Tag: Johnny Depp

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Blood, guts and gore in this horror-tinged, claret-dipped Burton adaptation of Sondheim’s musical

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Jayne Wisener (Johanna Barker), Sacha Baron Cohen (Adolfo Pirelli), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy Barker/Beggar Woman), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Ed Sanders (Toby Ragg)

Sondheim’s blood-soaked musical about the infamous serial-killing barber, intent on revenge against the judge who transported him to Australia and stole his late wife, took years to make it to screen. His intensely theatrical, intricate musical masterpieces don’t always translate to film – they lack that crowd-pleasing oomph. What with Todd slashing throats with misanthropic glee, aided by besotted neighbour Mrs Lovett baking the bodies into pies, and no wonder Sweeney was a difficult pitch.

However, it’s practically tailor-made for the High Priest of Gothic Oddity, Tim Burton. A lifelong Hammer horror fan, it’s no surprise Burton had loved the musical since first seeing it in 1980. He’s a perfect match for this stuff, and his film is a bleak, heavily desaturated, oppressively grim and strikingly optimism-free descent into a subterranean hell, with almost every scene accompanied by a free-flowing deluge of Shining-style levels of blood.

Sweeney Todd is a design triumph (Oscar-winning for its production design and nominated for its costumes). It’s London is like an Oliver! set run through a fevered nightmare slasher film. Everything is grandiose, filthy and above all cold, oppressive and unwelcoming. Most of the light comes from the reflection of moonlight on the blades of Todd’s razors, and the basement of his building is a gruesome horror show, with a pumping furnace and mangled body parts in a mincer.

The film shocked critics expecting a more traditional Broadway musical translation with the dark glee it embraces the gore. When throats are slashed – which occurs as regularly as clockwork – blood sprays over the actors, camera and virtually everything else. Sweeney’s chair drops his victims head-first into the cellar: each fall is seen in terrible detail, bodies landing with a sickening crunch, twisted out of shape and heads smashed open on the stone floor. There is little black comedy, the film embracing flat-out horror.

It also focuses on the black hate in Sweeney’s heart, his fixation on revenge at any costs and the lack of any trace of humanity within him. While Mrs Lovett longs to turn this “relationship” into something more intimate and loving – she even sings about it in By the Sea to the stony-faced indifference of Sweeney – to Sweeney she is little more than a convenient means to an end. Bravely, no real attempt is made to make us feel real sympathy for this brutal killer – and the visceral brutality of his killings only adds to this.

The film is dominated by its two leads, simplifying the musical down to something leaner, swifter and meaner. This is a dark revenge tragedy doubling as a character study of its two leads’ souls. These places a lot of pressure on Depp and Carter. Sweeney Todd was very much at the apex of a trend in musical film-making where stars were trained to sing, rather than casting skilled singers who can act. Sweeney Todd is an immensely complex musical, with deeply challenging lead parts. Even using the intimacy and immediacy of the camera to bring the scale down (they don’t need to hit the back row), it still must have been intimidating to sing with very little experience.

Depp and Carter however acquit themselves well. Working with a director they both trust implicitly, they give dark, twisted performances of unspoken longings. Depp, in one of his finest and most restrained performances (which says a lot about the irritating abandon of many of his other roles) that stresses Sweeney’s sociopathic coldness. He is a tortured man, turning his unhappiness and self-loathing into a weapon to slice open the world. Carter channels sociopathic eccentricity with a tenderness, vulnerability and desperation for love.

As singers however, they are competent rather than inspired. Depp goes for an earthy, Bowie-esque, Rex Harrison-paced growl that conveys the emotion but simplifies the songs and robs them of some of their impact. Carter’s more lively rendition carries more character, but in both cases you wonder what would have happened if the film had married its cinematic visuals with assured Broadway performers. The best singers by far are Jamie Campbell Bower (whose role as the would-be lover of Sweeney’s long-lost daughter is heavily cut) and Ed Sanders, who is excellent as the orphan taken under Mrs Lovett’s wing (West End-star Laura Michelle Kelly, perversely, barely sings a note).

The focus on Sweeney and Mrs Lovett leaves little room for the other actors. Rickman brings a subtle perversion to Judge Turpin – even though, bless him, he’s not the best singer – and Spall a creepy eccentricity to the Beadle. But this is the Sweeney show, a decision that robs the film of any trace of the more hopeful elements of the original, to zero in on the dark horrors.

The film pulls few punches, but never makes us care about Sweeney. For all the trims, it’s surprisingly poorly-paced (especially considering its short run-time). Such little importance is given to the supporting characters, time feels wasted when we are with them. The cuts also stress how little actual plot there is around Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (once they decide to embark on a life of crime, there is little that happens to sustain the film through its middle act).

The film is a Gothic slasher triumph, but it’s perhaps neither a great musical nor a truly engaging tragedy. A slice more humanity, in between the slashed throats, might have helped a great deal.

Chocolat (2000)

Juliette Binoche changes people’s lives with sweet treats in Chocolat

Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Juliette Binoche (Vianne Rocher), Judi Dench (Armande Voizin), Alfred Molina (Comte de Reynaud), Lena Olin (Josephine Muscat), Johnny Depp (Roux), Victoire Thivisol (Anouk Roucher), Hugh O’Conor (Pere Henri), Carrie-Anne Moss (Caroline Clairmont), Peter Stormare (Serger Muscat), Leslie Caron (Madame Audel), John Wood (Guillaume Blerot), Elisabeth Commelin (Yvette Marceau), Ron Cook (Alphonse Marceau)

In 1950s France, expert chocolatiere Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), and her six-year-old daughter Anouk (Victorire Thivisol) travel the country following the North Wind accompanied only by Anouk’s imaginary kangaroo. If that sentence alone has too much whimsy for your stomach to take, don’t invest two hours of your time in the rest of the film. Vianne and her daughter rock up in a very traditional town, run by the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), a stuffed-shirt who won’t admit his wife has left him. The austere Comte is horrified when Vianne’s sweet goodies prove super popular with the townspeople, whose lives suddenly start to change in profound and exciting ways as the quality of the chocolate helps them discover their own suppressed desires.

As if the title alone wasn’t enough of a warning, Chocolat is almost impossibly sweet, like being water-boarded by hot chocolate. Shot in a village that can only be described as chocolate box, it’s twee, sentimental and exhibits practically all the worst elements of cosy women’s fiction. With Miramax muscle behind it, this heavy-going confection briefly persuaded the world it was some sort of easy-going arthouse picture – rather than a smug fable of cliched situations and characters, coated in an unsettling number of scenes of actors eating chocolate with orgasmic grins.

