Tag: Judi Dench

Belfast (2021)

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh pays tribute to his early years in Northern Island in this autobiographical film

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciarán Hinds (Pop), Lewis McAskie (Will), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Michael Maloney (Frankie West), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Gerard Horan (Mackie), Conor MacNeill (McLaury), Turlough Convery (Minister), Olive Tennant (Catherine)

Directors making films about their childhood is a well-established sub-genre. Fellini got the ball rolling, a few years ago Alfonso Cuarón made his own black-and-white look at growing up in troubled political times in Roma and this year Pablo Sorrentino has released a film focused on his own teenage years in The Hand of God. Huge admirer of Kenneth Branagh as I am, I can’t deny he’s not a unique visionary in the vein of those filmmakers. But, Belfasthas a heartfelt, genuineness and a sweetness that verges just the right side of sentimentality and is a loving tribute not only to the city he grew up in but also to his parents, making it Branagh’s most personal project since In the Bleak Midwinter and possibly his finest non-Shakespeare film.

Branagh’s substitute is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the child of a protestant family, living on a cross-community street in August 1969. His main concerns in life are friends, films, football and a classmate he has a crush on at school. But for his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), their worries are much more about the growing sectarian violence in the city. Pa has an offer of a job in England, which could bring them a new life. But it means the whole family leaving behind it everything it has ever known, including Buddy’s beloved grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). As the city becomes more dangerous, what will the family decide to do?

If there is a memory piece Belfast reminds me of most, it’s John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. That film was true to Boorman’s memory, that growing up during the Blitz was also an exciting time, because as a child he never realised that death could be seconds away. It’s the same with Belfast. Branagh is keeps the film as much as possible from the child’s perspective. A child might be aware of the news playing on the TV, see the growing number of soldiers stopping and searching people on the streets and be wrapped up in riots, while never really understanding what exactly is going on.

The film has been unfairly attacked by some for not focusing on the accepted narratives of this era of Belfast’s history: misery, killing and brutality. What Belfast instead brings to the fore is the warm community. Streets where everyone knew your name, people sat outside their homes and chatted with neighbours, shared celebrations together and looked after each other. You can understand why it was such a wrench to leave this behind – even with soldiers patrolling the street. How scary it was for a person of any age – from Buddy to Ma, who has known nothing but Belfast her entire life – to even consider going to a place where no-one would know you and you would be an outsider.

Belfast is dedicated to those who stayed behind, those who left and all the lives who were lost. It’s a tribute to a community spirit and family, that has chimed with a great deal of people who lived in the city at the same time and place. The film is fundamentally hopeful because, under the violence and danger, it makes a plea – and demonstrates – that many people in Ireland just wanted to live their lives and didn’t care which church their neighbours went to. The opening few moments of the film is a snapshot of these halcyon days, kids from different communities playing together on the streets and their families gossiping and laughing together.

It’s shattered by the film’s first outburst of violence, as a Unionist gang attacks the street and hurl Molotov cocktails at the houses of Catholic residents – with Buddy, confused and terrified, caught in the middle and dragged into his house and safety by his frantic Ma. It’s a threat that will hang over the film for the rest of its runtime, embodied by Colin Morgan’s bullying enforcer, but only vaguely understood by Buddy – and considerably less important to him than whether he gets to sit next to the girl he has a crush on at school.

That crush is one of many things he gets advice on from his Grandad, played with a genuinely heart-warming twinkle by an Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds. Hinds is the picture of the perfect Grandad, wise, attentive, patient and full of homespun advice and wisdom – dialogue that Hinds brings to life with an expressive warmth. He’s paired to wonderful effect with Judi Dench (also Oscar-nominated) as Buddy’s Granny, who’s got a sharper tongue (and most of the funny lines) and has a cold-eyed realism about what it might be best for her son and his family.

You could check yourself and ask if Branagh is idealising his memories. But I think this is partly the point of the film. At several moments there is a slight air, not so much of fantasy, but of a childhood’s perception and memory being restaged. Jamie Dornan’s hard-working, caring Dad is frequently shot by Branagh in a way reminiscent of the Western heroes in the film buddy watches (High Noon in particular). A late confrontation between Dornan and Morgan plays out like a child’s romanticised memory of how something might have played out – as does a sequence where Dornan and Balfe sing and dance to Everlasting Love. I think Branagh is asking us to consider this might not be exactly what happened, but a fantasy tinged, child’s idealised memory of an event.

And Branagh’s film – shot in a luscious black-and-white – is told with a sharply edited pace and economy. It frequently allows us to see the ‘true’ situation in the background or on the edge of Buddy’s perception. Ma – beautifully played by Caitríona Balfe as grounded, moral but vulnerable and scared – has genuine worries not only about the violence but also the couple’s financial situation. There is an argument, and a later sad half-ultimatum, between Ma and Pa that we understand but Buddy is only vaguely aware is happening. Branagh’s film is full of half moments like this, where he trusts we are intelligent enough to see exactly what the child is seeing and also see more.

Branagh also draws a superb performance from Jude Hill as Buddy. This is a kid who is wide-eyed, natural, unforced and gets the balance just right between sweetness and a childish selfishness and vulnerability. There are real moments of terror and distress for Buddy, which are immensely well-done, and Branagh proves again there are few better directors of actors out there.

In among this there are some lovely moments where we see Branagh’s passion for the arts and film-making take hold. These are shown in splashes of pure colour: from clips of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which an enraptured Buddy watches in the cinema, to actors performing A Christmas Carol in the Belfast theatre appearing in perfect colour. That’s not to mention touches of everything from Westerns to Star Trek to a shot of Buddy reading a Thor comic-book (sadly no Shakespeare).

Belfast is above all warm-hearted and loving tribute from a son to his parents and the impossible decisions they needed to take to give him opportunities in life they never had. Branagh’s script is crammed with some wonderful lines and plenty of hard-earned sentiment and the cast play each of these moments to perfection. It’s a passion project that really communicates its passion and shows how love, family and hope are universal. Cynics will sneer, but it’s a lovely film.

