head, it’s a terrifying sight. We usually only see it briefly for small shots, but what we see is pure nightmare fuel. The creature is terrifying in its violence and power. It is partly human but also completely revolting. Covered in slime, it looks like a bizarre mix of a man, a giant penis and a vagina (its designer, HR Giger, reasoned nothing would be more unsettling and disturbing to us than seeing a beast that’s partly inspired by our own sexual organs). It creeps in corners, embraces the many shadows of Scott’s set and its capacity for violence seems unstoppable. Sharp editing and suggestion elaborates the visceral horror of its extending jaws punching through bone and flesh. It moves like an interpretative dancer and leaves a trail of blood. It’s unstoppable and infinitely cunning. It looks like your worst nightmare.

It’s all washed down with body horror. An alien that smothers its victims and shoves an egg down their throat which hatches through their chest becoming a slaughtering beast. There is an uneasy sexuality about this, right down to the “birth” of the creature being a grotesque parody of childbirth. The “birthing scene” is a masterpiece, the first moment in the film when the tension between the crew has eased – and the film itself seems to have relaxed for a moment from the knot of tension – that turns into one of the most memorable moments of body horror ever. The actors were allegedly told what would happen – but not how graphic it would be – and their horror-struck disgust (Veronica Cartwright was nearly knocked over by a powerful jetstream of mock blood and guts) and and shock gives the film a priceless realism.

Watching the film, it’s striking to me how much John Hurt’s Kane is shot as the hero early in the film. It’s he who wakes first from hypersleep. It’s Kane we follow the most for the early part of the film – he’s the one piloting the ship, volunteering to answer the distress call, urging his crew mates on as they investigate the alien vessel – it’s Kane who seems to be the hero. Making his brutal demise even more of a subconscious shock. On the other hand, Ripley is introduced as an officious, unpopular, by-the-book officer who it seems few other members of the crew like (Sigourney Weaver’s praetorian attitude helps a lot with this) – if you had to bet on someone to bite it early on, you’d pick her. The film continues to defy expectations. Characters who seem like they might be invulnerable are slaughtered early. Those who looked vulnerable survive until late on.

It’s a very strong cast. Weaver magnificently grows in authority as the film progresses, turning her abrasiveness into strength of character and moral determination. Hurt is very good as the unknowing victim-in-waiting. Kotto, chippy and defiant, is another stand-out. The finest performance through might well come from Ian Holm as science-officer Ash. Precise, cold, distant – but always hiding his own secret agenda – it’s an unsettlingly controlled performance that leads to a pay-off reveal that still works brilliantly today (and the character would have one of the most memorable death scenes in film, if he wasn’t in the same film as the most memorable death scene).

Scott’s filmmaking is brilliantly controlled, and the film is a horrifying masterpiece of tension and terror. The monster is skilfully shown at its worst (you’d never even guess in actuality it’s little more than a Doctor Who man-in-a-rubber-suit) and its design is faultless perfection. It’s not completely perfect – its build up might be ten minutes too long, and a late sequence that sees Weaver wearing little more than her undies looks hideously dated today – but it’s pretty close. Science fiction has never been scarier than it is here – hell the movies have rarely been scarer. In space no-one really can hear you scream.

The Proposition (2005)

Guy Pearce is given a fateful mission in bleak Aussie Western The Proposition

Director: John Hillcoat

Cast: Guy Pearce (Charlie Burns), Ray Winstone (Captain Morris Stanley), Emily Watson (Martha Stanley), Danny Huston (Arthur Burns), David Wenham (Eden Fletcher), Richard Wilson (Mike Burns), John Hurt (Jellon Lamb), Tom E Lewis (Two Bob), Leah Purcell (Queenie), Robert Morgan (Sgt Lawrence), David Gulpilil (Jacko), Tom Budge (Samuel Stoart)

In the Australian outback at some point near the turn of the last century, a gang of ruthless killers are finally tracked down and killed by the police. The only survivors are Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). Charlie is offered a proposition by British émigré police captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone): find and kill Charlie’s other brother, the even more ruthless Arthur (Danny Huston), in nine days and Charlie and Mikey can go free. Will Charlie do it? And what view will Morris’ superiors take of his unusual decision? Either way violence and bleakness will ensue in the ruthless world of the Australian outback.

Scripted by Nick Cave – who also contributed the film’s sparse and haunting score – The Proposition is a dark, challenging and difficult film. It’s bleak, nihilistic and lacking in any real sense of hope or warmth. It presents a world where life is cheap and blood flows freely. All of this set in a wild, open-aired, dead, dry and dusty environment that in its gaping wildness and emptiness seems to consume the men who walk into it and leave them unhinged and capable of any depth of inhumanity.

How can there be any hope for mankind in all this? No wonder Stanley’s wife Martha (an intriguing performance of both optimism and disillusionment walking hand-in-hand from Emily Watson) tries to turn their house into a little slice of England, with a nice fence and traditional garden. It’s almost like she’s trying to slice something recognisable and safe from an environment that feels like it crushes everything it touches. It contrasts with every other ramshackle shack we see in the film, or dusty sandstone building – or the homes that most of the characters fashion among the rocks and the outback. What chance does civilisation have in this wild world?

