Tag: Kristin Scott Thomas

The English Patient (1996)

Ralph Fiennes excels as the tragic The English Patient

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katherine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Maddox), Jurgen Prochnow (Major Muller), Kevin Whatley (Sergeant Hardy), Clive Merrison (Colonel Fenelon-Barnes), Nino Castelnuovo (D’Agostino)

Sweeping, luscious, beautiful and an epic translation of an almost unfilmable novel into something supremely cinematic, The English Patient swept the board with nine Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards. The English Patient has sometimes had a rocky reputation (not helped by an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was famously non-plussed by the film). Like some of Minghella’s later work, it’s almost too well made for some to get past, looking like prime award bait. I didn’t “get it” the first time I watched it. But I – and the naysayers – were wrong: The English Patient is rich, rewarding and throbbing with a very British sense of repressed emotion and slow embracing of dangerous passions.

Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.

Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.

But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.

Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.

It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.

It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.

Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.

The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.

Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.

The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones excel in the thoughtful and well handled The Invisible Woman

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Amanda Hale (Fanny Ternan)

In 1865 Charles Dickens was involved in a train accident. While he worked tirelessly, tending to those caught up in the accident, he was also extremely careful to hide the fact he was travelling with a young actress called Nelly Ternan. Ms Ternan was his lover, had been for several years, and the couple were returning from Paris. Dickens managed to avoid the inquest and preserve the secret of his affair. Because, while he was happy to publicly announce his separation from his wife, the idea of the public hearing that he had an affair with someone 27 years younger than him was unthinkable.

The affair is deduced from careful deduction and the small remaining correspondence (both parties destroyed large numbers of letters) by the biographer Claire Tomlin. Her book forms the basis of Fiennes’ thoughtful, careful and intelligent film, with the director playing Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan. The Invisible Woman is restrained and unjudgmental film-making, that largely avoids obvious moral calls and weaves a beautifully constructed tale of two people who make themselves both happy and miserable.

And that misery is partly due to the times they live in. It’s an era of Victorian morals, where all that matters is the surface appearance and any real emotions underneath can go hang. But it’s also a world where very different rules apply to men and women. Dickens can leave his wife (in a press announcement) – but of course a woman could never do the same. It’s a world of strictly defined rules, with clear roles for both genders that cannot be deviated from. And it forces Nelly Ternan to travel to Paris, because the public shame that would come with her pregnancy by Dickens would destroy her. It’s why, years after Dicken’s death, she is lying about how well she knew the man (even changing her name and age to further distance herself) so that she can conform with the expectations of being a school-master’s wife (and ensure she will not be thrown out to the streets).

The rules are so strong that both Dickens and Ternan are as much in thrall to them as anyone else. Dickens is willing to bend the rules – but only so far. He would clearly never dream of living openly with his unmarried partner and their child as his friend Wilkie Collins (a perfectly cast Tom Hollander) would do. And Nelly Ternan is as outraged at this liaison – and as desperately uncomfortable in their home – as any prim housewife would be. In fact, in many ways, Nelly is even more conservative than Dickens.

But then she has to be. After all, he would be a rogue, she would be a whore. Choices aren’t great for women – and in her chosen career of actress, Nelly is clearly far more enthusiastic than she is talented. It’s worries about the career that leads to her mother – an excellent performance of motherly love mixed with a quiet understanding of the world from Kristin Scott Thomas – all but encouraging Dickens to seduce her daughter. Because, for an independently minded woman passionate about the art, if you can’t be an actress your other option is to be a muse.

Even Dickens seems quietly ashamed at his seduction of this woman, while she half-persuades herself it isn’t happening until it is. So, what draws them together? Refreshingly this isn’t a question of an older man excited by a younger woman – or a naïve woman swept up by a powerful man. Instead, these are kindred spirits. Both of them are passionate, intelligent and questioning. They both express an emotional honesty and openness. They have shared passions for literature, theatre and stories. It’s a romance that slowly blossoms and is based on a shared feeling. It would have been easier to tell a story of seduction and abuse – but this is a more intelligent film than that. At that fatal train accident, its Dickens who yearns to stay with Nelly and its Nelly that urges him to leave to preserve his secrets.