It will not surprise you to hear that Vianne’s arrival in the village is the catalyst for huge change – the sort of change a trailer would surely describe as “their lives were all starters, until she showed them the importance of dessert”. Vianne is played by Juliette Binoche channelling Nigella Lawson as a yummy mummy domestic goddess. Her shop operates with the sort of business model that only exists in escapist fiction: customers spin a sort of Rorschach wheel and whatever they see in the picture decides the chocolate they will buy (no one would dare ask “Do you just have a box of milktray?”). The whimsy is nearly as thick as the molten goodies in the mixing bowl.

The village is stuffed with esteemed actors going through the motions. Judi Dench shows Maggie Smith that she can play crusty-old-women-with-hearts-of-gold as easily as her, as a grandmother who has been refused access to her grandson by his over-cautious mother. (It’s the sort of role people love to see veteran actors do, and duly landed Dench an Oscar-nomination). With some flatly written lines, Dench provides a bit of sparkle in a role she could play standing on her head. Carrie-Anne Moss is pretty good as her daughter, a repressed fusspot, who won’t let her son have fun. John Wood plays a crusty bachelor with the hots for war widow Leslie Caron. You don’t need to be a master confectioner to mix these ingredients together into the expected resolutions.

Hallström keeps events ticking gently along, in a film so soothing it seems designed to help you fall asleep. For a while Hallström was the go-to-guy for middle-brow, unimaginatively “prestige” adaptations of middle-brow, popular novels (this was his second after The Cider House Rules – and he had several to follow – each progressively a bit worse than the one before). The closest genuine emotion comes from Lena Olin’s abused wife of bullying café owner Peter Stormare. Sure, Olin’s problems are solved in about a few minutes, but the threat to her from Stormare is an intrusion of something that feels genuinely dramatic in what is otherwise a souffle. (Olin gets the film’s only memorable line, whacking her husband over the head when he attacks Vianne with the words “Who says I can’t use a skillet”, a line that’s both rather funny and bizarrely out of place.)

Naturally, the stuffy village learning needs to learn to cut lose a bit and embrace life, love and happiness. Alfred Molina’s Comte is the sort of chap who browbeats the local priest (who loves himself a bit of Elvis) into parroting the conservative sermons he’s written for him about the virtue of being miserable. Of course, the Comte is actually a decent guy (when he finds out what a bastard Stormare is, he banishes him at once), just old-fashioned and as much in need of the orgasmic power of chocolate to heal his pain as everyone else. Did Cadburys and Hersheys sponsor this film?

Just when you thought the film’s cosy warmth and supreme heritage gentleness couldn’t get more trying, it tops itself with the arrival of a punch of whimsical Romani people even more smackably smug than Vianne. Worst of all they are led by Johnny Depp at his most lazily teenage dream-boat, sporting a pony-tail and a bizarre Irish accent. He’s even more of a free-spirit than anyone else, strumming his guitar at the drop of his hat. You’ll dream of a hole in his boat taking him to the bottom of the Seine.

It all ends as you might expect: everyone discovers lovely things about themselves and each other, everyone settles down, Depp and Binoche get-it-on (and keep the relationship going as he drifts in-and-out town), the Comte becomes a top bloke and the invisible kangaroo skips away on the North Wind. Eat a box of Quality Street instead.

Public Enemies (2009)

Johnny Depp rides into action as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s underwhelming Public Enemies

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Johnny Depp (John Dillinger), Christian Bale (FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis), Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Billy Crudup (J Edgar Hoover), Stephen Dorff (Homar van Meter), Stephen Lang (Agent Charles Winstead), Stephen Graham (Baby Face Nelson), Jason Clarke (Red Hamilton), David Wenham (Harry Pierpont), Spencer Garrett (Tommy Carroll), Christian Stolte (Charles Makley), Giovanni Ribisi (Alvin Karpis), Bill Camp (Frank Nitti), Branka Katic (Anna Sage)

Michael Mann has an affinity for crime films. With Heat as one of his calling cards, Public Enemies is his attempt to do the same in the classic prohibition and bank robbery era of the 1920s. The guys going head-to-head this time?  John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), coolest robber there is, an icon of the criminal classes, and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) rigid and committed FBI agent. Public Enemies however fails to match Heat, falling part way between history lesson and action thriller. Covering the last few years of Dillinger’s life, and the rise of the FBI, it’s a cold, strangely uninvolving film mixed with a few stand out action scenes where tommy guns go blazing.

One of the first things it impossible to miss about the film is Mann’s decision to shoot the film using HD video cameras. The advantages of this is it gives much of the film an immediacy and modern look that throws the viewer into the middle of the action and makes this at times look and feel like a piece of news reel footage rather than a period piece. The camera choice allows Mann to put the camera right into the action, capturing every detail at a fast pace. The film has the look at times of a genuine documentary, and removing the richness of film also gives it the air of being caught on a phone, like some of this was some sort of found footage. Or rather, a phone that has been handled by a gifted cinematographer for perfect framing.

The downside of the choice of HD camera is that it makes the film at times look rather like a behind-the-scenes DVD documentary, with its untextured shadows and lack of lighting. Frankly at points it makes the film look bizarrely a little bit dull in places, or unusually unprofessional. Personally, I feel the benefits it gives in immediacy are cancelled out by this. But that’s just me.

Away from Mann’s shooting style – and his usual high octane skill of cutting and assembling action scenes – the film showpieces a strange lack of insight into its characters or any real developments of their hinterland. This is particularly so in the case of Purvis who never comes to life either in the film’s staging of him, or in Bale’s firm jawed, muted performance. When the final film caption throws up news of his later resignation and years later possible suicide it doesn’t make you question things you have seen in the film or feel like a logical progression: it just doesn’t tally up at all. 

The film does get some material out of how both sides play the media game. Purvis is a reluctant but fairly skilled player. His boss J Edgar Hoover (rather well played by Billy Crudup in one of the films best performances) is obsessed with spinning the nascent FBI to the media – half his scenes are bookended by press conferences – and his primary motivation is to exhibit himself to the media as the only logical choice for leading the FBI and the essentialness that it gains the powers it needs. Similarly, Dillinger and his fellow criminals delight in their media profile and do their damnedest to build up images of themselves as Robin Hoods (without the giving to the poor of course).