It’s a world of ruthlessness where life is cheap. The local sport seems to be killing native Australians – something both police and gangs brag about. The native tracker used by the police – played by Walkabout’s David Gulpilil – quietly watches on as his drunken employers celebrate the (mercifully off screen) killing of a group of native Australians accused of murdering an Irish settling family. There is no pardon for him – later his throat is contemptuously slit by one of his fellows who now works as a sharp-shooter with Arthur’s gang. Hillcoat and Cave’s Australia has not a single touch of romance  or fellow feeling, but instead feels like a waiting room for hell.

Stanley is out of place here, not only by his Englishness, but also because his tough and pitiless policing is dwarfed by the cruelty he encounters. Ray Winstone gives one of his finest performances here as a toughened veteran who slowly realises he has only skimmed the surface of the brutality man can show man. Brutal and determined as he is, he has rules – and a wife he loves and a home he values – and that puts him at an utter disadvantage when going up against the amoral likes of Arthur Burns. Winstone’s Stanley also has a sense of fair play – he will struggle in vain to prevent a lethal flogging for Mikey that obsequious town mayor (a very good David Wenham) wants to inflict to placate the town. He frowns on the persecution of the indigenous people and treats his house servant well. Is it any wonder he isn’t remotely prepared for the bloodletting Arthur unleashes when he rides into town?

Danny Huston does excellent work as the poetic Arthur who lacks any touch of empathy. Softly spoken and chillingly calm at all times, with a lilting Irish accent, Arthur slaughters without any mercy and can charmingly undertake any level of depravity and violence. From mutilation to rape, from sudden slaughter to lingering sadism, worst of all it never seems to be personal with Arthur. More just a way of alleviating his own boredom with the world. Is there something about life in the outback that has turned Arthur slowly and quietly insane? Perhaps so, and it fits with Hillcoat and Cave’s nihilistic view of humanity as a destructive force with very little room for hope.

Guy Pearce’s Charlie perhaps offers what little hope we have – and even he is a murderer. Pearce does quiet, generous work in a reactive role, tipped pillar to post and dealing with conflicted family loyalties as well as some sense of right and wrong. Enough of a sense at least to believe wanton murder and destruction as practised by Arthur is too much. Pearce is a quiet, enigmatic figure in the film – perhaps a man struggling to work out where he sits. It’s a performance that cedes a lot of the fireworks elsewhere, with a moral conundrum that is almost deliberately elliptical, but striking nonetheless.

The Proposition is a tough and difficult film. It has a slightly disjointed narrative that at times skips gently over events or moves swiftly from one to another but missing connective events in between. It has the feel of a fever dream, the sort of bizarre tale you might throw together out of half-remembered nightmares. It allows wonderful opportunities for actors – all mentioned, and also John Hurt quite delightful as a drunken but deadly bounty hunter, his wizened looks perfect for the overbearing wilderness. Sure it’s a western that runs rampant with destruction, but it’s also a dark stare into the evil heart of man. It may end with a slight note of hope, but it’s an obscured and uncertain one and mixed in with more than enough suffering and destruction for the survivors.

The Proposition is still the finest film John Hillcoat has directed, and the best balance between compelling story telling and difficult nihilism.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Ron Perlman faces larger problems than ever in Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien/Angel of Death/Chamberlain), Seth MacFarlane (Johann Krauss), Luke Goss (Prince Nuada), Anna Walton (Princess Nuala), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), John Hurt (Professor Trevor Bruttenholm), Roy Dotrice (King Balor)

There is something quite sweet about the Guillermo del Toro taking all the chips won for directing Pan’s Labyrinth and cashed them in for this comic book sequel. There you have the distillation of the man’s career right there: one for the artist and then one for the teenage boy he used to be. But Hellboy II is a marvellous creation, a gorgeous to look at, magical, rather funny comic book film crammed with amazing images, ingenious creatures and sparkling moments of action and adventure.

Thousands of years ago, the magical creatures of the world, led by the elves, fought a war against mankind. To win a desperate victory, goblins created the dreaded Golden Army, an indestructible mechanical army. Horrified at the slaughter, Elven King Balor (Roy Dotrice) offered a truce. His son Prince Nuala (Luke Goss) disagreed. In the present day, Nuala goes about to collect the three pieces of the crown needed to control the Golden Army – and only Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his friends from the BPRD can stop him. 

Hellboy II is immensely imaginative and wonderful to look at. Perhaps inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth, the film plays like a cross between the most brain-twisting magic depths of that film and a traditional comic book. So we get dozens of creatures, each pulled from the pages of some sort of acid tripped Tolkien novel: with extended hands, distorted heads and steam-punkish extremities, the creatures on show are masterpieces of design and character. The juxtaposition between this ethereal, magical world of elves and goblins and mankind’s expansion brings home the danger this world is in: the Elven King’s palace in the modern day is in a sort of converted sewer, while Nuala’s base is an abandoned underground line. With some performers (often del Toro’s muse Doug Jones) under layers of make-up and prosthetics, it’s extraordinary the amount of personality each of these creatures gets. When the film takes a turn down a Diagon Alley-style market, you regret Del Toro never got to make a Harry Potter film.

