Tag: Mark Rylance

Don’t Look Up (2021)

Don’t Look Up (2021)

A host of stars tell us the world us coming to an end in this self-satisfied film

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dr Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Diabiasky), Rob Morgan (Dr Teddy Oglethorpe), Meryl Streep (President Janie Orlean), Cate Blanchett (Brie Evantree), Jonah Hill (Jason Orlean), Mark Rylance (Peter Isherwell), Tyler Perry (Jack Bremmer), Timothée Chalamet (Yule), Ron Perlman (Colonel Benedict Drask), Ariana Grande (Riley Bina), Scott Mescudi (DJ Chello), Himesh Patel (Philip Kaj), Melanie Lynsky (June Mindy), Michael Chiklis (Dan Pawketty)

Climate Change. It’s the impending disaster where we stick our head in the sand and pretend it’s not incoming. Governments have been told for decades our carefree use of fossil fuels and slicing down of rainforests will have a cataclysmic impact. But it’s always easiest for governments and people to just say “nah” and not let those thoughts get in the way of our everyday lives. Adam McKay’s satire Don’t Look Now takes these trends of indifference, disbelief and denial climate scientists have faced their whole careers and reapplies them to a comet-hits-the-Earth disaster movie.

So, when Michigan State University astronomers Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Diabiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) spot a hunk of ruck the size of Everest on a collision course with the Earth they are met with a chorus of… yawns, memes and flat-out denials. The Trumpian President (Meryl Streep) is only interested in her donors, the mid-terms and dodging the fall-out from a host of scandals. The media – represented by Fox News style anchors Brie Evantree (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) – aren’t interested in a story they can’t process down into a feel-good social media meme. And even when people start to listen, plans to destroy the comet are benched in favour of a wildly risky scheme, dreamed up by Steve Jobs/Elon Musk style tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to mine the rare ores it contains for money. What could go wrong?

I can see what Adam McKay is aiming for here, to create a sort of Dr Strangelove for climate change, where the great and the good we are counting on to get us through a crisis, turn out to be the blinkered morons who end up causing it. There are moments where it sort-of hits on a rich mixture of farce and genuine anger. Moments where first Kate then Mindy – thelatter with lashings of Howard Beale – melt down on National TV, apoplectic at the comet-denying indifference of millions of people stand out as both hilarious and also compelling.

But, like a lot of McKay’s would-be satirical attacks over the last year, on finance and politics, the message sometimes fails to land because of the heavy-handed, self-satisfied, smug tone of the delivery. Don’t Look Up frequently isn’t very funny – and yes I know it ends with the world being destroyed due to everyone’s indifference and incompetence – and it ladles most of the blame on obvious targets. It’s takedown of Trump – here represented by Meryl Streep – is basic, it hits open goals with the agenda-driven bias of American news reporters and takes pot-shots at messianic tech billionaires. A real punch would perhaps have focused in more on how all the mindless, unfocused greed and ambition of these people is fed by the bland, social media focused, sound-bite obsessed shallowness of the masses. But Don’t Look Up remains focused on the big people.

So focused in fact that, even in this satire, only America has the wherewithal to launch a mission against the comet. A joint Russian, Chinese and Indian mission fails to get off the ground and other world leaders are noticeable by their absence. We never really spend time with any normal people. While much of the blame does lie with governments not taking a lead, we do live in a world where normal people are radicalised by reading about nonsensical mush like QAnon through chat rooms. Imagine a satire that looked at how ordinary people can be made to believe wild theories rather than the evidence of their own eyes as a comet heads towards Earth? Instead Don’t Look Up wants to stick with something vaguely comforting – that there are big, selfish, elites running us who act out of greed and stupidity and they carry all the danger (and the blame).

Where the film is strongest is the doubt and nonsense thrown at scientists. Mindy and Diabasky are first ignored by the administration because they aren’t Ivy League. Attempting to leak their findings on the TV, they are overshadowed by an on-air-proposal of a celebrity DJ to his singer girlfriend and when they hit the news, the only takeaway is that Mindy is ‘cute’, while Diabasky is a freaky angry woman, ranting about the world ending (she’s a meme in minutes). At every point the science is questioned or put on the same level as gut feelings and political agendas. Even their campaign to encourage the world to “Just Look Up” to see the impending catastrophe is countered by the President’s “Don’t Look Up” campaign that persuades millions of people the comet isn’t real.

