Tag: Naomie Harris

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Stellan Skarsgård is the Russian traitor whose secrets pose a danger for the British elite in Our Kind of Traitor

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry MacKendrick), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Naomie Harris (Gail MacKendrick), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Mark Stanley (Ollie)

John Le Carré’s works often revolve around a dark, cynical view of government agencies as corrupt, indolent and focused on petty or personal concerns rather than doing what’s best for the country and its people. Is it any wonder that there has been such a burst of interest in adaptations on film and television of his work? 

Our Kind of Traitor is straight out of the Le Carré wheelhouse. On a holiday to save their marriage (after his infidelity), Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomi Harris) bump into charismatic Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Perry and he strike up a surprising friendship – and before he knows it Perry is agreeing to carry information from Dima to the British intelligence services. This attracts the attention of MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) who sees this as an opportunity to expose the corrupt links between Russian criminals and high-level British bankers and politicians. Dima, however, will only hand over the goods if he is promised asylum for his family – something the British authorities, aware of the mess his revelations could cause, are not happy to allow…

Susanna White, veteran of some excellent television series of the last few years, puts together a confidently mounted and generally well-paced drama, with many of the expected Le Carré twists and turns. If she leans a little too heavily on the murk – the green and blue filters on the camera get a big workout here – it does at least mean that we get a real sense of the twilight world the characters operate in, meaning flashes of wide open space and bright daylight carry real impact. She also really understands how violence is often more shocking when we see the reaction of witnesses rather than the deed itself – all the most violent and tragic events in the film are seen at least partly from the perspective of the reactions of those witnessing them. The sense of danger on the edges of every action, stays with us while watching this unjust nightmare unravel.

It also works really well with one of the core themes of the movie: our ability to feel empathy for other people and how it affects our choices. Dima is driven towards defection because of his distaste for the increasing violence of the next generation of Russian criminals, and their lack of discrimination about who they harm. He’s all but adopted the orphaned children of a previous victim of violence, and his motivation at all points is to insure his family’s safety. Hector, our case officer, is motivated overwhelmingly by a sense of tragic, impotent fury about his rival ensuring Hector’s son is serving a long sentence in prison for drug smuggling.

And Perry is pulled into all this because he has a strong protective streak – something that eventually saves his marriage. Perry frequently throws himself forward to protect the weak, with no regard for his safety, from his unending efforts to protect Dima’s family to throwing himself in fury at a mobster roughing up a young woman. His intense empathy and protective streak motor all his actions and run through the whole movie.

It’s a shame then that his actual character isn’t quite interesting enough to hold the story together. Nothing wrong with McGregor’s performance, the character itself is rather sketchily written. Aside from his protectiveness we don’t get much of a sense of him and – naturally enough – he’s often a passenger or witness to events around him. Similarly, Naomie Harris does her best with a character that barely exists.

Instead the plaudits (and meaty parts) go to Skarsgård and Lewis. Skarsgård dominates the film with an exuberant, larger than life character who never feels like a caricature and reveals increasing depths of humanity and vulnerability beneath the surface. Lewis matches him just as well, at first seeming like a buttoned-up George Smiley type, but with his own tragic background motivating a long-term career man to slowly build his own conscience.

Our Kind of Traitor handles many of these personal themes very well, but it doesn’t quite manage to tie them into something that really feels special. Instead this feels a bit more like a Le Carré-by- numbers. We get the shady secret services, government greed, good people trapped in the middle – even some of the characters, from the foul-mouthed spook played by Mark Gatiss to Jeremy Northam’s jet black Aubrey, seem like they could have appeared in any number of his novels. 

There is a film here that is wanting to be made about the invasion of the UK by dirty Russian money – but it never quite comes out as this Dante-esque, Miltonian spiral. Instead the film too often settles for more functional thrills, a more traditional or middle-brow approach that works very well while you watch it, but doesn’t go the extra mile to turn this into something you will really remember.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris reconstruct the life of Nelson Mandela in illustrated slide-show movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Director: Justin Chadwick

Cast: Idris Elba (Nelson Mandela), Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela), Tony Kgoroge (Walter Sisulu), S’Thandiwe Kgoroge (Albertina Sisulu), Riaad Moosa (Ahmed Kathada), Zolani Mkiva (Raymond Mhlaba), Jamie Bartlett (James Gregory), Simo Mogwaza (Andrew Mlangeni)

In the 1980s, hagiographic epic biopics that aimed to tell the story of the subject’s whole life were all the rage. In fact they were frequent Oscar behemoths. It’s easy to imagine that, if it had been released 20 years earlier, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom would have been garlanded with awards for its attempt to capture every major moment in Nelson Mandela’s life from birth to his becoming President of South Africa. Sadly for the film, it wasn’t.