As these two, we have two actors with beautiful chemistry. Felicity Jones is inspired as Nelly Ternan. She both idolises Dickens, but is also drawn towards him on a very human level. She is astute, but conservative and at times even remote. Her older self, over a decade later, is both prickly and defensive – and those are qualities you can trace in her younger self, and not just because of her fear of disgrace. It’s a beautifully judged performance, both older than her time and also with a vibrancy and energy that entrances.

Fiennes, a more reserved actor, seems like an odd choice for the bon vivant Dickens – but he brilliantly excels in the role, full of energy and room-filling dominance. He marvellously conveys the charm and passion of Dickens, but also his thoughtlessness. This is after all a man who drops his wife by newspaper announcement and builds a barrier between their bedrooms. Who loves Nelly, but not enough to make her anything but a secret. Who is passionate and excited about his work, but can be turn distant and cool in his personal life. It’s a fabulous performance.

And the two leads are centred in a low-key, poetic film. You get the sense that there is a danger in getting to close to genius. Dicken’s wife Catherine – a beautifully sad and lonely performance from Joanna Scanlan – even warns Nelly about it (while delivering a gift from her husband, sent to her by mistake). It’s a danger that shapes Nelly’s whole life – but also her life is enriched by having Dickens in it. It’s a film that avoids obvious moral judgments – and while there are things done which cause pain, everyone is living in an imperfect society. Fiennes direction and use of visual language is wonderful and this is an impressive film.

Rebecca (2020)

Lily James and Armie Hammer do their best in an overblown Rebecca the swops Gothic chills for lovely costumes and locations

Birector: Ben Wheatley

Cast: Lily James (The second Mrs de Winter), Armie Hammer (Maxim de Winter), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Danvers), Keeley Hawes (Beatrice Lacy), Ann Dowd (Mrs Van Hopper), Sam Riley (Jack Favell), Tom Goodman-Hill (Frank Crawley), Mark Lewis Jones (Inspector Welch)

Hitchcock’s film version of du Maurier’s novel casts a long shadow. Few have taken up the challenge to film it since – and Ben Wheatley’s is the first film version in nearly 80 years. But you can be pretty certain that, unlike Hitchcock’s, this one probably won’t be being watched 80 years from now.

In Monte Carlo, a young woman (Lily James) meets and falls in love with rich Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower on holiday. They marry and return to his seat at Manderley. However, on arrival the second Mrs de Winter finds that she is living in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. This feeling is encouraged by the passive aggressive manipulation of Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Slowly, the second Mrs de Winter starts to worry that even her sanity starts to be slipping.

Wheatley is a director with a love of thriller and horror, and he really should be a natural fit to take on du Maurier’s gothic creepiness. But Wheatley feels almost constrained by the period title and beauty. This is a film that totally misses its gothic beats, instead settling for being a lusciously filmed costume drama. It has only a few traces of the unsettling psychology or air of ghostly possession that the story requires, and even those are chucked in haphazardly and then forgotten in order to make way for a pretty sunset or generic shot of Lily James looking sad in the rain.

The inescapable feeling on watching this is that Wheatley actually wants to turn the story into a more conventional romance. The age difference between Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter has been almost removed.  With Armie Hammer too young and Lily James too pretty, there is no ambiguity to Maxim’s feelings or motivations, nor any power imbalance to their charming, sunlit courtship, filled with carefree drives and charming beach picnics. Gone are the suspicions (for both the second Mrs de Winter and us) as to what a rich, sophisticated older man could see in a shy, unremarkable, average-looking girl who’s employed as little more than a servant.

It also removes much of the vulnerability and uncertainty Mrs de Winter should feel, by bringing her onto more equal terms with her husband. From du Maurier’s vision of an innocent woman feeling out of her depth as she’s plunged into an alien world, unable to break through the hauteur of a distant, older husband, we instead get far more of a conventional whirlwind romance that sours when the couple return home.

It’s not really the fault of the two leads, who give sterling work. Lily James has just about the right vulnerability to her, even if she’s still got a bit more spark than the quiet, demure character needs. But James has a fabulous sense determined earnestness to her, an eagerness to do the right thing and not let anyone down (her greater dignity and strength also pays off in sequences where Mrs de Winter takes on a stronger position in the marriage).

As Maxim, Armie Hammer has the right sort of authority and conveys the distance and coolness of the character, even while he is clearly too young and at times seems a bit hampered by his accent and setting. (Like some American actors, he at times struggles to fully comprehend the issues of class within the film.) Perhaps the main weakness to the casting is, by playing up his charm and romanticism, you never really think for a moment that this is a bloke who might have murdered his wife. It also makes him never feel like the sort of chap who could honestly ever have though about dispatching his new wife. It again strips out much of the darkness and dread of the original.