Really rule by social media and the dumbing down of humanity should be the main target here. A comet isn’t even a great metaphor for climate change – which is gradual, can’t be just blown up and needs to be prevented by society making changes to the way we live. In some ways, by replacing climate change with a comet, even the film is acknowledging its not sexy or exciting enough – and that it doesn’t want to turn its critical fire on millions of people who would rather turn the heating up or drive to the corner shop rather than push to make changes in their lives.

So, it’s easier and simple for McKay to create a cartoon freak show of easy targets and bash them rather than tackle the underlying causes of climate change – that our world and its population wants to have its cake and eat it, and governments for generations have been too focused on the here and now to ever worry about the years to come. So funny as it can be to see Streep Trump it up, or Rylance channel his softness into insanity, or Hill play another of his mindless frat boys turned power brokers, the film doesn’t feel like it really goes for the real causes of climate change: our own culture. It takes hits at our social media simpleness, but not at our short sightedness.

McKay does at least direct without much of the fourth-wall leaning flashiness of his earlier works, and there are committed – if not exactly stretching – performances from Lawrence (whose characters checks out in despair at the shallowness) and DiCaprio (who is seduced by fame, power and Blanchett into becoming an apologetic mouthpiece for the administration). But Don’t Look Up is a little too pleased with itself, a little too focused on easy targets and doesn’t do enough to spread the blame wider. It stills see many of us as victims or mislead – when really we are as to blame a everyone else.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Sacha Baron Cohen leads a campaign for justice in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden), Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richard Schultz), Mark Rylance (William Kunstler), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), Michael Keaton (Ramsey Clark), Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman), John Carroll Lynch (David Dellinger), JC MacKenzie (Tom Foran), Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis), Ben Shenkman (Leonard Weinglass), Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin), Kelvin Harrison Jnr (Fred Hampton), Noah Robbins (Lee Weiner), Daniel Flaherty (John Froines), Caitlin Fitzgerald (Daphne O’Connor)

Aaron Sorkin’s work celebrates the great liberal possibilities of America. Is there any writer who has more faith in the institutions of the American state – while being so doubtful of many of the actual people running those institutions? You can imagine Sorkin sees more than a bit of himself in Abbie Hoffman, jocular prankster and wordsmith, angry at his country in the way only someone who really loves it can be. This idea is at the heart of Sorkin’s biopic of the trial of seven activists for promoting violence in the build-up to the Democratic convention of 1968 in Chicago.

Vietnam is in full swing with young men dying in their thousands to defend a cause many are starting to believe isn’t worth it. Nixon has just been elected – and his government wants to make an example of these left-wing, hippies he believes are drowning out “the silent majority”. Student leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), hippie activists Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) are arraigned in court for conspiracy to incite a riot, facing a ten year prison sentence. Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who wasn’t in Chicago at the time, is thrown in to make them look more threatening. With radical lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) in their corner, the defendants deal with a slanted case from the government, being backed all the way by the judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) who can’t hide his contempt for them.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like it’s on the cusp of making a grand statement about the rights and liberties of Americans, at a time of great civil unrest. With the country more divided now than it’s  ever been since the events of the film, this should be a timely message. But somehow the film doesn’t quite manage to deliver it. There is too much going on – an attempt to cover divisions in the left and counter-culture, the events in Chicago in 1968, the trial, clashes outside of court – it’s almost as if Sorkin the director has failed to marshal Sorkin the writer into making a clear and coherent thematic point. Instead the film becomes a chronicle of shocking courtroom events, affecting, but not as earth-shaking as it should be.

Part of this is the fragmented script. An occasional device is used, whereby Hoffman turns the events of the trial into a lively stand-up routine at some unspecified future point. This is a pretty neat idea as a framing device – however it only pops up at odd moments rather than giving a spine to the film (as well as missing the chance to filter events through the perception of one member of its sprawling cast). You end up thinking it’s just Sorkin the writer coming up with a way of giving us information Sorkin the director can’t work out how to do visually.

This tends to affect a lot of the stuff outside of the courtroom. Sorkin’s dialogue is surprisingly plodding here, too often ticking the boxes or establishing backstory and motivation that will play out later. He has his moments and his gift for capturing revealing details make for brilliantly inspired speeches and dialogue riffs that reveal acres of character while feeling very light. But, considering what he is capable with (and could have done with this material) it feels like autopilot.