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.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh take on big media in the fun Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Jonathan Pryce (Elliot Carver), Michelle Yeoh (Wai Lin), Teri Hatcher (Paris Carver), Joe Don Baker (Jack Wade), Ricky Jay (Henry Gupta), Gotz Otto (Richard Stamper), Vincent Schiavelli (Dr Kaufman), Judi Dench (M), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Geoffrey Palmer (Admiral Roebuck), Julian Fellowes (Minister)

For Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film, they knew there was life in the old dog yet. GoldenEye’s success meant Tomorrow Never Dies could be all about bangs and fun, a Moore-esque caper with a modern touch. And fun it certainly is – exciting, amusing and with some top gadgets. This doesn’t re-invent the gun barrel, but it gives us a hell of a ride.

A British Navy ship is sunk in Chinese waters (the navy is always so luckless in Bond films!) and a Chinese MiG is shot down. Each side blames the other: but MI6 believe they are both being played against each other by a third party – media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). There’s 48 hours to find the truth and stop a war. Best send Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to Carver’s HQ to shake things up, not least because he has a past relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher). Soon partnering with Chinese Intelligence agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), the two work to expose Carver’s dastardly schemes to start a war to increase his ratings and secure those lucrative Chinese broadcast rights.

Tomorrow Never Dies sometimes has a by-the-numbers feel to it – probably because the script was written on the go, with only locations and set-pieces decided in advance. Usually that’s a recipe for disaster, but with TND it works. Probably because everyone looks like they are having a whale of a time making it and the tongue is wedged so firmly in the cheek it’s practically touching the ear. And its concept of a mogul using fake news to manipulate the world seems alarmingly prescient today – think how powerful Elliot Carver would be if he ran Twitter (as he surely would today).

You can forgive Tomorrow Never Dies almost anything because it has so many stand-out sequences. The film has a (literally) explosive start, with Bond racing against time to fly some nuclear missiles out of a terrorist trading camp, before a British cruise missile blows the base sky high (and “make Chenoboyl look like a picnic”). Naturally the destruction as Bond lays waste to the camp makes you wonder why they wasted the money on a cruise missile when Bond can destroy the place for free.

Front-and-centre though is the “Bond drives a car through a shoot-out on the back-seat with a remote control” sequence. Which when written down, captures only about 5% of the sequence’s delight. Narrated by an over-cautious sat nav (constantly warning about hazards ahead, while the car is pummelled by bullets), we get all the gadgets we expect (bullet-proof glass, rockets, caltrops, a buzz saw that conveniently rises to the exact height required to cut through a steel wire obstacle) while also watching Bond masterfully steer a car around a multi-storey car-park on his phone from the back seat. Of course, Brosnan knows it’s silly and telegraphs his enjoyment, letting out a chuckle when he reinflates his tyres after driving over his own caltrops (I love this moment).

Tell me he’s not having fun.

There is a cursory sense of mystery, but TND wisely doesn’t have much patience with that. Bond is nominally under-cover at Carver’s HQ as a banker (inevitably using his own name) but, just like his Moore-heyday, Bond’s undercover skills are hilariously bad and his hints clankingly blunt. Fortunately Carver follows Bond villain form, confirming any suspicions by ordering his goons to beat Bond black-and-blue (more fool them, as Bond uses every instrument in a sound proof recording studio to best the baddies).

This was Brosnan in absolutely top form. He’s extremely charming, handles the action very well and gets more than a few grins. He looks like a guy just delighted to be there, living the dream of playing Bond. He’s both self-deprecating and cocksure and manages to be both a believable ruthless killer and a sort of charming little-boy-lost when needed. He loves a pun in a way no other Bond apart from Moore has done (“brushing up on a little Danish” indeed…) and his chemistry with Michelle Yeoh is superb, the two playing off each other like a sort of all-action Morecambe and Wise.

It’s a Bond where comedy is to the fore. An expensive satellite at Carver’s HQ is introduced (“It’s worth $300 million. You break it, you bought it”) solely so Bond can trash it without a second glance. A hitman (hilariously played in a cameo by Vincent Schiavelli) assures Bond he could “shoot him from Stuttgart” and still make it look like a suicide then apologises with embarrassment when he has to delay the hit to ask Bond how to unlock his car (“I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot.”). Moneypenny even calls Bond a “cunning linguist” after she interrupts by phone Bond’s tryst with a Danish professor (a joke which I certainly didn’t get when I first watched the film at a young age).

The lighter side of the script works more successfully than some of the attempts at emotion. The script bluntly states Bond had deep feelings for Paris Carver, but this never comes across at all in the performances. Probably because the emotions were torpedoed by the blatantly obvious lack of chemistry between Brosnan and Hatcher (allegedly they couldn’t stand each other). This is made all the more obvious by contrasting it to the delightful chemistry between Brosnan and Yeoh (watch the motorcycle chase with them handcuffed together – brilliant stuff, and Yeoh is excellent in this). When Paris is dispatched early in the film, Bond is cut up about it for literally 10 seconds before he’s having a whale of a time in that car park chase.

“There’s no news…like BAD news!”

Like many Bond films you can see how the franchise had become besotted with the latest “cool thing” in cinema. In this case, the film seems deeply in love with John-Woo-Hong-Kong-action gunplay. Bond probably fires more automatic machine guns in this film than he does in all the rest of the franchise put together, and the film’s finale (the dullest set-piece) is a run-of-the-mill shoot-out on a stealth boat, that feels pretty familiar from the series’ countless “face off in a sub” endings.