Hellboy looks both part of this world and also like a muscular bull in a china shop. Ron Perlman continues to be perfect in the part, and captures the wry, cynical, slightly teenagerish humour of the part. Del Toro does a wonderful job of showing the sense of family between Hellboy, his lover pyrokinetic Liz (a decent performance by Selma Blair, although she is too often relegated to the “woman” role), and his surrogate brother, amphibious empath Abe (Doug Jones getting to provide the voice as well this time, and getting a fine display of growing emotional expression). The quiet character moments between the action really ring true – a very funny sequence sees Hellboy and Abe bemoan their romantic entanglements by getting drunk while singing Can’t Smile Without You.

It’s scenes like that which add the heart alongside the throbbing action and colourful character weirdness of del Toro’s vision. It’s also part of the distinctiveness of the whole vision of the film. Everything is seen with as fresh an eye as possible, and makes for some really striking images and scenes. The steam-punk aesthetic of the Golden Army seems to fit together perfectly with the more organic world of the Elves. There’s a sense at all times that the design and pacing of the film have been carefully thought through so everything fits logically together. Starting the film with a wonderfully animated Golden Army backstory (voiced by a briefly returning John Hurt for maximum impact) is just another reflection of the artistry at work here.

There is a nice vein of humour running through the film – there are some funny sight gags as characters walk nonchalantly through bizarre goings-on in BDRP HQ – and the more gory moments of the action are shot with a certain black comedy. The film also gets a decent few points in about how humanity rejects things that are different, which are not surprising but still hit home.

Hellboy II does start to become a bit more generic as it heads towards its final denouement. Most of the events of the final few scenes are pretty predictable from the outset, and offer little in the way of surprises. For all the chemistry she has with Perlman, Blair is more or less relegated to the sidelines for large chunks of the film (usually the action). But for most of the run time, it’s inventive, imaginative fun with a director bringing a distinctive vision to the genre while also kicking back his heels and having fun. And fun is what it wants the viewer to have as well – don’t try too hard, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself.

The Elephant Man (1980)

John Hurt is sublime as the tragic John Merrick in The Elephant Man

Director: David Lynch

Cast: John Hurt (John Merrick), Anthony Hopkins (Dr Frederick Treves), Anne Bancroft (Madge Kendal), John Gielgud (Francis Carr-Gomm), Wendy Huller (Mrs Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Dexter Fletcher (Bytes’ boy), Michael Elphick (Jim the porter), Hannah Gordon (Ann Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alexandra), John Standing (Dr Fox)

In the late 19th century, society was swept up in the story of a circus show freak, Joseph Merrick (renamed John here, as per Frederick Treves’ memoirs), saved from a life as a circus exhibit by Treves (a doctor at the London Hospital). Treves introduced him into society and formed a close friendship with him. Merrick died young (27) but his life became a sort of byword for struggling for dignity. The Elephant Man follows this journey.

John Hurt plays Merrick, with Anthony Hopkins as Treves, and the film is a pretty accurate reconstruction of the major events of Merrick’s life. The Elephant Man must have seemed like a strange proposition at the time. Produced by Mel Brooks! Directed by bizarro director David Lynch! About a man grotesquely deformed by nature! But what emerges put those doubts to shame, because this is a beautiful and emotional piece of film-making, guaranteed to put a tear in your eye. It’s an extraordinary and moving film, it’s almost impossible not to love.

In a career made up of playing characters who undergo enormous suffering, it’s fitting that one of John Hurt’s most famous performance sees him utterly unrecognisable under a mountain of make-up. (Acting in this was no fun either – Hurt worked alternate days to deal with the discomfort and stress, telling his wife “They’ve finally found a way to make me hate acting”). But what Hurt does here is extraordinary: under this mountain of make-up, the humanity, sweetness and tenderness of Merrick sings out. He’s a character you feel a total empathy for, with Hurt making him almost a gentle child, an innocent who learns to value himself and his own humanity. It’s mesmeric stuff.

Lynch’s film is all about the place Merrick holds in the world – and it’s not sure shy of showing it is one of exploitation and display. Sure, the circus life for Merrick is horrible under Freddie Jones’ freak-masker (Jones is magnificent here, alternating between weaselly, conniving, vulnerable, self-pitying and loathsome). But he’s plucked from this lower-class hell not for reasons of charity or loving care, but (initially) so that Treves can display him at medical conferences.

Even after demonstrating his sensitivity and artistic richness, Merrick is still rammed into a different treadwheel of society curiosity. Paraded before the rich and famous, his freakish appearance combined with his gentle, otherworldly, politeness and kindness becomes a new show in itself – something Treves himself (in a wonderfully played scene of introspection from Hopkins) slowly comes to realise. Alongside this, Merrick is still seen as fair-game by Elphick’s brutish night porter: if the hoi polloi can watch the freak, why can’t he parade him in front of working class customers at night? All this is intensely moving.