That’s the problem here: it’s a little too pedestrian. Only an argument between frustrated liberal Hayden and his lawyer Kuntsler captures something of the dynamic pace of Sorkin at his best. Other scenes – such as an out of courtroom scene between decent just-doing-my-job prosecutor Richard Schulz (a low-key but very good Gordon-Levitt) and Hoffman and Rudin – are a little too on-the-nose in making their points about liberty, truth and justice. 

The strongest moments by far are in the courtroom – and the true-life staggering lack of proper procedure followed there. The film is rightly angry, without tipping too much into outright preaching. It’s shocking to see how little the rights of the defendants were respected. Much of this came from the attitude of the judge, Julius Hoffman: a traditionalist, his contempt for the defendants clear throughout, handing out contempt of court charges like sweeties. Frank Langella stands out as a man so convinced of his own morality – and so locked into his own certainty about right and wrong – that he is completely unaware many of his rulings are biased and is deeply hurt at being accused of racial imbalance, while having the only black defendant literally bound and gagged.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is superb as Bobby Searle, the Black Panther leader furious at being roped into the trial. Searle loudly – and vigorously – protests the trial has not been delayed to allow his lawyer to attend and that he has been refused (consistently) by the judge his right to represent himself. The treatment of him is shocking and appalling. But it feels like no attempt is made to put this in wider context either of civil rights at the time or in America since. And that feels like a major miss. We’re only a few degrees from the same effectively happening today.

This is part of the film’s general problem in finding its real focus, or wider context. I suspect its heart is probably in the views expressed by Hoffman on the stand – particularly those around not having his thoughts on trial before – but this film is too scatter-gun.

What the film does do well is with the quality of its performances. Sorkin may be a rather a visually flat director – his shooting of the convention riots completely fails to conceal the lack of budget – but he encourages great work from actors. Redmayne and Cohen give skilled performances as the acceptable and radical faces of left-wing politics. Strong is wonderful as a hippie with a firm sense of right and wrong, while Carroll Lynch is great as a pacifist driven to the edge. Mark Rylance excels as radical lawyer Kunstler, softly spoken but passionate, who brings fire to proceedings.

It’s a shame though that The Trial of the Chicago 7 settles for mostly being a walk-through of the trial. An attempt to really capture a sense of the deeper politics gets lost, and the failure of the film to really draw parallels with today or place these events in their wider context feels like a missed opportunity. Even the film’s end captions don’t give you as much information as you would hope – especially telling considering its abrupt ending. A well-meaning effort, but a middle-brow film.

The BFG (2016)

Mark Rylance motion captures through this rather dull Spielberg kids film The BFG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Mark Rylance (BFG), Ruby Barnhill (Sophie), Penelope Wilton (Queen Elizabeth II), Jermaine Clement (Fleshlumpeater), Rebecca Hall (Mary), Rafe Spall (Tibbs), Bill Hader (Bloodbottler), Michael Adamthwaite (Butcher Boy), Adam Godley (Manhugger), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Maidmasher)

It should be a match made in heaven right? Spielberg, one of the finest connoisseurs of family entertainment in Hollywood, and Roald Dahl, one of the most popular children’s authors of all time. But somewhere along the line, The BFG falls terribly, terribly flat. It’s a film that never really comes to life, that never really entertains or engages the audience until it’s way too late, and is probably something that your regular kid these days is probably going to find (whisper it) a little bit boring. It’s less entertaining, exciting or arguably well-made than the 1980s cartoon version with David Jason voicing the BFG. It doesn’t work.

The story is pretty much unchanged from Dahl. In the early 1980s, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan in a horrible orphanage in London. One night she spots a giant walking the streets of London, Panicked, the giant snatches her and carries her back to Giant Country. There he reveals himself to be a friendly, peaceful, rather sweet fella – the Big Friendly Giant or BFG (Mark Rylance) – but that he lives near a horde of much larger, man-eating monster giants. The BFG spends his days catching dreams and mixing them together, and his nights walking the streets of London giving the happy dreams to children. He and Sophie quickly become firm friends, but she remains at permanent risk of being discovered by the other giants and eaten.

The BFG has a long first act in which not a lot really happens. The first hour of the film is a slow, whimsical, largely plot-free amble through giant country and dream catching that, frankly, stretches on way too long. There is simply no drive to the plot, no impetus. Rather like Hugo,it feels like a children’s film made by someone who doesn’t seem to know what children actually like. Dahl’s book mixed fairy tales, horrible giants and a number of fart gags. This story focuses more on a slow, contemplative bonding between two characters, which seems low on energy and interest.