This is captured in Johnny Depp’s charismatic performance as Dillinger, a brooding, intense figure who would like to see himself as a sort of poet of the underworld. Dillinger talks about the banks money being their only interest and is frequently charming with an edge with regular people. He prefers bloodless robberies as they are cleaner and demonstrates a genuine sense of romantic openness with his girlfriend Billie. However, he is no angel. While he does not use violence as a first resort, he has no hesitation about using it as a second and will happily put bystanders at risk and rough up bank staff to get what he wants. He talks of escaping, but it’s clear that the game is an addiction for him and the danger is enjoyable – he takes an illicit thrill at one point of sitting in a cinema while his mugshot appears on the screen, wondering if anyone will dare spot him.

Depp’s performance is the finest thing in the film, a subtle and intelligent tightrope walk that teases depths that are perhaps not there, and suggests sympathies and agendas he perhaps does not have. While the character remains unknowable, you sense a great complexity and conflict there somewhere. He’s helped by being given a great actress like Marion Cottilard to play off, who makes Billie much more than just a gangster’s moll.

There is potential in the film, but it never really comes to life. For all the exciting shoot outs and drama, none of its characters are engaging or really interesting. The rest of the supporting cast feel like pieces to be moved around the board – many disappear with no real trace – and their fates pre-ordained by the demands of the plot. It makes for a rather flat experience, full of style, but never making you invest in it.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Eddie Redmaynes wades his way through the murky Crimes of Grindelwald

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Jude Law (Albus Dumbledore), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindelwald), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Zoë Kravitz (Leta Lestrange), Callum Turner (Theseus Scamander), Carmen Ejogo (Seraphina Picquery), Claudia Kim (Nagini), William Nadylum (Yusuf Kama), Kevin Guthrie (Abernathy), Brontis Jodorowsky (Nicolas Flamel), Derek Riddell (Torquil Travers)

What were the Crimes of Grindelwald? Well the main one is this film. Grindelwald does what we thought might have been impossible – he features prominently in the first flat-out bad Harry Potter film. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a near incomprehensible mess of clumsy set-up for future plots, tedious side-plots, poorly executed drama and a vast array of not particularly interesting characters struggling through not particularly interesting events with low stakes. I feel asleep twice for a few moments in the film. There is very little in it to recommend.

Dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) opens the film by escaping from captivity and flees to Paris. There he plans to – well to be honest I’m not terribly sure what he is planning to do at all. I think it involves something about world domination. Also it involves locating and winning to his side mysterious young wizard Credence (Ezra Miller) from the first film. Meanwhile Grindelwald’s old friend (or was it more? The film ain’t saying) Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to Paris to find Credence first. Lots of things sort of happen after that, but most of them are building up to the next three (three!) films.

Three films? Seriously? Was that something they had in mind from the start? It feels a lot more likely it’s an idea that came out of the financial success of the first film, rather than any artistic decision. It’s certainly very hard indeed to see many narrative, tonal or thematic links from the first film carrying across to this one. This one feels like it comes from a completely different type of story. More than anything, the film-makers seemed to desperately want to forget the whole “fantastic beasts” angle we started this damn thing with. The odd beast is thrown in every so often to keep ticking the title box, but this flies off (or tries to) into such different, would-be darker, stakes that the beasts never feel a natural link. This is a film that wants – with its muted palette, murders, darkness and (in one supremely misjudged moment) a Holocaust reference – to set us on a dark path to future misery and war. Whatever happened to chasing beasts around to catch them in a suitcase?

Instead the film doubles down on Potter-lore.  You virtually need a PhD in the Potterverse to keep on top of what’s going on. Spells, objects, phrases, charms and incantations are thrown in all over the place, with very little explanation for the audience. Now I can roll with this a certain amount, hell we’ve all read the books and seen the films, but there are at least a few things in here that could desperately do with some reminders for the audience (what is an obscurus again?) so that we can understand their contextual importance. Instead the film barrels along, throwing plot points all over the place and ramming information into our ears.

In fact, most of the film is like an epic info-dump of material designed to set up stuff for later films. Again, you can’t help but feel that they suddenly realised after completing the first film that if they were going to spin this out into another multi-volume series, there were lots and lots and lots of plot threads they hadn’t even attempted to introduce at the start. Instead of taking a bit of time to build these things in and make us care about them, this film throws them into the mix as quickly as possible to make up for lost time.

In all this mass pile of information thrown at us, the film could really do with less going on. There is a massive, red-herring- filled plot about a character’s family history that takes up loads of screen time and eventually turns out to mean absolutely nothing at all. This is a misdirection that could work well in a book – but in a film as crammed and packed as this one, it makes you tear your hair out. How long did we spend on this and it means naff all at the end!

In fact, you can’t help but feel that Rowling as tried to write a book here rather than a film. These sprawling bits of wizarding lore, universe building, red herrings and other plots would have worked really well if she had 500 pages of prose to explore and build them in. But she’s not experienced enough a screenwriter to make them work well here. If another scriptwriter had adapted her ideas into something that works as a screenplay – the sort of focused work that changed the sprawling Order of the Phoenix into a tightly focused couple of hours – the film would be far better.

But instead, the film feels like everyone has got far too used to producing these epics, to a certain style of making the films. There is a lack of fresh ideas here, with a lack of independent or new eyes to see the whole and suggest how an outsider could see it. This also extends to David Yates’ direction which, while competent and well managed as ever, now feels like he has run out of ideas of how to film this wizarding stuff in a new way, which is fair enough after five films. It’s a film that desperately needs fresh new blood in it, and a universe that needs the sort of creative kick-up-the-backside that Alfonso Cuaron gave in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

You feel sorry for some of the actors carried across from the first film. Dan Fogler has so little to do that he would have been better off not being in the film. His absence (for instance, if his memory wipe from the previous film had stuck) would at least have been motivation for the actions of Queenie in this film, who gets a rushed and nonsensical character arc that seems to completely change the character we got to know in the first film. Katherine Waterston is saddled with virtually nothing as Tina.

Instead, far more time is given over to Johnny Depp. Depp’s casting was controversial to say the least – and not worth it. Depp gives one of his truly lazy, eccentric performances – aiming possibly for brooding intensity, he instead lands out dull and underwhelming, a charisma vacuum. It’s hard to see him leading hundreds of followers in a revolution. Jude Law does far better as a twinkly Dumbledore (even if his performance bears little resemblance to Gambon or Harris), and his scenes are the highlights of the film. The film, by the way, shies cowardly away from any real depiction at all at the alleged love affair (which Rowling talks about) between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, presumably because it would make the film a harder sell in China.