The fashion nowadays, for biographical films about major figures like Mandela, is to make a focused story about one key incident in their lives and from that build up an understanding of what made the man. Spielberg’s Lincoln focused on the immediate struggle to get the abolition bill passed. Du Vernay’s Selma looked at Martin Luther King’s involvement in the Selma marches. Eastwood’s Invictus looked at a newly-elected Mandela trying to use the Rugby World Cup to bring a nation together. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ironically goes the opposite way and tries to sprint through every single event of Mandela’s life. Doing so, it manages to be a less affecting, less involving and less engaging film than Invictus.

The rush is so intense to get through events that every scene feels like it has been cut down to deliver the vital bullet points and nothing more. Scenes rarely go over a couple of minutes, and most are comfortably under a minute. The general structure of most of them is roughly the same: a character will argue with Mandela (if black) or say something distasteful or racist (if white), Mandela will say something wise and inspiring that sounds like a direct quote from the book. Cut to the next scene.

This means that events fly by with little context and no real understanding. In fact, it feels like without having read the book and boned up on South African history in advance, most of it will mean nothing to you. Years can go by with a single snip of the editor’s scissors. Clashes and riots – particularly in the final third of the film – take place, but we are given no idea why or what the root causes of them were. 

Other events skim by so quickly that they lose all meaning or dramatic impact – in about 15 minutes of the film we cover Mandela arriving at Robben island, ill treatment and contempt from the guards, Mandela’s resolution that they will gain the right to wear proper trousers as a step towards being treated as humans, abuse from the prison governor, Mandela learning to control his anger, the prison governor leaving, a new governor arriving off camera, the regime lightening and finally the prisoners celebrating getting their trousers. If you think that sounds rushed here, imagine what it feels like watching it. All the narrative links between the scenes are severed – how did Mandela win the right to wear trousers? We have no idea. It sounds like a little thing, but it’s symptomatic of the problems of the film. 

This is despite a promising start, with a young Mandela fighting for justice and against prejudice in the courts of South Africa (winning cases because the racist whites refuse to be questioned by a black lawyer). The film is quite daring in showing the warts and all of the younger Mandela – his affairs, his ill-treatment of his first wife, his flirtations with violence – and there are flashes later on in the increasingly troubled relationship with his second wife, Winnie. But it soon loses these humanising touches under the pressure of ticking off events.

Justin Chadwick’s direction is largely flat – hamstrung as well by the film being cut so tightly to the bone. He fails to add any real epic sweep to the story, and largely struggles to convey the huge social and political issues that were tearing South Africa apart. As such, he’s often forced into holding a largely static camera in place to capture the four or five speeches that form each scene.

The  main bright spark in the film is the two lead performances. Idris Elba captures Mandela’s mannerisms and voice perfectly, but also brings a real humanity and empathy to the role – he largely manages to defy the film’s attempt to turn Mandela into a lofty marble carving of a man, not letting the human realism of his story escape. It’s a performance that feels very real and human – which is a far harder achievement than it sounds. Naomie Harris is all fiery radicalism and growing fury as Winnie (even more striking since she starts so young and naïve). One of the film’s real disappointments is that it rushes so fast through events that we never get a real, clear picture of the turbulent ups and downs of their marriage (the film is reduced to throwing some Mandela dialogue on his feelings into voiceover).

When the film finally ends it feels more like a sprinter with a stitch, too worn out to run any further through more years, than because it feels like it has made a point. It really wants to be Gandhi – but that film, despite its school-boy history faults, was patient, well paced, more focused and (crucially) an hour-plus longer. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom compounds its feeling of being old-fashioned with being rushed and confused. For all Idris Elba’s admirable efforts, Mandela deserved better.

