Tag: Maxine Peake

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Felicity Jones and  Eddie Redmayne bring to the screen the life of Stephen Hawking

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), Charlie Cox (Jonathan Jones), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Simon McBurney (Frank Hawking), Emily Watson (Beryl Wilde), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason), Harry Lloyd (Brian), Guy Oliver-Watts (George Wilde), Abigail Cruttenden (Isobel Hawking), Christian McKay (Roger Penrose), Enzo Cilenti (Kip Thorne)

If you want a story of a triumph over adversity, there are few where adversity was faced off so successfully and publicly than the life of Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with motor-neurone disease while still a postgraduate, Hawing defied the diagnosis that gave him little more than a few years to live, to shape a life and career that would have a profound impact on the world and make him probably the most famous scientist alive. Not bad for a man who spent a large part of his life confined to a wheelchair, only able to communicate through a synthesised computer voice.

But his life was not just a story where he was the only character. Many of his accomplishments came about because of the unflagging support of his wife Jane. This film takes as its source the book Jane wrote about their life together. And while it arguably sugar-coats or plays down some of the more uncomfortable or divisive elements of their marriage (a marriage that was eventually to end in divorce and several years where they did not speak), it also serves as a warm tribute to the many years they spent together where their support for each other was total and offered with no agenda or demands.

Here in James Marsh’s inventive and well-made film, which manages to more-or-less transcend its “movie of the week” roots, Hawking and Jane are played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in performances that scooped an Oscar and a nomination respectively. Both are deserved, as these are rich, dedicated and empathetic performances, crammed with admiration for their subjects. It all fits perfectly well in Marsh’s moving if (at times) rather conventional film, which he directs with a lack of flash and plenty of heart. 

It’s a film that sometimes avoids delving too deeply into the emotional heartlands of its lead characters, and the frequently messy situations that life throws you into (the end of this relationship comes with a remarkably calm sadness, which contrasts heavily with the furious argument Jane describes in her book). It’s also a film that has a very clear agenda of framing Jane as a near saint in her devotion and patience, and Stephen as a brave soul with a superhuman perseverance and regard for his wife. So the introduction of choir leader Jonathan Jones (played with a sweet charm by Charlie Cox) into their domestic life as a surrogate father to the Hawking children and friend to Jane (very definitely not a lover, the film is eager to make clear) is very much something accepted by both without a hint of doubt or recrimination. Similarly, Hawking’s later divorce of Jane is set in a context of “setting her free” rather than the more (allegedly) definitive break it was in real life.

Real life, you suspect, was messier than this. The film does mine some excellent emotional honesty from Jane’s decision to marry Stephen being, at least partly, based on her belief that this man she loves only has a few years to live. From the start she doesn’t anticipate signing up for a lifetime of providing care and abandoning her own aspirations to support Stephen’s (the film makes no real mention of her own dreams of becoming a translator) – but Jane does so with a decided willingness and sense of duty. Similarly, Stephen does not anticipate a life essentially trapped in a wheelchair – finally speechless – and the film allows beats of frustration from him, alongside the determination to not let these problems prevent him from achieving his potential.

The film revolves around Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking. Needless to say it’s a technical marvel, a stunning accomplishment not only in its physical mastery (especially as it was all shot out of sequence, so in each scene Redmayne needed to carefully map how far the symptoms had progressed) and commitment, but also in its searing emotionality. Hawking’s brightness, his bashful playfulness, his intelligence and sense of cheeky charm are all there – and they’re later married with a pained, just-controlled bitterness mixed with stern mouthed resentment and gutsy determination to deal with the hand he has been given. Redmayne’s performance is a superb capturing of the all-consuming feelings of being betrayed by your own body, of no longer being the master of your own frame and being forced to adjust your plans and expectations to meet the limits nature has put on you.

Felicity Jones is equally good in a superbly heartfelt performance as Jane, a woman who gifts Stephen the determination and will to see past the limits the disease places on him. But it’s also a performance that acknowledges the draining burden of having to support someone this ill, of having to constantly be the strong member of the marriage, the one who must always be as ready to save her husband from choking at dinner as she must be to drop everything and fly across Europe to take life-saving medical decisions about him. Jones’ performance never slips into self-pity, but mines a rich vein of willing sacrifice powered by love.