Needless to say, Kristin Scott Thomas has a ball as Mrs Danvers, the obsessed and bitter housekeeper, a part that hardly pushes her to her limits but which she delivers more than enough in. Wheatley pays homage to several of Hitchcock’s shooting decisions around the character, and the conveying of her menace is probably the film’s most successful beat.

However, the film fails at too many other important points. The sense of the previous Mrs de Winter haunting the home is lost completely. Too often the creepiness and psychological fear the film is aiming for gets lost, with periodic bursts of Cornish singing used too obviously to suggest unsettling menace. One very successful sequence set in a room of mirrors just serves to flag up how painfully absent the sense of threat and fear are from the rest of the film. To be honest, it’s a film that needs more darkness, more shadows. Instead everything is lit with all the prestige handsomeness of Merchant Ivory and Sunday dramas. Why did Wheatley go for this visual approach? Did he feel that it was expected from the lovely locations and luscious costumes?

And the costumes and the sets do look lovely. The shooting colours are vibrant and beautiful. It’s very grand and charming and it turns a haunting novel with dark deeds at its heart into something safe and neutered.

 The final product is what happens if a combination of styles are thrown together in a way that service not the story, but how each element of it could be best presented. When the film wants to show off the set and costumes, it’s bright and beautiful. At the few times it wants to suggest ghostly intimidation, we get some chanting and a few darkened rooms and billowing curtains. Neither plays well off the other and the film ends up feeling professionally mounted but workmanlike. It’s a shame as Wheatley could have really made something of this. But it feels like he has been forced into a prestige costume drama straightjacket.

Gosford Park (2001)

Cruelty, snobbery and viciousness – just another night at Gosford Park

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Eileen Atkins (Mrs Croft), Bob Balaban (Morris Weissman), Alan Bates (Mr Jennings), Charles Dance (Lord Stockbridge), Stephen Fry (Inspector Thompson), Michael Gambon (Sir William McCordle), Richard E. Grant (George), Derek Jacobi (Probert), Kelly Macdonald (Mary Maceachran), Helen Mirren (Mrs Wilson), Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello), Clive Owen (Robert Parks), Ryan Phillippe (Henry Denton), Kristin Scott-Thomas (Lady Sylvia McCordle), Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham), Emily Watson (Elsie), Claudie Blakely (Mabel Nesbitt), Tom Hollander (Lt Commander Anthony Meredith), Geraldine Somerville (Lady Stockbridge), Jeremy Swift (Arthur), Sophie Thompson (Dorothy), James Wilby (Freddie Nesbitt)

We’ve always fancied ourselves that when Brits make films in America – think John Schlesinger’s brilliant analysis of New York hustlers in Midnight Cowboy – they turn the sharp analytical eye of the outsider on American society. But do we like it when America turns the same critical eye on us? Gosford Park is a film surely no Brit could have made, so acutely vicious and condemning of the class system of this country, without the hectoring that left-wing British filmmakers so often bring to the same material, it’s just about perfect in exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty that undermines our class system. You’ll never look at an episode of Downton Abbey the same way again.

In November 1932, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) hosts a shooting party at his country house. McCordle is almost universally despised by his relatives and peers – most especially his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) – but tolerated as his vast fortune from his factories basically funds the lives of nearly everyone at the house party. While the upper classes gather upstairs, downstairs the servants of the house led by butler Jennings (Alan Bates) and housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) order the house to meet the often selfish and thoughtless demands of the rich. The house is rocked midway through the weekend, when a murder occurs overnight. With motives aplenty, perhaps the new maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) of the imperious Countess Trentham (Maggie Smith) has the best chance of finding the truth.

First and foremost, it’s probably a good idea to say that this is in no way a murder-mystery. Robert Altman, I think, could barely care less about whodunit. While the film has elements that gently spoof elements of its Agatha Christie-ish settings, Altman’s interest has always been the personal relationships between people and the societies they move in. So this is a film really about the atmosphere of the house and most importantly how these people treat each other. Altman despised snobbery, and in a world that is fuelled by that very vice, he goes to town in showing just how awful and stifling so many elements of the class system really were.