Spectre (2015)

Bond heads into danger in thematic mess Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Léa Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Dave Bautista (Mr Hinx), Andrew Scott (Max Denbigh), Monica Bellucci (Lucia Sciarra), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner), Jesper Christensen (Mr White)

SPOILERS: Okay, surely most people have seen this by now – but just in case I’m going to spoil the big twist of Spectre. It is, by the way, a really, really, really stupid, annoying terrible twist. So you won’t mind. But just in case you do… Spoilers.

In 2002, Austin Powers: Goldmember had, amongst its ridiculous plotlines, a reveal that Austin Powers and Dr Evil were, in fact, long lost brothers. It was the crowning height of silliness in the franchise, the ultimate punchline to Mike Myers’ James Bond spoof. Well the wheel comes full circle: in 2015, Spectre’s shock plot reveal was – James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld – wait for it – they were only – guess what! – raised by the same man, so basically sorta brothers! Who would have thunk it? The world’s greatest spy and world’s greatest villain both grew up together. Yup, the Bond producers actually thought this was a good idea. Yup they were completely wrong.

Spectre opens in Mexico with Bond (Daniel Craig) preventing an attack on a football stadium – although this attack basically involves trashing an entire city block. Benched by M (Ralph Fiennes), he investigates the shadowy organisation known as Spectre, which he discovers is run by Franz Oberhauser (Christop Waltz), a man Bond seems to know a great deal about. Meanwhile M engages in Whitehall battles with the intelligence director Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his sinister “Nine Eyes” programme, designed to control all surveillance in the developed world.

Spectre is a film that really falls apart in its final third, as ridiculous revelation piles on top of ludicrous contrivance. After Skyfall, we all wanted Sam Mendes to come back to do another Bond film, but this makes every single mistake that film avoided: self-conscious,  silly in the wrong way, takes itself way too seriously, despite its best efforts it doesn’t really do anything new, and attempts to build a “Bond universe” around a franchise that works because it keeps reinventing itself in stand-alone films. It’s the Bond producers attempt to do a Marvel film – and it ain’t pretty. Did we need to create some sort of tenuous link between the Craig-era Bond movies? Did we need Blofeld and Bond to have a “very personal” connection? No we massively did not.

Mendes shoots the action with a mock grandeur that seems to be serving other things than the plot. Critics fawned over the long shot that follows Bond through the Day of the Dead street festival, through a hotel, out of a window, across a series of roofs and into the first action scene. But for me, it’s a self-conscious, look-at-me piece of trickery. It’s an air of pretention that runs through the whole film: it’s a film that wants you to think it’s making Big Points around Bond’s psychology and background, but keeps running aground because it goes about them in such a ham fisted way, particularly when compared to Skyfall’s subtlety and willingness to look at Bond’s vulnerability.

Most sequences in the film feels strangely flat and lifeless. There is a surprisingly sterile car chase through the streets of Rome between Bond and Hinx. The opening montage in Mexico just never really grips – maybe because it’s not clear what’s going on, maybe because it feels so self-consciously grandiose. The film’s tone is over the place – there are lashings of Moore. Bond falls through a collapsing building only to land on a sofa. During the car chase, Bond hits a button only to have some Frank Sinatra start playing on the radio. Craig does at least go through the comedy with a breezy lightness, though it sits oddly in a film that features a villain shooting himself in the head, and a guy having his eyes gouged out. 

The whole investigation into Spectre just isn’t interesting. Because the film has been written with such a self-conscious eye on fandom, it never gives us a reason within the film to care about it at all. Spectre don’t seem to be doing anything, other than being a shady organisation making money. We don’t get told why Bond is invested in it or Oberhauser until late in the day. The film pins everything on a “beyond the grave” video from Judi Dench’s M to give us a reason for chasing this plot. But nothing feels at stake and we don’t get told about Bond’s personal stake in it until almost the end – and even when we do, Bond doesn’t really seem to give a toss about the reveal.