And what of our hero? Well Eddie Redmayne is still charming, but his character feels out of step with the increasingly darker tone the film aims for. He’s also saddled with a supremely dull and unengaging sort of love-triangle with his brother (a forgettable Callum Turner) and ex-girlfriend and brother’s fiancée Leta Lestrange (an out of her depth Zoë Kravitz). The film talks a bit about the troubled relationship of the Scaramander brothers – but is so rushed it never has time to really show us any of this, so instead has to tell us about it, even though everything we see basically shows their relationship as being reserved but loving.

But then that’s just par for the course of this underwhelming and deeply uninvolving film. The stakes should feel really high, but they never do because to be honest you are never really sure what they are. The film ends with the expected fire filled wizarding special effects stuff – but honest to God I had no idea what was going on, why it was happening, what was the danger or where it came from. It just felt like the film needed to end with a bang. There are moments of this film that should have had some emotional force but they don’t because it’s so crammed to the margins with plots, superfluous characters (many of whom are introduced with fanfare and then barely appear in the film) and pointless digressions that when things happen to characters we care about from the first film, it doesn’t carry the force it should. Five films of this? I’m not sure on the basis of this I’d want to see another five minutes. A major, major, major misfire.

Into the Woods (2014)

James Corden and Meryl Streep in the strangely flat Into the Woods

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Meryl Streep (The Witch), Emily Blunt (The Baker’s Wife), James Corden (The Baker), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother), Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s Mother), Johnny Depp (The Big Bad Wolf), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince), Tammy Blanchard (Florinda), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), Frances de la Tour (Giant’s Wife), Simon Russell Beale (Baker’s Father)

Musicals are big box office. Everyone has a side of themselves that enjoys the razzmatazz of song and dance numbers. In the world of the musical, Stephen Sondheim is often seen as the pinnacle of musical master craftsmen – and for years, studios had tried to bring Into the Woods, his musical reimagining of fairy tales, to the big screen. Was it worth it? Um, possibly not.

A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are desperate to have a child. A witch (Meryl Streep) claims she has cursed them after the baker’s father (Simon Russell Beale) stole magic beans from her garden. She will lift the curse in return for four items she can use to lift a curse on her – a milk white cow, a red coat, a glass slipper and some golden hair. Well if you know anything about fairy tales it won’t take you long to figure out which tales we are going to be heading into with that list – and sure enough Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) all make appearances. But here the happy ending comes half way through the story – how will the characters deal with the impact of their choices when they have to face the consequences of their actions?

Okay I’m going to be honest, Into the Woods left me a little cold as just a musical. I didn’t really get into any of the numbers as they were playing, and the basic storyline is an odd combo: half satire, half social commentary on the dangers of getting what you want at all costs. I mean that’s clever stuff, and some big themes, but the movie certainly seems to wear them very heavily. And the movie also fails to make the musical sections engaging or inspiring – instead they are rather leadenly staged with very little real vibrancy or joy.

What’s already a rather disengaging musical isn’t helped by Rob Marshall’s leaden direction, which positions each scene with a flatness where the actors get lost in the wide screen and murky set design. Into the Woods is an astonishingly boring film to look at, murky and dimly lit, mistaking lighting (or lack of it) for mood. Every single scene is dingy and poorly framed, with events occurring in front of the viewer but never really getting engaging or interesting. Nothing strikes you interest.

It becomes a film that really isn’t that interesting to watch. This is despite some very strong efforts from nearly all the cast. Meryl Streep inevitably captured most of the praise as the Witch, and she is good, but there is something a little too artificial about her performance for my taste, something not quite heartfelt. But Emily Blunt is very good (and an excellent singer as well – who knew!) as the Baker’s wife, full of humanity and warmth. Chris Pine brings some excellent comic timing to the impossibly vain and preening Prince. There are plenty of other good moments as well, as most of the cast throw themselves into it. 

But these moments keep getting lost in sequences that just aren’t interesting. For every amusing sing-off between the two princes on a waterfall, or moment of genuine warmth and charm between the baker and his wife, we get sequences of unbearable smugness (principally Johnny Depp’s appalling look-at-me cameo as the Big Bad Wolf). British character actors abound all over the place, but most have virtually nothing to do. In addition, the violence and horror elements of the original musical – as the cast deal with the terrible consequences of their actions and turn on each other – are toned down considerably.

In fact, as leading characters start dying left, right and centre, it’s not really shocking enough (as the darkness of their fates is skirted around), as Marshall’s camera meekly turns away  from anything that might cause a fraction of upset. Wasn’t the whole point of fairy tales – and I suppose the original musical – to deal with both the darkness and the light? Why make such a dark musical and then try and force it into being a 12A rating? Why make a movie that tackles dark themes and then shy away from them as often as possible?

It’s part of the slightly incoherent mood of Into the Woods – it never really clicks. It doesn’t really offer much to enjoy: the musical numbers (after the opening title number) are pretty unengaging, and they are filmed with a dull unimaginativeness. Despite the money spent on it, the film looks really cheap. While there are a couple of good performances, others – like Anna Kendrick – are trying a little too hard. It’s a story that is supposed to be about the dark heart of fairy tales, and how reality after a happy ending often isn’t as jolly as we think it is – instead it’s a story that never really feels like it’s about anything.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler uncover some Fantastic Beasts

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw Snr), Carmen Ejogo (President Seraphona Picquery), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw), Josh Cowdery (Henry Shaw Jnr), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindelwald)

Eventually the gravy train had to come to an end. The Harry Potter franchise laid golden eggs for over a decade, until Rowling’s books came to an end. Just as well then that the incomparable JK Rowling had tonnes of invention left up her sleeve, and was keen to look at other elements of the Potterverse. So we got the creation of this sideways prequel, set in the rich backstory of the Harry Potter novels. And it is a bit of a treat.

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts. He’s there to return one of them home – but after a mix-up at a bank his suitcase ends up in the hands of muggle (or as the Americans put it “No-Maj”) and would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As the escaped beasts cause chaos, demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) works with Newt and Jacob to try and recapture the creatures, with the aid of Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sodel). But is all the destruction truly caused by Newt’s creatures? Or are there darker forces at work? 

Fantastic Beasts is a charming spin-off, sustained by some endearing performances, its warm heart and stylish design. Whether the plot is quite strong enough to reward constant viewing as much as many of the Harry Potter films do, I’m not sure (I didn’t find its story particularly gripping the second time around), but I think there are enough incidental pleasures there to keep you coming back for more. It’s actually a film which will be interesting to re-evaluate after the later sequels emerge – there are many suggested threads set up in this one for exploration later.