“He thinks he’s God Almighty. They all do.” So speaks Clive Owen’s Robert Parks, valet, of his employer the patrician Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance, excellent). You’ve got the attitude right there: the rich see themselves as a different species to those pushing plates around and cleaning clothes below stairs. The idea of there being anything in common is laughable. Slight moments of casual conversation between servant and master in the film are governed by strict laws and carry a quiet tension. 

It’s so acute in its analysis of the selfishness, snobbery, cruelty and arrogance of the British class system that each time I watch it I’m less and less convinced that Downton Abbey (the cuddliest version of this world you could imagine) creator Julian Fellowes had much to do with it. This film is so far from the “we are all in this together” Edwardian paternalism of that series, you can’t believe the same man wrote both. All the heritage charm of Downton is drained from Gosford, leaving only the cold reality of what a world is like where a small number of people employ the rest.

Upstairs the hierarchy is absurdly multi-layered. Everyone is aware of their position, with those at the top of the tree barely able to look those at the bottom in the eye, let alone talk to them. The rudeness is striking. Maggie Smith (who is brilliant, her character totally devoid of the essential kindness of her role in Downton Abbey has) is so imperiously offensive, such an arch-snob, she can only put the thinnest veil over her contempt when she deigns to speak to her inferiors. Her niece, played with an ice-cold distance by Kristin Scott-Thomas, embodies aloofness, selfishness and casual cruelty.

Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, superb) – the one real person in the film, and a film star – is treated like a jumped up minstrel player, with characters falling over themselves to make snide comments about his career. His guest Morris Weissman (an excellent Bob Balaban), a Hollywood film producer, is treated with similar contempt – when reluctant to divulge details of the film he is in England researching (a Charlie Chan film) for fears he will spoil his plot, the Countess bluntly informs him “oh, none of us will see it”. Later, as Novello plays the piano (essentially singing for his supper) only the servants are pleased – most of the upper classes endure it under sufferance (“Don’t encourage him” the Countess says when there is a smattering of applause). You can see why, after only a few hours in the house, Weissman whispers to Novello: “How do you put up with these people?”

The servants themselves are bits of furniture, or barely acknowledged at all. Altman doesn’t shoot a single scene without a servant present, but this often hammers home their irrelevance to the upper classes (it’s made even more effective by seeing actors like Bates, Jacobi, Grant, Macdonald, Owen and Watson essentially being treated as extras). There are no bonds between upstairs and downstairs at all. Any upset witnessed on either side is responded to with silence. When Emily Watson’s Elsie (a brilliant performance of arch awareness of her place) momentarily forgets herself and speaks out at the dinner table, it’s treated like she has crapped on the floor – needless to say her career is finished.

The servants however echo the pointless rituals and ingrained hierarchy of their masters below stairs. For ease (!) the house servants insist the visiting servants are only addressed by the names of their employers not their own names. At their dinner table, their seating reflects the hierarchy of their employers. Many of the servants are more grounded and “normal” than the upstairs types, but they are as complicit in this system continuing as anyone else. They simply can’t imagine a life without it, and accept without question their place at the bottom rung of the house. 

Ryan Phillippe, later revealed as an actor masquerading as a servant (for research), immediately shows how hard it is to move between the two social circles. The servants despise him as a traitor who may leak secrets about their views of the employers. The guests see him as a jumped up intruder, even more vulgar than Novello and Weissman. His later humiliation is one of the few moments that see both sides of the social divide united (it’s fitting that it is an act of cruelty that reinforces the social rules that brings people together). 

The focus is so overwhelmingly on the class system – with Altman’s brilliant camera work (the camera is never still) giving us the sense of being a fly-on-the-wall in this house – that you forget it’s a murder mystery. Here the film is also really clever, archly exposing the harsh realities of the attitudes held by your standard group of Christie characters. Dance’s Lord Stockbridge in a Christie story would be a “perfect brick” but here we’ve seen he’s a shrewd but judgemental old bastard. The film throws in a clumsy Christie-style incompetent police detective, played by Stephen Fry. This is possibly the film’s only real misstep as Fry’s performance touches on a farcical tone that seems completely out of step with the rest of the film. But the Christie parody is generally wonderful, exploding the cosy English world the public perception believes is behind Christie (even if the author herself was often darker than people remember!).