Marsh’s film is largely unflinching around the everyday miseries and sorrow of the terminally ill and restrictingly disabled. We are confronted in every scene with the limits that Hawking’s body places upon him, from deteriorating handwriting and clumsiness to the loss of all speech and movement. This progression is presented with a detail uncoloured by maudlin sentimentality. Doctors are sympathetic but bluntly clear about the dangers and risks of treatment, each adversity is met with a quiet determination to carry on.

The Theory of Everything is a heart-warming watch – and features two superb performances. The portrait of a marriage that works, for the most part of their lives together, despite all obstacles is inspiring. While the film glosses over well-publicised issues over the end of the relationship – and perhaps downplays the emotional strains on both towards its end – it still succeeds in making a largely unsentimental picture of a genius who overcame all, and the brave woman who gave him the dedication he needed to do it.

The Falling (2014)

Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams deal with tedious coming-of-age antics in The Falling

Director: Carol Morley

Cast: Maisie Williams (Lydia Lamont), Maxine Peake (Eileen Lamb), Monica Dolan (Miss Alvaro), Greta Scacchi (Miss Mantel), Mathew Baynton (Mr Hopkins), Florence Pugh (Abigail Mortimer), Joe Cole (Kenneth Lamont), Lauren McCrostie (Gwen)

Any film set in an all-girls school that succumbs to hysteria, with ominous goings-on that might be supernatural or might all be allegories for coming of age and emerging sexuality, is inevitably going to get compared with Picnic at Hanging Rock. But few films seem to be so desperate to be that film as The Falling does. 

Set in an all-girls school in 1969, at the cusp of the sexual revolution that will soon engulf the whole country, Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) and her elder brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) are both obsessed with Lydia’s charismatic classmate Abigail Mortimer (Florence Pugh) – feelings of emotional and sexual dependency that Abigail knowingly encourages and flirts with. After Abigail’s sudden death connected to her pregnancy, Lydia becomes increasingly disruptive at the school and finally becomes “patient zero” in an epidemic of fainting that afflicts the school.

Based on a true story, you can tell that this film is keen to conjure up some sort of deep-rooted mystery at the heart of the girls’ actions, questioning whether they were truly in control of their own actions at this time or under the influence of something else. Is this linked directly to the tragic fate of Abigail – is she in some way possessing the girls, driving them towards this fainting? Or is the fainting just a sort of acting out, as Lydia tries to get over her grief at the loss of her friend?

Frankly, who really cares? It’s pretty hard to get invested in a film that is working so hard to be meaningful that it overshoots the mark and just becomes tiresome. Yeah I get it, teenage relationships can have this unhealthy intensity to them. They can spin out into self-destructive elements. And maybe, if the film had focused more on that rather than trying to suggest some unsettling mystery it might have got further. But with every shot of the British countryside around the school, or the lingering shots on the girls writhing on the floor, or the unsettled terror of the teachers, you feel the film’s attempt to invest these events with meaning.

What you actually end up feeling, throughout this overlong and puffed up film, is impatience at the indulgence of these children. Far from a mystery, the fainting appears to be a tiresome, attention-seeking effort from young girls unable to express and process emotionally the things that have happened to them. There isn’t a single element of the film that makes you seriously consider some ghostly or psychical explanation for the events – they seem, clearly and throughout, to be manufactured by the girls involved. It’s hard to watch it without unsympathetically suspecting that if the adults around them stopped indulging all this nonsense, they’d miraculously recover soon enough. It’s possible to speculate over whether the girls are doing it deliberately or if this is the work of their overwrought subconscious – but while that could form a good premise for a film interested in group psychology, this film seems more interested in pretentious shots of trees. 

As if realising halfway through that it’s not come up with anything compelling yet, the film hastily throws in a poorly developed incest plotline, which is unsettling, illogical, and springs from nowhere. Not content with that, it then shoe-horns a rape into the backstory of a character late on, in a way that is clearly meant to be a dark reveal, but is in fact a really clumsy “obviously this caused all the problems” solution to the questions of the film. The character’s mental health problems and inability to bond with her closest family could have made for a complex and challenging character (and she’s certainly played by an actor who could’ve handled that material). Instead, rape is casually chucked in as a glib explanation for “oh and this is why she’s troubled – ta-da”. It’s cheap and lazy. But then that is on a par with all the sexual awakening content of the film, which is clumsy, clunky and often misguided. It wants to suggest an unsettling fascination with sex, and tie that in with dangerous, subversive ideas. Instead, it just ends up looking like standard teenage experimentation, filmed with a certain amount of style.