Spottiswoode directs with a straightforward lack of flair. Pryce has fun going OTT (and channelling Gus Hedges from Drop the Dead Donkey) as Carver even if the part is a bit under-written. But the main joy is in watching Brosnan have a huge amount of fun running around, blowing things up and shamelessly smirking through some dodgy puns. His Bond may never have been the most complex interpretation, but at his best I’m not sure anyone else was as purely enjoyable. Much like the film.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow juggle love and inspiration in the delightful Shakespeare in Love

Director: John Madden

Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola de Lessops), Joseph Fiennes (William Shakespeare), Geoffrey Rush (Philip Henslowe), Colin Firth (Lord Wessex), Ben Affleck (Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth I), Simon Callow (Edmund Tilney), Jim Carter (Ralph), Martin Clunes (Richard Burbage), Antony Sher (Dr Moth), Imelda Staunton (Nurse), Tom Wilkinson (Hugh Fennyman), Mark Williams (Wabash)

It’s become fashionable since 1998 to criticize Shakespeare in Love. It’s one of those films that the Oscar has diminished –you’ll swiftly find someone who’ll say “can you believe it beat Saving Private Ryan?” It doesn’t help that the film become a poster-child for Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar success, his tireless and canny promotion campaign for the film being credited for its sweeping the board. All that buzz is unfair, as it distracts from a hugely enjoyable, very funny, heartfelt and charming film, stacked with scenes that will make you laugh or let out a sad little sigh.

It’s 1593 and Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has writer’s block. His latest play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter just can’t get started despite the fact he’s promised theatre manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) that he’ll have it ready in a few days. Will only begins to find inspiration when he falls in love with Viola de Lessops (Gwyneth Paltrow) – little realising that Viola and the promising young actor in his company, Thomas Kent, are one-and-the-same. Viola, passionate about the theatre, dreams of acting on the stage and falls in love with Shakespeare (while keeping her Thomas Kent identity secret) – but her wealthy parents want her to marry the noble Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Will these two star-crossed lovers find happiness? Or will their destiny follow the lines of the increasingly dark play about two young Verona lovers, that Romeo and Ethel is morphing into?

The largest part of Shakespeare in Love’s success rests with its script. The original idea had been doing the rounds in Hollywood for several years (Julia Roberts was determined to do it at one point, but only with Daniel Day-Lewis as Shakespeare, who was not interested). Marc Norman developed the concept and a plotline (originally much darker). But the film’s captivating wit and playfulness only really cemented itself when Tom Stoppard adapted the script into the frothy, super-smart comedy it became, crammed with riffs and gags about the Bard, Elizabethan theatre and show business. It’s also got a very funny – and humanising – idea of the world’s most famous writer suffering from writer’s block and then falling in love like he’s in one of his own plays.

Stoppard’s other trick was to repackage the concept into a delightful romantic comedy, centring the love story and downplaying other elements (such as Shakespeare’s quest to go solo and build his theatre career). With that, and the plot brilliantly refracting and reflecting Romeo and Juliet in tone and structure (just like that play, the first half is pure comedy, the second half darker in tone). In particular, the film is crammed with Shakespearean plot points and themes (from cross-dressing to plays-within-plays, mistaken identities, ghosts etc etc) all of which playfully  appear, cramming the film with delightful easter eggs.

It’s a celebration of the joy and magic of theatre – but it also hit big in Hollywood, because it’s essentially a Hollywood-studio comedy transmuted into the 1590s. Henslowe feels like a chancing B-movie producer, in debt who feels that with the idea of promising a share of profits (“there never are any”) instead of a salary, that his financial backer “may have hit on something”. There are puns about the unimportance of writers, billing on posters, the neurosis of creative people (even including an Elizabethan psychiatrist), oversized production credits, forced “happy endings” and sticking to tried-and-tested formulas. Gags call back to show-biz staples (“The show must…” “Go on!”). While it may be set in a theatre, there is a lot of the Hollywood studio in this.

But, with Stoppard at the pen, it was never going to be anything other than a loving tribute to the power of theatre to change lives. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is presented as a landmark in theatre history, a shift towards putting real-life emotion on stage instead of a few cheeky laughs and “a bit with a dog”. There is a wonderful plotline for Tom Wilkinson’s at-first all-business moneylender Fennyman, who discovers in himself a sense of wonder and delight for the theatre that melts his heart. (Wilkinson is outstanding here, a brutal man turned teary-eyed spectator, thrilled to be playing the apothecary). It weaves its charms so well about the delights of theatre, that you’ll even forgive the cliché of the stammering actor who finds his confidence on the first night. You even get a belting performance of Romeo and Juliet(with all the dull bits removed).

What really sucks in audiences through is the love-story – and Shakespeare in Love has a belter of a romantic plot. Riffing on Twelfth Night, As You Like It and of course Romeo and Juliet among many others, it’s a delightful series of misunderstandings, confusions and then passion, that eventually builds to an ending that’s bittersweet but true. It’s also beautifully played by the actors. Joseph Fiennes is so good here, a masterful display of light comedy tinged with sadness, so quick and electric with inspiration that I’m still amazed he didn’t go onto to better things.

Paltrow’s teary Oscar-acceptance has rather blighted the memory of her performance, but she has an earnestness and innocence that is deeply endearing and brings with it a radiant intelligence and emotional maturity that sees her turn into a realist. Wisely, the film’s ending sheds the other, minor plots, to hone in on an ending that is both sad and hopeful, that reflects real life (Shakespeare was after all, a real man married to someone else in Stratford) and sets up a thematic idea of love and inspiration being a life-long romance, that touches every moment of our lives, even when the loved person themselves is far away.

Directed with a smooth, professional sense of pace and joy by John Madden, it becomes a sweeping, surprisingly epic film, with a brilliant reconstruction of Elizabethan England and a luscious musical score by Stephen Warbeck heightening each scene’s emotional impact. The leads are marvellous, and there isn’t a weak-link in the strong cast. Judi Dench famously won an Oscar for her 8 minutes, but then its quality not quantity that matters and Dench’s archness is perfect for the role. Rush is hilarious as the grubby Henslowe, Affleck never better than his grand-actor parody, Colin Firth scowls expertly as “the other man” and Rupert Everett is dry and witty in a brief cameo as Christopher Marlowe, feeding Shakespeare suggestions.