It’s a hilarious film – Maggie Smith in particular is memorable, from cutting down her fellow guests, to judgementally tutting at shop-bought (not homemade) marmalade – but it’s also a film that creeps up on you with real emotional impact. Kelly Macdonald is very good as the most “everyday” character, who takes on the role of detective and has superb chemistry with Clive Owen’s dashing valet. But the film builds towards a heart-rending conclusion – a conclusion that, with its reveal about the darker side of Gambon’s blustering Sir William, feels more relevant every day – that shows the secret tragedies and dark underbelly of these worlds, with a particularly affecting scene between Atkins and Mirren (Mirren in particular is such a peripheral figure for so much of the film, that her final act revelations and emotional response carries even more force).  It’s heart rending.

Gosford Park is a film continually misremembered as either a cosy costume drama or a murder mystery. It’s neither. It’s a brilliant analysis of the British class system and a superb indictment of the impact and damage it has had on people and the country. Hilarious, brilliantly directed by Altman with a superb cast – it’s a masterpiece, perhaps one of the finest films in Altman’s catalogue.

Suite Française (2015)

Matthias Schoenaerts and Michelle Williams love across the divide in this disappointing French Occupation epic

Director: Saul Dibb

Cast: Michelle Williams (Lucile Angellier), Kristin Scott Thomas (Madame Angellier), Matthias Schoenaerts (Oberleutnant Bruno van Falk), Sam Riley (Benoit), Ruth Wilson (Madeleine), Margot Robbie (Celine), Lambert Wilson (Viscount de Montmort), Harriet Walter (Viscountess de Montmort), Clare Holman (Marthe), Alexandra Maria Lara (Leah), Tom Schilling (Oberleutnant Kurt Bonnet), Eric Godon (Monsieur Joseph), Deborah Findlay (Madame Joseph)

The story behind the writing of Suite Française is compelling. Living in Nazi-occupied France, Irène Némirovsky began work on a five-novel series, Suite Française, which she intended to depict life in her homeland under German rule. She had only written two of the five books when she was arrested by the Gestapo as a Jew, and tragically died in Auschwitz. The books were written in a small notebook and kept by Némirovsky’s daughter while she moved from hiding place to hiding place evading the Nazis. Sixty years later, donating her mother’s papers to an archive, she deciphered the notebook and discovered the novels. They were published as a single volume to great success in 2004, regarded as an accomplished piece of literary fiction and a remarkable work of contemporary witness. 

The short summary of the novel’s richness and complexity provided by this film can’t really compete. Based on the second of the two novels, the story takes place in a small French village in 1940. Following the arrival of the Germans, officers are billeted in people’s homes: Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) and her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott-Thomas) are assigned sensitive musician Bruno van Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), while their neighbours, farmers Benoit and Madeleine (Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson), are forced to accommodate bullying officer Kurt Bonnet (Tom Schilling). As hostilities between the French residents and the German occupiers grow, so does the attraction between Lucile and Bruno, but Bonnet’s pursuit of Madeleine threatens to ignite the simmering tensions in the community.

Suite Française manages to turn its promising material into a conventional, chocolate box wartime romance – you can’t help but think that it does a great deal of disservice to the original novel. It’s filmed in an unremarkable style (there are at best 1-2 imaginatively done shots and sequences) and poorly paced. With its short runtime (barely more than an hour and a half), it constantly feels rushed. Quite simply it’s a story about simmering tensions in a confined environment – it needed more time for us to get a sense of the drama building, of the resentments between the Germans and the French growing. Because the film is so short we don’t get that at all.

Most notably, in a film about a romance between a French woman and a German officer, there is no sense at all of the risks that French women who started relationships with German officers were running. Besides a few small throw away lines, there is no sense of the physical danger and the social stigma that would be applied to these women. Instead, the tension of Lucile falling for Bruno seems to be based more on whether her mother-in-law will discover that she’s considering cheating on her (absent, unfaithful) husband. Even Celine the promiscuous farmgirl (a wasted Margot Robbie in a terrible wig) doesn’t seem to be running any risks of reprisals from the villagers when she’s banging a German officer in the woods.

This, however, is where the film’s rushing undermines it. If it had allowed us to develop a sense of the resentment, shame and loathing the occupied French felt for their German oppressors, a feeling of the whole town being willing to close doors on anyone they perceive as being too close to the  Germans, we could have felt a real danger for Lucile in flirting with a dalliance with Bruno. As well as giving the situation a bit of stakes, it would have made it a lot more emotionally engaging too. We could have witnessed her inner conflict at considering a romance with the enemy, and the emerging feelings between them would have had the conflict of a forbidden love. Instead the film rushes us as quickly as it can towards getting Bruno and Lucile into a passionate clinch, at times taking giant unsupported leaps forward in their relationship, so when it arrives it packs no punch.