Ah yes. The reveal. A few years ago, Star Trek Into Darkness had a terrible, nonsensical reveal around Benedict Cumberbatch’s character – turns out he was Khan. This was met with derision because (a) it had no impact on the wider viewers who didn’t know who Khan was, (b) it felt shoe-horned in as fan service, and (c) it had no impact on the characters in the film who’d never met Khan before. So who cared? He might as well have said “My real name is Fred”. This was the case with the Blofeld reveal here. The name means little to non-Bond fans. And it means naff-all to Bond. We’ve never heard it mentioned in the film before. It comes out of nowhere. It means nothing – it’s dropped into the film to get a cheer at comic con – so nakedly so, that it just annoyed people.

It doesn’t help that the whole “secret brothers” thing is a really, really dumb idea. I mean so mega-dumb it was, as mentioned, the final ridiculous flourish of Austin Powers. How did they look at this and think “yes”? Again it feels like retreading Skyfall ground – this already had given us interesting insights into Bond by having him return to his childhood home. But what did we learn about Bond here? Sweet FA. Whatever iconic status Blofeld had is immediately undermined by making him a pathetic envious child. Christoph Waltz’s bored performance doesn’t help either.

And as the film doesn’t spend any time establishing Blofeld or Spectre doing terrible things, it has to make a series of tenuous connections to Craig’s other films to ludicrously suggest that everything that happened in those films was Blofeld’s evil plan. This is so clearly bollocks, retroactive adaptation that it just makes you snort. Skyfall’s villain was very clearly established as a personally motivated lone-wolf – it makes no sense that he was sent by Blofeld. The first two Craig films established a secretive organisation, but it was framed very much as corporate ruthless villainy – the idea that it was an organisation established to destroy Bond is nonsense.

The reveal that Blofeld wants to destroy Bond personally makes most of the film itself make no sense. If Blofeld wants Bond to come to his base to exact revenge for childhood wrongs, why does his muscle-man Hinx spend the film so aggressively trying to kill him (especially in the film’s stand out action sequence, a no-holds-barred scrap on a train)? It’s almost like they were making it up as they go. Even Quantum of Solace held together better plotwise than this (ironically QoS goes almost completely unmentioned in Blofeld’s evil schemes – probably because it’s a bad film). The final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld strains credulity and patience – reaching for a personal rivalry that hasn’t been established by anything other than fans’ vague memories of watching You Only Live Twice on a Sunday afternoon years ago.

I’ve not mentioned the Bond girls either. The film tries to make a “strong female character” in Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, but she is a plot device rather than a character, with no consistent personality, solely there to be whatever the plot requires. When it needs her to be a gun-toting, self-reliant, go-getter who sasses Bond, she is. When it needs her to be a damsel in distress she forgets all that firearms stuff and waits for a man to save her. When the plot needs her to express total devotion for Bond she does. When it needs her shortly afterwards to leave him, guess what, she does that as well. She is a character who makes no sense at all. It doesn’t help that she looks way too young for Craig. The wonderful Monica Belluci is given a thankless role of informant and brief sex partner for Bond – she of course was far too close to Craig’s age to be the main Bond girl. Just as he did with the shower sex scene in Skyfall, Craig manages to make this seduction seem inappropriate and pervy – it’s not his strength.

Lea Seydoux. She is, by the way, 17 years younger than Daniel Craig. Just saying.

 The stupidly unclear, dully predictable “Nine Eyes” plot doesn’t make things any better either. One of Skyfall’s neatest tricks was to cleverly mislead us about Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory, setting him up as an antagonist to slowly reveal him as an ally. This film attempts an inverted version of this trick with Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh. Problem is, Scott is at his most softly-spoken Moriarty sinister – you are in no doubt he’s a wrong ‘un from the first frame. What would have worked is making Denbigh Bond’s ally. This would make the reveal of his villainy at least a surprise for some people in the audience. As it is the whole reveal is no shock what-so-ever. The whole plot starts to feel like plates being spun in the air, a way to give Fiennes, Kinnear and Harris something to do on the margins of the film.

I mean – he just LOOKS like a villain doesn’t he?