It’s not a surprise that the initial plot around chasing and collecting the beasts is fairly basic, since it’s based on a slim handbook (itself based on a reference from the original Harry Potter stories) that Rowling published as a Comic Relief fundraiser. Besides the chasing around to capture the animals, it’s only really the backdrop for sight-gags, cute animals and (most importantly) our window for getting to know our leads.

And these leads are certainly well worth getting to know, with a string of excellent performances from the four principals. Redmayne anchors the film very well as the slightly dotty, professorial, socially awkward Newt, whose coy, bashful charm really endears him to the viewer. Dan Fogler is possibly even better as our viewer surrogate, an average New Yorker thrown into a mad world of magic who somehow manages to take it all in his stride and whose growing excitement and embracing of this demented wizard world makes you fall in love with him. He’s helped by a sweet, gentle and touching romance with the effervescent but lonely Queenie (a magnetic Alison Sudol). Katherine Waterston gets the trickiest part as the earnest, try-hard, play-by-the-rules Tina – but her growing fondness for Newt and his creatures works very well.

The moments of the film that focus on the interaction between these four are the finest of the film – as are those that allow us a glimpse of Newt’s wonderful creatures. Housed in a Mary Poppins-ish suitcase of infinite TARDIS-like depth, these beasts are brilliantly designed and wonderfully individual, from a cute mole-like Niffler (naughtily stealing shiny things like a magpie), to a horny Erumpent (like a hippo and rhino mixed), to the majestic Thunderbird, a sort of Eagle-Phoenix, soaring through the plains in Newt’s suitcase. Even the small Bowtruckle Newt carries in his pocket gets to develop a sense of personality. (And yes I had to look all these names up).

These creatures are both individualistic but also used for very specific purposes in the film, from lock-picking to a sort of bizarre self-defence weapon. Despite their horrific appearances, the film treats them with as much understanding sweetness as Newt does – even the dangerous ones are only dangerous when riled or threatened, and Newt’s protective nature helps us to feel as fond of them as he does.

Away from the beasts, the film largely focuses on setting up threads (and threats) for future films. A major sub-plot revolves around an anti-Magical society run by a stern-faced Samantha Morton. The film heads into darker territories here, with its references to both cults and the ill-treatment of children. Ezra Miller does well as Morton’s awkward, ill-treated adopted son, unable to escape from his oppression or express his frustration. Someone in this family is a powerful magical being called an Obscurus, and the film plays a neat game of bluff and double bluff around this.

It continues this game as it fills out the political magical world around Carmen Ejogo’s regal magical President. What game is Colin Farrell’s authoritarian Perceval Graves playing? What of the film’s opening references to dark wizard Grindelwald, and the suggested war that is bubbling under the surface in the magical world? All this darker stuff sits around the edges and margins of Newt’s beast-collecting storyline, occasionally seeping in (let’s not forget at one point Newt and Tina are literally sentenced to death for supposed crimes), but doesn’t overwhelm the lightness.

David Yates directs with a professionalism that comes from being hugely familiar with this world. His later sequences of Obscurus destruction are not always particularly different from other city-smashing scenes from other films. Not every plotline feels fully explored – Jon Voight playing a newspaper mogul and his two contrasting sons seems like a plot we could do without – but Yates does keep the film moving pacily forward, he gets the tone of light slapstick and family warmth and he still shoots the wonder of magic better than almost anyone.

Fantastic Beasts is a film that is perhaps a little too light and frothy to really be a classic – it juggles too many plots and doesn’t always bring them together well. It’s mixture of darkness and lightness is a little eclectic, and it sometimes feel very much like a film designed to set up future films effectively. But when it focuses on its four leads, it’s very strong indeed and all of them – particularly Fogler – are people you want to see more of. It even manages to end the film on both a genuine laugh and a heart-warming bit of romance, tinged with sadness. It’s a fine start to a new franchise.

Black Mass (2015)

Johnny Depp dives into his make-up box in this sup-par wannabe Goodfellas

Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Bulger), Rory Cochrane (Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), David Harbour (John Morris), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), Brad Carter (John McIntyre), W. Earl Brown (Johnny Martorano)

Well Goodfellas casts a long shadow doesn’t it? Certainly long enough to completely drown Black Mass which, despite some good acting and period detail, never really comes together into something compelling or engrossing or even really that interesting. But you’ve got to admire how often Scott Cooper must have watched Scorsese’s classic. Shame he didn’t bring anything new to the table.

In South Boston in the mid-1970s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) controls organised crime. With his rule under challenge from rival gangs, Bulger turns informer to the FBI – specifically agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) – offering information on his rivals in return for being allowed to take over their business. Inevitably, Bulger exploits the relationship for his own gain – with the increasingly blind-eye of Connolly who becomes more and more embroiled in the underworld. 

So there are good things in this. The period detail is pretty good. There are plenty of good gangster moments, even if they’re the reheated leftovers from everything from The Sopranos to Goodfellas. The low-level gangsters we follow have a slightly different perspective – even if most of their characters are completely interchangeable. It’s interesting that Bulger moved in such legitimate circles as the FBI and his State Senate President brother (well played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But the film never really makes this come together to mean anything. You don’t learn anything, you don’t understand anything new – it’s just a series of events.

That’s despite, to be fair, a very good performance by Johnny Depp. Sure the part caters to Depp’s Olivier-like love of the dressing-up box – here he sports bad teeth, a bald patch, a paunch and a pair of searing bright-blue contacts that make him look like a Muppet demon – but for all that, he is very good. His natural presence works to make Bulger a leader and he has a swaggering, dry, cruel quality to him that never makes him anything less than unsettling. He also conveys the monstrous moral blankness behind Bulger, using a fig-leaf of loyalty to cover his destruction.

It’s a shame then that he’s not really given anything to do. Too much of the part is reminiscent of other things: from Jack Nicholson in The Departed (to be fair, Bulger was the inspiration for that character), to Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you?” speech or his insanity from Casino. Montages as tired as a sleepless night run through the collection of funds and the beating of rivals. It’s just all so predictable. It’s a box ticking exercise. Yawn.

The biggest shame is that, in Connolly, the film has a far more interesting potential lead character. Imagine it repositioned to follow him instead: the semi-chancer, semi-star-struck kid swept up in the glamour of crime. So much more interesting. How far did he turn a blind eye? How far was he essentially an accomplice? Did he feel or know he was doing the wrong thing? Consider Depp’s brilliance in Donnie Brasco and then imagine what he could have made of this Faustian figure: and what an interesting film we could have had.