This passionate clinch undermines the film. If it wasn’t going to take the time to really build the relationship through lingering glances and brief moments, convincingly charting the journey from hostility and suspicion to a forbidden attraction, it should have cut the relationship down to being something that tempts them both but which they cannot express. Have these two recognise a deep bond between them, a bond that in another time would have brought them together but cannot in the time of war. It’s a film where the only physical contact between them should feel like a window on what might have been – not a passionate locking of lips and sexy fondle or two. Think how much more affecting that might have been.

It would also have fit the structure of the film far better. As Lucile finally finds herself having to choose a side – deciding whether to help a renegade hunted by the Germans or not – her decision to sacrifice her chance of love with Bruno might have worked much better. Similarly, Bruno having to revert to the soldier taking responsibility for the growing persecution of the villagers would have been more affecting. (It further doesn’t help that the film doesn’t give time for Williams and Schoenaerts to build up an effective chemistry.) By chucking them into a clinch as soon as it can, the film undermines its message and also manages to make itself feel more like “Mills and Boon in Occupied France” than the serious tragedy it could have been.

When the film finally focuses on the battles between the French and Germans in its final third, it’s much more interesting than the slightly tired romance. Here we get tensions, stakes, drama – and finally a sense of the danger that being in this situation could have. After the rather soft focus romance that comes before, it really seizes the attention.

Williams does a decent job as Lucile, Scott Thomas could play her austere mother-in-law with hidden depths standing on her head (the film fumbles the unexpected alliance between these characters late on). Schoenaerts is a bit wasted in an underwritten role but does good work. The best performances largely come from the second tier: Lambert Wilson is excellent as the local Viscount who wants to try and work with the Germans but quickly finds himself out of his depth. Harriet Walter is similarly strong as his wife, as is Ruth Wilson.

But Suite Française could have been so much better than the movie that it actually becomes. A film that focused on the dangers of occupation and the tensions of a small community would have been great. A film that rushes through a Romeo and Juliet style romance, without building the sense of forbidden love, is a film that just doesn’t work.

Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman, rather surprisingly, rather is Churchill during his Darkest Hour

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill), Lily James (Elizabeth Layton), Ben Mendelsohn (George VI), Stephen Dillane (Lord Halifax), Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain), Samuel West (Anthony Eden), David Schofield (Clement Atlee), Malcolm Storry (General Ironside), Richard Lumsden (General Ismay), Joe Armstrong (John Evans), Adrian Rawlins (Air Chief Marshall Dowding), David Bamber (Vice-Admiral Ramsay)

One of my favourite ever TV series is Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, a chronicle of Churchill’s time out of government (basically 1929-1939). It covers the political clashes between Churchill and his rivals brilliantly, as well as giving us a real feeling for Churchill’s own personality and flaws and featured a brilliant performance from Robert Hardy. Darkest Hour takes off almost where that series ends – and I think it might just be a spiritual sequel. And, for all its flaws, I might even grow too really like it.

Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is a beautifully filmed, imaginatively shot retelling of the crucial first month of Churchill’s premiership. Wright uses a great device of flashing the date up (in an imposing screen-filling font) as each day progresses. Apart from brief moments, the action rarely leaves Whitehall, with the focus kept tightly on the politics at home. Will Churchill win over the war cabinet to continue the war, or not? It revolves around dialogue shot with tension and excitement, and is structured key Churchill speeches: each carrying all the emotional impact you could expect and beautifully performed, with goose-bump effect by Gary Oldman.

Because yes, this film’s one piece of genuine excellence, and what it is really going to be remembered for, is the brilliance of Oldman’s performance. This is one of those transformative performances where the actor disappears. Of course it’s helped by the make-up, but there is more to it than that. The voice, the mannerisms, movement, emotion – as a complete recreation of the man it’s just about perfect. Whatever the film’s flaws, Oldman nails it. Sure it’s larger than life – but so was Churchill.

Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, demanding and temperamental – but he’s also warm and humane. In one beautiful moment he conducts a conversation with an un-encouraging Roosevelt, where his features seems to shrivel and shrink with despair, while his voice keeps up the optimism. Moments of gloom hit home, but there is also humour (and Oldman is actually rather funny in the lead role). There’s moments of pain, guilt and depression – it’s terrific.