In fact the whole film – not helped by its John Williams score – feels like an attempt to replicate Harry Potter, with its magic, its extended magic dream trapping sequences, its constant reveals of something wonderful to a wide-eyed child. The problem is that the BFG’s world just isn’t really expansive enough for this approach to work – there isn’t enough magic or stuff to discover to support a constant stream of reveals. Instead, the more the film tries to make of the world of the BFG, the smaller and less epic it feels. 

On top of which, there is no sense of drama and peril about it. There is no plot or objectives for either of the characters for the whole of the first half of the film. The threat of the other giants is hinted at, and appears in other places, but the giants never really seem like truly plausible or terrifying antagonists. They are, quite simply, stupid, easily tricked and don’t seem vicious enough. Compared to the dread that the giants in the animated version carried, these seem like cruel but silly buffoons.

It also doesn’t help that the character of Sophie doesn’t come across as hugely engaging. I don’t blame Ruby Barnhill, who does very well, but the character is written a little bit too hard, a bit too grating in her strident certainty and general bossiness. Somehow, she never really seems like a truly engaging child character, more of a bit of a know-it-all. Too many of her lines carry a strident insistence that makes her finally a little irritating as a character.

The film’s main bonus is Mark Rylance’s heartfelt and very sweet work as the BFG. The film’s motion capture of Rylance (and the other giants) is very impressive, but Rylance is more than just a bag of computer tricks. He makes the BFG a truly gentle giant, tender, witty, kind and thoughtful and most of the film’s effective emotional moments come from him.

It also certainly looks handsome, even if its style feels very reminiscent of the Harry Potter series. You can’t fault the technical work on the film. Similarly the second half of the film kicks more into life, with a plan to stop the other man-eating giants by recruiting Queen Elizabeth (Penelope Wilton) to order the military to stop them. This section of the film brings the best jokes as well as finally giving the narrative of the film a bit of a kick. However, for many it will be too little too late for this meandering film and they will have long since given up hope of it springing into life.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance find common ground in the Cold War in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (James B Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (CIA Agent Hoffman), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Dakin Matthews (Judge Mortimer W Byers)

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his cult block busters – and has indeed directed some of the finest popular adventure movies you are likely to see. But more of his output – particularly in recent years – is focused on intelligent, slightly old-school, handsome, period films that look to shed light on political and social issues of the past. Bridge of Spies falls firmly into this camp, an extremely well-made (if rather dry at times) prestige picture, blessed with a fascinating story and some very fine performances.

In 1957, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York and put on trial. He’s the most unpopular man in America – except perhaps for the man plucked from a list of New York attorneys to defend him, James B Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan doesn’t endear himself to the American public by successfully defending Abel from the death penalty, but he’s proved right when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR, and a prisoner exchange is set up for Abel and Powers, with Donovan negotiating the details in a wintery Berlin.

Bridge of Spies has an old-fashioned charm to it – you can totally imagine it popping up on a bank holiday afternoon. It’s what you might call “grown-up entertainment” in the sense that it tells a character-focused story. It’s made with an unfussy assurance that never allows its cinematic excellence to get flashy, and it patiently unfolds an intriguing character study that gives excellent opportunities to some gifted actors. 

It’s also got a vein of wit running through it – you can see the fingerprints of the Coen brothers, brought in to do a polish of the script. They are there in the touches of the absurd as Donovan goes behind the Iron Curtain, mixing with an eccentric group of East Germans pretending to Abel’s family. Their also there in the moments of chill around the East German forces who suppress freedom and endanger lives. But it’s brought to life because Spielberg is such a wonderful, vibrant director.

Spielberg knows where to bring the flash and where to settle and let the camera watch the actors at work. Despite the calm of the general shooting, the film is packed with some wonderful sequences of bravura film-making, told so skilfully and with enough confidence that they don’t need to draw attention to themselves with overly flashy camera work or editing. But sequences such as the one that begins the film with Abel unknowingly being followed through New York, or Powers’ U-2 flight being shot down, or a horrified Donovan watching luckless Germans try to climb the Berlin Wall while he rides a train expelling him from East Germany, are made with a confident, unflashy flair.