Does Merrick even realise that he is (in some ways) still a freak show, even while he collects photos of his new friends? The film is deliberately unclear: although it is clear that the (eventual) genuine friendship of Treves does lead Merrick to value himself as something more. The famous anguished cry (simply brilliantly played by Hurt) of “I am not an animal. I am a human being” after Merrick is chased into a train station bathroom by a crowd of scared and disgusted passengers is goose-bump inducing in both its sadness and its newfound moral force. From this point on, Merrick makes decisions for himself (for good or ill).

Lynch’s film walks a delicate balance around Merrick’s character and how much his life was a question of being exploited. Although the film does at times shoot Merrick with the slow reveal coyness of a monster movie, it never fails to regard him (and almost demand we do the same) with the utmost sympathy. In many ways, it shoots Merrick the same way people first seem him – a sense of shock followed by a growing appreciation that there is much more to see there than you might first suspect. 

That’s what works so well about Lynch’s inspired direction here – this is a sensitive, haunting and poetic film that wrings untold levels of sadness from Merrick’s life. Lynch reins in his more arty leanings very effectively. In fact, once you get over the film’s bizarre opening of Merrick’s mother being attacked (sexually assaulted?) by an elephant, the film relaxes into a classical style mixed with Lynch’s chilling eeriness and his games with time and mood (the timeline is particularly hard to work out in this film), while his sensitive handling of the macabre is perfect for this film’s storyline. While it’s easy to see this as the least “authored” of Lynch’s film, it’s possibly one of his finest and sets the groundwork for some of his later works, exploring humanity in the bizarre.

He’s helped as well by Freddie Francis’ simply beautiful black-and-white photography which brilliantly captures both the grime and the shine of Victorian London, with an inky darkness. Francis also embraces some of Lynch’s expressionistic style, and shoots the film with a real atmospheric sensitivity. It’s about perfect – and Lynch brings the outsider’s view to London that sees the entire city with a brand new eye. 

There are some sublime performances. Anthony Hopkins’ Treves is a masterclass in contrasted desires. He’s the sort of guy who can grab Merrick like a collector, but still shed a tear when he first sees him. Watching him slowly realise that he has used Merrick just as Bytes has done – within the confines of his Victorian paternalism – and grow to love him as a father does his son (feelings of course never expressed in words) is extraordinary. In the less flashy role, Hopkins powers a lot of the feelings of sadness the audience feel. Alongside him, a host of British legends do brilliant work, particularly Gielgud and Hiller as authority figures who slowly reveal themselves to have huge depths of compassion and understanding.

And what you end up with is a marvellous film. Brilliantly made, wonderfully filmed and hugely emotional with powerful, heartfelt performances from Hurt and Hopkins among many others. It’s extremely beautiful, and stirs the emotions wonderfully. You would struggle to get to the end of the film and not feel overcome with the final few moments, its sadness and the sense of regret. It’s possibly the most heartfelt of Lynch’s films – and also the one I enjoy the most.

Hellboy (2004)

Ron Perlman fights the darkness in curio del Toro comic book flick Hellboy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Rupert Evans (John Thaddeus), John Hurt (Dr Trevor Bruttenholm), Karel Roden (Rasputin), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Brian Steele (Sammael), Ladislav Beran (Karl Ruprecht Kroenen), Bridget Hodson (Ilsa Haupstein), Corey Johnson (Agent Clay)

As little as 10 years ago, outside a few core characters like Batman, the X-Men or Spiderman, comic book movies were an odd curio hard to place in the mass market. Today of course, you can virtually get any character who has appeared in a cartoon strip up on the screen with a budget of millions. But back in 2004, Guillermo del Toro had to squeeze this project out on a smaller budget in order to get the studio to agree to make the film.

Hellboy has a particularly demented story. In 1945, the Nazis, working in partnership with Rasputin (Karel Roden) – yes thatRasputin, don’t even ask – attempt to open a portal to hell to, well I’m not quite sure what they want to do, but it probably involves the destruction of the world. Anyway, some humble GIs stop them and the only thing that comes through the portal is a little demon with an enormous stone fist. Raised by paranormal expert Dr Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), this creature grows up into cigar-chomping secret-agent-for-the-FBI Hellboy (Ron Perlman), working on paranormal investigations. But when Rasputin returns from the dead it looks like all hell (literally) is about to break out.

Okay it should be pretty clear to you from that that Hellboy is an odd film. It’s very much from del Toro’s B-movie heart, and he invests this nonsense material with a great deal of directorial style and heart – a real “geek-boy-artist” job. Del Toro has a great deal of imagination and is able to strike a happy balance between enjoying the material and not taking it all too seriously. So he lets the film barrel along, throwing plenty of nonsense at the screen without worrying about trying to make it make real-world sense. In fact Del Toro is clearly so fond of the material that he basically shoots the whole thing like a comic book come to life. 