This is not to say the film is badly made as such. It looks good and it’s put together well. It’s just trying way too hard. The acting is very good. Maisie Williams is never anything less than watchable as Lydia, and creates a well-drawn character as a girl who goes from easily-led hero worshipper to the troubled centre point of disruption at the school. Florence Pugh is also a revelation as Abigail – a charismatic presence that you instantly believe would be obsessed over by everyone who knows her. Joe Cole is also very good as the creepy, sexually exploitative brother. There are some good performances from the adults, not least Maxine Peake as Lydia’s nervous, agoraphobic mother. 

But none of this cancels out the laboured pretension of the rest of the film, which always wants to let you know how clever it is, and how much it wants you to question the impact of all that dark sexual awakening. Instead, for all the sturm und drang,it ends up looking rather like a collection of silly girls who are acting out. The idea that obsession with Abigail draws rebellious and transgressive feelings from Lydia seems painfully obvious and unoriginal, and the flirtation with incest, rather than invested with meaning, instead feels like a film straining to shock.

The Falling wants to be a great cult classic. Neither of those words can be applied. It’s a well-made but empty spectacle, living in the shadow of other much better films. For all the skill of Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh, it misses the greater depth it is aiming for and settles for being a rather shrill would-be ghost story and a plodding attempt at social commentary.

Peterloo (2018)

Mike Leigh’s passionate but dry, overlong film brings the Peterloo massacre to life

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Rory Kinnear (Henry Hunt), Maxine Peake (Nellie), Pearce Quigley (Joshua), David Moorst (Joseph), Rachel Finnegan (Mary), Tom Meredith (Robert), Simona Bitmate (Esther), Karl Johnson (Lord Sidmouth), Sam Troughton (Mr Hobhouse), Roger Sloman (Mr Grout), Alastair Mackenzie (General Byng), Neil Bell (Samuel Bamford), Lisa Millet (Jemima Bamford), Philip Jackson (John Knight), John-Paul Hurley (John Thacker Saxton), Tom Gill (Joseph Johnson), Lizzie Frain (Mrs Johnson), Ian Mercer (Dr Joseph Healey), Nico Mirallegro (John Bagguley), Danny Kirrane (Samuel Drummond), Johnny Byron (John Johnston), Tim McInnerny (Prince Regent), Vincent Franklin (Reverend Etlhelstone), Jeff Rawle (Hay), Philip Whitchurch (Colonel Fletcher), Martin Savage (Norris), Al Weaver (Hutton)

Perhaps one of the most pivotal moments in the struggle of the working classes to gain political and social rights was the Peterloo massacre of 16th August 1819, at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. At a meeting of over 60,000 people, officials ordered first the mounted yeomanry and then soldiers to attack and break up the crowd. At least 15 people were killed and hundreds more wounded, either from the indiscriminate sabre blows from the yeomen (probably drunk) and soldiers (unable to control the panic), or crushed in the frantic attempt to escape from the confined square. The immediate reaction from the authorities was praise at breaking up this “Bonapartist” piece of revolutionary nonsense. The lasting effect was condemnation of the brutality shown towards a peaceful demonstration and the massacre becoming a major cause celebre. It was ultimately influential in the passing of the Great Reform Act, which greatly extended the franchise and rebalanced much of Parliament (at this point so unbalanced by age old tradition that while some tiny hamlets returned MPs, the whole of Manchester had no representation).

It’s still an emotive subject for many today, and with this reverent film, overflowing with anger at the hypocrisy and injustice of the ruling classes, you can’t doubt that Mike Leigh and the makers of Peterloo are among them. But however sincere their personal passion about the subject is, what they fail to bring to the film is any real dramatic impetus to make us care. Instead this is an inert, over-long, often (if I am being completely honest) tedious film that takes nearly an hour to get going and then only offers flashes of dramatic interest before culminating in the massacre itself (very well shot and staged, but still itself a rather distant viewing experience).

 A large reason for this is the film is so reverential towards the campaigners for liberty, that the overwhelming majority of their scenes are given over to very good actors giving spirited renditions of actual speeches and pamphlets at a series of political meetings, shot with a reverent simplicity by Leigh. Much as it is can be interesting to hear quotes from things like this, by the time we are onto our twelfth political speech covering similar ground, delivered with another bout of fiery passion, you’ve started to glaze over. What we don’t get from many of these campaigners is any reason to really care about them – either as people or as part of a movement. Instead the film ends up like a cinematic Rushmore, carving their representations into celluloid for us to gaze up at in awe.