Instead, good as Edgerton is, the film barely scrapes the surface of his thoughts or motivations. We get beats – and his wife (excellently played by Julianne Nicholson) is clearly disgusted by his gangster friends – but it constantly falls flat as we keep pulling back to Bulger, or internal FBI arguments that tell us nothing. On top of this Bulger’s empire is ham-fistedly explained: it’s never clear what his reach is, what his main crimes are or what his aims are. We see killings but don’t often know why – and a sequence in Miami is so poorly explained I still don’t know what it was about.

The film introduces Bulger’s lieutenants – but reduces them to identikit hangers on. All the flash-back retrospective confessions (a framing device the film uses to very mixed effect) in the world can’t turn them into characters. Even Bulger’s relationship with his patrician brother gets lost in the shuffle – again a film focused on a crime lord and his State Senator brother would have been more interesting.

Black Mass is well made – but its problem is that there is on the edges a far more interesting film that never comes into focus. If they had chosen a different focus we could have had a film worth watching. Instead, like Connolly, the film is seduced away by the dark soul of Bulger. Depp is great – but the film is so in love with him and his transformation that it becomes something completely forgettable.

Platoon (1986)

Charlie Sheen goes to war in Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning Vietnam film Platoon

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Tom Berenger (Sgt Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt Elias), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Keith David (King), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Mark Moses (Lt Wolfe), John C. McGinley (Sgt O’Neill), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Johnny Depp (Lerner)

Vietnam has been a long-standing scar on the American psyche. For over 12 years, American soldiers were rolled into Vietnam to fight for something many of them were pretty unclear about. Vietnam was a bloody shadow boxing match for super powers to indirectly combat each other. American casualties were high, and the country that sees itself as championing justice and the free world ended the war with the blood of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians on its hands. Is it any wonder the country still struggles to compute this?

Before Platoon there had been films that had dealt with the Vietnamese experience. Apocalypse Now had embraced the druggy, morally confused insanity of the war. The Deer Hunter had effectively shown the traumatic impact the war had on regular blue-collar steel-workers. But Platoon was something different. This was the war on the ground, with privates and sergeants as the focus (many of them poor, working class and also black) – the lower rungs of American society flung into a war they don’t understand, in a country they can’t recognise, fighting an enemy they have no comprehension of. 

Platoon throws the audience into the visceral, cruel, terrifying horror of pointless conflict, with a feeling that the war will never end. Stone pulls off a difficult trick here: the film shows a horrifying picture of war and killing, but combines this with successfully showing the adrenalin rush that comes from conflict – and the excitement of visceral film-making. 

Oliver Stone had fought as a young man in a similar unit, after dropping out of college. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is effectively a surrogate figure for the director, with the film crafted from Stone’s own experiences and those of his fellow soldiers. The film is a simple, intense experience with a straightforward plot: Taylor is torn between two potential “father figures”. One, Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger), is a supernaturally ferocious warrior and martinet whom the men hold in awe. The other, St Elias (Willem Dafoe), is an equally fierce fighter, but also a hippy, nearly saint-like protective figure. Which of these two will Taylor side with?

Well okay it’s not a massive surprise really is it? The strength of Oliver Stone’s film is its visceral, bloody, impressive intensity. You are thrown into the midst of a series of terrible battles, interspersed with bored soldiers bickering or taking pot. At no time is the viewer (or the soldiers) given any real idea about what is going on, what the aims of the war are, what is really happening in the battles. Stone plays the film totally from the soldier’s POV. Battles are a confused mess at night. The location of the enemy is frequently unclear. There are no indications of any tactics at all. There is barely any leadership – Mark Moses’ Lt Wolfe is an almost hilariously ineffective moral weakling, who follows the leads of his sergeants. The soldiers (or rather the two sergeants) essentially operate as lone wolves, doing what they think best for any particular circumstance.

The film pivots on a confused raid on a Vietnamese village, as the platoon descends on a village for no very clear reason – apart from seemingly being pissed off that one of their number has been killed in the night. Nominally they are searching for Vietcong fighters. But really it seems like an excuse to let off steam. Platoon must have hit hard in the 1980s, as it doesn’t flinch at all from watching American soldiers committing atrocities. Women are shot, teenagers are beaten to death, a fox hole containing what looks like a child is exploded after a brief warning. The soldiers are all terrified, thrusting guns into Vietnamese faces. Above all Sgt Barnes feels no guilt at all at executing villagers in order to pressure the elders into telling what he thinks they might know about the Vietcong (who equally are largely faceless figures of terror in the distance stalking the platoon).

Where the film is less strong is in its plotting and narrative ideas. These are straightforward in the extreme, with Barnes and Elias almost literally as opposing devil and angel on Taylor’s shoulders. The film is clearly weighted in favour of Elias’ hippie mentality, his desire to preserve innocent lives and his caring attitude to his men. Barnes is presented far more harshly – even though his brutality stems from his own deep-rooted desire to keep his men safe, and his belief that Vietnam is hell and you can’t pussyfoot your way around hell. 

Saying that, it’s hard to argue against Stone’s feelings that compromising your humanity is not worth it no matter the struggles to keep yourself and others alive. But these are (forgive me) rather obvious, even traditional points – and its part of the film being essentially a conventional morality tale with a breath-taking military setting laid over the top. The ideas in this film won’t really challenge you – and in fact the film itself is really more of an experience than something that rewards reflection.

Stone’s direction is extremely good – even though he at times falls too much into the trap of overblown, overly operatic visuals (Taylor’s final confrontation with Barnes in the forest falls heavily into this trap). Stone has never been accused of being the most subtle of directors, and there is no stone (sorry) left unturned here to get the message across. In fact Platoon frequently hits its points so hard and with such unsubtle force, that it actually leaves you very little to think about after its finished – the film does all the work for you, like an angry rant that goes into unbelievable depth of detail.

But the acting has a very healthy commitment to it. Sheen shows why he was an actor of promise before he became a self-destructing punchline. Dafoe is very good as the serene Elias – a man’s man, but one comfortable in his own skin, with a strange campness about him, whose courage extends to doing the right thing no matter what. Tom Berenger is hugely impressive as the cold-edged Barnes, who has had to stamp out his humanity to survive. The rest of the characters split into two rival camps following these different soldiers, and there are some fine performances here from some now far more recognisable actors.