You could say that Shakespeare in Love is just a romantic comedy. In many ways that would be fair. It doesn’t re-invent a genre, like Saving Private Ryan did. But, it’s a brilliantly mounted, intelligent and extremely funny one, with a superb script, some brilliant performances and wonderfully mounted. While it makes some good riffs on theatre, Shakespeare and the nature of love, it’s principle mission is to entertain – a big cinematic entertainment about the greatest playwright ever. And don’t we always say that comedy is exactly what the academy is biased against?

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal forge an unlikely friendship in the tame heritage flick Victoria and Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir Henry Ponsonby), Eddie Izzard (Prince Albert), Adeel Akhtar (Mohammad Bakhsh), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), Paul Higgins (Dr James Reid), Olivia Williams (Baroness Spencer), Fenella Woolgar (Harriet Phipps), Robin Soans (Lord Stamfordham), Simon Callow (Giacomo Puccini)

In the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench – who else?) makes an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of her closest friends and advisors. As Victoria and Abdul become closer, the rest of the court are outraged – bad enough that the Queen is spending all this time with an over-promoted servant, but an Indian as well?!

The fundamental events of Victoria & Abdul are true. There was a man called Abdul Karim – and Victoria did raise him from servant to a confidant. He did cause conflict in the royal household and was finally sent back to India after her death, after surrendering most of his papers. But Victoria & Abdul repackages this friendship into a cosy, Sunday-afternoon entertainment, bereft of depth. And carefully works on the rough surfaces to make the story smooth and easy to digest.

The film is clearly trying to ape the success of Mrs Brown – a far more intelligent and emotionally complex (if similarly heritage) film that looked at Victoria’s previous all-consuming friendship with a male servant, John Brown. But that film didn’t close its eyes to the negatives of such relationships, as this one does. It made clear royal attention can be fickle – and being elevated above others can help make you your own worst enemy. In that film, after a honeymoon, the friendship declines into one of residual loyalty but reduced affection. It’s a realistic look at how we might lean on someone at times of grief, but separate ourselves from them later. Victoria & Abdul takes only one lesson from Mrs Brown: that a close bond between monarch and commoner is heart-warming.

The film in general is in love with the idea that if the Queen could only speak directly to her people, the world would be a better place. It presents a Victoria stifled by court procedure who knows very little about her empire and is constrained by the courtiers around her. It wants us to think that if the Queen took direct rule, she’d be kinder, wiser and more humane. That this figurehead symbol could craft a better British Empire if she was an absolute monarch.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This romantic view of “Victoria the Good” is comforting stuff, but undermined even within the film by our introduction to the Queen at a royal dinner, where Victoria stuffs food down herself so quickly that mountains of untouched food goes uneaten on the plates of the other diners (as all plates are removed the moment she is finished). And despite being told that the Koh-i-noor diamond was stolen by the British (to her surprise), she still doesn’t think twice about wearing it later in the film while in the midst of her Indian passion. And while the real Victoria loathed the racist attitudes of some at her court, she still clearly sees herself as a paternalistic mother figure for India, which could of course never be able to make its own decisions about things.

Not that the film is interested in tackling more complex ideas of the position of India and its independence. It’s similarly confused by Abdul himself. In a more interesting film, Abdul would have been partly naïve servant and partly charming rogue. He very carefully spins an invented story of himself as a teacher and thinker (he’s actually a clerk from a fabric office) and it would have been interesting to see his building of a relationship with Victoria at least partly being based on self-gain. He certainly gains an awful lot from her – from his own carriage on her train to a home and his own servants. It would have been possible to have this side of him and still have his loyalty and friendship to the Queen being genuine. But it’s too much for the film to tackle.

An Abdul who was consciously playing a role of exotic thinker might have come across as a scam-artist – but would have given the film a lot more to play with, when the royal court is full of people positioning and presenting themselves for influence. Adeel Ahktar’s fellow-servant Mohammed even suggests in one scene that this is what Abdul is doing – and good luck to him. But the film is scared that this could be seen as endorsing the court’s fears about Abdul. So the character is neutered into nothing: he becomes exactly the sort of empty “exotic”, free of opinion and character, that filled out the extras list of a 1940s epic. He has no agency, never makes any decision or expresses any opinion. And his feelings for Victoria are presented as totally genuine which, combined with his foot kissing, turns him into someone who looks and feels really servile.

This is because the film wants to tell the story of a perfect friendship, with the British upper classes as the hissable baddies (never mind that no one is more upper class than Victoria). Never mind that Abdul’s action will indirectly condemn Mohammed to death in the British climate – or that while Abdul rises, Mohammed becomes his servant, still consigned to sleeping on the floor of his railway carriage. We learn nothing about Abdul. How did this clean-living saint become riddled with the clap? Why did he die so young? Did he really think nothing of the riches and honours Victoria showered him with? We don’t have a clue.

Instead the film keeps it simple with goodies (Victoria and Abdul) and baddies (almost everyone else). The most politically astute character, Mohammed, disappears and never allows things to get unpleasant. Jokes of the courtiers standing around aghast saying things like “Now he’s teaching her Urdu” are repeated multiple times. They’re fun, but it substitutes for dealing with the real issues.

It all has the air of ticking boxes. Frears’ direction is brisk, efficient and free of personality. Dench is great, but she could play this role standing on her head while asleep. Pigott-Smith (in his final role) is fine but Farzal has nothing to work with and Izzard provides a laughable pantomime role of lip-smacking villainy as the future Edward VII. The finest performance – handling the most interesting material – is from Ahktar. He’s the only character who seems to place what we see here in any form of context. Other than that, this film is just a string of very comforting heritage ideas, thrown together with professionalism but a total lack of inspiration.