However it does mean some of the other actors scarcely get a look in. Kristin Scott Thomas in particular gets a truly thankless part, no less than four times having to counsel a depressed Churchill with variations on “You’re a difficult but great man and your whole life has been leading to this moment” speeches. Lily James actually gets a more interesting part as Churchill’s admiring secretary, getting the chance to be frightened, awed, amused and frustrated with the Prime Minister – and she does it very well, even if her part is a standard audience surrogate figure.


The characters are neatly divided in the film: they are either pro- or anti-Churchill. The “pro” characters largely get saddled with standing around admiringly around the great man (Samuel West gets particularly short-changed as Eden becomes Churchill’s yes man). The “anti” characters mutter in corridors about how unpredictable and dangerous he is, how he could wreck the country etc. etc.

To be fair to the film, it does at least treat the doubts of Halifax (Stephen Dillane – all clipped repression, he’s excellent) and Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup – serpentine and tactical, although Chamberlain’s hold over the Tory party was nowhere near as great as this film suggests) as legitimate concerns. It does weight the dice in favour of Churchill, and we don’t get enough time to fully understand the reasons why peace with Hitler might have seemed reasonable in 1940 (tricky to get across to a modern audience so aware of Hitler’s status as evil incarnate). But Halifax’s stance that it was better to cut your losses than fight on to destruction is at least treated sympathetically, rather than making him a spineless weasel (as others have done).

The film really comes to life with the conflict between the Halifax-Chamberlain alliance and a (largely alone) Churchill. The cabinet war room clashes have a fire, energy and sense of drama to them that a lot of the rest of the film doesn’t always have. It sometimes drags and gets lost in filling the time with “quirky” moments with Churchill. There is a bit too much domesticity that feels irrelevant when we know the fate of the nation is at stake.

But then this is a sentimental film. Not only is it in love with Churchill (we see some blemishes, but his air of perfection goes unpunctured), but it uses devices that feelas you are watching them like sentimental film devices. None more so than Churchill bunking down on a tube train to exchange encouraging words with regular people and for them to tearfully recite poetry at each other. In fact it’s a testament to Oldman that he largely gets this hopelessly fake-feeling scene working at all.

Wright’s film makes a point later of demonstrating that – reporting back to the Tory party the results of this conversation – Churchill uses the names of the people he met, but completely replaces their words with his own. But it still gets itself bogged down in this sentimentality – including a teary end caption on Churchill being voted out of office. Every scene with Churchill and Clementine has a similar chocolate box feel, as does a late scene with George VI (who seems to flip on a sixpence between pro and anti-Churchill – although Ben Mendholsen is very good in the role).

Darkest Hour is an extremely well-made film. It’s told with a lot of energy – and it has a simply brilliant lead performance. Joe Wright finds new and interesting ways to shoot things: there are some great shots which frame Churchill in strips of light surrounded by imposing darkness. But its not brilliant. It will move you – but that is largely because it recreates actual real-life, moving events (who can listen to Churchill without goosebumps?). But it’s given us one of the greatest Churchill performances and it’s worth it for that if nothing else. And, for all its flaws, and the safeness of its storytelling, I actually quite liked it – and I think I could like it more and more as I re-watch it.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Tom Cruise doesn’t hang about in the most iconic sequence from the first Mission: Impossible

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Béart (Claire Phelps), Henry Czerny (Eugene Kittridge), Jean Reno (Franz Kreiger), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sarah Davies), Vanessa Redgrave (Max), Emilio Estevez (Jack Harmon), Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė (Hannah Williams)

Everyone knows how it goes right? Bum bum bum-ba-bum-bum bum-ba-bum bum… Yup it’s the Mission: Impossible theme tune. Originally a hit TV series, it’s arguably more familiar now as this Tom Cruise-starring film series, a showpiece for his reckless physicality and insane commitment to ever more elaborate stunts.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is framed as a traitor after a disastrous mission in Prague. While trying to reclaim a list of agents’ cover names, Cruise and his team are betrayed by a mole within IMF. The rest of his team, including his mentor Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), are killed though Phelps’ wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) survives. On the run, he has to steal the real secret list himself to help discover the identity of the traitor.