So the film is crammed with bright primary colours mixed with murky blacks, and Del Toro frames many key moments like comic book panels. It’s a film packed with striking images and scenes built around stuff that feels like it should teeter over into ridiculous camp all the time but never quite does. Its steam-punky styling instead manages to feel somehow both strikingly original visually and also strangely packed with integrity – like Del Toro made a very personal big-budget movie for his childhood, the sort of bizarro cult film that’s actually-quite-good and it’s going to win a huge following once people can find it for themselves (which is indeed what happened).

Del Toro’s other great principled stand was to ensure that Ron Perlman played the lead. Hellboy is a bizarre character – over six feet, red, horns, a tail – but what Perlman and Del Toro do so well is to make him some sort of Brooklynish chippy blue-collar worker with a kitchen-sink earthy wit. Perlman is clearly having a whale of a time playing this temperamental demon like some sort of longshoreman Han Solo, a brattish teenager and rebel with a world-weary cynicism. He’s crammed with contradictions (the demon who fights for good!) that Del Toro is keen to explore – and makes consistently interesting.

Because he’s such a different character, he energises a fairly traditional story and his character’s pretty standard personal-struggle-plotline (will he do the right or the wrong thing?). Perlman juggles all this really well, and gives a performance that is both dry and funny but also has moments of real heart and emotion. He even manages to sell his rather possessive love for Selma Blair’s (also pretty good) fellow orphan with pyrotechnical abilities as something heartfelt and caring, despite the fact that at one point he basically stalks her. It’s a rather wonderful performance.

The rest of the cast are a bit more of a mixed bag. Rupert Evans is saddled with the audience surrogate role – asking the questions we can’t ask – while Karel Roden’s lipsmacking performance as Rasputin never quite engages as a villain. Stronger roles come from Jeffrey Tambor as an officious FBI director and especially from John Hurt as Hellboy’s father-figure, the kind of quintessential ageing mentor that you can imagine his wards adoring. 

The rather silly plot doesn’t really matter. The importance here is the gothic chill of Del Toro’s style, mixed with his crazy “larger-than-life” dark comic book tone. And it works really well: the film is fun and witty, and if the storyline never really feels like it earns the “end of the world” threat (and builds towards an uninvolving duking out with a giant CGI monster), there are enough enjoyments along the way to make you want to make the journey.

Midnight Express (1978)

Brad Davis and John Hurt find themselves in melodramatic hell in Midnight Express

Director: Alan Parker

Cast: Brad Davis (Billy Hayes), Randy Quaid (Jimmy Booth), John Hurt (Max), Paul L Smith (Hamidou), Irene Miracle (Susan), Bo Hopkins (Tex), Paolo Bonacelli (Rifkin), Norbert Weisser (Erich), Mike Kellin (Mr Hayes), Peter Jeffrey (Ahmet), Kevork Malikyan (Prosecutor)

Ever wondered why “Turkish prison” was, for a long time, practically a synonym for “hell on earth”? A big reason is this film’s box-office success, a heavily fictionalised version of the experiences of Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), a young American caught smuggling hashish out of Turkey and eventually sentenced to 30 years in a prison notorious for violence, torture and rape. The film covers Hayes’ imprisonment, his alliances with fellow prisoners loud-mouthed American Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and sensitive, strung-out Englishman Max (John Hurt), and his ill-treatment at the hands of sadistic guard Hamidou (Paul L Smith). It’s not exactly a light watch.

Midnight Express was an unexpected controversial sleeper hit. Many felt the film was grossly violent, horrible, and borderline racist towards its Turkish characters. Looking back now, the violence is (with a few exceptions) no more than you might expect – but the attitude the film takes towards its Turkish characters really sticks out.

There is barely a Turk in this who isn’t crooked, sadistic, greedy, ugly or stupid (or a combination of all five). The depiction is so unsettlingly bad, the real Billy Hayes apologised at the time (he was joined years later by the film’s producers and writer, Oliver Stone). Many of the Turks are lascivious anal rapists, while the whole film has a queasy unease about homosexuality. The real Billy Hayes engaged in relationships with other men in prison – the film’s Hayes kisses a fellow prisoner in the shower but then shakes his head and leaves. A 1970s audience could cope with seeing a man flogged or tortured – but in no way could they be expected to watch two men making out.

Other than these unsettling black marks, Midnight Express is a taut, well-made, melodrama. And I say melodrama because both Stone and Parker frequently go over the top. After a friend is betrayed to a horrible fate by a Turkish prisoner, Hayes freaks out, violently beats the Turk, gouges his eyes and then (in almost laughable slow-mo) bites his tongue out and spits it across the room. Later, he is finally allowed to receive a visit from his girlfriend – she presses her breasts up against the glass while a near catatonic Hayes tearfully masturbates (“I wish I could make it better for you baby” she sighs, tearfully). Yes both those sequences are as OTT as they sound.