It’s a film which has a real understanding of the paranoia and knee-jerk prejudice of the Cold War (on both sides of the curtain, but particularly in America), that mixes this with a note of hope in the essential decency of those on the ground – Roger Ebert described it as like a John Le Carre if it had been directed by Frank Capra – and that’s a good description. Spielberg’s film casts Donovan as the “little guy” who has to do the right thing and struggle to be accepted by his fellow Americans. Donovan’s travails in East Berlin have a Capra-ish quality to them, as his straight-shooting decency and integrity come up against the oblique games and half-truths of professional diplomats and spies. Abel as well is basically a solid, stand-up guy with a very clear moral compass and a dry wit that points out the quirks of both American and Soviet systems.

Tom Hanks is perfect casting as Donovan. He’s much overlooked as a great actor, and Donovan plays to his strengths, using all his integrity and trustworthiness to great effect. His Donovan is an honest broker, a man who believes above all in the cause of justice and has a good-natured confidence that allows him to never be flummoxed or even to show too much impatience with those putting obstacles in his way, even as he works overtime to get his way. It’s a perfect Hanks part played by perfection.

The film also boasts an excellent, Oscar-winning, performance by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Embracing the movies for the first time, Rylance could probably play Abel standing on his head, and this acting heavyweight turns in a performance full of sparkle and wit. Rylance is softly spoken, with a combination of world-weariness, wry humour and a dry unreadability. Abel however is also a fiercely loyal and decent man – and it’s the contrast and bond that develops between him and Donovan that powers the movie.

In fact you can’t help but miss him in the second half, interesting as Donovan’s patiently done and labyrinthine negotiations between the KGB, Stasi and CIA become. At times this second half becomes slightly drier than the rest – as if Spielberg can’t quite manage to keep the sense of intimidation and danger in place for the whole of these protracted scenes of bluff and double bluff. It’s also probably a fraction too long. It’s not a perfect movie after all – Donovan’s family are a series of bland identities (“Honey stop trying to end the Cold War and come to bed”) and the film’s final coda of Donovan getting the approval of the American people on contrasting train rides is a little too trite in its “ain’t freedom great” tone.

But I really like Bridge of Spies. It’s calm, it’s assured, it’s very well made, it’s very well acted. There is a lot of quality on show here – it practically drips off the show – and it’s made by a director who knows he doesn’t need to wrestle your attention with every shot to keep it. Spielberg is a director so talented that he can excel at making intelligent, grown-up movies that have something for everyone. For all that it’s slightly overlong and can’t quite keep its momentum up, I really like it.

Anonymous (2011)

Did the Earl of Oxford write Shakespeare (spoilers: No of course he didn’t.)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Rhys Ifans (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), David Thewlis (Lord Burghley), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Xavier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Oxford), Joely Richardson (Young Elizabeth I), Derek Jacobi (Himself), Mark Rylance (Henry Condell), Helen Baxandale (Anne de Vere)

Many people would say that, for as long as there has been Shakespeare, there have been arguments about who wrote him. But that would be wrong. Because at the time everyone knew it was Shakespeare. Murmurings grew in the nineteenth century, but it’s only in our bizarre more recent times, when everyone wants to feel that they are smarter than anyone else, that conspiracy theories have taken hold. This film dramatizes one of the most famous conspiracy theories – and takes it to the bonkers extreme, chucking in royal incest, bastard claimants to the throne and blood purity, like it’s desperate to be some sort of poetry-circle Game of Thrones.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a genius. He has written hundreds of plays, despite never (it seems) setting foot in a theatre. When he does one day, he suddenly thinks – hang about I should get these on the stage! Looking for someone to put their name to the work, he approaches a reluctant Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) before credit is high-jacked mid performance by drunken dullard William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Oxford continues producing the plays through Shakespeare, carefully using them to influence the crowd to support the Earl of Essex’s (Sam Reid) campaign to succeed Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and win her away from the influence of the Cecils (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg). 

It’s not often you get a film that is both a stinking, insulting piece of propaganda garbage, but on top of that is also a terrible film full stop. Anonymous is such a film. This mind-numbingly stupid, childishly idiotic film is probably the best case that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare to come out of Hollywood. Because, after watching this film, you’ll sure as shit be convinced it wasn’t someone as tedious, pompous and arrogant as Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Unbelievably Emmerich and co thought they were making a film that would reset the table of Shakespeare debate. The only thing that will need resetting will be your table after you’ve overturned it in fury.