Die Another Day (2002)

Pierce Brosnan signs off as Bond with the mess that is Die Another Day

Director: Lee Tamahori

Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Halle Berry (Jinx Johnson), Toby Stephens (Gustav Graves), Rosamund Pike (Miranda Frost), Rick Yune (Tang Ling Zao), Judi Dench (M), John Cleese (Q), Michael Madsen (Damian Falco), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Will Yun Lee (Colonal Tan-Sun Moon), Kenneth Tsang (General Moon), Madonna (Verity)

Die Another Day was the highest grossing Bond film ever released. So why was it almost four years before another one was made? Put simply, because this one weren’t no bloody good. Released at the Bond series’ 40th anniversary, Die Another Day was meant to be a celebration of everything Bond – instead it’s like the final nail in the coffin of an entire lifecycle in the franchise that started probably around the early Roger Moore films. When Bond came back out after this, he was radically different. 

James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is sent undercover to Korea to take out renegade Korean Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee). The mission is a success – but Bond is betrayed and captured by the North Koreans. Coming out of Korean prison a year later, Bond is no longer wanted by MI6. So he goes off on his own to find out who betrayed him – and finds newly emerged diamond businessman Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) might have something to do with it. With a trail that starts in Hong Kong and heads to Cuba, the UK, Iceland and back to Korea he’ll work alongside CIA agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) to find out how this all ties together and get his revenge.

Die Another Day starts a bit like a Connery Bond – and about half way through it segues into being perhaps the most ridiculously overblown Roger Moore-esque Bond you’ll ever see. I suppose you could say this was the scriptwriters trying to capture the essence of 40 years in one movie. But actually it’s probably just incoherent scriptwriting and stupid storytelling. It starts trying to be grounded – Bond is captured and tortured for a year! – but then shrugs off any aftereffects of this year of hell with lackadaisical ease before throwing us into the sort of “Ice palace! Invisible cars! A weapon that channels the power of the sun!” malarkey that even Roger might have thought was a little bit too much.

It’s not helped by the fact that the entire film is so shoddily put together and so lazy in its execution. The one liners in this film are terrible – there are no double entendres in this film only single entrendres (words like thrust, pleasure, weapon and mouthful are used with gleeful abandon) – and far from being a playful exercise in Bond’s cheekiness are just hand-in-the-mouth embarrassing. But that’s almost as nothing compared to the woeful special effects. Even in 2002, nothing in this film looked real. 

I hardly know where to start with the awful plasticky sheen of the effects here. The film opens with Bond and fellow agents surfing (!) into a deserted island – at the end of which Brosnan in front of blatant blue screen rips off his mask to show it-was-definitely-him. As if that wasn’t bad enough (Bond surfs? I’m out!) Bond surfs AGAIN in the movie halfway through, using a parachute as a sail to escape possibly the least convincing wave ever put onto film. It really has to be seen to be believed (or rather not believed). That’s not to mention the wonky overblown final plane sequence, or a laughably unrealistic looking Jinx dive from a cliff down into the water below.

Brosnan probably tries his best in all this, but even he can’t save this total mess. How does a film that started with Bond in prison and emerging damaged and on a gritty quest for revenge end with a villain wearing a robot suit controlling the sun? The script after the first 15 minutes gives Brosnan nothing to play with. The film loses all interest in the traitor plotline about halfway through, and when she is unmasked (in a twist that surprises no one at all) Bond barely seems to care. Pierce himself looks frankly too old and a little out of shape (his running in this film with his arms pumping up to his face looks terrible), something only magnified by the youth of his co-stars. 

Not that I’m saying his co-stars are any good either. When this film came out there was a brief flurry of excitement that Halle Berry’s Jinx would be worth a franchise of her own. That died shortly after the film came out – this is a character that acts tough when needed, but still needs to be saved twice in quick succession by Bond, who says faux-tough things like “Yo Mama!” but has barely two personality facets to rub together. Berry simply does her bit and meets the requirement of looking sexy and fighting. Mind you she still fares better than an embarrassing Toby Stephens, whose villain is so paper-thin the actor seems to have taken the bizarre decision to channel Alan Partridge. Rosamund Pike’s fencing MI5 agent barely registers.

Needless to say Bond beds her – as he beds all the women in this with a perfunctory inevitability that fits the box-ticking exercise of the whole film. The film is littered with references to past Bond films, although that is probably only going to make you want to watch almost any of the other films instead. Perhaps to try and up the ante and make this one “even biggerer and betterer than before” there are more gadgets than ever before. These are topped with the crowning turd of the invisible car, a nadir for the franchise, a senseless advantage (Bond at one point follows directly behind two walking heavies in the car – it’s invisible NOT silent for goodness sake!) and something so overblown that however much the producers at the time tried to justify it by pointing at military technology just sounds silly. Don’t get met started on the bizarre VR training sequence Bond carries out (later replayed for a grotesquely demeaning Moneypenny joke that made me feel sorry for Samantha Bond).

But then the whole thing basically sounds silly. Giving the villain a huge ice palace lair might have seemed like a cheeky nod, but again it just looks absurd and the producers desperately trying to find a location that hasn’t been used before. The entire film feels like a rushed attempt to get something out for the 40th anniversary (perhaps the rush helps explain the insane product placement, leading to the film being nicknamed Buy Another Day). The script has been assembled from the off-cuts of other Bond films. There are no fresh ideas at all and everything that happens in the film has the air of “well this sort of thing happens in Bond films”. The script and special effects feel half finished. Rather than a tribute to how Bond was done in the past, it feels like a tombstone. Here lies James Bond c. 1967-2002. No wonder under Daniel Craig he needed to be reborn as someone who felt vaguely in touch with something approaching reality.

Red Joan (2018)

Judi Dench coasts through this weak spy drama Red Joan

Director: Trevor Nunn

Cast: Judi Dench (Joan Stanley), Sophie Cookson (Young Joan), Tom Hughes (Leo Galich), Tereza Srbova (Sonya), Stephen Campbell Moore (Max), Ben Miles (Nick), Laurence Spellman (Patrick Adams)

Red Joan is based on the true-life story of Melitta Norwood, the British civil servant who from 1937 passed piles of top-secret intelligence documents to the KGB. These documents helped the Soviets create their own bomb. This feeble dramatization has Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) arrested in the late 90s, with flashbacks showing her recruitment and spy work as a young woman (Sophie Cookson), motivated by her desire to “level the playing field” and by her love for shadowy KGB recruiter Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew.