A similar fate befalls the working-class characters in the film, who are lacking any real character or story at all and whose main function seems to be to exist so we can experience both their misery and their awakening political awareness. Our main family is a group of mill workers, with Maxine Peake (does anyone do “hard-pressed working class stoicism hiding pain” better than Peake?) as the matriarch, welcoming her son home from Waterloo. These people talk at each other, quoting various current issues and bemoaning the hardness of living at a time of near universal poverty – but other than the fact that they are poor and suffering we are given very little reason to care for them. Like the rest of the working-class characters, they seem more like passengers in the film, meaning when the swords start flying, it’s actually very hard to get worked up as much as we should as members of this family are hacked down. 

The one exception in the entire campaign-side of the narrative comes with the introduction of “Orator” Henry Hunt, a prosperous middle-class man who became a famed agitator for working men’s rights. Wonderfully played, with a an air of arrogant grandiosity mixed with genuine commitment to the cause, by Rory Kinnear, Hunt shakes up the pattern the film settles into over its first hour. Acutely aware of his position as the nominal head of a national movement, Hunt has little patience (and even a touch of class-based distance) from the mostly lower middle-class campaigners he mixes with in Manchester (while never being anything less than scrupulously polite), and his fish-out-of-water awkwardness around them raises several laughs (the only ones of the film). Scenes in which he imposes his own conditions on the internal politics of the Peterloo meeting (who will speak, who will be on the podium, will there be weapons in the ground) not only feel more real than anything else we’ve seen in the film, but they are also far more entertaining and engaging than anything else connected to the massacre’s build-up.

Leigh was perhaps so hidebound by wanting to honour the men who campaigned for liberty that, other than with the larger-than-life Hunt, he seems too restricted dramatically – as if adding too much of that essential for drama, conflict, would somehow undermine them. Ironically he has far greater freedom with the authorities – and the film’s more engaging sequences (outside of those with Hunt) are all based around the arguments, clashes, plots and fury of the various levels of authority in the country, from the corpulent Prince Regent through the Home Office to the local magistrates.

The film gets more juice from its righteous anger at the unfairness, arrogance and hypocrisy of these men than it does from almost everything else. It also gives the actors playing these roles far more to work with. Karl Johnson stands out as a stammering but adamantine Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, paternalistic but totally unwilling to budge an inch. The real stars, however, are the magistrates we follow in Manchester, each introduced trying a trivial case (drinking an employer’s wine, an argument over a watch, stealing a coat) with ludicrous hard-line punishments (flogging and imprisonment, transportation and execution respectively). Played with a lustful relish by Philip Whitchurch, Jeff Rawle, Martin Savage and most expressively of all Vincent Franklin (who nearly goes too far with the lip smacking, until a scene later we see even the Home Office officials eagerly reading his latest dynamite dispatch with a barely suppressed chuckles at his OTT rhetoric), these characters argue the fine points of law and lustily denounce the working classes with such fire and energy that you conversely get more wrapped up in their scenes than almost anything else in the film. Maybe Leigh felt he had greater freedom to create characters and drama here, but it does feel unbalanced.

All that said, the massacre itself when we reach it is brilliantly staged, immediate, deadly, meticulously reconstructed and filmed with a documentary anger at its brutality. You can sense the creeping tension throughout the film and the explosion of violence afterwards, for all the problems of the film, is genuinely horrifying. In fact it wraps you up so much, I wish the film had dealt more with the aftermath of the clash (there is a very good scene as stunned journalists walk St Peter’s Field with horrified fury) and the impact it had, rather than the film wrapping up swiftly with funeral of one of its working-class characters (it’s not a surprise which one).

But then that’s part of the whole film’s problem. It feels like a missed opportunity. It’s a stately civics lesson, a film that hammers home the importance of what it is presenting to you, but never really gives you a reason to invest in the real stories and passions behind the history. Instead it presents everything as important, because it is, rather than making it important to us. It feels at the same time a film that is preaching to the choir who already know this history back-to-front, and also a dry history lesson introducing it to a new audience. Either way it fails. Despite one or two good scenes, a dull, underwhelming, preachy disappointment.