But when it calms down, Parker crafts a pretty affecting story. It cuts Hayes a lot of slack – I found it hard to feel sorry for a dumb, drug-smuggler who assumes his American passport will let him off with a slap on the wrist. I can’t be alone in thinking that someone who breaks the law deserves to pay some sort of price. To be fair, I think the film partly shares this view: it fast-forwards through most of Hayes’ original term, and only really hits into full misery once his sentence is arbitrarily extended by 27 years. I think Parker and Stone believe this switches the moral right to Hayes, who had served his term only to be hit with a sudden draconian change weeks before release. 

A lot of the film’s impact comes from Brad Davis’ impassioned performance as Hayes. There is something very sensitive and gentle about Davis, a real vulnerability that the film seizes upon to great effect. He looks like a bewildered lost soul, and Davis’ performance is scintillating first in its confusion, then his distress and anger. 

There are decent performances from the rest of the cast, with John Hurt standing out as the gentle Max. Garlanded with awards, Hurt is perfect as the straggled, beaten down, but still cynical and surly Max – and of course Hurt’s natural affinity for suffering works perfectly for a character who goes through the wringer. Quaid also does decent work as a thoughtless loudmouth, as does Kellin as Hayes’ impotent father. It’s also nice to see a small cameo from Peter Jeffrey as a well-spoken half-English paedophile in the prison’s psychiatric ward.

It’s a shame that Midnight Express too frequently goes too far, as it’s got an almost medieval understanding of suffering. The prison is a grim world of its own, where the prisoners largely self-police and acts of petty revenge are common. Later in the film, Hayes is sent to the film’s psychiatric ward, a hellish basement where prisoners walk in drugged-up dumbness pointlessly round and round a stone pillar.

Moments like this are far more impactful because they avoid the extremities of the rest of the film. Most of what we see isn’t true – Hayes’ story and his escape was vastly different, and the film exaggerates both his naïveté and his suffering – but it still works extremely well. Parker fought to end the film simply, rather than the all-action escape sequence filmed and this works wonderfully (it’s basically a Third Man homage, by way of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye) – although it still finds another moment for a threat of anal rape in the final ten minutes.

Midnight Express is a decent film, but not a pleasant one – and it leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth, for all the competence with which it is made. Parker and Stone frequently go too far, and the reek of homophobic racism still comes off the film. However it is certainly a good piece of technical film-making and has some marvellous performances in the mix.

Scandal (1989)

Joanne Whalley and John Hurt get unwisely wrapped up in the Profumo affair in Scandal

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Cast: John Hurt (Stephen Ward), Joanne Whalley (Christine Keeler), Bridget Fonda (Mandy Rice-Davies), Ian McKellen (John Profumo), Leslie Phillips (Lord Astor), Britt Ekland (Mariella Novotny), Jeroen Krabbé (Eugene Ivanov), Daniel Massey (Mervyn Griffith-Jones), Roland Gift (Johnny Edgecombe), Jean Alexander (Mrs Keeler), Deborah Grant (Valerie Hobson), Alex Norton (Inspector), Ronald Fraser (Justice Marshall), Paul Brooke (Sergeant), Keith Allen (Reporter)

In 1963 the British Government was nearly destroyed by a sex scandal. John Profumo, Minister for War, was widely suspected of conducting an affair with Christine Keeler (a former show girl turned society figure) at the same time as she was sleeping with Russian naval attaché Eugene Ivanov. Profumo denied it to the House of Commons. A few weeks later he confessed he had lied and resigned from Parliament. The scandal shook the country to the core, and led to an exhausted Harold MacMillan’s resignation as PM. As the scandal span out to reveal sex parties in country homes, the country couldn’t get enough of the discovery that large numbers of the upper classes enjoyed nothing more than swinging, orgies and indiscriminate sex laced with sado-masochism. 

Scandal reconstructs the build-up to and eventual explosion of controversy around this affair, focusing on Keeler (Joanne Whalley) and Stephen Ward (John Hurt), the society osteopath and friend to the rich and famous who had worked out that if he found and coached attractive young girls, Henry Higgins-style, into engaging and fun companions, he could swiftly move up the social ladder by giving the rich and powerful people they could sleep with. When the Profumo affair blew up, it was Ward who was left holding the parcel: abandoned by his rich and powerful friends, Ward was placed on trial as a pimp, vilified in court and in the press, and eventually committed suicide the night before the court case finished (which convicted him in absentia of living off immoral earnings).

It’s this miscarriage of justice that Scandal zeroes in on – and the film does a good job of showing that Ward basically didn’t really do anything that wrong. He didn’t mistreat the girls, he thought he was helping them improve their lives and he didn’t attempt to blackmail his friends. His own sex drive seems curiously disconnected (he was clearly more of voyeur) and if anything, John Hurt (excellent as always) plays him as a slightly sad social-climber. A sort of Horace Slughorn of sex, far more excited by his bulging address book, access to the exclusive clubs of London and calling lords of the land by their matey nicknames, than by all the nooky.

Scandal however is a rather unemotional, unengaging and distant film. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in, as it too often goes for documentary checklist rather than real character engagement. On top of that, it’s often rather unclear – it’s tricky to tell the exact timelines, it’s hard to see often how some events relate to others, it’s unclear in particular how Christine Keeler’s relationship with jazz promoter and drug dealer Johnny Edgecombe led to exposure. It’s a film that’s both in love with telling the facts and so blinded by them that it doesn’t turn them into an engaging story.