Our film’s Shakespeare goes crowd surfing in an Elizabethan mosh pit. Seriously.

The Oxfordian theory is yet another garbage “alternative history” that puts forward a candidate claimed to have “really wrote Shakespeare”. The central conceit usually goes something like this: Shakespeare was from a middle-class background, grammar school educated, never travelled and generally lacked the academic chops to write the plays. He was simply too common to be a genius. Ergo someone super smart must have done so instead.

The Oxford theory was put forward at the turn of the last century by (and I’m not making this up) Thomas Looney (yes it is literally a Looney Theory). It argues that Oxford was well travelled, well-educated and known as a poet so must have written the plays and poems. Shakespeare was hired to put his name on the plays because it was too shameful for an Earl to write for the theatre. Of course this doesn’t explain why Oxford had the sonnets released under Shakespeare’s name while allowing his own (not so good) poems to circulate freely – but facts never stopped these people. Oxford also inconveniently died in 1604, before the likely composition (and first performance) of over a third of the plays, but again never mind eh? 

Anyway, I’ll get into the film in a second, but I’ll leave you with this. All contemporary evidence points to Shakespeare being the author of Shakespeare’s plays. All evidence we have indicates he was recognised as the writer by his contemporaries. The much vaunted travel knowledge rests on a few well-known city names and landmarks (who could possibly have known Venice had a bridge called the Rialto? Oh I don’t know, maybe anyone hanging out in taverns in international trading-hub London?) and includes howlers like Bohemia having a coastline and it being possible to sail between Milan and Verona. All evidence of research (far too hard work for the Looneys) into typography and the composition of the plays points to Shakespeare or at least that many of the works were composed after Oxford’s death. I would also add that the bollocks (which this film explores) of Shakespeare not spelling consistently is no great surprise when standardisation of spelling was still over 100 years away. Anyway…

The clueless bumbling playwrights of the time.

Anonymous is well designed. It’s well shot. There are some decent costumes. Rafe Spall is okay as a ludicrously crude, shallow and dumb Shakespeare. Nothing and nobody else emerges from the film with any credit. It’s got the intellectual rigour of a child. It understands virtually nothing about the Elizabethan state. It even turns Elizabeth I (played direly by Vanessa Redgrave and a little bit better by Joely Richardson in flashback) into a hormonal idiot, a sex-obsessed harlot banging out bastards left, right and centre while wailing about how much she needs the man she loves. Even its understanding of theatre is crap. It is crap.

At the forefront of this steaming pile of manure is Rhys Ifans, utterly mis-cast from start to finish as super-genius Oxford. Ifans is bland, disengaged and bottled up, his manic potential completely wasted. Oxford comes across as an arrogant arsehole, talking down to fellow playwrights, ignoring his daughter, soaking up vicarious adulation from the crowd as if it was his right, and merrily putting his full weight behind an agenda stressing government should be left to those born to it, rather than the nouveaux rich Cecils. If an unpleasant prick like Oxford was soul of the age, it’s just as well time has moved on.

This viewpoint is all part of the film’s charmless embracing of the Looney theory that the plays are all a carefully constructed pro-Essex, pro-elitist propaganda machine, designed to manipulate the masses into staying in their place. To make this work, the film plays merry hell with history. Because nothing works better for a film claiming to be “true” history than to change established historical facts to better fit its story. Essex is repositioned as anti-James VI of Scotland, while the Cecils are shown to be advocates for his succession from day one. It hardly seems necessary to say that this was the complete opposite of their positions. The film can’t claim to be telling us the “real story” while simultaneously changing events left, right and centre to better fit its agenda.

Historical fast-and-looseness continues with Elizabeth I. Needless to say, half the male cast are her children – Essex, Southampton and (of course) even Oxford. This allows for lots of icky sex as an unknowing young Elizabeth and Oxford bump-and-grind. Even without the incest, this scene would still be revolting beyond belief. If this film has any claim to fame, it will be remembered as the film where the Virgin Queen performed fellatio on young Oxford (a weaselly Jamie Campbell Bower, dire as ever) while he recited Shakespearean sonnets. I watched this with a group of friends and this scene was met by horrified mass shrieking.