Okay Spectre is well filmed. It’s got some good scenes. Ben Whishaw continues to be excellent as Q – and gets loads to do here which is great. Craig actually does some of the comedy with charm and skill – even if he hardly seems as engaged with the material here as he did before, as if he was already becoming tired of the whole enterprise. But it’s too long (over 2 and a half hours!), and straight from its pretentious “The Dead Are Alive Again” opening, it’s straining for a thematic depth and richness that it constantly misses. It makes nothing of its family feud plotline and we learn very little about Bond as a character at all. It mistakes stupid fan-service and pointless reveals for plot, and it builds itself towards a reveal that it expects to get a cheer from the audience, but has no real connection to the plot of the film we are watching, and is in no way earned by the events of the film. 

Spectre is, at best, in the middle rank of Bond films – too self-important, incoherent and (whisper it) a little dull in places to really work. It’s not a complete failure – but it is a major disappointment. There is enough here to entertain most of the time, but not enough to really engage the mind or the guts. For Sam Mendes, lightening didn’t strike twice.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

Andy Serkis and Bill Milner recreate the 1970s in this mixed bag Ian Dury biography

Director: Mat Whitecross

Cast: Andy Serkis (Ian Dury), Bill Milner (Baxter Dury), Naomie Harris (Denise), Ray Winstone (Bill Dury), Olivia Williams (Betty Dury), Noel Clarke (Desmond), Toby Jones (Hargreaves), Ralph Ineson (The Sulphate Strangler), Mackenzie Crook (Russell Hardy), Michael Maloney (Graham), Luke Evans (Clive Richard), Tom Hughes (Chaz Jankel), Arthur Darvill (Mick Gallagher)

Ian Dury, one of the leading new wave British musicians of the late 70s, has his life brought to the screen in an eclectic and inconsistent film with flashes with genius. The film covers Dury’s life, from his early polio to initial success and later revitalisation. Front and centre is the effect disability has on Dury’s life, and the relationship with his son, wife and girlfriend.

The film’s main claim to fame is Andy Serkis’ brilliant performance as Dury. The role is a perfect match for Serkis’ vocal range and physicality. As a reconstruction of Dury’s style and manner it is triumphantly perfect (he has a standing invitation from the Blockheads to tour with them as Dury). What Serkis does really well here though is to delve into the heart and mind of Dury, to bring out the emotional confusion, pain and mixed desires within him – to believably present someone confusingly in love with two people, but causing both of them great pain. A man who can idolise the relationship his late father had with him, but confusingly repeat many of the mistakes of his isolated later childhood with his own children. Serkis burns up the screen, and motors the film – he’s the heart, the lungs and most of the brain as well.

It needs this ­tour-de-force of committed resurrection from Serkis, boiling with righteous indignation and cheeky charm, as the film itself is a little uninteresting to anyone not already into this era of British pop. In fact, I’d go so far as saying some initial study of Dury is pretty much essential to understand what is going on – and above all to understand the impact of various moments on the wider world. The film is rather confused in explaining the impact of this band on the cultural scene, and tends to fly too quickly over events.

It’s also stylistically an odd film. It starts with a fantastic device of Dury presenting the film like a compere at a surreal lecture, or music gig. Filmed in a concert hall, Dury runs through the events and even drags onto stage at times, like props or exhibits, moments from his past. It’s a rather avant garde idea, returned to only sporadically throughout – I suspect limited access to the filming location may have had something to do with it – but it sets up an expectation of a film that will be a bit more thematically and structurally daring than it eventually becomes. The film has a scattergun range of filmic styles, from animation to surrealist recreation, as if the director had a host of ideas about how to make the film, and threw them all in, rather than make something tonally consistent.

Away from the stylistic flourishes, you are constantly reminded that this film follows a pretty familiar series of music biog tropes: the early struggles, the success, the drugs, the loss of form, the triumphant return. The film does mine some interesting material from the relationship between Dury father and son, but even this is fundamentally a “Dad and Lad” story we have seen before.

So what makes the film stand out is the performances. Naomi Harris is heartfelt and sweet as Dury’s lover, while Olivia Williams is excellent as his understanding, undervalued wife. There are decent supporting turns from the rest of the cast, while Bill Milner underlines his promise as a performer with an intelligent turn as a son pushed into being a rebel.

It’s a decent rock biography, but depends too much on you already knowing the story – and forgiving the fact that it’s not nearly as different from other films as it likes to think it is.