But then perhaps part of this is because looking back today, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about with the Profumo affair. After generations where government ministers have been accused of everything from toe-sucking to performing a sex act on a dead pig, it’s hard not to look at the Granddaddy of all government sex scandals and not think it rather quaint. Today it would barely merit more than few news cycles: and Profumo would certainly have been back in the cabinet within two years. Even the spy angle (was Profumo leaking secrets to Keeler, who in turn leaked them to Ivanov?) was widely (and almost immediately) discredited at the time. 

Not that the seismic impact really comes across anyway in the film. This is partly because the film focuses on Ward and Keeler in particular. For the two of them, there wasn’t much at stake – until their lives were destroyed. In fact, for most of these people at the various dodgy parties – other than embarrassing tittle-tattle – there wasn’t much at stake. A film that gave more space to Profumo – and really made-clear what he was running the risk of losing here, particularly after he lied to Parliament – might have made it clearer the dangers that all involved were inadvertently running.

But that would have been to dent the film’s purpose of showing Ward and Keeler as essentially innocents abroad. Joanne Whalley has a particularly difficult job as a Keeler so thoughtless, short-sighted and self-obsessed, she verges on the dim. Whalley makes her bright, engaging and fun-loving, but never with a whiff of sense. By the time Keeler is blurting out totally unconnected Profumo facts when speaking to the police about her relationship with Edgecombe, you can tell she doesn’t have a chance.

The film’s real strength though is John Hurt’s masterful performance as Stephen Ward. Hurt’s pock-marked face and ruddy complexion (going through a difficult divorce he allegedly spent most of the filming struggling with alcoholism) and slightly sweaty desperation are perfect for the role. A natural victim as an actor, he makes Ward always slightly desperate, always trying too hard, always the grammar-school boy pushing his nose up against society’s window. He’s a super creepy Henry Higgins grooming girls for a “better life” (his genuine belief!) and getting himself an entrée into posh society at the same time.  

Ward, the film argues, didn’t feel he was ever doing anything wrong – and he realises far too late that society, his posh friends and the government don’t agree. “It’ll blow over” he reassures Ivanov: totally wrong. Ward basically was a hedonist who wanted people to have a good time – and was thrilled to be invited to the party. When the shit hit the fan, he was dumped with the blame. It’s an angry note that the film – with its obsession with covering so much ground – fumbles slightly: it wants to be a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of the upper classes, but it fudges the emotional connection so much that you can’t feel it as much as you should.

Instead Scandal just sort of simmers rather than boils. It doesn’t communicate what a sea change this was in how Britain viewed its politicians and upper classes – from hereon they were always seen as men with feet of clay – and it doesn’t get the audience feeling as angry or engaged with things as you might expect. It has a lot of sex in it but (perhaps deliberately) it’s not sexy – the orgy scenes would make a great mood killer – and it seems to miss the hedonistic tone that dominated the class at the time. 

There is some decent directing – a scene of Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler preparing for a night on the town is particularly well done – and some strong acting, not least from Ian McKellen is a slimy Profumo (rumour has it a recently de-closted McKellen was keen on the role as it was the most hetrosexual role he could imagine playing!). But it never quite clicks together into something really emotionally engaging. And it isn’t quite as clear and easy to follow as you need. Structuring the story as a kind of love story between virtually the only people in the story who don’t have sex together is interesting – and Hurt and Whalley are good – but it’s just not quite a good enough film for what it wants to do.

1984 (1984)

John Hurt is simply perfect as Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s faithful Orwell adaptation 1984

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Mr Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Andrew Wilde (Tillotson), Phyllis Logan (Announcer)

Few novels of the 20th century have had such a far-ranging impact as George Orwell’s 1984. Its concepts and ideas have dominated the popular language around topics from politics to reality television. Orwell’s idea of a dystopia, ruled by a controlling government, has inspired virtually every other story in a similar setting since. Hell, Orwellian is now an actual word.

Michael Radford had dreamed for years of bringing a film version of Orwell’s last masterpiece to the screen. This film is the end-result, shot (as it proudly announces at the end) in the exact times and locations the original novel was set in. Radford has created a hugely faithful adaptation that strains at the leash to cover all the complex political, philosophical and personal questions Orwell’s novel explores. From the opening sequence, expertly recreating the books “Two-minute-hate”, it’s immediately clear that Radford knows (and loves) this book.

Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a party worker in Oceania (a sort of super country consisting of North America, Britain and Ireland), whose role is to edit and adjust the historical records to ensure that everything the ruling Party has ever said was always accurate and correct. Unpeople are removed from old newspaper cuttings, economic targets are edited to match the final results. In his heart he has sincere doubts about the system and yearns for freedom – but it is not until a chance meeting with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) that he finds a way to express his individuality through their love affair. But what does Inner Party member O’Brien (Richard Burton) have planned for him?