Platoon was garlanded with Oscars, partly because it talked about the American experience in Vietnam in a manner (and from a perspective) that had not been addressed before. It is an important historical landmark of a film, even if it is possibly not a great film. A simple, at times less than subtle anti-war film dressed up as a war film, it will immerse you in the conflict and the horror – but I’m not sure it will give you as much to think about as it thinks it does.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

A dishevelled Kenneth Branagh (and tache) investigates a Murder on the Orient Express

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Johnny Depp (Samuel Ratchett), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Derek Jacobi (Edward Masterman), Leslie Odom Jnr (Dr Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi), Miranda Raison (Sonia Armstrong)

Is there a murder mystery with a more widely known resolution than Murder on the Orient Express? Possibly not – if for no other reason that film and television versions of this story are as numerous as the suspects in the actual mystery. If that wasn’t a big enough challenge for Branagh to take on, he also joins a list of umpteen actors to play Poirot himself: following in the (very precise) footsteps of the big guns: Finney, Ustinov and of course, above all, David Suchet. How does his version of this most famous detective in his most famous adventure measure up? Well, with mixed results.

For those who don’t know, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is “possibly the world’s greatest detective”. Here, he is travelling back from Istanbul  on the Orient Express, a berth having being secured at the last minute by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) the director of the line. En route he is approached by the sinister Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who asks if he can serve as his bodyguard. Poirot refuses – only for Ratchett to be murdered that night. Bouc asks Poirot to investigate – and it soon becomes clear that the dozen other passengers in Ratchett’s carriage could all have had motives to kill him. But who is the killer?

Murder on the Orient Express is on the cusp of being a very good film. But, like the train itself, it gets bogged down too often in changes from the source material that add nothing, action scenes that feel toe-curlingly out of place, and bombastic filming that goes a little bit too far. In many ways it captures some of the faults of its director, my much-loved hero Kenneth Branagh – and I do love him, but as a director he has a tendency to make things too big, to wear his love of the complex shot on his sleeve; to basically try too hard. As a director, that’s what it feels like he’s doing here.

It’s filmed with a luscious, chocolate box, old-school Hollywood grandeur. The camera swoops and zooms over some gorgeous landscape as the train puffs through snowy mountain scenery. There are some loving travelogue tracking shots of Istanbul and Jerusalem. The film lingers with a loving eye on the luxury and class of the Orient Express itself (including some egregiously clunky product placement). The costumes look lovely.  But the end result of all this lavish filming is that it sometimes goes too far towards the reassuring, Boxing-Day-afternoon treat. 

Everything is a little too technicolour at points. It also means that some of Branagh’s more self-consciously tricksy camera work stands out a little too much. A “birds-eye” view of the discovery of the body (the camera above the heads of the actors looking straight down) is oddly disconnecting – it works a lot better when Poirot and Bouc examine the crime scene, giving the audience a god like view of the scene. Some overly complicated shots swoop up along the aqueduct where the train is stuck, past Poirot speaking to characters, then over the top of the train. It’s a rather too overblown and clumsy attempt to make a conversation seem cinematic – it feels a little forced.

It’s one of many points where the film feels like it is trying too hard to make the story edgier or more overtly cinematic. Not the least of these are sequences that up the action quotient. I feel very confident this is the first Poirot film you’ll ever see where the hero is involved in not one but two dynamic fights. One of these is a bizarre chase down the aqueduct with Poirot and another character. The second involves gunfire (an effective shock to be fair) and Poirot using his cane as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. 

There is nothing wrong with making Poirot more active – Branagh’s character is very much the ex-soldier and policeman, busting open the door to Ratchett’s berth to investigate, walking over the train’s roof, brow-beating the odd suspect (at one point at gun point). It’s just all too much – what audience is this playing to? Who really goes to a Poirot film expecting a goddamn fight scene? Even Count Andrenyi is introduced ninja-kickboxing photographers (I’m not joking here) – is this really what Agatha Christie would have wanted?

There are some odd choices made to deepen Poirot’s character. He is given some sort of lost romantic interest – no less than four times in the film he is given scenes where he holds a photo and bemoans “mon cher Kat-a-rean”. In the opening sequence, Poirot’s love of symmetry is introduced by him accidentally stepping in a cow pat and then stepping in it with his other foot to make each equal. Not only does a “stepping in shit” joke seem wildly out of place, but I don’t believe someone as fastidious and observant as Poirot would even step in it in the first place, let alone choose to step into it twice.

The train doesn’t just stop, it’s nearly taken out by an avalanche. A knife isn’t just discovered, it’s literally found stabbed into a character’s back. Characters have been changed to allow a more diverse cast – which I applaud – but making Arbuthnot a soldier turned doctor is a change that makes very little sense. The claustrophobia of the original is lost by having workers turn up almost immediately to dig the train out. Several scenes are filmed outside, with workers surrounding the train digging it out. Some of these undermine the original or are a little silly.

The suspect assemble

But I’m being really hard on this film because there are major flashes of promise here. Not least in Branagh’s performance as Poirot. I’m very confident in saying that, after David Suchet of course, this is the second best Poirot committed to film. The first thing anyone will notice is of course the moustache. Yes it looks absurd, but you attune to it quickly. It’s also a plot point: Poirot uses it, and his eccentricities, to lure people (Columbo style) into a false sense of security. When the film relaxes into just letting Poirot investigate (and hues closer to the original), Branagh gives Poirot a warm humanity and gentleness. His eyes are a wonder – intense disks of sadness. 

Branagh gives Poirot a love of order and justice that defines his world view – and the film introduces a moral conundrum for Poirot in the solution of the crime. I would say David Suchet’s TV version did this better – stressing Poirot’s Catholicism and belief in the rule of law as major factors that conflict him when confronted with the solution. But Branagh captures a real sense of Poirot’s conflict (even if the solution reveal is overplayed and overshot – right down to a “last supper” style tableaux in a railway tunnel) and his sadness, confusion and decency are really lovely – there is even a very neat touch with him forgetting to straight and smarten his appearance, as he deals with the ramifications of his solution to the murder. He looks like cartoon character, but he makes Poirot a real man. I would definitely like to see him do the role again.

The rest of the all-star cast rather struggle for crumbs, as the focus remains solidly on Poirot (largely because the film is intended as the possible first in a series). Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, charming and endearing but also given a character arc that sees him develop and change. Of the stars, Depp is suitably grimy as Ratchett, Pfeiffer imperiously stylish and skittish as Hubbard and Odum Jnr affecting as Arbuthnot. I was very taken with Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham, a young charm hiding steel underneath. Dafoe, Dench, Colman, Jacobi and the rest are given little to do but are reliably excellent when they are. Others like Cruz feel wasted. 

When the film focuses on Poirot simply investigating, it is very good. Each interrogation of the passengers is brilliantly played by Branagh – Poirot subtly adjusting his methods and approach depending on the person he is talking to. Poirot’s introduction sequence in Jerusalem has a playful Sherlock feel to it: Poirot solving a crime in seconds (having been dragged from his hotel, where he pickily demands eggs that are perfectly equal), including accurately predicting how the criminal will try and escape. There are lots of lovely moments – but just when you settle down to enjoy it, something wildly over-the-top or silly happens.