Who would have thought over 20 years later Tom Cruise would still be heading out on Impossible Missions? The success of the franchise is rooted in this engaging spy thriller. How many times have I seen this film? Countless times. It’s inventive and playful. It’s got a decently intriguing plot that keeps you on your toes.  Above all it’s fun.

At the time of its release people talked about its impenetrable plot, but it’s basically a standard “double cross” film. Someone we think is a hero is basically a wrong ‘un, so our hero has to follow every means in his power to find out who it is – including pretending to be a wrong ‘un himself. Understand that, and the plot is pretty basic. The main reason people find it confusing is the film assumes you’re smart enough to follow what’s going on, without characters sitting down and spelling everything out. Isn’t clumsy exposition the sort of thing we criticise other films for? Isn’t it nice not to have a film that just assumes you can follow the whole thing?

Anyway, the plot and characters are largely there to carry us from one spectacle to another. The film starts with a bang. Can you think of many films that kill off most of the cast (and the recognisable actors) in the opening 15 minutes? It’s such a daring opening it leaves a whiff of peril over everything else – even after we discover some people weren’t actually killed, and despite no other characters dying apart from the baddies.

Killing off the team does mean the film is a bit more “Tom Cruise with some back-up” rather than a team effort – but that doesn’t really matter does it? Wee Tom of course does all his own stunts and looks cracking. Acting wise, he’s “cruising” through his standard turn as a cocky protegee who goes through a steep learning curve. But it doesn’t really matter, because he looks great and everything he does is pretty damn cool. He even manages to mine some real emotional pain when he realise some of the people closest to him have betrayed him.

The film’s centre piece, that famous spiderlike descent from the roof to break into a sealed computer room in Langley, is probably most responsible for making this film a hit. How many times has that scene been spoofed? (So much so people no longer remember its almost completely lifted from 1960s crime caper Topkapi) It carries more impact than the big top-of-the-train scene that ends the film, because we immediately understand the difficulty of what Hunt is trying to do. How many times have we had to balance, played a game where you couldn’t step on something, had to be as quiet as possible, or keep as calm as you can? I’ve never had to balance on top of a speeding train, but I’ve had to do all that stuff. Everyone watching it can relate to the tension of doing this stuff. It’s a little masterpiece scene that also owes a fair deal to Riffi’s silent robbery scene.

The scene also shows what a triumph of style this is. De Palma directs with a breezy lightness and love for the business of spycraft (I suspect he was taking the money big time, as he injects very little of his personality into it, but it works and he has an eye for the memorable shot), Tom Cruise is pretty damn cool. The film understands the simplicity of iconic shots – Cruise jumping away from an exploding aquarium in a restaurant is a simple stunt, but it looks great. The film has a great range of small-scale spycraft as well – from Cruise cracking a bulb and sprinkling the glass outside a door as an early warning detector, to him carefully timing how long to stay on a phone call to allow a trace to go so far.

Of course, some things in the plot make very little sense. The traitor seems rather randomly motivated (he’s basically pissed off at the end of the Cold War, despite earning way more than the average joe and being married to an impossibly attractive younger wife) and his effectiveness and smartness fluctuates according to the demands of the plot (Bond villain-like, he inexplicably leaves Hunt alive at one point for no reason). The idea of a government organisation where missions can be chosen to be accepted or not is in itself rather silly. The use of the internet and e-mail in the film looks hilariously dated today (Hunt basically sends a series of random e-mails to made up addresses – Max@Job314 indeed…).

To be honest, its breakneck pace is probably why some people struggle to keep up with what’s going on, but generally I wouldn’t let it bother you. It helps as well that there is a terrific cast of interesting actors – one of the great strengths of this series has always been its unconventional casting decisions. Would anyone else have thought of Béart and Scott Thomas as secret agents? Each actor has the skill and confidence to invest often paper-thin characters with depth – Rhames plays Luther so well, he stuck around for the rest of the series, despite us learning very little about him here. Voight has a perfect world-weary fixedness as Phelps, Reno is great value as a sociopathic hired gun and Redgrave has a lot of a fun as a cut-glass arms dealer.

Mission: Impossible is, to be frank, tons of fun. It’s basically a simple film disguising itself as a complex one, but it’s rewarding enough that you enjoy working out the plot alongside Hunt. It treats the viewer with a certain rewarding confidence and it’s crammed with distinctive and iconic shots. Is it any wonder Cruise saddled up five more times (and counting) and chose to accept the mission again?