Mother and son share a post-coital moment

The land of the Elizabethan theatre doesn’t fare much better. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights are, to a man, plodding mediocrities dumb-founded that a play can be written entirely in verse. Poor Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto struggling manfully with a terrible part) in particular gets it in the neck, Oxford haughtily telling him he “has no voice”. Shakespeare is not only an idiot, he’s also money-grubbing, illiterate and (the film heavily implies) even murders Christopher Marlowe when he “works out the truth”. 

But that’s the thing about this film: it really doesn’t give a shit about facts. By the time we reach the Essex rebellion and the film has changed the one categorical fact we have linking Shakespeare to the rebellion (his company performed Richard II privately for Essex’s friends the night before) you’ll have ceased to care. (The film substitutes Richard III instead and claims the hunchbacked king was created as a portrait of Robert Cecil – never mind that the character had already appeared in two plays by this point…) The Tower is the centre of some sort of all-powerful police state that alternates between scarily efficient and ludicrously incompetent depending on the demands of the script.

Amidst this firebombing of history, the film weaves its pointless conspiracy theory. So of course, Oxford is not only the greatest writer ever, but as Elizabeth’s son he’s also the true King of England. He is such a special snowflake genius, he’s even (in the film’s most stupid scene) shown writing and performing (as Puck) A Midsummer Night’s Dream aged 14. In a skin-crawlingly shite scene, Oxford searches for a play to give to Johnson while the camera pans along shelves of masterpieces he has casually knocked out. I would argue the plays have clearly been written by someone with an intimate understanding not only of theatre but the strengths and weaknesses of the company of actors originally performing them – but then this is a film that turns Richard Burbage into a harassed theatre manager, so what would be the point. By the end of the film, the announcement is made that all evidence linking Oxford to the plays will be destroyed and he will be forgotten. So you see the very fact that there is no evidence that this ever happened, is in itself evidence.

I realise I’ve not even mentioned the framing device of this film. The film opens in a Broadway theatre – and rips off the idea from Henry V that we are watching a play performance that becomes ever more realistic. Notable Oxfordian Derek Jacobi (playing himself) even narrates, neatly shitting on the memory of the same function he served in Branagh’s Henry. I love Sir Derek, but honestly a little of that love died during this film as he sonorously intones this lunatic nonsense. He’s not the only one of course – Mark Rylance (another believer) shamelessly pops up for a cameo. Needless to say, at the end of the “performance” the crowd in the Broadway theatre leave in stunned silence. I like to think that, rather than having their perceptions of the world shaken, they were just stunned such an epic pile of fuckwitterey garbage made it to the stage.

Oh Sir Derek. How could you? How could you?

Or the screen for that matter. This is a dire, stupid film, poorly acted and woefully directed by a tone deaf director. Roland Emmerich, hie thee back to disaster porn! Everyone in it is pretty awful, the script not only stinks, it makes no sense, half the scenes are borderline embarrassing. Even if it wasn’t about a pretty distasteful Shakespearean authorship theory, this would still be a truly terrible film, a narrative and performance disaster. The only good thing about it is, the film is so bad, its conspiracy theory so unbelievably ludicrous, its fast-and-looseness with history so plain that, far from re-setting the table for Shakespearean studies, it seems to have fatally holed the Oxfordian theory below the water line. It’s offensive because it wants to peddle its bizarre agenda as true history, while simultaneously changing the historical events at every opportunity. Just fucking awful.

Dunkirk (2017)

Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead are three ordinary soldiers trying to get home in Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter Dawson), Jack Lowden (Collins), Harry Styles (Alex), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George Mills), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Mark Rylance (Mr Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier)

“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.” – Winston Churchill

The evacuation of Dunkirk is a very British triumph. Beaten and encircled by the Germans, British forces were stranded in a small pocket around Dunkirk. The country looked certain to lose almost 400,000 men to death or imprisonment – the core of its professional army. The fact that almost 340,000 soldiers were evacuated was more than a triumph: it was almost a miracle. Christopher Nolan’s epic new film brings the triumph and adversity of this campaign to the big screen.

The action unfolds over a week around the evacuation of Dunkirk. On the beach Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) are desperate to escape the chaos on the beach, where the evacuation is being managed from the one standing pier by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). On the sea, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Tom (Peter Dawson) head to Dunkirk in their small pleasure boat to help with the evacuation, picking up a traumatised soldier on the way (Cillian Murphy). In the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) fly a one-hour mission over Dunkirk to provide air support to the stranded soldiers.