Trevor Nunn’s flat, dull spy story has all the freshness and imagination of an ITV Sunday night drama. Tedious, dragging and very silly, it takes a ludicrous view of 1930s and 1940s espionage. The film is obsessed with downplaying the impact of Joan’s actions, and stressing that handing over these sort of secrets was fine really because the poor Russians – Stalin’s boys lest we forget – were likely to fall victim to those Imperialist Western powers that would soon be throwing their nuclear weight about.

On top of that, the film has an almost insultingly crude idea of Cold War politics, with the world neatly divided it seems into goodies and baddies and the moral implications of actions made as simple and clean-cut as possible. Joan means well, so we can’t have any problem with what she’s doing can we? 

It’s a miracle she isn’t caught anyway since her espionage skills are so lamely ham-fisted. Maybe that’s because the investigation into the leak is handled so incompetently by the authorities, with heavy-handed arrests and quick and sudden lock-ups. But then that’s in keeping with the film’s view of British authorities as trigger-happy bullies, with even Clement Attlee reimagined as a “let’s drop one on ‘em” nut, desperate to have the bomb to threaten the Russkies with.

This simplistic vision of the past is made all the more clumsy by its feeble romance plot between young Joan and her romantic German spy and lover Leo (Tom Hughes, channelling his performance as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria). This romance should be the drive of events, but instead falls back on the usual clichés of young love on film, making some obvious points along the way about the lies we tell for love. 

Joan herself is absurdly reinvented as a science expert, more adept than the men she works with (who typically look down on her as little better than a tea girl). The real Melitta was indeed little more than an office worker, but Joan here is reinvented as a pioneer of physics, a genius it seems far more evolved than the mediocre men around her. Yawn, we’ve seen it all before.

Nunn’s direction is flat beyond belief – he has never really adjusted well to film, where his (even in theatre) lack of sense of pace is often exposed – but there is a decent performance from Sophie Cookson as the young Joan, a confused idealist who struggles to do the right thing. She carries the film very well – and certainly has more to do than Judi Dench.

Dench only infrequently appears, largely for a series of “I am reflecting on the past” reaction shots. These are intercut with tediously clumsy narrative-establishing interrogation scenes, which largely serve as intros to more flashbacks (“Tell us about X now…”). There is a feeble continuation of the theme that passing nuclear secrets can’t be that serious after all, with Ben Miles as her son going through a painfully obvious arc of disbelief, anger and acceptance culminating in a “nick of time” appearance at Joan’s press conference (based on Melitta’s real life front-garden press conference to the press announcing her guilt).

Red Joan has an interesting idea, but it’s told with trivial obviousness and dramatic flatness. It’s got all the inventiveness and spark of a fairly run-of-the-mill TV drama, and despite a good performance from Sophie Cookson, it’s got little to recommend it.

A Room with a View (1985)

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter find romance from A Room with a View

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Helena Bonham Carter (Lucy Honeychurch), Julian Sands (George Emerson), Maggie Smith (Charlotte Bartlett), Denholm Elliott (Mr Emerson), Daniel Day-Lewis (Cecil Vyse), Simon Callow (Reverend Beebe), Rosemary Leach (Mrs Honeychurch), Rupert Graves (Freddy Honeychurch), Patrick Godfrey (Reverend Eager), Judi Dench (Eleanor Lavish), Fabia Drake (Miss Catherine Alan), Joan Henley (Miss Teresa Allan), Amanda Walker (Cockey Signora)

Merchant-Ivory are the gold standard, practically synonymous with costume drama in the 80s and 90s. This really began with A Room with a View, their first true sensation, a box-office smash that won the BAFTA for Best Film and three Oscars. It practically defined what to expect from a Merchant-Ivory production: a classily made slice of English literature, with a wonderful cast of top British talent, tastefully directed with a sly observational wit for the foibles of the British class system. No one does such things better than Merchant-Ivory, and maybe only Howards End and The Remains of the Day did Merchant-Ivory better than A Room with a View.

Based on EM Forster’s novel (and that novel, largely thanks to this film, is probably now his best loved work), the film is set in Italy and England during the early 1910s. Holidaying in Florence, Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and her chaperone cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) are given poor rooms in their hotel – and accept an offer to swap (for the eponymous room!) with Mr Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and his romantic son George (Julian Sands). George, a free spirit, finds himself romantically drawn towards Lucy (and she to him), but something about the free Italian air frightens Lucy, and she withdraws and returns to England where she becomes engaged to the prig’s prig Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). However, when the Emersons rent a house near her home in Surrey she finds herself slowly drawn back once again towards George.

A Room with a View is the perfect expression of delicate, well-judged film-making, with James Ivory marshalling his precise judgement to create a luscious and involving reconstruction of the novel, which carefully layers its social and emotional observation with a dry wit. Ivory is a master of allowing the novel – and the film – to speak for itself, not intruding with flourishes but allowing the camera to hold moments. He captures wonderful moments of slightness: who can forget the camera holding on a rejected Cecil as he takes a moment to calm himself, then sits and begins to systematically retie his shoe laces? It’s a gentle, unforced moment of direction but it’s what makes the film work. 

And the careful grace and stateliness of much of A Room with a View is part of the film’s point. All this taste and manners, all this finery and wonderful design, is of course a trap. It’s precisely this pristineness and neatness that inhibits people from following their hearts, from actually having a bit of carpe diem. It’s telling that one of the film’s most striking moments involves George, Lucy’s brother Freddy and churchmen Mr Beebe going skinny-dipping (with long-shot full frontal nudity). There is something joyous for these men to literally cast off (for a few minutes) the shackles of society to just muck around in the all-together. And it’s a sort of exuberant liberal freedom you just don’t see in other parts of the film.