Murder on the Orient Express is by no stretch of the imagination a bad movie. In some places, it’s charming and a lot of fun. If it’s designed for watching on a bank holiday afternoon it works very well. But it’s, at best, the third best version of this story on film (after the 1974 Lumet film and the Suchet TV version). Do we really need to watch the third best version of an already familiar story? If we could transplant Branagh’s performance into Lumet’s film, now that would be something. But as it is, we’ve got a decent if flawed film that just tries too hard to do too much.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Pacino and Depp deliver low-key, carefully controlled, sensitive performances: how often do you get to write that?

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Al Pacino (Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano), Bruno Kirby (Nicky Santora), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), James Russo (“Paulie” Cersani), Željko Ivanek (Tim Curley), Gerry Becker (Dean Blandford), Robert Miano (Al “Sonny Red” Indelicato), Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti (FBI Technicians)

The Mafia film genre is a crowded market, so it’s a brave film maker who enters it with something a little different. But we get that with Donnie Brasco, which focuses on the bottom rungs of the Mafia ladder, suggesting that being a low-ranking member of “this thing of ours” is in many ways quite similar to being a corporate drone in the big city, only with more killing.

Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is an undercover FBI agent, infiltrating the New York Mafia. He wins the trust of “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a Mafia hitman. Drawn deeper into the Mafia world, the pressure builds on Pistone/Brasco, who slowly becomes more and more indistinguishable from the criminals he spends his time with – and feels guilty about the deadly fate Lefty will meet if the Mafia discover he inadvertently introduced a rat into the family.

Newell’s film (from Paul Attanasio’s excellent script) is a dry deconstruction of the gangster life, bringing it closer to the grind of the 9-5. The criminals put in long hours to earn the income they need to push up to those above them. Class distinctions abound – in one scene, Sonny Black (a good performance of ambition and resentment from Michael Madsen) forces a smile onto his face while mob bosses laugh openly at his dress sense. Lefty whines like a mule about everything from his lack of recognition to how put-upon he is (never has a mantra about 26 hits over a lifetime sounded more like complaints about constant filing requests). He could easily be mistaken half the time for a harrassed office junior who never made the grade. When violence comes, it’s sudden, graphic, confused and brutal – a hit in a basement goes far from smoothly with one victim struggling for his life while another screams in pain.

On the other hand, the gangsters are also suggested to be maladjusted teens who never grew up. The more time Donnie spends with them, the less and less capable he becomes of relating to (or even communicating with) his wife and family. The gangsters have a routine lack of empathy for each other and treat the rules of “our thing” like a boys’ clubhouse. Many of their actions have an ill-thought-out juvenility to them: Sonny at one point steals a lion for Lefty as a gift – in a bizarre scene immediately afterwards, Lefty and Donnie feed it hamburgers through the window while it sits in the back seat of Donnie’s car. On a work-trip in Florida, the gangsters behave like kids – mucking around in the pool, delightedly going down waterflumes, burying Lefty in the sand on the beach while he sleeps. Even Lefty is overcome like a star-struck teen when meeting a famed Florida boss.

It’s not surprising that Donnie and Lefty, both outsiders in a way, are drawn together as kindred spirits in this strange, unbalanced world. Donnie obviously is an FBI agent, but Lefty is a world-weary old-timer, with a sense of honour who seems (apart from his ease with killing and violence) to be the most “normal” of the gangsters. The film is a careful construction of the growth of loyalty between these characters – particularly the slow development of Donnie’s feelings of genuine friendship towards Lefty. What’s effective is that this is a gradual process without a definable key moment. Instead, it becomes rather touching as Donnie starts to avoid moving closer to better “contacts” in order to remain close to Lefty. Donnie Brasco might be one of the few films that really gets a type of male friendship, and the unspoken emotional bonds that underpin them.

Perhaps the best things about Donnie Brasco are the two wonderful performances we get from actors who never knowlingly underplay. Watching this and Ed Wood is a reminder of the actor Johnny Depp could have been, before clowning in Pirates of the Caribbean seemed to shatter his focus. Brasco/Pistone is a brilliantly low-key presentation of a fractured personality. At first, the differentiation between the two personalities is distinct and clear – but as the film progresses, Depp allows the two to almost c/ollapse into each other. Everything from his body language to his manner of speaking slowly repositions itself as he becomes more consumed by the gangster world. Depp is also very good at not losing track of Pistone’s horror at murder and violence, while allowing the Brasco persona to take part in its aftereffects. The quiet building of guilt in his eyes at the fate he is creating for Lefty is also gently underplayed, making it more effective.

However, this is Al Pacino’s movie. It’s certainly Pacino’s last great performance: with the added frisson that he’s Michael Corleone demoted to the bottom rung of the ladder, Pacino is magnetic. Lefty is a put-upon whiner, who still has a charisma of his youth that draws Donnie (and others) in. A man of strong moral principles, who treats Donnie with a fatherly regard, uncomfortable with much of the ostentation of his fellow gangsters, he’s also a ruthless killer who blithely shrugs off his killing of an old friend. All Pacino’s bombast is only rarely deployed for impact – instead Lefty is a low-key, almost sad figure, whose chance in life has passed by.

One extraordinary scene late on deserves particular mention. I won’t spoil things too much, but Lefty prepares to leave the house after a phone call full of bad news. Carefully, sadly, he smartens himself up then returns (after saying goodbye to his wife) to gently remove his valuables and leave them in a drawer for his wife – he even carefully leaves the drawer ajar so she can find it. Setting himself before leaving the house, he takes a small look around. It’s a beautifully gentle scene, which could be overloaded with meaning from another actor, but Pacino plays it with such quiet but intense focus, and such careful precision it works brilliantly. Take a look at the scene here (warning spoilers!)

Newell’s strength as an actor’s director is apparent in all the performances, and Donnie Brasco is a film of many wonderful scenes and moments. The film never loses track of the danger of undercover heart – and several striking scenes have Pistone close to being discovered. The film is not perfect: the aim of the FBI investigation, and the impact Donnie’s work are never really made clear and the scenes involving Pistone’s homelife feel far more predictable and conventional than the rest of the movie (Anne Heche has a thankless part). But when it focuses on the two leads, and their dynamism together, it’s a damn fine film. It’s not going to challenge Goodfellas as a story of low-key hoods, but it’s certainly a worthy addition to cinema’s mafia films.