As a director, Nolan’s calling cards are playing with narrative forms and timelines, while allowing personal stories play out on extremely grand canvases. Dunkirk feels like a summation of some kind of his career: its multi-layered timelines are gracefully and intelligently threaded together, and while the canvas is enormous, the human stories don’t get lost. The human interest running through the film is particularly impressive, as there is so little dialogue. It’s pretty close to “experience cinema” – it throws the audience into an immersive explosion of events, giving as much of an impression as it’s possible to give of the claustrophobia, tension and terror of being trapped on that beach.

The film-making is impeccable in creating this overbearing feeling. Hans Zimmer’s score thunders over the film, bearing down with a constant pressure and making excellent use of metronome ticking to keep hammering home the time pressure. Nolan brilliantly inverts scale in his filming to create a sense of claustrophobia – we constantly see sweeping shots of but the scale of our surroundings only forces home the seeming impossibility of what the British are trying to do. Individual soldiers seem tiny – how can one man possibly have a chance of escaping? It’s a brilliant mixture of sound and imagery to make the large seem small, the epic seem entrapping.

What Nolan does really well in this grand scale is to create a series of “ordinary soldier” characters. Despite the fact that we learn virtually nothing about them, these characters feel human and desperate. Again, they are such small, ordinary Everyman cogs in the giant machine of the army, that they become hugely relatable. It’s a hugely neat trick by Nolan, another brilliant inversion – just as he turns epic to claustrophobic, he turns ciphers into characters.

Recognising the need for balance between the overbearing impact of the Dunkirk beach sequences, the film allows a mix of story-telling and character types in its other two plotlines. So Mark Rylance’s boat captain voices much of the film’s humanitarianism, in a sequence that plays like a chamber piece – four people discussing duty and the impact of war in a confined space. Meanwhile Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot carries more of the traditional “war film” man-on-a-mission dynamics, engaging in a series of dog fights in the sky. Interweaving these stories offers not only relief to the audience, but also narrative contrast.

The interwoven storylines are also brilliantly done since they all take place in very different timespans. The plot at “the Mole” takes place over a week, “the sea” in one day, and “the sky” in one hour. Each of these timelines interlocks and unfolds in the film simultaneously, and characters move at points from one timeline to another.

Okay, writing it down, it sounds impossibly confusing and difficult to follow right? Who could keep track of all that? But the film is so brilliantly assembled that it always make perfect sense. Nolan uses several key markers – a boat, the fate of certain characters – to constantly allow us to see where we are in the story’s timeline. So we understand when we have moved from one timeline to another when we see a ship still on the beach that we’ve seen sinking elsewhere. This also increases the tension – we know at points what will happen before the characters do, because we’ve already seen the after-effects. Again, put it into words it sounds wanky and difficult to follow, but it really isn’t – and the film is put together with such confidence that it never feels the need to show off its narrative gymnastics. Nolan is confident enough to be clever without drawing our attention to it – a very difficult trick to pull off.

All this forceful story telling never prevents the story from also being at many points immensely moving and stirring. The arrival of the boats at Dunkirk is a genuine “lump in the throat” moment. The simple decency of Rylance’s boat captain gives a low-key impression of a very British sort of heroism, of quietly doing one’s duty while valuing every life and wearing your own grief lightly.

The film’s more action-based sequences are equally stirring and moving, because Nolan brilliantly establishes character with only a few brief notes. It’s made clear early on that Hardy’s pilot has only a limited fuel supply: every second he stays above Dunkirk protecting the men and ships below, he reduces his chances of getting home. It’s another sort of heroic self-sacrifice, and in a film that generally doesn’t shy away from showing the deadly consequences of war, Nolan is happy to give us some more traditional, fist-pumping heroics.

Nolan gets the maximum emotion from the more dialogue-heavy parts by hiring some terrific actors: Rylance, as mentioned is superb, and Cillian Murphy is very good as a shell shocked captain. Kenneth Branagh is perfect for conveying the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of the naval commander in charge of the evacuation. And elsewhere, Whitehead, Bernard and Styles all invest their ordinary Tommies with a great deal of emotion and empathy.

Dunkirk is a marvel of cinematic technique and accomplishment, which brings enough moral and emotional force to the drama to keep you engaged in the plights of its characters. You can marvel at the film making tour-de-force of its executions, but you never feel disengaged from it. It’s a marvellous film.