The film’s main theme is to see if Lucy will discover – and accept – enough about herself to follow the sort of romantic longings she feels within herself or if she is going to knuckle down and conform. Italy is a perfect sign of this – it’s hot, temperamental, the people wear their passionate hearts on their sleeves (whether that’s making-out in a carriage in front of uptight churchmen or stabbing each other in the piazza) – and it’s all that energy and lust for life that Lucy seems unsure about, but which George is chasing after. And it’s difficult to cast aside the rules you have grown up with – and scary – to find something a bit freer. Although I think you could criticise Ivory’s neat competence for failing to really visually get a contrast in look between Italy and England.

The film is blessed with a superb cast of British character actors. Helena Bonham Carter is excellent (in only her second film role) as a young woman who knows her mind but doesn’t want to follow it to its logical ends, part independent and free-thinking but also putting a constant block on her own instincts. Julian Sands as George does a decent job, although already the film (by far and away the best part he ever got) exposes his studied woodenness and flat, uninteresting voice and he often seems straining for a sort of depth and Byronic passion that is slightly beyond his range.

Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott were both Oscar nominated, and both bring their A-game to the roles. Smith is perfect as a spinster who slowly reveals she has more sense of life’s lost opportunities than expected (even if the part is one she could play standing on her head), while Elliott gets lot of scene-stealing mileage from a sweetly eccentric Mr Emerson. Simon Callow, also in his second film role, probably gives his best (and most intriguing performance) as Mr Beebe the affable but subtly sleazy clergyman.

The film is however stolen by Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse (originally offered his choice of parts between George and Cecil). A Room with a View opened the same day as My Beautiful Laundrette in the States and audiences were amazed that the same actor could play a self-important prig and a gay, punk fascist. Day-Lewis is the embodiment of fastidious preciseness, a man so studied in every second that each movement seems planned, with no touch of spontaneity. He even kisses Lucy with a carefully placed precision. He’s arrogantly certain of his place in the world and every moment of his life has been planned in advance with careful exactitude.

It’s the jewel in the crown of this perfect costume drama. Merchant and Ivory had longed to film the works of EM Forster for decades, and had to wait until King’s College, Cambridge (the rights holders) had someone in place who actually liked films until it was considered. They expected the main interest to be around Howards End (don’t worry its time would come!) and A Passage to India. But in A Room with a View, Merchant Ivory felt there was an unappreciated gem. They were right.

Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan go on a road trip into the past in Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Philomena Lee), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildegarde), Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane), Mare Winningham (Mare), Sophie Kennedy Clarke (Young Philomena), Kate Fleetwood (Young Sister Hildegarde), Sean Mahon (Michael Hess), Peter Hermann (Pete Olsen)

Describing Philomena as a sort of odd-couple buddy road movie with a heart seems like exactly the sort of trite journalistic spin that Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith spends most of the film deriding. But it’s a pretty accurate label, in this heartfelt and entertaining film that mixes looking at Irish church scandals, with both the shallowness and promise of journalism and a heartfelt meditation on the virtues of forgiveness.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former government spin doctor, dismissed from his position is struggling to find a new purpose for himself in writing and journalism. After a chance meeting with waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at his editor’s New Year party, he is introduced to her mother Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) an Irish woman whose son was given up for adoption by the convent Philomena had been sent to over 50 years ago. She has spent years trying to find him, but made no progress. At first Sixsmith is dismissive of this human interest story, but slowly begins to invest in the story, as he and Philomena travel to the US to try and find her lost son.

Philomena is a film that doesn’t pull punches in its moral outrage at the decisions made by convents in Ireland in the 1950s to separate ‘sinful’ mothers from their children and find them new homes. The distress of the young Philomena is clear, and the steps the church took to put barriers in the path of helping these children and their parents reuniting (from burning records to bare-faced lies) are as infuriating as their moral superiority is outrageous in its hypocritical cruelty. But it’s not a film that wants to make a simple or political point. 

If the film has a problem with religion, it’s with the institutions that run it, not the faith itself. For all her ill-treatment, Philomena’s faith has been unshaken by all that has happened to her, and she like the film can separate the flaws of individuals from the principle of faith. The film may take aim at the Catholic church for making people feel sex is something dirty and shameful, but it won’t turn its guns on God himself. Near the film’s conclusion, Philomena even rebukes Martin for his rage (on her behalf) against the nuns who treated her wrongly, pointing out that she is the victim not him and that how she chooses to respond to it is her business – and if she chooses reconciliation and forgiveness that is her choice.

It’s a part of the films light and shade, very well drawn out in Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script that mixes serious reflections on such matters as truth, faith and forgiveness with some good jokes and entertaining banter. The film deviates considerably from the true story it was based on – Philomena in real life never went to America – but in doing so it unlocks the story as a filmic narrative. The odd mother-son type relationship that the distant and cynical Sixsmith and the warm and engaging Philomena develop as they travel America gives the film heart, not least as Philomena constantly surprises Sixsmith with her worldliness and socially moderate views. The two characters end up bonding in a way that is straight out of a Movie-101 but it stills very real and touching.

A lot of that works so well because of the chemistry between the two leads. Judi Dench is just about perfect as Philomena. Dench expertly mixes the twinkle and charm of Philomena’s incessant Irish patter and capacity for small-talk (and fascination with everything from Mills and Boon to hotel toiletry) with a devastating emotional vulnerability and aching pain at the loss of her child, which has clearly been part of her life for so long she has learned to a certain degree to live with it. In one of her greatest screen performances, Dench will have you laughing one minute then spin on a sixpence with genuine emotional devastation or a capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation that seems impossible after what she has been through. The film builds real affection for both her old-world politeness charm and Irish loquaciousness and her emotional strength of character.

She’s well matched with Coogan, who uses his deadpan archness to excellent effect as Sixsmith. Although the film is called Philomena, it’s Sixsmith who represents the audience, and it’s his expectation of being emotionally manipulated by the story that we share at the start – and his growing investment in it that we also share. Coogan keeps the details very small, but along with a skill at delivering deadpan one-lines, he also has a considerable capacity for moral outrage and genuineness (well hidden) that serves the film very well. Sixsmith starts the story as self-pitying, supercilious and interested only in selling the story – the fact he ends it so bound up in rage at the treatment of Philomena, is a testament to Coogan’s skills for subtle character development.