Radford’s film is a marvel of design. Its look and feel could have been ripped from the pages of Orwell. Today we’d call it almost steam-punk – every piece of technology is made of antiquated and repurposed pieces of equipment (such as phone dials or computer screens) that have a rusty, poorly maintained feeling that immediately communicates the run-down crapsack world the film is set in. Every building seems to be crumbling, collapsing, poorly made, unpleasant, dirty – every street is littered with wreckage. Who on earth would want to live anywhere like this?

The oppression of the design – all dark blues, greys, blacks and crumbling stone and rusty metal – is contrasted at key points. The (relative) opulence of O’Brien’s apartment – with actual comfortable chairs, plastered and painted walls and decent furniture – really stands out (as does Burton’s well-tailored boiler suit compared to the uncomfortable rags of the others). Roger Deakin’s photography also really mixes up the grime of London with the sweeping vistas of the countryside, the only place we see greens or brighter blues. 

Radford’s adaptation of the novel manages to hit every beat from the original. I’m not sure if it is quite accessible to someone who hasn’t read the novel: there is a lot of information only briefly communicated here, and the film makes no real effort to set up or establish the situation in Oceania. Some moments work a lot better if you know the book – the nature of Winston’s job most especially. However, Radford really captures the spirit of the original – and he really understands the contrasts in the book between its gloom and oppression and the free spirit of Julia, and what their love affair represents to Winston. 

The film contains a lot of nudity in these scenes (Suzanna Hamilton does full frontal several times –John Hurt’s bottom similarly appears a fair bit) – but it’s kind of vital. The characters are literally (and figuratively) laying themselves bare. It’s a clear visual sign of how they are rejecting the rules, systems and crushing control of the state itself. Alone they can shed the burden of being controlled and truly be themselves. It’s one of the few films where extensive nudity actually feels completely essential to the plot – and vital to communicating the character’s desire for openness.

Radford also draws some neat (inferred) visual parallels from the material of the book, most notably around Winston’s fear of rats. In the book, this visceral fear is never fully explored, but here in the film Radford has Winston plagued with dreams and flashbacks of stealing chocolate as a child from his starving mother – and returning to an empty room full of rats. Rats are linked in Winston’s mind with betrayal and inhumanity, the very qualities he most fears in the real world – and the impact of these animals psychologically on Winston seems all the more clear.

The film is further helped by the casting of John Hurt as Winston Smith. If ever an actor was born to play this role, it was John Hurt. Not only does Hunt’s gaunt face, emaciated frame and pale cragginess fit perfectly (he also looks a lot like Orwell), but Hurt’s gift as an actor was his empathy for suffering. His finest parts were people who undergo great loss and torment, so Winston Smith was perfect. He gives the role a great deal of damaged humanity, a naïve dream-like yearning, a desire for something he can barely understand. There’s a real gentleness to him, a vulnerability – and it makes Winston Smith hugely moving.

Suzanna Hamilton (in a break-out role) is a great contrast, as a confident, controlled, brave Julia – again there is something tomboyish about her that really works for the part. She’s both certain about what she is doing, but also unwise and naïve. It’s a shame her performance often gets overlooked behind Hurt and Richard Burton. This was Burton’s final film – and while he clearly looks frail, he gives O’Brien all the imposing authority of the melodious voice: you could believe Burton as both a secret rebel and as the face of the state. He’s really good here, hugely menacing and sinister.

1984 is perhaps one of the most faithful and lovingly assembled tributes to its source material you can imagine. In fact that’s the root of its two biggest flaws. Radford had an electronic score by the Eurythmics imposed upon the film (the band was unaware that Dominic Muldowney had spent almost a year working on a score rejected by the producers). This electronic, slightly popish soundtrack feels completely out of whack with the tone and style of the rest of the film. It’s very 1980s electronic tone doesn’t match the novel and it looks even worse today. That’s the danger when your passion project can only get finance from a record company!

The other problem is the film is very much an adaptation: wonderfully done, brilliantly designed and acted, but it exists best as a companion piece. In fact the full enjoyment of the film pretty much relies on having read the book – and it has virtually no appeal to someone who didn’t already know the book (even the 2-minute hate that opens the film isn’t explained). Historically I think the film is very easy to overlook as it came out at a very similar time to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Brazil doesn’t adapt the plot of Orwell’s book – but in all other senses it’s an adaptation of the heart of that novel, told with greater artistry and imagination than here. It’s a thematic adaptation that is its own beast not just a page-to-screen version. That’s what 1984 is and, however well done, it will always be in the shadow of the original.

Radford’s labour of love is still a very good film. Somehow what was pretty bleak on the page is even more traumatising on screen. A lot of this is due to Radford’s balance between oppression and freedom, and the film’s perfect adaptation of the book’s themes. But a lot of it is due to Hurt’s heartfelt, sympathetic and perfect performance in the lead role. Literally no-one else could have played this role: and from the opening shots of him at a party rally, through scenes of love, torture and traumatised aftermath, he’s simply wonderful. Read the book: but once you do enjoy (if you can!) the film.