Frears’ directs with a small-scale sharpness of camera and lack of flash that has been at the foreground of so many of his films, letting the focus lie on story and character. The road movie sequences that this film highlights so much are little triumphs of small-scale character story-telling, and while the jokes they feature – and even the emotional points they make – are familiar they are delivered with such grace and feeling they nearly all land.

Perhaps reflecting Coogan’s experience with the British media, it’s Fleet Street that emerges as the most 2D here, with Michelle Fairley playing a tabloid editor interested only in the story, delighting in tragic twists as they will make for even better headlines. It’s the film’s only real crudeness, but packaged within such a well-acted and richly entertaining whole, that makes a strong case for forgiveness not vindication being the true path to inner peace, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench battle with obsession in Notes on a Scandal

Director: Richard Eyre

Cast: Judi Dench (Barbara Covett), Cate Blanchett (Sheba Hart), Bill Nighy (Richard Hart), Andrew Simpson (Steven Connolly), Phil Davis (Brian Bangs), Michael Maloney (Sandy Pabblem), Joanna Scanlan (Sue Hodge), Tom Georgeson (Ted Mawson), Shaun Parkes (Bill Rumer), Emma Williams (Linda), Julia McKenzie (Marjorie), Juno Temple (Polly Hart)

Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal makes superb use of an increasingly unreliable narrator to reveal the complications in the affair between a female art teacher and a young male student. It’s a device that doesn’t always carry across as well to film, but Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber have still crafted a fine story about obsession and envy in all its different ways.

In an inner-city school, bohemian art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is a new arrival, struggling to learn how to control her students. It’s a skill long-since mastered by jaded and bitter history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who soon finds herself fascinated by the attractive and engaging Sheba. This relationship is complicated when she discovers that Sheba has begun a sexual relationship with one of her 15-year old students, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), a student with a difficult record who has shown a surprising interest in art. As Barbara positions herself as Sheba’s only trusted confidant, the danger of discovery begins to become ever more likely as Sheba’s behaviour becomes more and more reckless.

The real strength of Eyre’s film are the two lead performances from Dench and Blanchett, a match-up surely made in casting heaven. Dench is superb in one of her best film roles, turning Barbara Covett into exactly the sort of shrivelled up, bitter spinster you are not surprised to learn has led a life of loneliness. Dench laces the performance with a sharp nastiness, masked behind a chilly professionalism, but she also makes clear the aching loneliness, the desperation and the ability to deceive herself that Barbara has, the longing to be loved but also the possessive obsession that drives love away.

She’s equally well-matched by Blanchett, at her most glamourous and natural as Sheba. One of the film’s strengths is the way it avoids giving spurious psychological reasons for Sheba’s obsession for this basically fairly unpleasant young lout. Blanchett identifies this sense of being trapped in Sheba, this desire to rebel and taste a little bit of freedom (in every home scene she is shown undertaking most if not all the housework and childcaring duties), feelings that mutate into a sexual obsession with Connolly. Blanchett is desperate, self-deceiving and hugely tragic, unable to fully express the reasons for her feelings herself, but unable to let go of her addiction to a new wildness and danger in her life that you feel she has never really felt before.

These two performances power a film that explores obsession and envy, with Barbara obsessed (to a scarily possessive and manipulative degree) with Sheba, exploiting Sheba’s own reckless and sexual obsession with Connolly. These feelings are shown to be often beyond the understanding of other characters, and both women ret-con events and reactions from the target of their obsessions to build elaborate fantasy worlds. It’s the danger of obsession here, the way we shape the facts to meet our desired preconceptions. It doesn’t matter what reality, or what anyone else, says – you want to believe what you want to believe.

And it’s these obsessions that lead people both to take unbelievable risks and also to feel a crushing sense of envy and possession. Both Barbara and Sheba can barely tolerate the idea of their loves focusing attention elsewhere, and despite seeming to have so much control in their relationships are helpless victims. Sheba is reduced to begging tears when it feels like her relationship with Connolly is burning out. After all is revealed, Barbara’s efforts to take control of Sheba’s life are revealed to be powered by an almost desperately sad need to believe that Sheba and she are starting a new life together. So deep is Barbara’s denial about her own lesbianism (and so extreme her unhappiness about herself), it’s a romantic vision she is so deep in denial feels unable to even begin to put any sexual dimension onto.

Envy and human frailty run through the whole film. Most of the teaching staff, especially Phil Davis’ sad-sack maths teacher in love with Sheba, carry their own small obsessions and envies. Sheba’s husband himself left his first wife for Sheba when she was one of his students. The students have more than enough rivalries to deal with. 

It’s a deadly circle, with contact breeding obsession, breeding envy. To get such an effect, Marber’s adaptation needs to streamline the book. The biggest loss as a result is the book’s slow, creeping, realisation that Barbara is a deeply arrogant, bitter, unlikeable person who views most of the people around her with contempt. Here Dench’s waspish voiceover immediately makes it clear to the viewer that she is not that nice a person. It’s a shame, as it rather signposts for the viewer where the film may be heading. 

The storyline also races through the book (the film is less than 90 minutes) which means it often feels more like a melodrama. While I think it’s a strength that the film doesn’t try and give a real reason for Sheba’s decision to seduce (or be seduced) by her student, other than to hint at her own sense of bohemian freedom being lost at home, I can see how others will find the reasons for why the radiant Sheba is so drawn to such a surly kid rather hard to accept.

But it still works, because the film is so well-played. With Dench and Blanchett at their best (and excellent support from Bill Nighy, quietly superb as Sheba’s husband, a decent guy who can’t believe his luck that he is married to such a wonderful woman, and whose world falls apart in bitter recrimination), it’s a film that gives more than enough rewards. The film gives us a decent ending from the book, with more hope for Sheba – but the balance suggests that for Barbara the cycle of obsession will only continue. Heaven help anyone who sits down on a park bench next to her.